In a previous blog post, I discussed my desire to travel to Northern Vietnam leaving Ha Noi behind after my return from Laos in February. I’m not sure if I have completely changed my mind, but I have found ways to challenge my comfortability and stability while in Ha Noi and leaving for an extended amount of time is no longer on the top of my list.
I’ve been in Ha Noi for a month and a half and traveling in total for three months. Now having “mastered” my semi-automatic bike, I’ve been able to travel in and out of the city. This story, White Knuckles, is about a motorbike trip I took a little over a month ago with a group of 10 to go on an overnight camping trip.
Similar to many other events, I heard about the possibility of going on a camping trip from a friend who heard about it from a friend. I had been wanting to travel to Ba Vi, a national park about an hour and a half out of Ha Noi, via motorbike to go hiking for awhile now so I suggested to Alyssa, my housemate, that we go on her day off. Also wanting to leave the city for a bit, Alyssa agreed to come. Alyssa then heard from our friend Lisa that she was going to go camping with a couple people overnight, and invited us to join. Not knowing the destination for this camping trip I naïvely assumed it was Ba Vi and agreed to go.
Waking up at 9 am Sunday morning, I looked at my phone and didn’t have any texts from Alyssa or Lisa regarding our estimated time of departure, so I went back to bed. An hour later I woke up again with a text from Alyssa saying that we were meeting everyone at a café in the Old Quarter at 1 pm. Time to pack. Springing out of bed I ran down three flights of stairs, put on a pair of sandals over my wool socks, and walked to the fruit and vegetable alley to pick up some snacks for our trip. Traveling down the road passing by many women set up with fruit and vegetables displayed in front of where they sat, I arrived at my usual egg lady (I needed breakfast). Her and her friend who’s set up next her greet me with big smiles since I’ve now become a frequent and loyal customer. I then went to the lady who I buy oranges from and then my banana lady. All set.
Returning home, I quickly scrambled three eggs, scarfed them down in seconds, and retreated up the three flights of stairs to my room to begin packing. Time check: 11:30 am. We were only going for one night, but I know from my experience camping that I would need layers and lots of them. Additionally, I had to bring my camera gear… which meant I had to securely pack my camera, tripod, GoPro, and extra batteries. Got it. Now what? A FirstAid kit, a multi-tool, toilet paper, a rain coat, and sunglasses. I put everything in my trusty Osprey backpack and that was that.
After cramming 8 of the 20 bia Ha Nois Alyssa bought into the small compartment in my motorbike, we were ready to go.
We finally got to the café after filling Alyssa’s tank with gas at 1:25 pm to meet Lisa and the others, but we were the second ones there so we didn’t feel bad about being late. It was only an hour and a half long ride and therefore we’d still get there before nightfall, right?
Wrong. Very very wrong.
Others started to show up and what I thought was going to be a small group of five of us turned into a group of 10. There were 6 motorbikes going. 4 of them had two people on them and 2, including myself, rode solo. “So how long should this take?” I asked hoping for some reassurance since it was close to 2 pm.. Their response only discouraged me further: 3 hours.
Where are we going?
This was when I was informed that our one-night camping trip an hour and a half west of Ha Noi in Ba Vi, was in reality, a “3-hour” trip northeast of Ha Noi in Dong Cao.
This was my first long distance trip on my motorbike and I was driving amongst some very skilled and very fast motorbike drivers and I had to keep up or else I’d get lost. After driving over the hectic and unforgiving Long Bien bridge, we made our way to a highway. The speedometer on my bike wasn’t working so I’m not sure how fast we were going, but it was faster than I had ever gone before. We made our first stop about an hour in at a gas station. I was the last to fill up my bike and when I turned around everyone was gone. Fear kicked in and so did my throttle. Zoom. I sped so fast until I caught up with the rest of my bike gang, I thought I was going to either get pulled over or worse, crash.
5 hours later we were on smaller roads, traveling in and out of villages in the dark, dodging cows, chickens, buses and potholes. At this point, I believed I’d never regain feeling in my hands or my shoulders from all the stress I was carrying. We kept stopping for directions and thank the goddesses we were with four Vietnamese women because they were able to do all of the questioning. 6 hours into our ride with very little gas left in my tank we reached a mountainous region. This is not a good sign for someone who is in the red for petrol.
Traveling on a “road” that was maybe 5 feet wide up, down, and around mountains, I began to get a feel for riding in the dark. Despite my new found bad-ass confidence, all I wanted to do was get off my bike. Additionally, three out of our six bike squad skidded out in this last hour of riding. One was because of a random sand dune, and the other two because of loose gravel going around a turn. No one was seriously injured, but everyone was ready to get to our destination.
Still lost, a woman, our savior, from an ethnic group found us, waved us down and then hopped on the bike of some man’s motorbike and ushered us to follow. We did. She brought us to this roadside house and told us to park our bikes here, it’d only be 10,000 VND for them to watch our bikes over night.
With all of us waddling after sitting on our bikes for 7 and a half hours, we grabbed our gear and followed the woman into mountains. We had no idea what surrounded us because it was pitch black. We immediately set up our tents and started a fire so we could cook our dinner. At 10 pm we feasted: corn, chicken, rice, mushrooms, and beer.
Only getting a couple hours of sleep, we woke up at 6 am to watch the sunrise, but we were in the clouds and couldn’t see more than 20 feet in front of us. Alyssa, Lisa, and I started up the fire again, cracked open a beer, and waited for the clouds to lift so we could hike before we had to head back on our treacherous ride back to Hanoi. Once we were able to see a bit more, we noticed the egregious amount of trash that blanketed the ground. With Alyssa back asleep next to the fire, Lisa and I along with a couple of the Vietnamese women found trash bags and gloves and began to pick up trash. With more trash than we’d ever be able to pick up, we were able to fill 4 large trash bags and hoped other travelers would do the same.
Our 30-hour trip, mostly spent driving, sitting next to a fire, and sleeping, with only an hour of hiking, was enough of an adventure for me to fall back in love with my life in Hanoi. I was no longer itching to leave.
I have now returned from Laos, and have decided to start applying for some English teaching positions that will help sustain my life abroad for a bit longer.