- Oct 23, 2014
Gday GTR readers.
This is our map of the ride of Northern Vietnam we travelled for 14 days starting from the 9th - 22nd April 2017.
We are all in our mid to late fifties and have had this trip planned for 9 months.
Landing in Hanoi on the 7th we settled in Ma May Street in the Old Quarter to be close to Flamingo Travel where we had arranged the hire of our bikes.
1x Suzuki EN150, 1x Honda XR150 and 3x Kawasaki KLX150.......at US$23 and $27 per day
The Saturday we dropped in on the guys at Flamingo, Ms Pham handled all the paperwork and final payments, a passport was left as collateral and we are ready to go.
That afternoon the Hair of the Dog bar around the corner had our attention for several hours (happy hour 4-8pm) before we called it a night.
Sunday started with a great breakfast at the Medallion Hotel, not a cheap place to stay, then it was a walk to Flamingos workshop to get the bikes and load up. The mechanic made sure that we had plenty of spare parts, clutches, gears, cables, tubes for all bikes, brake pads, all bagged up and tied to the Suzi.
The destination today is Lang Son, some 156kms to the northeast of Hanoi via Hwy 1. We are advised of the speed limits for motorbikes......30kph in the towns and 70kph on the highways and outer roads.
So with all our gear strapped on and map book at the ready, it was time to hit the road, first stop.....gasoline.
The SoA crew L-R.....Peter, Mark, Dennis (front), Brett and me, Rory
Leaving the old quarter we cross the Red River and travel the AH-1 (QL-1) with a few stops for the vietnamese classic iced coffee, 'Cafe Sua Da' or an energy drink 'Number 1'.
After about 4 hours we make the centre of Lang Son at Le Loi Street and pull up to search for a hotel. While sitting with a few locals and having a Beer Hanoi I get the mobile with a local 4G Sim, about 150000dong (A$8) and with Google Translate ask the locals where a hotel is. One guy jumps up and gestures to follow him. 500 metres back up the street we are in our digs for the night, at 250k (A$15) a room, we book five and wash of the days dirt.
A walk around the streets looking for a restaurant we find the Trung Xuan Hotel and are offered a VIP room for dinner. Each of us order a meal and a beer and are then guided to our dining room, it was massive, used for special functions off the side of a Ballroom. One beer down and the meal turns up.....a bloody banquet. Five of everything that we ordered, and with a fresh beer we did our best to eat it all. Total cost......900,000d.....$50. Back to our hotel with a Stolli in hand and bed.
Today we head for Ban Gioc, about 130kms......heading north on Hwy 1 takes us to Dong Dang 12kms away where we follow the flow of the road thru a toll gate. Me and Pete are ahead and the others have stopped, Brett catches up and tells us we just crossed the Chinese border and we had to return or else......oops. Back over we go and pull up for a laugh and reset the maps.
Now on the QL4A we head for Dong Khe and turn on to the TL208, a 20km shortcut to the QL3 at Hoa Thuan. Looks good on the map.....this entire road is under construction, fist sized split rock rolled in and filled with crushed stone in various parts of the trail, it will be good when finished. This stretch of road has that many twists and switchbacks as it climbs and decends the many karst-like hills that form these mountain ranges, it seriously puts the MHS Loop to shame. The dirt bikes handle it well, my Suzi gets shaken up a bit, and Brett discovers that buffalo don't get out of your way and skins his elbow and right hip.....not a happy boy.....after a few loud words we push on. A coffee break at Hoa Thuan and get some directions then it's west on the QL3 till we hit the TL206 for the 80kms northern roads to Trung Khanh and Ban Gioc, our stop for the night.
That's the Chinese side over there...
Saigon Ban Gioc Resort is massive, we book a twin and a triple room and check out the surrounds and realise that the other side of the river just 300 metres away is China. Dinner and beers at the restaurant and breakfast next morning....2.5million dong ($150) for the five of us.
After breakfast it's on the bikes to ride to the waterfalls, parking fees, entry fees, boat fees, we spend about an hour to look it over and then pack the gear and make our way back on the TL206, Q3 and TL205 for Cao Bang 85kms away to the west. Again marvellous winding mountain roads, rising up and around the karsts and valleys. Searching out cheaper digs for the night we locate the Huong Sen Hotel II......35k dong a room ($10) near the river. Drinks at a local bar and dinner at a riverside restaurant followed by some pool about 2kms away......walking sucks, but you do get to see stuff.
Today is 150kms run to Ba Be Lake for a homestay. Heading down the QL3 to Na Phac and turn right onto QL279 riding to Cho Ra.
A coffee break and then on the TL254 to the National Park Gate, a 45000d fee and head into the park till we eventually wind down the mountain to Pac Ngoi Village and Ba Be Lake View Homestay.....at $15 a room with a bed including dinner and breakfast this was a highlight of the journey. The farmstay has several levels and the owners, local Tay people, where wonderful, friendly and informative.....and good cooks too. Meeting fellow travellers and great conversation over several beers, this ended up a great days travel.
Breakfast and farewell to our new friends, we ride off around the lake about 10ks to other villages and then head off back up the TL254 to Thang Cafe for another coffee and chat with the owner, Mr Thang, a writer, poet, musician, photographer and all round nice guy.....friended up on FB ...we are off again and travel the non-stop 230kms of winding roads of the TL212 and QL34 heading for Meo Vac.
Download my KMZ file for Google Earth to see just how many twists are on this stretch of road...incredible!! Magnificent scenery through the mountains and not much traffic we stop for some food and a drink at Bao Lac while it is market day and snack on street food as the locals go on about their business.
The QL4B winds its way to To Duc at Meo Vac where we stop for the night. The hotel asks for our permit which we did not have, so the manager arranges the permit at 200k dong per person and grabs copies of our passports. We book a twin and a triple room and freshen up for dinner at a nearby cafe. The hotel manager delivers our permit and copies back to us, it seems you have to have this permit to be in the Meo Vac and Ha Giang districts....hopefully it's used to fix the roads. Our night ends at a small cafe with a few beers to help you sleep on those rock-hard beds.
This little town doesn't have much to offer us....not much at all. A large radio tower pumps out the subliminal propaganda and occaisional music until 11pm when everything, shop signs and street lights switches off. My morning is woken by the soft warbling of a goddess over the radio tower, it was quite good actually, then back to messages of work, work, work. Breakfast across the road from our hotel at a street vendor where we met a French speaking ex-Viet man who actually spoke 6 languages. Nice guy too, he helped direct out exit from town for the run up the mountains of the QL4C to Ma Pi Leng Pass some 16 kms away. Put this on your bucket list, a snaking road that climbs each mountain karst to the high point at 2000 metres where we pull up at the viewpoint to take in the valley views below...stunning and amazing how the locals have layered the land for rice and tea plantations, using whatever available land, no matter how difficult.
and zoomed in on the little shelter
A drink, another smoke and we continue on for Don Van, 15 kms on for lunch. Unfortunately we miss the turnoff for Lung Cu Flag Tower (Ha Giang), situated right on the Chinese border ( the problem with group travel when you are not leading) and continue on down the 4C, another fantastic winding road down the mountains and several plateaus. Just when you think it's over at one plateau township you descend thru another series of twisties till you hit another plateau town and another set of twisties. Another accident for Brett as the road works throw him off at a bend in the road and I survive a near hit on the armco rail while trying to read the maps on the phone while riding..... my Evil Kneivel stunt shakes the bike up a bit, 'must stop doing that'.
After about 130kms we pull up at Ha Giang and find our Homestay for the night. Ha Giang Homestay is on the QL2 west of town about 5kms, a small village of Hmong people in the rice paddies, our hosts the 'Thiens' settle us in with a cold beer and a great meal and a few local stories. $10 for the night and good company.
This morning I wake up to a flat tyre and a damaged starter switch on the Suzi.....seems the flat rear made the bike fall. Mr Thein help search out the broken parts, springs and pins, then pieces the switch back together.....with the tyre inflated enough its a quick ride into town to a local mechanic..... Sửa Xe, if you need one.
Wheel off, new tube in and an oil change all for 150000d. Goodbye to the 'Thiens' we hit the QL2 for the southern ride to Viet Quang then take the QL279 for Yen Binh, where we take a break and check the map.
From here it's head for Lao Cai on a 26km stretch of rough stone and dirt road till we make the province border of Lao Cai where instantly the road turns to the best tar we had been on so far. The QL70 winds you thru river valleys all the way into Lao Cai township, where its smoko and a beer time again. A few queries to the locals gets us on the road up to Sapa on the QL4D, it's late in the day and a lot of traffic is heading in the same direction.....bloody tourists. Taking advantage of the bends we can get ahead of the crowd for the 25k run up the mountain. Hello Sapa and Cat Cat View Hotel, home for the next three nights....at US$25 with brekky a night. Great views from this hotel at the eighth and ninth floor patios.
The Ninety Pub becomes our new club rooms (pool table and great mojitos) and is given the SoA sticker of approval. Some bad weather and a few stomach bugs prevents riding over the few days here. A couple of us make the run to see the new chairlift in the hope of getting to the top of the 3000 metre high Mt Fansipan.....fogged out. What a massive building this place is...wasn't here four years ago. Back to the hotel to find the carpark full of bikes, another crew of 10 bikers from Oz (Canberrans) on tour with vietnammotorbiketours.com doing the opposite direction to us.
Party time in Sapa tonight.
Today is cold and wet in Sapa....off to buy some waterproof gear. The whole mountain is shrouded in mist, as the 'coach' I tell the guys we gotta do it, the other side of the mountain will be clear. Off we head further up the mountain roads for Heavens Gate, the road is fogged out, visibility is about 20 feet, the visor is useless and glasses no help. Slowly up the road till eventually the fog is gone....'we are higher than it'......yet the mountains are still higher than us. The view of waterfalls still above us was amazing, we are at about 2600 metres up and these mountains are still going. Eventually we clear the bad weather and start to come down the other side of the ranges in to warmth and sun, it heats up quickly when we make a stop for the turnoff to Than Uyen on the QL32. The QL279 breaks right about 10kms from here and then we edge our way around one of the many mountain hydro dams in this region.
Hwy 279 crosses the Black River at Keo Pia.....a 300 metre long bridge spans the river, Pa Uom so a stop for some pics of the scene as a speed boat below us, towing half a dozen screaming people on a banana, slips up the wide river. Smoko over and back on the bikes riding the TL107 for the last 67kms to Son La City and an overnight stop at Khach San Son La, a big hotel in the centre of town....$10 each for the night. A balcony and 2 bottles of vodka (50000d each) with orange juice (80000d) and ice (5000d), sees us till the town lights go out at 11pm.
(Please note, I have adjusted this passage after reviewing the map book and google.....this is the correct path we took for the bridge crossing, the map image reflects this trail)
QL6 is the main road between Hanoi and Dien Bien Phu...for us it heads east from now for Moc Chau, Hoa Binh or Ninh Binh. There is a great truck stop for lunch where the QL37 breaks off to the left.
A large statue to Vietnams fighting spirit is at the corner. We continue on the QL6 for Moc Chau and a smoko/coffee, while roadvside fruit sellers push their product at us......watermelon, apple, pear. This is the last leg of todays journey as we push on into Mai Chau township, we need some money exchange... Đổi tiền....pull up at a gold seller (VANG 9999) to get the conversion, I enquire about a homestay, just so happens the dealers sister runs a homestay at Pom Coong Village, a white Thai farming community nearby.
Guided by the brother we pull up at the Mai Chau Ecohouse Farmstay for another night of camping...well almost. 200000d for dinner, breakfast and a decent mattress with mozzie netting......a bloody warm night too. There were several other guests arriving, again bought in by the vigilant brother. We all sit in the meals area for dinner ....same for all, no selection. It was great, especially with the beer to wash it down. Our group did make a request to Ms Chung that they better get in more beer, which another crate arrived shortly and was in the freezer. We introduced ourselves to the other guests and then watched a local traditional dance show, then popped up to the Sunset Bar at the top of the village, drinks and talk till we were shut down at 11pm. Back to the homebase for one last brew and bed.
The road travels back a short distance before it's up the mountain to the viewpoint overlooking the Mai Chau Valley.....what a great view.
Great road conditions ahead as we make our way to Muong Khen for the QL12B and a short stretch on the Ho Chi Minh Hwy. The 12B and DT491B takes us to in to Ninh Binh central and our hotel for tonight....Huong Hai, just off Hwy1. Again a $10 bed in a triple room, we would spend the next two nights here. Our next day involved some tourism with the hire of a driver and car to take us around....$50 all up.
A visit to the Trang An Grottoes for a floating adventure and followed up with lunch and then off to the magnificent Bai Dinh Pagoda....the largest buddhist temple in SE Asia...so we are told. Guided by Ms Choong thru the side walkways of hundreds of marble statues of monks to level 2 and then onto level 3....this place is big, it has doubled since my first visit here in 2011. Electric cars to drop you off at the entry/exit gates all in the fee.
Our wonderful guide was rewarded with 500k as a thankyou for her time...apparently the guides don't get paid. End of the day is a beer with our driver as thanks and off for dinner.
Last day of our tour.....today we want to achieve riding into Hanoi traffic. Hwy1 all the way trying to avoid the Expressway....unfortunately we end up on it.......NO MOTORBIKES ALLOWED.....ah well I must be dyslexic and we push on until a point where we can get back to the AH1. The phones GPS guides me to the final destination in Hang Bac Street...Silver Legend Hotel....the price is set and the bikes are stripped and ridden back to Flamingo and the final sign off, Mr Hung is back from a tour he was on, so we spend the next hour talking of the trip and how the bikes were, they need some TLC now...helmets sold, bike pumps sold, the passport back in hands, thanksagain Flamingo, Hẹn gặp lại....sadly the ride is now complete.
Look guys, it's 4 oclock.....and with that it's Happy Hour at The Hair of the Dog......Mot, Hai, Ba.....Yo