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Motorbike trip in Ha Giang, Vietnam by the Chinese border

Three days, 400 km on motorbikes, as a family through some of the most beautiful, mountainous scenery in northern Vietnam.

semi-overcast 27 °C
View Ha Giang on motorbikes on langforda's travel map.


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.

The road between Dong Van and Meo Vac

The road between Dong Van and Meo Vac

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.

HG_on_the_road_3.jpg 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!

7Dong_Van.jpg 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.


Piglets, Meo Vac market

Piglets, Meo Vac market

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.


Posted by langforda 07:05 Archived in Vietnam Tagged children food family transport farming minorities hagiang Comments (2)

Cycling to the My Son temples from Hoi An

Quang Nam province, Central Vietnam, 69km SW of Da Nang


My Son temples

The Hindu temples of My Son were constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries and originally there would have been over 70 temples: there is evidence that it was the longest inhabited archaelogical site in Indochina. However, much of it was destroyed by carpet bombing by the US during the American War and still some areas surrounding the site contain unexploded bombs. Craters are still clearly visible. The temples served as the centre for the Cham civilisation but by the early 15th century, they had lost much of their land and influence. In 1898, the temples were discovered by a group of French and in 1937, French archaeologists began work on the site. In 1999 it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


As some of you know, Nick is a very keen cyclist and goes out twice in the week at 0600 in Hanoi and a much longer ride on Saturday mornings (at the later start time of 0700). As I write this retrospective blog on our trip to My Son, Nick is in the UK for a week and is managing to squeeze in two bike rides and even considering bringing his beloved carbon frame bike out here - despite the very dodgy road surfaces. So when Brian came to stay and there was a public holiday, we decided to go down to Hoi An and combine it with a trip out to the Cham temples at My Son.


I'm sure we could have cut part of the journey off by taking the two bicycles and the motorbike (mine!) on a river taxi but that might be seen as lazy! We had a great ride through paddy fields, along the rivers. I took detours if I saw something interesting and was urged to stay in one village and enjoy their celebrations. They were delighted to have a foreigner take an interest but, in my hopeless Vietnamese, I explained my husband was on his bicycle and was far ahead. As it was, I lost Brian and Nick at that point as my "obvious way" wasn't quite theirs! The roads were so quiet compared with Hanoi. Ah! Except for the forced mile or so on Highway One - reputedly the most dangerous road in Vietnam. I did take a photo of them to prove they were on it: Nick and Brian are the two tiny figures in the distance...


I was overtaken by the "support vehicle" with spare bike....

We don't like taking the obvious route on main roads if we can help it but it was a surprise to find ourselves having to cross a river on a bamboo bridge. I lost my nerve a bit and so walked Nick's bike over it whilst he wheeled my motorbike.... my vivid imagination was in overdrive and you can imagine what visions I had. As it was, I had an encounter with a lamp post when I got back into Hoi An which rattled me for a while but now I'm back on the motorbike, going round Hanoi without too much worry but a great deal of concentration!


The temples were stunning. They are much older and smaller than those near Siem Reap and just a few but the undergrowth and trees have been roughly cleared so it has an amazing atmosphere. The temples were built using red bricks but it isn't known how the bricks were fired, whether the intricate carvings were done before construction or afterwards and nor do they know if mortar was used. If you go to Hoi An and have the time, I'd recommend the trip. Once there, it's low key, quiet, few visitors and, knowing a bit about the history of the temples, fascinating.


Cycling back, we past almost Constable like scenes of rural life, going along very local roads and paths but this is Vietnam so there was corn, tobacco, red chillis and bamboo drying on the side of the road in the sun.


Posted by langforda 05:58 Archived in Vietnam Tagged temples transport hoian Comments (0)

Hoi An on the Central Vietnam coast

Two visits: one in April and the other in early August


Hoi An seems to be on every tourist's list of Place to Visit in Vietnam! Known for its 24 hour tailoring service (any piece of clothing whether copied or from a picture, shoes and boots made too, any size, any colour) and it's old age charm and beautiful buildings, you can see why people come.

It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site and this has meant that the buildings have been preserved but it seems to be largely about retail opportunities. However, walking around, there's none of the hard sell "you buy from me" associated with places like Sapa but if you enter a tailor or shoemakers' shop, be prepared for a hard sell and if you agree to one item, they'll sure push for a second, or even a third! Ask others who've been and are happy where they had their clothes made and go there. If you're having some made to measure, you may as well get it made properly.


The river is the lifeblood of Hoi An. There are river taxis which chug up and down, carrying everything - motorbikes, bicycles, chickens, vegetables. The wet market is packed with stalls, fresh fish and seafood, vegetables, spices while the indoor market has more meat along with bras, tshirts, tobacco, betel, dried goods - everything! However, be aware that Vietnamese shopkeepers are very superstitious. Don't hover with the appearance of being on the verge of buying something unless you really are going to. It is believed that if the first customer of the day turns away and doesn't buy, they believe that person has brought them bad luck all day and business will be poor. Be the first person to buy something and you are rewarded with smiles; they may try and make you linger in the hope that the good luck you bring will attract other customers.


In April, with Brian, we took a little boat down the river to Cua Dai beach. It took about 1.5 hours but it was really good to see life from the water. We watched while a fisherman cast his net out over the river while his wife stood in the stern, holding the boat steady. He swung the net around and then cast it up and out; hauling it back in, the net was empty so he proceeded to repeat the process. What amazed me was their perfect balance and his wife's ability to keep the boat still.


Hoi An is also renown for its lantern making business and, in the evenings, women and children sit by the river with lit candles in what look like little popcorn boxes you get at the cinema, trying to sell them. They lower the lit candle in its holder down on to the river and it gently floats away. On the 15th day of each lunar month, the power is turned off around the river and the town reverts to candles and a pre electricity era. We haven't coincided our visits to Hoi An with this so hence why there are no photos but I'm sure the guidebooks will do a better job than me!


Earlier this month, the Cloughs and I went down to Hoi An specifically as Peter and Sam wanted two days of diving around the Cham Islands and Daisy and I could snorkel and do a cookery class. We had a great time with Dive Vietnam: it isn't the Barrief Reef but the whole day out was fun - not least watching a ferry leave the quay, bound for one of the far Cham Islands. It was filled, again, with live animals, bikes, veg but wasn't even loaded - a definite tilt. It set off, lurched away from the quay, ran into another boat (not that anyone was worried), had a push off from that and then set off across the sea!!


There is little or no concept of Heath and Safety in Vietnam. Workers on building sites wear flip flops, rarely have a hard hat, there are next to no safety rails and sometimes you look twice as someone has a safety harness. So it tickled me to see the rescue boat when we were diving/snorkelling - not quite the sort of safety boat using around watersports - but, it was OK, because the guy was wearing a hard hat.....!


Daisy and I had perhaps the best day of the two weeks at the Green Bamboo cooking school. Van took us to the market to buy all the ingredients and then we went back to her house. She is a fabulous cook, good company and hostess and it really felt you were just in her home and not a paying punter. The food was amazing and Daisy has already cooked most of the dishes again, back home in the UK, as Van also sends the recipes by email. www.greenbamboo-hoian.com She comes highly recommended!


Posted by langforda 05:40 Archived in Vietnam Tagged food family transport hoian Comments (0)

Vientiane, Laos for lunch.

For various reasons which I won't bore you with, I can only currently get a three month visa for Vietnam, which obviously needs renewing as this is where we presently live. For this renewal, I was told I had to physically leave the country and not have it renewed the usual way of paying a couple of $100 and all is done and dusted. So my friends at NLS found the cheapest flight to a foreign city on a certain day and it was Vientiane!


Read any blog or travel article and you can bet there will be a comment on how friendly the people are, how welcoming etc. I'm living in SE Asia and people I met are, generally, exactly that - warm, friendly, welcoming. OK, the tuktuk drivers in Vientiane were a bit pushy but, hey! I could have walked.....

First stop was the Patuxai arch, built in the 60s along the lines of the Arch de Triomphe with cash given to the Laotian goverment by the US to renew the airport runway. The plaque at the base of the arch actually describes it as a "monster of concrete"! The view from the middle is not particularly inspiring - I know I was only there for 7 hours but there didn't seem to be a "heart" to the city. Maybe the Arch is it? Certainly the avenue and gardens from one aspect didn't look too straight or was that just me and my lens??

But hidden away, there are some stunning temples - amazing colours, peaceful places. This temple was beside the Pha That Luong, which dominated in terms of size but was very understated compared to the colours of its little neighbour.

Wandering around the temple complex, suddenly there was a huge, but huge, reclining Buddha: clearly recently completed in concrete with piles of sand, rubbish and whatever else lying around.


- and then into the Pha That Luong temple, listed as one of THE sights to see in the city.


I met a young monk who hovered around the cloister (for want of a better description, albeit usually associated with a different religion!) and then I realised that he wanted to chat to me. His English was very good (how could I go to a country and not even say "thank you" - I was quite ashamed) and I thought he could explain why the buddhas in the neighbouring temple were all clothed in white or gold drapes: he couldn't. Not even when I showed him a photo of one. Very odd really!


I'm fascinated by the Mekong: the thought that this mighty river flows down from China through Laos, Cambodia and out into the South China Sea in Vietnam: that it is a political and environmental hot potato: that millions (I'm trying to find out exactly how many million) of people are dependant upon it for their livelihood; that it backs up into the Tonle Sap near Siem Reap in the rainy season. I had to go and walk beside it and, luckily for me, the Laotian Government have just completed a promenade along its banks. I was walking late afternoon, so probably a popular time for the Vientianians (spelling???!) and there were certainly plenty of people in the park next to it on the free, outdoor gym equipment but very few enjoying the walk and the Mekong. In fact, most of those walking were young monks in their bright robes.
Posted by langforda 08:53 Archived in Laos Tagged temples vientiane Comments (0)

Mai Chau: family, paddy fields, rain........

but planning to return.......


The Cloughs came and stayed and we wanted to show them a bit of rural Vietnam. Hanoi is a great city - historic, great buildings, wide boulevards with many trees, parks, lakes, fab food, crazy traffic and the Vietnamese people - but there are so many different facets to the country. We were going to head down to Hoi An for a few days: diving for Peter and Sam, snorkelling and cooking course for Daisy and me. We decided to go to Mai Chau as it would give a view of rural Vietnam (also Nick and I had been trying to get there for months and it all came together when the Cloughs were here).

Brickworks in the valley

We stayed in the Mai Chau lodge which is very comfortable with excellent "homestyle" cooking. We went out the first afternoon on borrowed bikes - none had brakes, Daisy's was a typical Vietnamese sit-up-and-beg-bike but at least they were of a reasonable size as the rest of us are all over 5'10".

it's a very green, verdant valley, 3.5 hours SW of Hanoi and perfect for the expat escape out of Hanoi but it really is an escape. Suddenly the air is clean, it's quiet and peaceful. It's rural life but no-one is phased by you cycling past nor is there someone at every turn calling out "you buy from me".


The second day, we had planned to do a 3 hour walk with a guide and then kayaking on the huge lake but a storm was brewing so we skipped the walk and headed for the open water. Admittedly the kayaking was a bit tame and Sam had to make do with his aunt in the boat with him (me) but lunch was in a local house. The White Thai ethnic group live in the valley and continue living according to their customs. The houses are built on stilts, animals live underneath and other activites too out of the weather. The house is made of huge logs and inside the floor is bamboo strips laid on the logs. The family had very little furniture - they have no need for it but they did have a TV, computer, fans (air con would be totally useless as no glass in the windows and huge gaps in the bamboo walls.


We were made to feel very welcome: it was all very relaxed and they expected us to sit around, just how they do, and enjoy time together. The wife made money by splitting and cutting bamboo into lengths which would be prepared for incense sticks.


On Sunday it rained and rained so we bought motorbike ponchos in the market and set off. For those of you readers of a certain age, you may remember the fashion fad (and fashion mistake) for ponchos in the 70s. For some reason, which I failed to understand at the time, my mum avoided the purchase of the aforementioned poncho even though I was desperate for one. Now I own two. Joys! But they are such wonderful macs on a motorbike and, believe me, when it rains here, it rains and you need all the protection when out on your bike as you can get. Oh! and we also have a double poncho for when Nick and I are both on the bike in the rain. How romantic is that......!


Posted by langforda 07:52 Archived in Vietnam Tagged family maichau Comments (0)

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