Ha Giang and Cao Bang Provinces by Motorbike

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July 10th 2009
Published: February 17th 2010
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Mat: I didn't get around to writing about my trip to North Vietnam last July, but thought I would add something here. Better late than never?

Trace and I were heading from Scotland to Sydney for a equitation science conference (ISES), then to NZ for 10 days to catch up with everyone after being away for a couple of years.

I managed to get a stop-over in Bangkok for an extra £10. Dad had planned a holiday in Vietnam for around the same time, so I suggested that I take him on a ride to an area I had heard about but not visited in northern Vietnam. It was a really special time spending a solid couple of weeks together - something that you just don't do as 32 and 65 year olds.

Cao Bang and Ha Giang provinces are crazily good motorbike country. I've been to or ridden in most areas in Vietnam and Laos, but I would have to say these areas take the cake as far as the scenery, people, and pho is concerned.

A pretty harsh weather front hit us for a couple of days. This is a news extract after a day

He's always leaned to the left of the political spectrum...
where we rode for 8 hours through pouring rain: "The death toll from flooding and landslides in mountainous northern Vietnam has risen to at least 28, authorities have said. A total of six mountainous provinces were affected by flooding, resulting from over 30 centimetres of rainfall.  The storms destroyed nine bridges, flooded hundreds of houses and about 600 hectares (1,480 acres) of cropland." 

For a motorbike-oriented account and more photos, have a look here.

A few emails from Dad on his perspective of the ride:

Wednesday 1st July 2009

Mathew and I are now into our 4th day of exploring the very top of Viet Nam by motorcycle.  We've been staying in Cao Bang in the north east for a couple of days.  Yesterday we went about 85km east of here to some beautiful waterfalls and the Chinese border.  This was my first sight of China; it was strangely exciting to see it, and the buildings on the other side of the border with Chinese wording on their fronts. 

Cao Bang was severely devastated by the Chinese Red Army when it invaded Viet Nam in 1979 but withdrew with a seriously bloodied nose after 17 days.  (Which

I came across three guys cooking this dog. He had been killed and they were removing his fur at this stage. Shocking for us Westerners, but nothing worse than we do to other intelligent animals like pigs.
makes it 3-nil to Viet Nam in wars in the past century.)

We struck a long stretch of literally the most utterly appalling road in my experience on the way back to Cao Bang town yesterday (east of Tra Linh on the map), with the result that I was well and truly ready for bed last night!  We were travelling for 8 hours or so, with breaks totalling a couple of hours, just to complete this trip of 175km, a good part of it on excellent roads.  Some of this riding is pretty gruelling stuff for an old feller just short of 65.  But Mat is very complimentary and encouraging, and that keeps me going.  Of course, for him, being literally half my age, it's all pure pleasure.

The country up here is stupendously picturesque - a bit like Viet Nam's famous Halong Bay, except on land and even more magnificent. 

Perhaps my most enduring memory will be the beautiful HUGE smiles and waves from almost everyone along our route, many of them living in very impoverished little villages with a dreadfully pot-holed road through the middle.  I feel like a famous celebrity, such is this spontaneous  friendly and enthusiastic welcome.  Just about everywhere we stop our bikes are soon surrounded by an admiring crowd of men and boys; there's nothing remotely like such "big" bikes up here. 

I remain ashamed that our country allowed itself to be dragged into the naked mindless American aggression against these proud and good people - but relieved that - unlike most of our countrymen - I did my utmost at the time to stop it.

Friday 3rd July 2009

Finally beginning to grasp the ancient Vietnamese Zen koan, "Why do the chickens cross the road?"  The stupid little sods insist on doing this just in front of our motorcycles! 

Other obstacles and dangers on the road include: buffalo and cows, and their droppings, goats, pigs, peasants, children, dogs, ducks, dizzying unguarded drop-offs, potholes and ruts, tiny motorbikes with HUGE overhanging loads, gravel, rocks large and small, landslips, deep mud, unspeakably horrid roadworks, and various other things.

Wednesday 8th July 2009

Well, we made it - but only just on the final stretch from Xin Man to Sa Pa, where there were horrendous stretches of landslip, and a long long uphill stretch of half-finished roadworks which had turned to an absolute quagmire with mud up to about a foot deep; this was the single worst part of all the roads travelled, and for a time I despaired of us getting through.

We've done 1,400 Km, at an average speed of about 35 k.p.h.  I must pay sincere tribute to my son Mathew, who has been an inspiring example, always positive and cheerful, and supportive and encouraging when my ageing body flagged with the relentless hard riding. 

33 Km today back to Lao Cai town right on the Chinese border, after kicking back since arriving two days ago in Sa Pa, a French-built former hill station, now a tourist trap though a very nice one.  It's blessedly cool here (even a fire-place in our room for winter).  Our bikes will go back on the overnight train with us from Lao Cai to Ha Noi, and tomorrow we fly out.

Some enduring memories of our trip: the miraculous scenery, the hundreds of spontaneous smiles and waves all along the route, the inevitable admiration committees for our bikes - the local equivalent of Ferraris, the wonderful nourishing bowls of our staple food pho every day, the hideous bright green chicken
Hmong womanHmong womanHmong woman

Classic. Such a friendly woman.
carcase on the chopping-board in one pho booth, the evil rice-whiskey toasts offered in another, the many nightmarish stretches of hard riding over impossible surfaces, the relentless chaff-cutter "chufa-chufa-chufa" of my tiny but noble and nimble bike, and the marvellously colourful hill tribes women striding along all the roads.

Hope all is well where ever you are.


Additional photos below
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18th February 2010

Great stuff love to have been there. Hope u are all well and happy off on retreat next week love mark and Rosie
3rd November 2010

Enjoy reading your blog
Hello Matt, I am doing research for my Ha Giang, Meo Vac trip in January 2011 and stumbled onto your blog which i find very interesting and informative even though am not a rider :-). Your trip in Ha Giang and Cao Bang province sounds fantastic, you were really lucky to be able to do this with your dad. Thanks for sharing. Best, lien

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