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).

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