In late October 2015 I went on an eleven day motorbike trip around Northern Vietnam. This is the second post from a series of posts about the journey (the first one is available here) and it covers the first four days of the trip – the journey from Hanoi to Sapa.
This is the part of the trip where I’ve spent one night in the colorful valley of Mai Chau and two more nights in the small towns and villages somewhere between Hanoi and Sapa without meeting a single foreigner and barely anyone that spoke English. After three days of mingling with the locals it was a shock once I’ve arrived to Sapa, where the situation was the complete opposite – just us, tourists, everywhere and almost no Vietnamese … except the ones that want to sell you something. But that’s the story for the next post. Now let’s get on with this one.
Day 1 – on the road from Hanoi to the valley of Mai Chau
I had to pick up my motorbike at the rental shop before I could start my journey. The guys there showed me how to attach my big backpack to the motorbike, gave me some basic instructions and around 9 AM I was on my way.
It was time to get familiar with the motorbike, so I took it very slow. Well, the traffic in Hanoi wouldn’t let me go fast anyway.
The first part of the journey is quite boring – breathing the fumes and dust of the traffic in Hanoi and a few empty, uninteresting towns after it.
It stays this way until after the town of Hoa Binh when …
I’ve reached Mai Chau at 3 PM, just after around 135 km, a lunch break and a few photo stops on the way.
Mai Chau is home to the White Thai minority, who are distantly related to the tribes of Thailand, China and Laos. A lot of foreign and local tourists come to Mai Chau to experience a night or two in a traditional Thai wooden stilt house, marvel at the colorful and never ending stream of rice fields or just to get away from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.
I too have spent the night in one of the homestays, which all really look and promise the same – a glimpse of the local life and a night with the family in their wooden house on stilts. The price for a night including dinner and breakfast was 150.000 VND (~7 USD) after some haggling. The family stayed in the other “room” and minded their own business, so I didn’t want to intrude on them either. The food was good and WiFi really added up to the “rural Vietnam experience”.
There was still some light left after I’d settled down, so I went for a quick drive around Mai Chau and its villages.
I had to stop at a Xe Om (mechanic) on the way back, because the exhaust started making loud noises – the screws at the engine untightened, so that needed to be fixed. Such fixes are very cheap. The cost for the new rubber that keeps everything tight between the engine and the exhaust was 20.000 VND (less than 1 USD). And even though the guys at the motorbike rental shop said the engine oil was still good for a few hundred kilometres, I’ve decided to change it, so I had peace of mind for the next 1000 km. The cost for a bottle of oil and oil change was only 100.000 VND (4,5 USD).
The plan was to write for the blog a bit after I got back to my “room” and had dinner, but loud music and laughter started coming from one of the neighboring yards and I had to check it out.
What I’ve found was a group of already quite drunk locals, partying and dancing (jumping over wooden poles on the ground) … and when I came closer, there was no escape – they grabbed my hand and dragged me to the dance floor, everybody was taking pictures of me and I had to drink rice wine with every single one of them. After 30 minutes I had to run or I would not be waking up in the morning …
Day 2 – Mai Chau to … the first screw up!
The morning in Mai Chau
The plan was to wake up as early as possible and go photographing around Mai Chau in the early morning light. I managed to get up, but have waited for the breakfast for almost one hour. I’ve unfortunately lost some of the precious golden morning light, but still … it’s hard not to make beautiful pictures in Mai Chau, no matter what time of day. I went driving around for two hours and rice harvest was in full swing. I was lucky that I still managed to catch this, since it was late October and the autumn harvest is usually in September.
The locals are very much used to getting their photographs taken, but some of them expect to receive money for it. I don’t have problems with that if they are polite (which is really not always the case – especially in Sapa). I also try to ask before taking a picture most of the time – at least show and point at the camera from afar – and if they say no or demand money in a non-polite way, I just don’t do it. Anyway, there were plenty of interesting people around Mai Chau …
From Mai Chau to the road that doesn’t exist and back again
It was past 10:00 AM and I had to get moving. The plan was to get to Phu Yen, which was 155 km away. A pretty realistic plan, but little did I know I’ll screw up so hard.
I’ve entered my destination into Sygic (an offline navigation application on my phone), made sure it showed a route that looked somewhat like the one that was drawn on my paper map and was on my way.
The main road towards Son La went by fast and when I saw a billboard beside the road for a waterfall after ~30 kilometres, I had to make the detour. It was only 10 km – should be quick.
It was a very steep road down and I wanted to turn around at first, but …
I’ve reached the waterfall soon and it was quite unimpressive, so I quickly turned around, but this whole detour still took almost an hour and a half of my time.
I quickly returned to the main road, continued my way and at that time still thought I could make it to Phu Yen.
But then the big screw up happened. I got so lost by my navigation app that I lost another two hours. To keep it short – my navigation soon decided that it was time to get off the main road and go uphill on a smaller road. Everything seemed right and it looked like it knew where we are going, but soon there was no more paved road and well … at times there was no road at all.
And after 20 kilometres the navigation on my phone decided it was time to turn around and head back. Just like that.
Damn, was I pissed, I almost smashed my phone, but … I took a deep breath and drove back to the main road, still swearing.
No way to reach Phu Yen today, so where to now?
First, I had to figure out how far I’ve come. Without the navigation. I took out my paper map and started asking people. I then marked the next town on my way – Moc Chau, only 75 km from my startpoint.
It was getting dark when I reached it, so I just called it a day and decided I’ll wake up early and make up for this screw up the next day. After 20 minutes of driving around town I’ve found out that there is only one (!) hotel in town – the Thao Nguyen Hotel. Luckily, it was very nice. A bit more expensive than what I usually paid for on this trip, but it was some much needed comfort. The communicated price for a night with breakfast was 500.000 VND (22 USD), but they gladly lowered it to 400.000 VND (18 USD).
All in all I made 130 km that day, 55 of which went for the “unplanned”. It was time to get my shit together.
Day 3: Moc Chau to Tu Le
I slept like a baby and after the breakfast (a bowl of Pho Bo – beef noodle soup) I was ready for a full day of motorbike riding. I made very little stops this day and literally drove for 5 hours straight, except one stop for lunch and …
Shortly after getting off the boat it almost ended up badly.
There was a horse standing at the side of the road and luckily I slowed down almost to a halt, because a big truck was approaching. I met the truck just before I passed the horse, who probably got scared of it and suddenly jumped on the road and started kicking in all directions. I stopped just a few inches away from his kicks (I felt the “wind” from the kick on my fingers!). I don’t even want to imagine how badly this would end if I got hit.
I slept in a small village town of Tu Le, which I’ve reached just before dark. The first place I’ve stopped at had a room and some food – my third Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) in one day. And well … some rice wine (… schnapps).
It was funny how almost everybody at the place came to sit at my table when I ate, stared at me, smiled and wanted me to drink with them. I did a few shots and after the usual conversation (What’s your name? Where are you from? How many children? …) with the help of Google Translate application on my phone got old, I went to sleep.
Day 4: From Tu Le to Sapa
Again, a smooth day of motorbike riding.
It hit me on this day that the views are getting more and more impressive, but the greens and yellows are nowhere to be found. They’ve finished with the harvest in these parts and I’ve missed the golden yellow colored rice fields by two to three weeks.
So, the best time to visit Northern Vietnam to see the rice fields in all their glory is:
- For the greens – they peak in June – but it’s the rainy season then, so be prepared for some rain.
- For the golden yellows, just before the harvest – (early) September
I progressed quickly this day, so I started taking it easy with more frequent photo stops later on, especially because the roadside villages were full of life, with locals working on the harvested crops.
The Tram Ton Pass – one of the highlights, just before reaching Sapa
Just 15 km before Sapa the road passes the Tram Ton Pass, which at 1900 m is Vietnam’s highest mountain pass. If you are ever in Sapa, do rent a motorbike (a scooter is ok) and drive through the pass and back from there. The scenery is amazing.
Just when the road starts descending down to Sapa, there is a possible stop at the Love waterfall. It was still plenty of daylight left, so I’ve decided to check it out. It’s an easy 2 km walk to the waterfall and worth stopping at. There’s another, bigger waterfall before you reach Sapa, but I was too tired to go see both.
I’ve reached Sapa around 4:00 PM, after 660 km, found a place to sleep and … went for a pizza (after almost two months!). It wasn’t the best pizza, but damn was I happy to finally taste one again!
It was then time to get ready for two days of trekking around Sapa.