Spring was heating up into summer, and I had weathered my third winter in Hanoi. Before the heat became unbearable however, I had laid plans to visit a place that had intrigued me for over two years. A week’s long holiday would give me the chance to finally see it. So, breaking with my usual tradition; I carefully began to plan my trip to the mountain province of Ha Giang. Also, I decided to find someone to travel with me. Fortunately, I was able to convince my friend Dean, who is also an American, to come along. “I won’t be able to leave Hanoi until after work on Tuesday.” Dean told me, “I’ll take the night bus, and arrive early Wednesday morning.”
Monday morning, saddled up my motorcycle and headed north out of Hanoi to Ha Giang City. The traffic was its usual intensity for the first hour – yet I was in the countryside after an hour. To my relief, the weather was cooled by the clouds. Yet this also gave me intermittent rains that kept me in a continual cycle of donning and removing my rain suit. At about lunch time, I began to drive through valleys with low limestone hills nearby. The roads weren’t crowded; but the steady stream of charging trucks kept me on guard.
A friend of mine named Freddie had told me the trip to Ha Giang City would take two days; but as the day wore on – I began to believe that I could do it in one day. On through the countryside I pushed my bike till I was only 70km away at 3pm. It seemed most appropriate to send him a message, “Hey Freddie. You said it takes two days to get to Ha Giang. It’s only gonna take me one day, ‘cause I’m a freakin’ road warrior!” Before 5pm, I rolled into the town, nine hours and 317km after setting out.
I checked into a dumpy little hotel along the riverside, and took a look around town. Ha Giang City is a small town situated in a valley surrounded by low limestone mountains and divided by a river. Most of the town ran parallel to the river, and it had the usual assortment of shops and houses that many Vietnamese cities have. Ha Giang Province is a tourist destination of some popularity, yet it seemed off the usual tourist route – I only saw about three other westerners that whole evening.
Tuesday was a day of waiting. Dean, along with his girlfriend, was supposed to leave Hanoi in the afternoon and reach the town at about midnight. Initially, I thought of taking a day trip; but low clouds held rain that seemed to be on the verge of breaking loose. Instead, I went to get my bike washed; then got a haircut. I wandered around the town, till evening. Dean called me with a status update, “It took us a long time to get out of Hanoi traffic, and now were stuck behind a very slow truck that we can’t pass on these windy roads. I don’t think we’ll arrive until the early morning.” “Don’t worry,” I told him, “hotels are fairly vacant here. We’ll head out to the mountains tomorrow when you feel rested and ready.”
When I awoke on Wednesday morning, I walked out my balcony overlooking the river. The clouds still laid low overhead. I was beginning to worry that this would be a week-long ride of mud and rain suits. Our company of three finally met up for breakfast and fortunately, everyone was rested enough to set out before 10am. At first the road wound along one side of a river valley through the usual limestone hills and rice fields of northern Vietnam. But after forty minutes, we broke out onto a wide valley with higher mountains surrounding us.
Within minutes of entering the “alpine” valley, the clouds disappeared and the sun shone brightly. The road led slowly upward, and deposited us in front of a large karst slope. We were entering a national park, and the road climbed steeply – buses straining up the switch backs. From this point on, the scenery became one amazing mountain view after another, the altimeter kept rising till we were on the plateau – over 3,500 feet. We drove through flatter terrain, but soon reached another line of mountains and began to climb again. Reaching the pass and heading down the other side. Before us was a small town in a flat valley, and the famous “Quan Ba twin mountain” – that was more like a hill.
After getting to the bottom of the pass, we drove across the flat valley floor, when to my consternation I saw a police truck ahead. Already the police had pulled over eight motorcycles of western tourists and their gear. As I rolled up to the stop, I could see the policeman single me out with his baton – Dean was of Chinese descent and his girlfriend Natalie was Vietnamese – they rolled right by, unnoticed; which meant I was on my own. I pulled to a stop and shut off my engine – I knew what was coming and was ready. “Hello” he said to me in English, I handed him my Vietnamese driver’s license and responded with a smile, “Chao Anh.” He seemed a bit surprised and switched into Vietnamese. “You speak Vietnamese?” “Only a little.” “Where are you from?” “I’m from the USA.” “How long have you lived in Vietnam?” “I’ve lived here about three years. Two in Hanoi and one in Da Nang.” “Great! What’s your job?” “I’m an English teacher.” “Oh OK, so do you like Vietnam?” “Naturally, I love it (as if I was going to disagree with him on anything).” “That’s great, that’s great! Enjoy the rest of your trip,” he told me handing back my driver’s license. I took it back as casually as I could and said with a smile, “Thank you very much.” As my bike roared to life, I looked over at the tourists – no Vietnamese language, no driver’s license – “See ya, wouldn’t want to be ya. . . suckers,” I thought to myself as I headed into the town of Quan Ba to rejoin my travel companions.