NamBusters - our tour of North VietNam on Minsks

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firestorm996
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NamBusters - our tour of North VietNam on Minsks

Post by firestorm996 » Tue Dec 23, 2014 3:21 pm

Hi everyone, my first post on the forum. Been reading the magazine for a couple of years now.

I thought I would post up some photos and a little trip report from our tour of north-west Vietnam, which we undertook in March/April 2014.

On this trip there were Derek (Del-boy), Phil TK and myself. Phil has been on most of the trips to Germany we've done over the last decade, but has long been wanting to do a tour of Asia, either Thailand, Laos or Vietnam. He has spent a fair amount of time out there mainly in Thailand doing diving instruction so he's somewhat familiar with the region. He rode much of the Ho Chi Minh trail from Saigon to Hanoi on his own a few years ago, but the north west is reputed to be the most scenic part of this incredible country so that's where we decided to go.

After we committed to going, we arranged bike hire via Flamingo Tours in Hanoi and booked hotels and flights ourselves. At the end of March we flew out from Gatwick (12 hour direct flight). We managed to get a good selfie with the pilot of our flight before even boarding, so that was a good start to the trip.

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Upon arrival we were introduced to the humidity and chaos of Vietnam on our taxi ride to Hanoi. If you can picture a 3 lane motorway, with vehicles crossing (including bicycles and cows) at all manner of angles, whether oncoming or otherwise, and traffic going both ways on the hard shoulder. It's perfectly normal for cars and bikes (90% of the traffic is step-thru scooters) to travel inches from one another, they just get on with it and traffic flows nicely without any aggro. Scooters are used to transport just about anything, including trees, cows etc Don't ever complain about your luggage capacity, if you do, you're doing it all wrong.

It was around 30deg and climbing, and humidity was 90% or more for the whole time we were there. We met up with Phil who had flown in via Thailand and spent a couple of days exploring Hanoi and making arrangements for the second half of the trip. We'd booked the bikes for 8 days initially and wanted to do a part 2 out to Ha Long bay after we'd finished the north west loop. So we had to book a couple of hotel stays while we were there and sort out the extra bike hire with Flamingo but all easily sorted.

So..Hanoi...well it's a crazy place. Cramped and constantly busy, people seem to use the pavement and roadside for just about everything including preparing meat, vegetables, doing the laundry, dining, everything but walking on basically. All foot traffic and wheeled traffic uses what's left of the road which is very little. It does get cramped, we were actually stuck in a traffic jam ON FOOT a couple of times.

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The food was great, we soon learned how to use chopsticks, and the beer was cheap. It's home to one of the cheapest bars in the road, where you sit on these tiny little plastic stools actually in the road on this crazy junction, until the police come along every now and then and shoo you back on to the pavement for a while. As soon as they're gone you're sitting in the road again. One night we had 15 beers there, all draught Hanoi beer which is a nice drinkable lager, and it came to about 200,000 dong. That's about £6. We had plenty of dong as you can imagine, in fact we were multi millionaires.

This is Phil in the middle of that junction...

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And Delboy at the same place...

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This is Del and Phil in the middle of an 8-way intersection, sitting down having just fed a midget girl who was selling balloons in the junction some KFC hot wings. Don't ask.

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Video of the traffic on that junction...
http://youtu.be/Wzy0-SivGcA

Same junction as seen from the City View bar...

http://youtu.be/OXmvoBgpE1E

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Also later on at night you get these mobile pimps bothering you on scooters. They ride up to you and bother you. You want boom-boom? You want nice lady? Saki saki? Monkey back? Lady boy?

We never figured out what or who was involved in a 'monkey back', but apparently it cost about $4.

A special mention about vietnamese coffee... I like my coffee but I'm no gourmet, but this was some of the finest tastiest coffee I've ever had and I miss it now we're back. :( Then there's another coffee you can buy out there called Weasel coffee. Vietnam has a breed of civet cat/weasel that lives on coffee beans, and it's very selective choosing only the tastiest beans. You can see where this is going. Weasel coffee is harvested after it's passed through a weasel, and roasted (hopefully washed first). It really is s**t coffee in the truest sense of the word, but there are animal welfare concerns over some of the practices involved in mass producing it.

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So, a little about the bikes we'd chosen. None of that Honda reliability for us, nope, we'd gone with 20+ year old russian Minsks which contained (barely) 125ccs of awesome 4-stroke POWER. An odd choice? Well you need agility and something that will handle road, dirt and anything else you can throw at it, so these were a good choice. Originally they would have been 2-strokes but they'd been retro-fitted with 4 stroke donks for reliability.

One minor point is that they are 5-DOWN, followed by a neutral, followed by 5 more down, another neutral...you get the picture. So if you're in 5th and you forget this, and downshift, you're in neutral. Downshift once more and you're back in first, and probably on your arse soon after that (or picking up engine internals from the road). Soon we renamed it the bastard gearbox.

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Del's Minsk had been crashed before he'd even set eyes on it so he was set up with a SUFAT (basically a Chinese Lifan). We renamed it the MAN-FAT. Again it was a 125 but a fair bit taller which is no bad thing since Del is over 6 foot.

We deliberated over what bike kit to take for months while we were planning this trip out, and in the end we basically went for body armour, tough boots with a good grippy sole, and lightweight everything else plus open face lids. It's just too hot for anything more than that. I got a pair of £30 boots from Lidl which were great although they now look like they've done an around-the-world trip.

Luggage wise, I took a Hein Gericke roll bag (40l I think), some small 5l bags and I bought a Kriega R20 rucksack so I could keep cash, passport and valuables on me. Del was planning on video'ing each day with his GoPro mounted on his lid, so he took enough 18650 power cells to double Vietnams capacity the moment he stepped off the plane.

We must make a special mention to Del's battery supplier. He contacted http://www.ebay.co.uk/usr/ecoluxshop who kindly set him up with plenty of 18650 rechargeable cells. Del tested them and found them to be first-rate, unlike many similar items sold online. These cells were then fitted into USB charger packs that would power his GoPro for the entire day. They then still had enough juice in them to recharge our phones and camera batteries when the power at the hotels would go off. We would recommend these if you are looking to do something similar or for backup power. We will be making a video from footage gathered during the trip, more on that when it's ready.

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Day 1 - Hanoi to Mai Chau

On the morning of the tour we turned up at Flamingo and loaded up the bikes. They include tough but well-used panniers, and use lengths of bicycle inner tube as bungees. It's cheap and it works.

This is me (excuse the camp pose) allowing my man-servant to load up me minsk.

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Phil getting loaded up:

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and finally Del's MAN-FAT.

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So we had a quick ride round the block, Del was very nervous which was out of character but understandable. He hasn't rode a motorbike for about 6 years, and the first time he gets back on one he's in a foreign country with chaotic traffic and no rules. Fair play though, he rode round the block like he'd never been off a bike and we did the same once we were loaded up.

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At every junction, traffic is going in four different directions and all intermeshing, you have other traffic, then you've got rickshaws, pedestrians, you name it all just hitting the gaps between everything else. You need eyes in your arse around here because it's coming at you from every direction. So a Hanoi junction and a funny gearbox was a winning combination.

Hanoi lazy afternoon traffic...


So at this point let me introduce our guide, Pinky. We decided to have a guide for a couple of reasons. First, foreign drivers licences are not valid in Vietnam, and it takes a minimum stay of a month or more to qualify for a vietnamese driving licence. You can get your licence translated into vietnamese, which is then valid, but you're looking at $250 all in. We just decided to avoid the police and not crash. If we did get pulled, a guide would be invaluable in smoothing things over (along with a few hundred thousand dong tucked away in your documents).

Anyway, Pinky was a legend. Within minutes he'd renamed Del-boy to Del-little-boy and that stuck for the rest of the trip. We got along great with him and he was constantly joking around.

This is Pinky and Phil about to tackle a rare set of Hanoi traffic lights.

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Basically on day 1 it was a case of getting out of Hanoi and starting to make our way into the sticks. This we did, with everything getting more scenic and rural as the day went on. The Minsks are up to the job. You can go from tarmac to gravel to clay and they don't complain at all, we'd now got used to the road surfaces being highly variable. Sometimes you are better off cutting the inside on a mountain hairpin because where the tarmac finishes and the dirt starts it's like a berm, and slingshots you through the bend.The alternative is sometimes huge potholes (we're not talking UK potholes here either, you could go for a paddle in some of them).

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Another thing that happens is the oncoming trucks are coming through no matter what, so we've been forced onto the dirt or grass a couple of times. Perfectly ok on these bikes most of the time. On other occasions you're forced to choose between avoiding a gravel pit, the size of which would well serve paddock hill bend at brands hatch, or choose to avoid that water buffalo that's standing on the good Tarmac. Sometimes it's a nervous dog (all dogs in Vietnam appear nervous). Sometimes it's a rooster or even a cock.

We stopped for a drink and cool off late in the day and eventually stopped at a remote little village to stop at what's referred to as a Homestay. That's where a local family cooks for you and puts you up in their house. In this case, it was a large wooden stilt-house and it was fantastic.

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Spring rolls...these would become a favourite of ours during the trip...
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Pinky and our home stay host...
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Our banquet for the evening, all the food is communal so you get your bowl and load it up with whatever you like...

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Our stilt house

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Beds for the night, yes you sleep on the floor. We didn't sleep too well because there were a few dogs nearby which kept setting each other off barking all night, followed by the pig, followed by cows and..well you get the idea...

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So endeth day 1 of the bike tour! :)

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firestorm996
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Re: NamBusters - our tour of North VietNam on Minsks

Post by firestorm996 » Tue Dec 23, 2014 3:29 pm

Day 2 - Mai Chau to Bac Yen

We had a pretty restless night in the stilt house. The house itself was great but it was in a little village out in the sticks, which means livestock. So under the house there was at least a couple of dogs that would bark and set off a chain reaction of other dogs barking nearby. Then there was a rooster (or 'cock') that kept crowing. Del said he didn't really sleep all night because of the cock. :dry:

Omelette on bread for breakfast followed by a quick kit sort out. We found loads of stuff left over by the Italians who were also staying there. With true Italian style they made lots of noise, left early and forgot half their stuff.

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We left Mai Chau around 9am and headed up over some incredible mountain passes where the air was fortunately much cooler. All we are wearing is body armour tops and a T-shirt underneath, but it's been 34 degrees with nigh on 100% humidity so it was nice to get in some cool air. We stopped plenty of times for photos, the scenery was just epic.

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After a few hours of this, we descended into villages at lower altitude and stopped for lunch. Again, great food and a nice cold coke. As we finished our lunch, a local chap was starting to smoke some opium which was a tad disconcerting. We made our excuses and left.

From there we had a quick blat over more mountain roads and just about caught the ferry across the bay. We are not talking P&O ferries here. There was a truck parked dead centre, and bikes were squeezed along each side. Any panniers that couldn't squeeze betwixt truck and guard rail were given a swift kicking until they did fit by the ferry bloke.

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It was only a five minute ferry crossing across a very picturesque bay. When When we got off the ferry it suddenly seemed to become proper rural VietCong territory. Most people would wave and say hello as we pass, but occasionally you get a proper VC stare, from a face that could come straight out of a war movie. At this point the scenery was taken over by beautiful layered paddy fields which are incredibly green and lush.

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Further on down this road we notice it seems to go friendly village, hostile village, friendly, hostile. Amidst all this, Del's Sufat spluttered for half a mile then ran out of fuel. Sod's law, we happened to have ground to a halt in one of the hostile villages. Oh well. Like any true friend, I abandoned Del to chase after the others. When we got back to him, Pinky drained some fuel from my Minsk float bowl and we got moving again. The locals watched with interest and curiosity. I'm sure if we'd asked for any help someone would have assisted, and to be honest both me and Del lost a few man points for not fixing such a minor problem ourselves so we deserved what we got.

After we sourced some fuel, we then had a great blast across another mountain pass before landing at Bac Yen. Cue food (spring rolls, pho) and beer. Total distance today about 170km all on minor roads.

firestorm996
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Re: NamBusters - our tour of North VietNam on Minsks

Post by firestorm996 » Tue Dec 23, 2014 3:32 pm

Day 3 - Bac Yen - Son La - Dien Bien

"All day long, Del-little-boy talking the s**t.." (Pinky, April 2014)

We got a reasonable night's sleep last night at Hotel Tam Dong, but the hotel was pretty poor. It wasn't clean and the mattresses were rock solid. I woke up unable to move my neck for half an hour as it had all seized up.

We got on the move early as this was to be a long day. We took the mountain passes to Son La which is over 100km away. Almost straight away the scenery became majestic, with colourful paddy fields everywhere. We stopped briefly on the bridge you can see in the photos, then got a move on.

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There were many stretches of the road under construction but the scenery and views got better and better the higher we went. It also got cooler and misty as we were getting up towards low cloud cover, but it didn't rain. We encountered many people who live in these mountains, and their reaction was pure curiosity and amazement, it was obvious that very few westerners come through these parts. They live a hard life, everyone young or old was hard at work in one way or another.

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We wound our way down the mountain, me and Phil had a great engines-off 'coaster' race on the way down until I met an oncoming lorry and had to anchor up in quite a severe way. The Minsk bastard upside down gearbox caught me out and had the back wheel squirrelling all over the place between an oncoming truck and one that had parked up.

Once at the bottom we stopped for a drink at a cafe underneath a huge war memorial statue.

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From there we hit one of the few highways in Vietnam to make some ground up to Son La. A highway here is typically just one or sometimes two lanes and runs through towns and villages, but is generally a quick road. You have to keep a constant watch out for joining traffic, oncoming traffic in your lane, oncoming trucks, coaches, pedestrians, bicycles, animals, scooters carrying 6' wide bushels, scooters dragging trees behind them, wildebeests...and so on.

As we dropped into Son la, all of a sudden we found ourselves on an empty 4 lane highway. Del offered me a race, and we had at least three before we started noticing police at the side of the road which we later found out we're pulling people for speeding. Oops.

Quick stop for lunch in Son La before continuing to Dien Bien which is around 160km away.

We started to wind up an incredible pass that snaked its way over another mountain, this was pure twisty biking heaven and the quality of tarmac was very good, easily the best we've encountered so far but you can still expect the odd bit of road subsidence or gravel repair here and there. We had a good ride up with some locals who were having a bit of a play.


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Quick photo stop at the top then down the other side. All in all it was easily 20-30km up and down, and I'd challenge you to show me a better road anywhere in the UK. There was practically zero other traffic once we were on the downward side, it was a nice warm time of the day when the sun is no longer fierce. I had it hooked in 4th all the way down just feathering the brakes for the turns, left, right, straight, right, left, straight etc etc for mile after mile. There was no need to push it at all, just enjoy the rhythm of the road coming together with the incredible views and nice warm sunshine. That road is in my top 3 favourite roads ever. There are no photos of this road because I wanted to just keep going and enjoying it.

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Once down the other side we again stopped to cool off, it gets much hotter as you descend. Then it was a nice twisty blast all the way to Dien Bien Phu. Undortunately once we got here Phil realised he had left his shoulder bag with wallet, cash, cameras etc at the last drinks stop 14km away. Pinky quickly got us booked in at the hotel then hotfooted it back to try and find the bag. Well he must have got a bit of a wriggle on because he was back inside 30 minutes, and on the roads in question that's quite an achievement.

From Son La onwards, the closer we got to Dien Bien the friendlier the people got. All the kids wave and shout hello as we ride past, and there's none of the hostility we've seen elsewhere. When everyone else is riding around in flip flops and t-shirts with many not even wearing a helmet, and you've got full body armour it does make you stand out a bit. This country does make you re-evaluate your idea of safety after the UK which is a bit OTT with its safety obsessed culture. We're now happily throwing the bikes around in kit that we'd normally consider too lightweight to ride a bike in, and have got used to it quickly because the alternative is to be wearing too much kit and get hot then make mistakes.

Some great scenery and people on this last stretch before we hit Dien Bien Phu.

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Back at the hotel (this one is quite decent) we've had a few beers and some food to round the day off. Distance covered today was around 260km.

We had food at the hotel, then when Phil made his excuses and legged it into the massage area of the hotel, me and Del set off to locate a suitable present. We wanted something that would show Phil how much we valued him as a mate, but that was also functional and would improve his bike. We were sure that Phil would love his new addition in the morning.

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firestorm996
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Re: NamBusters - our tour of North VietNam on Minsks

Post by firestorm996 » Tue Dec 23, 2014 3:37 pm

Day 4 - Dien Bien Phu to Lai Chau

"I bought you a present!"

A nice lazy start today as we were only planning to do 100km or so after yesterday's 260km trek.

Last night after a few beers Del and me decided to improve Phil's Minsk. We found a late night shop tag sold kitchen sinks and toilets, and negotiated a great deal on a toilet seat for Phil. We had to explain through the thickest of language barriers that we didn't want to buy a whole toilet, just a toilet seat.

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We even fitted it to his bike before he loaded up this morning to save him the hassle. He really appreciated it, as the toilets in Nam can be very very dodgy.

We visited a few military attractions on Dien Bien in the morning. The first was a museum, next we visited the site of a fierce battle betwixt the French and the Vietnamese. There were also some of the original bunkers that were dug at the time of the battle. After that we visited another site which had a perfectly intact 8 room bunker. They build them by digging them out, watering down bags of concrete then just piling them up. The concrete sets and voila - a bunker.

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Del's not impressed with the standard of lock wiring...
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On the way out Phil spotted a great present for Del, who now sports a 2 foot wooden musical instrument, which quickly became known as the 'arse flute'. Apparently that's how you play it.

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After that we rode on a bit to get some lunch. Along the way we encountered some more local constabulary, who were sitting by the roadside (about 8 of them). Well they did seem curious about the 6 foot figure clad in white body armour with a GoPro on his helmet, but fortunately they couldn't appear to be arsed stopping us.

Next we found somewhere to eat. Initially it looked a bit of a step up from our usual roadside eateries, but it turned out to be one of the more bizarre dining experiences we've had. They had a lad there 'helping out' who, well let's be honest, was a bit simple, bless his little cotton socks. He had obviously taken a bit of a shine to Phil. After we had eaten, he disappeared off to the kitchen and produced a set of scales of the sort normally used for weighing food, only these were presumably for weighing major parts of animals. They went up to 100kg at least, and stood a foot or so tall. Anyway, the lad indicates it would make him really happy if he could weigh Phil. So I now have a photo of Phil TK balanced atop these foot high scales.

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Our Minsks would be classed as death traps in the UK, they should not handle but actually seem to handle well enough. The wheel bearings have play in them, they have drum brakes which are hopeless, my fuel tank isn't attached at the front so I have to stand up on the pegs every now and then to kick the fuel tank back on. If you could feel the forks you'd cringe, etc etc the list goes on. But you can go on road, off road, and lug a heavy load with them. Gravel sections halfway around a bend are no problem on them. Or the roads that turn to motocross tracks for 200yds for no apparent reason. Or where we have to nip through the cordoned off section of roadworks that have been dug up because trucks are blocking the road, including riding over the piles of sand and building materials.

Me and Del dropped back after I yet again stopped too many times taking photos. Pinky and Phil eventually came back but not before Del had made a new friend. A local lad from the village just down the hill rode up specially to meet us, he was on a moped carrying only two hay bales, but he had an all-in-one sub and amp on his scooter which was playing tunes from a microSD card. In the hills where we were, that was extremely impressive. Witchcraft in fact. He hopped onto Del's Sufat before we could refuse and tried to ride it off down the road.

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We found and tackled a rickety rope bridge, sort of a Nam rite of passage. There was no guard rail other than a thin piece of wire, and a 60 foot drop into a river. Sod's law I got halfway across and a girl came the other way on a scooter, meaning I had to get the bike over to the edge so we could pass. That was a nervous moment. Well I was nervous, she just rode straight past without batting an eyelid. Not sure whether I made or lost on the man points here.

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The route today was pretty much all twisties. We rode over 2 mountain passes, saw a lad wrestling a complaining goat onto the back of his scooter, saw another lad with a dead cow on the back of his scooter. I only noticed his cargo when he leaned it into a bend and the tail started swinging around wildly. The second mountain pass was probably my favourite ever moment on a motorbike. It was perfection and went on for ages, just left right, left right, dodge the water buffalo, offroad section, dodge the potbellied pigs, left right for 40km. No other vehicles either. Unbelievable, and huge fun.

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A nice surprise at the end of the day was that the hotel was very nice indeed and had a pool, so we had a cool off in there and had a few beers. Later that evening the hotel was descended upon by a hundred Japanese tourists, followed by a power cut. Not sure if those two were connected somehow but we ate a lovely meal by juggling chopsticks and torches.

firestorm996
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Re: NamBusters - our tour of North VietNam on Minsks

Post by firestorm996 » Tue Dec 23, 2014 3:42 pm

Day 5 - Lai Chau to SaPa

Last night we'd stayed at the nicest hotel on the tour so far, the Lan Anh in Lai Chau. It's situated halfway up one side of a valley, up a ridiculously steep driveway that seems to go on forever, and overlooks a modern bridge spanning a wide river.

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It also had a rather nice pool with a great view.

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Once we'd loaded up, we rode across the bridge in the photos and started to track the river across the other side. Almost immediately the road finished and we were then starting out over what would be 80km of dirt and off-road of varying difficulty. It was raining on and off, and that meant frequent landslides to the right hand side of us as we tracked along the cutting by the river.

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These videos show what the riding was like on the easier sections.

http://youtu.be/Exdo6k6Wov4

http://youtu.be/mYGeRXgV5Z0

http://youtu.be/zI5DhXTgUqc

http://youtu.be/GAGhLywExtI

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At times it descended into a real quagmire, with the rain making slick orange mud that made for heavy going. A few times we encountered trucks wedged against each other in opposite directions, with the drivers and a crowd that had appeared from nowhere figuring out how to get them unstuck. We were able to nip through on the bikes after a few minutes and get back underway.

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After 80-odd km of this we started to encounter occasional patches of tarmac which became more frequent.

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Eventually we were back on tarmac proper, and started winding our way through the countryside then up towards Sapa.

The tarmac gave me chance to try and shoot a video demonstrating what I call the Minsk Wobble. Basically if you let go of the bars at around 30mph the bars would go into quite a severe and amusing headshake. Strangely, despite this, it actually settled into turns and flicked from side to side very nicely.

http://youtu.be/a0n45Mb-DCs

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All the off road had played havoc with my Minsk fuel tank which was only ever attached at the back anyway, so when we stopped for lunch we effected a repair using some pushbike inner tube.

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After lunch, we continued through roads that cut through mountain ranges for a good 50km. Eventually we started gaining altitude again and soon we were back in remote mountain areas. We were heading to Sapa, which is a town located 5000ft up a mountain and is often in or above the cloud line. Along the way we passed through many villages with colourful locals who were very curious and very friendly. Every time we stopped, kids would appear from somewhere and want to check out us and the bikes.

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http://youtu.be/SL4XWXgBws0

If you go to Vietnam, at some point you'll hurtle round a corner or a treacherous mountain pass and find one or two of these standing in the middle of the road eyeballing you. My advice is to stop if you can, and if you can't stop aim for their backside because I've yet to see one run backwards (or run at all).

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We stopped for photos a few times on the way up to Sapa, this really was epic scenery everywhere you looked. Just mind blowing, and exactly what we came for. You can't beat that feeling of being at the top of a mountain.

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After this last stop we had to get moving because we were at perhaps 4000ft with another 20 minutes climb to Sapa, but it was rapidly disappearing in cloud cover. After a couple of miles we entered the clouds and visibility dropped to 20ft, and along with it the temperature. A quick 5 minute stop at the waterfall pictured was all that we could afford, because by this point we were losing light, visibility and in need of a beer.

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Around this point we started to notice that each night, when Phil checked into whatever hotel we were staying at on the day, the hotel desk staff would give him a strange look as he carried his own toilet seat up to his room. The next day, typically there would be different staff on during the morning when we check out, and they'd again give him a strange look as he carried out what appeared to be one of the hotel toilet seats. Of course they were too polite to say anything...

firestorm996
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Re: NamBusters - our tour of North VietNam on Minsks

Post by firestorm996 » Tue Dec 23, 2014 3:45 pm

Day 6 - SaPa to Thac Ba.

While I was in the room last night I got a knock on the door, I opened it and there's this tiny little plastic chair sitting there in the doorway. Phil and Del are hiding around the corner chuckling to themselves so this can mean only one thing - they've bought me a present!!

Well I say it's a tiny chair, but in Vietnam and probably most of Asia this is a standard sized chair. If you get a coffee and sit outside on the pavement, or have a beer outside in the evening, chances are you'll be sitting on one of these 12" high little plastic stools or chairs.

In the morning we went shopping in Sapa (for 30 minutes) which is a popular spot for trekking types. You can't move for folk clad in berghaus this and north face that. Oh, and mountain women selling bracelets by the roadside. SaPa itself is a fascinating place, a village at 5000ft and in the cloud cover. The first photo below was taken from my balcony in the morning, that's not fog it's cloud. Sapa was great for wandering around and doing a bit of gift shopping. Managed to get a hand woven substantial embroidered 'throw' for the bed (should keep the missus happy) for about £6, while Del was on a mission to buy some pants.

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We had a lot of distance to cover this day, so photo stops were kept to a minimum to keep Pinky happy. The first 20-30km may as well have been with the engine switched off because it was just downhill switchbacks descending from SaPa, a really enjoyable way to wake up. There are many 'instant' descents if you mess a turn up - you really don't want brake failure down this road which is good for us, because the Minsks don't really have brakes to fail in the first place. I remember on one right-hander, hugging the armco (taking the vietnam line which allows for oncoming trucks overtaking in your lane around a blind bend) which was right at the tarmac's edge, whereupon there was a sheer drop of a few thousand feet. Because of the bike's lean, I was practically vertically over the armco. Then when the armco stopped all of a sudden I found myself staring directly down that drop - exhilarating and scary at the same time! When we were almost down at ground level again we stopped for photos briefly, again with all the landscape being sculpted into paddy fields which is incredible.

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Throughout the trip we expected to see other Minsks, I thought there would be loads but we didn't see any, so ours always draw a crowd. Sometimes when you're cruising on the main roads you will get the locals riding alongside you pointing at the bike and giving you the thumbs up. They generally ride step-thru mopeds and honda cubs so a proper bike with gears seems to be something of a novelty. Plus they obviously don't see many westerners here, as we are greeted with curiosity and friendliness wherever we go. Sometimes you'll ride through a village and not see anyone but you can hear them shouting hello, or running out of their houses to catch a glimpse and wave at you. Del looks like a stormtrooper with his white body armour and that probably has something to do with it, plus he's about 2 foot taller than the locals and is generally stood up on the foot pegs to get better shots with his GoPro.

Towards lunchtime we stop off at the border with China. They won't let us in unfortunately but it's worth a stop off to see China from a distance. Perhaps on the next trip we will go over the border for a day to experience China.

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We have lunch in a town that actually has a main Honda dealership. They only sell scooters and step-thrus. The rest of the afternoon is spent doing the slog on the highway. It's a horrible place, there are suicidal trucks that pull out into oncoming traffic and expect everyone to emergency stop onto dirt at the side of the highway. There's dust from the trucks, smoke from people burning forestry or rubbish by the roadside, and overall it's not a nice place to be. I won't sugar coat it. If we go back and do a similar loop we will work out how to avoid this stretch of the journey. The one good part is that whenever there's some traffic lights (rare) we get to beat Pinky up at the lights, which the locals seem to find very funny and I think Pinky appreciates it too.

Late afternoon we then move onto minor roads into the hills near Thac Ba lake to find our stop off for the night. The locals at the sides of the road are all waving and shouting hello pretty continually as we pass through each village. I've never encountered anything like it anywhere else, such friendly people. You'll be riding along not aware of anyone at the roadside and you get a chorus of 'Hello!' from a group of kids hiding somewhere. Once we're off the main highway into the smaller roads the scenery takes a turn for the better once more. We're riding on dirt roads between paddy fields and mountains, with Vietnamese in the traditional pointy hats working the fields.

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We pass through lots of these villages where everyone is hard at work doing something or other. The Vietnamese seem like very hard working people. Eventually we get to our overnight stay which is at a local families' stilt house. They cook for you, in this case probably the best meal we've had over here, and then insist on doing rice wine (or "happy water") shots with you. We had a great laugh with them, especially the owner who toasts every round by shaking your hand and saying "howmedoo" which is actually Dzao for "thank you very much".

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Stay away from this stuff, it'll strip engine cases to bare metal if you're not careful...

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After a bit too much rice wine and beer we called it a night ready for another long slog the day after. We covered 260km this day.

firestorm996
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Re: NamBusters - our tour of North VietNam on Minsks

Post by firestorm996 » Tue Dec 23, 2014 3:46 pm

Day 7 - Thac Ba Lake to Hanoi

At least that was the plan. But it kind of went tits up halfway through as you will see...

Woke up after quite a good nights sleep considering we were in a stilt house, and even more so when you factor in the strong winds and thunderstorm that had passed overhead in the middle of the night. The food last night was great and our hosts were a riot. I believe the main man was called 'Boy' and we held him 100% responsible for us doing so many rice wine shots. After I declared 'no more' I probably still had another 5 or 10 and this was proper harsh stuff. Despite that, I felt pretty good in the morning which was more than I can say for Del and Phil, who both had a fair bit more than me. We had a nice basic breakfast of bread and coffee. While we were coming around Del noticed this rather large moth perched on a post drying itself out. From wingtip to wingtip it was about 12", absolutely huge.

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The plan for today was to just slog it back to Hanoi. We were on backroads and dirt roads for a while before joining the main highway from yesterday which meant more trucks and dust and fumes. Fortunately it wasn't as bad as before and we were able to crack on and get some kilometres under our belt.

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Quick drinks-stop...

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We were doing well and had covered about 130km, just riding through a slow-ish section of main road running through a town when Phil's Minsk suddenly lost what power it had and started making more noises than usual. Pinky scored a length of that plasticky stuff they use to bind pallets of bricks with, then rigged a tow rope from. It was a bit of a clenched for Phil though, since the towrope was only about 8ft long and he had to brake for both bikes. Plus, if you leave a 8ft gap between two bikes in Vietnam, someone will probably try and ride through it. Pinky located a mechanic in the village who removed the valve cover and removed a snapped pushrod. He didn't have a spare but at least we now knew what the problem was.

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Phil assesses the Minsk main dealer;

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Phil assessing the pretty girl;

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Pinky towed Phil to the next town about 5km away and got another mechanic to look at it to see if he had a spare. Unfortunately there were no spares to be found, so he made a call back to Flamingo. It was agreed that one of the mechanics would ride out the 80km from Hanoi with another bike and some spare parts.

We had some lunch, not great food this time so we just ate the minimum, then we pitched up further up the road where there was yet another mechanic who'd agreed to let the Flamingo mechanic use his tools and workshop (i.e. the pavement). We were quickly made welcome by an old couple who run an electrical repair shop next door to the mechanic shop. Without asking, the kind lady brought out chairs for us, let us use their facilities and were very nice to us, asking nothing in return. In their little shop, which was also their home, he would strip and repair stators and motors from everyday electrical goods, and she would wind copper wire around them to refurb them.

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We tried to relax by the roadside because we knew we were looking at 2-3 hours before we could set off for Hanoi. This gave us plenty of time to watch the comedy goings on that are constant on Vietnam roads. In no particular order, here are some of the ones I can recall seeing carried on scooters;
- An office desk and swivel chair
- Passenger dragging a 5 metre plank behind the scooter, saw the same thing the other day with half a tree being dragged behind
- Two fridges on the same scooter
- Scooters 5-up, too many times to mention
- Girls on bicycles, one sits on the luggage rack and one on the seat, both pedal the bike with one's feet on top of the others

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Look closely...
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One thing we see a lot here is when someone has a baby or toddler on their lap and the kid just holds on to the bars as they ride. The kids seem to love it, although it is a bit odd seeing a toddler staring at you as they ride towards you on a scooter the first few times. Think what you like about safety, everyone here takes responsibility for their own safety, if they mess it up they lose out and there are often no hospitals for several hundred km.

Eventually around 4pm the mechanic arrived from Hanoi with a spare bike, a Yamaha YBR125, and we got on the road. Phil rode the YBR and we left the mechanic to work on the Minsk. We later heard he fixed it and rode it back to Hanoi that evening.

The ride back to Hanoi was crazy, we caught rush hour because of the bike breakdown. This means more oncoming trucks, coaches, 4x4's, people riding the wrong way up the hard shoulder and so on. As we got towards Hanoi it got denser and denser. The last 20km were the hardest, my blood sugar dropped due to lack of food, and I started getting frustrated. I'd been at the back trying to catch the same gaps as the others and not managing it most of the time. I'm sorry to say eventually I chucked my toys out of the pram after a coach barged into my panniers, shoving me into the next lane on a busy Hanoi main carriageway. We stopped for a few minutes while I cooled off then got going at a sedate pace. Eventually we made it back to flamingo tired and in need of food and a beer.

The main route for us in and out of Hanoi is across this bridge which seems to have been designed as a pedestrian walkway, it runs parallel to a train bridge. It gets pretty manic on that bridge, it's barely wider than a car and is always flooded with scooter traffic but moves fast.

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At Flamingo we scoped out some Honda's sitting there looking at us invitingly. I used to have an XR650R so the prospect of ditching the Minsk before it ditched me, and taking an XR250 for the next part of the trip instead, was quite appealing. After checking how much extra it would work out at per day I decided to do that. Del followed suit with a CRF250, and Phil had got quite attached to the YBR125 that the mechanic brought so he decided to go with that instead.

We breathed a big sigh of relief at having got back to Hanoi safe and sound. Tomorrow we would set off on the second part of our trip, a 3-day loop to Cat Ba Island and Ha Long bay.

So this was the first part of the trip over with. Our route covered over 1300km and is approximately detailed below. In reality the route was a lot more varied than shown here, since we avoided the main routes shown in favour of quieter roads and mountain passes.

Hanoi - Mai Chau - Bac Yen - Son La - Dien Bien Phu - Sa Pa - Thac Ba - Hanoi

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firestorm996
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Re: NamBusters - our tour of North VietNam on Minsks

Post by firestorm996 » Tue Dec 23, 2014 3:47 pm

Day 8 of our tour of North Vietnam.

Hanoi - Hai Phong - Cat Ba Island

We had planned a well-deserved 'rest evening' for the previous day, staying in Hanoi before setting off again the next day. But after arriving back late due to the Minsk' calling it a day, that went out the window. We'd got back, dropped the bikes at Flamingo, decided to change the bikes rather than continue with the Minsks, and had to lug the gear back to the hotel. Once all that was done we were off out for a beer, and a lovely meal at the french place whose name escapes me.

Late at night on the way back to the hotel we encountered the bin lorry. Nothing unusual in that, you may think, that is until we noticed the bloke on the roof whose job it is to lift all the electrical cabling out of the way so the truck can get through.

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The plan for today was to load up the bikes again (which had been stored at Flamingo overnight) and ride to Cat Ba island via a ferry. However, the day started out badly, with a severe thunderstorm over Hanoi. We actually sat there at breakfast, a lovely omelette with fresh bread and coffee, and seriously considered knocking the Cat Ba part of the trip on the head. Then we came to our senses and thought ‘bollocks to it’.

We walked round to flamingo and did some settling up, as we'd changed the bikes from Minsks and the emergency Yamaha, to an XR250, CRF250 and XBR125. Then we loaded up and got underway amid the drizzle and wet roads. There was an early mechanical stop after a few hundred yards when Phil's Yam mirror fell off, quickly sorted by a mechanic that whizzed across 6 lanes of early morning traffic with a replacement.

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We then settled in for a highway slog to Hai Phong which is a good 100km away. That might not sound much in UK terms but vietnamese highways are different. It's perfectly acceptable to lead your herd of cattle across the 4 lane highway, or cycle the wrong way up it (hard shoulder or outside lane) so traffic doesn't move too fast and you have to be seriously on your guard. No daydreaming here if you want to stay alive.

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Riding a Honda XR felt all familiar again even though this one is not a model I ever owned. I used to have an XR650R, and after today I fancy another after this trip, maybe not the 650 though. It would have to be as well as my VTR and something cheap. I've also learned a lot on this trip about what you need and what you don't, and what gear works and what doesn't. My Kriega stuff has been excellent, especially the little kube pocket that velcros to the rucksack strap or to the handlebars on my bike. I have an olympus tough camera which I keep in there that can be used underwater, and that has a carabiner attached so I can whip it out quickly and take photos or get some pictures in the move. I'm happy to share my learnings if anyone is considering a trip like this. There's loads of stuff we brought which hasn't been used once, and that's equally as important.

My XR250
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Phil's Yam YBR125
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Del's CRF250
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The downside to our open face helmets is that on the highway sections you’re a lot more exposed to the dust which trucks and buses kick up. Me and Del were wearing V12 goggles which are designed as shatter-proof eye protection for military and airsoft (paintball) usage. They did a great job but the downside is that they do let some air through and that includes dust on the highway. My advice to anyone doing a similar trip would be by all means use an open faced lid, it will be better 90% of the time, but take some proper motocross goggles or a visor for the times you’re on the main routes or it’s raining.

One thing I'm in favour of over here are the traffic lights that have a display that counts down seconds until the lights change. I was thinking as we rode along that we should do the same in the UK, but then I visited London and found they had started to put something similar on certain junctions. It helps people time their way through the lights and on the bike you know whether you've got time to faff or if the lights are changing in a few seconds.

We stopped for fuel then made it to Hai Phong just as the ferry was boarding. When I say ferry I actually mean small boat. They wouldn't let us take the bikes on the ferry we had booked because bikes like these are so much bigger than a typical Vietnam scooter, so we had to take the first ferry on foot with our luggage, and they would send the bikes on the next one two hours later.

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The ferry trip took about an hour, and as crammed as it was on the boat it was quite relaxing watching the coast pass us by. Initially it took half an hour to get past the shipping port itself, with countless huge container ships docked. Then it was out to more open water and gradually the industry subsided and became coastal scenery. For the most part as we neared Cat Ba island the scenery was mountains covered in greenery. The ferry terminal was a half-built breeze-block and corrugated roof construction without the two largest walls. There was a nice lady there who ran the ferry ‘shop’ which was a couple of tables piled high with various types of packaged food. We relaxed and ordered some coffee and ‘Pho Noodle’ (think ‘pot noodle’ but just about edible) which was the best thing on offer. We spoke to a lad from California whose blacked out bike is in the photos, he is three countries into a south East Asia tour and is doing it on a shoestring budget. He was planning to sell the bike in the next few days when he reached Hanoi, and estimated it would have cost him less than $100 to ‘own’ it for the last several weeks.

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The Ferry port:

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The Ferry 'shop' - source of great Pho Noodle
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After a couple of hours, during which we started to doubt whether the bikes would arrive as promised, the ferry turned up. Lo and behold the bikes were on board, so we unloaded them, inner-tubed the panniers back on then made our way onto Cat Ba island.

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Initial impressions were that it was a very quiet but scenic place, the roads were mostly empty and we had a bit of confusion finding our way to Cat Ba town where we were booked into a hotel.

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At one point we were forced to turn back when we found the road blocked off due to explosion activity ahead. Since the area we were in was quite far North Vietnam I expect this was mining rather than land mines, I don't believe the war made it this far north.

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So to recap slightly, during the day prior to this one Phil’s Minsk had expired with a broken pushrod. Well today he broke his Yamaha. It started having fuel starvation problems where it would just cut out and lose power. We stopped a couple of times en route to Cat Ba town and each time it took longer than the last to get going again. Pinky had to get busy with the tools, always assisted by random locals who would just appear out of the nearest bush each time the Yam broke down.

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To relieve the boredom during the numerous pitstops Del found a new use for his pannier rack:
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By the time we made any real progress it was getting late in the day and we were treated to fantastic sunset views around the coast. We kept the speeds right down, no need to rush with very few km to go and scenery such as this.

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We made it to Cat Ba town, and had a childish giggle when we saw that our hotel was called the Hung Long Hotel. However it was lovely and clean, and had an incredible view right out over the harbour.

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We checked in, then met back outside in the carpark with a beer, trying fruitlessly to fix the Yamaha but the problem persisted. When the daylight started to wane properly we called it a day on the Yam and decided to let Pinky try again tomorrow since we hadn’t planned to be riding anywhere. Instead, we wanted to catch a boat out to Ha Long Bay, which to be one of the highlights of the trip.

Amongst the photos is a view from the balcony…a stunning sunset if ever I saw one, across the bay and with numerous floating bars in the harbour.

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firestorm996
Posts: 41
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Re: NamBusters - our tour of North VietNam on Minsks

Post by firestorm996 » Tue Dec 23, 2014 3:48 pm

Day 9 - Cat Ba Island & Ha Long Bay

This post is going to be more photos than writeup. We took another rest day while on Cat Ba Island because we wanted to take a boat over to Ha Long Bay.

We got up, looked out of the balcony from 7 floors up to check on the bikes and they weren't there. Someone had moved them 50 yards away to the other end of the (empty) car park and there was a large wedding party forming. Plenty of guests arriving including some rather attractive young ladies in party dresses, at 8am. We got up, had a nice but uncomfortable breakfast in the huge dining area where there were considerably more staff than us, and where the buffet breakfast was about 20 yards long. For all 4 of us.

Phil was a little unwell so decided not to go on the boat trip, that left me and Del wandering around trying to sort something out. We made a new friend in a tours shop, the chap couldn't do enough for us and set told us we'd missed the early tourist boat to Ha Long bay, which we should have arranged the previous night if we wanted to go on it. However he offered to set us up with a smaller boat, we duly accepted, paid up and kicked around Cat Ba town for an hour until it was time to take the boat. Our new friend kept appearing up and down the town on his scooter, offering to give us a lift wherever we wanted to go. It's the first time in my life I've been three up on a scooter.

While going back to the hotel to grab some bits and pieces I spotted some of the wedding guests posing on our bikes having their photos taken.

So, time to get on the boat, off to the harbour for us. In true Nambusters style our boat was likened to a floating garden shed. It got us there in one piece, but if you can imagine the engine refinement of a ditch pump vibrating the whole boat. The captain of our boat had to periodically pump the hull by hand while we chugged along the coast.

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Once at ha long bay we disembarked onto a floating house/dock type affair. I was offered a kayak to go and explore some more. Del opted out because he wasn't feeling too well.

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Ha Long bay for those who haven't seen it is a collection of Thousands of Islands (maybe it's where the dressing comes from). They are vertical limestone kursts that become forested. I took my kayak around one of the sizable ones, and that took over an hour. People live in floating huts on the bay here, there is no dry land just rock and cliffs or water.

Once I'd paddled halfway around this kurst, it was suddenly as though someone had turned the world off. All the noise from boats or people stopped and all I could hear in this incredible place was the birds that nest up on the cliffs, some of them being eagles that were soaring overhead from time to time. I just floated there for 10 minutes soaking it all up because it's not often you get complete silence like that. It was great, no lifejacket, no mobile phone, no safety net, just me and an oar which I'd have been in trouble if it had fell into the water.

This fellow was circling overhead in case I ballsed it up...

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Back at the floating dock Del showed me how, underneath some of the boards of the dock and inside a big net there was a fish which they caught 10 years ago and kept as a pet.

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They had fed it with other fish while I was out kayaking, and apparently it was fast and teethy. It was about 1 foot diameter at its thickest and 5 foot long. Del had asked if they would eat it and they said no. Someone asked which fish they did eat, and they pointed to the dog. It's a guard dog until it gets old, and then it's dinner.

The square sections around the main decking area are all full of fish in keep-nets.

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At one point Del disappeared to use the 'facilities', and I'm sure I heard him say he was going to see if he could nip onboard the presently-docked tourist boat because the one on the dock was well dodgy. Picture the scene 10 minutes later when he hadn't reappeared, and the tourist boat suddenly untied from the dock and set off across the bay. I was convinced he was on it and was shouting at them to return my mate immediately. They just waved back, fortunately he wasn't onboard and reappeared a few minutes later to a rather stressed Neil.

After an hour or two we all hopped back on the boat and enjoyed the trip back around the coast, arriving in Cat Ba town just as the sun was setting.

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This fellow was busy moving house. Literally. There was a little boat with an outboard towing it along to somewhere else around the bay. Maybe he was having trouble with the neighbours or something.
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Back at Cat Ba town, Pinky had been working on the Yamaha all day and managed to get it sorted out. Cat Ba town is a quiet place but it does attract gap-year students touring south east asia. We spent the evening at a nice upstairs bar with a view out across the harbour. I think at one point we played a game of pool against some French blokes, and with national honour at stake I'm happy to say we won. I think.

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firestorm996
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Re: NamBusters - our tour of North VietNam on Minsks

Post by firestorm996 » Tue Dec 23, 2014 3:48 pm

Day 10 - Cat Ba to Hanoi

Last day of the bike trip. :(

We woke up in Cat Ba to overcast skies, and mist over the distant islands. After breakfast we packed and loaded up the bikes for the last time. We hadn't rode them yesterday what with doing the boat trip around Ha Long Bay, during which time Pinky had spent some time trying to fix the intermittent problem with Phil's Yamaha.

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While the others were packing the bikes up, I was foolishly taking more photos and failed to notice the looming rainclouds which quickly turned into a downpour. Since we were running a little late for the ferry, only about 15 miles away but on very twisty mountain roads, I seem to remember not having time to put my waterproofs on. I mean, surely it can't rain that hard can it?

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Wrong. It bloody well monsooned the whole way didn't it. That'll teach me. My 16 year old spare touring jacket never stood a chance! And as for me £30 Lidl boots...oh well...

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When we arrived at the ferry terminal (shack) it was obvious that waterproofs wouldn't have made much difference, everyone was soaked to the bone regardless. Imagine standing in the middle of a ferry port while your mate holds up a towel for you to strip off starkers, and change clothes. Well that's pretty much what we did but as with many of these things it's no problem in Vietnam!

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After that we sat back and waited for the ferry. It was an undramatic crossing and soon we were back in Hai Phong with a couple of hours motorway between us and Hanoi. Yet again everyone on the roads was friendly, the complete opposite of what we find in the UK.

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Now this is something I regret...we stopped at a family shack that sold wood carvings and refreshments, and for the first time on the trip I had a coconut which came as shown below. Lovely stuff, and great for sorting out dehydration apparently, I'll definitely be going with that rather than Coca Cola or coffee on the next trip. I made more enquiries about the possibility of obtaining a wooden frog for my daughter, but again to no avail.

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All too soon we were back in Hanoi at Flamingo Travel, unloading the bikes and handing over the keys.

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After reluctant farewells, we spent the rest of the day doing shopping for presents around town. Four days previously, I'd spoken to one of the girls who ran a shop next to the hotel, about finding me a wooden frog as a present for my daughter as requested. Well, miraculously she'd scoured the local area, spoke to a few people and managed to find me one! My daughter was over the moon with it, and me, well I'm just amazed that the girl had gone to such lengths to find that for me. Talk about above and beyond.

It had been an epic trip seeing amazing sights. It really is a world apart, and if you can see past the all too common squalor, what you'll find is a place that's incredibly vibrant, alive, and most of all full of incredible people.

We are now planning a return trip in Feb/March next year with 6 of us, to the North East area of Vietnam. We will again be using Flamingo Travel's great services, and have insisted upon Pinky as our guide. Well, we need someone to bash at the traffic lights don't we. Our plan involves amongst other things, travelling over the Ma Pi Leng pass, which has the title for the most dangerous road in north Vietnam. It's also known as the 'Happy Road' and links remote communities with the more modern side of the country. Certain sections of it were built by workers who literally roped down the mountainside, wedged dynamite into the mountainside, then lit it and scarpered up their rope as fast as they could. Incredibly, only 1 worker died while the road was being built, but there was such an expectation of fatalities that each worker was measured for their casket, and one made ready, before work began. Imagine going to work, doing a job where they had already built a coffin for you...

We will be tackling a good stint of the Himalayas along the way, and also be visiting the Ban Gioc waterfall which is one of the most amazing sights the country has to offer. All in all we'll be on the bikes for 7 days, which is as much as our good lady wives would let us get away with. :)

Some useful links that are invaluable for planning a trip like this:

Flamingo Travel
http://www.flamingotravel.com.vn
They also have a shop in HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City) / Saigon in the south, so if you want to ride the Ho Chi Minh trail or do a north/south ride they can sort you out.

Vietnamese Embassy for travel visa
http://www.vietnamembassy.org.uk
Don't use any of the VN visa 'services' you see online, many will not provide a valid visa and you'll only find that out once you land. Our visa was approx £55.

Government Foreign Travel Advice
https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/vietnam

NHS Health Advice
http://www.nathnac.org/ds/c_pages/country_page_VN.htm
Be sure to check with your GP for what jabs and medication you need

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