21 Apr 2009
With my last full day in Hanoi before Lynn arrives, I toyed with the idea of a day tour out into the country to take in some pagodas and other attractions.
Yesterday I had stopped by a couple of the tour offices (the city is chocker with them), but the itinerary didn’t sound too appealing. As the very nice lady behind the counter explained…”Well, we pick you up at you hotel at 7am. It’s a 2 hour drive to Ninh Binh. Once there we pick up the bicycles for a three hour ride…” Whoa there! 7am! Bicycles!? In this heat? Who’s paying for this tour anyway?
So, on to plan B. One of the more adventurous adventures to be had in these parts is a four day motorbike ride up into the hills around Sepa. This is something that both Frommers and Robert Reid rave about this (“it’s a hoot”), and our trip to Vietnam was inspired in part by the Top Gear episode when the guys ride their bikes across the country (a must see if you missed it), so while I’m here I’m highly motivated to spend at least a day or two on two wheels.
99.999 percent of the ‘motorbikes’ in Vietnam are what the rest of us would call mopeds. Runabouts of 125cc or less which are fine for pootling around town (or if you’re a local, carrying around the wife, kids, dog and kitchen sink), but not so appealing for longer trips. The guide books suggest renting a Minsk which is Russian motorbike – single cylinder, two stroke, 100cc, but built to be abused and handle the potholes and dirt roads found in the hills. There’s even a web site dedicated to Vietnam / Minsk adventures. So, yesterday I took a stroll to one of the few shops that rented these beasts to have a gander. And I have to say, it was a pretty horrifying sight. Drum brakes front and rear (i.e. stopping is optional under the best of circumstances), little or no suspension and pretty weak ground clearance. They may be romantic and adventurous, but I would imagine that road rash is pretty much guaranteed for any decent trip. I passed.
Luckily, as I’m reeling away from the Minsk vendor in horror, I stumble across Flamingo Travel (5A Dinh Liet) that rent out perfectly acceptable 250cc Honda trail bikes for around US$25 a day. Nothing special back home, but around these parts you’re riding the Ferrari of motorcycles. So here I am bright and early this morning (well reasonably early) with a fist full of dollars, ready to pickup my steed for the day. While filling in the paperwork I’m shocked to learn that the cost for full replacement of the bike is $8000! (You can by a one for a third of that back home). I guess the look on my face said it all when they asked if I wanted a bike lock.
I spend quite some time getting out of town (Hanoi sprawls for some distance) and probably took a couple of smoker-years off my life in the process; the traffic fumes are pretty intense. On the upside, it was quite amusing riding the Honda through the sea of other bikes. I’m a foot higher than the rest and when ever I stop for some water or to cough up my lungs, the locals saunter over to check out the wheels. They seem to be quite amazed by how high it is off the ground.
My target for the morning is Hoa Bin, about 70km south west of Hanoi. It’s the first stop on the four day Hanoi / Sepa loop, so I figure I’ll get there for lunch and see how I feel about going further. Once out of town the going is much easier and the countryside beautiful. I get a little taste of the scenery to be found further north and there are some amazing cliffs and rock formations to oogle along the way.
Hoa Binh isn’t much to look at, but by now it’s lunch time and the next major town is quite a ways down the road, so I start hunting for places to eat. After a while, it’s not looking good but I eventually find a restaurant on the top of one of the hotels that doesn’t look too scary. I saunter in and ask in my best pidgeon English for a menu, only to find that not only do none of the staff speak a word of English, but that they have no menus (determined after a brief but intense miming session). Yes, I know I’m in a foreign country, but I’ve already become complacent to the fact that every establishment I’ve visited to date speaks just enough English for both parties to get by. But I guess I’m in the countryside now.
We managed to get the fact across that a cold beer would be quite welcome right now, and while sipping that and contemplating my next move, one of the waitresses miraculously turns up with a menu - lots of appetizing choices, written in both Vietnamese and English – excellent! Unfortunately, the fact that it had the name of a completely different restaurant on the front cover should have been a warning. As soon as I start to point out the dishes I fancy, the waitress starts shaking her head – no, we don’t have that. I try half a dozen choices and I’m zero for six. Uh oh. Luckily, one of the other diners that does speak English takes pity on me and comes over to help out. I reel off a few of my favourite dishes, he suggests some others that I might be interested in, and the result was quite agreeable.
The restaurant is quite big and has far more tables than eaters. As I relax and slowly work my way through my feast, I’m amused to watch the tactics of some of the other parties. They’ll order a course, dig in and have a grand old time chowing down and throwing the food around. After a while, they all get up, move over to the adjunct table (leaving the last one looking like a roman banquet blew through) and order the next course. And so on, across the room they go.
Over the tail end of lunch I ponder the next leg of my journey. The next town in the four day loop (Son La) is a way away, and I’d have to back track if I went that way (I don’t have another three free days to complete the loop). One of my local maps shows an intriguing back road that loops up round the back of Ba Vi nature reserve then back into Hanoi from the northwest. It’s a very thin line on the map that runs right next to the river and it’s hard to tell if it isn’t just a printing error. None of my other maps show it and Google Maps has no idea. But hey, what the heck – this is an adventure right?
After a few false starts driving down roads that peter out into goat tracks, I finally pick up a tarmac road that seems to be going somewhere. Every so often I pass through a tiny village that’s not on any of the maps, but I think I’m going roughly the right way because I can still see the river on my left. After a while I pass a small milestone stating that it’s 15 km to Che. Again, nowhere to be found on the map, but every kilometre another milestone would show up – Che 11 km; Che 10 km and so on. Wow, this must be a major town to deserve so many signs along the way. I’m getting close, but the road is suspiciously empty of major habitation. And then I reach the milestone marker – Che 0 km, which is kept company by a couple of very simple dwellings and a little old lady selling some veggies. That was Che.
Needless to say, since I’m sitting here on the sofa in Adelaide writing this, I made it back to Hanoi safe and sound. The little jaunt was well worth it and during our next trip to Vietnam I plan to spend a lot more time on the road. But boy oh boy did I need a shower after the trip to wash off the sweat and road grime.