Vietnam – Motorbiking the North

October 2012

Hanoi is a unique city where east meets west, oozing a more Chinese influence than Western Siagon in the south. I wander around, soaking up the sights and sounds of this strange new land. Though after a few days of eating my way around the city. Something is lacking, I’m craving another motorbike adventure!

Time to get a bike and explore 2,000km around the countryside of the north, driving along the Laos and Chinese border!

Finding a bike

Motorbikes and scooters are extremely popular in Vietnam, which makes life easy as there cheap and almost every village has a mechanic no matter how remote.

There are a few choices for bikes in Vietnam, I decided to rent a Honda GL 160.

Honda GL 160

You can buy these for around $600 but for me it was easier to rent at $15 a day. This is a fantastic bike that I can strongly recommend for touring. Although at 160cc it’s a lot smaller than what I would usually ride back home, it packs enough punch for SE Asia. Where the roads are more dangerous and unpredictable, its safer to ride under 100kmh.

The gearbox is a Chinese replacement so instead of the usual 1 down 5 up it has a quirky circular gearing system where 5th goes up to neutral then up again to 1st. Takes some getting use to.

Although you can buy a Honda Win for half the price, it is only 110cc and has a light, cheap feel when riding. Another problem is that it is also physically very small so uncomfortable for anyone.. erm.. not of Asian statue.

Another choice is the Russian Mink, a motorbike classic but far to prone to breaking down. Can’t beat the Japanese for reliability… or so I thought.

The route

A 2000km clockwise loop around Hanoi, riding along the Laos and Chinese border. Although it doesn’t look so far, it’s a little further the length of Vietnam to Siagon.

Adventure begins

With my panniers packed, map and compass at the ready I was set to go. Leaving Hanoi was confusing like any big city, with hordes of other bikers so you have to be super careful.

In typical Asian fashion most drivers remove their mirrors and rely on their horn. Chaotic but better than Delhi. Anywhere’s better than Delhi!

As I was leaving the outer suburbs of the city, an uneasy feeling comes across me as I noticed a strange meat. Roasted dog.

Heading south to Hoa Binh, enjoying my new ride. But something isn’t right. Stall 3 times over the next hour. Change the spark but it’s still stalling. So take it to a mechanic who discovers a broken fuel line, replaces a part and cleans the throttle valve 100,000 dong; or for me and you, three pounds.

Riding along cold and wet, stop for a drink. Bike refuses to start. Clean the fuse connections and it springs back to life.

Set off again but still plagued with problems, this CLANGING noise is definitely getting worse. The chain is too loose, try to tighten but its missing a metal plate to hold it in place. Was okay this morning, mechanic must have forgotten to put it back on after the demonstration. Missions.
Stop at a metal workers and with the help of some excellent pointing skills he makes a copy using the plate from the other side as a template.

Suns starting to set and low and behold my front light doesn’t work!
Seriously starting to doubt this bike, is there anything else that could go wrong?
The wiring is a mess so decided to make most of the dying light and find a hotel before its pitch black. Least the bikes sounding better now.

I only managed 90km for all the problems I encountered. Eager to put that day behind me I settle down for an early night and early start.
BANG BANG, woken up at 10pm by hotel manager who angrily demands my passport.
Had provided a photocopy, as my passport is with the bike rental company for a deposit. Failing to explain this to the upset manager, I phone the bike rental owner who thankfully manages to calm him down.

Bike owner assures me that this was rare and I wouldn’t need to return to collect my passport. Thankfully never had any other problems.

Day 2 – Out comes the first aid kit

Next day I set off for Son La. It’s another wet day and I come across a scooter that’s crashed, he’s bloody and in shock. I patch him up and calm him down. Set off again, a little more wary of these wet gravely corners. Made it 200km to Son La without hitch, relieved the bikes behaving it’s self.
8pm and the only restaurant open is selling snails, really popular with the young locals but not in the mood for trying strange foods. End up at some crappy stall with dodgy meat sticks, should of gone with the snails. Head back and crash.

Another day another Pho

Heading out to Dien Bien Phu. When the French lost this city it was their final blow to colonial rule. Of course the Americans stepped in but they didn’t fare much better. Vietnam was finally independent.

First stop is Pho, quite possibly the tastiest noodle soup known to man and thankfully Vietnam’s national dish. So you can can get it anywhere and it’s always delicious.
Step aside egg noodles, because here rice noodles are king.

This meaty broth is often cooked for hours and you can get all gourmet with a selection of chillies, herbs and limes to suit your tastes.

Ordering food in the countryside was tricky as there aren’t any menus to decipher. So it often came down to pointing at what others were eating. With my limited vocabulary of around 10 words, most days involve at least one bowl of Pho.

Pho – Pronounced “fur”
Bo = beef
Ga = chicken.
Sin jow = thank you

On my way to Dien Bien Phu and finally the sun is shinning, music is flowing and wheels are rollings. Now it’s starting feels like an adventure.

Dien Bien Phu is okay, wouldn’t personally recommend going. Despite lonely planets glowing reviews. Other travellers I met gave mixed reviews. Museums in Vietnam are always amusing, so much blatant propaganda. Literally every sword, rifle and rice bowl has a story of some communist hero behind it.

Often bought big bag of sweets when I could, great feeling to stop in the middle of no where to hand out candy.

Beautiful sunny ride north through paddy fields and mountains. Listening to 60’s rock, popular with anti Vietnam war movement, happy days.

Sinho

Final 30km stretch to Sinho is awesome, steep climb and twisty mountain roads. Difficult riding but so much fun. Wonder around town and market, much to the bemusement of the friendly locals. Like other parts of Asia their impressed at my height and how pasty my skin is. .. and theirs me thinking I had a respectable tan.

Get invited in for tea with local family. Cant speak much English so we just smile lots. Eat Pho again for third time in a row. Only food I can eat again and again and not get sick of it.

Another beautiful day of riding in the the hills. Come across a landslide but it’s quickly cleared by a demolition team. At this time of the year the countryside is prone to landslides, advised not to ride in or shortly after heavy rain. More tricky riding, closer but not as extreme as the Himalayas.

Caves

Ride past something interesting. Thankfully that nagging feeling at the back of my head pays off as I’ve stumble upon an awesome cave. First exploring with only my camera flash. Photo, step, photo, step. I get only so deep before I get scared and return with a torch.

The deeper I go the eerier it feels. Sheer drops hidden in the dark, torch isn’t great. Heart starts pounding, as the realisation shivers across me at how dependant I am on this faintly lit touch. Feels like something out of this world. So much more fun exploring caves on your own than the touristy caves with crowds, proper lighting and flooring installed.

Sapa

Later arrive in Sapa, a destination once considered off the beaten track is now firmly on the tourist route. Quick drive through town and it’s full of tourists and international restaurants.

All very touristy but that’s fine with me as I haven’t met anyone who speaks English for the last 5 days on the road!

Pull up at hotel and before I’ve checked in I’m drinking shots of “happy water” and enjoying tasty pancake wraps with the owner and his friends.

Happy water is a home made spirit that is usually stored in old water bottles. Thus the name. Its seriously strong and usually taste nasty. However this stuff is better as the owner proudly explains how he’s stored it for 3 years to mature.

Everyone’s extremely welcoming, but quick glance around the table and it’s clear that the happy waters taking it’s toll on everyone. Time to excuse myself before I’m too drunk to explore town.

Coc pai and beyond

I lost my map a few days ago so finally find a decent one in Sapa and head out to Bac ha. Beautiful scenic ride. Have arrived early so decide keep riding. The bike shop recommended coming back the way I came as it a difficult road ahead. Not shown on my map, I ask some locals who draw me a map.

Drive straight past the turn off as it’s a small dirt road with no signs or name. Very much a local route for farm animals and motorbikes. Difficult off-roading, but so much fun. Best decision yet! Reminds me of riding in the Himalayas. Motorbike handles it well, so much lighter than the Royal Enfield. Real pleasure to ride.

Exciting route as I’m never sure I’m going the right way. Ask the rare local. Stop at local school in the middle of nowhere, hand out two bags of lolly pops. Children are young and very excited. Wish I learnt some more Vietnamese, so I could interact more.

Track appears to end in this remote village, ask some locals who gesture that I’ve missed a turn off. Find this really steep dirt path that’s very slippery. Too narrow for a car, I slide my up it for 2km and come out at a road. Again no signs so just follow the compass north west.

Arrive in late afternoon, check in and crash out. Later meet a retired German named Clause. He’s travelling by car and has had to hire a driver as tourists aren’t apparently allowed to drive cars.

Ha giang

Run outta dong, dollar short for the hotel. No ATM’s anywhere, later change some dollars at a bank. Roads are now mostly sealed on my way to Ha Giang, beautiful ride past waterfalls and rice paddies. Children are more use to tourists here, speak little English and put out their hands for drive-by high fives 🙂

Arrive in Ha Giang, lots of people exercising around the Ho Chin Min statue. The statue it’s self is interesting. Ho Chin Min was the founder of Communism in Vietnam and the statue portrays him as a father, commander, teacher and possible lover.

See an advert for a magic potion that can increase your breasts by just adding 3 drops to a glass of water and drinking. Amazing!


Where are all the men?

Been driving around for a while, can’t help but notice the lack of men working the fields. Always women, children and the elderly slaving away. Not sure if they’re working in the bigger towns or slacking off. Speak to a few Vietnamese about it but no clear answer. Think the men are off drinking somewhere.

Really sad as its back breaking worth, especially when the kids are so young.

Drive through to Meo Vac, beautiful pass through the mountains. Lots of curvy roads as well as some curvy rock formations, appropriately named “fairy breasts”.

Nice cool riding in October but seemingly always a fog that makes it difficult to capture the scenic landscapes.

Fog

Driving up some remote hill visibility drops to a few meters. Slow down and mission on. Not sure I’m even on the right road. Locals don’t recognise the map but that’s pretty standard in remote areas. Once the fog clears it beautiful views and riding once again. Arrive in Bac lo earlier so fill up on Petrol and Pho and head on towards Cai bang. Stopping at some small village 50km away.


Waterfalls

Set off for the waterfalls via Cia bang. Stop there for supplies and get some free gum and a marriage proposal. Have had 3 or 4 in the last month. Cant keep track! Haha

On my way north I see 6 pigs on the back of a bike. Manage to snap a shot as I’m riding. Records still hold by lady with 3 fully grown pigs on the back. Also seen 4 adults on one bike.. Ridiculous!

More beautiful riding past and through massive rock formations. Again more women and children in the fields.

Long ride back

First stops cave tour, not nearly as exciting when its so well organised with proper lighting and flooring. Much more fun staggering around in the dark.

Ride east for a longer loop back to Cao Bang, hugging the Chinese border. Once back in Cao Bang I head south to a home stay in the national park Ho Ba Be.

Last day

Go for boat ride on the lake, beautiful trip but don’t see any bears or tigers. Head off in the afternoon for Hanoi. Decide for first time to use google maps, get horribly lost in the middle of no where. Trusty compass comes out and I just keep heading south east. Need petrol and haven’t seen anything in hours. Locals look surprised to see me here.

Eventuality find civilisations, give up on reaching Hanoi today and head out for dinner. Eating alone I’m often invited to join others. The hospitably here is second to none, my new friends insist on paying for my food and drinks.

This night the happy water comes in with vengeance. Shot after shot as I find myself drinking between two tables. Despite the language barrier we have a funny night. Everyone’s trashed, and staggers off. But before I can make my escape the owner wants some shots which finishes me off.

Conclusion

In a word.. Awesome!
While not as technically challenging as the Himalayas, it presented it’s own thrill as I had only myself to rely upon. I absolutely loved travelling through Vietnam, from the beautiful landscapes to the friendliness of the people. I’m already thinking about my next trip here.