December 4-8, 2022
Our first day out of Hanoi was a long one at around 145 miles. For the first couple of hours north, the road is fairly flat and straight, and only towns and traffic limit the average speed to between thirty and thirty five miles per hour. After that, you begin to enter the karst mountains of the Ha Giang area. The twisty mountain roads, combined with the conditions and the obstacles mean that for the next five or six days our average speed will be between twenty and twenty five miles per hour, and we will very rarely see above forty mikes per hour.
Our first night in the North is spent on the shore of Ba Be Lake in a homestay. This is the most common type of accommodation here. It’s basically a Bed & Breakfast. Many homes here are built large, with three or four floors and two or more bedrooms per level. The local village or community comes together to help a family build a home, and that home often will house an extended family. This may likely be the only home the family ever lives in, possibly for several generations.
Accomodations (homestays) are plentiful and easy to find, identified by a sign out front that may say “Homestay” or “Nhà Nghi” (“Guest house”), or simply “Có phòng” (“room available”). Most of the homestays we’ve stayed at are between VND250,000 ($10) and VND300,000 ($12) per night, including breakfast and often dinner. Some charge extra for dinner.
The view of Ba Be Lake from our terrace.
Homestay means eating meals with the host family. There are a lot of cultural traditions and rules that go along with dinner in Vietnam, and we’re learning (and making mistakes) as we go.
Vietnamese drip coffee with condensed milk on the terrace in the morning.
A member of the local H.O.G. Chapter headed to market.
We tend to keep our helmet intercoms on while we ride, not only to allow us to discuss what we are seeing, but more importantly to warn each other about what we are seeing. Live obstacles are a constant on the roads here. In a matter of two or three miles, we will see all of the following, in descending order of quantity:
- Dogs: they sleep on the shoulder of the road, often stretching into the road. They are unfazed by vehicles passing within inches of them at speed. They also wander the roads but rarely step out in front of you (but don’t count on that). We’ve never had one chase us.
- Chickens: they hang out mostly in the ditches on the sides of the road, but occasionally try to cross the road. Two have paid the price for their ill-timed attempts, taking bank-shots off the side of the bike, but living to try again.
- Toddlers: this place (okay Graeme, probably India as well) established the saying “go play in the road”. It’s common to see toddlers (and older children) walking or playing on the shoulders, unattended. On school days, there may be dozens of children walking along the shoulders. Often a small group of what looks like ages 4 to 5, walking together but without anyone older, miles from anywhere. For all of the potential for chaos, things seem to go smoothly, and the cars and trucks barely slow down.
- Pigs: In some areas more than others, we’ve passed black pigs and piglets. They’re cute, but they’re not going to bounce off the bike like a chicken.
- Water buffalo: these are usually in herds of three but sometimes more, being herded by a farmer along the road. They often take up the entire road.
Headed out of Ba Be to Meo Vac:
We made it into Meo Vac, which was our destination, from Ba Be. I had found a guest house a couple of hours earlier on Booking.com and made a reservation. When we pulled up to the address, the name wasn’t the same and a woman standing outsode kept smiling and pointing at the place as if to say, “Yes, you’re here. Come on in.” Something just didn’t seem right, so we rode a little ways down the street and stopped and I googled the place I had booked. It turns out that our guest house was actually in Dong Van, another fourteen miles up the road (almost another hour). I don’t know if Booking.com legitimately screwed up the address, or if this lady somehow highjacked their listing, but we left Meo Vac and continued towards Dong Van.
Stopping for gas on the way to Meo Vac. After about a gallon she had to stop and switch to a different 55 gallon drum.
Not far out of Meo Vac we came around a corner and were smacked straight in the face by an incredible panorama. This was the Ma Pi Leng Pass.
We eventually found our guest house in Dong Van and checked in. We knew before we arrived that we were supposed to have a special permit to travel in this area (Called an “Entry Permit to the Restricted Border Area” — more on this in the next post), but we hadn’t obtained it yet. Our host told us that we were required to have it in order to stay in the area, and that he would show me where to go in the morning to get it. This past week has been the first time in all of my travels that I have relied on Google Translate in order to communicate, and I’m surprised at how well it works. I’ve had full conversations with locals just using our phones and it hasn’t failed me yet. Once in a while I’ll stumble into someone who doesn’t read, but playing the audio overcomes the issue.
Since this guest house didn’t serve food, we walked down the street to a restaurant for dinner. This place became our go-to for meals over the next couple of days.
In the morning the wife of our host took me on the back of her scooter to the local police station, where it took all of ten minutes to obtain our permits. Then we were off to the North Pole, or the Lüng Cú Flagpoint, the northernmost point in Vietnam, on the border with China.
I can probably count the number of times I’ve ridden as a passenger over the last 50 years on one hand, so I had to document the fact that I was riding as a passenger on a scooter, being operated by a woman I met ten minutes earlier, in a foreign country. Kinda cool, actually.
The tower is 30 meters (98 feet) tall, and sits at 4600 feet above sea level. The flag is 54 square meters. It’s over 800 steps from the bottom of the hill to the flag, but we were able to ride to the visitor center and park there. From thete, it’s 289 steps to the base of the monument and tower, and another 135 steps up a spiral staircase inside the tower to the viewing area.
The large area of formal buildings across from the monument is a Buddhist Monastery. Just beyond that is China. Note how abruptly the road stops on the right.
We headed back down from Lûng Cú back to Dong Van for another night, eating dinner at the same restaurant. I had a great tasting bowl of braised pork stew, and several hours later it retaliated. I ended up sick enough that we spent an extra day in Dong Van so I could (somewhat) recover.
I had planned to ride over the “Sky Path”, a narrow trail really intended for hiking that runs above the highway and offers an even grander view of Ma Pi Leng, but my stomach troubles canceled that.
Feeling weak but at least able to leave the bathroom for more than a few minutes, we headed off in a shroud of clouds and mist to begin moving south towards Yen Minh and Ha Giang. We quickly realized two things:
1. We were swimming upstream against the Gringo Current. Apparently most tourists start their travel in this area in Ha Giang or Yen Minh, and rent scooters there to travel to Ma Pi Leng Pass. We continued to pass hoardes of American and German backpackers on scooters in trains of 12 to 15, being led by a guide on a scooter with a 10-foot flagpole on the back and a large Vietnam flag. Others were on their own, in groups of four to six scooters. We helped one of these groups find their way after they came up on a “road closed” block and didn’t know where to go. Overall I was very glad to have avoided all of that and to be going in the opposite direction.
2. All of these tourists,riding scooters in the mist and drizzle for hours wearing thin plastic ponchos and old, tattered open-face helmets with no face protection, were not going to see anything when they got to Ma Pi Leng because the clouds were so low and visibility was down to maybe 100 feet at most. We had been lucky and arrived before the weather changed.
We continued south in limited visibilty past Ha Giang. The roads flattened out more often and we were able to increase our speed when the clouds broke. It was strange to hit 35 mph and even 40 on occasion. Forty miles an hour suddenly felt like we were on an open freeway doing sixty five. The random dog sleeping on the road, chickens or kids would reign us back in. Unfortunately south of Ha Giang the road also becomes clogged with large trucks, and for the first time I was able to find a use for this large 500cc engine, though the roads still made passing difficult.
We ended up at another home this night — Toong Homestay — and had a very enjoyable meal. I wasn’t fully recovered from my food issue of a couple of days ago, so I was very cautious and didn’t eat much.
At dinner we met Jimmy and Soh Kwan from Singapore. They attended University of Houston in the 1980s and returned to Singapore after living in the States for 15 years. They were touring Vietnam with a local guide, Mr Tanh. We really enjoyed their company, and learning more about both Vietnam people and culture from Mr Tanh and Singapore from Jimmy and Soh Kwan. My favorite take-away was Jimmy’s description of housing in Singapore. We were talking about the limited space and expense of housing — especially ground level real estate — and he said something to the effect of “we are all trapped thirty five floors in the air.”
Jimmy and Soh Kwan on the right; Mr Tanh in the center.
Our dinner at Toong Homestay. The family served the guests at one table, then set a separate table next to us and they all sat there. Understandable as it was a large group. I wish I had been feeling better and thought to take photos.