As we have been making our way up the coast of Vietnam we have encountered many travellers. In meeting so many it's nice to chat and discuss places they have been and recommend, as well as, give them our recommendations in return. In some of these discussions we discovered an increasingly popular way to see the whole country is to buy/rent a motorbike and drive from one side of the country to the other. Some of the people we met were on their journey from North to South Vietnam and told us how incredibly beautiful the most northern part of Vietnam is, and that we couldn't miss it. One dutch traveller, Martin, told us he motorcycles through Europe often and specifically came to Vietnam to make this trip on motorcycle; he recommended a few spots in the far north that were his highlight routes and even told us after motorcycling the north, he's not sure he will ever top that experience in his life. Another Aussie we met had been planning a motorbike trip to Vietnam for almost a year, his reason for being in Vietnam was entirety dedicated to tackling as many roads through the northern mountains stopping in little towns and villages along the way to rest his head. After hearing these stories we were obviously sold on doing something similar in the North, and made sure we allocated at least a week for this loop. The route would start in major northern city Hanoi and end back in Hanoi. After researching some local motorbike rental shops we ended up at one called Phung Motorcycles and they were more than helpful getting us set up to roll. We tested two bikes (Hayden on his own and Brittany and I on one) they even let us leave our huge 65L backpacks in a safe room above their shop. So we strapped only the essentials to the back of our respective rides and put on a few layers of our warmest clothes, as it was 16 degrees in Hanoi at the time. We had several conversations with some locals in Hanoi that we had planned to rip up north and do this loop and some of the feedback was "you must be very brave, north Vietnam very cold" and "I would not go up north this time of year because I'm already too cold in Hanoi" I took the comments with a grain of salt as I am a abnormally large Canadian man, right? Within two hours of our first leg of the trip up to Ha Giang, I had already pulled over on two separate occasions to buy wool gloves and a thick jacket fit for a harsh Canadian winter. All for 230,000 Vietnam Dong or $13.00 CAD. Britters being the smart woman she is bought a nice comfy knock off North Face in Hanoi before leaving for $18 CAD. We spent time on major express ways, smaller highways, two lane highways and one lane roads.. All filled with tour busses, local busses, 18 wheelers rigs, overloaded dump trucks, and cement trucks driving way to fast using the loudest/most frightening horns ever in which they ALWAYS use right as they blow past you or while they're overtaking another truck coming right at you...in your lane. Let's just say that a misty shit shower from a speedy tour bus (see previous blog post) was likely the least of my worries. These vehicles absolutely run the roads of Vietnam and you slow down/squeeze as far onto the shoulder as possible when they approach...or die. On top of this you also need to use what's left of your focus to avoid; stray dogs, chickens crossing the road (seriously why do the chickens need to cross the road, this age old joke still a complete mystery to me), water buffalo, tiny children on massive bicycles, tiny children running down the road unsupervised, sparatic roosters (I hit one), pot holes, people standing in the middle of traffic, loose gravel, wet spots (almost the death of Hayden) and pigs. Lastly, other motorbikes are weaving through traffic like bees; some filled with families of up to 5, strapped with massive living/dead pigs, overloaded boxes, living dogs, fruit baskets, and some (for some strange reason) with over 50 pigeons, ducks or chicken tied down.
So yeah, to say our first 310km trip was mentally taxing would be an understatement. However, equally fasincating to see this type of lifestyle and take part in it as safely as possible (this part is for all the moms reading this)
It wouldn't be a true South East Asian motorbike experience without any sort of motorbike trouble so, of course, we spent about 3 hours in local mechanic shops on the first day. Hayden's bike was first to give when the back tire popped and required a new one.
Almost an hour before sunset Ruby's back spokes began to snap causing our tire to wobble more and more until we were unable to drive any further. Luckily we pulled over beside a small house where a lady was outside, we used Google Translate to get the point across we needed a mechanic, she calls her husband outside and he opens his garage, sure enough he's the small village's mechanic, wild luck. He fixed the spokes well enough to get to Ha Giang and we paid him for his help.
Although we had to ride in the dark for the last two hours, in roughly 7 degrees Celsius, we made it to Ha Giang. First day taking on the wild north: departed Hanoi at 0930 and arrived Ha Giang at 1945. The next morning we had roughly 150km to get to the neighbouring big town of Dong Van. Doesn't seem too bad compared to the day before, however, when the roads look like this...
150km can quikly turn into a full day adventure. We put on every layer of clothing we brought with us and hit the road. Sorry wait, Ruby decided to act up again and 5 more spokes had snapped off, so we took her into the shop in the early morning.
This is actually a great segway into why we named her Ruby. She was a Red Yahmaha Sirius and this being our second time with her in the shop on our second day...I dropped a "Yeah, more like a Yahmaha R U Sirius?!" so, came to be, Ruby Ursula Sirius. Ha Giang to Dong Van was an unbelievable cruise, the roads up there are a lot more secluded and less travelled. We would still come across trucks and smaller busses, typically transferring locals through some of the northern towns and villages. However, completely peaceful and worry free in comparison to the roads to Ha Giang. We were able to not only take our time and pull over for the occasional photo but we were able to have the narrow road to ourselves, for sometimes 10km at a time. Making it easy to enjoy the surrounding mountain views and wave to the villagers.
One point during the trip we hit a beautiful winding road that curved up the mountain. We pulled over to fly the drone and capture a birds eye view and were immediately greeted by local children from a nearby village. Kids love drones regardless of where you are but these kids were seeing one for the first time. We had a great time meeting them and laughed as they just played and giggled, we even posed for a few photos together. After that the remaining ride to Dong Van was up and down mountains, the scenery was hard to believe.
The next morning was the portion of the journey I was most looking forward to, based on our conversations with other travellers. The first 20km from Dong Van to Bao Lac, the Ma Pi Leng Pass. As soon as we climbed the mountain leaving Dong Van we turned the corner to one of, if not, the most beautiful place I've ever been in my life. An absolutely massive canyon tearing through the middle of a mountain range with sharp & rolling peaks, with the most carefully constructed little road winding through it all. This 20km stretch took us about an hour and a half since every corner we rounded involved pulling over to truly absorb it all. And I mean let's be real, to snap some of the hottest profile pics ever seized! Photo shoot was 'lit' as the young kids would say. This was definitely the most beautiful road I've ever been on, uncontested.
Over the next few days the views changed drastically, but were all equally mind blowing. The further we went north east the smaller the villages and the roads became. Huge smiles and waves from the hardworking farmers we passed and all the giggles from the curious children we stopped to play with. We ate the best Pho we've ever eaten (and we had a lot to compare) in a tiny village where water buffalo roamed the dirt roads and the man & woman who made it for us sat by and watched us eat to ensure we enjoyed it. We came across a tiny elementary school with maybe 4 classrooms amongst another mountain range and decided to make a pit stop. We were welcomed with smiles by the teacher into one classroom where they seemed to be doing arts and crafts, math and language all within the same classroom. Not even 5 minutes had passed before children from all classrooms had run over and eventually the entire school was surrounding the classroom we were in. We laughed and high fived some kids while others hid behind friends...laughed, nervously ran over to slap Britt's or Hayden's hand and then ran away again laughing. One teacher spoke enough English to inform us we were 7km from China and that the students don't learn English, because there are no teachers nearby who know enough English. This was just another stop that made this trip so special.
One of our final stops was a full day trip out to Thac Ban Giac Waterfall, on the boarder of Vietnam and China. This is the 4th largest waterfall on an international boarder in the world, behind Niagara Falls, Victoria Falls and Iguazu Falls... such a incredible spot that had once again blown us away.
I even got the drone out and flew it across to China just to capture this photo from this angle. I will admit there were brief moments of anxiety thinking it may get shot down or have some sort of short circuit crossing a barrier into China. All went according to plan however.
From Cao Bang we made our last trip down to Hanoi which was another impressive push, but made it happen with an early start at 0700, arriving at 1500.
The three of us were not entirely sure what to expect from this northern loop adventure. We heard beautiful views, "motorcycle heaven", amazing people, cheap local food, rustic accommodations, rural Vietnam, scary/dangerous driving at times, rough roads at times, and one thing for sure was cold weather and horrific rain. After our experience we encountered every single one of those things except for the horrific rain thankfully, we went for it well knowing it could have been miserable driving in 5-15'C wet conditions, and it blew away our expectations. Aside from the early morning chill, we spent a week driving in the sunshine. We collectively agree that this journey from Hanoi around the north of Vietnam back to Hanoi, was the greatest week of our lives. I will sign off with some more photos, hope you enjoy.
Carter Bender & Brittany Wilson left Toronto, Canada to travel the world. Where will they be next? Follow their #cbwtravels blog to find out!