Sometimes you make plans, stay awake mapping out your route, write them down, pretend like you’re organized and maintain a false sense of confidence. Sometimes you take precautions, take your need for rest into consideration, letting go of sights you know you won’t be able to see.
And then sometimes someone will pull up in front of you with a different plan and without much thought you say, “We’ll come with you” and you throw out the directions that you spent hours planning out with no idea of where you are headed, how long it will take, or what conditions you’re getting yourself into.
The morning we were leaving Phong Nha, Fred passed by our hostel 3 times before he pulled up in front of us finishing our breakfast. Our bikes were sitting outside, packed and ready to go.
We had met Fred back in Quy Nhon and had seen him browsing a menu in Phong Nha but never had a full conversation with him save for the small talk. He’s Norwegian and his English was conversational but he was a solo traveler and his previous riding partner had stayed behind to spend more time in a different city. He was headed through the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park on his way North. He had to be in Hanoi the next day, a 530 km drive. This guy is crazy.
Whatever he was, my desire to drive through the mountains of Phong Nha overpowered my need to follow the directions that I had so carefully planned out.
Without much thought, we decided to drive through the National Park with Fred and stop in Vinh– halfway between Phong Nha and Ninh Binh– while he continued on to Ninh Binh where he would rest for the night before heading to Hanoi.
Driving through the park we were able to see the fog caressing the mountains and the deep plunges of vine-covered valleys one last time. At one point, all three of us had stopped at the top of a mountain, turned our engines off, and sat silently to take in the mystic mountains. It was the first moment we all shared together as the fog rolled around in the distance. Then we were off again.
Fred drove ahead of us speeding through the mountain like a maniac. It’s cool, Fred, we ain’t mad at you, you’ve got places to be. But really, half the time we were– meaning me, I was– falling behind but somehow I would catch up, pulling up beside Dianna and Fred like “‘Sup guys, I’ve been behind you the whole time, you didn’t see me? It’s that big bus that was in the way. Yeah, there was a bus, it was insane. No? Well–” And there they go again. Don’t worry guys, I’m right behind you. I’ll catch up. Goddamnit.
When we finally made it through to the AH1 we never slowed down but sped even faster. The road wasn’t as bad as it had been in the past, in fact it was a breeze and speed was becoming more and more familiar to us as we approached our final destination.
After 4.5 hours of driving we came to the road which led to Vinh, Fred pulled to the side so that we could say our goodbyes before parting ways. Before this point, however I had expressed my desire to Dianna to go to Ninh Binh since there was nothing in Vinh. She thought I was just as crazy as Fred. “This is the road to Vinh,” Fred said.
I looked over at Dianna and back at Fred, “Oh, uh, we’re going with you. I’ve still got some miles in me.” Dianna cringed at the thought of driving for so long (another 4 hours) so the deal was to stop and get some coffee first. We never did get that coffee.
When you push yourself you’ll find that there are things that you can do, things you never imagined. Before Dianna and I started our trip we had never thought that we would be able to go much farther than 250 km in a day. Then we had driven about 300 km from Quy Nhon to Hoi An. We were proud of that. Now we were following a crazy Norwegian man to the North of Vietnam driving faster and farther than we had ever driven.
The road to Ninh Binh was easy. With the detour through the park we drove about 430 km, the longest stretch of road we had ever done. At about 420 km, Fred conveniently got a flat tire in front of a tire place. Turns out the man who owned the shop liked backpackers and patched up the tire for free.
It probably helped that the lady who worked there also thought Fred was cute. She wouldn’t stop giggling.
The owner was so excited to meet us that he asked I advertise his tire shop, you know, because I know a lot of people who need big wheels for their transport trucks that they drive through Vietnam. Anyone need tires? Come to the best tire shop just south of Ninh Binh! Are your rubbers feeling flat, can’t get them to stay up? We’ll pump them up for you and if that doesn’t work, we’ll set you up with a new pair. We’ve got big ones!
Ninh Binh was beautiful but we didn’t feel the need to stay there much longer than the one day. Fred may be a crazy Norwegian man but he was our crazy Norwegian man so we decided to accompany him all the way to Hanoi. The next morning we went for a drive to the Cuc Phuong National Park, trekked for 2 hours where we explored a cave, worked up a sweat and returned to our hostel where we hopped on our bikes to Hanoi, about an hour before the sun went down.
The trip to Hanoi was only supposed to take 2 hours but maps don’t warn us what highways are restricted to motorbikes making our trip 4 hours.
As we approached Hanoi, the difference in traffic was obvious– we were back in the city. Ho Chi Minh City had seemed so long ago but as we weaved in and out of traffic I realized that I had missed the chaos, the challenges of maneuvering between cars and motorbikes, the thrill of swiping inches from another driver. The mountains and beaches had been peaceful and easy but the city kept us alive and alert.
We made it.
In exactly 21 days we drove from the South of Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City to our final destination in the North of Vietnam, Hanoi. It was a stressful journey, but a journey that helped us grow and prove to ourselves and others that we are tougher than we were given credit for. While on the road we met many other people doing the same journey, some solo, some were in a pair; some were in a relationship, some were strangers. Most of them were men.
Our roommate in Ninh Binh had expressed his admiration toward us, “Wow, I’ve met a lot of guys riding motorbikes, but I haven’t met any girls. You’re the first girls I’ve met riding motorbikes. Good for you.”
Arriving in Hanoi seemed unreal to us. We were no longer going to wrap our bags in our rain covers, twist ropes around our bikes to secure our backpacks, look for gas stations, search for directions, worry about the weather, rise with the sun, fear the dark, wash off thick layers of exhaust fumes and dirt, fight traffic, or question our directional instincts (just kidding, Dianna has that problem for life). The excitement of going, going, going, would no longer fill our mornings. Going somewhere different every day. The reward of seeing many cities was not equal to the rewarding thrill of getting on my bike early in the morning, checking directions, getting lost, passing through villages not on the map, the locals waving to you as you passed, waving at staring locals. That was the experience I looked for. And now it’s over. We had accomplished something that not many travelers get to do and we came out without a scratch.
And so, while I’ve written the highlights about our trip for you, dear reader, these are merely the moments during our ride to help you understand what you might encounter if you ever decide to take the same trip. But putting it online for everyone to read is not half the same as being there in the moment with your bike while passing by locals also on their bikes with dead pigs, a pile of chickens, the whole family, maybe even a wheelbarrow. And then they look at you and you look at them and you think “Hey! Look at us! Same, same, but different!” I can not stress the feeling when you finally arrive, finished with a journey you never imagined you would endure. All I can say is, what are you waiting for?