Leaving the wet, but also slightly more tempered central Vietnam, I'm looking forward for an exiting (but also cold) moped drive for 2000 kilometres. It should brig me all the way around the north, from the mountains of Sa Pa to the sea shore at Halon, following the Chinese border.
14/1. Slept like a baby - except for the crying. Wake up at nine, and get busy. Breakfast at the hotel, and they even rent me a moped for 100KD. I figured I have to get cracking, if I have to see two national parks today.
The first one is on the way to the one, which I really want to see. It is Van Long National Reserve, or - what I didn't know: Van Long Wetland National Reserve. Anyway, the moped have a broken under-shield, and I have to find some sort of string to tie it up with. The odometer and speedometer is malfunctioning, and that turns out to be a bigger problem.
Due to that, I misses the turnout after 10 kilometres. Here are really few signs, and the few that's there, are showing completely unknown city names. It is like that all over Vietnam. I end up doing a 30 - or so - kilometre detour on a slippery gravel road. I kind of get into the Van Long, from the back, after having asked a lot of locals. None speaks any English.
The air is as you can cut it, the visibility less, but I guess it is beautiful area. I do a few walks, but it is either vertical limestone or swamp. I try to find the entrance and pay the park fee, but after having asked every farmer I have met, I end up at Van Long Resort, and high-end recreation facility. I give up, but ask them for directions to the next point of interest: Cuc Phuong National Park. Could be fun to see on the GPS-logger, where I have been, but I need internet to do that.
It is a huge area with 222 square kilometres of primary tropical rainforest, and home to 307 species of birds, 133 mammals, 122 reptiles and 2000 species of plants. Unfortunately, my rather late start on the day in combination with the detour mend: I reaches the entrance around two. On top of that, the area I'm supposed to walk in, lies 20 kilometres within the park. I am now at least 45 kilometres form Ninh Binh, and I would like to be back, before dark at 17;30.
Never the less, I have to treat myself with a cup of hot coffee, before I do the next bit. In front of the cafe, a massive show of real colourful birds are found. Some bright yellow, some cardinal red and so on. Wished I had the time, and a book on birds!
I have neither, and I head into the park on a a serpentine concrete track, which leads through a tunnel of rain forest. A bit surprised, I must admit: I am still freezing. Tropical - or not! I stop at a few clearings and where narrow tracks leads off the road, but due to the time, I just explore a few hundreds meters each time.
I reaches the walking track at little to three, and start walking/running into the area. It is fare from the most dense forest I have been in, but here are some interesting plants. I hear a few birds, but see no other animals at all. I would have liked to spend a whole day here - if the weather was warmer and even with just a bit of sun. I turn back at an ancient tree, (1000 years, they claims) and on the run back, I get warmed up. As you might have guessed: No orchids today either. I'm getting desperate by now!
The 20 kilometre tour back to the entrance, is a narrow balance between time, fuel economy (the last 40 kilometres was a draw back!) and the algae infested slippery and winding concrete path. My experience on riding a motorcycle on ice and snow, finally pays of.
Get out without running out of fuel or road, only time is running out! Stops only to confirm, I'm on the right way back. It is getting darker and darker, and five minutes after I reaches the town, it is dark. I ask a motorcycle driver about directions to the hotel, and he offers to show me for one dollar. Fine with me. Unfortunately, he show me the wrong hotel. Not that I blame him: Here's a scam naming hotels after a famous one. The big one around here is Queen Hotel. I stay at New Queen Mini Hotel, and he showed me to Mini Queen Hotel - or the other way around?
At least they are close together. Back at the hotel, I have a hard time deciding: A hot meal or a hot shower? I end up with fried rice with meat, followed by some spring roles. Then I talk renting a motorcycle for a week, going up the mountains, with a guy. He have a true but little, rather new motorcycle. New brakes, chain and tires, but 200KD a day? Double the normal price, but I guess I better play it safe. Only problem I see, so fare, is that my feet will be out in the open, compared to a "Vespa". Might have to find myself some willies.
Back at the cold room to do two days of photos, and the diary of today. I got a feeling: Both windows are open, but each time I check, they are closed. Having a bit of a discussion with myself: Follow the plan, riding the 2000 kilometres in the cold north, or go way down south, to the warmth? If I knew, it was sunny, dry and warmth down there, I guess I would go south.
Go through my backpack. Considering I have to have it on my back all the way around, I decides that there are several things I can do without. Sunscreen, big hat, flip-flops, beard trimmer for instance... Because of the computer, I still need to bring the big bag. I could leave the computer, but I hope I will experience a lot, and take a lot of photos, and I have to spend the evenings doing something. Why not writing diary and sorting and tagging photos?
15/1. It is raining a bit, but I drive off anyway. I get a new serviced motorcycle, a spare key, a spare tube, tools, air-pump and a detailed map he got from some Germans. The plan it to hit the back-roads, avoiding Ha Noi. Good plan, but unfortunately, the roads have no signs, and I'm send back and forward as a tennis ball, each time I ask for directions. I meet absolute no one the entire day, whom can speak or even understand a single word of English.
First, I drive up A1, and then turn to the left, passing the park I visit yesterday. This time, I think it is the right way. The turnoff which should be ten kilometres outside town - is within the town. Seen in the review mirror, I see that most people wanted me to take the Ha Noi route, and after have negotiated several kilometres of extreme slippery clay-road, I end up at A1 again. Been driving around 90 kilometres, covering 5 kilometres of A1 - or less, in six hours.
If people just have directed me to the cities I showed the names for, I would have done a 110-120 kilometre tour in three hours. Now, I end up driving a bit over 220 kilometres in six hours. Most of the time on very slippery, wet clay. Even the bigger, sealed roads are covered in a fine layer of wet clay. I wipe off the sunglasses numerous times, but the rest of my face and clothing are reddish brown.
The guy I rented the motorcycle from, leaned me some rain-cover-boots. They protect my shoos fine, but I can't walk in them, and they make the brake and gear handling real difficult. The motorcycle have a semi-automatic four-gear engine. No clutch, but I chooses the gear. Should be the right thing in the mountains....
While on the smaller roads, I probably passes some great views and motives. I just don't get to see them due to the difficult road, mist and rain. Time and time again, I get this thought: Go back to Ninh Binh, return the bike, find a flight down south - or home for that matter.
At two, I have a coffee brake, after I reaches A1 - again. I actually think, I came out the same road as I left A1 off, four hours ago! Negating Ha Noi is, as I thought it would be, really a hazard and difficult task. Right through the city, I thing, ping-pinioning several times. Finally, !'m heading west. After several other sets of ping-pong, I find the park at four. Still raining, and they have no map. The guesthouse should be within the park, but I only find some high-class resorts. 700KD to 1800KD is wild, compared to the 160KD I use to pay!
After been driving around the park for one hour, I give-in, and take a 700KD room. It is almost dark, and no one have heard of the 130-190KD guesthouse I'm looking for. None of the 5-6 teenagers working here, speak a single word English. But man: They are noisy! I'm the only guest in the park - no wonder! The room is made of dark wood, cosy but really cold. The supper is good, but as with the room, ten times as expensive as usual. Here, like all other places, chicken is the most expensive. Even more cost full than ostrich. I take a cow in black pepper sauce. After quite some point-and-guess, I even get some rice along with it.
Back at the room at six, listening to the teenagers, their cell-phones and TV. The GPS logger reveals exactly what I thought: Four hours wasted on a short-cut. I could have done with a real GPS with a map! Would be so much more easy if they understood me, there were road sighs or I could look at the map more than once, before it disintegrated due to the rain. Looking at three maps, I don't seem to recognise the route I actually took. What looks like straight roads is zigzag of 10 kilometres from a tiny to a large road. None of the three maps looks the same! Even the names of the cities variants.
Working with the photos of today won't keep me busy: Only 14 of which four can be used: Local Tet trees, a guy on a moped, the lake and my room. The Tet trees is like a Christmas Tree, but the rich people get a citrus tree with lots of small, orange fruits. The poor get a huge branch without any leaves. Some have a naked bonsai with colourful plastic flowers glued to the branches.
The new plan is: See the park tomorrow, locate the orchid nursery and sleep in Son Tay - must be cheaper! The drive to Lao Cai (273 kilometres if everything goes well). Next day continuing to Sa Pa, passing the rice terraces and go up to 1900 metres on the way to Lai Chau - and down to Lao Cai again (222 kilometres in high mountains).
If it still rains - head bag to Ninh Binh (475 kilometres). I guess there is a reason for this NOT to be the tourist season, even though Lonely Planet said all year would be good! Right now, it is coming down hard on the hut I'm staying in, and my fingers refuses to warm up. Can't even find a place to dry my soaked gloves. So fare, my tour can be described in one word: Misery!!! Checking the weather down south at Ho Chi Minh City: Thunderstorms for ten days, but 26C.
Finished the daily work at eight, and spend the rest of the evening figuring how to make a proper slideshow as I use to be able to. Even though I use some old lay-outs, the describing tagging I use so much time on, fails to be shown. Not much more luck failing asleep. Lays awake, listening to the rain until pass three. The the dogs starts to bark at five, and I on-plug my ear-plugs.
16/1. A bit of light comes through the cracks of my posh cabin. I check the watch, and behold: It is almost eleven! Try to grab a fast breakfast and head into the wild. It seems like they have no breakfast menu, and I end up with noodles, and it is not fast.
When I checked-in last evening, I asked if she would accept Visa as payment. She said yes, but apparently, she would accept my visa-card instead of my passport- not as payment. I do not have the 700KD for the room and 295KD for food, and she do not accept dollars either. After quite some talking in Vietnamese and Danish, I get a boy to drive me to the ATM.
She said - I thought - it was four kilometres away, within the park. Turns out is is in the outskirts of the nearest city. Glad I got a guide! The first ATM first refuses me 3.500.000 dong, then I try 2.000.000, and it sounds like it is counting. Then it stops, and suggest I try again. Same happens, except it now say it had a malfunction. The boy ask around, and we find another ATM down the street. It willingly give me 5 millions.
I notes the boy is wearing rubber boots, and I ask him, if we can find some for me. We can - almost big enough. Better than the rain-covers I have borrowed, and I spend 70KD on them, and let the boy have the remaining 30KD.
The sun is peaking out from time to time, and it seems like we are going to experience a rainless day. My spirit raises several knots. Get my bill paid, leave the gear and head out in the park. After having driven all roads within it, I get a funny feeling: This is not really the national park, just a posh recreation centre with the same name, park entrance fee or not.
Never the less, I find some small tracks, and even some interesting plants. I hear quite some birds, but the only animals I see, is the back of a turtle, a tick, two grasshoppers and a lot of flies. Some of the plants around here are not Vietnamese for sure. It seems like quite a lot of the surroundings have been altered and actually are being maintained!
Spread out in the area are real nice hotels/resorts and even a water world! Another place, I stumble over a huge water buffalo. Here are several lakes, some connected with waterfalls. Plenty of signs around, but only in Vietnamese! The mist cowers the peaks of the surrounding hills, and the sun have gone for the day. No orchids, needless to say.
The receptionist told me, it would take two hours to go to Son Tay, and I figured I would be better of with a hotel in the bigger city. I leave the park - or whatever it was - at half pass three, leaving me time enough to stumble around for a hotel, before dark.
Now it turns out: Son Tay was the city we found a ATM in, and it is only 12 kilometres away. Then I take avenges of the dry day, and shorten the tour to Sa Pa in the morning. I head for Dong Hung, and it is a rather smooth tour. I have my way-points in a plastic cower, and even access to the map.
This is a completely other experience that yesterday, with the rain and mud. I reach Den Hung around dusk, and decides to call it a day. Fumble a bit around to find a hotel. It seems like the locals have never head the word: Hotel. End up in, what appears to be a local sleeping house of some sort, but fine with me. Just as I unpack, it turns dark.
Supper at a restaurant on the other side of the highway. The owner and his friends coming bye, enjoys what appears to be a bong. Four guys turns up for supper and a half bottle of Hanoi Vodka each. I'm invited, but it is not my game.
Back at the "hotel" I do the usual stuff, and I even find some Wi-Fi! Waypoints for tomorrow and some additional planning. I sure hope to reach the rather big city of Lao Cai, right in front of the mountains, Sa Pa is found in. It is a tour of 280 kilometres, but if the weather is good, and I don't get too lost on the way, it should be no problem. I might even make it the next 37 kilometres to Sa Pa, but why sleep in the even colder mountains? And I would like to have time to see and photo the rice terraces on the way up there.
Still considering, if I should go all the way around northern Vietnam or not? If it goes like yesterday, I let the guy have the $600 I paid in deposit, and give him a call about where he can find his bike. If it flows smooth like today, and the weather stay dry and around 17-20C, I might do the entire tour - and even enjoy it!
Finishing work around nine, but a tour round the city does not draw. A muddy main road and pitch dark allies. I just stay put in my room, listening to the pigs in back of the building. Even though it is only around 15C, the windows above the door and behind the toilet wall are just holes. Not even a flee-net! Take some time to warm sufficient enough to fall asleep.
17/1. Get an early start, and leave town at eight. Next waypoint is Doan Hung, and not only is it a relatively straight and well maintained road with some signs, it is not raining at all! Straight through the town - in zigzag that is, and the road leads into hills.
It runs parallel with the Hong River, but 25 kilometres north. It serpentines without a single straight stretch for the next 260 kilometres, making it hard to do a proper speed. The traffic lightens, and besides from some mopeds, a few busses and trucks, I have it to my self. It is still rather dark due to the mist, and I don't stop that much to enjoy and document the views.
After a few asking-around, I'm out of the right road from Doan Hung. Passes the mighty Thac Ba Reservoir, and somewhere between Klfanh Hoa and Pho Rang, I make a coffee break. There have only been a few stretches without any form of settlement, and the gas stations are everywhere. That is: A gas station is a 20 litre container and a one litre bottle along with a funnel. It is a bit more expensive than the big stations, but at least they still have some gas to sell. Two big stations were out!
As I go into the hills, I start driving among tea plantations. A bit later plywood production starts, and even higher up, corn is the preferred crop. The Tet trees around here seems to be cherry trees, just before blooming. Some in a bit of soil, other are just big branches. No problem transporting one five meter tree on a moped.
Along with the hills, mountain tribes occurs. Many of the women are warring traditional dresses, and some of their houses stands on stilts. Whenever they are raised from the ground or not, they are made either from weaved bamboo or of boards. The roofs are generally made of palm leaves.
The rice fields are starting to be terraces, but many other vegetables are grown on the fields too. The upper part of the hills are covered in some sort of pine, or another conifer. There are awesome views, but the mist make it impossible to catch on camera.
Water buffalos are the most common animal. They are feeding in the side of the road, pulling a plough in the fields or a sled with crop or other goods. Sometimes they crosses the road, and even the truck drivers respect them. I do for sure!
I reach Lao Cai around two, way earlier than expected. It is a rather large city, even with skyscrapers! The sun starts to penetrate the mist, and I see no reason to stay in the city. Why not make the best of the weather? I pass an area with massive bamboo. I have only seen clusters before, but here, they dominates.
The road start ascending, and I get some great views down to the river. The real terraces starts, but it is winter, and they are deserted. I stop to take some pictures of three women in traditional clothing. Others have refused, but at least one of them smiles. Unfortunately are the spraying some sort of poison on their corn - not exactly what I wanted a photo of.
The sun have gone again, and I sure could have used on the terraces! One city I passes was more or less filled up with cherry branches. Trucks, busses and numerous mopeds are taking their load. Then, right next to the road, huge orchids are sold! Could be one of the Epidendroids, but it does not really look like a member of the native subfamilies to me.
The sun returns, and I throw the bike, just to get a shot of the sun. Along with the blue sky, it make a brand new motive - never mind what is underneath it! I'm lucky, and here are some rice fields.
Half pass four, I reach Sa Pa. I find a hotel, and drop my bag. Feels almost like I'm falling over without it! Back on the bike to explore the surroundings, while the sun is here. Several roads head out of Sa Pa, I just continues on the one I'm at.
Steep hills with pines at the top, the corn and rice below. Some of the front yards are filled with the huge orchids I saw before. Strangely enough, they seems to only grow this single species? I stop and try to have a chat with several growers, but they does not understand a word I say - and visa versa.
In some places, the view reveals a glimpse down to the walleyes, covered in clouds. The clouds are mowing fast, and the weather changes in minutes. I'm heading for a town called T. Bac - according to the road signs. I hope it is not the same way I'm going tomorrow, but then again: This is late afternoon. Tomorrow, the sun - if any - will be on the other side.
Somewhere around here, Finispan erects its 3143 meter peak, making it the highest mountain in Vietnam. I guess I might see more tomorrow; it is the Lai Chau road I'm on. I turn around a bit before I reach the 1900 meter high Tram Ton pass. That will be tomorrows task. Allegedly, the weather should be so much better on the other side.
Just before T. Bac (which turns out the be the waterfall I'm going to see), I turn back. The clouds were closing in, and I might have peek at the city, which looked cosy. Up here, the most common crop is some sort of Cucurbitaceae, could be melons. They are grown like vine.
Back at the city, I park the bike in centre, and head through the busy town. Here are the first tourists, I have seen for quite some time. And the shops to go with them. Here are loads of Chinese rip-offs of The North Face and alike. I educes myself with a pair of proper driving gloves, which reaches my sleeves (was looking for a jacked reaching the glows, but what?), and yet one more fleece jacket. 220+300KD, but I'm sure I'll enjoy them! Can't figure what I do with all the stuff I have bought, if the weather turns warm?
Here is a pleasant mix of native culture and tourism. As I explore the city, I find several orchids, even from different species! Some Dendrobioid and some Vandoideae if I'm not mistaken. In contrast to the one that are grown so much in nurseries around here, they seem to be dormant.
Passes another tourist facility: A pizzeria. Why not? I have to practise my knife-and-fork skills sometime. I expected some funky interpretation, but it is just like an Italian! Coffee good too, but when the two girls light up the fireplace, I leave - else, I would have spend the night there! Better go back before dark: I do not have the name of the hotel, and mist and darkness is no help!
This have been the sort of day I was looking for: Plenty of interesting and beautiful sights, little problems and no rain. Cold be warmer though... I have driven 297 kilometres, only about 50 metres wrong! More work and planning in the cold evening. Got both fleece jackets on, but the fingers! Pity I can't write the diary, wearing the glows! Mac ought to build-in heat in the keyboard!
Planning is good! A 60 kilometre de-tour op north should have brought me to a marked - which is a Sunday marked. I would have been there Wednesday. I was thinking of skipping it anyway. My time-plan is on the spot so fare, but one spare day could be nice. The 410 kilometre drive form Sa Pa to Ba Be National park on minor roads might have to be cut up in two.
Comparing the two detailed maps are no reassuring: The cities have sometimes different names, and what on one map is straight, is eight kilometres zigzag by different roads on the other. One map say side road 20 kilometres north of town, other 10 south. Same road though... It is probably going to be a long day! At least, it is the most remote and deserted stretch I will challenge. Looking at my map with the sights, now reminds me of a chain of pearls - that have broken and been scattered on the floor.
Pretty pleased with the bike - knock on wood. I got brand new tires, brake pads, oil, chain and even a new spare hose AND tools to change it. Promised to change oil again after 2000 kilometres. Might actually be needed. The extra 10KD I spend on this bike is made partly up by its fuel efficiency: It easily run 50 Km/l. Compared to the mopeds, I have saved 12KD today.
So fare, I have spend a total of 10600KD, around 3000DKK/€400 in 10 days. Have been worse on other tours!
18/1. Despite I did have difficult falling asleep, cold as I were, I wake up rather early. Check-out, but leave the bag. Breakfast - if you can call yet one more glass-noodle meal that - a bit up hill at a local packed place. One of these places, where the owners moped are parked in the back, then bed at the entrance at one side, the fireplace at the other and the customer toilet have toothbrushes and other personal belongings to the owners family.
The sun break through just outside town, and it already feels warmer. Could be the new jacket and the new gloves, but I remember something from a weather forecast I saw: One, real sunny and warm day within the next ten days. Kind of cool to experience just that day!
Drive rather fast, until I reach the waterfall, I turned back at last afternoon. Thac Bac is a series of falls with a total height of 100 metres. It is not that massive, but pretty nice. I am all by myself - not even the ticket-man has turned up yet! Make a lot of photos, and continues shooting, as I head up the mountains. With a bit of luck, a few might document the astonishing scenery.
The sun have really improved not only the scenery, but also my spirit. No orchids, but some real nice tree ferns and some begonias. When I try to capture the waste landscape, I fails. Either I embrace it all, and it is impossible to see what it is, or I only get tiny details - like the side of a mountain or a valley.
Down in some valleys, the clouds are dwelling, and it is all a bit misty. I do several walks into gorges and flat mountain sides, but here seems to be orchid-less. Some huge and rather old trees seems to be the perfect place for them to sit, but only ferns are found here. Only a few plants are flowering, and some seems to have been brought here. One Solanaceae looks suspicious African, but the Buddleja might be a true Vietnamese. I reach a new set of rice terraces, but they are also abandon for winter.
I pass the pass: Tram Ton, which with its 1900 metres is the highest in Vietnam. A few deserted stands, and a big billboard mark the spot. Not much of a view, compared with the ones on the road up here. After a couple of hours stop-and-go, I end up in a tiny village, where the road splits up. It is still 32 kilometres from Lai Chau, but the road from here is in the rather flat but giant valley.
A quick refuel for me and the bike, and we head back. A single stop at a shop with orchids. Almost all are from what appears to be one species. A couple of others, but they might be from other regions. Not enough for me to start exploring the wild. On top of that: All are dormant.
I though I could do it faster, but time and time again, I have to stop for "just one final photo". Four hours have gone, since I left my bag at the hotel. Head straight on back through Son Tay and down Pro Rang or Bao Yen, depending of which map I use. In general, the few signs use one name while the locals uses the another. At least, they are all short, and in letters I understand! That said, pronouncing them is a challenge. Their written languish is made by French monks, using the odd French pronunciation. And to accomplish their special sounds, every letter have around 8 places to put additional signs. I think they have around five words in-between the English word "meet" and "meat".
This is considered a transport stretch, and I am, without any doubt, the fastest thing on the road. Doing it like this make me appreciate in a whole new way: It is fare the best motorcycle road I ever been on! And exiting too. When the ducks, buffalos and other mopeds get boring, a 60 ton approaching truck, that suddenly and apparently without any reason, decides to use your lane is a efficient wake-up call!
Yesterday, I glimpsed what I thought could be bananas. It is! And sugar-cane and pineapples too. Had a hard time believing it in the cold yesterday, but now it make sense. Here are also different sorts of citrus and ginger sold along the road. Seems like everyone, having access to the road, puts up a stand. Slaughtered pig, bunch of hens, corn cones, firewood and a lot of Tet trees in the high altitude.
160 kilometres since last refuelling, and my bud needs to get into shape again. Loosen the straps to the backpack. That means the computer get beaten up, but my bud will only have to deal with my own weight. The minor road I turn into is newly sealed, and real smooth - for about five kilometres. Then is is gravel at best, old sealed at worse. It follows the Chay River before it heads north.
It is one valley after another, with rather high passes in-between. In every valley, rice patches and fields of other crop are fund. Stilt houses with buffalos and ducks, and further east, work is being done in the rice patches. I take it easy, stopping each time a great motive appears. At some point, I kind of have seen rice patches enough for one day! Looking through the photos in the evening confirms that!
I reach Viet Quang or Bac Quang a little pass four. A bit early to call it a day, but next chance for a hotel is 97 kilometres away, and that is the tricky part, where the maps disagrees so much! The first hotel I find is in the middle of the town will do. Park the bike (in the reception), drop the backpack next to some couches set, which reminds me of aliens.
I do the town. Lonely Planet does not mention this, rather large city, and thinking about it: I have only seen one other tourist today. He was on a pedal bike with a lot of bags, heading up towards Tram Ton pass.
I find the local marked, and do the main street. There are no back allies: The town is found in a narrow gorge. I must admit: When you have seen one of these towns, you have seen them all. Having a surprisingly hard time finding a restaurant, but finally, I get my evening glass noodles. A dash of duck for once, a few bean sprouts and other vegetables. Like most of these dishes; rather tasteless, but he charges me 50KD!
Back at the hotel at six, just after dark. 220 photos of the day - most looking the same: Green mountains or rice patches. Cut them back to 90 without crying, but then it hurts. Only done 240 kilometres, but it have been so nice, not freezing all the time. Right now, I am glad I continued this northern adventure.
It turns out, I'm going to have a great tour after all. The diary continues in NORTH VIETNAM.