Episode 4: The Far North of Vietnam
After a very rude awakening on the sleeper train from Hanoi - it gets into Lao Cai at 5.30am, so the guard is knocking on doors from 5am - we got our luggage off the train, and walked up the platform to find our motorbikes already unloaded and sitting on the platform ready to go. We managed to find a not so nice breakfast place open, so after some food and a quick supermarket visit to pick up snacks for the road, we headed off into the “real” north. This area is really our main focus for this trip, and we had plans to visit our favourite spots up here as well as discover some new gems to share. We had 2 days before the rendezvous with our next travelling companions - Christina’s father and his girlfriend, who were having a Suzuki DR650 delivered to Dao Lodge, an hour or so north of Ha Giang - and that city was our target for the day. We motored along small but well paved roads, through increasingly beautiful countryside and growing mountains, and past the Cinnamon Eco Lodge that we planned to stay at later in the trip. After a pretty horrendous stretch of road (more potholes than tarmac), and a soup-stop, we enjoyed the last hour of the run into Ha Giang city on sweeping bends, driving along the Song Lo (Lo River) which runs throughout the province, originating in Yunnan in China. We enjoyed our last night for a while in an aircon hotel room (we were heading into homestay territory from here on in), and found a fabulous BBQ spot, all you can eat for about $7 USD.
The next day, the real mountains began. Heading out of Ha Giang, the road again ran along Song Lo for a while, and then started a steep climb, hairpin bends going up and up and the air getting much cooler. At the highest point of the climb we reached a saddle and had a break at a cafe with amazing views looking down towards the city we’d left a few hours back. We then checked where Christina’s father and his girlfriend (Eugene and Jeanette) were - and discovered they were only about an hour behind us, heading up from Hanoi in a pick-up truck, with their rental motorbike in the back. We headed off again and descended slightly to Dao Lodge in Quan Ba. The lodge was built with financial support from Swiss people through a charity called Caritas Switzerland, for Dao People to host, share and learn from visitors from other parts of the world. The Dao are an ethnic minority group found in both Vietnam and China. The lodge was basic but comfortable, and built using traditional designs and materials - notably, 80cm mud walls that we were to encounter in quite a few similar lodges in the area.
It was great to welcome Eugene and Jeanette - and a big reunion for Christina, who hasn’t seen her dad for about 3 years. They had travelled continuously from Switzerland to meet us here - 15 hours flying followed by a 7 hour drive, and seemed in great shape considering that. Anyway, we relaxed at the lodge for the rest of the day and all of the next, enjoying the countryside and catching up. We also took a short drive to check out Eugene and Jeanette’s motorbike, and to give them a feel of the roads they would be riding with us over the next couple of weeks. Eugene was also keen to check out the “fairy bosom” hills - a pair of hills remarkably like a pair of breasts, which were close by.
Our next target was one of our all-time favourite hotels in Vietnam - Auberge de Meo Vac, an amazing lodge in Meo Vac. The drive that day was fantastic, about four hours driving time on small roads, over mountain passes, dropping and gaining height, firstly through forests, then as we got higher, into the strange and atmospheric mountainous countryside of this area - unlike no other place I have ever seen. It was (up to this point) our all time favourite motorbike riding location in Vietnam. On arrival at Meo Vac we headed to our “hotel” - The lodge we were staying at had been faithfully and painstakingly reconstructed from the ground up, in 2011 - it was originally the home of a wealthy H’mong family, built in the 1930s. The lodge has four bedrooms as well as a communal sleeping room, on two storeys, set around a stone courtyard. It would fit perfectly into a Game of Thrones set.
It was the second time we had stayed there, having visited Meo Vac two years previously. Happily it was just as we’d remembered it, and the co-owner Thai was still running the place, along with his wife who is a fabulous cook, and Tien, a young man who had fallen in love with Milly when we were last here - she was only two years old then. Dinner that night was our first experience on this trip of the true north-style of eating - rice, of course, with many side dishes of meat and vegetables, served with local rice wine. Thai brews the rice wine here, and it remains the best we’ve ever tasted, with a fantastic after taste of honey - he claims it contains only rice, water and yeast, but I’m not convinced, I think he has secret ingredients that he is keeping to himself. In the traditional manner, when the waiter (Tien) brings us the rice wine, he will have a glass himself, and say “Chúc sức khỏe!” - a fairly formal “cheers” wishing you good health.
We planned to have three nights at the lodge, relaxing and exploring a little of the far north, with a visit to what is called the north pole - a flag pole at the top of a tower with steep steps inside, overlooking the border of Vietnam and China. The next morning we set out for this destination, firstly taking the road from Meo Vac to Dong Van, which is without doubt the most spectacular - and perhaps dangerous - road in Vietnam. It is literally hacked into the side of the mountain, with countless twists, turns and hairpins, with a seriously scary drop on one side of, at times, at least a kilometer. Make a mistake here, and it will be a long time until you finally stop rolling and drop into the river far, far below (the Song Nho Que). It is a fantastic ride, and you have to balance the temptation to blast through the corners against the risk of making a mistake. This is known as “The Road to Happiness” - which for sure is true if you love to ride motorbikes in amazing mountain scenery.
The danger of this road was put into sharp perspective by the events that followed just 5 minutes after leaving Dong Van. I was leading the group of three bikes, when I heard Christina blowing her horn madly, at which point both her and her father stopped suddenly. She had spotted a trail of oil following Eugene’s bike, and it became clear that the bike had dumped all of its oil over the back wheel and tyre.
He was incredibly lucky that it had not thrown him and Jeanette off the bike - and it was going through everyone’s mind that it could have happened ten minutes earlier with fatal consequences on the Meo Vac - Dong Van road. Anyway, the bike was not driveable, so we contacted the hire company who arranged to have the bike transported back to a mechanic in Dong Van, where we also managed to borrow another bike to get us home to Meo Vac - the trip to the north pole was postponed for another day.
After an enforced rest day, and the return of the repaired motorbike, we headed off for the last time from Meo Vac, again on The Road to Happiness, through Dong Van and towards the North Pole. Alas, again we were thwarted - just a kilometer from the pole - by a landslide of rocks that had blocked the road. A digger was busy clearing the road, and as it was going to be another hour or so before it was cleared, we backtracked to a homestay in a beautiful valley where we had stayed two years previously. We had noticed that the newly repaired bike was leaking oil - extremely worryingly after what Eugene and Jeanette had been through a couple of days previously - so we lent Eugene and Jeanette one of our super-reliable XR150s and chilled out at the homestay, while they went back to the North Pole. While they were away, we were really pleased to run into the owner of the homestay, Xung, an artist who is normally resident in Hanoi, but fell in love with the region a few years ago, and now has several projects going on in the area: a hotel in Dong Van, a cave (soon to open as a tourist attraction), and a new guest-house being constructed on The Road to Happiness. We’d met Xung and his wife two years previously, and our kids had played with their little girl, along with a few of the local children here. It is always a buzz to see our kids enjoying the company of Vietnamese and ethnic minority kids, nobody caring about differences of language, background, race or colour; one of the big reasons for taking trips like this.
Once Eugene and Jeanette returned triumphantly from “conquering” the North Pole, we said our goodbyes and headed off on our way south. We spent a night in a regulation hotel a little north of Ha Giang city, then headed down to the town, where we got Eugene’s bike checked out by a mechanic again. Happily the “oil leak” from the previous day had stopped and seemed to be as a result of the previous mechanic over-filling the engine oil. After lunch, we rolled on southward on a straight road, before we made a right turn back towards the mountains, aiming for a lodge in the area of Hoang Su Phi which Christina had found online. The road - not much more than single track, but with a pretty nice surface - rose swiftly through rocky countryside, with switchback bend following switchback bend, and we all really enjoyed a really fabulous late afternoon’s ride. Eugene, newly confident on his non-oiling DR, went flying ahead, and rather too confidently missed a small left turn which we needed to take, continuing onward and upward, with Christina and Shina flying along behind, blowing our horns and driving as fast as possible in an attempt to catch him/get his attention. After a couple of kilometers we caught him, and Marcy gave him a right telling off for not having his map/phone switched on. After retracing our route, we made the right turn, and the road dropped through forests, deteriorating but still providing a fantastic ride.
We were starting to wonder who would build a lodge in this remote area, when we pulled into a town and over a river, seemingly 4 kilometers short of the hotel. After heading out of the town on a really steep tiny road, Google Maps “told” us that the road disappeared, and the route to the lodge was unmarked - but the actual road continued upwards, with seriously steep turns. The sunset was not far off, and after previous experiences on other road trips, Christina and I started to get pretty nervous about whether the lodge even existed - it is not a good experience to be stuck in rural Vietnam looking for a hotel which may or may not exist as nightfall approaches. Anyway we managed to get a call through to the hotel, who indicated that we might well be on the right road, and on we went. After a few more kilometers, we were super happy to find that the lodge not only existed, but was indeed lovely, in a stunning location set right in the middle of stepped rice paddies, with simply superb views over the surrounding mountains.
It was only the oil problem that had brought us here - we’d had to re-route slightly after missing a day - but what a happy accident. We each had a thatched bamboo “hut” with balcony - beautifully furnished with super comfortable mosquito-netted double beds - and dined that night on typically delicious north Vietnamese food (with rice wine, of course). After dinner our hosts asked us if we’d like to watch some traditional dancing of Dzao people, another of the ethnic groups of North Vietnam. We were treated to an enchanting dance performance by six women in traditional dress. After the first couple of numbers, they went off to change and came back in something not so traditional but rather more glamorous - clearly their own designs - and they continued to perform for a couple more hours. They were using it all as a bit of a dress rehearsal, having great fun, pretty much forgetting we were even there. It was really rather special for us all.
After a very comfortable night we awoke to see a couple of buffaloes “ploughing” (not really the right word) the water-flooded rice terraces right outside our huts. A middle aged lady in waders was driving one buffalo, seemingly controlling it with verbal commands, and an occasional pull on a rope, while two younger men were training a three year old buffalo in a terrace below. Fascinating to watch, and we all felt rather blessed to have found ourselves in this remote little heavenly spot. We could have happily spent a couple of days here, but we needed to press on - our next stop was Bac Ha, and the following day was market day, one of the busiest and best markets in the north, so not to be missed.
The day again provided perfect driving conditions (for dirt bikes), at first on small roads through beautiful country and mountain scenery, latterly on an unpaved road over a massive mountain, before a brilliant descent on fast sweeping bends into Bac Ha, to the homestay of
a friend, Mr Trung, who had hosted us two years previously.
Mr Trung’s Homestay had been extended since we stayed here last - the new block has a fabulous family room with two bathrooms, two balconies, and even a little rooftop swimming pool. We well remembered the great home cooking from our last stay too - very much in the northern tradition, with rice and many dishes of vegetables and meats, and of course the ubiquitous rice wine.
On the following Sunday morning we were up early for a trip to Bac Ha market, one of the biggest Sunday markets in the north. Plenty of minority people make the trip into the market, but it is also pretty touristy these days. Many of the stalls are aimed at the tourists that are bussed in from the surrounding area, with lots of local Vietnamese handicrafts on sale - much of which you’ll see elsewhere in Vietnam, particularly down in Hoi An. As a result of the tourist influx, prices tend to be high, but haggling gets results. We took the opportunity to buy a few gifts, and generally soak in the atmosphere of market day in the mountains.
After another R&R day in Bac Ha, with a fun little bike ride into the surrounding hills, we were on the move again, on our way to the last stop for Eugene & Jeanette before they headed back to Switzerland. We were heading for The Cinnamon Eco Lodge to the south-east of Bac Ha, but we also had an important detour to make: we’d managed to order six bottles of good red wine for Christina’s birthday, which we were able to get delivered to Lau Cai City, so we went to pick those up. We also took the opportunity to get some non-Vietnamese food into us - Marcy & Milly have managed brilliantly eating rice and/or soup pretty much every day, but they were desperate for a bit of a change, and we managed to find pizza and burgers, which went down pretty well with everybody.
Again, we had stayed at the Cinnamon Eco Lodge on our trip two years previously, and it really is a big favourite of ours, run by a lovely Vietnamese family. It is located on a real farm of around 10 hectares of cinnamon trees in various stages of growth, and the family also grow all their own vegetables, keep pigs, ducks, chickens for their own consumption. They also have a couple of large fish ponds, so pretty much everything that gets to the table has been produced very locally. When I say table, that is not quite accurate, as lunch and dinner are served on mats on the floor in the traditional way of the Vietnamese. The mother is an incredible cook, truly the best food we’ve had in Vietnam, and her husband has a love of rice wine unsurpassed anywhere that we know of, and doesn’t let your glass stay empty for long - consequently the mealtimes are the highlights of the day there, and afternoons and evenings tend to be quite sleepy affairs. Their grown-up daughter, Hue, an English teacher at a local school, is the loveliest, kindest person you could wish to meet, and has a daughter a little younger than our girls, so they all had a great time playing together. Hue’s husband, Gioi, is a knowledgeable Sapa trekking guide, both speak pretty much perfect English, and were again wonderful hosts for us during our time there.
The farm now has a new bungalow, nicely furnished, and with aircon and en-suite bathroom, set alone among the cinnamon trees, so Jeanette and Eugene were able to enjoy a bit of peace and tranquility away from the rest of the family for a change. The rest of us were in the same old wooden house we stayed at the last time - a little more rustic and with an outside bathroom/toilet, but lovely nonetheless, again set in the cinnamon plantation, next to a large fish pond.
We passed a lovely 3 days on the farm, not doing too much, just enjoying the tranquility, taking walks, and doing some fishing in their ponds - catching mostly tiddlers, which the girls really enjoyed, although I did manage to land a 2 kilo big fella, with a piece of banana on the hook. Gioi had already landed a similar sized one just before, which made it onto the table (floor) for lunch, so mine got a reprieve and was returned to the pond. We also enjoyed some of the local “wildlife” (looking, not eating) - including a few large rhino beetles that hiss audibly if you annoy them, and some amazing butterflies and moths - including one truly massive, incredibly beautiful moth, the size of my hand, that stayed outside our bathroom for a couple of days.
We celebrated Christina’s birthday on 30th May, which was also Eugene and Jeanette’s last night with us, starting with the usual amazing meal produced by Hue’s mother, and an extraordinary amount rice wine pressed on us by Hue’s father. The family then put on a little party for us, with a lovely cake, and we shared some of our (not rice!) wine with them, although I’m not sure they were too impressed with it. We partied on late into the night back at our house, finished our red wine, and had heads to show for it the next morning.
It was sad to say goodbye to Eugene and Jeanette the next day, as they headed back on a bit of a long haul to Switzerland: their motorbike hire company collected both them and their motorbike in a pick-up truck for the 5 hour drive back to Hanoi airport and the flight home. On the plus side, the same pick-up truck delivered our next travel companion, an old friend Rey, along with his motorbike, fresh from England, and ready for the next and last leg of our big adventure...north again!