Hanoi >> Ba Be National park >> Bao Lac >> Meo Vac >> Dong Van >> Yen Minh >> Quan Ba >> Ha Giang >> Hanoi
After some deliberation we decided to go with a friend's recommendation to visit the northern mountains instead of Sapa in the northwest, which has become a tourist attraction appealing to large tour groups. We read a detailed online blog in the Vietnam Coracle that also inspired our Tonkinese mountain route.
Before we left Hanoi for our week in the north we made some motorbike adverts to display in backpacker hostels in the hope of generating some interest for when we returned to Hanoi. We quickly realised there was a lot of competition from other travellers who had also completed the route from Ho Chi Minh and were also looking to sell their bikes. Nevertheless we optimistically posted our adverts in lieu of our return.
We departed Hanoi early to start the 220km route north to Ba Be National Park, stopping in a small town for lunch along the way where we tried the Vietnamese dish - Banh Xeo (a crispy rice crepe filled with pork, shrimps and bean sprouts with optional lettuce
and herbs encased in rice paper before dipping in nuoc cham - similar to sweet chilli sauce).
We continued down the rural roads, frequently passing houses with thin wooden panels drying outside in the sun. As we swept around one corner we quickly approached a brood of chickens loitering in the middle of the road. We honked our horn in the hope that they would disperse but unfortunately one of them ran in the opposite direction - towards the bike! It all happened so quickly we didn't have any time to stop and ended up running the poor chicken over...
As we approached the national park the gradient increased rapidly as we snaked up the set of switchback roads and the bike started to struggle with the weight of two people plus our rucksacks. We crawled slowly to the peak in 1st gear and miraculously made it to the entrance of the national park without breaking down. We stopped to give the bike a rest and coincidently a park ranger appeared and recommended us his brother's Homestay, 9km away. We entered the park and rode deep into the jungle down a dicey crumbling pathway. As we turned one
corner we were suddenly struck by the spectacular panoramic view of Ba Be lake from the hilltop and proceeded to descend in to Pac Ngoi village, seen in the distance.
We managed to find the Homestay and were welcomed in by the family who served us green tea on their wooden balcony. Whilst the family were cooking dinner, we were kept entertained by their five year old daughter. She was fun and had endless energy; she sang Vietnamese songs and had us copy her dance routines. Giant bugs, attracted to the light, started landing around us. One in particular looked like a flying frog, which was probably just a large species of cricket... we hastily went to bed under the safety of a mosqutio net.
The following morning the family provided us with a basic bamboo fishing rod, a bag of shrimps as bait and a large container (to put the fish in, if we were to catch any!) We finally had the opportunity to try on one of the Vietnamese conical straw hats, lent to us by the family. Although I did look like little bo peep, it was very effective at providing shade from the sun.
After watching a quick crash course in fishing on YouTube, and asking the family to take some photos of us, we headed along the concrete irrigation path deep into the two metre high sweetcorn crop in search of the lake. We reached the water's edge and whilst looking for a suitable spot to fish we spotted a small grey and brown snake viciously devouring a frog. After that we were both very cautious about where we stepped after the chilling reminder that many snakes inhabited the national park, including king cobras - though these are rarely seen.
Unable to find a good land spot from which to fish, we boarded a boat moored up at the side of the lake and began fishing from its stern. Despite casting the rod in various positions we still didnt have any success. Returning empty handed really made us appreciate the meals they served along with the constant struggle they must have to supply themselves with food.
After saying goodbye to the family we set off early for Bao Lac, 132km away. A journey that should have taken us 3 hours ended up taking 9 due to the roads being in such
a terrible state. We hadn't anticipated the slow pace of the journey so ended up running out of water during the midday heat. To make things worse the bike overheated and wouldn't start so we had to roll it downhill to the nearest tribal village. We asked them for bottled water but all they could offer us was rice wine (ruou can in Vietnamese) alcohol as an alternative, which wasn't particularly appealing in the heat. Luckily, after a rest, the bike came to life again and we continued along the rocky path, averaging only 15km per hour and slowly getting desperate for water.
No towns were showing up on our map but thankfully the next hill tribe village had a shop that sold bottled water. They invited us in and offered us to join them for lunch consisting of boiled eggs as well as a very bitter North Vietnamese green tea to drink. Like the other hill tribes they also offered us some of their home brewed rice wine. Having just eaten with them we couldn't refuse and so knocked back some toxic shots, which left us breathing like dragons.
The roads were beginning to incline rapidly and
at some points it was so steep even 1st gear struggled meaning our only option was to walk. There were many rice paddies cascading in levels down the steep mountainside. We stopped many times to admire the views of the lush green mountains. During a particularly bad stretch of road, we passed the only westerner we had seen all day. His wheel had been punctured and he had come flying off his bike at 40km an hour injuring his shoulder so was heading back to Hanoi to find treatment. We both exchanged accounts of the road up ahead, both accounts being as dreadful as each other. We persistantly carried on and eventually made it to a decent stretch of road and reached Bao Lac just before dusk. As we pulled up at the guesthouse we met another traveller from New York, who joined us for dinner. He turned out to be friends with the injured man we had met en route, but they had strangely decided to part ways.
On the 90km stretch from Bao Lac to Meo Vac we saw hill tribe women dressed in their brightly coloured hand woven skirts. This stretch of the journey was more
mountainous than the previous day. Flourishing peaks rolled into the distance as far as the eye could see. The engine overheated and cut out halfway up a mountain road. We cooled the engine by sprinkling it with nearby flowing spring water and rested the bike shortly. With that we continued on through the deep valleys with snaking muddy rivers running through their troughs. In the distance we could see the sky suffused with dark gloomy clouds. Our only option was to head into the storm in the hope that it passed quickly. We arrived in Meo Vac with torrential rain plummeting down on us. Wet and cold we ran inside the first hotel we spotted to be told we were unauthorised to be there without a special permit. After refusing to let us check in until we obtained one from the police, we quickly left and managed to convince a guesthouse down the road to let us stay there without a permit in return for a 50000VND bribe the following morning, about £1.50.
It was 66km from Meo Vac to Yen Minh via Dong Van, one the highest points in Vietnam, and only a few kilometres from the Chinese
border. The Dong Van Karst Plateau covers the four districts of Quan Ba, Yen Minh, Meo Vac and Dong Van. These limestone karst formations have an altitude ranging from 1,000m to 1,600m, often resulting in white clouds floating in between the peaks. It had rained heavily the previous night causing powerful rivers to flow down the sides of the mountain. We saw one local man opportunistically washing his bike in the water as well as many people using it to bathe and wash their clothes in. We had to be cautious of landslides after the recent rainfall, as many fallen rocks were visible on parts of the road. A local boy, riding his motorbike in front of us, spotted a snake in the road and quickly stopped. He picked up a piece of plastic from the roadside and secured the snake against the floor to then precariously lift it just behind the head and jumped on his bike with it dangling from the handle bars as it curled its body in resistance (check out the video of it below!)
This wasn't the last animal run-in of the day. When we arrived in Yen Minh we saw two local men
singeing the hairs of a dead dog at the side of the road in preparation for dinner. After finding a hotel to check in to that waived our lack of permit we went across the road to a restaurant for lunch. Whilst waiting for our food to arrive, two men paraded through the restaurant with the singed dog from before on a large platter. Five minutes later our food arrived and we felt obliged to check our order of chicken hadn't been mistaken for dog!
Throughout, water buffalo and goats would idly stroll the banks and bathe in the mountain streams whilist being minded by their owners. Families, including children, would traipse up the gruelling mountainside with bundles of leaf crops strapped to their backs. The hill tribes live a rural lifestyle relying on the land to survive. Most of the tribes speak their own dialect and the women still dress traditionally, however most of the men don western-style clothes. In more recent years there has been some outside influence from the introduction of wifi, mobile phones and motorbikes for transport, bringing neighbouring villages closer together.
We travelled through Quan Ba passing the Fairy Bosom mountains in Tan
Son town. We stopped for a quick break at a roadside water melon stall. A sweet old lady served us some juicy water melon whilst her grandchildren curiously stared at us.
Having been on the road for 7 nights with only a small backpack each, we had run out of clean clothes and were in desperate need of a warm shower and a clean bed. We left early and successfully completed the 280km trip back to Hanoi just before sunset.
Having ridden the length of the country and the northern border loop, 17 days and 1800km later we felt a massive sense of achievement as we crossed the bridge in to Hanoi. We couldn't resist stopping to take a celebratory victory photo!
After spray painting the bike and spending a couple of days looking for a buyer, we finally sold it to a fellow traveller planning to do our trip in reverse and ride it south to Ho Chi Minh City.
Whilst driving around trying to sell the bike, Will spotted Kate and Arthur - a couple we had met in the Indian jungle. We had planned to visit a magic cafe (Dai Vernon Magic Cafe)
followed by a magic performance that evening so arranged to go together. Will had been there two nights prior so led the way. We joined people from the cafe to see the world famous Japanese stage illusion show, Ao Thuat, who had just returned from Vegas. The combination of illusions and expressive Japanese style dancing made for an impressive production.
We departed Hanoi in a taxi to the airport the next day joined by Arthur and Kate who were on the same flight as us to Bangkok, by complete coincidence!
Next stop: Northern Thailand
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Dare 2 travel: A Vietnamese man catching a snake: https://www.claritycounsellingnorthernbeaches.com
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