The Northern Hai Giang region of Vietnam, near the hiking mecca of Sapa, is apparently the place to go on a motorbike if you are feeling ‘intrepid’ or ‘adventurous’. Hooked by these trigger words like a Pavlovian dog, I began planning from Hanoi.
Before my adventure could begin, I had to get on good terms with this epic megacity. Amid the dirt and hustle of the street, people hawk, haggle, and sleep. They eat squatting over pop-up kitchens of gas stoves, plastic stools with bowls filled with herbs and noodles, and drink home-brewed hooch cheek-by-jowel. Mopeds barrel and squish their way through the heaving streets in phalanxes 10 abreast in both directions on whatever side of the road they want heaped with babies, grandmothers, bamboo ladders and trees. They weave around pedestrians who have learned the only way to cross the road is to walk in to it without looking, and trust. At cross-roads traffic streams merge and cross as if controlled by accident avoidance software. And yet there is poise; a lake in the middle of the Old Quarter brings calm, and luxury can be bought in the form of fine silks, carvings and prints.
Amid the organising of bikes, train tickets, maps and route planning, an evening excursion with the Hanoi Backpacker’s Hostel took me to a snake farm. Here we ate five dishes of snake after having played with them, slit their throats and eaten the hearts from their writhing bodies. I opted out of the latter two activities, but was persuaded to drink snake blood vodka which made me vomit. It was after this ambitious night out, trying to keep up with drinking partners 15 years my junior, that I shakily gathered the necessary kit and road off to the train station to load the bike on to the night train to Sapa, the mountainous gateway to the North.
Apparently Sapa is gorgeous, but I wouldn’t have known as when I arrived at 5.30am it was covered in freezing fog. Before I could set off I needed a rabies injection from the local hospital and some warm clothes. It was so cold people were lighting fires of rubbish outside their houses to keep warm. Once inoculated and properly dressed, I discovered I had a flat tyre. Tough start.
It would take me two days riding to get to the edge of the Hai Giang region which on the Chinese boarder, but it was clear from early on that Lonely Planet was right; this was not a path oft-travelled. Nobody speaks English. In fact, not many people speak Vietnamese, they are mostly H’mong tribals. This, among other things, made navigation complicated. Plus my plan to use the iPhone as an emergency GPS completely tanked.
Pointing at the map and saying the name of the place I wanted to go was useless as most people had never seen one. It was often an object of wonder to those who could read and recognise place names. A group of school children in a café poured over it excitedly pointing at places they knew, clearly experiencing spatial recognition in a way they never had.
Vietnamese and H’mong are both tonal, so even saying the name of my destination often just flat out failed. ‘I want to go Coc Pai’ . . . local scratches head, ‘No Coc Pai’. What? Oh come on, yes Coc Pai, it’s the next bloody village, now which one of these eight roads (which are not on my map) leads there. ‘Hmmm. No Coc Pai.’ Really? It is on the map, here. ‘Ahhh, Coghc Bay!!!.’ That’s what I said! Isn’t it? This also meant that I had to gesticulate for food and eat whatever was put in front of me – mostly pho, a gruel water with noodles, herbs and floating bits of animal carcass.
Despite communication difficulties, people often went out of their way to help, sometimes offering a hot cup of tea or just somewhere to sit down. Finding myself lost on a dirt trail on the first day, an immaculately dressed Pang allowed me to follow. I skittered, stalled and fishtailed my way up muddy hills, whilst my guide literally floated serenely over the mud and rocks on his tiny scooter, not once putting his foot down to dirty his shiny black shoes, his neat office trousers remaining spotless throughout. I could barely keep up despite my machine’s rather ambitious decals depicting Paris-Dakar Rally credentials I clearly lacked. At one point Pang stopped to tie up some loose telephone wiring to a tree, standing on my shoulders to do so. I was glad to have helped as he later felt obliged to rescue me from a mud pit in to which I had inexplicably careened.
By the time I reached the start of the Ha Giang loop, I needed a boost. On cue, a helpful hotelier called Chung appeared. Scooting around Ha Giang town on his beautifully restored Russian Minsk two-stroke, we got the travel permits I needed and revised my route. The journey would take me to places called Tam Sum, Yenh Minh, Don Van, Meo Vac and Long Cu, where they have a 50m square Vietnamese flag which flaps proudly at the Chinese boarder.
From here the scenery was nothing short of spectacular. The region is loaded with towering mountains all covered in mist, and triangular limestone karsts jutting up from sublime looking valley floors. Narrow tracks cling to the steep contours and wind their way up to high passes giving views in to yet more valleys and ranges carrying right off to the horizon. There were lakes, gorges, and small hamlets nestled in to mountain cols; way more than I’d bargained for.
Despite being remote, there were people everywhere: breaking rocks and hauling cement; on mopeds carrying pigs and farm equipment; and in freezing mud up to their knees ploughing rice paddies with buffalo. Vietnamese peasants are wiry and tough and it is no wonder they gave the Americans such a hard fight.
The towns along the way had something of the wild-west about them and Communism was much more visible. Hundreds of national flags line every dusty street in place of street lamps, and there is at least one grey and imposing looking building in each town. And you never went far between public officials in Soviet style uniforms checking permits and looking grave.
It was strange to be somewhere so void of other tourists. People treated me as a weird outsider cum visiting celebrity. Small children would sometimes run up to say hello, or else run away in fright. It was not uncommon for villagers to all stop what they were doing and either wave and smile or just gawp as I rode past. Not being around other Westerners meant I was spending a lot of alone time in dingy, creaky hotels watching local Vietnamese propaganda game shows where they give cows to peasants as prizes.
By the end, I had not had a conversation involving sentences with anyone for nearly a week and I’d been doing about 8-10 hours riding each day so I was battered. On my return to get the train back to Hanoi, I stopped off again at Sapa where the cloud had lifted to reveal a gorgeous sunny town with great views of the rice paddies cut like contour steps in to each mountain side.
After collapsing to sleep on the night train back to Hanoi I returned the battered bike, now with a broken speedometer, three puncture repairs, a cracked lugguage rack and a missing radiator panel, then had an epic English breakfast and found Rose. The concluding part to our Vietnamese trip was coming up.
Lan Ha Bay
Halong Bay, is a must see in Vietnam. You might recognise the description of limestone columns (karsts) poking up from the sea, looking a bit like those floating mountains in Avatar, but on water. However, the nearby Lan Ha Bay is just as nice and much less busy, so there we went.
We spent two days on a lovely little wooden junk with Josey and Chantelle, a Canadian couple we’d met in Mui Ne and Hoi An. It was just the four of us, and having heard that visitors to the busier Halong are herded around like cattle, this was ideal.
All we did for two days was drop our jaws at the views, say ‘can you believe that’ quite a lot, shoot the breeze, and enjoy the fantastic company. The boat mama and papa whipped up outstanding food every mealtime, and we all got happily drunk after dinner sat out on deck admiring the stars.
Next morning we took a dip, and with the cliffs looming in the distance and the clear, still waters, it was a moment of pure calm. Our captain then took us kayaking through tunnels at the base of some of the karsts which led to hidden lagoons, from which there were more tunnels in to even more hidden lagoons. I didn’t find religion, but it was hard to believe nature had created it all just by accident.
Such a contrast to the screaming and hooting of Hanoi, it was the perfect way to end our month in Vietnam.