First-timers Take On Northern Vietnam On And Xr400.

Discussion in 'Vietnam - Motorcycle Trip Report Forums' started by Maree, Apr 3, 2017.

  1. #1 Maree, Apr 3, 2017
    Last edited: Apr 3, 2017
    First-timers take on Northern Vietnam on an XR400.

    In November 2016, my partner (Jasper) and I took off on our first moto adventure, exploring Northern Vietnam on an XR400, for 10 days. I planned this trip using the help of trip reports I found here, as well as the Vietnam Coracle website. We used ‘International Travel Maps’ Hanoi and North Vietnam, purchased online and google maps on my phone.

    Our trip took us from here:
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    To here:
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    And here:
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    Then here:
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    Background

    Jasper has been riding bikes since he emerged from the womb. He rides dirt bikes at home, namely his much beloved Husqvana TE510 and has recently purchased a BMW F800GS. He had yet to ride more than a day trip, but its safe to say, the man knows how to ride a bike.


    In comparison, I don’t. I ‘learnt’ to ride a few years ago, on a Chinese pit bike (with no suspension and no back brakes) that I bought for $300 off eBay to ride in my backyard. Then purchased a Yamaha XT225 that broke down more often than not and became the bane of my life. I’m a terrible (slow) rider.


    Jasper had originally been minimally enthused by the idea of a SE Asia trip, till I casually mentioned “oh we could, like, ride motorbikes maybe”. He immediately started packing. We decided I’d be better off riding pillion to save Jasper waiting for me the whole trip.


    So it was settled. Jasper was to be in charge of not crashing. I was to navigate and deal with everything else. It was also Jasper’s first trip to SE Asia (actually, his first trip to a non-English speaking, developing country). I’d been several times before, but never to Vietnam.


    Our bike: Honda XR400
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    We rented from Flamingo Travel, for about $42USD a day. We actually booked a DRZ400 but on the day they presented us with this and why would we say no? The guys at Flamingo were great. The only surprise (besides the free upgrade) was the huge bag of spares they gave us.


    The spares kit included the obvious spare tubes as well as massive tyre levers, a CDI, clutch plates, front sprocket, spark plug, clutch and brake cable, etc. Basically, enough to rebuild the whole bike. I think the idea is that Honda parts are expensive and hard to come by in Vietnam so these bits should get us out of trouble.

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    Day 1: Hanoi

    Accommodation: Hanoi Elite

    In Hanoi we stayed at the Hanoi Elite on Dao Duy Tu Lane (off Dao Duy Tu). I chose it for it’s close proximity to Flamingo Travel shopfront. The hotel is pricey ($55 night) but its top class and I can’t fault it. It was a treat for us, as we can’t afford the same level of luxury back home, where the price tag would be upwards of $200. Highly recommended.


    Hanoi-Lao Cai (overnight train)

    Flamingo organised our train tickets for us. After seeing the bike at the mechanics, they told us to meet us at the station 1 hour before the train was due to depart and promised to bring the bike and tickets. They kept their word. The gentleman gave us our train tickets, the ticket for our bike and even walked us to our carriage. We passed the stores carriage just as our XR was being rolled on.

    The tickets, from memory, cost about $36USD for two plus the bike.

    Train arrived around in Lao Cai about 7am, grabbed breakfast at a nearby stall and began the process of working out how to get our gear onto the bike. In Hanoi, we had purchased two small fake North Face duffle bags for the side panniers (genius move), each costing about 10 bucks. Our Summit Gear duffle bag went on the back. Then Jasper. Then me.

    This is when I discovered just how high the doubling pegs were. Never having ridden pillion for more than 10km in my life, I didn’t realise the importance of having pegs in the right place. Between my stupidly long legs and the super high pegs, it was making for a bad ride. Nonetheless, we set off. The tanks are (almost) emptied for the train ride, but there is a petrol station right in town.


    Day 2: 150km total

    Lao Cai to Bac Ha; sealed road.
    Bac Ha to Vinh Quang; some paved sections.

    Day one on the bike was torture. The setup was less than ideal, especially for me up the back. The roads were great. Windy, wide, sealed. The elevation was climbing already. Not much traffic on the road. We made it to Bac Ha for lunch and perused the markets. A gentleman claimed a few Dong from us for ‘watching’ our bike and luggage while we had been gone.

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    Bac Ha to Vinh Quang gave us some navigational challenges. Our map showed a small town of Xin Man on the road we were on, but I’ll be damned if we could find it. To this day, I’m not quite sure what my error was. After a frustrating hour riding back and forth, we decided to just push on to Vin Quang. We pulled into Vinh Quang on our reserve tank, in fading day light.


    After dinner and beers, we made cushions from our towels and jacket winter liners (neither of which I needed), in plastic bags and taped them onto the bike. We also adjusted the back bag to buy me some room. Problem solved.


    Accommodation: Tay Con Linh Hotel 200,000VD for double room with ensuite and fan.
    Probably the least inspiring hotel and overpriced. The room was ridiculously large with only a window into the corridor. The staff were on the ruder side of life. But it did the trick. Bike parking was in reception, so the bikes were locked inside overnight.


    Day 3: 105km total

    Vin Quang to Ha Giang

    Skinny roads, super windy till the last section of wide, flat, sealed, open road.

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    Turns out the set up problem was not solved. The road out of Vin Quang was narrow and windy, making a slow ride. It was incredibly scenic, passing through loads of tiny villages. We were stopping frequently for what we had now dubbed “butt breaks” and the pillion position was still torture. At a road side stop, we had a cuppa and discussed options… Maybe I needed my own bike?

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    We made it to Ha Giang, a massive town with pockets of beauty. It seems incredibly industrial on first impression, but a ride and walk around the back streets uncovered some charm. Great food to be found here and very friendly locals.

    In Ha Giang, we found a decent pillow, perfect for my butt, for a couple of bucks. By the power of sign language, I explained to the shopkeeper why I was buying it, much to her amusement. She burst out laughing at my rendition of me on the bike with a sore butt.

    Accommodation: Huy Hom Hotel 350,000VD for double room with ensuite and fan.
    This place was fine, a bit pricey for our budget but Jasper liked the fact we could ride our bike right into reception. Parking was out the back and it looks like the bikes are well guarded by the staff. A huge tour group rocked up shortly after us, all on 250s. We laughed seeing our 400 lined up with the 250s. All the 250 riders looked like road hardened, experienced riders mostly from Europe. And here we were, with rip off luggage, borrowed helmets and no experience, blasting along on our 400.


    Day 4: 139km total

    Ha Giang – Yen Mihn (94km) – Dong Van (45km)
    Mostly sealed, windy and scenic

    Magic. At last, the set up was sorted and just in time for when the scenery was about to explode with awesomeness. Outside of Ha Giang, we officially entered the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark. The scenery was lush, the road wide and windy opening up to vast views.
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    The road to Yen Mihn offers many reasons to stop and admire the view into the valleys below. We made it to Yen Mihn for lunch and coffee. A dusty, busy town in the foothills of the mountains.

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    From Yen Mihn to Dong Van, the windy roads continue and the scenery improves again.
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    We pulled into Dong Van in the afternoon and immediately found beer. We also found some fellow travellers to yarn with; a father and son team on XT250s (also from Flamingo). The son was living in Hanoi and told us the best way to deal with Hanoi traffic was to see it as flowing water. We took note.

    At sunset we took the walk up to the old French fort near the Old Quarter for a great view over the town. Highly recommended.

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    Accommodation: Homestay (below) 70,000 VD (each). Share bathroom.

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    They didn’t ask (or charge) for a permit. Bike parking was inside, in the restaurant. Bikes were locked in overnight.

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    Our street.
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    Dong Van main drag.


    Day 5: 88km total

    Dong Van – Lung Cu/LoLo (22km)

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    After climbing the flag tower and checking out the views, we followed the signs to Café Cuc Bac, 1km away in LoLo. This little place was a treat. A beautiful mud brick building with outdoor café, we had it all to ourselves. It’s worth a visit, if only to get away from the tourists at the monument.
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    Lung Cu/LoLo – Dong Van (22km)

    Returning to Dong Van we picked up our gear from the Homestay and headed to Meo Vac.
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    Dong Van- Meo Vac (24km)

    This section, while short, cannot be missed. If you happen to hit it in the rain and mist wait a day for the weather to clear and go back.
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    Side road adventure (20km)

    About 5km out of Meo Vac (heading to Meo Vac from Dong Van), a road forks to the left, hugging the side of the mountain. After dumping our bags, we came back to this fork and followed it. Spectacular views. We pulled up for snacks and enjoyed the view till the sun began to fall.

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    Meo Vac, another busy town that didn’t appeal greatly to us. The beers were never ending and the food was good though.

    Accommodation: Ho Coung Hotel 450,000VD for double room with ensuite plus permits 220,000 each.

    In the centre of town, opposite the market. Very pricey, but a big, clean room with character. The super friendly receptionist seemed reluctant to charge for the permit but insisted she would be checked. We had beers with an Israeli couple that night; they had been to several places in town and said they were charging for permits. Bike parking was outside, but the grounds of the hotel seem to get locked overnight.
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    Day 6: 80km total

    Meo Vac – Bao Lac

    This was a fun day with a mix of views. Google maps didn’t want to play today so we were kind of just hoping for the best.
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    We reached the intersection of a dusty, small town just in time for coffee. As you arrive at the t-intersection, there is a place on the right with chairs set up. The owner of this place has obviously made an effort to learn English to attract tourists. He saw us a mile off with that “errr, where can we get coffee?” face and yelled for us to come over. He was super friendly and was keen to look at the map with us. He asked about the bike and made a mean coffee. From here, we took the right turn, bound for Bao Lac. The left turn heads you to Cao Bang.
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    We arrived in Bao Lac early afternoon, starving. It’s a reasonable sized town, busy, partly set on the river but less scenic than we expected. There was a lot of construction going on. In the morning, Jasper added a newly purchased “butt cushion” to the XR for himself. Pink bunny rabbits.
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    For some reason, this bunny rabbit cushion made it all the way home to Australia with us. We tried to force our cat to sleep on it but she refuses. Clearly she doesn't know how awesome it is.


    Accommodation: Thuy Duong 2 Hotel
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    300,000VD for double room with ensuite and balcony.

    Another bland hotel, but the balcony overlooked the river, which was nice. It was away from the main drag so much quieter. The staff were very friendly. We left at the crack of dawn and had to wake the receptionist to pay and get our passports back. Bike parking was outside and not locked up.

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    View from the balcony

    (more to come...)
     

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  2. #2 Maree, Apr 3, 2017
    Last edited: Apr 3, 2017
    Day 7: 122km total

    Bao Lac - Thin Tuc (74km)
    Thin Tuc – Cho Ra (22km)
    Cho Ra – Ba Be (and around Ba Be) (26km)

    We got slightly lost today. I was following directions off a blog, rather than google maps, and led us slightly astray. It added about 20km to the day.

    We lunched at Thin Tuc to get out of the rain. Amazing food. Jasper had a half hour conversation about the bike with a local who spoke no English. He really wanted to ride it but we had to politely decline. He and his mate had lunch and coffee with us (I just gave them a bunch of our snacks) then they went on their way.
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    Thin Tuc is a small village. Shortly after, take the turn off to the right at the big Homestay. I missed this turn off and we sailed onwards until we reached Nguyen Binh, at which point we back tracked. The rain was also setting in, just lightly, but with it came with heavy fog.

    I didn’t really have clear directions from here on in, so we just hoped for the best. We were also riding in pretty heavy mist at this point, probably the worst weather we had. To road seemed deserted, then in the distance we saw two figures on a bike, with a backpack. Ah ha. Tourists! Surely they are bound for Ba Be too. As we powered past, I called out to them “Ba Be?” gesturing to the road ahead. The pillion passenger called back through the mist “Ba Be!” and pointed. Sweet!

    We arrived at Ba Be in clear weather, paid our entrance fee and rode on in. There are countless options for Homestays here, we rode the whole length of both villages and basically chose the one we liked the look of. As we pulled up, a small tour group was departing, led by the same local guide we had seen in Ha Giang. Clearly, this guy is living the dream. After he stopped laughing about our twin butt cushions, we had a quick convo about our trip and then he blasted off.


    Accommodation: Homestay (Nha Nghi) Dat Diem 70,000 (each per night) in Pac Ngoi.
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    Driveway down to the Homestay

    We shared this amazing homestay with 3 generations of family who live here. No other guests were there. Each night we had a set menu, the food was off the wall amazing and in such abundance. The family spoke no English but were very welcoming and friendly. The photos speak for themselves. Who wouldn’t want to have a beer with this view?
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    Bike parking is next to the drying rice.

    Day 8 and 9: Ba Be

    We stayed two nights here, using the day to do the touristy boat trip in the morning, then explored on bike in the afternoon. The afternoon exploration was one of the highlights of the trip. Ba Be has some great roads, trails and sights. The next day we did some more exploration before moving house for one night.
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    Paved roads around BaBe.
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    That turn into trails.
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    BaBe in the evening
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    Packing up to move on.
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    Departing photo with the man of the house. A really genuinely kind and friendly family.

    We ran into our ‘companions in the mist’ at a café. Recognising the bike, Jasper struck up a conversation. They were a friendly Greek couple on a 125.


    Accommodation: Mr Lihns Homestay US$20 night for double with shared facilities. In Coc Toc.

    We chose this place as it is right on the water. It’s a beautiful location and the food was amazing (and cheap). It’s more of a back packer place though. There was an interesting looking Homestay further along this track though, but not on the water. The host was fascinated by the bike, or more importantly, that is was a 400. He joked that if he was to ride it he would look like a monkey riding an elephant.
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    Another reasonable place to drink beer
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    Day 10: Total 219km

    Ba Be - Hanoi

    This was the day we were dreading. But back at that first homestay at BaBe, Jasper had asked the guide if he thought we could ride to Hanoi from here. He had enthusiastically replied “Yes! Easy!”. I reminded Jasper that this was coming from a guy who rides bikes in Vietnam for a living…

    We set off early and followed the vague route Flamingo had emailed me. We headed for Thai Nguyen. From here, the road got increasingly busier and Jasper found himself riding in dense traffic for the first time since being in Vietnam.

    At some point, I knew we had to hit the highway. Now, I think I know where I went wrong but in the end we ended up sailing down the highway that has a big NO MOTORBIKE symbol on it. Whilst perhaps illegal, the road was almost empty and it let us chew up some kilometres without battling traffic. Here the XR was agony. The vibration was intense and we’d now been on it for quite a few hours. Jasper was desperate to stand up, but his annoying pillion rider made that quite difficult.

    We hit the outskirts of Hanoi and Jasper began the mantra taught to us way back in Dong Van. “Be like water” he would say, as he flowed through the current of scooters. We wound our way, with google maps, back to the doorstep of our hotel. Triumphant.
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    Day 10: Hanoi

    Turns out you really can loose track of time on holidays. As such, we discovered we had come back to Hanoi a day earlier than planned. With an unplanned day up our sleeve, we traded in the XR400 for a scooter and hit the streets of Hanoi for some genuine jaw clenching action.
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    This was actually loads of fun but I must take my cap off to Jasper for navigating the hectic traffic. His riding skills really are impeccable, even on a scooter.

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    Fill 'er up!

    The staff at Hanoi Elite insisted they let us look after the scooter at night time. I think they actually parked it in reception overnight.

    Returning the scooter, there was no drama getting our deposit back. The whole experience with Flamingo was easy. With both the XR and the scooter, they took it for a quick test ride upon return.
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    Sporting the Vietnamese "City Helmet".

    What we learnt:

    The XR400 was a good choice. The power was very handy when it came to overtaking trucks and buses one of those one million blind corners. It never struggled. For a short trip; it was affordable.

    Riding pillion, check the setup of the foot pegs when choosing a bike. Adding height (and comfort) with a cushion helps, but changes the way the bike handles so work it out with the rider.

    We didn’t end up lubing our chain or doing an oil change but we should have. Next time, Jasper wants to carry chain lube so it can be done regularly.

    The XR has a 9L tank and Flamingo told us how many Km this should last. Of course we forgot to factor in that this would be less with a pillion. We ended up unexpectedly on our reserve tank on day 1. Luckily it was downhill into town (and to the petrol station).

    We both own helmets at home, which are far more comfortable than what we were given as freebies. More importantly, they would have been safer. We should have brought them with us.

    The printed map was ok, only really useful as an overview. It lacks the detail needed on the road and some roads seemed incorrect.

    Traffic in Hanoi really is as insane and hectic as everyone says. Be like water.

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  3. Great report so far.. Bringing back some fond memories our ride in this area.

    Cheers and look forward to the rest.

    Brian
     
  4. Excellent maiden report, well done.
    Keep it up and welcome to GTR.
     
  5. Awesome report - an inspiration for any other riders considering a tour of Vietnam.
    Many thanks for all the fine details - hotels, prices & kms.

    This looks amazing
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    & should make any biker want to go & ride in north Vietnam.

    The helmet tip -take your own - is a good one, as you are wearing it all the time & want to be as comfortable as possible for XX hrs a day.

    What was your favourite beer?
     

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  6. Cheers guys!
    David: We preferred Saigon over HaNoi but found HaNoi was often the only one available. It's drinkable, especially with the "help yourself to the fridge and tell us later how much you had" policy.
     
  7. Bia Hanoi in those big bottles is one of my favourites.
    When it comes in a can.. Loses something...

    By the way.. I commented after you first post.. but you put your next section in before I pressed reply :)
    - Bit of a cross post..

    Great report.. Loved it. Will have to go back again soon.
    The people at Flamingo rock don't they.. Super friendly.
    Hung even bought us beers when we returned..

    Cheers
    Brian
     
  8. excuse my ignorance but whats the paid permit for that you mention??
     

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  9. Great report, very well written & giving readers many invaluable tips. I saw no reference to your needing to have authorisation/buy a pass to be riding in The Ha Giang area & down past Meo Vac (a hangover from the 1979 border skirmish with China). Has this been dispensed with?

    How good, just HOW GOOD is Vietnam!
     
  10. #10 Maree, Apr 4, 2017
    Last edited: Apr 4, 2017
    Hi Rod: yeh we did pay for a permit. The hotel in Meo Vac insisted (there's a small note in my story regarding that). It was 220,000VD (each? Or both, I can't recall).

    And yeh- vietnam is EPIC!
     
  11. Hey Rosie, from what I understand, the permit is required to be in the Ha Giang region. Someone correct me if that's wrong. I knew it existed from other trip reports here. It was only mentioned in Meo Vac though. No one asked for it in Ha Giang town or Dong Van. And once it was issued I never had to pull it out again.
    image.
     
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  12. Just wanted to add these pictures. We came across this at the top of the flag tower in Lung Co.
    Motorised pulley for transporting huge stones. You can see in the second photo how high they are bringing them up. Genius.
    image. image.
     
  13. Just reverting to Rosie's question (& adding to my earlier comments). The permit is definitely required. If you get stopped by the 'wrong' person who insists you have the permit it can prove to be a pain in the butt.

    The permit is only issued in Ha Giang. If you pass through Ha Giang & do not have the permit you will be sent back to Ha Giang - no matter where you are - to get it (can be a long ride if you have only limited days for your ride).

    Worse if you are entering from the other end of the province, via BaBe, for example, you will not be permitted to enter the province (or continue) & will have to make the long haul around to Ha Giang to get it ......without passing through the province, the logical direct route. This can destroy your travel plans if limited by time!

    On reading the report I see the guys were asked for their permit by a hotel. Hotels throughout Vietnam are required to furnish the police daily with a list of those staying in the hotel (it makes it difficult for younger Vietnamese to travel as they are not allowed to stay in the same room if travelling & they are not married, but NO SUCH PROBLEM for foreigners). I suspect the hotels in the Ha Giang area have been told by the police that they must check all foreigners to ensure that they have the required visa......the point being you are not going to get away with it by not having it.

    Just get the permit, save the hassels & have a great ride.....I lie not, Meo Vac is something NOT TO BE MISSED!
     
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  14. Just to clarify, I got my permit in Meo Vac. Not Ha Giang.
     
  15. That's great news. Still in Ha Giang Province but not necessarily at Ha Giang city.
     
  16. Bookmarking the topic for my future Vietnam ride.
     
  17. Now this pic is a winner :)

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