Premature apologies for the lack and poor quality of photos. Believe it or not nice, mirrorless cameras don’t love torrential rain.
So after Cat Ba things changed a bit. Our beautiful sunsets disappeared and were replaced with grey, cold, and a truly continuous rain. The quote from Forest Gump says it the best. “One day it started to rain, and then it didn’t stop for four months”. Even in all this wet Athena and I still managed to cover some 1200km, riding through mountain passes along the Ho Chi Minh Highway, and make it down to Hoi An in just about 8 days.
Coming out of Cat Ba we took the much less scenic route through Hai Phong. Being a MAJOR port town the roads were pretty beaten up, and endless streams of big-rig trucks rolled through the streets. Luckily the rain hadn’t quite started yet and we got through the city and out to the countryside without any incident. 220km later we pulled into a nice little hostel (Trang An Eco hostel) in Trang An. Just outside Ninh Binh, Trang an is an area surrounded by limestone cliffs akin to Ha Long Bay on land. In the last 25km we had traded passes back and forth with another traveler on a Honda Win. Right as we turned down the little road to the hostel he happened to pull in behind us. We both had come from Cat Ba that day and decided to chat and grab a beer down by the little lake next to the hostel. And that’s how we met Chris from Holland. He’d just done the northern loop and was also heading south. We spent the evening playing pool with our new friend and enjoying one last good sunset before the clouds began to roll in. At dinner that night we started to hear the light pitter patter of doom.
The next day we decided to check out the sights around Ninh Binh in between intermittent drizzles. But even in the grey it’s quite a beautiful place. The limestone cliffs are a beautiful backdrop to the many pagodas that are littered through out the outskirts of town.
The Bai Dinh pagoda, which is really more of a complex of old Chinese inspired architecture, was pretty impressive. After our swearing off of temples for a while, the pagodas and houses around them were a nice change of pace. Later that day we went into town to get the oil changed in the bikes and got $2 Vietnamese haircuts. Definitely not the best but it was nice to get some hair off the old brain case when it’s hot. (Little did I know it would be very cold the next few days).
The next morning we saddled up and after 10 minutes of me trying to start Athena’s bike anyway I could think of, we finally realized the kickstand kill switch was still engaged (I tried starting it on the center stand so I’m not a complete idiot). And that was the beginning to the coldest wettest day so far. 200+km down to a middle of no where village where we got in stripped out sopping wet cloths off and sat in the shower as long as it would stay warm (about 5 minutes max). And that was the routine for the next 3 days. Gorgeous mountain roads and we’d get to the top and it would just be grey. We’d bypass anything slightly out of the way in favor of getting to the hostel faster to warm up. Needless to say there’s not many pictures from this part of the trip. And while it was a shame for sure at least we have an excuse to come back and do it again.
After 3 days we finally made it to Phong Nha national park which is world renown for it’s MASSIVE caves. We stayed at a little guest house called BFF homestay, which had a lovely family style dinner every night and an interesting crowd of people, including more Dutch people (more about that later). We decided to spend two whole nights there to try and dry off a little and not have to endure the onslaught again. So in our “day off” we rode only 45 minutes in the wet, to Paradise cave which is just gigantic. The entrance is this hole in the side of a mountain with a small staircase going down and suddenly it opens up to a gargantuan main chamber. Pictures really don’t do it justice, especially since I lost the ones from my camera so all I’ve got are cellphone shots.
We were debating doing a bigger “caving trip” but many involved hiking a few hours through the jungle (while it was raining) and were quite expensive. So for the sake of our wallets and sanity we instead grabbed a few drinks in town and watched the semi finals of the Suzuki cup between Vietnam and the Philippines. (A football match where the Vietnamese usually suck but were doing quite well this year).
Sidenote: BFF hostel in Phong Nha had a tiny puppy named Bia (beer in Vietnamese) who I immediately became best friends with….or at least that what I’d like to think.
The next day we sullenly saddled up again and decided the HCM highway just wasn’t worth the extra time when it was so wet so we made our way to QL1A, the main coast road. Along the way we were going along a decently main road and came across some water buffalo walking on the side/in the road. Not an uncommon sight by any means in Vietnam. I slowed down and gave them a good berth on my pass. I then turned around to see how Athena would fair. She had also given them a good amount of space, but for some reason one of the male buffaloes decided he didn’t like Athena. Right as she went past, he jumped out in front/at her bike and she went down. I managed to see all of this in the split second I had my head turned around. Athena now in the middle of the opposite lane was stuck under/attached to her bike by the big ponchos we were wearing, which go over the bikes mirrors. I putted around and blocked off the road from any oncoming traffic, but even before I could get over to her, like 5 Vietnamese people appeared out of literally nowhere and started helping her up and getting her off to the side. Luckily she walked away with just a scrap on the ankle. Don-key on the other hand didn’t fair so well. The side the bike fell on was fine, but the side which the buffalo attacked was completely and utterly obliterated. But after a second of letting the motor unflood Don-key started right up (with a slight offset on the steering column). By the time we had this all figured out, the whole heard of buffalo had disappeared. And this was one of those moments where its clear Athena and I are very different people because my thought was, “well fuck that buffalo!” And hers was “well I hope it didn’t get hurt”.
As soon as the bike started back up Athena was back on and saying let’s go. Sometimes I think I unfortunately underestimate the badassery of my future wife. That night we stopped in Dong Ha where I had some of the best phó bó (beef pho, I’m talking to you Mr. Water Buffalo) at this random hole in the wall, of the entire trip.
The next morning we got oil changes again as we’d done over 700km since Ninh Binh (the standard recommend maintenance interval for scooters here). Yet another long wet ride south we finally made it to Hue when Don-key decided to not want to idle anymore. After dying multiple time whenever we stopped, and draining the battery so I had to ferociously kickstart it to life, I climbed aboard and rev-ed the living crap out of it like an idiot on a Harley for the next twenty minutes until we found a mechanic to fix the idle screw which had come very loose. We got some lunch for a respite from the weather and headed south again to the infamous Hi Van pass. Well known for its glorious exhibition on the top gear Vietnam special, this pass connects Hue to Da Nag/Hoi An and is well frequented for its Big Sur-esc view out over the water. So we took the minor detour and saw a little ocean and mostly grey hairpin turns all the way up, which once again Athena killed.
Once over the top the rain suddenly stopped for the first time in 4 days. We pulled off to the side of to take in the view and when we wanted to start up again Don-key didn’t want to start. I tried all the tricks I’d picked up from the Vietnamese people along the way and got it to barely fire but not stay running. A Vietnamese guy stopped and tried to help but when he couldn’t do any better he recommended just coasting down and trying to charge the battery which at this point was dead.
So Athena rode the 8km down hill with no power and luckily just barely coasted into a mechanic who ended up replacing the battery (unnecessary) but it still wouldn’t start. He opened up the air intake and as he took the bolts off, a literal gallon of water came flooding out. Somehow the gasket had failed and in all the rain, water had gotten into the engine…OOOPPPSS!! No fear, shotty mechanic work is here. He cleaned out the intake with compressed air and did Don-keys second oil change of the day (since the oil was now a pinky watery mixture). Sure enough, with a few revs she fired right up. Way overpriced but effective, we were back on the road to Hoi An just a half-hour south. And we made it about halfway there…before it started to pour again.