Having escaped the tourist trap of Ha Long Bay and found overnight refuge in the mountains to the north, I began my final day on the motorbike. Along roads that climbed into the grasp of clouds and wound a gentle path through rice paddies carved into the hillsides, this would be the grand finale of a road-trip to remember.
I made an early start on my final day riding through Vietnam on my ¬£100 ($151) motorbike. The street outside my open hotel window came to life at dawn. The sounds of horns and motors filled the air and demanded that I not spend another moment lazing on the bed. I got to my feet and looked out of the window to the busy street below. It’s funny, for a place that almost doesn’t get a mention on Google maps, the small town of Chu was a hive of activity.
Before I left the hotel owner insisted, through her English-speaking son, that I join her family for some tea. She kindly poured the strong green tea and was pleased when I thanked her and sipped from the small porcelain cup.
In truth it was not to my liking, tasting instead like the run off from a muddy field rather than something that I would ever choose to start my day with. However, wanting to be polite I finished the cup, covering my grimacing face with smiles and nods of gratitude. However, each time I finished the cup she would refill it with obvious delight at my apparent appreciation.
Eventually, after drinking more green tea than a vegan on a detox diet, I made my excuses and hit the road. The hotel owners son told me that Hanoi was less than three hours away, but I was in no hurry to get to the end of my trip, so I took a back-road that threaded a slow path further into the mountains that lie between my final destination and the border with China.
On little more than a dirt track I rode toward the mountain tops that faded into the white sky above. Kicking up a cloud of dust behind me I was smiling broadly as I rode through small villages and rice paddies toward places that maps appeared to make no mention of. Within no time I was seemingly far from anywhere, in the company of misty clouds and a single track road that might as well have been made from yellow bricks.
I saw few people as I made my way along the road. Those I did see always shot me a second look as if checking that I was indeed real. I suspect few, if any, tourists would venture to these parts of the country where the maps seem to have nothing to say.
Small villages go all but unnamed and unmarked as the line of the road curves its way across an expanse of blank road map that gives not the slightest inkling of the beauty of this far-flung road. On paper I’m wasting my time, lost in a void of nothing but the occasional road number, but the truth of this landscape is anything but blank.
I took my time, stopping frequently to snap pictures and look out over spectacular views I knew my camera couldn’t catch. Eventually I found my way back to the Highway bound for Hanoi. By my calculations I was now three hours north of the city.
My detour into the mountains meant that I would reach the capital of Vietnam shortly before sundown, and slap bang in the middle of rush hour for what would surely be a rude introduction to the perils of riding in the cities infamous rush-hour traffic.
Still in a largely unpopulated area I noticed the motorbike felt a little unstable so I came to a stop at the side of the road and noticed that I had a puncture. My rear tire was completely flat but I wasn’t really worried. With so many motorbikes in this country you don’t have to look far to find someone who repairs them.
I wasn’t in a town or village, but as luck would have it, I had come to a stop right next to a shop that repairs motorbikes.
A man sitting in a plastic chair waved me in and got a young man to fix the problem right away. He then offered me a seat and more of that terrible green tea I had earlier sworn never to drink again. This time I sipped very slowly knowing that the refills would keep coming.
In less than ten minutes, and for only 20,000 Vietnamese Dong (less than $1), the puncture was fixed and I was on my way again. The mountains soon faded into foothills that flattened out and changed the landscape from agriculture to industry.
It didn’t take long before I arrived in Hanoi. I looked for a sign that might announce the city and mark a victorious finish line for me, but there was no such sign. Instead, Hanoi just emerged and I found myself swallowed into a melee of some 6.5 million people who live within its blurred borders.
As I blended into the city traffic my slow road to Hanoi had come to an end. After ten days and 1,554 Kilometres (957 miles) I had made it to my destination. To celebrate, that night I met up with fellow ‘couchsurfers,’ some of whom were on their own adventures. We ate Pho Bo, exchanged stories and travel tips, and enjoyed drinks late into the night. It was a great welcome to the city, and a fitting end to this fantastic road-trip.
I was really looking forward to Ha Long Bay. I had seen many beautiful pictures of the vast rock islands majestically towering out of the water and thought that seeing this in person would be a real highlight of this road trip. Instead it was a complete disappointment.
The glossy travel magazines that entice you to visit Vietnam call Ha Long Bay unmissable. The promise of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its nearly 2,000 limestone karsts and isles of various shapes and sizes, is a massive draw for tourists. Indeed, on a perfect day, on a private boat, with time to kill, this might in fact be a truly wonderful place to visit, but for the casual traveller Ha Long Bay has been transformed into something of a trashy tourist trap.
A few days ago I met a couple of English ‘lads’ riding two old bikes around Vietnam. We stopped and chatted for a while and when I told them I was heading for Ha Long Bay they both gave an expression that didn’t inspire confidence. One of them described the experience as “a massive anticlimax.” The other said that while he understands it is a ‘must see’ he wouldn’t be in any hurry to return there. After my experience I can only echo those sentiments.
At every turn there is someone who will try to over-charge you and rip you off. It seems everyone on the street has a tour or cruise to sell you, a “better hotel” than the one you’re in, or as the day becomes night you might be offered a “nice woman.”
I did book a cruise, a six-hour boat trip that would, I thought, give me a decent sense of the wonder of this bay. However, after just two hours we were back at the port and the so-called tour was over.
To be honest though, I wasn’t that disappointed. The weather was a total let down and the bay was rammed with overloaded cruise boats full of people all taking the same pictures.
Nevertheless, I don’t like being ripped off, so with a hefty dose of theatre I returned to agent I booked the tour from, and introduced the her to angry psycho Simon. At first she refused to refund any of the money, insisting that she too had been ripped off. She then called some man to the office who also refused to refund me.
I didn’t know the man so I asked him who he was. “I am your friend,” he told me, to which I crisply illustrated that I did not know who the heck he was or why he was involved. After getting very close to him he decided to leave and allow me to iron out this situation with the agent.
Ironing out the situation involved me picking up all the room keys to her hotel and telling her she could have them back once I had a refund. She attempted to grab the keys back from me but failed. Standing back at a distance for a few seconds she weighed up her options then decided that a refund was indeed in order. I thanked her politely and left the building.
The whole experience left me feeling pretty disappointed in Ha Long Bay, a place that on its own might indeed be a wonderful location were it not for the greedy people and scammers.
I returned to my hotel, checked out, loaded up the motorbike and hit the road out of town as quickly as I could.
I took a day off from riding today because the weather was well and truly against me. Dark clouds huddled in the sky as if plotting to ruin the carefully planned days of the camera wielding tourists who flock to Ha Long Bay. With little wind they menacingly lurked never far from the mischief they were causing.
To avoid the anti-social behavior of the moody clouds I decided to go out in search of a decent massage. That in itself was something of a tricky task given the myriad of ‘indecent’ massages that seemed to be on offer. Top tip: Avoid places with flashing neon signs and angry Chinese ladies.
I tried the spas in a few of the more upmarket hotels, but in the end found a place that it turned out had just opened that day. I was their very first ever customer, and while the experience was well within my budget and moderately relaxing, it might have been somewhat more calming had workmen not been busy installing the final fixtures and fittings around me.
After this I headed back to my hotel to tend to the rather boring task of laundry, a task that I have come to understand is little more than an entire waste of time here in Asia.
No matter who, how, where, or when I clean my clothes in Asia, they never seem to get clean. In fact, more often than not they actually become more dirty! I can be pretty grimy riding along the dusty roads and dirt paths I’ve taken to get here, but I don’t understand how my clothes look worse after a clean?
The shorts I bought for this trip will not be leaving Vietnam with me. Instead they’ll be discarded after just a few days that have apparently ruined them. Three T shirts will also be left behind. After little more than a week, having never been worn before, the T-shirts look like they’ve been on worn by someone who has seen several months of hard labor.
I don’t know why this happens in Asia, maybe there is some chemical reason? Either that or perhaps life is just more dirty on a motorbike? I guess I’m just having the grime of my life!
Today I got bitten by a dog, smacked in the eye by some kind of large flying insect, and almost knocked out by an angry hotel owner.
I rode a lot today, eating up the road ahead under a cloudy and rather uninspiring sky. It was perhaps a good thing that the weather was so gloomy because at the speed I have been going, I wouldn’t reach Hanoi until next month. That wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t have to make a flight leaving Vietnam on April 30th. So today I simply gone on the bike and rode until I arrived in the Ha Long Bay area as the daylight began to fade.
I stopped a few times here and there, mostly on bridges to watch the ships rolling over the waters below me. In populated areas the rivers here are only fractionally less busy than the roads. Floating markets and boats selling cooked-to-order meals drift up and down the rivers. Larger boats travel up and down the river carrying all kinds of thing, and often weighed down to the point that water is coming over the bow! As I watched one busy river teeming with overloaded boat, I wonder how many sunken vessels might lay at the bottom of the murky brown river.
In the afternoon I stopped by a small temple just to stretch my legs and take a look around. My arrival woke a sleeping dog who was evidently quite grumpy about being so rudely awoken. He barked and snarled at me as I wandered around the temple, then as I was leaving he decided to take a bit at my ankle before he skulked off back to his bed. I stopped to look at the bit (very superficial) and as I did he gave one final and rather lazy bark as if to tell me that I wouldn’t be welcome there again.
Later on, while probably at the fastest speed I have ridden (80kph/50mph) a large insect smashed right into my eye. How does that happen? These insects spend their lives flying and surely they could realise the danger or a road? Was it just playing dare or something? I imagine a few of its insect pals sat on the side of the road laughing their insect asses off as their dumb friend misjudges the trajectory of my motorbike he’s supposed to be bravely avoiding.
Eventually I reached Ha Long Bay as the street lights flickered on and the road was now a sea of red and white lights. I stopped for a bowl of Pho Ba (beef noodle soup) before looking for a suitable hotel for the night.
The hotel I chose was a simple but comfortable place away from the main tourist hotels. The owner didn’t speak much English, but enough to get by, or so I thought until I asked if there was internet access.
“You have wifi?” I asked. The manager smiled and said “Yes.” We then went upstairs to check the room. All seemed well until I realised that the wifi didn’t seem to reach the room he was showing me.
“The wifi is here?” I asked, motioning to the room around me with my hand. Again he nodded, as he led me out of the room. “Nice room,” he said. “Yes it is a nice room, but I do need wifi,” I explained as we walked down the hall to the stairs. He didn’t seem to understand me so I tried to make things clearer.
As we reached the front desk I pointed upstairs and said “I need your wifi in the room.” He looked puzzled and smiled in that way you know is a question. I decided to speak and use sign language to help so I pointed at him then make a typing gesture with my hand “Your wifi,” I said, then pointed upstairs, “I need inside room.”
His face turned from a friendly and somewhat confused smile into that of a man insulted. He stood up straight and almost puffed out his chest as he began to angrily raise his voice at me in Vietnamese.
I was confused and didn’t know what the problem was. I tried to speak but he just got more angry the picked up my bag and gave it to me. Clearly I had upset the friendly hotel owner somehow, but I didn’t know how. “It’s a nice hotel,” I said with my hands up in a non confrontational manner, but this didn’t help.
As he shouted a rather stocky woman emerged from a back room. She looked concerned and obviously asked what was going on. He was motioning at me, and the stairs, and waving the room key around. She looked at me quizzically so I began trying to explain to her that I needed internet in the room and the wifi didn’t seem to reach there.
She looked back at him as he continued to vent then back at me. “Wifi?” She asked? “Yes, wifi. Internet,” I said, then I opened my bag and quickly took out my laptop and pointed at it saying “wifi… internet… wifi.”
They both stopped, then she began to laugh and talk to her husband who looked at me, then at my laptop. “Internet?” He said. I nodded, and he laughed. “Internet,” he said as he came to me and took my back and patted me on my shoulder. “Sorry,” he said, smiling and gesturing to the computer, his wife now laughing and speaking to him in Vietnamese.
Later on their daughter told me that her fathers English is very poor and what he thought I had done is ask him if he had a wife (something locals often ask me). The confusion happened when he thought I was asking for his wife to come to my room and massage me! Apparently my keyboard sign language was not as clear as I thought!
So with those little mishaps behind me, I’m now all checked in and ready to explore Ha Long Bay tomorrow when I hope the sun will be shining and the insects and dogs will be behaving themselves.
I love the road, not the asphalt or the hypnotic rhythm of the white lines sliding underneath you, but the path ahead with its possibilities, mysteries, and stories yet to be told.
I had breakfast in bed this morning. It wasn’t a lavish spread of gastronomic delights, but a couple of simple fried eggs and some break. That’s as close to a European breakfast as my hotel could get. As I sat there watching the morning mist burn away I studied Google maps for todays route.
I’m no longer on highway AH1 that leads right into the throbbing heart of Hanoi. Instead I’m going to thread my way on various roads to Hay Long Bay before turning back to in the direction of Hanoi and the end of this road trip.
The possibility of navigating my way along some 300 kilometres (186 miles) of back-roads in Vietnam is somewhat daunting, but as I load up my bike and leave the hotel I’m excited. Yes I don’t have a map, and yes road signs are a rarity here, but I’m not worried. If I get lost, I’ll find my way eventually.
Throughout the day I pull over and stop to squint and the tiny screen of my iPod touch, and Google maps. It’s not ideal, but it works most of the time. The problem here is that the back-roads appear to have been numbered by someone with dyslexia. For example the QL357 also appears to be shown as the QL375, and the road signs often switched the roads numbers too. I found this a few times and could see no logical reason for the disparity.
Another factor that can add to map reading confusion is the strange way that a road number can apparently relate to more than one road. This makes following signs alone rather tricky, so you have to study the map and look for landmarks to confirm your desired route.
Regardless, and perhaps even boosted by this geographical uncertainty, I ventured far from the busy highways and down a series of roads and pathways, through villages, hill passes, rice fields, and small towns. Along the way people would often smile and wave at me and shout “Hello!” Each time I stopped the bike for a rest or to take pictures local people would gather around and look at me curiously. If I looked directly back at them they would smile and sometimes say things.
“Manchester United,” said one young man among a gaggle of teenagers who found his English speaking very amusing. “Liverpool,” I replied to another round of laughter from the gathered crowd. “West Ham,” he said with a big smile on his face, obviously proud to be having such a fluent conversation in front of his friends. I nodded then said “Chelsea.” He fired back the name of another football club right away and one girl actually clapped.
As I passed through one remote village I noticed some kind of fair happening on the side of a hill. I turned the bike around and headed up the hill to what turned out to be a Buddhist monastery that was having some kind of event. The place was heaving with people and various stalls selling foods and books.
A group of women were performing some kind of offering ceremony which was watched by several hundred people. They chanted and sang and lifted up objects on red cushions, I would tell you what they were doing if I could, but truthfully I had no idea whatsoever.
My attendance at this event seemed to be causing a stir and pretty soon it seemed like everyone wanted to come up to me and shake my hand. I moved away from the religious ceremony because I didn’t want to disrupt that, but it made little difference, people would come up to me in growing numbers and shake my hand while smiling and speaking enthusiastically in Vietnamese. In the end the crowd became a little overpowering so I made my way back to my bike, making sure to shake every outstretched hand along the way. (And no, they weren’t begging!)
I might never reach Hanoi if I continue to average the kind of speed I’ve been doing. On the roads I barely go over 40 Kmh (25 mph), but the frequent stops must bring that average speed down to something resembling a brisk walk. But then again, I’m in no rush.
Toward the end of the day I was following a road that was shrinking with each passing kilometre. On the map it came to a dead-end at the edge of a river, but a small icon indicated that there was a ferry. I hoped that was right because it would be a long way back if not.
Thankfully when I reached the end of the road there was indeed a ferry in the form of a small barge boat. I rode the motorbike onto it and then waited for more passengers before we made the gentle cross for a mere 2,000 Dong (15p / 22c).
The light was beginning to fade as I picked up the road to the city of Ninh Binh where I planned to find a hotel. Thankfully the road was a beautiful flat fresh strip of unspoiled asphalt. For much of the day I had been negotiating my way around giant water filled potholes and rocky roads.
The road to Nam Dinh was lined with beautiful churches that look like were stolen, brick by brick, from small European towns. At one point I could see 10 of these magnificent churches serving a community that looked like it would struggle to fill just one of them.
So after another long day I had done just 100 kilometres. By my rough calculations there are another 200 kilometers to Ha Long Bay, then another 200 back to Hanoi! This could take a while.
My least favorite part of this road-trip is tying my case the motorbike. It’s always an awkward affair that seems to involve an unseemly amount of sweat and difficulty. A few times various men have helped, but it’s always the women who manage to tie it on expertly so it doesn’t move at all. They sit around laughing at me for a while, then one (usually the smallest) will come over and perform elastic cable magic that puts my efforts to shame.
Of course, the locals here in Vietnam are well-practiced in tying the impossible to their motorbikes. They’ve been stretching the possibilities of two-wheel travel for years now, carrying everything from cattle to corn, and armchairs to bathtubs! If it can be reasonable carried by one person or two, or maybe even three, then it can be carried on a motorbike. That seems to be the general rule here.
The other day I saw a man on a motorbike towing a trailer with a water buffalo in it! Today I watched several men comically trying to attach an absolutely enormous book-case to the back of a really old motorbike that looked like it would have a hard time moving with anything more than the rider.
They failed (no woman to help them see!) and decided instead to sit on the bookcase and have a smoke. When they saw me they insisted I have a cigarette. I told them I don’t smoke but this didn’t stop them enthusiastically lighting one up for me anyway.
Every so often I’ll see a police road block. Officers in ill-fitting uniforms will stand around stopping traffic and performing various checks, though I’m not clear what they’re checking as thus far they have simply waved me by. I suspect the possibility of getting into some long drawn out confusing conversation is more than they’re willing to do, but I don’t want to speak to soon.
It used to be that nobody here wore helmets, despite the fact they have long been a legal requirement. (See Jeremy Clarkson’s Motorworld report from Vietnam in the early 90’s.) However, these days everybody wears a helmet. In fact, they often wear helmets when they’re not even on their motorbikes. I assume this is because their motorbike is not far away, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they just wear them for general safety around Vietnamese roads.
I wonder then if Vietnam’s crazy roads could ever become anything like the relatively quiet and orderly roads we’re used to in the west? That seems a long way from reality when you are swarmed by several motorbikes paying no attention to the fact that their light is red. Or when you are confronted by buses and trucks hurtling down the wrong side of the road, their headlights flashing and horns blaring in a maniacal symphony of insanity.
Certainly I doubt that the car will replace the moped until Vietnam is a far more wealthy country. And if one day four wheels did manage to win the roads from their two-wheeled cousins, I think this country would lose something. The sheer audacity of what you see carried on motorbikes on Vietnam’s roads is undoubtedly part of its national character. Changing that would be like making the traditional English Breakfast a vegan dish!