With a fancy motorbike and a well-padded seat, Lee Atkinson braves eight days on two wheels in a region with no road rules.
Pigs can and do fly in Vietnam, especially when they bounce off the back of a scooter on a hairpin turn halfway up a mountain road. And once they do, they roll long and fast in their little cylindrical baskets, with an uncanny ability to aim themselves right at the front wheel of your motorcycle at the same time an overloaded truck appears ahead of you on the wrong side of the road and you're surrounded by giggling school kids on wobbly bicycles who don't seem to be paying any attention to the traffic at all.
Moments like these, we discover quickly, are not at all extraordinary on the roads of northern Vietnam, where you never know what's around the next blind bend. It could be a herd of goats or water buffalo, a broken-down bus, a crater-like hole in the road or a planet-size rock, a steamroller or an excavator digging up the road, a convoy of locals on motorbikes each balancing a bunch of five-metre-long bamboo poles crossways on their bikes, or a view so stunning it's impossible to keep your eyes on the road - all just everyday hazards in a place where there are no road rules, there is no right of way, the traffic is insane and riding a motorbike is an adrenalin-fuelled extreme sport.
We're on an eight-day motorcycling tour of north-eastern Vietnam, riding Honda XR250 trail bikes across the valleys and over the mountain passes of Ha Giang province and through the wild, remote and rarely visited mountainous "frontier lands" along the Chinese border, where roads are narrow, winding and steep, and the scenery is truly breathtaking.
It's a ride-it-yourself adventure, but we have two guides, Linh and Thon, who know where they are going, which is just as well, because we're having enough trouble just negotiating the traffic. Many of these "small ways and snake roads" - so called because of their sinuous shape rather than any abundance of serpents - aren't on the tourist maps and are definitely off the tourist trail.
Linh and Thon also know how much to pay the local police when they demand on-the-spot "taxes", and how to carry out roadside repairs, two skills that prove useful more than once. There are 12 of us in our group - nine experienced riders and three pillion passengers. We've known each other for years and most of us have travelled together before on various motorcycling road trips.
But as we gather on the second-storey terrace of a Hanoi bar the day before we set off, our nonchalance starts to dissipate while studying the chaotic traffic that swirls below us, trying to determine whether there is any method in the madness (there's not!), counting crashes and watching first-time visitors to Hanoi paralysed with fear at the prospect of crossing the road.
I'm a pillion, so all I have to do is sit and hold on tight, but even my bravado disappears when we collect the bikes the next morning and I realise the Honda doesn't have a pillion seat and I'm going to spend eight days on the luggage rack.
It's a bit of a blur, but somehow we manage to get out of Hanoi in one piece, and it's not long before we find ourselves riding along back roads beside rice paddies and meandering rivers, sharing the road with tractors, buffalo, dogs, chickens and ox-drawn carts, along with the stream of bicycles and motorbikes.
We stop at the first town we hit, buy up big on Hello Kitty cushions to pad out the luggage rack and soon master the art of the horn, beeping at everyone we meet, which in Vietnam doesn't mean "hurry up and get out of my way" but "excuse me, I'm behind you and thought I should let you know".
As we ride through the villages and towns, we're treated like rock stars, kids and adults alike grinning, waving and calling out hello. At first we think it's because they don't get many visitors in these parts, which is true, but then we realise it's because we're riding bikes that are monsters compared with the tiny 50cc-150cc bikes and scooters they ride, and even the petrol station attendants can't resist climbing on our bikes to pose for photos whenever we stop to fill up.
It may also be because we are somewhat overdressed - in Kevlar-reinforced jeans, protective riding jackets, leather boots, gloves and full-face helmets - compared with the locals in their sandals, short sleeves and nifty little hard hats with special holes at the back for ponytails - but I have no desire to experience a Vietnamese road-base exfoliation. Miraculously, in eight days and 1200 kilometres of rough riding, our group of 12 experiences only three tumbles, and none results in any injuries.
We ride between 160 kilometres and 180 kilometres each day, which doesn't sound much - at home we ride that far just for fun on a Sunday morning - but at an average speed of about 40km/h, often less, it takes all day. By our third day, we've relaxed into the rhythm of the roads, have more or less got our heads around the organic nature of the traffic flow, and are high on the exhilaration (and adrenalin) of riding some of the world's best (and most challenging) motorcycling roads up and over countless mountain passes, the summits shrouded in mist, the deep-sided river valleys terraced with rice paddies, the distance filled with sawtooth ranges receding as far as the eye can see.
One road in particular has us spellbound, the aptly named Road to Happiness from Ha Giang to Meo Vac via Dong Van, which includes the famous Ma Pi Leng Pass, a stretch so precipitous that workers had to be tethered to the cliffsides during its construction in the early 1960s.
We eat lunch in cafes, throwing our scraps on the floor, along with everyone else's, and stop at roadside stalls for sweet milky coffee and fruit dipped in chilli and salt. When our seats become too hard or the view too beautiful to ignore, we pull over for a rest, which often ends up attracting a crowd, thanks to the wannabe magician in the group - he only knows one trick but it never fails to delight the local kids.
We stretch our legs at village markets, where we rub shoulders with men in indigo suits and women in colourful embroidered costumes who have travelled in from remote mountain villages, usually on foot with heavy loads strapped to their backs, along the same steep roads we are riding.
We spend our nights throwing back shots of lethal local rice wine with our homestay hosts before bedding down on mattresses on the floor beneath mosquito nets in one large communal room built on stilts, infinitely more comfortable than the few local hotels we stay at with the rock-hard beds they favour in northern Vietnam.
At Ban Gioc waterfall we take a short ride on a bamboo raft and get so close to China we can chat to Chinese tourists on the other side, but Vietnam and China aren't exactly best mates, so we're warned not to step ashore on Chinese territory. The next day we get caught in a never-ending line of trucks carrying cheap goods across the border on a dusty road still under construction, which in Vietnam is no impediment to travel. You just weave your way around the road crews and hope like hell a road exists on the other side.
By the time we get back to Hanoi we're road weary and ready to stop - eight days and 1200 kilometres is a long time to spend perched on a wire rack, even with a tower of cushions on top - but if you want to see, smell, hear, touch and really experience Vietnam, mixing it with the locals from behind the handlebars of a motorbike is about as full on as you can get.
Need to know
Riding a motorcycle in Vietnam is a high-risk activity. Check that your travel insurance covers motorcycling and be aware that as a foreigner you will be expected to pay compensation (in cash and probably on the spot) in the event of an accident, even if you are not at fault.
It is not possible to get a temporary Vietnamese driving licence on a tourist visa, but an international driving permit (available from the NRMA) is usually accepted by police — although, officially, no foreign licence is valid in Vietnam, and harsh penalties (determined by the police) can apply for riding or driving without a licence.
Hanoi Guesthouse has great-value airconditioned rooms in the heart of the Old Quarter for about $35-$40 a double a night, including breakfast and free wi-fi. Best room is 705, which has a balcony with a rooftop view. hanoiguesthouse.com.
Hanoi-based Offroad Vietnam offers a range of customised motorcycle tours around Vietnam. Our eight-day tour of Ha Giang and north-east Vietnam cost about $150 a person a day and included the Honda XR250, spare parts, fuel, accommodation, all meals and two guides/mechanics. Prices are lower if two people share the one bike (BYO pillion cushions) or you opt for smaller bikes. A support truck, which carried two spare bikes (which we ended up using), our luggage and the occasional exhausted pillion, cost an additional $170 a day, shared among the group. BYO protective riding gear or you can hire from Offroad Vietnam — some airlines will not allow helmets as carry-on luggage, so check before flying or pack it in your suitcase. offroadvietnam.com.
Trip was self-funded.