Dual Wed 27 June 2018

VIETNAM 2018

When your neighbor, who is also a fiend, tells you that he wants to go to Vietnam for the 4th time, you wonder what could possibly be there! You think he isn’t feeling very well, or that he’s madly in love with a local girl, or that maybe that country really is a wonderful place to visit. If he then adds that he wants to go solo with his motorcycle, travelling off-road as much as possible …. How can you resist? I uttered my first “I’m coming too” just like a baby utters its first word. So this adventure in a beautiful country full of incredible colors and energy, was borne like this, over a cup of coffee. In the beginning there were two of us, but news like this travels fast. It’s hard to say no, so there are seven of us before we lock things up. And this is how our group of “ex” youngsters, who had a lot of fun together, joking, laughing and playing like kids, was born. We rode through places which hardly see any westerners and hospitality was incredible! We were the guests of honor wherever we went, in every home, we were invited to dance, drink and eat at their parties, festivals and weddings!

28 FEBRUARY / 11 MARCH 2018
Adventurers: Gigi, Carlo, Stefano, Fernando, Gianni, Paolo and Giorgio (who resides in Vietnam “The Guide”). Guides employed: Lonely Planet, website www.vietnamcoracle.com.
Friday, February 23rd
Departure at 12:35 from Venice’s airport with Aeroflot, stopover in Moscow, destination Ho Chi Minh. Uneventful flight arriving Saturday morning in Saigon. The time zone is a good 6 hours behind.
Saturday, February 24th
After clearing customs, we are welcomed by the hot climate of Saigon with its scents and noises. We commute to district 7 (south of the city). HCMC has some 8 million inhabitants, but traffic is bearable after all, especially if we consider that it’s a weekend and the end of the Chinese New Year. The scooter is the most used vehicle in the city, but the number of cars is increasing. We stay at a nice flat in the South tower of the Sunrise Residence. With Freddy and Giorgio we immediately rent two Tigit motorbikes to independently move around the city. In the evening, Carlo and I are going to the wedding reception of Joseph and Van at the Nikko Hotel. Wonderful event, warm and alcoholic!!!
Sunday, February 25th
Day spent touring HCMC with the scooter guided by Han, a girl that works at Givi Vietnam. All the people we meet greet us with a great smile, and this will be the wonderful constant of this incredible journey. We visit the War Remnants Museum, where we will get to know the Vietnamese perspective of the horrible war against the United States. We will also visit the Independence Palace, a sixties-style gloomy building with all those empty halls. The Central Post Office designed by Eiffel and the Ben Thanh market, where you can find anything. We have lunch in a nice little restaurant where we are initiated to the tasteful Vietnamese food and the ever-present chopsticks. In the evening, BBQ at Joseph’s at the Riviera Point on the Saigon River, where you can enjoy the splendid nocturnal skyline of the city from the 30th floor.
Monday, February 26th
Visit to the Givi Factory Vietnam, which is part of the Givi group (motorcycle accessories). All of the motorcycle soft bags and rain gear are made here. It has more than 250 employees. Givi will be our sponsor in this adventure, supplying all the technical clothing needed for this trip. Moreover, we will get to test rain suits, side bags and clothing not yet on the market; all of this proved to be very useful and excellently made. In the afternoon we visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, about 50 km from HCMC where we visited a section of the 250 km of tunnels made by Vietnamese to hide and to fight back the French invaders first and the Americans later. Farewell dinner with the Givi team with delicious sea fish.

Tuesday, February 27th
Early in the morning, we fly VietJet Air to Hanoi. At the airport we meet Stefano, who flew in directly from Italy. 40 minutes later by taxi we reach the Mayfair Apartments downtown. As soon as we set our luggage in the rooms, we collect our scooters from Tigit Motorbike. They are all Honda Blade 110 cc, 4-gear semi-automatic, in excellent conditions, bearing new knobby tires. We become familiar with the traffic chaos of the capital. There are no rules, speed is limited (max 35 km/hour). Intersections are the worst, he who hesitates is lost! You must avoid the other vehicles gradually never moving abruptly. The evening is spent downtown where we find a little restaurant with mini-tables and mini-chairs where the customers BBQ their meat directly at the tables.
Wednesday, February 28th, Hanoi - Vinh Phuc, 60 km
Breakfast with a fantastic Vietnamese ca phe sua and brioches (the last for the whole trip). We prepare the bikes and the equipment we will need for the next 10 ten days. Giorgio arrives from HCM and in the early afternoon we leave for the mountains to the North. The roads exiting the capital are congested and even if Giorgio, the front door, and I, the sweeper, are in contact through the intercom we must be very careful. We all have a Vietnamese sim card (which will prove to be very useful) so we are always in contact even if we lose sight of each other. We also have an updated TomTom which however doesn’t match up to Google maps. Out of the city the scenery becomes more interesting with paddy fields as far as the eye can see. In Vĩnh Phúc we go to the FLC Resort, an incredible hotel, in-between the reception and the rooms lays a 200-meter artificial lake. The hotel is almost empty. There is only us dining served by a multitude of waiters. Today we covered some 60 km in about 3 hours. Thursday, March 1st, Vinh Phuc – Nghia Lo, 160 km After a hearty breakfast based on eggs and bacon we leave. The weather is good even if we can’t see the sun and the humidity in the air dulls colors. We start crossing hills, this too will be a “commuting” day towards the mountains to the North. Late in the afternoon we reach Nghia and the modest Nghia Lo Hotel. The town is teeming with life, in the street next to our hotel there is a market selling vegetables and fruit that are laid out directly on the pavement. We go for a walk and immediately detect where we are going to dine. We all order the Pho Bo, a soup with beef meat, rice noodles, various vegetables, bean sprouts and spiced with mint and lime. Fantastic and energizing.
Friday, March 2nd, Nghia Lo – Cò Là, 200 km
Breakfast and we are off. The road gets more interesting and through the haze we can make out the first mountains with their vegetated calcareous pinnacles. We are travelling on well-kept paved roads; heavy vehicle traffic is nonexistent. We ride through little towns where the people wear traditional costumes. The little town of Cò Là is positioned in a valley surrounded by high mountains. We easily find a room for the night at the Sky Hotel where we are warmly welcomed by the owners who insists in showing us the centerpiece of the hotel … a hall covered in mirrors and lights, perfectly soundproofed for karaoke. Sadden by our lukewarm enthusiasm, they take us to our rooms, which are spacious and bright with enormous beds and fantastic matrasses.
Saturday, March 3rd, Cò Là – Phong Tho (Lai Chau), 150 km
We head NW surrounded by terraced paddy fields (the rice has been recently planted) and splendid valleys. We descend to Lai Chau from a pass. The town is surrounded by mountains but is glum, with wide streets and big deserted government buildings. From Lau Chau we head for Phong Tho, NW on the QL4D road. This section of road is kept in excellent conditions and passes over the high mountains before descending into a valley. After Phong Tho the road proceeds SW on the bottom of the Nam Na river valley. The road is in good conditions and traffic is light up to the intersection of Nam. We turn left (eastward) in an incredible environment. The road is a bit rugged, panoramic and full of hairpin bends, embedded on the side of the mountain. The valley bottom is always in view and the haze makes it magical. We reach the Sin Ho Plateau at an elevation of 1100 meters. The mountains, the farmland, the villages of ethnic minorities, are enchanting. Sin Ho is a little town, very cold after sunset. There are different places where to stay, we choose the Thanh Bin Hotel.

Sunday, March 4th, Sin Ho - Phong Tho  (Lai Chau), 196 km     
The sun is up but the haze and the cold remain and make the surroundings look like fairy land. A long descend will lead us to Phong Tho. The sun returns, the cold loosens its grip and the fog lifts; we see countless streams and stilt houses scattered all over the valley. The terraced paddy fields are ever-present. We check-in at the Lan Anh Hotel, which is strategically positioned but has seen better days; it is surrounded by a nice green lawn, is mostly made of wood and has modest rooms. We leave our luggage and head out for an 80 km loop trail to the north. We go towards the Chinese border of Jinshuihezen. In Nam Cay we go right taking a steep climb. We travel on the ridge of the mountain, passing through little villages, with terraces of rice and corn. The view of the mountains is impressive, the weather is sunny. In Si Pahy my Google maps shows a little winding road that, pointing towards the Chinese border, goes back south. We ask for information and we are recommended not to take that road. A sign says “Frontier area”. And what do we do? We KEEP GOING!!! It starts off as a concrete road (bad omen), changing to a rather rugged winding downhill dirt road. In front of us the valley bottom and, on the other side of the river, CHINA. We reach the bottom. We stop two youngsters in shorts and T-shirt, who look annoyed showing us the sign in Vietnamese that we just passed. Using Google translator: Check Point State Border. Ops … we are in China. After a few phone calls to their bosses they let us go. We go back the way we came and continue the loop accompanied by the breathtaking landscapes until we are back in Phong Tho.
Monday, March 5th, Phong Tho – Sapa, 130 km
In the morning we take the road that goes SE through Lai Chau and Co Là. We stay on the QL40 and start climbing towards the Tram Ton pass, that, as high as 1900 meters, is the highest mountain road of Vietnam, as well as a twisty one. To the right we see the Farsipan that, with its 3143 meters, is the highest mountain of Indo-China. As we near the pass, panoramic platforms permit safe stopping given the intense heavy vehicle traffic. The view of the bottom of the valley is marvelous, but I start having doubts when a see a fair number of tourists at the pass (we hardly saw any on our way here). As we descend, we see the wonderful Thac Bac and Thac Tinh Yeu waterfalls. Entering Sapa is like one of Dante’s circles of hell: roadwork, dust, crazy traffic, oppressive buildings, chaos, … panic!!! In 17 years it’s the 4th time I come to Vietnam with the intention of reaching to Sapa. But now I want to RUN AWAY! With some difficulty we reach the Charming Hotel, nice and in a central position. The rooms are also nice, bright and clean and this is all we need. We leave the luggage to visit the town. In Sapa Asian featured people are a minority, the Caucasians predominate (tourists). Super-lux hotels and shops for tourists all over. However, not all evil leads to harm, and in the evening, we take advantage of the situation and go to the Belle Spa for a reinvigorating massage followed by a good dinner based on different kinds of food skewers.
Tuesday, March 6th, Sapa – Tung Qua – Sapam 195 km
Today a loop track north of Sapa is in schedule. It’s about 8°C when we leave but as we descend the air gets warmer. We reach Lao Chai, a big frontier city and the temperature is over 30°C. We take the DT 156 NW, along the valley following the Red river. There is no traffic and the view of the river would be nice if not for the Chinese side that displays an incredibly big, elevated, and empty highway. The valley narrows and the climbing road has more and more hairpin bends. We have the Chinese mountains in front and the view is rather pleasant. When the road turns south it becomes more arduous and rugged. It is often interrupted by landslides caused by the heavy rain of the previous weeks, the fords (not impossible) are many, the view becomes harsher, the rare villages cling to the mountain side. Luckily the weather is with us. Vegetation is scarce and there are wide terraced pastures ready for sowing. As we descend towards Sapa, there are more villages full of life. A multitude of children plays in the middle of the road or swims in the ditches. We take many deviations on improbable little roads in the middle of the paddy fields and arrive in Sapa at dusk.
Wednesday, March 7th, Sapa – Bac Ha, 175 Km
We leave early and I know in my heart that I won’t miss Sapa. The cold bites until we reach Lao Cai. We take the QL 40 NW and are back in our habitat: valleys, mountains, secondary roads and a lot of kindness. The climb is gentle, the way smoother than yesterday’s and at every curve we are mesmerized by the landscape. At Murong Khurong we change direction riding southward towards Hanoi. We arrive at the Bac Ha al Huy Trung Family Homestay late in the afternoon and immediately go visit Bac Ha. Hearing instrumental music, we enter a pagoda; they are having a ceremony where a teen in front of the altar is performing a ritual dance, frequently changing his clothing. Money and cigarettes are offered to us too. From what we understand, it’s a rite of passage to adulthood.
Thursday, March 8th, Bac Ha - Thac Ba, 180 km
Trip back to Hanoi, we descend south and leave the mountains behind us, the road becomes gentler, bends grow wider. In Tai Rieu we take the DT152; we are riding in the countryside between marshland, corn plantations and paddy fields. The road that flanks the Thank Ba (a lake we will see by our side for the next 60 km), is splendid, villages full of life, markets. At an intersection we stop when we see a big tent in the middle of a field and hear music playing. We are immediately noted and invited to the party to dance and sing, these Vietnamese are fantastic. A consideration: wherever I were, at midday I saw kids coming from or going to school in their school uniform and carrying backpacks. Dazed by so many people we reach Vu Linh Homestay, isolated near the lake, where we meet a group of Scandinavians riders. After an excellent dinner cooked by the owners of the Homestay and inebriated by the alcohol of some (many) bottles of …. I dunno (maybe distilled rice) we go to bed in our stilt houses under mosquito nets, even if we haven’t seen any yet.
Friday, March 9th, Thac Ba – Hanoi, km 160
Woken up by the chirping of birds, I open the shutters: the view is ….. (no words for it). We are on the lake shore; a fisherman is in the middle of the lake and tropical trees are all around. After a hearty breakfast, we hop on our bikes southbound, the road is good, the heavy vehicle traffic increasing. Stefano gets a flat. Where? In front of a tire repairer. We reach the suburbs of Hanoi and reluctantly head for the Mayfair Apartments. We return our fantastic and unbreakable motorcycles to Tigit and then go right downtown for dinner and a walk on the shore of the Hoan Kiem lake.
“A very special thank you to GIVI Vietnam and to the MOVE TRAVEL travel agency of Grezzana (VR) Italy”

Text: Fernando Erbisti – Paolo Cracco