June 8th, 2016 I sold my motorbike after 3 months. I had just returned from a 3-week trip to the corners of the north. It has served me through some rough times all over Vietnam. It’s taken me about 7000km’s from Ho Chi Minh City in the south to Hanoi in the north including de-routes to almost every major thing worth seeing as well as the remotest parts of Vietnam. Needless to say, this bike was no random bike to me and although I’m not actually crying in the picture I don’t think it would be inappropriate if I did – it was an emotional goodbye. The end of an era.
MISSING: Yamaho Nuovo 2003. Last spotted outside cafe in Hanoi, June 8th 2016. Noticeable marks: Old as hell, makes a lot of noise, has blue spot on front bumper. If spotted please send compassionate thoughts my way and take a moment of silence for this old warrior.
Incidentally, looking at the picture now, I just noticed the striking contrast in the background between the new modern hotel to the left and the ruins to the right.
I don’t have a bike anymore – what’s next?
About two months earlier I had met My, a local Vietnamese girl, in Tuy Hoa about 300 km’s south of Hoi An. One of those places in Vietnam that only sees foreigners on very rare occasions. My (pronounced Mi) was studying to become an English teacher which meant her English was quite good. Many Vietnamese, who wants to practice English, try to talk to foreigners whenever they have the chance to practice their English – you will see students everywhere in Hanoi and Saigon doing this. My was no different and on the top of Nhan Mountain, Tuy Hoa she approached me after taking 30 minutes to build up the confidence. Meanwhile, I spent my time talking to an entire primary school class that was also up there.
Some of the kids from a primary school class in Tuy Hoa
Now, why am I telling you this? Because My had finished her final exams before the degree and had a month before the graduation ceremony. As luck would have it, she was going to spend this month travelling around with me. What this means is that for the next 3 weeks or so (it is tentative when she has to be back) she will be travelling with me. Solo travel is great but not travelling alone certainly has it’s perks.
Alright, so back to the actual topic of the headline – what’s next? Cambodia!
The Journey from Hanoi to Cambodia
We booked a night bus ticket (first in 3 months!) from Hanoi to Hoi an – an 18-hour bus ride after which when you’re done all you’ve only really accomplished is switching around a couple of letters (hint: they’re anagrams). Then another 10-hour night bus to Kon Tum. Then a local bus to Pleiku at 6am in the morning. Then, finally, after 4 days of constant bussing, a bus took us from Pleiku across the border to Ban Lung in Cambodia. We had crossed most of Vietnam – 1500km.
Since My speaks Vietnamese we had a lot of extra options to choose from. For the night bus going from Hoi An to Kon Tum we got picked up just outside Hoi An so we didn’t have to take a bus the wrong way for an hour to Da Nang – the ticket was also half price of what the hostel offered. In Kon Tum we rented a bike, although they don’t really rent out bikes. The 6am local bus from Kon Tum to Pleiku was also only an option because of My. And finally the bus to Cambodia – I would have no idea where to take it from or even about its existence. We got picked up in an intersection while the bus rolled by not even coming to a full stop – we just jumped on. Try to arrange a bus pickup at 8am at some random intersection without speaking the language and no travel agent to do it for you. Easy? think again.
I’m not done riding a motorbike. Not by a long shot. Riding around Kon Tum.
Entering Cambodia and Getting a Visa
Getting a visa was not a problem although less strict borders might have caused us some trouble. My is Vietnamese and therefore part of the ASEAN network – much like Schengen in Europe. She only had to pay $2 and that was it.
I had to pay $30 and provide a photo – that’s it. Done. Visa for you my friend. Sounds easy? Well it is, except I didn’t have $30… or a photo. The conversation went roughly like this:
Immigration officer (IO): “Photo?”
Me: “No photo, sorry…”
Me: “No dollars, sorry. Credit card?”
*Very disgruntled look and some muffled murmuring*
IO: “No credit card”
Me: “Can I pay in Vietnamese Dong? I thought it was ok to pay in Dong – I’m sorry”
IO: “No Dong!”
*Staring contest. Awkward silence*
Me: “How about this: $30 is 670k dong. I’ll give you 800k Dong and we forget about the photo too?”
*I give him the money*
*He looks at me, takes the money and stamps my Visa*
And that’s how I got my Cambodian Visa. No more problems. Lesson learned – bring $$$. I would later learn that Cambodia runs on dollars, so much that even the ATM’s gives dollars.
On June 11th, we rolled into Ban Lung, Cambodia. We had no money, no sim card, no guide book and generally no clue but I’ve been in this situation before so we booked a place for the night and spent the evening getting some food and took care of the basics when arriving in a new country.
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.
note: This post is more of a journal style post rather than my usual style. If you find this kind of narrative interesting, please comment 🙂
Being sick on the road
The first part of this post was written while I’m in a dorm bed sick and have been for a couple of days, the second part on day 8. It started 8 days ago with a way too strong aircondition. Didn’t think too much of it – just the sniffles – and so I left Cat Ba island towards Haiphong with a bit of a dizzy head.
The trip went well but I felt tired in the evening and called it an early night. I was travelling with two friends, Matilde and Teun, so we split a 3 bed room which gave me some much needed quiet time.
The next morning, Matilde had to go for Ninh Binh, Teun being restless by nature just wanted to ride again and so he went to Hanoi. I wanted to go to Hanoi as well but opted for another night in Haiphong to get well and rest – this time at a much elevated price since I was alone (300k VND = 13-14USD).
The next morning, I wanted to get going – I had spent the entire day before just watching tv and eating pizza. I hadn’t left the room for 24 hours’ straight.
I got on the motorbike at 12 and made it to the Hanoi hostel at 14, driving maybe a bit too fast. Thinking back – this was probably one of the highest risk rides I’ve made to date. I was feeling quite under the weather and driving in Hanoi is no joke – you’ve got to be alert and vigilant – but I made it and checked in to the hostel. These prices were much more accommodating and with a few more days’ rest I’d be ready to roll again.
The next morning, I still wasn’t too well but still much better than the day before and therefore decided to stay another night at the same place. But, as luck would have it, they had no room for me – so I had to move – again.
I had been recommended another hostel that was only $5, including breakfast – cheapest so far. It had two downsides though, it had 14 bed dorms and it was a party hostel – free beer and music all night. I took it; I was feeling better and I felt like I was done with the cold. I grabbed a couple beers that night.
The next morning the cold was back with a vengeance and I stayed in bed all day. I tried to go out for food but after 5 mins walking in the heat I couldn’t take it anymore. I went back to the hostel and ordered their overpriced food and some tea there and went to bed again. Movies all day and then sleep.
The 6th day and I (again) felt like I’m getting better and this time I’d learned my lesson. No alcohol and just rest. All day till this devil is out of me.
7th day i felt great in the morning but I got a hellish headache around noon so I finally decided to go to a doctor – make that travel insurance worth the money. I decided to walk to the nearest hospital – which in retrospect probably wasn’t the greatest of ideas because when I got there noone spoke English. I walked around like a clueless baboon for a good 10 minutes until a doctor showed mercy on me and asked me (in very good English) what my problem was. I told him my symptoms where to he explained that this was a local surgical hospital and I would have go the French-Vietnamese hospital 5km away. I guess that would explain the stretchers of people with blood on them everywhere. A very overcrowded and bloody hospital indeed.
I took a motorcycle taxi there for about 30k VND (1½ USD) and went inside. From here it was easy – everyone spoke English and I got served quickly, bloodtest, urine test, blood-pressure test, temperature etc. they took good care of me and he concluded that I had somewhat of an inflammation that caused the headache. I got some pills and went home
The next day – the time of this writing I feel much better and the night before I was even out (drinking sprite) for a few hours for the first time since I got sick.
It’s been 8 days and I’ve spent most of them in a dorm room. It can be rough sometimes to get sick while travelling but it’s the name of the game and that’s something you will just have to deal with. Throughout this time, I’m glad I had a nice bed, internet, a computer and enough things to entertain me after all. Oh, and travel insurance! The bill was 5,5mil VND/$250
So why did I write this short piece? Because life on the road can sometimes seem very glamorous when you see those Instagram filtered Facebook pictures and only hear about all the good stuff that has happened. The younger generations (yes I’m still one of them) has started to use social media to brand themselves – it’s so much more than just sharing with your friends. It’s a whole online identity.
With this post I just seek to put a little perspective on it all. There are good times and bad times. Whether it’s sickness, depression, loneliness or something more tangible like being scammed one too many times or just hating whatever place you’re at.
Without the bad times, we can’t enjoy the good times.