Thank you for one of the best weeks I've had in my six years travelling. Anyway, many thanks for a great trip, your patience and an insight to a part of Vietnam I could never have discovered on my own. Here is the story....
The ancient track crests another hill then spirals down. Kill the engine and freewheel, cool air drying beads of sweat. Just the soft thump of tyres on cobbles, saddlebags jumping and brakes quietly whistling. Glimpses of a red, mud-swollen river in the valley bordered by impossibly green paddy fields. Higher, layer upon layer of flooded terraces like folds of toffee cascading from a ladle. Beside the path knots of ragged, half-clothed or naked children giggle timorously; elder women (thirteen or thirty?) in multi-coloured embroidered tunics, hooped necklaces with huge dangling earrings huddle in twos and threes, a few daring a small wave but most just staring, startled by our abrupt intrusion into their time and space.
The mountain region of north Vietnam is not simply an area of staggering natural beauty but is home to a handful of tribes whose lives have barely changed since they arrived from remote parts of Thailand and China and constructed these stupendous terraces and waterways.
Having bought a depressingly inadequate motorbike in Saigon and travelled the surprising length of the country, I arrived in Hanoi with two ambitions - to find a Minsk motorbike and a reliable guide for a trip into the mountains. The Minsk is a 1950's style two-stroke 125cc bike still being built in Belarus and imported cheaply into Vietnam as agricultural machinery. Designed to go where there are no roads, it has an almost legendary reputation among bikers. "In Minsk we Trust" is a rather tongue-in-cheek phrase - the bike is as notorious for minor ailments as it is famous for its durability and ease of maintenance. I also needed an experienced guide. Travelling in the area with no Vietnamese, nor knowledge of the terrain or people would certainly have been an option, but would have been akin to walking into a library blindfold.
I was steered towards Highway 4 - a Vietnamese Cafe in the Old City, jointly owned by two long-term ex-pats. I signed up for a week's tour with a Belgian couple, Hugo and Jenny and Dave from Washington DC. We met up the night before the trip in Highway 4 and, after brief administrative formalities, got stuck into a selection of Vietnamese specialties - including snake fricassee, bull's penis stew and pig's brains. Marcus is responsible for a staggering range of rice-based liquors infused with fruit, spices, roots, insects and animals. The informative menu lists both the ingredients and the supposed curative properties. I have become accustomed to seeing such jars with crammed with coiled snakes but here the jars displayed everything from ginseng to sea-horses, hornets and scorpions.
Our tour proper started the following morning when, in varying states of nausea and dehydration we collected our bikes from Cuong - the Hanoi Minsk specialist - and headed for the hills. Thirty kilometres later our guide suffered the indignity of the being the first puncture victim - but, as usual in this country, it happened 100 yards from a workshop. The odds are marginally in favour of this being innocent, there being so many workshops around, but the frequency lends credence to the belief that the owners spread nails on the road!
Accommodation varied from small family-run guest-houses to a plush hotel in Sapa. We carried food and water for picnic lunches en route and stopped for 'bia hoi' - fresh and refreshing low alcohol beer - in the late afternoon. We crossed a number of streams and small rivers, usually fording them but also using a couple of wildly swinging bamboo suspension bridges. We met half a dozen different tribes including the fearsome-looking 'Medusa' women whose tall black headdresses look like coiled cobras surmounted by high silver decorations, but it was the H'Mong, originally from China and Mongolia, that were most evident. Tight-sleeved blouses embroidered in bright pinks, reds and greens, long black tunic-dresses and red scarves folded into exotic headdresses. Many of the children had handkerchief-style headdresses with old French sliver 'sou' coins dangling down. Depending on the roads and tracks we followed we would either be met with broad smiles and waves or suspicious, sometimes frightened looks. Quite often the women and children ran away to hide as they heard our bikes coming.
Day four was a 'biggie'.He warned us the night before that we would be trying out a new route involving the crossing of three rivers - two of which had been reported as fordable but the third would probably entail trying to hire a boat. The first river was not too deep but flowed swiftly enough to make it tricky keeping a line. We all got across unscathed and without having to unload our saddlebags. The second was more of a challenge - as evidenced by the crowd on onlookers on the far side obviously waiting to be entertained. We watched as a Vietnamese dismounted and walked his moped across, noting his line and the depth of the water which came above his knees and well over his exhaust. The ford was about thirty yards across and ten feet wide, fast flowing with a three-four foot weir downstream to our right. I was due to cross next but he waved to indicate I should push my bike across - I can't say I was desperately disappointed. 'Dynamo' Dave was determined to ride over - and did so accompanied by much applause. Hugo came last and we were reminded of his 'tip' the night before that the secret was to always head slightly upstream rather than keeping a straight line. Halfway across he veered violently downstream and seemed destined to disappear into the foaming weir, but he managed to struggle back on line and roared back up the bank laughing. His smile quickly faded when he discovered Jenny, who was supposed to be filming his exploit, had pushed a wrong button and recorded nothing.
We had all managed to get across but knew that we would have trouble with the last crossing. In fact, it was something of an anticlimax. Road workers stood aside as we approached and pointed proudly to a newly constructed stone ford that reduced the flow to just a few inches. I for one was not complaining.
Each day just seemed to get better and the next was probably the highlight of a quite incredible week. High mountain passes, steep paddy-fields, 'Flower H'Mong' women looking for all the world as if they had just stepped out of the high Andes, swapping those incongruous 'bowler' hats for tubular black hemp hats with their hair in huge coils rising through the centre. We stopped for lunch close to a rock pool under a bridge on the road up to the pass above Sapa. Fresh, cool mountain water swirled over our hot and weary bodies before a picnic with fresh bread rolls, cheese, pate and salad.
As usual we provided the entertainment with half the nearest village turning out to stare from the safety of the bridge at our antics and strange bodies. It was a common feature wherever we went that we were the main attraction. Crowds thronged around us in the villages where many of the adults and most of the children would rarely have seen westerners before. The more adventurous males would stroke our strangely hairy arms, prod bulging stomachs and bottoms and laugh at our curiously copious facial hair.
We donated the remains of our lunch to the local children and continued our way up the pass and on into Sapa. Undressing for a much-needed and keenly anticipated shower, I realised I had left my money-belt beside the rock-pool. It contained not just all my cash but my passport and credit card too. I had just a pocketful of small change - the delightfully-named Vietnamese Dong - and no alternative identification. It was too late to return that night and anyway a violent storm had just erupted. It was agreed by all that we would rise early, return to the lunch spot and get back for a late breakfast before continuing our planned route. Before our first western-style dinner that week, we had a session on 'ruou' the local liquor at a stall in the market. Curiously 'ruou' is pronounced somewhere between the English word 'zeal' and the old Russian limousine 'Zil'. However it is pronounced, mixed with far too much red wine later, it had a pronounced effect on us all the following morning.
We set off at dawn just after 5am and arrived at the lunch site shortly after 6.30. There were obvious signs that the village kids had scavenged the site and some ominous burned plastic remains on one of the rocks, but no sign of the money-belt or any of its contents. Personally I felt we should visit the local shop and ask which kid had turned up in the afternoon, placed an order for a new moped and bought 600 Mars bars. We made some discreet inquiries. An hour later he returned having discovered that the kids had indeed found the belt but that the contents had disappeared and the belt had been burned. We returned to Sapa for breakfast and the others continued the tour while I wasted the day in a vain attempt to get the local police to register the loss.
When I first called at the police station I was told they were having breakfast and that I should come back later. At 11.30 I was met with dumb amazement - how could I expect anyone to bother with me at lunchtime. When, on my final visit I was faced with four or five figures huddled over their rice-bowls, I knew I was defeated. I did write out a report which my hotel kindly translated into Vietnamese. I gave this to the police but they steadfastly refused to talk to me, give me a copy of my report or actually register the loss. As police stations go it was probably a fine restaurant.
I stayed again that night in Sapa, setting off well before breakfast the next day to catch up with my companions who had stayed in Lao Cai - right on the Chinese border. Further thunderstorms had wreaked havoc in the mountains and deep, red mudslides covered the road, often well over axle-deep. I had allowed 75 minutes to cover the 35kms to Lao Cai and after three-quarters of an hour I was only 10kms into the journey. Luckily things improved as I descended and I arrived with a few minutes to spare. Loa Cai is one of the main crossing points into China with both road and rail links over the wide and, that day, well-named Red River. We spent most of the morning skirting the Chinese border as we made our way up to the isolated market town of Muong Khuong.
To be fair the storms here the night before had been even more violent than in Lao Cai. Although he would not be drawn afterwards, I doubt whether we would have attempted the route had he known what was in store. The first section was relatively easy and spectacularly beautiful. We reached the pinnacle of a pass with views way into the mountains of China and the steep valleys that form the border. As we descended the rutted rocky path things deteriorated rapidly. Time and again we were faced with a sea of deep mud where a landslide had swept down the mountain or another rock-strewn defile where the track had subsided completely. Twice we had to manhandle our bikes over trees that blocked the path and were too heavy to contemplate lifting. We took over three hours to cover less than 15kms, squelching through clinging mud, constantly sliding and slithering on ledges only a few feet wide and with both tyres and brakes so gummed that it was often impossible to maintain control over our machines. We all had tumbles. It was hard enough for the three of us riding alone but Hugo had Jenny as passenger making the going substantially more difficult. The bikes performed heroically but just before 4pm I thought we were finally beaten. I was in the lead and turned a corner to be faced with the largest landslide yet.
There was simply a gaping hole, a semi-crater some 20 metres across and 10-15 metres deep with a muligatawny stream still gushing through the middle. I dismounted and simply stared at the devastation. Re-tracing our route would have been impossible even had there been time. We simply had to go on - but how? We climbed above the path and walked around the rim of the crater. The stream had obviously been a torrent overnight and rocks were piled up on either side. It was impassable as it stood but what if we re-distributed the rocks to form a crude bridge? There was still the considerable problem that most of the way around the rim was slippery and barely wide enough to walk - with a highly unpleasant drop below. We started moving rocks and quickly had the makings of a route. I was still skeptical. It was, in fact, quite ridiculously easy and within ten minutes we had all four bikes safely across. It has to be said, however, that we were very lucky. Just a little more rain or a different distribution of rocks and we would have had considerably more difficulty. As it was we were now well behind schedule and needed to push on if we were to have time either for a shower or dinner in Lao Cai before catching the overnight train back to Hanoi.
We still had one more ford to cross and we all stopped to wash the layers of mud from our bikes. An hour later and, to our huge relief, we were back on tarmac. 'Dynamo Dave burned bitumen and we followed in his wake. A couple of kilometres out of town we caught up with him - a puncture just when we didn't need one. We consoled ourselves with 'bia hoi' while the repairs were completed and then headed for the hotel for a swift shower, change and some hastily grabbed food. Twenty minutes after arriving we were back outside and heading for the railway station. Quite unbelievably Hugo now had a puncture. There was no time for repairs and we set off in search of a truck to get the bike to the station. Hugo saw one first and simply ran into the road right in front of it arms waving. He managed to keep the driver occupied while we loaded the bike. He returned in time to reassure the bemused driver that he wasn't being high-jacked. We were twenty minutes late checking in but there were still ten minutes before the train was due to leave. We drove straight onto the platform but that was the end of the line for our bikes. No baggage van had been added to the train and we had to abandon them on the platform. Unloading the saddle-bags I gave my bike a final farewell kick. 'In Minsk we Trust.'
Peter Lyons from England