NORTHERN VIETNAM - The Ultimate Trip (broken)

Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010
NORTHERN VIETNAM - The Ultimate Trip
- Da Nang to Hanoi by the Coast
- The Northern Loop
- Hanoi to Da Nang via the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Planned Dates: 19/02/2012 - 20/03/2012
Riders: Roderick Page - Yamaha YBR125
Moana Page - Yamaha YBR125
Dan Torr - Honda XR250
Planned Route: Da Nang - Hue - Dong Hai - Vingh - Ninh Binh - Mai Chau - Son La - Dien Bien Phu - Lai Chau - Sa Pa - Bac Ha - Ha Giang - Dong Van - Meo Vac - Cao Bang - Ba Be - Bac Ninh - Ha Long - Ha Noi - Yen Cat - Pho Chau - Phung Nha - Huong Hoa - Da Nang.


This will be a total adventure. There are risks in exploring by motorbike, but given current road conditions its the only way through. We'll ride with an open mind, tolerant of those through whose country we pass. My wife, my companion of so many a trip, is home in Tahiti but our daughter is with me.


Da Nang to Nhat Le (Dong Hoi) via Hai Van Pass, Hue & The Demilitarised Zone. Hwy1A.

The sheer excitement of what lies ahead sees us rise early despite a hit-out in Hoi An the day before. After an early morning's run & surf we salute the joggers & surfers enjoying the bountiful offerings along the My An & My Khe stretches of China Beach ............ but Hai Van Pass calls. As we rode past Nam O' Beach we were acutely aware that the Americans had landed here on 8th March, 1965, the anniversary only a fortnight away. It is not hard to imagine the landing.

Hai Van Pass - what the BBC's Top Gear programme described as: "a deserted ribbon of perfection - one of the best coastal roads in the world'. Its a climbing, winding road renowned for its beautiful scenery that takes you across the Annamite Range, the range which spares Da Nang from 'the Chinese Winds' & associated bad weather. Don't scoff at the winds - there are reports on this site of bikes being knocked down beneath riders by winds over this pass. Hai Van means 'Sea Clouds' but the gods were with us today, well with us until we arrived at the top, where suddenly a mass of whispy white cloud traveling at great speed blew through the pass & disappeared towards Da Nang just as quickly. It was a moment of magic:


The ride up from Da Nang with the view looking back to the city:



The road heading north rolling on down to Lang Co (beach) - visible in the distance - with views along the way. The white building in the background, the only building on the mountainside, is the air ventilation building for the 6km tunnel through the mountain. Not open to motorbikes it saves cars & buses around 1 hour on the journey that takes in Hai Van Pass:



Lang Co (beach), the slither of sand that it is, is an authentic fishing village well worth a quick detour - check out the beachside churches & the wonderful hand-made fishing boats along the beach:




Today, with a long ride ahead & an extended visit to Hue planned we would follow Hwy1. I do have a preferred route along the western banks of Vung An Cu, the lagoon that forms a backdrop to Lang Co. Check it out on

Back on Hwy1 the picture perfect scenery continues along the way to Hue - this is truly a road that beckons you back to ride again & again.............& again!


Above, the mountains that surround Lang Co lagoon, & below, looking back southwards over the same lagoon:


The road (Hwy1A) continues past, well literally through numerous cluttered markets operating at a frenetic pace at the very edge of the highway. One passes alongside Cau Hai lagoon & its scenic combination of rice cultivaters & fishermen. Many here live permanently on their fishing boats:


There's another way through to Hue, one little used, one little known other than to those living along its length & it provides a wonderful alternative to the menacing Hwy1A. Its only recently become an option with the opening of a new bridge crossing the Tu Hien mouth of the Cau Hai lagoon linking the fishing villages of Canh Duong & Vinh Hien. (I strongly urge those riding in Vietnam to carry the best possible maps & seek out these wonderful alternative routes to an often aggressive Hwy 1A).

The turn-off is anything but signposted - when you see from above the large church set back from/overlooking some wonderful ricefields as photographed 5 photos above, you should continue to the foot of the descent where you'll see a small railway control station/box offering the potential to cross the railway line. Turn here - there's a coffee spot just over the railway lines; a good spot to meet in case someone gets lost or is running late. A photo from the coffee spot that may help you find your way:


Follow this sealed country lane through the rice paddies & past the church appearing in the photo above. Continue onwards around the Cau Hai lagoon offering scenery such as this:



The new bridge will appear on your left but continue straight ahead for a couple of kilometers where you'll find the huge, deserted Canh Duong beach:


Return to the bridge & head across to the island on the other side in the direction of Thuan An - you'll be lucky to find anyone else crossing despite its size. The run from here is one from yesteryear, rewarding the patient with an insight into the life of traditional agricultural Vietnamese. On the lagoon-side men with buffalo plough the muddy soils, conical hat wearing women work the rice fields & vegetable patches at waters edge, whilst further afar others fish from hand-made wooden vessels from another era. On the seaside ornate graveyards flank the sand-dunes that run back to the sensational deserted beach, but not without a vegetable patch between the roadside & the graves - every square inch is used here. Amidst the graveyards, mausoleums bigger than the surrounding houses pay hommage to those who have gone before; it leaves you in wonderment.




You'll reach Thuan An, the best beach in the Hue area purched at the northern end of the island in a most scenic setting where the Song Huong (Perfume River) flows into the sea dividing the Cau Hai & Tam Giang lagoons:


From here its a 12km run back alongside the Perfume River to reach Hue.

After an exhilarating, camera-clicking 2.5hrs hours ride (slightly longer via Thuan An) we reach Hue & the city's Citadel, probably the most significant cultural centre in Vietnam, celebrated for its tradition of intellectual thought, Buddhist piety, & sophisticated cuisine. Its a place of breathtaking beauty, of beautiful palaces & temples set amidst moats, ramparts & bastions alongside the exceptionally picturesque Song Huong (Perfume River).


We would visit the Imperial City, a World Heritage Site since 1993, & its Civic, Imperial & Forbidden Purple Cities.


The first structure to greet you if arriving along the Perfume River is Cot Co, above, the flag tower which at 37m is the tallest flagpole in Vietnam. The Ngo Mon Gate, below, the main entrance to the Citadel, is where the Emperor sat enthroned on state occasions:


Thai Hoa Palace, the grand throne palace of the Nguyen Emperors:


From Thai Hoa Palace looking past the Halls of the Mandarin across the open courtyard that overlooks the stretch of land, extensively damaged in the 1968 Tet Offensive, once home to the Forbidden Purple City with the Royal Theatre & Royal Library to the right. Under pain of death, no man other than the Emperor was allowed in the 10ha Forbidden Purple City; only the queen, concubines, female servants & eunuchs were allowed to enter:


The reported comment of one American soldier during the Tet Offensive that the Americans: 'had to destroy the city in order to save it', haunts, even infuriates you.

There are other sites to visit outside the Citadel including the Royal Tombs as well as Ho Quyen where combats were staged between elephants & tigers. These are well covered in the guidebooks & there is an abundance of competant guides to take you around by car or on boat, so whilst strongly recommending them to you, I will not cover them here. I do wish, however, to include the following photo from Thien Mu Pagoda - an explanation can be found on the sign in front of the car:


The photo of the monk's 1963 self-immolation that appeared in headlines across the world can be seen on the wall behind the car. Another monk tried to self-immolate at the temple as recently 1993.


Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010

Our ride takes us further north through a multitude of rice paddies & graveyards bearing witness to Vietnam's turbulant past. Onwards to Dong Ha & the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), the 'provisional demarcation line' along the 17th Parallel established at the Geneva Convention of 1954 that effectively separated Vietnam in two - a North & a South Vietnam. The boundary stretched 2km on either side of the Ben Hai River just north of Dong Ha & extended right across to the Lao border. Nowadays it is a major tourist draw-card. Photographed below is the historic Hien Luong Bridge over the Ben Hai River, with a close-up of the Reunification Memorial at its southern end:



There's a small museum on the northern side of the bridge together with a reconstructed flag tower dominating the surrounding country:



Despite being heavily mined & fortified by extensive electric fencing by the Americans the North Vietnamese could always penetrate the barriers. The area saw some of the heaviest fighting of the American War and there are graveyards aplenty attesting to the fact. Vietnam has suffered painfully over many decades, even centuries, at the hands of foreign invaders. Despite the scars being clearly there, so too is the resiliance, the re-birth, the re-emergence, the tenderness & the beauty.

After paying our respects we would ride on to Dong Hoi, a simple seaside town & stay just north of town at Nhat Le, the nearby beach frequented by Dong Hoi locals.

Nhat Le is a great spot for a stop-over. As you swing over towards the beachside you are greeted by a number of floating restaurants along the riverside - regretably the fare did not quite measure up to the setting. There are a string of accommodation options along the beach north of the mouth of the Nhat Le River all of which front onto a pleasant casuarina flanked stretch of sand:


If you wish to splash out, take the newly constructed bridge across the Nhat Le river to the impressive 5 star Sun Spa Resort on the peninsula forming the southern side of the mouth of the Nhat Le River:


On the northern riverside just east of the bridge you'll find the remains of Tam Toa Church constructed in 1886 & bombed by the Americans in 1965:


Nhat Le has a thriving feel & exudes a sense of pride - there are extensive roadworks under way opening up the wonderful beach south of the Sun Spa Resort, promenades along the riverside are under construction & the market is amongst the most vibrant you'll find:






The meat vendors squat atop the table from which meat is sold:


Every possible sales point is taken up - even where new roads are under construction:


Refreshed & invigorated we would make our way back to Hwy 1A using the local road that hugs the coast north of the Nhat Le River - how wonderfully pleasant are these little side routes through a Vietnam where tourists seldom tread. (Carry the most detailed maps you can find so as to find these gems & avoid where possible the maniacal Hwy1A):


Its a pleasant enough ride north & we broke the distance with a coffee at Ky Nam (beach) yet another virtually deserted but wonderful beach:


We would ride on to Cua Lo situated on the coast just north of Vinh to spend the night. Passing through Vinh one could not help but recall the towns recent history. Vinh was regarded as the starting point of the Ho Chi Min Trail & as a consequence mercilessly bombed into obliteration by the Americans over a period of 8 years. Indeed when the Americans had finished there were only 2 buildings that remained standing & the town's population was officially zero! One reflects on the fact that the Vietnamese ultimately triumphed over all those who came to conquer - not just the Americans recently but also the French before & the Chinese before that. Despite the tragic history the Vietnamese are the first to put it all behind them & just move forward - wonderful people! Ho Chi Minh was born in Kim Lien village near Vinh.

The ride into Cua Lo is a pleasant one as farmers plough the fields using buffalo & bovine as their forebears have done so for centuries:




The beach at Cua Lo is dominated by the rocky outcrop of Lon Gau:


Cua Lo, however, lacks the charm & vitality of Nhat Le. Its "yesterday's resort" dominated by Russian style hotels & a beachside swamped by wrought iron restaurants. It was pleasing to see the use of electric cars for taxis & intriguing to see how locals cultivate the sites set aside for trees along the footpaths with vegetables.

(TO BE CONTINUED..........................)
Jul 25, 2010
Fascinating, informative and tantalizing Rod. Keep em coming. All this could be on the agenda next year to get out of the madness of the ridiculous 'smokey' season.

Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010

Our third day since leaving Da Nang dawned; we planned an early start as it was our intention to reach Tam Coc in the surrounds of Ninh Binh to permit us to visit the area by boat that afternoon (& then undertake the Perfume Pagoda pilgrimage the next day before heading across to Mai Chau).

We rejoined Hwy1 some 20kms north of Vinh; already we could see that the highway was in a poor state of repair & sundry buses & trucks were falling prey to the punishing surface. Not much further along Hwy1 we were moving through a convoy of trucks. At a safe distance & suitably staggered behind an overladen truck we sat waiting for there to be no oncoming traffic & for the road to be pothole free intending to minimise the risk of the truck veering across the road to avoid holes. The truck driver was aware of our presence & probable intentions.

The appropriate moment came & we moved to overtake the truck. At that very moment when one is at one's closest to the vehicle being passed there was a MASSIVE explosion seeing the truck totally engulfed in a huge cloud of black smoke & red dust from the soiled road. In that fraction of a second where the brain analyses the situation both I & Dan, who was behind me, thought "bomb"! As I traveled into the cloud & saw debris flying my way - which I reasonably assumed may be metalic if indeed it was a bomb - I decided to lay my bike down & slide to safety.

It was an intended & well executed manoeuvre but I came to rest realising that I'd broken my ankle (which explains the title of this post). I was in full protective gear but riding in leather boots not reinforced boots; the bike was fine. What a place to be 3 days into a well planned 30 day trip! Moana & Dan had organised their holidays & flown in from Australia! Moana & I had also planned a further two week trip to the Mnong Elephant Races in Dak Lak province returning to Da Nang via Da Lat & the coast!

Here I am immediately on the phone to my 'guardian angel', my agent. She talked to the police, arranged the ambulance, organised storage of my bike with the police, then liased with surgeons at the hospital in Vinh to arrange my transfer to Viet Duc in Hanoi. She was there at Viet Duc at 12.30am & on finding I'd left my passport & wallet with my daughter pooled some 4,500,000vd (around 2 months of salary for the average Vietnamese) to ensure my admittance to hospital. Thanks Hang, you're the best!


Interestingly the police were asking Dan about the costs of his sunglasses, his clicked & Hang will now arrange the release of my bike. (Read my hospital report if you still need convincing of the wisdom of having a 'guardian angel' in VN - Better still dont even consider bringing your own bike; just book one through Flamingo Travel & say g'day to Hang).

As matters transpired the "bomb" was actually two rear tyres on the truck exploding, not that that is to be scoffed at - since returning to Da Nang my landlord has informed me that a friend of his was walking along the road when the tyre of a passing truck exploded beside him. Flying rubber from the exploding tyre hit him with such velocity that his liver was injured to the extent that half of it had to be removed!


I ultimately traveled from Vinh to Hanoi, but in an ambulance! Missed the views but caught every bump of which there were many. I will furnish a separate report on matters medical as the information will prove useful for anyone else facing similar misfortune. In the interim, given the relatively small amount of information available on riding through Vietnam, & the demand for such information, I will conclude this section of my report relying on photos & information passed to me by my daughter Moana & by Dan who rode on up to Hanoi, overnighting in Tam Coc, to where we returned following my release from hospital.

Hwy1 from Vinh to Ninh Binh, some 200kms in length, is currently virtually all in a poor state of repair, as is all but the last 40kms of the highway into Hanoi, although parts of this section are undergoing works. Severely potholed in certain sections it sees trucks buses & cars darting dangerously from side to side of the road looking for better ground. Such vehicles when compelled to hold their line will regularly fall victim to the degraded road surface, often exploding tyres & periodically breaking axles. It is not unusual to find 'top heavy' vehicles that have previously been in accidents resulting in axle damage completely flipped over in undertaking such evasive action. There is plenty of gravel on the section heading up to Hanoi. I might add although not with fanfare that by the end of the day all 3 of us had dropped our bikes somewhere along the way! Poor lighting & gravel the main culprits necessitating that Dan & Moana wisely overnight in Tam Coc.

At Tam Coc we would stay at the perfectly situated The Long (hotel), fabulous value at $30/night including breakfast. Owned & operated by a warm & generous woman - Doan - & her family the hotel is situated in a commanding position occupying the whole corner overlooking the Tam Coc Wharf. The lunchtime buffets & fixed course meals are the best in town. Keep your eye out for a new resort Doan is about to start building along the Ngo Dong riverside. Some views from The Long; impossible to beat the position:




(If by chance you are ever stuck in Tam Coc ask Doan who'll quickly arrange a seat to Hanoi ($5) on one of the many tourist buses frequenting her hotel).

The main purpose in coming to Ninh Binh is to experience the stunning natural beauty of the area & to visit various cultural sights. In Tam Coc (or 'Three Caves') the draw-card is the 2-2.5hr trip punted by rowboat along the Ngo Dong River, meandering through green & gold rice paddies from which limestone karsts of magnificent proportions spring up piercing the skies above. A team of 2 conical hatted woman take turns to row the two passengers per boat through breathtaking scenery passing through the Hang Ca, the Hang Giua & the Hang Cuoi caves. I'll let the photos talk for themselves:



Yes its true, the row boats are often rowed in using the feet:





Wedding shots taken before the marriage as is the case throughout vietnam:





Staff member
Jan 16, 2003
Chiang Khong
Sensational report Rod. A brilliant read - I could almost feel you sitting beside me beer in hand talking away. And then - BANG - gone in a puff of smoke. You're a lucky man alright & I'm pleased to know the injury is not too bad, "just a broken ankle." It could have been a lot worse & considering all the riding you've done in S E Asia the last few years you've had a good run.
Please keep the reports coming & get well soon.

Just wondering now.
1. How did those mesh pants hold up?
2. Will you be buying knee protectors & better boots next?

Three cheers for your guardian angel Flamingo Travel too.

Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010

The area around Tam Coc is truly blessed with great beauty, an abundance of interesting cultural centres & with a number of magnificent national parks. There is just so much to see, so much to do that the issue is more about choosing!

Bich Dong Pagoda is just 3km north of Tam Coc. Cut into the side of a karst it involves 3 separate pagodas ascending up the mountainside. Its true appeal involves a climb to the top of the mountain to a site offering sensational views over the surrounding countryside. Below a shot of the entrance to the pagoda complex, to help you find it, & a shot from the top:



Thai Vi Temple is another site easily accessed from Tam Coc by following a route to the right of the Tam Coc Wharf:



Mua Cave, not far from Thai Vi but via a different access, is another place visited offering sensational views rewarding a demanding climb.

Hoa Lu was the capital of Vietnam during the Dinh (968-980AD) & the Le (AD 980-1009AD) dynasties. Although much is in ruins 2 temples remain, one to mark each dynasty. Climb up Yen Ngua Mountain to one side of the complex where you'll find the tomb of Emperor Dinh Tien Hoang & be rewarded by sensational views of the ancient capital & its surroundings:






The Vietnamese love a photo with a 'farang':


There are a number of other smaller temples &/or pagodas to be found in the area for those who wish to explore off the beaten track:



Trang An & Ban Long Pagoda are situated nearby each other, not far from Hoa Lu. Trang An on the Sao Khe River is a popular alternative rowboat trip to Tam Coc:


There are some quieter spots nearby:



Chua Bai Dinh is a new pagoda of massive proportions possessing the 'biggest' of everything - 500 stone enlightened buddahs, the 10m, 100 tonne bronze buddah of the triple roofed Phap chu Pagoda, & the largest bell in Vietnam, a 36 tonne bell cast in Hue in 2006....
Pilgrims brush their hands along the knees & feet of the enlightened buddahs or arhats seeking merit:



The impressive Chua Phap Thu:


From the below you can get an idea of the size of the project that is Chua Bai Dinh:


The pilgrim on the bottom left confirms the size of this impressive statue:


The 36 tonne bell:


Some other sites well worthy of a visit:
- Kenh Ga - an idyllic fishing village comprised essentially of floating houses centred around a small island surrounded by karsts reachable by boat from Tran Me pier.
- Van Long Nature Reserve just east of Tran Me the reserve excellent for bird-watching & home to the rare Delacour langur.
- Cuc Phuong National Park - this sensational national park was Vietnam's first. Declared a NP by HCM himself in 1962 saying: "Forest is gold". Home to the Muong people the park offers an abundance of local flora & fauna some extremely rare, conservation centres, botanical gardens including 1,000 year old trees, prehistoric caves dating back 7,500 years, & sensational hiking where visitors can climb for around 5 hours to the Muong village of Kanh for an overnight stay in the village.
- Phat Diem Cathedral - the most famous church in all Vietnam of grand proportions combining Sino-Vietnamese & European architecture. It was here that Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes who Romanised the Vietnamese language preached in 1627.

I noticed whilst cruising around the motorbike shops of Hanoi that there's a 3 days/2 nights ride starting every Tuesday offering not only basic training for inexperienced riders but also full accommodation, motorbike, helmet/jacket/rain gear/waterproof bag & guide (english speaking). The ride starts & finishes in Hanoi & takes in Hoa Lu, Tam Coc, Phat Diem & Cuc Phuong & all for just $110 - sensational value knowing the places visited as I do. There's value for a rider such as me as the ride follows winding back-roads through wonderful countryside avoiding the perilous Hwy 1A - such local information is invaluable to anyone riding through the more congested areas of Vietnam. (Contact Flamingo Travel).

From Ninh Binh its around 80km to Hanoi. Midway between the two you can find the Perfume Pagoda at My Duc, 65km SW of Hanoi along Hwy21. The pagoda can be visited from either Ninh Binh of from Hanoi but given current road conditions starting from Hanoi is by far the better choice at present. (I add the following - devoid of photos due to my broken ankle - to assist others contemplating the pilgrimage to Perfume Pagoda).

The Perfume Pagoda (Chùa Hương) houses a series of Buddhist temples and shrines built into the limestone karsts of the Huong Tich (Fragrant Vestige) mountains. One of Vietnam's most spectacular sights it is said to be the Buddah's heaven. In the first lunar month of each year it is the site of a religious festival conducted over 3 months which attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims each year.

Although legend claims that the site was discovered over 2000 years ago by a monk meditating in the area, who named the site after a Tibetan mountain where Lord Buddah practiced asceticism, it is believed that the first temple was built in the 15th century on the current site of Thien Tru. A stele at Thien Tru dates the building of a terrace, stone steps and Kim Dung shrine to 1686. Over the years especially during the French & American Wars many of the structures were damaged or destroyed but subsequently restored or replaced.

Pilgrims visit the site by boat along the Suoi Yen River rowed by conical hat wearing women; a 1.5 journey through breathtaking scenery. Disembarking at Den Trinh (Presentation Shrine) pilgrims 'register' or pray for acceptance of their pilgrimage. They then make their way over Hoi Bridge to Thanh Son temple, on to Thien Tru (Heaven's Kitchen) Pagoda & finally Giai Oan Temple, also called ‘Clearing Injustice’ Pagoda with its Thien Nhien Thanh Tri (Natural Blue Pond) replenished by the 9 source Giai Oan stream. It is believed that Buddha once stopped here to wash himself clean of the dust of humanity, and many pilgrims will wash their face and hands in Long Tuyen Well seeking purification & justice. While here, pilgrims may also visit Tuyet Kinh cave and Cua Vong shrine to worship the Goddess of the Mountains, or Phat Tich Shrine where there is a stone believed to be the preserved footprint of the Quan Am.

Pilgrims continue on towards their final destination, Huong Tich Cave, a steep climb of at least an hour by foot or more quickly by the recently installed cable car. The mouth of the cave has the appearance of the open mouth of a dragon. There are Chinese characters dating back to 1770 carved in a wall at the mouth of the cave - Nam thien de nhat dong - translated as “the most beautiful cave of the South World”.

Inside the cave there are many statues including green stone statues of Buddha & Quan Am (the Goddess of Mercy). Huong Tich cave is an especially sacred place because "legend says that Bodhisatva (Quan Am) stayed at Huong Tich Pagoda in order to help save human souls."

The cave contains numerous stalactites and stalagmites named to reflect their special purposes - childless pilgrims seek fertility from Nui Co (the girl) and Nui Cau (the boy); another stalactite which resembles a breast sees pilgrims gathering in an endeavour to catch drops of water - the 'milk' of the 'breast' - in the hope of being blessed with good health. Others include the Heap of Coins (Dun Tien), the Gold Tree, the Silver Tree, the Basket of Silkworms (Buong Tam), the Cocoon (Nong Ken) and the Rice Stack (Dun Gao). The stalacites & stalagmites have been worn smooth by years of rubbing from pilgrims seeking blessing.

TO BE CONTINUED...................

Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010
MAI CHAU ................. the bird still with the blinds down!


A broken ankle would force us to modify our itinerary. We had spent several extra days in Ninh Binh & would now follow our originally planned path up to Mai Chau for another extended stay. The advantage of longer stop-overs is that it presents the chance to become more closely involved with the local population, to get a fuller understanding of their lives & their culture.

At Tam Coc we had been taken by the generosity of its people. Locals who did not speak english would simply point to the seat on the back of their bikes & then wisk you away to their favourite spots, take you to where the locals go. At one stage when a severe cold snap set in, a couple of shopkeepers suddenly arrived at our hotel room doors carrying three gift wrapped presents - we opened them to find an emptied chewing gum box with a roughly fashioned cardboard top & inside a pair of socks to keep us warm. It is said by many that tourists will find the northern Vietnamese quite stern-faced; its certainly not been our experience - they are a warm, fun-loving people; as with all hard-working people with little material possessions they will give you their arm. Great people.

It was a foggy ride up along a road basically in good shape (Hwy 6 actually as we traveled up via Hanoi). The Vietnamese are great workers; its rare you'll see a beggar. They constantly seek the chance to sell something & I was intrigued to see so many used golf balls retrieved from errant shots for sale along the road as we passed a substantial golf course just before Hoa Binh.

Mai Chau finds itself in a truly stunning setting- a lush valley at the base of the Truong Son Range foothills; a collection of authentic stilt-houses surrounded by green & gold rice paddies . From high up on the road in there's a magical lookout offering fabulous pictures over the village you are about to visit & sensibly stay:


We were booked to stay at No1 Lac Village, the first stilt-house you see on entering the village & one that offers fabulous views over the surrounding rice paddies:



There's always something on the road below; the fisherwoman hard at work all afternoon - frogs?:



Run by Hoa, seen her in traditional White Thai attire, a great cook who speaks good english it would be our base for several days:


How good is the view from the bedroom to wake up to:


Hoa told me that electricity had only come to the village in 1992 - at this time the village's only TV was THE meeting place. Up until 1994 cattle & buffalo still lived under the village houses & until 1998 transport in & around the village was almost entirely by bicycle. By this time tourists were starting to come to the village but it was mainly on a day visit basis & they would stay at Hoa Binh (meaning 'peace'), set on the Song Da (Black River) where Vietnam's largest hydro-electricity scheme has now been established. Things really took off in 2004 with the opening of a much improved Hwy6. In a subsequent conversation with Hoa about life as a White Thai she told me that in keeping with custom when her husband wished to marry her, he first approached his mother to talk with her mother so that matters could be arranged; the father was then advised. Love it!

At night White Thai dance from house to house enchanting visitors from far & wide, all present enjoying the local rice-wine, ruou can, drunk communally from large jars through long bamboo straws:









There are some wonderful treks & walks around Mai Chau, through several villages, up many a steep mountain. One not yet in the guidebooks is the Hang Chieu (Chieu Cave). You'll find the access not far from the Mai Chau Resort but on the opposite side of the road. Here are the steps up & the view on the way back down:



Hang Chieu:




I was by now starting to regain my energies so sought out suitable transport to get me around the villages. There were no cyclos available but the enterprising Hao would find me one of the local wheelbarrows used to throw away rubbish, appropriate transport some may add. It was a great way to tour & much to the amusement of locals:


Some interesting sights including this stilt-house that had a lead for every camera & mobile (a great idea):




The piglet that was not so lucky:



There are several interesting flat walks to be had around the villages but maps are extremely difficult to find (I did leave one with Hoa should all else fail). Head from Lac (village) through lanes filled with enticing articles to purchase across to Poom Coong (village) photographed below - Dan actually could not hold the weight of the wheelbarrow with me in it on this hill & we skidded to a lucky halt whilst all the time I thought he was joking:





From Poom Coong head back one laneway towards the main road before heading left (that is, turning right, where there's another steep climb to Poom Coong village, a couple of hundred metres after where this photo was taken). This pleasant backroad will take you out past Pu Tooc Mountain from where you can access the more remote Cha, Cha Long & Na Tang villages & continue on a little further to Tong Dau village before returning - its around a 10km trip all up. If you'd prefer a 5km hit-out try heading from Lac to Poom Coong then on towards Cha as above, but take the road left before Pu Tooc Mountain. This will lead to Nhot (village) from where you should veer left & head to Na Phon (village) & continue on a long sweep around to the brick kiln not far from Lac. From here cross the Japanese Bridge & you'll be back in Lac. (Its fairly straight forward but note the villages down in any case, ready to ask for assistance, as none of this is found in any guidebook).

Another night, another party:









There were several good stories flowing from our stay in Mai Chau ranging from the joy in the face of a 70 year old hill-tribe woman to whom I gave my reading glasses after she was just so ecstatic at suddenly being able 'to see' again', to the strain of moving about the place on crutches that are a foot short & about as useful as a pair of chopsticks! At my weight I burn through the rubber stoppers on my crutches in an hour & they then become dangerously slippery - an ingenious useage of used tyre rubber has been found but still requires replacement every couple of days.

Funny but my (lady) agent in Hanoi went off to consult her dictionary & then appraoched me all smiles to enquire as to how I was finding my crutches, asking me: "How's your crutch?" Poor girl so embarrassed when I explained.

The plaster cast fashioned for me is so massive I was forced to cut my pants off! We all looked for clothing but all we could find is confirmed in my wearing the baggy black pants for which the H'mong are known!

Its an intriguing story but when we were in Mai Chau we learnt that on 16/2 at 8am the mountain 7kms north of Mai Chau on Hwy6 - the road we were due to take to head north to Sapa & the only way through - collapsed in a massive landslide totally destroying around 100m of the hwy. There was a young, recently married couple from Mai Chau, the woman 3 months pregnant, riding along the hwy on motorbike at the time & they were swept to their deaths. The hwy remained closed for over a week. This very delay would have meant that even if I had not broken my ankle we would have been prevented from continuing on our original trip as planned. Dan & Moana waited 3 days for good weather before heading out to ride over the now only recently reopened section of the hwy but incredibly found it totally blocked from another, a second massive landslide the night just have to wonder if someone up above simply did not want us going through on this ocassion!?!?

It is worth reporting here also that we would visit Halong bay a week early due to the accident - the report follows - but what is strange is that had we visited the area at the time originally planned then we would have met with fog so thick that vision was impossible to the extent that a substantial passenger liner ran straight into a sizeable container carrier! It seems clear that our trip should have been programmed for another time.

Mud from the landslide the first time we tried to get through, then a rolled truck on our later attempt & the landslide area itself where 2 died:




It seems everyone enjoys Mai Chau:

Dec 27, 2007
Best pic of the trip! :lol-sign:


Great that you could continue on despite the injury!

Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010
We would swing to the other side of Northern Vietnam leaving Mai Chau for Hanoi before crossing the Red River, past hectares of rice paddies & on to Halong Bay. We would explore the area aboard a junk for 3 days & 2 nights, an excellent way to appreciate the area & its beauty; the longer the trip the better as there is so much beauty to be seen & sufficient variation to keep you mesmorised.

The view from my bunk - magic:


We boarded from the Bai Chau pier & headed down past Dau Gau renowned for its "Grotte des Merveilles" a cave of enchanting beauty. We would continue deep into Halong Bay down towards Dao Ti Top which sports a small beach & a climb to its apex offering sensational views over the surrounding karsts rising from the depths of the Gulf of Tonkin. A visit to Hang Sun Sot, the "Cave of Awe" best known for its phallus-shaped rock, a fertility symbol, followed, then some kayaking before we moored for the night nearby at the stunningly beautiful Hang Bo Nau.



Halong Bay - the power of nature at its magestic best; calm, not a sound; peace & harmony. There's no better way to do justice to this very special place than with photos.......................

Dao Ti Top in the background:


Hang Sung Sot from a distance, the phallus (to the right in pink), the third chamber cave giving you an idea as to its size & views from the cave entrance:





The sails on the junk in the background of the above photo are hand sown from cotton then dyed in vegetable oil to give them strength & their ochre colour.

The view from the deck as night fell:



You can see in the above some boats painted in white whilst others are in the traditional timber colour. Apparently the government has made a decision that all boats working in the area are to be painted white by April; this may well be the last chance to see the area with the boats in their far preferable historical colours.

The next day we would cruise the wonderful waters around Lan Ha Bay on the way down to Cat Ba. The advantage of this cruise is not just the scenery & varied tour options but also that the area is considerably less frequented by tourists. It was a sensational outing!



There are fishermen there in the middle......



We would stop on the edge of Cat Ba National Park & make our way by bicycle up to Viet Hai village. Some of the mud/straw housing in the village & one elderly resident:






Our junk took us to Monkey Island, seen here in a shot looking over the beach followed by some of the local residents at play. The island also has a resort appearing below in the last photo:





From here we'd sail to Cat Be arriving via Ben Beo rather than the town's main port: This is a fabulous way to arrive offering a close-up of life on floating houses, of the life of those that grow small edible clams in the farms surrounding their homes. I can say that for me it exceeded the floating markets of the Mekong Delta:



The supermarket; water access only:





There are some good beaches on the island, some wonderful get-away islands nearby & some good trecking to be had....... taking a few days to explore is a great option. Below a shot of Cat Ba harbour:


There's so much more to see in this gob-smacking area; we did not venture into the Tu Long Bay area, for example. Don't cut short your options in this stunning area.
Sep 19, 2006
Great Photos and Report Rod! Brings a different Picture to my mind on Vietnam! I never really expected it to be so Spectacular! Good to see You are still enjoying the Trip despite Your Injury! Keep up the good work!
Jul 25, 2010
Stunning photos Rod. Its a wonderful area and and a damn sight better than Northern Thailand right now with the awful air we are currently experiencing. Also pleased to see that you are not deterred from continuing to enjoy your trip with Moana and Dan.

Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010

Hanoi that most exotic of cities, rich in cultural heritage, full of energy & atmosphere, chaotic shopping, chaotic traffic. The oldest, & for many the greatest, capital city in SE Asia, she celebrated her 1000th year in 2010. Hanoi, 'the city 'within the river' (the Red River), with its 600 year-old ancient quarter humming in its congestion. Wonderful Hanoi!

To conclude the report a photo tour of Hanoi whilst in plaster!

Ready set, go!!!


In the cyclo; in the Hmong trousers, the only pants big enough that could be found that would fit over the cast (having had to cut off my jeans):


We headed straight through '36 Streets' where since the 13th century 36 distinct guild crafts have applied their trade.

There's plenty to see whilst moving between the well-known sites, the last shot showing a wedding where guests arrive by cyclo:



HCM Mausoleum, despite requesting his ashes be scattered Ho Chi Minh lies here embarmed:


Situated nearby is the Chua Mot Cot (One Pillar Pagoda) first constructed in 1049AD & destroyed for the umpteenth time in 1954 when the French burnt it!


Van Mieu gate, the entrance to the Temple of Literature, the oldest & arguably finest architectural complex in Hanoi established in 1070AD as a centre for higher learning in honour of Conficius:


Nha To Lon (St Joseph's Cathedral) consecrated in 1886.


All that remains of the French Hoa Lo Prison:


The Hanoi Citadel which until 1802 when the capital moved to Hue, contained the royal & the Forbidden cities. Excavation work is currently underway revealing fabulous treasures:


Hoan Khiem Lake lies at the centre of Hanoi. Steeped in legend it is close to the hearts of all who live in Hanoi. Here a view from a well situated cafe, the scenically set The Huc (Sunbeam Bridge) & Thap Rua:




Originating in the Red River Delta & dating back some 1000 years, roi muoc (water puppets) is an authentic expression of Vietnamese culture:


Ho Thay (West Lake) & a most highly recommended (truly, its exceptional) Italian restaurant Da Paolo:



Best of all, being forced by circumstance to spend a greater amount of time in Hanoi we inevitably became closer to its people, closer to the culture that is Hanoi. We were privileged to be asked into the home of Hung & Hai for the best meal we've ever had in Vietnam. Yes its my foot in plaster just to prove I was there:


The plaster will be off in the first week in April. This trip, as originally planned, will be completed in its entirety in September/October.
Jul 25, 2010
I agree Rod, Hanoi is a fabulous city, so colourful and vibrant. It also has what used to be one of my favorite resturants, Cha Ca La Vong, some twenty or so years ago. However my business partner in VN has told me that its now become a tourist ripoff place. Such a shame.


Dec 9, 2008

Sorry to hear about the ankle, hopefully, you're well on the way to getting back on a bike now.............

Great report and VN does look a most interesting country. Maybe I'll get there one day...... I'd certainly love to see Mt Fansipan.

Nov 21, 2010
Great report, sweet memories of Hanoi (jee it is'nt that far looking on Google Maps).

Chang Noi

Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010
So many positive comments (tks); so very many desirous to come & see for themselves.
A smokey Chiang Mai..........
What's the piece of the puzzle that I'm missing in not seeing a flood of riders over to this most beautiful of countries?

Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010
As with all countries in SE Asia where rice is an important crop, or where ethnic minorities are present a slash & burn policy to agriculture is still present. The topography of Vietnam & the weather patterns, however, ensure that Vietnam is largely free of the smoke pollution problems which plague many other countries in the region.
Mt Fanispan awaits!


Dec 9, 2008
Thanks Rod. So....saved by the northeast monsoon then.

A few weeks ago, some friends and I did an on/off road trip in Laos.
Great fun and some great experiences, but marred by the haze, restricting our views of the wonderful scenery. However, It was noticeable that the haze was less on the eastern side of northern Laos. As I had organised the trip and everyone had a great time, I have been given the task of organising the next trip.
Vietnam is a clear choice, if the haze is significantly less. Two of the guys came from Maine USA, so I dont want to drag them them all the way over here again to hazy conditions. It would be ideal for me, to be able to escape the smoke, for a week or two.
Sounds like I better start planning then.....
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Rod Page

Jan 7, 2010
So, just to wrap up this report - I now have my bike back (all's good).

Its fairly straight forward having the police release the bike when there's no third party involved in the accident, no third party injured, & all expences have been met.

The bike is basically held as 'security' whilst the police complete their report, that is to say, the matter is closed. A fee of 200,000vnd ($10) was paid to cover storage of the bike for the month plus that it was left with the police & the bike was simply handed over.

Trust no-one needs this somewhat mundane information whilst travelling through Vietnam.