Road trips the north of Vietnam - guide for motorbike
Posted Date: 6/21/20139:17 AM

Helmets are law and enforcement of wearing them is getting stricter. Make sure you carry wet weather gear. All major intersections have signs. Vietnamese uses Roman Script so you will understand them. Sign posts are generally obvious. In general the provincial highway you are on will pass straight through any city or town so just go straight and follow the flow.

Most roads in Vietnam have kilometer stones so knowing how far you have got to go or working out whether you are on the right road or not is a piece of cake. Vietnamese will tell you the right direction if you ask them. The best thing to do is to show them the Vietnamese name of the place you want to go and they will sort you out. Expect to only getting 20-40 kilometres per hour. It is easy to buy half decent road maps. Three hundred kilometres is a long, long day.  The tank holds 10-11 litres. You get 250-300 km per full tank. The reserve tank switch is under the tank on the left hand side. The least populated section is Lai Chau to Tam Duong, but even here there will petrol every 40km. The petrol is two stroke, which means there is oil mixed in it. The Minsk requires 4-5% oil, which equates to about 500ml water bottle’s worth for ten litres. In most cases the oil is added separately to the petrol. All stations have oil. All town centres will have someone selling petrol. Look for 2-litre petrol bottles on the sides of the road. Even though all petrol stations will mix oil in your petrol when they see your Minsk, always make sure. If the bike starts to get weak and hot, you know a mistake has been made. Immediately pour more oil in.

Starting your Minsk
Minsks, all of them, are easy to start. But, they are also easy to start wrong. Once you have started them wrong and got the sparkplug wet, then they will be even harder to start. So, learn how to start your Minsk and do the right procedure every time. The key to starting a Minsk is to prime the carburetor first. This means you need to make sure the carburetor has petrol in it, kick start the bike, get the petrol/air mix into the cylinder, while the bike is turned off. Then you turn it back on and kick start it into life. Got it?
Check that the engine start/stop switch on the right hand side of the handle bars is up i.e. off.
Ensure there is petrol by looking in the tank or by pulling out the tube running from the tank to the carburettor.
If your carburettor is the taller, square version then push down the petrol pump switch on the left-hand side of the carburettor until petrol seeps out of the carburettor through its overflow hole, kick-start the bike once or twice without touching the accelerator throttle, push down the engine stop switch (i.e. turn the bike on), turn the accelerator throttle a quarter of a turn, and kick-start the bike.
If your carburettor is the smaller, round model then push down the choke lever, kick-start the bike once or twice without touching the accelerator throttle, flick the choke lever up, push down the engine stop switch (i.e. turn the bike on), turn the accelerator throttle a quarter of a turn, and kick-start the bike.
If the bike doesn’t start then repeat the above mentioned procedures a few times, and try to vary the number of times you kick-start the bike both before and after you turn on the engine start/stop switch. If the bike still doesn’t start then open the accelerator handle completely for around 30 seconds. This gives the sparkplug a chance to dry out. Then repeat the above procedure. If the bike still doesn’t start then push/bump-start the bike. To do this, put the bike in second gear, hold in the clutch lever, push the bike until you are running and then let the clutch out at the same time as pushing down on the handle bars (this will increase the friction under the tyres making it harder for them to slip). Doing this on a hill makes it much easier. If the bike still does not start then it is time to look at the bike more thoroughly by checking either the electrical system or the air/petrol system. Once you have worked out a system to starting your Minsk, stick to it. All Minsks are different and have their own personalities.

How to use motorbike (Minsk) on the road of Vietnam
You drive on the right-hand side on the road in Vietnam. Use your horn a lot. There are Minsk mechanics in all population centres. Unless you crash, the police will take no interest in you. Carry tyre repair tools and a pump. Don’t give riders after you a bad rap. Smile and wave at all the people on the road. Wave back to all other tourers driving Minsks. Don’t quibble about small prices. Accept that most disagreements occur due to misunderstandings on your part because you do not speak Vietnamese. While on the road, show all respect and courteousness to the people you meet and pass. Don’t give bikers a bad name. Wave, smile and be friendly. If there is a problem then assume that you are the one who is most likely in the wrong. People in the countryside are very honest and helpful.
Minsk are very easier to repair. You will not have to wait long before someone drives past and helps you. Still, it is a good idea to be able to fix a flat try and change/clean the sparkplug, as these are your most likely problems. Take a conversation translation booklet. Very few people speak English in the countryside. Make sure you have all the basics like a lighter, first aid kit, Swiss Army knife, cape and waterproof pants, torch (night-time bike repairs) sunglasses/goggles, toilet paper, plastic sheet to cover bags in case of rain, mosquito repellent and sun-screen lotion. Pick up some contour maps on Trang Tien St at the south end near Hoan Kiem Lake. If you strap your back pack to the back of the bike, then strap it perpendicular to the seat. This will provide much better balance.

One day trips
Tam Dao: To the north of the Red River you can go to the old French hill-station of Tam Dao. The resort itself is concrete mess but a right mood can lend the place an air of interest. The whole trip is on sealed road and takes around two hours without stops. The road up the mountain is long and good with wide impressive views of the delta afforded at the top. Just head out to the airport on the freeway for 27 km from Hanoi and take the left about 3 km before the airport just as the freeway makes the big sweeping turn to the right. Stay on this road for 24 km all the way to Vinh Yen. Take the right which says ‘Tam Dao 23 km’ and follow this road all the way to the base of the mountain. You have to pay a total of VND25,000 for tickets and parking fees before being allowed through the large entrance gate they have constructed there. Head a further 12 Km up the steep mountain to the top. The bike will no doubt get pretty hot and weak on the way up so think about stopping and giving it a rest.

Soc Son Lake: This small clean lake/water supply is tucked under some of the hill north of the airport. The turnoff to it is 42.5 km before Thai Nguyen, a large city some 70km directly north of Hanoi. To get to this road, drive to the airport via the freeway, go past it, and keep going east until the road ends at a large T-junction. This is the road to Thai Nguyen, so take the left. 42.5 km before Thai Nguyen take the sealed road to the left. Stay on it until you hit Soc Son Lake, which is clean, deep and nestled between two mountain spur lines. There are also some tracks there worthy of exploration. In fact, while you’re at it, you can also hike up the hills around this lake where you will be afforded some interesting vistas.

Dai Lai Lake: This is a large, tree lined lake with places to stay around its perimeter. Take the same road as for Tam Dao but instead of going to Vinh Yen, take the right at Phuc Yen, some 9 km after the airport freeway road and 15 km before Vinh Yen. At the turnoff in Phuc Yen there is a cement obelisk and a sign saying Dai Lai tourism. Stay on this road all the way to the lake.

Northwards, starting from the Thang Long (airport) bridge, follow the Red river on the Hanoi side westwards towards Son Tay. This raised dike road follows the river most of the way to Son Tay and is good driving. About five kilometres from the Thang Long bridge is the interesting village where all the wood, timber and thatch is cut, stored and processed. At any time on this dirt road you can turn off and head south into the villages and rice fields. This is a particularly good way to spend an afternoon because you can wander in any direction without getting lost. This is because the area to the north is blocked by the Red river and the area to the south by the main road #32 which goes from Hanoi to Son Tay. Whenever you want to get out you just have to head north or south. You can also continue on the river road until you reach where the Red and Black rivers meet. At this point is a ferry crossing the Black river. After you can return to Hanoi via the main road through Son Tay. There is also scope to go from Hanoi to Son Tay and then to Hoa Binh via either the road on the eastern or western side of the Black river. Both are long interesting days.
Southwards, conversely, you might travelling south along the Red river road starting from behind the Opera House. This is an excellent driving road once you’re out of the city – sealed, raised and winding – and it gives you plenty of views of country life. Like with the northern river road, you can either cross over the Red river on a ferry and return to Hanoi on the eastern side of the river, or you can, at any time, turn off and head west towards Highway One. Again you can go wandering as you will be bounded by the river to the east, Highway One to the west and Hanoi to the north.

Ba Vi Mountain: If you head westwards on route 32 to Son Tay then you have the choice of heading further westwards towards the meeting point of the Red and Black Rivers or you can head off south to Ba Vi mountain and national park. To get to Ba Vi mountain take the big, sweeping left-turn just at the beginning of Son Tay. Stay on this road – do not turn leftwards at the other sweeping left road about ten kilometres further down as this road will take you to Xuan Mai. Go for another 20 kilometres as the road approaches the mountain which is distinct. Avoid two roads which turn to the right as you approach the mountain. You will eventually see a sign on the left pointing to Ba Vi National Park. Take this road, pay your entrance fees, and then head up. The road is an excellent one – winding, sealed, big views of the delta – and takes you almost to the top. From the road-head it’s a 20 minute hike to either of the two peaks. Half way up is a guest house with food, a swimming pool and big views. Great place to make a weekend party.

Heading South of Hanoi Head out on the route 6 to Hoa Binh. After 35-odd kilometres at Xuan Mai a large sealed road turns off to the right and goes all the way, 33 kilometres to Son Tay. This road is Cuban made and is sweet to drive. If instead of taking this right-hand turn, go a hundred metres or so further and take the left at the petrol station. This road goes all the way down to Cuc Phuong national park along a route behind the Perfume Pagoda. It is bounded on both sides by limestone peaks into which lead many side-roads and tracks all down to Cuc Phuong. There are four larger roads which turn off this road which are worthy of mention. The first (as you are heading south from Xuan Mai) turns off to the right about 9.5 kilometres before Cho Ben. This track will take you all the way to the Hanoi-Hoa Binh road at Luong Son with some options of connecting up with Kim Boi. It is a pretty rough track with a few stream crossings and has some No Trespassing signs. The second is a road to the left after a further 20 kilometres at Cho Ben. It goes to Van Dinh, before which there is a turnoff to the Perfume Pagoda. From Van Dinh you can continue back to Hanoi via Ha Dong. The third is a road to the right a further 12 kilometres which makes its way to Kim Boi and then onto the Hoa Binh-Mai Chau road. The fourth is a left at Chi Ne which will take you back either to Highway 1 at Ha Nam or the Perfume Pagoda. These are all great roads to drive.

The Grand NW Loop out to Dien Bien Phu and Sapa
The far northwest ride is the classic northern Vietnam trip, passing through wildly different landscapes with many hilltribe people. The trip is best made in a clockwise fashion, starting in Mai Chau, as the landscape afterwards just gets bigger and bigger. Bank on six days plus to get to Sapa from Hanoi. The fastest possible is three days, but only for a suicidal speed demon. The loop is all sealed except dirt sections from Tuan Giao to Lai Chau, Dien Bien Phu to Lai Chau and from Lai Chau to Tam Duong. The general rule of thumb is that you will get 30km/h. The best way to get the most of each day is to be on the road by 8am. There are convenient places to stay in towns and villages that are evenly spread out along this route. Mai Chau (Ban Lac village), Moc Chau, Son La, Tuan Giao, Dien Bien Phu, Lai Chau, Tam Duong (Phong Tho), Sapa, Lao Cai, Bac Ha, Bao Yen (Pho Rang) and Yen Bai all have places to stay. Looks for the words Nha Nghi (rest house), Khach San (hotel) or Nha Tro (inn). You always have to hand in your passport at a hotel as they need to register with the police. It is also common to be charged to park your bikes inside the hotel over night. Most twin share rooms go for VND100,000-150,000. If you want cheaper, then most guest houses have rooms with four wooden beds with outside toilet and maybe a tap for washing. All population centres will have a shop selling bottled water. Electriciy can be found almost everywhere, as can film in the major centres. It is much easier to eat at 6pm than 8pm when restaurants slow down and close.

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