Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day Three

We all awoke relatively early this morning anticipating an early start to the long day but eventually we rode out around 9:30am.

For breakfast in Bo Lc we discovered a phở shop worthy of mention. The proprietor is a third generation phở shop owner and originally hails from Nam Dịnh, a town attributed with the invention of the national dish. His broth was tasty yet clean and clear. The meats seemed fresh. And his meticulous preparation of each bowl bordered on artistry. We were impressed.

Asked why he chose to live in Bo Lc, he replied, “ The air and water is clean. There is much greenery around, as you can see.  And the beef here is raised on grass. Everything I need for a proper bowl of phở.”

Fueled by this, we headed out of town and north to Mèo Vạc. It was going to be a long journey so Manu decided to go ahead to Hà Giang.

The provincial law states that if you are a foreigner traveling here you must acquire a permit. Whether that permit is required to be in Hà Giang or sleep in a hotel/homestay, we weren’t sure. Manu would get to the provincial capital first to sort things out, because that is the only place he knew of where to obtain this permit. If for any reason we couldn’t make it to the City of Hà Giang, he would back track to us with the permits. Besides, he drives much faster than we do, or at least much faster than my Mink's capabilities.

Highway 34 leaving Bo Lc goes all the way west to Hà Giang City. We would follow this though for only 8 kilometers before turning right onto a new bridge and up, and up and up on winding mountain roads above a steep river valley. At the top of this grade is the town of Mèo Vạc. And from there we intended on taking the lower of two scenic routes for the map showed that it was 20km shorter and not as winding.

The sky was cloudy and the air was cool, getting cooler also as we climbed up into the clouds. Then as the clouds turned into rain we again donned our rain ponchos.

Mandy stopped to help a group of locals-four to a motorbike lumbering up the steep grades, by taking one of the four. Kristi wanted to stop off and say “hi!” to fellow Hanoians also on a motorbike trip.
All the while the local indigenous folks began to appear on the roads, walking along it or farming the steep hillsides. The topography became much sharper. The mountains tops seemed almost pyramidal. I remember looking up a v-shaped canyon with about four or five hillsides descending down into it at a 60 degree angle. I think I was also looking in to China at this point.

Then the road leveled out for a bit as we crested a pass above the town of Mèo Vạc. Jagged limestone boulders and shorts cliffs were everywhere as well as more colorfully clad locals.

Soggy and a little bit chilled we drove down into town to grab coffee and lunch, to refuel. We saw a group of Vietnamese with trash bags covering luggage that were strapped to the backs of their motorbikes, obviously Hanoian, or city folks, out touring the countryside. We noticed also that the town was a little grubby which is no matter really because it did not feel touristy at all. Something we found very refreshing. Up here near the border of China in a corner of the country reached only by two days of bus riding or motorbike driving, we found a traveler’s paradise.

Consequently, It took us 2 hours to drive the next 25 km, for around every corner was a new vista and new locals to chat up. Daria heard that the locals here are very poor so she purchased notebooks and pens to giveaway. At one of these pull outs we met a group of kids and sometime afterwards we discovered that we were on the upper loop road, the further section. Still it was stunning. I’ll let these images speak for themselves.

Great Tour-Day Three from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

For a while there everything was going smoothly, even with an increase in road traffic. I was still behind everyone but keeping my pace nicely, not falling too far back. Then horror struck.

I drove up to a corner to find, Kristi and Luke parked off the side the road next to a fallen Honda Dream and a fallen Kay Okamoto. Minutes earlier trying to avoid a speeding motorbike coming uphill at her, Kay veered right and hit some gravel. She slid out into a ditch with the bike landing on top of her left side. Let’s just say we were very relieved when she stood up and walked off the road for medical treatment administered by Luke and Daria. What happened to her could’ve happened to any of us. Luckily Kay is a tough cookie.

Our scare and her cuts and bruises made us all a great deal more careful for the rest of that day. And would you believe it if I told you that not one other corner after that had as much gravel as the one she slid out in? Yes, I looked!

Anyway, Kristi took over for Kay for the rest of the drive towards Hà Giang, which was no easy task. Clouds began to shroud the ridge tops, where the road wound, and then soon afterwards the light began to fade. Visibility got really poor, slowing our progress on the twisting and turning roads, up and down the small passes.  

The Minsk, as you may have already guessed wasn’t in perfect condition, it does have a headlight but no high and low beams. It only has one beam that only got brighter upon high engine rev, making my entrances into blind corners with clutch engaged and throttle on high so I could see clearly. During the straights when free of fog, I would reach forward to adjust the beam up onto the road ahead. When it was foggy, I would tilt the headlight down. This was my version of high/low beams-my left hand and a loose headlamp.

I think we arrived in Hà Giang around 8:30 pm. Manu was waiting at the hotel having had arrived a couple hours earlier. Again we were all tired but managed to meet up for a dinner of hotpot with mushrooms and noodles, over which we recounted about a day filled with incredible landscapes, tough riding conditions and a little bit of a fright. 

*Photographs courtesy of Daria Hagemann, Kristi Cruz and Kay Okamoto.

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