Motorbike Motorbike in Northern Vietnam Day 5 – Sa Pa

Since Sa Pa had such a reputation for being a nice spot, I decided to stay for an extra day. Also a welcome break for my behind. I thought I would spend the day walking around the area and not ride, but early in the morning came in the room a German girl (Karen) and a French guy (Antoine) who had arrived in the town in night buses and were now checking in. Both of them travelling alone as well, we all decided to keep each other company for the day and go check out some waterfalls outside of town … on motorcycles.

At Zoom's restaurant

At Zoom’s restaurant

So off we went but before making the very short climb to Sliver Waterfall, we stopped at a few restaurants along the road to inquire about their prices. Located near the falls, all of them were quite expensive, even more so those that served fresh fish from the nearby fishfarm (farming fish high up in the mountains, go figure). 25 $ a kilo for salmon, we were not quite ready to pay this price plus, I would not trust the Vietnamese for cooking salmon. Anyway, we had to track back in the direction of Sa Pa and a couple of kilometers further, settle for a small roadside restaurant. Zoom, the owner, was already drunk but nonetheless genuinely ecstatic of having foreigner customers. Not only did he gave us a decent meal at a decent price, but he also brought in some local freebies, forced on us many shots of bee’s wine (honeycombs in vodka it appeared) and ended the meal with a full bottle of Sa Pa apple cider. None of us were expecting so much hospitality, so with full bellies, a small buzz from the alcohol, we made it for the first waterfall, which was not really anything to write home about.

Silver Waterfall

Silver Waterfall

And neither was the second one, except that I was brave enough to take a swim in it. My companions had brought their swimsuits as well, but got discouraged by the temperature. Afterwards, I swapped motorcycle with Antoine and we went to the other side of the mountain pass, apparently Vietnam’s highest. On the way back down to Sa Pa, we got enveloped by extremely thick fog and as we entered town, Antoine pulled on my side to inform me that my bike was out of gas and had stopped running. Luckily, we were at about a hundred meters from the gas station, but certain it still had plenty of fuel to go, I opened up the tank’s cap and to my dismay, noted that indeed, there still was fuel in it.

So the motorcycle would not restart, but by chance, Antoine had been a bike mechanic in a previous life (I would later learn) and having completed some months ago a full tour (details on his blog) of South America on his Honda Transalp, he was also well versed in road-side repairs. He pulled the spark plug out and on pressing the starter button with the body of the plug pressed against the engine block for grounding, noted that the spark was flimsy and intermittent. So off I went to buy a new part to a nearby shop, but the mechanic there would not let me have the plug without me bringing the bike to him. No worries, it’s just a plug. However, even with the new plug in, the bike would not start. Dammit! Looks like I was overdue for a good breakdown. Damn you cheap Chinese crap.

The two mechanics at the shop told us it was the carburetor and pulled out a brand new one from their stock with they wanted to sell me for 50$. Strange, first my carburetor appeared to be in decent shape and second, you don’t swap out parts like this before actually pulling out the current one and giving it a good cleanup and a visual inspection. Of course, Antoine caught on that and told them to give us some tools so we could at least first try doing some basic maintenance and troubleshooting. The Vietnamese, though reluctant, eventually yielded, gave us the tools that we needed and squatted down with lit cigarettes and a grin on their face, looking forward to see a bunch of foreigners fail and humiliate themselves.

Fixing the bike

Fixing the bike

But fail we did not. Antoine went to work and pulled out the current carb, cleaned it and reinstalled it as I was carefully observing, always interested in some new knowledge. A couple of insistent push on the started button and the machine was running again, but not very well. According to my French friend, something was off with the air supply. Still, at this point, the Vietnamese had stopped their giggling and laughing and were showing very serious faces, visibly frustrated from having been thought a lesson by a white guy. Or maybe this is what they would have done if it was their own machine, but in this case, they were really expecting to make an easy 50 bucks. It was too early to claim victory though, the bike did not idle properly and had pretty serious hiccups when we pulled the gas handle down. Since I had been on some pretty dusty roads, I suggested that we clean the air filter and right as we were pulling out the air box, we realized that it was broken. There was the culprit according to Antoine.

The shop did not have the part in stock and that point had sort of stopped cooperating with us so out came the duct tape I keep for general repairs and skin blisters and 15 minutes later, everything was back in place. This time, the bike started and although it was still hiccuping, it idled fine and was perfectly drivable. A victory for us! Me and Antoine exchanged smiles and shook hands, but not without me promising him a couple beers for his help (and knowledge). The Vietnamese had sort of diverted their attention to Karen and were harassing her with clumsy attempts at winning her heart and just like us, she felt very relieved that we could now head back to the hostel. Not that we were far way, she could have walked there had she wanted to, but in spite of her self-avowed disinterest of mechanics, stuck around to watch the unraveling of the situation.

Proud of our work!

Proud of our work!

The repair held all the way to the hostel but Antoine suggested that I get a new airbox pretty soon. Later-on, we all went for a meal and closed-off the day with a couple drinks and some discussions about travels. Being on year-long adventure, Antoine had crossed the whole of South-America on a bike and was now on the second part of his journey, backpacking around South-East Asia. Truthfully though, he was not liking very much his time so far, as after five adrenaline filled months of exploring South-America’s back-country roads, bussing from hostel to hostel felt very bland.

That morning, I had showed him some pictures I took of Vietnam’s far north and had vaguely described my experience to the both of them and as we were driving around today, Antoine had decided that he should heed on my advice, skip the south and go to Meo Vac with a rental bike. Exactly like I did, but in the reverse direction. He was missing adventure badly and decided he should feed on my experience and take this opportunity to drop the backpack, saddle-up and go explore the road less traveled. So upon returning to the hotel, we went upstairs, pulled out the maps and I gave him a detailed briefing of the area and dispensed him with as much advice as I could.

Motorcycles are a binary thing. Either you don’t give a cra or you’re passionate about them. There is not in between and Antoine was obviously part of the latter category. Sharing knowledge and experience about something you’re absolutely in love with is always a thrilling and engaging activity as through sharing your stories with others, you revive them at the same time. Antoine has a very well kept blog where he writes about his year around the world and in due course, I will certainly pick his brains about his adventure riding experiences in South-America.

Motorbike Motorbike in Northern Vietnam Day 4 – Việt Quang to Sa Pa

Weather: Overcast with rain
Departure: 10h30
Arrival: 17h00
Date: 14/04/14

Except for a part spent on roads rendered very muddy because of the rain, it was an easy day of riding which got me to my destination quite early. Sa Pa is tourstic northern town built-up by the French as a resort but that has now transitionned into a basecamp for trekking around the region and visiting hilltribe villages.

My riding skills have now come match those of the Vietnamese I share the road with. Risky overtakings in curves, speeding in all road conditions and compulsive honking; it’s safer to ride with the traffic than against it. As paradoxical as it may sound, driving like a westerner is actually more dangerous as the locals won’t really be able to predict your behavior and will end up being very frustrating for you.

I might stay two nights in Sa Pa, I’m not sure, but at the moment, my ass really needs a break.

Up to Sa Pa

Up to Sa Pa

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…