A Motorcycle Adventure in the Mountains of Vietnam

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By Joseph Ferris

My Minsk motorcycle
My Minsk motorcycle
I have met many people who find Vietnam a frustrating country to travel in. I find that very sad because Vietnam is my favorite country. I think much of this disappointment is a result of how Vietnam’s tourist industry is set up. Most people buy the famous hop on, hop off bus ticket. This popular travel option allows travelers to turn off their brains as they ride luxury coach from one end of the country to the other, along with 50 other foreigners. The bus ticket is set up so you are forced to frequent businesses affiliated with the bus company. Lunch and dinner stops double as high pressure souvenir shops, and many passengers settle for the first accommodation option the tour company offers.

Sadly, with a little effort you can often find other guesthouses close by not affiliated with the tour company which will be less crowded, cheaper, and friendlier. Lots of people “backpack” through Vietnam this way without ever actually strapping on a backpack. Of course, many people enjoy this style of travel and leave Vietnam satisfied, but if you would like to experience a more authentic, friendly, and less traveled part of Vietnam, I suggest renting a Minsk motorcycle and doing a loop through the mountains north of Hanoi.

In the countryside of northern Vietnam the Minsk motorcycles rule the roads. The Minsk is the Russian version of the Volkswagen, cheap, durable, and built with the same design since WWII. I rented my Minsk at the Vietnamese/Chinese border town of Lao Cai. From Lao Cai, the beautiful French Hill station of Sapa is only an hour drive away to the west. Sapa is a popular destination and most backpackers on the train to northern Vietnam will be heading there. Not to be missed are some smaller mountain towns to the east of Sapa. One rainy morning I visited a hillside market located only four miles from the Chinese border. Along the way to the market a landslide had halted two dozen or so 4×4 Land Cruisers filled with tourists from Sapa. The Minsk can easily handle the rough terrain of northern Vietnam. I swiftly passed by the stuck Land Cruisers and found them still waiting on my return. After spending a few days in the eastern tribal region, I drove to Sapa, and a few days later continued west along the Dien Bien Phu loop road.

Outside Magazine has described driving the northern mountains by Minsk as a “trip of a lifetime”. I would have to agree with that description, but I disagree with their suggestion that you make the trip with a guide/driver. Riding as passenger for two weeks sounds like a terrible bore to me. The most enjoyable part of my trip was the freedom and thrill of driving. Outside Magazine lists a price of about 800 dollars for the guided trip. By arranging everything myself I spent a total of 200 dollars during my two weeks in the mountains.

The scenery on the trip is amazing. The town of Sapa sits perched on a dramatic mountain valley. A short drive from Sapa is Mt. Fan Si Pan. With an elevation of 3143m, the peak of Mt. Fan Si Pan was shrouded in the clouds as I drove over the pass.

There are many colorful ethnic minorities living in the mountains along the loop road. In Sapa, the girls from the local ethnic minorities will offer to guide you on hikes to their villages. These girls speak English amazingly well, learned only by listening to the foreign tourists. I never went along on one of their hikes, but it was reported to me to be a great experience. You will encounter many other different ethnic minorities along the way, each with their own style of distinctive and colorful traditional dress. This area of Vietnam is well off the beaten track. As you travel through the mountains you can rest assured that the ethnic minorities will be dressed in their costumes not to satisfy the demands of a mass tourist industry, but because of tradition.

The southern half of the loop journey passes through the more industrialized hinterland of Hanoi. At this point there are more options for how to return to Lao Cai. I chose to go north of Hanoi, throw away the map, and navigate by the sun until I met with the northbound route back to Lao Cai. I reached the mountains south of Lao Cai with only minor trouble, getting lost only a few times, and enduring two days of rain. Although there is not much to see in this area, the people are very friendly.

Hillside market four miles from the Chinese border
Hillside market four miles from the Chinese border
I stopped frequently to dry off, warm up and drink coffee with the locals. At one rest stop, the owner of the small café served me tea and then ran off to fetch her daughter. The daughter was home on vacation from college in Hanoi, and would practice her English by acting as our interpreter. No westerner had ever been to her country side café and she was delighted to meet me. Initially I was not so sure if her husband felt the same. He later appeared dressed in his old NVA militarily jacket. Giving me a hard stare and a stern look he asked me that if being an American, I was afraid that the Vietnamese would kill me. Through his daughter I told him of course not, and that I considered the Vietnamese to be the nicest people I had ever met. He broke out in a big smile and proudly declared, “very good!” The rest of the family also seemed very pleased by my answer and we had a pleasant afternoon of talking, eating fruit, and waiting for the rain to stop.

I had a sore ass, a two week beard, and was covered in mud when I arrived at the Café in Lao Cai to return my bike. The entire family rushed out clapping and cheering in disbelief. I assume they had given me up for dead and banked my deposit. That night they fed me, let me take a shower, and arranged my train ticket back to Hanoi. Those two weeks had been amazing, and probably the biggest influence for why I regard Vietnam as my favorite county. I had been so impressed that I have since returned and studied Vietnamese language at the University of Hanoi, and I continue to daydream about future trips.

Practical advice for a successful motorcycle adventure
Get your visa and plane ticket in Bangkok’s tourist ghetto. Lonely Planet’s S.E. Asia edition can point you in the right direction. The Vietnam visa should cost about 30 US with a 3 day wait. A round trip ticket out of Bangkok to Hanoi should go for about 250.00 USD. Seats are usually open up to 5 days in advance.

While you are in Hanoi you should:
Stay at a hotel in the old French Quarter. There is not much difference between hotels. A spacious room, double bed, balcony, AC, and cable T.V. should go for 15 USD a night. I suggest staying a little away from the tourist café scene for a little more authenticity. I lived for a month at a place north of the cathedral.

Leave the tourist cafe scene and go eat out on the street. Have a local take you out to drink bia hoi and eat bun cha. Buy local fruit. Get your ass up early one morning and eat street side escargot noodles for breakfast. (I fell in love with the 6:00 a.m. noodle girl who serves breakfast with her mother underneath a tree on Pho Phu Doan St.) Get fruit smoothies on the side streets off Hang Gai St. Drink Vietnamese coffee and people watch at the cafés alongside Hoan Kiem Lake.

Save room in your bag and buy some artwork. The art is of a higher quality in Hanoi than Saigon. Check out the oil painting studios around Pho Quan Su St. Commission some paintings and pick them up after you return from the mountains.

Play darts and say hi to my friends at the Amazon bar. Rent a bicycle. The roads of Hanoi are scary and crazy, but a blast. Leave a tip every once and awhile, the girls at the cafés and tourist hotels work very hard. Go to the market and buy supplies for the motorcycle trip. Get a rain jacket, big rubber boots, a waterproof bag, a good map, and a “VC” style hat.

To rent your motorcycle and get your trip started you should:
Hop an overnight train to Lao Cai. Pick one of the various cafes outside the train station to arrange a motorcycle. Any café should be able to get one for a day rate of about 5 US dollars. Find out when the various tribes have their markets. The more remote markets are much better than the ones held in the towns. Leave early and beat the crowds who come up on Land Cruiser tours. Explore Sapa and get used to your motorcycle on small excursions. Beyond Sapa the roads can be extremely treacherous. Be prepared for some tough driving, hard rain, and a sore ass. It will take about 10 days at a moderate pace to do a loop out to the west and back around to Lao Cai. There are simple hotels along the way at most small towns. Finally, don’t get yourself killed. Take it slow, be careful around corners and watch out for animals.

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