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.
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