This is truly a unique adventure in a beautiful part of the world with a terrific guide. What distinguished this trip from other adventures was the "choose your own adventure" style and our guide - he was a helpful guide with great stories, great sense of humor and a devilish grin. If you are interested in an adventure trip with some great guys, you must not miss this.
The trip -
Woke up at 6:30am. We were both a little groggy as we met our guide the night before and had a few too many shots of zeal (locally-produced Vietnamese alcohol). As if the sheer potency of the alcohol weren't enough, we drank some liquor saturated with dead animals.
It was love at first sight with the bikes. These 20 year old Russian Minsk bikes were true antiques, but we were told they are also plenty dependable and easy to fix if the need should arise. (We would later find this to be true.) We carried our prized possessions - our flashy helmets from the US, filled our saddlebags with a few pieces of rugged clothing and got familiar with the bikes. Went over the 5 details to drive - horn, blinker, kickstarter, shifter and break. That's all you need. And the seats were super thick. Good thing since we would be riding for more than 8 hours each day.
Our first drive on these machines proved almost the scariest of the trip. Driving through the amazingly tight and crowded streets of Hanoi was a nerve-racking experience. Mind you, people driving in different directions don't stop at intersections, they just converge in the middle and navigate through. And everyone rides so close together! There was often less than 10 inches between yourself and the person who's passing you. Within our first 2 blocks Jen managed to hit someone else riding across the intersection. Her bike stalled and she jumped off just so she could push the bike out of the middle of the road. But the traffic flow never even hiccupped. The man she hit looked at her funny and simply went on his way. Other than the stares Jen received, she didn't disrupt the fluid flow of scooters buzzing every which way.
After 10 stressful minutes, we stopped for some Pho (a delicious breakfast broth with noodles, scallions, beef and other spices/flavorings). The short but tense drive really built up an appetite. Then it took another 45 minutes to get out of the city and start to see the base of the beautiful mountains of northwestern Vietnam.
After about 2 hours of driving, we got onto a small dirt road and stopped at a river crossing. All that lie in front of us was a handmade construction of bamboo, some rope and a few canoes. This was the bridge, our guide told us in his token devilish grin that we would use to RIDE over the river. Was he kidding? Unfortunately, not. The bridge sat just a foot or so above the water and was supported by cross-stationed canoes. There was no side rail, rope or any other support to keep us from riding off the side. The slightest loss of balance and you would surely be floating down the river with your trusty Minsk. The middle of the bridge was the strongest for the weight of the bikes. Our guide went first, without a hitch. Done like a real pro. Jen went next. She was screaming the entire time from her helmet and her feet dangled on either side for optimum balance. But she made it across just fine. I followed across and felt I conquered K-2 as I made it to the other side in one piece. But the cracking sounds of flexing bamboo and other wood made me think I should have gone on a diet before the trip. The holes (probably from past unsuccessful bridge crossers) replaced with tied pieces of wood did not boost our confidence. As if the heat were not enough to make you sweat, the morning ride through the city and bridge crossing surely drenched us.
We crossed another similar bridge that morning but felt more confident after having a notch already under our belts. We lunched on the side of the road under a tree on a riverbank. The weather was (always) hot, but there was a slight breeze off the water that made the shaded location a great resting spot. We laid out our picnic items on our rain parkas. Fresh bread, cheese, cuts of salami, spicy tuna and some hot mustard dressing. And, oh yes, plenty of water. The serenity of a quiet lunch along a riverbank in the rural farming valley slows the pulse, relaxes the muscles - stop and smell the flowers.
The scenery only got more and more beautiful as we drove further up into the mountains. The rice paddies were really lush green and the plantation levels along the sloping mountainsides looked gorgeous in the mist and sometime low-lying clouds.
By mid-afternoon, the sun was so strong that we decided to cool off. We crossed a modern bridge and drove down underneath it to the large stream it crossed. ur guide and I promptly jumped in while Jen videotaped us. What a refreshing relief.
Upon returning to the road, Jen managed to ride the bike off a little cliff. As I rounded the corner behind her, I jumped off my bike to see if she was all right. She said she was fine and demanded that I take a picture of the upside down bike. Crazy girl! After we got the bike right-side up, straightened the bent mirrors and blew off the mud, we were back on the road.
That evening we rode into the village of Mai Chow. We stayed with a very nice farming family. The family was part of the Hmoung Hill tribe, one of the few societies today where the families are matriarchal, run by the women rather than the men. We stayed in a bamboo room on stilts with electric lighting. There was also a modern shower and toilet. No hot water, but when the weather is this hot and humid, hot water is the last thing you want. That evening's shower felt so damn good. It was an open-air room, so the bug netting around our bed cushions proved critical in getting an uninterrupted night of sleep. After a delicious dinner, we relived the day's activities and dozed off shortly thereafter.
The roosters woke us at the crack of dawn. After resisting the urge to strangle those cackling animals, we had breakfast and took a stroll through the village. We then headed off for another day of adventure riding. Our guide decided to take us on a road that is traveled very infrequently because it is too muddy and slippery to ride most of the time.
The dirt road was about 10 feet wide and full of mud puddles and streams cutting through it. As we rode it up into the higher elevations, we had a steep cliff to one side at all times. All of the treacherous conditions made for a few crashes. But one was caused not due to anything on the road, but because of some bee that decided to fly into Jen's helmet and buzz around. Well, Jen immediately jumped off the bike and ripped the helmet off. No bee stings believe it or not, but the helmet got pretty banged up from being thrown onto the rocky ground. This and a few other crashes gave Jen pretty black and blue legs and knees, but no broken bones.
We crossed a pretty deep mud puddle that damaged our guide's bike. It looked like the chain broke so we knew were going to be there a while. I took off my helmet, took a swig of water, put on the hat, applied lots of sunscreen, rolled up my sleeves and dug in. Jen filmed us while laying comfortably in the shade. The chain had just popped off the sprocket, which meant less work. While that was a relief, the job still took an hour and working under in the blistering heat and humidity dehydrated us.
Repeatedly kick starting the bike after it stalled in the middle of some mud piles got pretty tiring, so we soon broke for a rehydration tablet in the shade somewhere along the 40km road. Then we sat on large jungle leaves and set our "table" on another ultra large leaf for a nice simple meal.
We passed some houses along the road and everyone, especially the children, halted their activities to watch us go by. Most of the kids waved excitedly at us, some yelled greetings and some hid.
In the afternoon I was last in the procession when suddenly my bike konked out. My horn didn't work as I had no power so I couldn't notify Jen in front of me. Powerless, I watched as they rode away unaware of my breakdown. I relaxed, got off the bike and waited for them to come back and help me out. But after about 20 minutes, I got nervous. There was no one around at all! Finally, they returned after searching off the side of the cliff for me. Apparently, the local villagers just up the road were searching for someone who ran off the side. They were so happy to see that I was not only alive, but also far from the cliff's edge. It turned out that my sparkplug was fouled.
Later that afternoon, we ran out of water - what happened to planning? We were able to buy only some no-name brand sodas. Neither of the 2 vendors on the side of the road had any water. The drinks tasted terrible. By the time we got back to the farmer's house in Mai Chow, we were parched. But the awe inspiring natural, peaceful beauty throughout the day along the cliff's edge were simply astounding.
On our last day we rode for a while through the valley to another river. We loaded the bikes into a boat and rode down the river for about 2 hours. Upon pulling the bikes out from the boat I managed to cut up my forearm. But no fear, my first aid kit took good care of the wound. Fifteen minutes later, it started POORING. We all switched into our rain gear, but somehow my waterproof shoes got soaked. After the rains stopped, I was pretty bitter about having wet feet. So I decided to take my sopping wet socks off and ride with them tied to my handlebars. The sun didn't dry them for the rest of the day - too cloudy.
We rode for a few hours back into Hanoi, navigated through the city traffic and arrived back at our hotel.
Thank you for such a memorable trip.
Jason Late and Jennifer Lawn from USA