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Northern Vietnam

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Sun setting between towering limestone karsts and green fields.

After a few days in Phong Nha, I continue my journey through the rest of Vietnam. Time is running short if I want to follow up on my plan to loop the Tonkinese Alps in the northwestern part of the country. Early in the morning, I am tying my backpack down on the motorbike rack and drive as far as I possibly can; 450 kilometres of dirt roads in 11 hours of heat. Definitely the longest stretch I have been driving in one single day on my journey so far. Occasionally, I stop for a quick Vietnamese coffee and a delicious Vietnamese Bánh Mì. About 100 kilometres before Cam Thuy, I cannot resists to stop and watch the sun setting between towering limestone karsts surrounded by green fields.

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Corn fields stretching all the way to the horizon.

In Cam Thuy, I have a small chat with the hotel’s staff and they seems be interested in my adventurous stories so that they are inviting me for some food and drinks. We take some rounds of light schnapps until they realise that they cannot keep it up. So they decide to take turns. A schnapps for me and a smaller schnapps for one of them, followed by another schnapps for me and an even smaller schnapps for the other. This continues for a while until they figure out that this does not work out for them either. So it is one schnapps for me and  half a schnapps for one of them now. It is too much for me and I have to reject their friendly invitation to stay for a bit longer.

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Woman of an ethical tribe at the local market.

Before sunrise, I am on my bike again. Last night did not make it easier to get up that early, but I am trying to avoid the unbearable humidity during midday. As I am heading north, I am moving from the tropical to the subtropical climate zone. The thick jungle around Phong Nha slowly vanishes as the landscape gets more cultivated on the way to Dien Bien Phu. Cornfields stretch all the way to the horizon where they make way for distant mountains. I am also facing more and more villages of ethical tribes along the road. Some of those ethical tribes wear colourful clothes, others identify themselves by a particular hair style. Landslides seem to happen quite frequently due to the heavy rain;  I am back in long-missed monsoon season again.

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Digger blocking my way to clean up after a landslide.

Once in a while, diggers block the narrow road. They are cleaning up after devastating landslides and repairing the resulting collapsed roads. It scares me a bit when I see their impact and it makes me riding a bit more carefully; knowing that I could actually do nothing once they happen. At some point I arrive in Dien Bien Phu, where the Viet Minh fought the French. By exploring the old battlefield and visiting the nearby museum, I get to know a different side of the story on the Vietnam war. Later in the afternoon, I get lost and find myself at the local market. Wandering back to town, I run into a group other backpackers. It turns out that they are also exploring Vietnam by motorbike and after dinner together we decide to team up for the next days.

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Water buffalo enjoying the monsoon season certainly more than I do.

In the following morning, our gang fills up gas, stocks some Bánh Mì, and heads northeast towards Sin Ho. Eventually, we arrive in Muong Lay for some lunch, formerly known as Lai Chau. Lai Chai was recently flooded by a river dam project, which dramatically changed the surrounding environment. We follow the reservoir quite some distance until we are heading for some winding roads up the mountains. The view is amazing and then it starts to rain, lulling the mountains in thick clouds. After a short while, the roads are flooded so that we decide to cover at a nearby shack. Waiting for quite some time, does not change much. The weather is not getting any better. As time passes, it starts to get dark and we decide to leave since nobody wants to drive in the dark.

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Massive boulders dropping on the currently build road.

It is already dark when we arrive at the only hotel in town. A wedding takes place and the karaoke machine is working at its limits. No offence, but sleeping that night is particularly difficult because of their not so lovely singing. Next morning, I choose a route on my phone and am heading out alone. Quite soon, I start to realise that the picked road is far from perfect. It is currently being built and to this point just a dirt road making its way up the mountains. Massive boulders struck the road, which broke out from the almost vertical wall to the side and fell on the street.

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Cloudy Tram Ton Pass on the way to Sapa.

While riding up the highest pass road in Vietnam the same day, my motorbike fails and looses all its torque until I cannot advance any further. I have to turn around.  Downhill, I am stopping at every house that crosses my way and ask for help. Eventually, I see two guys welding something in their yard; it seems to be the right place for some repairs. After pointing to my bike and firing up the engine a few times to let them know that something is wrong with its combustion, they get to work. Five minutes and six dollars later, everything works perfectly fine again. It turned out that my spark plug was ready to be replaced and did not work properly at this high altitude.

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Flourishing rice terraces in the surrounding area of Sapa.

Because of my detour all the way down and up the Tram Ton Pass, I arrive quite late in Sapa. The city itself is not very beautiful because of the numerous construction sites. It is built along the slopes of the nearby mountains and a tourist hub for trekking tours within the surrounding green valleys that include spectacular views. Eating out in the city is stressful. One is constantly being approached by ethical tribe ladies, who are annoyingly offering home stays and guided tours. Luckily, I am with my motorbike so that I can escape the fuss by driving beyond the touristy tracks in the Hoang Lien national park. Here I can soak up the scenic view of rice terraces climbing their way up the steep slopes with a cup of Vietnamese coffee in a local bar.

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Scary road from Sapa to Hanoi.

Although I would love to stay a few more days venturing even further northeast along the Chinese border, it is time to head to the final destination: Hanoi. My adventure is approaching its end and I have a plane to catch. The drive from Sapa to Hanoi is spectacular. Over the next two days, I follow roads that cut through beautiful panoramas and cross rivers by sketchy boats. On the last 200 kilometres, the road gets busier as closer I get to Hanoi until I ultimately arrive in its hustle and bustle. Driving here is chaos. It is like no traffic regulations exist. The sound of motorbike horns is a constant companion.

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Side streets in Hanoi.

I actually come to like the city with its French colonial style and its narrow side streets though. It is quite a surprise when I meet an old friend from the Netherlands in my dorm; such a small world. With mixed feelings, I am selling my motorbike and say goodbye to a truly amazing country before taking off. The past four weeks allowed me to scratch the surface of understanding a nation, which faced a devastating war. A war whose real meaning and actual significance is heavily criticised. Visiting those places of warfare along the Ho Chi Minh Road and in northern Vietnam simply left me shocked. Despite all the suffering, the Vietnamese people welcomed me with an exceptional hospitality. People that approach me with an open-mindness and warm-heartness. Thank you Vietnam!

An overview of the route.

Some more impressions.

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