HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Hitting the road: Ha Giang to Yen Minh

We arrived in Ha Giang town, which is 320 km (200 miles) north of Hanoi, after a seven hour bus ride up from Vietnam's capital. The town, the capital of Ha Giang province, was bustling in the early evening, with plenty of trucks and minibuses trundling down the main drag. We had begun the bus trip at the rapidly-growing western edge of Hanoi's urban sprawl and ended in a town surrounded by low mountains. I contacted a Vietnamese guy named Johnny who lives there and rents out bikes, letting him know that we would need two for the following morning. Somewhat worryingly, Johnny said his wife would be sorting the bikes out for us, as he had been in a serious accident and was in the hospital. So the guy who is the expert was in a crash - not exactly what we wanted to hear before setting off into unknown territory.

The next morning we met up with Johnny's wife and she showed us the selection of bikes on offer. Neither Anthony or I know how to drive a fully manual bike, and luckily there were two green Minsk rip-offs that were semi-manual, just like our bikes in Saigon. We drove back to our hotel, strapped our bags to the bikes,  filled up on gas and headed north out of town, excited to see what was in store.
My bike at the edge of Ha Giang town.
The bikes had thick, knobby tires and were far heavier than the Waves we are used to riding, so getting a feel for them took a little while. Turning took a bit more effort, and the road felt different under those wheels. The throaty rumble coming from the exhaust pipe sure was nice though.

The road, called Highway 4C, ran along a muddy river through a valley running out of town. Low clouds and mist obscured the tops of most of the mountains. Soon the road began climbing up onto the Dong Van plateau through a series of tight switchbacks. This is where we first realized that the bikes were actually rather underpowered for their size. I went up the first couple of rises in third gear, only to end up crawling to the next curve. Soon enough we got into the rhythm, clicking down into second as a turn approached, feeding in the gas as we rounded the curve, and then gunning it up the incline, a satisfying roar trailing behind us. The view at the top of the climb amazed us, but by the end of the trip this would become a fairly pedestrian panorama.

The road then spat us out onto a small plateau, where sat a miserable looking town of squat concrete buildings, before immediately climbing up further. The tarmac was slick with moisture, thanks to the light rain that had fallen earlier and the ever-present mist of northwest Vietnam. Fortunately our tires had all kinds of grip, so traction was never an issue. We dropped into Quan Ba, the first sizeable town of the day, and stopped for lunch. A friendly waiter who obviously wanted to practice his English helped us out, though I had been eager to use my Vietnamese.
View before the descent into Quan Ba.

We blasted out of town on a flat, broad stretch of road before spiralling further downhill on a series of tight hairpins. Ramshackle houses surrounded by chickens lined the way, and we began noticing people wearing the traditional outfits of the ethnic minority groups that populate this corner of Vietnam. Corn fields and rice paddies fanned out into a narrow valley with a river running through it. We reached the end of the descent and entered the valley, where the mountains that hemmed it in reached up into the mist.

The valley was followed by more tight climbing, and eventually the road opened up onto some amazing scenery, with low hills spreading into jagged lines of mountains. Pine trees covered this area, adding a scent to the air that you don't get very often in Vietnam. We were becoming more comfortable with the bikes by the minute, eating up corners, gunning down straights and carving up anything slower than us. The sun was out, and the driving was glorious.
The only obstacles were the occasional herds of goats and cows sauntering down the road. Children waved as we drove by, and adults looked confused. There's no such thing as tourism as Ha Giang province. This exhilarating stretch of driving brought us to another spot overlooking a town nestled at the bottom of a valley. This had become the pattern: hit a town, climb out of it, drop back down into another, repeat. This was Yen Minh, our destination for the day.
The descent was a rough, dusty one thanks to construction, and we rolled into town around 3pm, dirty and a bit sweaty but already in love with our bikes (who we had decided to name Tobias and Gob, two characters from Arrested Development) and the driving. We checked into one of the only guesthouses in town, and from our room we could see karsts exploding out of the earth on the edge of town.
After decompressing we wandered around town, had a great dinner, and had a man offer us prostitutes through a very graphic hand gesture. We declined and retired for the night after a great first day on the road.

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