Total foreigners spotted: 10 (Ban Gioc Waterfalls)
DAY1: Hanoi -> Dinh ca
After a week in Hanoi (mostly due to sickness), I was itching to get on my bike again. I still wasn’t fully recovered but nothing could be worse than smoky polluted Hanoi. It would in either case be better to just get out in the countryside, get some fresh air and a cheap private room.
I knew this was probably the last time I was going to see foreigners for a least a couple of weeks. I felt good about it – I’d heard stories about the north. How beautiful it is and how warm and friendly the people are.
Furthermore, I’d decided to make much less use of Google Maps. I was in no rush and I knew I had to drive north east-ish.
12:00: I left smoky Hanoi around noon and didn’t look back. I started by taking AH-1. The same route that I had been on so many times before, the main coastal artery that connects south and north Vietnam.
14:00: Lunch time. After having been served 70k dinners in Hanoi as “cheap” it was a pleasant surprise that the first place I stopped wanted only 30k/$1,5 (without bargaining) for a big ol’ plate of rice as well as free tra da (icetea). More food than I could eat. This place also introduced me to the before mentioned warm and friendly locals. Two seconds after entering the shop I was offered beer, cigarettes and a hit of “thuoc lao” on the special pipes they use here made out of bamboo (about 80cm tall) that mostly looks like a bong. I’ve never tried them but I’ve seen other foreigners try them and mostly they end up coughing for a good 5 minutes. Being sick and all I had to refuse a million times (they kept asking) as I didn’t want to risk it.
I soon after turned down a back road just to see what’s up down there so to speak. The road was filled with potholes and the speed was slow. On the other hand, though, everyone was smiling, the landscape was beautiful and every single place I stopped they asked me if I wanted beer and cigarettes. There were people fishing, people playing pool and generally people hanging around everywhere waiving me down to come join them.
I hung out with some of them but still no beer.
17:00: check in at a hotel. Relax.
19:00: Late night exploring – took a small road but was greeted by several barking dogs. Turned around. Saw many people play tennis, volleyball etc. Apparently this city had a lot of “richer” people vacationing. This was a Saturday – so made sense.
DAY2: Dinh ca -> Bac Son
11:00: Wake up very late for some reason. I felt more sick than yesterday and the weather was bad. I didn’t feel this day. Got a Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) for 20k.
12:00: Check out – staff was smiling – made me happy J
12:15: Speedometer stopped working
12:30: Asked mechanic to fix it
13:30: He gave up – said he couldn’t fix it. It was free though. I kept driving – put on a jacket as it was getting chilly.
14:30: Saw a nice town that I liked – everyone was smiling, so I checked in for the evening to wait out the bad weather.
The rest of the evening I relaxed. I got a Banh Mi (bread with egg) for 10k and a com rang (fried rice) and a beer (!) for 35k total. The hotel room had a tv with English channels so I did some business on my computer and watched tv. No wifi though but whatever.
Another thing I had noticed was that my bike would randomly stop and had trouble starting again. I’d experienced this problem before – definitely the ignition – great. Just what I needed
DAY3: Bac son -> Doc Xuan
5:30: Woke up and looked out the window. What an amazing sunrise. Beautiful, majestic mountains with the sun rising above them. This was so pretty – why hadn’t I noticed this view the day before? Fell asleep again.
6:30: Woke up again – this time for good. Very early I know and I don’t know why. I felt fresh and happy. Chickens were clucking outside and the view was still spectacular. Also the sun was showing and man did I feel good!
7:30: Pho bo (beef noodle soup – 20k), shower, packing.
8:00: Bike to mechanic. They were 3 people looking at it, it took 45 minutes but he fixed the ignition. He said he couldn’t fix the speedometer either. 40k total – so cheap!
9:00: Left Bac son very happy. Everything was good and the sun was shining.
10:30: Enjoying the views and the people. Saw a mountain with some water buffalo tracks going up them. First I tried driving them but boy was that a bad idea – with some careful backing up of the bike I managed to get backwards down this hill I optimistically tried to climb. I parked the bike and climbed the mountain on foot. So I sat there on a steep hill with a view to my bike and the road for about an hour. It was a good hour.
For the next hour or so I drove towards Lang Son to get my speedometer fixed but as I’ve decided to use Google Maps very little I missed a turn so I ended up in Dong Dang instead. A true border town. Well, fudge it, I’ll repair it later! In Dong Dang I was once again offered Thouc Lao (remember? A type of tobacco smoked from a huge pipe) but I refused again.
When I neared the Chinese border I didn’t think to stop. Unaware I was at a border control about to leave Vietnam and being on a scooter (I’m used to just drive by whatever roadblocks people put up as scooters can go anywhere), I happily and ignorantly drove past 3 Vietnamese border checkpoints (I counted on the way back) and left Vietnamese soil. On the way in to China though, in no man’s land, I got whistled at followed by some very stern looks. One guy was pulling out a notebook and didn’t look too happy but I just hurried back before he could stop me and luckily nothing happened. Given it’s a very remote northern Vietnamese border but still… I won’t forget the look on that guys face.
After some very curvy, mountainous roads with astonishing scenery washing over me and some trucks who you would think are out to kill you, I stopped in a tiny town. It wasn’t any particular town but the place was peaceful and it felt right to stop at this particular moment, 8 hours after I set out.
17:00: Shower, dinner, relax, sleep, repeat.
This hotel was strange, there was nothing going on in the area and he took my bike in at 7 in the evening – surely I wouldn’t be needing it at such late hours. I also didn’t get a key because I could lock the door from inside. I guess it didn’t occur to him that I wanted to go out and therefore would want to lock the door behind me.
DAY4: DUC XUAN – BAN GIOC WATERFALL – RURAL HOMESTAY
6:15: It knocked on my door and breakfast was served. So early!! I thought it came at 8. Put the breakfast on the table and fell asleep again
7:10: Ate cold breakfast. Understood why the hotel “closed” so early the evening before.
8:00: Went to buy water and was offered rice wine. Twice. I accepted – what better way to start the day. I also received snack roasted dog meat to go with the wine – of course I didn’t know it was dog meat until after I ate it. Chewy.
8:30: Packed and ready to go
I didn’t quite know what the plan was today, I knew I wanted the Ban Gioc waterfalls but I figured they were too far away so I might as well take it slow and sleep somewhere near. Get it first thing in the morning. I started driving towards them off the highway I’d been on the day before and this road was (as usual) very beautiful but also very bad and it was a long bumpy ride until I finally hit the main vein again. By “main” I mean paved and relatively pothole free. I could also feel the rice wine wearing off which gave me a form of mini hangover.
The main road was great – I could lean down in the curves and the trucks would stick to their own side. Heaven!
12:00: Saw a sign going somewhere unknown – followed it. Didn’t find whatever was down there but I saw some very quaint cities that I’m sure don’t see a lot of tourists
12:30: Arrived at Ban Gioc Waterfall and parked my bike as I was going to stay here a couple of hours.
Ban Gioc Waterfall
It was very beautiful but I had one thing in mind – I wanted to go to China without actually getting a visa and it was right there on the other side of the river. Just about 40m’s away – an easy swim. It looked frightening as it certainly wasn’t exactly a discrete place. I would have to swim over while everyone was watching and I would have to leave all my stuff behind (my bag with my entire life).
I figured since I was a tourist I would get some leeway and at most get whistled at or something so without thinking further about it I jumped into the water. I was the only one in the water.
I swam out a couple of meters and looked around but couldn’t see anyone yelling at me – so far so good. I took a deep breath and went for it. It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. Don’t look back. Don’t stop. Just keep swimming and so I did.
About halfway over I saw a group of about 10 policemen at the Chinese side and they were all looking at me. They had assault rifles. My heart was racing; I’ll tell you that. They didn’t seem to look that angry though – just very very frightening. I decided to keep swimming – directly towards them so as to let them know I wasn’t going to make some kind of weird run for it.
When I got over they looked at me intensely but no one stopped me, so I snapped some pictures with the policemen and a selfie with a Chinese tourist, walked around for 30 minutes and went back through the waterfall. Such a strange experience…
… But I’ve now been to China!
Back on Vietnamese soil I tried to climb a path behind the waterfall but this time I was promptly stopped. Swim the border: sure, climb a hill: no!
My mind was soon diverted though as a large group of Vietnamese on vacation from Lac Son called at me to come join them. I sat with them for an hour and we took a lot of pictures. I also got some food, ricewine and a beer.
Note: A large group of foreigners on motorbikes entered the falls just as I left. Those were the first I’d seen in a long time.
15:30 Leaving Ban Gioc. I now had about 20km of river drive along the Chinese border. It’s strange to see how easy this border is to cross. Nothing more than a short walk to the other side which might get you wet feet but that’s it. Some places the river is no more than 10 meters. I guess it’s no coincidence that this exact border is also where so many invasions from China has begun. This area has a lot of history.
16:00 As it was getting late, I was on the look-out for a place to stay. However, as I passed an extremely beautiful mountain view over some rice fields I decided to stop for a bit and write on my computer.
As I was sitting there, a family passed by. The dad asked me (in Vietnamese) what I was doing and I showed him my route map. After 10 minutes he invited me in for a drink.
We drank about 15 shots of ricewine and then I was invited to sleep there (luckily as I was in no condition to drive)! They served me more delicious food and more rice wine but I had respectfully started refusing as I wanted to be ok the next morning.
Rest of the evening was talking, eating, drinking, watching Vietnamese tv and google translating on my phone.
DAY 5 – RURAL HOMESTAY – QUANG UYEN
8:00: Woke up and was immediately served rice wine and some food. Sat around, talked to the father and uncle who were heavily into the rice wine already. I managed to take care of “business” in a toilet with no door, no paper and no running water. The toilet is also right next door to the pig.
10:00: Rest of the family woke up
11:00: Me and one of the sons (Hieu) went to see a nearby cave. We took my scooter to get there and dropped off the uncle at home on the way there too. 3 people on my scooter. I was driving. No helmets.
The cave was amazing. Just incredible. First of all, it was behind a private residence, second of all there were no signs of any sort and forget about finding it on google maps. There was no entrance ticket and it had no name as far as I know – it was just called “the cave”. After a hike there, we started venturing into the cave and quickly it became completely dark. Unlike so many other caves I’ve been to, here there were no path to walk on, no lights on the wall, no other people at all. The only thing to help you were a few bamboos in strategic places to help you climb the worst parts. As it’s impossible fully to describe something like that I’ll just stop here, and just believe me – of all the caves I’ve been in so far, this experience was the most unique.
14:00: I was back at the family. I got some lunch and said goodbye to the family to continue my journey.
18:00: After a long day on very bad roads through narrow mountain passes with more extraordinary scenery, more curvy bends, and more huge 18-wheeled trucks driving on tiny roads, I made it to Quang Uyen where I stayed for the night.
DAY 6 – QUANG UYEN – CAO BANG CITY
8:00. Woke up.
The first part of the day was nice and easy. I rested up until 12 and took full advantage of the English tv channels and cozy atmosphere of the nha nghi (guesthouse) I was in.
12:00 Left the guesthouse towards hang Pac Bo (Pac Bo Cave).
For the next 4 hours I drove through obscenely pleasant mountainous areas. However, describing these roads over and over again seems kind of redundant as they are all very beautiful and I’m running out of adjectives. I felt like I was in “the Shire” from Lord of the Rings. There are so many good pictures to choose from but in the name of brevity I’ll give you just this one for now.
16:00 I pulled up to Pac Bo Cave, no more than a few kilometres from the Chinese border.
As per usual there were nothing but locals, although unlike Ban Gioc Waterfall, I didn’t see a single non-asian for the full 2 hours I was there.
This cave is particularly important to the Vietnamese as this is where Ho Chi Minh hid for several weeks to avoid detection after he crossed the border from China in 1941. It was the first time in 30 years that Ho Chi Minh had set foot in Vietnam and within four years, on September 2. 1945, he read the declaration of independence that proclaimed Vietnam free from Japanese suppression and French Rule.
The cave itself is quite modest but the historical value of it is enormous. You take a 1hour walk to the cave and back in a circle loop, through peaceful surroundings and along a nice stream of water that’s sacred to the locals.
During my time there I fell into conversation with a girl and her family (it’s not hard – everyone wants to talk to you) and I got invited to dinner. I followed the family back to their farmhouse just outside of Cao Bang where I took a shower using a few buckets of water and was served traditional Vietnamese dinner including such things as pig liver and melon fruit. A very interesting day and a very interesting house. Unlike my last homestay, they had such modern things as a gas stove (as opposed to a fireplace) and a smartphone.
21:00 I checked into a hotel and soon after fell asleep.
DAY 7 – CAO BANG CITY – BA BE LAKE
This day was one of the more uneventful ones, though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t interesting.
I started by driving to the center of cao bang city and parked my bike. The city center was two main streets in sort of an L-shape and then if you crossed one of the surrounding bridges you would get a couple more streets of city. This made the city considerably larger than any of the towns I’d been in lately which were basically just a main street with a guesthouse and a marketplace.
I had a coffee, an actual well tasting cappuccino, so delicious. I went to a toilet with things such as soap and paper, hell I’m happy there was a seat or even running water.
I bought a nailclipper at the local market.
Finally, I went to a war monument on top of a hill, behind a primary school and a closed gate, which gave an excellent view of the city.
I also tried getting my speedometer fixed again but alas, after an hour of trying he had to give up. Didn’t cost me a dime. In Denmark they charge $80 just to look at it – you know, to find out what the problem is so they can give the actual price of fixing it.
15:00: I left Cao Bang towards Ba Be lake. The drive was pleasant on good road through beautiful mountains with warm people. Wherever I go people want to take pictures of me – it’s like I’m a celebrity.
As a side note, I’ve noticed something, it’s like there are two types of ways people look at me. Either I’m an interesting guest and I’m not allowed to pay for anything and they want to talk to me and invite me to do things, OR I’m a walking money bag that it’s perfectly fine to overcharge, in fact it’s fair, seeing as I’m white I must have much more money and therefore it’s only fair I pay more. Like vigilante Robin Hood’s. Out here, though, the first type that just want to talk to me are way overrepresented though, which is great.
21:00 I arrived at a hotel that I liked near Ba Be Lake. This day I was driving for several hours in the dark in the mountains which is a special experience. Dogs come running out from houses and the air is thick with mosquitoes. Everywhere along the road people are sitting, drinking beer and well; it’s just not something I’ve done a lot – night mountain driving.