Motorbike Adventure 26 November 2009Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Life, Vietnam.
Tags: adventure, motorbike, Travels
The one thing that I really wanted to fit in during my time in Vietnam, above all other things, was a motorbike adventure. It is something that I have thought about, talked about, researched a little, but not really made eventuate just yet.
Luckily, there is a time for everything.
My brother came to visit. He loves his motorbikes, and the plan was to go on a trip while he was here. We thought that if we could plan it around the weekend, my partner would also be able to join us. Initially, we thought a train trip somewhere, like Sapa, and then two days of exploring, like we’ve done before, but when I realised that my partner was going to be able to take a couple of days off, the trip started forming in our minds. And what an adventure!
On Friday, I spent the day running errands, hiring bikes, buying snacks and water, etc. For those of you who are interested in motorbikes, we decided on two Honda XR 125, and one Honda Future Neo.
Friday night, we had booked train tickets and were all set to go on the night train to Lao Cai. However, at the station, we were told that two of the bikes (the XRs) would be unable to go on the train, because they did not have centre stands. Frustrated by the fact that the man who rented them to us had not mentioned this, even though he knew we were planning to go on the train, my partner swore a little under his breath. And thus the adventure started; the lady who we were dealing with thought he had been calling her names, and therefore refused to let the bikes on the train.
He had certainly not insulted her, unless he had said something in Vietnamese with the wrong tones (which sometimes happens to all of us), but the lady would not budge. She had heard a bad name, and refused to help. We called the guy at the rental shop, and asked him to speak to them, but still nothing. He said that we should have just smiled and nodded and given them some money, and not called them names. (Which, as we said before, we hadn’t!) Very helpful.
We were thus stuck at the station with tickets for us, but not the bikes. The most frustrating thing about this, of course, was that there are just no clear guidelines. If bikes like that would never be allowed on the train, then that would have been the end of the story. But if the bikes are allowed on if we smile and nod and bribe, what kind of business are they running at the station, right?
Two random Vietnamese men hanging out at the station eventually struck up a conversation with my partner, and went in to bat for us. For no other reason than being nice guys, I think. They negotiated a deal with the angry lady that the bikes would go on, as long as my partner would sign a statement that said that any damage made to the bikes or to other bikes caused by our bikes would be paid for by us. A handwritten document was quickly drafted and signed, the lady was apologised to, and the bikes went on the train. And so did we.
The ‘soft-sleeper’ beds that we had tickets for were the hardest soft sleepers I have ever had the pleasure(?) of travelling on, and this, combined with sharing a cabin with Mr. Farty McSnor-Snor, made this an exceptionally uncomfortable trip. I think I was awake at least half of the night, and the fact that the beds were too short for all three of us made us very sore indeed before even starting. But we were too excited to care.
Arriving in Lao Cai just after dawn is wonderful, the air is fresh and clean compared to Hanoi, and it was actually quite chilly. Normally, people hassle you for all sort of things the moment you exit the station, but having your own transport with you meant that no one really tried to hustle us into a vehicle or anything like that. The only person approaching us was trying to sell coffee, but he also very happily told us where the petrol station was.
On closer inspection, one of the clutch leavers on one of the touring bikes had snapped, so the bike had probably fallen over in the train. So, the hunt for motorbike levers started. At the Honda dealership (which we stumbled upon after asking a few small repair shops whether they had the parts) we had to wait for a long time, because the mechanic had not arrived yet (although he was due any moment!). But it all got fixed eventually.
I had, in all my foresight, packed sandwiches for breakfast the night before, because I am useless if I do not get food into me. So, munching away on cheese and ham sandwiches, talking to the fifteen or so locals that have come to look at the bikes, was an interesting start to the day. Although I must admit that it is hilarious when the Honda dealer wants to try your dirt bike because, although it being a Honda, he has never seen one like it before!
We drove from there to Bac Ha. It is a two hour drive, mostly uphill into the mountains. Bac Ha is sometimes touted as an alternative to Sa Pa, where tourism is now the main income. But due to the distance from Lao Cai (two versus one hour) and the lack of infrastructure (the hotels available are all very basic), it has not seen as much growth in tourism as Sa Pa. Which is amazing in one way, because it is a real gem. The town itself is like any other Vietnamese mountain town; small, dusty, and nothing much going for it. But the surrounding countryside is amazing, with tall mountains, rice paddies and locals who have not grown sick of tourists and will therefore wave to you and pose for pictures.
We rode the bikes towards the Chinese border (although not to close, as the Vietnamese get a bit jittery about that) in this vast landscape with deep valleys and high, pointy peaks. The tops of the mountains were shrouded in mist, and the buffaloes, chickens and tiny piglets running around makes it feel like ‘real’ Vietnam.
Staying overnight in Bac Ha to see the morning market was definitely worth it, too. The town comes to life, as the surrounding villages all stream into the market to sell and buy their wares. At one end of the market, food stalls and meat products, not for the squeamish type (including entire pigs heads, and puddles of blood throughout the thoroughfares) the middle section was full of fruit and vegetables. Then a small section of touristy things like scarves and embroidered pillows, which are the same as in Sa Pa, but cheaper.
Across the road, though, near the permanent market, is where the most amazing displays of colours were to be found. This is where the local women barter over the brightly coloured skirts, and there is a flurry of reds and greens, yellows, and, for some reason, fluorescent pink. The Flower H’Mong, which is the minority with the highest representation in Bac Ha, really do honour to their name, with costumes in any shade of colour as long as it is strong.
If you are at the market before 10am, you miss the rush of tourists that come in from Sa Pa on a day trip, and you get to really do some people watching, which is what we were there for. Almost every woman I saw also had a child with large, brown eyes and who were wearing adorable hats, strapped to their backs. Farmers were bringing in their live stock (kittens, puppies, pigs, chickens, ducks and buffaloes) to sell.
When there were too many tourists starting to mingle in the crowds, my brother had a quick hair cut and shave (which was hilarious, but apparently quite painful) before we set off to our next destination.
From Bac Ha, we wanted to take the road to Xin Man for lunch, and then on to Hoang Su Phi. Going up the road, though, it soon turned out that the rented bikes were more bunged up than they had first appeared.
One of the bikes kept conking out in second gear, and as my partner was trying to maneuver the bike and shift gears, it all of a sudden slipped out from underneath him when he hit a patch of gravel. Luckily, he had not been going fast, and my brother was behind him, so he could stop and help him up. I had powered up ahead, and was waiting at a beautiful view further up the road, and had missed the entire accident. But I turned back when they did not show up, and found them next to the road, slightly scraped (knee a little bloody and a sore shoulder) and bike number two had a broken clutch lever.
Quite shocked, but otherwise fine, we stayed there for a while, eating chocolate and being watched by five dusty little kids. They were extremely grubby, and one of the little boys was not wearing any bottoms. Slowly, they were edging closer to us, until they were literally looking over my shoulder into my backpack, where I was pulling out the first aid kit to find some band-aids and some alcohol swipes. Eventually, I gave them each a caramel, which I normally do not do (I don’t like encouraging the rotting of little teeth) but they were just so nosy that they had to be bought to leave us alone. And it worked. After a little rest and when the shock of it all subsided, we continued. My partner now took my bike, which is the same type, although slightly more powerful, as the one we ride at home in Hanoi.
My brother took the bike that had made the tumble and which no longer had a proper clutch lever (we did tie it up with a bungy chord, so it sort of worked), as he is the most experienced rider. I took the last bike, to give my partner a break.
Riding up the mountain, we kept stopping to ask for directions, and it soon became clear that the road to Xin Man was in part a dirt track, with mud and rocks and it also crossed two streams. This was lots of fun, and we went through the most scenic parts of Vietnam that I have ever seen. We even saw a bunch of kids running down a hill towards us with metal hoops, the way you see children roll hoops with sticks in the olden days (or in paintings by the Dutch Masters). Idyllic!
Back on the bitumen road, we had a second tumble. While standing still, the clutch on the bike my brother was driving, suddenly slipped, making the bike surge forward, fall over and trap my brother under it. So a second knee was scraped and a little bloody. And now the break lever, on the other side of the bike, was also dodgy. In the mean time, his alternator was also giving up. “Let’s get dirt bikes” they said…
After yet again fixing it, and this time the clutch holding out, the adventure continues to Xin Man. We ride through Xin Man, and stop for a coffee and petrol, and to eat loads of snacks, before we continue to Hoang Su Phi. We are starting to get a little weary of not making it to the hotel where we booked in time, as we are not riding very fast. We only have about 110 kilometres to do, but the road is not exactly very good, but it is better than we have had so far. The hotel manager seems to think that we can make it, so we try.
We make it to Hoang Su Phi by about three in the afternoon, however, it is another 40km to the hotel where we were planning to stay (a sort of eco lodge that serves as a base camp to people trekking in the mountains), and darkness falls very quickly here.
We decided to attempt it, however, about 15km out, it has become dark, and it has become apparent that the bike my brother is driving has got a very bad light and he needs to drive extremely slowly to be able to stay on the road.
20 or so km in, we drive into the mist, so our speed drops even further, and so does the temperature. We start driving together, alternating the person in front, sticking close together, slowly, slowly riding through the mountains. It is freezing cold, and we are carefully driving along, having regular breaks to drink and snack. Luckily, most other traffic has disappeared, so there is very little on-coming traffic. At one stage, we ride past a little house where the occupants are watching TV. The cracks in the walls emit an eerie blue light in long streaks into the misty night air, it looked like something straight out of twilight zone.
Finally, we arrive at the turn-off to the hotel, which means that we only have 10km more to go. We call ahead to let them know that we are almost there. Then my brother’s bike dies. Completely.
So close, yet so far, and it will not start.
Luckily, there was a group of guys on the side of the road who were either fixing something or looking at something with flash lights, and they appeared all around the bike, pushed my brother aside, pulled it apart, checked the fuel, the ignition and the spark plug, replaced the latter with a spare one that we had in our tool kit, and disappeared again once the bike started. We had just been talking about giving them some money, but before we even had a chance to give them any, they had disappeared into the night. But I hope they know how thankful we were.
The last 9km were almost uneventful after all that. We rode out of the mist, into a little town, through it, over a bridge, and to the hotel.
It was dark, so all we did was have dinner and go to bed, utterly exhausted.
After the eventful day we had before, we decided to stay two nights at the eco lodge. It is nestled in a valley, with great walking opportunities. However, as both the boys were out with sore knees, we instead only went to the town nearby to buy beers, snacks and new motorbike levers (two that were broken, and one extra, just in case). We also went on a short ride around the valley to discover it. It was gorgeous, more chickens and piglets, more farming and wooden houses, and another river. We also saw some of the famous pink buffaloes, including a calf who looked nearly white.
My brother decided to try and cross the river with the bike, because it flowed over a road, and it looked like fun. The locals were staring at me and my partner doubled over and cackling at the sight of my brother flying through the knee-deep water on a motorbike with his legs straight out to prevent his feet from getting wet (he failed). And when he turned around to do it again, we took some brilliant photos of him looking utterly silly.
I was secretly expecting him to fall over in the middle of the river, which would have been funny, but he stayed on.
Most of the rest of the day was spent reading books, eating, drinking beers and playing cards. We needed to recharge those batteries.
Tuesday we started at dawn, to eat some breakfast and to get going back towards Hanoi. About 10 km into the trip, we stop to look at a view and I turn around to see my brother desperately trying to warm his hands on the engine block of his bike. Admittedly, it was our coldest morning yet, but it had not sunk in with me that he did not have gloves. And, like the scene straight out of Dumb and Dumber, I had an extra pair with me which he could have borrowed.
Riding back to Hanoi (about 270 km) was fun, but long. The road is relatively good, and the weather was getting warmer as we descended, but the trucks and buses all driving on the same roads, and the traffic rules being very different from the UK made it for a stressful drive for everyone, especially my brother.
We stopped for lunch to have Pho, and the warm broth was very welcome in the tummies of weary travellers.
About 100 km out from Hanoi, we pulled over, and my partner felt the bike topple under him. Trying to catch it, he accidentally put all of the bike’s weight on the shoulder he had already bumped when he came off the bike two days earlier, and he pulled a muscle or a ligament in his shoulder. This meant that we had to wheel the bikes to the nearest cafe, and sit there for a while.
When he felt a little better, we kept going, but the delays during the day caused us to hit the outskirts of Hanoi just as rush hour hit. On a day of ancestor worship according to the lunar calendar. So, to say the least, it was busy! We were literally in a sea of helmets, with two bikes that were so cranky by this stage that they refused to idle. This meant that when traffic stopped (as in, all the time), they would conk out. And then we had to kick start them.
Stressful as that was, we were trying our best to navigate the streets.
And then I lost my brother. In rush hour traffic in Hanoi. After dark. And he does not have a map. And he is not receiving my messages. I sent my partner home, no point in both of us waiting.
I wait for a long time, and I try to call him. He does not pick up. I start to get worried. Eventually, I give up, and try to trace his route (I knew he missed the turn off). I do not see him anywhere along the road. I eventually get to a crossing where I know that I need to go left to get far enough east to not hit my street at the bit that is one-way only. I think to myself – he probably went right here if he came this way. Turns out he did. Which did not matter, because at least he found the street. And then he just wheeled the bike along it back home.
When I drive into the parking lot, there is my brother! I am so thrilled, I hug him.
And that concluded our adventure. I was happy I did not have to get up the next day, I was so tired! But we all had lots of fun, and we were glad we went.