An escape on two wheels
Life in the ancient Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, is changing fast. Having sustained crippling damage during the air raids of what the locals call "the American War" it had remained a somewhat faded, sleepy metropolis for years. Then, in 1993, the first tourists arrived leading to an explosion in Internet cafes and mini-hotels. Today fake Nikes and bootleg VCD’s are freely available in shops around the Old Quarter while backpackers flood the city, turning Hanoi’s Hang Bac street into something approaching the traveller Disneyland that is Bangkok’s Khoa San Road.
For the droves of backpackers arriving daily via the Sinh Cafe Open Tour, the cut price backpacker dedicated bus service that stops along a pre-determined route, the well-trodden tourist route running north to south has gained a monopoly position restricting tourists to designated sights. Furthermore, when travellers do arrive in Hanoi, they are confronted with a slew of traveller cafes - many having the same name due to Vietnam’s lack of copyright laws - and all offering the same cheap and cheerful trips to the likes of Ha Long Bay and Sapa.
So what is the canny independent traveller who wants to deviate from the tourist route supposed to do? "Self drive cars aren’t really an option but jeep and motorbike trips are an increasingly popular ways to explore off the beaten track," explains Aaron Adams, co-manager of the Kangaroo Cafe, Hanoi’s only ex-pat run traveller cafe. "You can hire a motorbike for US$5 a day; the temples and craft villages around Hanoi make great day trips by bike."
One man pioneering the concept of travel away from the tourist traps is Digby Greenhalgh, a 30-year old Australian who moved to Vietnam from Sydney in 1994 as a photographer. Since then he has made over 100 trips into the mountains of the north building up a comprehensive, albeit as yet unpublished, motorbike guidebook to Vietnam.
Greenhalgh is the founder of the Hanoi Minsk Club, a society that organises tailored packages for small groups to remote rural locations. The name refers to their chosen mode of transport: the Russian Minsk 125cc two stoke motorbike, a sturdy war-era machine ideal for tackling rough country terrain. Assembled in Minsk Belarussia, 14,000 are exported to Vietnam each year and second hand the bikes change hands for US$350.
The trips are best suited to those with some prior motorbike experience as - according to the weather - the going can be tough and the freedom of escaping the tourist coach parties doesn't come cheap, but the experience is enough to satisfy anyone’s secret Easy Rider fantasies.
" I love the bikes. The Vietnamese call them "con trau gia" or old buffalo as they’re all about low efficiency, high fuel consumption but extreme robustness. " says Greenhalgh, sipping coffee in the club’s unofficial base, Hanoi’s Macquis Cafe. "I’ve seen a squashed Coke can fashioned into a Minsk clutch plate. I’ve used strips of a truck inner tube to keep the front suspension and wheel from falling off. The beauty is there are only a certain number of things that can go wrong with a Minsk because there are only a certain number of parts on it."
Sold on the idea of the wind in my face and the smell of gasoline in my nostrils, I joined a Minsk club trip heading from Hanoi to the principal city of the north, Ha Giang.
On a sunny first morning we join Highway 2 near Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport. As we start the slow climb north, the road disintegrates from tarmac to a rocky track and the scenery shifts from urban sprawl to lush rice paddies. Attempts to overtake lumbering trucks are replaced by attempts to overtake lumbering water buffalo.
We stop 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’ cuddle beer outlets where Tuyen Quang’s two claims to fame are natural bedfellows.
As we settle down for the night in a run down State-owned hotel, one of my fellow bikers, 32-year-old Thomas McCarthy from Texas, tells me why he has chosen to spend his trip to Vietnam taking a severe buttock-buffing on a motorbike in the rain.
"I’d never seen a Minsk before I got to Vietnam and, although, it’s ancient technology, it’s a very easy ride," he says. "I guess I just wanted to get away from those cattle-truck mass tourist bus trips and cruising around on a Russian bike seems a pretty cool way to see the country."
On the second day we start early and follow the Lo River north along Highway 2. As we pass by Cham Chu mountain, Vietnam’s second tallest peak at 1587 feet, the track breaks down completely to a muddy mire exasperated by road workers shifting around huge slabs of rock in knee-deep mud. The last 50km to Ha Giang is made up of windy country lanes. It’s a drive not best experienced at dusk when huge trucks with blinding headlights at full beam tear around blind corners with scant regard for approaching fellow truckers, let alone a bunch of foreigners on motorbikes in Day-Glo cagooles.
The approach to Ha Giang town feels like entering a Wild West village. The first thing that strikes you is the heavy Police presence; the second the fact that the locals are staring at us like aliens just beamed down from another planet.
Compared to other Vietnamese/Chinese border crossings at Lao Cai, Dong Dang and Mong Cai - border gates staffed by bureaucracy-loving officials - the Ha Giang border region consists of numerous mountain passes. This provides a natural home to the burgeoning clandestine smuggling trade in endangered species and citizens of each respective country seeking an area too lay low a while for reasons best not explored by dollar-carrying tourists.
As we settle down for a dinner of traditional Vietnamese Pho Bo (rice noodle soup with beef), Digby explains the concept behind Minsk Club. "I act as a guide in the old fashioned sense. I show people the most interesting route and they make sure they get the most out of it," he says opening up a bottle of locally-brewed beer. "Most tourists don’t realise North Vietnam contains some of the most spectacular scenery in South East Asia and is full of many different ethnic minority hill tribe peoples living like they did 1,000 years ago."
To progress onwards from Ha Giang requires special visas from the local authorities as the mountain road that runs along the Chinese border is prone to sporadic flare ups as tensions between the two arch rival countries ebb and flow. Instead, we head back to Hanoi.
I’m rejoin a tourist bus heading south to the ancient capital of Hue and Digby is busy organising burgeoning Minsk club activities. First, forming a percussion band based around beating an old Minsk with various objects like spanners and, then, finding an amphibious Minsk sea worthy enough to tackle a Red River crossing.
"You know what I love about these trips," he shouts over the roar of the engine as we start the slow ascent back towards the bustle of a backpacker-bulging Hanoi.
"What?" I shout back, the rain now pounding my visor as the mountains fade behind us.
"The unpredictable surprise of adventure in places where only 10-100 white people have ever been before," says Greenhalgh. "If a road is washed out then we cut down bamboo and make a raft. If we get invited to a hill tribe wedding which means no driving because of all the rice whisky down our gullets then we don’t drive that day. And if those same people offer us some yellow buffalo stomach lining as guests of honour then we sure as hell try and eat it."
"This is no tour," he smiles, "there is no predetermined agenda."
South China Morning Post newspaper (Hong Kong)