The roads of Cao Bang
The roads of Cao Bang
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The mighty Minsk
The mighty Minsk
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Smokin' ride
Smokin' ride
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Stripes of rice
Stripes of rice
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Justin Carlson from USA

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My wife and I finished watching the Top Gear UK: Vietnam Special (for the 100+ time) and said to each other, “We should do something like this.” Google quickly showed us Explore Indochina results since this was the company behind the logistics for that episode. We emailed our interest along with questions and quickly received a response. The company has many rides to choose from and we settled on the Border Crawl for 12 days. Thuy, who is the office manager is a hidden gem in the planning process. She was able to confirm pre and post night hotel accommodations, airport transportation, a private train cabin, visa information, and invitation letters. Thuy’s attention to detail and help was greatly appreciated. I wouldn’t call us experienced. We’ve only ridden a Yamaha FZ1 for a few seasons and always on tarmac, so what were we thinking and getting ourselves into? This was a question we frequently asked ourselves before the trip. The Border Crawl adventure is not entirely ridden on roads or what we would call roads. There are settled landslides, loose gravel, dirt, holes (pot and otherwise), mud, and at times rocky terrain. Be prepared for off-road driving if you want to see the spectacular scenery and really experience the culture and beauty of Vietnam, it's worth it. We started out with a cab ride from our excellent Morgans (we stayed at the golden lotus as well across the street but Morgans breakfast was waaaay better) hotel across the street from Explore Indochina's Hanoi office to the garage on the outskirts of Hanoi. Taking a car taxi in Hanoi is much like riding a raft through a fast river. The car pushes against the sea of bikes filling the streets and the bikes try to dictate the car's direction of travel. At no time did it feel unsafe (for us in the car) but the bikers seemed to at times be more akin to the starting line on a dirt bike track. It was a great experience and a fun way to get to the garage quickly. The Garage is CHALKED FULL of bikes in varying states of assembly and repair, minsks everywhere and urals sprinkled about along with parts all over for both. It was a glorious trove of vintage bike awesomeness! The mechanics had pulled us out three battle tested minsks ready for another tour of duty through the sometimes rough and difficult terrain. We took them out for a test ride around the garage area to make sure it was all in order and other than the transmission having N at the bottom instead of between 1&2 which throughout the tour I kept forgetting about and making a fool of myself they are excellent for the task and were a treat to take on the trip. These are the kind of bikes you would be glad to have with you if you were slogging through a remote area and needed them to work or be repaired with some string and a screwdriver. Simple, utilitarian, and reliable performance. We loved them for the whole trip. They add another level of awesome to this trip that we were not expecting. Riding the trip in new BMW's would not have been as much fun and would have made the trip less exciting. The Russian stallions we rode also got more looks and had people come over and ask about them when standing next to them was ~12 new XYZ dual sport looking bikes. This Garage visit also serves to ensure riders are capable of riding the bikes safely and are competent enough to run the ride. While we were there another tour company was having a young woman try to ride a bike solo and it reminded me of all the shows about when teenagers first learn to drive.... She ended up on the back of another bike as a rider. In this country YOU HAVE to be able to ride decently as the roads are unpredictable and the people, cars, trucks and ESPECIALLY the taxi buses can be even less predictable. It's not a "learn to ride a bike in Vietnam" kind of holiday and you have to be able to ride well BEFORE you get here. At the garage we met our fearless leader Tony and our master of mechanical mayhem, Chan. These guys were awesome! Chan could fix anything, I swear if we tossed one of the bikes off the side of a mountain and hid both tires in adjacent buildings he would have it back together and running again by morning. He was an extremely nice and genuine individual too. We enjoyed having him on the tour with us. Tony and Chan knew EVERYTHING about the area and where we are going, gone, want to go, thought about going, would like to eat, like to see..... Well everything. You ask and poof Tony delivered, he was also an indispensible member of the tour and excellent person as well. This ride would not have been the same if either of them were absent and we feel like we left Vietnam with two new friends because of it. I am not going to detail the ride day to day as you need to experience the surprise and excitement for yourself but I will detail some of the basics of what we experienced without too much detail. Tony as well as the other guides, wore highly visible pieces of clothing and or gear so we could see him better. It's always a good idea when riding to wear some hi-vis clothing but here I think it was more so we could pick him out in a crowd. At times you are the only one of the group in sight and it's like you are riding alone in the country then you catch up to the next bike or guide and know you are going the right way. It's a great system they use because it's simple and time tested and by no means exclusive so everyone just kinda gets it. Tony was always in the lead (unless we passed him because we were looking off at some of the ridiculous scenery) and Chan was in the tail gunner position ready to handle whatever mechanical malady had befallen a comrade. We had a couple but none that took longer than 15 mins to fix on the road. Chan was very skilled in field dressings for the bikes then more permanent repairs at the overnight stop. Tony would make regular breaks and stop for a time if for no reason than to let us catch up to him (we were stopping a lot to take pictures and the like) He would normally stop somewhere nice (well pretty much everywhere is "nice" in the northern mountains) and we could get off the horse for 10 mins or so. This continued until you reached the city border then we all bunched up in single formation for the trip to the overnight stop as the cities even remote ones could have enough traffic to separate us. It was always fine and went without incident. We would stop for picnic lunches with fresh carrot and cucumber peeled off into thin slices, patte, mustard, pickles, etc.... and fresh bread. They hit the spot every day and we got to have them while basking in the beauty of the countryside, it was staggering at times. You would just look around and say to yourself " I am having lunch at the side of the road in the mountains of Vietnam" and it would be real then. It all seemed surreal at times, it was all so different. The "Home Stays" were far and away my favorite of the overnight stops. Most are on a stilted second level building and have a single very large (~30'x50') room with curtains separating the "cubes" that represent individual sleeping areas. The family had their own building and so we had this all to our group. Each spot had a foam mattress, mosquito netting and power outlets to charge your gear. Unfortunately for my comrades I snore like a sleeping dragon so if you are reading this I am sorry for that.... The meals they serve at these stays are delicious and easily had some of the best food on the whole trip! When going on this trip don't expect 5 star michelin fare. Do expect more simple dishes of vegetable soups, rice and meat (normally pork/beef/chicken) fried rice, fried spring rolls (easily our favorite and like nothing you have tasted in your country) and normally a fried/steamed greens dish. All of it is delicious and filling. We never went hungry or felt that anything was no good enough it was ALWAYS excellent! Drinks are plentiful at all the stops both adult and fizzy. Of the adult variety it's mostly beer and of that there are basically five you will encounter of local beers and SOME imports in larger towns. I tried them all and there is no reason to get anything other than the local fare and by far the "BIA HA NOI" was the winner. It's definitely not a beer snobs paradise (I am not :-)) but it was VERY reasonable compared to the states. They also have a thing in most places called "zeo" (rice wine brewed onsite normally) spelling there is wrong but phonetically that's how it sounds in english. Comes in a little 20oz water bottle and it's worth a try. We drank A LOT of water on our tour and I suggest you always have the largest bottle you can fit in your pannier bags back pocket as it stays cold longer and to either freeze if you can at the overnight stop or refrigerate every night. You will be glad you did :-) Hotels on this ride in the north are all special in their own way and Tony did a WONDERFUL job of ensuring they all had the right beds etc... as it IS possible to get a room with a hard bed (think wood plank like sleeping on top of a kitchen table) instead of the amazing invention that is memory foam. After the long days ride it was a much appreciated effort. Other than that they are simply a place to sleep and sit in the AC. The real fun in town is around town mingling with the people and places. We saw so many things that just were so odd it's ALWAYS worth a walk around town. We were never in town bored or wondering what to do. There is something around every corner that is worth a look. The overnight train ride back from Lao Cai was a new thing for us. We had never ridden a train before EVER. I slept the whole night through but sleep was broken a bit as we stopped a number of times overnight at town stations. We found it a new and pleasant experience, something we had never done and getting the bikes on and off the train was fun too. Just another facet of the great adventure this ride had become. I WILL recommend you ask for a "private" train cabin as we did so you get your own room and don't have to share with others. I can only say in closing that we had a tremendous time and we are going back next year for another tour. You have to go into it knowing you will not know what is going to happen and to accept what may come and then it is a great time had by all and it was such an adventure as well! Tony, Chan, Digby, Thuy and all of the team at Explore Indochina, Thank You!

 

Justin Carlson from USA
April, 2017

 

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