So rather than give you a step by step account of the past two weeks of my life I will just concentrate on the things that played the biggest parts in my trip, including the scenery, the roads and the people I met along the way. Without further ado I shall get on with telling you all about the totally super awesome cool scenery that I encountered on my trip so sit back, relax and try not to fall asleep.
In the North of Vietnam I think that you'd struggle to find a place that isn't beautiful. From the low, terrace covered mountains near Thai Nguyen all the way up to the lush, tree covered behemoths of mountains that surround Son La and everything in between, it really is all just stunning. In Sa Pa, the mountains surrounding the town are so big that it can be a bitterly cold, dull day but if you head up out of town on the mountain roads you will eventually break through the mist. When you do so, not only will you be warmed by the sun's rays but looking down on the valley that holds the town and at the road that vanishes into the mist covering it, you get the feeling that you're above the clouds and it's at times like those that I like to stop for a while and think about just how lucky I am to be here and what an amazing time I've had so far on my travels.
After seeing what you'd think was the most authentic 'this is the picture that I had in my head of Vietnam' village complete with rice paddies, people in traditional clothing, smiling kids and animals everywhere and which is surrounded on all sides by jagged mountains that stretch off into the distance, you'd be forgiven for thinking that you're not going to see anything of the same calibre again. Just when you're not expecting it however, you'll round a corner and be greeted by the glowing reds, oranges, purples and pinks of sunset reflecting off the mirror-like surface of a glassy lake of epic proportions which is surrounded by even bigger mountains covered in lush greenery. Every day of my trip brought with it new sights and even when I thought that things couldn't get any better, they often did do and if you're thinking of visiting Vietnam for the scenery and you like jaw-droppingly beautiful sights then go up North, I guarantee you won't regret it!
Just like the scenery up North, the roads varied a lot. For the majority of the time it was like riding on a motocross track only without the good suspension and big tyres that a dirt bike affords. Unfortunately I don't have many pictures of the roads because stopping doesn't even cross your mind when you're riding over them, only thoughts of trying to keep the bike upright and hoping that you don't go careering off the side of the mountain. As I have few pictures I'll ask you to imagine very small, winding paths which are surfaced not with tarmac but with big rocks, gravel, sand, clay or mud and if you add in rain to the mix on a wet day it's ten times worse. Then imagine the same 'road' (I use the term loosely) with a thirty degree incline and hairpin bends that you have to navigate with precision if you don't want to fall the couple of thousand feet to the bottom of the valley below. Needless to say they were dodgy at best and downright dangerous at the worst of times. If you add in cars, trucks and buses that fly down the roads with careless abandon, animals that wander out into the road just as you get to them and JCBs that swing their buckets around without bothering to check if anyone's coming down the road first, it can be quite a scary experience at first. You do get used to the road conditions after a while though and there are a few, albeit very small patches of good quality tarmac up North. One section was between Ha Giang and Lao Cai and it was high up in the mountains with long, sweeping bends that you could see around and no other traffic at all for about twenty kilometres. It's sections of road like that where you can open the bike up a bit more and really enjoy the riding aspect of the trip but it's no good for taking pictures as you don't want to stop riding!
After a long day's riding it was always a welcome sight when I finally got to the town that I had planned on reaching and I saw a sign for a Nha Nghi (guesthouse). It was great being able to unload the bike and stretch my legs and the hot shower, food and beers that I knew were to follow just made the whole thing even better. The majority of the guesthouse owners that I've met have been nice people, with a couple being not very nice and a couple going above and beyond to make my stay as good as they possibly can do. The hotel owner in Sa Pa actually found me after riding around town and bumping into me, as did the owner of the hotel where I'm writing this from but more on that another time. I don't know what it is about people that find guests on the streets but both times they have been very friendly people and I'd say the nicest hotel/guesthouse owners I've met in Vietnam. There was the time it was cold outside in Sa Pa and earlier in the day I'd slipped into a river and soaked one shoe and sock. I'd just came in from outside and I got invited to sit with the owner and his family around their coal fire bucket where I was able to dry out the offending soggy items of clothing. After a while the conversation topic changed to music and the owner got out his guitar, I got my harmonica down and we had an evening of music (with him playing and me attempting to) with lots of Vietnamese tea to help us stay warm. The owner helped me out with lots of things over the course of my stay there including directions to the hospital when I needed an x-ray, recommendations for places to visit nearby and where to go out in the evening and in return, I took some business cards when I left which I have been handing out to anyone I've met that's been thinking of going to Sa Pa.
It's hard to think of many specific things to talk about with regards to people that I met as pretty much everyone was so friendly and helpful, even though my Vietnamese is pitiful and I attempted to communicate with hand gestures and miming, accompanied by single words from my English - Vietnamese dictionary. I didn't meet many other Westerners on my travels but when I did it was always fun. In Sa Pa there was the group of French courier employees who invited me to sit with them and proceeded to buy bottles of vodka and shisha before moving upstairs to a private room where we sang the night away on the Karaoke machine whilst I attempted to remember what little high school French I still have stored somewhere in the recesses of my memory. Another meeting that sticks in my mind is in Son La when I met a Finnish guy and an American; Juri & Ben who were riding around the North but in the opposite direction to me. We spent a day fixing up our bikes in the hotel car park before heading out to try and find some caves. After asking locals and getting sent this way, that way and every way in between we began to run out of sunlight so instead we did some off roading and after going down a tiny dirt path through a small village, we came to the steepest hill I have seen in my time in Vietnam (which has a path on it). After two failed attempts to get up said hill, Ben finally managed it in first gear and with a huge run up. Juri did it no problem and as they were both on heavier bikes than I was, I managed to get up it without much of an issue although the hill continues on for quite a while, twisting and turning and on slick mud and rocks it's pretty treacherous if you start to slide backwards :| After another hour riding around we headed back to Son La where we had a huge meal and then spent the rest of the evening drinking rice wine and rice vodka, chatting and singing karaoke (which Vietnamese people love, much like the Chinese do!). It was really nice to meet people that speak English and have some company after spending nearly two weeks without being able to have a proper conversation with anyone and it was also good to be able to share some knowledge of the roads and routes with them before they left.
Overall I had an absolutely amazing couple of weeks up North and I just hope that things continue to go as well when I head down South and then further West across the rest of SEA. Although I'd love to continue to recall tales and I'm sure you'd love to continue reading (or not), it's 5.10am here and I've been typing for nearly four hours so I shall call it a day and get some sleep.
Bye for now!
PS. You're probably thinking "Four hours? For this? Is this guy being serious?" and I'd just like to say that yes, I am being serious and no, the reason for it taking so long isn't that I have the typing speed of a one armed sloth. Instead, I'd like to thank Bill Gates and the whole team at Microsoft for making an operating system with updates that restart your computer automatically. Needless to say it waited until I had typed out my blog post and then went to brush my teeth before resetting and I, like a silly person didn't bother to save it first. Ah well, smile, breathe, ZzzzzZzz