Travelling through north Vietnam.

05/02/2020 - 07/02/20201Photography


I'm constantly asking myself is this real or if I'm experiencing, sort of, a movie playing in my head. A typical Hollywood one where the director shares an exaggerated vision of a place to make a point to an average viewer. Yet, what I'm seeing is all real and I'm viewing it from a cab window while driving through Hanoi suburbs in Vietnam after a 17-hour flight (thus doubting my own mind).

The weather is getting all humid and hotter with every few moments that pass. It’s like a toaster that’s slowly building momentum to start burning relentlessly your bread. Fortunately, the ubiquitous AC is working just fine. I continue to watch.

This vivid expression of reality makes me awe. I see detached houses with people outside doing various morning chores. It's like every house was a separate series of personalities in it. People similar yet quite distant at the same time with their quirks and professions. It's a single scene through which I browse voluntarily. 

The doorman. He's sitting next to a narrow wooden door overlooking the street. Dressed in a striped undershirt, shorts and a set of various wrinkles on his naturally tanned face. He indifferently smokes a cigarette watching the cars pass by. Next to him is a cock in a small yellowish (due to the years) cage. The animal is rather quiet, walking slowly here and there (not having much space for a run). Few chickens do the same but outside. They are free on one hand but attached by a thin twine on the other.

The butcher. He's in constant work in front of his thick, old, wooden table on which resides raw meat in different sizes an colours. Not a pretty sight. Not even for the meat lovers. The butcher cuts it in another set of shapes and forms. From time to time, he wipes his forehead as the work is demanding and the morning heat starts to be troublesome. A dog lies under the table (his or just a passerby) as if waiting for a treat but, at the same time, looking bored. Some people walk by and stop for a moment with a thought of buying something. 

The kid. Being everywhere and nowhere at the same time the kid is finding his way through the day to have some fun time. He's making the butcher nervous and depriving his concentration by running back and forth as if looking for something. Kid's mother is hanging fresh laundry in front of the building not minding his behaviour or the nearby cars.

In few days Iwo will arrive from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC for short) and we'll head for Ha Giang. This will be a three-day motorbike ride through local villages and mountain passes. We've already caught some sunsets in May in North Vietnam while visiting Sapa and Ha Long Bay (described briefly below). Both were quite touristy places with picturesque landscapes but this time we wanted to experience something much less crowded and much more adventurous. Something truly raw. 

The film keeps on rolling and more personalities visit my window until we leave the suburbs. I check in to my room near the old district in Hanoi.


The next morning, in the small hours, I get woken up by the busy street life echoing the narrow alley where my apartment is located. I hear motorbikes going back and forth, someone chopping something, a man shouting and one of those bikes that sell food and play an advertisement again and again (you'll visit Vietnam, you'll know what I mean). It's not even seven. I try to sleep to catch up the omnipresent jet-lag but my doings seem futile. I walk to the balcony, curse few times silently and get back to my room. This can mean only one thing - it's time to get up and start working on my project (don’t know yet if I’ll go public with it).

Current capital of Vietnam is something different than former one that was Sài Gòn (now Ho Chi Minh city - read my story here). Less hectic, better looking. More touristic, less of a hustle to see. Different vibe. Two worlds apart. Hanoi surprises with the abundance of green nature, lakes and parks as well as plenty of people selling knick-knacks (which is basically none existent in HCMC). That being said, HMCM has its own character which I’m fond of.

Two days pass and we finally reunite with Iwo. We buy two tickets for a sleeping bus to Ha Giang and find ourselves surrounded by dozens of beds on two levels and a bunch of locals travelling with kids. It’s late evening, the strong blue, LED lights get dimmed. It’s time to get to sleep.

Packing light we heard is the key. We left some baggage in Hanoi and some in the city of Ha Giang. With only one backpack we drove QL4C towards north. We've taken just a few corners when it started to rain. As it's rainy season in August you never know how long the rain is going to last. Ha Giang province is covered by various valleys and hills which can create a specific microclimate making it even harder to estimate the conditions. Thus, we didn't think much and kept going in our cheap&blue raincoats bought from an elder man selling food stuffs on the outskirts of Ha Giang city.

It is hard to catch the locals off guard with their true gestures and mimics. Although they work hard they keep on smiling to anyone taking a photograph.

After a dozen, or so, kilometres the weather changed abruptly and the sun started burning. We were getting close to the middle of the day and it started to get really hot. While driving up the hill we passed many people in the centre of their work day. Few hours of a constant ride later I ask Iwo:

- Should we stop? I’m not sure when we’re going to see another civilised place.

- You hungry?

- Sort of. 

- Me too.

A funny thing is that, when on the bike, you lose track of your body and how it’s becoming famished. It gets you only if you stop for a moment longer. We made a pause in one village that had a potential restaurant. We sat at the table and waited for the service. A woman with a child approached us. We tried to order something but did not manage to understand each other. She left for a minute and got back with her iPhone and someone connected on FaceTime (Apple’s video messenger). This was a friend of her that spoke English a bit. Finally, we ordered but the woman left the place and went to a house on the other side of the road. After 15 minutes we had two dishes brought to us by an elder gentleman from the above-mentioned house. I’ve got a Phở soup which ended up being the most delicious Phở I’ve eaten in Asia. Period.

The conditions of the roads vary considerably. On some, you can gain speed and time while on others it's a dreadful experience where you're deep in mud and slippery stones (I'm talking about DT176 route here) with huge trucks coming at you every 5 minutes on some sections. 

There are times when you are alone on the road next to steep hills or mountains surrounded by fog. When you stop and turn off the engine you can hear nothing but silence with slightly dimmed sounds of nature. You look into the valley and recognise, in the far distance, people picking up corn or local grass. You feel as you have all the time in the world, especially when you don’t have anything booked and you just see where you’ll end up.

On another road, you see rural houses with children playing next to the street with toy-like cars or motorbikes while, at the same time, being passed by the real ones. Some villages are full of children with almost no adults around as if they disappeared. Sometimes the roar of the engines echoed for a brief moment in between the hills. There aren't any road signs. Not much at least. It's just you, the road and the wind - a romantic, or tacky for some, picture as you may imagine.

I won’t dwell further into the details of the trip as I cannot find words that would describe it all - feelings, vistas and people - that we’ve met or experienced. Surely, there are others that probably succeeded language-wise to describe Ha Giang but I cannot and, quite frankly, don’t want to. Some places just don’t need to be detailed or described. They just have to be lived. In three days we made over 300 km on a motorbike through mostly average or bad roads. Stopping along villages and cities for a terribly-cheap meal and awfully good or accommodation with a view. These experiences were quite something contrasting the busy sidewalks of Sapa or crowded pubs and restaurants of Ha Long Bay. 


The bay of Ha Long is an instagrammable place. No doubt about it. Many photographs have been taken here and placed on social media making it a go-to region for Russians, Vietnamese and.. a few Americans. The small Rocky Mountains, as is sprinkled around the waters, expensive cruises and private beaches create a specific environment where dong’s fly and beer sells quickly. 

Yet, there are ways to get off the beaten track and experiment with some less-frequented routes. Some places are accessible only to those who know a man that knows a man - like the above mentioned private islands with supposedly epic parties where you can get only by invitation. If you're into that of course. You can also rent a kayak and swim raw among the islands (it's illegal though) and crash a solitary beach far away from the crowds when you're at it.

You can also rent a scooter with a not functioning speedometer, fill it up with cheap gas and just go to where your heart or mind wishes. In Ha Long, there are not many roads that can disappoint. 

View on Ha Long city and the surrounding bay.

It's not exactly 'legal' to swim around the big rocks in Ha Long Bay. If there is a high tide and the road that was blocking the kayak from entering the larger waters is flooded then consider it luck.

I visited Vietnam three times this year. I’ve seen the north and parts of the south. Iwo has seen the same and more while visiting Hoi An, Danang and other cities located in the middle of the country. There is an abundance of sights, nature, tastes and inspirations. I think I have not yet seen (or explored) a similar country with so much to offer. Russia is quite close to this picture yet my fondness goes to the Vietnamese people for their lifestyle, culture and flora.

These journeys also taught me that there are no situations that may happen on the road where you would be left alone. Even if your motorbike stops responding in a random village. There is no problem that cannot be solved. Each and every situation needs a bit of luck for us to consider it a good experience. Yet, at the same time, there are no good or bad experiences. There are just situations that happen. They differ in terms of the time that needs to pass for us to connect the dots and see what is the true meaning for our lives.

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