Posted by: Richard Marshall | August 17, 2012

Vietnam Bike Trip, Part III: The North

The North

After getting my bike repaired in Dong Hoi, I decided to try to push all the way to Ninh Binh. None of the towns in between seemed to have much to recommend them – the biggest was the dull, gritty port city of Vinh where I really didn’t want to have to spend the night. The distance ended up being 412km, the longest day’s ride of the whole trip. It took me out of Quang Binh province, clean through Ha Tinh, Nghe An and Thanh Hoa, and finally into Ninh Binh province itself. It was an utterly exhausting day, from which I actually didn’t quite recover for the rest of the trip. Long stretches of highway one are in really poor condition, and horribly dangerous  for a motorcyclist. What happens is a two lane road with a wide shoulder is built through sodden rice paddies but the weight of all the trucks causes the centre of the road to subside, raising a four-inch ridge between the road and the shoulder. Then they go and resurface the centre of the road but not the shoulder, turning the ridge into a cliff. In either case, it makes moving from the road to the shoulder nerve-racking. The way the buses, trucks and other vehicles drive it’s frequently necessary to swerve all over the place – on several occasions I was actually driven off the road by overtaking vehicles.  There’s clearly something about driving a tanker with 20,000 litres of aviation fuel that makes a person want to drive like a complete maniac – perhaps one day I’ll get a chance to try it. The road surface is potholed and uneven, so you need to be constantly alert. Often I was cruising happily at 70kmh and then suddenly had a crater under my front wheel. And then of course the clouds of dust and smoke leave your face and clothes literally blackened. So by the time I finally pulled into Ninh Binh I was filthy, shaken-up and aching all over.

Ninh Binh did, however, turn out to a pleasant enough town. It’s great disadvantage is that the highway runs bang through the middle of it, a horrible, deafening, smoke-choked scar rift between pleasant neighbourhoods on either side. Away from the highway, the town has a charm I found quite often in the north. The streets are narrow and tree-shaded, the houses, though newish, are soothingly painted in ochres and yellows, red chinese lanterns hang in the doorways, children play in the streets and the place has a feeling of community and continuity. The food was great – pho noodles with duck was a revelation – and, again typically for the north, there were many streetside bia hoi places serving cheap draft beer.

Ninh Binh has two claims to fame. There is an area of karst mountains and emerald green rice paddies that features highly on local and foreign tourist itineraries, and a couple of temples that are all that remain of Hoa Lu, one of the first Vietnamese capitals after independence from China in the tenth century. Like so many areas in Vietnam the whole place is under terrible threat. Ninh Binh is also a cement manufacturing centre so the edges of the karst are are literally being eaten away. More problematically the government has decided to build a massive tourist infrastructure in the area, meaning that the day after gasping my way over a truck-clogged, half-built highway I found myself exploring the hills…on a truck-clogged, half-built highway. I didn’t bother to visit the vast, new Buddhist complex at Bai Dinh which at least partially justifies the road building. I also avoided the tourist trap boat trip to yet another limestone cave at Tam Coc after having been so underwhelmed at Phong Nha. Hoa Lu, however, turned out to be lovely. The two temples are in leafy, shaded complexes under the shadow of the karsts, and retain a sense of antiquity which is so scarce in Vietnam.  A stroll away from the road behind the temples also finally revealed some of the stunning scenery that made the area so famous in the first place.

Karsts and paddies, Ninh Binh

Temple, Hoa Lu

Temple Entrance

After a couple of days I drove the 90-odd kilometres up to Ha Noi. I think it’s a pity I didn’t visit Ha Noi when I was fresh and rested. Perhaps getting off the plane and taking a taxi into town would have gotten me off to a better start than hauling my bike up a dismal highway after two and half weeks on the road and then getting lost in the labyrinthine, chaotic old quarter. As so often in Vietnam, I found Ha Noi to be a place with tremendous potential, but also under terrible threat. Ha Noi old town must once have been absolutely beautiful. It could be again, despite everything, if only the government could come up with a sound plan, efficiently and uncorruptly implemented, taking into account the needs of the people who live there as well as the cultural and economic importance of the city’s heritage. But this is Vietnam. I gather from the internet that there is all sorts of legislation, but rampant development and the ease with which developers buy off the government means that the area is being steadily degraded. The traffic is appalling, and because there are no street lights in the network of narrow roads bikes simply hoot as they approach an intersection. Protection is given to the very oldest houses, but early twentieth century ones, which actually make up most of the area, can be knocked down at will and replaced with the usual monstrous hotels, karaoke bars etc. Shopfronts are altered with terrible neon or plastic signage. I’ve seen other old towns in South East Asia – Singapore, Melaka, Hoi An and KL – and although they are very different from Ha Noi I felt that they must offer some guidance as to how to preserve that kind of urban fabric. All of this, in my tired state, made it tough for me to like Ha Noi.

Having said that, the noise and the chaos of the old quarter do give it tremendous atmosphere and vitality. The city is green and leafy and the lakes are indeed very beautiful. The government quarter, although cold, paranoid and forbidding as you would expect in a communist capital, had many gorgeous Indochinese mansions. The Temple of Literature, a tenth-century Confucian university, is one of the iconic symbols of Ha Noi and has wonderful charm even though it’s surrounded on four sides by seething highways. I drove out to the edge of the city where they are building the usual East Asian forest of half-empty skyscrapers to see Vietnam’s tallest building. I’m glad I’ve been to Ha Noi but will wait a decade or so before I go back. It will either be one of the most beautiful cities in Asia or it will be a hideous concrete jungle. I just hope they get it right…

Old Quarter

Old Temple, Ha Noi

Ha Noi Opera House

Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature in the rain

After three days in Ha Noi I headed north for the last time. Highway 32 towards Yen Bai ran along the bank of the Red River. It was an attractive landscape of lush green paddies and villages nestled in trees. Yen Bai itself was another pleasant, green northern town, though it was impossible to find a decent cup of coffee here or anywhere else north of Ha Noi – not on the side of the road at any rate. The road from Yen Bai to Lao Cai was much less congested and in much better condition than I had expected, but wound up and down through the mountains making progress frustratingly slow. The mountains weren’t even that attractive as they had been extensively deforested. Eventually I found myself in Lao Cai as evening was falling. The town seemed to be completely devoid of street signs so I drove pointlessly around trying to find the road to Sa Pa. Even though it was getting dark I just couldn’t bear to be stuck in such an awful place, so I headed off anyway. As it was only about 40km or so I thought it would be quick, but I didn’t reckon on having to gain 1000m in altitude along the way. So I arrived in Sa Pa in swirling mist in the dark. I spent the night in a fairly wretched hotel, but moved the next day to somewhere much nicer. And friendlier. Finding out that I was traveling alone and could speak passable Vietnamese I was invited to party with the staff that involved trying to eat disgusting blood jelly and drinking endless shots of rice wine scooped out of a bowl with the shot glass. This limited my enthusiasm for anything too energetic the next day, so I just wandered around the town and took a short drive to a waterfall. The town is attractive enough, though not as big or as pretty as Da Lat. The mountains, though, are far more spectacular. It’s very touristy, and the Hmong, a local minority who are themselves one of the attractions, seem largely dependent on selling handicrafts to foreigners. There are plenty of pleasant places to eat or drink coffee, so I was happy just to read and relax. I stayed a couple of days, but soon the rain set in and I hardly saw the mountains again. It was still raining on the morning I was to leave. The same winding road was even more difficult in the mist and rain, and I was exhausted and sodden by the time I eventually got back to Ha Noi.

Sa Pa church

Sa Pa mountains

I wanted to get out of Ha Noi as quickly as possible, so I booked a ticket for the next night. The trip back to Ho Chi Minh City took 33 hours. The scenery was attractive and it was interesting to see water filled bomb craters next to every bridge and station. The people were also friendly if you didn’t mind every kid asking how you were and what your name was fifty times. But it was boring and I was glad when the train finally pulled into Sai Gon station. My bike was on a freight train and took a couple of extra days. It needed quite a few repairs but soon it and I were back to the usual HCMC routine. The trip was one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had, and one of the most adventurous. It was absolutely worth it.

Me on the bike, Sa Pa

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