Story of the week: Rev it up across northern Vietnam

Vietnam 6

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I love the thrill of the open road. Shades on, foot to the floor and cruising through alien landscapes with the stereo cranked right up.

But Vietnam was just about the last place I expected to find myself on a road trip. Self-drive isn’t really an option here.

Indeed, if I wanted a ride outside my hotel in Hanoi, I’d just flag down a passing motorbike, slip the driver 5,000 Vietnamese Dong (US$0.33) and hop on the back.

And, as for the State-approved backpacker bus trips, well, let’s just say that rubbing knees with the tie-dye clad hordes and eating in the tourist restaurant, where the bus driver always collects his kickback, isn’t my scene.

Easy rider

Luckily, I came across a flyer for the Hanoi Minsk club, a group of petrolheads who eschew the trappings of mass tourism in favour of small group trips to remote rural locations.

It sounded perfect. A way to get my engine running and get out on the highway while staying off-the-beaten-track and seeing the real Vietnam.

As I strapped my backpack to the bike and wiped the grime off my helmet’s visor on a sunny Hanoi morning, I knew I wasn’t in for a five star luxury. But, hey, I’d always harboured Dennis Hopper Easy Rider fantasies and, besides, I just love the smell of gasoline in the mornings.

Minsk club (named after the Russian 125cc two-stoke motorbikes) is the brainchild of Australian-born Digby Greenhalgh, who moved to Vietnam just after 1993’s doi moi reform policies first opened the country to tourism.

Since then, Digby has made hundreds of trips into the backwaters of the far north, building up a comprehensive motorbike guide to northern Vietnam.

“The bikes are old 50’s designs straight out of Belarussia. They’re the backbone of the country and used by everyone to haul goods around,” explains Digby, saddling up.

“They don’t go very fast, use a lot of petrol and billow out a lot of smoke, but they’ll get you anywhere,” he adds.

“Besides, they’re very easy to fix. If you’ve got a stick and a rock you can fix a Minsk.”

Cruise control 

With the sun in our faces, we join the highway near Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport and start the slow climb northwards. As we progress at a steady 35km/h, overtaking lumbering trucks soon gives way to overtaking lumbering water buffalo who eye suspiciously as we file past the paddy fields.

We stop for dinner that night in Tuyen Quang. It’s a dusty one-ass town dominated by trucker rest stops and so-called bia om or ‘cuddle beer’ outlets where the town’s two attractions make for natural bedfellows.

As we settle down for the night in the shabby state-owned hotel, one of my fellow easy riders, Casey McCarthy from Texas, tells me why she has chosen a severe buttock buffing on a motorbike in the rain for her holiday.

“I’d never seen a Minsk before Vietnam and, although it’s ancient technology, it’s a very easy ride,” she says. “I guess I just wanted to get away from those cattle-truck bus trips and a bike trip is the best way to see the countryside as you decide where and when you want to go.”

The next day we’re up with the light and, after a hearty bowl of Vietnamese pho bo (a rice noodle soup with strips of beef), we’re back in the saddle and on the road for Ha Giang.

As we stop for petrol at what looks like a roadside chemistry set, I ask Digby what kind of people are attracted to the idea of driving around rural Vietnam on a piece of Russian war-era machinery.

“Half are motorbike riders back home or people with some previous experience but not all. I’d never ridden a bike until I came to Vietnam,” he explains, taking a little bottle of engine oil and mixing it with petrol.

“Drive bikes and you will crash but drive slow enough and you’ll be OK,” he adds, handing over a dollar for two litres. “If we go over, we’ll just slide – unless we hit something. But it’s nothing like driving at 130km back home when you get washed up off the road”.

Alien invasion

The last 50km to Ha Giang is made up of winding country lanes. It’s a drive not best experienced at dusk when huge trucks with dazzling headlights tear around blind corners with scant regard for approaching fellow truckers, let alone a bunch of foreigners on motorbikes in dayglo jackets.

As we make the final approach, it feels like entering a long-forgotten Wild West outpost. The locals stare at us like aliens just beamed down from another planet but Digby is used to it.

“I regularly go to places where only a handful of strangers have ever been before. Just two weeks ago, I took a tour to a place where only three foreigners had ever visited before the new road was built,” he smiles.

“Just as I was thinking that I’d been everywhere possible, the Vietnamese Government has launched a programme to build roads to each commune so a there’s now a whole bunch of new roads to explore,” he adds.

“That’s why I do this. It isn’t so much a tour as a road trip where the guide is having as much fun as the customers.”

This story was first published in the Independent in 2006.

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