Vietnam’s North Loop: Broken Bikes, Mud Roads, and Breathtaking Landscape
As we continued on Vietnam’s north loop, the first bike breakdown occurred on our way to Lang Son from Cat Ba. Taylor’s back wheel fell off his bike while he was driving. Literally, he was pulling out of a gas station when the nut that held his wheel on came off. Still connected by the chain his wheel didn’t go rolling down the hill and we were able to place it back on the frame of the bike. Luckily there was a mechanic 200 yards away we were able to wheel the bike to. Thank God no one was hurt and we got the bike fixed and continued on our way. With very little trust in our bikes, we continued cautiously to Lang Son with the ultimate destination of Cao Bang. The two day drive to Cao Bang was the beginning of some of the most spectacular landscape we had seen in Vietnam. The scenery rivaled what we saw driving through Phong Nha National Park. A little dryer than Phong Nha, the vegetation wasn’t quite as large in size but it is just as abundant. The constant mountain passes flowed into valleys of rice paddies and rural farm towns. The only setback to the scenery up north was the smog. This is something I am starting to become used to up here, but it is still disappointing to see. The visibility is similar to being close to a forest fire. Sometimes you can only see 2 miles ahead of you, but at higher elevations the visibility can reach 10 miles. This makes photography frustrating as you want to capture the beautiful scenery, but the pollution prohibits you from doing so. My assumptions are that the smog is coming down from China. That mixed in with Vietnamese pollution and “slash and burn” farming causes the poor visibility. Regardless, the landscape from Lang Son to Cao Bang was amazing.
Our plan the first day in Cao Bang was to visit the Ban Gioc Waterfall. This waterfall is literally on the Vietnam-Chinese border. One side is full of tourists from China and another, tourists from Vietnam. The Chinese won the prize for “most tourists on their side” hands down. The 52 mile drive was only supposed to take 2 hours each way. Still traveling with Rob and Amanda, we set off to the Chinese boarder. We had heard of a loop you could take to get to the waterfalls. This appealed to us because we didn’t have to double back on the same road. We had plenty of time and decided the extra time for the loop was worth it. We turned off the main highway to begin the loop. Within a kilometer, we met our first obstacle. Piles of rocks covered the road. Every 50 yards there was a rock pile that stretched the width of the road and was 5 – 10 yards deep. The rocks ranged from being on to three times the size of my fist. This made for a very bumpy ride. If we were on 250cc dirt bikes this would not have been a problem. However, we were taking these rocks head on with our Honda Wins which, have proven to be less than reliable. If Taylor’s wheel couldn’t stay on while we were driving on asphalt, riding offroad on jagged rocks wasn’t seen as an improvement. In addition, my back suspension on my bike was broken and numerous mechanics had recommended I get it replaced. My thoughts on the suspension were that it was still in one piece, and that was good enough for me. After five miles and hundreds of rock piles, Taylor’s electrical starter broke. This should have been our first sign to turn around. But nope, he has a kick start and that starts the bike just fine. By just fine, I mean every fifth to seventh time he tried to start it. His bike also had an additional feature of a small pice of jagged metal that perturbed from his bike. Every time Taylor’s foot slipped off the kick start, the metal gave his leg a little kiss. Scraped up, Taylor’s bike still ran and that was about to become the least of our worries. No more than 20 minutes after Taylor’s starter broke we hit a pass we needed to go over. There weren’t any rocks on the pass but it was still a dirt road. Halfway up the pass Alex’s chain broke. We are now in the middle of rural Northern Vietnam and Alex’s bike will not run. We tell Rob and Amanda they can continue on without us or our shitshow bikes.
At this point we are left with 2 choices, go back over the rocks and hope we find a mechanic on the highway, or continue on the road and hope we see a mechanic further down. We choose to continue on the road. We were close to the top of the pass and typically there are towns at the bottom of mountain passes. We hoped our expected town was going to have a mechanic. Alex pushed his bike the quarter mile up the mountain and was able to coast down the other side. Taylor drove ahead at this point to look for a mechanic shop. I stayed behind Alex to make sure nothing else broke including both our attitudes. Both of which were dwindling fast. We make it to the bottom of the mountain pass where we were expecting to find our trusty mechanic shop. And there was no town; just rice paddies, cows, and another dirt road. We attempted to explain to a local what happened to the chain. He pointed us down the road. I took a stick and drew “KM?” in the dirt. I hoped to communicate that I wanted to know how far we need to push this POS bike. He held up 4 fingers and pointed in the same direction. I was now 63% confident he knew what I was asking for, so we head off in that direction. Inching deeper into the rural Vietnam. With a mixture of Alex pushing the bike and me attempting to tow him, we crawled about two kilometers. Then we hit a “T” in the road. We found another local, tried to explain our situation, and he pointed us down the road. The excitement continued when we slowly realized the road was transforming into a giant mud bath. This muddy wet road was our only path to the mechanic. Refusing to let anyone else push his bike, Alex guided his mechanical steed through the deep mud as Taylor and I attempted to ride through it. Along this road, some locals saw our situation and offered us sugar cane to chew on. Sugarcane in hand, we trudged through the mud for the final kilometer of the adventure and arrived at the mechanic. To see the location of the mechanic you can view the map below to see how rural it really was. After we politely interrupted the mechanic’s card game he saw the bike problem. $1.50 later, the chain was fixed. Both relieved and slightly amused at our situation we remounted our bikes and set off back into the mud. We made the decision not to continue up the muddy road to the waterfall. It was 3:30PM by the time the chain was fixed. The sun would have set before we could have completed the round trip to the waterfall. Both Alex and Taylor didn’t have working headlights and mine could successfully light up an entire 3 feet in front of my bike. This isn’t the most helpful feature while driving at night and therefore helped us fully decide to turn around. Luckily, the adventure didn’t end there. The muddy road never improved for the rest of our 15 kilometers drive to reconnect with the main highway.
The hour long drive exposed us to what happens when you mix a muddy dirt road with heavy construction traffic. A constant stream of 10 to 20 ton dump trucks occupied the road. Each one carving out deeper and deeper mud ruts in the road. Fishtailing through the mud, dodging trucks, and beyond dirty we arrived a small line up of trucks and scooters. As we pulled up to the group of scooters, we were greeted with jeers and laughter. Thinking it was the standard “these are white people” laughter I initially shrugged it off. One of the ladies pointed to all the mud on my bike and legs. I then looked at her bike, not a single drop was on her or her scooter. Blown away by this I begin to inspect all the other locals bikes. They were essentially spotless. How the hell they managed this I will never know. Either we just don’t know how to drive in the mud or was a Brown Bear Carwash we missed right before the traffic stop. I going to pick the latter of the two.
The traffic jam was caused by a massive impassable rut strategically truck carved in the middle of a small hill. The giant muddy rut was impassable without refilling the hole each time a truck passed. One truck would drive through the rut and carve it deeper into the hillside. Immediately after, some locals would throw rocks and dirt in the rut so the next truck could pass. Then they would politely charge each truck driver for their services. This pattern continued for about 10 trucks, each of which almost rolled over when its tire dipped into the ever-deepening hole. As the line of trucks dwindled to two, my excitement to get off the muddy road grew. Everything seemed to be going smoothly until all work was stopped by a huge explosion. I looked back to where the explosion came from and it was about five feet to the left of Alex. One of the trucks tire exploded. Luckily nothing hit anyone and the tire was still in one piece. However, we had had just about enough of everything at this point and so had most of the locals who were in the scooter line. With what seemed like a unanimous f**k it, the back up of scooters cleared. We followed in their tracks because they were obviously much better at avoiding mud than we were. We finished our journey through the mud and finally made it to solid pavement. Like a seasick child back on solid land, I couldn’t have been happier to be on solid pavement. We made it back to Cao Bang just as the sun set and enjoyed another Vietnamese dinner. This was our second time we ate at this popular Vietnamese buffet. It was always packed with locals and served excellent tasting food.
Although the food was good that night, their cleanliness was not. Alex and I both got what I dubbed “Ho Chi Minh’s Revenge” or food poisoning. We were out for the count the next day, greatly regretting our choices at the Vietnamese buffet. The next day we took the normal road to the waterfall and rode on solid pavement the whole way there. The drive to the waterfall was only 2 hours, and it was the most impressive waterfall I had ever seen. Complete with buffalo cooling off in the water and a Vietnamese man fishing off the top of the falls, the scene was perfect. Literally on the Chinese-Vietnamese border, one side of the falls was catered to Chinese tourists and the Vietnam side wasn’t catered to much. There were significantly fewer people on the Vietnamese side of the waterfall which, made it easy to find a nice swimming hole in between the falls. We spent another full day in Cao Bang, as Alex still wasn’t feeing well. 8 hours on a motorcycle, that is literally falling apart, didn’t sound like the best cure for an upset stomach.
The next day we all woke up refreshed and finally left Cao Bang. Our next destination was Meo Vac. The drive was by far the highlight of the day. The landscape, at the beginning of the 75 kilometer drive, transformed from tall limestone karsts to fairly dry terraced rice paddies. Both were comprised of the same vegetation however, the further north we drove, the less vegetation there was. The karst slowly morphed into steep mountain passes. The morphing mountains were chiseled into perfectly terraced rice fields. Around 15 kilometers outside of Meo Vac, pine trees began to appear on the hillside. The smell of pine and the mountain air was a nice reminder of home. Meo Vac was a fairly unexciting town. Settled between hills, the town took up no more than 4 square kilometers.
The next day on the road was by far the longest, time-wise, we had experienced. With 170 kilometers ahead of us, the destination was Ha Giang with a small pit stop at the northernmost tip of Vietnam.
The scenery for entire drive was fairly dry with more terraced hillsides. The road carved through small agricultural villages. The villagers were dressed in traditional Vietnamese clothing. The vibrant colored clothes were fairly simple and all appeared to be handmade. These small sections in the North were the only places I had seen “traditional” Vietnamese life. Away from smartphones, Internet, and pop culture these small villages appeared to be the last frontier of the old school Vietnamese (for reference, these are observations I gathered from a quick drive through the few towns we drove through). Adding to the excitement of our trip, I managed to slide out on my motorcycle. Lucky to just have some minor road rash, my attention quickly shifted to my bike. Hoping the delicate transportation device wasn’t broken I tried to start it. The familiar unrhythmic purr of my Chinese knockoff motorcycle was a receiving sound to hear. With a few stomps, I rebent my foot pad in place and I was back on the road. Eight hours had passed and we finally made it to Ha Giang. We were the only white people we saw in this town, a pattern that had stayed constant since leaving Cao Bang.
Our two nights in Ha Giang were spent relaxing, writing, reading. During our only fully day there, Alex and I went to explore a cliff we saw along the river to see if it was scalable. When we arrived, we were greeted by about 20 Vietnamese locals on land and 6 in the river. The swimming locals were spearfishing in the river. Immediately, we turned around to grab goggles with hopes of joining the fish hunt. Although we never got to hold the speargun, we swam in the river following the locals as they dove down and hunted fish. I was blown away by the sheer quantities and sizes of fish they were lugging out of the river. This river was no more than 50 feet across and 10 feet deep. The fish were one to two feet long and ranged from 10 – 15 pounds. These Vietnamese men had easily shot 10 of these fish. The spearguns were a homemade entanglement of wood, rubber, and metal. Their goggles were made up of glass and a metal clamp. The clamp secured the glass to tire tubing. This created the water tight seal around the face and head band. After spectating the fishing event, we climbed on the rocks for a bit but the mud and lack of physical activity for the last 2 months made this activity very difficult for me. On top of this, Alex spotted a snake in the water. After a quick swim, the snake entered it home in the rocks. And that instantly concluded our climbing adventure.
The next day we set out for a 2 day journey to Sapa, a popular tourist destination that is comprised of many small tribal villages. Our goal the first day was to drive to the town of Coc Pai. This is by far my favorite named Vietnamese town. I don’t know exactly how the Vietnamese pronounce the name of the town, but we all knew how we wanted to pronounce it. The drive to Coc Pai was beautiful. The dry, high desert, the landscape quickly shifted back into lush green rice paddies and farms. Rivers and creeks were scattered throughout the valley and hills making the 116 kilometer trip one of my favorites of the trip. We arrived in Coc Pai, parked our motorcycles, and drank a few $1.50 pitchers of beer with some locals. The most entertaining part of the town was the food they served. We had been exposed to dog being served throughout Northern Vietnam but never as blatantly as in Coc Pai. It is very common in Vietnam to have a photo of the meat you serve on a sign in front of your restaurant. Chickens, pigs, fish, duck, and cows are the standard. Not in Coc Pai. Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds littered the signs in the town.
Our drive from Coc Pai to Sapa was fairly uneventful. It was cold, with rain at times, and the occasional crack of thunder kept us awake. The trip wasn’t complete with another bike breakdown, Alex’s clutch cable broke again. However, we made it to Sapa in one piece. Sapa is nestled at the foot of Mt. Fansipan, the tallest mountain in the Indochina region. We plan on spending a few days here before heading back to Hanoi to pawn our bikes off to the next backpackers looking to make the long trip through Vietnam.