North Loop: BaBe, Cao Bang province, Ha Giang province, Sapa

Discussion in 'Vietnam - Road Trip Reports' started by mat.ward, Aug 14, 2009.

  1. mat.ward

    mat.ward Ol'Timer

    Hanoi, Ba Be lake, Cao Bang, Ha Lang, Ban Gioc Waterfall, Pac Bo, Bao Lac, Meo Vac, Dong Van, Sinh Lung, Lung Cu, Ha Giang, Hoang Su Phi, Xin Man, Bac Ha, Sapa.
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    28th June to 8th July 2009. Nine days riding, then two days eating and drinking and watching the hills in Sapa. Train back to Hanoi.

    Two 250cc Honda XRs.

    Couple of pics to whet your appetite, then some info.


    Ha Giang province:
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    Ha Giang province:
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    Ha Giang province:
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    Cao Bang province:
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    In Bao Lac:
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    Ha Giang province:
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    Ha Giang province:
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    Near Xin Man:
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    Ha Giang province:
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    Ha Giang province:
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    Ha Giang province:
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    East of Hoang Su Phi:
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    Between Xin Man and Bac Ha:
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    I was heading from Scotland to Sydney then NZ, and managed to get a stop-over in Bangkok for an extra £10. My father had planned a holiday in Vietnam for around the same time, so I suggested that I take him on a ride in northern Vietnam.

    Cao Bang and Ha Giang provinces are crazily good motorbike country. I've been to or ridden in most areas in Vietnam and Laos, but I would have to say these areas take the cake as far as the scenery, people, and pho is concerned ;)

    If you are interested in riding in this area, and like to organise things yourself, then email Hung at Flamingo Travel in Hanoi and book one of his newer Honda XRs or the Suzuki DR-Z400. Expect to pay more than in Laos due to the tax situation for bigger bikes in Vietnam. Hung is a good fella, and very helpful. His bikes didn't miss a beat during our trip, and he agreed to weld some saddlebag racks one XR that didn't have them, and replaced a lowish tread tire on request before our trip. Ms Thuy his admin girl is also a legend. He has Minsks and other bikes for cheap.
    www.flamingotravel.com.vn
    [email email=hungadventuretravel@yahoo.com]hungadventuretravel@yahoo.com[/email]
    [email email=info.flamingotravel@gmail.com]info.flamingotravel@gmail.com[/email]
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    If going without a guide, get this mapbook:
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    Or if you want to eat well, ask questions about what you see, and ensure you see all the best stuff, book a trip with Digby and Cuong at www.exploreindochina.com. Digby is a top bloke, and bloody interesting to have a beer or 12 with. Between himself and Cuong, there is no one better able to give you an insight into Vietnam (or Laos) and its roads. Plus, they can provide you with classic 650cc Urals. Jim at www.remoteasia.com is also the man.

    Our trip:
    This loop worked really well going anticlockwise. Everything just got better and better as we skirted the border with China, and it ended with western luxuries in Sapa which is great after days of pho and sign language. The only problem was the need to get permits in Ha Giang for Dong Van and Meo Vac area, but we didn't get them, and it worked for us (see below).
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    Day 1: Hanoi to Ba Be Lake - 228km
    First couple of hours: flat, dusty, traffic.
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    Then you can head west away from highway 3 and things get better.
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    Ba Be is great. There are a few guesthouses on the lake edge, ours was mint.
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    Less than US$10 for both of us.
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    Day 2: Ba Be - Bang Lung loop for me (84km), then we both headed to Cao Bang (140km).
    I headed on an anticlockwise loop south of Ba Be in the morning. Jungle at the start, big windy hills with good tarmac, then met up with a section of road we did the previous day.
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    Picked up the old fella and headed to Cao Bang
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    The section of road from Na Phac to Cao Bang was newly sealed and brilliant. Good way to end the day.

    Day 3: Ban Gioc falls via Ha Lang, then back to Cao Bang via Tra Linh (211km).
    Probably one of my favourite days. Karst pinnacles covered in jungle.
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    Video west of Ha Lang:


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    This close to China:
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    Those buildings are in China:
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    Ban Gioc Waterfall
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    Video east of Tra Linh:


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    Day 4: Loop northwest of Cao Bang - Mat (182km)
    The old man took the day off, and I went for a ride up to Pac Bo and Ho Chi Minh's cave, then looped back to Tra Linh.

    Near Pac Bo. Minsk at work.
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    I wouldn't have seen this guy, but I put my jacket down on him and he ran up a tree. Near Ho Chi Minh's cave:
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    I couldn't read the signs, and ended up walking in the heat up this hill to find the cave. These border signs tend to be very close to the actual border, so after a few more minutes I turned back and found the cave was only 2 rather than 20 minutes walk up the hill.
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    The cave Ho Chi Minh hung out in for a couple of weeks when he first came back to Vietnam to start the revolution. Two weeks was enough - understandable.
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    The road between Don Chuong and Tra Linh is being upgraded, so at the moment much of it is mud or rock:
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    Good area though:
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    There seem to be more dogs than pigs in villages in this area of Vietnam. Lots of healthy young dogs hanging out in the sun. It was this pup's day. They were getting rid of the fur I think rather than cooking him.
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    I took a random road north at one stage and it turned to single track. Started good, turned into this type of stuff:
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    Then:
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    Then:
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    Turned back 1km away from where the GPS said the Chinese border was, as it was getting too late. Road was slightly wider at this point. Meet a friendly local:
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    Some of these sacks had Chinese writing on them - coming from China?
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    I found out after this trip that there is a big border base up near this track, and my foray into this area would have been looked upon too kindly by the border police.

    Back on the main road south of Tra Linh:
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    I had a pocket-size portable printer (Polaroid PoGo - £50) so I could give something to the locals rather than just taking their photos and leaving. This was the best thing I have ever bought. Real smiles and laughs when the little print came out and they realised they could keep it.
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    There is a fantastic bit of winding tarmac north of Cao Bang (highway 3).
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    Day 5: Cao Bang - Bao Lac - Meo Vac - Dong Van (246km)
    Until you get near Meo Vac scenery is not as good as Cao Bang province, but then holy f**k it's good.
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    Somewhere between Cao Bang and Bao Lac:
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    Lunch in Bao Lac:
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    There is a new bridge over the river west of Bao Lac, but it was not finished when we were there. Almost, but not quite. This is where you turn north towards Meo Vac. No problem on a bike, there is a small suspension bridge east of the main bridge.

    If doing this trip anticlockwise, taking this road means you do not need to travel a long way west then north to get to Dong Van etc. The problem is that permits for the Dong Van/Meo Vac area are only given in Ha Giang town. We were told that the need for permits had been recently done away with, so took the risk. The first hotel in Dong Van "Rocky Plateau" refused to take us without permits, and after we explained that we had been told permits were not necessary, they called the border police, who apparently said we needed to visit the office at 8pm. Not what you feel like hearing after a long day, especially as we had checked out the rooms and they were awesome. But we went down the road to the Hoang Ngoc Hotel, and stayed there no probs for two nights. We stuck out like sore thumbs, so the cops must have known we were there. So... take from our experience what you will. Getting fined and turned around would be a real bitch, but the short cut is a big one, have a look on the map.

    Update - Mid August 2009: Today I found out that the head cop in Ha Giang has just changed and they are definitely going back to permits. It sounds like we were up there during an in-between stage in adminstration. Apparently they are being even more strict with the permits than before, at least for the moment. So as of late 2009, if you turn up in Dong Van, Meo Vac etc without a permit you risk a big hassle, a big fine, and even a night trip back to Ha Giang with your bike on a truck. Technically even with a permit you are not allowed anywhere near the border (ie off the main road).

    The road after the bridge is brand new as of June 2009. There was one landslide, but smooth the whole way otherwise. We heard that with the rains that hit us a couple of days later, a group got stuck for two days between two landslides on this road.

    I think this was a seam of coal:
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    Approaching Meo Vac:
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    Meo Vac:
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    Between Meo Vac and Dong Van. 22 kms of jaw-dropping landscape.
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    It was late so we did not stop much, just soaked up the scenery, with a plan to head back the next day to soak it up some more.

    Arrived in Dong Van, and had the permit issues we mentioned. Cool town:
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    The non-hassle hotel - Hoang Ngoc (ph 0219 856020):
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    From the hotel balcony:
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    Day 6: Dong Van - Meo Vac - Sing Lung - Ta Phin - Dong Van (Mat - 83km)
    Dong Van - Lung Cu - Dong Van (Mat and Rud - 54km)

    The next day the old fella put his feet up for the morning, and I went out to explore.
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    Unfortunately the road between Dong Van and Meo Vac was pea-soup fog, so no pics.

    After this on the road from Meo Vac to Yen Minh things cleared up a bit and it was great:
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    Checking out the photo. I have a whole lot of photos of these three, and in every one, the girl is looking straight at me in exactly the same way.
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    I turned north on a rocky road and the amazing scenery of Ha Giang continued:
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    As did the rocks:
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    I got to the village of Sing Lung, and then the road turned into tarmac:
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    But to make life more interesting I turned east onto a rock road:
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    And the village of Ta Phin was not far away:
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    I could see a small road snaking away to the east of Ta Phin, but the locals were adamant that Dong Van was not that way. But I had an explore anyway and although the road was dodgy, the area was bloody cool:
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    After wondering if I would end up in a dead end, or being channelled off with the hills south, I saw a cut road in the distance, and it ended up being the road between Dong Van and Yen Minh.

    Had some lunch, then headed out with the old fella to Lung Cu, the northern-most part of Vietnam.

    More great lumpy outcrops of land, and the “Frontier Area” signs that followed us for our whole trip:
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    Then it p*ssed down for the next 48 hours.

    But we got to Lung Cu:
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    This was the stream outside our hotel one morning:
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    Then the next:
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    Day 7: Dong Van - Meo Vac - Ha Giang (178km)
    The next day we headed for Ha Giang town. As it had been all fogged-out the day before, I wanted to go back to the Dong Van - Meo Vac road to get some pics. Approaching it things did not look good. Same fog as the day before.

    But then things cleared a little, and pics and videos were possible.



    Just south of Dong Van:
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    At the pass lookout:
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    The little printer again:
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    The rain had caused quite a bit of rockfall, including this beast:
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    To get an idea of the road, have a look at this vid. I'm going pretty slow because I have the camera in my left hand, so changing gears and handling the bike was not working so well ;)


    After the slight clearing of weather it started to rain for real. We sheltered in a small town (Sung Trai?) under an awning so we could put stuff in the properly waterproof bag, and were invited in for green tea with a nice old guy that used to live in Hanoi (I think):
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    After some more riding we sheltered for lunch in a good pho place, and hoped the heavy rain would ease off, but it stayed like it for the day:
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    We got to Ha Giang town after ploughing through rain and overflowing drains for the afternoon. All the locals were taking pics of the river on their cellphones, and the news was showing flooding from around the north and north east.

    We lucked out and found a great hotel. The Houy Hoan Hotel. Mint, and air con to dry the clothes. It even had a lift.
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    And a drive-in reception!
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    Not sure if it was the wet riding or the cook, but we had some brilliant pho at a place down the street, and some locals offered up some rice whiskey.
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    Day 8: Ha Giang - Hoang Su Phi - Xin Man (159km)
    Fast road down highway 2 to the turn off to Xin Man.
    To Hoang Su Phi it's windy and scenic, but nothing like the rock of Ha Giang.
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    Stopped in Hoang Su Phi for some coffee and beer. The weekend market was winding up, and loads of ethnic minority women were on the road and in the town. Wherever we stopped on our trip, our bikes were the source of a lot of attention. Often the kill switch or even fuel was turned off as happened on this stop (once the kill switch had been played with enough):
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    The road to Xin Man was good.
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    Yes, my mum fed me well:
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    In Xin Man we checked into a hotel in a very communist looking compound.

    This was the view from our back porch:
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    For once I pulled the bits of meat out of this pho. Probably OK? But green chicken? Better not.
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    Day 9: Xin Man - Bac Ha - Sapa (152)
    From Xin Man you wind up over a pass to get to Bac Ha.

    Meet these girls and their family up high in the hills:
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    Initially the road was pretty good, but then turned rocky and muddy.
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    A couple of landslides with the rain:
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    And one dirty great section of thick clay-mud right at the pass. There was a bulldozer there, so my guess is that they had been working on the road at the pass, but then packed it in once the rains came.


    After riding my bike up this I meet two girls from Saigon that spoke English. They said they had come from Bac Ha on the back of two step-throughs and this section was the worst part. Good boost in moral for dad, as this stuff was hard work for a 64 year old!
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    Good to stop for a Red Bull after getting through the worst of the mud:
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    The milestones were all out of whack to Bac Ha. The distances jumped up and down. This was about the third 7km marker:
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    Bac Ha in the distance:
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    Stopped in Bac Ha for a big feed, and our first English menu in 9 days.
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    Then got quickly to Sapa on good fast roads.

    Cat Cat View Hotel was mint. View from our room:
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    Awesome hotel restaurant spot:
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    Sapa:
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    After two nights relaxing in Sapa we headed down to Lao Cai, had some beers, had a fantastic head massage, and hopped on the overnight train to Hanoi.

    Morning at Hanoi railway station:
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    Ha Giang. Cao Bang. Go there.
     
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  3. Pete_Tallahassee

    Pete_Tallahassee Active Member

    Matt, You ARE the man. What a great ride to do with your father. Taking that Polaroid PoGo with you was brilliant. As always your pictures and writing are fantastic and informative.
    I land in Hanoi first week of Oct. and plan to spend three weeks in the north of Vietnam. I followed in your foot steps through Laos in Nov. of 07 and now you are paving the way for me on this trip.
    I can't thank you enough. Glad to see the old man do the trip. I'm now 60 and sometimes wonder what I am doing heading off on this adventure but your father is an inspiration.
     
  4. mat.ward

    mat.ward Ol'Timer

    Thanks Pete.

    Yeah, it was really special to have that time with the old fella. You just don't spend that amount of time together once you hit your 20s/30s. He hit his bed pretty quick after getting to our destinations, but otherwise he soaked up everything I pointed him at. I hope I'm going strong like that when I'm 64.
     
  5. gcurtis

    gcurtis New Member

    Great report Matt, beautiful pictures.
    I traveled with Pete to Laos/Cambodia in '07. Great trip, we had a fantastic time.
    Regretfully I can't make it with him on this one. I worry about the old dude going it alone, Ha!.. Just kidding, you wouldn't think Pete is 60 if you saw him. Cripes, I turned 51 yesterday and can't believe I'm this old. He'll be fine. You just keep on going... Damn! I wish I was going. Next time.
    Thanks for the post.
    Greg
     
  6. DavidFL

    DavidFL Administrator Staff Member

    Matt
    Welcome back to GT Rider & thanks a million kip for yet another stunning report. You've always got a good one & have been an absolute star on GT Rider.

    It must have been a beautiful feeling out there riding with your Dad. I know that when my dad came & rode / drove North Thailand we always had a fantastic time together & felt really close.

    That's a good tip about the Polaroid PoGo, & it is a brilliant gesture to give villagers a copy straight away.
    Years ago I used to always take back copies of my prints when I returned to villages, & this always made you welcome there. Especially in the places where they had never had a photograph of themselves in their hot little hands. Oh what a feeling!

    It’s also good to know you went via Digby at http://www.exploreindochina.com./ & Hung at http://www.flamingotravel.com.vn/ as they have been providing reliable value for money service to bikers in Vietnam for years.

    The scenery around Ha Giang looks superb & actually makes me want to get over to Vietnam to ride.

    Thanks again for the contribution.
     
  7. bard

    bard Ol'Timer

    What an awesome trip and scenery, I really wet my appetite for a tour in Vietnam. When will they ever allow us to ride over...

    Rental makes sense as it's seams we'll never be able to do it elsewise.

    Great report, great photos and excellent tip with polaroid...
     
  8. feejer

    feejer Ol'Timer

    Jeez, I can't believe it took me this long to find & read this epic tale/ride. At least I know where my next SEA trip is going to be. Vietnam is looking VERY interesting come November.
     
  9. Franz

    Franz Ol'Timer

    Mat, what a stunning report and fotos of absolute marvellous landscapes !!!! Never seen that part of VN and never expected this to be that beautiful !!!! Cheers & thanks for sharing, Franz
     
  10. gatorjos

    gatorjos New Member

    Beautiful photos...I'm setting out to ride that area this weekend....so excited!!
     
  11. DavidFL

    DavidFL Administrator Staff Member

    Gatorjos
    How'd you go - have a good time?
     
  12. saxonator

    saxonator Ol'Timer

    amazing report and pix, thanks for sharing...
     
  13. purcitron

    purcitron Member

    @mat.ward
    awesome videos. i plan to do this in mid-may
    -difficult to find a train that will take the bikes from Sa Pa to Ha Noi? expensive? not worth riding, for the scenery?
    -anything you recommend bringing (other than clothes)?
    -any tips (places to avoid) for a novice rider?
    thanks!
     
  14. bilson

    bilson Member

    Hey purcitron.

    I did that route few days ago (but Ban Gioc Falls instead of BaBe).

    - I asked in Flamingo and they told me that the train from Lao Cai to Hanoi costs 40$ per person (for cheapest travel class i assume) plus 30$ per bike, so 70$ total.
    - We did Hanoi - Sa Pa on bikes and it was definitely worth it. Really nice ride, beatiful landscapes, especially in Mu Cang Chai area, and great last 50km to sapa (picture from our trip below :))

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    I read somewhere that there are several trains daily, but not all of them can carry bikes. So I think you have to check by yourself in Lao Cai. If the weather is good i recommend riding to Hanoi, and if it is raining just take one of the trains.

    Btw i see that you want to go to BaBe Lakes first. I think you should decide whether to go clockwise or counterclockwise, based on weather forecasts. I also wanted to go north first, but changed plans night before departure because of the weather. And it was a good decision - sun almost whole 9 day trip :)

    I used this website on few trips and they forecast really well http://www.worldweatheronline.com/
     
  15. purcitron

    purcitron Member

    Hey bilson!
    thanks for info.
    photo looks awesome!
    i decided to do a clockwise circuit. something like hanoi-Mai Chau-Son La-Sa Pa-Ha Giang-Dong Van-Meo Vac-Bao Lac-hanoi
    pretty excited.
    it will be mid-may, so im planning for some rain, which is a big concern. dont think ill ride in the rain, as im a novice.
    im figuring out which gear to bring. elbow/knee pads? heave boots, etc.
     

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