Một, hai, ba, dzô! Part 1
Part 1: Hanoi to Ha Giang
Jake, Radke, and I decided to visit the 2 wheel mecca of Vietnam. Most of my vacations all center around some sort of 2 wheel adventure and Vietnam always comes in at the top of everyone’s lists. I’ve taken to seeing it as a motorcyclists Hajj, if you will. I had no problem convincing those two on joining me back when I posed the idea in December. Jake and I would be flying together and meeting Radke in Hanoi since he’s currently living in Honolulu. Within 3 short months we found ourselves on the other side of the planet completely unaware of the absolute splendor and excitement we were about to experience.
The trip was split up into a few legs but the majority was centered around a 7 day dirt bike adventure through the north of the country. We used a Hanoi company called OffRoad Vietnam to rent 3 XR250’s and a guide. Opting for a semi guided tour giving us the freedom and mobility to go wherever we wanted vs the rigid fully guided tour package they offer.
I am going to break this post up into a few entries as there is almost too much to publish. Trying to sum up this trip into a few posts is even a tough challenge. I’ll do my best at trying to convey the onslaught experienced to our senses and minds.
Pre Ride Hanoi exploration
-Before the bike trip we explored 2 days in Hanoi taking in all the sights and sounds that this amazing city has to offer. I could try and sum it up but Jake so eloquently nailed the hustle of Hanoi: “City Life in Vietnam is an example of emergent order from chaos. Lanes, traffic lights, even the roads and sidewalks themselves are mere suggestions on where and how to walk and drive. The main thing is to go with the flow….” We were told its a river and though it seems to make no sense to the observer, when you are a participant in the traffic it all works beautifully. They lack stop signs and redlights. When you get to an intersection you just make your way through and don’t hit anyone. There is a level of trust and cooperation that just would fall flat here in the states.
-Two wheels everywhere. While the majority of the country are on scooters you do see many motorcycles. The bike of choice here is the Honda Win 125cc but we saw Sportsters, Super Dukes, Ducati’s, Minsk’s, Triumphs, no name’s, Chinese Knock Offs, and more then plenty of single cylinder sport bikes.
-These people are amazing at what they can haul on a bike. You name it they are carrying it. Dead pigs, washing machines, loads of bamboo or sugar kane, construction equipment, hell even other scooters, etc…. It was not out of the ordinary to see a family of 5 on a small 150cc scooter zig zagging in and out of the constant flow of traffic. Children as young as infants on their parents laps. From birth you are primed for the 2 wheel river of chaos.
-Communication is all done with your horn. The constant honking of horns becomes a natural part of the aural landscape and blends in to become just another buzz in the constant hum of this amazing city. Sometimes oncoming traffic will flash their lights at you but DO NOT take this to mean what we in the states think it means. This means “I am coming, get the fuck outta my way” and not our interpretation of “hey buddy, you go ahead”.
Day One: Hanoi to Thác Bà Lake
-We were up way too early thanks to jet lag and anticipation of getting on the bikes. At 8:30 we hiked across town with all our gear and found 3 XR250’s and our guide, Tan, waiting for us. He would be doing the tour on a newer XR150. We met a group of Aussies that too were heading north with but with another guide. After some small talk we headed to our bikes. Not much instruction was given and we went over with Tan what we wanted to see and do. By 9 we had our gear strapped on and were finally full participants in the chaotic river of Hanoi traffic. Once you are in the flow of things the ride just makes sense. I kept comparing it to Mid Ohio Rules.
-It wasn’t long before the city began to fade behind us as we wound along the Red River. We had to make a small stop cause my bike was popping pretty hard. Tan got out his tools and adjusted my carb as it was running lean. Soon the XR was purring and off we went.
-Tan took us off road right away and we rode a single track that ran parallel to the main road. Eventually we ended back on asphalt.
-Lunch was a stop in Phú Thọ for a fried chicken and veggies meal. Eating fresh delicious food for pennies is one of the biggest benefits of visiting here.
-With the urban sprawl long in our rear view mirrors, Tan took us deep into the countryside. The asphalt road soon became a very small concrete road that winded in and out through rice paddies. Small limestone mountains began to sprout everywhere and the red/brown of the Red River soon become an vibrant emerald green. It wasn’t long until the fields and roads were full of Water Buffalos, the Beast of Burden du jour in Vietnam.
-Towards the end of the day Tan took us off road again along single tracks splitting rice paddies with a few small water crossings. Finally we emerged on the shore of Thác Bà Lake. All three of us completely dumbfounded in the sights we took in in just one day.
-With the sun setting fast Tan led us to our lodging for the night. The VuLinh Family-Homestay. If you are not familiar with what a homestay is, its exactly like it sounds. Your accommodations are with a local family and you are provided dinner and breakfast with your lodging. Our host, Nam, was very enthusiastic to have us there. Our sleeping quarters were in an ethnic stilt house. Mattress on the floor and mosquito nets to keep us protected. The Aussies we met this morning had beat us to the homestay. After getting out of our gear we cracked open some Bia Hanoi’s and got to know everyone sharing nothing but bike stories. Turns out we all do a lot of dumb shit no matter what part of the world we are in. Taking in the epic scenery surrounding the local village area I knew this was going to be a mind blowing 7 days. Quick note on connectivity here. Everywhere has wifi and everyone is willing to share it without any issues. I felt more connected in the wilds of Vietnam then I do living at home.
-Dinner was a large family style event. So much food, all local and fresh. Even fresh fish from the lake. With every dinner comes out a homemade rice wine. Some stronger than others depending on the distiller. Here we learned the Vietnamese tradition of taking down drinks, which you must do when offered as it is considered rude to not drink. With every drink you scream “Một, hai, ba, dzô!” which is Vietnamese for “1, 2, 3, in!”. The Aussies in pure Aussie fashion were pretty lit up on Bia’s before even getting to dinner (we found out later they had 56) so with the shots of rice wine things got a little loose. We soon were getting cunts, facking cockheads, mates, and other Austrailian terms of endearment thrown our way. With names like Sharpie and Digger you couldn’t help but revel in all the down under frenzy surrounding us. These guys were too much fun. Our host Nam was not to be out down either! His english got worse the more he drank but the one thing he could say very clearly was “I am very drunk”. The three of us snuck off to find our beds cause we knew if the Aussies had anything to do with it we’d be way to hungover for our own good in the morning.
Day Two: Thác Bà Lake to Hà Giang
-Fuck roosters. Fuck those fucking fucks. Every rooster in the entire village all start crowing at 4 am on the dot. No guilt in eating chicken after this trip. It will be eaten with pleasure. Breakfast was served at sun up. Fresh homemade crepes with local papaya, bananas, honey, and coffee. The classic Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê sữa đá) was not as available up here but the instant coffee that is everywhere in these rural regions was pretty damn good and hit the spot. As expected the Aussies were hurting and running a lot slower than us.
-We packed and got pics w/ the family. After thanking everyone and wishing well to all, the four of us were on the road again. Tan took us all around the lake and across a very old suspension bridge. The lake road soon began to climb up into the mountains and the peaks grew ever higher and higher. The roadside was covered in drying wood. Tan explained to us that its wood that is sent off to china to become plywood. Jake and I were dead set it was bamboo but Radke was sure it wasn’t so we put a little wager on it. We stopped at a processing facility and Radke came out 20,000 dong richer.
-As you ride you go in and out of towns and villages. No stop signs, no yields. Just constant movement. Tan took us on some pretty rad single tracks outside the villages. The dirt in this area is a red clay and when its wet its crazy easy to get super squirrelly. After a solid lunch of Water buffalo, veggies, and rice, Tan decided to take us off road again. He wasn’t sure where the track was but when he found it, he found what was easily my favorite part of riding on this trip. We rode off road for hours and kept getting deeper and deeper in the countryside. We crossed a small river and wound in and out of more villages. The best part is no matter how deep you got or how rutted the roads you still ran into plenty of people making their way on the local small 150cc scooters.
-We came to a large river crossing with a hand built bamboo bridge. This was an undiscovered surprise for Tan and his excitement got us pumped. We paid the 5000 dong each to farmer collecting tolls to cross and one at a time rode across the sketchiest bridge we have ever ridden. After relaxing for a bit on the other side we faced more deep rutted track until we came out to a main road again.
-At this point we jammed towards the city of Ha Giang making our way to the village of Phương Độ. When traffic become congested we just passed at will. Lines are merely suggested. Tonights lodging would be at Cay’s Homestay in Phương Độ, an idyllic little farming village full of the traditional stilt houses. We took a sunset stroll to watch the sun fall behind the breathtaking mountains that stood like monstrous shark teeth. Back at the homestay dinner was just like last night. Family style drenched in rice wine shots. After a day like today, sleep was a breeze.
to be continued….
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Published - Dec 13, 2011