Day 5 - Saturday, November 9
Distance - 217km ~ 8hrs (Hanoi - Cho Ra)
Route - North on Hwy #3 to Thai Nguyen to Bac Kan (#3), to Phu Thong (#3), onto Hwy #279 to Cho Ra
Hotel - Thuy Dung Guest House
Weather - Warm and sunny with good temperatures - some minor wind
We were both quite anxious waking up this morning as we knew what we had ahead of us. After getting back from a nice and relaxed tourist cruise of Halong Bay, we knew our 'real' Vietnam adventure was about to begin, on motorbikes. It was the start of navigating on our own, planning on our own, finding places to eat and to stay, and to top all of this off, we had to navigate Vietnam's crazy roads and traffic,... all on our own.
Both of us had our gear mostly packed up the night before so we had our hotel breakfast, checked-out of the hotel and paid our final bill. I was surprised that we didn't pay the hotel a penny or give a credit card deposit via email for reservations before arrival, and we also didn't pay them a penny upon arrival. We stayed at the hotel for x2 nights, arranged an airport shuttle through them and didn't pay a thing. Our Galaxy Premium Cruise was booked through the hotel, and then we went on the cruise for 3 days, and again, we still didn't pay them a thing.
We got our final bill this morning while checking out and then paid the whole lot. The manager of the hotel wanted to assure us that they strive on good service and if we deemed the service not adequate, then maybe our bill would be adjusted - with both his hotel and the cruise of Halong Bay. We were really impressed. We paid up on Visa (which, in most places they will charge an additional 3-5%) and caught a taxi to Flamingo Travel where we rented our bikes.
It was arranged that we would meet at the main Flamingo Travel Office on our morning of departure on the motorbikes, and they would take us to their garage. Once at Flamingo, we got our bags from the back of the taxi, threw our new helmets on, both hopped on different bikes as passengers and were whisked away to their garage. I was on the back of the new 2013 Honda XR 150 that I had arranged before our trip. I was happy to be a passenger for the quick trip to the Flamingo garage, even at 8am, the traffic in Hanoi was hectic.
Once at the garage, I got to work. I wanted to mount my GPS cradle on the handlebar of my bike for navigation. As mentioned, before leaving on our trip, I spent a great deal of time going over other ride reports of travellers who had spent time navigating Vietnam by motorbikes. Some had GPS units and maps, some just relied on maps. I figured for us, the more navigating power we had in our arsenal the better. Though a rider in Vietnam named 'VietHorse' who I found on ADV Rider - the motorcycle forum I frequent at home, I was able to find some great options for GPS map sets of Vietnam. Before leaving on the trip, I chose one, loaded it onto my computer and then onto a Garmin handheld GPS and hoped for the best.
The first 2 maps above (on the left), I had ordered from a local bookstore here in BC. The map book to the right was recommended by Stan who had done a trip through Vietnam with his son last year. This Vietnam map book on the right had very detailed route information of the entire country and was a great resource.
Amanda is fairly new to motorbikes. I took her out a handful of times last summer on my classic '78 CB 400 for riding practice and she was starting to get the hang of it just before the fall. At this time, we were both busy, it got cold in BC and the riding practice stopped. I had looked through the variety of bikes that were available for rental in Vietnam, and it was decided that the best bike for her would be a semi-automatic 2010 Honda Future X 125cc. It was set up almost identical to a bike back home, minus the clutch. It had a 4 speed gearbox, front brake on the right lever and rear brake on the right pedal, gears on the left foot levers, again, the only thing missing was the clutch. It also had handy reminder lights on the dash indicating what gear the bike is in. I paid a bit more and rented a more dual sport oriented bike and was lucky to be offered a new 2013 Honda XR 150 with only 1300km on the odometer.
The guys at the Flamingo Garage walked us through both bikes. They gave us spare tubes for both bikes (as my tire sizes were more unique to Vietnam, this would be more crucial for my bike), they gave us a tool kit for the bikes with basic tools and a chain oiler for my XR (seen in the green bag on the right of my bike), and they also gave us a prepaid Nokia cell phone for emergency. They had their numbers programmed into the cell phone and mentioned that we can call any of the numbers provided at any time for anything. It was nice to pack this cell phone for peace of mind.
Before our Halong Bay adventure and while at the Flamingo Office, I told them of our concern leaving Hanoi, the first time on the bikes, the first time riding in the traffic and the rest. They were aware of our planned route and they suggested we get a 'guide' to get us out of the city. Obviously, they are a rental company who deals with folks like us on a daily basis. Most of their business comes from actual guided tours, but in the odd case like us, some venture out on their own. The guy to the right above was our guide for the first 10km out of Hanoi and he was excellent. He rode super slow, took us for our first fill up (the bikes were empty when we got them) and got us well on our way ~10 km north of town. He didn't speak a lick of english, but it didn't matter. Once at the rough 10 km mark north of the city, I looked at my GPS and knew that we just had to keep on the same road for most of the day. He pointed north, I pointed north, we both nodded, I tipped him a few bucks extra, we highfived, and we parted ways.
We were on our own. It was exhilarating. Within the first 10 km, we were both figuring out our bikes, how they handled, how they braked and just how to ride them.
We stopped about 60 - 80 km north of Hanoi for our first proper break at a road side restaurant. The woman who owned the place didn't speak any english, so we pointed at our drinks of choice in the fridge and she sat down with us at the table.
The bikes looking all shiny and clean on their first few kms.
Lunch just south of the town of Bac Kan. A tasty stirred fired noodle with chicken and veggies, excellent with fresh lime and the MSG loaded chile sauce Chin-Su.
I tried to shoot a few photos and videos the first day with my Canon camera (above), most images were blurred so I resorted to my new iPhone for the rest of the trip, it took way better photos and videos and was easier to only use the one device. The Canon stayed in my bag the rest of the trip. As the iPhone was new-to-me, I was very impressed with the photo and video quality.
Amanda happy with her new steed.
While on our Halong Bay cruise and during one of our relaxing Bia Hoi moments in the lounge chairs on the top deck, we discussed safety and our expectations while traveling through Vietnam by motorbike. We both wanted to come home in one piece and had read some horrible things about travellers getting into accidents while on bikes in Vietnam.
We came up with an 'On-the-Road' mantra of sorts that we called the 'S's' - something for us to think about on a daily basis while on the bikes (I have no idea why we called it a 'mantra' as it was never sung or chanted, but thats what we called it):
1. Safety - (most important of the S's - and as Amanda always says: 'Safety doesn't take a holiday!')
2. Security - (both OUR security and the bikes security - without both of these, the trip can't happen)
3. Speed - (smell the roses,... or the hibiscus flowers, we aren't in a rush, lets take our time and 'reel it in' if we start going to zippy-doo-daa)
4. Sensibility - (always be sensible and aware)
5. Support - (each other - we are a Team!)
6. sFun - (silent 's' - why moto-scoot 'Nam if it isn't FUN! or sFun!)
7. Smile - (with the locals with each other and for the camera - this is easy)
Our final leg of the day took us off the main route north #3 and northwest along Hwy 258 which was an extremely fun, twisty 50 km which led us directly into the town of Cho Ra, our destination for our first evening on the road.
Safe and sound. First day complete. We made it!
And notice Amanda following the 'S's':
She is smiling.
She is having sFun.
We found a hotel in Cho Ra recommended in the Lonely Planet called the Thuy Dung Guest House. It was actually the only hotel we saw in the small village of Cho Ra therefore it was fairly easy to find.
Cho Ra is on the edge of BaBe Lakes National Park - a place frequented by tourists. Our intentions were to spend a day and see the lakes, but instead, we decided to push further north therefore we didn't end up seeing any of BaBe.
Traditional Pho Bo or beef noodle soup. An excellent hot meal in one of Cho Ra's more upscale eateries. They didn't have the merlot we were looking for so we opted for a beer and Coke, it was excellent.