Motorbike Motorbike in Northern Vietnam Day 3 – Mèo Vạc to Việt Quang

Weather: Sun and clouds
Departure: 11h00
Arrival: 19h00
Date: 13/04/14


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There was indeed a market the next day (Sunday). While not as colourful as I hoped, a large number of minority people were there selling their harvest and trading cows, water buffaloes, goats, pigs, chickens and dogs. I purchased some unknown pastries for breakfast and sat down at a café where the owner, as soon as I had been helped, proceeded to kill a chicken a couple of meters away. Business as usual.

Three liters of gas at a ripoff price later, I was going but not before stopping for a while to watch a cockfight. Once outside of town, I passed a field of cannabis and one or two minutes later I came face to face with one if not the most beautiful vista I have ever seen. The video linked in the previous post hinted that the road from Meo Vac to Dong Van as spectacular, but that was an understatement. I stopped for a good five minutes and admired this jaw-dropping scenery. With the exception of women, beauty rarely triggers a physical response in me but that was different. I’ll cut the description here and let the pictures speak for themselves.

Scenery outside of Meo Vac

Nothing afterwards would match the sights right outside of Meo Vac, but nonetheless it all ranked extremely high on the scale of awesomeness. With hairpin turns, loose surfaces and the odd truck or bus behind a curve, the driving was no piece of cake and required uninterrupted concentration. Because of the altitude and an improperly tuned carburetor causing backfires, my bike was struggling and on occasions, the second gear would slip back into neutral, but I was not too worried and made sure I stopped often to soak the view around me.

As I was climbing down, the scenery turned from rocky to green. Rice paddies, windy valley roads, little villages with children waving as I passed by, karst peaks and weird conical mounts, this day was the gift that kept on giving and to make things even better, car and trucks were few and far between. After all, they do recommend a 4×4 vehicle if you are to venture in these parts so its no wonder that it is a road not much traveled.

Around the end of the afternoon, I arrived in Ha Giang, the provincial capital and according to my reading of the Lonely planet, the gateway to these remote areas that were already behind me. The guide book stipulated that doing this circuit the way I did was not possible as travel permits to the border region could only be issued in this city and going further without one could result in very hefty fines. I’m lucky I got one made at my guesthouse and as a matter of fact, all foreigners on bikes that I saw were going the opposite direction. This truly was Vietnam’s last frontier. Now on a major highway, I took advantage of the remaining daylight to push it a little further to Viet Quang, which was 60 kilometers away. That stretch took me only an hour. I must have been going 80 all the time judging by the rate and force of flies and mosquitoes hitting me in the face (the odometer on my bike is non functional), a far cry from the 25-30 I was averaging in the mountains.

This day of motorcycling has taken all the other days in my riding career, has taken them outside and has given them a good spanking. This is my new 10 and I doubt I’ll be able to even match it in the near future. Amazing but now, my ass is severely sore from all the bumps and the sitting on the bike for many hour at a time.

Motorbike Motorbike in Northern Vietnam Day 2 – Bắc Kạn to Mèo Vạc

Weather: all except snow
Departure: 10h00
Arrival: 22h
Date: 12/04/14

Stuck!

Stuck!

When it comes to craziness, this day takes the crown so far. My plan was to make it to north and the most direct way was on smaller secondary road and I did take it. The beginning of the journey started off relatively uneventful but as soon as I hit my first shortcut, the surface deteriorated into a mix of worn pavement and gravel. I would remain on this road for one hour or two until I hit the clouds. There the pavement became more continuous but the visibility dropped down to 15 meters or so with the constant drizzle usually accompanying high altitude fog in which I would stay for another two hours. The way down from the peaks is when I started to really enjoy this day. The scenery was spectacular. For a while at least because after lunch, I got some altitude again until on a pass I came head to head with three large vehicles immobilized in the middle of the road. A truck had broken down, another one had gotten bogged down while trying to pass it and on trying to help it out using a nearby excavator, it tipped over and was now lying precariously on the excavator’s shovel. Good luck guys! Two french tourists told me they had seen motorcycles cross around the mess so I there I went. Progressively, villages became more and more of the ethnic minority type, with most habitations being made from local wood and bamboo and women wearing the traditional attire.

Glory to the regime!

Glory to the regime!

Rice paddies

Rice paddies

The road behind the accident was even better than previously and in little time I had made it to Bao Lac. It was already 16h30 but after refueling and withdrawing money from an ATM (I realized they were few and far between and had little funds to cover any unforeseen issues), I somehow thought it was a good idea to push a bit further to Meo Vac. A bit further? Yes on the map it looked sort of close but it seems I just don’t learn. It already took me a while to find the correct path, once I realized it was now too late to turn around, it was night, I had been through kilometers and kilometers of dirt roads, had gone down a trail just a tad bit larger than a foot path and was now in front of a river with two kids offering me a passage across on a makeshift bamboo raft. Earlier, upon me asking a passer by if I was on the correct direction to Meo Vac, the man gave me a brick of soy milk and told me that yes, I was going the right way but that it was far and that I should go bed. No beds around here my friend and I was ready to challenge a Viet person’s conception of far. I failed, it was far.

On a bamboo raft crossing a river

On a bamboo raft crossing a river

Then the man that was waiting on the bamboo raft for his crossing walked up to me and through a gesture, I understood that he was going to Meo Vac as well. I decided to cross; that was really the point of mo return I guess. On the other side, through an offering of a cigarette, I made sure the guy was cool with me following him. Through altitude and poor maintenance, my motorcycle had since the middle of the afternoon became extremely pushy uphills and now that I had to climb a steep path, it was just not cooperating. In order to get it up, I had to keep the gas handle fully down, use the clutch to minimize the torque on the engine and do the rest of the effort myself. At the top of the hill, my guide was waiting for me. We kept going for a coupe of minutes and then he stopped at a random wooden shack on the side of the road. In spite of me trying to inform him that I wanted to go to Meo Vac and that this could not possibly be it, he convinced me to enter the house. There, a bunch of local minority people were sitting on the ground or on short stools, having what I thought was tea and smoking tobacco in a water pipe. The women, dressed in their costumes, were singing. Two younger men were trying to fix a cell phone and my guide was forcing me to take a seat all while offering me that “tea”, which was actually some sort of vodka. All round bags of rice, a cooking fire and some chickens running around. Unusual experience, whoever brought me here was enjoying some shots but still had his coat on and his keys in his hand so I finally understood that this was just a stopover. Oh well, I felt a bit uneasy, but decided to integrate as much as I could.

Partying with the locals

Partying with the locals

As I was sipping on my cup of vodka, one guy was trying to match me with another girl. No thanks, Then they decided to poke some fun at my bald head. In spite of me explaining that it had migrated down my face into a beard (something they did not have), they nonetheless decided to cover it up with a beret one man was wearing. Finally, after a session of picture taking and one last shot (I only had two and wanted none, but they were very insisting), I was back outside on my bike following my guide who at that point had a lady on the back of his motorcycle and was gunning it on the rocky road all while drunk. On the side of the road I caught a glimpse of a kilometric marker bearing the name of my destination at an estimated distance of 20 kilometers. Finally! My guide took a side road and I kept going but not before stopping at a little general store that was still open to load up on water and other supplies for a night I was still expecting to spend outside. 20 kilometers can be a very long way in these parts, especially that there is no longer anyone outside to ask for directions (as soon as night falls everyone is in bed) and that roads are not really marked.

Determined to get to my objective no matter what, I drove for another hour until finally I saw the glow of a large town reflecting on the cloud cover overhead. After tracking back from having taken the wrong branch of a fork, I spotted a marker and soon after, I was  downtown. I circled around once to check my options and luckily, some guesthouses were still open. During checking-in, the receptionist made me understand that I needed a permit to be in the border region. I did not know that but for an extra 210 000 dongs I made certain it was not a scam. This had been an extremely long day, it was 22:00 hrs which meant I had been riding for 12 hours with very little interruptions. I needed a beer.

I sat down at a street bar and ordered a drink. It was not before long that I had caught the interest of a group of giggly teenagers. They all came down to my table and offered me a bamboo water pipe. This time though, it did not contain tobacco but weed, which by the looks of it appears to grow freely in the region. This explains the giggliness. The good guest that I am took a couple drags and after an hour of discussing across on Google translator, I took my leave from the group, had a bowl a pho and got to my room to write this journal. A quick check on Google maps indicated that there were two roads to Mae Vac and evidently, I had taken the very rugged one that was cut in half by a river, some kilometers after Bao Lac, there was another way that was good enough for buses to pass.

Things have a way of working out. Part of me wished I would have had to sleep outside as in spite of the darkness, I could make up a scenery that at sunrise would have been absolutely gorgeous.

Apparently, this town is famous for its colourful Sunday market, where the locals come down to sell everything from cattle to flowers. I’ll see what’s up tomorrow. Next up though is the Meo Var – Dang Van road section, which apparently had few rivals around this country when it comes to beauty.

Motorbike Motorbike in Northern Vietnam Day 1 – Hà Nội to Bắc Kạn

Weather: rainy
Departure: 13h30
Arrival: 18h30
Date: 11/04/14

As soon as I woke up, I headed for the ATM to withdraw the necessary funds and took possession of my steed, a Honda Win 100. Not very trusty, its got the brand of a reliable Japanese company but has been entirely made somewhere else in Asia using the cheapest part possible. The shop had three available. I test rode them all and settled for the one they had been fixing the night before, still a piece of junk but less so than the others. So I left Hanoi in the beginning of the afternoon and soon found myself between speeding trucks and buses in the suburbs and then the satellite towns. Not a whole lot of fun, but this was the route that the shop had recommended so I kept to it and this being a very populated area of Vietnam, traffic was to be expected. I had a map but no real destination. I would just see how far I could make as I had no experience in this region and as I know very well, the sense of distance can be severely distorted in countries like this.

Soon enough a drizzle which would accompany me to the rest of my day started. Nothing too serious, as is the case with this type of rain, there is often a speed at which you dry as fast as you get wet. The problem was the mud, especially on stretches under construction. I pushed on anyway and around half-way the road became smaller and started winding its way down valleys while the traffic subsided. Finally, I arrived at my destination as the sun was letting out its last rays of light. Bac Kan, a mid-size provincial town. I saw no hotel signs but soon figured out that all these “Nhà Nghỉ” signs must be what I was looking for. And they were (guesthouse in Vietnamese).

I got my bike inside the lobby, went up to my room to clean up the mud from my pants and face and headed back down for a bite. My hosts did not speak a word of English and nor did the waiters at the restaurant. There, a family was having a party and the kids, once they had spotted my strange face, got fascinated by my looks and started congregating around me and touch me. Chances are they had never seen a foreigner. They knew “hello” but all my attempts at speaking French to them would result in the group bursting into hysterical laughter, mockeries and finger pointing: “Look at this guy, he can’t even speak!”. The rest of night was spent working and blogging alone in my room. Kids can be so cruel :)

Sorry, no other picture for today...

Sorry, no other picture for today…

Motorbike Motorbike in Northern Vietnam – Prelude

My mate having just left for Canada and me having to follow him in some days, it was time to kick it up a notch. My original travel plan had been to buy a bike in Ha Noi and drive all the way to Bangkok through Laos and Cambodia. Now time-constrained, I nonetheless wanted to see South-East Asia outside of the beaten path and do it on a motorcycle so the ten days that I had left were to be just enough to circle around North Vietnam. More so, I was to do it on a Honda Win 100, the bike I was planning to get in the first place and a piece of junk, but at least one that is fun to drive and for which there supposedly is plenty of spare parts all around. The guy at the rental shop was a motorcycle guide himself and strongly suggested that I should do the northernmost tip of the country. I was planning to start with Dien Bien Phu out east and then go up, but the one picture that he had hung up the wall was quick to convince me that I should make this my first destination and tour the region the other way around.

So off I went, without precise destination and no more planning than a glance at the map. For that first day, I would just to see how far I could make it.

The title

You are not allowed to walk in Vietnam, the only way to go around is by motorbike. At least this what the constant harassment by scooter taxi drivers seem to imply. I’m not sure their business is all that legal, still they seem to be on every street corner and will even bother stopping in the middle of the traffic to ask every foreigner: “Hey, hey, motobike motobike?” (r omitted voluntarily to give them impression of a Vietnamese accent) Two of us with large backpacks and daypacks in the front? No issue, motobike anyway. Along with “You buy?”, this is probably the one English phrase you will most often hear during your time in Vietnam.

So motobike? No thanks I can do it on my own. In honour of these men who bring so much convenience to the Vietnamese tourism industry, for nine days or so I will go motobike around in regions where they are nowhere to be found.

Ready to go!

Ready to go!

Le Vietnam partie 9 – Hà Nội

Après quelques heures d’autobus animés de télévision et de musique Vietnamiennes et d’un trajet de taxi au compteur traffiqué, nous étions de retour dans la même auberge qu’il y a quelques jours. Après un repas à notre petit stand de bun cha préfé, nous sommes allés visiter la prison de Hoa Lo, originalement bâtie par les autorités coloniales françaises et plus tard reprise par le gouvernement Nord-Vietnamien. Les exposés étaient médiocres et la propagande grosse comme le bras. Les murs de cette prison on sans doute été témoins d’atrocités innomables, mais le manque d’objectivité flagrant laisse sérieusement douter sur la véracité des informations convoyées. La salle dédiée aux conditions de traitement des pilotes américains capturés pendant la guerre du Vietnam était particulièrement douteuse. Exposés y étaient des photos et des bandes vidéos montrant les captifs fêtant Noël, recevant des lettres de leur proches, jouant à des sports dehors, le tout placé en flagrant contraste avec le traitement que les Vietnamiens reçurent de la part des Français pour encore une fois donner du crédit au régime communiste.

Le mausolée d'Ho Chi Minh

Le mausolée d’Ho Chi Minh

Le palais présidentiel

Le palais présidentiel

En ce qui concerne la soirée, rien ne me vient à la mémoire, alors elle a dû se passer dans le calme. Ah oui en fait, nous avons bu quelques bières au bord du Lac de la Tortue en plein centre-ville. Le lendemain par contre a été chargé en activités. Debout tôt pour aller visiter le mausolée d’Ho Chi Minh, nous voulions être certain d’avoir des places, car ce dernier ne reste ouvert que jusqu’à onze heures et de ce que j’avais entenu de celui de Mao Zedong en Chine, il fallait faire la file longtemps. D’autant plus que les Vietnamiens sont très matinaux. Lors de notre arrivé, aucune queue et  rapidement nous avons été attachés à un groupe de touristes pour aller en deux rangs les bras le long du corp défiler devant la dépouille de l’oncle Ho. Encore une drôle d’expérience dont personne n’a pu prendre de photos. Le reste de la visite s’est déroulé autour du palais présidentiel et dans un musée dédié au leader communiste. Encore de la propagande.

Un truc dans les environs du mausolée

Un truc dans les environs du mausolée

Suivant le plan de la journée, notre prochaine étape devait être le musée de la guerre, lequel nous avons visité en très peu de temps car … c’était encore de la propagande sans valeur historique. Une collection de textes désarticulés, d’objets divers et de butin de guerre français et américain fièrement exposé. Fatigués par ces visites inutiles, nous l’avons donc abrégé le plus possible. Comme Yves-Étienne partait le lendemain, il voulait se réserver l’après-midi pour aller en quête de souvenirs, notamment du café de fouine (weasel coffee), plus précisément des baies de café mangées par l’animal et ensuite excrétées par ce dernier pour ne laisser que la graine. Pendant notre session de shopping, nous avons rencontrés Jaclyn, une fille dont nous avions fait la connaissance à Hoi An et que nous nous n’attendions pas à voir ici. Comme elle avait une heure à tuer avant son autobus, elle se joigna à nous pour aller faire une dégustation de ce fameux café. Rien de spectaculaire, mais aucun d’entre nous n’était fin connaiseur du breuvage. Yves-Étienne en a quand même acheté un sac pour la nouveauté et histoire d’avoir quelque chose à rapporter à sa copine.

Normalement, Jaclyn aurait dû se trouver au Laos à l’heure qu’il était, mais elle et Théodore, entre Hoi An et Ha Noi, s’étaient faits arrêter pour avoir installés leurs hamacs trop près d’une prison. Ils ont eu beau répéter à la police qu’ils ne l’avaient jamais vu, ces derniers les ont quand mêmes gardés en surveillance pendant trois jours pour finalement les laisser en liberté; moins la moto. À leur place, j’aurais appelé mon ambassade, mais ils ont préférés se sortir de la merde tout seuls. Remaquez que dans ce genre de pays, ça l’aurait potentiellement pu envenimer la situation encore plus. Cette journée devait donc être les grandes retrouvailles de nos connaissances de voyage, car le soir même, Yom, lui aussi rencontré à Hoi An, devait nous rencontrer un peu plus tard.

Une fois en compagnie de Yom, pour le dernier repas du voyage nous sommes allés nous payer un burger à un prix occidental (c’est à dire très cher pour le Vietnam) et ce fut tout. Devant l’auberge buvaient un Danois et quelques autres personnes avec qui nous avions discutés une peu plus tôt au bar de l’auberge et la décision a été prise de les joindre un moment. Le périple Vietnamien d’Yves-Étienne allait donc se conclure sur cette activité. Il est parti se coucher un peu plus tôt que moi. Nous nous étions dit au revoir la veille, alors à mon réveil le lendemain, il était parti.

À nouveau seul, mais pas désoeuvré. Au cours des derniers jours, j’avais mûri le plan de passer les dix jours qu’il me restait sur une moto louée afin d’aller explorer le nord du Vietnam sur une Honda Win 100, l’engin que j’aurais acheté si j’avais poursuivi mon voyage, car je comptais aller faire le Laos et le Cambodge à moto. J’avais trouvé la machine la veille alors après la routine matinale, je suis allé en prendre possession, l’ai ammené devant mon auberge, y ai attaché mon sac et suis parti. Dans quelle direction? Franc nord. Le Vietnamien qui m’a loué m’a moto, m’avait glissé mot en me donnant une carte que l’extrême nord du pays était là où se trouvaient les plus beaux paysages. Normalement, c’était un périple qu’il faisait en dix jours, mais j’en avais au gros maximum neuf.

Photos: Yves-Étienne Landry