What with the flight time, and not being able to sleep on the plane, I woke up at 2am. It's fair to say I was a bit anxious and also excited, really looking forward to just getting going. I think by the time I went downstairs at 7am to get breakfast in the hotel, I had packed and sorted my stuff at least 3 times.
Upon getting down to the lobby I noticed the weather was a bit dodgy. It was drizzling steadlily and Joe told me there was a thunderstorm forecast in a few hours time... The drizzle wasn't a problem but Hanoi's streets are very very slippery when wet. Had a nice breakfast at the hotel of ommelette, banana pancakes and fried sweet dumplings in honey. Niiice!!
We met at 8.30 at Flamingo to get the bikes and luggage sorted. It quickly transpired that there was a problem, not enough bikes available. Not sure how it happened, but the fact that it was VN New Year (Tet) meant that many people, including most of the staff at Flamingo, were taking holiday breaks. It took a good hour or so for the bikes to get sorted, in the end we had 5 x XR150's, a Honda SL which Del is riding because it's slightly more roomy and he's tall. Pinky is riding the Sufat (the one we renamed the Man-Fat last year when Del was on it. Looks like the engine cases have been holed and repaired at some point.
Back to the hotel to get luggage loaded up, a quick check-out, then on our way.
Bearing in mind it was a Sunday morning and it was Tet, it was still nicely busy. The drizzle was holding off and it was amusing for me at the back of the group to watch the new lads (Jim, Bryan and Joe) get accustomed to it all. It was a trial by fire for Joe, he's passed his UK bike test some months ago but doesn't have a bike yet, so this was the first time he'd rode at all for a good few months. Fair play, he quickly got used to it and coped with it well. Vietnam city traffic is chaotic to say the least, there's things happening in every direction all the time. Red lights don't mean much so you need to be on your guard continually. I noticed Joe was doing lots of lifesavers (checking over his shoulders) before moving or channging direction, so at the first set of lights I told him to just worry about what was in front. In Vietnam the person in front generally has right of way, to the point that anyone behind is expected to avoid them. It's an arrangement that works well once you understand it. For us westerners who are used to having to keep a view of 360 degrees all around us while driving, that's a hard habit to kick. It also means twice the mental effort keeping track of what's in front and in your peripheral vision, and what's behind you too. That's too much for the brain to handle in these conditions.
On the way out of Hanoi my motocross goggles started to fog up badly after the drizzle, so I put them up on my helmet for a minute while riding, to hopefully clear them a bit. Not long after, I heard the noise of something plastic bouncing and scraping along tarmac. Me goggles!! It wouldn't be a good thing to lose them on the first day so I turned round and rode back, in all this crazy traffic, looking for them on the road somewhere. Must've rode about 1.5 miles or so before deciding it was futile and turning back round again to try and catch the others up.
You know that thing that people who wear glasses sometimes do, when they've got their glasses up on their head and they're searching the room trying to find them? Well now I know how they feel. At this point I realised they weren't up around my helmet where I swore they were, but around my neck instead! What a muppet. I was riding along laughing at myself for that one.
Eventually we went from multi-lane craziness to the only thing worse - single lane craziness! When there's just a single lane in each direction, and the roads are busy, it gets very ropey very quickly - and very very dangerous. Oncoming trucks and buses are the worst of it. Amidst lots of scooter and bike traffic, and people randomly walking across the road oblivious to it all, trucks will just plant themselves on the white line in the middle of the road (if there is one) and try to barge their way through while leaning on the horn. They'll do this regardless of any oncoming scooters or cars or trucks. So you quickly learn that you need to pay at least as much attention on what's in the middle distance heading towards you, as what's going on in your own direction. At one point I saw a truck and a car having an argument, the truck had blocked the car in the oncoming lane and was refusing to yield. How they didn't hit anything oncoming is beyond me.
We stopped after 50km or so in Pho Yen for a treacle-like coffee and a soft drink. Pinky got to work trying to loosen the throttle twistgrip on my XR, and moving Del's brake/clutch levers so they were angled down a bit more. The owner of the cafe, a respectable old gent, then appeared with Pinky, with a long wooden tube a couple of feet long and a bag of some type of tobacco. We have an amusing video of Bryan having a go on it.
By this time it was starting to brighten up nicely so out came the jacket liners and I had the first chance to see what my mesh jacket would be like in the heat. Turns out it's great, you get this cooling breeze which helps considerably, without getting too cold or anywhere near.
Over the course of the next stint the roads got quieter, and we went from the single lane madness to quieter towns and villages. Everyone waves at you, whether they're oncoming on scooters, or standing at the roadside. They recognise that we don't fit in instantly and their first reaction is to smile and wave. I love it, it puts me in a good mood, and feels alien coming from the western world where everyone is guarded and their first reaction generally tends towards the hostile.
After another 50km or so we stopped at a cafe in Pho Luone. Despite the place being very messy, and hopes not being high, the food was actuallly very nice. We had Pho Bo, which is beef noodle soup. You eat it with chopsticks which sounds odd considering it's soup, but you sort of eat the contents and then eat the soup with a spoon if you're still hungry, You put chilli and lime in it, depending on your tastes, and there was also shredded banana tree and mint to go in it. Absolutely delicious!
Once again we were back on the road soon after, and the scenery started to appear. It was to be Jim, Bryan and Joe's first taste of the scenery and hill roads here in Vietnam. We're not properly into the mountains yet but the hill roads run a close second place. The locals are super friendly and curious, choruses of 'hello' can be heard from kids you never saw. Every village is either decorated for Tet or has Vietnam flags hanging from every other tree, or both. The road surface is often broken up, gravelly or just absent altogether. I find it amusing that Jim and Bryan had been asking about the roads and what the surface would be llike, and are now happily cornering through bends that start on tarmac then go to dirt part way through, then back to tarmac again.
There are lots of roadside animals to contend with. We meet our first herd of Water Buffalo chewing their way towards us halfway around a bend. I nearly take out a family of chickens, and Del encounters a suicidal cock on yet another bend. There was also a small pig in one of the villages that did its best to have all of us off.
Eventually we arrived at Ba Be lake, where we would stay for the night. We tracked down a small bumpy hilly road until we arrived at the homestay. Carting your bags up vertical steps is no joke when they weigh this much - I'm packing lighter next time!
After an initial beer and a shower I started to feel extremely nauseous, which I'm putting down to the sleep deprivation and maybe a bit of heat exhaustion during the day. I had to go get my head down for a bit. When I got up the others were many beers ahead of me and apparently there had been traditional dancing going on. I could hear someone strangling the cat on the karaoke a few huts down, which was odd in a place like this.
Tomorrow we go out on a boat on Ba Be lake, before riding through Cao Bang to another homestay in the evening.