Nhat Ky Xe Day 6: Tam Duong -> Sa Pa Approx. 80km
Every day the scenery gets more amazing. The mountain roads on the way into Sa Pa are incredible! Tam Duong pass is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been (photos below). It’s the final stretch before you arrive at the town of Sa Pa. Since its the barrier between one of the coldest regions of Vietnam and one of the warmest, the wind is always strong and the weather unpredictable. We were lucky to cross it on an especially mild and clear day.
Since Sa Pa was only (re)opened for foreign tourists at the end of 1994, I was amazed at how developed it’s become. There are hotels and guesthouses everywhere, plenty of restaurants with high prices and English menus and most of the villagers from the nearby hills who do business here speak some English and/or French. At least with so much competition good deals on accomodation can be found! Michael and I politely haggled our way into a nice room with a great view of Mt. Fansipan (the tallest mountain in Vietnam) for 70,000d/night. We also had a quick visit with a mechanic for some minor repairs.
Our plan was to take a day off from the full-time moto-madness and explore Sa Pa, but first I had some important business to take care of: my visa was to expire in a few days. We had decided that we wanted to continue the journey all the way up into the frontier areas in the northern tip of Ha Giang province, but to do it we would need at least another week to make the full circuit back to Hanoi. When we moved into the hotel I asked the owners about getting a visa extension, and they suggested I speak with the local police about it. One of them would be making their daily visit to the station at 9pm so I went along that night.
Every time I check into a hotel or guesthouse in Vietnam (with only a couple exceptions) I am required to hand over my passport. At first it made me nervous to often see it casually tossed into an unlocked drawer, but I got used to it and always got it back upon checking out. I was told that it’s because all foreign guests are required to be registered with the local police everywhere they go. Until my visit with the police in Sa Pa I only half-believed this, but, sure enough, I witnessed the careful inspection of dozens of passports at the station.
The hotel owner’s daughter gave me a ride to the “station.” I say “station” because it was more like the secret HQ of some underground syndicate. The small generic-looking building is enclosed along with an older french-colonial building by a tall cement barrier. Upon walking in I was greeted by the awkward what-do-you-want stares of 4 policemen sitting behind a long desk. There was not much in the room, basically just 4 guys in normal clothes behind a desk waiting for me to explain myself. So I showed them my passport with my about-to-expire visa (which had already been extended once - I was warned that 30-day tourist visas can only be extended once) and indicated that I would like another 30-day renewal. They discussed it for a while and finally told me, very politely, that I’ll have to visit the immigration office in Lao Cai, the provincial capitol, to get another stamp. No trouble, I thought, Lao Cai is only 35km away from Sa Pa. I thanked them and left with plans to sacrifice my “rest day” to take care of business in Lao Cai.