Once on the road again, conditions quickly deteriorated into loose gravel, and then into large rocks. After riding about 20 minutes over really rough terrain, the conditions were not improving. Having already gone through several fairly deep mud puddles and been rattled to pieces, we suspected that we might have taken a wrong turn and tentatively headed back through the mess to try to straighten out our route.
Bree: Upon renting our motorcycles, the shop that rented us our scooters indicated that for the first two days, the road would be good. The next day, the road wouldn’t be as good. As we rode back toward town, we faintly remembered this discussion, but we wanted to be sure we weren’t lost. We retraced 12 bumpy kilometers only to have the villagers point us back the way we’d come. So back over the gravel we went.
As we got used to the brain rattling trail riding, our speed picked up a bit and I couldn’t help but feel kind of proud of myself for handling my bike over the rutted roads. The day was heating up, but as long as we kept moving at a decent speed, things were going pretty well. That is, until we noticed that everyone on the road was stopped.
We pulled up behind the traffic jam noting the dozens of scooters parked in the middle of the road and their riders hiding out in the shade nearby. Trucks and buses were also pulled over and most of the passengers were out walking around.We parked our bikes at the back of the chaos and walked up to see what was happening.
The “road’ which was mostly reduced to a pile of mud and rock by a landslide from the previous evening’s rains was closed off and looking forward we could see a backhoe and a bulldozer attempting to roll out a flat space for us to drive on. Realizing that our ride was now completely halted until further notice, we joined the rest of the crowd in the shade to wait it out.
Suddenly everyone seemed aware of something we never noticed, and began loading up to go again. I couldn’t really tell what improvement the construction crew had made in the mud pit, but no one seemed to care.Within seconds, the whole mob was driving down into the mud, Mario Kart style.
Gratefully, our late arrival left us toward the back of the crowd leaving us a bit more space to navigate the rutted mud covered road, but the going was still tough.It got even tougher when traffic coming the other way started, meaning we had to share the ruts created by the backhoe with oncoming traffic.
Ben: The rest of the ride remained a chaotic, real-life version of Mario Kart. The road twisted through the villages and mountains, across bridges, and through forests. As we would drive, we would often be surrounded by a dozen or so scooters, who would occasionally kick up dust. There were holes to avoid, slippery patches of gravel, and even some occasional livestock barring our passage. It was some of the most entertaining riding we had done to date.
Bree: Stopping for lunch was easily the best decision we’d made all day because our ride continued well into the afternoon. Instead of being grumpy and hungry, we enjoyed the lawless driving through the mountain villages, frequently stopping to let the dust settle and to take pictures in the diminishing afternoon light. We had worried our plan to rent motorbikes in Vietnam would be a disaster, but after a day like this, I couldn’t imagine any better way to travel in this beautiful country.
Lai Chau turned out to be located in a stunningly beautiful valley surrounded by tall, pointed mountains and we got an up close and personal look as we hunted for the hotel we had in mind. We picked a nicer place to stay, bent on the idea of having a working shower after a very dusty day on the road.
Ben: We finally found our hotel – an unexpected resort with a strikingly western feel – including a garden littered with statues, an on-site restaurant, and even tennis courts. We deemed it worthwhile to increase our typical $8-12 per night accommodation budget to a whopping $30 for the clean, spacious room and functioning shower.
After checking in, we took a walk to explore the grounds. One particular gem at the hotel was a miniature man-made cave. Because northern Vietnam covered with caves, they decided to decorate locally by creating a man made concrete mountain range next to the bar. As we poked our head is into the unlit entrance, a hotel employee brought us a flashlight. We took the light and began exploring the slightly creepy caverns cement. The cave went on and on, with the footprint probably the size of our house. One of the rooms was even decked out with a table, two chairs, and Christmas lights. Weird.
On the way back we stopped for dinner for the first time at a real honest-to-goodness sit-down restaurant. This was our first taste of high-end Vietnamese, and it was absolutely amazing. The meal started off by launching a new-found obsession with spring rolls, after which Bree had beef wrapped around bamboo sticks (similar to drumsticks) while I had a garlic buffalo dish. We ate way too much, and pretty much rolled out the door, only to collapse in our room and fall asleep.