The scenery in North Vietnam on all the tv programmes we’ve seen looks amazing. We wanted to get out there and see the paddy field terracing for ourselves. What better way than by bike? ( Phil ” but we don’t know how to ride a bike”, “not sure about my back” (fair point – V) – “LETS DO IT”) . Before leaving the UK we did a CBT course, there’s no point in doing a motorbike holiday if we hated riding motorbikes! Next step was to research a company that could offer 2 silvergappers a safe but evxciting tour – Vietnam Motorbike Tours Asia seemed to fit the bill.
The owner of the company, Alan Chien, used to work as a trekking guide in Sapa until he saw the Vietnam Top Gear Special and thought he could make a business with that idea. He is now TripAdvisor no.1 for motorbike tours and working hard to stay there. He has a tour itinerary but told us that there are a number of routes to reach each days destination point, from big roads, small tracks to off roading. He also has a variety of motorbikes to suit clients’ needs. We arranged to see him the day before our tour was due to start to see if we could handle the manual 150cc dirt bikes that he recommended for us – he had an area we could practise on. Of course there is nowhere in Hanoi without traffic and the car park he had chosen next to office was no different. We dodged traffic as we grappled with the manual gears. It took Vanessa a while to get the hang of pulling away without stalling ( to the amusement of all the local workers!) ( Phil was fine immediately 😝-V) but we both agreed that we could manage them
We arrived at the office at 9am the following morning for coffee and to collect the rest of the kit. We both were given boots but Vanessa had the added protection (indignity??) of knee and elbow pads. Clothes etc were put in waterproof bags, strapped to the bikes and we were ready to go.
It took us about an hour to get out of the Hanoi traffic. ( Vanessa was very proud that she only stalled twice – although on one occasion this did cause a rather loud set of hoots from the traffic behind her!). By this point our guide, Lee, had decided that if we changed our first night destination we would have more time in the spectacular north – we were obviously going slowly! We stopped at the motorway service station for a drink (for service station read 4 plastic chairs and a lady selling drinks) and discovered that Lee had a requirement to top up his nicotine levels – not surprising with the stress his job must have (maybe even doubly so with us). This was the first time we had seen the common pipe, after this we saw them in every type of cafe (thanks to Lee). There is water at the bottom, just one wad of tobacco put in place, lit and then one drag up the pipe. It is obviously a strong hit but we’re not sure if the smokers actually like it or it just covers their need.
We continued along the dual carriageway dodging cars coming towards us, lorries reversing and then the first sign that we had left the city as water buffaloes started wandering across the road. This was an introduction to the hazards to be found during the rest of our Vietnamese road trip. Traffic use their horns constantly: a double beep means look out; a blare means a lorry is overtaking TOWARDS you and how dare you be on their road, and a two-tone continuous blast is a bus overtaking. We used the double beep at bikes just pulling out from the side (no one bothers looking first), when we overtook anything, when the chickens/dogs/ducks/pigs/buffalo/humans or anything else looked as if they might cross the road in front of us.
In the afternoon, the roads got a little quieter (although Phil reckons he was nearly taken out by at least 5 lorries) and hills covered with tea plantations started appearing. Every valley was covered in paddy fields and most spare pieces of land had rice or vegetables growing. We came to a sudden stop when we turned a corner and found they were felling trees across the road. Vanessa took so long to manage to restart her stalled bike that they had chopped down and cut up 4 more trees before she managed to get past between the tree felling! We started seeing lots of plywood drying on the road sides, whole villages looked to be covered in 2mx1m pieces of white wood. The pattern of our days became established, we would stop for morning coffee, lunch and an afternoon drink. These gaps not only matched Lee’s nicotine craving but also the numbness of our rears!
Our first night was in a large hotel and involved driving our bikes down a steep incline into the basement garage – scarey. There is a lot of construction going on in Vietnam and this town was no different. There were some large houses mixed in with building sites and small houses but all were set against the backdrop of a broad valley covered in paddy fields. We took an evening walk through a no-bounds dodgem car area to the valley. We met a lady watering her super vegetable garden, all gardens were useful and not grown for appearance though they all looked well tended. Again the nightly pattern of eating with Lee at 7pm was introduced and then we had an early night.
Day 2 was due to be a long day, about 200km. We started at 8am on a very grey day. We found out that apart from ourselves nobody uses headlights. We started going uphill towards the mountains, we would be at Sapa the following day. We started thinking longingly of the gloves we had carried round the world with us and left in our suitcases in Hanoi – twits! We started seeing mountain people (Tay tribe we think). The ladies were wearing colourful skirts, leg warmers or wellingtons and checked head scarves. When we stopped for lunch in a small town Vanessa was surprised that the skirt fabric was nylon, they looked to be a heavier wool (oh yes, we also splashed out 50p each on gloves to wear under the bike gloves 👍🏻). We motored on through some very unpleasant fog, checking round corners to make sure there wasn’t a bus barrelling down with no lights. We got stuck behind an uphill truck for a while, this actually made the driving easier. A pair of guys on a motorbike clutching a brief case were really annoying, they would overtake then slow down to adjust brief case, overtake then slow down to light a cigarette each (!), we were relieved when we eventually left them behind.
During the morning coffee stop we had joked with Lee that if they wanted a 5* trip advisor review he had better find some sunshine. Just as we were thinking he was never going to get more than one star we rose above the cloud into sunshine and a beautiful view. We pulled over to admire the view and soak up the rays.
Our Homestay accommodation at H. Than Uyen was on a very pretty lake. We had started a softness of mattress scale, 1 being soft and 10 being granite, unfortunately this mattress was 11 on the scale! After a shower and a beer we enjoyed a stroll around the lake. It had been designed for recreation and so had a good path around it, unfortunately it wasn’t well maintained and parts seemed to be still being built – perhaps it was dependent on cash flow. We passed a lovely rural scene, a lady carrying a bowl walking through the river towards a couple of water buffalo being followed by a large gaggle of ducklings, obviously feeding time. Phil’s fame had followed him from the Ma Koong village when a couple of lads stopped and pointed at their camera. No, they didn’t want us to take a picture of them but wanted one with Phil! It was a town that was obviously not used to westerners wandering about. Later in the week a young man wanted to take a picture of his tiny foot next to Phil’s enormous one.
Our accommodation had the classic Vietnamese bathroom design, the shower is in the middle of the room with no shower curtain. So using the bathroom after having had a shower requires one to use the provided sandals……except Phil can never get his feet in them! He therefore needs to either take his socks off or put his shoes on to use the facilities.
Although we could start the next day late, not so far to go, we were still up early – the mattress score of 11 and cockerels can be blamed. We ready to set off at 9am to go and stay at Lee’s Homestay in Sapa.
The sky was grey as we set off and once again as we climbed we entered thick fog/cloud. (We were surprised on our return to Hanoi at how many amazing photos we were able to take!) The route involved going round Mount Phan Xi Pang, the highest mountain in Indochina at 3,143m. Unfortunately we never saw it as there was just too much cloud. The pass over the mountains was endless, switch back after switch back each with the risk of a vehicle with no lights being on your side of the road ( not to mention the occasional buffalo/cow loose or being led by someone). A couple of times we had to stop to allow a lorry in front time to pull over a little so a bus or lorry could squeeze past in the opposite direction. Finally the traffic came to a complete standstill, as we passed around the edge of the queue we found the whole road blocked by a lorry that had missed the turn. We squeezed past and stopped near the top of the queue to enjoy pork skewers, buffalo jerky and steamed rice in bamboo, in a hut that was built over the precipice, it would have been an incredible view but for the clouds.🌫🌫🌫
What goes up must come down so we started the descent towards Sapa. This we knew was a centre for trekking in the mountains and an area famous for rice terraces dropping down the sides of mountains to the valleys. The Homestay, Lee had told us, was just outside Sapa, actually 12 km outside, but the regret of being so far out was greatly diminished as we drove into the town. It was incredibly busy, had a terrible road surface (massive potholes on the main road) that even Gloucestershire council would be embarrassed by, and it felt as if the whole town was orange from the mud. Probably if you had time to explore the town you may have found some nice areas. We drove up through the bus station to find the small road that led to the minority village which was Lee’s home. There wasn’t much road visible, it was mainly mud and puddles. In the actual village of Ta Phin the road was of the local underlying stone, very rutted and very slippery. Needless to say Lee flew up it whilst we slithered and slipped our way up, our first ever off roading but on a road!
We arrived at his Homestay which he and his wife built a few years ago. Unlike other home stays we had been to they had tried to make it as if the visitor was staying in their home. We realised that being quite high, we were likely to get cold (our thermals we’re keeping our gloves company in the suitcase in Hanoi!) Lee’s wife comes from the local people. They wear a beautiful red headpiece and long black dresses. Lonely Planet said that they are known as canny sellers of local goods, this proved to be the case when we wandered into the village. After having been surrounded by too many sellers showing Vanessa how they stitched the goods, we were unable to take the pressure and walked away, one lady quietly followed us. She gave us enough time and then tried on her own, appearing to sympathise with the difficulties we had experienced in the crowd. Although we didn’t actually want anything, she made a successful sale – she was a clever lady.
Lee had said that when we returned we would all go to the spa next door. Dao Spa had hot tubs, some just for 2 people, others could take 10. Not knowing what to expect, we took our swim suits to find that they were hot tubs – literally! The one for 10 people had 10 tubs in the same room. The 2 of us had our private room which would have had an amazing view out of its large window if it wasn’t for the condensation and the fog. It was a tight squeeze in the barrel and definitely made for smaller people! The local herbs that were added were very refreshing although when the bubbles had gone the water was an unpleasant brown colour. Lee’s wife and mother in law had set the spa up to help local families. The women were paid for any herbs they brought in and although not paid to actually work they all shared the dividends earned over the year. This was providing a good income for some of the poorest families. If you ever in the Sapa area we would strongly recommend getting a taxi up there and checking out the facilities.
We spent a pleasant evening with the family. At the end of the meal a couple of friends arrived for the evening, friends of both Mrs Lee and her mother. The younger lady had links with a travel company based in the UK, in Otley of all places! (Vanessa’s maternal family come from this small Yorkshire village). The other lady was our canny seller of goods we had met in the village earlier. When asked if she had had a successful day she said that she had as she had sold something! She has a lot of days when she doesn’t sell anything so this makes our souvenir from Sapa more special.
We had an early start on day 4, travelling to Ha Giang, a distance of about 250km. We faffed around so much getting ready that the other guests that had come to wave us off had wandered back to the breakfast table by the time we were ready – to Vanessa’s relief as she was still not confident at starting off without stalling. The first 12 km was back down that mud track, great fun if you liked off road biking but very tense for us! As we turned onto the main road off the track we followed two motorbikes pulling 10m planks of wood behind them. They were so long that the driver had to ask someone on each corner to help him get it round the bend. It was near impossible to overtake and Phil got left behind in the fog. Lee had to go back and find him, by which time the planks had turned off the road and he had no evidence to explain why he couldn’t keep up.
Our road again took us up, how much higher can we go? A lot, as it transpired. The road continued to be amazing, it was just a pity it was cloudy. We had glimpses of terrific scenery : we took long enough just biking, it would have been even longer if we had stopped to take all the photos we would have wanted to had the weather been clear. Arriving at the top of the pass, the tarmac stopped and became a dirt track. Vanessa thought it was the end of the road with a car park view point. It wasn’t, just the end of any decent road surface for the next 20km. Bear in mind that this is THE road between Sapa and Ha Giang. Pulling over to look at the view between clouds we found a group of people, mixed Vietnamese and western, talking at each other but clearly not understanding each other. A German lad had bought a motorbike to explore Vietnam, with the intention of selling it at the end, so having a free trip. Unfortunately he had no knowledge of bikes and had purchased an old banger. Lee had a look, shrugged his shoulders and told him he needed a new battery. He would find a mechanic 5 km back down the pass. We were very pleased we had a guide, if our bikes broke it wouldn’t be our problem!
The next 20km were an understatement as this was now pretty much the road conditions until we headed back to Hanoi. Great road surface followed immediately by a rutted track followed by tarmac and potholes, followed by mud and puddles,followed by a massive lump and then great road again for the next 200m. Just as you had changed gear for the good surface you were met by a massive pothole you had to avoid. Phil was actually having great fun playing “miss the pothole” but then he got bored of that and decided to try standing up on the bike and aiming for the potholes instead. The bikes could take anything ! We later decided that here a pothole was an improvement, because that meant that there had at least been tarmac at some point. Anyway, now we know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.
We reached Ha Giang at about 4pm. Lee had booked us into a resort style hotel on the lake. They were preparing it for a huge party but Lee didn’t worry about that, he just drove straight down the green then red carpet to the hotel centre! Our chalet room looked over the lake although half the view was blocked by the marquee running along in front of us. We enjoyed watching a couple of princess swan pedaloes meandering across the lake.
The road the following day continued to climb, we were now very close to the Chinese border. Morning coffee was at the top of the pass with a stunning view – according to the photographs of a previous trip Lee showed us! We got some great glimpses through the clouds. The road continued to get better and better – the view that is, not the actual road! We could see down into some deep valleys and it was just awesome, and Lee said the highlight would be the next 2 days! It started to rain and we were getting damp round the edges. At least with the slow speed we were doing, we didn’t need to use rain splattered visors.
Turning into the hotel at Dong Van, Vanessa fell off the bike again, “I caught an edge”! she claimed. ( we both found it difficult to get off the bikes, we had to put one foot down, hop away a couple of hops then pull the boot and therefore foot over the saddle, very graceful! Vanessa’s first topple was when she got her foot caught on the bike and managed to pull foot and bike!)
We spotted quite a few westerners in this town when we had our predinner explore. It had started to rain in the afternoon so we decided to buy plastic macs to go over our gear. Unfortunately they only make them Vietnamese size so we couldn’t find one for Phil. For the princely sum of 80p Vanessa modelled see-through plastic trousers and coat in a charming shade of purple.
Day 6 would take us over the Ma Pi Leng Pass which is apparently the most dangerous road section in the Dong Van karst plateau. It was raining so we decided on a late start of 10am to allow the rain to go. The bad weather was a pity but it only lasted a couple of hours. We’re running out of descriptive words here as the trip just kept getting more impressive. Lee took us onto a smaller road to Bao Lac, our destination for the night. It still had lorries on it but it was a fantastic route. It is also true to say that not all of Vietnam is beautiful and where we stopped for lunch was one example. There was litter strewn over the hillside and down into what would have been a very pleasant stream. Refuse collection doesn’t seem to exist in Vietnam and there are small fires going on everywhere. Phil was repeatedly heard saying “I love the smell of burning plastic in the morning” #apocalypsenow. In all of the villages we passed through we were greeted by a shout of hello from every child, western faces are unusual. This continued during our exploratory walk through the town of Bao Lac that evening. The hotel we stayed in was enormous, it’s a wedding venue we think. There were about 6 guests, we just rattled in the dining area.
It wasn’t raining when we awoke but it was still cloudy. We went down to find that our bikes were parked in reception, right in front of the desk. Vanessa graciously allowed Lee to bring her bike out of the hotel to the road. Today we were heading to Ba Be National Park, we needed to arrive at the lake for 3pm to enjoy an hours cruise before it got dark. Lee offered us 2 routes and we opted for the more adventurous slippery route that involved crossing a bamboo bridge. We thought that we would be dropping down out of the mountains but every time we descended we went back up again. The road was very muddy but we were doing quite well until we came across a scooter in a puddle on our side of the road. Lee went past, mounting the muddy puddle edge and Vanessa followed, for about 2m! She suddenly found herself lying in a puddle across the road with the bike on top. After pulling her up and finding she wasn’t much damaged, Lee gleefully said he had caught it all on his GoPro. We needed to stop at the next Xe May though to get a new hand brake fitted as Vanessa had managed to break hers off.
The bamboo bridge was interesting. We watched Lee cross and as he did so the bridge started to bounce up and down. Oh well, we persuaded ourselves that we really could drive in a straight line (don’t want to land in the river) and we took turns powering over the bridge. We both made it of course but we were still mightily relieved! We stopped to admire some bamboo water wheels pumping water up from the river and into the fields. Phil was a little disconcerted when he rounded a bend into a village and had to take avoidance measures to miss 2 geese being chased by a puppy! Finally we arrived at the entrance to the National Park and drove down to the boats. These were small boats that could take a party of 20 or, just, 3 motorbikes and 3 adults. The bikes had to be ridden down a short but very steep ramp and then manhandled onto a narrow gangplank. Again Vanessa graciously allowed Lee to do this for her, Phil was braver and rode his bike down the ramp but agreed that Lee could manhandle the bike onto the boat. We spent a pleasant hour cruising around the lake before getting off at the boat station on the other side. ( Boat station, well it was a slope down to the water with about 10 boats and cattle grazing). We rode to our final accommodation of the trip, a Khánh Toan Homestay in a village packed with Homestays. Only local people can offer accommodation in this part of the National Park. They were very amused when we took turns in washing our boots in their hosepipe. It was a pretty place with a river running behind the buildings.
Last day and back to Hanoi, about 250km and we needed to be there by 1.30pm to avoid the worst of the rush hour traffic. This meant an early start, we had to be on our bikes and ready to go by 6am. Every morning Lee had started our bikes and revved the engines to warm them up, we were not going to be popular with the other guests as the bikes were under the thin wooden sleeping quarters! We left with reduced revving to drive an hour or so before we stopped for breakfast. We had expected to join a large road very soon but only did so after about 100km. The road surface was much better but we now had the problems of buses overtaking lorries and leaving no space on our side, good job we had dirt bikes as we often had to ride off road!
When we reached the city of Thai Nguyen, Lee led us on to the bypass only to be stopped by the police saying motorbikes were not allowed on that road. Lee knew that but he always goes that away ( unless stopped by police!) as it saves going through the large city. We turned round on the hard shoulder and now it was our turn to go the wrong way up the dual carriageway. Luckily we had chosen the couple of minutes when there happened to be no traffic, this was unbelievable as when we started it was 3 lanes packed. We had agreed with Lee to meet Alan, the boss, in a cafe on the edge of Hanoi, leave the bikes and return to the hotel by taxi. He said that it would be easier for us as we wouldn’t have to contend with traffic. We were happy to agree to this although we suspect that it would be easier and quicker for Lee if he didn’t have to worry about us in the traffic. The last half hour was horrible as it started to rain in earnest and we were moving fast in traffic, the bridge over the Red River will live in Phils memory. We worked our way to the side of the dual carriageway, 3 lanes in each direction, and then Lee stopped. This was where we were meeting Alan – strange coffee shop but never mind. To Vanessa’s enjoyment, Phil got his boot stuck on the bike and fell over ( pavement side fortunately!) pulling the bike over just as Alan arrived. 2,000km unscathed and then to mess up the very last thing he had to do on the bike. ( V – hee hee) .
We finally got back to the hotel after abandoning the useless taxi that Alan had booked and switching to Uber. Shower, beer, meal just round the corner, early bed. An amazing week, very scary at times but we did it!
A few weeks later we were sent this link !