North Vietnam loop and other bits


Dec 24, 2003
David has given me no option since he added Vietnam to the board, so here I shall try and give some good advice on Vietnam...

We (Tom and I) are travelling on a Minsk, which I gather is a Vietnamese version (I'm not the motorbike geek, Tom is, but I'll try..). we bought our pony in Hanoi from Mr Cuong, a nice bloke who speaks a fair amount of English and rents, sells and repairs Minsk's. If you buy from him make sure your money goes towards the mechanics and not the cosmetics and I wouldn't pay more than $400 US with the good shocks (ours we got for $300-crappy soft shocks, ah well). (if you're wanting a bike in Saigon try getting hold of PAt from the Saigon Scooter Centre, Helmets are compulsory in Vietnam (apparently), and you can get a good selection in Hanoi from along Pho Hue. The Vietnamese-made half helmets shouldn't be any more than US$6 (Cuong says you shouldn't pay more than $4, but he's Vietnamese and we're not).

We hooked up with a couple from Israel who were doing the same thing and travelled together out of Hanoi north along Hwy 32-when we eventually found it- towards Nghia Lo and eventually Sapa. Unfortunately I don't have a map with me right now, but the first night (after a late start) we stayed a pretty nice guesthouse where the road forks and either goes East (over long Red River (Song Ha) bridge), or goes North. Second day we got to Nghia Lo, had lunch then the hills began. Only got about 20kms before the other bike hit a rock breaking the chain, coasted back down to the closest xe may (mechanic) who did a botch job, it got dark so we headed back to Nhgia Lo for the night and got the chain fixed proper like).
The road between Nghia Lo and Mueng Cung Chai??? is UNDER CONSTRUCTION, if it's dry it's very dusty, like fine, fine powder snow which covers everything, and if it's wet, just don't do it, you'll come off often and be covered from head to toe in red mud, good for the skin I'm sure. It's a fantastic way to get to Sapa though, and when the road is done it will be a great ride. it is now, just slow and hard work. Hwy 32 meets up eventually with the main road from Lang Son to Sapa (good road), and you go up and up and up to Tram Ton Pass and around Fansifan (3143m). Spectacular when it's clear. The drop down to Sapa meant a drop down the thermometer and into a thick cold wet fog and dark. Heaps of places to kip in Sapa (when you can find your way).

Heading away from Sapa to Ba Be National Park to the East we dropped down again to Lao Cai (a Chinese border crossing town), took the top route and then turned off to Bac Ha. Headed north about 15kms and took a back road which wound over and round hills, has a number of unmarked forks, and large fords and meets the main road at Bac Quang or Viet Quang depending on which map you read (it turned out that they are 2 different towns, the latter being big with, I assume, good places to stay). Next day headed South on this main road to meet a junction with road 279 which heads East again. took a wrong turn, ended up at Can Treo? which has a really good, new and specky road coming from somewhere to Ngha Hang. There's a great suspension bridge here for motorbikes, cycles and peds only, we didn't take it though, goes in wrong direction.

Next day took us to Ba Be via tghe back door quite by accident. The best bit of bad navigating ever, and I can't tell you where 'cos I have no idea what happened. We got to a town along the river, after a reasonable ride (there's a damn being built just after Ngha Hang making for some mucky bits)on a sealed road, but after the town, nothing! The road became a dirt road, then a track, then a very narrow path through some great dirt bike country (if only). We happened upon a ranger station and they told us there was a boat landing a couple of kms down the way. Off we went, and for a small fortune hauled the bikes and us onto a small boat with a big fat and loud engine (big belt driven tractor engines drive a lot of things in Vietnam). The resulting trip was absolutly beautiful, down a river sided by steep limestone cliffs, then out onto Ba Be lake. If you go to a Nat. Park you have to check in with the HQ, which we did. Make sure you stay in a guest house in Bo Lu Village, don't stay at the HQ, it's dismal. The first one along the road after the boat landing is great, good food too, pricey but worth it.

From Ba Be we basically just did a big run back to Hanoi, due to visa stuff, getting back is easier than getting out of Hanoi. But a couple of days later took off along Hwy 5 (flash expressway) to Cat Ba Is,Halong Bay via Haiphong. Don't do what we did and buy a 70000 dong ticket on the boat and have to lift the bikes onto the roof and then pay more for them...simply take the road through and past Haiphong along the river past Totalgaz(yeah man) and other big fuel places, until you find a ferry landing for vehicles to Cat Hai (14000 dong). On Cat Hai ride basically in a straight(ish) line for 15kms?, as far as you can go, to another landing to Cat Ba (small boats, 10000 dong -you only pay for the bike).

Riding on Vietnam roads is like Russian roulette, if it's bigger than you get out of the way, NOW! Passing on the inside is definitely acceptable, and other dodgy manouvres. If you do not have a horn get off the road, repair it, make sure it's loud).
The rest of the trip in Vietnam - to the Laos border crossing(s) is in the Laos section. Hope this is a bit useful to someone.