Our original plans had called for us to spend two to three days/nights on Ha Long Bay but after one night there both Zach and I felt we had seen enough. It was nice but way too many tourists, especially considering we had just come from the far north where, for most of the time, we were the only Westerners in town. Guess we became addicted to that celebrity status.
The area was beautiful but we just felt we had seen enough and it was time to move on.
Also our original route plan had called for Day 12 to be a very long ride to some minority villages west of Hanoi. With our newfound knowledge we realized it would just be too long of a ride - we would arrive at our destination in the evening and then have to leave early in the morning, so what was the point?
Meanwhile before we started out in Hanoi I met a Russian, Ilya, who had just ridden up on a Minsk from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi on the Ho Chi Minh trail. He showed me some photos from a town called Ninh Binh that looked way cool. I had not heard of Ninh Binh and it was not on our plans, but now we decided to head to Ninh Binh which we could reach sometime in the afternoon. Continuing on from Ninh Binh to our originally planned route would be easy. So we left Ha Long Bay and headed off, our route calling for us to stay primarily on Hwy 10.
We spent most of the day on Hwy 10, a major highway (and also the first major highway we traveled on our trip), except for short sections when we could detour on smaller backroads. And this is what I have to say: insanity....madness....lunacy. I learned very quickly that, outside of the major cities, the Vietnamese are quite simply the worst drivers anyone could ever imagine. At the top of the madness scale are the bus drivers. They drive at high speed with absolutely no regard for any other users of the road. They overtake at whim, on blind bends, with streams of traffic coming toward them, whatever. As they careen toward you in your lane you have a simple choice: get off the road or get killed. Very simple. A solid no passing line, if such a thing exists, has no meaning whatsoever. The basic rule of the road is "if I am bigger than you get out of the way or die". So next in line after the busses are the trucks. While usually not as bad as the busses they also drive with no regard for others. And then the mini-bus and van drivers....they are perhaps even more dangerous because their vehicles are more nimble so they will pull out into the oncoming lane despite oncoming motorcycles. Of course, above bicycles, motorcycles are at the bottom of the food chain. I am convinced Vietnamese bus drivers are trained killers. They simply have no idea of road manners, road sense, courtesy. And the car drivers too have no clue. Twice, on two-lane sections, I saw cars simply stop in the middle of major highway traffic and execute multiple-turn U turns. So vehicles behind them and those coming toward them all have to screech to a halt while the idiot executes a U turn. Frigging unbelievable!
For long stretches of highway there was a (somewhat) designated motorcycle lane to the right of the car/bus/truck lane. We used this a lot but it also had its problems. There would be bicycles and pedestrians in the lane. There would be motorcycles coming toward you in the lane! Whatever. So Zach and I used both the motorcycle lane and conventional overtaking techniques to make our way. But the entire day was absolutely horrible, very stressful, and something no sane person should ever do.
How there are not human bodies strewn all over the road is something I cannot understand because by all rights there should be constant and frequent death amongst this mayhem. Words fail me, and I never want to do that again (but then later we had no choice but to ride similar roads, but by then we were hardened to this lunacy).
This whole situation brings up quite a paradox - well two really.
One is that taken as a whole the vast number of Vietnamese we met were nice, considerate, friendly and helpful people. Yet out on the highway its like stepping into a Mad Max on steroids scenario. Nobody gives a darn about anybody else. The driving style is very aggressive, or plain dumb, or a combination of both.
The second is that up to this point we had marveled at the motorcycling skills we saw from young, old, men, women...everyone. They would handle the very poor road conditions with aplomb, just riding through really bad, broken up pavement, gravel, rocks, steep slopes - all on small roadbikes of 110and 125cc.
It was very impressive how well they dealt with such poor conditions. But then on main highways they seemed to have very little road sense or awareness of others. Turn signals were seldom, if ever, used. They would make sudden turns left or right without looking behind to make sure there was nobody coming up, they would enter the highway from a side road without looking to see if anybody was approaching - just ride out into the road and everybody else would just have to take evasive actions.
At one point on the ride we had a ferry crossing. This is the only photo I have of this day:
There were also a number of toll gates, but we watched the other motorcyclists and learned that motorcycles just take the far right slip lane and dont pay. Nice!
We arrived in Ninh Binh in mid-afternoon and found a nice hotel with a friendly owner who made us feel most welcome. There was a good small restaurant at the hotel and nursing drinks after dinner we met some nice Dutch men, and a cool couple from Australia. The couple had hired two motorcycle guides to show them the local sights the next day and they agreed we could tag along on our bikes so we would not have to spend the day figuring out how to find the different locations. Something else that was to have a profound effect upon our trip - the hotel owner, Xuan, told me he was a guide. He showed me a book of commendations from his clients written in many languages. I really had no interest in hiring a guide but anyway started reading the commendations. To say they were glowing is a gross understatement. Almost every commendation said that the tour they had taken with Xuan had been the singular best experience they had in Vietnam. It got me to thinking.........
Total distance for the day - 180 kms (112 pretty awful miles)