For an off-the-tourist path experience of Vietnam, all you need is a motorbike, a Vietnamese phrase book, a strong bottom, a map, and a vague idea of how to ride a bike.
Having done all the touristy sightseeing in Vietnam, me and my boyfriend decided to get off the usual path and try something different. We rented a 125cc bike in Hanoi and after deciphering some Vietnamese forms, got the bike and ourselves on an overnight train to Sapa to discover a different part of Vietnamese culture and lifestyle.
After what was a very chaotic and uncomfortable 11-hour train ride (I recommend never travelling on a hard seater unless you come prepared) we arrived at Lao Cai, then we got ourselves some coffee and got on the bike and headed for Sapa, which was about a 40-minute to one-hour journey. We stopped and had some lunch and then carried on to the very interesting city of Lai Chau (previously Tam Duong). This town had huge buildings, a six-lane highway but missing the people. It was straight out of a scene from 28 Days Later.
However, we found a hotel, and in the evening went for a search for a people-filled restaurant, and we half found it. The restaurant we found; we knew it was fancy as there were like 6 cars outside, however when we went in, it seemed everyone was in their own private dining room, so we were the only ones on the main floor. The menu had no English translation so after a bit of Google translate and some phrase book pointing and lots of head nodding, we ordered. After a while, they bought us out four dishes, then another one, then another one, so six dishes later, we were very full and mighty sleepy!
The next day was my day to ride and after a quick lesson on the how-to’s, I got on and drove up the road, successfully however, when the turn came, it seems I accelerated instead of braking and went on a little fly over a curb. I ended up badly bruised and semi cut and after my boyfriend got me some chocolate and tested to see if the bike was ok, we decided he should drive and my dreams of being a hardcore biker could wait for another day. So we went to the next destination of our trip, which was Muong Lay (previously Lai Chau – confused? well, so were we, but apparently you can just move cities somewhere new and flood the old ones, this is the case in this scenario). This was a good road mostly however we hit a pothole or missed the bit of road and got a puncture, we were luckily 4kms out of a little town called Patan and walked the bike to the first mechanic (xe may) we saw, they were amazingly fast and cheap and we were back on the road in no time. We were happy to arrive in the ‘soon’ to be flooded town of Muong Lay and found a very nice hotel and then showered and passed out.
The next morning, after some confusion on which direction to go to, we found the right highway to Tuan Giao, this highway that looks substantial on the map we had was well a bit broken to say the least but you could not beat the scenery, this was the most spectacular part of our ride, the landscape was extraordinary, I can barely explain it. We went through lots of little villages stopping for a snack now and then. As soon as we got to Tuan Giao the roads got better and there was a well-established highway so we made our way on to Son la for the night. After 9 hours on the bike we never wanted to sit again so it was another shower and pass out session!
The next day, was our last and we headed back to Hanoi. We stopped in a town called Moc Chau as it is known for its dairy products, we pulled up at a little shop that had a low table and some stools outside and got some yogurt, milk, and Bahn Sua (hardened condense milk – sinful). After relaxing a bit and the yummy snacks, we carried on to Hoa Binh for lunch and then onwards to Hanoi just in time for rush hour 5 o’clock traffic!
This was an amazing experience and we did not see a ‘foreigner’ the entire time. We were however, very happy to give back the bike and rest our bottoms for a few days after that! If you have the time and a translating dictionary, go find yourself some traditional Vietnamese culture!