Motorcycling through Vietnam… Cat Ba to Sapa

I’m currently mid-trip on the road in Vietnam.  I haven’t had the Wi-Fi or opportunity to write much, but for every person out there thinking about taking a chance, this read is for you.

7 days ago I bought a motorcycle in Vietnam, learned to ride it (ha I definitely have never ridden before), then headed north through the mountains rather than take a bus. And I did it solo. I didn’t hop on this motorcycle expecting that I would be able to do this all alone… Multiple times I considered just stopping in Hanoi and selling it. I thought often of a quote I am fond of, “I will walk by faith even when I cannot see” and kept trucking on. It was terrifying, exhilarating, dirty, exhausting, and inspiring over these past few days. The roundabout ways of getting to the random places and the little villages I stayed in made me the ONLY tourist I saw for three straight days. It was unlike anything I have ever experienced. It was quiet at times, singing to myself at the top of my lungs to pass time at others, and perhaps one of the most inspiring points in my life.

My bike broke down in a rice paddy on my first day out, leaving only me to fix it.  It was a moment of panic, a moment of “oh, shit,” and a moment of clarity.  This was up to me.  The chain had popped completely off my bike, dragging along the road, and as I leaned in to check it out, I realized that my gear was so heavy, the motorcycle would fall on me if I let it sit on its own. In turn, fixing my motorcycle became a battle of holding it up with my hip, rocking it an inch back and forth, jimmy-rigging the chain back on, and praying it would all work out.  10 minutes later and covered in oil, I hopped on my bike and got it started and made my way to a mechanic a ways down the road.  I had him tighten the chain so that it wouldn’t fall off or break again.  That’s only one piece of this big picture, however…

Days 1 – 3
The driving got scarier with each day, but my levels of relaxation on the bike also grew.  The traffic here in Vietnam is crazy. Leaving Cat Ba was easy, the hilly roads were empty and full of spectacular views.  I left my hostel in Cat Ba town around 8:15, racing through the mountain roads to the ferry headed for Hai Phong. As I went up the hills and around sharp curves, I got my first real feel for the motorcycle and how it runs.  To get to Sapa, I chose the slightly longer way that stretched through the smaller villages along the way.   As I began this trek, I had no idea of what the crazy lifestyle it would entail.  The ferry to Hai Phong went smoothly, and was a beautiful trip (see below).  Unfortunately, it was the last easy part of the trip! Even getting off the ferry in Hai Phong was a clutch start on a hill, which in turn, roared me up the exit ramp past three taxis who were applauding my performance…. What was my performance, you might ask? Probably not hitting the 40 people that were also standing there through my roar up the hill off of the boat.

On that note, the drive began.  With the back roads I took, I was the only white person/tourist/blonde/backpacker for the next three days.  The first day, I got cheers and honks and smiles from every direction.  Also as one of the very few people on a motorcycle instead of a scooter, it felt like everyone was rooting for me, even in dire times.  A man in a jumbo truck followed me for a full two minutes honking and giving me a thumbs up! The happiness and kindness and excitement in the smaller villages to see outsiders was humbling and a wonderful experience to be a part of. On the various ferries I took, local women would pull me aside for selfies and photos with me.  I knew to expect the photo ops with how tall I am, but the selfies and excitement and handshakes and karate move photos I have gotten in to still don’t stop amazing me today. 

Aside from the joys and photos and breakdowns by Miko, the traffic in Vietnam was an entirely terrifying experience! No one uses red lights, no one uses lines, and they all drive everywhere on the road!  I would be driving around a turn on a cliff edge while semi-trucks and busses passed me with inches to spare in space, leaving no room for error. Multiple times that day, I had to pull over, catch my breath, breathe, and ask myself what the HECK I thought I was doing.  Another instance, a truck threw up a rock while I was behind it, hitting me square in the face! This, ladies and gents, is why I wear a helmet.  This happened another 4 times across the drive to Sapa.  I set a goal to make it to Thai Nguyen by nightfall and find a homestay so that I would have a large section of my trip knocked out.  As the last hours of the day began to fade, I was on the outskirts of Thai Nguyen.  The evening light of the sunset made all of the fields and lakes light up around me. The golden hour has never had a truer definition than that sunset in Northern Vietnam.

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Miko the motorcycle on the first ferry ride out of Cat Ba.

Thai Nguyen is a smaller town north of Hanoi.  As I rolled into town, I met a man who saw the address on my GPS and rode around with me for 30 minutes looking for it.  In fact, he also drove by his home to introduce me to his family before finally heading in to where the homestay was located. When I arrived, I was thrilled! It was a young man named Nam and his wife and two children.  I walked in to a bustling welcome.  Nam’s two children, one 2 and the other 4, were the greatest playmates after a long day on the road.  They ran around playing and dancing all the way until dinner.  Nam’s wife also taught me how to make spring rolls as she prepared a huge dinner for us!  We drank beers, sat on the porch, and enjoyed the sounds of night for a peaceful end to the day.

Day one was stressful then peaceful, difficult then calm, and overall brought a huge learning curve.  I was happy, healthy, alive (haha), and in a new city.  It was a gentle reminder that I can accomplish anything, but there would be the trying days as well. We all need those moments of clarity and reassurance sometimes, and after my first day learning to drive a motorcycle, I needed a reminder for those few fleeting moments.

The next morning, I rose early, packed up my bags, and prepared to leave. Nam made me the spiciest Pho for breakfast that I have EVER had.  As I had tears rolling down my red face with a huge smile, Nam knew he had absolutely nailed breakfast! That, and I told him too… With a warm belly and hugs from the kids, I was off again towards Sapa.  

The drive the second day and third days was equally as scary, but I had a knack for driving Miko and so it went more quickly and smoothly.  As I drove through the countryside on day two, I saw what felt like a million water buffalo.  I had the old Veggie Tales song “Everybody wants a water buffalo” on repeat in my head.  At many points, I would be so lonely and bored after hours of driving that I would just sing it at the top of my lungs.  Moto helmets have quite the acoustics… 😉  The viewpoints introduced me to the first section of hills and sharp, steep curves that would provide excitement and terror the next day.

Around midday, I needed a break and pulled to the side of the road with the first house that appeared.  I hadn’t seen a village in quite some time and I was parched.  The woman spoke no English, but was friendly and smiling and waved me in.  As I entered her home, I realized it was just that, a home.  This was not a restaurant or a tiny noodle shop out of a home. It was simply a home for the woman and her family that had been built in to the hillside, overlooking the river.  She sat me down and gave me fruit and water and started pointing to stuff saying words.  We swapped translations for things like the dogs, the fruit, the cup, and water.  As I prepared to leave, I offered her money for the fruit and things she had shared.  She absolutely insisted on not accepting anything, and I was touched.  This woman had just taken a strange blonde girl who pulled up on a motorcycle in to her home for food and drink and rest.  That is the perfect example of this country’s culture and kindness, and I will never forget those moments spent communicating without ever speaking the same language.

The remainder of the drive led me through more countryside, water buffalo, and another beautiful sunset as I arrived in Luc Yen.  I bartered my way into a lake view private room ($6) and settled in for the night.  Day 2 was over, I had only sang to 4 different water buffalo, and I had spent a whopping $7 on gas thus far in the journey.

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Playing for the hours before dinner at Nam’s
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Moto journeys on the backroads

Luc Yen was an amazing little side trip.  I had heard from some friends in Cat Ba that there was a gem market that opened for only a few hours in the morning before shutting down.  I got up early the next day to try and find the market and see for myself.  After a mix of charades and pointing to the stone on my Tahoe necklace, a few pointed fingers led me to a group of old men playing cards.  They were so excited at how tall I was (and again, the only tourist in town) that they ran around until a translation app could be found.  The typed a message that translated to “Market 830” and his finger pointed at a row of empty chairs… Hopeful and slightly confused, I walked around for an hour as I waited..
Sure enough, the empty plaza was thriving and full of women selling rubies and various other gems.  I have never seen so many beautiful and valuable stones rolling around on tables and passing hands than in the hour I spent in the market.  I managed to barter for a few gems, but I don’t know enough about stones or their value to really grab a great deal.  However, the views alone were incredible!

Satisfied with the market and Luc Yen overall, I said my goodbyes.  The ATM’s were empty, so I made my journey through the entire remainder of the drive to Sapa with 10 dollars in my pocket… Oil Change: $4, Gas: $1.50, Lunch: $2… I made it!  The last part of the drive led me through a major city to the base of the final ascent to Sapa.  34 kilometers long, it is steep, narrow, and VERY windy.  As I got up the hill as fast as my motorcycle would let me, I would have to pass busses as they dropped in to first for the crawl up the 10% grade. If i didn’t pass them, my bike would stall and create even more havoc.  I made it up almost the entire hill before the stressful situations started to pile on again.  As I passed a semi going up hill, a Land Rover also made the same decision coming the opposite direction.  He slid to the side past me, as the truck and I barged forward and the three wide passing event began.  I was squished between the semi and the Land Rover, so I couldn’t stop or back out.  Because the Land Rover trying to join, the process slowed down, allowing oncoming traffic to also catch up.  I raced through the 2 foot space between the semi on my right and the oncoming truck in the lane I was in as the Land Rover slammed the brakes and stopped inches from hitting the oncoming semi.  As I pulled over for a breather and to take in the views, I got some beautiful photos and mentally prepared for the Sapa traffic to come.  

Situations such as the one I just described happened multiple times daily… The drivers around here all have to drive that way to get anywhere, and driving timidly would have gotten me in an accident.  I will be the first to admit that these tales do not use safety as a priority or even a reasonable outcome half the time, but they are what was necessary to have my best chance at safety throughout my journey. However, it is SO important to keep your wits about you and use common sense as you navigate the roads.  If you ever consider a motorcycle trip around Vietnam, especially solo, practice driving and grow those cajones, because there is no room for drivers that stop and panic.  That is why the backpackers tend to be the ones in accidents and not the locals around here.

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Finally, I reached Sapa and got terribly lost looking for my hostel.  This led to quite a few extra dusty hills and downhills.  On one particularly sharp corner, my bike slid out from underneath me and was about to fall on to my leg when a man passing in the opposite direction threw his arm up and help my bike get back upright.  Traffic was so crazy that I could barely say thank you before we were all off riding in separate directions!  By the time I reached my hostel, it was completely decided that I would be staying in Sapa for at least 5 days to get a break from the long journeys on the roads…

What a journey, and that was only three days of it.  I kept my motorcycle for the remainder of my time in Vietnam, exploring the north, riding different paths back towards Hanoi, Couchsurfing in the bigger cities, and building a bond with the motorcycle I called “Miko”, but everyone I met called a tub of junk. Love is blinding?? Perhaps with my motorcycle…  That was the continuation of this solo journey I am making through the countries of Asia.  I did a wheelie on hill, I slid out on a dusty corner cliffside road, and even burned my leg to a sizzle at one point. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s exactly where I am supposed to be, and what I am supposed to be doing.

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The sun sets in Sapa as I sit on my hostel patio and soak in the first major motorcycle journey I have made…

Four years ago, I hadn’t ever even left the country when I headed down to Argentina on a one-way ticket. But, more importantly, I didn’t think that I was capable of something like that. But then I did it. Then I did it again…. and again. Jumping in headfirst is scary, but wonderful. There are so many things I never thought I would do and now I’m standing here, alive and well, with this perma-smile. Seriously, bigger than my usual smile…

What I got out of it was this: ANYONE CAN DO THIS. Too many people on this planet don’t believe in their ability to chase after whatever they want to do! The doubts and complications and shadows loom so much higher than they actually are. I want people to be as inspired as I am right now. I want someone, somewhere, to take that leap, whether it’s a solo camping trip, a one-way ticket, a summit they have been eye-balling, or skinny-dipping in bioluminescent water. Don’t listen to the doubts, the fears, or the shadows.

I AM INSPIRED. 

 

From somewhere new…
Jess

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