Always start in 2nd gear!?
In early January, our hosts in Hanoi, Marc and Hien, put out the rallying cry for hearty adventures to join them on their final motorbike trek before emigrating from Vietnam. Excited by the idea of embarking on the journey through rural and mountainous northern Vietnam with a group of experienced folks, Dina and I nearly immediately said, why not!? We arrived in Hanoi on the 17th of April after two months on the road in the US, a frenzied couple weeks of departure planning on the east coast, and now 26 hours of travel from DC ... we were exited for the motorbike adventure! Nine days to prepare!!!
Marc and Hien ... our Hanoi hosts and the reason we even started this crazy trip in the first place. They put us up and orchestrated the logistics of the trip to Luang Praang - navigation, food, visas, border crossings, and hotel accommodations ... much of which was negotiated in the dark and in the rain in small villages.
The first few days in Hanoi consisted of 3am jetlagged restlessness, immersion into a completely different model of everyday life, and a whole new set of foreign hurdles to overcome before our departure from the Vietnamese capital. Later that first week, Marc orchestrated an intimate gathering under the auspices of his ½ birthday celebration at a local Moroccan restaurant. Yes, indeed, a brilliant idea both for the amazing gifts that people come up with for such an amusing celebration and also a great way to introduce us to a few of the other riders! While the full crew wasn’t able to join, we did get the chance to meet and begin to appreciate the delightful Aussie named Trevor.
...and this was just Dina's stuff. Eric's is taking up the other half of the room. Not shown are the sleeping bags, tent, yoga mats and other sundries. Good thing we had a place to stash half of it while we motod.
Saturday is only 3 days away ... Saturday is only 2 days away ... Saturday is, oh shit, tomorrow!? Yes Yes! Dina and I both have a healthy respect for a solid deadline which typically inspires a dramatic uptick in our output. That said, preparing for a trek such as this has not been in our experiential vocabulary as a commonly used phrase before. Time to adapt to a new, and much more concise, dialect!
The final feverish packing day consisted of gathering a few last minute must haves from the streets of Hanoi, a treat in and of itself when looking for that easily procured thingamajig you could find back in the states that may or may not even exist on this side of the planet. Oh the glorious mileage a good photo or diagram would get you in describing that thingamajig to the local thing seller, if you only had the time to create one before Saturday’s 5am departure!!!
Figuring out the right balance of need to haves and nice to haves for a 10 day motorbike trip took us until roughly 2am giving us a solid 90 minutes of sleep before waking to load the bikes and roll. Off to a wondrous start! An obvious need to have was a full version plus a few expansion packs of Cards Against Humanity. This especially necessary extra bit of baggage needed to be custom crafted in one of Hanoi’s local print shops by a couple of rather bored (before they started trying to read the phrases on the cards) print shop youngsters. We printed out all of the sheets of cards and gleefully hand cut the sheets for an hour and voila! Entertainment!
Slice slice chop chop. They were all serious business until she started trying to interpret some of the answers to him. Ooooh my.
Proud mama Dina displays what may be the most awkwardly bulky travel non-essential to hit the motorbike trail yet. Cards Against Humanity! Fick zizzle yes!
5am Comes and Goes
Linking up at a nearby corner, the full complement of adventurers now assembled including the brilliantly German German Rene, the Chinese pastry chef Doudou, and the ever positive and bubbly Argentinian Sophia. Following a few initial moments of intros and shared excitement, wheels were rolling and the eeeeeeendless suburban sprawl of Hanoi became the focus. After growing weary of the astonishingly congested road, we decided to cut south a bit early towards the mountains and the sighs of relief could be felt all around. Time for cookies!!! Thank you so much for thinking ahead Doudou!
For the next 50km or so, the group began to gel, Tuckman would be so pleased. Team names started to form, bubbly squat repartee ensued, and the heat of the Vietnamese day began to sink in. Let’s get up into those mountains to beat this heat!
Teams Suzuki and Chicken Pursuit engaged in some good old fashioned trash talking.
The mountains of northern Vietnam are truly magnificent to behold and the ethnic minorities that inhabit this region are equally remarkable. Interacting with them as they go about their day is an anthropological treat that transcends symbolic descriptors, photos, and even time itself ... their bamboo sticky rice is also incredibly tasty and a highlight of the day’s ride!
Mai Chau was our first major stop for the day. A freshly prepared lunch awaited our rapidly fatiguing crew. The locals in this lovely little village are some of the sweetest and most accommodating that you can have the good fortune of coming across. They even agreed to let our crew take a much needed nap in a stilt house within rolling distance of our feast!
A refreshing nap on stilts in Mai Chau.
1:30, 1:30! It’s time to roll!!! Promptly pulling away more or less on schedule, we were off to meander our way through the gorgeous mountain villages approaching the Laos border but not before sharing in a brief moment of reflective silence at a sacred rice paddy just outside of Mai Chau.
Unsure of what to expect next, discussion during butt-breaks turned towards logistics, the risks of NOT making it into Laos with Vietnamese bikes, and washed out road avoidance detours. Setting out that morning we knew we were in for a long first day on the road. The latter part of the day we passed through some of the most rural and impoverished parts of Vietnam. As darkness descended we finally approached the Laos boarder and pulled into the one hotel in the area.
Creepy communist style hotel on the Laos border in Vietnam photo courtesy of Sophia.
Sweet decompression, except for the fact that the huge smoking generator that provided power, and an abundance of noise pollution of which there was no escape, for the hotel would systematically stop every ten to fifteen minutes. We stumbled around the multilevel hotel in complete darkness wishing for our headlamps. As in so many other situations of the trip, Hien saved the exhausted crew by organizing rooms and food for us all. We eat pork, pork, a side of additional pork, as well as our first morning glory greens, a staple in SE Asian cooking, under an on and off again fluorescent light swathed in moths and mosquitos. Thankfully, all of the rooms were equipped with the almighty bug nets this evening! Dina and I recognized this as one of our first intense hardening experiences.
Crossing the Laotian threshold
Bright and early riding is the name of the comfort game to avoid the 11:30 – 2:00 sunbaked miserable midday riding in this region. Today however, crossing the border was a bit of a hurdle. Regardless of how well you think your paperwork is in order, the ultimate cross or do not cross decision is fortified with tons of subtly, a splash of scratch, and anchored with wide smiles all around. After 45 minutes, the great and powerful men of the Vietnam immigration and customs house permitted us to leave their country. After a brief bridge crossing and short ascent to the lovely looking Laos customs house, we wait again, this time for only 25 minutes and we’re soon off to the races! Hien and Sophia, your diplomatic wizardry was unparalleled here and you have our sincerest appreciation for however you managed this!
Our first impressions of Laos were quite positive and of course were defined initially by the border checkpoint and customs house which, relative to the Vietnamese checkpoint we had just left behind us, was quite beautiful and inviting. This feeling of warmth and welcome continued throughout the soggy twelve hour second day on the road which took us through lush mountainous farming villages, to lunch with a baby and his bat, along some pretty treacherous roads up up and up into the mountains, ultimately depositing us into a remote little town alongside another motorbike crew also out of Hanoi looking for shelter as the final bits of twilight vanished.
Wet ride shot today courtesy of Doudou.
Proud father displaying his baby's rainy day play-toy.
Our accommodations this evening ended up being quite cozy, clean, and bug-free. More homestay style than guest house. Hien and Sophia jumped into action on dinner preparation procuring noodles, eggs, veggies, and boiling it all up in the family’s small cook shack behind our “hotel”. Trevor secured breakfast eggs from the neighbors and also to the group’s delight acquired the evening’s Beer Lao. Job well done team!
Keep on pushing!
Early start for day three, charging right along for another fourteen hour day! The refreshingly rain free ride today wound us through numerous villages with beautiful smiling children, resourcefully patient farmers, and stunning landscapes. Team Suzuki held fast with their gracious offer of anchoring the rear of the pack, team chicken pursuit continued to take every opportunity they could to point their wheel towards as many defenseless chickens as possible, Dina and I powered on mostly in the middle of the pack and usually fiddling with something or another at every stop, and team onward and upward ensured we kept the passage of time in mind.
A beautiful element of travel (and life as well, but we’re talking travel today) is the fact that it is indeed up to the traveler to make the most of whatever experiences unfold before them. Notable sights are often blogged about, photographed, or placed into historical context for research purposes. The characters along the traveler’s journey make their own indelible impressions on the traveler’s experience of said notable sight and correspondingly the traveler makes their own impressions on those around them. Yes, opening the philosophical self-knowledge abyss here for a moment, but I mentioned Tuckman earlier and wanted to give a deeply appreciative and satisfied nod to the fact that the progression through his stages was remarkable to observe and participate in.
Northern Laos is quite spectacular and from what we’ve seen thus far, somewhat similar to Northern Vietnam with mountain villages dotting the windy interminable mountain roads. The sights of the day were stunning and hopefully our photos provide a small window into the magnificence of the ride. We closed the evening by descending high elevation mountain passes with the most gorgeous sunset vistas at every switchback.
A noteworthy historical sight to be mentioned here and perhaps put into broader context later, was our afternoon visit to the Plain of Jars Site. For now, let’s just say, it is undeniably a sight to be seen by anyone who might have even the most scant interest or curiosity about the Vietnam War and the pre-war history of the region that produced the jars themselves.
After a sobering exploration through the Plain of Jars Site, we broke for lunch in Phonsavan nearby at Craters Bar & Restaurant where this little street urchin begged for water amongst the bombs which are used now to decorate the restaurant's front patio.
It’s all, sooo, SORE!!
The final day’s push was quite a straight forward sort of affair, drive fast on the now smooth and flat highway to simply get off of these two wheeled torture devices as soon as possible. Despite this urgency, the dire need for butt-breaks only increased as we approached our stopover destination city of Luang Prabang, the Buddhist heart of northern Laos and also its first UNESCO World Heritage site. As we pulled into this lovely little peninsular city, calm swept over us all. Wait, who said showers (our first in 4 days) and massage!? Yes Yes!!! Pronto!
A significant part of this grand adventure that Dina and I are on is our common desire to take the time to really soak up new experiences, new places, new people, and reach a broader understanding and appreciation before moving on. The motorbike crew we had now begun to hit our stride with had a firm hard stop at the end of next week hence the balls to the wall push from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. After several decompressing days staying at Oui’s Guesthouse, Dina and I ended up staying put to soak up the town a bit more while the others pushed on.
Before heading out, Marc spent a good deal of time with us over lunch one afternoon sharing a vast brain dump from his previous travel adventures through southern Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and southern Vietnam with us. Our final chat before parting ways brought back the wonderful memories I had of our chats way way way back when back in South Boston. Tons of orientational gratitude for this Marc! See you on the other side of this thing!
It’s quite remarkable now looking back at it all just how long ago the idea was put out and how well it all came together at the end of the day. Good fun, great characters, amazingly beautiful countryside to ride through and now, de fish de fish! This little guy makes de best fish in Luang Prabang!!!