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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.