I left Vietnam when I was 16 and had been back visiting my family in the South, Sai Gon, many times. But my first trip to the North was in 2015 on a 125cc Russian Minsk motorcycle. After three consecutive rides there, my friends and I were ready to head back in 2018. We packed some old clothes, garbage bags, zip lock bags (protecting our electronics from the rain), wet wipes (for emergencies), and the essentials (no shaving required). We did not forget to bring candies for the children we would meet along the way, guaranteed to bring big smiles.
Our group ranged in age from mid-40s to mid-60s – a bunch of good friends who loved to ride. My best buddy, Lee, and I were hosting a couple of virgin riders and for all but one, this was their first time in Vietnam.
After two sleepless nights in Hanoi, we picked up our mighty, old Russian Minsks at a garage. Digby Greenhalgh, our guide gave us a safety talk and we were ready to ride. We were so eager to get going, some of us forgot to strap on our saddle bags. Our mechanic, Long, had worked on Minsks all his life and rode behind us just in case.
It took us two hours of unfriendly traffic to get out of Hanoi before we headed northeast toward Ban Gioc Waterfall. I had wanted to see it for years but never managed to get there. We stayed overnight at That Khe and ate BBQ duck. It was fantastic. We returned to the same restaurant for more at breakfast – BBQ duck pho. Delicious.
The next day, after six hours of riding, we checked into our first homestay. We did not have separate rooms or fancy washrooms. We simply shared a small house with a family of eight. The ceiling was so low that some of my friends inadvertently banged their heads on the bamboo beams a couple of times. Not too sure if the family ever thought they would have six-foot tall guys in the house when they built it. Feeling welcomed, we forgot how small the house was and claimed our mattresses and mosquito nets to keep out the uninvited creatures. While we set up our sleeping space, the entire family prepared our food – a seven course, five-star meal. A grandma was singing to two children, and a teenager helped the father and grandma make spring rolls. I stopped for a moment and complimented this young man for helping the family after school, explaining that other kids in the western world probably would be too busy on their phones or game console. This young man happily helped his family and greeted 12 strangers with a big smile. The fried spring rolls were the highlight of our home stay meal. A tiny kitchen and a portable gas stove with two burners pumped out enough food to feed all of us. We even had crispy French fries for an appetizer. The mother cooked for two hours straight without a bead of sweat on her face. The food was plentiful and unbelievably good. They even prepared four vegetable dishes for our vegan rider. We couldn’t believe a banana shoot salad could be that good.
The journey to the waterfall left me speechless. The untouched forest and magnificent mountains took my breath away. I rode along the magnificent rice terrace and parked my bike to take in the moment, not knowing that five miles to my back was China. The mountains, the water, the rice field terraces and water buffalo were so unreal. This is what I wanted to see, the country that I left behind due to the war that I never understood.
We left Ban Gioc waterfall and headed west toward Cao Bang, 280 km north of Hanoi. Riding past mountains and rice terraces, it was calm and peaceful. We met and greeted many ethnic hill tribe locals. They seemed happy, working hard in the rice fields. Long decided that we should ride into the rice fields on the small goat trails. No making a U-turn or stopping to take photos. The trails were narrow and we had fun following them. On one side of the trail was a bushy hill and on the other a two-meter drop to a rice field. We rode in a single file with five meters between us and used our horns to warn each other about water buffalo who were on the side of the trail feeding. We were riding so close to nature that we could touch and feel our surroundings – bright yellow rice fields, animals, and locals busy with their harvesting.
After three days on the road our guide decided to let us check into a hotel. We were looking forward to another homestay feast, but Digby wanted us to have our own rooms and washrooms so we could clean up and dispose of our filthy clothes. It was needed.
We arrived at Ba Be Lake late in the afternoon and checked into another homestay. It was a traditional two-story wooden stilt building with a backyard facing the largest lake in Vietnam, surrounded by mountains and forest. We were happy and excited and parked our bikes under the stilt building. After a quick wash, we walked toward the main town, a strip of old wooden stilt houses, and discovered a small restaurant. We enjoyed two hours of lounging and watched the locals ride their bikes and walk back from school with their children. Sitting on little plastic stools with cold beers or water bottles in our hands, we swapped stories and told about close-call incidents. There was plenty of laugher and good natured cursing. The day ended with an awesome dinner at the homestay. The calling of the crickets and frogs was like a grand symphony.
Our early wake-up calls by the local roosters were something else. After four nights on the road with thousands of roosters crowing each morning, we got used to them. This was our relaxing day and we floated down the lake on a boat while our bikes were on another boat beside us.
We took in the mountain scenery with forests on both sides of the river. It was magnificent. At the end of the lake we came ashore to have lunch at a local house. Some of us took the opportunity to have some “happy water” – homemade rice wine, and others just hiked to the end of the lake to see a beautiful waterfall. The power of the water falling down the cliff was overwhelming.
On our last day we got up early and rode 150 km to Thai Nguyen. It took us almost five hours and when we arrived we had our last lunch as a group. We cleaned every plate that the kitchen brought out. As we sat together, stories of the ride were shared around the table. We laughed and cherished these tales. After shaking hands and congratulating each other for the safe and awesome ride, we boarded a bus and headed back to Hanoi.
Photos courtesy of Loi Huynh, Michael Owens, and rider friends.
When I asked Michael Owens, a first time rider with our group, to sum up the experience, here’s what he said: “I’m a 67-year-old white male and growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s I was aware of Vietnam for all the wrong reasons. I was anxious to see the country and meet the people. This trip turned out to be exactly what I was looking for. The motorcycling was challenging enough to keep things interesting but did not require a high level of off road skills. I found the Vietnamese people to be hard working, warm, welcoming and eager to share. We drove mainly through rural areas and were constantly greeted with waves especially from the children who delighted in seeing strangers. Our homestays were a highlight. The food was plentiful, varied and enjoyable. You will never learn about a people by staying in a five-star hotel and eating in a Michelin-rated restaurant. You need to sit at their table, eating what they eat.”
After speaking with Michael, I thought about myself. I have been living in Canada for the last 32 years and I’m thankful to be part of this great country. I graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1997. I’m a construction manager for a large firm with offices across Canada. But, Vietnam is always in my heart and I still have a large family there, including brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews. My ancestor burial sites are still there. I want to visit them every year, if possible. I’ll be back to explore more soon.
By Loi Huynh
This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt