IndoChina Adventure 2009 - Week 03 Chapter : 07 Oct ~ 13
Fascinating as Hanoi was, I still felt relieved to leave
the Capital City of Vietnam. We saddled up the bikes early
on a Sunday morning to avoid traffic. and to make sure that
we would make it to our destination of Sapa before dark.
Last year on this stretch, we had particular problems with
mudslides and impassable roads, but this year was an uneventful
ride with good roads. There was no lack of pigs, geese, chicken
and people on and along the road, and so it is in Vietnam,
full of color.
From the time we reached Sapa, 1,400 meters (or 4,600 feet)
above sea level, our journey will be taking us through remote
areas in the mountains of northern Vietnam and Laos. Meeting
the Hill Tribes of Northern Vietnam is a definite highlight
on our IndoChina Adventure, and I hope that you will enjoy
the stories and many photographs below.
Until Next Week,
Helge Pedersen, Founder
|Day 21 - Muong Xai, Laos - Mac
Where has the last week gone?
a motorcycle in Vietnam and Laos - a wonderful adventure
so far! Only one typhoon, Typhoon Ketsena. On the one day we
were deep in it, probably up to 50 mile per hour winds on the
road and saw thousands of broken rubber trees. There were even
a couple of large trees across the road in front of us, blocking
our way. We made it to Hoi An one day late because of a closed
road along the way. Did have a short boat ride in downtown
Hoi An(!), and saw many homes and shops still under 2 to 3
feet of water. It had already come down about 4 feet. Mud and
water had destroyed many streets. A shame because Hoi An is
a World Cultural Heritage town, which used to be the main water
port of Vietnam since the 17t century.
On to Hanoi, which is the capital of North Vietnam and has
more of a communist feel about it than Saigon. We visited the
Museum of Ethnology, which gave a history of the many diverse
ethnic groups and some examples of the many styles of houses
which we have seen. We also visited the outside of the Ho Chi
Minh mausoleum and the small basic house that he lived in.
Also saw the Hanoi Hilton, which was the prison where former
presidential candidate John McCain was held for 5 or so years
during the Vietnam War. It also had a French guillotine left
over from the 1800's.
During our tour that day I asked our guide why there was so
much pollution in Hanoi. The "Communist" answer was
that there was a lot of dust from the construction going on
. . . Ha! Constant scooter traffic everywhere combined with
diesel smoke from trucks and car traffic.
A true highlight of the trip so far was an overnight visit
to Halong Bay. This area has been voted one of the 10 natural
wonders of the world. It is comprised of almost two thousand
large rock outcroppings and islands located in the Tonkin Bay
not far south of the Chinese border. Spent the night on our
own private Chinese junk, which included three meals and air
conditioning. Also nearby where several fishing villages where
people lived in small houses on the water. Very basic living.
On to Sapa, which is a small highland town at 4,200 feet above
sea level. We had a hike to visit some of the Hill Tribe villages
just outside of Sapa. That day, we walked through several of
them and had a group of locals follow us for the whole 6 or
7 mile walk. At the end, they wanted to sell many of the wares
that they had made. Some jewelry, handbags, etc. I spend a
whopping $12.00 and made three of them happy.
The following day, we had a day off from the official itinerary
and I hired local girl, Bam, to take me on more strenuous 8
mile hike or "trek" as they call it. She spoke excellent
English, although she could neither read nor write it. When
we started out on a steep water buffalo path in the jungle,
I asked if we were lost. Bam said that we were but could find
our way. About 2 hours later we came to the first village where
Bam said they had probably never seen any “Westerners”.
I said “Hello” to some, but not a word of English
was understood. Many of the children under 5 had no clothes
whatsoever. When they went to kindergarten, they would start
(wearing clothes). Bam said that this village had just received
electricity for the first time about 3 years ago.
This whole area, like a lot of Vietnam, grows rice. This area
is different because it is in the mountains and over generations,
the people have terraced the mountain sides to grow their rice
in small wide paddies stepped up the steep mountain sides.
Someone said that perhaps as many as 80% of the Vietnamese
have something to do with the growing or processing of rice.
The "real" motorcycle section of the trip so far
has been a 2-day stretch from Sapa to Dien Bien Phu, and on
to our first day in Laos in Oudomxay. The first stretch included
dirt and rock/gravel roads with lots of mud, some of it deep
and slippery, with many pot holes and BIG mud puddles. Also
a couple of temporary road closures while they were "repairing" a
The second day had more of the same, but also included two
bamboo bridges, each probably 100 or 150 feet long. They were
probably no more than 3 feet wide over a river that I didn't
dare to look at as I crossed.
These were followed by a suspension bridge over a wider river
which was probably 250 feet across. Not to be outdone, we had
two further short river crossings where the water was probably
a foot deep for a short section, and at the end had a ferry
barge across another river.
At the end of that day I think I had more mud on me than on
the bike, but there were two long “adventure riding” days
enjoyed by all . . . .
One last note - earlier in the trip, we visited the war museum
in Saigon (Hoi Chi Minh City) and saw many photos of the Vietnam
War. Ugly scenes from both sides, but with the old Communist
slant against the Americans. Did see many photos of the results
of the results of Agent Orange. Along the trip, especially
early on, we have seen numerous real people along the road
or in the cities with arm and leg deformities. Very moving
. . . .
|Day 18 - Sapa, Vietnam - Peter
The Top 5 Things To Do in Sapa
5. Go for a walk through the market. Challenge your gastrointestinal
immunity with a cheap meal in the market. Be sure to use
lots of hot peppers. Stay close to the hotel for the next
4. Take in the human menagerie over a couple cold Tiger
beers from a street side café. Haggle over the price of beer – don’t
pay more than 25,000 dong (that’s $1.40) for a 500 ml
bottle. Just because this is a tourist town doesn’t mean
you want to be ripped off.
3. Take a trek through some Hill Tribe villages and experience
a truly unique culture. Make friends with two or three ladies
dressed in colourful traditional garb, only to discover them
to be the some of the most tenacious sales people you’ll
ever meet. They even have the pout down to a fine art. End
the day paying too much to buy some handmade hemp goods that
you (or the lucky recipient of the souvenir at home) will probably
2. Put on a jacket after sweating for weeks in hot, humid lowland
Vietnam. At 1,400 metres elevation , Sapa can be downright
chilly at night. The town overlooks a beautiful valley that
can only be appreciated from the pictures in the hotel lobby
because the place is continuously enveloped in a dense cloud
1. Be a big spender and blow $6.00 to rent a 100cc Russian
Minsk two-stroke motorbike with a wobbly front end and no brakes.
Ride it like a dirt bike through water crossings, steep rocky
hill climbs and descents, and discover little villages in the
middle of nowhere. Marvel at the fine Soviet technology that
enables this poor little bike to keep going and going and going
. . . .
|Day 22 - Luang Prabang, Laos
- Frank Baughman
This expedition continues
to enthrall and reward . . . . The flow of the traffic is
like rapidly flowing water. Appears chaotic and scary at
first (and as you can see in the photo below, sometime
is!), but when one invests in joining in, it's fun and it
really works. Almost choreographic in its working.
The people are warm and friendly. Language is no barrier in
reaching out to another. They are too young in tourism for
the 'gimme' syndrome. There is no carry-over from the 35 years
ago war. They like Americans.
The country that they are concerned with (as aren't we all)
is China. They feel the Chinese dump their crappy consumer
goods onto them. Actually they don't have a corner on getting
dumped on. There is also a territorial dispute between Viet
Nam and China going on about some offshore islands. China is
the bully. I think back to the "Domino Theory" prevalent
35-45 years ago. Now their most threatening enemy is another
Communist neighbor . . . not the US.
The Lao people is so gentle in their demeanor. Laos is 90%
Buddhist, creating a very benign atmosphere. Villages appear
somewhat more primitive.
Currently, we are in Luang Prabang, which has to be near the
top of my favorite places so far.
'Nuff for Now,
|Day 23 - Luang Prabang, Laos
- Debbie Christian
A Re-cap of Our First Three Weeks
We departed Hanoi early this morning. The
traffic was still crazy leaving town. Two hours later
we were finally headed up into the hills with a change of
scenery and slightly cooler temperatures.
The rice fields were replaced with tea plantations. Stunning
scenery. We took it slow so we could enjoy the views
and we drove winding roads all day. The bus drivers and
truck drivers are insane. The vehicles belch black exhaust
and slow to a crawl on any incline, but watch out for the downhill
grades!! Suddenly they are on your ass and honking
their horn. They will pass on a blind curve or single
lane road. Remember, there are still a multitude of motos,
cows, bicycles, kids, carts etc. in their path. It
doesn't matter, just get the hell out of the way. It
is especially fun when a car is passing another vehicle in
the opposite direction at the same time. Oh, and add to
the mix, road construction, piles of sand, gravel or piles
of rice or wood on the sides of the road.
One needs a cold beer at the end of the days ride!
There's nothing like a Beerlao (or two!) at the end
of a hard day's ride.
Relaxing on the Mekong River (but hello, where's
We arrived in Sapa late in the afternoon. What a beautiful
place! It reminds me a little of Cusco, Peru (but smaller). We
had a late lunch in the market, two bowls of rice noodle soup
(Pho) and two large beers cost us $3.60. Ya gotta
love it! Then off for a foot massage ($3.60 each).
FYI, the Dong is the word for Vietnamese currency . .
This place has a wildness to it. It's in the mountains and incredibly
beautiful. The muddy waters have given way to clear mountain streams
and large boulders.
Harrison and I decided to hang out instead of going on the Hill
Tribes visit. We took our dirty laundry across the street that
advertised "by the kilo" services. A family operated
business with three daughters and mom hand washing the clothing, line
drying and folding it for you. Dad and friend sat at the table
drinking tea. He insisted we join him and we visited for 1/2 an
hour. No English was spoken, but we had a great conversation with sign
language and laughter.
It was the worst tea I have ever tasted, and the father must
have seen my puckered up lips at one point because he opened
a bag of guava candy and insisted on giving us a handful. When
we returned the next morning to pick up our laundry, we had
a repeat scenario including the uncle coming to meet us and
the daughters stroking my hair and letting us know they did
not have husbands. Evidently, the color (!!) and texture
(fine) of my hair was considered quite beautiful to
them . . . go figure!
We spent the rest of the day exploring the market, roaming the winding
streets, eating (yum) and staving off the local Hmong tribe girls selling
their handicrafts. They know how to work you. They ask you your
name, “where you from?” and “you buy from me?” “Make
promise lady”, “I have baby”, on and on and on . . . Their
crafts are very nice, but it's a bit overwhelming!
Harrison, Pete and I decided to rent local motorbikes. Harrison
and Pete rented the Soviet Minsk (oil and gas mix) and I had a lovely Honda
urban people mover. I love that bike. Four gears and no clutch. It
would go anywhere, and believe me, we went everywhere. We had a blast,
one of those "best days". Oh, and I actually ended up buying
souvenirs from the local Hill Tribe gals. Like I said, they're everywhere
Pete ripping it up on a Soviet Minsk (Harrison in
My newest friend from the Hill Tribes.
Sapa to Dien Bien Phu
OMG [Editors's Note: for those not familiar with English “testing” acronyms,
that’s Oh My God]!! The mud. And then there's
more mud. Deep mud. Slimy, thick and gooey. My heart palpitations
finally subsided when I realized it was never going away, and I just had to
deal with it. Mud on corners, mud going uphill, mud going downhill, mud
splashed on you from the large trucks and buses crawling along passing you. It's
definitely a good thing that I am not a girly girl!
Harrison has a slight mishap but he and I recover it before
anyone comes around the corner! This is typical of the
road entering Laos.
This was a very long and challenging day for us. Road
construction, road debris and still the endless array of
pigs, chickens, cows, kids and motos. At times the
road was nothing more than a rutted path and at others your
choice was deep slimy mud or large chunky rocks. Oh, did
I forget rain? Off and on again . . . just enough to
add to the mix.
Oh, but the scenery!!! I believe the area is called
the Tonkinese Alps. The road got more mountainous
and curvy, tracing vast river valleys with stunning vistas
and small villages that added a National Geographic-like
feel to it all.
Again, another one of those "best days".
Dien Bien Phu to Laos
The Powers That Be have smiled upon us. We wake to a rain free
day! This is the day when we know the road turns to gravel as we cross
from Vietnam into Laos. Vietnam has been a good journey and given us
many wonderful memories, but we are ready for the next part of our adventure.
Crossing the border went very smoothly. And yes, almost immediately
we were on gravel. There are really no words for me to describe this
day except that it was a BLAST!! We crossed narrow bamboo “foot” bridges
that were about 36"'s wide with no railing, then a wooden bridge and two
stream fordings. The road was challenging but reaffirms the reason we
choose to ride a GS.
Yes! I forded this this on my
bike. This could
Helge crossing one of the
bamboo foot bridges.
Laos Border to Luang Prabang
Good day . . . hit the bridge . . . more on that later . . . all good. Our
hotel is overlooking the Mekong River. A great place to spend the next
Our hotel in Luang Prabang, on the Mekong
River (with a cute guy "gone local").
Luang Prabang, Laos
|Day 24 - Vientiane, Laos
- Debbie Christian
Coming into town late on the day of our arrival into Luang
Prabang, we have to cross a steel bridge with a wooden platform
that is narrow and made for motorbikes only. It is
divided into two lanes, oncoming and forthright. I
forgot how big my "behind" was (come on now, the
behind, not mine!) and clipped the divider on entrance. Well,
as any of you with a “big butt” know, when you
even just bump something, it will throw you sideways.
That's exactly what happened, and I continued on while scraping
my other pannier on the steel railing, lost my right mirror,
and just was totally embarrassed and angry.
I was fine, my bike was fine but my panniers looked like
someone had hammered them! We continued the final few
kilometers to the hotel and met up with Than, Chax (?), and
our driver. I had to have the left pannier hammered
on with a tire iron just to remove it, and gave both to our
driver, imploring him to find a machine shop and make
them look "like
The next afternoon (after cruising the Mekong) they magically
appeared in the hotel lobby and I gladly paid the $15.00
and put them back on my bike. Harrison fixed my mirror (removed
his and put it on my bike, that's true love!). We have
a replacement mirror but forgot the additional screw/nut
part that is needed. He will try to put a "knock
Now for the rest of the story . . . First day out of
Saigon, we were behind miles of backed-up traffic. It
was wet and rainy and the road was basically "under
what we like to call totally gone to “****”.
Harrison had gone on ahead and I was riding with Helge
and Frank. After finally passing miles of traffic ,we
were headed up the hill when I hit a chuck hole that could
swallow a Volkswagen. My skid plate hit and my front
tire went sideways and threw me down. Helge and Frank
were there in a flash and picked my bike up before you could
blink. I was unscathed (there's a reason for wearing
full riding gear and a proper helmet) but my left pannier
When we arrived in Nhatrang we took the pannier to a body
shop, and the next morning they magically appeared in the
lobby "good as new".
Now, I have promised my loyal guides (especially Helge) that
my panniers have learned their lessons and will be intact
for the remainder of their journey (me too!).
After a lengthy consultation, the resulting decision -
And, as you can see, it really was "no problem", the repaired
pannier looks as good as new!
|Day 23 - Luang Prabang, Laos
- Helge Pedersen
I met Chi on a trail
during a hike through her village south of Sapa, in northern
Vietnam. She was sitting with a friend outside her house.
I asked if I could take their pictures, and that is where
our friendship started.
With perfect English,
this 13 year-old girl was curious and charming. She loved
to look at the pictures I had taken during our tour here
the previous year, as I was now handing out prints as gifts
to people in the village who I had photographed the previous
year. It was then I had the idea that perhaps this young
girl would like to try my camera.
After a crash course in the use of my Canon 5d MKII digital
camera, with a 35mm F1.4 lens, Chi went out into the village
taking pictures. The group was eating lunch at the home of
a Hill Tribe family while this was going on, and in between
shoots, she would come back to show what she had captured.
When it was time to part, Chi and I agreed to meet at our hotel
in Sapa the next day at 9AM. We spent all that following morning
walking the Saturday street market of Sapa, taking pictures
and meeting friends of Chi.
From the very first pictures she took, I could see her talent
and her joy of working with the camera. When I asked why she
took her first pictures of her girlfriends in the rice field,
she responded that she loves nature and the color of the rice
The following pictures are pictures taken by Chi, and I will
take these and many other pictures which she took and put them
together in a book that I will bring to her the next time we
return to Sapa. But to make the wait a little easier for her,
I will attempt to send her a copy and hope that it makes it
to her village in northern Vietnam.
Pedersen - Images from Vietnam & Lao