2 weeks riding through Northern Vietnam 1/2

Apr 7, 2015

While in Hanoi I rented a motorbike for 2 weeks and decided to ride through the north of Vietnam. Having just little experience driving motorbikes and despite all I heard about traffic in Vietnam, I decided to do it anyway... I don't regret it... at all.

Day 1 - Hanoi to Mai Chau

I went to pick up the motorbike at the rental agency, Flamingo travel. I had them recommended by a friend of mine who lives in Hanoi. I had rented a 250cc Honda Degree. I am no expert but I loved it. Just powerful enough so I wouldn't kill myself on the road. Getting out of Hanoi was the least fun part of the day. The traffic was actually not so bad and it did not take me long to get out of the center of the city. There is a lot of scooters and motorbikes in the streets of Hanoi. Although driving through this kind of heavy traffic can be overwhelming, the key is to try to go with the flow. One thing to keep in mind is that people won't stop, they will slow down to go around you if they have to but they won't stop... and you should try to do the same.
Once out of the heavy traffic of Hanoi that's when I really started to enjoy riding a motorbike. The ride to mai Chau was uneventful and quiet scenic. It took me around 5h to do the 160km including a quick lunch break.
In Mai Chau I found a nice little guesthouse next to rice fields. Mai Chau itself has nothing special but the small villages around are worth a visit. At the time I was there the rice fields were all green and it looked amazing.

My ride for the 2 weeks
Motorbike and drone. Ready to roll!

Day 2 - Mai Chau to Son La

Before heading to Son La I wanted to film the rice fields with my quadcopter. I had issues with it when I was on Cat Ba island a few days before; As soon as I was plugging the battery the LED a the back was flashing red as if the battery was discharged. So this time I made sur I just charged the battery before I plugged it in. But unfortunately the result was the same. At this time Iwas really worried that I wouldn't be able to fly my quadcopter for the whole duration of my trip. I put everything back in my backpack and decided to focus on taking shots from the motorbike until I can see if I can find a solution for my quadcopter. I had a lot of fun trying to find different angles to film from.
But the highlight of the day came when I went out for dinner in Son La. I went to a small restaurant and had some rice noodles, then two Vietnamese on the table accross mine started to talk to me, asking me my name and where I was from. I ended up at their table drinking what I believe was rice alcohol. They were drinking shots after shots offering me one every time. After a few I tried to politely refuse but they were always saying "last one, last one". At some point I excused myself and told them I had to go back to my hotel. And that's when they told me that they would pay for my meal!! That was a good day :-)

I tried to film my trip from different angles

Day 3 - Son La to Than Uyen

I left the hotel in Son La around 9:45am. The road started to be smaller and with less traffic which made it even more enjoyable to drive on. At some point I took a smaller road the 279, because I assumed there would be less traffic and also because it would reduce the number of kilometers to reach Than Uyen... but not necessarily the amount of time. The road was nice but not in really good shape, it was mostly dirt but it was perfect for the motorbike I had. So here I was, finally riding on a dirt road outside of the main tracks, crossing small villages, having to stop because animals were resting in the middle of the road... It was great!... until the road end up in a lake. Yes, taht's right, a lake. I just stood there for a little bit quiet puzzled and wondered how this was possible. Of course I was a bit annoyed to have to turn around but very amused by the situation. I started head back, and after a few kilometers I ran into a couple who had stopped at a villager's house. They gestured me stop and to turn around. At first I tried to make them understand that it was a dead end. After a few minutes of gesture exchanged between each other, I finally understood that they were telling me that a villager will take both our motorbikes on his boat for 100 000 Dong ($4, 4€) and take us to where the road starts again... oooooook. So back to the end of the road again and on the small boat the motorbike went. The cruise last for about 20 minutes and at this moment I was absolutely loving my trip. I love when unusual things like that happen, when things are completely different than at home. That's what I am looking for when travelling... something completely different.
The rest of the trip was uneventful and I reached Than Uyen in the late afternoon. Once checked in a hotel I decided to look at my drone issue a bit closer. After some research, I found out that there is a security enabled by default that makes the back LED flash red when the battery reaches a certain voltage and then enters "auto-landing" mode when it's almost empty. So when I plugged my drone to my laptop I saw that the voltage was off and decided to disable this "security". If you do not fly your drone with a fpv system or if you do not use anything to keep track of time, I do not recommend you turn off this. Anyway, when I plugged the battery back in, the red flashing LED was gone. I was looking forward to test it the next day.

Motorbike on the boat

Day 4 - Than Uyen to Sapa

I took off around 9:30am. But before heading to Sapa I wanted to test my drone. So I went to some rice fields and did a short flight. Everything went fine so I was pretty happy. The only down is that now I have no indication as when the battery will have low voltage. The only measurement will be the time I have on my screen. I decided to only do short flights of about 3-4 minutes until I can come to a better solution to check the battery voltage. Nothing particular in this portion. The ride was just about 100kms (60 miles) so I reached Sapa around 2:45pm. After checking in a hostel I went for a ride in the hills around. There I did a couple more filghts above the rice terraces. Sapa and its surroundings are really beautiful but it also is a very touristic place. The main experience there is to a 2-3 day trek with the locals. They will show you around and bring you to their village where you will have really good food and you'll stay overnight. 

Testing my drone above the rice fields of Than Uyen

Sapa rice terraces

Making new friends in Sapa

Day 5 - Sapa to Xin Man

The road going down to Lao Cai is very scenic so I decided to make a quick stop to film it. I then had an early lunch in Lao Cai before choosing to take the small 4E road south of Lao Cai instead of the ExpressWay. Nothing really scenic about this road but most definitely more enjoyable than a highway. The interesting thing is that at some rail crossing, even if the barrier is down, the motorbikes do not have to wait and can drive on the side or even right behind the train (I've done that once).

Day 6 - Xin Man to Ha Giang

Physicaly the hardest day of my trip. First I started the day late around 11am, then at some point I ended up doing 10km in the wromg direction in a mountainous road. And for the finale, as I usually do, I decided to take the smallest road... which ended up being a path, and not just an easy flat one. I had the whole lot, steep rocky tracks, crossing a river having to drive on the rocks because the water was too deep and of course, getting stuck with no possiblity of turning around at this spot. A kid stared at me for a while probably asking himself what in earth was a tourist doing here. I spent quiet a lot of energy to get out and decided that I had to keep going because there was no way I would go back to what I just went through. Gladly I found another easier path that took me back a few kilometers but I was ok to do more distance if it leads me to a better road. I then had to drive another 40km on the winding mountain road. I took a break at the end of it; I was so exhausted. I still had another 45kms to go, but it was a flat, wide and straight road. I arrived in Ha Giang at night which I would recommend you avoid as much as possible, especially if, like me, you are not an experienced rider.

River crossing

Day 7 - Ha Giang to Dong Van

I had two things to do before starting the day on the road. The first was to change the oil, which was quickly taken care of at a mechanic. There is nothing easier in Vietnam than finding a mechanic for your motorbike or someone that has some mechanic knowledge. So if you are like me and you are a total noob about everything that has an engine, do not let this be a decider for not doing such a trip, you'll be fine on that part. The second, was to get a permit to go in the North, in Dong Van. Even though you can read about it in the Lonaly Planet and therefore might assume that it should be straight forward, well, it is not at all. I asked the hotel I was staying and they told me to go to the police station on the main street, "Tran Phu". The problem is that this street is quiet big and long and I don't know if you've ever been to Vietnam, but their government buildings are not always easy to recognize. I ended up asking a group of German guys and they directed me towards a building on the same street. There, I was told the opposite direction (seriously?!) But just as I was thinking how hard it can be sometimes with the language barrier and how unhelpuful Vietnamese sometimes can be... The guy who gave me direction was next to me on his scooter and told me to follow him. And he drove me all the way in front of the building (that'll teach me to complain). So you know, the building is at the corner of "Tran Phu" and "Nguyen Thai Hoc" and it is a yellow building. I finally got my permit there (They had to call someone who came, it took another 15-20 minutes). I know what you're thinking now... No, I am not an selfish bastard (not always), I went back to where I met the Germans and told them where to go to get the permit. After all this, I was finally ready to hit the road. It was around 11:30am.
And it is a beautiful ride, especially Tam Son city and its surroundings. And the 15-20kms before getting to Dong Van are just amazing. In the Lonely Planet you can read about the 20kms between Dong Van and Meo Vac, but if you're coming from Ha Giang, the 20kms before are also something worth seeing.
I arrived around 5pm and met a French couple who apparently saw me on Cat Ba island a few days before (I could not tell, ooops). We later went out for drinks and a  nice diner...

Tam Son city from above

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