Rice wine and rough roads: novice biking in Northern Vietnam

Posted on 28 June 2011

Arriving in Hanoi, Northern Vietnam, as a westerner is something special. Even us Africans who are used to chaos and disorder are unprepared for the experience of the traffic situation. There are literally thousands upon thousands of bikes attempting to get somewhere, from somewhere else, without stopping. It’s the most insane thing I’ve ever experienced! I was somewhat concerned because I’d convinced five of my mates (two guys and three girls) to join me on a biking holiday. Of those five only Graham had been consistently riding a bike for any period longer than three days “¦ we are a novice group.

We met at the offices of Offroad Vietnam the day before we were due to depart and were greeted by Anh Wu; the sales manager/owner of the company and a man I have been conversing with for over eighteen months but never met. He’s a genuinely pleasant chap and exactly the same as his “˜internet’ personality: friendly, helpful and exceptionally efficient. We pay our outstanding amount, fit ourselves with safety gear (rented for a paltry $3 per day for full kit) and get the first sightings of what will be our noble steeds for the next nine days.

Day one

Day one started early. We arrived at the office before 7:30pm to kit up, load up and meet our tour guide, Long, ‘which means dragon,’ he’ll proudly to tell you. However, he makes sure you pronounce the ‘g’ in Long or else it means something rather different; less ancient serpent and more intimate lady part. Despite it being a Sunday, the traffic is not what one would call “˜light’. Anh offers a ride-out service for those who aren’t brave enough to experience their first Vietnamese kilometers on a bike, dodging taxis, trucks, cyclists, dogs and pedestrians in super-congested streets. Here, one of his guides rides your bike out with you as a passenger, so you still experience the madness, just under the guidance of an experienced rider.  Once at the outskirts, we regrouped and were given a quick briefing by Long, then the extra guides caught a taxi back to the shop.

We had to cover 170 km of secondary and rural roads that was supposed to take us five hours. The journey took us ten hours and we arrived at our overnight stop in complete darkness. There had been some very unseasonal rains in the week leading up to our tour and this had made whatever dirt roads we had to traverse somewhat muddy. Mud and inexperienced bikers make for an interesting combo. The highlights (or lowlights) include roughly seven falls at low speeds in the mud, one slightly more serious crash (In Kim’s defense she didn’t really complain much despite getting a rather impressive collection of bruises and a nicely scraped ankle) and then there was the big one where Emma hit a pothole (in a slush-mud road) and collided with an oncoming local. Now before I continue, can I just say right now: Rule number one of biking in “˜nam is ‘Do not hit a local’. Swerve and hit your mate, hit a tree, hit a rock – in fact, hit anything else rather than a local. Because, if you hit a local you’re in for some drama and I’m talking about “˜makes-Isidingo-look-like-a-children’s-play’ drama.  You’d swear that the local had her leg severed off, by the amount of dramatics she was putting on. (Two of our group are qualified doctors and after checking her out and patching her up concluded that she’d sprained her wrist at worst.) The procedure of sorting out an accident with a local is a fine balancing act and near impossible if you don’t have a translator. Basically: they want monetary compensation and you don’t want to end up in jail. However, nobody wants the police to get involved because then both bikes are confiscated for a month until the police decide who is at fault. Two hours of tense negotiations leads to a $400 compensation, which is steep, but way down on her original demand of $800 which she was adamant about for well over an hour. Following all this drama we just couldn’t wait to get to our overnight stay, and a long, slow ride was taken as we wound our way higher and higher up some hills in near pitch black.

Needless to say when we finally arrived at our homestay we were dying for a drink! (Amazing how alcohol is the first thing on ones mind after a long, hard day.) Fortunately the Vietnamese know how to drink, so there is never a shortage. However, your choices are somewhat limited, especially when you’re staying at the home of a family in a little village. It was either beer (good) or rice wine (most vile incarnation of alcohol ever invented). The Dao people (the ethnic minority which we were staying with) have many rituals surrounding guests and welcoming them into their homes, one eats with the family and the meal they provide is both plentiful and extremely tasty. Unfortunately this hospitality means you have to consume rice wine whenever they say. They’ll invite you to a drink, either as an individual or as a group and it’s very rude to decline, so it’s ‘Hap Jdu’ (cheers) and bottoms up!

Day two

Day two started with some serious hangovers being nursed, that homemade rice wine has a serious bite! After a generous breakfast of pancakes and sweet coffee we head off into what can only be described as a stunning day. The sun was out and the weather was absolutely perfect. After our rough day one this was exactly what we needed to rekindle the adventurous spirits in us all. It was not long before we had our first incident as Max rode into a front-end loader five meters outside of the petrol station where we’d just filled up (19 680 đồng per litre, roughly one US dollar). No injuries, other than to his pride as the locals found it hilarious! Otherwise the day went smoothly, nothing but single lane tar roads and bright sunshine. It was also on this day that we realized that westerners aren’t common in these parts. The local children came out to have a proper gawk at us whenever we stopped to take pictures or have a drink. So if you’re blonde or over six foot tall, be prepared to draw some attention! That evening we stayed at Mr. Tam’s house, the prettiest of the homestays it would turn out. Mr Tam is of the Tay minority people and is quite a big deal in the area. Although all Vietnamese in rural areas keep an assortment of livestock, he has several pigs, geese, chickens, ducks in addition to being surrounded by rice paddies and his very own fully stocked dam. Again, a hearty homemade meal was served, but unlike the previous night, we ate alone and not with the family.

Day three

Grey, ominous clouds filled the sky the next morning. Breakfast was sweet potato fritters that were both novel and very tasty. We loaded up the bikes, with wet-weather protection packed at the top in case the sky opened up “¦ predictably it did. We were suitably prepared and managed to not get too wet. I can assure you being wet on a bike is not a fun thing. We stayed in the best hotel in the town of Ha Giang, however this isn’t much as the two star hotels in Hanoi put it to shame. Don’t expect western luxuries up north. The beds are hard and the bathrooms are a combination of toilet, basin and open shower. We drew the attention of every patron already seated. Three gents over 6ft 2” is not something they see every year! We tried a dish called hot-pot: a stew where you add all the fresh ingredients as you go along and boil them until you can’t wait to eat. Among the fresh ingredients are the usual noodles, lentils, herbs, carrots and various vegetables, as well as an entire raw chicken, head and feet included! I can’t say it was my favourite dish on tour, but it was a good meal and was washed down with much vodka. Post dinner we questioned Long about the history of Vietnam, from a local’s perspective. This is something I cannot recommend highly enough, as there is nothing quite like learning from the native people rather than a history book or Wikipedia.  For example, Long would like kids, but he’s too scared because of the potential after affects of Agent Orange, a serious eye opener for someone who didn’t live through a war. Some other interesting facts, which we learnt, include how much the Vietnamese dislike their northern neighbours, the Chinese. Vietnam roughly translates to ‘not South. So even the name of their country means ‘f-off we’re not south China!’

Day four

The day started off with a breakfast of fried eggs and delicious French-style baguettes (very much a colonial hangover), followed by a fuel stop. Then we started to climb, up and up and up. At the top of the first pass we paused to take a picture, thinking we were heading down the other side. Little did we know that we would find more mountains on top of these ones! It’s something truly beautiful and breathtaking, and words cannot explain it. Dozens of hairpin bends are connected by short straights, on the one side is a rock wall and on the other is a drop, sometimes no more than fifteen meters, but most of the time there is a fall of 400 m waiting for those who make just one mistake. Scarily we experienced how quickly it can all go wrong, even if it’s not your fault. Along the pass a drunken local jumped out in front of Mel, catching her unaware. She swerved to avoid him, only to head directly for a sheer drop. Fortunately quick thinking and pure instinct caused her to drop the bike and skid to a halt. An action which ended with her front wheel over the edge of the cliff!

Up in the mountainous north of Vietnam, in overcast weather and on a bike, it is properly cold! We were all wearing several layers and still battling to keep warm.  Our overnight stay in Dong Van was memorable for the very cold night; something that we’d most certainly not prepared ourselves properly for!

Day five

The previous day’s passes had been awesome, but the ‘happiness road’ was something special. This truly stunning road took six years to build and at one point required workers to hang precariously by ropes for 18 months, chipping away at the mountainside. The road was beautiful (although fraught with the usual perils of several hundred-meter drops) and led us to our lunchtime stop at Meo Vac. Now Asian culture is very different, as mentioned previously, such as the display of the fresh meat that is on offer at the restaurants in the rural areas, in a glass display box near the front of the establishment. In this particular restaurant there was (amongst the usual whole chickens, ducks and fairly large parts of pig) what was most certainly a member of the possum family, we weren’t brave enough to try it out. What we did try and I can most certainly recommend is the local moon cake. These delicious, soft sponge cakes have various fruit sponge inside (the dragon fruit cake was our favourite).

Day six and seven

Waking up early in Boa Lac, Long informed us at breakfast that we’d be encountering many roadworks today. However, once we got to them we were most pleasantly surprised. Unlike South Africa, the Vietnamese don’t bother with silly stop/go nonsense. They simply make a dirt road winding around/along the road being repaired “¦ not that there is any difference between the proper road and the temporary one.  The entire group found the dirt roads to be much fun, none more so than Long who raced off like Travis Pastrana (he did always stop every now and then to make sure everyone was still alright and following). This was by far the dustiest day of the tour, although one must admit that Vietnam is generally a dusty/dirty country. So if you’re precious about that sort of thing, maybe consider another destination.

The absolute highlight of the biking from a scenery perspective was the amazing waterfall, which forms part of the Vietnam-China border. Although not that high, it must be over 500 m wide and has two tiers in some parts. It really is a beautiful part of the world and a not to be missed sight.

Day eight

Then, with the end of the tour in sight, things got silly. Day eight saw us acknowledge our adventurous Top Gear origins. We bought each other ‘presents’. The idea behind these ‘presents’ was usually to be a large pain to transport. Thus, Harro Kitty, Mr. Tam, and a small plastic chair (Graham’s seat for any and all meals from that point on) became part of our group. As if our group of westerners wasn’t drawing enough attention, the new additions made us doubly popular as we cruised through the various little towns. Our fun was short lived as things started to get hairy on the roads once more. The closer we got to Hanoi, the more the traffic increased. However it wasn’t the cars that were the issue here, it was the trucks. Huge 18 wheelers rule the road, driven by crazy locals who command them in the exact fashion that they direct the scooters on which the learnt to drive.  Passing them was a properly scary experience. Unfortunately it did end up with a serious accident when a truck forced Graham into oncoming traffic. Colliding with an oncoming scooter at 40kph is never fun. Fortunately Graham had only a sprained wrist and a few decent roasties to show for the crash, however the local did have to go to the hospital for a check up. It also cost Graham $200 (after the negotiations of course) “¦ his bike was rather a mess, although Long managed to make it rideable for the remaining 10 km to our hotel (you can see how essential it is to have an able tour guide).

Day nine

Day nine began with an assessment of the previous night’s damage. We had about 160 km to ride into Hanoi and we were officially one bike down. Graham’s accident from the previous evening has rendered his beloved steed unsafe. Long arranged a truck to come and collect the stricken vehicle, which meant that the injured Graham had to ride as pillion on the back of Long’s bike. His baggage was added to mine (the only rider not to become horizontal against my wishes).  Much to our joy, this was the only day where not a single rider went down! It was all open roads and highways, and apart from increased traffic as one closed in on Hanoi and a fair amount of trucks driving like morons (as is expected), it was an uneventful day. Even the mad traffic of Hanoi was dealt with swiftly and easily. A sure sign that the group had become comfortable on our two-wheeled transport.

I can promise you that despite consuming our fair share of beers during the trip, none tasted quite as good as that post tour beverage. Refreshing, cool and leaving us feeling great after quite an exhausting tour “¦ but we were immediately into the stories and reminiscing about our past nine days and all with smiles on our faces.

Basic costs to expect on a cycling trip in Northern Vietnam

  • Return flights to Hanoi: +-R8000.00
  • 2 star hotel in Hanoi:  +-R130 per person per night, including breakfast
  • Daily cost of tour: US$ 109 per person per day, including bike rental, tour guide, all meals, accommodation, fuel (+ US$ 3 for all safety gear)
  • Drinking budget on tour: R40 (enough to get you more than happy)
  • Visa: R500
  • Total cost for trip: +- R18 000 (depending what souvenirs you buy of course)


Offroad Vietnam

Web www.offroadvietnam.com/eng/2.php

Tel +84-4-3926-3433



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