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Motorbike Tour through Remote Northern Vietnam

January 17, 2019

Visiting Northern Vietnam is the ideal trip for the adventurous traveler looking to be immersed in the cascading, lush mountains and learn about the ethnic people’s culture. Of the 92 million residents, there are 45 million registered motorbikes (Ministry of Transport). With only one week to explore this rapidly changing nation, my thrill-seeking friend and I wanted to challenge ourselves by exploring this beautiful northern region by motorbike.

Since traveling in Vietnam is very affordable as an American, we turned to a Hanoi-based agency who offered an all-inclusive package for a one week motorcycle tour. Mr. Minh at Vietlong Travel created a customized schedule, booked homestays/hotels, organized food stops, rented us nice motorcycles, and included a private guide to navigate us through cities, villages, and mountain roads.

Day 1:  Hanoi To Ba Be Lake

Excitement and nerves were bubbling while my friend and I secured our bags to the back of our respective 150cc and 250cc motorbikes. Evan and I were extremely green to motorbiking with experience ranging from little to no riding on a motorbike in the United States.

Hanoi, Vietnam

From minute one in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, millions of motorbikes continually and chaotically move through the streets. Adrenaline was at full throttle watching as scooters, bikes, cars, and motorcycles swirl around us; therefore, my best advice is just go with the flow because any hesitation adds more risk. It felt like a victory to survive this immediate initiation of seemingly lawless riding as we headed out past the city limits. From there, we embarked on the day’s 240 kilometer journey towards Ba Be National Park, which is Vietnam’s largest natural lake surrounded by limestone cliffs and lowland evergreen forests.

Day 2: Ba Be National Park to Bao Lac

Waking up from our homestay, Anh Duac Ba Be, which sits inside the national park, our hosts prepared us breakfast of crepes and hot coffee before heading out for a particularly cold and rainy day in the mountains. Originally, our goal was to make it all the way to Dong Van on the more “scenic” back roads, which usually translates to more challenging terrain. After I took a nasty fall while traversing through muddy and slick paths, we elected to go an alternative route. We migrated over to paved mountain roads with shorter off-roading sections, which allowed us to get to Bao Lac by early evening. All this was a blessing in disguise, so that we could enjoy the highlight of the trip the following day.  

Ba Be National Park, Vietnam

Day 3: Bao Lac To Dong Van  

Waking up sore the next day, we were pleased to see the weather showed no sign of rain and was a few degrees warmer. Having dried our clothes with an attempt to wipe some of the mud off, we hopped on the motorbikes and continued on mountain roads. Along the Gam River, we enjoyed views of terraced agricultural fields, intense  greenery, and passed through multiple small villages. As we climbed in elevation to Dong Van, the villages became populated and preserved by the culture of the H’mong ethnic people. We passed by their humble homes, smiling children greeted us with enthusiastic waving, and we were mesmerized by their local markets, which draw in countless Hmong locals wearing colorful traditional garments.

Terraced rice fields on the way to Dong Van

After descending out of the mountains from the low visibility mist, we entered Meo Vac town to take a lunch break. Located at the heart of Dong Van Rock Plateau Global Geopark, we were enamored by incredible cat-ear like rock formations as we eagerly anticipated the great Ma Pi Leng Pass that lay ahead. The 20-kilometer Ma Pi Leng Pass (ironically referred to as the Happiness Road) is Vietnam’s highest point and considered-to-be most beautiful mountain road. Before it was dangerously built in the 1960s, there was no feasible way to cross through the treacherous mountain region between Meo Vac to Dong Van. With jaw-dropping views of the Ha Giang Province (near the Chinese border), the unique rock formations, and the Nho Que River weaves through the uniquely dramatic mountain landscape.

Hypnotized by this stunning ride, we drove down to the old town of Dong Van, soaking in the experience over a delicious slow-drip Vietnamese coffee at a lovely cafe. Dinner that evening was one of our favorites at the Green Karst, across from our hotel. We ate copious amounts of Vietnamese hot pot, drank too much rice wine, and sang karaoke with the friendly restaurant owners.

Ariel Sultan wearing the MerinoLux Henley at Ma Pi Leng Pass

Day 4: Dong Van to Ha Giang

Since our trip didn’t fall on any designated ethnic market days (generally Sundays in the mountain towns, including the famous Bac Ha Market near Sapa), I still wanted a hint of seeing the foods, goods, and ethnic minorities congregate. Dong Van was our best option. As the open air market quietly began to open, I meandered the rows that contained the local Vietnamese crepe stand, the hustle-and-bustle of the meat section, vegetables/fruits vendors negotiating with customers, and small shops selling a variety of household goods.

Local ethnic market in Dong Van

Ready to set out from Dong Van towards Ha Giang, we were in for a marvelous ride. We passed through bamboo hugging the roads, astounding rock formations, dense green forest, clay-roofed homes of ethnic villages, and watched strong Hmong people carrying large items by back for long distances to their homes. I wish I had more time to snap photos during this part of the ride.

By late afternoon, we took one of our only side trips to Lung Khuy Cave. Vietnam has a vast network of impressive caves, including the largest one in the world, Hang Son Doong (an expensive trip in Central Vietnam). I was motivated to at least see one of these caves since it happened to be on our way to the Heaven Gate in Quan Ba. The narrow dirt road brought beautiful views of the mountainscape and it was a fun ride, since my skill level had rapidly improved after so many hours of riding. The mile-long walk to the cave allowed us to stretch our legs and admire the views. Inside the cave, we were nearly alone as we wandered the easy pathways through the cave’s striking formations – stalactites, columns, and flowstones.

Lung Khuy Cave, Ha Giang Province

Since our trip fell in the winter, we had to compete with shortened daylight to get to our place of stay at Ha Giang. We hurried back to our motorbikes and journeyed on to the remainder of the 50 kilometers through the Heaven Gate and onwards to arrive at Truang Xuan Resort before darkness settled.

Day 5: Ha Giang to Vu Linh
After a nice and restful evening at the resort in Ha Giang, we set out the next morning for Vu Linh. Leaving the mountains, the landscape transitioned to motorbiking through multiple towns, farmland, warmer and drier temperature, and we skirted along Vietnam’s largest manmade lake, Thac Ba. By afternoon, we were feeling most adventurous, taking single track dirt paths, dodging chickens and cows that crossed in front of us.

Riding to Vu Linh near Thac Ba Lake

With less aggressive riding on this day, we made good time to arrive at Mr. Boi’s homestay, a lovely Dao (another ethnic minority) family, who lives right next to Thac Ba lake. Our host, Mr. Boi, took us on a boat tour of the lake to see the islands and hills of diverse ecological environments. We watched Dao villagers fishing in the lake, as we peacefully took in the serene setting.

Mr. Boi, the homestay host, showing us Thac Ba Lake by boat

At the Boi’s homestay, we were invited to eat with the whole family. The food spread was plentiful with fried fish, rice, veggies, chicken, soup, and spicy vinegar chile dip. Since Vietnam was in the Asia championships for soccer, the family was full of excitement, offering us many rounds of rice wine and encouraging us to watch the game on the TV.

Mr. Boi’s wife and her grandson dressed in traditional Dao garments

Three generations of fans stayed up late, banging on pots, cheering, and drinking endless amounts of alcohol to celebrate Vietnam defeating Malaysia to win the championships for the first time in ten years. This was the perfect way to close out our last evening on the road before heading back to Hanoi the next day.

Day 6: Vu Linh to Hanoi

With our last day on the road, we were eager to get to Hanoi early to explore the city more. We downed some coffee at Mr. Boi’s homestay, then road the 160-kilometer route along the Red River, crossing over the Black River, and sped down the highways. Heading back into the chaos of city life, we were able to avoid most of the traffic by getting back in the afternoon.

After dropping off our motorbikes back at the shop, we said our goodbyes to the guide and meandered around the old quarters of Hanoi. Recollecting the highs and lows of the trip, Evan and I strolled around Hanoi.

Ariel Sultan enjoying Pho at Thin Pho in her MerinoLux Henley

We channeled our inner Anthony Bourdain by eating as much diverse Vietnamese food on our path; we loaded up on phenomenal pho (at Pho Thin), mango sticky rice ice cream, Vietnamese coffee, fruit smoothies, self-bbqing beef with veggies, and finishing the evening with local and specialty beers (such as in the Beer Corner and Standing Bar).

Motorcycling through Northern Vietnam offers a cultural and natural-landscape travel experience, where the journey is just as rewarding as the destinations.  This adventurous challenge through Southeast Asia was so captivating and is ideal for thrillseekers looking for off-the-beaten excursion.

Side Trip Recommendation

With a few extra days on your itinerary, consider visiting the UNESCO site, Halong Bay. Known for the thousands of towering limestone islands filled with rainforests, this is majestic destination that is only a few hours away from Hanoi. Since most tourists only go for the day, it is highly recommended to book an overnight cruise to take in the sunset, and breathe in the sunrise. This is a relaxing way to conclude the motorcycle adventure through Northern Vietnam.

Packing List:

  1. Royal Robbins MerinoLux Henley – Men’s & Women’s options
  2. Royal Robbins MerinoLux Crew – Men’s and Women’s options
  3. Royal Robbins Performance Flannel
  4. Royal Robbins Oakham Waterproof Jacket – Men’s and Women’s options
  5. Royal Robbins Radius Pant – Men’s and Women’s options
  6. Royal Robbins Women’s Discovery III Pant
  7. Royal Robbins Men’s Alpine Road Pant
  8. 40-50L waterproof duffel bag or bring a trash bag to protect gear in duffel
  9. Small backpack with rain cover to access items while riding
  10. Vietnamese dong in cash (best to transfer at the airport)
  11. Apply for Vietnamese visa at least 3 weeks before trip
  12. Motorcycle jacket
  13. Knee pads if you decide to not bring motorcycle pants
  14. Ponchos (since it gets muddy and protects gear from ripping)
  15. Consider Motorcycle waterproof boots or waterproof ankle-high hiking boots
  16. Make sure to ask if you need to bring goggles for the rental helmet
  17. Motorcycle protective gloves
  18. Waterproof rain pants
  19. Quick dry underwear
  20. Warm, fast-dry socks (bring extra)
  21. Quick dry travel towel
  22. Bandana/buff
  23. Face mask for dust or smoggy areas
  24. Beanie for under helmet
  25. Travel size toiletries, soap, shampoo, conditioner
  26. Sunscreen and bug spray depending on the season
  27. Converter for outlets
  28. Chargers for electronics
  29. Gopro or Rylo with mounts to film the adventure
  30. Small travel camera
  31. Headlamp
  32. Water bottle with UV filter to help reduce plastic consumption
  33. 2 dry bags for valuables
  34. Snacks just in case!

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