Sunday, December 19, 2010

"You girls ride bikes? By yourselves?!" - Motorbiking through Northern Vietnam with Ania

The Idea
If you haven’t watched the Vietnam episode of the British car enthusiast television show Top Gear...then you are missing out on an hour of hilarity, as well as the inspiration for our first week of travels in Vietnam. After watching the three hosts on their adventure driving from south to north Vietnam in the only vehicles they could afford, we were convinced that this was the way our short stint in Northern Vietnam should be s

The Bike

Courtesy of Flamingo Travel in Hanoi (seemingly the only agency that had any bikes left for rent in the entire city!), we were quickly set up with three Honda Waves. They were red, semi-automatic, 110cc, shiny and OURS for a week!

The Journey

Day 1

Our trip lasted five days with the end destination in Sapa. I don’t know how we did it, but in just under three hours we managed to navigate the insanity of Hanoi streets to end up on the completely wrong highway, the ugly, crowded highway 1. Luckily, we managed to inquire before we drove too far. An hour more on side streets, and we were on our way!
Our first of many bowls of pho!
Once on the right track, we drove through a maze of towering limestome karst formations to arrive at our lunch stop: Hoa Binh, where we stopped on the side of the road for drinks served by five hilarious Vietnamese women. When we asked for some food to eat, one lady got up and next door to her house to serve us up our first Pho of the trip! We learned that moo and bawk bawk are not effective in communicating the type of meat you wish to receive in your dish.

We finished our first day of biking in the beautiful, foggy valley town of Mai Chau, where we slept in traditional stilt huts on bamboo mats under mosquito nets.

Day 2
Rise and shine! We were up and on the road by 7am in order to over-ambitiously attempt to make it to Sapa. I had learned my lesson from the previous day of driving with nothing covering my face, resulting in a charred, greyish, sickly look that I had going on, and purchased a scarf in the Mai Chau market before departing.
Love and cheap gloves will keep us warm!
One thing about biking in the North of’s friggen cold, especially in the mornings! Temperatures easily dropped to 5 degrees and felt colder the speed we were going at. Every day I wore about four layers of clothing: a t-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater, and my windbreaker, coupled with a scarf and sunglasses to completely cover my face. We topped off the look on our breakfast road-side stop, where we purchased warm gloves to keep our fingers warm and protected from the sun. This was also our first exposure to the amazing-ness of the Vietnamese people once you leave the harsh environment of the main hubs like Hanoi.

We sat down at the road-side wooden hut and were immediately served hot tea, which we consumed with delight along with apples, oranges, fresh baguettes and condensed milk. Our total cost, including the gloves: under two dollars each! We felt awkward and confused being asked for such a low price and not having to fend off swindlers for once.

Fully dressed, we set out towards our destination. Our wonderful breakfast was not matched by the awful lunch we had in Son La city. While extremely proud of the girls for having managed to expertly use their phrasebooks to order us a meal, the gigantic chewy chicken that Ange gnawed at and the mountain of tofu fried with tomatoes finally broke me: I could no longer stomach Vietnamese food!

We did not make it to Sapa that day. Not even close. After our turn-off In Tuan Giao, my map suddenly decided that it was no longer going to list any towns that we were passing through for the rest of the day. I navigated purely by process of elimination, which, as night drew in, left us in the tiny-middle of nowhere village, the name of which for the life of me I cannot remember. Luckily, a very nice local couple confirmed to us that we were in fact on the right track and pointed us to a guesthouse to pass the night.

Day 3
Poor Ange, I have not mentioned yet, was a trooper the entire trip, riding long days with a fever and generally a lot of sickness. High five Ange! Luckily, day three was the day we were actually going to make it to Sapa. We got an early start once more, with a quick breakfast stop in Than Uyen (50 cents each for a feast of baguettes, condensed milk, fruits...and HOT CHOCOLATE...what a steal!). A nice man also fixed the zipper on my bag and I recompensed with one of Ange’s rusty Canadian leaf key chains.

After the twelve hours of driving we had the day before, we were really no longer in the mood to drive a long distance. Luckily, the day was beautiful, sunny and the road took us through the Fansipan mountain range, the highest road pass in Vietnam. The views were breathtaking and made navigating the dirt road much more bearable!

Sapa and back to Hanoi

We had originally planned to arrive in Sapa with enough time to do a trek up the Fansipan mountain. Didn’t happen, but we did have the opportunity to get some well-earned rest in this quaint, mountain town, gorge on chocolate tarts and recuperate. After a day in Sapa we once again set out towards Lao Cai, a border town with China, to catch the train back to Hanoi. One thing we didn’t know was that they siphon the gas out of your tank before putting the bikes on the train....and don’t give it back. Upon arrival in Hanoi, we were charged outrageously to fill our tanks with 10 minutes worth of gas...just enough to get us to a proper gas station.

We went to West Lake to catch as much as the sunrise as we could through the thickets of fog. Mostly, we just watched locals up and about doing their various morning outdoor exercise regimes...ranging from jogging, to aerobics, to tango! Exhausted, we decided to return our bikes early, expertly navigating the Hanoi streets the second time around (so what if we weren’t in the proper lane to make a right hand turn and cut off a lot of angry Vietnamese folk in front of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum?) and get to the hotel to meet our friend Val and rest up before Ange’s Hanoian birthday celebration. Mission accomplished!
Keeping it G, as always

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