Revving it up on the road to Ha Giang
The Russian 125cc bikes of the Hanoi Minsk Club are ancient, says David Atkinson. But if you want to see the wilds of Vietnam, there's no better ride.
I love the thrill of the open road. Shades on, foot to the floor and cruising through alien landscapes with the stereo cranked right up. But Vietnam was just about the last place I expected to find myself on a road trip. Self-drive isn't really an option there. Indeed, if I wanted a ride outside my hotel in Hanoi, I would just flag down a passing motorbike, slip the driver 5,000 dong (25p) and hop on the back. And as for the State-approved backpacker bus trips, well, let's just say that rubbing knees with the tie-dye-clad hordes and eating in the tourist restaurant where the bus driver collects his kickback isn't my scene.
Luckily, I came across a flyer for the Hanoi Minsk club, a group of petrolheads who eschew the trappings of mass tourism in favour of small group trips to remote rural locations. It sounded perfect. A way to get my engine running and get out on the highway while staying off the beaten track.
As I strapped my backpack to the bike and wiped the grime off my visor on a sunny Hanoi morning, I knew I wasn't in for a five-star luxury. But I'd always harboured Dennis Hopper-style Easy Rider fantasies and, besides, I just love the smell of gasoline in the mornings.
"The bikes are old Fifties designs straight out of Belarussia. They're the backbone of the country and used by everyone to haul goods around," explained one biker. "They don't go very fast, use a lot of petrol and billow out a lot of smoke - but they'll get you anywhere. Besides, they're very easy to fix. If you've got a stick and a rock you can fix a Minsk."
With the sun in our faces, we joined the highway near Hanoi's Noi Bai airport and started the slow climb northwards. As we progressed at a steady 35kph, overtaking lumbering trucks soon gave way to overtaking lumbering water buffalo, who eyed us suspiciously as we filed past the paddy fields. We stopped for dinner that night in Tuyen Quang, a town with two claims to fame: the most beautiful girls in Vietnam and the most corrupt local administration. It's a dusty one-ass town dominated by trucker rest-stops and so-called bia om, or "cuddle beer", outlets where its dual boasts make for natural bedfellows.
As we settled down for the night in a rundown state-owned hotel, one of my fellow easy riders, Casey McCarthy from Texas, told me why she had chosen a severe buttock-buffing on a motorbike in the rain for her holiday.
"I'd never seen a Minsk before Vietnam and, although it's ancient technology, it's a very easy ride," she said. "I guess I just wanted to get away from those cattle-truck bus trips, and a bike trip is the best way to see the countryside, as you decide where and when you want to go."
The next day we were up with the light, back in the saddle and on the road for Ha Giang. As we stopped for petrol, I asked what kind of people are attracted to the idea of driving around rural Vietnam on a piece of Russian war-era machinery.
"Half are motorbike riders back home or people with some previous experience, but not all. I'd never ridden a bike until I came to Vietnam," he said. "Drive bikes and you will crash, but drive slow enough and you'll be OK. If we go over, we'll just slide - unless we hit something. But it's nothing like driving at 130kph back home, when you get washed up off the road".
The last 50km to Ha Giang is made up of winding country lanes. It's a drive not best experienced at dusk, when huge trucks with dazzling headlights tear around blind corners with scant regard for approaching fellow truckers, let alone a bunch of foreigners on motorbikes in Dayglo kagouls.
As we made the final approach, it felt like entering a long-forgotten Wild West outpost. The locals stared at us like aliens just beamed down from another planet.
"I regularly go to places where only a handful of strangers have ever been before. Just two weeks ago, I took a tour to a place where only three foreigners had ever visited before the new road was built," he smiled. "Just as I was thinking that I'd been everywhere possible, the Vietnamese government have launched a programme to build roads to each commune, so there's now a whole bunch of new roads to explore," he added.
"That's why I do this. It isn't so much a tour as a road trip where the guide is having as much fun as the customers."
The Independent on Sunday newspaper (London, England)