I finished my motorbike trip through Vietnam with a two week loop of its northern end. This is the story of that final stage, as told through pictures that I took along the way.
Ba Be National Park must be one of the most tranquil places in Vietnam. It might even win the trophy if the locals ate with their mouths closed.
When the locals aren’t eating, they like to sleep on the road. And take trips on the glass-top lake in longboats.
Leaving Ba Be, and heading north-east, the road drops down into a shimmering farming valley, cut through with rivers and dotted with limestone karsts.
These self propelled bamboo waterwheels are a marvel of make-shift engineering. I wasted at least an hour trying to figure out how they work, then I made a video so that I can continue when I get home.
It really is a beautiful part of the country. I could move there tomorrow. In fact, I’m already packed.
But this was the actual destination -Ban Gioc falls, in Vietnam’s north-east corner.
They are a spell-binding sight. A hobbit wouldn’t look at all out of place, at least no more than I did. If my legs were a little bit longer I could stand with one foot in Vietnam (left), and the other in China (right). They might actually be long enough. I didn’t try.
Heading west again, the road winds around on itself as it follows the southern border of China. The climb begins towards the World Heritage listed Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark
The temperature cools with the altitude, and the bamboo forests become lush. They provide a reliable roadside industry.
The road climbs higher, though fertile terraced hills.
And higher still. The terrain becomes increasingly rugged and farming land is in short supply.
This enormous tree clings to the very top of a limestone karst where there is almost no soil. It towers over the town below. It’s no wonder that the locals regard it as a sacred tree.
It’s a road that dreams are made of..
..unless everyday life involved carrying this sort of load.
The highlands appeared uninhabitable to me – the only natural resources seem to be rocks and fresh air. Yet somehow, the Hmong people make it work. This was one of many highland houses that I passed, built on the edge of the void and walled off like a fortress.
The sign states the obvious. The incredible views are a dangerous distraction on roads that already don’t leave much room for error.
The spectacular gorge in the background is Ma Pi Leng. 800m almost straight down, and only wide enough at the base to let the river slip through.
The valley is about five degrees warmer, and at least five times more hospitable.
I found this fellow early on a very cold morning, close to the where the above picture was taken. He was laying motionless next to his overturned bike and a smashed plastic bumper bar. I couldn’t rouse any response from him, but nor could I find an injury. After a few minutes, he brought a filthy hand to his face, belched alcohol fumes in my direction and started picking his nose. He hadn’t been hit by a bus like I thought. It was a truckload of rice whisky that did it. I left him to sleep it off.
Heading from Dong Van to Ha Giang the landscape becomes increasingly harsh. This belt of the ranges has no sun, no soil, no warmth and very little water. It’s a bizarre landscape – like traveling the surface of a foreign planet.
But dropping in altitude, things become a little bit more hospitable. The sun breaks through and the ground becomes fertile again. It’s hesitating at first..
…but then with increasing confidence.
It’s not too long before wallowing buffaloes and rice paddies start to feature again.
Approaching Heaven’s Gate, and feeling falsely confident about my chances of getting through. Perhaps I should have called through a reservation.
The unfortunately named Coc Pai is famous for its dramatic rice-terraced hills.
It took me hours to get through this stretch. Every corner unveiled a new valley full of complicated swirls that I felt compelled to point a camera at.
The rice terraces continued all of the way to Sapa. That’s also where the sunlight gave up and the low cloud closed in.
Steep hills and a need for haulage…
..leads to dangerous roads full of dangerously overloaded vehicles. Take this truck as an example. The driver didn’t like me taking photos of it. He put down his bottle rice whisky and pipe bong to stagger over and see me off.
This is my only clear shot of Sapa. Mt Fansipan is in the background -3143m of mountain obscured by 3000m of fog and clouds. I was in Sapa for six days and never even got a glimpse of it. Typical.
Because mostly the weather looked like this. I do believe that Sapa is a beautiful place though. I’ve seen nice pictures in books. Apparently the trekking is world class. I mostly hid in cafes blowing on my hands and wearing all of the clothes from my backpack.
Eventually I had to make a run for it. I set off at dawn on a wet morning and rode through rain and mist until lunchtime. This reservoir was a nice place to sit and thaw out. Further on, the conditions cleared enough that I could see my surrounding again.
This roadside cafe out of Son La had dozens of jars full of cobras. I’m not sure what is done with them. It seemed like a strange addition in a cafe. My game of charades with the owner led me to believe that they’re on the menu. I just had a coffee.
This is the last picture I took before I turned my back on Vietnam. It was an incredible trip – almost seven weeks and 6000km through every corner of this beautiful country. But a new country was calling, so I lined myself up at the border crossing at Na Meo and prepared to start again in Laos
The Northern Loop: Hanoi – Ba Be – Cao Bang – Ban Gioc – Dong Van – Ha Giang – Coc Pai – Sapa – Son La – Na Meo (1673km)