Vietnam 2: lots of trouble, lots of cold, lots of fun


Our first destination in northern Vietnam is the Ban Gioc Waterfall, Vietnam's largest and most famous waterfall, and it is right on the Chinese border. For about 400 km we need 3 days. If all goes well (which is rarely the case ), we make a maximum of 175 km per day . Although I have made myself a kind of cushion from my rain suit we can always just about drive around the 40 km at a stretch and then our battered bones need a break and even that is already too much to ask come afternoon

On top of that I got stuck in the hook of a luggage strap with one trouser leg once when getting off the bike - thank goodness the material gave way before I pulled over the whole bike and Kevin as well. So the worst that happened was a sprained wrist and a hurt pride. Also, the beds in Vietnam are so hard that when you turn around in your sleep you get bruises from your own bones and even though I have my travel mat for my back I am as stiff as a board and I can hardly move . My only consolation is that all others including the two young people also feel battered by their bikes and need as many brakes as I do. It really does not matter if we make only slow progress we have a three-month visa and thus no time pressure even though we definitely do not plan to spend three full months here .
Except for a few flat tires sometimes on Johan’s motorcycle , sometimes on ours nothing much happens on our way to the north. Johan’s tire has already been patched but that has obviously not held for long - so he buys a new tire and tube in the next workshop - this is not really too expensive - it costs around 10 € . Whenever we stop at a Xe May (bike repair shop) quickly a cluster of locals is gathered around us - we are an attraction - above all, the two men with their long beards are being admired , but I seem to be worth seeing too  because compared with Vietnamese I am strikingly large and heavy. It 's great that every now and then one of the children try to use a few scraps of English and they are ever so proud when it works and they get a response. Usually they use simple phrases like: "What's your name" Or "How are you? "
We are now in the mountains and the scenery is very nice - just a shame that it's winter. The rice terraces are harvested and yellow and in the mountains hangs a dense haze, so that the pictures that we take do not always turn out to be as clear as we would like - but it's still lovely. Everywhere people are waving to us - especially the kids and it's fun.

Finding and ordering some food is always a bit of a  challenge so we usually just sit down and make scooping gestures and then wait to see what we get it’s a bit of a lottery but pretty much everything they serve us is very tasty - with one exception : once we are looking for something for breakfast in the morning and find a small soup kitchen on the roadside. We get a slimy watery rice porridge with giblets. I don’t necessarily have a problem with giblets , but for breakfast I do not need it and also I have an extremely large aversion to watery porridge from the days when I was working in hospitals. I do get myself to try it however , but that 's about it - Johan does not even do that and the others eat it and tell us they like it but somehow the faces definitely say something else. Otherwise - as I said - the food here is really tasty and especially the Vietnamese spring rolls are absolutely delicious. I hereby say : Vietnamese spring rolls are the best in the world no matter what filling they have!
Again and again we come across never before seen exotic things  in this country so we stop once in a restaurant with a shelf with the strangest bottles - there are snakes, chicken feet , salamanders, cats paws , crocodile heads and whatever else is in liquid - we definitely are not going to have a taste  but for taking pictures it’s great .
It's not really warm and the locals are all wrapped up in thick winter clothes. All greet us warmly - some even quite profusely and I'm starting to slowly change my opinion about this country - Saigon and Hanoi were perhaps not necessarily the best places to make an entry into Vietnam ....
We drive up and down through mostly small villages between high mountains with rice terraces in the valleys and up the mountain sides and everything looks picturesque. The roads we ride on are getting smaller and smaller and the surface is getting worse on every kilometer  with giant holes everywhere and dust and stones.
The others are each alone on their bikes, but we have problems - all the weight - the luggage and me on the back and every time we end up in a hole the front wheel is in the air and I get the thickest impact and when we finally get out the rear end is bouncing for ages . Slowly I don’t know how to sit anymore - my bum hurts –and  no matter how I slide back and forth – (not that I would have to too much space for that)  my knees feel as if they have been strapped in a vice. My wrist is not much better and I'm happy about every stop. Kevin complains about stabbing pains in the shoulder - well – us old idiots had to do this ... !

Then we come to very bad road works - we bounce through the holes and have to stop several times because we are not be able to avoid oncoming traffic and the bike starts sliding backwards down the hill . Kevin 's laughing loud - the madman thinks this is fun !

I am looking forward to the day where we have our good old Liza again, but I must confess at the same time that we would have even more problems with the sidecar here just my backside would not quite hurt so much .
After almost three days we finally reach our first goal after Cat Ba - a small town almost at the Chinese border. It is all a bit bleak here and we have to search a bit until we find a place to stay . The whole house smells bad of cat piss . We all take a quick shower and I do the long overdue laundry then we head out to find something for dinner. It is already dark and everywhere is shut but eventually we find at least a soup kitchen which is open - Pho is the name for noodle soup here and is available with a wide variety of different meats and a thick nest of long rice noodles ( noodles and chunks of meat you eat with chopsticks, then you can drink the broth ) so far we have tried a different kind of Pho almost every day, it’s warming and filling, usually tasty and cheap. So that's already a good find. On the way back to the guesthouse we want to buy something to drink  but all the shops are already closed.
The next morning everything is thick in the fog – no view whatsoever. We decide to look for a different guest house, but to stay in the same town. So we pack our bikes and park opposite the market. We are all pretty hungry so we get ourselves some fruit  on the market and the find a new hotel. For the first time since we've been in Vietnam it is bitterly cold .We take our purchases into the room and unloaded the bikes - it is again difficult to explain that we want to have one room for three people and then it's a mission to get a third pillow and towel but we get a flask with hot water, 5 glasses and even a spoon so we can all have a nice cup of coffee. Tessa tells us that tomorrow the weather is supposed to even be worse, so we decide to wait until early afternoon to see if the mist lifts somewhat and then to go to the waterfall today so we don’t have to spend another day in this desolate place.
It does not clear up and we wrap ourselves in our rain gear and drive off. It's not too far, but we are frozen when we arrive and then we drive past it and we have gone quite a long way along the river before we notice it and stop to turn around. Alex has suddenly once again problems with his bike - the throttle cable seems stuck and the poor little engine whines pitifully. Approx. 1 km or a little more we came across a small village and think there should definitely be a workshop. By the time Alex arrives in Saigon he will end up with a new bike if he continues to have such bad luck .
We turn around and go back to the waterfall while Alex continues on to the village with a screaming engine and the fear in the neck that it will soon explode and fly around his ears.
To buy tickets for the waterfall we have to show our passports and the numbers are written down – one never knows – people could try to get into China illegally here. We leave our helmets with the men in uniform at the entrance to the waterfall and hike down into the valley. If the weather was nice this could be a spectacular view but this way at least there are hardly any vendors there who hassle us to buy trinkets and the few that are there prefer to sit in the dry and there are also not many other visitors there. We have to cross some rather rickety bamboo bridges and take a few pictures but it's just too foggy and so we soon decide we have had enough .Kevin is with his beard is an attraction again and poses good-naturedly with some other tourists for the camera.
When we come back Alex has also already returned and everything is sorted. We enjoy a hot coffee but then have to hurry we want to ride back in daylight - the roads (if you want to call them that) you don’t really want to drive on in the dark – even in daylight you hit potholes often enough and the shock absorbers of the poor little bikes bottom out every time bouncing another 10 times afterwards.
Back at the hotel we are frozen. It is now dark, and the market has closed - only our soup lady is still there, so we treat ourselves to a hot noodle soup with duck - which warms and fills and then we are being stupid - we decide to try their rice wine. It has a strange color and a suspicious kind of film floating on it but does not taste too bad and somehow not really potent and we are very surprised that it makes us all very drunk very suddenly.
The next day we have the most beautiful weather ( the predictions do not seem to be better here than at home ) but now we have seen the falls and to stay just to go back and make a few more beautiful photos would mean to spend another night in this desolate hole and also to pay entrance fee again – it is just not worth it . We find a quaint little backroad which leads us back to Cao Bang . Although the road is not better than a dirt track at home and demands a lot of concentration to ride we all enjoy the beautiful views ..

Our Unlucky Alex has it again - he slips on the loose gravel and hits the ground.  His handlebars and a footrest are bent and now he can no longer change gear ( the damage is quickly repaired with a hammer in the next village). Nevertheless, we all enjoy the incredible scenery and the warming sunshine even if we once again only make little more than 60km to the nearest major city.
Here now we part ways - Kev , Johan and I want to go to Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark . An area for which you had to apply for a special permit and a guide up until 2 years ago - Tessa and Alex prefer more southerly climes. However, they also want the end in Sapa  where we will probably meet again .
The weather has closed in again and we have trouble finding the right way although we have Johan's GPS to help us. There are hardly any roads and the few we find are very poor and often not marked on maps, so we mostly just have to aim for the general direction. We wind up the mountains on little bumpy passes and are getting higher and higher and soon we are in the clouds. After a short time Johan’s bike begins to make strange noises, so we stop at a workshop in a small village, where once again a wheel bearing is replaced. One of the locals who have gathered around us as usual speaks a little English and is happy to announce that we can expect rain in the afternoon – how nice! We get back on track and ride on.
At first everything seems to be fine and we wind our way further up in the thick fog and then down again but after 20 km as we come into the next town again something rattles loudly on Johan’s rear . The noise seems to somehow come from the chain case so he just takes it off and after a small test ride everything seems to be fine - but I now have a problem - I have twisted my knee badly when getting off the bike and now it is stiff and swollen - I can however still move everything. It would not necessarily be my greatest desire to have to see a doctor here. Kevin has to try to always find a high curb or a stone that I can use to get on and off - that's a bit annoying. We decide to make this a lunch break and turn several rounds until we finally find a little dirty rundown shack in which there seems to be sold something edible . Well - if you have no choice you just cannot be choosy . We sit down ask for Com (rice) and make eating gestures and get the tastiest meal we ever had here - there you can see it again , one should never judge a book by its cover . Finally the chef comes with a bottle of rice wine and fills us up until we are all feeling happy again. Although it is now already 3 clock in the afternoon we decide to ride the remaining 60 km to our planned destination .
Soon we climb higher and higher into the mountains again the mist turns to cloud and it is getting colder . After a long bumpy road works Johan stops once again - he has new problems with his bike , the clutch slips and his small Honda has difficulties to get up the mountain - something smells scorched and since we are in the middle of nowhere here there is nothing else we can do than continue on and hope for the best. The Honda stinks of burnt rubber that we can smell from behind. Johan is furious and says that his piece of shit now also has no rear brake. We are all fed up now, I would love to pack it all in now and get on the next train back to our wonderful , reliable and lovely Liza and Johan seems on the verge of setting fire to his heap of junk on the roadside - Kev seems to be the only one at the moment who still wants to see  more of this country and especially of the north . He tries to persuade us to keep going by raving about the ethnic minorities and the beauty of the high mountains . Most of the time however we see as good as nothing of the landscape for some time already and are freezing our tits off so women with different headscarves just don’t seem to be sufficient to lure us into going on.
Sometimes when the cloud cover opens up we get a brief view of the valley and that is enough to recognize that if we could just see them – the views must be spectacular - the rice terraces are a piece of art in themselves even though they are currently only covered with yellow stubble. Every now and again there is one of the white " grave stones " on the roadside, which tells us how many miles we still have to go to Bao Lac and the kilometers seem to stretch on forever. It's getting dark and the ride with the hairpins, the gravel and the huge holes in the asphalt is slowly getting scary and we pray that Johan’s heap of shit just makes it to the end. It is pitch dark when we finally arrive in the town . There are no street lights and we can see almost nothing and do not find any hotel. After some searching and after being sent in several wrong directions we do find a hotel but not a soul in it . Eventually we hear sounds in one room and knock out a young Vietnamese woman . While she does not speak a word of English she still ends up helping us by calling someone on her mobile phone who can give us a room.
Worn out, tired and dejected we wait until finally a nice man on a scooter arrives, he gives us a room, sells us a bottle of cheap Chinese vodka and then even gives us a flask of hot water – we can make some plov coffee now!. After a hot shower and a couple of cups of coffee with a shot , the mood lifts a little and we hope that tomorrow everything will be better
The next day my knee is completely stiff and thick and I can barely walk . We decide to stay an extra night here and while I put my knee up and take a sick day the men go out and have Johan’s bike sorted - it is expensive, he needs a complete new brake drum with all the trimmings and baptizes his bike Grunpuss ( Afrikaans ), which I don’t really like to translate (Green female sexual organ with 4 letters and c at the beginning) . After all the work for the men and a day's rest for my knee we can move on .
It is once again a pretty gloomy day and it is very cold and as we have no warm clothes we have to tremble ourselves to warmth in our jeans and bike jackets . The locals have thick padded winter clothes . From word go we have trouble finding the right road and somehow the locals do not understand our questions for directions and so after hitting  a couple of dead ends we decide to just ride over a footbridge and surprise, surprise – on the other side the road actually goes further – mind you – it’s a huge exaggeration to call this a road - and we climb slowly into the heights. Too bad it is so hazy , because the mountains around us seem to be very nice. We keep coming through small villages where we are stared at even though we are traveling on local motorbikes - well probably our helmets alone already stick out here. The local helmets are really not much more than piss pots and for the women they even have a slot for the ponytail !
In the beginning there are still spots of tar in the road, but they are far and few between and soon  we are only on gravel and earth. Although Johan has a GPS  these roads are not on it and so do we really only know that we roughly head in the right direction .
Eventually we come to a crossroads and now just no longer know where we need to go. A woman comes on a scooter and we ask for MeoVac. After some lengthy thinking she points a little uncertain in the direction from which we just came . Now we do not know whether she understood us, and so we ask two young men who have also stopped next to us – they are waving us to follow them which we do. The bad dirt road eventually gest narrower and narrower, and suddenly we are on a one-lane buffalo track winding through sugar cane terraces which is crisscrossed with deep ruts going up and down steep mountain sides, with NOTHING on the side , only steep drops . I 'm now almost wetting my pants and then it slopes downhill with hairpin bends . Most of it we manage but eventually our luck has finally run out and we get stuck in a rut from which we can’t get out and then we are already on the floor. I'm tangled up with Kevin , the bike is still running and petrol running out. Kev is shouting at me to get off (I would , if I knew how to untangle my legs from this knot! ) Finally we are untangled and have picked the bike up again. The indicator is gone, the foot pegs and the handlebars are bent (nothing a thick hammer could not fix but we do not currently have one to hand ) Johan now also arrives and helps us to at least turn the handlebars back straight, everything else will have to wait. Reluctantly, I get back on the bike again and we climb further down the mountain - what else can we do - turning around is no longer possible at this point. Kev is annoyed because I keep telling him to bloody watch the path - he thinks I should have more  confidence in him (well we just crashed and he constantly looks in all directions and asks me to make matters worse , whether the bird he has just seen is a jungle cock - sorry I think there  are a lot more people who would be a little nervous ) and then we are facing a river , there is a small bamboo raft that is pulled across on cables and on the other side  I can see the same kind of track going steeply upward and I can already see from here that this will not work with both of us and our luggage. First, however, there is the river crossing!  Kevin and our Minna are being maneuvered onto the raft and pulled to the other side  then Johan and me. I am holding helmets and cameras and stand on the raft with my feet in the water like a statue because I fear to fall into the water with my precious cargo and Johan holds his bike . Something like this normally only happens to other people ( real adventurers with steel in their eyes and proper adventure cross bikes under the bums ) and then only in the movies ! On the other side the next shock is waiting for us - the rafter wants 200,000 Dong for our crossing - well now we are here and have to pay – we should have learned by now to ask for the price first ! I run up the steep hill on foot – as it will never work with two up on the little bike but the mountain goes on and on and our leaders now have arrived on this side and have already overtaken us . Kev has stopped to try to take me on the bike again but it is still too steep and now one of the two young men offers to ride it - thinking that he might do better. He jumps on our bike, only to almost throw it down the mountainside  in the next curve. Now we unloaded half of the luggage and I keep walking up on foot , the young man takes our bike up and the other grabs Kevin on the back seat and my backpack in front of him - we still need to sort the payment and they both have the audacity to demand 500 000 Dong from us - with some negotiation we agree on 200 000 ( for the guys certainly more than one weeks wages at least but without the two of them we would have been lost for certain and eventually we 've actually made it back to the road where we say goodbye and after a while also start finding signposts again. We are now in the clouds and only able to see a little bit but you can guess that the views could be absolutely incredible. The gravel road with holes seems to me like fun now  - . . , I know that it could always be worse. At least we had clear skies during the whole fiasco and Kevin ( the crazy guy ) is of the opinion - despite a blue leg- that this was the most amazing day of the whole trip so far.
From here, everything runs smoothly , it goes uphill, downhill, with views that you cannot imagine and even I have to admit slowly that we should not have missed out on the Geopark (also I slowly start to develop a sense of adventure and in retrospect the day was actually a crazy experience to treasure) . By the really friendly locals you realize that this is not a tourist area and over and over again we experience beautiful and sometimes bizarre stories – for example we are repeatedly approached by Vietnamese and invited for all sorts of things to try (sometimes rice wine and once we are talked into trying some medicine made from hooves which was cooked on the roadside and is supposed to be good for everything from joints to improved brain activity) .
Eventually we finally come to Sapa : the unparalleled tourist stronghold near the Fransipan - the highest mountain in Vietnam.

It is so cold here that everything feels damp and we have only thin blankets we allow ourselves to be tempted to spend an extra 3 USD per day for a fan heater in the room.

In and around the town live all sorts of diverse ethnic minorities - all the running around in their traditional costumes and every tourist is being chased all day long by them and then hassled to buy their handy crafts This can be sometimes extremely annoying. We meet up with Alex and Tessa again, with whom we celebrate Johan's birthday in one of the inevitable karaoke bars (Johan even singing Dancing Queen in a microphone).
However, the highlight of the time in this place is a trekking tour with guide and Homestay (night at a local family home ) in one of the neighboring valleys. We are taken by bus to the top of the valley and then hike with an English speaking guide and accompanied by a chattering troupe of resident women in traditional costume. Of course, we are dragged to all kinds of shops where traditional arts such as indigo dyed fabrics , weaving, carving and what else is on offer. The whole ethnic setting is maxed out down to the last spot – we are walking through a lived in open-air museum - everyone wants the tourists to buy as much as possible and that can be quite annoying – it’s the dollar note on legs thing again - almost every conversation ends in : " you buy" .... whatever, the whole thing is a business and people are indeed intrusive, but friendly - they try to persuade persistently, but still are not grumpy when you don’t buy anything -however I do not think anyone really manages to leave the valley without having at least bought a little something – actually – that’s a lie – I know someone who made it: Kevin! He just has sent them all to me and told them I have the wallet.
The valley itself however is incredibly beautiful. The rice terraces are even a bit more spectacular and artful than anything we have seen so far and also the night with a family in the valley is a wonderful experience. We are catered for here  and so I finally get the opportunity to learn how the delicious Vietnamese spring rolls are made and even Kevin and Johan join in rolling them . Then we all eat together at a large table. Our guide has promised to teach us a card game and I hold him to it - instead of a card game, however it turns out to be more a drinking game : the pack of cards is placed on a bottle neck and then everyone has to try with one breath to blow at least one but up to 3 cards from the stack. Who has not managed to drop none or more cards has to drink a rice wine. We all have pretty much fun with the game - the lady of the house and Kevin get to drink most and each time we have to toast with " Chuck Muk Nam Moi " ( Happy New Year ), because Tet is the most important Vietnamese festival is not far off.
After pancakes for breakfast we continue walking in a big bow on  more or less steep dirt tracks around the valley -, again accompanied by a troop of women who nimbly climb chatting and joking in flip flopps with us while carrying our luggage in their baskets and to support me at the same time and ensure that I can keep up (of course I buy something of them in the end)  Our guide entertains us with lots of interesting information - . , for example , that a water buffalo costs 30 million dong , a white water buffalo , however, 40 million because they are regarded as special good luck charm. He now has to save because if he wants to marry his beloved  he must first own 2 water buffalo - he estimates that he has to save another 2 years. When we arrive back at the end at the point where we are picked up by bus we have to wait a while  and again a lot of women and children want to sell us something , but now with the argument: I do not follow you - you buy from me " by this time, however I will not be talked into buying anything - neither a bracelet nor a cloth or bag - everything is already done and on the little Honda, with which we will leave tomorrow as we will we go on from here now has no more space not even for a hankerchief .