Vietnam, You’re Standing In It by Richard Wolters, a travel writer for Adventure Motorcycling Handbook, now his own book about Vietnam. Adventure motorcycle travel in Vietnam. A story on how to go about it, what to expect, and what it would cost. Helpful hints of how you can realise your dream of travelling a foreign country with a minimum of fuss. Photos by Richard Wolters.
These are some pages of this book, sent to us from Richard Wolters.
“Passport Control” the sign read. A security guard ushered me to a booth with another sign that read “Foreigners”. The lady behind the small window asked me to step forward and hand her my passport. It had been a longer trip than I expected due to the stopover in Taipei, but at last, I had arrived in Hanoi. “Welcome to Vietnam” she said with a soft voice while placing a stamp in my passport. In the arrival hall, a man holding a yellow placard with my name on it grabbed my bag and walked over to a car that was waiting outside. “I will take you to hotel” he said.
During the one-hour trip to Hanoi, I tried to have a conversation with the driver but eventually gave up. I repeatedly received a “Yes” answer to every question, even when it did not fit the question. “How long does it take to drive to Hanoi?” “Yes.” “What is that over there?” “Yes.” “How far is the hotel from the motorcycle shop?” “Yes.”
With customs clearance being a mere formality, I was in the arrival hall only 20 minutes after landing. Among the many people holding signs, I noticed a man holding a yellow paper with my name printed on it. When booking, I was specially asked to look for a yellow paper and a printed name, as there are instances when other taxi drivers will just copy a name and stand in front of other drivers and try to steal their passengers. However, unless they have a quick print setup in the boot of the cab, they cannot make the printed yellow sign quickly enough to cause confusion.
As the saying goes, “there is no second chance for a first impression.” A similar saying could well be, “write things down quickly before you get used to them and no longer notice.” I asked some questions about the traffic, road signs, maximum speeds, etc., but the taxi driver did not seem to understand me. The traffic looked weird; people were going in all directions and were all over the road with their motorcycles.
Some small scooters carried loads for which you would need a Ute (Pick-Up) in Australia. I shared the road with thousands of scooters and small motorcycles. The scooters were mostly of the same type; they had large 17 or 18-inch wheels rather than the small wheels they have in Europe and Australia. Later on, I came to understand that small wheels were not of much use, due to the state of the roads in the rural areas.
It was a fairly warm day with a temperature in the low thirties. After checking in at the Camellia Hotel I did not want to waste any time. I wanted to explore, have a look around the area, and try to find the Off-Road Vietnam premises. As I had forgotten the document with the address, I tried to find the shop from memory as I had seen on a map and Google Earth page but failed to locate it.
Back at the hotel I studied the map, asked for instructions, and wrote down the address once again. I found the shop and noticed that I had walked straight past it just 30 minutes before.
The shop was located in a very narrow alleyway and measured about 3×4 meters. It was a double-story building with four bikes parked downstairs, and it had a tiny office upstairs. Anh Wu, the owner, no doubt was a smart operator, as his website generated a feeling that the operation was run by a multilevel organisation. The multilevel, in this case, was just a building consisting of one flight of internal stairs.
After having a chat with Anh Wu and settling my account and some more paperwork, I decided to spend the rest of my time discovering the sites of the old quarter.
The layout of Hanoi’s old quarter resembled other Asian cities where streets are named after the trades which can be found there, like Silversmith Street, Furniture Street, Bootmaker Street, etc. This, of course, would be easy if you were able to understand Vietnamese. Hai Ba Trung Street has absolutely no meaning if you have no knowledge of the language.
Minh had told us this morning that we would be going past the border of China.
I tried to form a picture in my mind of what it would look like. I figured it would be a crossroad with a sign, then maybe a border post in the distance, such as I had seen in Nepal 10 years before. I had ridden close to borders often and had always seen something to that effect. Occasionally there were large rivers, like the Danube, which separates Bulgaria and Romania, Hungary and Croatia, or a wide river separating Turkey and Greece; this time whether I would see the actual border remained to be seen.
We continued to ride northeast, and at long last entered a town. It was time for a rest and a drink, as the temperature must have been in the mid-thirties. The streets were full of people hauling goods in large boxes or wrapped in plastic.
Large trucks were parked along the main street; all in all, it was a very busy place.
We had entered the city of Lao Cai. After negotiating traffic, which reminded me of the outskirts of Hanoi, we reached a small grassy park along the side of a river. A parking attendant took care of the bikes, and the nearby shop had cold drinks. I purchased another Iced Tea in a half-litre bottle.
The river along the side of the park was maybe 40 meters wide; you could perhaps even throw a stone to the other side. Minh pointed to the building on the other side; “That’s China!” Well, I was surprised. I checked out the flags and signs across the river, and yes, it was China after all. How interesting!
The park was situated right next to the bridge leading across the river. Next, I noticed the large gates on either side. Minh told us that China had originally had a small gate, but Vietnam had built a new and bigger gate. After this, the Chinese built a bigger and more imposing one again. I wanted to walk on the bridge; perhaps I could walk halfway to the borderline, however as soon as I approached, a border guard walked over to tell me that I could not cross unless I had a Chinese Visa.
I noticed the big, solid trucks with the different number plates that I had seen on the road before; now I realised where they had come from. Later, back at the hotel, we loaded up and got ready for the day’s ride. Minh informed us about the short, (about 100 km), ride and added that it would be one of the most beautiful, as we would cross the Hoang Lien Son mountain range. This was the same range that we had to some extent covered the night before, mainly in the dark. Today, however, we would cross the highest pass in Vietnam in the light of day.
I had expected this area to be fairly cool, if not cold, especially due to the reasonably high altitude, however at 9 a.m., sweat was already dripping off my forehead, and I was glad to leave the parking area. We took the same road back that we had ridden last night in the dark, and stopped for a drink at Binh Lu. The small restaurant we arrived at was run by a mother and daughter who work, eat, and sleep in the same place. They slept on a raised section in the corner of the room, about 2.5 meters above the main floor of the dining area.
Observing the way in which food was prepared made me wonder how much these people knew about bacterial growth, use-by dates, storage procedures, and other issues. The preparation benches were dirty and so were the “kitchen” walls. Outside we found a stack of dirty dishes and chopsticks lying on the ground ready to be washed under a tap with cold water.
The ladies themselves were cleanly dressed without any dirty marks on their clothes. I looked at the sharp contrast while enjoying the excellent lunch.
Soon, we set off again leaving Binh Lu behind us. Just outside of town at the junction, we took the left turn to Sapa. The scenery was amazing. Tropical rain forests, deep cliffs with the occasional waterfall, and high mountain peaks surrounded us. I stopped several times to take it all in, do some filming, and take photographs. This was an amazingly beautiful country through which we were traversing. The road took us higher and higher and it was actually getting slightly cold, however, that was mainly due to me not being dressed for the occasion.
Up high, the road deteriorated to a dirt road. The GPS told me that we were at 2000 meters. Right at the top, we stopped for everyone to catch up and have a drink at a little shop. A few kilometres further, we stopped again, as the road switched back. From here there was a magnificent view over the whole area. We could see for 20 km, back to where we had come from that morning. From here, it was all the way down at a slow pace, due to road works and the general condition of the road.
Earlier, during the start of the trip, I had wondered about the name of the company I had booked this trip with. “Offroad Vietnam”. We had been riding “On” the road all the time; perhaps they had a different understanding of the words “Off-Road”. Today I had figured it out. On-road equals Off-road in this part of the world.
Before dinner, the master of the house sat with us to enjoy a customary drink of rice wine.
Chuc suc khoe! (chook-sa-koi-ah) he kept on saying, “Cheers!” and poured another small glass. Sometime later his wife joined us for the meal of rice and vegetables after first addressing her husband. I saw the smile on Minh’s face. “She warned him not to get drunk” he said.
All the tiredness was soon forgotten, or was it? I noticed after dinner there was very little energy left for us and everyone just wanted to lie down. How strong was that wine?!
Daily I had fired a few loaded questions at Minh to find out more about the Vietnamese way of life, the standard of living, mixes of peoples, etc. When we arrived at the house we had witnessed some men coming out of the bush, dragging thick, long, green poles of bamboo freshly cut from the forest. I had no idea what they were going to with them. Build houses? Make instruments or tools? Whatever! I was too tired to ask Minh to enquire for me. I just dozed off, like the others.
On entering Hanoi proper, we hit the jackpot. It was peak hour with curb-to-curb traffic. Light rain was still falling and it had gone dark. Minh was riding up front, mostly standing on the footpegs to make him more visible; I was mostly riding at the rear, as I would be easily spotted with my grey coloured helmet and double headlights. Most of the time I just looked for Callum’s blue helmet, as Paul was riding close in front of me. The occasional bus, hindering my view of Minh, accompanied the endless stream of scooters.
On one occasion, a bus was about to pull over to the side of the road. The driver did this very slowly, giving the scooter riders plenty of opportunities to get out of the way, however many people just stayed beside the bus until they were forced off the road and onto the footpath. This happened to me in one instance; I was slowed right down and pushed towards the curb, the only way to continue was to ride on the footpath but soon I came to a point that I had to stop altogether as I was now facing a crowd of people waiting at a bus stop. Meanwhile, Minh and the others were possibly 400- 500 meters further up the road, and way out of sight.
“Don’t worry, just continue,” I thought, and soon enough I caught up with them again.
Richard is planning a second book with little text and full-colour pictures in a larger format.
There are more articles about motorcycling in Vietnam and you can read more by following this link