Into the Rice

Vietnam's remote hill country dishes out the ultimate high

It's 30 vertical feet from the edge of the road I'm standing on to the bottom of the ravine. Looking beyond my boots to where scrubby brush fights for a toehold in the ragged clumps of earth, I figure 30 feet isn't that deep, er, at least as far as actual cliffs go. More importantly, though, I'm wondering if the guy I'd just seen tumble over the edge is still alive.

Four days earlier, my first impression of Vietnam had been just as dramatic. A taxi ride from Noi Bai airport was an exercise in fear management--an out-of-the-gate demonstration of Vietnam's decree for driving: Use the horn, not the brake. Somehow I survived the harrowing 45-minute drive, and as the Old Quarter district of Hanoi exploded around me like a low-tech Times Square, I thought, "This is going to be one hell of an adventure."

The Plan
Shaped like an elongated S, Vietnam is roughly the size of Italy and is bordered by China to the north and Laos and Cambodia to the west. Dense forest and scrub blanket the mountainous and hilly landscape of the country's northern sections along the Chinese border, where I'd be traveling.

After the hell-ride from the airport, I met up with Digby Greenhalgh, co-owner of Explore Indochina, in the Old Quarter. The Aussie tour guide came to Vietnam a decade ago and, with mate Dan Dockery, began offering guided motorcycle adventures to hearty foreigners. His trip plan seemed simple and extremely flexible. Our quartet would pick up 125cc Minsk motorbikes in Hanoi (the displacement laws in Vietnam limit bikes to 175cc) and run a big loop heading northwest to Sapa, a focal point for hill tribes in the area. Then we'd hook eastward along the Chinese border, eventually bending back to Hanoi.

It sure sounded simple, anyway, only Greenhalgh hadn't clued us in on the utterly miserable condition of the roads we'd be traveling on in Vietnam.

Baptism By Bike
We set off through the narrow streets of Hanoi trying to follow the only rule of the Vietnam road that matters to motorcyclists: little vehicles yield to bigger ones. Still, I couldn't think of a better way to explore Vietnam than by bike; the flexibility and mobility offered by two wheels is unparalleled. Our band of riders was small (two Australians, a Sri Lankan gent and yours truly), but we quickly found a common bond in relentless humor and a whatever-will-be attitude. This came in handy from the start, as we turned off the main road to take what Greenhalgh called a "cool little detour" to find ourselves plowing through a giant field of thick mud.

Here it became apparent why the itinerary was so flexible. Almost instantly, our bikes sank up to their hubs in the belligerent goop, as much as two feet deep in some places. Tiny local women trudging by gave us huge smiles, then, unsolicited, dropped their sacks of rice and helped push our bikes out of the muck. Red-faced from the effort, our self-esteem in the toilet, we were relieved when a man approached, chuckling, "No go! Road closed!" We rolled into Nghia Lo late that night, rattled but relieved.

Despite their funky appearance and penchant for odd noises, the two-stroke, single-cylinder Minsks we were riding are the workhorses of Vietnam; their stout construction and simple technology make them ideally suited to the unpaved surfaces of the country. And the fact that Minsk repair jobs require nothing more than a paper clip and duct tape made them priceless on our tour.

Feast For The Senses
Before my trip, I'd made a pledge to eat like the locals. This is usually not a problem for me, until one night when I realized I was looking at grilled snake kebab. Quite tasty, in fact, once I screwed up my courage to try it. I was also able to try a lot of new riding techniques while touring Vietnam. The second day out we crossed a "bridge" made of loose bamboo that was merely resting on boulders at either end. We literally had to creep over the swaying framework, but, amazingly, we made it across. Beyond that precarious quest the landscape came alive with glorious rice terraces cascading down hillsides. The shaped, green landscaping is everywhere in Vietnam, and the harvest was in full swing when we traveled through the region in September.

By the time we checked into a simple hotel in Than Uyen it was dusk. Here, $20 gained us accommodations, a couple of meals and even a few drinks, but for the average Vietnamese, that's two weeks' pay. I sat on the narrow platform bed that's standard issue in Southeast Asia and peeled off my crusty gear. A fine layer of dirt covered my skin head-to-toe, but I slept like a baby.

For breakfast we ordered "the usual," which in Vietnam is "pho," or beef noodle soup. Pho is a perfect example of a balance of the five flavors: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and hot. The broth was delicious, even when we ate it perched on tiny, child-sized plastic chairs. Out of Than Uyen, we encountered a bewildering array of the colorful tribal people who almost exclusively populate the highlands. Our path along Route 32 was a picture-perfect series of turns zigzagging into the Hoang Lien Son mountains as we entered tribal Dao (pronounced Zao) territory. The Dao were out in force on the water-filled rice terraces, working against the clock to finish harvesting, their red hats catching the light. The road wound spectacularly up to Tram Ton Pass, with majestic views of Vietnam's tallest peak, Fansipan Mountain. Next stop, Sapa.

Cliff Diving
Sapa is a magical hill station originally built by the French in 1922 to escape the heat and humidity of lowland Hanoi. With the government now encouraging tourism, foreigners flock to the old town to enjoy the rugged scenery and the lively street market, which attracts villagers from surrounding hills. Embroidery and jewelry of the Hmong and Dao were on display, and the sight of dozens of minorities in traditional clothing was unforgettable. The Red Dao attire was particularly stunning. The multilayered garments were beautifully decorated with colored scraps of cloth, and women of all ages wore embroidered red headdresses.

We forged into Sapa's main valley along a footpath that'd become a watery mess. I struggled to avoid the muddy ruts and streams and maintain a smooth pace. Entering a narrow road cut into the mountainside, it was hard not to be conscious of the valley hundreds of feet below. At one point we emerged from heavy brush to discover that the road had turned from grass to mud--the thick muck taking up most of the rideable area ahead. The only real "dry" option was a thread of dirt winding along the edge of a ravine. Rather unbelievably, the rider in front of me on this path abruptly lost momentum--and his balance--and teetered right over the edge of the cliff. He just disappeared. Dumbstruck, I scrambled off my bike, scanning the pile of rocks below for signs of life.

Finally, a single hand stretched up from behind a bush on the side of the ravine, waving for help. Somehow, the rider had gotten snagged on the scrub, preventing him from tumbling down the steepest part of the canyon. Relief flooded over me as local villagers gathered to watch us slide down a dirt chute and help our injured friend to safety (he'd only broken an ankle). The group of locals then offered to drag the twisted bike wreckage up from the brush. One of the villagers laughed, "This is fifth rider to fall in two year!"

More Mysteries
At the Nan Ma pass, mudslides had washed out large chunks of the path and we had to pick our way through the troughs. A dark crust caked our legs. To add insult to injury, a grinning local on a moped weaved past, dressed in khaki shorts, a white shirt and sandals. There wasn't a speck of dirt on him, and as he sailed by we couldn't help but notice the full-size refrigerator strapped across the back. In this country, I was no longer surprised by anything.

Humbled and grubby, we checked into a cheerless Soviet-style hotel in Xin Man, looking forward to a hot meal and a shower. I have only vague memories of dinner, however. One of the highlights, I'm pretty sure, involved a transparent vat of rice liquor known as ruou (pronounced zeal). Four young men had invited themselves to sit at our table, a brave show when you consider that they spoke approximately seven words of English. They placed a thimble-size glass in front of me, filling it with the mysterious liquor. I didn't want to be rude, so I drank. Then, I gagged.

The next morning we pushed into no man's land. Ha Giang province is one of the country's last frontiers because of the politically sensitive border it shares with China. Unlike the northwest, entry into this region requires written permission from the government. Our permissible journey linked the towns of Yen Minh and Meo Vac, and the scenery was stupendous. We twisted through valleys of thatched huts and limestone karst formations--there's nothing flat in this part of Vietnam. The natives have used this rugged terrain to their advantage in centuries of conflict; the sight of a building flying a red flag with hammer and sickle reminded me who won the latest war.

Two words you quickly learn to recognize in Vietnam are "bia hoi," generally seen on a crude sign scrawled in magic marker. It's a sort of Vietnamese draft beer widely available in small dives for around 25 cents a liter. We squatted on miniature chairs on the sidewalk after the ride and drank out of chipped plastic cups. The brew went down smoothly, which was good, because dinner that night was a choice of weasel or goat. No wonder Vietnam's wildlife is in precipitous decline.

One hundred kilometers from Hanoi, the monochrome morning mist I came to associate with the north disappeared. The roads became crowded once more and we found ourselves swerving in and out of ditches to avoid huge trucks barreling our way. But our grimy group somehow made it back to the Old Quarter to celebrate our safe return. All agreed it was an incredibly rich journey--and our butts would have been toast without quick-thinking Greenhalgh in the lead.

Heavy Sigh
It's strange which things our minds choose to remember. Grand statues fade, names of roads slip my grasp, but recollections of unexpected encounters will stay etched in my mind forever. The scent of tender snake fillet and the taste of ungodly rice moonshine are just a few. In its current state as a budding tourist destination, Vietnam is a true adventure for the taking.

Tour: Eight Day North Vietnam Tour
Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
Tour Company: Explore Indochina
Contact Info: +(04).972.1607,
Cost: Varies depending on group size and number of days; this trip was $1040
Tour Includes: Bikes, fuel, meals, accommodations
Time Required: 7-10 days, but you can customize your trip length
Riding Season: All year round; November-April is cooler; May-October can be unbearably hotvAvg. Mileage: 100 miles per day
Gear & Goodies: Washable long- and short-sleeve shirts, rain gear, gloves, waterproof boots
Other Activities: Kayaking, hiking, caving, backpacking
Roads: 3 stars
Scenery: 5 stars
Eats: 3 stars
Digs : 3 stars
Bikes : 2 stars


Vietnam's been opened to tourism fairly recently, and its scenic charms are many. Still, it's a Third World nation, so don't expect freeways and five-star lodgings, especially in the north. The people are enormously friendly, however, and the country is generally safe for foreigners.

Explore Indochina will arrange a tour based on your riding experience and preferences. While there are paved roads in Vietnam, they're often the exception, so get details about the itinerary before you go. Tour leaders will adjust to the group's pace.

Traffic, especially in cities like Hanoi or Saigon, is utter chaos. Consider this ringing endorsement from Lonely Planet: "You can hire a motorcycle if you have an International Driver's Permit, but you'll need nerves of steel." (Communist Vietnam doesn't recognize that permit, so save your cash.) A well-developed sense of self-preservation is mandatory-- native drivers routinely flout traffic laws. Riders use both sides of the road, ride three or four to a bike and rarely yield. If you have solid experience and good reflexes, you'll probably be fine in the city, but take a guide the first time out.

Things are mellower in the countryside, but you'll have the occasional kamikaze truck and free-ranging water buffalo to contend with. Best to keep a finger on the horn, hand on the brake and helmet on your head at all times.

Although you'll get a map from Explore Indochina, think of it more as an impressionistic drawing. Even with the intricate military topographic maps the guides use, expect some backtracking and asking of directions--road-building in the north is a slow, ongoing process. But then, that's why it's an adventure.

Explore Indochina offers several passenger-worthy tours. If you do opt to bring a companion, make sure they'll be comfortable with up to eight hours of seat time on occasionally rough dirt roads. Request a bike with an upgraded saddle--some of the 125cc Minsks we rode had perfectly plush seats and stout suspension, while others offered hard slabs suspended on tired old springs.

Tourist Visa & Passport
You'll need a passport and a tourist visa just to step foot in 'Nam; get both far in advance. A visa from the Vietnamese Embassy can take more than six weeks to process and you're not always guaranteed approval ( Remember, too, to check if your health insurance has coverage overseas. While malaria isn't a huge concern, it's recommended that you get the full range of hepatitis immunizations (check with your doctor). Drink only water from sealed bottles.

The Vietnamese language is beautiful but can be difficult to learn for Westerners. Even worse, it's atonal--mispronounce one syllable and you'll get the weasel instead of the chicken special for dinner, as we did one night. It's best to let a guide do the talking.

The exchange rate in February 2004 was approximately 15,700 Vietnamese dong to one U.S. dollar, which translates into amazing bargains on food, lodging--pretty much everything. Problem is, it can be difficult to find currency exchanges, so change your money in a main city like Hanoi or Sapa. Fortunately, everyone loves the American dollar--just be aware of the exchange rate. It's better to carry cash, and one credit card as a backup. Don't count on ATMs, and be preparedto haggle.

If you're looking for adventure, Vietnam is a good choice. The Explore Indochina operators allow you to experience this amazing country up close and personal, and it's bound to be memorable.

Just finding a passable road can be a challenge in Vietnam's northern hill country. But the rewards are priceless.
Hmpng hill tribe people populate much of the northern higlandsl entire families can be seen working in the fields. The Hoang Lien Son mountains loom in the background.
"Pho" - a soup common in Vietnam as burgers and fries in the United States.