I was perched on a plastic stool on Cau Go Street, a short stretch of road in Hanoi’s Old Quarter with an amazing concentration of food stalls, eating a delicious plate of bun cha: grilled pork, rice noodles, sliced papaya, shredded carrots, a heaping pile of herbs. Locals rushed past me on motorbikes that buzzed like leaf blowers. The next day I would set out on a two-wheeler of my own to explore Vietnam’s inland north, a place of breathtaking topography that is home to many of the country’s more than 50 ethnic minorities. Many visitor s to the country, seeking a more intimate connection with the landscape, follow the example of the locals and travel on lightweight motorbikes.
A Brit I’d met in Central America had told me about the phenomenon, explaining that some travelers were inspired by an episode of Top Gear in which the hosts rode from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. On Vietnamese Craigslist, there is an active trade in used motorcycles among visitors. I decided to rent instead, scoring a simple Honda Wave from Viet Nam Motorcycle Tour in the Old Quarter. Of course, I could have gone by car, but I’d come looking for adventure. I hoped to recapture some of the backpacker’s spirit of my youth, and maybe even get a little muddy. After loading up on breakfast pho, I left Hanoi by way of narrow streets crowded with buses and other careening, honking bikes, then followed a route along the Red River. On the sides of the road, strips of eucalyptus had been set out to dry before being made into veneer for furniture.
When I saw my first rice paddies, I couldn’t believe how much the scenery looked like every Vietnam flick I’d ever seen. Like many Americans reared on baby-boomer cinema, I have a distinct idea of how the country is “supposed” to look (even though many of those movies, such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon, were actually shot in the Philippines). So there was something oddly familiar about the glistening green grid spread before me. The landscape grew only more magnificent as I approached the La Vie Vu Linh eco-resort, riding along a narrow mud path flanked by paddies and rolling hills. It was tough going on the Honda, and there were few signs pointing the way. I kept pulling up at houses whose inhabitants would wave me onward. Finally, I arrived at my destination, a thatched-roof lodge on the shores of Thac Ba Lake.
I sat by a fire on which a giant pot boiled, before sitting down to eat with the employees. We dined in the traditional style of the Dao people, one of the region’s ethnic groups, snatching individual bites from steaming communal plates of pork, broccoli, cabbage, and rice. After dinner, I met some business people who had traveled from Hanoi that morning to volunteer on a nearby farm. We spent the evening swapping stories and downing shots of rice wine brewed on the property. My next stop was Sapa, a French colonial city on a hill overlooking misty terraced farms, but the resort staff suggested I go instead to the market town of Bac Ha—just as beautiful but less touristy. I checked the forecast: heavy rain in Sapa, clear skies in Bac Ha When riding a motorbike, it is always advisable to avoid rain.