Vietnam – The Remote North China Frontier

 

G’day,

Mike and I had the most fantastic trip up in to the North of Vietnam along the frontier with China.

Amazing up there.. Can’t wait to go back on a bigger longer trip with more off-road next time.

Will start this trip report with a few observations and information that I hope are of use to others riding in the North of Vietnam for the first time..

Others may have different ideas or experiences.. These are mine.

Flamingo Travel

http://www.flamingotravel.com.vn/

 

Hung / Chris and Team are truly fantastic.

Where else do you arrive and have a cold beer in your hand with in five minutes.

Five stars for service and support as well as quality well maintained bikes.

You could not ask for better, more reliable and honest people to deal with.

 

Bikes hired

XR 125cc (full list available on the website)

25 USD per day

Spare tubes and full tool set provided.. A bit heavy but needed.

Saddle bags are available if needed.

You really don’t need anything larger than 250cc up here.

I would have not enjoyed this at all on the Versys..

To big and heavy.. Nice light and easy to maneuver bike is the way to go.

 

Accommodation

Vietnam basic hotels cost around 220,000 Dong per night around 12 USD.

This seemed pretty standard through out our trip.

You can pay more at other up market hotels where available in the towns.

The price is on the wall behind reception.

You need to explain that you want a room each.. We had this at every hotel, where they assume two of you will share the room.

 

Food

Not always easy to find.. Unlike Thailand where you have food every where.

Up in the sticks.. there is no English and no menu with pictures.

Pho (Noodle Soup) is readily available. Just look for a sign out side with ” Pho ” displayed.

Suggest you take a few snacks for the times you can’t find any food or not open yet.

In general.. The food hygiene was good.. No bad stomach at all.

 

Language

A Vietnamese phrase book or App for your phone will be handy.

There are plenty of free apps for Android.

Get use to sign language 🙂

 

Phone SIM Card

Very cheap and only a few dollars with a very generous data allowance

Though you do need a PhD to work it all out..

Chris McBride was on the case and sorted it out before we headed for the train to Lao Cai.

My phone for some reason did not have a data connection.

The APN value should have been taken directly from the SIM when inserted, but didn’t.

Flamingo office staff called up the Telco and we entered the APN value manually and it worked.

Good way to keep in touch with each other and easily call Flamingo Travel if you need assistance on the ride.

3G and Edge are EVERYWHERE.. even in the boonies on the trail.

 

Riding in Vietnam

Really not the place to learn if you have no riding experience.

We saw one accident not far in to our trip.

Didn’t know how to handle a surprise pothole and ended up crashing in the middle of the road.

His bike ended up getting bussed back to Hanoi and he was in a lot of pain.

Suggest if you are new to riding.. Take some lessons first. Get some experience before tackling Vietnamese roads and driving.

Personally I could not imagine just starting out riding and taking on Vietnam first go..

 

Riding in the Mountains

We all know the saying.. Expect the unexpected..

But in Vietnam.. The unexpected will come at least a few times on your trip.

Take the corners carefully and leave yourself room to change course quickly.. I had a few near truck / car experiences,

Not doing anything crazy and came around and a truck is taking up the entire road.

Where they can pull over they MAY pull over a little. But if you are not going to fast you can pull off on to the side, go around the truck and continue on.

If you are hammering it and leaning the bike over.. you are screwed..

Get use to passing trucks with centimeters spare.. It feels a bit strange at first, but you will get use to it.

 

Roads in the North

Narrow and potholed. Some parts can be like off-road and for extended periods.

A dual purpose or adventure bike is the way to go if you want to enjoy the ride

We saw a few people riding on Waves.. Can’t imagine that was very enjoyable or comfortable.

They had to slow down while the XR’s just cruised over and made easy work of it all.

 

Driving in the cities

Keep up with the traffic flow.. don’t be afraid to peep your horn as you pass anther bike.

It is expected. If you don’t they may just drift over thinking no one is there (They don’t look or use mirrors most of the time)

Vietnamese will ride through red lights.. so keep your eyes peeled and approach and pass with caution..

 

GPS / Maps

Flamingo have a a couple of paper maps.. basic and more advanced map.

There are no real good maps for Northern Vietnam.

We had the OSM map.. This was OK.. but not brilliant.

Basically not a lot of people riding and updating in this area.

But certainly better than no GPS map at all.

 

Chris provided us with a KML file of the suggested route.. We converted this to GPX and loaded it on to the GPS.

We will be updating our tracks to OSM and putting a little more accuracy in to the existing routes on the OSM map.

 

Money

Five day trip.. we both changed 300 USD in to Dong and still have a couple of million left at the end. 300 USD was around 6 million Dong if I remember correctly.

Only time we used USD was to pay for the bikes and train direct to Flamingo..

 

Police

We only saw Police once out in the country and they just watched us pass by..

 

How much did we spend?

Not including the flights and train to Lao Cai I would say around 70 USD per day.

That was staying where we wanted to stay.. eating what we wanted to eat.

Bikes and fuel plus beers etc..  Not being cheap charlies watching every Dong.

 

Rip Offs

We never really experienced any real rip offs.. Just once where we stopped in town by the side of the road and had a beer and some beef jerky.. they over charged us by a few dollars.

Ask how much before you order… so your Beer Hanoi is around 15,000 Dong and not 20,000 Dong when you go to pay.. Little things like that..

No one really tried it on in the mountains.  All were very honest, friendly and happy to see us.

 

Let the adventure begin….

 

Mike and I both took half day leave on the Friday.

Bangkok Weekend Warriors with Monday to Friday jobs.

Need to manage our desire to ride with work.

 

We flew out VietJet budget airline. They have a flight at 1.20 pm from Swampy airport.

Time to ride the last flag on the GTR shirt.. Tick for the rest..

 

Arrived in Hanoi.. All very civilised.. people friendly.. (Not my last memory of Hanoi)

Arrange a fixed price taxi from the airport to Flamingo. 26 USD between us.

With in 5 mins of being at Flamingo.. Beer in hand.. ( This pic was later in the evening after beer no 10 or so… hiccup)

 

Well done Chris.. That is real customer service. (look forward to seeing you in Bangkok when you visit next)

Take the bikes for a quick test ride up the street in amongst the Hanoi mayhem..

 

All good.

Flamingo organised the bikes to go on the train and our tickets. Ticket given to us in the office before we headed to the train station.

Time to get SIM cards for our phones and dinner and beers with Chris.. Probably best not to do this after copious amounts of Beer Hanoi and 333.

Dinner on the road side with Chris

 

More beers with Chris.. ( I sense a theme here )

 

Flamingo is right in the Backpacker area.. The old quarter..

Really lively area and you wont be bored. We only had a few hours before our train.. but had a blast..

Time to take a taxi to the train station.. Flamingo organised this for us.

 

Back at the office with the lovely friendly staff, sort out the last bits and bobs.

 

Night train to Lao Cai..

 

Turns out it is 4 to a cabin on the train.. Not two like we thought.

 

No big deal, we had some fun interaction with a local and were made famous on Vietnamese Facebook 🙂

 

Plus a drinks trolly to make the evening chug along 🙂

 

Bike storage

 

The trains are far far far better than the Thai trains.. a bit faster.. clean and tidy, the toilets start off OK.. but end up a pigsty later in the evening.

Seems they run out of water or water pressure.. not sure.. but you want to do your No 2 early on..

Are we there yet? Are we there yet?

 

Let the real adventure begin…

The route for our 5 day trip

 

Ready to roll…

After a pretty good train ride and not the best sleep.. we arrive pretty early in the AM.

There was another Flamingo group on the train with bikes also..

We all met up after the bikes were off-loaded…

 

Now, as Rob McLean would agree.. I am not the fastest of packers and like to double check and make sure all is good.

These guys were wham bam thank you mam.. backpacks on and goooooonnnneee..

 

Mike and I are still strapping our gear on..

Next stop.. find a Vietnamese coffee and breakie.. Then off to get fuel.

I mean.. you really have no idea.. all those zero’s and the bowser says one thing.. You just hand over cash and get change.

All looked good.. Great thing about the XR.. they hold 11 litres.. unlike the KLX 7.7  🙁

 

After our breakie and coffee.. time to head to the border with Chinaland…

 

Later on this day and during the trip.. I was very happy with the touring gear picked up from 320 SP.

Perfect.. kept the rain out.. kept me warm.. only a few times off road did I feel a bit hot and only when stopping to take photo’s

We take a pretty horrible and busy main road out of town… The Typhoon tail end from earlier in the week was still lingering

We had a fair bit of rain and not too many photo’s for a while.. and some of the mountains were thick thick fog.. barely see each other.

Pho (noodle) stop to warm up.. Locals very friendly and give us tea too.

 

A break in the cloud and we are so excited to see this.. our first terraced rice..

 

Later on.. we will realise this was pretty ordinary 😉

Disclaimer… I am more than likely to screw up the order a bit here with the photo’s

Will try to keep in some sort of order..

Chris had given us a Google KML file before the trip.. We converted this to .gpx and loaded it up on Mike’s GPS.

We stop asking directions.. while talking to the locals.. There is a bang and a lot of excitement.

We turn around and one of the group that was on our train is laying in the middle of the road motionless.

I really thought.. Shit.. he is dead. He didn’t move for what felt like a long time.. One of the guys mates was following us and turned back and Mike went over.

I stayed with the bikes and gear.

The rest of his mates arrive and he moves and gets out of the road..

We go over and he is OK. just very sore and in pain.. They helped him to a chair and we suggested he rest for a couple of hours before going on.

Make sure no concussion etc.. His mates thanked us and we left..

Note:-

Vietnam is not the place to learn to ride.. Looks like he saw a big pothole and didn’t know how to handle it and went splat.

No other vehicle involved.

On with our trip.. More rain and clouds in the mountains and we find the turn off…

Now this is looking like fun….

Thumbs up from Mike…

 

The locals are so friendly.. lots of stopping and talking and photos

 

 

A little later.. something I will remember for a long time

Riding and stopping on the edge of the dirt road.. A young girl rides up, stops and says in perfect English.

” Please be careful, this road is very dangerous ” and rides off..

I thought.. Wow.. how touching is that.. Great memory to have.

Now for the scenery 🙂

 

We ride in to the first town for the night

 

The hotel

 

Our bikes were a hit with the locals..

It is only 3pm or so.. Off we go exploring and riding the trails..

 

Mike top right.. The roads are so twisty and windy.. I stay back on the last bend to take the photo.

 

Good job we checked in and then went for a ride.

A bunch of Vietnamese riders on tour turned up and booked the place out

 

Good on em.. Just take off from Hanoi and explore their country on Waves….

 

Next Dinner

 

This was hilarious.. Absolutely no English is spoken.. We don’t have any phrase book or phone app etc.

Lots of sign language.. and they are still not sure.

The staff point to all the ingredients and put oil in the wok and fire it up. At the same time.. lots of laughter.

They want me to cook.. As much as I tried.. No way, they are not cooking.. more laughter..

Ok.. so I cooked us fried rice and some chicken. To lots of laughter in the kitchen.

( In my college days I worked in a kitchen cooking food, so know my way around the ‘wok’ )

So remember.. If you check in at this hotel.. It is also a cooking school and you provide the entertainment

Day 1.. a wrap.. Both knackered and ready for bed..

Next day up bright and early.

First order of the day was to install a Vietnamese / English dictionary app on my Sony phone.

Success immediately.. Eggs, breakfast understood with still a little sign language.

Before we head off, good bye to our fellow bikers.

Note the water proof boots to the left 😉

Guess they were not impressed with my cooking skills the previous night  as the kitchen was open with activity.

He walked me outside and showed me this place across the road..

 

Fried eggs.. tick..

 

Plus it came with the chefs soup of the day..

Again, everyone very happy to see us and have us eat in their restaurant. Breakfast was USD 1 each

As we ride out of town.. We realise the weekend market is on.

Wishing we had walked around before with out the bikes and gear.

We find a space further up with a little less chaos and take a few pics.

Later regretting we didn’t get more pictures as we didn’t see any other good markets like this the rest of the trip..

 

Suggest if you are in any of the towns for the weekend.. Have an early morning walk around and see if there is a market.

We could have easily spent an hour here with out bike and gear.

The view just out side town..

Before we left town we discussed the two possibilities that we have ahead.

  1. Light blue line.. Off road.. Not recommended in the rainy season (it is still raining)
  2. Dark Blue line.. Road.. Recommended

 

Today is probably the longest day in the saddle except for the last day back to Hanoi.

More stunning scenery up to the junction we have to make a choice.. Off-road or on-road

 

We were popular with the locals.. Numerous photo request.. We decided to also ask for a photo back 🙂

 

 

Decision time

Do we or don’t we?

We stop at the side of the road next to the turn off.

Look at all the signs.. Rock slides and every other type of sign posted you can imagine (Not understanding what most of them mean)

Ask the locals.. Yeah, you can go through there.. (hmmm when is the last time you did it?)

Keeping in mind.. Flamingo advise not to go through here in the rainy season….

We agree to stick our noses in and see how it goes.

Basically muddy and up up up up….. a few roads going here and there.. ask directions and on the right trail..

We bump in to old mate working the fields.

 

The trail is single trail and not too bad but very mountainous..

We stop in awe. wow wow wow.. Just amazing.

We had taken the wrong trail.. But a very pleasant surprise wrong trail.

Arrive at the end of the trail with two official looking buildings and over to the next mountain range

 

Looking over to the other side of the valley.

We go back and head back on the correct trail

Note:-

The track we are following is a trace from Google Earth. So the points are far between for mountains.

The routes we rode will be updated on OSM for any other GT Riders that follow and the tracks should be a little more accurate.

 

Mike taking the locals pics and showing the photo. (Again everyone happy to have their pic taken)

A quick pic for me

We go on a bit further and because of the GPS trace with Google earth it isn’t very accurate.

We go up some very narrow and out of the way trails.. This can’t be the way.

Back again, think we have the right way, but no, not really..

 

How do we get over this to the other side? (That is a waterfall in the distance)

– Chris from Flamingo told us when we were back in Hanoi he did this once in the rainy season. Waterfalls over the trail, building bridges etc.

 

We make it to this really tight turn and the picture doesn’t do it justice.

You go down and then turn left then there is JUST enough space for a bike to go along the mountain edge.

We evaluate the situation..

– Screwing up and falling off the mountain in to the ravine

– Making it past and then arriving at the next obstacle

 

– Getting so far and having to turn back

– Turn back now and arrive in the next town before sunset.

It is the second longest ride of the day.. We decide to leave it for the next trip.

A WHOPPING 7 KM in.

Even with the early start… photo’s at the market, etc. we are concerned about making sure we arrive at the next town in day light.

We pass old mate on the way out..  still working the fields.

 

More fantastic scenery on the way out

 

Almost back at the town.. last downward ride

Back on the main road and we realise it is nearly 1pm and we still have a long way to go.

The road further on all the way to the route north is incredibly twisty and windy..

You really are not going fast.. We still stopped for photos even though concerned about the day light and time we are taking.

 

When we made it to the end of this road it was straight up on a main highway..

 

The last 40 km were really quick and we checked in around 5:30pm

Secure parking at the hotel.. Just near the bridge to the left (Sorry, don’t have the name)

 

Off for a look around town and dinner

Everyone was very friendly and intrigued by us.. All half smashed and it was Sunday night.

They wanted me to have a rice wine with them..

 

No English menu.. Then remembered I have Viethorses mobile number on Speed Dial..

We had a chat and he helped order some great food for us. We were really hungry.

Just when you think. It can’t get any better.. Can it?.  The scenery just keeps getting better..

Breakfast is served with Vietnamese style coffee at the back of our hotel. .

Fantastic views…

 

We had a bit of rain here and there.. it was cold.. Glad to have my touring gear on.

Over all mainly fine.. just cool up in the mountains and amazing going up, stopping at the side of the road an admiring the scenery…

We are about to enter one of the most bizarre landscapes I have seen and certainly didn’t expect to see in Vietnam.

What is more amazing is that people live (survive) out on these rocks.

The fences around the houses, everything is made of rock.. there is plenty of rock.

If you go over the edge of the road you will be ripped apart by the rocks on the way down.

 

Mike riding past.

My bike.

 

This road through the rocky mountains was just amazing.. like you are on another planet..

The pictures don’t do it justice.

Arrived Meo Vac… 15 c brrrr time for a beer and hot food

Final Installment :-

The last big ride of the trip from Meo Vac to Ba Be before the last days riding to Hanoi and back to Bangkok later that evening.

Should have learnt our lesson from all those Lao trips.

Fill up the night before and avoid the morning queue.. Especially when the only petrol station in town isn’t pumping any gas.

So we follow a local in to town and clean a little shop out of pepsi bottles full of petrol.

Not enough, we roam around and find a motorbike shop also selling juice.

On we go…

Meo Vac on the way out of town and back up through the mountains

Love that stunned look

 

The roads can be very cut up.. in some places.. This would be good.

 

Mum looking at these two strange Farang taking pictures of her and the kids.

 

Mum relaxing a bit and even a smile breaking through..

 

Through the mountains again..

 

Following the track or are we a little lost..

Then we look on the OSM GPS and looks like this road takes us where we want to go more or less..

Looking for a bit of adventure and not to follow all the usual routes.. we decide to give it ago.

We named this ” The forgotten road ”

Obviously at some stage they tried really hard to build a road through here.

But couldn’t keep up with the landslides etc and gave up. You will notice kilometre markers in the ‘middle’ of the road

Markers for the edge of the road now in the middle of the road..

Didn’t take long to find a decent land slide

It doesn’t look that narrow in the picture.. But it was, plus a long way down if you screwed up.

 

 

and more

 

 

We found these mountain bikers in here.. What a surprise for us and them.

Very happy to see us as they were a little lost.. So were we..

Amazingly, we had EDGE out here and bought up Google Maps and worked it all out.

 

Stopped here having a “Where the Farkarewe” moment.

Stopped at this little village.. Again very friendly and all happy to have pics taken.

Loved seeing their pics to lots of laughter.

 

We disrupted the schooling a little

 

The teacher watching the kids go up the road.

 

School finished while were were there and they all trotted off up the road.

 

When we passed they came running after us and high fives all around

More lovely scenery..

 

Just before we joined back up with the paved road.

 

Having not eaten for around 18 hours.. We were so hungry and it was cold

We stopped at this Pho noodle shop.. Pretty ordinary looking stall, but the best Pho with the most succulent roast port.. Fantastic

Also a pretty decent view

 

The meat was real fresh out the front.

 

Back to stunning scenery and we are running late.. again worried about day light.

On the final approach to Ba Be.. We hit road works. The locals are blowing horns and carrying on.

So I joined in to, peep peep.. They all looked around with big grins on their faces..

In the end the road works guys gave up and let us go..

Not before this fella pulled up next to me and started going off his trolly..

The guy on the bike had both feet down until all was calm.

Good sleep and up early.. Ready to ride at 7 on the last day..

Well coffee and some noodles first.. Around 8 am and we are on the way.

Express to Hanoi.. Nice scenery to start with and then a bit boring after what we had seen and the traffic was heavier as we approached Hanoi.

There is a new express way, runs for 40 km then comes to a dead stop, then you snake your way through the narrow over crowded highway with the mental driving.

Back in Hanoi around 12 mid day.. Expecting to arrive at 3 ish…

We decide we have not had enough dare devil riding and go and explore Hanoi a little.

 

After seeing the sites on bike.. we decide that is enough and we are still in one piece..

Lets drop the bikes back at Flamingo

 

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED… What a great ride and all that in 5 days..

Time to explore on foot like normal tourists.

 

Fun and laughs on the streets of Hanoi.

Cheers

Brian