Whilst in SE Asia, an opportunity arose that could not be missed; a chance to see both my (Amy’s) brothers together in one place for the first time in 4 years. This was not a normal ‘see you down the pub at 7’ sibling catch up. In order for this to work, we would need to swap the boat for some motorbikes, the open ocean for the open road, then change our pace from a leisurely 5 knots to full throttle.
A motorbike trip in Vietnam has been a long held dream of Matt and I’s, though not one that sits within our skills area. Luckily for us both of my brothers are serious bikers; we would have their technical and mechanical expertise but we would need to keep up with their “don’t worry Amy, we can only get small (400cc) bikes, we won’t be racing” pace.
Nothing beats adventuring with the people you love, especially if they do most of the organising. My youngest brother has completed several motorbike trips in Vietnam with his Vietnamese girlfriend. Between them they advised/translated and planned most of the trip, giving Matt and I not only a break from boat jobs and sailing but from the constant planning involved in full time travel.
Like us, you probably have some preconceived ideas about the dangers of novice foreigners riding motorbikes in Vietnam. As much as I would like to dispel your concerns, all you have likely read or heard about the roads in Northern Vietnam are true. You will meet bikes and trucks on the wrong side of the road, trucks overtaking on blind corners with vertical drops the other side, livestock crossing, landslides/dynamite blasts and overloaded bikes carrying market stalls or hedges. The only thing you can be sure of when you come around a hairpin is that there will be a hazard you will need to avoid. Forget crossing oceans, this trip was much more risky.
Like many things in life with challenges come rewards. The Ha Giang Loop is a famous motorbike route through the most Northern highlands of Vietnam, bordering with China. The roads wind through dramatic valleys, mountain passes, river gorges and some unique village communities. This area is often, understandably described as one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam.
Even on the 125cc scooters Matt and I both hired, the riding was thrilling. When you were able to take your eyes of the road or stop to take it in, the scenery was breath taking; rice paddies and rivers nestled in deep ravines with layered peaks as far as the eye could see.
Passing through unique towns and villages; the local culture, clothing and way of life was as mesmerising as the surroundings. We travel to see places and cultures that are different from our known and were fascinated by the bright clothing, beaded headdresses or velvet head scarfs that adorned the women in this area. The beret’s and darker clothing of the men working the fields with buffalo contrasted the women’s obvious love of colour and patterns.
Many towns and villages in this area come together for regular traditional markets, held throughout the region.
Produce, livestock and clothing are available. As the border of China runs along this region, the goods come from both Vietnam and China and currency is taken in either Dong or Yuan.
Not only a place to buy provisions, but also a major social occasion, the markets are packed. ‘Losing’ 6ft Matt in the crowd soon became a very easy but fun game of ‘where’s wally’. Ironically, unlike other area’s of Asia we have traveled we were practically invisible here, instead of being hassled to purchase anything, we were lucky if people would agree to sell us something.
The market was the place to be and be seen, women were decked out in their finest, brightest clothing and the rice wine (aka happy water) was flowing. This popular local tipple was carried to the market in woven baskets containing 30l (happy) water barrels. It was sampled in such a dedicated fashion that the police were breathalyzing happy bikers at 10am on their way out of the market. By the time we left, the police bus was well beyond full.
The Most Northerly point of Vietnam
A slight detour took us to the most Northerly point of Vietnam and the Chinese border. A proud flag tower with 360 degree views of the surrounding rice fields and highlands stands tall in the border area.
Over the border to China
The border of China runs along a large section of the road. In at least one place the fence is in need of repair and a well worn path allow easy trade from the road in Vietnam to another road in China, a mere 200m over the path. Having watched several locals walk through the 10m gap in the fence, we couldn’t resit the temptation any longer and ran over the border for a quick photo in China. *Please note this was before the virus outbreak and we have also long passed the incubation period. Unfortunately the towns and villages in this area are now at great risk from the virus and the Vietnamese government have closed the border as a precaution.
The Ha Giang Loop can be completed in 3 days but even at full throttle, we feel that would be too much of a rush when there is so much to see just off the main loop. We took a week, staying at home-stays or hotels ranging from £6 to £20 pn for a double room. Had it not been mid winter and the weather turning more unstable we could have easily enjoyed a bigger bike trip in Northern Vietnam. As it was we used our remaining time with my brothers and their girlfriends to see Hanoi, the famous Halong Bay area and Dalat, a city in the Highlands of Southern Vietnam (more on those places next time).
Leaving the Highlands of Northern Vietnam left me sure of 4 things:
- There is no way I am letting four years pass by before the next sibling adventure.
- Matt and I will return for a longer bike trip in Vietnam one day (just probably not at full throttle).
- Vietnam is an incredibly interesting country to visit.
- Roads are more dangerous than oceans