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Mud, mud, glorious mud 16 June 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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Today’s adventure started in Bao Lac, a small border town with a surprising amount of new houses, and looking less poor than other towns in the region.

The drive started well, and by lunch we had covered half of the 131 km to Cao Bang. Cao Bang province so far is beautiful, with rice paddies and limestone mountains in the distance.

The sun was also out, blue skies as far as the eyes could see.

Then, about 45 km out, we had to wait in line for some road works. Fair enough, we think. Just a bit of mud, slippery as anything, but it won’t slow us down.

How wrong were we. Firstly, road works are the name of the game. Planning clearly isn’t. So instead of having a kilometer or so of inconvenience, we soon come to realise that pretty much all of the road from here on in is completely torn up. And most of it seems to just have been torn up, without anyone actually working on it.

And with the great amount of rain that we have had every night, the whole lot has turned into slippery, soppy, deep mud. Or sludge.

And then my partner also gets a flat tire. If I thought I was having trouble staying up, I don’t want to imagine his struggles, as he swaggers all over the place.

Twice, I wipe out. It is just impossible to keep the bike on its course – accelerating and breaking both just takes it off into the opposite direction I was heading. I’m wiped out twice, and three more times, I keep it standing, but I am perpendicular to the road.

Add huge trucks. That splatter muddy goo up to your helmet as they pass.

For a little while there I was not having any fun, I was just so scared.

Luckily, after ten kilometres or so, we found a little shack with a young man, his son and mother, who fixes tires. My partner and I got to play with the two year old while dad fixed the bike.

We kept going through mud all the way down the mountain (at least 25 km or more) completely muddy from head to toe.

Interestingly, I have learnt more about mud in one day than I ever thought I would. I could soon spot the most treacherous mud flats, and how to get out of them. When the mud is so thick it cakes onto your tires is the worst, because you lose all traction. Puddles tend to be deeper than you think. Glossy mud is liquid, whereas darker mud is drying.

Also, I learnt that chickens do not tend to change direction. If you can, pass behind it. If not, you better break, as it will run out in front of your wheels.

And soon I was having fun again despite my thumbs hurting from gripping on to the handle bars too tightly, and my shoulders aching from concentration.

Also, mud is strangely colourful (yes, I spent hours staring 5 metres before me, and could not look around at the scenery much). It comes in yellow, red, orange, black, grey, light brown and dark brown. And every shade in between.

The shower that followed that epic ride was well deserved and extremely welcome. I still have mud on the back pack and my rain coat, but the bike and me were thoroughly hosed down (not at the same time, mind).

Ready for tomorrow’s (last) adventure.

Good night Cao Bang.

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Ha Giang to Cao Bang 14 June 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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Today started off with a bit of a downer. My bike had a flat tire. Luckily, this being Vietnam, there was a bike repair shop only 20 meters down the road.

So I rolled the bike there, had it fixed for $2.50, then rode it back to the hotel to load everything back on.

Within 15 minutes, we were on the road again, only to discover the temperamental side of Ha Giang. The mountains were again shrouded in mist, and a few specks of rain came down as we set off.

Within the first 15 km, I am finding the bike hard to control, and a strange, rhythmic squeaky sound is telling me why: another flat. And 8 km out from the nearest town. And out of range, so I can’t call my partner.

So, I decide to drive the bike at about 10-15 km an hour towards Meo Vac. I finally get within range, and can call my partner, so he won’t worry.

Then, at the nearest repair place, it gets fixed again, at $3.00 this time. But I am nervous, as he hasn’t found the cause of both flats. I am picturing a stop very 10 km to fix the stupid tire.

So, setting off on our detour, I stop often to check the bike. Am I going ok? Luckily, as the day wears on, nothing happens. So I am cruising.

The ride from Meo Vac to Bao Lac, where we are now, is very different, mostly warm and sunny, along the rivers in deep valleys.

The ride is tiring and beautiful.

Loved the day!

Ha Giang – lovelier, the second time around 8 March 2011

Posted by uggclogs in only in Vietnam, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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I have, of course, completely stolen the above headline from my partner, who pointed out that it was indeed lovelier, the second time around. Which hard to believe, if you saw our reports on our original trip.

We were a group of six travellers this time, keen for adventure and the country side. We took an overnight sleeper bus to Ha Giang, which was actually not too bad, but sleeper buses designed for Vietnamese (where men are on average 22 cm shorter than me) is never going to be extremely comfortable.

Arriving in Ha Giang at 3 am, we had called ahead to a hotel and booked rooms, so we could sleep the rest of the morning in beds before getting started on the day.

Friday morning, we rented bikes, organised the appropriate licences required to travel in the region (as the Vietnamese like to know who is loitering in the border area with China) and set off into the mountains.

Unfortunately, it was raining and rather cold, and we soon also hit the mist which covered the mountains, so we were soon chilled to the bone. But riding through it was still beautiful and spectacular, with villages and mountains poking through the misty landscape. The roads were twisting and winding along the mountain passes, through valleys and onto mountain passes, with gigantic trucks and buses coming around corners in the mist.

On the first day we did not get very far, we stopped off at Tam Son for lunch (about 45 km), and then on to Yen Minh (another 44 km) for the night. I found the landscapes we passed through (when we could see further than 20 metres ahead) fascinating, and they varied almost per valley. Sometimes, they were dry and wintry, other times green and lush, almost spring like. We’d pass through pine forest or leafy tropical forests with palm trees and birds screeching above.

On Saturday, we set off for Pho Bang (about 19 km), a traditional Chinese style village near the border of China, where we were received with smiles and waves. The local school also had just had a break, and we had a sticky beak into the class room when it resumed as the toddlers were reciting Vietnamese proverbs. They were so adorable! The landscape was yet again amazing, and you could practically see China from where we stood.

In Pho Bang, we stopped for a coffee, and watched the locals set up for a wedding. Everyone brought the tables and chairs from their houses, and there was a giant tarpaulin stretched right across the road for the revellers. The karaoke system was already installed before they had finished setting up the tent, so it looked like they were gearing up for a big party. The groom had gone early that morning to fetch his bride, so we did not get to congratulate them, and we needed to push on.

I was pleased to come across a game of Mah-Jong, too, clearly indicating that China and Chinese customs were not far away!

As we reached the turn off for the northernmost point of Vietnam, the group split up, with some going to Lung Cu (the northernmost point where there is a giant flag tower) and the others going to Sa Phin, where there is a restored mansion that used to belong to the Mong King which looked amazing. But just as I pulled up outside of the castle, I changed my mind and drove after the guys who went north.

It was a lovely drive, with amazing views, and apart from the fact that one of the guys had a small accident with his bike and came off it (slightly scraping his knee) and subsequently also had a flat tire, it was a beautiful side trip. I thought we would swing by the castle on the way home, however, due to the time lost to the accident and the tire, we chose a different route (which cut the distance to Dong Van in half) which I now thoroughly regret. I would have loved to see the Royal House! I thought I would get to do both, and I think if I had known that I would have to do either the flag tower or the royal house, I would have chosen the latter, especially as the mist shrouded the surrounding countryside, and we could hear the flag before we could see it as we were climbing the stairs.

On Sunday, we got up early to see the Dong Van market, which was still misty and smokey, but warmer than before. By the time we had explored the stalls and had some local pho, the sun came peaking through, and when we stepped on the bikes, it was almost warm!

We stopped off in Meo Vac for their markets as well, where we got to see all the beautiful ethnic minority people buying and selling their goods. It was intriguing to ride along the roads, where driving out of Dong Van all the minority peoples were walking towards you, heading to the town you had just left, and then, further on, they were all walking in the same direction as you, heading towards the town you were going to.

We also fit in the markets at Lung Phin, which are held every 6 days, and, luckily, we had worked out that they would also be on that Sunday. The locals were intrigued by our presence, and looked as much at us as we did at them. We soon headed back in the direction of Yen Minh, hoping to get there in good time.

Along the way on the last day, the mist had lifted, and we could truly see the landscapes that the north of Vietnam is famous for. All the peach blossoms were also out, and at one point, I came upon a mountain road where the clouds literally tumbled over the edge. You could see the movement of the clouds, rolling over the road, and I sat there, with my engine turned off, listening to the quiet and watching the marvellous picture nature was offering.

As we were all nicely warmed up, and driving through the mountains at ease, we managed to get to Yen Minh by lunch time! We had done 70 km in one morning! So we decided to get back to Tam Son, and then see if we wanted to keep going. In Tam Son, we were all doing so well, that we rode the entire rest of the journey back to Ha Giang (total of 170 km in one day!) to find some dinner there.

It was an exhausting day, but well worth the effort, because that meant that we did not need to leave early again the next morning to make it to the bus station.

Some of us went to a village near Ha Giang on Monday morning to have a look around, and were again pleased with what we found, riding along little paths, watching the locals go about their daily lives with their buffaloes.

When we arrived at the bus station, however, we were told the bus would not leave at 10am, as expected, but at 1pm. After trying to find a solution, everyone went to sit down, thinking we had a big wait ahead of us. I was a bit slow, and the guy in charge of the bus asked me whether we could wait until 1. I said no, we need to go now.

“Ok.” he says.

I just stand there, not knowing what he means.

“Hurry up, get on the bus. We will leave now.” He tells me.

He calls the driver over who is having a cigarette and a coffee. “You need to leave immediately!”

So somehow, we got to go at 10am after all! We made it back to Hanoi tired, and happy, utterly pleased with the trip we had made. To anyone who wants to explore Vietnam by motorbike: do!