Motorbike trip from Hanoi to Sapa
January 1, 1970
by Maria Emelianova
I’ve got an idea to travel around Northern Vietnam by motorbike a long time before I started a trip, and it looked like more as a fantasy rather than a realistic thing for me. I’ve been riding an automatic scooter a lot in some SE Asian countries for the last 2 years, but never even touched a real big manual motorbike before. But I keep telling to myself: everything can be possible in this life.
Checking out the prices at the agencies, who were organizing those trips, I was a bit shocked how expensive it was. I was hoping to join one of the groups, but there was no any groups available for my dates. Just one agency out of 5, offered me more affordable price, but still, it was too expensive and it was for riding semi-automatic scooter that didn’t feel fun for me. I decided to leave it for later, by the time I get to Hanoi.
The first thing I did arriving to Hanoi, was to look for a office of an agency, whose response I liked the most. Friendly and cheerful owner Frank, invited me to visit his garage on the next day. He showed me two motorcycle options: semi-automatic scooter and Honda XR150 upgraded to 175 cc. The last one was even 50% more expensive than “more affordable price” for a scooter. Seeing a big motorbike like Honda, I’ve got a blurry mind, forgot worries about the costs and just felt a strong desire that I want to do it. He took me to the spacious, safe place and trained me for couple of hours how to manage a motorbike. I fell in love with motorbike at the first sight and there was no any doubts left for me what to do the next.
The night before we started our journey, I couldn’t get asleep. I think I slept for 3-4 hours the longest at that night. I felt so excited! The dream comes true!
The road to heaven
Next morning….. we started our trip from getting out of Hanoi city. It was a nightmare. Since I didn’t get used to the clutch and the gears, the bike stopped every few minutes in the middle of crowded traffic and Vietnamese people bumped into me with angry faces saying something bad. I was moving like a snail on this powerful motorbike and Frank used to asked me: are you sure? you want to do it?
Once we went out of the city, the ‘road to heaven’ began. On the first stop, I tried traditional way of smoking pipe with Vietnamese tabaco. Local people believe that it clears up the mind and energizes the body, even if you have a hangover as well
The day was lovely and we went through the tea plantation to make a stop at a chilling area with hammocks to have a glass of sugar cane juice.
I’d like to admit that the nature in Vietnam is quite diverse with the beautiful sceneries and spectacular views.
Surprisingly, after riding 180 km for the first day to Phu Yen, I didn’t feel tired. Just my left hand was aching because of the stress of holding the clutch while going out through Hanoi traffic.
I’d like to pay a special attention on one of Vietnamese tradition, which is food. It is diverse and delicious, but always based on meat. It was ok for me as I quit to be vegetarian few months before the trip. The local people show their respect by offering a broad variety different food and don’t let you left with an empty plate. They always put some more pieces of food on your plate with the words: eat, eat. So.. on our first dinner Frank ordered so many food, that we were not able to eat even a quarter of it. Just to show a respect to the chief, we asked it to take away.
On the next day my hand felt much better and it didn’t hurt any more. The day was beautiful to continue this wonderful adventure.
Another feature of Vietnamese culture is that everybody is calling to each other as brothers and sisters (or aunties/uncles, if much older). They don’t say just thank you, they add to ‘thank you’ the ‘sister’ or ‘brother’, depending on gender. Later on, buying fruits on the streets of Hanoi or paying for the food in restaurant, people used to give me a big smile and looked pretty happy when heard from me ‘thank you sister’ in Vietnamese. When I met Frank, he started calling me ‘sister’ from the beginning. And you know what? I really started perceiving him as a brother in while and could share any thoughts and feelings with him. I like that approach as in my country, we are very occupied with keeping our boundaries and often surround ourselves with iced-wall.
And one more traditional thing. They do commitments and keep them. If two are in the serious relationship, they should get married after. If they got married, they should stay together till the rest of the life. Frank told me: “on the west, you have 80% divorces and only 20% of couples stay together. We are on the contrary, in our country, we have only 20% divorces, but 80% of couples stay together. Western women who are living in Vietnam, coming back from the bar after midnight, but our Vietnamese women, not later than 9pm” he added. He had a French girlfriend before he got married to Vietnamese lady. They’ve been happily married for 10 years and have 2 lovely kids.
The good thing about this trip is that I saw country and local culture from inside. Our next stop was at homestay. This was a simple house located in the beautiful area surrounded by mountains.
The first floor of the house was made out of bricks and had few chambers: the room for electrical generator, the kitchen, warehouse and a bathroom.
This kind of bathroom is used all over across SE Asia and it just has the bucket of cold water to pour on yourself.
The second floor is a main area where the family get together for a food and for a sleep. The walls are made out of crimped metal with lots of pictures of ancestors.
The bedrooms are in the same space as living room, but separated by curtains. They have wooden beds with mosquito nets, straw mattresses and straw pillows.
There are two other phenomenas in Vietnamese cuisine: sticky rice and a rice wine. Sticky rice is distinguished from other types of rice by having no amylose, but high amounts of amylopectin, which is responsible for the sticky quality. It’s getting ‘sticky’ to some degree when cooked. It can have different colors including violet which comes out by adding special leaves while it’s cooked. This is dietary gluten-free food.
Rice wine is a typical alcoholic drink in Vietnam and it’s not really a wine by our understanding, it’s a spirit with 40-52 percent alcohol by volume. But surprisingly it has a very soft taste and doesn’t feel as strong as vodka or any other spirits. The way of clinking glasses is also interesting. If you clink your glass with older person, you should hold your glass by both hands and put your glass lower than the glass of older person to show your respect.
As I was a honorable guest, I supposed to drink a rice wine every time while everybody was drinking. But my dearest brother Frank saved me by drinking for both and, as a result, he had a hangover on the next morning. The good thing about living on the nature, there is always some natural healing treatments around, which was the hot springs at that time. We woke up at 5 am and took a nice bath at a hot spring water.
Hitting the road
That was a nice start of the morning. After having a breakfast with delicious duck and pork barbecue, we started heading further to the mountains. The higher was the altitude, the more we got into the clouds. There was very humid and rainy. We put the rain suits on and moved through the clouds carefully and slowly as the visibility was only 1 meter ahead. Frank was worried to loose me, as well as he was focused on the road at the same time. It was a curvy road and he had to beep every time while turning with such a zero visibility. I was feeling more and more confident with every minute of riding the motorbike and liked this new experience too. On the other side of the hills the weather changed and we got a sun again.
When I saw such carefully cultivated the rice terraces, I just appreciated more and more the Vietnamese people taking care about their land. They like to work and they are quite active.
On the way to Muong Lay, our next place for a night, we had a short stop at a lake with a peaceful view. Sitting on the bank of the lake, we shared a lot of our life stories to each other, our hopes and desires, life views and perspectives. I will remember this moment. Brother Frank, I gonna miss you!
Arriving to the hotel, we met the group of other motorbike riders. Seeing their bikes, I wondered, why they don’t have the mirrors? They looked pretty old. Speaking later on with a Portuguese guy, the leader of that group, I asked him this question. He said that they like to do off-road riding and as falling down sometimes, they don’t need any unnecessary things. Is it safe I asked? He said yes, as they only need to look forward, not backwards. Here we go. I looked at our brand new horses and appreciated more Frank’s approach to his work.
On the next morning, heading to the local market for the breakfast, Frank bought the local donuts on the way. It had the different taste, but I liked it more than those I got used to. On the top, they were covered with the sugar syrup and I suddenly realized that I didn’t have any sweets for many days. I asked him if they don’t eat sweets so much and he said they don’t. I don’t remember any single overweighted Vietnamese person through the entire journey.
Waiting for the traditional soup Pho to get ready, I took a walk through the market. Most of the space was occupied by selling clothes and meat. They are eating meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. And consuming everything, including animal’s skin with fur.
Adventure of off-road
And after the breakfast, the next…. I didn’t even realized what’s awaiting for me…. I’m going to have a lesson of off-road riding! Yahoo!!! First, I was exploring how to use the first gear on the bumpy dirt road. That was ok while I was crawling on the flat surface, but when I started to go up on the slope with the stones, I fell off for the first time. I felt sorry for the bike about the few scratches, but Frank said, it’s ok I’ll fix it. The most important is it’s ok with you.
And then…. crossing over the river with slippery stones on the bottom! WOW, that was a real challenge! And I did it, even twice!! At the moment when I was crossing the river, the time stopped for me. I just remember the long moments of no breathing, widely opened eyes and just one thought in my mind: I have to do it. After coming out safely and not falling down, I was screaming loudly through the fields like crazy from the extreme happiness!! What could be even better???? Now I can understand the people who are doing extreme sports even more. Those moments of happiness are so strong that I never experienced before, they will stay with me forever.
The total Vietnamese population is about 90 million people and like as in any other countries, they have their own ethnic minorities as well. They make up approximately 8% of the total population. The 3d biggest one is Hmong minority with 1 million of people, most of them are living in the Northern Vietnam. Hmong came to Vietnam from South China 300 years ago escaping from Chinese imperialism. Nowadays they are quite poor people living simple life, most of them working on their land on sloping terraces growing rice and corn, some of them are selling souvenirs for the tourists. We are going to visit on of those families. Frank is doing some charity work for them.
The owner of a house is a young lovely lady. She is a tailor and we couldn’t resist to try some traditional dresses together.
Well, great day, but we still have to hit a way to our final destination Sa Pa by curvy roads through the mountains. Sa Pa located 380 km from Hanoi, close to the border of China. The highest mountain in this district is Fan Si Pan, at a height of 3143 m above sea level. The town of Sa Pa lies at an elevation of about 1500 meters.
The more we went up to the mountain, the colder it became. It was cloudy and foggy with almost zero visibility on the narrow curvy roads with lots of trucks on the way, but I felt myself on the top of the world!
When we arrived to Sa Pa, it was very cold, 8 degrees. No heating at hotel. But even in restaurant, the doors were opened and the temperature inside and outside was the same! Thanks Frank, he lent me his jacket, but sitting even in two jackets, I had to warm up with the rice wine, even though I’m not drinking spirits. The dinner was delicious! I can’t miss to mention one more feature of Viet cuisine, that I never tried before, is the meat of swallow mixed with a rice. It’s sort of delicatessen in Vietnam like foie gras in France or caviar in Russia.
I really liked Sa Pa. It was colonized by French in 1880 with the first civilian residents arrived to Sa Pa in 1909. Most of colonial buildings were destroyed between 1940-1950 either by Viet Minh sympathisers or by French air raids. But still it’s very cute, western style with lots of tourists attractions.
Unfortunately, since the tourism has been booming those days, more and more of old colonial buildings are going to be destroyed for the sake of modern international hotels. One of the oldest attraction, the traditional local market was removed from the center of town for the same reason. Some of Hmong people are still living in their small poor houses by now, but who knows what will happen in the future?
Getting back to Hanoi
Today’s ride doesn’t expect to be so long, only 30km, but it supposed to be through the heavy traffic with full of trucks on the way. We are heading to Lao Cai train station to ship our horses and take a night sleep on the train. One more surprise was awaiting for me upon arrival to Lao Cai town, we went to massage saloon! It was soooo good to receive the foot and back massage, after riding over 700 km!
We were waken up at 4:30 am in the train arriving back to Hanoi. Felt sad, this amazing trip is over. Getting out on the platform, our motorbikes’ve been already waiting for us. Short ride to the garage, where Frank’s wife Moon met us. Felt nearly crying….
Getting back to the hotel by taxi, I thought, this wonderful motorbike trip is over, but I’m still in lovely Vietnam and have 2 days of boat trip to Halong bay soon! Next day …. I’m off again!