Wednesday 18 April 2012

Bikies at Heart

See Map 1 of our North Vietnam Motorcycle Tour

After the photography tour we realized that independent transport was the key for independent travel. With this in mind we started planning our Northern Vietnam trip. Our first thought was of course motorbikes, but we were hesitant about the risks of riding in lawless Hanoi traffic, the fact that the places we were going to were remote with no good maps available, and the massive dent in our annual budget that a tour would cost. Hiring a car with a driver and guide was cheaper, but the experience just would not be the same, as our minds just kept drifting back to the motorbikes. We really are bikers. We love the freedom of riding; being able to roll my wrist and go, and stop with the press of a lever. At the end of the day we decided that we would have regretted it if we didn't do it. So we forked out a massive chunk of USDs and went with the trusty two-wheeled steed.

I'm normally a dirt bike rider, so my main hesitancy was dealing with Hanoi traffic. I worried about having to negotiate the centre, the CBD of one crazy, busy Asian metropolis. The traffic here was insane. In Vietnam, many people do not look before merging with traffic, they just pull straight out and there is no such thing as give-way signs. It’s up to the driver/rider to engage self-preservation-mode and avoid the truck/bus/car/motorcycle. Batting around statistics like 40 people dying on Vietnamese roads every day (mostly on motorbikes) didn't improve confidence; nor did the six accidents we ourselves witnessed during our month so far in this fair country. Not to mention, they drive on the right.

We met Chung our guide for the next eleven days. He was very friendly and surprisingly young at Tia’s age. He was confident in our ability and assured us that we would be fine. So off we went turning right into the chaos.

Our trusty guide Chung
It is not easy trying to write about it since it is now just a blur. Everything was happening everywhere at once. I had to try to keep behind our guide to not lose him in the sea of other bikes, learn to ride a new bike that also had an idle problem, and not hit anyone. Surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the initial nervousness to wear off, and my stress levels dropped. I think of it like a river - the water (motorbikes) flowed around the rocks (trucks/concrete blocks) as it flowed down the channel (the road). Where two rivers met it just seemed to merge, slowly but smoothly, provided nobody did anything sudden like speeding up or stopping. But that was the difference - it was slow compared to Australia. The speed limit on the highway for motorbikes was 60km/h, 80 for trucks and buses, and in towns it was 40-60. But people usually went much slower. There was the odd idiot that weaved around too fast, but people just stayed out of their way. I cannot say it was the best system, as there was no safety factor, but it was a system.

Soon we were on smaller and quieter roads, much to my relief. I could finally relax and enjoy the view.

For the first night we stayed in a small town in the Phu Yen District with a commanding outlook over the rice paddies.

Green Rice Paddy Fields - Phu Yen
Day two was a very long, frustrating and painful riding day through Lai Châu province. The road was both smooth and rough, where we would get up to speed on the smooth sections of road, and hit the brakes before the rough bits and giant potholes that would almost throw us off the bike. Although we got over the riding pretty quickly, we found many other excuses to stop. The scenery was a photographer's delight. Terraced rice paddies were everywhere. Some full of water, some freshly planted and some still dry. I only wish we didn’t have to ride so far, as I would have stopped much more often.

Ploughed and Planted. View from Above the Terraced Rice Paddy Fields near Mu Cang Chai
A New Crop. View from Above the Terraced Rice Paddy Fields near Mu Cang Chai
We stayed in the Than Uyen District, at a biggish town that was nowhere near as impressive as the ride.

Our third day started with a typical Vietnamese breakfast dish that we have not had before. Banh Cuon is a steamed rice flour pancake that has bits of pork in it. It is cut into bite-sized pieces, dipped into a savoury broth garnished with pickled green mango, chilli, spring onions, a squeeze of lime and a few other tasty ingredients. One of the best breakfasts I have had on the trip.

Banh Cuon - Steamed Rice paper stuffed with minced pork.
Today was a shorter ride. We wound our way over the highest pass in Vietnam, Tram Ton Pass. The road was great fun, very winding and very smooth, with not much traffic.

Stunning Hairpin Corner near Tram Ton Pass, Vietnam's Highest Mountain Pass
Throw in a few bridge crossings and some fun off-road riding in terraced rice paddies and you get a very enjoyable day on the back of a bike.

Riding a Rickety Wooden Bridge. On the Road from Than Uyen to Sa Pa
For lunch we stopped at the pass and had some BBQ meats with sticky rice. There was a range of things on the menu, but of cause Tia had to eat the strangest thing there. It wasn't too bad this time, just a few small marinated sparrows grilled over coals till you could eat them whole, bones and all.

Crispy Grilled Skewered Sparrow - Tram Ton Pass
And Chung showed us what a real knife looks like, Dundee style.

That's not a knife - Our guide brandishing some local cutlery made from steel recycled from the leaf springs of trucks - Tram Ton Pass


  1. Hi there. Which tour company did you use and what was the cost per rider? I'll be there in 6 weeks and your photos have convinced me I need to spend more time in the rural north!


    1. Hi Brad, the company was offroad vietnam:

      Their pricing structure was $155 per person per day. But this may have changed.

      Also our guide (he was excellent) was freelance and it would be worth while contacting him directly and see if he can work something out for you. You can find him on facebook:

      Thanks for the comments

  2. Hi Ben, thanks for the advice but as I was on limited funds, I hired a Minsk from Sa Pa for $10 a day and off I went. I managed to find a map for Lao Cai region, but not Ha Giang. Fortunately there always seemed to be a local around who generally pointed me in the right direction. 5 days and 900km odd later, I made it back to Sa Pa.

    I made it all the way around to Dong Van and Meo Vac and it was by far the highlight of my month in Vietnam. Unfortunately this time of year it's very hazy, and I came back a bit disappointed with my pics. But the scenery was still jaw droppingly beautiful to see.

    Anyway, thanks so much for your blog and showing me a good place to get off the beaten path. I only saw 3 other tourists on my bike trip (one of whom was a photographer who'd hired his own 4WD tour!). Enjoy the rest of your travels.


  3. Just having another peek at your pics and saw this one about waiting for the rain.!i=1837761481&k=Vqv8cWc

    There was a big storm during the night I stayed at Bac Ha. The road to Coc Pai was so bad that even 4WDs couldn't get through. Took us a good couple of hours! (I'm guessing it was the same small, unsealed road which was a mix of rocks and dirt sections? Off TL 153?). I actually missed the turn off and ended up in Si Ma Cai which was cool because it was lovely up there!