The Northern hills of Vietnam are home to a beautiful array of sights, both natural and cultural. Between Hanoi and the Chinese border lie rolling mountains, sprawling rice paddies, ancient hill tribe communities, bamboo stilt-villages, floating markets, rivers, valleys, forests, plains – basically the dream environment for any off-the-beaten-path traveler. But how could a mere tourist hope to find his way to such far-flung wonders?
Simple: hire a guide and a motorbike!
Nearly my entire first week in Hanoi was spent researching, planning and reserving for my dad’s visit – and it all begins now. After countless inquiries I decided to sign up with a company called “Freewheelin Tours” – most motorbike companies only offer longer-term excursions, but we have some scheduling and physical limitations that would prevent those from working.
Up until just last year my dad was barely able to walk, the compounding effects of a car accident when he was 20. He’s had two hip and one knee replacements since then, with probably 20 smaller surgeries along the way. But of course he won’t let that stop him. Just a couple weeks ago he was testing out his brand new titanium hip on the ski slopes of Colorado.
Still, we figured we’d better play it safe: no dangerous mountain paths or steep washboard slopes, and certainly no 12 solid days away from all civilization. So we arranged a private 4-day tour that would fit within our schedule and let us go at our own pace. The means: two antique 125cc Soviet Minsk motorbikes. No speedometer, no fuel gauge, not even a key. Just a throttle, clutch, and brake.
Excited and rearin’ to go, we left our hotel and dragged our luggage to the company’s office at around 8 in the morning. Unfortunately the guide wasn’t yet there.
(Despite being backed by a Lonely Planet review, I’ve been pretty surprised at how disorganized the company seems – even prior to signing up they were often confused about simple logistics, everything from the meeting point to the exact cost of the trip. Simple questions always meant several employees scrambling and translating back and forth. It was therefore little surprise that the guide arrived 20 minutes late, the bikes weren’t there, and they only had 2 saddlebags instead of 6. Thirty minutes of confused phone calls later they seemed to sort it out, after we helped push the bikes over from a few blocks away.)
We started off with just a brief refresher on how to ride. I personally hadn’t been on a bike in five years; my dad in nearly forty.
…But you know what they say: “it’s just like riding a bike!” 🙂
Then once we felt comfortable enough to pull onto the insanity of a Vietnamese highway, we were off…
…Into the rain.
I guess the weather Gods weren’t with us this time around, as the first few hours of our ride were, in all honesty, quite miserable. The slippery roads provided a dangerous environment for two under-experienced riders, and getting dirt and mud splashed in our faces was certainly no fun.
…Which is a really shame, because all the scenery – sprawling rice terraces, small towns, lumber mills, etc – was just spectacular. The only reason I didn’t miss it is because I kept my visor up, squinting and praying that mud wouldn’t splash in my eye.
My dad took the safer route of riding behind a foggy uncomfortable piece of plastic.
(At the start of the trip we didn’t even have proper rain gear, so a few towns later we had to pull off the road and stock up. By then my jeans and shoes were completely soaked through and caked with mud.)
Luckily though, partway through the day the rain did clear up – so aside from the overcast sky and periodic drizzle we could enjoy ourselves a bit more.
The route was fairly routine for awhile – passing in and out of towns, each with their own unique flavor –
Until the last hour or so when things changed yet again.
Now this is what I’d been waiting for – the true “Vietnamese outback.”
First the paved road ended and we found ourselves driving in mud.
As we continued, signs of civilization began to slip away.
Until we found ourselves in a place that could only be described as “the middle of absolutely nowhere.”
It was the most rustic of backwoods villages; little old men trudged alongside the dirt path with their water buffalo, families of pigs scurried out of the way, chickens looked on curiously, old women in conical straw hats gathered rice from their terraces, and by far the highlight to me – simply indescribably cute – every single child, without exception, upon seeing us approach in the distance would drop whatever they were doing and sprint out to the road to shout HELLO. They’d stand there waiving frantically with an ear-to-ear smile until just after we passed. Then they’d return to whatever they were doing. In all my experience all over Asia, never have I seen such a cute – or consistent – reaction.
And while we may have experienced a breakdown every now and then – something to be expected of a bike from back in the 70’s –
I for one was in heaven.
Note: These posts are behind realtime; the above took place on Tuesday, May 3rd.