Well, back in June at our monthly meeting, Bob Boyes gave a talk about a Vietnam Charity ride which he and some other club members had done a few years before. Bob is a member of the Perth-based charity called Platypus.
Bob put forward the idea of some members of the club doing a 12 day ride in mid-November. He was seeking expressions of interest and said “First-in-best dressed”. Before he sat down, I said “Put Trudy’s and my name on the list.
The next five months passed by quickly and before we knew it we were off to Vietnam. Many of us travelled on the same plane. Our adventure started on landing at Hanoi airport. The trip into the city by bus had most of us wide-eyed and muttering “Jeeez-us” at the sight of the traffic - a taste of what we could expect in the coming days. Bob tried to re-assure us that it would be fine. We would be starting the ride about 30km out of the city, where the traffic is not so bad. We would be riding in the jungle where there is virtually little traffic. Ha!
On our arrival at the Church Hotel in Old Hanoi, we were met by Koonie and the rest of our group that flew over a few days earlier. We had two days before the ride to adjust to the atmosphere of the place. So on the first day, many of us took a day trip out to Ha Long Bay where we had a cruise around the islands aboard one of the many traditional style boats.
Koonie was our guide and would be our host and guide for the ride. Ha Long Bay has an area of about 1500 square kilometres and there are over 3000 islands. It was an impressive start to the holiday and the feast on board wasn’t bad either. We stopped at one of the islands to see a cave that has been recently discovered. It is amazing that it remained hidden for so long. The 164km trip gave us a good understanding of what goes on in this part of the world.
The next day we spent looking about Hanoi and getting our gear ready for the ride. Many of us bought helmets. Kim was a standout with his little yellow bug and Petra with her red Princess one. The rest of the day was taken up with walking around the lake and checking out the sights and trying to relax ready for the next morning.
Our Bike Adventure Begins
On the morning of the third day, Koonie arrived to take us to the bike shop, where we would choose and test drive the various bikes for the ride. It was here that we met our ride leader Chi and the support driver Ti. He would drive a truck with our luggage and any equipment needed for bike repairs and breakdowns.
Most of the bikes were 150 Hondas. Thanks to Steve Collins who swapped his 150 for the 250 Honda that had been arranged for Trudy and me. The 250 was not the right fit for us as it was a bit high (I have “Ducks Disease”) and not too comfortable for the two of us.
We were told to make sure that the horn was working well on the bike as they would get a thorough workout on the road. Bob and Chris took the only Kawasaki 400.
That night, Koonie took us all out to tea and explained how things were going to work over the next twelve days. He told us about the accommodation, road rules and road conditions. He finished by saying that we would all be picked up early the next morning and we would be bussed out of town to start the ride. So the excitement was building up.
Well—Shock–Horror. The next morning we were deposited next to the a row of bikes outside a soccer stadium where the traffic - it looked like a million bikes- was going in all directions. Yeah Koonie- it sure is a quiet jungle road! It wasn’t long before we were told to mount up and we disappeared into the traffic, trying hard not to lose sight of Chi. How we made it the 2 or 3 km to the service station was remarkable, remembering that they travel on the right side, or is that the wrong side, of the road.
This first day in the saddle we travelled about 160km on all kinds of roads and tracks. We were to find out that Vietnam roads are always under construction. One minute we would be following Chi along a nice road then he would be off on a goat track though a rice paddy field.
There was plenty to talk about that night at our first homestay. It was mainly about the road hazards - dogs, cats, pigs, goats, horses, water buffalo, kids, bikes, trucks, cars and chooks.
Kim got a mention too as he took off after some wildlife straight off the road over the side of a mountain. It was a good job that the jungle was thick enough to pull him up. The homestays over the next two weeks proved to be adequate and comfortable and fun.
They took the form of a dormitory style. Sleeping on thin mattresses on the floor with curtains separating the couples - honeymooners - from the boys, and insect nets over each bed. As most of us were tuckered out and with the beer and moonshine to boot, the snoring was never a problem.
Most mornings we didn’t need an alarm clock as it didn’t matter where we camped (that includes hotels) a rooster was always crowing at first light. We reckon Ti, the truck driver carried one in his truck.
Over the next few days we had some challenging rides along narrow and rough tracks with one or two of us (including me) laying the bikes down for a rest. There were a few spots where I had to get Trudy to hoof it to the other side or up a steep hill. Some of the mountains roads were very twisty and Trudy counted 91 turns in a 10km stretch, mostly switchbacks.
It was interesting when we met a tri-axle semi-trailer coming from the opposite direction around the corners. Or trying to pass these vehicles on the edge of a cliff. Many of the roads were very narrow with not much room to allow one vehicle let alone two.
It was amazing to see these big trucks reversing to a wider spot so the traffic could get through. There wasn’t much time to take in the magnificent views on these encounters. It was always rewarding to pull up in these high spots to look at the spectacular scenery.
On one track we ended up in the middle of a beautiful tea plantation, gentle undulating hills and a very narrow path.
We had a two night stop at Sapa right up north - getting closer to the Chinese border. It was engulfed in the mist that was rising from the valley as we rode through the winding city streets to our hotel. We were really pleased to finally reach our destination with such limited visibility and still lots of the crazy traffic.
Interestingly, we rode in and parked on the seventh floor with reception on the 8th. Lots of the hotels were built on the side of a mountain. Sapa is very touristy. Some of the riders who had been here before, commented that there had been a big change in the few years since their last visit. Our day off was spent taking a train ride and cable car to reach Fansipan Mountain at 3143m. Most of us went to the top to see the giant Buddha. This is the highest mountain on the Indochina Peninsula. It was a clear day, so we were very lucky.
The weather turned the next day as we left Sapa. With our wet gear on, we headed off. Koonie suggested that the girls travel in the car as the road conditions would be pretty bad on the bikes. Trudy reckons it couldn’t have been much worse that than it was in the car. The roads were slippery and visibility was poor.
It was a good thing that we could hear Chi’s bike as we couldn’t see him. Chi had a really load exhaust system. Just out of town, Chi and a couple of others slipped by a crowded check point in the mist. A couple of official looking dudes came out of a hut and stopped the rest of us by dropping the boom and demanded that we pay a fee to visit a village down the track a bit. We weren’t going there so we had no reason to pay it.
Chi eventually returned to see what was holding us up. It was a very quickly becoming very heated. Chi gave the “little generals” an earful. We held up all the traffic on this major road for about 40 minutes. Eventually Koonie arrived and managed to calm everyone down then we were once again on the road.
We were really pleased to have the opportunity to visit the Lung Tam School where Platypus sponsors kids from very disadvantaged farming families. We were met by the deputy principal, Ms Hanh and she took us on a tour of the school. We were invited into the staff room for refreshments and some of the children who are beneficiaries of the Platypus Charity came in to meet us.
It was a very moving experience for us all. It was wonderful to hear about their plans for the future. Their hopes to become teachers, a policeman, and interpreter and many more. I hope they can fulfil their dreams. These children live about 20km out from the school, so they board through the week and walk home for the weekend to help out on the family farm. Our sponsorship for their education gives them and their families a chance to improve their lives.
When we left the school we took a walk down the road to visit a village hemp “factory”. The women in the local community were working to keep their traditional crafts alive by producing hemp thread and turning into cloth from which they made fantastic articles. There were bags, cushion covers, wall hangings and many more amazing pieces of work.
One of the weavers was an 80 year old woman was sitting on a very low stool working as hard as all the others. We all supported their efforts by spending millions there - Dong that is - not dollars.
Riding through the country roads we came across several markets, Thousands of people come to town and set up stalls or just shop. The costumes that the women wore were amazingly colourful. The fabric was often hemp-based and embroidered by hand. Each area had its own colour scheme and accessories. At one market we walked through, Trudy got her first bargain cloth. Koonie did the bartering as no-one could speak English. She hopes to turn it into a quilt when she has time.
Another market day was being held for the local cattle market. We stopped to check out the stock and ask a few questions of the locals.
The cattle were mainly bulls that were to be used for ploughing the field.
One seller told us that he hoped to get $US1000 for his bull. Negotiations are done quietly between the buyer and seller, not like our auctions back home.
Talking about ploughing - on one day’s ride we had to stop for some riders to catch up.
We parked on the side of a hill overlooking a field that was being ploughed by a woman with her buffalo cow.
As she came close we asked if we could take a photo.
After we had done this she took out her mobile and took a photo of us.
We all had a laugh at this.
While all this was going on Kim decided that he wanted a closer look at this ploughing. Well not just a look, he actually wanted to have a go. The poor woman was very surprised when Kim took the reins and so was the cow. It took a couple of steps then took off across the field. Kim tried to hold on, but he was no match for the cow. We last saw it in the distance heading for home. We left the lady running to catch up with it.
Riding on, we visited the palace of the H’Mong king. A large 100 year old building made mainly of wood and terracotta tiles. It was home to Uuong Chinh Duc- a self-styled King of the H’Mong. He was a very wealthy and powerful man who made his money through the opium trade. It is not in use now except as a tourist spot.
Now I didn’t explain how things ran on a normal day riding. Chi, who just loved to rev up his bike, would take off seemingly as fast as he could and it was our job to keep up. This could be a bit tricky in the traffic. Chi had a Go Pro on his helmet and often it was the only way we could pick him out in the distance. It was often really difficult to see the rider up ahead so you would know which way to go.
It was handy when Kim was ahead, his yellow bug helmet really stood out. When we were going through towns and areas where there were lots of turn-offs, the second rider would stop to mark the corner and would re-join the ride when Bob Boyes came along. Bob was tail end Charlie.
On one particular day, we were heading out of a city where there were lots of turns and roundabouts. We all set off and chased Chi through the town. Now on this day, Kim and Ray were a bit slow catching up and Chi hadn’t called for markers on the corners. Well when Kim got to the big roundabout he kept going round and headed off, with Ray following closely, in the opposite direction to the rest of us.
Koonie was following the pack in his car. When he realised that the pair had gone astray the chase began. Koonie planted his foot and tried to catch them. The rest of us stopped on a hillside to wait for them and we were getting reports by phone from Koonie. “Yes I can see them” came through from Koonie. “I’m catching up and they are stopping”.
We all cheered until the next call. Kim must have started to wonder where the next rider was so he stopped to wait for Bob. When he saw Koonie coming close he must have thought he was on the right track. So he took off again. This went on for about 20km. Eventually Koonie managed to flag Kim down and turn him around. The pair got a special mention at our night awards ceremony.
Another great day was when we visited Ba Be Lake in the north. We went on an early morning lazy cruise of the lake. The scenery was amazing. We headed back to our bikes with a bit of a race between the two boats.
One of the best rides we had was about day 10. We visited the beautiful Ban Gioc Waterfall which is on the Chinese - Vietnam border. We rode along the border mostly on the pegs as the road was “under construction”. It was dry and very pot-holey with lots of bulldust. When we arrived at our homestay that night we were all dirty and dusty and looked a rather rough bunch. We were all keen to knock the top off a beer to wash the dust down.
Well, all in all this was a fantastic holiday, full of drama and action, fun and laughter, great company and good organisation by Koonie and Co. Thank you Bob Boyes for suggesting the trip and I hope some other members of the club will tackle the memorable roads of Vietnam.