The author rests on his motorbike during a roadtrip in the northern mountains by Aaron Joel Santos
Mysteries abound in the mountains of northern Vietnam and fresh insights are precious. In deep river valleys and sky-scraping passes, minority tribes like the Hmong and Dzao guard their independence fiercely, sticking doggedly to traditions that have evolved over millennia.
That’s why I feel doubly privileged when Thi, my Dzao friend and reigning pool champion for the evening in the Hmong Sisters bar in Sapa, takes some time out from annihilating backpackers on the green baize to help me plan a motorbike route for the following day.
“You follow the main road to here,” she says, marking out a junction on a crude approximation of the highway between Sapa and Lai Chau. “Then follow this road up to the right. Just remember, the marker says Ban Xeo.”
As a lover of southern cuisine and banh xeo (sizzling Vietnamese crepe) in particular, I have little difficulty remembering Thi’s directions. After enduring the dusty backwash from the many trucks that ply the main highway, it is a relief when the marker reveals itself.
With the bulk of Mount Fansipan, the highest mountain in Indochina, to my left, I climb out of one valley before stopping at the crest of another to catch my breath and admire the scenery. Unfurling before me is a generous valley nestled in an amphitheatre of mighty peaks. Back in Sapa, the harvest is nearly complete and most of the rice paddies are a forlorn shade of brown. Here, however, the work is ongoing and the valley glows with vibrant yellow hues.
A stray dog has joined me at my perch at the head of the valley to enjoy the view. But man’s best friend has a rival for my affections: the battered, but still beautiful, Honda Win I am piloting around the countryside for the day.
Anyone who has dodged Vespa, Hondas and Suzukis in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City will know about Vietnam’s inexorable link with motorbikes. Yet while the teeming streets of its main cities can test the patience of even the most committed biker, its spectacular countryside offers limitless manna for those who want to live out their Easy Rider fantasies.
The Ho Chi Minh Highway, which dissects the country from north to south, has its advocates, but true biking connoisseurs tend to hit the heady heights of the far north.
Here, in remote provinces such as Ha Giang, Cao Bang and Lao Cai, you’ll find a wealth of minority tribes, some of the globe’s most inspiring landscapes and even the odd tourist attraction such as the UNESCO-accredited Dong Van Stone Plateau in Ha Giang and Sapa itself, a former French hill station that has become the de facto base for exploring northwest Vietnam.
While Sapa, with its numerous hotels, restaurants and bars, is no stranger to development, out here in the countryside change occurs at a much more stately pace. Of course, modernisation is inevitable and it’s impossible to begrudge the pylons bringing electricity to these remote outposts, even when they do encroach on the frequent photo opportunities.
Nevertheless, these landscapes remain timeless. With just over half a day to play with, I don’t have an awful lot of time. Luckily, the 33 km route between the main junction and the tiny village of Ban Xeo is easily negotiated in a leisurely morning’s ride. The fact that the road turns out to be so scenic is another stroke of fortune.
The journey is replete with visual and cultural highlights. As the road snakes down from the valley head in a series of sharp bends — many bookended by surging waterfalls spouting down from the high slopes — the sun burns off the day’s remaining mist.
Outside the village of Ban Khoang, a work team of Dzao men are hard at work in the field, their waiting Hondas loaded up with straw by the side of the road. A little further along in a clearing overlooking yet another beautiful valley, their womenfolk sit in a circle taking turns to puff on a thuoc la (wooden tobacco pipe) as their children lark around them.
The ride itself, meanwhile, is an absolute joy. Shorn of fume-belching trucks — the scourge of Vietnam’s highways — the only hazards on the road are occasional potholes and the odd meandering pig or two. It’s easy, therefore, to discount a zealous application of driving skills and focus on the ever-evolving and ever-magnificent scenery.
By the time I reach Ban Xeo, I’m reluctant to turn back. A right turn will take me to the Red River and the border with China. A left will take me even farther to the north. As enticing as they seem, these new routes will need to wait until another time. There are always more mysteries to uncover by motorbike in Vietnam.