Around here life seems to take place within 10 feet of the road. You wouldn’t think you would see a whole lot of activity or understand much about Vietnamese life and culture by zipping through a place on a motorcycle. But you’d be surprised by what you see and have time to take in when you’re always moving slower than 40 mph. A young man with a bunch of barley, smacking it against a trough to winnow out the seeds – a baby, naked as the recent day he was born, getting a bath in a plastic tub under a willow tree – a little girl splayed out atop a thousand pound water buffalo. Something about being on the motorcycle made us feel like we were a part of the place, that we were out in it and could see it all in a fresh, new way.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a tightly-knotted ball of life, a place Communist only in name as everyone is on the move here and there from sunup, finding a way to get a leg up and make a buck. We spent a couple days weaving through the streets, getting turned around as they went diagonal or ended early or turned back on themselves like a confused cartoon plumbing system. We arranged a motorcycle – more of a motorbike, really – and the next morning at 8:30 (which, we were informed, should be after the morning rush hour but sufficiently before the noon rush hour) we were pulling away from the rental shop, stopping a block down the road to buy a liter of gas sold in an old water bottle from a woman on the side of the road (at twice the normal price, of course – you have to respect the universal principles of supply and demand in a place like this). Soon we were pulling onto the highway with no real idea of what lie ahead but 10 days and a lot of un-touristed towns. That first day we rode about 200 km, which on the windy roads and at Vietnam speeds equates to almost five hours in the saddle. As with driving a car you’re unfamiliar with, getting used to the feel and the quirks of a new motorbike is something that always has to take place on the first day. While the engine of our Honda was only 125cc, it was significantly bigger and heavier than our previous bikes. That combined with a larger, full gas tank, two loaded down saddlebags, a backpack and two people made for a decent amount of weight that translated into a bit of a balancing act to get it all rolling. But it’s amazing how quickly it becomes second nature – how soon the bike begins to feel like an extension of yourself. And just like learning the new bike, you have to learn lessons – like my lesson that even if your sleeves are down, if the wind is blowing them up just a bit, leaving your wrists and hands exposed to the sun’s full fury for five hours straight, they will end up looking like a half-cooked steak. So when we rolled into Bac Kan I decided to take care of both problems in one stop.
I don’t think she was actually a seamstress of clothing – a fact she tried to make clear to me by pointing between her sewing machine and the sets of drapes nearby. She didn’t have any buttons, I imagined her saying as she chattered at me in Vietnamese – she only used the sewing machine for household textiles, and then probably not often. But she relented when I just kept giving her a big, dumb smile and quickly snipped the current buttons from my shirt cuffs, I with one arm through a sleeve to mark their new destination. I gave her the shirt and was distracted by something for about 40 seconds before she tapped me on the shoulder and handed my shirt back to me – finished. Boom – tighter cuffs. Done. My next task was a bit more odd but she didn’t even bat an eyelash as I pulled out my pair of ladies’ extra large pleather gloves and drew lines with a pen just past all the second knuckles. Kaitlin fumbled for a minute with the largest pair of scissors I’ve ever seen (probably because they were right handed scissors) before our little friend took them away snipped ten times and they too were done. So now I was ready – with my button up shirt with the tight cuffs and my black pleather cut-off gloves I struck that fine balance that exists between Hell’s Angel and PeeWee Herman. Vietnam can’t handle all this style.
Day 2 was shorter – just 84km – and grew more beautiful the closer we got to our goal for the night, Ba Be Lake. The lake is sort of a magical place and its magical qualities are amplified in a thick afternoon rain. The mountains covered with jungle seem to plunge down at the lake at sharp angles from both sides creating steeply acute V’s. Then behind those V’s there are more V’s in a more toned down version of green, then more V’s behind those turning to gray. When the rain stops the fog begins to roll back and everything becomes clear and what you thought was a man standing out in the middle of the lake turns out to in fact be a man standing out in the middle of the lake, perched on a thin finger of muddy beach, dipping a net in and out of the water, hoping to bring in something plump and juicy to eat on his rice for dinner. The road that winds around the oddly-shaped lake is tight and seems like it could be overtaken by jungle any day now. Our motorbike threatened to die in anything but first gear as we approached the steep sections of road that climb up and up to lookouts and then dive back down towards to water, wrapping around tight corners. We found a little guest house with a deck overlooking the lake where we spent the afternoon staying out of the rain, appreciating the lake in its green and gray beauty. Another fisherman came by, lifting his long paddle high above his head before slapping it down against the water. He did this over and over again, setting his boat on a straight course along some unseen fishing net below, slowly and silently raising the paddle high into the air before driving it flat and fast down at the rippled water, almost recovered from the previous assault. Raise, slap – push on. Raise, slap. Push on. Actually come to think of it we never saw him pull in the fishing net, only assuming it was there. Perhaps there was no net at all and he was just the local simpleton, slapping the water because he liked the sound.
The next day we rode about 170km and it was wet. When it wasn’t pouring it was drizzling. And when it wasn’t drizzling the sun peeked out and we felt we were in an enchanted land. The sun that just two days before was frying our skin, making us sweat, blinding us and baking us as it ricocheted from the tarmac was now a welcomed joy, warming our stiff knees and hands that had been held in position on the bike for more than six hours. We made a couple stops that day, the first just 20 minutes after we began for what has become our daily ritual Vietnamese iced coffee. We spent 45 minutes at the little shop with a view over the unreal green of the rice paddies below. We talked – about the coming ride, about next stops in our trip, about winter back home in Colorado, and just generally enjoyed the slowness of the morning and the fact that we were able to spend it together. When we did finally climb back on the bike it didn’t take long for the rain to begin and it would continue in one form or another for the rest of the day. What was interesting, though, is that we didn’t even care. When it poured it made it a little hard to see, our visors or sunglasses blurred by raindrops, but the mountains just became more and more beautiful as the day went on. We climbed hills at 10% grades, having to drop all the way down to first gear with all the weight and only 125 cc’s to pull it. But then we would crest the top, weightless for a moment before we would gently begin careening down the other side. I would leave the bike in 4th gear to take a bit of the pressure off the brakes and keep us from going too fast but at times would hold in the clutch as we glided downhill, removing the engine sound completely, both of us quiet as we listened to the sound of the wind whip through the glorious, green hills.
We rolled into the town of Bao Lac around 5 and cruised through town a bit, making a bit of the scene being the only ones in town with saddlebags and full face helmets and … a beard. We ended up going down a dead end road to a school and got a whole group of teenagers happily giggling when we replied to their hellos with one of our own. Eventually we found a guest house, a large affair that felt frozen in the 1950s with high-ceilinged rooms and painted plaster walls stained by the monsoons of the past. Our room had three beds, none large enough to properly be called a double back home. We dropped off our gear, hung up all the wet clothes, and went out in search of food. It was raining again and our first walk around the town’s main area yielded nothing but stares and smiles. We hopped back on the bike and tooled around a bit more, eventually finding a restaurant with the lights on but no one in sight. We walked in and were conferring with each other about the prospect of Pringles and Coca Cola for dinner when we heard a chipper “Hello!” that seemed to be coming down from the heavens. I looked at Kaitlin and she looked at me and we both looked around to try to figure out what was going on. A few second later a man popped out from behind the curtain of a hidden loft area at the back of the restaurant and was climbing down a ladder. His wife followed a minute later and fired up the gas burner, ready to serve – happy to have customers on this rainy evening. He didn’t have a menu but there were some posters on the wall written in Vietnamese with pictures. Of course, everything I tried to order he seemed to think was a bad idea … or they were out of it … so eventually he pointed to a couple of items he did seem to have, we tried to look them up in our phrasebook and failed, so I just said “ok” and what we ended up with was some surprisingly good pan-fried duck with a plate of chilled rice noodles and a big bowl of brothy soup full of bananas. Yes, banana soup. We ate almost all of it while a possibly drunk but positively friendly Vietnamese guy who had wandered in talked our ears off in Vietnamese, totally not understanding or more likely not caring about the fact that we know about 6 words of Vietnamese, all while pouring us shots of rice liquor. Kaitlin and I eventually tried turning our glasses upside down to make him understand that we had had enough rice liquor and that I still needed to drive the motorbike back to the guest house. He left Kaitlin’s be but flipped mine back over like I had simply set it down wrong and filled it back up. He went on, talking and talking and laughing when I would say something back (in English) or when I would say something to Kaitlin about how awkward it all was (in English) but we finished our meal while being talked at and I paid and we said goodbye and he followed us out to our motorbike and said some more stuff while smiling and shaking our hands and we said goodbye some more and then drove away with him still talking at us. But what can you do, I suppose? We’re likable.
Day 4 was an absolutely stunning day of riding … the kind of ride that I would bet a lot of motorcyclists have on their bucket lists – or certainly would if they knew about it. The final 20 km from Mao Vac to Dong Van was incredible, up and over a pass with jagged, Dr. Seuss-like hills on all sides that shoot up right next to each other, each struggling to be higher and more lush than the one next to it. It would be the first time of several on this ride through the northern hills that I would think about the swinging pendulum of tourism and how our holiday destinations of choice are one day all likely to change. When this place reaches the point of “development,” as the whole world is one day bound to do, it’s hard to think of so many of the places I have been in the past holding a candle to them. The small towns here are nestled down between these incredible, picturesque hills, surrounded by beautiful vista after vista. A savvy developer could connect one hill to the next with gondolas and would have a beautiful Aspen sort of property on his hands, minus the snow of course. Maybe it was partly the influence of the exotic and experiencing it all in this new way from the seat of a motorbike, but in looking down on some of these towns I felt like I had never been anywhere like this before. As we snaked up and through these winding roads, these beautiful hills with the sun setting and making everything glow a beautiful orange, I thought about the fact that we hadn’t seen any other foreigners – not a single one – since leaving Hanoi four days before. It was shocking to me, how many people were missing out on this incredible landscape. It’s not exactly easy to get here (starting that evening we would need special permits to stay in Dong Van, something about it being so close to the Chinese border) but it’s far from difficult.
The bike had been acting up a bit that day, working hard to pull us up one steep, drawn-out climb after another. It wasn’t dying on us but I think it was getting so hot that it was starting to have electrical problems – at one point that the horn no longer worked (a fairly important piece of equipment here). I saw a guy on the side of the road splashing water from a little roadside canal onto his bike’s engine and thought that seemed like a good idea so we stopped and did the same. After cooling the engine down a bit the horn starting working again in all its high pitched glory and we were back on our way. As the days went on I found myself starting to care a bit more about the bike, driving it less like a rental, shifting gears more slowly, keeping the RPMs down a bit lower. People say that they love riding motorcycles because they feel connected to the road, like the bike is an extension of themselves. I don’t know how Kaitlin felt, stuck on the back and committed to whatever direction the bike and I decided to go, but I think that around Day 5 the bike began to be more than just a mode of transportation from point A to B. We rode 140km that day and, despite my newly appreciated relationship with this piece of machinery, we were both happy to be off at day’s end. We rolled into Ha Giang around 4:30 and stopped at the reception of a place Kaitlin had reserved online. Before I had even swung my leg over the saddle to disembark, a tightly wound man had popped out of the building and was right next to us, saying in choppy English, “Ok well you mus be tire. Let me show you your room follow me thank you.” and before we knew what was happening he was on a motorbike of his own and had zipped off down the stone path leading back into the rest of the hotel cum resort. I remembered Kaitlin telling me it was a bungalow we had reserved and so I was picturing something like we had on Rabbit Island in Cambodia, very primitive with a damp mattress and a mosquito net. But what the man opened the door on was a quaint little place with wooden floors, excellent natural light and the least expected but most appreciated surprise – an air conditioner. The cherry on top was the perfect porch looking down on the fast, brown Lô River with the mountains behind. We decided right away that the next day was as good as any for a rest.
Our rest day was lovely. We didn’t do much but read by the river, eat some great food at the hotel’s open air kitchen, and go on a run around town. We started Day 7 with fresh backsides, which is good since it would be our longest day yet – 240 km with a nice, long section of muddy, rocky road that kept us under 20 kph and buried the back wheel a couple of times. We decided to keep pushing through, however, because at the end of six hours in the saddle we were at the virtual endpoint of our journey, in Sapa. Sapa is the most popular tourist town in northern Vietnam, but for good reason. It is perched up among some of the high, terraced hills, more than a mile above sea level. As a result it is always much cooler (it was the first time we were able to wear our fleece jackets since Nepal, in itself a reason to visit). There was this almost constant, mysterious mist in Sapa that would roll in just after sunset, covering the vast valley below like a sheet. We would go to sleep looking at this white, vaporous wall that felt within arms reach of our balcony and awake in the morning with it still hanging there until it was slowly burned away by the morning sun. When the mist was gone, though, the view from the edge of town was something to see – an incredible, deep valley that went on for miles, as green and abundant as anything we had seen on yet. We spent three nights in Sapa, enjoying the fact that there were now actually options of what to eat for meals (not just noodle soup!), breathing in the slightly cooled air and walking around town, dodging the constant onslaught of Hmong women, dressed in their black skirts and jackets, leg warmers and plastic sandals, many under 16 with babies strapped to their backs.
After our three nights in Sapa we took the bike on one last good ride, 30 km back in the direction we had come to the train station in Lao Cai, a train station so close to the Chinese border that with a big enough load the caboose would have been subject to international trade restrictions. We arrived four and a half hours early for the train as instructed to have the gas siphoned from the bike and get it to the right spot in line to be loaded. The train would leave at 8:30 that night and it was a great little affair, the kind of train you wish you could travel on all over the world. There were separate compartments, each with four bunks, each bunk with clean sheets, a comfy pillow and a soft comforter to use when the air conditioning (which you could not control) had the temperature down a good 30 degrees cooler than the outside rice paddies we were rushing by in the night. We shared our compartment with Paco and Patricia, a lovely couple from Madrid who were funny, charming, and delightfully Spanish. We talked for three hours straight as soon as they arrived, much to the likely chagrin of those in the compartments surrounding ours trying to sleep.
We rolled into the train station in central Hanoi just before 6am and said goodbye to our friends who were rushing off to catch another train. The bike was unloaded and after getting it out of the station we poured the 12 ounces of gas we had held onto as contraband in a little plastic bottle back into the tank, more than enough to get us down to the lake where we sat and enjoyed our last Vietnamese iced coffee while watching cute old women do odd, rhythmless stretching exercises with The Macarena playing from a boom box as warmup for their real exercise – a slow, deliberate dance with fans to sounds of the Asian pan flute. Entertainment? Check. Motivation to still care about fitness when I’m 90? Check.
We said goodbye to the Honda, our trusted friend for what felt like a long trip, later that morning. I have loved so many of our experiences on this trip – we have been so many places to which I would love to one day return. But I told Kaitlin as we were walking away from the bike rental place, on our way to find a breakfast baguette with some paté, that this was one part of the trip I would do again in the exact same way. It was that great, that beautiful, that perfect an amount of adventure. We never know what will happen in the future, and I don’t ever like to assume that I am owed a single more day. But if I can ever make it back into those beautiful hills, riding through those sleepy little towns where you can always find someone to dip you out a hot bowl of noodles or set your coffee filter on your glass with that oh so sweet condensed milk waiting at the bottom, then I certainly will.