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  • Writer's picturevanlafaxine

week 45-46: northern vietnam


Amy: A wall of steamy, humid air hit us as we walked off the plane in Hanoi. And as soon as the sliding automatic doors to the airport parted, a cacophony of noise and chaos assaulted our senses.

bill: whatever tokyo is, hanoi is the exact opposite.  it is utter chaos.  anarchy.  the streets are crammed with thousands of scooters with no regard for any traffic laws, 12 bikes across, no lanes, not stopping for any intersection or light, just weaving unceasingly through the tight mesh of other scooters in all directions.  there are a million horns, all saying “i am here and i am coming through, watch out!”.

Amy: Vietnam is a hectic place - dozens of scooters and motorbikes whizzing by at any given moment, busting their way through traffic with the blare of a horn. Full-sized cars bulldozing down narrow streets barely wide enough for one, let alone two passing vehicles. Little old ladies with straw hats riding bicycles laden with fruit, or flowers, or shrimp, hawking their goods. Shop and restaurant owners yelling, shoving menus in your face while guiding you to one of their small plastic seats in the street. Half torn up sidewalks used exclusively for motorbike parking. There’s no escape from the bustle. It was overwhelming.We navigated the obstacle course of the old quarter’s streets to get to our first meal: a popular-among-locals and Michelin-recognized chicken pho place. Within minutes of sitting down, a steaming bowl of soup was placed in front of me for the low cost of $2. Delicious. 

bill: the people here are also a substantial contrast to the japanese. they are outgoing, loud, friendly, boisterous, welcoming, and happy. none of the same social conventions that apply in japan apply here; on the street there is lots of yelling, laughing, coughing, smoking, hacking, spitting, drinking, eating, singing terrible karaoke, approaching strangers, grabbing you by the arm to get your attention. walking down the street in any market areas you are bombarded with a million "hello!"s trying to catch your attention just enough to be talked into buying something. keep walking, no eye contact or you are going to be stuck.

bill: the roads are wild here. driving on the right side of the road is only a suggestion. put whatever you want on the back of your bike; beer kegs, a whole refrigerator, a 5 person family, 16 foot long construction materials, a whole live hog, the sky is the limit. pass blind. wear a medical mask, but don’t wear a helmet and certainly don't put one on your kids.   

Amy: Chaos aside, there’s something really nice about the streets being a meeting place for so many. In the mornings, school kids hanging around a bahn mi (Vietnamese sandwich on a baguette) stand, waiting for breakfast. In the afternoons, folks sit on stools sipping tea and (very strong) coffee. At dinnertime, the sidewalks are full of patios with families and friends eating bowls of pho (traditional Vietnamese soup) or bun cha (pork, broth, spring rolls and vermicelli noodles), or sharing a burbling hot-pot dinner. And in the evenings, tables of rowdy men laugh over pints of bia hoi (super cheap locally brewed draft beer). We didn't see many public spaces like this in Japan. 

bill: the old quarter is intensely dense, with thousands of small stores crammed into 10 foot storefronts, basically stacked on top of each other, all selling knock off north face and patagonia products.  people wander the streets selling fruit off bicycles or shoulder carriers. even the densest part of downtown is still a rainforest jungle, with giant trees, ferns, mosses and other greenery hanging overhead. there are also basically no western type amenities in the city centre, no grocery stores, no corner stores, barely passable pharmacies. everything is a market or a shop.

the air is hot, humid, thick, and heavy, holding in it an abundance of aromas.  i had imagined the dense city centres of vietnam being a miasma of diesel fumes, smog, cigarette smoke, sewage and sweat, but in reality the air is intensely fragrant. aromas of roasting meats, herbs, spices, pho, and flowers are ubiquitous, held in the dense, soupy air like a broth. in short, the city smells amazing.

ngoc son temple

Amy: We felt beat after our jam-packed week in Japan, so we took it easy our first day. We started late, got some bahn mi for breakfast, then walked down to Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s basically a large shallow green pond in the middle of the city with walking paths all around. It was hot, over 30 degrees, so I got a breakfast popsicle (mint lime!) then we visited Ngoc Son Temple on an island in the centre of the lake, accessed by a picturesque red bridge. PSA: every temple of every religion in Southeast Asia requires covered shoulders and knees to enter. I was wearing a tank top and shorts, so had to borrow a long shirt from the temple. Lesson learned. A student offered to give us a free tour so we agreed. He told us about Vietnamese culture, the significance of the altars in many shrines (a way to remember/commemorate past ancestors - people bring offerings, things that they think their ancestors could use in the afterlife, like cookies, and beer), and the importance of turtles as a symbol of longevity and intelligence. Afterwards, we went to Cafe Giang - the inventors of egg coffee. The sweet silky foam is like a dessert.

vietnamese egg coffee - invented when someone was trying to remember how to make a cappucino and put an egg yolk in. it is so frothy, thick, and intensely coffee flavoured that you eat it with a spoon, much more of a dessert than a beverage

half a duck, to be wrapped in herbs and dipped in sauce

Amy: We went out for a “fancy” dinner: duck spring rolls accompanied by half a duck, and some veggies. Our most expensive meal yet: $25 for both of us, including beer. To end the night we explored ‘beer corner’, a super busy area where locals and visitors alike sit on little plastic stools outside of seemingly hundreds of bars and restaurants drinking bia hoi. We found one patio with pretty lanterns to sit at for a beer, then drank a few more under an awning at another bar when it started pouring. We watched the hectic Hanoi streets pass by around us, and a rich Korean guy bought the whole bar a round of beer.  

bill: hanoi boasts “the cheapest draft beer in the world”, called “bia hoi”, it is basically a corn beer made daily and delivered daily on the backs of scooters, light in alcohol and high in popcorn taste, it will run about $0.50cad per pint, but even that might be a little too expensive for the quality. 

bill: just walking around hanoi is an experience in itself.  the sidewalks are essentially for every purpose except walking.  primarily - for parking endless piles of scooters which completely occlude any passage.  secondarily - for eating and drinking; tiny red plastic stools and tables pepper the sidewalk in front of storefronts, populated by hoards of noodle slurping patrons, or boisterous bia hoi drinkers.  thirdly, the sidewalks are for food prep and doing dishes; it is not uncommon to see people draining pots of broth, butchering meat, cleaning vegetables, and doing the whole lunch rush’s worth of dishes right on the street corner.  and lastly- for everything else; for keeping your chickens, motorcycle repair, arc welding, sandal peddling, food frying, butchering, you name it.  this all means that walking on the sidewalks is a rare treat, meaning the rest of the time you are forced to walk right in the street with the millions of weaving cars and scooters.  crossing the street is an even more harrowing affair, since there are no real traffic lights or stop signs, you simply have to walk into an active intersection full of cars, busses, and hundreds of scooters driving full bore in every direction at once and walk in a predictable, steady fashion, don’t look up or make eye contact or you will hesitate and faulter and get run over, all the while just hoping that people continue to weave around you and not run you right over. i still haven’t gotten used to this. 

bill: we are here first and foremost to eat.  one of our most common meals here was obviously pho.  pho is a noodle soup, usually made with intensely aromatic beef broth (with cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, coriander, and clove), thin slices of beef, rice noodles, and topped with fresh herbs (coriander, thai basil, scallion). a bowl of pho back home will run you about $20cad all in, here it is about $1.50cad.  and insanely good.  

the next most broadly known vietnamese dish is the banh mi, a combination of french colonial cuisine and local.  this sandwich consists of an impossibly crunchy-on-the-outside-fluffy-on-the-inside baguette, filled with pate, sliced pork, pickles, soy and fish sauce, mayo and chilis.  the bread is the real star here but the liver pate and the pickles really tie it all together.  again, less than $2.

Amy: As with our visits to other major cities, we opted to do a free walking tour. We visited the Ma May Heritage house first - a preserved home from the 1800s. The coolest part about these old houses: they have little open air courtyards in the middle, filled with ponds, gardens and trees (!!).

Next, we visited the Hoa Lo prison, originally built by the French to detain Vietnamese political dissidents during their occupation of Vietnam in the 1800s. The same prison was later used to hold American POWs during "the American War" in the 1960s. We learned about the horrendous treatment of Vietnamese people during both wars, in contrast to the lenient treatment of US pilots in the Vietnam war (it was referred to as the Hanoi Hilton because the Americans were so well taken care of).

broken glass bottles cemented into the tops of fences is a common method of security here

bill: this all served as a stark reminder of the weight that history has put on this country.  with a vast history of colonial oppression at the hands of the chinese, french, and japanese, northern vietnam finally won sovereignty in the 1940s with ho chi minh and the communist party, eventually unifying the country by the end of the vietnam war in 1975, and moving from colonial oppression to, well, authoritarian oppression.

the temple of literature

Amy: Our final stop was the Temple of Literature, which housed a university around the year 1,200. The complex had five courtyards with gardens, koi ponds and temples. It was originally built to train mandarins to serve the king, but now is used as a confuscian temple and hot spot for university grad photos. 

bill: there seems to be some directionally proportional relationship between the degree of historic oppression and poverty of a people and the deliciousness of their food. i guess when there is nothing else in life to enjoy, you may as well go full in on cooking with what you've got.  we live a very comfortable life in canada and what have we ever invented? pineapple on pizza? speaking of which, we also had the best italian style pizza of my whole life (it came recommended multiple times otherwise i would have been eating more noodles), where they put a whole burrata on top of your pie for $5 (usually over $20 worth of cheese).  

seriously the best pizza of my whole life

bun cha - hanoi’s unofficial dish consisting of pork in a delicious tangy broth, accompanied by fresh lettuce and herbs, and vermicelli noodles. you pick up the herbs and noodles and dunk them in broth. also a michelin spot, we saw rats running around the kitchen here but the food was incredible

most restaurants are not much more than a hole in the wall with plastic seats out front, and do their dishes in the street

bill: the currency here is all fucked up.  a bowl of pho will cost you 50,000 dong ($2cad).  the average salary in vietnam is 6 million dong per month.  a car will cost you trillions. the dong is the second lowest valued currency unit in the world. “why can’t you just cut a few zeros off to make things make sense again?” is a question i found myself asking, but it turns out that the government tried that in the 1980s and it resulted in inflation so bad it peaked at 747%, which is the complete opposite of the intended effect.  there are resultantly no coins here and everyone carries around massive wads of cash, many in large denominations of 200,000 or 500,000, with most monetary conversations simply omitting the last 3 zeros (just saying “25” for a beer instead of “25,000”). i still find myself having to squint and count the zeros on our bills.

it is seriously cheap to travel here. food is often only a few dollars a meal, nice hotels (by developing world standards) are around $15cad per night, taxis can be single dollars within town, $7-8cad to get an hour across town to the airport.

train street

Amy: One evening we went to find train street - a narrow alley lined with houses and shops with train tracks running down the centre. Many cafes have set up storefronts along the corridor. The draw - enjoying a coffee or beer mere inches away from a passing train. We sat down at a cafe, got a few beers, put our beer caps on the tracks and waited. The cafe staff folded up our tables and gave us instructions (basically, if any part of your body crosses this line, you die). We twisted our knees to one side, a bell rang, and the train came barreling past, inches away from us. Too close for comfort! Another train came a few minutes after, so we watched again from the opposite side with a bit more space between us and the train. We got a cool flattened bottle cap as a souvenir!

no way this would fly basically anywhere else

bill: overall, hanoi is a very unique experience, but very, very crazy. the most chaotic place i have ever been. it is exhausting. but so, so cool, and the food is to die for. worth the stop for sure.

ha giang

bill: vietnam's northernmost province, ha giang is tucked into the tall limestone mountains (called karsts) on the border with china. a remote area, populated by a large number of previously isolated ethinic minorities which are now connected by a series of roads. winding, twisting, turning, helter-skelter roads. through the mountains. if you can see where this is going.

riding a motorcycle through the mountains of northern vietnam is probably the coolest thing i have ever done. the roads are insane. hundreds of hairpin switchbacks over dozens of mountain passes every day, not a straight section of road in the whole province. winding through ridgelines and valleys, over rivers and some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, this was a real highlight of the whole year for sure. the roads are wildly unsafe, this is expert level motorcycle driving for sure; every corner is completely blind and has loose gravel scattered all over it, many potholes, and potentially an oncoming bus taking up both lanes. the same rules of the road apply here as in hanoi: none. locals drive in the middle of the road, in the wrong lane, pass blind around corners, etc. horns are a way of life, i ended up using mine about 6000 times a day, playing a little song as i approached every blind corner to let any oncoming brick truck know about my presence in case they are barreling down 20% grade switchbacks at 80km/h in both lanes. there are lots of single lane wide sections where you are forced to cede right of way to oncoming trucks by driving right off the road. there are also many sections where landslides have completely washed out the road and you are left fully dirtbiking over loose baseball sized rocks strewn across the loose, slippery mud. very fun.

Amy: It's a six hour bus ride from Hanoi to Ha Giang. We decided to ride in comfort and reserved a “limo bus”, which ended up having actual beds for everyone. Luxurious! What they don’t tell you about the sleeper buses - it’s impossible to sleep because the driver honks incessantly at other drivers every few seconds, and swerves so sharply it feels like you’re going to tumble out of your bunk! We made it in one piece, but it was an interesting omen of what was to come.

ha giang -> yen mihn

look how winding these roads are

bill: the town of ha giang is actually a much bigger town than i expected. i thought we were going to getting off the bus in the middle of nowhere, extremely rural, chickens and cows on the road etc. but ha giang is big enought that it takes about 15 minutes to drive across. lots of hostels, lots of restaurants, lots of bike rental shops, lots of tourists. it seems like that tourism in this area has exploded in the post-covid boom. headed up to ha giang, everyone we talked to heavily suggested that we book a guiding company as the route was very dangerous, but in the end we did it on our own and we were very happy that we did so; the guided tours are in huge groups, mostly young, loud, drunk europeans, all stopping at the same lookouts, same restaurants etc, which takes any serenity out of the equation. many of these people hire "ez-drivers" to drive the bikes for them while they sit on the back. and reasonably so - we heard of so many accidents while we were here. this is probably at least in part because many other people choose to drive themselves despite this being their first time on a motorcyle, and this is probably just about the worst place in the world to learn to drive a bike. we did our best to stay clear of the groups as much as possible, moving at our own pace and stopping to appreciate the views where there was nobody else around. and there are lots of places to stop.

Amy: The first day, we rented a motorcycle (a proper one, not a scooter), and strapped on our consolidated backpack containing everything we’d need for the next few days (valuables, change of clothes, rain gear). We left everything else behind at the hostel. I squeezed into a narrow space between Bill and our bag, then we hit the road.

Unfortunately, we left at the exact same time as a bunch of giant tour groups, so we were caught in a decent amount of traffic for the first few hours. It was cloudy and hazy in that first day, which obscured some of our views, but nothing could dampen our excitement weaving up and down the rural mountain roads, through jungles. We climbed switchbacks to a view of heaven’s gate pass, then wound down to a small town Tam Son for lunch where we discovered a delicious northern tofu dish with tomatoes. This became a staple for us over the next few days.

bill: the road from ha giang to yen mihn is definitely the worst part of the trip; this area is populated enough that there is a fair amount of traffic on the road and the locals drive with absolutely no regard for their own lives let alone anyone else's. the road itself is mostly okay, paved, few potholes, lanes (at least theoretically), lots of switchbacks, but every once in a while you hit patches of road where landslide has completely covered the road and you are essentially dirtbiking for a few hundred metres.

bill: the traditional vehicle of choice here is obviously a scooter, but we rented a honda xr150, a dual sport motorcycle (basically a dirt bike, a smaller version of my bike at home), and i was very happy we did. dirtbike handling and suspension came in handy many times everyday. the top speed of a fully loaded 150cc bike is about 70km/h, but due to the winding and twisting of the roads we were barely able to get up to 40km/h if we were lucky. amy sat on the back and navigated while i intensely surveyed the upcoming segments of road for potholes, large rocks, small rocks, children, chickens, cows, brick trucks, oncoming scooters, etc .

two lanes - wow!

Amy: We landed at a homestay in Yen Minh, where we shared a massive family dinner with 10 other travellers. Yen Mihn is a small, dusty town along a strip of the road, far more the vibe i was expecting. cows on the road, corrugated steel huts, etc. We got to know everyone over some "happy water" (a kind of homemade rice moonshine) and karaoke, and ended up travelling with a few folks over the next few days. 

yen mihn to meo vac

Amy: We left late the next day (maybe slightly hungover from the happy water, what can I say), stopping every ten minutes to admire a new viewpoint: an overhead view of snaking switchbacks, the moonscape of the Dong Van plateau, and the sweeping vistas, limestone karsts and dramatic canyons of Ma Pi Leng pass. We stopped to hike the Ma Pi Leng skywalk. The trail hugged the steep cliffside with a sheer drop on one side until it reached a rocky peak. We were losing daylight, so we hurried onward to our homestay in Meo Vac. Our family dinner was much quieter - just Bill and I.

bill: now we are getting into the meat of the loop. far more remote. taller mountains. denser jungle. the roads here usually cling to the sides of sheer cliffs with no guard rails and 100s of metres of verticle drop off the side. this was probably the most dramatic section of the route, riding over the ma pi leng pass where the nho que river cut an enormous chasm into the mountains. it is dizzying. we did a small hike up to the highest point on the pass, where i had to help a very day-drunk local old man who had fallen and hit his head. it's probably all the happy water.

progress from town to town over the 4 days of the trip was very slow, only about 100km per day took us from morning until sundown since the driving is never faster than 30km/h and we would stop every 2 minutes, check out a vista, drive literally 10 metres and be confronted with another stunning and entirely different view.

classic northern fare - com rang - fried rice, fried noodles

meo vac is probably the biggest village in the isolated parts of the north, with a proper market, school, small restaurants, but it still feels very small, rural, and underdeveloped compared to hanoi or even ha giang. there are people slaughtering chickens on the street corner and the young children are so curious to see white people that they run up to us and ask to be lifted up. meo vac is also a lot more isolated from the tour groups, maybe they dont make it this far - our homestay was completely empty except for us and we didn't see any other tourists walking around the market in the morning.

meo vac

meo vac to du gia

bill: now we are getting to the really, really rural stuff. the tour groups definitely don't come here; for one - the road is absolutely fucked. the first 2 hours of the day driving out of meo vac was full on dirtbiking. no pavement. more pothole than road. loose baseball sized boulders everywhere. i am thoroughly suprised we didn't drop the bike at any point. we had about 110 km to go that day, and after 2 hours we had only gone 20km. i was getting concerned that we should turn around. eventually the road quality improves a little and you can pick up some speed, and the rewards for your perseverence are extremely high.

one of the most impressive things about the sheer veritcal limestone cliffs is that they are not only covered in jungle, but also in agriculture - somehow people have been cultivating rice on the sheer sides of cliffs for hundreds of years here. the striations add another surreal element of beauty to the landscape, and these are probably the coolest rice paddies we have seen.

bun cha

Amy: We arrived in Du Gia (our last stop) with enough time to check out the local waterfall. After getting lost down village roads for an hour, we finally arrived at a very underwhelming waterfall and small pool. I had a quick dip then we left. As if to redeem our disappointing afternoon, our homestay ended up being the best one yet - big family dinner, lots of other travellers, and lots of happy water. We ended up drinking, laughing and playing cards late into the night. 

high stakes card games

du gia to ha giang

bill: the road from du gia to ha giang was mostly beautiful, smooth pavement, lots of switchbacks but mostly empty so no worries about busses coming around blind corners. very, very small 20 person villages along the way. there were however a few completely fucked parts of road, worse than anything so far, 20% decline loose boulders over mud and potholes, i dont even have any photos because i was so focused on just getting through them without throwing us both off the bike. just about as bad as the worst atv trails i have ever ridden back home. they looked a lot like the middle part of this, except the whole road:

Amy: Our final day. We left early again in case we came across more bad roads. Surprise, surprise: we did. Bill navigated us down a road that was essentially a sidewalk that would sporadically disappear into a rocky off-roading track.

We stopped for a while at a Sunday market, ate lunch, then rode above the clouds that had settled in the valleys. Despite the obstacles, we arrived back in Ha Giang (where we started) in good time to return the motorcycle, shower at the hostel, and eat dinner with a new friend before catching our night bus back to Hanoi. 

sunday market - the h'mong people here all dress in traditional dress everyday with extremely vibrant colours

what a buttress

Amy: The 3 night, 4 day journey ended up being a highlight of the year. Doing it ourselves (versus as part of a tour group, which I originally wanted to do) gave us the flexibility to stop whenever we wanted, and take things at our own pace. But it was only possible because of Bill’s experience driving motorcycles. Above all, I’m grateful we made it through unscathed. We heard many stories of people wiping out, breaking bones or needing stitches (or worse). Doing it together was perfect - Bill got us safely around, and I could navigate, document, and make new friends along the way!

bill: there was somewhat of a mild type 2 fun element to this trip. the whole time driving i had been so concentrated on the road that i couldn't really look around and so concerned about making it through the trip without sliding out off a cliff or running head on into a brick truck that it was only once we got back to ha giang and that i was fully able to relax and reflect on how awesome this was. the views were surreal. the roads were insanely fun to drive. the people and the villages so hospitable and lovely. the travellers we met so cool. i am both relieved to have made it through alive and sad that it is over.

here is this week's video:




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