I’ve ridden on bikes a few times before Vietnam, while hitchhiking in Turkey, on a day tour to Angkor Wat and with my couchsurfing host in Taiwan. I couldn’t ride to save my life, but read that motorbike was the best way to see the North. It sounded so good on paper, that I was even willing to pay USD100 a day for a guide to drive me around. But I was extremely lucky that R was going the same way as I was, and the day before I left for Vietnam, I found myself a travel buddy. It was R’s first time riding a bike, and for some reason, I decided to put my life in his hands for those two weeks. Winding up and down hair pin turns on steep mountain passes, navigating the crazy traffic to get out of Hanoi and driving past more cows than cars in several cities.
North Vietnam is, to me, the most underrated destination. It’s got out of this world scenery, colourful quaint villages and yet, still has all the comforts of any modern city you could ask for. AND it is still unspoilt by mass tourism. I can’t pick a particular highlight of the trip, because every experience was so enjoyable in its own unique way, but some of them were:
- Sleeping in a stilted house in Mai Chau. It was the first night out of the city, and we were spoilt for choice with dozens of identical homestays. Eventually, we settled on one which faced the rice fields where there were no other tourists. Our “room” had all the family’s photographs mountain on the wall – the dad in a soldier’s uniform, the parents’ wedding photo, the daughter when she was a kid; a mattress with a mosquito net covering it, a pikachu balloon and a view to die for. That night, it rained crazily, and I felt so cozy being warm and dry under the blankets, talking about life and everything in between with R. That morning, at 4am-ish, we were awoken by roosters crowing non stop. I took a short walk since the sun was up and I couldn’t get back to sleep, saw the mum feeding her chickens, farmers already hard at work in the rice fields, and the clouds partially covering the mountains in the distance. Pretty much my idea of paradise.
- Stopping by the road side for fruit, just because. We were feeling in need of some vitamins, and on the way to the tea plantations in Moc Chau, we came across a stall by the roadside selling all sorts of fruit. We settled for an avocado, a couple of plums, persimmons and lychees. The avocado was the most delicious I ever had – creamy, sweet and perfectly ripe. R had a disposable knife, spoon and fork he kept from a previous Starbucks, and it was great sitting on the road, eating the fruit on the spot. Throughout our road trip, we also tried custard apple, some very mealy apples, pears and bananas. Fruit was relatively expensive in Vietnam, or maybe we were just getting ripped off.
- Crossing the brown water river on the way to Mu Cang Chai on motorbike, when we were about to run out of petrol. I almost expected that we would have to push the bike down the mountain, but we somehow made it to the ferry. Lorries carrying chickens, other Vietnamese motorcyclists and us went aboard the very slow ferry, where we managed to have a helmet banging contest. Just as we got off the ferry, there was a roadside stand selling overpriced petrol by the bottle. The economics concept of utility immediately came to mind – I was willing to pay US$10 just to get that petrol in the bike. That was quite a day, we drove on and on after a late lunch, hoping to cover as much ground as possible, before realising that there were no big towns ahead that we could reach before sunset, and had to turn back. I was quite prepared to spend the night in a random wooden structure up in the mountains, but R decided (thankfully) to turn back. It was our first time going “quick”, 70kmph, as we were trying to make it to the nearest town before sunset.
- Stopping at the Tram Ton pass on the way to Sapa. He needed to pee, and it was one of the most scenic stops we stopped at. I really wished then that I were a guy, so that I could pee off a mountain to a view like that. Endless rice terraces, non-stop mountain ranges half covered with clouds. Motorbikers from the other direction looked absolutely wet, so we decided to put on our plastic raincoats: perfect selfie moment.
- Dinner after a 25km trek through the villages near Sapa. After a long but very scenic and easy trek through the villages, we decided to treat ourselves that day after the previous few frugal days. The high rollers we were, we splurged on happy hour mojitos and shisha, a foot massage and dinner at a Vietnamese hotpot before some craft beer. The hotpot experience was pretty unique – we sat on the floor, tatami style, and somehow made our way through several plates of meat, tofu, root vegetables and a huge plate of leafy greens. I have no idea how we inhaled everything, as it seemed like a lot of food, but we were even fighting over the last few pieces of meat at the end. There was some town festival at the restaurant, and a huge table of at least 30 people were toasting to each other non stop with rice wine, getting rowdier and happier by the round. Although we couldn’t understand what was going on, the atmosphere was electric. Sometimes, language barriers only exist in our minds.
- Driving the back roads from Bac Ha to Hoang Su Phi. We were less than 5km from the border to China, and the villages there had Chinese names. I was really fascinated for some strange reason that we were so near China. We just had to go around the mountain, and we would be in a totally different country. The villages there must have been really poor, as the roads, if you could call them roads, were in terrible condition. It took us one hour to ride 10km ride downhill the broken path, and children were running beside us, “helping” to push our bike. Two kids on a bicycle even passed our bike. The most epic moment came at the base of the hill, just as we were about to enter the next city. A landslide must have happened the night before, as there were huge rocks and lots of mud covering half the road. I had to get off and walk while R maneuvered the bike carefully around the obstacle course. A group of drunk Vietnamese men, red-faced on rice wine, were throwing rocks at us and I was legitly scared for the only time on the trip. We couldn’t have been happier to reach the city. Fortunately for us, the second part of that day saw crazy beautiful rice terraces. We were rushing to beat sunset, but couldn’t help must make several stops along the way for photos. It would have been great if we could just stop for a few hours, and just admire the view before us. The almost-sunset added to the grandeur.
- Sleeping in a crazily warm room in Tan Quang, a small town on the way to Ha Giang. We didn’t have much choice, it seemed like the town had just 3 or 4 homestays, and the others that we checked out seemed to not be open for business. It had been a long day of riding, and we were hoping to find a place before sunset. It was times like these that I was super thankful to have R with me. We kicked his ball around abit at the lobby, to the amusement of the homestay owner, where he found out that I had no ball sense whatsoever. After our shower, we immediately started perspiring again; the really weak fan wasn’t helping much. So we decided to lie on the bed naked, talking about our past misdeeds. We didn’t sleep much that night at all, but it was one of those “this is what traveling is about” days, where we felt like after that night, us toughies could conquer anything.
- Driving through the Dong Van national park. I can’t believe that the national park is totally free – it was really out of this world. “Breast hills”, little domes lay among the rice fields, with small villages between them. And we just went higher and higher into the clouds. In the middle of the park, it started to pour we took shelter for a minute in one of the villages. When we started riding off again, the sun came out and shone through the clouds, it truly felt like we emerged from a storm as victors.
- Hiking through the mountains in Dong Van. After a steep scramble up the rocky karst surface, it was a pleasant walk from village to village. It was hard to imagine that in this day, people still live like these. The different minorities were completely self sufficient (I think) up in the mountains, save for an occasional trip to Dong Van to get whatever fast food they might want. Along the way, we saw women washing colourful tribal clothes in a stream, children on their way to school, angry cows looking like they were pissed at us for being in their way, outdoor “toilets” made of stones stacked together and women cooking by the side of the path with an open fire. Having our lunch, some glutinous rice we packed from breakfast, sitting in front of some villager’s rice fields, was quite surreal. The most epic moment came when we passed a group of villagers having a celebration of sorts. Some of the guys insisted that we drink their corn wine, in dubious looking soft drink bottles, before we could pass. I think we each had 5 or 6 shots reluctantly, before deciding to run away from them. Just a few meters away, we saw a guy dead drunk, lying in the middle of the road snoozing away at 10am. Good times.
- Driving over 200km from Dong Van to Cao Bang. This was the most monotonous drive of our trip, especially after we were spoilt by days of endless rice fields and karst mountains in Sapa and Ha Giang. However, every experience, however minute, seemed so special to me on the trip. Our butts aching after the bumpy mountain roads, we stopped by a small stream for a lunch of another packet of glutinous rice we got from Dong Van, this time coloured. I’ve never eaten so much rice in a span of two weeks before, but when you’re surrounded by rice fields, you just know it’s going to be good. Curious villagers came out of their houses to shyly stare at us, two weirdos stopping in the middle of the highway eating rice out of plastic bags. An hour or so later, our butts were begging for another stop, and seeing that there was no town close by, we stopped again in the middle of the highway at a quiet field (well, the whole way was pretty quiet) and stretched, before laying on the grass for a few moments. I stared at the sky, felt the world spin a little and wished that time could freeze for a while.
- Having to push our bike for about 1km or so on the way back to Cao Bang from Ban Gioc waterfall. We had a flat tyre (I suspect it was one of the shady looking guys at the carpark of the waterfall who punctured it) in the middle of nowhere. Ok, there were a few farming villages, but it seemed highly unlikely that there would be somewhere to repair the bike. However, lady luck was shining on us, as she seemed to be throughout our whole trip, and it was just 10 min before we came across a mechanic. He fixed our bike real good at a super cheap price within half an hour, and before we left, we were given mandatory rice wine shots to drink for good luck before we took off. Only in Vietnam.
- Swimming in the Silver waterfall in Ba Be National Park. After finding an awesome homestay facing the lake, we planned to go kayaking. Mr Linh, a big name in Ba Be, seemed to own everything. The most prominent homestay (at an exorbitant price), the kayak rentals, the bicycle rentals and God knows what else. The kayaks were a little out of our budget, so we had to skip going through a few caves. But the waterfall we visited, which was just a few km out of the park, was the best I’d ever been to. It’s a 4 or 5 tier fall, where you can stop at each level to swim in. There wasn’t anyone around, so we took off our clothes and cautiously made our way across the slippery rocks. It was my first time swimming in a waterfall, and I loved it. It felt like a natural jacuzzi that just wouldn’t stop, and with R massaging my shoulders, I was in heaven. We made it to the second highest tier, before deciding that it was a little too difficult to get to the top. When we were getting back down, I kind of slipped on one of the rocks, and my body swung around it like a rag doll, but nothing too dangerous as we were going slowly. It made me realise that we really have nothing against the elements of nature.
I’ve got to say that going by motorbike is now my new favourite way to travel. You’re so close to the elements, can stop whenever you want and the bike is going at the perfect speed to see enough yet appreciate the scenery. My only regret was not learning to drive the bike, as I would definitely try something like this again in other parts of Southeast Asia.
At the end of the trip, it was my last day in Vietnam, and R was determined to make it a memorable night. We splurged on a private room (USD10 each) which had cable tv, a heart made of two towels lying on our beds, relatively thick mattresses (A rarity in Vietnam) and air conditioning! I’m extremely grateful to him, as I know that he was on a tight budget and still had a big part of his trip to go, yet he was willing to splurge on the last night, even more willingly than me. We had shishas, beers, spring rolls and laughing gas in balloons. It was my first time trying the balloons and the high lasted a little too little for me. But this was as close to a perfect trip as it could get for me, the highlight of which was, by far, the company.