18.05. – 19.05.2016
After saying good-bye to my travel companions it was also time for me to get ready to start the ride to the beginning of the whole journey – Cao Bang. The plan was doing an overnight stop on the way, staying another night in Cao Bang itself, and then take the bus to Hanoi. By now even I don’t even believe in any of my plans!!!
Before leaving Meo Vac though I had some unfinished business to deal with. Not being able to print out the photos I took from the village where I had my puncture I did the second best option. I went to the biggest store in Meo Vac and bought several toy cars, plenty of colour pens and colouring books. I saw three children during my forced lunch, so I assumed that should be enough. You know what they say about ass-u-me!!
Now equipped with a plastic bag holding all the toys hanging down at the front of the bike – constantly hitting my knee I headed back to the guesthouse to pick up my backpack and seeing if the shop opposite the guesthouse was able to repair my camera bag with the broken zipper. And I must admit, I was rather impressed with the work, I could actually close the bag again – which is helpful when the bag is on a bike, you do not want to see your camera falling down during the ride!! Price was 200.000, but I was happy with the work and thought it was a good price.
Finally I was able to pack my bike and heading out of Meo Vac for the second and unfortunately last time. Knowing the way I was quickly back on route, heading up the hills again. Unfortunately for the first part of the journey the weather was the same as last time – cloudy, and a little bit wet. At least the area got a slight mythical look. And to be honest, with some of the views on offer you could enjoy the scenery – the weather really is not important. And even though I was on the same road, driving the opposite road gave me some new perception – and the road was still fun to ride.
However, once again I realised why there are quite a few accidents in Vietnam – drivers do not pay attention. At one section of the road with several potholes a bus was driving in the middle of the road. I stopped and moved as close to the hill as possible – so the bus had enough space. Still I saw the bus coming closer to me and the hill, and only when I used the horn did the driver look up from his mobile phone and moved back to the middle of the road and not hitting me. This is one of the biggest issues riding a bike – the lack of ability to drive by many drivers. It sounds a bit harsh, but take a bus in Vietnam and you understand what I mean. And this is why you have to pay attention to the road and the other drivers. Lack of focus can have a severe impact.
Arriving back down to a smaller valley where I was greeted by some green rice fields I finally passed the garage that fixed my tire, and 10 minutes later I recognised the house I was invited for lunch. Unfortunately no one was home, so I headed to the houses a few meters away and was greeted with some confused looking locals, wondering what this strangers want. After showing them the pictures taken during lunch and finally some adults who recognised they all understood who I was – followed by some laughter seeing the pictures again. During the whole time all kids from that area (around 15) gathered around my bike, eyeing the bag with the toys. To ensure I do not cause any issue I gave the bag to one of the adults, somehow explaining that it was a gift for the kids as a thank you for their previous help. And the kids were happy to get the cars and pens. I didn’t even realised how many children lived in that village, that the toys were not enough for every child, so the adults started to hand out pens to every children, while the teenager got the notepad and some pencils she probably needed for school. It just hit me once again that they do not have a lot in that region based on their reaction. The big smile when getting the coloured pens or cars was just priceless…and at that moment I wished I would have bought more toys. After getting their help a few days ago this was the least I could do. Though, I would like to point out that handing out sweets or toys at random kids is not appropriate. At least give the gifts to an adult. Just imagine how it looked in the Western world if you hand out toys to random kids on the street!!!
Back on the bike I followed the road the final few km to leave Ha Giang province for good – just to pass a police check point. Like before no one bothered me, though it was funny to see the different reaction of the police officers when I said Xin Chao and smiled – the younger one smiled and waved, while the elder one looked rather serious at me. After that stare I made sure I quickly went past them.
I continued riding on the mountainous road until I arrived in the little village of Khuoi Vinh where the QL4C goes through. It was the perfect place to have a little stop for some water. An elderly lady was very quick to get a chair outside behind some empty stalls, so I can sit down, having an ice-cold water and being able to enjoy the view of the dirty road, stalls and locals – which was perfect for me. I like these tiny villages, and after finishing the water I walked a little bit to check the stalls and get an ice tea – which was probably not the best idea. When I got next to a shop two women seemingly coming back from the fields spotted me, and a second later I had a little cup in my hand – yes, I got my first shot of corn wine of the day just after noon. Not being rude I just drunk it. But not hesitating was not good either, as it was seen as an invite to get a refill. Now a little crowed has formed as more people came out of their shops, some using their phone to record the show, so I had no choice to finish the second cup as well – who wants to be a chicken on a video that might be shared throughout the area. At least I brought some laughter to everyone. Thankfully I was able to walk away without drinking more – otherwise I might have needed a guesthouse.
Riding the bike a bit slower for the next few km I reached the back of the QL4C and unfortunately no progress has been made in the last 5 days so it was still a bit challenging section until I crossed the large bridge again to finally make it onto the QL34 that was bringing me to Bao Lac. And to add to the enjoyment the sun finally decided to come out, which was nice following the river all the way back to Bao Lac, where I arrived around 1:30pm. It was a bit early so I decided to continue the journey to make it to Tinh Tuc, the little village in the mountains I found so beautiful on my way to Ha Giang.
So I stayed on the road and followed the road QL34 once again. But thanks to the sun the whole area looked different – it was like exploring a new area. The fields were greener, the river had a stronger blue, the trees providing shade – and the ride was so much more pleasant. I probably stopped at the same places as I did on the way to Bao Lac, but it was just nicer. And the road offers some lovely views – passing villages where the red roofs of the houses offered a lovely contrast to the fields, locals working on the fields and water buffaloes enjoying some cold water. It was such a peaceful atmosphere. You cannot help but love it.
The road was still fun to ride along some valleys, and without realising I arrived at the little village with the crossing towards the south and east. I remembered it as a grey place, not very nice to be honest. But now with the sun out it looked more welcoming, and the views from there were very nice. From here I continued the road southwards towards Nguyen Binh. This stretch offers some great view with lush green and yellow terraces, mountains and little villages It was just stunning again.
At one point I was passing a little section with bamboo trees on both sides of the road, and soon after I passed a house where locals carried bamboo sticks from one pile to another. The locals found it quite entertaining that a foreigner was stopping to watch them, with quite a few laughter, grins and smiles. To make the situation even better I was just about to continue to ride the bike as suddenly the road was blocked by water buffalo, led by a young couple, the woman carrying a little child on her back. This all was just a rural experience you will hardly forget.
From here the road went downhill to reach the little village of Tinh Tuc. Just before the village is a Uncle Ho monument in honour of his visit to this village. With the mountains behind the monument it is a beautiful site. In the afternoon it is busy with kids playing or cycling there and parents watching them, and I enjoyed a little break there soaking in the lovely atmosphere.
Tinh Tuc itself is a lovely village, with the QL34 running through the place and colourful houses on both sides, and some little roads going off up and downhill to other buildings. The location on the slope of the hill, and some houses hanging slightly over the slope it is a lovely place. Thankfully my memory didn’t fail me and I found a little guesthouse at the other side of the village, at the start of Tinh Tuc coming from Nguyen Binh. The Thinh Tuc Hotel (a very creative name…) is a very basic place, but good enough to stay in a non-touristy mountain village. Here is the review of the guesthouse.
After checking-in I decided to walk along the main road of the village, and it was nice to see more of the village, enjoying some of the spectacular views over the valley and part of the village below the road. I also spotted a few food places I thought would be nice for dinner. I think most villagers were surprised to see a foreigner walking around, and they were smiling when they saw me. I cannot help but to love such places. However, at one point I didn’t dare to continue walking along the road, as it was blocked by quite a few dogs, and a few came towards me, barking. I took it as a sign to walk back to the guesthouse to get ready for dinner. On the way back I stopped at a little cafe near the guesthouse, and decided to have a coffee while the sun disappeared. It is a very basic one with a few chairs outside along the main road, and a few inside. The young female owner spoke a little English, and she was very keen to practise it while I had my ca fe sua da, which was actually very enjoyable.
After the coffee I decided that walking in the dark with the dogs might not be a good idea, and instead to the bike to find something to eat. I passed a few soup places, and there was a restaurant that looked empty at the little square, and another food place where quite a few locals walked in for a kind of meeting. I wasn’t sure it would be appropriate to eat there, so in the end I ended in the food place on the other side of the village where probably the buses stop. They only had some fried noodles with chicken left which was ok. The other guests in the food place were happy to try having a little chat with hand luggage, and once again I got corn wine served. Well – I only had two shots over the last three days so it was time to prevent any issues. While the food in the other places would have been better, but I still had a good time.
The next morning I got up a bit earlier, and while I was unable to get a Banh Mi I got a nice ca fe sua da in the cafe again. When I arrived the owner just had a chat with an elderly woman. When the woman saw me she turned away and walked to the house opposite of the cafe. I was wondering if I scared her and ruined her morning – or if she was calling some friends to deal with me. All these ideas in my head I was surprised when a young boy came running out of the house and joined me at the table. It was the woman’s grandson and he wanted to use the chance to practise his English. So I had a lovely conversation while having my early morning ca fe sua da. I said it so often before, but having these encounters make a trip so much nicer. It was ,maybe the perfect finish for my short stay in this lovely village.
I also decided that it would be nice to head to Cao bang now and getting a bus to Hanoi without spending another night in Cao Bang. So after the lovely coffee I was back on my bike heading down the mountain roads towards Nguyen Binh. The sun was out again, so it was nice to see the lovely valley in lush green, and the road was every enjoyable. Soon I arrived in Nguyen Binh, and as I didn’t want to leave my bag on my bike so I had to pass the large busy market.
From Nguyen Binh I followed the road towards Cao Bang, and this time I was on the correct road. Did I previously follow a remote road over the mountains this time I went on a nicely paved roads passing rice fields, hills, little villages, rivers. While the route was not as impressive as the one I took before but it was still a lovely journey, with some stunning views. However, I took advantage if the road and instead of enjoying just the view, I rode my bike as it should be. It really was fun to ride that specific road.
Near Cao Bang I finally arrived at the crossing where I missed the turn and headed to Hanoi instead, but here I recognised the way back to the Khách Sạn Bằng Giang hotel. The receptionist was a bit confused when I mentioned motorbike, but soon Ana arrived and I was able to return the bike and I got my deposit back minus the price for 10 days (the 11th was free). I must admit – I felt a bit sad saying bye to the bike that too me around for over 800km, without any issues (except a puncture). Maybe I should have stayed another night there and explore more of the side roads…
I had the choice staying for lunch and taking the noon bus to Hanoi, but instead I made my way to the bus station. And here I experienced one of the reasons why I occasionally think that Vietnamese do not understand tourists. At the bus station I headed straight to the counter, just saying “Hanoi”, and suddenly this woman appeared next to me out of thin air – like I said a magic word that brings bad luck!!! She tried to tell me to follow her for the bus – and I tried to ignore her. Two things that didn’t work well together. But the woman behind the counter was still as helpful as a chocolate teapot, pointing to the lady next to me. Great – was this a coordinated scam??? Two girls then appeared with the large backpacks, trying to get tickets for a bus to Ba Be lake, but they were sent to the woman as well, who wanted to take all three of us to the bus of Hanoi. I must admit the whole process still smelled like a scam, as we wanted to go to different places. As the counter was not helpful at all, I had to follow the woman, while the two girls tried to find a different way to get a ticket.
Well, I was taken to a minibus with the destination Hanoi written on it, where I paid the driver directly. I was a bit hoping to get a larger bus, like the one I just missed at 11am. Bags stored, Banh Mi bought and sitting in the bus I was hoping it will work out. The us started to fill up, and I met Vietnamese my age who has just arrived from China and was able to speak English, so I found someone for a few conversation during the journey. I also asked him to find out where the two girls could get a ticket to Ba Be lake. Well – he returned with the two girls who took seats in the bus. Apparently the bus to the lake broke down and they have to take this bus, and half way through to Hanoi get onto another bus.
We all got into the right bus, but having a woman running around the bus stop looking for foreigners, and the counter not selling tickets is a bad process, as you feel not comfortable there, and concerned to be scammed. I have no idea why they have done it as I never experienced that in any other bus station, and it does not help foreign tourists in this rather remote areas.
The journey to Hanoi was different from the bus ride to Cao Bang. We started at the same road, with the A/C switched off in some sections, and having a stop for lunch in the middle of nowhere (enough time to have lunch quickly), but then we headed off to smaller villagers, the driver trying to get more passengers. At one point our minibus met the bus from Thai Nguyen to Ba Be where the two girls got finally the right bus, but otherwise it was a slow drive. but as usual the driver was bad, racing at times, constantly using his horn and making some interesting overtaking attempts. At that time I was used to the driving style, and didn’t even blink at some situations – you get use to it and just hope you will survive to tell the tale without getting a heart attack. The only positive I took from the journey was that the bus driver on the way back from Halong Bay the year before was worse. Well – my glass is clearly always half full rather half empty!!!
We finally arrived in Hanoi at 7:30pm – an 8 hour journey. The drive to Cao Bang was only 6 hours, so I wish I could have used the same bus company again, but they leave Cao Bang at 7:30am. In the end I was just lad to have arrived, and enjoying one final night in Hanoi. The adventure in the north-east was officially over.
The final days of my motorbike trip was more interesting than I expected. The return to the village where I had my puncture was fun, and thanks to the sunny weather I was able to enjoy some of the known section again. The idea not to stay in Bao Lac and instead heading to Tinh Tuc was a good one – I am sure not many foreigners stay n the village, which made my stay nicer.Overall the last two days on the bike were a fitting end to an amazing motorbike journey to explore the north-east of Vietnam. It was a real adventure riding the bike for over 800km over 11 days, visiting impressive sites like Pac Bo, Ban Gioc or Lung Cu and seeing some of the most impressive scenery Vietnam has to offer. I loved the remote feels in the north, where you see not hordes of tourists, especially in the Cao Bang province. The locals are lovely, friendly and welcoming, and you will not feel that you are treated like a walking cash machine like in Sapa. Yes, it is not that easy to get there, and to really see the place you either hire a bike or you need to get a driver. But all this effort is forgotten when you head out of places like Cao Bang, Bao Lac or Don Van and see the spectacular valleys, empty roads and tiny villages. You might want to stop every 5 minutes to take in the scenes – and why not. This area should not be rushed, and if you only have 3 days I would think twice before going there. Take a week, either visit ha Giang or Cao bang province, and take your time. And you will be rewarded with an experience you will hardly ever forget. For me in these provinces you find some of the best Vietnam has to offer. And I am glad I did this adventure, and I hope to revisit the place again in the future.
Here are some of my personal favourite moments of this motorbike trip in the north-east:
- Tinh Tc is a lovely place for an overnight stay as an alternative to Bao lac if you have the time to ride another 60km
- Be prepared to deal with others than the counter when buying a ticket at Cao bang bus station
- It seems that larger buses leave Cao Bang for Hanoi at noon, and minibuses leave every hour or so (i.e. 7:30 and 11:30). If you stay in Cao Bang for a night aim to get the bus at 7:30am. The bus company takes a shorter route and the drivers drive saver.
- And the final recommendation is – if you have a week or so time and want to experience rural Vietnam, then head to the north-east. It won’t disappointment and I feel the area superior to Sapa or even Ninh Binh due to the remote feel, the landscape and the non-touristy feel.