I hooked up with another backpacker, Chris, not long after I arrived. He’s currently trying to offload a Minsk motorcycle that he’s been using for the last month or so. In the meantime, he’d planned a day trip out up the Red River Valley.
Seemed like a nice idea, so I hopped out and rented a moto for $8. Nothing anywhere near as rugged as the Communist tank ridden by Chris, but it had two wheels and didn’t stall so it was fine by me. I rented from Voyage Vietnam on Luong Ngoc Quyen, not far from Bia Hoi Corner. I’m happy to recommend them – lovely people.
The original aim was to try to get to a lake around 200km out of town. However, getting out of Hanoi is not very easy, even if you have a map.
Between the one way system, helpful locals who pointed us at the wrong highway and our utter lack of a sense of direction we finally passed the city limits after over 90 minutes. We didn’t manage this by any kind of navigational means, more by circling enough times that we achieved escape velocity.
Instead of heading north west, we found ourselves going more directly north towards Noi Bai airport. Not a huge problem until at one point I realised we were the only motorcycles on the road, surrounded by trucks, cars and buses. It seems the large bridge on the way up is for non-bikes only. Which would explain why the police were waving frantically at us to pull over before we got onto it. Oops.
We swung a left at the first roundabout onto what was clearly marked as a highway on the map. Thing is, “highway” in Vietnam basically means “the main road from A to B”. The quality of that road is indeterminate until you’re on it.
In this case, blacktop gave way to dust and potholes very quickly. Chris’ Minsk had far fewer problems than my little around-towner.
However, we really didn’t know where we were. As Chris put it, “I think we’re having a Top Gear moment”.
Navigating by the sun (that is, guessing) we headed north west, finally passing a couple of towns marked on the road atlas Chris had stored in the ammo boxes he used as paniers.
The roads varied a lot from nice tarmacced ones to potholed dirt tracks. The thing is, they can change very suddenly. Whereas Chris’ Minsk had no porblems dealing with this (except his seat falling off at one point), my little bike needed a bit more care an attention, so I was a fair bit slower that him.
In many areas, the roads were covered in grass as the locals used it to make hay. At least it would give a soft landing if we fell off (we didn’t).
Realising time was a little short, we crossed to a different road and worked our way back south east again. After a petrol stop, we pulled in for a couple of beers at a small shop. Very quickly we had a small fan club – a grandfather (70, but looked 50) with his little grandson, another old chap and a few other members of the family.
The grandad took a great interest in Chris’s Minsk, first circling it for a good couple of minutes before squatting and staring at the motor. I guess he used to have one or perhaps rode one in the war.
We were made most welcome, and had a great time taking photos of each other and trying to converse. This is what makes little day trips out in Vietnam so enjoyable. The scenery and so on are lovely, but the people make it.
Hanoi was in rush hour mode by the time we got back, so it took a lot longer to return to the hostel than intended. Still, despite losing track of each other we managed to both find the place again even if it was an hour after the bike shop had closed. I returned the bike the next day and they only charged me $3 as they’d stayed open an hour late waiting for me. I’ve no problem with that and would recommend them.
My forearms are sunburned, but it was worth it. As Chris said on the way back – “Great day out.”