The taxi driver dropped me very close to the hostel. The 20 steps from the taxi to the gate of the hostel was a good glimpse of what Vietnam is- within a very narrow street, so many people, so many bikes, chickens running between people’s legs and meat rotting under the sun.
My first day in Vietnam was a big shock after 2 month in China. China was for me a real adventure. For two months, I’v been carrying myself from a city to a village, getting used to a new culture, new food, new people. Hanoi was different. It was colonized badly. On the streets – mostly foreigners, and western food anywhere. It was very easy to get sucked into this routine, as I have met few people who didn’t had a leaving date in plan.
Hanoi was too crowded, and too british , and too easy and too cheap. I started to look for a way to get out. As always, I never make a plan before I land in a new country. I only have one rule – avoid typical travelers advices. They often lead you to the most crowded and turistic places.
The common way to travel in Vietnam is with a bike. It has few advantages:
1. Cheap as hell
2. Easy to buy and to sell later
3. garages everywhere (It’s actually easier to find a garage than finding a resturants in some regions)
4. No need for license
5. The best reason: That’s a perfect mixture of joy, challenge, adventure. The feeling of the wind in your bones won’t leave you even months later, and the achievment you’re about to gain when you accomplish your jurney is somthing that nothing can…Ok we gonna talk about that as well.
I started my jurney in Hanoi and finished it at Hanoi. I traveled through the northen regions of Vietnam for a bit more than three weeks. I never went sounthern to Ninh Binh with a bike for good reasons – first, I ain’t had enough time. It might sounds strange, but biking in Vietnam is
a slow way to move around. The backpackers bikes reaching the maximum of about 55 mph or 80 kmh. If you manage to ride faster, the roads and the crazy drivers will force you to slow down.
Biking itself can be an hard task – at the begginng I couldn’t ride for more than 4-5 hours a day, my butt was so painful I just had to stop every 30 minutes.
One also have to consider stops for gas, food, water, and flat-tire – it can happen pretty often.
The second reason why I didn’t took my bike down to the south, is because there is not much to see. Well, there’s actually a lot to see, but the roads are just not as awesome as the north’s roads. Vietnam is shaped like a long strip. To make the way south to north or north to south, you’ll have to drive days on busy highways.
Like many others, I’v never ride a bike before, apart from a single time in China, but it was for a very short time. The first obstacle for a new biker in Vietnam is to get out of the insane city traffic – and trust me, that’s insane.
My first day started with a big chicken burger (it’s cheap!) a good hangover (it’s Vietnam) and a tropical storm (again, Vietnam). But there were no excuses. You can always find excuses, it wouldn’t lead you anywhere. I knew I’m about to have more rainy days and that was a good apertunity to experience the first one.
It took me about an hour to get out of Hanoi, and then I started to realized what am I facing. My gas runned out after 2 hours. Luckly, I was only few hundred meters from a gas station. I had a flat tire, and my phone fell into the water, so I couldnt translate anything at the resturant so they just gave me a frog. great day!
That evening I arrivde in Ha long and stayed there for 2 days in order to fix somthing in the bike and chill out a little bit. During my stay, I met Jhonny – cool German guy who’s made some money by investing on BitCoin, and he’s probably very rich as i’m writing these words.
Jhonny started his jurney in Hanoi, like me, but he had a very bad experience. His front wheel blew up on the first day and at a week after he had a crush and had to evacuate to the hospital. After that occurance he went back to Hanoi.
Into the wild
When you’re traveling on the line between Hanoi and Ha-long it seems very turistic, but once you move away from the turistic zone – it’s a brand new Vietnam. There is no resturants, no hostels, no English speakers, and very fricking weird stuff:
I spent the next week just by traveling from a village to another, without seeing any foreigners. I slept in Hotels (most of the time I was the only guest), and when there was no hotel, just knocking on house’s doors asking for accomodation, although most ot the time it was enough just to stand at the center of the village till someone kidnapping you to his home for a monthly salary
The people where very nice and host me very good, offering me meals, Karaoke, and to marry and have babies with their doughter (true story).
Before we dig into more helpful information, I have to say, that you have to consider if this kind of experience is good for you- espacially when you are alone. You have to be aware to the fact that everything can get wrong – you can have the sunset before reaching your destiny, you may have a bike failure in middle of nowhere, you can get sick, and you can feel lonely. Yes, this is also an issue.
Make your own priorities – it can be an once in a lifetime adventure.
Buying or renting?
Buying a bike is absolutly a better Idea by no means. Why:
1. You don’t have to pay if you ruin the bike.
2. You can take it wherever you want with no time limit.
3. You can sell it wherever you want
4. You own a bike. That reason alone is good enough?
And anyways, if you only have less than two weeks for the whole thing, maybe you should consider renting one – it might be cheaper, and you won’t have to waste few days by looking for someone to sell the bike to.
As I said, garages are more widely common then resturant when you getting deeper into the country side. I would say that in generaly, most of them are trustable, but if you have some doubt, you can always find a price list in main bike shop to make sure you’ll never be scumed.
where to go?
As a general advice I would say that you can have an awesome trip without any planning. The uncertainty can create great experiences.
Anyways, for the sane people among us, I created a list of the best destinations in the northern regions:
Ha long and cat ba island
That not a big suprise, and if you have heard about Vietnam you probably heard about that insane bay as well. Ha long is a typical Vietnamese city, with a huge bay in it’s middle. The city itself is not touristic at all for most of the tourist just go straitly to Cat ba.
If you plan to spend one or two nights in Ha long, you can find a huge theme park, a water park, and a nice market where you can buy clothes for very cheap.
In Ha long you can find the ferry to Cat ba and this is a different story. In Cat Ba, the city itself is not the main attraction as well. Most of the people book tours to the small island of the bay, where you can stay for few days, party hard at nights, and see glowing planktons when skinnydipping after you get drunk. You can also take a small boat and explore the life of the floating fishers villages.
After I’v left the bay, I spent the next weeks in the “Real” Vietnam, where people struggling to make a living, the food is in very low quality and the roads are insane. All in all, the people are very nice and hospitable.
About two days from the shore you can find this small peacfull town between the mountains. There’s not much to say about the town beside the fact that there’s plenty of coffee resturants. The roads that surrounding the city are really epic, and in my opinion, the most beautiful in Vietnam.
I arrived Cao bang on a rainy day, and find a place in Primore Homestay (awesome place). I was astonished from the views around so that I decided to take my motorbike to a small ride around the city insteade of waiting for tommorow.
I began riding on the north road to the border with China and I just couldn’t stop. Every curve on the road has revealed a new small peace of heaven. I ended up that day with those pictures:
The valley of Bac son is a very special place. Probably one of the most beautiful and empty places in Vietnam at the same time. The traffic in the valley is very thin and hence, there’s no too many tourist although it’s only about 3-4 hours from Hanoi.
The main attraction in Bac son is a big mountain at the middle of the valley. You can climb on it for about an hour and enjoy the amazing view of the epic mountains around you:
Pu luong nature reserve
As far as I know, Pu loung is not so famous among the tourists in Vietnam. I made it to the reserve almost only because it was on my way from Son la to Ninh binh. I had few extra hours till sunset and I’v seen a big green spot of the map. As a retired military navigator I could say that the topography was a bit different then what I’v seen so far, plus, It’s a pretty big area with only one main road. Worth checking.
I could talk about every inche of these epic roads of north Vietnam, but part of the fun is discovering new places, but those three places are defentely a good glimpse of the landscape diversity in the northern regions.
Just before you packing your backpack and looking for the next flight to Hanoi, here some other cool pictures that worth sharing: