We decided to travel the mountains of Vietnam independently. This is probably the best decision we could’ve done!
First things first:
So the only way to travel independently is to go by local buses to each city, which are not featured by the tour agencies, or to go by motorbike. Of course we chose the second option! After some internet research we found a reliable motorbike rental in Hanoi. Mr. Viet of Vietmotors is a very nice and helpful guy. He was happy to supply us with all our needs we had for this trip. A 125 cc Yamaha automatic bike should be fine. Since we are not experienced bikers, we chose to go with the automatic bikes.
First step was to get out of the chaotic city! Fortunately, Highway 1 was very close to Mr. Viet’s motorbike shop. The roads are well maintained (for vietnamese standards) with a few bumps here and there. There are only a couple of cars and a few trucks on the road, which was very pleasant. It’s roughly about 150 km from Hanoi to Lang Son – our first destination. The city is more of a stop over for tourists from China on their way to Vietnam and we also just spent the night there.
After more than half way in, Adrian got a flat tire. I didn’t notice it for a long time (maybe I should’ve look back more often). After I waited for while at a gas station, I thought I should drive back and look for him. My fear that something might have happend with him was supported by a vietnamese guy who drove by and told me that my friend was somewhere behind. I drove all the way back to find him, but at the same time Adrian was already somewhere to fix his tire, so I didn’t see him. It took a while to find each other again, but we managed it after some hours.
Lang Son was surprisingly a big city. We checked in a nice hotel for 300.000 VND (about 15$) and just dropped in to bed. Since we never made a motorbike trip, we didn’t know how exhausting it was!
Next day started off with a bowl of Phở bò and another 160 km ahead of us to Cao Bang. Since Lang Son is so close to the chinese border, we accidentally drove to through the border control. We explained that we got a bit lost and after they checked our passports they let us go.
Cao Bang doesn’t have too much to offer, but 50 km further you can visit the Pac Bo Cave, in which Ho Chi Minh lived for seven weeks, during February and March 1941, when he returned after 30 years of exile.
From Lang Son to Cao Bang
Around Pac Bo Cave
After 2 nights in Cao Bang we headed to Ba Be National Park. A nice 3 hour drive and we arrived at the empty Park Headquarter. They have a nice pool, lots of hotel facilities and a big Restaurant. I guess we come off season, because there were like only one or two other people there. Nevertheless, we made the most out of it. Besides the huge Ba Be Lake, there were a lot of caves, hiking trails, minority villages and waterfalls to explore. The National Park was so big that our motorbikes came in pretty handy. The caves were pretty impressive and I enjoyed them far more than at Halong Bay. First of all, because there were no tourists around and the caves were pitch black. It was pretty exciting to step into the deep cave. At the other cave, we weren’t given any flashlights and there were a lot of bats at the ceiling.
Ba Be National Park
Waterfall at the National Park
Road Number 279
Our next destination is Ha Giang in the far north. We checked our 3 maps and tried to compare them. Every one has another way to Ha Giang. But it seems that every map says that we need to take the Road Nr 279 to Viet Quang and from there straight to Ha Giang. It was a pain in the ass to look for that road, since nobody seems to know where it begins or where it is. After 2 hours of driving we found ourselves driving in a circle. So we decided to ask people how to get to the first Town on the road called Na Hang. It’s a always a funny thing to ask locals about directions, because most of the time we ask a group of people and everybody points in an other direction. Our theory is that Road Nr 279 most be under construction or there is just no Road 279. The Road lead us over a mountain and the conditions were just horrible. There was no street, only big rocks. It took us hours to get through and at some point we had to get off the bikes and push it over some big rocks that must’ve fallen from the mountain. It was very tiring and exhausting but we were pretty sure that we’re on the right road. It already gotten dark and our tank was empty. We feared the worst and I was already prepared in my mind to ask some locals if we can stay at their houses.
Fortunately, we found a guy who sold gas in front of his house. He told us it’s another 40 km to Na Hang! So it took us all day from Ba Be to Na Hang, which google maps said it would take 1,5 hours. We were lucky to find a hotel, cause Na Hang didn’t look like they ever seen a western here. The next day we arrived finally in Ha Giang. The reason we came to Ha Giang was to take the most northern Route through Meo Vac and Dong Vang. To travel outside we required a police permit, which was kinda hard to organise. We found a tour agency which was closed and asked several hotels who offered tours if they know where we can buy the permit. The spoken english in Ha Giang was very limited and most of the people had no idea what the heck we were talking about. We decided to go straight to the police station and hope that they can help us and as we expected, nobody spoke english. We were lucky that a police officer’s wife was at the station to visit her husband. She spoke decent english and helped us out! She said we can buy the permit at the immigration police office, which was at the other side of the town. Finally, we bought our permit for 10 $ each and were ready to go!
The road to Meo Vac, Dong Vang and back to Ha Giang took us 2 days to drive. But it was definitely worth it! It was one of the most beautiful sceneries I’ve ever seen!
The Road to Meo Vac
We drove through several villages of ethnic minorities. There are only very few tourists passing through these roads, so all they did was stare, smile and waved at us. We felt very welcomed and all the kids were yelling “hello!”. I felt like a president driving through town and waving to everybody.
Sa Pa and Mt Fansipan hike
Back in Ha Giang we stayed for one more night. The next ride was a long one. About 220 km from Ha Giang to Sa Pa. My ass is starting to hurt now since we were on the road for a couple of days. But we took a break of driving when we arrived in Sa Pa. The town is definitely focus on tourism. Everywhere are restaurants serving vietnamese and western food. North Face shops and hiking supply shops everywhere. After so many days without seeing many tourists, this was quite a shock for us. As soon we arrived in town, we were asked the usual questions “You need hotel? Motobike? Marijuana?”, which we respectfully declined. Checked in at our hotel, had some dinner and just crashed to bed. Next day we slept in and just enjoyed doing nothing. The sun came out and I enjoyed my afternoon at the balcony with an amazing view. For the next day we booked a guided hike to Mt. Fansipan, the biggest mountain in Vietnam (and apparently in Indochina). We waited at 09:15 am in front of the agency where we got picked up. It’s going take 2 days to go up and down. Some people do it in one day but we thought that we might not be in shape for that.
The hike started out pretty nice and not to hard. Until lunchtime we were pretty optimistic that this would be an easy hike. It got harder and steeper, and we were pretty exhausted by the end of the day.
This is where we spent the night
The food was really good. For lunch we had Banh My (vietnamese version of a sandwich) and for dinner steamed rice, pork, fish, vegetables and tofu. And what the locals referred to “Happy Water” (Rice wine).
It got really cold at night, especially the wind. We slept in a barrack with all the other tourists. The tour guides provided us with sleeping bags but it was still pretty cold. The fun began when all the tour guides of the other group gathered around the fire, sang vietnamese songs and passed the rice wine to each other. They wanted me to sing, so I sang vietnamese sentences I’ve learned and turned it into a song, which they all thought it was hilarious.
I barely slept through the night. Since we had to sleep on hard wood, I woke up like every hour to find a new comfortable position. After our breakfast noodle soup we started to hike to the top. The last part was more of a climb than a hike but it was definitely worth it. The wind was blowing like crazy but everybody was glad they made it.
Our energetic tour guide
The hike ended with the long hike back. All I could think of was a hot shower and a comfy bed. At this point we are pretty tired from the hike and driving the motorbike, but we still had some spots to visit. Next destination was Dien Bien Phu in the north east of Vietnam. It was again a pretty long drive and we had to follow the Road 279 again. We feared the worst and it happened to be the worst. The road just ended and we found ourselves at a river bank. The boatsmen explained that the road continued a couple a meters ahead. He gave us a ride with his boat (which wasn’t cheap), but we had no other options.
Arrived at Dien Bien Phu at 8 pm. It was already dark and we just checked in at our hotel and crashed. I treated myself with a sauna and massage at the next door parlor. Since we were really tired, we kinda rushed the next day through all the sightseeing spots in dien bien phu. Back on the bike heading towards son la. The road was pretty easy and there was almost no traffic. The only problem we encountered was Adrian’s motorbike broke down. The children from the village surrounded us as we stood aimlessly on the road. They pointed us to a xe may (mechanic). The chain (or whatever it’s called) of the bike just burnt. Lucky that Mr Viet gave me a spare one. All the kids are still standing around us and looking how the mechanic does his magic. After the first attempt it still didn’t work. It almost took him 2 hours to repair that thing! Arrived in Son La at night and immediately crashed to bed again.
The next day we visited the french prison in Son La. But besides that, there is not much to do there. Almost getting tired of the trip, we drove to our last destination to Mai Chau. The last part from Mai Chau to Hanoi was kinda hard. The traffic started to get worse and the roads bumpier. Also, Adrians motorbike broke down again! The same problem like last time. The next mechanic was nearby and he fixed it in an hour. To get to Mr Viet’s motorbike shop, we had to drive through the whole town. It was saturday and 5 pm. There were tons of motorbikes and cars on the street. We definitely aren’t used to drive in such a busy street. We happily dropped our bikes off and told ourselves that we won’t drive a motorbike for a while.