In Hue, we met a few American and Canadian guys who were traveling through Vietnam via proper motorcycles that they rented in the country. They said they had been taking back roads from Saigon and hadn’t seen another Westerner in six days. Envious, we decided that this is how we will travel through Vietnam when we return, it’s a perfect country to see from the back of a motorcycle. For now, however, we had only planned to take a 3-day motorbike trip in the very north near the Chinese border, but at least we hoped to get a taste of that kind of trip.
First, we spent a few days in Hanoi. It was fine, but it didn’t beat Saigon in really any category for us. In fairness, though, we didn’t see a lot of it. It’s a big city with a nice little lake near the old center. Like Hoi An, the old center has been taken over by shops and caters to tourists, although when wandering around one day I managed to find some narrow side alleys, and that is where real life is lived in the old center of Hanoi, with people sitting outside, hanging laundry, eating or talking to their neighbor. There was even a tiny hair salon tucked back in one of those alleys tempting me to get the haircut that I sorely needed, but I didn’t trust that a very local salon would have any experience cutting curly hair…
We didn’t stray too far from the center area, in part because it was very hot and humid in Hanoi and the heat zapped our energy and enthusiasm. However, one evening we did something we haven’t done in a very long time: we went to the symphony, worn out travel clothes and all. We listened to a violin soloist play a mesmerizing version of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D-major. Then the Symphony performed a piece by Shostakovich. It was great, felt like a very “normal” thing to do, and we vowed to look into Seattle Symphony performances when we’re back home.
The only major site we ventured out of the center to see was the Temple of Literature, which is a Temple of Confucius built in 1070. It was also Vietnam’s first university. It’s a large, beautiful park-like complex with several courtyards, and “stelae of doctors,” on which are carved the names of graduates from the university going back hundreds of years. There are statues, artifacts, and even an enormous bronze bell. It was nice to stroll around for an hour or so.
From Hanoi we caught a flight to the northern town of Sapa, which sits at nearly 5,000 feet in the middle of mountains and several hill tribe villages of various ethnic groups. It was mercifully cooler here, and the scenery is jaw dropping in this part of the country, with forested mountains and valleys, villages, rice paddies and tea plantations. Here we rented a motorbike and headed west for a bit of adventure. The roads we took were good, and the traffic light. Everything was going well until the thunder and rain started. We pulled over to try to huddle beneath a shallow rock overhang on the side of the road before we got soaked. Peter parked the bike quickly because our stuff was getting wet, and just as he got to the little overhang with our stuff, and was turning to go back to repark the bike off the grass, the leading edge of the thunderstorm blew in and the bike tipped over into a conveniently located concrete culvert. That put a few new cracks and a deep scratch in the side panel, but these were not the first scratches or cracks on that bike. It started up just fine, so we each debated with our conscience and decided we could probably just quietly return it without saying anything and get away with it because they weren’t going to replace the panel anyway and glue is cheap…
Our host in Sapa had told us to stay our first night in a small town that had good roads all the way there. She didn’t tell us that the last 20 km of the “good road” was actually a dirt road, which may have been good if it hadn’t rained hard just before one wanted to drive on the road. So when our good paved road turned into a muddy nightmare, we had no idea if it was a very short distance or not, and we had street tires on this bike — nothing that had any business in this deep, clay-like mud. No one around spoke any English, so after about 15 minutes of sliding around on our street tires and getting almost nowhere, I played charades with a guy and thought he said the road was like that all the way to the town we wanted to stay in (19 km away), but in a situation like this you are never sure if the person actually understood your pantomimed question. So we pressed on for a few more kilometers and finally I got off and walked with our backpack alongside other people, pigs and chickens, while Peter continued to wrestle with the bike, attempting not to wipe out and periodically stopping to clear the mud that had packed itself between the front tire and the fender, causing it to lock up. I wish I had gotten a photo of him but I was too busy trying not to slip and fall myself. After a bit, I stopped to attempt to ask someone else how much further this misery went, and got what seemed to be the same answer. We really wanted to stay in that town, but this just wasn’t worth it. It was going to take hours, and we’d have to come back this way tomorrow. So we went with Plan B: turned around and stayed at a larger, characterless town nearby.
The next day we headed back east to stay on the outskirts of Sapa in a homestay where the family cooked us a fantastic homestyle, Northern Vietnamese dinner with the best spring rolls we’ve ever had, and also served up some homemade rice liquor, which is common in the north. It was strong and didn’t taste like saki, but we politely drank a little of it anyway between pigging out on the spring rolls and other delicious dishes.
Besides the scenery, we wanted to see the hill tribe culture, and one of the best places to see this is at a weekly market. There is a huge market in the nearby town of Bac Ha that has turned into a very touristy event, so we skipped that one in favor of a smaller, still local market where the people from the different ethnic villages come to buy and sell their daily supplies with nary a tourist trinket on offer. There are several different hill tribe ethnic minorities in the area, including Black Hmong (named for the dark clothing they wear), Red Dzao, Phu La, Flower Hmong, and others. The clouds were low and the road to the market was pretty deserted and foggy, so the ride was really atmospheric even though we couldn’t see much of the mountains and valleys we knew were were driving through on these hairpin turns. We made it to the market and, as usual, ate some really good and different food that was served to us by people who didn’t speak Vietnamese, much less English. So much for Google translate; charades it is! We saw many people wearing their ethnic dress, which varies widely among the different groups.