Vietnam - The remote North East China frontier

Discussion in 'Vietnam - Road Trip Reports' started by brian_bkk, Oct 24, 2013.

  1. brian_bkk

    brian_bkk Ol'Timer

    G'day All,

    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

    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.


    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.

    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.

    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.

    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..

    Drivers licence / Insurance
    Chris has covered this here in his post.

    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.

    Hung proudly displaying his GT Rider sticker


    More to come
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  3. TonyBKK

    TonyBKK Ol'Timer

    Woohoo! This should be good!!! [​IMG]
  4. Rod Page

    Rod Page Ol'Timer

    I've been hanging out for this report for a month now. GREAT way to start alerting riders to what one faces in Vietnam. We all tend to rush to the report & the photos (& Mike takes great shots) but Vietnam is VERY special & the matters raised by you need to be understood. Landslides after rain are another issue of concern & there are no road-signs for riders to advise of any upcoming changes in road conditions - you can come round a corner & find a guy drying his rice across the road, or building materials such as sand & gravel just left there on the roadway, 'stored' there for the building project!. VN bikers swing to the right before turning left (no indicators); everyone flows onto major roads from side-roads without looking.........I'm glad you mentioned bike sizes - 250 is more than enough but even moreso should it be wet; the mud in VN can be MASSIVE. A smaller point - you were riding in the north; should you ride in the south (Mekong Delta) I would suggest you take nothing bigger frame-size wise than a Yamaha YBR125 as you will not be able to fit anything larger on the smaller boats that you'll wish to take to keep criss-crossing the Mekong River. You mentioned maps - I found that the "Travel Map of Vietnam" (Vietnam Publishing House of Natural Resources Enviroment & Cartography) was the best & had been so for years. If used in conjunction with local Provincial Maps procurable in most major towns, the two worked well. Flamingo - what a GREAT team they are!!!!! Understand your desire to head back there - at a time when riders are rushing off to find new frontiers they are missing Vietnam, is one of the true wonders of SE Asia. Cant wait for your report guys as I know the quality of your work. Cheers & glad you had a safe ride.
  5. Jurgen

    Jurgen Ol'Timer

    Iam really found of such great information who bring a (bikingwise)lesser known region to our screens. I still have a big Vietnamnostalgia, despite frequent business travels, my driving experienceswere limited to a couple of days rides.

    In the past Rod enticed us withwonderful reports … but the Pacific Islands have now taken him away(his write-ups still remain for our pleasure).

    Myonly open desire for these posts … please guys bring more of them:)
  6. Deano747

    Deano747 Ol'Timer

    Brian, thank you for this timely post to give me a heads up on what to expect. I and 8 others are doing this with Flamingo the first 2 weeks of December. Given the size of my group, I am getting a guide and support vehicle from Flamingo and they have organised an 11 day loop of this area. Looking forward to this very much, trip report to follow late December.
  7. Rod Page

    Rod Page Ol'Timer

    And Deano, I'll be looking forward to your report too!
  8. brian_bkk

    brian_bkk Ol'Timer

    Great stuff Deano.
    You and your mates will love it..

    Wise indeed to have a guide and support vehicle with a big group like that..

  9. feejer

    feejer Ol'Timer

    Great summary Brian and mirrors our experience up there as well. We did 3 weeks just in the North last year and still didn't see it all. That is the main point I would make to anyone doing this for the first time. Its going to take MUCH longer to get from waypoint to waypoint than you imagine. Planning a route is fine, but to think you will be likely to maintain any kind of schedule is folly. If you are in a guided tour, surely a better chance as they know exactly what is ahead but if you self guide like we did on the first go, plenty of surprises (part of the fun actually). Just happy we allowed for 3 weeks or that trip would have been seriously half-assed.

    And yes, make sure you have some snacks of some kind. Several, hell many times we would roll into town famished and near dark and couldn't find a single place open to eat, no markets, nothing. Wandering around like stray dogs. Not a pleasant way to end a long day of riding. "Frontier Area" is no joke.

    And experienced rider or not, avoid HWY 18 East from Hanoi to HaLong like the plague. That last 2 hour stretch was about as white knuckle as it gets, we were lucky to have survived it. Not exaggerating at all, seriously scary.
  10. brian_bkk

    brian_bkk Ol'Timer

    I will try and crack on with this report and photo's this week..
    With the Kawasaki training and Enduro last weekend.. No time.. having too much fun :)

  11. brian_bkk

    brian_bkk Ol'Timer

    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..

    David.. You better add some more flags to the next shirt so we can take up the challenge :->

    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...
  12. brian_bkk

    brian_bkk Ol'Timer

    The route for our 5 day trip

  13. Rod Page

    Rod Page Ol'Timer

    Great choice in routes - look forward to the report!
  14. burnjr

    burnjr Ol'Timer

    nice ride brother and report
  15. brian_bkk

    brian_bkk Ol'Timer

    Apologies for the delay... Have been battling with my phone / mac to get the pics off.
    On the Mac I have to use the Sony software.. Looks like all the images are stored in the Mac memory before copied to the disc.
    As my phone is out of memory I was pulling off 4000 images and video and would run out of memory on the laptop.
    3 times at 3 hrs before it bombed out and realised what was happening.

    All fixed today.. plugged the phone in to Windows laptop and can view the internal and external memory cards easily.
    All copied off and ready for editing and report :)

  16. brian_bkk

    brian_bkk Ol'Timer

    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..

    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..

    More to come...
    Goran Phuket likes this.
  17. feejer

    feejer Ol'Timer

    Great start! Looking forward to the rest of the tale.
  18. brian_bkk

    brian_bkk Ol'Timer

    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..

    More to come..
  19. ronwebb

    ronwebb Ol'Timer

    This is looking interesting Brian and good photos too. Bring it on...
  20. brian_bkk

    brian_bkk Ol'Timer

    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

    More to come...
  21. Ian Bungy

    Ian Bungy Ol'Timer

    Nice Photos with Great Views! Look like good little Bikes those Honda's. Cheap and Reliable no doubt!
  22. Moto-Rex

    Moto-Rex Ol'Timer

    Great photos brain. What an amazing place to go riding.

    Thanks for all the travel information in the report as well.

  23. brian_bkk

    brian_bkk Ol'Timer

    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

    More to come....
  24. DavidFL

    DavidFL Administrator Staff Member

    Wow! These are breath taking photos. Sensational scenery & it certainly looks like you lucked out with the changing colours of the rice paddies. How good does it get for Bangkok workers & Bangkok Weekend Warriors..
  25. brian_bkk

    brian_bkk Ol'Timer

    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.

    Good old GT-Rider community to the rescue ;-)

    More to come....
  26. Deano747

    Deano747 Ol'Timer

    Sensational Brian. Both the report and the scenery....just spectacular....can't wait to do it ourselves in a few weeks.

    It seems that the back end of our tour is the same as yours from our day 5, and Flamingo has offered us the same challenge for that day.

    Looking at the track, even with a guide that will supposedly know the way, I think not.

    Can't wait for the rest.....

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