BIKEPOINT AUSTRALIA MAGAZINE
BikePoint, January 2011 issue (Australia).
Words – Matt Brogan
Photos – John Wilson
Video – David Mottola
A week on dirt bikes in Vietnam is certainly the best way to see this magic country.
As motoring writers you’d think the last thing we wanted to do with our holidays was spend even more time on two wheels. But as anyone who owns a bike well knows sacrificing the saddle is not something we riders take lightly. So when a group of mates suggested we spend a week on dirt bikes touring Vietnam, research began as to who we’d trust with our hard earned – and our skin.
There are an ever growing number of so-called organised tour groups popping up in Vietnam as the country seeks to cash in on it burgeoning tourist industry. Finding a reputable organisation in this motley mix can therefore be a little hit and miss, and given the state of the country’s infrastructure, tourists unaccustomed to such conditions don’t really need the added pressure of shonky operators hell-bent on extracting their every last penny.
Our research, as it turns out, was well worth the effort with Hanoi-based Offroad Vietnam providing not only an awesome experience, but everything they promised.
HONK IF YOU’RE IN HANOI
If you’ve never experienced the level of chaos that is Vietnamese traffic then brace yourself – this is madness. On average, 40 people a day die on Vietnam’s roads and after witnessing a fatal accident less than an hour after touching down it’s not hard to see why. As our tour operator later put it: “The traffic here is like a river, you just have to go with the flow.” If you don’t, you’re asking for trouble. He also reminded us that anything is fair game and that both sides of the road are yours for the taking.
Add to this excessive use of the horn. As Vietnam’s capital for just over 1000 years, Hanoi is bustling with people making it a pretty noisy holiday destination. Hanoi’s eight million-odd residents continually sound the horn to let fellow road users know they’re alongside, wish to pass or intend running the red light. It’s a strange system but, somehow, it works.
ENTER THE DRAGON
Eventually finding Offroad Vietnam’s office the day prior to setting off (the operator keen to adjust the bikes’ suspension to our various heights and weights), it wasn’t until the following morning we met our tour guide, Long.
Long was keen to impress that the English translation of his name is ‘Dragon’. He jokingly cautioned that abbreviating his native name to Lon meant ‘Pussy’ in Vietnamese, at that he was in no way a See You Next Tuesday.
We strapped our plastic wrapped packs to the bikes and like tearing off a band-aid set off balls and all into Hanoi’s rush hour traffic (which in reality is hard to distinguish from any other time of day) making our way north along the Red River Delta for the farmlands of Phuong Linh.
It wasn’t long into the trip that the weather turned sour. A steady persistent drizzle made the muddy clay roads speedway slick. By the time we’d commenced our ascent into the mountains for our home stay with the local tribes people (there are more than 50 different tribal groups and dozens of subgroups in Vietnam) we were all a pale damp shade of tan, and the bikes barely recognisable. Thankfully a small open fire in our host’s longhouse helped dry us out as the landlord toasted our health over some ‘happy water’. They should just call it rocket fuel.
SPRAWLING TEA FIELDS FOREVER
It might have been the residual blood in our happy water systems, the slippery roads or a combination of the two, but not five minutes after successfully clearing the slippery clay climb from our overnight stay, the first kiss of the tarmac occurred. A little dazed but otherwise uninjured, our two-wheeled teammate was quickly motoring again as we passed through sprawling tea fields and clusters of tiny villages for the hills of Yen Nhuan. Not before encountering some rugged terrain and confounding antics along the way.
Roads that were almost impassable, or for that matter recognisable, were frequented by scooters that in any other place on earth would have long been sent to the wrecker’s yard. Decrepit dump trucks struggling with near-vertical inclines blocked the road as drivers waited patiently for tortured engines to cool while two brave souls on dilapidated Russian Minsks cruised cigarette in mouth lugging massive loads of timber set like aircraft wings atop their aged bikes (check out the photo, it’s quite impressive).
This shale covered, clay-based pass also saw a number of riders take tumbles – myself almost included.
Winding down through many pitiable villages, school kids rushed on to the road keen to high five us on the way through. Bikes like the XR250 are regarded by Vietnamese kids in much the same way Aussie schoolboys would gawk at a Lamborghini.
It brings a grin to your face, but at the same time makes for tricky negotiation as any number of dogs and chickens follow suit.
By the end of a now dry day we’d managed to crush one of each – a dog and chicken that is.
I GOT YOU BA BE
After a couple of pretty hard days in the saddle, and covering impressive distances for dirt bikes, we cruised a comfortable 60km on proper road to Lake Ba Be. Passing through colourful street markets that literally occupy the entire road we eventually made it to a tiny village on the side of Vietnam’s most picturesque lake. Set in a national park, Ba Be is a beautiful fresh water lake flanked by limestone karsts and punctuated with gnarled trees clinging to petite rocky islets.
Despite it being the Vietnamese winter, we decided the water was warm enough for a swim before continuing downstream of the lake’s river to Dong Puong waterfalls and one of the best lunches of our trip.
The people here are warmly welcoming, genuinely delighted to see tourists (I hope this never changes) and put on an impressive spread of fish, vegetables and rice – and of course more happy water. The food on this tour is as amazing as the ride itself, you’ve only got to read the dozens of testimonials on the tour’s website.
Hand-cranking the boat’s engine to life a slow throb lulls our sleepy horde drift quietly back to the village. Across the serene waters we photograph some delicately silhouetted landscapes as the sun sets in a hazy sky, the result of rice husks being burnt further upstream. The tranquil setting also sees us capture some epic shots of the local folk hard at work balancing on slim canoes with nets cast for the evening’s catch.
The surrounding landscape of Lake Ba Be is a magical karstic maze of limestone monoliths, caves and dense forests made all the more spectacular by a wispy early morning fog. As we snake our way toward Cao Bang we encounter mountain passes that seem to never end, and were it not for their sketchy surface, would be a nirvana for sports-bike riders.
The views here are spectacular, postcard perfect at every turn, but you’ll need to keep your wits about you. The traffic is heavy with semi-trailers from time-to-time (they seem to travel in threes or fours) and remembering that both sides of the road are fair game, blind corners can be perilous.
Reaching our next home stay purposefully early, we deposit our luggage and head for the Chinese border via Chi Vien to the scenic vistas of Ban Gioc waterfall. It’s recommended you swim only on the Vietnamese side of the lake here and carry your passport at all times. Political disorder aside, the scenery is quite cathartic with crystal clear water tinged a pale turquoise from the surrounding limestone cliffs.
We head back via a different route crossing yet another precipitous mountain range. Once reaching the valley floor archetypal rural Vietnamese scenery stretches serenely between enormous karsts of white limestone which are occasionally stained red as if from blood by deposits of iron ore within the rock. At one stage, a cave through a sheer hill is utilised as a tunnel by the road making for a striking picture frame to the vista beyond.
Another mountain range sees us climb and then just as quickly descend back to our overnight stay, but not before recent road works claim another kiss of the ground — the combination of loose gravel on a downhill hairpin whilst riding into the setting sun an obviously bad combination.
SILENCE IS GOLDEN
Roads in deplorable conditions hug cliffs as we share the trek to Lang Son with buses and semi trailers that more often than not allowed no room for us to pass, let alone a vehicle coming the other way.
It’s like a shipping lane up here in that whoever has the most tonnage has right away – unless of course you on two wheels and feeling brave. A few scrapes (literally) with the passing traffic eventually saw us pass through tiny and quaint villages with houses constructed with everything from brick to bamboo. You barely cover 200m without seeing another person in Vietnam such is the density of its population.
Leaving mountain roads with potholes large enough to lose a lorry we found ourselves cruising along a flat ribbon of relatively well made road through an open and amazingly quiet valley. Pulling over for a Jimmy Riddle the enormity of the silence here was quite confounding. No animal noises, no farm machinery and just the occasional plane passing overhead. It’s one of those golden moments you take the time to cherish after being subjected to the rattle and hum of exhaust noise for a week.
Arriving in Lang Son at dusk the activity in town is quite demanding and comes as a rude reminder that tomorrow we’ll be back in Hanoi. The quiet times are over as car horns and engines fill our ears for what seems like weeks, the riding skills soon adapting back to the chaos of a larger city.
Enjoying dinner and a few pints (yes, they actually served locally brewed pints here – pretty good ones too) we enjoy the view over the lake. Lang Son is surrounded by some pretty spectacular scenery and if you get a chance, it’s highly recommended you visit the nearby Tam Tranh cave.
If we thought the roads to date were bad – and they were – then the main north-south highway linking the two ends of the country was by far the most insane.
Vaguely resembling an Australian B road, this heavily trafficked highway is made all the more interesting by intersections without signals, locals drying corn or selling bread by the road side and overtaking manoeuvres that have to be experience to be believed. This is our route back to base.
The pace isn’t quite as quick as in Australia, Vietnam having an 80km/h speed limit, but given the sheer volume of traffic and erratic driving, the pace seems very fast indeed.
Today’s ride saw us approach Hanoi in the late morning with a distinct and heavy brown haze recognisable almost an hour out of the busy city. A short roadside break saw us have a bit of sustenance before gathering our thoughts and again tackling the gauntlet into Hanoi.
Picking our way through the chaos we find ourselves crossing what I can only assume was the footpath of a rail bridge as our guide seeks to avoid the heaviest parts of Hanoi’s north. It’s an entertaining way to arrive and it seems the locals are on to it. The narrow crossing shared with countless numbers of pedestrians, scooters and hard drawn carriages.
Before we knew it, the scenery was familiar once more as we found ourselves landing quite abruptly at Offroad Vietnam‘s front door, and just like that, it was over.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but switching off the engine for the last time left me a little hollow. “It’s over,” I said to myself in disbelief. Minh and the crew started servicing the bikes again almost immediately as we gathered for one last photo together in that narrow Hanoi alley.
If a picture paints a thousand words our thousand k’ tour of north-east Vietnam and its postcard-a-minute vistas was nothing short of amazing. Two wheels is undoubtedly the best way to see any country, and with terrain such as we experienced, dirt bikes are almost the only feasible option here.
As one of the cheapest adventure holidays you could possibly wish for, seeing Vietnam on the back of a bike is an awesome way to appreciate the landscape, and with home stays putting you in touch with local culture, this tour group will have visitors not only leave with a helmet full of happy memories but a yen to return again and again.
Offroad Vietnam provides set motorcycle tours as well as a range of adventure packages and rental vehicles. Of the motorcycle tours available, guides will customise a route and pace as required catering to rider ability, geographic preference and prevailing conditions. Prices are inclusive of food, petrol, a guide and bike hire with drinks the only added extra (allow between $5 and $10 per day). Gear rental is available, though given the quality of the local product it’s highly recommended you bring your own.