Organising a motorcycle adventure tour through the rarely-visited Ha Giang region of Northern Vietnam is challenging assuring riders of BIG bikes that 125cc is enough grunt for the mountainous terrain. Somewhat convinced, we set off to be schooled on riding Vietnam roads. We’re told to stay on the right-hand-side and dodge bikes, cars, cyclos, trucks, and meandering pedestrians. We try only worry about looking straight ahead, as we’re told, defying all Australian road safety rules and ingrained motorbike knowledge. On the outskirts of Hanoi we don ponchos in the sticky weather and travel trails rarely seen by westerners – let alone westerners on motorbikes. We stirred interest in locals receiving waves and funny looks and the sensory overload saw fertile farmland; pungent smells; heat; and the cacophony of noisy bikes, cars, trucks and buffalos all vying for our attention in chaotic harmony.
Riding the regional roads was exhausting but exhilarating with us vigilant about children on the shoulder; dogs asleep in the middle and the ever-terrifying buses who give racing cars a run for their money. Their deafening horns like raging rhinos roaring up behind you.
Heading north from Hanoi over eight hours, buildings and towns receded into countryside. When we reached the tiny town of Ha Giang locals stared bemused and children raced after us laughing. Our hotel parking for the night was interestingly accessible via the lobby so, hilariously, seventeen dirty, dusty bikes rode through the entrance past reception out the back door.
We travelled next morning to Dong Van We’d been told the views along the way would be good, but riding it outshone our expectations. The roads coiling through the deep valleys below mountains defining the Chinese border were in good condition and we passed rice paddy fields and countless cornfields which were planted on mountains too steep for many of us to climb. The rivers guided us past small villages dwarfed by the mountain range above. Their panoramic expanse appreciated at a lookout above Dong Van. It rates as the best view I’ve seen my whole travelling life.
In Dong Van we watched in awe as children played on steep mountain ledges like confident mountain goats. Being a trading post between Vietnam and China, Dong Van has a Chinese sensibility. It was here I bought pillows for my seat as pillion and the extra padding was a welcome relief for my backside on the long bumpy pot-holed roads back to Ha Giang.
“Sin chow” (hello in Vietnamese) echoed through villages as we waved at locals and timid children approached us with obvious poverty. Their dirty faces smiling as they played with simple things like plastic bottles and stones humbled us. We took photos and watched the children excitedly recognise themselves on camera. Little performers emerged as their confidence grew with silly faces. Returning to their modest clay houses, we noticed they lacked basic essentials but surprisingly were kitted-out with a motorbike and a satellite dish, linking families to an ordinary world.
It was in Hoang Su Phi we found refuge in a hotel oasis, concealed by a small cable bridge from the main street. We felt isolated from the bustle of the village, surrounded by lush tropical rainforest with ample fresh produce and a communal bar shared by a resident pony with a taste for beer. Drinkers were met with a cheeky head through the window beckoning for a share of their ale, and we obliged.
After dinner we swam in the river, sacrificed a room key to it and indulged in hot herbal baths and massages. After resting overnight we headed onward through the low-lying forest to Bac Ha where we encountered women in colourful, elaborate clothing and had our first western meal since leaving Hanoi.
Reluctantly we were edging back onto the tourist trail but settled in to enjoy some comforts from home. With our journey consisting mostly of authentic Vietnamese cuisine till now, the introduction of western food bought a cutlery division. Chopstick-wielding diners sat at one end of the table and knife-and-fork users at the other, like rival gangs facing off. Steaming hotpots of fresh local cuisine were ferried to the chopstickers, while hamburgers and chips were taken to the others.
By day seven the downhill portion of the ride was a welcome change and we stopped briefly in Lao Cai to view China across the river. We continued uphill into Sapa overlooking the highest peak in South East Asia – the mystical Fansipan Mountain. The innocence of locals from Hoang Su Phi were lost to memory as shyness was replaced by a never-ending chorus of “you buy from me” from the Hmong villagers.
At this time a new split had emerged. Partiers and sensible early-to bed types. The ones who strayed watched well-earned beers turn to rice wine chasing the dawn and the sensible types got a good night’s rest. The rice wine tarnished the partiers (me included) and our day-after therapy included treks, massage; lounging in cafés, or purchasing handicrafts from the locals with baskets strapped to their backs. Locals were keen to chat, surprising us with their fantastic and often cheeky command of English.
Setting off from the markets on the final leg of the ride we saddled our bikes for the last time and enjoyed the easy terrain which gave us time to reflect. The bikes now proven workhorses were transferred by overnight train to Hanoi and our group safely tucked away in bunk bed cabins.
On our final day we beat the heat by catching an early bus to Halong Bay for an overnight cruise on a traditional Junk boat – a stunning tribute to the ancient treasure boats from China. We cruised through limestone peaks that shaped the bay with our group taking respite in sunbathing and summoning a perfect end to a memorable trip.