The green North of Viet Nam

Challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.  –  Joshua J. Marine

After David left China with an ambulance jet, we went back on the road. The original plan was to stay only one night in Chengdu, but due to the circumstances we stayed a week. The rest of our itinerary was adjusted accordingly, which ultimately meant to take the shortest route to Laos. The first tunnel we had to path through reminded me immediatley of what had happened a few days back … David’s tragic accident was on my mind for quite some time.

At the border we faced almost as expected complications. David’s bike had to be registered with a person leaving China. Vaughan, who was part of our group and who travelled with his wife and an old 4×4 Iveco, took up the job. The Chinese customs officials, however, saw it quite differently and assigned both Vaughan and his wife to the truck. Of course it would have been possible for the two to enter China with two vehicles, but for whatever reason (and once again hard to understand), our approach was strictly forbidden. Instead, we were asked to wait until a Chinese person with a passport would emigrate from China to Laos. When the right guy was found the authorities registered the bike on his behalf and we could leave the country. Well, this guy had neither anything to do with our group nor with David’s bike but apparently this was the way to make the books look right. One does not need always to understand the mysterious ways of Chinese bureaucracy …

After leaving China, four of us stayed still together and went to Chiang Mai / Thailand. Jimmy, my roommate met his wife and ended his trip in Thailand. Artur, BigJim and I needed to service the bikes at BMW before we went further through Southeast Asia. In my case the 20,000 km inspection which I had planned for Bangkok was already due.

Since the time window for Vietnam would be open in three days time and the trip to the north of Thailand was unscheduled but necessary, there was not much time to lose. Hence, we had four border crossings in a day which is not real fun: We left China at noon, entered Loas, got all the paperwork in place and left the country a couple of hours later by crossing the Mekong river to Thailand.

David, BigJim, Artur and I had planned to go to Vietnam together. To enter Vietnam with your own vehicle requires a special permit from the Ministry of Transport. To get this permission letter isn’t easy. I had taken care of the issue long before starting traveling and each of us paid a significant amount of money to make sure we get the bikes into the country.

However, China has changed a lot …

David’s trip ended in a tunnel. BigJim, who wanted to travel with David to Australia, decided in Chiang Mai to finish his journey and flew back to the UK and even Artur, the Brazilian in our team decided to take a break for several months, booked his flight and went back to Rio. Thus, we all parted ways in northern Thailand and I was alone again … Sounds sad? Well, there are a lot of advantages when traveling in a group but things can also get much more comlicated. I used to stop wherever I wanted and took pictures which was nearly impossible in China since no one really took the time to stop for good shots. Still, I did it a few times and frankly spoken, I got really tired of starting a race each time after taking a few pictures to catch up with the team. After more than six weeks in a group it was somehow a good feeling to be able to follow my own pace and my own rhythm again.

It took me three days from Thailand via Laos to the Vietnamese border. The border crossing between Laos and Vietnam was kind of exiting. I knew that it would be in the mountains, but no one could tell me exactly how the road conditions would look like and since we were in the middle of the rainy season in Southeast Asia, unpaved roads with a R1200 GS Adventure can not always be seen as a romantic challenge .

Around noon, I was at the border. The guard on the Lao side didn’t want to cancel my visa yet. He was skeptical whether I will be able to get my motorcycle into Vietnam and if this attempt failed I would have to get back into Laos. So, I assume he had his experiences. Spontaneously you can just forget about the idea getting your bike into Vietnam but my homework was done beginning of the year and I had the permission of the ministries in my pockets. When I arrived on the Vietnamese side, I was allowed to wait for a solid hour. The entire border building was deserted … Lunch break. Afterwards, everything went smoothly and I was with my own motorcycle in Vietnam. All the trouble and countless emails to get the permits had been worth it …

The north offers spectacular scenery, often characterized by its paddy fields carpeting the rolling slopes of the mountains. I stayed the first night in Dien Bien near the border and spent the next day traveling north to Sa Pa. August is one of the very rainy months in the monsoon season and it came to no surprise that heavy rainfalls left its marks on the road. Consequently, it was a long Friday with more off-road action required. But the Pamir in Tajikistan was a good “training camp” and apart from a few very muddy sections I had no major trouble.

What actually made it still a very demanding day was the combination of high humidity, 38 degrees and the mentioned off-road sections, which basically means much more physical work than on paved roads. Besides, due to some ongoing construction with heavy machines, the road was blocked for an hour. Literally speaking, I was baking in the sun … well, that’s maybe not entirely true: There was exactly one tree and everyone tried to find a place in the shadow.

Sapa was founded in 1922 by the French as a hill station. Its surrounding region is host to many hill tribes, as well as rice terraces and a lush vegetation. However, as a result of a recent surge in popularity Sapa has rapidly become a tourist hotspot where money is the new drug of choice.

From Sapa I tried to find a way further north into the Dong Van Highlands, just a few kilometres away from the Chinese border. On the way I met a lot of hill-tribe people, selling the fruits of their daily work on the road. I also noticed lots of children, often less than 10 years old, sometimes much younger, with big baskets on their backs, herding water buffalos or offering goods.

Rainy days became more frequent and when I was on the way to Hanoi, my R1200 GS Adventure was sending me a very clear signal that even she can do a lot, she is still not able to do magic. The road was flooded by heavy rainfalls and it was not the first time that I had to deal with flooded rivers or road sections. I watched the scene for a while, then I drove standing on the bike slowly into the water masses. My biggest concerns are always deep passages, hidden holes and my air filter. I had to pass a moped and chose the right side. As it turned out, this was probably also the deeper side of the road. The GS was still marching forward, dividing the water while bow waves rolled sideways and suddenly the engine started to choke … After 25,000 km it was the first time that I faced real trouble and technical limits. Then the engine stopped. Quite a few thoughts crossed my mind in a split second. I knew that if she had swallowed water and I would press the start button, I could do a whole lot of damage. I took the chances. The Boxer misfired but started … I opened the throttle, eased off the clutch and ensured that we got immediately out of the deep water. The engine still stuttered a few times when we had left the flooded section long behind us.

In the evening, I took my time to check the air filter. The intake duct came obviously in contact with the bow waves and sucked water upwards. We luckily got away with a black eye. A little collateral damage was still detected: My left satellite headlight literally exploded when water entered the housing. I looked at the damage and had to notice that BMW used a very rare and very specific bulb for those headlights – impossible to find in Hanoi.

After all, my brother wanted to visit me for a few days in Vietnam. It was already Friday night and as his flight to Hong Kong would leave on Monday, there was not exactly a lot of time to organize a light bulb from BMW in Germany. But “the love of a family is life ‘s greatest blessing” and what shall I say, Tuesday evening in Hanoi I had a new bulb in my hands 🙂

Together we spent a few great days in Ha Long Bay before I set off, travelling south to Ho Chi Minh. Stay tuned !