Monday, 16 May 2016

North east coast - Bai Tu Long bay

Vietnam - North-East Coast -  cca 550 km

Cao Bang - Tien Yen via Lang Son - Van Don via Cam Pha - Quan Lan - Ha long - Hanoi via Hai Phong

Entering Bai Tu Long Bay
With brand new sport crank shaft made in Viet Nam we were flying again ! The road was less hilly from now on and if there was less trucks it would be quite enjoyable ride. Some 40 kms after Cao Bang we entered section of road works. That stretched for maybe an hour, dirt and rocks on the road covered with thick layer of limestone dust. Every vehicle coming in opposite direction created white cloud formed of tiniest dust particles.

Face mask would be handy on this road for sure. Having none, we tried to breath less and slowed down even more. Somewhere close to the end of road work, our chain jumped off again. In first town to come we stopped at mechanics shop and got persuaded to change both the chain and chain wheels. Another 200.000 VND invested wisely. These parts claimed to be made in Thailand :)

Around 20 kms ahead of Lang Son we first time ever experienced traffic on the busiest road in Vietnam.

Highway 1 stretches from Chinese to Cambodian border below Ho Chi Min city, making it vital artery for both passenger and goods transportation. American size trucks, buses, building machines and many smaller size vehicles are howling up and down with non stop verve.

There are very simple rules you need to follow on Vietnamese roads.

Following general rules apply :

1. There is enough space on the road only for the biggest of us.
The bigger, the better, if you ride motorbike, you are expected to get off the road when bigger is overtaking the biggest. They will tell you with strong light and sound signal that they’re coming :)

2. It’s not my business what is happening behind me.
Most of motorbikes don’t have even one mirror and rarely turn the head to have a look before they do next move !

3. Driver turning right from any kind of road has all the time right of the way.
Only fraction of drivers will look left before joining roads.

4. Driving direction is not fixed
In theory you should ride on the right side of the road, in practice expect people everywhere. It’s not uncommon to meet building truck on the highway in opposite direction, maximum shortening of distances is very present.

All the time leave little bit of space on your right side for others coming opposite direction.

5. Blow the horn and keep your speed!
To inform you’re coming rather than to tell that something is wrong. Expect very loud blasts from big trucks and buses. Stay calm and keep riding, they will pass in short time.

Don’t expect that someone would ever stop on crossroads, keep slow speed, blow the horn and join the flow.

Additional rule for dual carriage roads:

6. Going right means going left !!!
Truck indicating change of direction to right will turn across the whole road and possibly block all lanes. You’re the one to see that happening in front of you, you’re responsible for slowing down.

You learn all of these rules progressively, depending on the road you take :)
From our own experience mountain roads are much quieter with few exceptions.
You go faster on flat land, but the traffic is tougher so it’s little bit more tiring.

In Lang Son we grabbed street kebab on one of the main crossroads, got little bit lost and found at the end ;) We’re headed direction to Ha Long and Bai Tu Long bays.

Passing lowland areas east of Lang Son until last light when we reached Tien Yen, small agglomeration of houses in the crossroad.

Small and definitely not the cleanest guest house right on the crossroad served as our sanctuary for a night.

Little bit overpriced but quite tasty food, Tien Yen does the job for overnight but there isn’t much more to do than eat and sleep :)

Next morning we set off direction to Cam Pha and further to Van Don which is in the heart of Bai Tu Long Bay.

Bai Tu Long Bay was advised by some people we met travelling as astonishing and very similar to Ha Long Bay but much less touristic and not crowded.

Cam Pha is famous for biggest coal quarry in Asia. And it’s not small indeed, for many kilometers you pass mountains of black coal being ripped apart by heavy machinery and moved to industrial areas around.

Environment impact is more than palpable ! Black grey dust settled on everything around.
Tough dust particles hit you right in your nostrils and stay glued inside.

Anyway we stopped on the outskirts to get Banh My into our starving stomachs and moved further toward Van Don.

Little town with busy port area dealing mainly with molluscs production in surrounding waters around sharp limestone islands. Perfectly calm sea between the islands proofed to be amazing feeding grounds for mussels. There are floating villages maintaining this long running process and selling them further to traders on main land.

Tasty buckets
Mussel farms protected by stone dog
We arrived still quite early and rolled our Hwin Dee directly to the end of main pier. We didn’t expect much attention but that was wrong assumption :)

Choose your destination
Within few seconds we got surrounded by crowd of people all trying to persuade us to take their boat and go somewhere :) We’d go for sure, but not knowing where to go in first place we wrote down the locations they were offering and promised to come back next day.

The sky was still white and grey but standing on the sandy beach again, after 2 months inland, makes you feel happy.
Dragon teeth all around
We followed main road out of the bustling centre towards the end of the island and finally you could see lot of sharp rocks jagging out of the bay from quite close proximity.

Fully loaded
Surrounded by rice paddies and salt production pools one can get lost on small tracks discovering paths which might lead somewhere just to find out they don’t :)

Lucky, this path led to secret beach
Couple of long white sand beaches are to be found further north on the road just before you reach Chinese influenced Buddhist temple.

View of Bai Tu Long Bay from Van Don beach
View from the top of Buddhist temple
We spent rest of the day discovering little bit around, looking for secret beaches and drinking Ha Long beer with locals on the road :)

Bia Ha Long
In the evening we did some research for next day island trip. We chose Quan Lan island for 2 reasons - 1. it was closer than Co To, 2. supposedly there are some of the longest white sand beaches in Vietnam.

Dramatic surroundings around the beaches
Where is that hidden treasure ?
Getting up with dawn was easier than we thought, and we managed to catch first ferry around 7.30. We planned to spend max. 2 nights on the island and come back on Sunday to get to Ha Long for Monday morning.

From the mountains to the beach
and further
After 2 hours of slow cruise firstly deep through inner Bai Tu Long bay and later through open sea we reached tiny jetty on the island.

Rock solid brand new boat
Karsts from the water
Real fun just started - unloading on Quan Lan island
Being one of the most east located islands in whole bay it receives strong winds which formed massive dune systems along the whole east coast.

Rat in Bai Tu Long bay
Little sleepy town called Quan Lan is just few kms north of the jetty and it’s connected by deserted tarmac road.
Watch out for heavy traffic !
There is actually just one road on the island :) connecting northern end (another tiny jetty can be found here) with southern end jelly fish production factory.

Jelly fish port on the southern part of the island
Couple of guest houses are aligned along the main 2 streets in the town, we chose first one which looked new and open :)

Price was very reasonable and there was an offer of home cooked dinner. What a great future ! Homestay food surpasses any other meals by miles !

Forget Michellin stars, Vietnam stars is what's all about ! - Spring rolls and mussels :) 
We dropped the bags and went to explore the beaches !

Almost all of the east coast is covered by sandy beaches. Now and then they are separated by rocky capes. Wide with big tides difference, hard packed and squishy white sand, most of the rubbish blown into dunes behind the beach, it looked cleaner than it was in reality.

Vast tidal beach
Unfortunately it was still just around 12 degrees so it wasn’t really inviting for a dip. I can imagine that in high season when local tourists swarm the island it has to look much different.

Traditional fishermen - Vietnam style
During our visit we’re literally alone. Only when we’re leaving the island we spotted group of young foreigners who just arrived.

SUP Vietnam style - polystyrene block
We filled the day with full exploration of the island, sand quarries, jelly fish processing plant, all beaches and 2 old temples. At the end of the day we got little bit lucky again and on the way back from the southern end of the island our head gasket blew up again. With raging sound and almost no torque we just managed to get back to the town.

Perfect place to try how this bike actually works :)
Isolated places like this can proof to be tricky when you need to get something fixed.

One bike repair guy was out of the town, supposedly coming back at night, car repair place didn’t have tools small enough for our tiny engine and it looked like the guys are better friends with blowtorch than with spanners :)

We gave them a chance but after 10 minutes of watching them I had to take over, stop their mission with thanks, but no thanks. We left their open air workshop with few screws and exhaust off to discover that there is another bike repair guy further down the main street.

Half rolling half pushing the bike we reached the pit stop, trying to explain to young guy what’s wrong. English is not really known in these lands and usual point it communication didn’t seem to make an effect. The guy was pretty sure that the trouble is with spark cable and possibly somewhere else much deeper and was trying to push us away to come back in 3 hours.

As a reply I took his spanners and in 3 minutes stripped down the head from cylinder and showed him blown gasket !

Finally the understanding was on the table :)

During his earlier check of spark plug he damaged spark plug cable so it had to be replaced at the end ...

Finally we got to the last step, reaching payment agreement. Surrounded by dozen of local teenagers it wasn’t easy either. Some ridiculous number like 10 USD was mentioned and that didn’t hit fertile ground :)

After little argument we paid 5 USD which was still little bit too much for the whole action, but it got us back on the road again.

Percebes where you wouldn't expect them
Second day we got our laundry done after quite long period.
Around 9 AM our land lady came pointing her finger into clothes basket, we understood very well.

For almost a month we’re travelling through dirt and dust of tough northern provinces and our clothes looked far away from clean :) Obviously it has been spotted and had to be dealt with :)

With strong wind blowing all day it was all dry within few hours, what a nice feeling to be in clean clothes for a change :) - it usually doesn’t last longer than a day :)

The rest of the day was dedicated to long walk on deserted beach :)

After 2 amazing dinners in our little guest house we’re ready to head back to main land early in the morning.

On the way back to Van Don
Same crew, same ferry and same grey sky.

Who's the captain ?
Chinese chess - at this point we had no idea what's this game about
boat of Vietnam - Czech friendship
We got back to Van Don early in the afternoon and headed further 60 kms south to reach Ha Long city.
Boat towing a boat
Bai Tu Long floating village
Approaching Van Don
Our main goal for Ha Long was to extend our Visa by one month. We read on-line that it should be possible at Immigration office in every provincial capital.

Life on the board of mussel man house boat
In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, in practice there is ;) (Albert Einstein)

We’ve got to Immigration office even before they were opened so keen to get it done and head further south !

It’s been almost 2 months since we dealt with bureaucracy of Vietnamese apparatus. We forgot that it can be quite difficult mission.

Local officers were pretty straight forward and their message was quite clear - “No it’s impossible to get tourist visa extension here”.

We tried hard for 15 minutes but final result was negative.
We’re told that as holders of “Tourist Visa” we can either extend on our own in Hanoi at Immigration HQ or we have to have a sponsor (Tourist Agent).

We tried few little agencies located in main touristic area, but unfortunately with same result. It would take at least 10 days to get it done.

We didn’t believe that it can’t be done on our own and wanted to proof that even impossible can be made possible.

Even though we planned to skip Hanoi, now we had no other choice. We could either ride for 4 hours on a bike and join rush hour in crazy Hanoi traffic or there was an option to reach Hanoi by train from Hai Phong.

Astronauts are ready to take off into rainy universe
Drive to Hai Phong was pretty fast and we got there hour ahead of the train.
Compared with the cost of fuel, the train is expensive. We did it just to make our life easier, how naive :)

Plastic spaceship docking in front of Hai Phong train station - don't forget to drain your fuel and hide it well :)
Instead of reaching main train station in central Hanoi we got dropped on north east outskirts station with explanation that this is the last station where you can get your motorbike out, because this train doesn’t go all the way to main station. oops...

So there we were, somewhere ahead of us was Hanoi, sun was setting and traffic was getting more than crazy :)

All info we had at that point was that we have to cross Red river and we should be in central Hanoi :)

Following our orientation sense we got directly lost and the traffic was suddenly getting easier and at some point we’re alone on the road. That didn’t look like the right way to Hanoi.

So we asked and found out that we have to turn 180 degrees and head back :) Couple of minutes of crazy chaos, one long old bridge crossing and suddenly we were in central old town.

Buzzing with final success we looked for some cheaper place to stay and found Blue Hostel for 5 USD / head in dormitory. Not great, not too bad, it did the job for couple of nights.

With backpacks resting in our bed, motorbike parked and locked in front of the guest house we wandered off to night Hanoi. Thirsty and hungry. After long time without seeing tourists of same origins it fell quite pleasant to drink some beers and chat to random people.

That night we got little bit hammered - 25 watery beers cost us just 5 USD :)

Next adventures are covered in following posts.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Around Vietnam on motorbike - Extreme North

Bac Ha - Tan Quang via Coc Pai/ Vinh Quang  - Yen Minh - Bao Lac via Dong Van/ Meo Vac - Cao Bang - cca 600 km

After mighty Pho breakfast we kicked our black horse and went further north direction to Coc Pai. 20 kms further north we got a bit lost and turned off to the right little bit early. After next 10 kms we realised that this road can’t be the main one to Xin Man and went back. Costly 20 kms as the terrain was pretty steep and rough, it took us almost an hour.

Colourful vs dirt
Coc Pai is located already in Ha Giang province, the most northern province in Vietnam. As far from the resources as possible and it’s definitely feelable on the state of roads. As soon as we reached province border, beautiful new road changed to stones and dirt and last 10 kms downhill to Coc Pai was rough tough nuff. Most of the road between Bac Ha and Coc Pai is in higher altitude with crazy views to Chinese borders just over the river in the valley ( which you can’t see as you’re some 1000 m higher ).

China is just behind that mountain
Coc Pai is rather little town and worth just quick coke stop on the way. After crossing of river north of the town narrow road copies mountain slope for next 40 kms to Vinh Quang.

Yeah that used to be road ;)
Almost deserted, in much better state than the road above Coc Pai, winding above shallow river, meeting in every other corner a waterfall.

Very enjoyable ride between Coc Pai and Vinh Quang
Definitely one of the greatest motorbike rides in long time. You don’t go straight for more than 200 meters, but the curves are not too sharp either so you can see next corner and oncoming traffic.

Almost no traffic and easy winding tarmac
We reached Vinh Quang around 3 pm and were not really sure whether to continue further ( some 70 km to next civilisation) or to stay overnight here and relax a bit. After 5 minutes stand up meeting we reached decision to go further and risk it.

Clean shallow river
We made our progress slowly and within an hour we reached first pass in altitude around 1000 m from here the road copies several mountains slopes ( covered with tea plantations ) and goes little up and down for long time. Very winding road with incredible views over forested peaks and rice filled valleys. Again waterfalls are present in almost every turn, we called this road "Waterfall road".

For 70 km the road copies the mountain somewhere in the middle of the slope
We started our descent just with the last sunlight and reached Tan Quang town little bit after dusk.

Bye Bye Sunny, see you tomorrow
Having Ha Giang just some 40 kms north the road we got up early again and pushed while the morning was fresh. By 10 am we were in Ha Giang looking around to find Nha Sach ( book shop) and after 2 circles around the town we found one but unfortunately we didn’t find any decent tourist road maps. So we had to survive with few xerox copies we’re given of the loop north of Ha Giang.

It’s important to mention one of our most useful online sources -

If you’re heading to any part of Vietnam definitely check what Tom has written about it and you’ll find at least one or two articles providing a lot of useful information about the area under your radar.

The same was the case of Extreme north Ha Giang loop and many more roads we took later on through whole Vietnam.

Being little bit under weather caused time pressure we decided to risk it and at the end we've beaten the weather by few minutes.

Roads above Ha Giang are different than anywhere else in South East Asia, crossing countless ridges and constantly changing landscapes. There is a loop which might take you 2 - 5 days depending on how much time you have and what is the weather forecast.

Roads between Dong Van and Meo Vac are extremely dangerous in bad visibility, so in case of rainy forecast re-think the whole idea.

Our forecast was 2 warm days of sun and blue sky, followed by change in wind direction to north east bringing very cold air, for a change from China again.

First day we managed to get to Yen Minh little bit ahead of the sunset and wandered around a little bit, tiny town with not much going on, except market area, which is very busy with minorities tribal people in colorful costumes (specially saturdays / sundays).

The scenery starts to be really interesting after passage through “heavens gate pass”. Karsts mountains stretch as far as one can see.

View from Heavens Gate pass
Photos describe this beauty far better than words.

Little boobs
And more boobs ;)
Welcome to mountains north of Ha Giang - it's starting to be interesting 
Land of blue rivers and steep green hills
Go straight !
Shopping happens on almost every bridge, interesting market setup
Slowly climbing higher and higher
Sunset above Yen Minh
Next morning we got up early, scored Pho in a place where we had couple of beers night before and buggered off to wonderland.

Long smoked pork.... Yummy !
This was the day “D”.

This place is called Natural book of Earth, geologically very unique area in South East Asia
Where will the road take us ?
Higher ?
Higher ?
Oh yeah ! Much higher !
Half way to Dong Van
Yes this little motorbike can do it !
Each valley is different !
Locals hanging out in one of the passes
Little detour to Chinese border
Almost touching chinese border, road from Yen Minh passes through plateau of prehistoric  black lava sediments which are now and then dotted with rare grass, bushes or odd tree.

Here we go ! Vietnam - China pre-border checkpoing, you can go further if you offer enough Dongs :) but Chinese will turn you back ...
Fertile valleys are fully agricultured 
Life can be harsh and simple
Very arid and unusual landscape. But the road up to the first pass of the day is majestic.

You have to look back everytime you stop
Swimming pool of local kids
As soon you enter first pass above Yen Minh, every next valley hides some unique beauties.

Beauty in rocky heaven
It's getting steeper !
Except of this road there are smaller concrete paths to explore, come and spend a week in Surrealand 
Some dozen kilometers ahead of Dong Van, there is old citadel still in decent condition. Once upon the time, mighty king was living here and was ruling this bizarre end of the world.
Insinde of old citadel
Dong Van looked like a good place to base yourself for further exploration with long ridge of limestone just north of the town, some large entrance caves visible from far distance, high viewpoint and probably much more.

Unfortunately the weather forecast was still same, warning us about strong wind bringing sharp temperature drop and possibly some rain.

We drove through the town, topped up our tank, checked out market which was completely over at 1pm and quarter of hour later we had our backs facing Dong Van while getting up to some crazy hills.

Building road here might be easier than harvesting enough rice ...
Scarce trees
Jagged ridges above Dong Van
Road through Surrealand
Getting higher again
Section between Dong Van and Meo Vac is not comparable with any other road we took during our whole journey. Road is winding 1000 m above the river cutting through deepest gorge in Indochina.

RaT on the way to Meo Vac
Getting to the best section of the road
Mapileng gorge - deepest gorge in Indochina
One mistake on this “Most dangerous road in Vietnam” as locals call it and your rests will feed catfish for couple of days :)

Just amazing !
Karsts on steroids as one could call this. Not small hills but whole mountains rising so sharp from the valley that’s almost hard to believe that the road can exists there. Vietnamese love to build in crazy conditions.

Blind corners after Mapileng pass
Original plan was to reach Meo Vac by late afternoon, but we got there little bit earlier. The next signalised location was crossroad with QL 34 some 50 km further south and somewhere there was supposed to be next town with accomodation - Bao Lac.

Shortly behind Meo Vac the mountains go back to the style similar earlier on the road between Bac Ha and Ha Giang.

Rice fields on the way to Cao Bang
The road slowly descends for most of those 60 kms and traffic is very light in comparison with the road to Dong Van full of buses and bigger cars.

At the end of the descend is a series of little villages with terrible roads and locals driving nuts across all terrain.

Couple of Hydroelectric projects are being built in the area and that definitely doesn’t make the road state better.

The sky slowly changed its colour from bright blue to dark grey and stormy easterly wind started blowing.

When we reached the crossroad, there was no accommodation available at all and Bao Lac was supposed to be located 20km further east. First 5 kms were probably the worst public road we tried in Vietnam :) 1st gear on flat ground full of foot deep holes and huge stones laying everywhere. Finally the worst was over and we’re racing with the wind blowing hard into our faces from the threatening rain.

The change of the weather was stinking in the air.

Quite exhausted after 8 hours of beautiful riding we reached Bao Lac right after dusk, located decent Nha Nghi and went to eat some Frango Churrasco !

Next morning it fell like a different continent. The temperature drop from sweet 28 to 12 degrees... Back in hard core winter ...

After thorough check of topological map on Google it looked like there might be just one pass around 1000 m on our following section to Cao Bang.

The vision of frozen fingertips and knees stuck in bent angles again was frightening.

Land of blue rivers and green hills 2
But at the end the cold was not that bad. It forced us to have short breaks wherever there was kettle with warm tea visible. The journey was not that exceptional as it followed day of something very unique. The closer you get to Cao Bang the better the road condition is and you can see some karst features again.

On the way to Cao Bang - karsts reappear
Main produce in winter season is sugar cane, on some places you meet dozens of ladies selling it by the road
And for a change more karsts on the way to Cao Bang
Cao Bang was our first “bigger city” of North. Even Dien Bien Phu didn’t feel that hectic and "high streety" as Cao Bang.

Blocked off entrance to one of the caves close to Cao Bang
We found really new and clean hotel which charged just 8 Eur (200.000 VND) for good room (no window though, but clean, cheap with huge telly full of cable channels ;)

It seems like Lau is the local dish. Called “Hot Pot” in english, tasty and easy way how to make good money. Buy 10 portable gas stoves, 10 pots, loads of vegetables, some beef, chicken or fish, rice noodles and let the people cook it the way they like it right on their table !

Almost no work and solid amount of profit. Average price of Lau for 2 people was around 300.000 VND (12 Eur), approximately 3 times more than what you would pay for food cooked in kitchen (understand few pots prepared on charcoal fire) .

We took refuge in our classic Pho, drank few beers on the street and headed to bed early.

Next morning we discovered that our bag rack needs some love and without immediate action it might crack fully and leave our bags rolling behind into the abyss of Vietnamese road.

Young boys on the main street in big city prefer to change batteries and sell new stickers over old school manual craftsmanship :).

Instead of welding they would sell new bag rack. We love our current one, it had to be fixed !

The guy who looked like he could have welding machine and a lot of various mess going on was the one, located just a bit on the outskirts off the main road. Instead of English he was keen to talk in German :) He worked in Germany some 10 years ago and learnt basic chat. It’s great to meet someone this way different in vast Vietnamese culture :) After 30 minutes the welding massage therapy was over and reinforced bag rack, sprayed black was ready to take some load again.

Full gear on and with strong commitment to reach Lang Son by sunset we left harbour before midday. Not early but not too late for the distance (some 130 km) at least one would think ...

For first 15 kms everything went smooth, until we reached first 10 % climb. Full power on 4th gear trying to maintain the speed of our little comet but slowly loosing power, suddenly all the way in 2nd gear and even less power and boom, we’re stopped and the engine was not running anymore.

Kick starter not moving even one spin forward. Oops ;)

Facing downhill, trying to roll start the thing and on clutch release the bike stopped as the engine would not move at any cost.

That didn’t look good at all.

None of us remembered where was the last mechanic on the road, but pushing our heavy load uphill didn't make any sense.

One of the strangest moments are when you roll downhill in silence with engine turned off and knowing it won’t start without some deeper surgery. The joy from every meter reached further without need to push but knowing that the end of this rock&roll song is ending very soon ...

It would not be Viet Nam, if there wasn’t mechanic who could fix your baby somewhere in next corner.

First house at the end of the hill was the one !

Firstly thinking that it might be just missing oil, later on organising delivery of the parts from Cao Bang and taking apart every part of the engine to get to broken heart - crank shaft.

Worn out crank shaft on the rod was getting to locking position not letting go forward.

How many more core parts will we need to replace on this journey ?

We spent the rest of the day sipping warm tea, watching big trucks rolling down the hill and roaring loud to get out their way ( raising kids along some of the roads in Viet Nam has to be very difficult ).

So that was our 2nd major breakdown, the price to get it fixed was similar to new gearbox, some 800.000 VND. ( 32 Eur)

We’re saved again and could go further, but it was not midday anymore. 5 pm on the clock and no commitment to go for possibly heavy terrain night ride.

On the way back to last nights hotel we picked “cold pot” - leftovers from lunch in one eatery on the road close to centre. Cheap it was, but it had side effects next morning ...

Following adventures are covered in next post.

Oy moy Bia Hoi !