|It's Off! And she couldn't be happier! Celebrated with a 40 minute bath!|
Saturday, May 26, 2012
Up early again as we were rewarded with cooler weather and the most magnificent ride through another spectacular mountain pass. No time for breakfast so we scoffed down a couple of chocco pies each and headed off into the clouds. The road (TL212) was some of the most fun riding we had experienced all trip and really tested our off road skills and the durability of the XRs. It was still a fairly major road (as far as the maps indicated) but there were long stretches of dirt, gravel, mud and serious potholes, that had us up out of the saddles as though on our own road of bones. (eat your heart out Ewen and Charlie !!!). As much fun as the road was, I think we were all pretty happy with our decision the day before to take refuge at Tinh Tuc, rather than tackle two hours of this in the pitch dark. It was like this for and hour or so, before descending into a lush green valley below. Our early morning conflab had decided that Ba Be lake was now out of the question as this being our last day of riding, we had to end up in Hanoi. Ba Be would take us out of our way and we would have had no time to look around anyway so unfortunately this will have to wait until next time.
|QL212 heading South from Tinh Tuc.|
|Into the valley below|
Stopping for fuel and Banh Mi (Bread)for breakfast in Na Phac
Once we hit Na Phac, the QL212, which had briefly become the QL279, now became the QL3. The pace picked up here as the road quality and width also grew. We did experience a heap of massive 18 wheeler semi trailers that seemed to be coming from Hanoi and heading toward Cao Bang (one of which I showed you earlier on its side). Pete's bike was still struggling with its asthma but wasn't too bad as the we left the serious hill climbing behind us. Non the less my bike decided to go out in sympathy and started to lose power and even cut out completely when in top gear. The QL 3 was in great nick and would take us all the way to Hanoi, via the major town of Thai Nguyen. Just shy of Thai Nguyen we hit a three lane freeway devoid of any traffic and we all enjoyed hooting along at a rapid pace for a bit. If this keeps up, we will be having our lunch in Hanoi. Making great time now.
The freeway only lasted 20 minutes and then we hit Thai Nguyen, which we opted to bypass completely and push on towards Hanoi, despite Turbo being in desperate need to extricate himself from all those chocco pies!!! The QL3 South from Thai Nguyen to Hanoi was pretty much road works, gravel, dust and mud, for about the next 40 minutes. Traffic was heavy and there was was some pretty crazy overtaking as we all tried to keep the group together. Once we cleared the roadworks however, the pace increased and we were looking to make great time into Hanoi, around 1.30pm.
Eventually we did need to stop one last time, 20 kms short of Hanoi to fuel up and give Turbo his much need opportunity for relief !!! Just as we were patting ourselves on the back for making such good time and being disciplined about taking shorter rest stops etc, another challenge presented itself. Pete's bike said enough is enough, get stuffed, I'm not going anywhere.
We found a mechanic, had him come with his scooter and push Pete's bike back to his shop about a km away (with his foot wedged on Pete's pillion peg). After the first hour and several calls to Anh, we spied a taxi parked across the way and discussions about worst case scenario ensued. We could always leave the XR for Anh to collect, Pete jumps in the cab who leads us back into Hanoi. Sounds abit like the sad wagon again so we opted to stick it out and eventually after a false start and a new watchamathingy fitted, we were on our way once again and still with a few hours of daylight left. Would have been a shame for us not to all finish this epic journey on two wheels under our own steam.
Again getting into Hanoi was no where near as challenging as expected as the QL3 lead straight across the Chuong Duong Bridge and into the Old quarter near the North end of the Hoan Kiem Lake. At the Southern end of the bridge is a massive round about, and once safely past this, my crappy sense of direction must have figured this was no time to test our Ha Ha levels and lead us straight to the Essence Hotel.
Helps if you enter Hanoi on a Sunday, as the traffic is likely to be significantly lighter, as was the case with us.
We arrived dirty and sweaty at the Essence to an enthusiastic hero's welcome from the friendly staff. We dropped our bags and then took the short trip around the corner to return the bikes to Offroad Vietnam. Anh was apologetic for the trouble the bikes had caused us and informed me that he had 18 second hand XR engines, currently stuck at the Chinese border awaiting clearance. He assured me that next time he would ensure I had bikes with much newer and more reliable engines. My final word on Offroad Vietnam is that I would actually recommend them as I believe they probably do have the best maintained fleet of XRs available. This will be especially true if the 18 newer engines make it across the border. Doing this trip with a guide, mechanic or even a support vehicle would definitely have been a safer and more sensible more way to have seen the Heaven's Gateway, but it is as I said at the start of this blog, it was these very challenges that made the trip what it was.
Trip finished off with some pizzas and beer at Gecko around the corner (really craved some western food) and then a few more beers and a couple of Cuban cigars over looking the Hoan Kiem Lake.
All in all a legendary trip that will not be soon forgotten. Adventure, good mates, motorbikes and magical scenery. Would I do it all again? Shit Yeah !!!
Click on the link below to see the google map of the route we took and distances covered each day. Note the unrealistic time estimation of google. Do not plan your trip based on these times. Doubling them is more realistic, but this still doesn’t allow for stops, breakdowns or doubling back after getting geographically embarrassed. Good luck!
Thursday, May 24, 2012
This is what we had come for. This day would determine if all those hours in the saddle was worth it. Was the Ma Pi Leng (MPL) pass really the gateway to heaven? Should we have taken plan B and gone to Ba Be Lake? It was to be both a literally breathtaking incredible and awe inspiring day but also one of danger and tragedy.
Another big day ahead of us as we had to get halfway back to Hanoi to a place called Ba Be Lake (our plan B that was never to be realised). Once you pass through MPL the road takes you to Meo Vac, on to Bao Lac and eventually through another mountain pass to Ba Be Lake, a National Park with caves and waterfalls where you can stay with locals in stilted houses on the lake. But first to the Ma Pi Leng Pass.
I had played down the supposed beauty of the pass, for after what I had read, it could only prove to be an anti climax that I didn't want the guys to unnecessarily suffer. After all I was responsible for the trip and would definitely be held accountable if it turned out to be naff. Can I also say I have seen some pretty spectacular scenery, having visited the Swiss Alps, Lake Louise, Amalphi Coast and Niagra Falls to name a few and the term breathtaking was just that to me, a term. Until I rode the 22 kilometres from Dong Van to Meo Vac in the Northern Vietnamese Province of Ha Giang. OMG... I don't really have the words to describe it and the photos simply don't come close to doing it justice, so I am not going got post any here.
Just Kidding..... Seriously though the photos don't do it justice. Go see for yourself! But until you do, cop a load of this....
The ugly side of adventure is that the element of danger and risk that makes adventure what it is, is sometimes realised. If it wasn't then it wouldn't actually be a risk. Unfortunately for a group of British travellers and their newly found Spanish friend, the risk and danger of riding motorcycles in a remote area on precarious roads, was realised when one of them collided with an oncoming truck around a blind corner. There was no great speeds involved and you take most blind corners whilst sounding your horn and expecting there to be a vehicle on the other side and in most cases you can ride the soft shoulder of the road and avoid contact. But in this particular case on this day, the young Spaniard clipped the truck just enough to tear off most of his calf, along with some of his Tibia bone. A serious and nasty injury at the best of times but made much worse by the location and lack of infrastructure. Our group provided what first aid we could with the supplies we had, then flagged down a bus and convinced the driver to take the victim to the nearest town of Cao Bang, where the locals insisted there was a hospital. The 70 km journey would take about 3 hours. We had no phone coverage at that point and the bus driver was not keen to be delayed so everything was rushed. I only hope we did enough to stabilise him for the journey. One of the Brits went with him in the bus whilst the rest of their group pondered how two guys could get four bikes 70 km to Cao Bang. We rode on to get phone coverage and then contacted the Spanish Embassy to advise they arrange a medivac from Cao Bang.
With the hour spent at the crash site and the much slower pace we were now travelling at, we had again run out of daylight to reach Ba Be lake. Problem was we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere with no accommodation options at all. We decided to press on slowly even if we had to idle into Ba Be in the middle of the night. Oh yeah and Turbo, whose bike had a non standard fuel tank, held 2 litres less fuel than the rest of us and was now running on vapours.
An hour later we reached the tiny hamlet of Tinh Tuc, consisting of a couple of dozen timber shacks, some of which had hand pumped fuel in bottles for sale. We drained several of the tiny establishments of their fuel stocks only to head out of town and around the corner to be confronted with a modern looking petrol station standing by itself like a mirage. All I could think was TIV (This is Vietnam!) Ten minutes further on at a road junction leading one way to Cao Bang and the other to Ba Be lake, was a Guest house and restaurant, again standing by itself seemingly in the middle of nowhere. TIV. They had rooms, cold beer and food...happy days. After what we had just seen, I don't think any of us relished the thought of 2 more hours and another mountain pass in the dark.
Met a Kiwi couple who had been touring in Asia on Bikes for 4 months, shared dinner and a few drinks with them before turning in for an early night. We needed another sparrows fart start to make up for today's lost time. Planned to be rolling by 6 am then straight through to Hanoi.
|Our digs at the PHAJ Oac Guest House, just outside Tinh Tuc on the junction of QL34 and TL212. 200,000 vnd (about $10) per room.|
|View outside the next morning. (priceless)|
Not quite over yet...stay tuned.
Monday, May 21, 2012
We stick with the plan and were on the road early to make up for lost time. The new plan was to be in Ha Giang by about 9ish, grab some brecky and our permits from the immigration office and head for Dong Van (start of the Ma Pi Leng Pass). It took us about 2 hours to cover the 100kms to Ha Giang and a picturesque and uneventful morning did indeed have us at the immigration office by 9.15 am. To proceed North of Ha Giang you need a permit from either the Ha Giang Immigration office or the Police station at Meo Vac. Stories, including from Anh, suggested that the immigration office would rip you off and try to force you to hire a guide before heading out of Ha Giang. Even Lonely Planet guide said we would be over charged to the tune of $20 Usd per person. In actual fact the lady at the Immigration office was lovely and the whole process took about 20 minutes and cost us $7 Usd for the four of us. Having said that it certainly helps if you speak Vietnamese and I'm sure the fact I said I lived in Vietnam made a big difference as well.
|QL2 Road into Ha Giang and the gang under the Ha Giang Sign... ½ a day later than expected|
|The immigration office in Ha Giang|
|The supposedly illusive travel permit|
If you happen to get stopped on the road, Police may ask to see your permit and I am told you will be sent back to Ha Giang (or Meo Vac) if you cannot produce one. More importantly however, you will have difficulty checking into a hotel or guest house without it.
After some crappy eggs on toast and a coffee for breakfast we headed off about 11 am towards Dong Van. We were in no rush as we only had about 170 kms to cover and were feeling pretty confident we were back on track now. Problem was the scenery was magnificent leading us to stop quite a bit for photos which put us back under the hammer. So much so that we did indeed run out of daylight and also copped a massive thunder storm for the last 45 minutes of our journey. We intended to take the 4C route, which seemed like a more developed road, but somehow missed a turn and took a combination of the 4C and TL176. The distance is six of one, half a dozen of the other and am pretty sure either would be just as spectacular, so if you get off the intended route I wouldn’t worry too much as long as you are heading in a Northerly direction.
|Not much to say really... except the best is yet to come.....seriously!|
Riding at night in Vietnam is not advisable due to the many hazards, not least of which being locals driving without their lights to “conserve their batteries”, but riding a bike at night in a torrential storm on a mountain pass with sheer drops is definitely one to be avoided if possible. My disposable poncho was disposed of after 20 minutes and I eventually rolled into Dong Van one very soggy Moggy indeed. Then like a shinning beacon, was the Rocky Plateau Hotel/Guest House. Very easy choice as it seemed to have a restaurant of sorts attached to it. The Manager was a young bloke with really good self taught English, who showed us the best rooms in the house that were clean and spacious for 390,000 vnd ($18) per room. He was also proud to announce his restaurant was hosting a party of 50 people that evening so we had better order early to avoid disappointment. Only issue was the whole town had no power, but at least we had a chance to get dry and quench a hell of a thirst.
|Road to Dong Van just before the heavens opened up on us.|
|Turbo rounding up a local.|
|Walking tree people as night falls.|
The other reason we ran out of time on what was suppose to be one of our easier days, was that Pete's XR developed motorbike asthma as soon as we hit the mountains. When heading up hill it had barely enough power to pull the skin off a rice pudding. Not good considering the terrain ahead.
Luckily the Manager of the Rock Plateau escorted us next door to his friend the mechanic with whom we developed a close relationship over the course of the next hour and a half as tried to fix the bike. In fact we met most of the town whom seemed to come past at some time or another to offer their two cents worth and give Pete's bike a good old rev to red line as though it would make a difference. We got Anh on the phone to speak with the mechanic but that didn't help things much as according to Anh the problem was an imaginary one because the bike had a new engine and had been tested, ergo.. there could be no problem. Ok... lets just hope there were no rice puddings needing the skin pulled of over the next two days!!!
Dinner was an interesting affair with intermittent black outs, more torrential sideways rain and half the town cramped into the restaurant. Bloody great bowl of noodles though, again
plenty of Hanoi Beer, a couple of cigars with great friends and Ha Ha levels were overflowing. Stay tuned for the highlight of the ride!
plenty of Hanoi Beer, a couple of cigars with great friends and Ha Ha levels were overflowing. Stay tuned for the highlight of the ride!