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Motorbikes and mountains. Road tripping Northern Vietnam

When I decided to buy a motorcycle and ride the length of Vietnam, there were a few things to consider. One of which was that I didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle. Second was that being on a motorcycle in Vietnamese traffic is, what my friend described as, ‘life limiting’. I was willing to take on the challenge. Sure, occasionally the roads had pot holes big enough to fit a small car. Sure, the other people on the road drove as though they had no desire to preserve life. And sure, my bike broke down so often, that we would celebrate it every time it made it to the next destination. But you know what....being on the motorcycle on the Vietnamese open road was a life changing experience. Being a huge fan of Top Gear, I was super keen to take on the Hai Van Pass. A section of road between DaNang and Hue that had been popularised by the show on their visit some years back. But to tell you the truth, it was a bit of a let down. Sure it was beautiful. But it was sort of the poor mans cousin to some better routes.

Introducing the Ha Giang Loop. A 3-4 day ride in the far northern provinces of Vietnam. Most tourists when they venture north, head straight to Sapa to witness the picturesque rice terraces. But not us. We were boycotting the tourist trail and travelling clockwise from Ha Giang. We had been advised that the 350km loop would take at a minimum 4 days. Given we had been driving 250km each leg so far, we figured we would easily finish it in the four days. That was before we saw the scenery.

On the first day, we woke early. The excitement injecting us with an intense energy. We reached the gate of the UNESCO Global Geo-Park (only the second in Southeast Asia ) and we entered a beautiful mountain pass with a poetic name of Heaven’s Gate Pass. It was not long until the misty fog started enveloping the mountains. The rich green of the fields, the dawn light and the hazy fog made for a beautiful launch to our journey. We drove and stopped. Drove and stopped. I could now see why they estimated a longer time frame. Each turn provided another picturesque landscape. Another postcard worthy Vietnamese delight.

Weaving our way through the small villages, children would smile and wave. Elderly locals taking in the activity from their front step would reveal a huge toothless grin when we would wave and say ‘hello’ in Vietnamese.

Village life here is like taking step back in time. These agricultural communities wake with the sun and work the whole day growing vegetables and tending to their animals that, in turn, provide them with food to eat. There are no exceptions as the young and elderly also work hard. Roadside, you often see women aged 7 to 70 years carrying heavy loads of reeds on the back. The long term damage evident in the elderly which many of the villagers suffering from permanent distortion.

Village children who are not working must walk the 4-5km to the school. The older children tending to the safety of the younger. They always have time for a wave.

I started to wish that we had more time to spend in the north. There is just so much to take in. After a fuel stop and some lunch, we decided to take a detour and ride the 20km stretch to the China border.

The roads were steep, rough and at times questionable if they were roads, but they got us to the Chinese border gate. After some coercion of the officials, we were allowed to jump the barrier for some quick pictures before returning to our bikes and hitting the road again. While it might have been a brief stop, I was glad we did it. We had a few more hours of daylight so we decided to explore the Valley of the Rocks, and on route found a solo rider and invited him to join us in visiting the Palace and Valley of the Rocks. More the merrier!

After our fill of UNESCO sites we decided that we should head to Meovac and rest up for tomorrows adventure. Following the Ma Pi Leng pass, we came across treeless limestone corridor, barricading the Nho Que River.

In addition to that, an acquaintance of our new travel companion (who he had met 2 years prior in Australia) appeared at the roadside while we were taking pictures. Such a small world! So all four of is headed to Meovac to tell tales and share stories over a couple of beers and family dinner.

Saying farewell to our new friends, we headed to the mountains again being struck in awe a the endless rice terraces, valleys of green and mountain ranges that seem to go on forever. Like a backdrop of a movie set, you could see layer upon layer of mountain ranges. Each becoming more hazy in the distance. Stopping for photos was mandatory, and remembering to remain focused on the road a must. Roads in this section were rough. Sporadically changing from clean asphalt to rough rubble with no warning, it could easily take you off guard. But witnessing sites this beautiful has to have a levy. Our bikes stood up to the test, breaking down just the once. Luckily, within 100m of a mechanic.

Vietnamese people are incredible. With little to no equipment, even your local mum knows how to get your bike up and running again. I didn’t mind when my bike would malfunction. It was like a beacon for locals to come and chat with us. You got to watch them work their magic, piecing the puzzle of your bike back together again...and all for a $10. Being a tall persons, locals would often stop to take a photo with us and joke about how small they were next to us. It was lovely and always welcoming. We were never stopped too long with the mechanics as they knew we were going places.

We decided to stay at a smaller village called Tinh Tuk for our last night. In hindsight, not our best move. The only place to stay there was a supremely run down hotel that hosted not only us for the night, but a number of creepy crawlies. To say we were happy to wake up at dawn for the ride back to Hanoi, would be an understatement. Leaving the mountain ranges behind us, the road to Hanoi was no challenge at all. Ha Giang loop had made me smile like never before and given me an adventure worthy of a global nomad!

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