The motorcycle trip started off slowly. It took us a while to buy the warm clothes we needed and run some final errands in the city before we left Hanoi, and then on the way out of town we made a couple of wrong turns and had to check directions multiple times. After our first day of riding we made it to a small city called Thai Nguyen, directly north of Hanoi. It was not a beautiful ride. It had a suburban feel and a lot of traffic. We managed to find a hotel room for $10 and a restaurant that served delicious tofu and egg dishes with rice. I managed to communicate that I am vegetarian through pointing and hand signals since none of the staff spoke English. I had almost learned how to say “I eat vegetarian” and “without meat” in Vietnamese, but because I had trouble with the tones local people usually didn’t understand me.
The next day we had a late start because we slept in until 10, had a mechanical issue looked at, and bought headphones so I could listen to audiobooks while I ride. We didn’t get on the road until about noon, which proved to be an unwise decision because it got dark so early, at about 6pm. We also made a wrong turn at some point, so by the end of the day we had only made it about 85km. Once it was dark it was too dangerous to ride anymore. We were still 75km from Ba Bé National Park, where we had hoped to reach that day. It was a lot colder than we were used to and when I tried to order vegetarian food at a restaurant they didn’t understand me and I felt frustrated with everything. It wasn’t feeling like a fun trip anymore. I felt annoyed and grumpy.
Finn saw my frustration and helped solve the vegetarian communication issue by going online, translating a phrase explaining that I’m vegetarian and writing it on a little piece of paper for me. We decided we should wake up a lot earlier from then on to make the most of the sunlight and stop to check directions more often so that we didn’t get off track again. It wouldn’t be until a couple days later that we would discover the highway numbers were written the edge of the road signs, not visible from the front. After that discovery it was much easier to navigate.
The reason it was stressful to fall behind schedule was that our Vietnamese visas would expire on December 14, which gave us about a week to tour the north before getting to a Halong Bay, where a travel agency could extend our visas. The fact that it was so cold in the north also put pressure on us, because we knew we would want to get back into warmer weather soon.
The next day was much better. We made it to Ba Bé National Park in the morning where there was a big lake, limestone mountains and a farming village. We rode our bikes through the park in awe of the natural beauty. Some of the local families in the park invite visitors to stay with them as a “homestay”, so we found a nice family who charged us $7 for a room. They were just about to sit down for lunch when we arrived and they invited us to eat with them. They were excited to host us, even though we couldn’t communicate verbally with most of them. One family member, a 25 year old journalist, spoke broken English, so we could talk to him a bit. He and his sister shared some of their rice liquor with us, poured into shot glasses from a small plastic iced tea bottle. We each had about 5 shots, and at first it tasted horrible, but, like most liquor, it was easier after the first couple shots. We all shook hands after every shot and we weren’t sure if it was a Vietnamese thing to shake hands after taking a shot or just what these people do.
After lunch, we hung out with the young man who spoke a bit of English and we used google translate to communicate better. He brought out his computer and we typed messages back and forth through the website. It didn’t always make perfect sense, but it was great that we could communicate. We told him that we were going to the waterfall, Ban Gioc, which is right beside the Chinese border, and he said, “No! In Vietnam, not China!” He thought we were saying the waterfall was in China. It was funny how suddenly insistent he was and he almost yelled when he was so calm otherwise. We agreed that it’s in Vietnam and he calmed down. I guess it’s a controversial point in the region.
After lunch, we rode our motorbikes around the park, marvelling at the bright green lake. We hiked a path that lead to a big cave. The little village, local homes and farms were cute and rustic. Most of the homes, including where we were staying, did not have any glass over the windows and the walls did not keep the wind out. Everyone wears big jackets at all times during winter.
The next morning we woke up at 6am and explored more of the park before getting back on the highway. We road our motorbikes 7km on the tiny park road through the villages and hiked to a waterfall. We thought we woke up really early, but the family we stayed with and the villagers were already up and at work by the time we got on our bikes at about 630am. We left the park and started towards the biggest waterfall in Vietnam, called Ban Gioc.
All day we rode through spectacular scenery. Many small, skinny, tree covered mountains pocked the landscape. Being from British Columba, I am used to seeing mountains, but these limestone formations were different because they were many, small and lumpy, stabbing upwards all over the place instead of the gigantic ones I’m used to seeing at home. The area is sparsely populated with agrarian communities. Chickens often cluck around on the roads and sometimes as we ride by them they panic and run right in front of our bikes, causing us to narrowly avoid hitting them. The chickens almost seemed suicidal by the number of times they jumped in front of us. We also passed lots of pigs, including herds of cute piglets. There were plenty of buffalo, cows, goats, horses, and a wild boar with horns coming out of it’s mouth that childishly reminded me of Pumba from The Lion King.
By 4pm that day we had made it within 50km of the waterfall, Ban Gioc. We had accidentally taken a different road than we planned and had gone straight north instead of east, but it was okay because there was a northern route to Ban Gioc so we didn’t have to back track. With less than two hours of sunlight left, we thought we could make it to Dam Thuy, a town right beside the waterfall, and stay there for the night. We started on the northern “highway” that paralleled the China / Vietnam border, which was actually a bumpy dirt road. It was the roughest road we had ridden on yet, so we had to go a lot slower to make it over all the bumps and potholes. It started getting dark when we were in the middle of nowhere.
We past tiny villages, but none of them had hotels or guesthouses, of course. We delicately rode along bumpy mountain passes and stopped to admire the moon, which was deep orange that night, hanging above the silhouetted mountains. Our headlights were weak and got weaker when the engine wasn’t revving, so I constantly held the clutch lightly to keep the engine working and the headlight lit. I was scared of driving at night because the lack of light meant I couldn’t see obstacles until the last minute. We went slowly and cautiously and hoped we would come across a town soon.
Finn was ahead of me on a steeply inclined part of the road and got stuck in a big pothole. I was riding a bit too close behind him and didn’t see him stop until it was too late and I crashed into him and fell. Finn did not fall, but he saw me fall so he stopped to help. Because the road was so steep, he couldn’t hold his heavy bike in place so he fell too while trying to check if I was okay. Then we were both both struggling to lift up our bikes and get up the hill to flat ground. I was dropping my stuff and couldn’t see what I was doing in the dark. Finally we got to the top of the hill and checked our bodies and bikes for damage. We were fine except a few scratches and the bikes were fine except the right turn signal on Finn’s bike. We urgently needed to get off this ridiculously rough road in the dark. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything we could do but keep going. We had to find a place to sleep.
I suggested we approach random homes to offer a family money and signal that we want to sleep, but we were shy to ask without understanding the language. It was too cold, my hands were numb and I was hungry. Finally, at about 8pm, after two hours of riding in pitch dark, we came across a little town that had a couple hotels. We were finally somewhere. I was overcome with relief. Finn and I had both been mentally preparing to sleep in the cold outdoors. We checked the map and saw that we had traveled 30km since the last town, and it happened to be the roughest stretch of road we would travel in northern Vietnam. We vowed not to ride in the dark again.
None of the hotels we stayed in had heating, and they were very cold. By the end of each day of riding I was exhausted and couldn’t wait to have a hot shower and get under the thick blankets. At least there was hot water. The beds were hard and uncomfortable, but it was hard to pull myself out of their warmth into the cold air every morning. More than once I questioned my decision to visit this region when there are so many warm places in Southeast Asia. The climate made everything more stressful. It didn’t help that the zipper on the jacket I bought in Hanoi broke the day after I bought it, exposing me to the wind as I rode.
We made it to Ban Gioc the next morning and spent about an hour hiking around and marvelling at the powerful waterfall. We were right on the border to China, as far north as we would go on our trip. We enjoyed a Chocopie, the Vietnamese version of a Wagonwheel, took a bunch of pictures, and then headed out. I was excited that we were going south and it would only get warmer from there. You may find my whining about the cold annoying if you’re reading this in Canada, but being outside all day on a motorbike and sleeping in a cold hotel room was getting to me.
When we were on the road, riding through breathtaking scenery, it felt worth it to be in northern Vietnam, despite the cold. There were so few tourists coming through the small towns so people were thrilled to talk to us, even though we couldn’t understand what they were saying. We felt bad for not learning more Vietnamese, but we managed to communicate a little bit without words.
One night, we sat down to eat at a pho restaurant when a couple local men greeted us, so we sat with them at their table. They were so friendly and we communicated with one another like it was a game of charades. The men kept pointing to things, the shot glasses, the soccer game on TV, the food, everything, and saying “Vietnam, Vietnam.” They shared with us a whole bottle of the same rice liquor we drank at the homestay. We must have had at least 6 small shots each. The men checked with us first that we weren’t getting on motorbikes after, and we assured them that we would be walking back to our hotel.
It was convenient that there were motorcycle shops everywhere and it only cost a dollar or two to fix anything. When we had to fix something on our bikes we could call Phung from Phung Motorcycles, who sold us our bikes and ask him to explain the problem in Vietnamese to the mechanic over the phone. At one motorcycle repair shop the people were really nice and we hung out with them for a while after our bikes were fixed. It seemed like there were one or two mechanics who worked there, one of which was wearing a sharp business casual outfit with a collared shirt and pull over v-neck sweater. He was the fanciest dressed mechanic I’ve seen. A few other men were hanging around too, but it didn’t seem like they worked there, maybe they just like motorcycles. They shared some of that rice liquor with us too.
On the last day, we rode the final 80km to our destination, Halong Bay, and I was relieved to arrive somewhere warmer where we could relax for a couple days after the fantastic but exhausting motorcycle trip. In the rest of Vietnam there was delicious fresh coffee, but up north there was usually only the instant kind, which left me with powerful cravings that I was excited to satisfy. My butt was extremely sore from the long day before, when we rode about 240km, and all the days before that. It felt amazing to wash my clothes and lay down in a comfortable bed in a warm hotel room.