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Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Slow Bike to China - Motorbiking Through Northern Vietnam

I am happy to introduce my guest blogger for the next few hubby, as he recounts his recent adventure Motorbiking through Northern Vietnam.

Three mates (Turbo, Pete, the Murphster) and I try to get get away once a year to indulge our love of motorcycling combined with travelling and mateship. Sounds soppy I know, but sometimes its good to to escape the hassles of work and family for a bit of good old fashioned bloke time. Usually when I return from these trips, Dan asks “hows John's family?', answer, “I dunno”, “what about Murf, how's his new job?”, “good...I guess.”...”Didn't ask did you?”, “aarr....nup!!!, I do know Pete would love to get another Honda Blackbird, but a Triumph Tiger 1050 is also in the mix”. Basically, if it doesn't have two wheels or involved 36 blokes kicking the pigskin around the G, then we probably didn't talk about it. Gotta credit our lovely, gorgeous, understanding wives Dan, Jenn, Grace and Trace who support and encourage this indulgence.

Last year was the Mae Hong Song Loop, out of Chang Mai, Thailand. This year I convinced the guys it would be fun to hire trail bikes in Hanoi and ride about 500 Kay North to the Chinese border. I'd heard of an amazing road between Dong Van and Meo Vac, in Ha Giang province, that has been described as the Heaven's gateway, but officially known as the Ma Pi Leng pass.

Some detailed research on the internet was interrupted by actual work so by the time the trip snuck up on me, I had only a vague idea where we were heading and some conflicting advice on how long it would take us to get there. Maps that I could source in HCMC were a bit light on for detail, so figured I would wait until Hanoi where I could get a better one.....NOT! The maps I could find were ok for general planning purposes, but for actual navigating, we ended up using an I-Phone with a GPS app. Actually worked pretty well when the GPS could pick up a signal. I had an Android phone which was also ok, but not as good as as the I-phone. Seemed that when one was working the other wasn't so between us we had it pretty well covered. My suggestion would be to print out a heap of google map pages, zooming in when things get complicated like at the larger towns etc. Its good back up for when the GPS can't get a signal.

Made a reservation for our first and last night at my favourite boutique hotel in Hanoi's old quarter, the Essence Hotel ( $55 +/per night). About a year old, situated on Ta Hien Street and just a short spit from Bia Hoi corner (added convenience of an ANZ atm right out front). The 3 nights and four days in between were largely unplanned with no reservations.

I hired 4, Honda XR250 Baja trail bikes from Offroad Vietnam ( $45 USD per day, per bike (5 minutes walk from the hotel...if you don't get lost!). The owner Anh Wu is a nice chap but not very enthusiastic about renting his bikes out for self guided tours. To be fair, his website states that 95% of his business is all inclusive guided tours, but thats just not the way we roll !!! Anh claims on the website his bikes are the best in Vietnam as far as maintenance and reliability. Again to be fair, he may very well speak the truth, but that is not to say the bikes were all that good. I think the ones he arranged for us were mid nineties models, one of which was claimed to have had a new engine. We rocked up the night before to sort the paperwork and check out the bikes so we could get a nice early start the next day.

I was a bit disappointed, as the bikes looked like they had been around the block more than a few times and Anh was quite negative toward our suggested plans, stating we could not make it in just 4 days riding. He had no detailed maps to offer us and seemed pretty keen to talk me into taking a guide/mechanic along with us. Once Anh became convinced we were intent on going it alone, he lightened up a bit and started to offer some useful and accurate advice. All of what Anh told us, by the way was correct, we were biting off a bit too much to chew, the bikes were likely to break down and need a mechanic, it was going to be very tough to navigate our way to the heaven's gateway and communication with the locals would be challenging. It was in the end however, all of these challenges that made the trip as incredible and as memorable as it was and I don't think any of us would have changed a thing.

Picking up the bikes from Offroad Vietnam

The Plan:
Day one: 300km (estimated 9 hrs) to Ha Giang, buy permits (more later) and o/n.
Day two: 170km ( estimated 6 hrs) Ha Giang to Dong Van, Ma Pi Leng Pass to Meo Vac and o/n.
Day three: 205km (estimated 7 hrs) Meo Vac to Be Be Lake and o/n.
Day four: 245Km (estimated 6 hrs) Ba Be to Hanoi, via Thai Nguyen.

Note: These distances are from Google maps based on the routes we intended to take. The Google map time estimates were ridiculous, i.e. from Hanoi to Ha Giang they estimated 4 hrs 39 minutes. I figured on doubling it to about 9 hrs but Anh said it was 400kms and would take at least 11 hours.

Day One:
A fantastic breakfast at the Essence (one of its draw cards, along with the staff) set us up well for the day ahead, as it turned out to be the last real meals we would truly enjoy for a while. A quick walk over to the bike shop (via the scenic route!!! I actually have a crap sense of direction..often go up and down the same isle at the Vic market cos I keep turning the wrong way at the end !!!). The bikes all came fitted with a handy rear rack so within a few minutes our bags were strapped on and we were ready to roll. Anh lent us a kit containing tools and a few spares (which came in handy) and we were off. Well not quite...... My bike wouldn't start and it took Anh 20 minutes of fiddling before we were rolling... not the start we were looking for.

The boys did a great job considering it was their first time riding in Vietnam

Hanoi traffic is manic and we had been warned how challenging and dangerous it can be to get in or out of town at peak times. As it turned out however, it was easy. Just pushed the bikes the wrong way up a one way street and followed Anh's directions to turn left and simply follow the river bank all the way to Son Tay (about 2 hours). First mistake was to rely on my paper maps. They were just too vague. Anh's directions had been very clear. “keep the river to your right and do not turn left at any time. Keep following the river to Son Tay , after which take any number of bridges over the river and then head North toward Ha Giang. Sound simple enough!!! may not even need a map!!! whats all the fuss about !!! less than 20 minutes of driving in traffic and then we began to hit rural surrounds. River on the right... all good. Ha Giang for a cold beer by tea time !!!

Half an hour out of Hanoi and the road ends at an abrupt T intersection. The right turn option took us across the river and keeping it on our right meant we were heading back in the direction of Hanoi and Anh said don't turn left under any circumstances... Bugga. Knew it was all sounding too easy. Took the right across the bridge and against my better judgement, kept the river to my right and headed back toward Hanoi (according to my crap sense of direction.... was it to be the Vic market all over again... Ugg boots, followed by even more bloody Ugg boots !!!). Anyway, it wasn't long before we came to another T intersection, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, being stared down by a bemused water buffalo. The right option taking us to a dead end at the river and Anh's voice resinating “don't turn left”. Had no real option this time so went left, took a few educated guesses and eventually found the river again. Things went on like this for most of the morning until we ditched the maps and started using Turbo's I-Phone. This helped a bit but we still ended up making a tonne of u-Turns until eventually we found Son Tay.

Hot, sweaty, dusty and knackered already after only 2 and a half hours. Then we all lost our 'Ha Ha' for for a bit when Pete pointed out a sign that said “Hanoi – 45km”. 45 kms in 2.5 hrs meant that if Ha Giang was in fact 400 Km, it could actually be another 20 hours at our current pace. The next challenge was finding the non existent bridge to cross the river at Son Tay. In the end after several double backs and map checking, I paid a taxi driver to lead us to the bridge, which in actual fact turned out to be a decrepit old barge pulled by a clapped out old tug boat that were lashed together with some rusty cable. In retrospect, this was my bad, as Anh did say “after Son Tay, take a bridge not at Son Tay.” and even my crappy map showed a break in the road where the bridge should have been, indicating a tunnel or a ferry crossing. No matter, because apart from the lost time and the extortionist cabby who charged me 100,000vnd ($5) to lead us the 1km to the ferry, the crossing was pretty cool and something different. If following this route, I suggest to go straight through Son Tay and continue to follow the river for at least another hour or so, as you would still heading in the right direction for Ha Giang.

Ferry cost 10,000vnd (.50c) per bike and we had to squeeze in amongst trucks buses and other modes.

After the crossing, spirits were a little higher as we were at least no longer lost and heading in the right direction, albeit waaaaay behind schedule now. We stopped for a cafe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee) and a much needed re group. I took the opportunity to touch base with Dan and I think I may have used the words, “unmitigated disaster” in response to her “how's it all goin?” “Dan suggested we bite the bullet, call Offroad Vietnam and request they send a guide to meet us and take us the rest of the way. I have to say the suggestion was not without merit but was too much like jumping in the vulturous sad wagon that follows the tail enders of a marathon, waiting to pick up those who can't make it. Just couldn't do it and didn't even take it to the group for consideration. Instead I suggested a plan B. This alternative involved cutting our losses, heading back to Hanoi for the night and the next day heading up to Ba Be lake, a much more do-able destination 6 hrs from Hanoi. But the boys wouldn't hear of it (God love em), instead I got taunted with suggestions to grab a can of “harden the f#@$ up princess” and quotes from Sir Edmond Hillary (in joke from the last trip), which pretty much ended that discussion. So the new plan was to go as far as we could until we ran out of daylight then get up at a sparrow's fart the next morning and make up for lost time.....Well its a plan.

First stop on day one to re group. Also got my first of many offers to take the cafe owner's daughter as my wife/girlfriend. Seems a westerner who speaks Vietnamese is quite good marrying stock!!! Offer much appreciated but alas no room on my rack! Plus got a feeling Dan may crack the shits! (If I may, Blog owners note....correct Nick.  Good choice.)

So we crack on pretty much without incident for the rest of the day until we run out of day light. The I-Phone with Turbo leading the way did a great job and made it to the town of Tan Yen, 109 kms short of Ha Giang on route 2. The riding was great, going first through the flat Red River delta, along dyke walls, surrounded by brilliant green rice paddies, until we reached the mountainous limestone casts rising out of the ground, creating awe inspiring scenery.

Route QL2C heading North between Son Tay and Tan Yen.

Now Tan Yen is not a place you would aim to stay on purpose as there is not much there at all. We settled on one of the two guest houses (Nha Nghi) in town and were pleasantly surprised by the tariff of 200,000 per room ($10) each room with two queen size beds.

Comfy and cheap... the Minh Thanh guest house/plumbing supplies and main street of Tan Yen

The hunt for a feed was a little trickier as it was now pushing 7.30 pm and most of the town was shuttered up for the night (still a mobile phone shop and several hairdressing shops open though, in case you need to get your highlights redone and pick up a prepaid sim for your I-phone!). As far as restaurants go, Tan Yen is unlikely to make it into the Age good food guide any time soon. We would have settled for one star in the Cheap Eats Guide !! but even that was out of the question!. After turning down an offer of what I am pretty sure was intestines we found a place that cooked us the best plate of fried rice, with shrimp and pork, four hungry guys had ever seen. Along with a few cold beers.... we had well and truly found our Ha Ha again!!!

Day one done and dusted.  Day two to follow shortly.  Hope you are enjoying the ride!

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