Vietnam by Moto Days 35-39: Adventures in NE Vietnam, or the road so bad I cried

In the morning, we rolled out of Cat Ba with the Seattle guys (Alex, AJ and Taylor) and caught the 9 am ferry over to the mainland. The uneventful journey hit a snag just after a refueling stop on the outskirts of Halong City. Pulling out of the gas station, Taylor’s back wheel fell off. Apparently, the threads on the rear axle bolt were stripped, and the nut finally fell off. Luckily he managed to keep the bike upright and come out of it physically unscathed. As with any town in Vietnam, you’re never far from a mechanic so a few minutes walk down a hill and we had ourselves a repair team. Taylor watched them do the repair while the rest of us enjoyed the coffee shop next door. The mechanics had to put on a new back wheel since the hub was broken when the wheel fell off. Reassembling the bike, the mechanic tried to put on the bad bolt but we insisted he go procure a new one for the extra repair cost of <$1. About a couple hours later, the bike was ready to go and everyone except Taylor was well caffeinated.  The final damage was remarkably less than expected: around $15. The Seattle guys had all purchased their bikes together so to prevent any unfairness over inequality in bike condition, they agreed to split repair costs for the bikes equally. They paid $200 each for their bikes and definitely had many more issues than we did.

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Taylor’s bike lost its back wheel leaving a gas station. Thankfully he wasn’t hurt and there was a mechanic nearby.

Back on the road, the rest of the day was a pretty chill ride to Lang Son, a town in NE Vietnam close to the Chinese border. This proximity meant a good deal of truck traffic when we joined the main highway from Hanoi near the end of the day. The pavement had buckled under the weight of all the cargo so side to side movement on the road meant avoiding huge wheel ruts.

Arriving in Lang Son, we split up to scope a few hotels and ended up at the third one.  When the guys joined us, they also had picked up two Australians on bikes that had passed us earlier in the day, so we had a good group at Sao Mai Hotel, which had a room with a ping pong table that was nice for a quiet evening.  We had read about a night market, but failed to find it despite wandering around for awhile. It took us really long time to find restaurants with people eating dinner. Finally sitting down at a popular one, we struggled to order, but eventually managed a few plates of great fried rice, a chicken and some beef with greens. Drinking like the locals, we also got a bottle of the Mens vodka (~$3-4). The tables come set with a collection of shot glasses. On the way back to the hotel, we passed bakery row and picked up a selection of cake slices and cream puffs for $0.50 to $1.

The next day’s drive wasn’t too long, so we left town around 10 am after some leisurely banh cuon, a Vietnamese breakfast food that’s like a crepe made with rice noodle dough. They can just come with minced pork or can be filled with an egg. The banh cuon is then dipped in a broth with herbs and more minced pork that you doctor up with garlic, chili paste, soy and fish sauce. So good! We’d have this for breakfast a few more mornings in the north as it’s quite popular. This version in Lang Son was my favorite.  The road on this day started out on the same highway for a bit, but thankfully the truck traffic died down after most of them took the road to the Chinese border. The scenery became more impressive as the day wore on, the mountains growing with every mile.

Usually, we don’t expect much from lunch on the road besides some cheap sustenance, however, our food karma was in full force today. Yesterday, we landed at a market with tasty sandwiches and a super friendly fruit seller who chopped us delicious mangoes and pineapples. Today, we pulled off at a duck noodle soup restaurant way past local lunch time. The proprietor asked how many then spend off on her motorbike to get supplies at the market. She soon returned and cooked us up huge steaming bowls of amazing noodle soup with duck. Even a couple local guys came in for a bowl around the same time. Then, the market next door sold us ice cream for only 3,000 vnd ($0.13).  Definitely one of the better lunch stops of the trip.

In Cao Bang, we found rooms in a hotel alongside the river. The market was only a few blocks away and restaurants abounded everywhere. There were a few other tourist floating around, but those were mainly on guided trips. This was one of my favorite small town stops – just enough tourists that we weren’t attractions ourselves and that there was some English in some places. We ate extremely well here with the markets, bakeries and plethora of restaurants nearby. Coffee at the riverside cafe next to our hotel became a morning institution. Two nights we ate a pizza place in town which served pretty good pies at reasonable prices as well as sizzling steak and egg plates. The bakeries provided desserts and sandwiches for lunches on the go. The markets offered freshly cut pineapple and other fruits.

We were prepared to spend two nights in Cao Bang with a day trip in the middle to visit the Ben Gioc Waterfall. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Rob and I ended up there for four nights instead.

I didn’t feel great when we arrived so I called it a night very early while Rob grabbed dinner with everyone (Seattle and Aussie guys). Turns out that they went to a com (pick a dish served with rice and soup) restaurant and the Aussies tried to talk the owner into free beer. The owner gave them a pile of shallots to peel and made them earn their drinks.

Our first morning, we set out to visit the waterfall with the guys deciding to tackle the ride as a lollipop loop that the Vietnam Coracle described on his webpage. The highway portion of the lollipop stem was beautiful. We passed a village of blacksmiths where each house had a display of knives out front and a person hammering on an anvil.

Turning off the main road though, the road became crap. We should have stopped after reaching the piles of rock that had been so thoughtfully piled across the road in preparation of future road improvements. They made for a slow jarring ride as you tried to find the best/smoothest path through them. Some parts were better than others. wp-1461988864450.jpg

After making it through a long segment of rocks, we finally got a brief respite of packed dirt road. Then, Taylor’s electric starter broke and soon after, Alex’s chain snapped. At this point, we split off from the guys since there was nothing more that we could help with except scout the road ahead.

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Partway through the terrible loop road to the Ben Gioc Waterfall. A brief respite from the rock piles before the mud pits.

After we split off, the road climbed a mountain pass and continues to be terrible with the addition of mud pits every so often. We finally hit one we bad that we had to walk the bike through.

"Motorbike road"

“Motorbike road”

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Mud pit, one of many, in the road. These were the worst. I made Rob let me walk some of them.

We can to wheel the bike around these stuck trucks.

We can to wheel the bike around these stuck trucks and avoid falling in the river.’

Eventually we made it to more consistent pavement as we approached the Chinese border. The road followed the border for awhile and we passed trucks with covered loads and beds full of people.

Approaching the waterfall as we drove along the road paralleling the border river, Rob and I passed a number of  boat docks extending most of the way across the river. As we stopped for a couple photos, these guys got on the docks, detached the end segment, then rowed it to China to drop off his buddy. We also passed a number of trucks parked along the border road; some of them were packed with people.

Paddling to China.

Paddling to China.

Us at the Ben Gioc Waterfall on the Chinese border

Us at the Ben Gioc Waterfall on the Chinese border

It was so late by the time we reached the waterfall that we found nearby lodging (200k vnd for a nice clean room) for the night. We ate dinner at a local rice restaurant and watched a Vietnamese movie there. It just happened to have English subtitles so we could follow along. I would put it in the rom-com category but it had a few tables of Vietnamese men enthralled.

We discussed returning to the waterfall in the morning but the weather/visibility wasn’t great so we headed to the nearby Nguon Ngao cave. They were pretty much deserted with the exception of several merchants and one group that was leaving as we entered. Nothing like having a huge cave all to yourself. It had some nice formations that we enjoyed even after all the other caves we’d visited.

Shadow poses in the cave.

Shadow poses in the cave.

After the cave, we drove almost all the way back to Cao Bang via the nice highway. The drive took around 2.5 hours before we split on the road to Pac Bo cave in the town’s outskirts.

Pac Bo Cave, where Ho Chi Minh or Bac (Uncle) Ho lived after crossing back into Vietnam from China, is a pilgrimage site for many Vietnamese. Notwithstanding the historical context, the site follows a gorgeous stream with beautiful bright blue pools. No swimming allowed unfortunately.

The entrance to the site is also the beginning of the Ho Chi Minh Highway, so we took some photos with the Km 0 marker.  They’re currently building a Ho Chi Minh museum nearby in addition to the shrine. Finally returning to Cao Bang, we ate some very tasty pizzas at Pizza Chi before crashing.

Km 0 marker of the Ho Chi Minh Highway near Pac Bo Cave

Km 0 marker of the Ho Chi Minh Highway near Pac Bo Cave

The next day, we decided to “relax” in town to catch up on important matters. Rob got our oil changed and I filed our tax extension. Ever year it seems like our taxes become more complex. Rob keeps threatening to buy me Turbo Tax instead of letting me just fill in the forms directly. It was a relief to finally have that taken care of with only a few days to go. When we were at Pizza Chi the previous night, we’d seen everyone else order the sizzling meat platters and decided we needed to go back and order some with the white drink that was also popular. Trying the order what we thought was a white yogurt drink ended up being a wonderful accident. We were brought little yogurt tubs with a straw, but when the owner saw us staring at them in confusion because we were expecting a glass of white liquid, he came over to investigate. Rob and I tried to explain that we wanted the white thing that we’d seen everyone else enjoying the other night. The owner tried to tell us it was from the shop next door and ended up getting us two bowls of what turned out to be frozen yogurt covered with durian (the stinky fruit) and a variety of jellies. Sua chua mit turned out to be one of best foods we discovered in Vietnam. I hope we can find/make it back home.

In the morning, Rob and I continued northeast to Meo Vac parting ways with the Seattle guys, who hung out longer to recover from a bout of food poisoning.

 

 

 

 

Vietnam by Moto Days 33-35: Karst on the water and Cat Ba Island

Rob and I led our procession out of Hanoi since we had the phone mount for the bike. Since the old quarter is on the east side of Hanoi and we were continuing east, we didn’t have very much trouble getting out of the main city. The first problem arose when we missed a turn on to Highway 1 because the entrance was unclear on google. Then before we could turn around, our road turned into a traffic disaster where Rob was walking our bike through merging traffic that was barely moving. To make matters worse, Alex’s throttle cable broke. The guys went to get it fixed and we made a u-turn and got back on Highway 1.

Unlike Highway 1 in the south, this incarnation of Highway 1 was like a nice freeway in the States – two lanes each direction plus a full shoulder for motorbikes, with a median and guardrails. It was the easiest driving of the trip except for the expressway into Da lat that we’d mistakenly taken. From Highway 1, we got on Highway 18 east toward Halong City. This route was the typical 2 lane highway with a decent number of trucks. The traffic flowed well and the road was in decent condition. The google maps directions took us right to the dock and when we arrived around 3:15pm, a number of other backpackers were already there.

This ferry is clearly the cheapest way to tour Halong Bay. It only cost 70,000 vnd (<$3.5) for a person and 90,000 vnd for a person with motorbike. In the low season there are only 2 ferries, one in the morning that departs at 8 am for Cat Ba then returns at 9am and one in the afternoon that leaves Tuan Chau at 3 pm for Cat Ba and returns at 4 pm. The ferry ride goes through Halong bay passing the spot where many of the overnight cruises anchor for the night. Our captain had to honk repeatedly at all the kayakers hanging out in the ship channel.

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This lady drove a motorbike with a basket full of chickens on to the boat, but it tipped over while loading letting chickens out. She spent part of the journey repacking them.

Arriving on Cat Ba Island, we had a ~25 km scenic drive across the Island to Cat Ba town where the majority of the lodging is located. The island is gorgeous in its own right and has a national park and a number of caves. It’s also a launching point for the less visited Lan Ha Bay.  In town, we stayed with the Mr. Zoom Backpacker Hostel, which not only had dorm beds for $3, but also has two associated hotels with fan-cooled double rooms for $6 – an amazing deal. This turned out to be our cheapest lodging in Vietnam.

The next day, Rob and I went on a kayaking day trip with Asia Outdoors. For a few dollars more than the standard $16 bundle tour, we spent a full day on the bay with about 5 hours of kayaking. We chose this over just renting a kayak because the company shuttles you out of the more scenic parts of the bay to explore. Our group visited a few floating villages and got a closer look at the aquaculture they practice. Some of the floating platforms are pearl farms with strings of oysters hanging down into the water. Other platforms are nets where shellfish harvested from around the bay is grown to a larger size before selling. We saw smaller boats out in the bay with scuba dive set ups for the shellfish harvesters.

 

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Hanging out in a hidden lagoon. We had to navigate a shallow, rock-lined channel to get in.

That night, we had an amazing veggie meal at the surprisingly reasonable Buddha Belly. The small rice plate of the day was only $1.50 and was massive. The mushroom noodle soup I had for the same price was also great. Afterwards, we joined the Seattle guys at a local Bia Hoi place with some other folks. When we went to pay, the bill was under $10 for 37 beers.

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Rob with his small veggie meal at Buddha Belly in Cat Ba. He’s giving me his “hurry up a take a photo so I can start eating” face.

The next morning, we decided to do a climbing trip. I’ve never been outdoor climbing and neither Rob nor I is very good at gym climbing, but Cat Ba has deep water free solo climbing for a reasonable price ($30/each), so we gave it a try. Rob did very well, but I got on the rock and freaked out about jumping into the water. Regardless of whether I thought I could climb higher, I definitely did not want to jump from any higher. In the end, Rob got some climbing in and I worked on my fear of jumping from heights.

Rob's second route.

Rob’s second route.

My second attempt.

My second attempt.

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Jumping off!

With only the two of us, we were done climbing pretty quickly, so our guide took us on a long cruise around the bay with a spot at Monkey  Island for a short hike and some beach time.  Even on a cloudy day, the bay was still gorgeous. The island had a nice beach and the added entertainment of the monkeys harassing some of the other tourists.

Our last evening on the island was spent on a forgettable fish dinner (Rob didn’t want to go back for more veg) and another few rounds of Bia Hoi. The next day we planned to catch the 8 am ferry back to the mainland and head northeast toward Lang Son.

Vietnam by Moto Days 32-33: Overnight crazy in Hanoi

Rob and I hit traffic on the far outskirts of the city. Since we entered on the opposite of Hanoi from the Old Quarter where we were staying, we had to brave the crazy traffic through the majority of the city. I filmed driving through the weaving mass of motorbikes and cars but with the wide angle lens, it doesn’t capture the close proximity of the other bikes and the speed at which they pass you. The stoplights were the scariest part as you’re part of a mass of motorbikes that’s stopped and trying to start moving forward all at once. Low speed handling is one of the most difficult parts of the motorbike driving since you’re not as stable so trying to get going again among the throng trying to pass you is unnerving. Rob kept his cool, but afterwards he adopted the strategy of hanging back at lights and keeping us out of the mass if possible.

Here’s a hyperlapse of the different parts of our drive from Pu Long to Hanoi. The sped up version of Hanoi views more like what it feels like to be in the traffic.

If you want to experience the constant honking, here’s some video as we head through Hanoi with original sound.


That night we had booked the Funky Jungle Hostel. We were going to get a private room, but the dorms were so much cheaper $5 per person per night that we gave them a try. This hostel has free beer from 6-7pm, then again from 8:30 – until the keg’s gone, which turned out to be a lie. Rob and I were both given top bunks; these were very high and didn’t have great handholds at the top. This was okay for the daytime, but would suck getting up and down in the middle of the night while partially asleep. Since it was already pretty close to 6 pm when we arrived, dinner was a doner kebab (from one of the 3 stands within a block of the hostel) and an amazing bag of donuts with a sweet yellow center that we saw a number of locals buying. Treats in had we returned to our hostel for free beer and promptly met three guys from the Seattle area. AJ, Taylor and Alex had all graduated from Gonzaga and worked for one year to save money before quitting to do some extended worldwide travel (Their fancy blog).  They were also traveling by motorbike and were planning to head to Halong Bay/Cat Ba the next day. We were planning on heading that direction one day later, however, a look at the forecast had us altering our plans to leave the next day. We decided to ride with them the next day, leaving around 10 am when our laundry would be ready.

As per the usual, I went to work on the blog in the dorm after beer hour while Rob stayed out to meet folks. The guy with the bunk under mine was back in the dorm and it was clear that he had been there awhile. Apparently his current gig was getting other travelers to come to a casino with him and to get “$20 of free play.”  We didn’t see/hear him again until 4 am when he returned drunk and disorderly, yelling about how a cabbie ripped him of everything and stumbling around. Thankfully, he passed out soon enough and stayed that we until we left despite Rob dropping our USB charger on his bare chest from the top bunk and the cleaning crew servicing the room. Rob and I agreed that we would not be returning to the Funky Jungle on our next visit to Hanoi.

We met up with the AJ, Alex and Taylor and managed to get on the road around 10:15 am aiming for the 3 pm Tuan Chau public car ferry to Cat Ba Island. This was the last ferry of the day, so missing it would mean a night in Halong City.

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Rob and the bike ready to leave Hanoi for Cat Ba.