North of Hanoi, along the Chinese border, a road carves its way through stunning mountain passes, curves along steep ravines and saunters through rural villages. From bribing police to minor road rash due to an ill-fated passing of a truck in second gear, the days I spent on the back of a motorized horse named Honda were never short of excitement.
Landing in Hanoi from Bangkok, I was prepared to hand the official the screenshot of my visa that my inbox received moments before take-off. Now, I’m not one to read complete instructions when rushed. I either missed or conveniently ignored the part about printing off the visa and supplying a passport sized photograph. When asked for these items and only producing my screenshot I was told to go sit. I thought I messed up. Then, they called my name 20 minutes later, demanded something along the lines of $25, placed a visa in my passport and I was on my way.
Stepping off the bus from the airport into the Old Quarter of Hanoi was like stepping into an human ant farm, except 95% of these ants were on motorbikes. The sound was intense, a barrage of horns and engine grumbles. Sidewalks were fair game for motorbikes and it was apparent that traffic laws were mere suggestions. I was going to rent and learn to ride a motorcycle in this chaos? Crap.
Less than $20 will get you a reasonable room for the night in Hanoi. I stayed at Hanoi Brother Inn and the next morning wandered over to find myself a steel chariot to rendezvous with my friends further north. At the recommendation of my friend, I went to Styles Motorbike Rentals, where I was quickly shown the selection of wheels. I opted for a semi-automatic Honda and paid extra for a helmet with a face shield. They attached my backpack with bungees, gave me some simple operating instructions and a test drive. I was off into the chomping jaws of Hanoi traffic.
Settling into Vietnam
Learning how to ride a motorcycle in Vietnam is like extracting honey from an active beehive: scary, but exhilarating with a sweet reward.
First of all, one way on the highway seems like a mere suggestion for people on bikes. As soon as I was out of Hanoi and onto the highway, I realized people were coming straight at me in the motorbike lane. I soon stopped worrying about the bugs in my teeth and commenced a game of bob and weave.
Secondly, never underestimate what can be transported on the back of a motorbike. I sped past bikes piled high with construction equipment, wheelbarrows, bricks, cement mixers, chicken cages…the list defies imagination. Once onto the backroads, heading for my mountain meeting spot, the hazards of the road became less pronounced. As soon as I was hungry, the hazards of not being able to read a Vietnamese menu became more evident.
Google Translate is your BFF if you don’t speak Vietnamese. Yes, entering menu items individually can be time consuming. However, it prevents you from getting the monkey feet when you really just wanted the ox hooves. The further north I got, the less of a chance there was that waiters would understand English. I stopped overnight in a town named Tuyen Quang, found a small hotel and parked my bike right in the lobby.
At a cafe, I encountered a group of friendly teenagers performing karaoke and playing instruments. They welcomed me to join their group and play guitar. Later, I headed out to find a restaurant named “The Food House.” The name indicated that there might be English on the menu, which swayed my choice. As I got lost trying to find the eatery, I tried asking two teenagers on the same motorbike for directions. They just scooted forward and patted the back of the seat. With three of us on a tiny bike, they sped off across town to drop me at the door. The restaurant turned out to be an excellent hibachi grill, where I received 3 courses for something equivalent to 6 USD.
The Mountainside Meetup
The next day was the day for a mountainous rendezvous with my friends. It started at a cafe with green water and coffee, took a wee little turn (or scrape) for the worse and ended pleasantly enough with the camaraderie of fellow wanderers outside a hostel in Ha Giang.
First the water, which took some research on my part to figure out. It’s not a sign of a bad science experiment, it’s actually to show that the water is clean, boiled with the remnants of green tea leaves to ward off any measly bacteria. Second, the roads started gaining more elevation, climbing their way into mysteries of the mountains one curve at a time. On one particular curve I was stuck behind a slow moving construction truck. As I peaked my head around its left side, the road appeared to be clear. I dropped my bike into second gear, swerved to the left to accelerate and pass, when all of a sudden there was another truck coming straight for me. Pulling the handle bars to the right and the bike back into my lane, I realized I was about to crash into the back of the original truck.
In a panic, I grasped the front brakes too tight and over my bike went with of course, me as well. A friendly local stopped to help me up and to the side of the road where I observed the lack of skin on my elbow and shin. The bike didn’t seem bothered by the affair, the front fork slightly bent and a few other cosmetic damages. After a ten minute breather, I was back on my way and stopping at the first Honda dealership I saw where they took much of the bike apart and put it all back together again. They also offered me a ride on the back of another bike to a pharmacy to bandage up my wounds, graciously I of course agreed.
Late that afternoon, I cruised into Ha Giang. I was a little weary, a lot of dusty, and nursing a few flesh wounds. Nonetheless I was enthusiastic to initiate our biker gang of three; Hells’ Foreigners or something like that. It turned out one of my friends also went head over handlebars that day and as soon as we got private rooms at the Ha Giang Hostel went straight to bed.
Later that night, we sat outside a neighboring hostel and told stories with a group who had just completed their four day Ha Giang motorbike loop. There were a few missing teeth and bandages; nothing that duct tape and super glue couldn’t fix. We sat there late into the night while people drank, laughed, sung and chatted. Strangers, all filled with their own tales of wandering, some knowing where they were going next, others letting the morning song take them there, all sharing in the camaraderie of adventure.
We ate breakfast the next morning on the rooftop dining area of the hostel. We enjoyed a view of the surrounding mountains rising above the rice paddies. Our hostel owner told us that there was a police checkpoint leaving town. They were stopping foreigners for not having a license to drive in Vietnam and asking for money. He said that we had a small window of time during lunch to pass through. Unfortunately for us, my friend was getting a leak fixed on his bike and we missed our window. Luckily, our hostel owner gave us his number and said to pull over before the check point and call him if it were manned. It was. A few brown clad uniforms were waiting in their distinct military style hats. Once called, our hostel owner arrived in a car, took some money and happily bribed the police to wave us through. It pays to make friends along the way.
Upwards and Onwards
On and on this road went, curving precariously on the side of steep drop offs and revealing ever more stunning vistas as we climbed. The misty mountain views were something only J.R Tolkien’s pen could have scribbled. Many perilous turns would reward us with a landscape composed of megalodon teeth, sharp rocky mountains sprung forth as fast footwork on the gears enabled steep climbs. The sun began to set as we neared, illuminating the clouds with a pink hue that dragged my gaze away from the road in awe from a beauty that only mother nature can create.
We rolled up into the courtyard of Bong Bang Homestay in the village Yen Minh just as they began to set up for dinner. Shaking off the dust, the three of us grabbed a dorm room for four, quickly changed clothes and squeezed into places at the tables wherever we could find room. There were at least 20 travelers staying here, many on their own guided motorcycle tours.
The dinner was served upon heaping plates, a variety of Vietnamese dishes, with a “help yourself to a little of this, a lot of that and I don’t like the looks of that” one system. An atmosphere full of gregarious beings enjoying the hell out of making new friends and chatting with old ones. Language is never a barrier with the right collective energy. That night we stayed in the courtyard until late, a phone passed around adding to a communal Spotify playlist, a travelers camaraderie in still life. Real life was on the other side of the world but maybe this was where we really live and thrive.
A Visit Fit For Kings
The next morning over breakfast, we made plans to meet our new friends from a tour group that night at their next homestay. Then we tightened our helmets, started our engines and set off to visit a palace. The H’Mong King Palace wasn’t palatial in the western sense of long dead monarchs. This stone and terracotta tile was still an impressive sight nestled in the northern mountains. An active market place traded everything from dried mushrooms and spices to warm Vietnamese donuts, that though I am clueless of what they were actually filled with, a tastier morsel could not be found in Vietnam. After our brief visit with history and culinary adventure, we back on our iron horses, galloping up mountains heading straight for the giant dragon of China.
Alas, we didn’t quite make it. Nor did we actually have any intention of going there. What we did do was visit the huge middle finger aimed at China along the border. That may not actually have been the purpose in building it, but the Lung Cu Flag Tower marks the northernmost point of Vietnam, built on top of a 4600ft mountain. Our bikes got us near the base, then we huffed and puffed up hundreds of stairs to the top of the tower. We struck our best poses, smiled for the camera and with a wave across the canyons to the adjacent nation, we headed for a rendezvous with the Mai Pi Leng Pass.
In the symphony of the northern Vietnamese mountains, the Mai Pi Leng Pass is its cascading crescendo. A 100 of nature’s finest instruments harmonizing in a mesmerizing landscape of colors and hues. The river flowing below a blue-green serpent slithering through steep cliffs. As we roared around twisting roads and along sheer drop offs, inches from an unhealthy fate, this vista laid itself before us. We stopped numerous times to gaze and take photos as we made our descent from the mountain pass towards the river and our home for the night, The Meo Vac Clay House.
The Clay House
Although listed as a homestay, The Clay House was more of a compound with multiple buildings and levels of accommodation. Having had almost enough of each other’s nocturnal company we opted for our own rooms instead of sharing a dorm. Dinner was again a communal affair. I was paired with a motorcycle tour guide, my friends and some Frenchmen at our table. The spring rolls were crisp and the “Happy Water” and conversation flowed freely. This is some sort of rice wine/moonshine. It came in unlabeled questionable bottles, yet fueled an already burning jubilance amongst us.
Cruising down to the river in the dusty morning sunlight the following day, we parked our bikes and hiked down to a boat landing. Platform boats, resembling flat barges, take tourists up the river through the high canyon walls on short tours. We hopped on a boat decked out for a wedding, with flowers on the rails. A sound system played bad dance music as if us tourists needed a godawful soundtrack to enjoy the river. Despite this, we enjoyed the hypnotic blue hue and flow of the river and its lush green banks. It made for a serene morning float and left a lasting impression of beauty.
Consulting our digital maps over lunch, we realized that we had a long haul due to the need to reach Lang Son the following day. One of my friends had a flight to catch and had to put himself and his bike on a train to Hanoi. 24 hours to ride almost 350 km, the race was on. Speed seemed essential and gripping the handle bars tight we flew through the now familiar landscape of mountains and villages. We stopped once daylight grew scarce to refuel ourselves and our bikes. We realized the next best place to stay was still hours through the mountains. So we plunged on through a darkness as black as space, the sounds of our own giddy, exulted and nervous laughed occasionally breaking up the silences in the shadows of the peaks.
We made it to Cao Bang that night, and the rest of the way the next morning in sunlight. We said our farewells as he deposited his motorcycle upon the train. My remaining friend and I mounted up with figurative hounds at our heels on another long journey for Ha Long Bay.
But that, as they say, is a story for another day.