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ha giang

LIVE JOURNAL WEEK 3: Solo motorbike trip around northern Vietnam

Note: this post is alive, meaning I will continuously update it during my trip. Internet permitting, I will try to update on a daily basis

Total foreigners spotted: Too many to count. After entering Sa Pa, they have just been everywhere.

Day 15: HA GIANG CITY – VINH QUANG

As I was getting ready I noticed that I couldn’t find my motorbike key and this turned out to be an issue for obvious reasons. However, I knew what to do – I’d been in a similar situation before near Saigon. Basically I just had to steal my own bike. I got another guy from the hostel (JJ from New Zealand) to give me a ride to the nearest mechanic. I would sit on my bike and he would push me using his foot on the back of my bike.

At the mechanic we explained (using body language) that I lost the key and he promptly switched out the ignition for about 250k ($11). I also made him make two extra keys (which is surprisingly easy) so that I have 3 keys in case this happens again. That’s how easy it is to steal a bike. Basically we could have done this with any bike – not just my own. Crazy.

After a surprisingly quick speech JJ was convinced to join me towards Sapa although he was originally planning on staying in Ha Giang for another day.

12:00: We left town on the highway and it felt good to blaze along at 80km/t after all this mountain driving.

13:00: I noticed that my bike was making a lot of noise and I couldn’t figure out what. I asked a mechanic but he just said he couldn’t fix it and that we could just go on, no problem. Not convinced we pulled in at 2 other mechanics and got the same story. Can’t fix but it’s no problem. The last guy, however, said that there was a specific Yamaha mechanic in the next big town (Vinh Quang) that might be able to help.

14:00: We found a delicious little waterfall and went for a swim there. Private Jacuzzi. Yes, thank you!

16:00: After 3 hours of roaring noise through small mountain villages with everyone looking at us we finally arrived at the Yamaha mechanic and he showed us the problem. A big hole in the exhaust pipe. That explained why my bike sounded like a jackhammer. He fixed it using some very MacGyver’ish welding tools for about 30k ($1,5) and the bike was as good as new.

Day 16: VINH QUANG – PHO RANG

8:00: Wake up.

9:00: Leave.

We covered a relatively short distance yesterday due to various problems (JJ had some problems as well) so we were eager to cover some distance. The problem, though, is that we had to stop every 5 minutes to take pictures and the roads were extremely curvy and windy (and windy too as we were on top of a mountain) with drops on one side and mountains on the other so it’s not like you have a grass field on the side should you need to emergency evade. Below I tried to get some of that captured in a picture but it’s hard.

Since it had finally cleared up I managed to get some decent shots although that mist is still there lingering patiently.

We didn’t miss the chance to get some good waterfall action as well. There are some great waterfalls along this route just waiting to be swum in. This one we had all to ourselves for the first 45 minutes until a group of Vietnamese kids showed up. We took a lot of pictures together and let them have it. Coincidentally we met them on the road later as we were pulled over for picture snapping.

You should be able to see me there at the bottom.

Another thing worth mentioning is of course the local market we ran in to. As it was a Sunday, everyone was out in their tribal traditional clothes buying and selling various goods. This made for an extremely vibrant and colourful market with many strange trinkets.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On our way to Pho Rang (our target rest-up for the night) we passed the provincial state line out of Ha Giang into Lai Cai province. As soon as we entered, the road turned from rocky dirty road to fresh paved highway and our crusing speed went up to a pleasant 60km/t. We rolled by a lot of sawmills and wood making camps (in lack of a better word) along the way and my guess would be that this province is considerable more wealthy as wood is a sought after resource. Ha Giang, albeit extremely beautiful, has a hard time growing anything, let alone trees, on their rough lands.

18:00: We pulled in to a Nha Nghi in Pho Rang after a long day of driving. This evening we went out for some good pho and draft beer. This city was an interesting city and definitely suited for people watching. You see all kinds of sights that will keep you well entertained while you sip on your beer after a long hard day.

21:00: Sleeping time.

DAY 17: PHO RANG – SAPA

8:00: Wake up

10:00: Out the door

JJ had a flat so we had to fix that and meanwhile I took care of some minor things (prepaid phone top-up, a mask for my face). After this we got some Pho at the same place as yesterday. I was feeling a little tired, maybe because of the alcohol, so in either case I wanted a proper breakfast this morning. I also stocked up on water.

11:00: On the road, our bellies full and gas in our tanks, towards new adventures.

12:00: Decision time, the route we were following would have us go north in a big de-route towards the Chinese borders and some very mountainous roads while the highway we were on would have us go straight for Sa Pa. JJ is as easy-going as they come so he was up for whatever and personally I still wasn’t feeling 100% and to be honest I’d seen a lot of mountain roads lately. I enjoyed the faster pace of the highway (although still very curvy and mountainous). So we took the short route.

The road to Sa Pa was gorgeous but, unfortunately, everything just seemed secondary after Ha Giang.

16:00: After some coconut drinking and pineapple eating rest stops (10 small pineapples, peeled and ready to eat, for 25k – that’s cheap!) and nice highway we arrived in the mountain resort town of Sa Pa. This place is so different from what we’d been used to the last couple of weeks. Immediately we were greeted by a fellow asking us in perfect English if we need a place to stay and women in traditional clothing come to us and ask if we want to stay in an “authentic homestay”. Tourism has shown its ugly face. On the positive side it now meant that even the guy at the gas station speaks English and you can get hamburgers and western food all you want for a price of 80k-100k ($4 – $5) – about 3 times as much as I’m used to paying.

We drove around town for a bit looking for a place to stay and ended up at a place where JJ stayed last time as he’d already been to Sa Pa before. Good view in the dorms and breakfast included. Done.

The rest of the evening was spent relaxing and talking to fellow travellers while I also managed to write two days of this journal as well as taking care of some finances and extending my travel insurance. I already decided to stay two days in Sa Pa to get some well-deserved R&R before moving on.

DAY 18: SAPA

7:30: Wake up and hearty breakfast

10:30 After some lounging around me and JJ ventured out on a trek around Sa Pa. We didn’t want to pay for a guide and the weather looked too bleak for an attempt on the 3143m tall Fansipan mountain. Neither of us had trekking shoes and a rainy muddy ascend that people usually spend two days on was just not a good idea when you wouldn’t get to see anything at the top. I will have to conquer Fanispan, the tallest mountain in Indochina, some other day.. Instead we just went straight out from the hostel towards the “trekking areas” without any further plan than that.

The road was very nice and we got some surprisingly good shots when the sun occasionally popped out

After about 6km’s JJ had to turn around as his foot had an injury which turned out to be worse than anticipated – probably a good thing we didn’t go for Fansipan. I continued on as I had a more or less random goal of making it the 10km’s to a homestay that was recommended to me – and I don’t like backing down from goals, no matter how random.

Eventually I made it. I had some well-deserved waffles. The place (Luckydaisys bamboo and buffalo bar) was alright and seemed like a good place to rest a bit but I was happy with the place we found in Sa Pa town.

16:00: It was time to head home. The bamboo place was about 2 km’s away from the main road in a small town so there wasn’t much of transportation to get back home so I had to walk back another 2 km’s – this time uphill. When I got close to the main road I stopped a couple of random xe may’s (motorbikes) to get a ride and the with the 3rd one I got lucky. He gave me a ride all the way back home to Sa Pa and he didn’t ask any money for it. A perfect ending to a good day.

Tonight it will just be further R&R before heading out on the road again.

DAY 19: SAPA – SON LA

7:00: Wake up and breakfast

8:00: JJ was getting antsy – let’s go! Out the door we went.

It had been raining heavily the day before so we were a little worried about floods, slippery roads and more rainfall during the day. Luckily after a few hours it cleared up and stayed like that all day. We were heading for Son La and highway 6 (now called AH13) which is supposedly a beautiful area – not like we hadn’t heard that before!

Out of Sa Pa we drove all the way around Fansipan mountain on windy roads with quite significant wind gusts. So strong that you would have to account for it coming around corners as it disturbed your balance quite noticeably.

The road took us across the highest pass in Vietnam with a road on it, once again taking us into the clouds and much colder weather. All the way along the road you could see water falls both right next to the road and all the way across magnificent valleys.

All the way on the top we saw this abandoned house straight of “The Shining”, complete with a broken bolted up gate, mist and broken windows.

On the way there we passed through the largest rice fields of Vietnam which were beautiful but still underwhelming. Maybe it would be more impressive if it wasn’t this time of year – the fields were mostly still in the germination phase meaning that they were either completely hidden in muddy fields or just showing the first tiny shoots. Full grown plants would’ve definitely been a different visual experience.

Pushing onwards towards highway 6 (AH13) we had a refreshing 25k pho, the sun was shining and the scenery was outstanding.

13:00: We saw a large dam and decided to climb it (we could drive all the way). Behind it we got the first glimpse of an astoundingly large lake with blue quiet water. A very pretty vision indeed. We later found out that this was one of the largest, if not the largest, hydroelectric power plants in South East Asia (sources vary and there are more than one dam in this area).

As we continued down the road we hit the main part of the lake and got a glimpse of the full glory of this lake

This lake came out of nowhere as we can’t really see it on google maps or anywhere else and it’s not in JJ’s guidebook. Everything looks brand new as well. This lake is hands-down way prettier than Ba Be Lake and it’s also far more remote. You would think a lake this size had a lot more traffic on it but besides the occasional single lonely boat – nothing. This area was very remote with only a few spread out farmers living in bamboo huts along the lake working these unforgiving steep hills for a bit of crop.

As we drove all the way around this mysterious unexpected lake we got to take pictures from all sides around it. We also did some exploring and the road you see below is the road we had to take to get here.

We both agreed that this road which lasted for a couple of hours (with no gas stations) was one of the most spectacular scenic roads we’ve been to – and that says a lot! I’ve got many pictures to prove it!

After many hours in the sun around this lake we needed a break and we got one in the next town along with an oil change.

17:00: We’d been on the road for 8 hours so maybe it was time to stop for the night but then again. We were only about 60 km’s from Son La and for some reason it felt appealing to make it there. Like some sort of unwritten goal. It had to be done.

18:30: Done. We got a banh my and a room in Son La and tucked in for the night.

This day was one of the better days with some unique extremes (highest road, largest power plant, largest rice field and this “prettiest lake” of Vietnam).

Day 20: SON LA – MOUNG KHEN

8:00: Get up

9:00: Off we go. JJ is an early riser and I don’t think I remember him being up after 9pm. On the other hand, though, he is all fired up and ready to go at 7am every morning. It’s exhausting but we definitely cover some distance quickly.

Today was highway the entire day. Same road – highway 6 / AH 13 – from Son La going all the way to Hanoi. Compared to the last 3 weeks this wasn’t all that impressive but it had its moments.

12:00: We were both agreeing that a swim in a waterfall right about now would be the right thing to do so we looked one up and one hour later we did just that. This waterfall was quite public though and we were the only ones swimming. There was lots of picture taking of the dumb white clowns going for a swim but no one stopped us.

We also found this spot which JJ proclaimed to be “mean” which is the opposite of “stink”. I’m not down with the hip lingo kids use these days but I think he means it looks great. And Indeed it does!

19:00: Even though we started early this morning we ended late. I blame JJ.

The first place we checked was a nha tro binh danh and that roughly translates into working class homestay – I think. Anyway when we got in there It looked like a prison. Concrete walls, ceiling and floor. The doors were large sliding metal doors that made an eerie sound when moved. It was like straight out of a Western movie (you know the type of movies with cowboys) prison with the key warden dangling with a large set of old iron keys. This key warden even came with bad eyesight and trouble finding the key. When she finally got the door open there was nothing in there but a 1½ person wooden bed – no sheets, no pillows, no mattress and nothing else for that matter. Concrete everywhere except for the metal door. Jeepers, this place was one step up from sleeping on the street. However though at 25k each / 50k total this place was very cheap. Staying in a place like this you could survive for about $3/day including food and clothes – $5 if you want a feast. Apparently this whole area had a bunch of these types of accommodation that were, as JJ described them, ghetto as fuck.

We ended up finding a normal’ish Nha Nhgi for 200k which is pretty standard. It wasn’t your average place though. First of all, it was huge! I mean gigantic. It was connected to a hotel with slightly higher prices as well as a karaoke place. To get there you also had to go through a natural cave over a bridge through a garden and the view from the back of the house was spectacular – a million-dollar view. Unfortunately, I didn’t get that view because for some reason they all came out bad. I got the cave though.

Dear reader, you’ve gotta understand the odd feeling we got about this place. First the prison hotel and now a 5-minute walk from the reception through caves and karaoke bars to get to our place. Everything about this city just gave a strange unfamiliar vibe.

At least it was a place to stay. It had sheets that were sort of clean. Good enough.

22:00: Sleep

DAY 21: MOUNG KHEN – HANOI

Back home to Hanoi. End of the trip. Awful highway, dusty roads, heavy traffic and lots of trucks and busses. Luckily it’s only 100km’s.

13:00: 3 amazing weeks came full circle and I’m back in Hanoi. The first thing I did when I got there? Getting me some Dominos – Extra cheese! Pizza tasted so good after 3 weeks of pho and com!

LIVE JOURNAL WEEK 2: Solo motorbike trip around northern Vietnam

Note: this post is alive, meaning I will continuously update it during my trip. Internet permitting, I will try to update on a daily basis

Total foreigners spotted: 50+ (about 10 talked to) The last two days I spotted and talked to many as I entered Ha Giang Province

DAY8: BA BE LAKE

Today was the first day since my trip started where I stayed at the same place for two nights in a row. This was to have a full day of exploring Ba Be Lake and by a full day I mean mostly just a 5 hour boat tour.

I took the boat tour which was great. To be honest, though, I wasn’t overly impressed with the lake as seen from the boat. Maybe I’ve been spoiled over the last couple of months but all I could think was, meh – seen better. We (me and my boatsman) came to a cave in the area and again it wasn’t too big or too much of anything but it had a spot on a rock with a nice view over a river that went into the lake.

The boat tour took me to a temple that, again, wasn’t anything special but I was invited to an enormous lunch by a large group of locals. Beer and food, with fruit as dessert. They gave me a plastic glove which I barely could fit my hand in and then it was just a matter of digging in. Lots of picture taking and smiles and “where are you from?” – always a blast!

After the boat ride I decided to drive around the lake a bit on my motorcycle. There were some quaint minority villages around the lake and I still had a couple of hours to kill.

The ride was pleasant along the lake and on the other side of the lake I found my spot. A lush green meadow connected to the lake with water buffalos mud bathing, locals repairing their boats and kids swimming. I took my bike all the way out to the water and sat around for about 30 minutes just looking at the lake.

After this I went back to the guesthouse had some dinner and called it a day.

As a final note this place was rather “touristy” and during the whole day I think I saw at least 15 foreigners. This place was crawling with tourists!

DAY 9: BA BE LAKE – BAO LAC

9:00 Wake up

10:00 Early start and I was ready to go. I got a terrific Mi Xao (Fried noodles) and an extra liter of gas just in case I wouldn’t make it to the next gas station.

I wasn’t overly ambitious about how far I’d make it today but Bao Lac seemed like a good place to stop. Ready for Ha Giang province the next day.

Oh yeah, and the path was insane as always. I noted this in my map as “wtf beautiful”.

16:00: About 30 km’s from Bao Lac I ran into Martin, a retired British fire serviceman. For the last 6 months he’d been on a bicycle (not motorbike) trip from Florida through Japan, Korea, China and now Vietnam. As I hadn’t talked to any foreigners since I left Hanoi I felt good about having some conversation so I followed him for the next 30 km’s and we talked about our travels and whatever topics came to mind. I wasn’t planning on staying with him all the way to Bao Lac but about 1½ hour later, just before nightfall, the conversation was still going.

17:30: When we arrived in Bao Lac we shared a room, took a shower and went for dinner. Dinner turned into beer and ruou (rice liqour) and it was great speaking English again. I also finally got to trying “thuoc lao”, the tobacco they smoke here.

23:00: Fittingly, Ladder 49 – a movie about firemen, were on TV and with that running, I feel asleep.

DAY 10: BAO LAC – MEO VAC

8:00 I woke up. Being hung over from the day before it was a slow start for me but Martin seemed fine.

9:30: Martin left and I took a shower, turned around and fell asleep again.

11:45: My alarm clock rang as it was checkout time.

I’ve gotta admit that it was pretty hard not just staying in bed at this time but I soldiered on and got on my bike.

More spectacular breath taking scenery. Today’s special was cloud driving. As it was dripping a little bit the clouds were hanging low, low enough that I was literally in the clouds and often above them as well.

15:00: 3 hours later I had made it to Meo Vac and found a guesthouse to check in. The room had a pretty good view, especially considering the modest $7 I paid.

For lunch I had a simple 10k ($0.50) sticky rice dish and for dinner I had a 30k ($1.5) Pho Ga (Chicken Noodle soup). When I got my soup I was promptly rather insistently “asked” to come join a group of locals drinking ruou (rice liquor) and sit at their table.

I noticed two peculiar new habits I hadn’t seen before. One was that they would always drink two at a time and the two people that were drinking would shake hands afterwards.

  1. Clink
  2. Drink (2 people)
  3. Shake hands

Another was that the woman at the table would not shake hands with me, instead she would hold her hands together and bow – sort of if she was praying. I don’t know what the reason for this instead of shaking hands was but if anyone knows, please share in the comments!

When I got up to leave I tried to pay but was told that my food had already been paid for. No need for me to pay anything.

You can say much about these people and being cheap is not one of them. What they lack in smartphones and Audi’s they make up for in generosity and wealth of life. We could learn a thing or two from these people.

A friend of mine, Teun, once said that it’s amazing that even though these people have next to nothing they are still so much more generous and open. It’s like they are so much richer in life than “we” the typical westerners are. They have the ability to invite strangers into their houses, sleep in their beds, eat their food and drink their drinks. Share everything they’ve got with you.

In Denmark we don’t invite strangers in from the street, because, what if they steal your new laptop!?

The rest of the evening I got some writing done and fell asleep around midnight.

DAY11: MEO VAC

I woke up ready to go around 10 but the weather was exceptionally bad this day. I went to the room and figured I’d take a nap. That nap lasted till 14 – I guess my choice was made for me.

A lot of Netflix and some good food along with some work on the computer.

I also fixed my baggage holder on the bike which was almost falling off.

DAY12: MEO VAC – DONG VAN

This was a day of exploring small backroads. Unfortunately, it rained a lot leaving little room for grandiose spectacular mountain-over-valley views. It was a good day still and I enjoy driving in the clouds. When you see the other people riding towards you it’s like ghosts coming out of the fog.

Besides, there were still lots to look at. In every small village and along the roads you see minority people working, talking, walking and generally doing many different things. Even though this area is very remote it’s very alive and vibrant.

I did a double loop from Meo Vac -> Dong Van -> Meo Vac -> Dong Van using different roads. I only had to drive down the same road for a couple kilometres.

In Dong van I started seeing foreigners. As I was getting into the main part of the “Hi Giang loop” that many people take (mostly on rented bikes) it was common to see foreigners.

Driving down the street looking for a guesthouse, I was approached by a Vietnamese guy who I later found out to be Mr. Hung. He’s running a restaurant/bar, a hotel and a hostel in the town and as he offered some very reasonable prices and speaks excellent English so I agreed to follow him to his neck of the woods.

He is a nice accommodating guy who wants you to have a good stay so if you’re ever in Dong Van, check out his place called Xuan Thu. It’s also the only place in town where you can go to a real bar with pool and western music. Quite enjoyable after almost 11 days of hardly any foreigners!

Day13: DONG VAN – HA GIANG

This was a long day!

I left the hotel around 10 to go to Lung Cu, the northern most national flagpole of Vietnam. It is basically a large tower with a huge Vietnamese flag close to the Chinese border, symbolizing the final frontier towards a potential Chinese invasion.

It was a rainy day and therefore, unfortunately the pictures are mostly of clouds. It’s a shame because the top of Lung Cu gives an extraordinary 360 view of the surrounding rural Vietnamese/Chinese country side.

Check out this (very cloudy) video on Youtube:
https://youtu.be/E-QJMTygIsk

After Cung Lu I decided to check out the border crossing just because I like to see how the borders are but when the pavement stopped and turned into a dirt path suitable for walking only, I decided to turn around. Would be fun to follow this road into China because it seemed so easy and there was definitely no border control – but my common sense stopped me.

Next stop on my rainy itinerary was the first H’mong (Vietnamese minority) king’s palace in the area. He was supportive of the French in the time around the beginning of the nineteen-hundreds and so a palace was built for him. It was designed by Chinese architects with three appealing courtyards and fitting chambers. It also looks like something out of the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and you can almost see them fly around on the roofs.

16:30: My itinerary for the day was over and it was just a matter of heading towards Ha Giang City. It was 140 kilometres through treacherous curvy mountain passes. Add to that, single lane roads, trucks, rain, and the impending nightfall Ha Giang seemed far away. Besides, I’d miss the views. I figured I’d go as far as it made sense and then just grab a room somewhere along the way.

However, as I was driving along the road I passed two Vietnamese that worked at the H’mong king palace and they recognized me and told me they were going to Ha Giang City as well. Later when I stopped to take a picture, they passed me and we waved again. This procedure repeated itself as I got passed every time I stopped to take a picture. In the end, I figured I’d just stay behind them as they knew the way. One thing leads to another and before I knew it, I was in Ha Giang City.

21:30 I checked in at the first (and only) dorm I’d seen in two weeks, grabbed a beer and promptly fell asleep.

Day 14: HA GIANG CITY

8:00 I got up

10:00: After the long drive yesterday, I decided it was fair to treat myself with a day of rest in Ha Giang City – besides it was raining.

13:00: As the day progressed it cleared up and it actually became very hot. I went to the provincial museum to learn about the many minorities in this area. It is strange to see that the dresses they show in the museum are also the ones you actually see when you drive around. They’ve kept these traditional clothes through so many years – it truly is marvellous.

16:00: I finally gave my helmet that second layer of paint so that it now looks real spiffy! Representing the colors of home

19:00: We played some games of pool of which I won 2/2 so that was a good evening!

22:00: sleep