I find it fitting that as I started my trip on two wheels, I should end it on two wheels.
A couple of weeks ago, I bought my ticket to fly back to California from Hanoi on March 19 for Emma’s spring break, leaving me with 7 weeks to explore Northern Vietnam and Laos.
Why Northern Vietnam, specifically? I didn’t really know, but I’d been hearing it through the grapevine ever since I got to Southeast Asia. Oftentimes my favorite destinations are the ones that I only hear about through someone having just arrived from that place, excited to tell the rest. The best places are ones that the mention of which brings another traveler leaning over from a different table to add there bright eyed testament to the destination’s virtues.
I was a little worried about the lack of safety in riding a motorcycle around Vietnam as it has one of the worst road-safety statistics in the world. However, I decided to take the risk and buy a bike with the plan to stay away from big city traffic by touring the far north of Vietnam before crossing into Laos.
The capital of Vietnam and the heart of the North, Hanoi is also the last stop or the starting line for tourists exploring the country south-north or north-south. The old quarter is famous for its traffic that is so dense and disorderly that to cross the street, you just have to check for cars and trucks, then start walking. The motorcycles and scooters will part as a stream circles a rock.
When I was there, the weather was raw and cold, but that didn’t stop anyone from being outside. Most of the little restaurants and food stalls augment their indoor cubby holes by flooding the sidewalk with tiny plastic tables and chairs which overflow with customers during meal hours.
In fact, so many people eat their regular meals at restaurants and food stalls, I found it nearly impossible to find a seat during lunch time. It’s often cheaper to eat out, so there’s very little reason to cook your own meals in the bigger towns where tastier options wait at every street corner.
Rubber Side Down
Unlike Thailand where most people have a car, the scooter still reigns supreme in Vietnam. They clog the chaotic, winding streets of the Old Quarter and blast down the wide avenues of the surrounding business districts with seemingly careless abandon. Bearing the duties of cargo trucks, family sedans, sport coupes, and Taxi cabs, scooters are a way of life for the Vietnamese.
When I bought my motorcycle, the owner of the shop took me out to his warehouse where I could get used to a manual bike and chose between models, but after that I was right onto the motorway, weaving through traffic and trying to stay right on his tail lest I get lost and spend three hours navigating my way back to the Old Quarter. Surprisingly while the metallic flow of traffic looks incredibly unpredictable from the outside, to be inside feels like participating in a collective, predetermined set of actions and reactions.
The bike I bought was a Detech Espero 120cc: one of the more reliable copies of the original Honda Win that proved extremely popular in Southeast Asia and continues to be the backpacker’s best choice for an extended road trip, though most locals have switched to more expensive automatic or semi-auto bikes. The Vietnamese government imposes a 300% “luxury item” tax on motorcycles with 200cc engines and above, so while 120cc is basically a hamster on its exercise wheel, the other options are gerbils or mice. It’s gone through it’s fair share of spare parts and replacements already, but mechanics and parts are everywhere and dirt cheap. When I crossed the border to Laos, I joined company with five other Win riders. After a few minutes waiting for a couple of truculent bikes to start we were off and sounding like a herd of angry lawnmowers: each bike dangling broken blinkers, coated in mud, blowing blue smoke, or crabbing down the road on a bent frame.
Waving to China
Riding two days north from Hanoi, my first stop was Ba Be Lake. The weather was cold and wet and the back road that I took turned into a muddy gravel track. Still getting used to descending with a manual bike, I took a small spill on one corner and broke loose one of the foot peg bar mounts and shattered one blinker. Then as night was falling and my home-stay for the night just two miles away, I got a flat in my rear tire, forcing me to walk it the rest of the way.
Thankfully, the morning dawned to a crisp and misty morning view out over the rice farms and river. I got lucky and found a mechanic just down the road who fixed the tire and foot pegs for less than $4. The guesthouse was social and lively and we went on a four hour boat tour to a waterfall, a temple on an island, and an old NVA lookout tower with panoramic views of the valley.
From Ba Be, I continued north and east to the famous Ban Gioc waterfall. Despite it being the dry season in North Vietnam, the waterfall was more impressive than any other I’ve seen on this trip, finally standing up to Pacific Northwest standards. It was interesting to note that while there was a dozen or so tourists around the Vietnamese side of the river, the Chinese side was totally empty due to travel restrictions within China to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
From Cao Bang I turned west, following a backroad that traces the Vietnam-China border. On the first leg to the town of Bao Lac, the road rises up into high mountain ranges occupied primarily by villages of the Hmong ethnic minority. Their houses are usually made from wood, built up on stilts, and sided with untreated, rough hewn planks. The women can often be seen out working the fields or cutting firewood, wearing traditional brightly colored long skirts and jackets while the men are most often seen tending to the buffalos, working in motorcycle repair shops, or lounging outside a tea house with their friends.
The road from Cao Bang to Bao Lac was often broken, muddy, and narrow, but the next leg of this road would prove even more challenging. The scenery and setting was much the same, but the road dove into even more remote valleys and mountainsides. The muddy lane turned to slippery single track with drop-offs hundreds of feet down and herds of cattle made unpredictable road-blocks. Finally, the track descended to the bank of a wide river or reservoir. When I arrived, a man pulled a bamboo raft across from the middle of the river using a recycled telephone wire tethered at each bank. As he pulled us across and I watched the water lapping up between the sticks of bamboo, I was glad I was the only passenger.
This remote road emptied onto the Ha Giang loop near Meo Vac. Unlike its neighbor Sapa where locals are paid to wear their “authentic” Hmong garb and tourists walk elbow to asshole up mountains for a chance to sleep in an “authentic Hmong homestay”, Ha Giang has only in the last year or two come on the radar of foreign tourism. While you can now find the occasional pizza restaurant or European style hostel, the majority of tourism here is from Vietnamese nationals.
Most Vietnamese people never leave Southeast Asia even though many would dearly love to travel because their wages are low, their currency is weak, and the Vietnamese passport makes getting visas for international travel difficult and expensive.
Of all the countries I’ve visited, the people of Vietnam are among the friendliest and most helpful. Typically, simply being a tourist and a local changes the dynamic of the interactions between two people. However in Vietnam, I felt like they interacted with me at the same level as if I were a Vietnamese traveler.
One image that I’ll always keep in my mind is of the little boys and girls of the hill tribes jumping in glee and waving at me as I rode past. Kids are the same the world over, but these ones sure are enthusiastic.
It can be quite difficult to find quality coffee in Southeast Asia. Luckily, Vietnam has a strong coffee industry in the south and their products are enjoyed across the country. It is finely ground and strong, brewed on top of the clear glass cup in a small pot placed on a perforated saucer. Often, sweetened condensed milk is mixed in, but for a uniquely Vietnamese delicacy you can ask for egg coffee in which the yolk is blended with condensed milk and a teaspoon of coffee before being poured over the brew.
Just as with the beginning of my cycling journey, the weather was distinctly uncooperative from when I left Hanoi till Ha Giang was receding in my mirrors. Much of the mountain riding I did was inside of a thick cloud drift, wiping my face shield every ten seconds and squinting to see the road through the murk. Temperatures were raw and moisture found its way into every fiber of my clothing after an hour on the bike. Furthermore, almost no guesthouses in North Vietnam have an electric clothes dryer.
Roads became far more dangerous as well, as the mist kept the pavement slick with water. The worst were the concrete slab tracks that connected some of the remote villages, as they seemed to develop a thin and slippery film that could lay a bike over in record time.
Gripes aside, gliding over a ribbon of asphalt as gray and green giants loom out of the mist and tower over farmers working among the rice paddies brings an ominous sense of adventure to every turn. The limestone karst mountains of Dong Van rise from the fog like humongous stone haystacks in panoramas beyond imagination and beyond my ability to do justice with a camera.
As soon as I finished the Ha Giang loop, I blazed straight south in search of warmer weather. Two days of riding brought serendipitously to a town that’s a quiet and laidback holiday destination for the Vietnamese who live and work near Hanoi. Moc Chau boasts sweeping views of tea plantations and pockets of fruit orchards nestled up against the limestone hills. By the time I rolled up to the border at of Laos, it was a beautiful 75 degrees.
The Final Frontier
The North of Vietnam has the feel of what I imagine being in the Wild West was like. Hundreds of unique communities live as their ancestors have for generations with only the addition of a few modern amenities; police cadets and aspiring businessmen pay their bosses bribes to get hired; laws are followed loosely and pockets are kept stocked with “coffee money”; sharp eyed entrepreneurs tap into the ever-increasing flow of international tourism, sometimes owning multiple guesthouses, bars, and restaurants in leaps to get ahead of their competition even if that means going deeply into debt. I even met one man who had built a private school where children can go to learn how to cut themselves a slice out of the tourism industry, what he calls “the future of Vietnam.” It’s a fly by the seat of your pants kind of place where traditional cultures mix with the western model of socio-economic growth just as Southern Vietnam did shortly after the Vietnam-America war. While Ho Chi Minh city dove headfirst into the global economy and mindset, the North has remained determined to retain its identity and self-dependence, although some would say it clung to bygone times. I think a decade from now will see a very different North Vietnam, but for now the water buffalo pull their plows beside the two stroke tillers and scooters tear up the roads between villages hundreds of years old.