Thursday, December 19, 2013

Ma Pi Leng Pass - one of Vietnam's most incredible roads

Day 8 - Tuesday, November 12
Distance - 55 kms = total for day ~ 2-3 hrs (Meo Vac - Dong Van only ~24 kms)
Trip Odometer =  502 km
Route - Meo Vac northwest on Hwy 4C to Dong Van (then day tour west from Dong Van).
Hotel - Thien Huong Motel - Dong Van (350,000d = ~$15)
Weather - Morning fog and cloud, and then the skies opened up.  Beautiful sunny skies followed by more cloud cover in the afternoon.

"Vietnam - tell us something we don't know... "

We woke up at our usual 6:30 am to hazy skies, overcast and fog.  We knew we had another shorter day ahead of us, so we milled about, watched more CNN and BBC and slowly formulated our rough plan for the day.  Within the hour, the hazy overcast quickly broke into blue skies and sunshine, a very welcomed sight.

We didn't want to leave the comforts of our amazing Hoa Cuong Hotel in Meo Vac (mind you - the bed was a typical Vietnamese 'firm'... pretty much like sleeping on a concrete platform with a few layers of cardboard for cushion, something to get used to).

Leaving Meo Vac - heading northwest along 4C

Once leaving Meo Vac - within a few kilometers we encountered a 'Y' in the road, one road heading up the side of the mountain and the other dropping into another valley below.  Both roads were about as wide as golf-cart-tracks and my GPS stated that we were to stay on the high-road.  A left it was and we started snaking up.

It was gorgeous, utterly breathtaking.  We passed a cyclist grunting up the steep slopes and pulled over shortly after for a photo-op.  Within a few minutes, up pedalled a bloke from Ireland, he too pulled over and we had a great chat.  I immediately told him I wasn't near the man he was, toughing these hills on a pedal bike.... I only had the crack of my throttle to sweat over, such tough work.

Team Ireland and Team Canada - (burly fit man to the left, lazy throttle cracker to the right).

A few minutes later we had a roadside party.  Two men and a woman from 'Saigon' (as they stated) pulled up on two bikes and they immediately started shooting photographs with large lensed cameras, mainly of us sitting there conversing.  The young woman wanted to know where we were all from and what we were doing there.  It was great, a random encounter party on the side of a Vietnamese hillside.  Turns out, the young woman 'Trang' was working with these two guys who shoot photos all over Vietnam for various publications.  She kept asking us what we thought of Vietnam, she spoke excellent english.

After our morning random-encounter-road-side, we all pushed on our individual ways to continue enjoying the spectacular day.  The steep gorges carved through the landscape were incredible.

There was very little traffic and this was undoubtedly one of my favourite days of riding.

>>> I wanted to try to get some video coverage of these incredible stretches of road so I put my iPhone on a mount and then strapped it to my backpack chest strap and hoped for the best.  The video is shaky but gives you an idea of how narrow and windy this road was. 

At the Ma Pi Leng Pass we met some interesting folks while on the viewing platform.  They were all there doing the same thing we were, enjoying the beautiful vistas and views.

I only took a picture of this young monk after he asked US to take our picture first.  I think we all gave a good 'thumbs-up' for the photos.

Traveling west from Ma Pi Leng Pass getting closer and closer to Dong Van Town.

We eventually made our way to Dong Van - Vietnam's northern most town.

As we arrived to town relatively early and we shopped around for a hotel.  The Lonely Planet suggested the Rocky Plateau Hotel - unfortunately the information was quite outdated as this place wasn't exactly what was stated.  My guess is the hotel has gone downhill over the years with little maintenance.  Their prices were high and the young woman at the front desk didn't speak any english.  She put me on the phone with a guy who barely spoke english and it was frustrating to organize to even look at a room.  (The LP also stated that Dong Van doesn't have a bank machine - which it did, I saw one across from the Rocky Plateau Hotel - although I didn't use it).  We decided to keep looking.

Just down the road, near the main intersection of town, we found our accommodation of choice.  It was a family-run place right in the middle of town called the Thien Huong Motel.  It was great, the lobby doubled as a huge shop and the family's living room, all in one.

Nha Nghi - Thien Huong Motel - Dong Van Town.

We unloaded our bikes, loaded our gear into our room and took off around the corner for lunch and then for a fun afternoon of riding around Dong Van.

This was one of Amanda's favourite lunches.  It was a fried-rice special with egg-on-top, complete with hot soup and fresh cucumber.  Delicious.

Cafe Pho Co building - a historic old trader's house, over 100 years old and fully restored.  I just had a quick look inside.

Seeing that we had the afternoon ahead of us, we decided to take a tour on unloaded bikes in and around Dong Van.

Amanda pulled over to shoot a quick video of me snaking and weaving along the roads and she quickly gained a posse of boys that were having a great time.  I found a school below where I too met some interesting characters.

While waiting way down the road for Amanda to load up and say a sad goodbye to all of her recently acquired young boyfriends, this interesting man walked up beside me with a large wooden log by his side.  I gestured at him if I could take a photo and he nodded and posed for the shot.  I then showed him the picture and we had a nice smile and laugh together.  He gestured at me that his skin looked the same as the log he was holding, all rough and weathered.  He appeared to be a hard working man with years of grit under his fingernails.  He had happy eyes and a similar demeanour.  I'm sure this mountain-guru had stories to tell, it was unfortunate I didn't get to hear any of them.

While on our afternoon outing from Dong Van, we kept seeing these loaded down scoots fly past us along the roads.  I'm not sure what they were transporting, but they were all extremely loaded down and as wide as small cars. Bikes of two or three kept rocketing past every now and then throughout the afternoon, all heading towards Dong Van.  As we were a stones throw from the northern borders of China, this could have been a remote hauling route from China, either that or goods coming into Dong Van from Ha Giang city 150 kms further to the south.

Smaller village west of Dong Van

'Bee Wine' was a very popular 'local-speciality' in these parts.  Bee hives dotted the hillsides and roadside stalls were selling random glass bottles of the stuff.

Views from our Hotel in Dong Van

Dong Van market.

That night, we had great success with ordering our evening meal.  This was largely in part on how we ordered, but I also think the cook instinctually knew what to bring us.  This was all agreed upon after I pointed at the dishes a neighbouring table was enjoying.  The meal was able to satisfy our cravings all-round especially with huge plate of greens as we had felt them lacking in our recent meals.  We had a plate of 'morning-glory' which was a fresh rooted green spinach of some sort.  Then, we had a plate of tofu mixed with chicken and another plate of cured pork served with an onion and garlic sauce.  We had our usual bowl of rice and some soy sauce if we desired.  A couple of Bia Ha Noi's aiding in washing it all down, it was an excellent meal.

Our parking for the night, right inside the Hotel lobby-store-front-desk-living-family room.

Next up:  Travelling south to Ha Giang city, the first crash, and a questionable Spa 'massage'...

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Entering Ha Giang Province without a permit...

Day 7 - Monday, November 11
Distance - 78kms ~ 3.5hrs (Bao Lac - Meo Vac)
Route - Bao Lac west on Hwy #34 and then north on Hwy 4C to Meo Vac.
Hotel - Hoa Cuong Hotel - Meo Vac (400,000d = ~$20)
Weather - Another mixed bag.  Mostly overcast and cloud with wet roads in the morning from rain the night before.

We both slept surprisingly well at our $10 palace in Bao Lac.  Unfortunately our nerves were jittery and heightened with a few issues looming over us:

Firstly, we were quite concerned about the Superstorm Haiyan.  We had read online that it was set to hit Vietnam landfall today.  As well, we noticed that the storm direction had changed and was purportedly heading further north than anticipated, heading in our direction towards China.  We were really hoping it would dissipate when hitting landfall and then drop down to a mellower storm status.  

Secondly, we knew that we would have to 'enter' the Ha Giang Province without a permit, then hopefully figure out our permit issue in the town of Meo Vac, our next destination.  We would be well into the Ha Giang Province without permit, but this was our only option as we couldn't obtain our permit in Bao Lac or anywhere else in that area.

When waking up in Bao Lac, it was raining steady.  The weather was horrible and we were expecting it to get worse.  We had a 'family-meeting', discussed options and decided together that we were safe, not in our hotel of choice, but it was a roof over our heads and our best option was to hunker down and hold tight.  If the rain was that heavy first thing in the morning, and with the looming storm coming further north, it might get worse, not the safe conditions we would want to ride in.  We opted to go back to bed for a couple of hours and then re-evaluate later.

At about 10am, I headed out of our dungeon and checked the weather again.  I couldn't believe it, the skies were clearing up.  The clouds were rising, the rain had stopped and I was even seeing a hint of blue in the sky.  I hustled back to the room and gave Amanda the good news.  We packed up efficiently and got on the road north.

We were both still nervous about the storm and the permits, but we plugged north on some spectacular roads and at each turn the views were becoming more and more breathtaking.

An ADV salute to the douche-bag who stole my riding gloves the night before.

The constant rain the night before and that morning had made for wet, slick conditions on the roads.  We took it easy and eventually pulled over for a road side break once things started drying out.

Mystery snacks!  My favourite.

Mystery balls in my mouth (yeah - forget I even said that).

Our short day of riding (~78kms) turned out to be utterly kick-ass, especially after the way it started. The roads dried up and the twists and turns were endless.

Highway #34 west of Bao Lac was a good road with great scenery, but once we turned north onto Highway 4C and on to Meo Vac, both the roads and scenery became more and more unbelievable.  We started to take some panoramic photos and these don't come close to doing this area justice.

At this point we were well into the Ha Giang Province.  I was trying to be as positive and optimistic as possible that we could get our permits at an office somewhere in Meo Vac upon arrival (and not get pulled over by military police en route).  As we had a much shorter riding day, I figured we'd get the whole thing sorted when we pulled into Meo Vac earlier that afternoon.

As we were hunkering down due to the weather early that morning, we spent some of the time looking further online into the Ha Giang permit coming in from the east.  Again, information was limited and instead, Amanda and I found some forums that were horrible to read.  The writing wasn't about the permits, but about the state of the roads in the north amongst other things.  Neither of us are naive, but when you read into negative information online, especially when you can't find much information about an area, it is tough not to take it as the valid truth.  We had read this one thread where a guy was stating how bad the roads were in northern Vietnam the further you headed north.  He claimed the traffic was so bad with the large trucks and narrow roads that there wasn't a place for motos.  It was also stated that all larger vehicles would try to 'run-you-off-the-road' and he even saw a few deaths roadside with larger trucks hitting motorcycles.  When you read things like this online, it is difficult to take them with a grain of salt and not to worry.

(Another ADV salute - refer to my original salute - to this Negative-Nancy and his claims about the roads and traffic in Northern Vietnam).   One word:  ridiculous.

Both of us experienced the exact opposite the day reading these claims about these 'horrible' roads in northern Vietnam.  As it was only our 3rd day riding in Vietnam we were as careful as ever, we tried to continue with this each and every day.  We saw very little traffic, moved right over for any larger vehicles, waved, smiled, and we both had an incredible day.

Another pose with my trusty Honda XR 150.  I enjoyed riding this little scoot, it was good times all around (aside from the butt wrenching saddle).

Pulling into our destination for the day - Meo Vac.

Amanda giving the thumbs up rolling down the twisty mountain into the town of Meo Vac.

The recent edition of the Lonely Planet recommended the Hoa Cuong Hotel situated in the middle of town.  We passed a couple other hotels that looked decent as we pulled into Meo Vac, but we figured we'd have a look at the one recommended in the guide book.  It turned out to be 10 times nicer than our accommodation the previous night in Bao Lac.  It was $20/night, new, shiny, clean, lovely and had crystal clear flat screens with both CNN and BBC for up to date news on super storm Haiyan - perfect!  (Turns out the storm fizzled as it hit Vietnam and mellowed as it worked its way north - we were lucky).

The obvious first question at the front desk of the hotel was asking where in town we could obtain our Ha Giang permits??  The woman running the hotel pulled out a big book from under the counter and said that she could produce our permits for us right then and there.  She asked for our passports and she said she would add another $10 to our hotel bill for the permit.

I agreed and our permit-crisis was over, easier than ever, the permit was now in hand.

After unpacking the bikes and dropping gear in our room, we parked the bikes out back in the hotel's secure parking area and then took a stroll around town.

Ho Chi Minh monument similar to the bronzed statue a day prior.

Looking over at the Hoa Cuong Hotel (larger building two to the right of the bright blue building above)

Meo Vac central Market

Both Amanda and I were quite hungry and with almost choreographed timing, we were waved over to this road-side stall outside the main market.  We sat down and had no idea what we were about to eat.  The young man in the white and the woman doing the cooking kept serving us delectable delights that she was preparing.  The food was super tasty and the entertainment of watching the slow-paced Meo Vac 'life-go-by' was an added bonus.

Kids learn how to ride the scoots in Vietnam at a very early age whether they like it or not.

The first thing on our plate was a spring roll stuffed with greens, spices and beans with a sweet and salty dish of pickled veggies to the left.  We were also served a hot chile dipping sauce for the spring rolls.  They were delicious.

Locals would pull up on their bikes, order a few items and be on their way.  This woman's stall was popular and busy, a perfect place for us to watch life go by.

Vietnamese made - Detech 'Espero' bikes.  That logo looks familiar, doesn't it??

I originally thought they were a Chinese made bike when I took the pictures.

I still question what might have happened had we been pulled over by military or police before entering Meo Vac, before we had our Ha Giang permit.  I already had this statement loaded onto Google Translate that morning, 'Our permits WERE in MeoVac' as though we had them pre-planned or something, just to be safe - who knows if that would have helped??  I honestly don't think Police frequent those roads much and in the entire month of seeing them, they seem to avoid all eye contact with foreigners as you ride past.  Even the Lonely Planet guide book states that you cannot do the northern loop backwards because of this problem.  Why would they offer permits in Meo Vac if travellers didn't ride the roads in the opposite direction??  It is evident that more and more travellers are doing the northern loop backwards and this now seems AOK, from our experience anyway.  We didn't see any police or military whatsoever.  We were fine.  I'm sure the next group of travellers will be fine, and hopefully the next, who knows.  All part of the adventure.  It no longer seems much of a risk to do the loop backwards, and all in all, it was an easy process to obtain the permit in Meo Vac, right at the Hoa Cuong Hotel front desk... done and done.

Next instalment - hard to believe, but the scenery gets even better.  And Dong Van - northern most town in Vietnam (very few kms from the border of China).