North Vietnam

Vietnam Travel Blog

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I credit the motorbike, again, for allowing me to experience a Vietnam that a very small number of travellers see.  After spending nearly a month in the northern part of the country, 3 weeks of which was spent travelling by motorbike over 2500 km thru small villages, it became apparent to me that there are still, in essence, 2 countries in Vietnam.  The south is marked by commerce, capitalism, improvements in infrastructure and a general acceptance of most things Western.  The north, where most of the hilltribe people ('minority people' as they are known locally) reside, has far worse infrastructure and reminds one much more of rural Cambodia or Laos.  With a few exceptions, people here are still living much the same as they did for centuries.  The communist government (why they use the term 'communist' I'll never understand) is much more visible and the people seem to be more fearful of their power.  Seems a higher percentage of the population wears a uniform of some sort in the north as well...

We arrived in the capital of Hanoi by surprise one morning.  I say surprise because the overnight bus took was supposed to drop us about an hour south in a small village named Ninh Binh.  Other than being completely disgusted by the people working in the tourist industry in this country, we were completely not surprised to get something other than what we expected.  By this time, nothing was shocking to us.  So we regrouped over a cup of coffee (Irish) and made our way to the center of Hanoi, which is a cluster of bustling streets with people seemingly in each and every nook and cranny.  Hanoi was, for sure, the most expensive place in Vietnam.  The cheapest room we could find was $15 and that was by far the most expensive we had in our 2 months.   But as far as cities go, it definately has charm and character, and a good mix of locals and travellers. 

Hanoi had a much different feel and flavor than Saigon.  The streets are much smaller and everything crammed close together.  The people seemed to be more laid back than those in Saigon, although we still found that for each good experience we had with people, there were bound to be 9 more where they'd try to rip us off.  Its for this reason that I had trouble getting close to the people in this country.  Maybe its the way they treat each other, but its just not as warm and welcoming as in most other countries I've visited.  The good thing about it was that each good experience I had with locals was magnified that much more.   I found myself at emotional extremes in Vietnam.  Sometimes I was so mad I could have ripped thru a store or restaurant like a tornado.  Other times, I wanted to hug and squeeze some of the nicest people I've ever met.  Extremes for sure...

After a few days in Hanoi and many, many draft beers later, we rented our motorbikes and took off for the east coast.  We were quickly greeted with some of the toughest driving I've ever had to negotiate.  Not only were the roads completely packed, but the giant trucks in front of you continuously spewed black smoke from the rear and often, if carrying rocks, gravel or sand, much of it ended up in your eyes.  All this fun was wrapped up in a highway with people driving against traffic on the shoulder and high winds to boot.  Getting off the highway alive was priority number one for sure.  Once we got to Haiphong,  a small city of 1.1 million, the worst was behind us and we found a coffee shop that fed us lunch and coffee (we made it Irish of course).  Then we were greeted by the 2 oldest men in the neighboring homes, who sat with us and drank green tea.  This is a very big deal, a sign of respect, especially considering they most likely served for the North in the war.  The trip was off to a great start indeed!

Later that night (much later), we finally arrived in Halong Bay.  Its probably the most famous of Vietnam's national treasures.  While we had a good time checking out the scenery and neighboring towns, the boat trip was a tourist trap in my opinion.  Glad we only did the 6 hour tour and paid under $6.  That was the first of a long list of good decisions we made on this 3 week journey. 

Next we took off for Lang Son, about 200km northwest, close to the Chinese border.  We found ourselves close to the Chinese border quite often on this journey.  We were expecting some dusty town with a few shacks, and what we found was a bustling, modern city where life exists with very little influence from the western world.  From Lang Son, we headed further west to the small hill town of Cao Bang.  The views on the way there were amazing, but nothing compared to what we saw in the neighboring town of Quang Yuen.  The drive to and from this tiny village was probably the highlight of our entire northern motorbike experience.  I can't explain the feeling of driving thru these villages and gazing up in awe at the limestone cliffs.  Photos definately don't do it justice.

We left Cao Bang and really got to experience the fine road quality of the north (joking).  I think it took us 10 hours to get 150km, so we stopped for the night in the middle of nowhere, where there was only one hotel.  Its amazing that our modest motorbikes were able to withstand the off-road punishment we dealt them.  No flat tires or engine problems whatsoever.  And these bikes weren't new at all.  I consider myself very lucky to have made that trip, considering the rough road conditions, with only doing one oil change. 

The most entertaing portion of our trip for sure, came as we arrived in Ha Giang.  We went directly to the tourist bureau (they have government offices for everything in the north) to get out 'tourist permit'.  You acutally need to purchase a permit in order to enter this part of the country (I thought that was what the tourist visa was for).  So we tried to get the permits, but could not unless we were accompanied by a guide for our 2 days trip north thru the most spectacular vistas in all Vietnam..... Meo Vac.  Just as we were about to leave the office in disappointment, an American dude named Matt asked if we wanted to join he and his guide.  Perfect!  We paid our $20 and were off.  The drive to Meo Vac was literally awesome (mouth open for most of the trip).  Mountains and giant gorges as far as the eye can see.  We had to stop each 5 minutes to take it all in.  That night we had a blowout party with some locals.  The police chief made us drink the local corn wine.  Needless to say we ended up at the beer hoi (draft beer center) later that night and Matt ended up being the life of the party with his new instrument (some local bamboo woodwind instrument that resembled a giant flute-bagpipe).  Oh, and he also ended up blowing chunks as he left the bar.  Funniest night in 2 months for sure...

We made it back to Ha Giang only to find the local police waiting for us.  They interrogated us for about 20 minutes because we didn't have our passports.  We had to leave them in Hanoi as a deposit on the motorbikes, so we made copies of the passports and visas.  This didn't work for the bureaucratic minons of the police and they asked (told) us to leave the next morning back to Hanoi.  We left alright, but went west to Sapa (ha ha ha).  Weren't going to be denied the rest of our journey over that crap...

We thought we would take a smooth road, even though it was a bit longer on the map.  After driving off-road for hours everyday, we thought a highway would be a treat.  Mistake number 1.  'Highway' 70 ended up being almost 200km of the worst driving conditions I have ever seen (including Burma and Laos).  There were potholes large enough to swim in (no lie) and most of it was gravel or unpaved.  Oh well, such is life.  We made our bed, had to sleep in it... But we arrived in Sapa in great spirits (after an hour stop at a local beer hoi). 

The way back to Hanoi provided more of the same off-road antics.  The views were beautiful, but the driving was rough.  Unbelieveably, this old motorbike took all that northern Vietnam could dish out and didn't even suffer a flat tire.  I was amazed...  No matter how badly we beat those bikes, and we held nothing back, the bikes took it and asked for more.  Cheers to Honda.  What a brilliantly engineered product.  You wouldn't believe we could have made it thru 2500km (much of it off-road) on a simple motorbike.  The tires did have an aggressive profile, but I know people with larger motocycles and even the Russian Minsk who had many more problems with the terrain that did we.  We were back in Hanoi in one piece and so were the bikes.  Well, later that night Daniel spent too much time at the beer hoi and when he got out he had not idea where he was (nor his bike).  So he got a ride home from a local and in the morning we search endlessly for his motorbike but by this time the spare parts were most likely being sold at the local chop shop.  So my dear German friend was forced to pay $600 for his newest purchase (has the keys though)....

April 30th.........I made a mad dash 10km outside the city to try a lucky dish that must be consumed at the end of the month.  After asking around and looking for a while, I arrived to a 1km stretch of .......... are you ready.................. dog meat restaurants!  I'll try (almost) anything once and I certainly can use all the good luck I can get.  It had  grilled and sliced dog, a side of rice noodles, some stir-fried spinach and a beer......and some local rice wine to wash down old Fido.  Not bad at all.  A bit gamey (you knew it was coming) but the meat itself was tender and provided a real spark that I needed over the next few days.  Google dog meat in Vietnam and you'll get the whole story.....pretty funny stuff.

So that was my Vietnam experience.  It was truely the good, the bad and the ugly.  I met some great people and had many memorable experiences, and saw some parts of the world that few, except the local hilltribe people, ever get to see.  For me it was a once-in-a-lifetime deal.  I probably won't make it back to Vietnam, but who knows.  I spent the 2 months learning all I could about the people, then language, culture and their fascinating history.  And we did manage to have some (lots) of fun along the way.  Many good things to say about North Vietnam.  The people are more down to earth and personable than those in the South.  But all in all, Vietnamese people seem to be on a never-ending treadmill, trying to get ahead (for what reason I think even they don't understand).  Maybe if I was brought up in a country that had to fight off the Mongolians, French, Americans, Chinese and even democracy (and won each time), then I could understand what its like to fight for everything.  And only then could I understand what its like to be Vietnamese...

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