72-Year Old Rider Riding Grand Loop by John Stone who rode Vietnam in 16 days covering the Grand Loop at the age of 72!
On arrival to start our adventure we were introduced to our little 160 Hondas. I asked do we not have any panniers no says, Andrew, we tell you on the web to bring suitable bags. Missed that. Well, my suitable bag was a bloody great case containing boots helmet, and three weeks clothing no chance. So, the first task. Up the road to ‘Ho Chy Min Square’ and purchase a suitable bag, that done it was packed with as much as I could get in. Including two underpants and a scraper, Allan and I have used these for years! The scraper that is!
Luggage strapped on and our guide for the 16 days is a Vietnamese known as Ken, we also learn that Anh Wu is known as Andrew.
Ken is 26 tells us he has been married for 6 weeks. Out into the mayhem of ‘Hanoi’ square with our guide upfront our adventure starts. We soon discover do not give way, do not remember the highway code and most essentially keep your finger on the horn and maintain your line, then it all works and everybody gets around.
A few miles out of the city we dived off down a rough lane out of the heavy traffic to ride along the banks of the Red River following this we were treated to our first sample of the real people as here it was full of various workshops making everything out of bamboo from woven panels for hut walls to split bamboo for floors. Some had even ventured into furniture. The river was a hive of activity with many boats being loaded with river bed gravel by woven bamboo buckets, loaded till the only thing you saw was an outline of a submerged deck with the captain stood up on a platform cranking a long shaft outboard to steer it on its way. We followed the river to ‘Hoa Binh’ then rode through the paddy fields and country tribal villages to ‘Mai Chau’
This our first night on the trip was in a posh Homestay (Vietnam B&B)
Nice cold beer. Thanks to Ken, he also did all the ordering of the many dishes, good grub and ON A TABLE WITH CHAIRS yep could tell this was a tourist place.
We were invited by some French bus tourists to see and partake in the Thai dance they had booked. Thank you but we were quite happy to be out enjoying our beers, but could still see the dances. One consisted of poles forming grid-like noughts and Crosses that kept opening and closing as the smooth-skinned men rhythmically moved the poles. Would not like to get my ankles rapped by the heavy bamboo poles. The girls must have been light on their feet. 8.30pm and very little, light so off to bed in our BIG bedroom must have been 12m x 10m one of us each side inside our mosi nets.
Fortunately, I had brought a headlight to read by. Unlike my mate, I am an avid reader. We climbed through our nets to realise most of the holiday was going to be on roll-out mattresses no more than an inch thick. Woo, not good! WRONG
Slept like a log, nothing to be said for all this memory foam and interior springing. In fact over the holiday it got to Allan it was like a disease he could sleep from 8.30 in the evening until 8 in the morning with a few extra kips in-between if he had half a chance. Anyway, come early morning at cock crow I could watch the cats, dogs, and chickens through the bamboo floor. Up to a breakfast of Eggs followed by a Banana Omelette, tasted good. After a quick look around the village, weavers, carvers, etc it mounted up and continue our way on the road travelling through glorious landscapes, the paddy fields giving dramatic pictures as they are layered up a mountain. This meant the camera was out almost after every corner. (Shame it later gave up, thankfully Allan gave me his to use).
Our lunch stop was at ‘Gia Phu’ where a great selection of dishes topped up our calories. Onwards we cross the Da River by ferry riding through paddy fields and on up through sugar cane progressively gaining height with the hills getting steeper travelling through Tribal villages with Black potbellied pigs, hens with broods of chicks, and ducks with their ducklings this all part of the village roads traffic to our overnight stop in ‘Son La’. It seems a thing of ‘Ho Chi Minh’ that if you get a reasonable size town it explodes its tiny rough inroads to multi carriageways.
However do not think because it’s a dual or more carriage its users are on the correct side, no chance they just go the quickest way. It keeps you very awake I can tell you. Oh, and one other thing, size takes preference. Be it Truck or Water Buffalo.
Good food and beer awaited us at the Sun Rise Hotel. Again good nights kip on the floor, well a bed with a floor. A plentiful breakfast of Noodles with eggs dropped in prepared us for the day.
Ken having checked the bikes over, as he did every morning before we appeared. We leave ‘Son La’ and set off still climbing upwards to our lunch stop at ‘Tuan Giao’ It had taken Ken very little time to realise these old duffers knew how to ride, possibly better than him. Over the next days, it was evident that Ken was taking us on tracks that even he had barely used.
At one time ringing Andrew to get the OK explaining how experienced we were and having got the go-ahead he took us along disused roads that were magic. In fact, from day two Ken found as many off-road or rarely-used roads as possible but still tying in with his planned accommodation.
The girls (Wives) would have fit eating at many of the stops, but when your in with the Tribes you do not get Vacuums and polish. But you do get really tasty food and lots of it. And we thinking we could lose a bit of weight in Vietnam, no chance with the food as tasty and plentiful as this. We ride superb old tracks right into the Mountains staying at ‘Tuan Giao’. Yep same thing Beers and grub and a sort of shower but it did wash off the days’ dirt.
We are now riding through isolated communities over ‘Sa Tong’ pass with much road works. Thank goodness for the mask given to me prior to coming proved invaluable. At times when the dust was deep if a truck went by you just had to stop as it was like a dense fog. Allan was OK he was in his Goldfish bowl locked away from the elements. Allan was full of concentration on a particularly rough part of the road works with a bloody great truck when bugga the bike stopped. Got it going again but never really did find out why it stopped other than his fear. And that I could understand. Now in the ‘Fansipan Mountain Range’ the terrain is Vast, Remote, and Beautiful.
The trip continued over the highest Mountain in Vietnam @ 3142m then a short ride into the Touristy town of ‘Sa Pa’ It is here we have a luxurious hotel the ‘Cat Cat’. A stay of two days with a little trekking to the first waterfall same name as our hotel, seeing Ken run up the hill and we knackered puffing up at the rear we told him we come to ride bikes Ken does not go bloody walking. The second day Ken took us out on the bikes to a pure trials section about 2 miles long. That kept us quiet for at least 5 minutes so he tagged on a trek at the end. The little bugga and yes it did keep us quiet couldn’t talk for operating our g-asperators!! And dodging the pretty hawkers at the waterfall they followed us for it seemed miles, grinning all the time.
Sa Pa is a very touristy place with big markets and all the touristy things like bike hire, trekking guides, bus tours, and masseurs from foot to the male normal? to a (they tell) me satisfying grey, to a very risky brown! Don’t ask! Whatever you are thinking you are probably right!!
Leaving ‘Sa Pa’ it’s a good ride up past the Chinese border, the scenery getting more and more beautiful with vast pointed mountains and deep valleys, every now and again Ken would stop and show us village activities, or at least that was his excuse we think he was lost as we certainly had some entertaining rides. Right up our street ‘fabulous’.
On to the ‘Bac Ha’ Market, it was here we learned the value of the Water Buffalo (The Vietnamese Tractor) a good young one is upwards of $800. I purchased an Embroidery picture at considerably less, which Jackie my wife adores. We stopped at ‘Quang-Binh’ for lunch. It is one of these strange places where you ride in on a track that expands to a massive dual carriage through the town then shrinks back onto a dirt track as you leave. Today was very warm and with the full table of good food, it led to a kip by the road causing quite a crowd to circle us all quietly observing these large sleeping Westerners. Ken was quite amused.
We arrived at our homestay in the early afternoon as Ken had organised a boat ride with the owner who had a goods transport boat. We carried our nursery chairs (used by everyone the people being so small) to the boat and had a two-hour trip on the freshwater lake made by a dam. You have to look at our photos to appreciate the mystery of these waters here the sky and the water met as one with a wonderful effect.
‘Thac Ba’ is Vietnam’s largest reservoir and has made 1,300 islands. On return to the homestay being so close to the water, it was a quick check on the most nets, then a wash down under the dribbling shower to sit down with the family to a mysterious meal that was fab. We had to get a couple of chairs while they all sat crossed legs on the floor. Knees ached just looking at them.
The morning was a little warmer down here in the low lands not that we really felt cold high up just a nip in the air, this soon warmed up and the zippers came down as the smiles increased. Now today it was an unforgettable ride (we would call it off-road) they class it as a road with pigs, chickens, step-through, bicycles, water buffalo, and the odd large truck from the Chinese border trying to evade the police searching his load. BRILLIANT. Ken was chuffed to bits as we did it in an hour better than any others he has taken and he was stopping to waste time. Wonderful day.
In our Homestay we met a couple of fellow adventurers a couple making their way to Australia from Germany. The chap was a Czech-born Ozzi his brave partner being German they were coping but he said they had stayed off the real bad roads due to the girl. We bumped into these two later on at a further Homestay I think, at ‘Nan Khan’.
Where we stayed in a Smithy’s the people brought all sorts of tools in for sharpening, reshaping, and repair. We all felt a little sorry for the monkey left by a guide that was permanently tied up in the yard. The girl wanted to buy it to free it. Like her man said it had never known freedom so it would die.
Still, it was not used as food. YET.
Another superb day led us to our village Homestay on ‘Ba Be’ Lake a trip was organised and we had a relaxing 4+ hours of world-class visual stimulation with a waterfall and a Heritage Bat Cave thrown in, another captivating day finishing up with a great meal with the family of the house.
Day 11 a ride through glorious razor peaked mountains and deep rice cropped valleys, stopping to admire a large Concrete cast carving to the people of Vietnam fronted by a golden statue of ‘Ho Chi Minh’.
The road was so dusty we stopped at a Xe May (Garage) to have the bikes washed. I spotted a front pipe I need for my Hond 70 Cub. Ken asked out with the cutter and onto my bike, job done great and free.
The only trouble is due to a later breakdown of my machine it’s still in Vietnam. BUGGER
A posh Touristy Hotel again in ‘Cao Bang’ but it was nice to have a good wash and shave and sort out the luggage. Seems that the dirty shirt is going to have to last one more day. Unable to wash things through as the humidity will not allow them to dry overnight. Never mind Allan and I had got used to our smells as they had crept upon us. Ken kept his distance. Though he did have a couple of my shirts that had been given to me by my niece as rags and I had taken them to throw away after use. Delighted he was.
Our ride today took us along the Chinese border where after lunch we visited ‘Ban Gioc’ a most fantastic waterfall. Must have been all of a half-mile wide if not more than 30m high. It certainly carried enough water to make it spectacular.
The Chinese side was well developed with bars and Hotels but our side was a little seedy. Saw a crowd on various bikes heading out as we pulled in for lunch. This was the one place we had to submit our passports prior to walking to the falls. Purchased a present for my grandson and a necklace for Jackie. Tribal but different.
We rode back almost to our starting point but the road chosen by Ken was superb he really had us sussed by now and kept taking us to better and better locations.
Our Home Stay was at ‘Quang Uyen’ our host had set a cauldron of water on the fire and later with the help of a plastic bin and ladle we stood in an alloy bowl to chuck the water over ourselves in a wash, it was good actually, at least better than the local we had watched having a wash and shampoo down in the river, (Had some lather like to know what shampoo) water looked really chilly. We noted in the morning the fire used to warm the water was not wasted as the family pups and dogs had slept in the warm ashes. Our farmer host was a beauty out with the rice wine and joined us in a game of spoof which we had taught Ken a few evenings earlier.
Ken is a bit of a gambler was keen to play every night. Fortunately, it was only for bottle tops. Considering Allan and I had to empty enough bottles of beer to play each night the more that joined in the happier we were. Tonight was a riot as we needed 12 tops and we had to drink the rice wine as well. Slept like babies we did.
We are still in the far North of Vietnam we again make a visit to the Chinese Border as it is home to a very big market. Ken had a ball buying many, many scandalous things for his new wife. Pulling Ken’s leg about all his wife’s gifts he explains that he may find it hard to ride being at 12 o’clock thinking of her. We jealously sympathised but said we were quite happy to be on UK time at 6 o’clock anything other would be a miracle.
Allan and I love shopping, I don’t think. So we made off and met up with the group of 13 riders of various bikes seen the day before being escorted by several guides and a luggage support bus. Happen they were all OZy’s. Not our way at all but they seemed to be enjoying themselves and it passed an hour. Good on them. I did purchase a very nice pair of leather casual shoes at an excellent price. While wandering around we did not like the authoritarian actions of the Chinese border police against a few parked bikes and cars it seemed unnecessarily severe. Certainly would not like to get on the wrong side of them.
When Ken declared himself in a ride-able state we rode parallel to the border for some miles then bearing right on to a deserted road through high pointed mountains making our way our to the town of ‘Lang Son’. Ken promised a walk that turned into a route march to find some cold beers. Allan was Mesmerised by our café décor it was full of Bonsai Trees. He arranged with Ken to revisit in the morning so he could catalogue them by a camera. Just as well as the ambiance of the evening, if you catch my drift, had got to me and I had left my jacket there.
Never even missed it, till they gave it back to me.
Ken apologised for day 13 as it meant a long ride on the main road to ‘Ha Long Bay’ on starting out we had no idea how long and uncomfortable it would turn out. After about 90k my bike slowly ran to a stop no rattles no nothing. Initially, I thought out of juice. No luck. Spark, yep that was OK. Now being known for stopping and taking photos of any and everything the other two did not miss me initially so by the time they had realised and came back I had removed the valve cap and confirmed our worst fears, Cam Chain.
As ‘Xe May’s’ (Garages), are everywhere it did not take long to find one and confirm that the cam chain had skipped its drive. Ken contacted Andrew (Anh Wu) back at base and Andrew to save our holiday time asked if I could ride behind Ken to Hay Long. We reorganised the luggage with much of it piled up behind Allan who had now transferred to Ken 125 giving the 160 for us two up with some luggage.
What a trip, the traffic was horrendous with 24 wheelers bombing down the centre of the road and cars two abreast trying to overtake. My knees giving me jip and Ken’s wedding tackle being ruined up on the tank he was most concerned about, would he ever have his twelve o’clock again?. I told him the intimate ride with him had at least got me to half-past six!
After a number of stops to ease my legs and for Ken to get life back to essential parts we arrived at our Hotel. Andrew requested to speak to me and requested that I return to ‘Hanoi’ via a coach. Having experienced the manic mayhem main road on our ride through coal blackened factory type areas to ‘Hay Long’ the thought of a safe ride back was quite appealing. I confirmed my agreement to a comfortable coach ride.
We went out for a meal on the waterside, Allan having his favourite Langoustines. It was while wandering around in a wood carver’s shop I fell for a carving. Spent all night thinking can I afford it, how do I get it home, etc. Well, Ken did a bit of barter and now I had a heavy lump of wood to get back to the UK.
The next two days with one night on a Junk in Ha Long Bay is memorable. Very touristy but you must do it. The bay is a unique place that should be classed as a natural wonder of the World.
James Bond can not be wrong, can he?
Day sixteen of our trip on landing from our Junk and Allan and Ken took themselves off to ride back to ‘Hanoi’ and I made my way with newfound friends from the Junk to the coach and back to base.
The three of us Ken, Allan, and I had one final meal together on the streets of Hanoi and made our farewells.
An unforgettable time that I recommend to all adventurers.
Don’t think about it, do it. Vietnam is quickly becoming westernised and the experience we had will soon be no more.
Where can you get fully inclusive for these prices? It’s a steal.
Our guide looked after us, we gave him the cash for the beers and he did the rest. It worked.
At first, we thought the little bike no good. Take it from us they are perfect for the job. Any downside? Yes, we had to come home. At 72 I may not go back but a little of my spirit remains with these wonderful people.
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