Monday, May 31, 2010

The Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day Eight

By now we’re feeling very seasoned with this motor biking thing. Looking out the window of the hotel we saw the sun shinning brightly signaling another hot day.

Some of us decided to wear shorts but also lathered on a thick dose of sun-block for good measure. Others decided to wet their hair and clothing to induce some conduction cooling.

The roads from Sơn La south and east was wide and well paved. I poured it on as much as I could muster keeping in mind the overheating issue. The others too were keeping an eye on me always ready to give assistance.

The heat wasn’t oven hot, but you could feel the strength of the sub-tropical sun. Whatever hair or skin exposed would almost crinkle a bit. Or at least it felt like it was. Luckily we were constantly moving. Whenever we did stop though that warm air would envelope us.

Yên Châu was where we took our first break. All along the roads here you could buy fresh pressed sugar cane juice. And unlike the city where they have to spike their sugar cane juice with sugar, these are so fresh that they only needed to add lime wedges to the rollers giving the drink another hint of spark to what is already a thirst quenching delight.

I also took the opportunity to get the Minsk washed and cooled down, and while walking over to where the ladies were enjoying their drink, a little girl not yet three years old said in perfect English, “Hello! How are you?”  I was floored. Her caretaker said that her mother had lived overseas. Here in the middle of nowhere a Việt Kièu, someone much like me, had taken or retaken her residence.

Maybe not right next to this highway but up there at the base of those green hills amongst those few remaining tall trees, I could probably hideaway for some time. I thought. Thoughts that frequently visited me during this trip whenever there was a meandering river exiting a thicket of trees and bisecting rice fields.  Or when there were craggy limestone walls set back behind a lake where water buffaloes were cooling.

Maybe this happens to you too when you travel. 

Anyway, after a little while longer on the road we took a break to have lunch. Instead of the normal rice meal we opted for Bún Chả, a dish of rice noodles and fresh herbs dipped into a stew of a fish sauce induce papaya broth and bbq meats.

Then more dousing with cool water ensued and we were off again. But only for a little bit until we decided that it was time to visit-with-the-locals to learn about the regions specialty and to fix another flat tire on the Minsk.

One new inner tube, a bag of green tea, some milk candy and many laughs later we were back on the highway heading for Mai Châu, with plenty of time before sundown.

Mai Châu is in a little valley 5 Km’s south of Highway 6. Even before getting to the junction to turn the landscape was already beginning to change. The hills were steeper, the air cooler and the road more winding. Then as we turned off the highway we climbed up a short section of big sweeping turns to find an expansive green valley.

This is an Hanoian weekend retreat. Throughout the valley are guest-houses and home stays. When it’s sweltering in the city the temps here are more tolerable being about 3,000 feet higher. To top it off, the whole valley is a big rice field, which means that the whole valley for most of the year is covered by five inches of water underneath the vibrant green stalks, contributing to the lowering of the heat.

We pulled into town just as the sun began to duck underneath the western hills. Before getting here we were told about a couple of guest-houses to stay at so we stopped to ask for directions.

While parked and while I was listening to directions from a man at a shop selling drinks across from a shop doing metal work, we all heard a loud explosion. But I didn’t flinch, neither did the man giving me direction. In fact, as I looked across the street to the guys welding I noticed that they had halted from what they were doing. Then they gave me a big smile and pointed back down the road a few houses to a repair shop. The flat tire that I had been getting fixed the last couple of days blew once again. 

The only people unsympathetic were Mandy and Kay. With hardly a few words they were off down the road. All I remember was something like, “You get your bike fixed and we’ll find a place to stay.” There may have been some parenthetical remarks like, “What a piece of junk! We’re out of here.” But I don’t remember.

Luckily the mechanic that made the repairs this time was the most cheerful of the bunch. He was young and complained that he was a little tired from playing soccer the day prior, a year since he had played last time. He said that if he wasn't sore then getting the tire back on the rim would be a great deal easier. And he said all this with a smile.  You can see him here in this picture bouncing all his weight onto the tire.

I kept looking at the sky as he was doing this. It’s not yet dark and for sure our resting place was nearby. Would I have to turn on my headlights to get there this day?

Half an hour later, I found the ladies at this nice and tranquil little lodge out within the rice paddies. It was a Thai village of stilt houses and our room was this one.

So from there we watched the sun set reveling at the fact that we had done it, finally making it to our destination before nightfall.

Great Tour-Day Eight from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

*Photos courtesy of Kay Okamoto.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

the Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day Seven

After waking up in Mương Lay and seeing what a pit of town it was, we were a little depressed but also we were thinking that things couldn’t be any worse than it was last night. At least if there were more construction on the roads ahead we’d be able to meet it in the light of day.

For Mandy this day started pretty much the same as last nights end. After our late lunch/early dinner the previous evening Mandy downed a half bottle of warm water, not wanting to waste any precious liquid and simultaneously sealed her stomach from any normal functions. Consequently, she spent most the night next to the toilet and woke up extremely dehydrated.

Kay and I exercised our best first aid techniques to get her back on the motorbike and back on the road.
And eventually we climbed east out of the river valley onto national highway 6 and onto a ridge, a ridge that would lead us into amazing terrain punctuated by stilt house villages, green rice terraces and lovely locals.

Pictured here are a group kids swimming in a lake, cooling from the midday heat when Kay came up upon them with her camera. They saw her and ran screaming. The third boy back was beaming with joy until he noticed that he was completely naked, and naked to a foreign woman at that. His face changed instantly to a look of total embarrassment.

This waving and screaming of, “Hello!” or,” Good bye!” will forever be in our memories of Vietnam’s countryside-a lovely thought.

Further on we stopped for drinks for the heat was again hitting us hard, especially Mandy. She had to lay down and take a nap inside a shop selling snacks and drinks on one side and fixing motorbikes on the other. True to paramedic form, Kay and I purchase green tea lemonade and loaded them with salt to help Mandy with her dehydration, while we listened to the lady of the house converse simultaneously in Vietnamese and the local H'mong tongue with her three daughters. They too tried to help by offering to get a mat for Mandy to lay upon.

Anyway, these roads were beautiful for riding. For the first 90 km’s from Mương Lay to Tuần Giảo, we couldn’t drive too fast for it wounded its way above a wonderful valley. The road was slow going but the views also slowed us further. Then after Tuần Giảo it opened up wide allowing us to open up our throttles.

To everyone else-I’m sure, this was fantastic. And for me it was as well, but only for a short while.

Climbing out of Tuần Giảo I got a little over confident. The Minsk was running like a dream. We were ascending at about 45 km’s an hour and I was able to keep up with the ladies just fine. Then, again, at the top of the grade I lost all power.

Before we set off that morning we all had the goal of making the next destination before nightfall. This first "stop to visit with locals,” which I’m going to call my fix-the-broken-Minsk-pitstops from now on, would challenge that goal.

So, I got towed by a guy, with his inner tube sections, up to the next grade, from which I could coast down to the next little town. Mind you, having to stare at a big flexible rubber band attached to your bike and the bike in front of you is a little daunting, especially when he slows down and then speeds up. Every stop and go I saw the potential kinetic energy build and flinched every time the band stretched. Remember having rubber band fights as a kid? Imagine….snap! You’d get that inner tube shot straight back at you, at point blank and it would hurt more than just a little sting.

Luckily it didn’t break and I was able to make it down to the bottom of the grade only to be stuck again when the road flattened out. By now the ladies had sensed my doom and turned around. This time I would have Mandy tow me with the static line, one of my climbing ropes that I brought along for exactly this purpose. This essential item isn’t on the’s list of things to bring-like a flat tire repair kit and spark plug puller, but it should be.

Anyway, the mechanic at this little town ended up being a total motorbike junkie making it a pleasure for me to pick his brain. He had a fleet of Wins and a couple ’67 Honda Cubs. And, I nearly traded him for one of these if it were not for the fact that Minsk has no papers. (Here’s Mandy on one of those ‘67’s. This by the way is her dream machine.)

Instead the mechanic rebuilt the entire generator with new coils and a new magnet, suggesting that I take along with me two more sets of coils for future breakdowns. Of course I would fork out the 10 dollars for this extra insurance. And we headed on with a little more confidence that the Minsk is fixed but also a little more reservation that something else could go wrong. Don’t push it too much was what I was thinking.

So, instead of full throttle I was maybe three-quarters when I slowly felt some wobbliness. Danm, not again! This time it was a flat. And with Sơn La in sight down in the valley below us, 4 km’s away!

Again Mandy towed me to a nearby way station for the weary Minsk driver. This one was run by a Thai family. And, while they nursed back my rear wheel told us about why they have long, tall hair dos and offered us these little plums. 

These little plums are not too different from the ones we have in California during the summer. They’re just smaller and greenish red as opposed to mostly red on the other side of the Pacific. And like the ones in the US, if picked early these too would have that sweet and sour taste, which I love. But fearing that eating too many of these would also relegate me to praying next to the porcelain god all night, I stopped after eating only three. As for the hair do, women who are married are not allowed to cut their hair. It’s a sign that they are not available to other men.

Cultural lesson finished, local produce consumed and rear flat repaired, we eventually rolled into Sơn La….with our headlights on, in the dark.

Over room service at a three-star, Vietnamese run hotel we expressed how we nearly made our goal, if it weren’t for the “stops to visit with the locals”.

But, boy! Those people were beautiful and those roads were great!

Great Tour- Day Seven from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

*Photos courtesy of Kay Okamoto.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

the Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day Six

The worse day ever!

Things went wrong right from start. As the remainder of our party was leaving Sa Pa, the Minsk began to act up again. It was a short section of hills on the outskirts of the city but the old beast lacked any power. Kay, on her Dream, and Mandy, on her Wave, left me in the dust. I pulled over to the first available mechanic out of building frustration.

He though doesn’t work on Minsks. What? Could the people be wrong? Actually he can work on them but has no parts. Ah! So, he directed me back to town to a mechanic who does and after taking the tailpipe apart, and cleaning it the Minsk was back on the road again.

Here’s where the nightmare really began. Granted we heard that the roads were going to be bad but while descending down a mountain pass road with Mount Fan Si Pan over our left shoulder, we rode on roads in various states of repair while dodging big construction rigs. Half of one lane would be torn up and filled with mud or dirt while the other half was maybe finished but still filled with mud and dirt from the other side. Then there were sections of just mud or just gravel filled pavement. Going was really slow. We were even delayed for half an hour at one section from a road crew. 

Then the Minsk completely dies as we entered the next little town. Off again I went to a local mechanic while the others sat for cold drinks. (I failed earlier to mention that the day had dawned sunny making it now verging on being uncomfortably warm.) Anyway, he had one set of generator coils left and that did the trick. He did mention however that Minsk parts are hard to come by now, now that Minsks in the countryside are rare.  He was right. I saw more Minsks being driven by westerners than locals on this trip.

But I will admit though that the beast is perfectly designed for these rough roads. While the others gingerly picked their way through the mud, the gravel and the disjointed asphalt, the Minsk just plowed along, floating on top of everything.

Our next big city was Lai Châu below Sa Pa in a large expansive valley, or that was what the signs read. 

“Lai Châu? Wow! We made good time.” I said. And Mandy replied with, “Yes! And such a weird place.”

She was right. Everything was brand spanking new. The big government buildings, the roads and even the subdivision homes were newly built. But where were all the people? It was like an abandoned ghost town but it was obviously of recent construction.

What followed were hours of map deception and more nasty roads, as we wound our way down hill on the side of a steep canyon next to a raging river. 

Great Tour-Day Six from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

That city that was called Lai Châu back there wasn’t Lai Châu on the map. Lai Châu on the map wouldn’t be for another 90 km’s. So when I was asking for direction to the next big town south called Tuần Giảo, I was getting odd looks and replies like, “Tuần Giảo? You’re still 200 km’s from there!”  But the map said that the distance from Lai Châu to Tuần Giảo is only 90 km’s.

We were tired. We were hot. We were hungry. And as the sun was setting behind the western hills of the valley, we sat for a late lunch and realized that the map is completely wrong. Lai Châu on the map is old Lai Châu and the Lai Châu on the road is new Lai Châu. Lai Châu is also a province and not just a city. And what the authorities have done is move the provincial capital north 90 km’s recently enough for Vietnamese cartographers and Google to miss the update.

We were still 50 km’s from Lai Châu on the map, which is now known as Mương Lay. But the nightmare still hadn’t ended. Just before dark Kay’s motorbike got a front flat. Then as it went dark the road got worse. A lot worse!

For many km’s there were no pavement to speak of, just mud and/or dirt. At sections it went up and at others it went down.  Going up would lead to a dead end but going down got muddier. Either direction saw heavy equipment vehicles belching nasty smoke. It was stop and go slowly. Stop and go slowly.

It was only maybe 25 km’s but it took an eternity. I remember coming up to a stopped Kay and Mandy, with Mandy shouting something. Later Kay recounted that Mandy was so mad that she was screaming, “When is this f*@!#*% going to stop?”

And as the scenery became brighter from all the construction lights things began to reveal themselves. Old Lai Châu or new Mương Lay, whatever you want to call it, is a massive construction zone. They are simultaneously building Vietnam’s biggest damn and several new roads on both sides of this river.

I found out after returning from the trip that a massive flood, years earlier nearly wiped out the entire city of Lai Châu. Government officials hence decided to move the provincial capital north, rebuild the roads and harness the might of the Na river all at the same time. On this day we saw this take shape before our eyes and under our wheels.

Eventually at about 9:30pm we found the only guesthouse in this dilapidated city. It was made up of several stilted buildings each teetering on its foundation. Pretty much like all other houses in this town minus the post office, the only brick and concrete building still standing.

Kay said that she was hoping to see the real Vietnam on this trip and determined that the reality of “real Vietnam” was truly bleak, after arriving in Mương Lay and after living this very long day.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day Five

Like every Giro, Vuelta or Tour, our journey thru Northern Vietnam also needed a rest. So on this 5th day, we stayed put in Sa Pa, a hilly tourist town just south from the border of China’s Yunnan region.

Sa Pa was established by the French back in their colonial days to escape the heat of Hanoi and it has since turned in to one of the Northern region’s main travel destinations. Nearby is Vietnam’s highest peak, Fan Si Pan. There are numerous minority villages to visit here as well as waterfalls and rice terraces to see. Also being a major tourist attraction there are numerous western restaurants to appease a weary traveler.

We got here the night before and began resting instantly. We met up with the others at an Indian restaurant to have dinner and recounted our day. Kay, feeling embarrassed from getting lost earlier, kept apologizing. Mandy told the others about the epic ride up from Lào Cai. I was just too tired and hungry, impatient for my meal.

The others listened and said, “Don’t worry. Wait until you see the view in the morning. Your hard work has paid off!”

And they were so right. Kristi chose this great hotel over looking the valley, the mountains and part of the town. We all sat on the balcony over breakfast enjoying the incredible view, as clouds drifted in an out.

Great Tour-Day five from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

The hotel is built into this hillside with several terraces and balconies to lounge around on. They had outside as well as inside spaces. And in one of these inside spaces just as I got out of the elevator going to my room, I noticed something amiss. Not that I was paying great attention the night before upon arrival but definitely this morning there was something not right.

In this lobby hung three mannequins dressed up in local indigenous outfits. Yet sitting on the sofa below them was a belt. I was thinking, ”Heck, couldn’t the staff put the clothing back on properly after cleaning?”

A while later, Kristi with a sinister smile showed us pictures of their escapades from the night before. Mandy and I missed this because we came straight back to our rooms after dinner. The others though went out, had some drinks and decided to have a dress-up party. They were the ones that messed-up the displays.

You have noticed that I still haven’t yet mentioned the hotel’s name, didn’t you? This is done to protect the guilty. However, these pictures are for sure incriminating, if you know the location of the crime.
We will miss Luke, Kristi, Daria and Manu. The rest of the tour will be just Mandy, Kay and myself while they return to Hanoi on the overnight train.

So after an Italian lunch-we were by then tired of Vietnamese food, and a massage we said our farewells and they wished us luck for the rest of our journey. They knew we needed it!

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

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day Four

The rains that fell last night found us again this morning when we woke up in Hà Giang, causing us to think twice about rolling out right away. Yet, by the time we were ready it abated to a sprinkle.  We would grab a quick bite and hit the road.

At breakfast we saw the same crew of Vietnamese that were at lunch in Mèo Vc. They were going south back to Hanoi. This being Monday was the last day of the long holiday weekend. But out on the wide boulevards of Hà Giang a few westerners were practice driving their Minks. We were not the only fortunate ones that were still out on the road playing.

From what the map said this would be the longest mileage day so far.  We wanted to go all the way to Sa Pa on faster roads with a more direct path. Zig-zagging up north near the border of China would be more scenic but Manu got word from friends who were there a few days prior that 25km’s of those roads are really muddy. Muddy, slow and long was not what we wanted. So we drove south then straight west, as opposed to south then north then south then north then finally south.

At least that was what most of us were thinking.

Up this point whenever we’d come to a three-way intersection without a positive idea as to which way to turn, we would wait for the others to arrive, consult the map, ask for directions and finally pick a road. 
So when Kay never showed up at the intersection of Highway 279 and National Highway 2-where we needed to head west, we got a little concerned. She didn’t go north back there into the zig-zagging route did she? You don’t think she crashed behind us, do you?

No, she hadn’t. Kristi remembered that Kay was in front and instead of stopping kept going….south. South is the direction of Hanoi.

Maybe she would figure this out shortly and come back. This is what we thought would happen so instead all of us waiting, just Mandy and I would stay and the others would go on.

40 minutes later she called and said that she’s 50Km south and would immediately come back. Whew! At least she was safe. Relieved I took the chance to have the Minsk looked at. Getting to this point on the fourth day, the Belarussian beast was really sluggish and of course I was still being pushed-started.
It took the mechanics about 20 minutes to surmise that the transformer that I replaced back in Hanoi was a junker Chinese made model. A few more minutes of ripping the old and installing the new and “wa-la”, it fired on the fist kick! A great promise for the rest of the day.

Meanwhile, Mandy was getting to know a local family who had lived for a few years in Germany.  The man of the house spoke German and from what I can tell was glad to be practicing that language again.

This getting to know the locals became a regular occurrence hereafter and it took on this form: Motorbike breaks down. We push or pull bike to the nearest repair shop. Locals would gather around to see the foreigners, offer advice and/or just practice English. In return, we get our bikes fixed, learn about the local produce, learn about the roads ahead and learn about a couple of the local customs or sayings.

Like the one that goes something like, “In a perfect world a man gets to have Chinese food regularly prepared by a Japanese wife all the while living in a house of German design.” We can understand the Chinese food remark because this area is near southern China, which is known for its food. When asked about why a Japanese wife, the answers came back with a look as if to say,” Don’t you know that Japanese women have manners and that they respect their husbands?” Kay, being Japanese may have thought, “No!” but never said so. As for a German house, maybe any house from the west is better than a Vietnamese house. 

We heard this for the first time from the German Việt Kièu man while waiting for Kay and shortly thereafter from another man who owns a repair shop about 40km’s away. We had stopped off there to let our motorbikes cool and get them washed. His sons were more than obliging. They were down right hospitable. They didn’t have fresh coffee but brought out hot water when I told him I was carrying some instant 3 and 1 VinaCafe. Then they washed our bikes and replaced Kay’s basket that broke off from her asphalt skirmish the day before.

The eldest son works for an insurance company. The middle one goes to law school in Lào Cai, 40km’s ahead. And the youngest is not yet done with high school.

Some time ago I read that with an emerging middle-class society there needs to be a sense of hope, hope of prosperity. Here, between Phố Ràng and Lào Cai, while waiting for our bikes to dry, sipping coffee and laughing with this family, I too got this sense of hope.

You may be wondering though why we needed to cool our bikes off. So let’s back up a little bit.
After Kay returned and after the Minsk got fixed we came across a long section of muddy roads slowing our progress tremendously. Then we stopped to have lunch in Phố Ràng, a junction from where we would turn north-west.

What we found next though was what the guys on Top Gear would call “a ribbon of perfection”, a 30km section of banking twists and turns along a river that allowed full throttle acceleration.  If I had audio of this drive it would sound something like this:

“Wheeeeeeeee-into corner.Kut, kut.-out of corner. Whee.Kut. Wheeeee.Kut.Wheeeeeeee!”

At last I felt like a motorbike driver for the Minsk was running in tip-top condition.  And the stop to let the bikes cool was just as much to stop for us to catch our breaths. It was that fun!

Getting to Lào Cai after this brief rest with the three sons continued to be fast and furious for the roads continued to be wide and well paved. And since the very first day of our journey we haven’t arrived at our destination until after dark. Today would be no different.

The stretch from Lào Cai to Sa Pa twists and turns up a steep hillside enveloped by clouds and torn apart in sections by road construction. Mandy expressed how this section of driving caused her the most stress. Visibility was terrible already as we came upon a particularly sketchy section of rough road. Here we had a choice of going up right or down to the left, both looking equally steep. To make matters worse there was a motorbike driver and his passenger, a local woman, screaming at each other. I went up and right in the panic with the idea that if I kept moving I wouldn't stall. But I did stall in the deep gravel of a dead end. You know how in the US on steep roads there are run-out sections full of deep sand or gravel to help trucks make emergency stops? This pit was just like that with a visibility of maybe 10-15 feet.

Slowly I coasted back down, maneuvered left around the quarreling couple and slowly descended into the nebulous second choice. I again had to employee my left-handed, high/low beam technique, for the next bit while Kay and Mandy rode nearby offering extra illumination.

After a long period of extra careful driving we entered the town elated to have escaped injury this evening and happy that during the light of day to have interacted with some folks along the way.

Great Tour-Day Four from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

On the website, subtitled “everything you need to know about the Minsk in Vietnam”, there is an essay called “The Deal” that elucidates some of the truths of traveling in the countryside like:

Helmets are law and enforcement of wearing them is getting stricter. Make sure you carry rain weather gear….300 Kilometers is a long, long day.

We agree with all of these but the following rang very true on this fourth day of our motorbike tour:

There are Minks mechanics in all population centers. People in the countryside are very honest and helpful. Wave, smile and be friendly.

*Photographs courtesy of Daria Hagemann, Kristi Cruz and Kay Okamoto.
**Another note worth mentioning here. Unfortunately because the mileage for this day was so long, we didn't have much of a chance to take pictures or video. That is why this post is lacking visually. Granted the scenery wasn't as spectacular as the previous day but it still was beautiful.

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.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day Two

This second day happened to be a bit more epic.

In the planning stages, I had consulted with my friend Dutch about logistical connections from town to town and determined that a boat ride on Ba Be Lake then a boat ride down river before hitting a road going north to Ha Giang province should be the route for the day. So this was our aim.

The boat ride on the lake was spectacular. The scenery felt alpine with precipitous hillsides but the vegetation was definitely rain forest. The air was cool and the water mostly clean. Some of us even hung our still wet laundry out to dry, for the night before thundershowers tore through the valley. This night-time rain would later haunt us.

At the end of the first boat ride, we landed at the top of a waterfall from where we rode down to a damn at the bottom of the fall to catch another boat to go further down river. But there were no boats running this bottom section, at least no boat big and safe enough on this day. What happened was that the water level was too low. Two days prior the bigger boats were making transports here but the damn hadn’t let out enough water since. Folks that were running the ferries today were using small boats and didn’t deem it safe to transport even one motorbike through the shallow and narrow bends. We were seven people with six motorbikes.

It’s fair to say that this day was the most unpredictable day of our journey. Manu hadn’t been on the roads we were planning and definitely not the river journey we were on.

So with our tails between our legs we boarded another boat to go back up river to take another road north.  They say though that every misfortune creates opportunity.

This misstep allowed us to head straight north to the most scenic, not my words by the way, roads in all of Vietnam. (You will all have to wait for the next posting for those pics and video.)

But before going directly north we were lost along these roads above Ba Be Lake. The map showed that they were paved but anyone traveling these northern roads knows that Vietnam maps are of the future this country, a promise made by the government or whomever to show infrastructure development, not the present.

It was slow going on these gravel mountain roads and construction zones. Manu even went down in an especially muddy section. Then a wrong turn brought us back to within 4 km of the guesthouse where we stayed the night before. The time was 2:30pm and we hadn’t even eaten lunch!

Over our meal, we decided that we would push on north to Mèo Vc or stop off at Bảo Lc if it got too late. We would have to surmount Mount Pia Oắc and then descend down to Bảo Lc. The distance to be covered after our meal was 100 km, with only 2 hours of daylight and an average speed of 20-25km per hour due to the steep grades and poor conditioned roads.  Going up was slow and going down was even slower for the rains began to fall just as the sun was setting into the blackness of night. The last 2.5-3 hours were glacially slow and treacherously slippery.

Great Tour-Day Two from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

My Minsk motorbike at this time began to show its failings. I couldn’t kick start it any longer and had to plan my stops at the top of grades so that I could coast down and bump start. At a flat section I stalled after a section of big potholes to wait for others and couldn’t restart. Mandy had to push me a few times before I was able to resume, a precursor to the remainder of the trip. Bless her heart!

Needless to say I missed the beautiful sunset earlier at the top of the mountain where the roads were flat. Also, being the slowest of the motorbikes in terms of performance, I didn’t want the others to have to wait for me anymore than they already were so I kept driving whenever I could. I was the tortoise that slowly inched along while the others were rabbits continually passing me and then stopping for directions.

We rolled into to Bảo Lc around 9:30pm knackered and wet. Mandy complained about bed bugs. Luke and Kristi just passed out after showering. And the others got hungry and found some porridge, even though Manu hates porridge.

I was hoping that this was going to be the worse day of the trip but we’ll see.

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

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day One

People often ask me why, upon finding out where I was born, I chose to live up here in Hanoi as opposed to down south. I don’t speak the northern dialogue. It’s cold here in the winter and too hot in the summer.

I simply answer that at least 5 months out the year the weather is cool enough to wear a sweater, long pants and shoes. I can understand northerners perfectly well and if they work at it a little they can understand me too. But maybe the most important reason for living in Hanoi is the city’s accessibility to amazing scenery. And, other than a boat tour to Ha Long Bay, the best way to take in this scenery is to go touring on motorbikes, an activity followed by northerners, Vietnamese and expats alike, with religious fervor.

Up until recently, my motorbike trips have been 2-3 days with at least one rest day thrown in. A good handful of us went up to Ba Be National Park last September and then in November a few of us took a shorter tour down to Cuc Phuong National Park.  But none of us had taken on the great big tours or the northwest, north and northeast, each of which takes something like 5 days to do properly.

Here is what happened on day one of nine.

This is our crew having dinner at our favorite guesthouse in Ba Be. To be honest it’s the only guesthouse any of us have ever slept at here but we like the proprietors so much that we decided to bed down here on this trip too.

Starting from the left front is Kay, my good friend from the US. Kay has not worked for almost a year, taking her own sweet time globetrotting. We were so glad that she decided to pay us a visit, adding enthusiasm and joy. Next is Mandy, my sweetheart-a German national working for a tour agency in Hanoi. Then that's me, in case you don't recognize me. 

Across from me is Manu, fellow volleyballer and great logistical addition to our team. He's the only one of us who has experience with the roads further on. He loves the rice wine in the countryside. Then comes Kristi-English teacher, volleyballer and frequent tourer. We travelled together down to Cuc Phuong National Park last fall. To her left is Luke, her boyfriend and CIA agent. Can't say to much more about him just yet. He won't allow me to, but somehow, somewhere within this blog he will be exposed. 

The person taking the photo is Daria. You might know her from the first trip to Ba Be, the Cuc Phuong tour and many other fun things that have happened here in Hanoi. She's usually the instigator of such adventures. She's Swiss and works for the UN on behalf of Vietnam's Women's issues. She is driving the Honda Win that was purchased down in Thanh Hoa.

We started early from Hanoi, going north, to avoid the holiday traffic. On this day, May 30, 2010, Vietnam celebrated its 35 years of reunification, a tainted day in US history as the “fall of Saigon”. Every bus stop overflowed with folks trying to get home for the long weekend.  And by the time we got up to the city of Thai Nguyen, the streets began to empty.

Another few hours of driving on beautiful country roads led to Ba Be National Park with its beautiful lake. The last time here we approached the park in darkness and were not able savor the scenery.  The highlight of this day for me was seeing the entrance of the Lake from the south end in the afternoon sun.

We got to Hoa Son guesthouse with plenty of time to swim in the lake, check on our motorbikes and have a leisurely dinner before bedding down.

Other than the first few hours out of Hanoi, this was an uneventful day, the last eventful day until the end of the trip.

*Photos courtesy of Kriti Cruz, Kay Okamoto and Daria Hagemann

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Catfish Adventures

Hanoi is made up of many communities and I am lucky enough be acquainted with folks from almost every one of them. My friends Daria and Christophe work for the UN. Luke works for the US embassy and Raffa’s father is the Moroccan Ambassador. There are the folks that teach English and those that work for NGO’s who I call friends.
Then there is a group of journalists here in Hanoi that serve as correspondents for local publications as well as world re-known news agencies like the Associated Press and NPR.  Mike Ives, a good friend, is a Hanoi-based freelance reporter who contributes stories to US based newspapers. He, as far as I’m concerned, is the most well traveled of all my friends here in Hanoi.
Within the last 8 months he was in Laos for what seemed like 2 months and spent almost just as much time in China chasing stories. So, when he came up with an idea, an excuse really, to go down to the southern delta of Vietnam to research a story about the catfish industry he called me to duty.
The object of the story is to travel down there and learn about the aquaculture of this controversial fish and get an insider/local perspective.  I would play fixer, translator and photographer. We would stay in my ancestral home. And we would eat incredible food.
First stop was Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. I met up with Mike at the heart of the city to begin our journey west on the local buses. And going local in this mode would flavor our entire journey. And as we opened a window while the bus careened down highway 1 the tropical air pelted us with oven hot dust and occasionally washed us in cool, damp breezes wafting from the ever-present swampy rice fields. Four hours later we found ourselves in my hometown, An Hũu, where we rested and prepared for dinner.

And what was on the menu you might ask? Catfish, of course! And if you thought that we’d have a crazy variety of preparations for the fish you’d be wrong, like I was wrong expecting the same.
The Catfish from this province, Tin Giang, is called “Tre” and it’s mostly farmed in small lakes. It is white skinned, tender and seemingly fragile. Think of a fatty trout and you would be getting the idea of its texture. It is too fragile to fry unless it is battered.
To cook it my relatives either make a sweet and sour soup, “canh chua”, or they stew it in a clay pot with lots of broth/juice called “cá kho t”.  The two dishes in combination is, believe me, delicious and inseparable, like a hamburger with fries or eggs with bacon. The soup is sweet from the pineapple and the fish. It is also sour from the tamarind and tomatoes. There is a little bitterness from the bean sprout ends, the okra and the taro stems. The clay pot stew brings the umami flavors from the caramelizing of sugar with fish sauce. The Vietnamese word for this strong flavor is “mặn”, which means savory. And this is the exact meaning of umami.
Here are a couple pictures of one of those meals, lunch at my relative’s land where he farms logan and rents out a small lake to a company that farms catfish. Or should I say rented.

Catfish as a commodity declined within the last couple years due to an American economic policy of domestic business protection, where at one time the US accounted for 75% of Vietnam’s catfish export market.  Apparently the low cost of Vietnamese catfish were putting the hurt on catfish farmers in the Southern US.  Now his little lake sits empty except for a few dozen fishes that the family consumes.  Normally it is filled with 175,000 “Tre”. In Tin Giang Province catfish farming has declined as much as 50%.
To get to his farm from my hometown, my second uncle picked us up in his long boat and took us thru a tranquil maze of waterways across the most easterly of the Mekong River branches. The water was cool. The air was refreshing. And the tropical sun was searing. We hid as much as we could underneath our hats from the midday sun trying to savor each shady spot provided by overgrown mango or avocado trees.  But crossing the mighty Mekong exposed us to the scorching sun, luckily the increase in boat speed helped. Near my hometown during what is called “summer” the heat can be unrelenting like it is anywhere in the world just before a downpour of thunder showers.
Further up the Mekong River and butted up to the border of Cambodia is the town of Châu Dốc in the province of An Giang, the epicenter of catfish farming in Vietnam. So prosperous was the industry at one time that the local government, with donations from the big catfish processing houses, erected this stainless steel sculpture on a park overlooking the river and its floating farms.

The catfish produced here is called Ba Sa. Unlike it’s cousin down stream, the Ba Sa cannot be farmed in non-moving waters. Instead of lakes these are contained within nets under floating houses on the river. And when the water is low a boat motor is employed to keep the river effect flowing.
Ba Sa, from what we learned, is the only fish in these parts that cannot reproduce in captivity. They are caught up stream in Cambodia and then raised contained. Then six or eight months later they go to market, which in this case means they go to the processing houses where they are filleted and their carcasses sold back to the local community under the cover of night in the wee hours of the morning. 
When asked about why catfish is so much more popular than the other fishes, the answers reverb with health benefits, taste and ease of farming. Apparently they have the good fats for reducing cholesterol. This fat also makes them tasty and tender. There are much fewer allergic reactions from eating of these catfish.  And one holding or one small lake can yield almost 300,000 fish a year at a price of 10,000 to 13,000 VND per kilo, .50 to .75 cents per kilo, amounting close to $125,000 annually.
Not bad when the overhead is something like $60 a month for labor, $800 for rental space if using someone else’s land and $15,000 to $20,000 for feed.
“An Giang is rich all thanks to the Ba Sa!” said our boat driver and one time Ba Sa house-boat worker.  He also said that we should sample the local Ba Sa specialty dish-Lu Mm Châu Đóc. This is Châu Đóc style hot pot made with the pungent soup base of salted, fermented fish….stuff, probably the fish head-spine-tail left over from the processing factories.
Here in Châu Đóc the Ba Sa is a little bit more robust than the Tre in Tin Giang. It gets fried, boiled and steamed. They make sausages out of it too. A local, friend of my cousin, who was showing us around, said that the factories innovated all these new dishes for their buyers.
And like these buyers, Mike and I sat and feasted on the Ba Sa hotpot while looking up at pictures of the many different dishes made from the fish. The hot and humid air-of the tropics and of the boiling cauldron, was tempered by the oscillating fan. Mike’s ice cold Bia Saigon and my Coke on ice also helped to softened the blow of the heat.
Our local friend mentioned that only thing missing was a special herb that is commonly dipped into the hot pot. “It helps round out the sharp savory flavors of the mm when in season.” He said.
It was no matter to me. We had traveled deep into the delta, hung out with my family and ate incredibly well, all the while learning about this region’s economy from one its most prized produce.

Catfish Adventures from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

Here are some sights and sounds of the delta.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Son's Hometown

Just recently returned from a big motorbike trip but I really need to post up a few stories leading up to this trip otherwise it will overshadow everything prior.
So, I went down south of Hanoi at the announcement from my friend Son that there is a Honda Win for sale by his neighbor in his hometown.
And, we’ll start our first Vietnamese lesson now with the word “quê”, which means native place or hometown. As in the often-asked question, “Quê ca bn đâu?” Or, “Where is your hometown?”
Son’s hometown is south of Hanoi about 160km, next to the ocean in the gulf of China near the beach resort of Sam Son.
We went down there to purchase this motorbike, a Japanese made, semi-off road bike that we would use for motorbike tours here in the north. It’s for my friend Daria but when she moves back to Switzerland next year I hope to take it over.

These bikes are now the ubiquitous vehicles for workers in the countryside. So popular they are that there are now many different variations and models. The highest of quality are those originally made in Japan, then come Thai and Indonesian models with the Vietnamese and Chinese being the cheapest.
We spent two days to retrieve this because it’s a Japanese model and because Son wanted to visit with his new-born son.

My friend Son works next door to my local coffee shop in Hanoi as a coffee shop manager.  He only returns home once a month and hasn’t spent too much time there since his son was born in January.  Needless to say it was a fun trip if not a little too exciting as we drove the motorbike back to Hanoi via National Highway 1, a total death trap.
Here is a little video of Son’s hometown, quê của Sơn.

Thanh Hoa from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.
When you come to Vietnam for a visit or if you happen to be staying here, don't hesitate to take up offers from Vietnamese friends to visit their hometown. To Vietnamese, their hometown is a sacred place. It is where they were born and where their relatives live. And, it defines them.
For instance, Son's father and father-in-law were both soldiers in the northern army. Their homes are adorned with pictures of them in officer regalia, which I don't see very often in Hanoi. And, once I returned and after asking some questions about Thanh Hoa, I learned that this area of the country was where the revolution to expel westerners began. 
So what started out as a trip to purchase a motorbike ended up being a journey to a friend's homeland to glimpse back at Vietnam's history.