Motorbiking Nam's backcountry Part 2

Trip Start Mar 23, 2010
Trip End Aug 10, 2010

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Day 1
To ensure our bike didn't struggle up steep incline to Sapa, we decided to travel as light as possible. We loaded up the panniers on our bike in a minimalist fashion, bought a few more necessities for the trip, and then found our way to the highway. City driving sucks. It is so busy with other motorbikes, cars, and buses on the street, that I hardly ever got to kick my bike out of second gear. Moreover, I had lost count of how many trucks blew a smog of dense black smoke right into my face. After about an hour of driving out of the city, in an instant all the traffic seemed to disappear. I passed one truck and I finally got a section of the open road.

The ride was hot. The only way to escape the heat was to keep driving to create a nice, yet necessary breeze. Whenever we stopped, even for a minute, we would start to sweat instantly. The funny thing about motorbiking is that you get sunburns in the strangest and most unnatural places. I got a sunburn on the back of my hands while Sylvia had a severe sunburn on the tops of her knees. I suppose there are few occasions where you are in a seated position with your hands floating in front of you for 6 hours a day exposing these vulnerable body parts to the sun. We learned our lesson quickly after the first day to never neglect the sunscreen, even on the most obscure places.

We stopped in Mai Chau around 3:30pm and decided to call it a day. I washed my driving clothes that night to reveal the disgusting amount of dirt, dust, and smoke embedded in my clothes.

By the end of the first day, I realized why I had wanted to do this trip by motorbike. We could have done the same trip in the comfort of an air-conditioned car or bus and see all the sights from the safety and comfort of the vehicle. But there’s something about being on the open road and being exposed to the elements that makes you feel as though you really are a part of the sights you’re seeing, instead of seeing life pass by through a pane of glass. The great thing about seeing the country by motorbike is that you really feel it all - the sun on your back, the hot and humid air, and the breeze through your hair. The sights become real – you can see them, touch them, smell them (well maybe not me…). Suddenly, the journey becomes that much more real and truly becomes a part of the trip - no longer just a method of getting from point A to B.

Day 2

We got off to a late start that morning – we struggled to find somewhere to fill up some gas for our bike and Sylvia and I got in an argument about driving too fast (it all worked out fine, just some couple drama). But we were finally on the road by 9:30am. After an hour of driving, we came across an intersection to an unmarked highway that we believed was the direction our map indicated us to take. You see, we had this cheap free road map of Vietnam given to us by our motorbike rental shop. I didn’t even think twice about getting a proper, updated map for this trip, mostly because I have been lost so many times on my travels that I no longer have an ounce of fear to venture into the unknown. Normally it is this fear that drives me to plan things out properly before hand, but without it, I had jumped on this bike and drove off into the countryside without really knowing anything about this ride.

Even to this day, I have no idea what that highway/road really was on our map… but it was beautiful. The road eventually de-evolved into a single-lane road that winded around the hills of small farming communities. With hardly any other vehicles in sight, the road was all ours through the breathtaking scenery. Every turn was postcard perfect and we took our time driving slowly to enjoy the scenery.

Eventually the road led us to the highway that we were supposed to be on (and the whole time I thought the road we were on WAS the highway!) and we resumed our highway pace. We followed the well-marked signs towards the next town "Bac Yen" that we decided we would stop in for lunch. 10km to Bac Yen. Then 5km to Bac Yen. 3…. 2… 1… 0km. And then the road ended into a river… Umm… I thought to myself, where the hell is Bac Yen? And then I remembered the rental shop said something about a ferry... Figures Bac Yen was the name of this ferry port?

So we drove down to the river, saw a tiny wooden “ferry” that held about 12 people, some baggage, and our motorbike, paid the guy 20,000D ($1) and jumped on. The river bed was completely filled with mud, which I slipped into when trying to drive my bike onto the boat via a thin plank. Once on the other side, we carried on… without a clue where we were on our map. This seemed to be a trend for the remainder of our trip. The majority of the time, we would not be able to pinpoint where we actually were on our map but we assumed we were going in the right direction. The problem is that many of the intersections don’t seem to appear on the map, roads constantly change and merge in strange ways, and many towns often have more than one name or move from place to place.  Put that together with our really crappy free map and as one could imagine, this made map reading nearly useless.

We stopped in a small town for a quick drink, which seemed to attract the attention of the local town people. Although I don’t know why it matters, I always seemed to wonder whether I would get the same attention being a Chinese-Canadian travelling alone through Asia (probably not…). We conversed with them by passing around our Lonely Planet phrasebook, they gave us some mangoes, and under their guidance, we drove of to the closest hotel. They pointed us in the direction of a town called Pho Yen (and we thought we were already in Pho Yen…) just 10km down the road. We finally got to Pho Yen around 4pm where we called it a night. By some kind of luck, a flat tired seemed to manifest just as we arrived at the semi-metropolis town (and not sooner!). We found a Honda Service Center which fixed our bike for 66,000D ($3.50) (55,000D ($3) for the new tube, and 10,000D ($0.50) for the 15 minute labor). Pho Yen was a strange strange site. In the middle of this countryside with rice-terraces surrounding every side, lied this artificial fairly developed town with the few roads leading into it. This town would have looked absolutely bizarre on a satellite image (think of New York in the middle of the Amazon). After dinner, we drove out of the town center for 2 minutes to one of these rice terraces to watch the sunset on the beautiful scenery. Splendid.

Day 3
After a good night rest, we were on the road at 8:30am that morning. The cool morning air was a refreshing change from the previous 2 days of driving. We drove pretty solidly today to catch up for yesterday’s tardy start. We made one major stop along the highway when we came across one of the most breathtaking sites in my life (and I’ve been to some pretty spectacular places!). From our privileged spot on the highway, we had an overlooking view of gorgeous empty rice terraces filled with water that reflected like glass. Take a look at the photos (the most beautiful ones are from this place!).

We arrived at Tan Uyen that night and checked into the first nice-ish looking hotel. We tried to bargain hard for our hotel room because they were quoting prices higher than it really should have been, but for the strangest reason, one of the two hotel owners just would not budge. The other hotel lady was too busy engaging us in conversation; she seemed to take a liking to Sylvia. With our limited phrasebook, we humored each other by trying to communicate. Often, when the lady tried to say something outside of what was available in the book, she would just repeatedly yell the words in Vietnamese over and over again until she thought we understood them. And when we didn’t, she would take out a pen and paper and write down the Vietnamese words, as if this was supposed to help us understand. After nearly 30 minutes of talking, we eventually realized that she was a bit crazy, but we had already agreed to take the room. We believed she was asking us if we were married and whether Sylvia was pregnant, or wanting to be pregnant, or something about having children? I got this from her repeatedly asking “You” (pointing at me) “Iloveyou,” “You” (pointing at Sylvia), of which we replied… yes… we love each other. And then she would point at Sylvia’s slight protruding belly and exaggeratedly mime being pregnant, of which we replied no… that’s just her muffin top.

Day 4

We woke up that morning to rain… lots of it. So we grabbed our poncho and rain jacket, wrapped our panniers in some plastic bags, and drove carefully on the slick roads. After a few hours on the road, the rain had stopped but the roads were not necessarily better. As we reached closer to Sapa, the road conditions seemed to deteriorate very quickly. What were once nice paved roads were completely demolished by floods and land slides. This caused a serious back-up of large trucks heading up to town. I shifted our bike into first gear and tried my best to plough through these rough roads, all inclined upwards. One minute I was driving through half a meter of water, the next I was driving through thick gripless mud, all while large trucks are honking at me from behind for no reason (but just to let me know that if I stopped for even a second, they would just plough right through me). I couldn’t believe how bad the conditions of the roads were for this last stretch, but I knew we were getting close to Sapa because the roads were becoming steeper, the temperature was dropping, and the fog became increasingly dense as we climbed towards the mountain town. To make matters worse, our bike’s gas meter was flashing empty and there didn’t seem to be a town in sight. I tried my best to drive conservatively yet confidently up these difficult slopes, and fortunately, we made it to the top without any real problem.

We arrived in Sapa at 2:30pm and decided to just relax and call it a day after that difficult climb. Over the next few days, we enjoyed our time in Sapa visiting various areas in and around the town, doing some trekking to minority villages, and enjoying the numerous restaurants catering for the tourists. Battling our way through 4 days of motorbiking, I felt that we deserved to be here and to enjoy the luxuries to be found here. I felt accomplished that we arrived to Sapa safely and soundly and I felt privileged to have seen the beauty on the ride there. In fact, the views we had on the way were better than any of the views we had within Sapa.

Although Sapa was supposed to be the climatic of end of our trip, I suppose its true that sometimes the journey is truly better than the destination. I am happy I took that initial risk to arrive by motorbike – the picturesque scenery and unique experiences have been engrained into my memory. I will never forget this wonderful experience I had in Vietnam’s heartland.
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