Vietnam by Motorbike
26th May 2012 15:51
So I bought a motorbike. A "Honda Win" that isn't actually a Honda, but a cheap copy. But it's called a "Win" so you already know it's amazing.
It's 110 or 115cc (I forget) of raw, unbridled power. This beast of a machine has greatness unequaled by the Gods themselves.
I have only had a thirty minute taster session on a motorbike before, but the way I figure it, Hanoi is the perfect place to learn, the traffic here is so forgiving and quiet:
Like most people, I'd seen the Top Gear Vietnam special. I loved the idea of travelling around the country on two wheels. And frankly, if Jeremy Clarkson - the idiot, who I do actually like - can do it, I certainly can.
I got off to a jerky start. It's tricky to get the hang of changing gears at first, and I stalled plenty of times, giving the little old ladies at their stalls in the Old Quarter something to chuckle at. I soon figured out that pulling away in second gear is a much smoother option, and the foot gear lever really doesn't need as much effort as I was putting in at first, which saved my (sandalled) feet some pain. There's no doubt that having driven a car before helped me to pick things up quicker. For someone unfamiliar with the clutch and gears, I think it would take them quite a bit longer to get accustomed to riding a manual bike.
To get an idea of just what the traffic here is like, the following YouTube video was taken by me on a random trip trough the city, back to my hostel. The editing is very shoddy, but I had to get it under fifteen minutes, and I wasn't exactly going for an Oscar. If you notice, at 09:50 minutes there's a crash - which I surprisingly haven't seen too many of.
So having become an expert motorcyclist in just a couple of days, I was ready for my first big adventure - The Northwest Loop.
This is exactly what it says on the tin. Starting from Hanoi you ride a loop up to Sapa, stopping overnight at various places in-between, then back down to Hanoi again. The length of time taken to do this varies, but I'd heard six to seven days was a leisurely pace, so that's what I was aiming for.
I set out amongst the mid morning traffic, heading out of the madness that is Hanoi. The road soon quietened down, and it was actually a fairly pleasant ride to my first stop, Mai Chau.
Almost immediately after stopping to check my phone for a potential place to sleep, a guy on a motorbike pulled up next to me and tried to convince me to come and stay in his sister's home-stay. I agreed to at least go and have a look, in the absence of a better option, and I'm very glad I did because the place was beautiful:
The next stop on the route was Son La. I didn't actually get any photos here, but here's some of the views from the journey which more than make up for that!
These roads were just perfect. They wound their way up through the mountains, providing spectacular views and they were all smooth, sealed and intact! On the third day, that all changed.
Travelling from Son La to Lai Chau shall forever more be referred to as "Hell Day". The first part of the day - before stopping for lunch - lulled me into a false sense of security. The roads were fine, and the going was good.
The conditions soon changed. The road suddenly disappeared and basically turned to rubble. Gone was the nice, smooth tarmac I'd been used to. In it's place were rocks, gravel, potholes and puddles.
I had thought this was a temporary glitch. The road would soon be reinstated and I'd be motoring along at a decent pace just like the first two days riding. I was gravely mistaken. It continued like this for the rest of the day. The going was slow and arduous, winding through mountain after mountain, and at one point I doubted I'd reach my destination before dark.
Just when I thought things couldn't get any bleaker, I came across mud for the first time in my biking "career". I think I went too slowly and in too low a gear as the bike slipped to the side and I was unable to stop it as my foot also slid in the mud. The end result of this was a footpeg that had been bent up and no longer allowed me to change gear. I managed to bend it back down to the correct level, but it was then too far backwards. It was as I was bending it further forward that the footpeg and stand both snapped off in my hand. I can only attribute this to my superhuman strength:
Naturally, when this happened I was filled with happiness and joy. I rode for the next twenty kilometres with my left foot all the way back on the pillion peg, bringing my whole foot forward every time I had to change gear. It was uncomfortable to say the least, and by the time I got to my destination and found a place to stay, I was well and truly over my initial enthusiasm for the bike!
The next morning saw me get up nice and early to find a local mechanic. This is easily done in Vietnam, everywhere you go there will be someone available to help you out. I got the peg welded up for approximately £1.50. Ridiculously expensive, I think you'll agree.
With the bike repaired, I set off with renewed enthusiasm for my next stop, Sapa.
Sapa is really quite stunning, and so picturesque. The downside to this is its popularity with tourists, which does somewhat ruin the atmosphere of the place, but a short walk out of the main area can soon see you alone on a hillside path, enjoying incredible views.
One such place, that gradually becomes quieter as you ascend higher (I can't think why) is Ham Rong Mountain. This had a very nice botanical gardens (I'm not so much into flowers but they can make a nice photo) and a "Cloud yard" which was the highest point on the mountain and provided me with the best views yet:
A short walk further down from the main Sapa thoroughfare, sees you arrive in Cat Cat village. This is supposed to be an authentic Hmong village, but of course caters hugely to the tourists that now visit there. The thing I most enjoyed there was the Tien Sa waterfall, but the views on the way down were equally as pleasant:
In total I spent four nights in Sapa, which was longer than I'd intended, but it really did warrant the extra time in my opinion. I had also heard that the roads back down to Hanoi from there were not the nicest in the world, and what's commonly done is to put yourself and your bike on a train from nearby Lao Cai, which is exactly what I did.
I arrived back in Hanoi on the 23rd, which is where I've been since. Despite the dreadful third day of travel, I've not been put off the bike. I'm now in planning for the next trip. Watch this space...