5. After a loop is before a loop – travelling to Meo Vac

 

11.05. – 13.05.2016

After arriving in Cao Bang I was so glad to be able to freshen up and getting some food. It was well after 20:30, so I decided to cross the bridge to get to one of the stalls opposite the bus station I passed earlier. They looked a bit busy, which is always a good thing.

I decided just to sit at one of the tables of the first food stall after the round about. Not a lot of choice I guess, so I just had another Pho. While waiting a young Vietnamese couple took the seat opposite of me, and a brief Xin Chao was shared, and despite not any word English spoken I understood that they were from Hanoi and here for a short holiday. You have to love sign language. Though while I had my lovely Pho I had to chuckle as the girl was very interested to watch the TV that was standing next to the little kitchen, showing some soap opera apparently from India. Yes, it was surreal watching a Vietnamese watching television while sitting at a food stall next to a busy road. Only in Vietnam I guess. At least I got the look from the poor guy, agreeing with me chuckling away. As a response he got a sympathetic smile. At the end of my meal I got a surprise though. The couple got off first to pay for their food, and after we shared a Hen Gap Lai they left, and just then I was told by the owner that my food was paid already – by the couple. My mouth was wide open, and for a change I was lost for words. I only shared a few words and they invited me for dinner without telling me. I was left stunned. There are no words that could describe how I feel about Vietnamese.

Off I went to cross the bridge again, and next to Khách Sạn Bằng Giang hotel is a little cafe where I took a seat outside to have a late evening ca fe su da. However, I was not sitting alone for very long, as I was invited by a group of young locals to join their table for beer, and you might have guessed it, rice wine. Again! It seems there is no escape from that stuff. But it was another enjoyable time with the locals. One of them spoke a bit English and acted as translator, and it was nice to learn a bit about the life here, constantly interrupted by more beer and rice wine. Loved every single minute. After an hour it was time for them to leave (I guess they had to go to work). A nice way to finish a hard day.

 

After a restful sleep it was time to make my decision what to do next. Riding the bike all the way to Ha Giang province, or leaving the bike here and taking the bus to Ha Giang to get a bike there. The ride of the previous day really took a lot of energy out of me. The girl at the reception of the Than Loan hotel pointing out that I would need to take a bus to Bao Lac and then changing buses for Ha Giang. I was really torn, and in the end I made a decision based on a very simple question – do I really miss out on some nice scenery by taking the bus? So after some help of the receptionist to get new ropes for my bag (and helping me store the bags perfectly for a change) I was once again on the road – Meo Vac here I come.

The plan was to head out of Cao Bang the same way like last time, and at the big turn around use another exit, heading towards Nguyen Binh. I followed the QL3 road, and then I should have turned onto QL34. The road I followed was nice, with roads winding around hills, a valley constantly below me, sometimes on the right side, then on the left side – and trees everywhere. It all looked very peaceful. However, after an hour or so a bus for Thai Nhuyen passed me, and I got a bit suspicious – the bus would not head towards Nguyen Binh, but taking the QL3 southwards towards Hanoi. So I checked Google Maps, and it seems I was on the right road. But after a while I didn’t get rid of that strange sensation that I missed the turn, and was on the wrong road. So I stopped at a litttle shop along the road in the middle of nowhere. The family was a bit surprised to see me approaching them. When I mentioned Nguyen Binh and Bao Lac they nodded and offered a seat, with some strange-looking black jelly thingies in bowl. Maybe I was on the right path. With the lack of English spoken, the son of the family got a piece of paper out and drew  a map – well, at least now I knew I was right all the time – I was really on the QL3 highway towards Hanoi. I really didn’t fancy riding all the way back to Cao Bang. Thankfully there was an alternative, and the alternative was drawn on the map. I just had to follow the road south for another 5km, then turn right onto a smaller road that would lead me over the valley that separated the two highways, and would then lead me to Nguyen Binh. Just a little detour of over 50km.

Equipped with a hand drawn map I was back on the road, looking for the road turning off the highway. Well, just after 5km there was a road turning off just after a statue on the corner I assumed it must be the road he mentioned. I followed this steep road up into the mountains. I was hoping it was the right choice. Further up I went, and soon enough I was riding on a ridge, with valleys on both sides of me, drops of a few hundred metre. And no one nearby, except of some water buffalos watching me. It felt as remote as it could get. I loved it.

 

I continued the road, apparently towards the village of Hoa Tham, offering some great way while serpentine riding around various hills. It was an interesting ide, with valleys offering some larger drops, trees everywhere. I even passed a construction site for a dam. It was a very very interesting route. Soon there were more rice terraces and other fields along the road, offering a contrast to the forest and hills, and I kniew I got closer when I passed through a little village I assumed must have been Hoa Tham. It was a nice little village with fields around, and now I was really back in “civilisation”. This feel of remoteness I had earlier was gone.

After a long 30km I was at the end of this little dirt road that somehow managed me bring me a main road towards the QL34. It was an interesting detour, and will make a better story than just following the right road I guess.
Back on a main road the main view where rice fields and little villages, and soon enough the road was climbing up again, offering me a different view again during the 12 km ride to Nguyen Binh. In some parts trees provided some welcome shelter from the sun. Unfortunately here I might have had a little incident. While driving through a village I saw a duck and several little chicks and ducklings crossing the road, so I slowed down. However, one chick decided to change its mind to run in front of me. I am still not sure if I hit and killed it, or not. I just continued riding and hoped the chick was ok. As no one was chasing me I assumed it was all ok…at least I hoped.

 

After the little detour I finally made it to Nguyen Binh. I have still no idea what little orad  – much later than expected as it was already 14:30. I passed a little market that had closed already, but saw a cart with baguette. Yes, a Banh Mi place for some well deserved food. I waited in front of the cart, and after a few minute a confused looking woman came towards me, shaking her head and waving her hand making it clear no Banh Mi for me here. Great. So instead I continued my ride towards Bao Lac. Apparently it was another 60-70km to go, so I better hurried up. Seeing a nice scenery when heading via the ridge, the next section I did not expect for some reason. After a few kilometres the road started to ascend, but not just a little bit. The road went up higher and higher and higher, going through sharp corners, drops of hundred metres or more appearing on my left, and offering views that made a stop every now and then compulsory. It was stunning.

Due to the hazy weather it was difficult to take pictures, but I am not sure a photo would not have done justice. Lots of terraces on the slope of the hill going all the way down to the valley, forests, little huts, and down the valley you saw little streams, and more green fields. It was just stunning. And the road was fun to drive as well. Then the next highlight came – not another great view. No, it was a village called Thin Tuc, with colourful buildings along the road, some build above the road, others seemingly hanging over the slope. This setting reminded me a little bit of Sapa in a smaller scale. I was just in awe. I really was tempted to stay here, but I thought I should continue, but it was not an easy decision. it was that stunning.

So I rode on, passing a big Uncle Ho memorial at the end of the village, and soon enough I was climbing up a mountain road again, unfortunately it included a longer section with ongoing construction. Instead of a paved road it was riding on gravel, trying to ensure not to fall over via one of the piles of gravel on each side. This was a section where you really had to focus on the road, as one slight mistake and you are on the ground.

 

I knew that from the village it was around 60km (!!!) to Bao Lac, so I constantly looked at panel of my bike, seeing how slowly every driven km was counted. I got the impression I hardly moved….ok, maybe I got a bit tired and just wanted to arrive. At least I was still treated with more fantastic views – though it had a different feel now. There were less fields now, and you saw more hills, however you still got some beautiful views over houses along rice terraces. But overall this section had a rougher feel to it – and it actually got cold. Was I boiling earlier one, I was actually cold, only wearing shirt and shorts. But I couldn’t be asked to stop and get a long sleeve out of my bag – this would have been too much work…and I am lazy. Soon enough though i reached the highest point of the mountain it seems, where a few houses with shops and food places were located. It was not a beautiful stop, though I will remember that crossroad as from here the road went downhill again and once again the scenery changed.

 

Next to the road I saw fields and rice terraces, houses next to little streams. After the rough beauty of the mountains it felt more relaxed now, it must be the colourful green. And for some reason it seems I got faster as well, as soon the road got busier and I saw signs for Bao Lac, and before sunset I arrived in town. No idea where the hotels were located I just stayed on the main road, crossing a river where you can spot many waterwheels, passing volleyball fields next to the pavement were locals played, and somehow I managed to get to a section of the town with all the accommodation. I didn’t like the look of the larger hotels, so I stopped at the Khach San Duc Tai Hotel, near the market and river. Here is my review of the hotel.

 

After the usual freshen up (and enjoying the most luxurious shower I have seen so far during my travels through Vietnam) I needed some food. The young guy working at reception was keen to practise his English a bit, and after a short conversation he brought me to a little food place next to the river (small path on the right of the bridge). Sitting down (I saw four older French tourists with their guide) I waited to get served. And I waited…and waited. The young waitress cleared the table next to me – still not checking anything. I raised my hand to signal I would like to order something – still, nothing. After 15 minute I left (not quietly) and was awarded with some strange looks of locals eating there. This was the first time ever the staff refused to serve me. Maybe she was scared as she couldn’t speak any English. But I m pretty sure I solved that issue before. But I am not sitting like an idiot on a table waiting. Though, after leaving the place this idiot here had to return as I left my camera next to the table. So here is an advise – ignore that little shack located next to the river and little bridge on. Unfortunately the place next door had a wedding, so no food there either. And I didn’t see anything else. So I ended up on a food stall next to the road where the market is in the morning, and got a thick rice soup. It was not bad, not very good either.

Not particular happy with Bao Lac so far I crossed the river for a little walk, passing a few food places there, and when I turned around to head back a little boy came out of a house running after me. He asked in a good English if I want some food, and I should come to his mother’s place. So I followed him into the little food place, and just ordered some Com Ga. Unfortunately it seems the kitchen was overworked with three other guests, and I waited another 20-30 minutes before the food came out. However, in the mean time the boy (he was 12) was very keen to practise his English. I was rather impressed, and it was nice to have a little chat, learning how school works in this area, that he has to help out his parents in the food place after school, and that he loves football. He obviously was happy that Germany won the World Cup in 2014 (good boy!!!). When the food finally arrived I got a nice dish served, and the beer helped as well. When I left the table with four locals stopped me so I can join in for two quick glasses of corn wine. It would have been rude to say no. So my evening in Bao Lac was slightly saved, but it is probably one of my least favourite places in Vietnam so far.

 

 

The next morning (sleeping very well) I managed to find a little cafe for my morning ca fe su da, chatting with some locals surprised to see a foreigner there. This was followed by a visit to the little market next to the bridge, where I got a lovely Banh Mi from a little cart. It was nice to see the locals selling fruits and other items. ANd don’t ask me how – but somehow I managed to entertain the locals there, quite a few were laughing (I think it has something to do with taking pictures and saying Em dep lam!!!). Well, my opinion of Bao Lac had improved again.
After 10am it was time to be back on the road, my belly and the tank of the bike fully filled I followed the QL34 north bound. I was given clear instruction to follow the road until I see a large bridge. Easy enough. On the way I saw some lovely views of rice fields, streams and little villages. I also passed two smaller bridges, hoping I didn’t have to cross the river here. Thankfully soon enough I saw the one the receptionist of the hotel meant – a massive large bridge. This seemed to be a popular stop here, as I saw a few food places, cafes and bia hoi places. Too early for beer I walked into a little house that was a cafe, to get a ca fe sua da. I am not sure who was more surprised, the waitress or the locals who didn’t expect a foreigner to walk in, or me seeing the simple interior inside – containing of a few chairs, table, and a little bed in the tiny next room. Well – it provided shade, offering a cold drink, so it was perfect for me. It was actually good being able to take a drinking break during the ride. I didn’t see too many cafes along the road.
I was now on a smaller road heading into the mountains again. There is even a smaller road that lead to Meo Vac, but I heard it is in terrible condition, so I avoided that one. Not that QL4C was much better at the beginning. Thanks for a construction side it was once again time to ride on gravel, trying to find the good part of a terrible road. But thankfully soon it was back to a normal paved roads with lots of potholes.
Like a snake the road was winding up between mountains, getting higher again, offering some nice views. I saw little houses next to rice and corn fields, belonging to different minority tribes. Some villages had wooden longhouses, others had beautiful red tiles. It was nice to see the differences. I also passed a construction site for a larger dam being build – even here in the far north progress is happening. In this area it was also fascinating how the people here are able to utilise every little piece of land for agriculture even on the higher altitudes – either on the slopes or small bits between rocks. But also the road itself was interesting, a few times I was riding on a ridge with drops both left and right.

 

Around 40km before Meo Vac I saw a big sign welcoming me to Ha Giang province. It seems I made it here in one piece, and I was actually very happy to be here.

 

I really should have shut my mouth!!!!

 

Five minutes after that thought there was damage section on the road, where there was once again no paved road, but some rocks on top of soil. And here it happen – a big bang. Well – I was shocked when I heard the noise, and two kids came running of the house I just passed. It seems I got a puncture…or rather my tyre was gone. In the mountains…not near a town, but really on the road overlooking fields and a stream. “Perfect timing” I thought. So what to do. I saw a house further up the road with a few motorbikes, so I pushed the bike forward, hoping that someone could help me. Nothing could have prepared me what happened next. Huffing and puffing I stopped the bike in front of the entrance, and inside it looked like the whole village gathered, it was full. More than twenty pair of eyes looked at me, most with a big grin. A few came out and saw the damaged tyre straight away. Waving a hand like this is nothing the bike was put into a shady place, and I was dragged inside. Inside the main house of a minority village. A house with a few chairs and tables, two beds, and in the corner a fire-place to prepare food. The windows shut to keep the sun out – but as a result it was quite hot inside.
And now I was sitting on a little chair in front of a table with food. And without wasting any time I suddenly had a bowl in my hand, and various items were put in – chicken wings, chicken feet, chicken testicles, tofu, vegetables and some powdery stuff (corn powder). Well – I had no lunch yet so I just started to eat. Thankfully I have a strong stomach, so I hardly had every any problem with local food, and I eat nearly everything. It was simple, but I liked it (maybe one or two testicle pieces were a bit too chewy!!!). And what cannot be missed when sitting with locals – you are right, corn wine. But obviously not just one, or two. And all the time the locals were smiling, laughing, and we communicated somehow. They understood that I came from Cao Bang, that I was on my way to Meo Vac. And that I needed a new tyre. Initially I thought someone was dealing with that issue, but it turned out I was wrong. Well – instead we were all eating and drinking. And taking photos. it was funny to see some of them using my camera. There as quite a bit of laughter when one of the men failed to take a picture, and his friend managed to get a good shoot of me straight away. It was just amazing to spend with these amazing people.

 

After an hour it was time to deal with the bike. For that purpose I was loaded on the back of my bike, and off we were to – well – somewhere. Leaving my bike and bags behind. Some might call me stupid, but for some reason I trusted them that they are not stealing there. But I wouldn’t had any other option anyway, as we headed to a little garage 15 minutes away from the house, in a tiny village. I should have known – with the amount of bikes in Vietnam there is a garage around every corner! Here we waited for 10 minutes, and the two of us headed back. I was slightly confused at that point, and it was only lifted when the guy from the garage appeared at the house as well, inspecting the bike. Now there was the next problem. No one could speak English. So I called my friend Tuan in HCMC, who then acted as my translator to see what needs to be done. It was clear that i needed a complete new tyre as even the inside of the old one was destroyed (a lovely deep cut). Great, and how much will it cost to replace the tyre??? 300.000 Dong!!!!!! Less than $15. Was I ok with the price? Was I? WAS I? Of course I was. Big smiles all around and soon the front tyre including the wheel was off, and the garage guy was driving away with my tyre over his shoulder. Another 15 minutes later he came back, and my bike was repaired. I was impressed. It took longer to eat and drink than to get a new tyre!
It was time to leave now, but I didn’t want to leave without leaving some money behind. I know, some might criticise it. But I got invited for lunch by people who really have nothing. Who have to work very hard as I was reminded seeing two women carrying a heavy load of sticks earlier, their backs damage for life. So I got 200.00 Dong out, and there was some shouting and suddenly the owner of the house came out, and with a big smile took the money. As a thank you I got another corn wine. Well – I was hoping that a total of 5 shots was not impacting riding the last 35 km. But it was worth it. I was just amazed by the hospitality once again in this country. Wherever you go, they are always glad to help you – and do not want anything in exchange. And often the poorest are the first to help. It was a humble experience. And this experience left a lasting impact on me for the remaining trip, and still does today.
Back on my repaired bike I was off again for the last 30km to Meo Vac. And once again it seems the best view were saved for the end. Initially the road continued to hug the hillside, offering some nice views, before it went downhill into a lovely valley filled with rice fields, streams and village where adults were working on the fields and kids playing in the water. it all felt so real here – the real Vietnam, not anything staged. These are places were I could easily sit down and watch the locals for hours. I was riding my bike with a big smile, and was rewarded with locals smiling back, waving or shouting Xin Chao, some stopping working for a few seconds to do so.
The road then climbed up the mountains again, offering some great view of the valleys below you, with fields and rice terraces everywhere. here you got a view of more valleys below you offered. And you still met locals. I am always fascinated that kids in these areas use anything they find to play with. I couldn’t stop grinning when three little boys came towards me, using a wooden stick to make old tyres move forward. Give these things to a kid in Germany and he might ask where to switch it on….
I fully enjoyed that last stretch of the route, and after passing just another construction site, where I had to wait a bit so they can finish flattening some gravel, I finally made it to Meo Vac just before 5pm. I was in the Ha Giang province, to get ready for the next Loop.

Thanks to my detour on day 1 I was riding nearly 200 km from Cao Bang. And the journey was interesting. Getting lost is never a nice thing, but at least I explored a road I am sure not many foreigner have seen before. The scenery was in most parts just stunning – and varied a lot. From rice fields and terraces, to forests and mountains and picturesque villages. And once again the highlight were the people. While I had a negative experience in Bao Lac, even there I had some nice encounters. But the highlight was definitely lunch in the minority village. Sometimes good things starts with bad luck, and that specific event will stay with me forever. I was just stunned from this welcome I received, from people who have nothing. It was a highlight of an enjoyable two-day ride.

 

Recommendation

  • When leaving Cao Bang for Bao Lac do not miss the turn off QL3. After the large roundabout the main road will either head straight ahead into the mountains, or you can tunrn right into another main road, which is QL34 for Nguyen Binh
  • The QL3 and QL34 are both in good condition. QL34 northbound has some good section, but you will encounter some construction site, and damages on the road are not uncommon. The road QL4C towards Meo Vac is avergae, with some good sections but also with lots of potholes.
  • While 160km (distance from Cao Bang to Meo Vac) doesn’t sound a lot, thanks to the condition of the road in some instances I would not recommend doing the route in a  day. You might arrive when it is dark.
  • Do not ride the route when it is dark. Some sections have sharp corners, and you have to keep an eye on other vehicles.
  • Bao Lac is the perfect stop to divide the journey.
  • Take your time. Enjoy the route and the scenery. it would be shame if you just pass the beautiful area without appreciating it.

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