The road less travelled

Trip Start Jun 27, 2005
Trip End Sep 01, 2006

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Thursday, July 28, 2005

Having planned a route through Northern Vietnam utilizing the basic Vietnamese Road Atlas we had purchased at half price, Tilly and I searched around Hanoi for someone who would rent us a Russian Minsk motorbike. We had leant from our research that this bike was the only true motorcycle capable of tackling the steep mountain trail climbs, the typical poorly maintained country roads, the flooded river passes and the off-road tracks around sections of road that are either no longer there or have been buried beneath a localised rock fall.

Eventually we made contact with an agent that could acquire a Minsk and at such short notice and so almost everything was in place for our road-trip to commence, including an escort out of Hanoi. We had a tyre pump and a pack strapped to the back of our bike containing a few clothes and medical supplies, water purification tablets and sugar snacks. Under the saddle of the bike we had a Minsk tool kit, repair manual (in Russian!), spare brake and clutch cables and a spare inner tube. We both had our sexy rain-Mac that we had bartered for earlier in the week and our road atlas for Vietnam. This just left enough room for Tilly and I on the seat the small seat and my balls squashed nicely against the gas tank for six solid days - nice and numb! All that was left to do now was learn how to ride a motorbike with gears.

The very nice Vietnamese lady (named Hang - meaning moon), who sorted out our bike hire, looked very concerned as we set off, I think this was from my earlier response to her question;
Hang: "your journey is very long, and you will encounter many driving difficulties. So you have driven a motorcycle like this before?"
Me: "no, but I will have by the end of the day"
Hang: "Ohh dear"

We headed out of Hanoi and were kindly escorted by the chap who we rented the bike from to its outer roads. This was good as it gave me about 20mins to get used to the motorbike bike and how to change the gears whilst being expertly directed through the thousands of tiny streets that make up Hanoi's old quarter. Its worth mentioning that everyone in Hanoi has at least two motorbikes each and therefore the streets are literally crammed full of them heading in every direction possible, yet seemingly missing one another as though it was a circus show. Throw in one northern monkey and a bike he has never driven before and you would expect a collision on every corner!! Well just a couple of minor mistakes instead which was pretty good. I.e., I stalled the bike in the middle of a busy main road as I pulled out of the petrol station causing traffic to aim specifically at me to entice me to shift, then minutes later I got stuck on the wrong side of a bus (the front side!) as I was maneuvering at a set of lights to get into the left lane. Other than that the whole trip, thankfully was potential accident free.
(I mean potential accident in the sense that I was not to blame, as every second of our way along country roads, mountain passes etc danger lurked in the form of excited kids, stubborn buffalo and enticing pot holes appearing as if from nowhere in the middle of the road whilst other bikes, buses and trucks would come whizzing around the next corner on our side of the road).

We headed to the North-West of Vietnam passing through amazing villages, where we were the centre of attention due to our Alien features from the Western world. At lunchtime we pulled into a small roadside village where we purchased a drink and a bowl of pho (noodle soup) for not much money at all. A local farmer took interest in our arrival and sat alongside us to exchange words and practice a little of the English he was learning to speak and write. This chap offered to take us to see the house that he had built, however being a little unsure of our surroundings and needing to get back on the road we made our excuses and decline the offer - an interesting meeting all the same though.

Our final chosen destination today was Mai Chau, at a distance of 150km off Hanoi. Mai Chau is a beautiful village located in a beautiful valley. The Vietnamese inhabitants around these parts live in a stilt house and survive mainly by either farming the land or selling food out of the back of there home. We would have missed the turning for this village if it weren't for a local tout spotting us on the main road and suggesting that we followed him to Mai Chau. We followed cautiously to the drivers suggested accommodation, chatted with the owners after taking a look inside and then set off again to check out the remainder of the area to assess the situation. We drove further into the village and found and small community of stilt houses where they were playing volleyball in a sort of communal area. Here we enquired about a home-stay and we were immediately approached by a young girl and her mother offering us food and shelter for the night for 100,000VND each. We accepted their offer and so parked our bike under the house and rested whilst the made us feel welcome and prepared an area where we could stay. The home consisted of an outside toilet/shower and a building on stilts. The rear of the house was the kitchen and this had its own separate entrance and a partition wall between it and the main living area. The main living area was one open room serving both as the lounge and sleeping area with furniture to sit on being the floor and beds mats and mosquito nets that rolled away - very rustic. The building structure consisted of wood and woven palm leaves and was very well looked after as so were we with a huge banquet meal for our supper - the food was excellent and our best so far. After dinner the family joined us on the floor of the lounge where our bed was made and we communicated with the mother and father via the daughters limited English and with the aid of pictures and maps. By 9pm we were all in bed fast asleep and recharging our batteries for another long day ahead.
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