Three days, 400 km on motorbikes, as a family through some of the most beautiful, mountainous scenery in northern Vietnam.
01.09.2011 - 04.09.2011 27 °C
It's perhaps not your usual family holiday but, once having heard how amazing this particular trip is, we knew it would be perfect for the Langfords, Nick, me, Laura, Ed and Peter and Laura's friend, Julia, from Brisbane.
Ha Giang is the most northern of Vietnam's provinces and contains Lung Cu, a flag tower marking the country's most northern point as the border swerves upwards and creates a probe of land into China. Ha Giang is only 179 miles (288km) driving miles from Hanoi but it took some 5 hours to drive up including an hour's stop for the driver to have a sleep and for lunch to arrive. The dual carriageway ends around Hanoi airport and then you are onto hairy roads, trucks coming at you on the wrong side of the road, your driver might be tempted to overtake on a blind corner whilst in 5th gear and 7 people in the car. You are relieved to arrive for a host of reasons!
Nick had organised the bikes and guide from Hanoi. The latter was the motorbike tour company owner, Johnny, who is one cool guy and rides a yellow machine. Minsk maybe? or was that the make of bike Nick, Ed and Peter had? Anyway, theirs were yellow and us girls had Honda Waves and were very happy. Contact Johnny and he'll give you the details! Suffice to say, the yellow machines did cause heads to turn!
We spent the first night in Ha Giang, left around 8.30 for a bowl of pho and then hit the road. We had our backpacks strapped to the bikes and Johnny took a substantial repair kit. Once up in the mountains, you really don't want to break down and end up pushing a bike to the nearest village for help! Nick and I are used to having the bike in Hanoi although it's automatic but we all had used a semi automatic in Sapa last year so we just needed a bit of practice. Julia was new to motorbikes but got the hang of it quickly - she had to: we were keen to get going! Johnny was a great companion. Yes, he knows the roads (carefully noting the severity of bends to those behind him until he was confident everyone would cope with unexpected angles) and where to stay/eat but he was so relaxed and clearly enjoys his bikes. He is extremely well organised and I'd really recommend him to others.
I'm a natural worrier and here we were, with our three kids, setting off on motorbikes on narrow mountain roads but in the end, it comes down to personal responsibility and they ARE early 20s so it's time I eased up! I was really excited about the trip though. It's such an opportunity to have an amazing experience, as a family, which everyone will enjoy and remember. I love driving cars and, now I'm confident, going around Hanoi on our motorbike so it wasn't really any surprise that after about half an hour and we had left Ha Giang, on the open road and I thought, hey! I'm 52 years old, I'm on a motorbike heading off for three days and I'm loving it!
Words and photos cannot do justice to the beauty, remoteness and diverse landscapes we rode through. Before we left Hanoi, a friend said that at every corner you see another breathtaking view but nothing quite prepares you for it. Nor are you prepared, really, for the sheer remoteness of the houses and tiny communities high up. Houses tucked into the lee of a rocky face but it is all rock and little soil. Paddies have been cut out wherever possible and, if rice can't grow, then corn was planted up.
We rode along lush valleys beside rivers and then climbing high into the mountains, hair pin bend after hair pin bend. They were reasonably narrow roads and some form of crash barrier only on the very sharp bends with sheer drops the other side: we rode along the side of the mountains, twisting and weaving, following the contours. Up at the top, looking down at the 900m drop to the river below and there are houses, built on rock, seemingly at the very edge of the mountainside. Turning corners, we encountered all sorts of surprises: a herd of goats in the middle of road; I had an interesting look at a smallish oil tanker; water buffalo being driven; cows led back from market; a wide assortment of loads on the back of motorbikes - pigs strapped to the back and one squealing so loudly all the way up the road; a satellite dish; chickens; dogs; huge earthernware pots; entire families. However, most people were walking. The majority of women (and many children) carrying heavy loads of wood or huge bundles of greenery. Then we would pass a guy on his motorbike carrying just a bird cage: that's how labour is divided.
Pig on a bike!
And the kids! Either singly or in groups, there would be children standing at the side of the road or would hear us coming and rush to the verge, waving frantically and shouting to us. Huge grins and so delighted to see us. Where did they all materialise from? Sometimes there wasn't a house or building in sight but still these kids would appear!
Most of the adults were more circumspect but I found that if I nodded and smiled at them, they would either nod back in acknowledgement or, best of all, give me lovely warm smiles, sometimes slightly surprised as though they didn't expect me to greet them.
We spent a night in Ha Giang, Dong Van and Meo Vac. The hotels were basic but clean and no problem except for the beds. Dong Van felt like heaven as the mattress had a tiny bit of "give": the others were so hard, you woke in the night numb from lying too long on one side and it hurt! We had pho for breakfast and Johnny made sure we always had a coffee before we set off. Lunch was usually rice of some description and joys when we had an omelette. Supper was again rice, green veg, grilled chicken and some kind of beef dish. The Vietnamese traditionally serve the chicken whole but cut into pieces - bone and all so you do sometimes end up with the head, feet, everything on the plate and with scissors the chicken has been cut into neat squares without any consideration for separate pieces of meat as Westerners do. By the end of the trip, Laura, Ed, Peter and Julia were requesting not to have chicken! We drank beer and then out came the corn wine! Laura and Julia even brought a half drunk bottle home with them!
Second night in Dong Van.
After a breakfast pho in Dong Van, I watched the lunchtime supplies come in: a duck, held head down, quacking very loudly as though it knew its fate. It's all fresh produce!
It rained - actually it poured - for a couple of hours one morning - but we had our capes and the air's warm so, yes, you get wet shoes and legs but you dry out eventually. Sadly it was quite cloudy most of the time so we didn't get amazing clear views across all the mountains but even so, low cloud hanging over the summits was pretty impressive and then the sun breaks through!
Meo Vac market was wonderful. I got up early and wandered around (sadly we had a long day of riding ahead and we had to get up and off so couldn't spend the morning there) and I rather felt I was in the land of Oz with the munchkins as I was so tall but no-one really took any notice. They were all far too busy eyeing up the live water buffalo, chickens, ducks, geese, ponies, cows, bulls, pigs, piglets, dogs, birds, as well as the dead and chopped up meat; the gallons of corn wine sold by ladies sitting in a long line; the vegetables, the corn cobs and loose kernals; the material, hats, baskets, bags of MSG, and so it went on. There are something like 24 separate ethnic minorities in Ha Giang province and I reckon most of them were represented in Meo Vac market, wearing their traditional clothing as that is their daily wear. Amazing colours against the dark indigo base clothing.
Mobile reception up in the mountains was amazing: it also meant that we could have about an hour's stop in a Hmong village for a rest and a wander while Nick took a conference call from Europe. I have some great photos of him juggling his two phones and then others of him totally oblivious to the livestock and village comings and goings passing him. Not that they were interested in him either! The best reaction to us were the two little boys riding a water buffalo home who stared and pointed at the line of motorbikes. Maybe that was what they were looking at or perhaps it was the unusual sight of Ed reading a book (lying on his bike)!
We had one or two dramas of course. One or two weren't witnessed by many: Ed came off his bike going through a very muddy, stony bit of road (I realise now that we were all very kind and didn't crow that the rest of us had made it through without mishap. It was only the first day and who knows what was ahead..... revenge can be sweet!) and Peter likewise in a very muddy squichy bit. Laura's bag fell off the back of her bike on the last day coming down the mountain on a particularly bumpy section. She was the tail ender so no-one realised until we stopped for lunch. She went back up with Johnny to try and find it but it wasn't to be. Apparently some Hmong had seen a local guy pick it up. We wonder what he will make of some of the things she had in there...... But irritatingly, she had her passport, Iphone and wallet in it..... so that meant hassle in Hanoi. Julia also came off one afternoon and grazed her knee. And I caught my toe parking my bike outside Johnny's place at the very end of the trip. Let's just say "big toe nail bed" injury. Ouch.
My narrative and my photos just don't come near to the reality. It was an amazing trip to do, with the family and in a stunning, remote part of Vietnam. I'm sure others will have better photos and descriptions.
We had such an experience and great time that Nick and I are now planning another, similar trip......
Ha Giang Rocky Plateau : Johnny Nam Tran Motorbikes for rent and organised tours
[===[www.rockyplateau.com]]=== and tell Johnny where you got the contact; it just puts into context.