Nambusters III - Trip Report


Nov 29, 2014
Well, we're all now back from Nambusters 3, and what a trip it was.

It's fair to say that NB3 most definitely did not go to plan, but that's adventure biking for you! We had our fair share of challenges along the way, but more of that in the next post...

To remind you what this was all about...we have previously done 2 trips around Vietnam. The first was around the NW, the second in the NE but with more of our friends coming along for the ride. This third trip was to revisit some of the route from the first one, with everyone from the second trip along plus one new lad to the crew. We would be doing a different route but hitting similar overnight stops, and there would be much more off road.

The route would go something like this;

Day 1 - Hanoi to (Dream) Mo Waterfall near Na Hang - 150km

Day 2 - Mo Waterfall to Mai Chau - 200km

Day 3 - Mai Chau to Bac Yen - 130km

Day 4 - Bac Yen to Song Ma - 200km

Day 5 - Song Ma to Dien Bien Phu along Ma river next to Laos border - 160km

Day 6 - Dien Bien Phu to Sin Ho - 160km

Day 7 - Paso to Lai Chau to SaPa to Lao Cai on China border - 180km

We would then return from Lao Cai overnight on the sleeper train with the bikes as we did last time.

Time to write it all up so you can see what we got up to! Hopefully someone will read this and be inspired to travel. That's the goal after all - to see the big wide world while we can.

So, on with the trip report...

Bryan was good enough to collect me for the run to Manchester airport, where we checked in and had a quick breakfast before catching the shuttle flight down to Heathrow where we would meet up with Jim and Roger. Del, Joe and Phil were already in VN at this point. One improvement over previous years was that Vietnam airlines now run the excellent Boeing 787 Dreamliner from Heathrow to Hanoi, which is a tidy and comfortable plane to be on.

First hiccup of the trip was when I got off the Heathrow shuttle bus and was about to go through security. My printed boarding pass wasn't scanning so I went to fish out the confirmation on my mobile, to discover my phone was missing. I had it a few minutes previous on the shuttle bus so I called it from my other spare phone. Fortunately it was in the hands of a very helpful girl who worked for Heathrow security, and she was able to talk me back through the various one-way doors until it was returned to me! Top lass.

After this we met up with Jim and eventually Roger managed to find us (in a bar). Despite it only being 9am Jim was on the second pint of the day. Hardcore.

Bryan and me enjoy an early breakfast at Manchester airport

Meeting up with Jim at Heathrow. Too early for a beer? 9am.

I wouldn't want to be sat next to these two nefarious characters for an 11 hour flight!

Approaching Vietnam border as shown on the 787's in-flight info. 677mph! Get in.

Upon landing at Noi Bai airport in Hanoi, we waited an eternity to get through passport security. At that point Jim realised he had left his glasses on the plane, and after many attempts to talk to the officials it was clear he was not able to retrieve them.

A nice surprise was when we walked through to the arrivals area to be met by this chap with a Nambusters 3 sign for the taxi. It definitely felt like the adventure was about to begin at this point. I think the sign was Del's doing.

After the usual white knuckle ride from the airport to the city we arrived at the familiar Hotel Tirant in the old quarter. I would highly recommend this hotel if you are planning a stay in Hanoi. Not only is it in the quaintest part of the city, it's very clean and the staff are very helpful and friendly. Plus it's not exactly expensive. At this point, having been unable to sleep on the plane and being awake for around 18 hours I was glad we'd booked early checkin and could go straight to the hotel rooms for a few hours rest.

Around lunchtime we met up with Del, Joe and Phil and walked around to Flamingo to sort out paying the trip balance and checking the bikes out. Last year we started the trip just at the end of Tet (Vietnamese new year) and the whole country was at something of a standstill. The bikes weren't quite what we'd booked although it all got sorted out in double quick time by Hung and the staff at Flamingo.

On arrival at Flamingo, owner Hung and our familiar guide Pinky were sat outside the cafe opposite chatting. It was good to catch up with them both who we consider friends now after doing two previous tours.

Route map in Flamingo's Hanoi office. Our plan was to go from Hanoi to Dream Waterfall, then Son La, Dien Bien, Lai Chau, Sapa then Lao Cai.

NB new boy Roger

Del, Bryan and Jim

We got the balances paid up and walked around to the garage 5 minutes away. We were pleased to see that the bikes were what we'd expected, and in some cases were better than expected.

Immediately upon seeing it, Joe claimed the KLX supermoto. I was a bit jealous, I have a supermoto background and would have loved it. However, Joe claimed it, it suited him better since it sat a bit lower with the 17" wheels so that was that. Looked very cool though!

I had a regular KLX250. Jim had a Baja XR250, Bryan and Roger were both on regular XR250's, Del a CRF250 and Phil was going to ride the SL230 that he hoped to buy from Flamingo at the end of the trip.

Phil is taking a 6 month break to travel through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. I'm not jealous...

There were a few changes needed as we checked over the bikes, nothing wrong as such just personal preference. My KLX had some goofy square mirrors on which got on my nerves immediately, so I asked for those to be changed. Honestly, I turned around, talked to Phil for a minute and when I turned back they'd been swapped! I hadn't even seen the lad do it. Likewise there was the odd clutch/brake lever that needed adjusting up or down to suit preference, and I believe Del asked for the rack to be taken off his CRF since he would just be using a waterproof bag on the back seat & rack only. Overall no problems to speak of, just tweaks.

Outside Flamingo's offices

Mr Phil tries out the SL230 for size

Joe's KLX250 D-Tracker

My KLX250

At Flamingo's garages which sit alongside one of the busier outer roads of Hanoi

Jim's Baja XR250, or as it would become known 'The Badger'.

Phil's SL230

Some final maintenance to Del's CRF250

Err...ok I give up.

After we were happy that the bikes were ready for the next day we walked back with Pinky and Hung, and had some lunch. Rice, pork spring rolls, pork, veg, anonymous soup, fish sauce (iww). That was the culinary theme for the week. Pork and rice basically. I'm joking a little here though, as always the food is excellent and a few of us usually shed some pounds during the week due to it being cooked with little or no oil, and the low fat diet generally.

Following making arrangements for the next morning we retired to the hotel to pack bike kit, then met up on the Skyline rooftop bar for a few drinks. I was lagging a bit by this point so started off with a lovely Vietnamese iced coffee!

Vietnamese iced coffee

View from the Skyline to the streets below in the Old Quarter

From the Skyline looking across the city

Ginger beard club

Hotel Tirant looks out over Hoan Kiem Lake...just! If only those two or three pesky buildings weren't in the way!

After a few at the Tirant we headed out into the Old Quarter. Starting off at Bia Hoi corner at the Green Pepper bar, we eventually shifted over to the mexican opposite and finally onto another bar up a side street. Suffice it to say, considering we were setting off on the bike trip the next morning I think we had a little too much. True to form eh! I'll leave you with a few photos for now, you can kind of picture how the night went...


Next up, day 1 - setting out from Hanoi!
Day 1 - Hanoi to 'Dream' Mo Waterfall

Ok. Tricky write-up this one, because this is one day when it all went a fair bit pear-shaped and to be honest one that we would all rather forget.

To start off, after the night out in Hanoi I woke at 3am despite still being tired and perhaps still worse for wear. I packed some stuff, watched Netflix then tried to get to sleep again. Packed a bit more, tried to sleep some more. Etc.

Despite that we were up reasonably on time and downstairs for a Hotel Tirant breakfast (always good!). I'd been looking forward to another round of banana pancakes and dumplings with honey, and they didn't disappoint. Outside, it was a typical first day Hanoi morning with damp roads but very little in the way of rain. It's always nice to stand out on the street for a bit on mornings like this before the craziness of the city begins and the streets become choked up with scooters, pollution and tourists.

Breakfast of champions. Banana pancakes, honey and sweet dumplings.

We went and retrieved the bikes from Flamingo as planned, and rode them back to the Hotel so we could load up the luggage. I took some Kriega luggage straps which I used to mount the Lomo waterproof duffle bag on the rear rack. A good setup but it took a bit of time doing it for the first time, getting everything adjusted. By the time I'd done that the others were ready to go. I went to check out and had a bit of a dispute with the hotel which took the clerk 3 attempts at reprinting the invoice before they got it right (luckily I had a printout of my deposit and arrangements with me so it was pretty cast iron). However that cost me more time and in all that haste I forgot to set my GoPro up for the ride out of Hanoi. Oh well...

The ride out of Hanoi was probably the most intense we've had so far I reckon. It was a complete trial by fire for Roger who was entirely new to Asia, Vietnam and Hanoi. I wondered at what point he would be thinking what had he gotten himself into! I think pretty soon after we set off.

Hanoi traffic is complete chaos in action. Traffic rarely comes to a halt, people don't focus on what's behind them because you don't need to. Instead you use your peripheral vision to detect incoming traffic from the sides as well as in front, and use judgement and timing so that you avoid it all yet keep moving. However since this is Asia, "might is right!" which means cars, buses and trucks just bully their way through it all with judicious and constant use of the horn. You get used to it, but on a trip like this there's no way around it, you're in at the deep end straight away and it gets better from there. If I'm honest I don't think any of us had slept well and we weren't really ready for battle, but we got through it.

There were a few near-misses on all fronts until we started to clear out of the city, and even then the roads take on a different type of menace for a few hours until you clear the suburbs. The aforementioned trucks and SUV's continue to bully their way through, only now you're not talking about huge 10-lane intersections with plenty of space, you're talking about main roads through villages with kids cycling along the road too. So within the space of a two lane road, you'll have kids on bicycles or electric scooters at the outside, then scooters, usually trying to overtake each other or with huge loads, then trucks barging through the middle of all that with barely enough space. It's pretty full-on and not very enjoyable at the time - although you do have a laugh afterwards about some of the events you just witnessed!

Our destination at this point was Pinky's house, he was going to cook lunch for us. I can't believe that what we just rode through was his commute. It's 100 times harder than commuting into a UK city at rush hour. We pitched up at Pinky's place and he and his lovely wife got food and coffee ready while his kids took turns being fascinated by us. In particular they were fascinated with Joe's full sleeve arm tattoos.

After an excellent lunch including Pinky homemade spring rolls, we rode on 25km to our first drinks stop of the day. The roads gradually became less frantic and the scenery turned much more rural. Dustbowl concrete towns gave way to more open views across countryside, with the mountains starting to creep into view and paddy fields appearing. The weather also started to turn from cloudy and overcast to clearer skies with a bit of heat. I'll let the road photos below do the talking.

At the drinks stop there were hammocks scattered around so a few of us took advantage. A nice way to relax for half an hour with a G7 (coffee).

I could get used to this...

From there we rode on. Not long after setting off I followed Bryan around a couple of easy bends with a road joining partway around one bend. Despite seeing him and appearing to wait, some old fella on a scooter decided it would be a good move to pull right across Bryan's path at the last second. Luckily Bryan was able to swerve and haul the XR up and avoid hitting him, but it was a reminder that some people can behave completely random and unpredictable, and to be super cautious at all times.

We next stopped at a bridge for a photo stop. At this stage the weather was really brightening up and the sun was in full effect.

After the bridge stop we rode on. I managed to shoot off a few more on-the-move photos but really we just wanted to get to the hotel and get the first day done, rounding it off with a beer. We were in the rhythm of it a bit more by now and enjoying the scenery. The traffic had calmed down to the point where there were just occasional traffic either oncoming or to be overtaken. Easy enough.

This is where things went drastically wrong.

We were on a long straight with no traffic for around half a mile, aside from an oncoming articulated truck. Pinky was in front as our guide, followed by (not certain on the order) Jim, Del, Joe and Phil, with myself, Roger and Bryan behind. Pretty spread out and no hazards to speak of. Just before the oncoming truck got level with us, Pinky drifted into the oncoming lane. The truck hauled on the brakes and almost put it into a field by swerving to the side, but an impact was unavoidable. From my perspective perhaps 150 yards back, I was paying more attention to the scenery right up until the point of impact. When the truck slewed sideways that caught my attention and I looked forward to see a huge cloud of dust and debris as the bike hit the front corner of the truck.

We all immediately pulled over, for my part I was shouting obscenities in my helmet as no doubt the others were, and hoping that it wasn't one of our crew and that whoever was involved was ok. We ran up to the scene and found Pinky on the ground not moving. Del, Joe and Phil got to work on him to see what state he was in and check for a pulse. Me being no good at anything medical (more likely to pass out than be able to help!) I phoned Hung (Flamingo owner) and told him about the accident. I needed him to speak to a local in Vietnamese to find out ( a ) where we were and ( b ) where the nearest hospital was, then ( c ) to ask them to phone for an ambulance. I near enough dragged a waiting truck driver out of his cab and put him on the phone to Hung, and to give credit to the chap he was very useful in relaying what had happened and helping as much as he could.

While this was going on, Joe was making sure none of the cars that were picking their way through the accident scene got close to Pinky. The others had helped halt a taxi driver who was trying to drive through, and basically made him take Pinky to the hospital. We're always told in the UK not to move someone after a motorcycle accident, and that's good advice, however in Vietnam ambulances aren't exactly easy to come by and sometimes it's better to get the job done by any means than wait until you can do something 'the right way'. Pinky's left arm was in a very bad way, with a large laceration and losing a lot of blood. He had part regained consciousness in a very drowsy way, enough that we could tell when moving his leg that his spine was still intact, so the quick decision was to lift him into the taxi whereby he could be taken to the nearest hospital. The last I saw was Del in the taxi with Pinky across his lap looking very panic stricken and taking off for the hospital.

After that the traffic police arrived and did a very thorough investigation of the accident. We noticed a hotel about 1/4 mile away and walked back to it, putting Hung on the phone to the owner. He arranged that we stayed their that night and we would talk about the situation further, but for now we should get everyone back to that hotel. We pushed most of the bikes back rather than rode, and stood around dissecting the situation and trying to make some sense of what had happened. I think we were all in shock to some extent.

Around an hour later we got contact via Joe and Del on the mobile that the Doctors had worked on Pinky in the taxi, splinting his arm and leg, and that he appeared for now to be ok as far as spinal or head injuries were concerned. However the hospital seemed very basic and there was no way to tell until he started regaining consciousness.

Joe and I cadged a lift from a chap at the hotel to the hospital where we found Del very distressed, and Pinky on a gurney by the entrance. The plan was that he be transferred to Hanoi. The doctors seemed to be comfortable with his condition. Del had been talking to the Police at the hospital who had taken custody of all Pinky's belongings. Within about half an hour the ambulance arrived to make the transfer to Hanoi, and Del had already decided to go with him in the ambulance. By the time we arrived back at the hotel Joe had decided he would go back to Hanoi the next day (Del is Joe's Dad by the way). Hung arranged a hotel for Del that night.

Back at the hotel we were pretty shellshocked by it all and had major concerns about whether Pinky would be ok. We talked over what had happened repeatedly, and at that point we all felt like canning the whole trip. There was no way it would be the same without Pinky, Del or Joe. For my part I also couldn't see me wanting to ride a motorbike any time soon and get any enjoyment out of it. We spoke to Hung and agreed that we all needed to sleep on it then make a decision in the morning. Hung by this point had cancelled his leading a tour that was planned for the next day (HCMC to Hanoi I believe) and appointed another guide to do it so he could take care of Pinky and help us with whatever we decided to do next.

I spoke to my old roomie and my mate Tony on messenger because I needed to talk to someone about it, to help make sense of it and decide what to do next.

Ultimately, we slept on it since nothing more would be known until the morning.
Day 2 - Giang Son to Mai Chau

Day 2 started pretty early for most of us I think, I doubt anyone got much sleep and we certainly all did a fair amount of weighing up what to do next. Plus the compulsory 'hotel dog' which goes hyperactive at 4am doesn't help.

It always puzzles me how there are some quite decent - in some cases even grandiose - hotels sitting empty in remote areas of Vietnam. I'm not sure how they make a living given how few guests there seem to be...

The hotel manager had done her level best to feed us the night before, given that she wasn't expecting 5 bikers to suddenly turn up out of nowhere. The hotel was really out on a limb with nothing much nearby, and we only noticed a couple of other guests who didn't actually seem to stay the night anyway. The food had been a bit questionable, I hope they weren't offended by us not eating all of it, but for my part I pretty much had just rice and soy sauce.

The Hotel Manager tries out our bikes for size. She took quite a shine to Phil

The view out of the rear balcony was quite magnificent, me and Joe stood chatting on the balcony for 15 minutes looking at the view and trying to wake up a bit. Joe was still choosing to go back to Hanoi regardless.

We met downstairs with the others and had a coffee while we talked over what to do next, and what we were each thinking. We were unanimously ravenous, so when breakfast arrived as a bit of a noodle stir fry it got wolfed down in short order.

So, what to do next. I can only speak for myself on this. I phoned Del and had a good chat about what to do. My reasons are my own but in the end I decided to carry on with the tour and see how that day went. If by the end of this day I wasn't enjoying it or Del needed my support back in Hanoi I would can it and head back. Talking to the others, we collectively agreed to continue after a LOT of deliberation. We made a phonecall to Hung to let him know what was happening then we really just had to kick back for a few hours to wait for him to arrive since we were about 3-4 hrs drive from Hanoi.

Nice view from the balcony at rear of the hotel

Towards lunchtime, Hung arrived in a pick up truck, with a driver and with a Kawasaki KLX125 for him to ride. He had been to the hospital the night before, and spoken to them that morning. So far the news was that Pinky's head was ok, he was wearing a good helmet and it did its job. It was mainly his arm to be concerned about. Incredibly his leg was only dislocated (I am guessing at the knee and the ankle) but wasn't broken. That was encouraging particularly since the impact was devastating to witness. Either way, compared to the type of injuries we had been expecting to hear about, of the life changing variety, this was very positive albeit early news.

After unloading the KLX125 and getting Del and Joe's bikes onto the truck we got the bikes out and loaded up ready. The hotel manager was quite amusingly bossy. While we were trying to load up the bikes she insisted on sitting on a couple of them then demanded that we take her photo from multiple angles. She definitely took a shine to Phil (someone always does on each trip...) I think we were all very apprehensive at this point and maybe putting on a brave face but willing to see how the day went. Joe rode back to Hanoi in the truck with the driver and the two bikes to join up with Del.

I was toying with taking the supermoto KLX instead but since we were due to do plenty of off-road riding we didn't want that fat front knobbly to become an issue. Once we were ready we had a bit of a pep talk from Hung. His view matched our own; Pinky would say carry on with the tour and enjoy it as much as we can, so let's concentrate on riding and get on with it. So on we went.

Yesterday's plan had been to ride further than we had, cut short by the accident. We were en route to 'Dream' Thac Mo Waterfall near Na Hang but had stopped short. Today we would ride from our unplanned stop at Giang Son to the Eco Lodge at Mai Chau.

We got some fuel then rode quite tentatively for the first few km, very wary of any trucks given what had happened. The roads were pretty quiet though, the sun was out and we were able to laze along for a few km before turning onto a smaller road. Not far after joining that road we encountered a bit of stopped traffic due to various trucks and goods being unloaded into bamboo makeshift stalls at the sides of the road. While we were sat in traffic, quite innocently two schoolgirls on an electric bike just pulled up next to me and started saying hello and waving. We get this type of reaction very often in Vietnam but this little moment served to remind me why we were there in the first place - to meet these great people and see their wonderful country. As we carried on the roads became lined with paddy fields and palm trees in places, again more nice lazy smooth roads in the sun with little traffic. At one point a local on a scooter tried to squeeze through a gap that just wasn't there, with the result that they sideswiped Phil, however it seemed that they just bounced off him with no more than dented pride.

Hung stopped us at a small village cafe in Vu Ban to get a snack after only a short period of time, maybe 20 minutes or so. Surprisingly for Vietnam the shop had quite a few cakes to choose from so we had some of that and enjoyed a nice coffee. I think we needed that first short ride just to shake the demons off.

Lovely Vietnamese coffee...the only problem is the 10 minute wait while it filters!

Hung turned off the main roads as soon as we could and rode on to proper back roads. While they were dusty at times we welcomed the lack of traffic and the more open scenery. We stopped for 15 minutes at a lake just 1km after we'd seen some lads playing a football match on a field at the side of the road - the first time we've ever seen that in VN I think! There was a lake on one side of the road and a paddy field on the other with plenty of people working the fields. Two or three water buffalo were ambling along the road chewing the grass.

We took a few photos then got moving again onto some very narrow trails that served as the locals' access between paddy fields. From their reactions to use (mostly bemused or smiling) it didn't seem like we were a sight they see very often. Considering our passing by on motorbikes kicked up dust behind us no-one seemed to mind. I guess the dust is a fact of life to the point where many don't notice it.

I usually ride at the back, and at times like these with so much dust in the air I hang right back. I had the GoPro switched on at this stage though and was close enough to round a bend on the dusty single track to see Bryan manoeuvring the CRF up a quick left-right climb. Just as he came into view I saw the familiar slow-drop to one side, pretty much a standstill drop. It was funny though, and obviously we had to take the mickey as much as possible. When we stopped for a chat just past that climb Bryan explained the CRF didn't have enough power and that was why it went down. Jim pointed out it was the most powerful bike of the bunch!

Can't beat a good old rickety bamboo bridge.

Down she goes...If that's not due to lack of power, I don't know what is.

Bryan explains his 'off'.

That's the offending climb, just as the track dips away from sight.

Mr Phil TK

Jim on the Baja. That bike has character.

Eventually the trails changed flavour, from raised roads between paddy fields to tracks that traced their way between hillsides. For the most part it was dusty riding, rough ground but plenty of grip with some huge dips and gouges in the trail starting to creep in. We caught and followed some local lads on scooters and kept up a good pace, everyone getting more comfortable with off road riding by this point.

After a good few km of these trails we pushed back onto tarmac for the last ride of the day. We would ride over the last couple of mountain passes to Mai Chau where we would stay the night. Since it was getting quite late in the day and the sun was going down, when we were on the darker side of the mountain it was very cold - distractingly so in fact at least as far as I was concerned. I was still wearing just my T-shirt and mesh jacket with body armour, and the chill was getting right through it. I was glad therefore when we stopped halfway up one of the passes alongside a few bamboo and tarpaulin market stalls in a dusty old lay-by at the roadside. I fancied a quick snack and in the lack of better alternatives paid 5000VND (about 15p) for a couple of boiled eggs and some salt & pepper. It's a snack that the Vietnamese seem quite keen on but the girl clearly wasn't expecting a bunch of western tourists to turn up and ask for some boiled eggs. She seemed to find it very amusing if the giggles were anything to go by.

At the roadside about to buy some boiled eggs

From there the next stop was at the summit of this superb road just before it winds its way down into Mai Chau. This seemed like as good a place as any to do the obligatory helmet shot so that's what we did. It was nice to warm up in the sun and admire the vast views laid out before us across the mountain ranges and through the valleys. It's only a few thousand feet up but it's quite a spectacle. There were two american tourists up here, the only motorcycle tourists I can recall seeing the whole week outside of Hanoi actually. Both were riding small capacity motorbikes that can be seen in the photos below parked up amongst ours.

L-R: Phil, Jim, Bryan, Roger, Me.


Before the sun set we rode down to Mai Chau, the road snaking down mostly in the sun and consisting of lots of switchbacks. Once down at ground level we rode through town. I was following a truck at reasonable distance and the two tourists we'd met were behind me. When the truck ahead of me abruptly braked, I hauled up the KLX with plenty of room to spare but one of the bikes behind me flew through on the inside having had no choice but to swerve to avoid me. I don't believe he was paying much attention, or perhaps the brakes on his bike were very poor. Either way he was lucky, he didn't hit anything. It can be very dangerous in Vietnam to ride between a vehicle and the gutter side of the road without good visibility, because that's where people, kids and animals can often be found. In some ways the gutter of the road is treated like a lane on its own, where it's acceptable to ride down the gutter on the wrong side of the road into oncoming traffic. Luckily he sailed through without incident but I suspect his companion knew what a close call it was because he suddenly dropped back about 200 yards.

Eventually we left the small town again up a single track road which leads out to the homestays and stilt houses. We actually passed right by the stilt house that we stayed at on Nambusters 1. A left turn and a few hundred yards on we arrived at Mai Chau Eco Lodge. I would very much recommend this place to stay if you are ever in the area in Vietnam, it's just superb. Very comfortable and extremely nicely done out. Not too shabby for Neil, this will do nicely. Shame I didn't get chance to enjoy that wooden bathtub but there's always next time. Maybe I'll take my wife over, if I did that's where we'd stay and I know she'd be in there like a shot.

We checked in, lugged our kit to our rooms (actually the staff carried most of it!) and had an arrival beer. Hung called back to Flamingo to find out more news about Pinky and relayed to us that he still seemed fine, he was regaining consciousness but under a lot of pain suppression. His arm was to be operated on in the morning but so far all the signs looked like he would be ok after a lengthy recovery spell. The best news we could hope for.

A while later we met up in the hotel restaurant for a much-needed excellent meal and a few drinks, raising a glass to Pinky. We thank Hung for an excellent day, and for rescuing the trip. Later in the evening there were some ladies doing traditional dancing outside to a watchful audience. It was a shame Joe missed that, he always joins in the traditional dancing at the homestays. We retired for the evening ready for another early start (always an early start!).

Tomorrow would be another big mileage day, taking us from Mai Chau to Bac Yen!

Day 3 - Mai Chau to Bac Yen

"Missing the Eco Lodge already..."

We woke in the Mai Chau Eco Lodge having all had a decent night's sleep and feeling much better about the trip. In the morning light the eco lodge really did look amazing with great views in every direction. I stood on the balcony for 5 minutes just drinking in the view. As is often the case in this part of Vietnam there was an early morning mist which set things off nicely.

My balcony, overlooking the paddy fields and with a great mountain view

The main Eco Lodge reception, with restaurant upstairs

No caption needed really eh?

I dashed across to the restaurant, taking the above snaps on the way and got sorted out with a lovely breakfast and a few coffees. Just as I was finishing up the others started to arrive. I wanted to have a walk down to the bottom of the lodge and see what was there, because the lodge is built onto a hillside. All the rooms are individual lodges, interconnected with paths like the one below, and lush with plants and greenery. It's a very tranquil place.

Once at the bottom of the Lodge area, I went through a gate and was presented with some stunning views of the paddy fields, with people already long since up to tender to their crops. I ambled around for 20 minutes taking a few photos then had to get back to my lodge to get everything packed up ready for the bike.

We all rendezvous'd at the bikes and got loaded up. Everyone was in much higher spirits than the day before having had encouraging news that Pinky was out of the woods, and having slept better. Once on the move we made our way down the link path back to the outskirts of the village, at which point Phil's SL developed a puncture.

Hung quickly found a chap who could do puncture repairs within about 100 yards. In fact, it seemed that punctures were all the guy did, all day long. He was situated down a narrow side street which was wide enough for scooters or pedestrians only, and that was alongside a large square where there was some kind of military drill or ceremony taking place. As a precaution we did not attempt to take any photos of the ceremony, because it would most likely have led to problems and questions being asked. While this was going on, Bryan and Jim helped me reset my GoPro, which despite being fully charged overnight was now refusing to even switch on. We hooked it up to a USB battery charge cell and left it to charge up for use later in the day.

While the puncture was being repaired we noticed that Phil was looking a tad down, so we decided to have a wander into the nearby market to get him a present and cheer him up. Here he is, the recipient of a lovely shiny new wok. The others couldn't resist modelling it for him either, what a popular gift.

Bryan then decided Jim also needed cheering up and went and found a lovely coat hanger rail. I think Jim was really pleased with this present, it was somewhere convenient to store his gloves and lid whenever we stopped. Which is often.

Jim then had to return the favour, managing to source this stylish yet functional child seat for Bryan...

As we were getting wrapped up and the wheel refitted, the parade finished and the military staff were dismissed. That prompted a mass exodus with 2 per scooter down the alley where we were parked. The odd thing was that most of them had rifles slung across their backs. Some strange questioning stares were given but most seemed ambivalent to our presence. The other item that some of the passengers were carrying by hand on the back of the scooters were easels, which had rifle practice targets (used) still mounted to them. Again, we didn't take pictures of that so you'll need to take my word for it.

We got underway with the puncture finally fixed, and started to overtake the military staff that we'd just seen moving out. This was a first for us all I believe...overtaking someone with a rifle and the ability to shoot you if they were dissatisfied with your antics!

Once out of town we again turned onto backroads which became off road tracks. Narrow & dusty but quite fast for the most part with some slow turns that needed concentration. We flew along for a good 10-15km then I realised Jim and Bryan were no longer behind me. Stopping and waiting for a few minutes I decided to turn back and check they were ok, or maybe they had found a photo opportunity that wasn't to be missed... Soon I encountered them coming the opposite way so I just turned round again and tailed them until we reached a bridge where the others had stopped for a break. As Jim, Bryan and myself pulled up, Roger (already stopped) toppled off the side of his XR in the worlds slowest fall ever. Two more members of the club!

Jim then said he'd had an off, bizarrely it was in a straight line on the dirt, maybe 20-25mph, and he was at a loss why it happened. He was mostly ok other than a nasty friction burn where his body armour shifted on impact. Hung got to work straightening the wheel within the forks using the good old "bang it against a solid object until it's straight" technique. Always works a treat!

From there we rode maybe 10 minutes and stopped at a place located by a waterfall. There was a house there, it might have been a drink stop or just a house run by someone Hung knew - not sure! Access from the road was over a river using the concrete bridge in the photo. Hung told us the owners were considering turning it into a homestay lodge because with the picturesque scenery it was located in that would work quite well and be a good investment for them.

Phil got some iodine spray and sorted out Jim's elbow wound, Hung took charge of the owner's baby for a while and we got some G7 coffee sorted out. The waterfall out back was set against some paddy fields, normally I would trek up to it to get decent photos but I was having a ginger moment. The sun was beating me down somewhat so it was better to just stay in the shade.

Thanks to Bryan for this cracking shot.

From the house stop we set out along the road which wound its way up around a mountain. The surface was hard packed rock which moved around as you rode over it, and caused the bike to become quite loose. Once over that, the road turned to old sun-bleached concrete that had crumbled on almost every apex, and on many of the straights. There were also plenty of gravel pits along it, mostly on the turns. Cornering on gravel is interesting but you do get used to it! Most of us had encountered a lot of these types of road on Nambusters II but Roger was quite new to it and this was the day he had to acclimatise.

Tarmac is one thing, dirt is another, but when you mix them both up it's something else again. Any loose surface such as gravel, stones or dirt sitting on top of tarmac will shift as you ride over it. No problem if the bike is upright, but if you try to corner on it it will slip sideways. As long as you expect that, you can handle it to a point, but if you try to corner too hard on it the surface - and bike - will try to slide out from under you. Following Bryan at the back of the group, we rounded a left hand corner which tracked around the outside of the mountain the road was cut through to see Roger and the XR on the floor on the next bend. He was up straight away, and looked mostly fine aside from perhaps a few new bruises. We helped pick the bike up and continued.

Further up ahead we stopped on a bend for another break and I found out that Phil had also had a little off. Apparently he'd tumbled to the right hand side, with the bike but towards the edge of a serious drop down the side of the mountain. The bike had landed on him, pinning his leg, the hot exhaust giving his calf a roasting for good measure. The others had lifted the bike off him and continued onwards to the stop we now found ourselves at.

Great views out across the mountains and countryside meant a good few photo stops along the way.

Further up ahead we stopped on a bend for another break and I found out that Phil had also had a little off. Apparently he'd tumbled off to the right hand side, with the bike but towards the edge of a serious drop down the side of the mountain. The bike had landed on him, pinning his leg, so he had to crawl out from under it but slid several feet down the slope. Possibly a bit too close for comfort!

We descended through dusty shack villages to a large new tarmac road, and followed it for several kilometres. Along the way we stopped briefly due to some errant water buffalo being herded down the road. At the roadside, in the middle of nowhere was a girl asleep under a washing line with a few clothes on it. We're not sure what her purpose was there but it did lead us to ask the question of how some people here spend their days. For some, the start of the day must go something like "well now I've had breakfast I think I'll walk several KM down this road and sit on this rock for a few hours". The best we can guess is that she was waiting for the clothes to dry on the canopy line that was above her, or minding the flowers in the field next to her. The Vietnamese are very hard working people, as I've often stated, so that makes it all the more boggling.

This type of thing is quite common in Vietnam.

There's a girl sleeping under those drying clothes.

Excellent shot taken by Phil TK.

Bryan's melted indicator on the CRF...

We stopped not long after at a roadside restaurant for lunch. There wasn't anything else nearby to speak of. By this point my GoPro had charged and was working ok so I sorted that out ready for the afternoon. When Hung told us we were going to a tea plantation, we weren't sure what to expect.

On we went, back onto some dust village roads that annoyingly were quite rife with oncoming trucks barging through. I'd say several of them took much more than their share of the road in an attempt to force us to dive off the road in panic, but for the most part the trucks were standard fayre. The last day or two had been in quieter areas though so it was a bit like going back into battle.

We reached the tea plantation after a while and turned up a single track that led out into the fields. The plantation was actually quite breathtaking. All the tea plants were meticulously lined out in rows that traced the contours of the landscape. The whole thing must have taken some doing! We followed the trail through the tea fields up to a hill overlooking the lot, and stopped for photos. There were a bunch of kids hanging out in the water reservoirs at the top of the hill, who were much amused by our presence.

Anyone fancy a cuppa?

Gotta say, I love this shot...

We rode around more of those concrete/gravel mountain roads I talked about earlier, passing then being passed by one another at every photo opportunity. Ultimately we arrived at a narrow bridge crossing high above a river, where we each rode across one at a time on instruction by Hung. Immediately from the bridge we were on dry off-road track again, quite rutted and bumpy for several km until it again joined the familiar concrete/gravel combo that we were by now familiar with.

Stopping at a small village, the others decided it was my turn for a gift. I became the proud owner of the brush in the photo below!

By now we were in late afternoon golden sun, tracking the road around mountain side, crossing the river below and winding our way over one final mountain road which eventually tracked the lake to our left. We eventually rounded a corner to be faced with a barrier and the open lake. A chap at the barrier waved us through. The road just ended abruptly at the ferry ramp. We were to catch the ferry across to the next peninsula and continue from there to Bac Yen where we would spend the night.

Unknown to us, we had been running late for the afternoon ferry. Hung and the others up front had already arrived at the ferry ramp as it set sail, however we were a few kilometers behind stopping and taking photos every half a mile!

Since this is Asia, the ferry tends to just wait until there are enough passengers before it sets off, rather than operate at specific times of the day. Therefore you can be waiting 2 hours sometimes for enough passengers to turn up on the other side of the bay before the ferry returns.

Hung told the ferry chaps (presumably the one at the barrier) that there were 10 bikes about to pull up (a slight mistruth...) to make them want to turn back and pick us up. Hung paid him the same rate as for 10 bikes despite there being just 6 of us, because he had turned back to collect us which was appreciated.

We've made this crossing in the past on the first Nambusters trip. Believe it or not, the ferry is much more luxurious than the one we rode across that time! And about 3 times the size...

We took a few photos whilst on the ferry but in 10 minutes or so we were across. As we were at the back of the ferry we were the last to ride off. The others cleared off down the only road, me at the back as usual lagging behind. As I rounded a corner a load of kids ran out into the road to shake hands and high-five. What resulted, because of the sun behind me, was a great little GoPro clip with the actions played out as shadows.

The terrain wound its way around a few hillsides until we found ourselves in the lowlands travelling through one small village after another. Late in the day like this it tends to get busier due to all the kids heading home from school. Today was no exception. As we found last time we rode through this area everyone was super friendly with kids rushing out into the road to shout "hello!" and always waving as we passed.

The road eventually wound its way up into the hills once more on the final stretch to Bac Yen in the Son La province with the sun about to disappear behind the horizon. I enjoyed a lazy ride following Roger on his XR over the twisties until we arrived at the Dong Tam hotel. We stayed there previously, it's not great but it's good enough for our needs.

After the usual talking over the day's ride and events with a beer or two, everyone unloaded the bikes and got their kit up to the hotel rooms. I had very much enjoyed the day but really missing Del, Joe and Pinky not being there.

That evening we walked a short distance down the road to a small eatery and enjoyed a decent enough meal (pork, rice, veg as usual!). Walking back along the road 10 minutes away to the hotel after our meal, the entire town had switched off while we were eating. I used my torch and we had the mobile phone torches going too, to avoid someone stepping into one of the many kerbside holes that would easily see you with a broken leg or ankle.

Tomorrow we would ride from Bac Yen to Song Ma, then the following day on to Dien Bien Phu. DBP is the site of the final battle of the first Indochina war between the Vietnamese and the French Union back in 1954. As a result it contains a rich military history and a number of tourist sites that we planned on visiting.

Day 4 - Bac Yen to Song Ma

Dodgy racks and riding through trees...

We were staying at the Dong Tam hotel in Bac Yen. Most of us woke early, around 5.30am due to the continuous stream of trucks heading through the village. I've said previously that Vietnam tends to wake up early, in this case it meant that most of the trucks honk their horns loudly as they pass through town!

Still, after the last few nights' lack of sleep 5.30 was an improvement. The Hotel Dong Tam was quite a tired and basic place but enough for our needs. Plenty of space to sort out motorbike kit, and the bed was at least not as rock-hard as some we experienced. I didn't feel too good when we woke up but nevertheless we got the bikes loaded up and ready.

Today would be more about just exploring and getting up to Song Ma than seeing any single particular attraction of note, however it would still turn out to be a day full of variety, with a bit of drama thrown in as usual!

While mounting my dry-bags to the KLX I noticed at the last minute that the front weld had fractured on the left side rack. That meant it was only held in place by a single bolt at the rear. I quickly blagged some cable ties from Bryan and reinforced the front of the rack to the supports on the upper rack. However, the problems with this rack were not over, and it would come back to haunt me later in the day...

Once loaded up we rode just a few minutes down the road to have breakfast at the place we'd dined at the night before. On the way I made a mental note of a place with fresh bread for sale outside, because Phil loves bread and he would want to know about it! It turns out the breakfast would be of the cooked variety rather than banana pancakes & honey (the food of champions). Me and Phil decided some bread would be good and walked back to the lady we'd seen on the way.

After sourcing some bread, as we were walking back there was a toy shop which gave us the idea of buying Roger a present. No doubt he must be feeling left out since he was the only one without a gift. To the amusement of the shop owner we got a great deal on a nice plastic dumper truck.

Aww, you can tell he really likes it, bless.

Toy dumper truck now secured to the XR. Job done.

We set off from there and rode a few miles on relatively normal dust-covered roads through the hills. The roads were reasonably quiet with just the odd truck or local here and there. Once we passed through a small village Hung pulled over near a roadside shack with a long metal bridge to our left. After checking with the lads at the shack he led us across the bridge and along a rough dry trail which followed the edge of a lake. We were maybe 50-100 feet up above the lake.

The Badger!

We rode maybe a mile or so along the trail before stopping to check with some locals where the trail went. I suspect it would have taken us too far off route because we then turned around and headed back to the main road where the bridge was. Somehow 4 of us managed to miss the trail that led back down to the bridge and carried on to an area with a few stilt houses before realising our mistake. That prompted some precarious manoeuvring of the bikes on the bumpy hillside with a heavy slope and the camera running. It had been a nice little 10 minute detour with some interesting views across the lake though.

From there, back on the road for about 3 minutes before we stopped at a much larger bridge crossing the lake again. Photos ensued.

Regarder les pantalons blancs de awesomeness.

After stopping for a while we rode on down the palm-tree lined road. We were starting to see increasing numbers of traditionally dressed Hmong women as we rode. Their outfits are very intricate and extremely colourful. You could be forgiven for thinking that they only wear such outfits under special circumstances but it did seem that they wear them all the time even when going about their daily chores - which usually involves hard graft. Their trademark hairstyle involves a large 'bun' right on the top of their head. For those that ride scooters and wear helmets, this proves an interesting combination since the helmet is perched way up on top of the bun rather than on their head.

20 minutes alter we pulled in at an ethnic market which was taking place on a desolate area of land next to a river. It seemed that goods arrived by boat or truck to be sold on the market. The place was mostly run by Hmong women, in some cases all they had was a sheet or tarpaulin laid out with various items of clothing for sale. I bought a beautifully made woven dress for my daughter which she loves, I now wish I'd bought her a few more in different colours.

By and large the locals regarded us with quiet amusement. As is often the case around here as soon as you start talking to them or asking to buy something the women tend to burst out in fits of giggles. I'm hoping that was more down to us generally as a group being quite a rare sight, and nothing to do with my trademark white pants (of awesomeness).

The market area, which was pretty much just a scrap of unused land.

These boats were being loaded with goods for transport down river

Leaving the market...

Hmong ladies on the right wearing traditional skirts

From here we continued a good 60km to our early lunch stop. The route took us over some little-used mountain routes. Nice quiet areas with good views down into the valleys, over paddy fields sculpted into the mountainside or villages clinging to the mountains for all they were worth. Eventually we arrived in Ban Lot for lunch.

In Ban Lot for some lunch

Local Yamaha main dealer across the road from the cafe

I believe my GoPro battery had gone by this point so I left it in my seat bag connected up to a USB power pack to recharge. I was glad of that later in the day because there were a few sights that were definitely worth capturing.

After lunch, with the GoPro suitably charged we headed off to find one of my all-time favourite roads, the one that heads across to Song Ma. The road surface isn't good, in fact it's either covered in dust, gravel or there's no road at all in certain places but if you catch this road late in the afternoon under the golden sun there's really nothing like it. It just snakes its way over and through the mountains with some great views out over the lowlands that sit around it.

After perhaps half an hour we stopped briefly at Hat Lot while Hung checked with some locals. Hung then led us down a dirt track that led off the main road between houses and fields. It cleared into a wide open area with a runway sized levelled section full of what seemed to be tree bark. You can see the size of the area I'm talking about on Google Maps (below).

It turns out that this was indeed a runway made ready for a soon-to-be-built airport. However, not one to miss a trick, those crafty Vietnamese are using it to dry out coconut bark until work commences properly. Think about that for a second though. The runway looks to be between 1.5-2km in length and a few hundred feet wide. Someone will have had to transport and distribute all that bark across an area larger than several football pitches - probably by hand. That's quite an effort. They must have REALLY wanted to dry all that bark...

Breathe in..

We continued along small dirt roads like this for many KM. The people here seemed very friendly and welcoming, with plenty of waves and the odd look of complete bewilderment. It's quite funny when someone just literally stops in the tracks to stare as you ride past, jaw wide open.

After several KM we came to a halt since the road was blocked by a fallen tree. There were plenty of scooter riders and village folk around us, all amused by our presence it would seem. One or two of the locals were chainsawing the tree to clear it and let people through. It wasn't clear whether the tree had fallen of its own accord, or been felled by the lads with the chainsaw.

As the lads in front were waved through, a few of them struggled so the chap set off again with the chainsaw. One of the chaps who had been waiting alongside me on a scooter rode around me to cut in front. Amusingly, he rode through while the guy with the chainsaw was cutting and at one point ducked to avoid the chainsaw with his head!

Once he'd got through followed by another couple of locals I made my way through on the taller KLX. I can honestly say, I've never rode through a tree before but now I have.

After clearing the tree we followed the road for a good hour or so across the first real mountain pass of the day. This wasn't a huge mountain with decent altitude, but the roads were very enjoyable and the scenery was always good. On the downward side, we encountered two girls on a bicycle who were coasting VERY fast down the mountain. Seriously, I'd say they were doing at least 30mph, maybe more. I passed them with plenty of space, doing around 50mph and there wasn't that much of a speed difference...! Good effort girls.

The fastest youngsters in Song Ma.

We stopped towards the end of it and, as you can see from the photo below, there was already a problem with my rack at this stage - I just didn't notice it. The red dry bag on the side rack has canted downwards. I really should pay more attention. One of the downsides of being at the back all the time (by choice, I might add) is that there's no-one behind you to let you know that you have a bike issue.

After the first mountain road we stopped at a small roadside area for a drink and a breather. Once off the bike, as we were stood around chatting and removing helmet/jacket/gloves etc I noticed a serious problem with my bike...

Stopping for a drink at Ban Na Ot

Oops. That's not right is it. Left side of the tyre now very clean though.

As you can see in the photos, my Lomo 20l bag, which mainly had some surplus bike kit in it, was still soundly attached to the left side rack. The problem was, the rack was no longer attached to the bike! It was only held in place by the cable ties added that morning, which meant the other bolt had either sheared off or come undone leaving the rack to swing downwards. The luggage had obviously swung into the chain and the wheel, wearing a major hole in the Lomo dry bag and much of the contents.

My waterproofs had several holes worn through them. My spare motocross gloves now consisted of a single glove. A few other bits and pieces had fallen out of the bag. Most annoyingly, the side pod from my Kriega R8 waist pack was completely wrecked, having met with the chain at some point. Oh well, could've been worse. I'm not sure how this all happened without me noticing it. Oh yeah...Vietnam scenery probably had something to do with that I guess...

Me Kriega!!!

Oh well, nothing to do other than sling everything that was trashed and keep everything that wasn't, which wasn't much really. After securing the rest of it we continued along the route to Song Ma.

We rode for another 30 minutes before crossing a small bridge off the main road that led into an open parking area with paddy fields surrounding it. Parking up for a while we found that this was the border belt between Vietnam and Laos, at Ban Bear. The major river nearby was the Nam Ma River.

I believe Hung went and asked at the guard post whether it would be possible for us to pass through to Laos, but that didn't happen. Many Vietnamese and Laos cross the border daily since they live in one country but work in the other.

From here it was pretty much a main road trek 40 or 50km to Song Ma. To begin with I stayed with the group. At one point, and this is a memory that will stay with me, we were riding through a small town and there were a number of traditionally dressed women all over the place. In front of one particular building there was a gathering of maybe 30 of them. As the others rode past them you can imagine 30 women waving, shouting "hello!" and generally screaming at us like we were their favourite band or something. I'm not used to that kind of a reaction but for the few seconds that we rode past it was quite a moment! Was the GoPro switched on though? No.

I lagged behind the others due to stopping to take photos and mess about with the GoPro. Being late in the day, I tend to ride at a more leisurely pace and in some cases that can lead to a few KM gap between me and the next person in front. At one point I saw a bridge that the others had already passed, and not being able to resist a good bridge I rode across it then realised the GoPro had packed in. In the 2 or 3 minutes that it would have taken to mount the USB charge pack to the handlebars under normal circumstances, I got mobbed by several people and ended up having at least a dozen photos taken with each of them. It took about 15 minutes in total, no problem though, it's fantastic that everyone is friendly.

Eventually I caught up with the others at the hotel, they were already well into their first (or second) beer by that point. The hotel was on a main road in town and there was a constant stream of people heading home either from work or from school. Evening rush hour. It was amusing to see the reactions as each rode past us.

That evening we walked down to a place that was in town, run by a new chef in town. He was until recently based in Hanoi and one of the premier chefs there, and now had opened this restaurant in Song Ma. The food was absolutely excellent, on a par with the best food I've had in Vietnam so far.

That rounded off a great day with a few unexpected surprises.

Tomorrow we would ride on to Dien Bien Phu. I was looking forward to that particularly since we'd been once before, and I knew both Jim and Bryan (being ex-RAF) would enjoy it with the variety of military history there.
Great read and love the pictures but throwing in these food pictures at the end (at close to 5 in the morning at my time) made me very hungry. And yes, the subframe of the KLX 250 is a bit on the light side and often need repairs while on the road. I s there any update on Pinky's condition?
Great read and love the pictures but throwing in these food pictures at the end (at close to 5 in the morning at my time) made me very hungry. And yes, the subframe of the KLX 250 is a bit on the light side and often need repairs while on the road. I s there any update on Pinky's condition?
Sorry about the food photos, I got hungry after posting that and seeing them!The KLX subframe was actually fine, it was the aftermarket rack that was bolted to it that failed. The upper section was fine but the sides could have been reinforced a bit better. On the offroad sections it must have been deflecting inward on every bump, with the result that the weld eventually cracked. I'm annoyed with myself that I didn't keep an eye on it enough though.Pinky is recovering now and is at home. He has got some feeling back in his hand/arm but no real use of it as yet. It may be some time before he gets use of it back, and it's not clear how much use he'll get back. His leg was so badly dislocated it's similar to recovering from a broken leg I expect. He's a tough chap though, has his family around him and the support of Hung who owns Flamingo, so I am sure he will bounce back. Ultimately, the fact he's here at all after an accident like that is something of a miracle!
Very nice report and pictures, looks like Flamingo has a good selection of bikes for hire these days. Especially liked your morning pictures around the Eco Lodge, beautiful place.
Thanks! The Eco Lodge was fantastic. I'm so glad I walked down the hill to get those photos, just caught the right time of day too with the sun just coming up. At the time I was just snapping away, then later when I checked the photos for the day I thought 'wow!'
Day 5 - Song Ma to Dien Bien Phu

Day 5:!

The hotel in Song Ma was pleasant enough, I'd slept well and an early start was planned. Everyone was up and bikes loaded by 8pm (yes that's an early start in my book :)

Bikes sorted, we rode approx 30 seconds up the road to have breakfast! That consisted of a few sugar loaves and some bananas, which was as close to the breakfast of champions as we would get. While we were eating we noticed the methadone clinic across the road with a particularly weary looking girl sat hunched up on the road outside it.

View from the hotel balcony.

Our intention today was to traverse a road that follows alongside the Laos border most of the way up to Dien Bien Phu. Hung had already explained the choice of routes in advance and cautioned us that if we took this proposed route near the border we would not be allowed to stop, take photos or do anything other than a quick wee break for around 90km. Breaking those guidelines would no doubt see us getting questioned by the military or the police.

Part 1 was to ride 30km or so to a town near the border called Coc Toc, then pick up the road from there. It almost went to plan. We had a fantastic ride to the first stop in a small town, over - you guessed it - more mountain roads which were as twisty as you like. Only problem was that I'd got a mesh jacket on and it was suddenly quite chilly on this road once we reached a bit of altitude. The cool breeze was getting straight through the mesh as it's supposed to do and I was shivering as a result. I didn't want to have to unload the main bag to get at another layer, so was forced to improvise by stuffing my adventure hat (think Indiana Jones and you're not far off) down my jacket. Worked a treat. It was clear that everyone was really enjoying this road. Much fun was had.

I often find in Vietnam that the moment you let your guard down and think you're getting used to the place, it will come along and hit you with something unexpected.

On arrival at Coc Toc, we attracted quite a lot of attention. We pitched up at a small shop and the owner brought us some G7 coffee out. If I haven't mentioned G7 before, it's an all-in-one dried coffee powder that's thoroughly addictive once you've lived on the stuff for a few weeks. Wake Up Coffee is another brand that's also quite good.

As we were stood around, a chap arrives on scooter and talked to Hung. It turns out he's a local Policeman and word had quickly spread to him somehow that we were in town. He demanded all our passports. He inspected each one very carefully, noting down all our passport numbers in a little book and checking every page to see which countries we'd visited in the past. He did seem to pause on the page where I've got some arabic immigration stamps, which concerned me a bit. After a lot of talking to Hung he rode off.

Hung relayed to us the message; if we continued on the road we were on towards the border, we would be in quite a lot of trouble. At this point we were around 10km from Laos. He strongly advised we head back to Song Ma and take the other route up to Dien Bien Phu which is still only 5-10km from the border in certain areas. We agreed. Look on the bright side, we would get to ride that fantastic mountain pass again, so no problem.

Roger had been proudly carrying his toy dumper truck on the back of his XR since we bought it him the day before. While we were reeling from the Police encounter, a little toddler walked up and obviously took a shine to Roger's truck. He kept looking and pointing, a universal language understood by all. In a touching display, much to the amusement of the locals who were hanging around, Roger removed the truck and gifted it to the little boy. The lad hurried off with it to his family, not believing his luck, before coming back and giving Roger a hug to say thanks. Aww!

We headed back across the mountain for a while, before pulling over when Hung spotted a shaky old bridge. You know by now that we can't resist a dodgy bridge crossing. Off we went across it, then followed a small trail up a very steep clay slope through a village. To say they were surprised to see us is an understatement. We dodged the livestock and rode through to the other side of the village, got a few photos then returned back to the main pass.

We continued 30km back around the mountain more or less to where we'd started off from that morning. I must have taken one photo stop too many because I got separated enough from the group that I started to wonder whether I'd missed them turning off. Fortunately Roger was a star and waited at at the junction of the turn that the group took to catch me as I rode past.

Having caught up (eventually) it wasn't long before Hung led us across a trail that included 4 low bamboo bridges. The trail snaked through some cut-off villages which were very basic with wooden stilt houses and muddy trails only. Great fun! There was some mud in places but nothing more than a few inches deep. Plenty of ruts to avoid though.

Somewhere around this point I may have made a bit of a gaffe. I stopped for one photo too many, and just as I pulled back onto the road a scooter with two policemen on board rode past. The road surface was very much under construction in this area, with a new road being built. Being on a KLX250 dirt bike I could have gone much quicker but didn't want to overtake the police who were riding very slowly on their little scooter. So I was forced to sit behind them patiently for a good 10 minutes or so until we caught up with everyone else. I'm not sure whether they would have stopped anyway since they were in front of me, but the lads were all waiting at a sort of checkpoint and the police stopped in front of me. Then, for the second time today they demanded all our passports and entered into a conversation with Hung.

Not long after that had begun, some nice chaps from the Army also arrived, and also got involved in proceedings. We have no photos or GoPro, other than the bit I had running on the GoPro as I pulled in, as you can imagine we didn't want to antagonise the situation.

Hung is on the left talking to the police at the post, another policeman also on the scooter and army bloke about to arrive.

Eventually we sort of got the line that they were 'aware' of our presence near the border and there was some issue with our passport numbers. They took the numbers down again (correctly this time) and eventually let us go on our way. I can only presume after taking our passport details the first time they ran some checks which showed an issue with the information they had gathered.

At that point we just wanted to get out of this whole area since there wasn't a particularly pleasant vibe. Things got better from here on in.

The road snaked its way up and over some decent hills and we stopped to admire the views and take photos for a while. As the road wound downwards we followed a dusty mixed road/off-road for a while before turning up a narrow track leading up into the hills. It brought us out in a very, very remote village tethered to the hillside. There was a kind of "everything shop" where you could buy a coca cola, or you could buy a pigs head. The owner was sitting there butchering a pig when we arrived, amidst your usual shop fayre. Many people from the small village came out to stare at us. Awkward.

The "Everything" Shop. You can buy everything there.

Hung was talking to the owners while we stood around drinking coca cola and trying not to feel too self-conscious. It really was quite strange for a while although we were getting fairly practised at being the centre of attention by now.

Before we left, the shop owner told Hung that we were the first visitors to the village. Ever. When we asked Hung to check what they meant by that, it seems that they have never had any tourist or westerners in the village before. We seemed to be quite literally the first, which was incredible.

One of the local lads offered to show us the trail that led out of the village, because it could be quite tricky in places and there was a chance we would get lost. So with that, we set off following him on his scooter down what turned out to be an amazing trail.

There were a good few 'severe' drops to the side but it wasn't all like that. It was very undulating, narrow and it snaked around and over various hills with the occasional section that you really, really didn't want to get wrong. After a while the young lad told Hung we needed to keep 20 metres between the bikes for the next bit otherwise the ground could subside and that would be that. If it's rained any time within the last 7 days, this trail is impassable.

On the way down, Bryan's rear brake on the CRF seemed to cook itself, so he had to tentatively chug down the other side of the trail on engine braking and a spot of front brake.

This few KM of trails, and our encounter with the lovely people in this remote area and the village were one of the highlights of our trip. The off road trails demanded your absolute attention, while the scenery demanded photos and admiration. Superb.

The trail eventually led us back onto a minor road that cut over through the hills and mountains surrounding the area. We rode a reasonably uneventful but very enjoyable and twisty 60km with the occasional village thrown in. Around late afternoon we found ourselves riding through the flatter lowlands with paddy fields all around us and a nice sunset developing. After the hassles earlier in the day, it was nice to just enjoy the ride with little or no drama for the rest of the day. Following Roger and Bryan over most of these mountain roads it seemed like I got into a nice rhythym, being able to trust the person in front to spot any hazards and set a fast yet enjoyable pace.

Typical of the types of village we rode through.

This chap was about to transport that 15' arrangement on his scooter!

Almost 60km of twisties like this with no traffic. Road surface highly variable.

Some mixed surfaces on the higher routes.

The last 10km or so were all on this one continuous road with paddy fields either side, and mountains beyond those. Unfortunately it was a highway, which meant trucks & lots of traffic generally. Being later afternoon, it was the busiest time of the day so you really had to have your wits about you. We slogged the last 10k into Dien Bien Phu and followed Hung to the hotel without much drama though, and enjoyed a very well-earned beer in the lobby for an hour before trekking our stuff up to the rooms to get changed.

That evening, Hung took us to a great place nearby where all the cooking is done at the table. You can either do that yourself or they will do it for you. In our case, Hung fulfilled chef duties. They set you up with a small gas stove and a cooking pot that already has stock and some veg simmering away, then periodically bring you fresh veg and meat that you then cook in the pot and serve immediately. Most Vietnamese cooking is done this way, cooked in simmering stock rather than being fried or cooked with oil. It's quite healthy since there's little or no oil used and the ingredients are fresh, being sourced nearby. Into the pot at various stages went chicken, pork, thinly sliced beef, noodles, green veg and so on until we couldn't eat any more. I struggled a little with the chicken since I just can't eat it if I've seen it before it was cooked, but that's just me being soft. Overall it was a lovely place, a few beers were consumed and all in great company. Still missing Pinky, Del and Joe though.

We talked about the next day when we would see some of the military history around DBP. There were a few places we visited on NB1 that I felt weren't really worth the diversion, but there was a specific place where there were tanks, guns and trenches still left over from the major conflict held there in the 1950's. This is all centred around A1 hill (named Eliane 2 by the French) so I tried to describe it to Hung to save some time in the morning.

Chef Hung.
Day 6 - Dien Bien Phu to Sin Ho

Tanks, Snakes and Coconuts!

We had a good night's stay at the hotel in Dien Bien Phu, and woke to a nice misty morning. The mist cleared while we were having breakfast on the top floor several storeys up. I'm glad to say it was a proper Breakfast of Champions. When Roger and me got up to the breakfast area it was closed up, but two girls rushed in and started making pancakes for us like pancakes were going out of fashion. We thought Phil would be joining us so asked for 3 breakfasts. As it turned out, Phil had gone for a wander so I ended up eating most of his breakfast too. We then had to tell the girls twice to stop cooking even more after they'd brought us two plates of pancakes and bananas each, plus we'd already eaten Phil's too....!

As well as the bananas the finishing touch was G7 coffee, of which I had 3 (mine + Phils plus another), so by the time we were done I was on a proper coffee rush. Phil appeared with a real coconut for me, sliced open and with a drinking straw in there. It's the best thing you can have for dehydration. After chugging down as much of it as I could, there was still plenty left so I took it down to the bikes in the basement parking area to have some more while we loaded up.


Vietnamese camelbak.

We set off from the hotel towards what was supposed to be the military museum. As it happened we arrived at the indoor museum which was some way off. To be fair to Hung, he doesn't often do this tour so we appreciated it might be a bit hit and miss trying to find the correct military attraction when there are dozens in DBP itself.

Immediately as we landed at the first museum I told Hung it was the wrong one and described the one we were looking for. We set off and arrived next at the other one we've seen before that's not really worth much of a look (it's pretty much just a bunker). On the third attempt we found the one we were after, where there's a collection of tanks, guns and bunkers all on Eliane hill.

Since the last time we were here two years ago, it looks like they have shoo'd off the stalls and hawkers that loitered by the path as you walk up the hill. All there was were a few stalls at the bottom of the hill selling some odd stuff, such as drinking 'hip flasks' that were easily 1' long.

We first checked out the tanks and old guns that were there, before walking up to the hill crest to see the tank set on a plinth. The bunkers and tunnels are still in place and mostly open, so if you want to you can walk through many of them. I had a small torch with me so I went into one and kept going to see where it led to. In the end, I surfaced over 1/4 mile from where I started and there was plenty more after that. Plenty of the tunnels had cage bars blocking you from getting any further. Understandable. The tunnels were damp, musty, and short - around 5' from floor to ceiling at the very most. I had to walk almost doubled over. People most likely lived under here for days or weeks on end which can't have been pleasant.

Attempt 1.

Attempt 2.

Found it! Phil celebrates by donning a random hat.

The business end.

Phil doing his best Meerkat.

In the tunnels, which are much more extensive than you would expect from the surface. Quite eerie too.

That's a crater from 1000kg of explosives used by the Vietnamese troops to destroy the French stronghold.

A nice couple took this photo for us at the DBP monument. As they were walking off they muttered the word 'Russkie' presumably because of Bryan's Russian-design helmet! Plus he looks a bit serious.

L-R: Phil, Roger, Hung, me, Bryan the Russkie, Jim.
From here we rode out of Dien Bien Phu back into rural areas similar to those we'd passed through on the way in yesterday. With plenty of paddy fields surrounding the roads, and mountains on the horizon, it made for a nice easy ride other than the occasional errant water buffalo. Along the way, the roads changed variety to become very twisty as we wound through the hills. A superb bit of riding for about 1 hour before we stopped for a drink.

Plenty of folk waving as we ride by

Hung confirming directions with a local.

We pulled up in a small town that was similar to many others we'd seen. One road in, one road out. We pulled the bikes up onto the pavement outside the sunny front to a shop/cafe and got some G7 coffee sorted out. By this point I'd taken to hooking the GoPro up to a USB charge battery each time we stopped for a drink which did a great job of extending the battery life through the course of a day. If I was running the GoPro on the handlebar mount I would cable-tie the battery pack to the bars and plug it in then leave it charging while it was recording.

While we were kicking around I noticed in the shop they had my absolute favourite authentic traditional time-honoured Vietnamese snack: Choco Pie! Not sure why the packaging now says Choco Sapion, which google amusingly tells me translates as 'Choco Rearview Mirror'... Either way this delicious chocolatey snack is just what you need when you've been off-roading all day without anything to eat and are having a sugar crash. So I bought a couple of packs. Sadly there were no cans of Birdy Coffee but I'll settle for Choco Pie. We also had plenty of fresh pineapple which Hung had bought from someone at the roadside not long beforehand, knowing that we were going to stop shortly. It was basically just a pineapple hacked up into chunks at the roadside and given to Hung in a plastic bag.

While we were stood around chatting and finishing our coffee, some commotion started to unfold 20 yards away. Two or three lads suddenly sprinted across the road chasing a 7 foot snake, which promptly bolted for the sloped concrete embankment at the other side of the far pavement. The lads picked up some stones or rocks as they were running, and with no more than 2 or 3 shots they hit it and stunned it. One of them then grabbed it and bashed it against the road a few times before coshing it with another rock, then he got on his scooter and rode off with it.

The strange thing was, although it looks like a stringy little thing, when it was alive it was a good 5" or more in diameter. When they killed it, it shrunk down to what you see in the photos below.

We just about managed to get a few photos off, but were mainly stunned by it, paused with coffee in hand wondering what the heck just happened!

Photo courtesy of Bryan C. Harrison
We're not quite sure what the snake was going to be used for, but we suspect he was taking it home to cook it. From there we continued along the route to Pa So, taking in a variety of roads including a few that were still being built or remade. One in particular was a dust-fest and we were unlucky to end up behind a large construction truck for some of it for a while. You've just got to sit tight and wait for a safe place to pass. And hold your breath for as long as you can. After that pass we hit a reasonably good surfaced remote hill pass, as twisty as a twisty thing and with virtually no other traffic. We spread out a bit and just had a nice fast but relaxing ride for a while.

Around 13:30 or so, not having stopped for lunch properly yet, we were carving across a hill road a few hundred metres up and reasonably spread out from one rider to the next. Upon rounding a right hander I was faced with a number of people walking down the hill spread out across it. Maybe 20 or 30 people in total. I slowed right down to 15kmh and upon reaching the front of the group could see they were carrying a body on a wooden stretcher. Clearly this was a funeral of sorts, probably the first time I can remember seeing a body. Grim, but that's life.

That slightly macabre incident aside, we continued on and found the scenery to steadily improve through the day. The afternoon started to pass quite incident-free which was quite welcome after the police & military drama over the previous day or two.

After we rode across another by-now familiar long red & white painted bridge, the lowlands were spread out to our right with paddy fields reaching to the distant mountain ranges. Around this time we reached a few long straight roads and most of us decided to try and see what the little 250's would do. The KLX seemed to max out around 115kmh which wasn't bad at all.

After the long straight, there was a left turn forcing us to slow down. Coming out of that turn perhaps 100-200 yards further on there was a complete mud bath spread out across the road. I followed Roger through it, unwisely choosing his line and riding through a ridiculous amount of mud in the process. Wasn't his fault though, there was an oncoming van that hogged the centre of the road forcing us to take the wider (muddier) line. Maybe if we hadn't just been arsing around at high speed we would have been riding slower and could have stopped before getting a mud bath!

Just before another long bridge we stopped at an intersection and had a nice sit down lunch at a cafe in Muong Lay. The place doesn't look much from the outside, or the inside for that matter, but it was a great little nook from which we watched not much happening outside. Still, at least we were cool in the shade, and our hostess was gorgeous!

After lunch we crossed the next bridge and had a really enjoyable, easy ride for a couple of hours. Nice roads, bridges, lakes and leapfrogging photo stops. Roads that hugged the lake for miles on end, punctuated by sudden major roadworks with concrete dust so thick you could barely see 50 yards. No drama though.

Roadworks Vietnamese style!

After playing photo tag with Bryan and Roger for a while I pulled over to find the others chowing down on some sugar cane bought from a girl under a huge branch at the roadside. She would just cut a few sugar canes down in the morning then hack them up fresh when someone stops to buy some.

Finally we rolled into Pa So as the sun was starting to set. We were to stay at the Hotel Lananh, which was quite quaint and done out with wooden panelling everywhere. Nice enough. We had a few beers outside until late in the evening before eating in their quite grandiose dining area. Another group of locals further across the room were being very loud and boisterous even by our standards so once we'd had enough we retreated to the outside bar to sink a few more beers then called it a night.

Another great day!

Day 7 - Pa So to Lao Cai

Last day of the bike tour!

Let me start by saying it's been a while since I did the Day 6 write-up - several months in fact. Apologies for the gap. During this time Pinky has had a number of challenges coming to terms with the injuries he sustained on the first day of the trip, and if I'm honest that incident has affected all of us in different ways. Personally I needed a break from all things Vietnam related because in many ways it was bittersweet and hard to deal with. However I thought it high time I finished what I started, so here we are.

We stayed overnight at the Hotel Lan Anh in Pa So. The hotel had some nice touches but plenty of amusing quirks. We were woken around 5am by loud radio & music being played in the next building, so by 6.30 I was ready to strangle the person responsible. Got up, quick shower and breakfast then we loaded up for the last time to set off.

Our route today would take us through some cracking roads over the pass to Sa Pa and then on to Lao Cai where we would catch the overnight train back to Hanoi. We had done a similar route on NB1 so I was really looking forward to seeing if the road over SaPa was as stunning as I remembered. Also since Jim and Bryan hadn't been with us the first time round it would be interesting to see if it lived up to our own hype following that trip!

We set off from Pa So and took some great roads out through the lowlands which wound their way between mountains and hillsides. Plenty of locals out farming for the day. The roads started out with mixed surface and massive vegetation at the sides of the road as we started ascending up over the hills. Eventually this turned into brand new tarmac that was still being laid. This road led up to Lau Chau, the surface being so good and twisty I'd have loved a run at it on a proper sportsbike.

After an hour or so we stopped at the Gateway Cafe for mid morning refreshments. It was a nice change from the usual downtrodden coffee stop that we'd come to know and love typical of Vietnam but personally a bit too modern for my liking. I suppose you can't stop progress eh.

From here we made our way through the lowlands again before starting up the foothill roads towards Sa Pa, stopping on the way to take many photos of the wonderful scenery.

From the lowlands we hit the road starting to wind it's way up the mountain side. This road continues for around 30km and is simply EPIC. As you can see in the photos we rode through cloud cover then out above it. At one point I rounded a bend behind the others and was watching for Jim's reaction up ahead. As we came out of a left hander a view opened up ahead of us of cloud below and the twisty snaking road out in front above it, I swear I saw Jim do a double-take, something he later confirmed.

The town of SaPa is set way up in the Hoang Lien mountain range. The range includes Vietnam's highest mountain, Fan Si Pan (seriously) which stands at 10,000ft. Sapa itself is around 5000ft above sea level and is often within cloud cover or above it. The town is very popular with outdoor activities types, gap year students, cyclists and motorbike tour groups. As you can imagine, the road leading up to it is your typical epic mountain road with a great surface and bend after bend.

On the road up to SaPa. You can see the clouds below us just beyond that turn.


Even the locals are joining in the fun.

Bryan 'on it'.

Mr Phil

The Badger!!

Top of the world!!!!

Rather than continue all the way up the usual route, once we got to the top before Sapa town we deviated off to a waterfall that Hung knew about. We parked up and had to leave the bikes to walk to the waterfall. He did say it was 1km away but turned out to be more like 2.5km with lots of climbing steps along the way. The waterfall was ok, nothing on the scale of Ban Gioc but a smaller waterfall within a forest. We got back to the bikes a sweaty mess and were subsequently mobbed by some vietnamese tourists who wanted photos of us with the bikes.

Looks solid.

Following this we continued for a while until Hung stopped to check directions with one of the locals, looking for a back route which he had heard about. We dropped off the main road down some small gravel roads where locals were running thick electrical cable. We then turned into a valley down a single track that led through some very remote farms. Overall it was a really nice offroad detour of perhaps an hour or so. After this we emerged on some roads that linked the mountainside villages just below Sapa town. The roads were in a poor state but quite enjoyable on a dirt bike. There were lots of backpackers and gap year types kicking around all of a sudden.

Love shack, baby.

At some point while we were kicking around these backroads, which were more like motocross tracks, Jim and myself got separated from the group. We realised when we were a few km up the road that we'd missed a turning (probably because we had stopped to take photos so many times) so we called Hung. He directed us back to the lower village below the town itself where he would meet us. At that point Jim and I bolted back along the muddy local road, and it has to be said things got a bit giddy. I was quite hungry so was rushing a bit, I remember getting airborne on some of the dirt ruts and crumbling parts of the track but it was great fun. We eventually found the place Hung had described, which was run by an Australian chap and his wife, so we sat down outside for lunch overlooking the next mountain and the fields below us. The food was great and it was great to just sit, eat and enjoy the amazing scenery before us.

After lunch we packed up and set off for Lao Cai, where we would finish the bike tour. The traffic from Sapa down the other side of the mountain was ridiculous. It was a similar twisty mountain road all downhill, three years ago myself, Phil and Del enjoyed a nice ride down it on our Minsks but today was quite different. There were rather aggressive 4wd vehicles which insist on sitting only a couple of feet from your rear wheel, you can't overtake because there's a continuous stream of vehicles all heading in the opposite direction towards Sapa, or there's not enough visibility or a gap to dive into. Amongst the chaos there was a police jeep with blue lights and siren going, and no-one would even let him through so what chance did we have of making any progress! We sat back a bit and kept in a safe position rather than try to push through traffic just to meet even more traffic. I can recall at one point Hung passing the police jeep on the inside through a bend. Ultimately it was a bit futile so it was nice when eventually the roads levelled out at the bottom of the mountain and the traffic thinned out a bit.

From there it was a dash to Lao Cai, to the by-now-familiar end point of the hotel in the centre. We got the bikes ready to be transported back on the train, sorted ourselves and luggage out then grabbed a pizza and a well-earned beer.

On the sleeper train that night the porter was a lovely girl who joined in with us doing happy water shots, then slept in a cubby at the end of the carriage. Tomorrow we would land back in Hanoi for a few days before flying back to the UK.

So....there ends NBIII the tour, but not the trip or the blog. We had some further escapades in Hanoi on our return which I'll write up soon. The tuktuk was a particular highlight and it still makes me laugh when I think about it.

More to follow.

Great write-up and look forward to the last few days in Hanoi. By the way, any update on Pinky - I remember that you guys did a fundraiser for him to help with the hospital bills?
Haven't had an update from him for a while, but he did get an additional operation by a visiting US surgeon as a result of some of that fundraising I believe. Unfortunately it hasn't fixed his nerve issues and the paralysis in his arm appears to be permanent. We can only hope that he manages to adjust around it and rebuild his life as best as possible.
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