Brian Taylor’s Vietnam Adventure – October 2009
It all started on a Melbourne Branch Ulysses ride to Euroa in December 2008 when Brian Taylor told me that he had been motorcycling in Vietnam and indicated that he might go again. In mid 2009 he made it known that a nine day tour was starting in Hanoi on the 25th October. The tour cost was just under $750 US for 9 days, 8 nights accommodation, food, fuel, bike hire and tour guide included. This seemed great value and Melbourne members David Paxman, Doug Shearer and I joined in along with Macedon Ranges members Colin Randall and Dick Prisgrove. Brian’s friends – Andy, Graham, Mike and Peter also came along as did my sons Michael and Greg, so then there were 12. On arrival in Hanoi we discovered that a recently married couple David and Libby were also joining us. We all fitted in well together and young David hinted about feeling safe regarding Libby with all the “old farts” along.
We all met and dined in Hanoi on the Saturday night at a restaurant suggested by Brian’s son; Simon who lives and works in Hanoi and the adventure got off to a good start. By that stage there was some mention that there might not be quite enough Honda Baja XR 250’s to go around in view of the size of the group.
My sons demanded XR 250s in view of the original promise and also in view of their size and weight. They also reserved a Baja (which turned out to be the only one) for me. Michael and Greg ended up doing tail rider duties and a considerable amount of recovery and repair work so it was actually good that they had the better bikes and I believe their efforts were well appreciated by the entire group. There were also a couple of Honda 230s which were excellent for the trip and an assortment of bikes which were less than we originally expected. Mike, Dick and Colin got to experience the delights and idiosyncrasies of Russian Minsk 125s. Graham initially had a Yamaha Serow and there were also a couple of Yamaha YBR 125s and a couple of DT 125s - one of which had a 175 badge on it.
Some of these bikes could best be described as old clunkers and in the end one of them didn’t make it. One of the Yamaha 2 strokes was sent out without any oil in the tank and it seized early on in the trip. They got it going again but it continued to deteriorate and lose power and it eventually died altogether. I believe that Greg actually pushed this bike for over 50 kilometres in total during the trip and that included over some steep mountains with a rather heavy rider on it. Balanced against this is the fact that quite a few of us had an assortment of falls and with these old clunkers repair costs and needs were minimal so that turned out to be a bonus and the assortment actually added an extra dimension to the trip.
Some of that may sound a bit negative but there were a few grumbles about the bikes before we set off on the Sunday morning. The overriding question, “Was the trip good value and did we have a good time?” The answer to both questions is, “Yes, it was fantastic value for money and yes, we had a great time.”
After meeting for a 7.00 am start on Sunday, we finally got under way mid morning and were immediately introduced to the chaos of Vietnamese traffic procedures and the obvious task of getting out of Hanoi safely and remaining intact as a group. After about 5 kilometres Doug’s bike conked out with an electrical problem – quickly overcome and Graham ran out of fuel. That was Greg’s first effort at pushing. We then all fuelled up. Our guide Tuan added 2 stroke oil to the Minsk tanks individually as we all filled from the one unleaded fuel bowser and I suspect the fuel oil mixture varied from time to time.
The first 50 kilometres involved heavy traffic on a divided road that might loosely be called a freeway but it was nothing like anything we are used to. We shared the freeway with market stalls, pigs, cattle and burning piles of rice stalks. People crossed on foot wherever they liked and vehicles occasionally headed in the wrong direction because it was handy to their destination. All this was accompanied by the incessant blaring of many horns. The basic rules (if there were any) seemed to be that size has right of way all the time, there is no need to look before joining a highway from a side road or driveway and do not hit anything in front of you even if it did just came out of a side street without the driver or rider even bothering to check for traffic. The other obvious rules are do not hit water buffalo, they are big and frequent the roads, avoid rice being dried on the road surface and be prepared to leave the road entirely in case oncoming traffic (such as buses) need to use your part of the road. Buses overtake anywhere including blind bends and apparently the continual sounding of the horn means that scooters and bikes simply have to leave the road to avoid head on collisions. You do actually get used to it very quickly or else you simply don’t survive. There was absolutely no sign of road rage and we actually saw quite a lot of skill being used by the locals in avoiding many collisions being brought about by this continual chaos. This does not mean we did not see any collisions, the road toll there is apparently horrendous. The vast majority of motorised transport consists of scooters and small bikes which carry anything and everything. I even saw one with a trailer attached hauling a full size water buffalo.
We lunched at a road side café selected by Tuan and this became the daily ritual. Food was generally quite good and none of us came down with travellers ailments. In the afternoon of the first day, Peter came off quite hard on a bitumen road and badly bruised his ankle and lacerated his leg. Dick came to the fore and did excellent work with his first aid skills. One of the challenges in the tropics is keeping infection at bay. After a decent rest and observation, Peter was able to ride on but we all felt a bit chastened. He actually hit and moved a concrete guide post when he came off and it could have been much worse.
We finally arrived at our destination at Ba Be just after dark. It actually got dark about 5.30 pm each evening. Even though Vietnam is east of Singapore, its time zone is an hour behind Singapore and it gets dark ridiculously early. Our accommodation was in an elevated “log house” where we all slept in a communal area under mosquito nets after being fed by our hosts. The camaraderie at this type of venue was great and we also got to sample some locally made rice wine. We all went off to sleep relatively early and this became the pattern during the tour.
We all rose early and were greeted by some fantastic views. The back veranda overlooked some rice and corn fields and some steep limestone type mountains towered over the front of the house. It truly was spectacular. On the way out we got a lovely view of Ba Be Lake but didn’t really have time to take it all in. At the morning tea break Tuan showed us the planned route which included a 30 kilometre off road section beside a river. He joked about his doubts about a particular bridge being able to cope with my weight and once I actually saw that bridge I came to the conclusion that he was on partly joking! Before we turned off on that track (which was really only a half metre wide walking track) Graham had broken the cardinal rule and passed the ride leader and this led to us waiting around for ¾ hour before Greg went and found Graham and brought him back. Graham had eventually stopped at a recognisable junction about 8 kilometres further on and was simply waiting for us to arrive. It was in fact quite understandable that he did not recognise the track we took as an alternative route to the road he was on. A reminder on Rule 1 – Do not get ahead of the ride leader! We then took this lovely route which actually went through a small cave beside the river and then had to cross a narrow plank bridge.
I let Doug go before me to gauge whether or not the bridge had a hope of holding me. It did. Brian had a minor fall in the mud shortly after crossing the bridge but nothing major. Tuan and I headed on and I urged him to keep moving as it is hard to keep a largish group on the move and getting about 200 kilometres a day was proving quite a challenge. Initially Graham was right behind me but after while I saw no one behind me and eventually I signalled Tuan to stop and we waited. After waiting a reasonable time, Andy arrived and asked if Tuan had a rope as Graham’s bike was in the river! We went back and discovered that Graham had come off whilst negotiating a ledge and he stayed at the top but his bike had slid about 10 metres down to the river.
By the time we got back, Michael and Greg had got down to the bike and with help from 2 others had manhandled the bike back up to the track. No one had bothered to tell Tuan this and he set off over the edge in search of the bike. That was sorted quickly and the bike was still usable after some running repairs. These delays naturally put us well behind schedule and again we arrived at our accommodation at Vu Linh after dark. All the bikes were parked under the house but the house was not designed for people like me (over 190 cm) and after parking the bike I managed to bash my head on a beam and removed quite a bit of skin. Again fighting infection was the main aim and iodine was again put to good use. This led to me wearing a clean handkerchief on top of my head for the rest of the trip as a dressing because I did not want my skin sticking to the helmet and reopening the wound every day. Talk about weird fashion – but it did work. The hosts at this venue were very friendly and insistent on sharing lots of rice wine with us. Our mechanic Cong joined us here and some of the bikes received an assortment of maintenance.
The following day after some nice bitumen curves we made it to Xin Man which is very close to the Chinese border and David came down on the bitumen without any serious consequences after he lost the front wheel and low sided. Over the next few days we toured the provinces of Ha Giang, Cao Bang and Bac Kan and we were never far from China. The mountain scenery here was simply fantastic and the roads varied from narrow bitumen with innumerable nice curves to dirt and quite often very large loose stones which were quite scary. These stones (well rocks actually) were large and loose and were given a great deal of respect.
I particularly remember one downhill section which was covered in slippery soft red clay and this caused a problem with my back – a giant yellow streak. I really don’t like sliding downhill with zero traction or steering.
We only had rain one morning for the entire trip. With the humidity, I was wetter inside my wet weather gear due to perspiration than my hands were in mesh gloves. We arrived in Ha Giang nice and early and had a lovely walk around the village and amongst the rice paddies. All manner of animals were encountered along the roads with a variety of pigs and large numbers of water buffalo. It was wise to avoid the buffalo deposits on the road as they were large and one was never sure where the “splatter” might go. At one lunch stop we met a couple from Sydney riding a 125 and they really stood out as different from the locals.
The hill tribe people including Tay, Dao, Nung and Hong ethnic communities wore colourful and quite distinctive clothing and the schoolchildren who generally wore very bright clothing were always very friendly and enthusiastic when they saw us foreigners.
On the evening of Wednesday, my bike spontaneously fell over under the community house and although I didn’t realise it at the time it was clearly a bad omen. On the Thursday morning we had a relatively short ride to a turn off which David Paxman stopped to “mark” but he put his foot down to find nothing but a ditch so over he went. Several of us stopped to help and the rest went on a short distance and turned left into a market which was on the schedule. No one marked that turn off so 6 of us simply rode on, crossed a couple of very narrow bridges and started climbing a narrow track in a beautiful area. As I approached a puddle I concluded that no bikes had preceded us. We were lost. We back tracked and waited near the bridges for a while and Greg backtracked further and we eventually all returned to the market which was packing up by that stage. More time lost! Following that we climbed through some stunning scenery and were delayed when the drive system in the back wheel of Colin’s Minsk collapsed. Cong got it fixed with some bush type ingenuity and then we stopped to speak to some hill tribe people high on a beautiful mountain and near some hemp plants growing beside the road. We also saw people farming corn on seemingly impossibly steep and high fields scattered high above the road. Then as we got going again Doug added to his almost continual fuel shortage problems (his bike really was on its last legs after running out of oil early on) by getting a flat tyre. Time just kept slipping away and once again a finish in the dark was looming. After negotiating some beautiful roads through simply stunning scenery I decided to park my brain as we trundled through a town. Through sheer inattention and stupidity I managed to drop the bike on a straight piece of good bitumen in the middle of town and directly outside what appeared to be a hospital. My gloves and jacket did their job but I lacerated the front of my left shin fairly badly. Now I had two wounds to care for on a daily basis. The bike suffered a dented tank and broken indicator assembly but the globe continued to work throughout the trip. Dick’s first aid skills and Betadine (iodine based) antiseptic ointment were put to good use and I managed to avoid any infection. Perhaps the anti malarial medication I was on also helped? My prang was a bit sobering for all and finished a day full of silly little spills and mistakes. A “council of war” was held that night at the instigation of Greg and Michael and they suggested fatigue may be contributing to the number of errors a lot of us were making. A rest day was suggested but voted down but the discussion seemed to have a good effect overall and things went more smoothly after that.
The scenery on the following day was again stunning and this was counterbalanced by the drabness of most villages which showed little evidence of paint on buildings.
Saturday involved a short 40 kilometre trip to our overnight stay where we dropped off our luggage and we then went on a beautiful 180 kilometre loop where we visited and walked through the Trung Khanh caves which were set in some stunningly steep limestone hills jutting out of the surrounding rice paddies. We then went on to the beautiful Ban Gioc waterfall which was set right on the Chinese border. We initially thought we were going to have a dip in the pools above the falls but that sort of activity has now been banned allegedly due to a recent fatality. The authorities really were not keen on us swimming anywhere. On quaint sign preventing walking up past the falls was captioned in English “Danger Easy find accident”. We rode several kilometres downstream and several went in for a swim and actually crossed and touched bottom on the Chinese side of the river. A Vietnamese local arrived and started gesticulating. He clearly wasn’t happy that we were in the water and we weren’t too sure about possible reaction from a Chinese post on the opposite bank so the swim was cut short. This day was a highlight that Brian had been looking forward to and it really lived up to expectations. Generally most people’s riding had improved and things just went more smoothly. Doug’s bike finally died and Greg pushed it the last 20 kilometres to our overnight stop at Quang Uyen with Cong riding it (he was lighter) and Doug rode Cong’s bike back.
The bikes were reallocated on Sunday morning with the plan for Cong to pillion with Tuan. We encountered more large loose rocks which proved a challenge and then Brian had the most innocuous little fall on some clay at about 5KPH and fell and split his knee open. The wound obviously required sutures and he was unable to ride any further. Greg took him as a pillion into the next major town and Brian then caught a bus back to Hanoi where he could get proper medical treatment. As it happened, this actually provided a replacement for Doug’s bike. The hotel we were meant to stay at had no water so we went on an additional 70 kilometres to Thai Nguyen where we stayed in a hotel and all went out to a restaurant for dinner.
As a group we made presentations to both Tuan and Cong and this included Ulysses badges that Doug had thoughtfully supplied. Cong had shown great interest in Michael’s Leatherman tool during the trip so he was also presented with that. During our walk back to the hotel we finally managed to find some ice creams which were greatly appreciated in the humidity and limited diets we had been on.
It should be mentioned that David and Libby (the honey-mooners) simply soldiered on throughout all these events without incident on a YBR 125 and only once on a particularly nasty stretch did David ask Libby to hop off and walk down the hill to avoid the possibility of a prang. Greg actually rescued her on that occasion and got her down the hill safely.
The final day was really just a “transport” section of about 70 kilometres on relatively good roads which were filled with absolutely crazy drivers and we saw several prangs. We all got back safely and early which was paramount as several were actually flying out that same afternoon. We met Brian back at the bike hire shop and he was in good spirits after having his knee sutured. We had a final lunch together at a café in the Old Quarter suggested by David and Libby. Several then went off on tours, some caught planes and 5 of us stayed the night, walked around the lake in Hanoi and enjoyed our last bit of camaraderie.
Brian – Thank you for organising such a wonderful trip and inviting me along. To the rest of the crew – thank you for the wonderful times, camaraderie and enjoyment you all provided. It was a great group to have such an adventure with and I had a great time.