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 visitors 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.
Related: The New Look of Saigon, Vietnam
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.
Related: Ultimate Food Guide to Vietnam
VIDEO: A Motorcycle Trip Through Northern Vietnam
Day 1: Uneasy Rider
After loading upon 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.
Day 2: Climb Every Mountain
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.
As I motored along the rural roads toward Lao Cai province, children chased after me shouting joyous hellos. I love the freedom of solo travel, but after a few days alone, nothing makes the endorphins kick in like a chorus of little kids cheering you on. At a roadside store, the shopkeeper smiled at me and pointed to a stool made from a tree stump. We sat down for green tea and tobacco from his bamboo water pipe. A single hit left me reeling. As I woozily regarded the man, I pondered our countries’ shared history. Was he doing the same? He poured more tea.
The world glistened on the switch backs up to Bac Ha. Lush farms, blanketed in clouds, appeared beyond the guardrail. I had to share the road with water buffalo and chickens. When I arrived in late afternoon, I called the owner of Sa House, the no-frills homestay I’d booked for the night. He arrived, smiling, on his own motorbike and led me up a winding road. The cool, wet air wrapped around me like a cloak.
Day 3: When the Going Gets Tough
Early the next morning, I found Bac Ha’s market. Men in puffy jackets and women in the colorful dresses of the Flower Hmong ethnic group hawked vegetables, meat, coffee, textiles, plastics, electronics, and livestock. Shoppers carried bags with squirming creatures inside. I bought a pair of leather gloves before embarking on the most difficult leg of my trip.
The early part of my day’s journey had hairpin turns and the occasional wayward water buffalo, but at least it had fresh asphalt. Then, at a sign for Ha Giang province, the road turned to dirt and I fell off the bike. I’d gotten my wish—I was covered with mud. I was elated to emerge, several hours later, onto a real road again.
A few days earlier, at a museum in Hanoi, I’d snapped a photo of a photo of Ho Chi Minh and set it as my phone’s wallpaper image. When I was checking in to Nha Nghi Hoan Nuong, a hotel in the rural town of Na Hang, the owner noticed it and pointed to an older man sitting on a couch. He in turn directed my attention to a picture of himself on the lobby wall, taken when he was much younger and dressed in uniform. He laughed and held up an imaginary machine gun, then said, “Rat-a-tat-tat-tat.”
It was a quiet Sunday night. There were several restaurants on the main drag, but only one with people inside. With its plastic tables and chairs it felt like it could have been anywhere in the world. As I waited for my beef pho, a young man dropped an elbow on my table, wanting to arm wrestle. I shook my head, but he insisted. We locked hands. His friends were drunk on rice wine, and soon they all wanted a turn, too. They urged me to take shots. I ordered a beer instead.
Day 4: The Water Cure
The next day, I pulled my helmet over my aching head and plunged into Na Hang, which looked like a mountain version of Vietnam’s iconic Halong Bay. Sheer peaks reached toward the sky, as if subterranean giants had poked their fingers through the surface of the earth. I was so distracted by the terrain that I almost ran out of gas. At the last possible moment, I bought half a gallon from a young woman in a roadside shack.
Within a few hours I had coasted all the way down into the verdant valley of Ba Be National Park. In Ba Be Lake, I saw reflections of the same mountains I’d ridden through that morning. The narrow road curved past waterfalls and caves beneath a canopy of trees. I could have spent an entire day there watching the monkeys, bears, and butterflies, but the highway beckoned.
Near the town of Tuyen Quang, I stopped at My Lam Hot Springs to soak my battered bones. Inside an unassuming blue building surrounded by gentle hills and lush trees, I began my path to rejuvenation. I lay in a porcelain bathtub filled with lukewarm mineral water, appreciating the stillness after four bumpy days on the road. The next morning, I planned to sleep late, then ride back into Hanoi, straight into the Old Quarter for another fragrant plate of bun cha.
Road Trip Cheat Sheet
Vietnam Motorbike Tour Expert: Intrepid travelers can buy used bikes on Craigslist Vietnam or rent from Viet Nam Motorcycle Tour (84- 973-812-789). But the safest option is this operator, which organizes guided trips throughout northern Vietnam.
La Vie Vu Linh: This eco-lodge in Yen Binh district is a sustainable-tourism initiative to empower the area’s Dao people. $30 per person.
Sa House: A clean, under- stated lodging option near Bac Ha. 84-984-827-537; doubles from $13.
Bac Ha Market: Flower Hmong women sell goods here on Sundays. Nha Nghi Hoan Nuong Simple digs in Ha Giang province. 84-273-864-302; doubles from $15.
Ba Be National Park: Established in 1992, this stunning reserve in Bac Kan province contains limestone peaks, evergreen forests, and a glittering freshwater lake.
My Lam Hot Springs Spa & Resort: Renowned among medical tourists for its healing mineral waters. 84-273-774-418; doubles from $25.