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Old 09-09-2011, 11:31 PM   #1
Optimistic Cirius OP
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Ha Giang to Saigon

After living in Hanoi for a year, with my work contract end in sight I decided that I would ride down from Hanoi to Saigon by motorbike. Luckily a friend Christian was also keen so I would have company along the way. Having spoken to several people who had undertaken the journey and read several reports online of similar journeys I had some idea of what it would be like, but we had several important decisions to make before we left.

Length of trip – I know people who have done this journey in 5-6 days. This was to be a trip of a minimum of 2,700km, so a 5 day trip would mean in excess of 500km a day!!! This may be ok in Europe but quite ludicrous in Vietnam. We both wanted to have days to relax/get wasted/sightsee, so we decided on 21 days to get to Saigon once we left Hanoi. We booked the flights back from Saigon to Hanoi to give us a target. The bikes would come back to Hanoi by train.

Bikes – I have ridden bikes for 3 years, 2 years in the UK and 1 year in Vietnam. I had owned 2 bikes in Hanoi, a 198-something Benly Honda CD90 and a 2001 Suzuki FX125. Both were lovely bikes but were very, very, very unreliable. The amount of time they spent in the garage was just stupid, so I know that for this journey I needed a bike as new as possible. Luckily my girlfriend kindly offered to let me use her 2009 Yamaha Cirius, an underbone 110cc semi-automatic moped so I sold the FX125 (boo-hoo, really loved that bike!). I was slightly concerned about not having a manual up in the hills and if we got stuck in some mudslide but thought that was better than breaking down in the arse end of nowhere with a manual. My friend had a very rattly rented Honda Wave ($40 per month - He did not tell the person that he rented the bike from that he was going to depart on a 3,000km+ journey, he said he was going on a little trip out of Hanoi!). So a service on the bike before I left and the bike was all set.

Bike Spares – Now, I was fairly sure that along the trip we would have some kind of mechanical problem on the trip. A sensible thing may have been to take some spare parts and some tools and a bit of research on how to do simple repairs, but instead I decided that blind faith was better and just hoped that if there was a problem it would happen within easy bike pushing distance to a sua chua xe may (motorbike garage). Easy!

Navigation – Would have loved a GPS or something like that, but just bought a road atlas published by ‘Vietnam Publishing House of Natural Resources, Environment and Cartography’ and a waterproof sleeve instead.

Route – Well, the whole idea was to go South basically. A friend had recently spent 5 days touring Ha Giang, a province North of Hanoi bordering China which was meant to be quite beautiful so we decided to head up North first and have a look round in the Northern region of Vietnam before proceeding Southwards. Other than that, we had various places that we wanted to stop at such as Dalat, Nha Trang (Christian was very keen to see the notoriously bad Nha Trang in person, just to say that he had experienced the ‘worst beach resort in the world’), Hoi An (to eat cao lau – delicious), Hue (to eat Bun Bo Hue), the old DMZ. But generally, the idea was to see how it went and ride on.

Riding in Vietnam is fun, but there are a few things its good to be aware of when riding there ..
1 – People are generally only aware of what is in front of them, so be prepared for quite strange manoeuvres occasionally.
2 – Indicators are either never used, or blinking constantly
3 – Honking is not an indication or irritation, it is just a ‘Hello, I am here’ kind of thing. It is not unusual to see a small child perched in front of a parent on a motorbike relentlessly punching the horn when it's not particularly necessary with the parent looking approvingly at them.
Generally though, riding in Hanoi or Saigon during peak times can be difficult for inexperienced riders but for anyone who has experience with motorbikes it is pretty easy. The rest of Vietnam is pretty easy to ride (apart from the trucks and buses flying by at crazy miles an hour), when not limited by poor road surface.

So we were to leave on July 6th, we decided to cheat a little bit and take the overnight bus up to Ha Giang (with bikes as well obviously) rather than riding up. Strangely enough, you cannot book a ticket for the bus, so we rocked up at the bus terminal in My Dinh in the evening and found the bus. Now, the bus terminal is a strange affair. There is no ticket office. You just have to wander around the buses and look for the one that says ‘Ha Giang’ on it. We found it, it was a normal coach with no toilet or reclining seats but looked pretty comfortable with good leg room. The bikes had to be drained of petrol before loading so a little old lady kindly came and took our petrol for us. For some reason, I assumed that the bikes would be stored on the top of the bus. Not sure why really, but I was kind of surprised when they opened the bays under the coach and proceeded to slide the bikes in on their sides. Its was about 50 USD to take the bikes and both of us up to Ha Giang. As we pulled out of the terminal, we passed a bus which was also going to Ha Giang, a sleeper coach with fully reclining seats! Should have looked harder.

We arrived in Ha Giang city, the capital of Ha Giang province at about 4am. Now, we decided to check into a hotel and get some shut-eye and start our journey later in the day. Riding out from the vast parking lot, we didn’t know where we were really as the bus terminal was a bit out from the town. We found a very inebriated man merrily downing ruou (rice wine) who realised we needed a hotel and told us to follow him. A short ride later we are standing outside an enormous run-down hotel waiting for the clerk to wake up and let us in. The hotel had a very brothelly feel to it, had funny stains on the sheets, on the walls and the ceiling fan looked like it was going to shake loose and kill whoever was underneath it. Sleep. Fun starts in a few hours.
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Old 09-10-2011, 08:56 AM   #2
C5Pilot
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Sounds like fun! I'm a big fan of these SEA ride reports. Looking forward to yours.
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Old 09-11-2011, 01:25 AM   #3
Optimistic Cirius OP
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Ha Giang to Saigon

Day 1. Ha Giang - Dong Va (160km)

Before we left Ha Giang city we had to go get a permit to travel from a local gov't office. Something to do with being so close to the Chinese border I was told. It was pretty easy to find and get, so loaded up the bikes and off we went.

The bikes loaded up - one good thing about underbones, you can put the bags in front of you and you have the whole seat to wriggle around on to get rid of the bumb-numbness that sets in after a few hours.
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Old 09-11-2011, 01:27 AM   #4
Optimistic Cirius OP
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Ha Giang to Saigon

Within 20km of leaving Ha Giang we entered some really stunning scenery, very green and with a kind of plateau with tall outcrops with a small town nestled below.
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The road quality was pretty good, occasional areas where there had been landslides in the past and the surface was broken up but these were pretty isolated.

The going was pretty slow, lots of hairpins winding up the hillside. Probably averaging about 25-30km/h. 120km into the trip the sky clouded over and it started bucketing it down. Truly torrential stuff and within 5 mins my rear end started feeling a bit odd, and I was losing traction badly. Christian was disappearing into the distance. I stopped and I had a rear puncture. I wish i could have taken a photo of where I was at that time because it was about a miserable as possible place for it to happen, on a 10 degree open mountainside with a serious breeze and torrential downpour. I knoew there was nothing for about 20km behind me, so hoped for the best and ploughed on. Riding on a flat rear up a steep hill on a very wet road surface with sheer drops just to the side is truly frightening. I wanted to get somewhere as quick as possible but it felt like I was on ice so had to take it pretty slow. After a while there was a massive resistance and I had to stop, the inner tube had come out so i got my swiss army knife out and cut it off. I had to drive like this for about 20km until I came to a tiny village which thank god had a garage. 10 minutes and a hot cup of tea later and I was back on my way to Dong Va.

Day 1's riding finished, was more eventful than I wanted it to be but good overall, didn't fall down the mountainside!
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Old 09-11-2011, 01:29 AM   #5
Optimistic Cirius OP
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Ha Giang to Saigon

Christian and the bikes. Btw, I have had quite a few comments from people who have seen the photos that I took and they all seem to say that I shoot in black and white too much - which is probably true, but I like it so .....
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Old 09-11-2011, 01:37 AM   #6
Optimistic Cirius OP
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Ha Giang to Saigon

Day 2. Dong Va - Ha Giang

Dong Va, really small town up in the mountains. Not much to say for it though although according to Norman Lewis in his book 'Dragon Apparent' written in the French colonial period there is a pasture area near the village where the young ladies of the village partake in promiscuous activites in the evening - and who are especially generous to mysterious strangers! did not find it.
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Old 09-11-2011, 01:45 AM   #7
Optimistic Cirius OP
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Ha Giang to Saigon

The terrain really had changed quite drastically at this point, we were taking a different loop to get back to Ha Giang than the one we came by and it was really very rugged scenery and some great riding.
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It was along this road that we saw a man who we had seen in Dong Va the previous evening, pounding up the mountain with a quitar and a backpack. Crazy guy, it was hard work and we had motorbikes!
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Old 09-11-2011, 01:50 AM   #8
Optimistic Cirius OP
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Ha Giang to Saigon

This is probbaly the highest point we reached - me looking wistfully over the clouds
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