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Thursday, June 6, 2013

ACROSS NORTHERN VIETNAM ON TWO WHEELS

By David Atkinson
Motorbiking North Vietnam
Traveling around Vietnam by motorbike, seeing breathtaking landscapes, beautiful mountain passes, interesting historical relics, colorful, friendly and happy people…makes you love Vietnam more and gives us extremely special feeling.

I love the thrill of the open road. Shades on, foot to the floor and cruising through alien landscapes with the stereo cranked right up.
But Vietnam was just about the last place I expected to find myself on a road trip. Self-drive isn’t really an option here.
And, as for the State-approved backpacker bus trips, well, let’s just say that rubbing knees with the tie-dye clad hordes and eating in the tourist restaurant, where the bus driver always collects his kickback, isn’t my scene.

Easy rider
It sounded perfect. A way to get my engine running and get out on the highway while staying off-the-beaten-track and seeing the real Vietnam.
Road to Northern Vietnam

Activetravel Asia is one of the Indochina's leading adventure travel companies. They offer a wide selection of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia adventure tours, including hiking and trekking, biking, motorcycling, overland touring and family travel packages. ATA’s packages and tailor-made private itineraries take you through exotic destinations to really experience the culture, history and nature of Asia.  They have made hundreds of trips into the backwaters of the far north, building up a comprehensive motorbike guide to northern Vietnam.

“The bikes are old 50’s designs straight out of Belarussia. They’re the backbone of the country and used by everyone to haul goods around,” 
“They don’t go very fast, use a lot of petrol and billow out a lot of smoke, but they’ll get you anywhere,” he adds.
“Besides, they’re very easy to fix. If you’ve got a stick and a rock you can fix a Minsk.”

Cruise control 
With the sun in our faces, we join the highway near Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport and start the slow climb northwards. As we progress at a steady 35km/h, overtaking lumbering trucks soon gives way to overtaking lumbering water buffalo who eye suspiciously as we file past the paddy fields.

We stop for dinner that night in Tuyen Quang. It’s a dusty one-ass town dominated by trucker rest stops and so-called bia om or ‘cuddle beer’ outlets where the town’s two attractions make for natural bedfellows.
As we settle down for the night in the shabby state-owned hotel, one of my fellow easy riders, Casey McCarthy from Texas, tells me why she has chosen a severe buttock buffing on a motorbike in the rain for her holiday.

“I’d never seen a Minsk before Vietnam and, although it’s ancient technology, it’s a very easy ride,” she says. “I guess I just wanted to get away from those cattle-truck bus trips and a bike trip is the best way to see the countryside as you decide where and when you want to go.”

The next day we’re up with the light and, after a hearty bowl of Vietnamese pho bo(a rice noodle soup with strips of beef), we’re back in the saddle and on the road for Ha Giang.

As we stop for petrol at what looks like a roadside chemistry set, I ask Digby what kind of people are attracted to the idea of driving around rural Vietnam on a piece of Russian war-era machinery.

“Half are motorbike riders back home or people with some previous experience but not all. I’d never ridden a bike until I came to Vietnam,” he explains, taking a little bottle of engine oil and mixing it with petrol.

“Drive bikes and you will crash but drive slow enough and you’ll be OK,” he adds, handing over a dollar for two litres. “If we go over, we’ll just slide – unless we hit something. But it’s nothing like driving at 130km back home when you get washed up off the road”.

Alien invasion
Hagiang province, Vietnam
The last 50km to Ha Giang is made up of winding country lanes. It’s a drive not best experienced at dusk when huge trucks with dazzling headlights tear around blind corners with scant regard for approaching fellow truckers, let alone a bunch of foreigners on motorbikes in dayglo jackets.

As we make the final approach, it feels like entering a long-forgotten Wild West outpost. The locals stare at us like aliens just beamed down from another planet but Digby is used to it.

“I regularly go to places where only a handful of strangers have ever been before. Just two weeks ago, I took a tour to a place where only three foreigners had ever visited before the new road was built,” he smiles.

“Just as I was thinking that I’d been everywhere possible, the Vietnamese Government has launched a programme to build roads to each commune so a there’s now a whole bunch of new roads to explore,” he adds.

“That’s why I do this. It isn’t so much a tour as a road trip where the guide is having as much fun as the customers.”

More travel information about motorbike northern Vietnam at: http://www.activetravelvietnam.com/tour.php?op=detail&tourId=66

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