During one of Vietnam’s bank holidays a few months ago, we decided to hire a scooter and head to Hoa Binh for a night. We chose the place purely because of it’s easy accessibility from Hanoi, at just a couple of hours of easy riding. It was our first time hiring a bike since moving to Hanoi just over 3 months ago, and despite Graham having a motorbike licence in the UK, the trip didn’t go as smoothly as I’d hoped.
Our first problem came somewhat early in the day, when we tried to find a bike to hire outside the Old Quarter on a bank holiday. We wandered around Tay Ho, the area we live, and called some of the rental shops. They were all closed. So we hopped into a taxi to town to find somewhere that was open. Which we did, but had to pay the ever so slightly inflated tourist price of 7USD per day for a particularly rubbish Honda Nouvo. It wasn’t that big an issue, but it did eat into our time considerably.
We were aiming for a lake to the West of Hanoi which Google told us would take around 2 hours. The drive was fairly easy… Particularly for me seeing as I was on the back of the bike. Most of the way was pretty boring and dusty roads, but we were rewarded for our efforts as we rounded a corner and were greeted by limestone mountains, similar to those found at Ha Long Bay, but inland.
Not much longer later we arrived in Hoa Binh, our destination of the day. Checked there were plenty of of hotels around and then continued towards the lake. The road is quite long and twisted, remote and beautiful. Along the way we came across a home stay style accommodation, with a shop and restaurant attached. It was a beautiful place, but given the 36 degree heat and their traditional longhouse accommodation, we decided to move on in the hope of finding somewhere with aircon.
This is the road we took to get to the lake.
Not too much farther down the road we came to the lake. This is where we hoped to find our hotel for the night, but there was very little there. We had a look at the lake, bought some water and started getting ready to head back into town, and the hotels we had seen earlier in the day. To our surprise and delight, two guys asked if we would like to join them and their families on a boat they had hired to take them around the lake. An offer no one could refuse.
We learnt the lake is known to locals as “The Local Ha Long Bay”. And it did not disappoint. The boat dropped us at the mouth of a cave, where Graham, the two men, their wives, five children and I hopped off onto the bamboo jetty. Although the cave was much smaller than those at Ha Long Bay, what it lacked in size it made up for in quietness. Asides from our group of eleven, there was hardly a tourist in sight. We climbed up the stairs to the top of the cave, and a giant gold Buddha. One of the families was religious, and paid their respects to Buddha with incense sticks and prayer.
After all respects were paid, we hopped back on the boat and went across the lake to a temple. On the way up, the path was lined with shops selling smoked fish and shrimp from the lake, as well as fruits and other edible goodness. There wasn’t too much to see, and soon we were back on the boat heading back to the bike. The captain kindly hovered for a while to allow copious sunset shots, which we all enjoyed.
However, our joy of the sunset was short lived. On the way back to the “dock” the skies began to rumble, clouds rolled in and bright purple flashes reflected from the surface of the lake. Graham, the two families and I huddled under the shelter on deck in silence. We all knew it was a fairly long drive home, and that at any moment the heavens would open. When the docking area was in sight we all began to breath a little more like normal, just a few more minutes and we would be on dry land, ready to really begin the race against the weather. The God’s must have been watching and laughing at us, as at almost that exact moment the first fat rain drop landed on the deck. Within moments we were deafened by the rain hammering on the boat and lake.
By the time we left the boat it was almost dark. When we had joined the boat the area was a little hive of activity, with people drinking coffee and enjoying the view. Now there was only one lady left, waiting on our return to pay for the bike parking, and looking, understandably, miserable about our late return. We said goodbye and thanked the families for taking us with them, and within a moment everyone was gone. This was the moment we discovered our rented scooter was even more of a pile of junk than we had previously speculated. Its lights didn’t work. At all. We were down a tiny country road (with potholes and dirt track to prove it), with no lights or street lights, at night, in the middle of a downpour. Things were not looking great. We slowly made our way along the road, using the bikes indicators to give a moment of light, which when teamed with the relentless lightning gave just enough light to navigate most of the bigger potholes. From time to time we came across another bike heading in the same direction as us, so we would do our best to keep up with them for a while and steal their light.
Once back in town the road we had left on was flooded, and impassable. I whipped out my phone to try find another route round. I once got lost walking from the corner shop back to my home… in a town I had grown up in, and was less than five minutes away from my home. Giving me navigational responsibilities is never a good idea. Needless to say, we got lost. After Graham, with his eagle eyes, noticed we were no longer in a town we stopped at a petrol station to take cover and check where we should actually be going. It was here that I realised I had stuffed my phone into a pocket to shelter it from the rain. However the rain had turned that pocket into a puddle, and the phone was no more.
Through broken Vietnamese and some elaborate miming, we managed to get directions from the guy at the petrol station. This took just enough time for the rain to stop. We headed back and found ourselves at the road that had caused us to get lost. That had been impassable on 30 minutes ago. And it was totally clear, save a few puddles at the edges. And so, with a somewhat disappointing ending, our adventure for the day was almost over.
This was a wonderful day out, and an easy over night trip from Hanoi. Despite the rain, and a broken phone, this trip was great. A real unplanned adventure that would, most likely, have not happened as it did had we done any research into where we were going or what to expect.