Heart racing. Shivers. It’s so cold. Hold the brake. Honk the horn. Lean in to the curve. I’m so glad I have gloves.
Motorbiking northern Vietnam was a series of abrupt thoughts and cool weather. Having spent the last month in the tropics, I wasn’t used to wearing socks to bed or needing a windbreaker during the day. I had also never ridden a motorbike before, which was undeniably nerve-wracking but incredibly rewarding.
I’d heard from friends and fellow travelers that northern Vietnam had some of the best scenery in Southeast Asia and I was curious to see how it differed from where I’d already traveled. So with an insatiable wanderlust, my friend Jess, her fiancé Peter, and I set out from Hanoi to Ha Giang, Vietnam to spend five days exploring the countryside.
Jess and I have been close since high school, running track and cross country, going snowboarding with Ski Club, and spending many weekends crafting and painting together. After graduation, we both burst from our shells a little and embraced world travel. Kindred spirits, we would tell each other about our solo journeys, study abroad trips, or family adventures. It had been years since we’d seen each other and even longer since we had an adventure together, so when I was planning my six-week Southeast Asia trip, I knew Jess had to be part of the journey. She and her fiancé have taken a year off from their jobs in nursing and medicine, and they began their year in Hanoi, Vietnam where Jess’s sister Laura currently lives.
So the three of us met Laura in Hanoi, got some tips and advice on motorbiking, then hit the road north. We followed a loop that is growing in tourist popularity, taking bikers from Ha Giang, up through Yen Minh, Dong Van, Meo Vac, and back to Ha Giang. Bikers can personalize the loop depending on what they want to see.
We began our trip late on Day 1, with high hopes of reaching Dong Van; however, the windy mountain roads slowed our progress, so we made it as far as Yen Minh, which was still a commendable 55 miles from Ha Giang. The scenery was impressive and I couldn’t imagine how it could get any more beautiful, even though other guests at our Yen Minh homestay said that the rest of the trip only becomes more unique. They were all right.
The topography of northern Vietnam is like nothing I’ve ever seen. Imagine jagged mountains jutting out of the earth, their bases so far below you that you can barely see the outlines of other humans, and their peaks so high that they’re often shrouded in clouds and mist. The roads are incredibly narrow, so you’re always on edge and aware. “Every curve wants to kill you,” our friend Adam said jokingly on Day 1. He wasn’t wrong. If you took a turn too quickly or if there was oncoming traffic, you could easily spill over the edge of a mountainside. So it’s customary for bikers and vehicles to honk their horns going around every bend, as a heads-up to any oncoming traffic.
Over the next few days we made our way up north to the Chinese border, stopping at a tourist spot known as Lung Cu, which had views overlooking the mountains into China, and we crossed many valleys and mountain passes, each one jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring. And while the views were always outstanding, the noises were also unique. We’d be on the roadside of a mountain, hundreds of meters away from another person, but because of the cavernous mountainside, you could hear voices from far away.
There was life aplenty in northern Vietnam, many remote villages and minority cultures that live off the land, motorbiking their goods from one town to the next. We would see farm workers carrying such heavy loads up these steep roads, children waving hello as we zoomed by – sometimes they’d be in a sweater and nothing else. The roads were a mix of dirt and pavement. One road in particular was entirely made of rocks. For a quarter mile, we went up and up and up these rocks in our lowest gear, slowly inching our way to what would hopefully be paved road at the top. We saw tourists coming down the road—but they were riding on the back of motorcycles driven by natives. All were impressed that we were going solo.
The people of Vietnam were warm and welcoming. Sometimes a cynic, I wondered if the locals at our homestays were genuinely happy to host us or if we were just a source of income that they had to tolerate. Regardless, we enjoyed the homestays for the most part – some were a bit more “rough” than I’m used to, but when it’s your only option in the remotest parts of the country, you make do. (Word of advice: carry your own toilet paper and be comfortable “going” anywhere, even on the side of the road.)
Our favorite stop on our motorbiking trip was definitely Du Gia. We stayed at a homestay recommended to us by our motorbike rental company and it did not disappoint (Du Gia Homestay, for those interested)! We arrived on a Saturday, which is when the community and family get together for a big meal and celebration (similar to how many families in America have Sunday family dinners). We shared delicious food with the family and were strongly encouraged to drink “happy water” any time it was offered to us. This drink was like a vodka-moonshine mix, known as corn wine up there. I didn’t like it, nor do I like to take shots, nor do I like to feel pressured to drink, so I politely stopped accepting happy water after a few toasts. Jess and Peter drank well into the night, along with our friend Adam, whom we’d met a few days earlier and conveniently bumped into in Du Gia.
After our motorbiking trip, Jess, Peter, Adam and I decided to take a night bus to Cat Ba Island. Night buses in southern Asia aren’t awesome, nor for the timid traveler. They’re often single or double beds (shared with a stranger unless you’re traveling with a companion) and make stops every 45 minutes to pick up or drop off local goods, produce, livestock, and people. And don’t forget the horn honking. Especially when it’s dark do vehicles and bikes have to notify oncoming traffic. Lesson: don’t expect a good night’s sleep on a night bus.
Cat Ba Island is a very popular tourist destination in Vietnam, so naturally I was skeptical. We left the native culture behind, and were thrust into Westernized food and activities. The homestays and hostels are primitive however, resembling the beds throughout most of our trip: super thin, extremely firm mattresses with one blanket.
While on Cat Ba, we explored the local national park and hiked to the summit of a notable mountaintop. Once again, the topography was outstanding. On Day 2 on Cat Ba, we took a boat tour whose highlight was kayaking in filthy Ha Long Bay. Jess and I began to collect floating trash from the water, but soon realized there was trash at every turn.
After Cat Ba, the four of us returned to Hanoi and did some local sightseeing. Jess and I enjoyed some girls’ time, which mostly included eating, before I had to set off for my next destination. Overall, it was an amazing trip – not without its bumps and minor clashes of opinion – but to share it with my best friend and her fiancé was the best thing I could’ve done while in Vietnam. I’m so, so lucky.
Traveling: Arrived and departed solo, traveled with two friends for seven days, stayed in a hotel in Hanoi solo for three days
Highlights: Motorbiking the northern loop out of Ha Giang, Hot Pot for 2 seafood dinner, getting lost while motorbiking and being okay with it (sometimes), staying at homestays for a more authentic experience
Food: Many travelers will tell you that the food in southern Vietnam is the best and as you travel north, the food diminishes in quality, but the landscape gets better. The best food we had was at our homestay in Du Gia, but there were also some great places along the journey. Most food places will have signs out front, saying what they offer (in Vietnamese) DO NOT go into any place that sells “Chó.” That means dog. There are some great food destinations in Hanoi of course, especially in Old Quarter, which is the tourist hub. Outside of Old Quarter we had some decent food, but nothing that felt more authentic or delicious than what we found in Old Quarter.
Tips: Get a travel dictionary! Few people speak English and it’ll go a long way. Go motorbiking, but be careful. Sixty percent of people who rent motorbikes in Vietnam get into an accident. Have an outline of what you want to do, but be flexible if things don’t go according to plan. Be ware of garbage and trash everywhere. There isn’t a system for removing rubbish, so instead the country burns their trash. It’ll smell awful and you’ll probably see children and stray dogs playing or scavenging in it. The same goes for the bays and oceans. You may often seen beautifully scenic photos of tourists kayaking or snorkeling off the coast, but there’s floating garbage everywhere. It’s disgusting and cleaning it up is not a priority to the Vietnamese. Don’t travel there if you want to make an impact with your dollar.
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