Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

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For a brief overview and general itinerary of our eight-day Northern Vietnam circuit, skip to the end.

 

 

They say courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s being afraid and acting in spite of it; I feel like that’s quickly becoming the motto for this trip. People think I’m fearless when I say I’ve been skydiving in the Swiss Alps, cliff-jumping in Croatia, solo rock-climbing in Austria, or cavern-diving in the Yucatán Peninsula. But the truth is, I’m scared half to death doing most of the shit we do - I just do it anyway. Most recent to add to that list is embarking on an eight-day motorcycle circuit of the infamous, bumpy backroads of Northern Vietnam.

 
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First off, meet our bikes. Mine was a 125cc Honda Future X, semi-automatic transmission, aptly named Muddy after I dropped it on the first day during a particularly slippery area of construction. Peter’s was a 150cc Honda CRF, manual transmission - they gave him a free upgrade because he “wouldn’t look manly enough” on a little moped like mine, apparently. He named it Rusty. 

Our journey started in Hanoi, outside the bike rental shop where we met our guide, Hue, and a last minute addition to our trip, his girlfriend Huyền. They ended up being two of the sweetest people we’ve ever met, and like many other locals, were so comfortable on their bikes it was like an extension of their bodies. The same could not be said for us - we both have our motorcycle licenses, but it had been a while. After a few laps around the corner and back, we felt wholly unprepared to face the bustling, rush hour traffic of downtown Hanoi, but time was ticking and we had to get going.

 
crowded street traffic in Hanoi
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The first couple days were rough, the roads were rocky and the traffic was worse. We were still getting used to our bikes but we figured a seven-hour first day would break us in real quick. The congestion in Hanoi was unreal, people were practically on top of each other in the crowded highways, horns blaring nonstop. We saw families on bikes, two adults and three children packed on a tiny moped, people carrying live chickens in burlap sacks on their laps, or texting while only half-looking at the road. Meanwhile our hands were clenched in perpetual stress on those teeming streets, looking like real squares in the elbow and knee pads we got from the rental shop. After we got out of Hanoi it was out of the frying pan into the fire, though, as the traffic lessened the roads became worse - slippery, muddy areas of construction, potholes that had taken over the paths, some stretches had degraded to just piles of loose rock. We had to dodge busses, trucks, and water buffalo left and right, my knees were sore and my arms tired from the way the bike would shake as we off-roaded in dirty streams and rocky cliffs.

 
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pink buckwheat flowers in Ha Giang
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Much of the trip has blurred together - endless hours of riding, tiny, twisting roads, and vast fields of green that spanned limitlessly. The little details have gotten lost in between the days, but the big things stand out - like driving through the country during flower season, we were lucky to come at a time when they were in bloom. The tiny pink blossoms flooded the valley as far as we could see, we pulled over and lay down in the fields. Or when we drove through the twisting, zigzagging passes of Hà Giang and saw a group of girls with baskets of flowers on their backs, selling them by the side of the road. We learned they were Flower Hmong people - Hmong Lenh - who live on the border between Vietnam and China. Or when we got to our hotel in Sapa - we hadn’t told anyone it was our honeymoon, but I think because we are young, married, and traveling people just assume. Our room was filled with rose petals and candles and those little hand towels folded into swans, we stayed up late eating free cake then worked it off hiking the next morning.

 
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foggy northern vietnam
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A perk of the trip we weren’t necessarily expecting was the food - Hue and Huyền knew food. They knew the local restaurants in every town, and how to order to get the best things on the menu. Sometime we’d be famished for lunch but wouldn’t eat until two or three in the afternoon because we were waiting until we got to a very particular little side street cafe in a very particular little town. Once, we were running late and had to stop at a random, noodle shop they didn’t know. After eating the best bowl of phở I’ve ever had, Huyền turned to us apologetically and said “I’m sorry lunch was no good, dinner will be better.” It was. We’d have white rice, with side dishes - pork belly, duck egg omelets, whole chicken, pig stomach, fried tofu, spring rolls. We once went out of our way to get steamed rice from a specific area, Huyền said it was famous throughout Vietnam, and it was served alongside all the crickets and other insects that had been caught while harvesting the grains.

As beautiful as the trip was, though, motorbiking is not without its risks. One day as we were speeding through the tiny mountain passes, my back wheel hit a nail and completely blew out. It’s hard to describe that feeling of fear when one second you are speeding carefree through narrow roads, and the next second you are painfully aware that something is wrong and that you have lost control of the bike. I managed to escape with only minor injuries, and feel very lucky that it wasn’t worse. While I wasn’t exactly expecting to get hurt during the ride, we weren’t oblivious to the dangers, and knew that it would all be part of the experience.

 
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It’s true what they say about the landscape in Northern Vietnam, it feels otherworldly. Hills and valleys of deep green, flowers scattered across the fields, planted crops that looked like patchwork on the mountains. On the way from Mèo Vạc to Sapa we passed huge, expansive golden rice terraces near dusk. It was a little late in the season for them to be yellow, and we felt lucky to see it. We climbed out onto the fields and watched as the sun fell below the town. Later on we drove through rolling hills in the countryside, covered with green tea. Their sweet, clean smell was strong, and we got lost in the verdant leaves. When we drove through Mù Cang Chải we saw more rice fields, but they were green this time. We pulled over to the side of the road and stood for a long time, listening to the silence that echoed throughout the valley. We walked through the narrow paths along the terraced edge and picked wildflowers that had overgrown on the paddy.

 
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Eight days seems like a long time to be on a motorcycle, but it passed quicker than we would have liked. We'd miss Huyền’s contagious laughter every time she taught us Vietnamese words and had us repeat them, or Hue’s aphorisms about life he’d repeat almost every day like “Happy wife happy life, am I right Peter?”, or “Go in there and make a honeymoon baby, just have your mom take care of it” or, my personal favorite, shouting “adventure!!” anytime something shitty happened to us. Huyền was tearing up as we said our goodbyes, we’d been together twenty-four hours a day for eight days straight, and amid all the new cities and changing scenery, she and Hue had been our only constants, and that means a lot.

 
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The trip wasn’t a relaxed tour, it was a tour for those who love to ride. Some days we did nothing more than bike, a few quick stops on the way to stretch our legs or admire the scenery. During longer breaks we’d sit on the side of the road and make each other flower crowns or challenge each other to little games, like who could be the first one to throw a stone through the loops in the powerlines. Sometimes I wish we could have stopped for longer, taken more photos, but in a way it was nice - I didn’t constantly have to worry about camera settings or chasing the light, whether my outfit looked good (dirty, windswept motorcycle gear) or whether my hair looked okay (it never did). We could just be alone with our thoughts, our bikes, and the open road, flying alongside glittering turquoise rivers, through towering emerald forests, under endless blue skies. There were some narrow roads, crowded bridges, tight squeezes, sharp turns and close calls, and while I’ve definitely felt safer in my life, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so free.

 

 

Itinerary

As I said above, this was a challenging ride. We both dropped our bikes a couple times on the bumpy, torn roads, and I’m convinced that Hanoi traffic took a few years off our lives. That said, the views were breathtaking and the total abandon you feel while biking through those tiny rural roads made everything worth it. Here is the brief itinerary of our circuit.

 
 

• Day 1: Hanoi to Ba Bể Lake - 150 miles

• Day 2: Ba Bể Lake to Mèo Vạc - 115 miles

• Day 3: Mèo Vạc to Hà Giang - 120 miles

• Day 4: Hà Giang to Sapa - 135 miles

• Day 5: Sapa to Than Uyên - 70 miles

• Day 6: Than Uyên to Mù Cang Chải - 140 miles

• Day 7: Mù Cang Chải to Mai Châu Valley - 90 miles

• Day 8: Mai Châu Valley to Hanoi - 90 miles

Total: 910 miles