BootsnAll Travel Network

Dong Hoi to Hanoi: Lost in rice.


Wow, talk about being lost. Picture this. 8:00 pm (the sun sets at 5pm), it’s been raining the whole day, I’ve been on the road since 8am, your in the farm lands of the central highlands of Vietnam, people wake up at 5am so what few farm houses around are slowly going dark, and the roads are leading into the rice fields.

I would guesstimate that around 60 percent of my travels involve being lost ie. I mean any time you go to a new destination, even with guidebook in hand, you really are kind of lost. In other words, being lost and finding my way out are what I do. Well, picture the above paragraph and then add two and a half hours of driving around pitch black rice fields and losing all sense of direction.

Now, being lost for a few hours may not seem like much, but it was very poignant at the time and I think it was a few circumstances that made it so memorable.

One of the unique central highland features is what I would like to call the assumption directions. I got a taste of it when I left Hue. For some reason there is no consistency in regards to signage. Now first off, I will always default that I am wrong based on the fact that I am a foreigner and I do not speak the language, but signs are in Roman letters so I can read. The way it seems to work is that you get a few destination signs in the beginning and then nothing. I’m guessing that the paint signing guys who are supposed to be painting the street markers get about half way done and then figure that since you are going the right way, that you can figure it out, so time for a beer break. It was pretty insane. I left Dong Hoi to go back to my next destination of Vinh which again was only a 175kms or so directly north if you utilized the scary 1A. I on the other hand wanted to travel as much as possible on the Ho Chi Minh trail so it was a matter of heading inland to the trail, head north, and then back to the coast to Vinh. As a matter of reference, the trail runs parallel with the 1A with connecting routes sparingly set along the way varying distances between the two of around 18-100kms. I was able to get back on the trail without any issues as I was really just backtracking. The route north was again excellent with the climate changing a bit (still raining though) and the farms turning more towards sugar cane and coffee.

Originally I wasn’t going to shoot for Vinh as it was pretty far and things never work out as planned, but I was getting a bit antsy of staying out in the sticks, so I passed on staying on the trail and decided even though that the sun was setting I would press on the extra thirty kilometers to the turnoff point and from there it would only be another 20kms to Vinh.

All I had to do was catch the Highway 8 and it would take me across to A1 and then north on A1 for a few kilometers and I was there. No problem. First problem was that the turnoff to the 8 involved cutting through a village and then along railroad tracks and then what felt like circles. The best way that I have learned to cope with these issues is to stick with the better conditioned roads, the ones with more traffic, following power lines, the road with shops lining it, and if luck is on your side the one with the sign. After the loop around I ended up on a road and as luck would have it, I was on the 8. Driving on it I felt comfortable as it was fairly busy and with the sun setting I was a bit rushed to get to a hotel as driving around in the dark and especially while it is raining is definitely not a good idea. Checking my map against the random markers, they just didn’t correlate but I didn’t worry too much as a lot of the names have been changed. I kept driving but the farther away I got it just didn’t seem right as there was no info about 1A or Vihn. The sun was down so I found a little shop with a light on and pulled in. After a bit of map pointing and hand gestures I learned that I was going the wrong direction on the 8. Fuck. It was a bit of a disappointment, but it also was a relief as at least now I knew that I was going in the right direction on the right road. I got back to the turnoff and kept straight on going as one would assume that a road would keep going the same direction. Soon the road tightened and the homes became more village like. Following the rule of staying on the main road I headed right into the rice fields. I followed a small group of other riders and just headed deeper into the fields where it was now just a raised road cutting through either mud of flooded fields of rice. It was actually fairly enjoyable even though I had a couple of close calls with people walking on the road as the Minsks don’t have batteries so electricity is generated by the motor so when you are not revved up the lights dim. I passed the only other guy winding through the paddies and ended up in some guy’s front yard. The road just stopped. There were two dirt roads that ran perpendicular to the tarred road, but otherwise we ended up stopping there looking at some guy’s porch. The other rider pulled along side of me and both of us just stood there stunned. He said something in Vietnamese which had to be exactly what I said which was “what the hell.” We both shook our head and laughed. So it wasn’t just me who thought the road directions are screwy. I did make a mistake which was turning around and buzzing off on my own as I probably should have stuck with my new lost friend since he probably stayed and asked for directions.

Some people would think that being lost out in miles and miles of rice paddies, at night, in the rain, would force you to drive slower. Well, I don’t. I am not a speed baller but under those circumstances, pretty much everything gears towards faster. Going slow gains you nothing but taking longer. I mean there is nothing to see. That in itself makes you go faster as during the day you see so many more things that cause you to drive with caution. At night, you don’t see half of what would normally cause you to slow down so zipping along is fine. I did drive around long enough to see the same pile of buffalo shit which I originally thought was a rock and almost crashed as I saw it about two meters ahead. The second time scared me shitless as the first, but it was surprisingly comforting in that I was no longer totally lost but back to where I was at at one point.

Long story medium, I ended up seeing a road marker and pulled over to it (In Vietnam the road signs are on the other side of the road (left) so it is virtually impossible to see them at night.) While I was there digging out my flashlight to read the name, a family came out to see what I was doing and they pointed me in the right direction. That got me to a little village and there I talked to a couple of teenagers and one of the guys told me to take the small dirt road next to the building and just keep going. I headed off for a few minutes but it turned into a small path and when I started going over tree roots I thought for sure that it would not be possible for a medium size road on the map to have tree roots. I turned back around and went back to the guys and this time a lady who spoke a little English came out and told me that yes it was the road and all I had to do was follow it for about 20kms. 20 kms? That was farther away than when I started. So off this dirt road I went for what I thought was 20 kms. And where did that road end. At a big ass river. Crap, while talking to the woman I thought I heard her say something about a boat but there was no way I was going to take a boat across that huge river. I started backtracking until I found a little beer house that was open and the lady there told me that I had to go back the way I came about 8 kms and then turn on the railroad tracks. What? So down the railroad tracks I went and a couple of guys that were at a little shack told me they were heading that way and to follow them. We crossed that big river by using the railway bridge and then we ended up on a big road which I thought was 1A, but it wasn’t. We drove for another half an hour at full speed until I was just about to pull over and try to get more directions when they pulled off and told me that it was another 5 kms and then I was to turn right. God. Finally, I pulled up to 1A. 20 kms heading south away from Hanoi (backtracking) I finally pulled into Vinh. Since I came in the back way the city map in my guidebook wasn’t even showing where I was at so I just drove around until I got to a major intersection. A gift from God showed up when a couple pulled up to me while I was trying to figure out where I was at and the guy spoke English. He took the guidebook (which usually ends up with a bunch of head scratching and no help) and quickly pointed out where on the map I was at and then to my incredible surprise, turned the book so that it matched the direction that I was facing. I actually knew exactly where I was at. It made the whole prior three hours disappear. I quickly found a hotel, dropped my bags, and said screw leaving the next day. After that experience I was mentally, physically, and emotionally drained.

The next day was get up, pee, watch tv, eat, watch tv, eat, watch tv, and then sleep.

My next destination was to be the last on the NH1A and that was Ninh Binh. Ninh Binh was actually a tourist location as it was home to more of the lime stone rock formations much like the ones in Thailand, but these were amongst the rice paddies and surrounded by small villages, temples, and caves. Before I would get there the matter of one last leg of the Ho Chi Minh trail followed by a cut back to the coast line had to be completed. Great. And how did it turn out? A total and complete nightmare.

Just the facts: Vinh to Ho Chi Minh trail no problem. Head north without a hitch. Half a dozen turnoffs back to NH1A varying from 18kms to 100kms. I figured that I would take the last turnoff that would take me to Thanh Hoa a large city around 40 kms south of Nimh Binh right on the NH1. Again found the big sign that said Thanh Hoa 55kms. A big road so should have been easy. Got about a third of the way to a village that was on the map. There were two options one of which was following the same road which involved a lot of villages and side roads or a small road that followed a huge river. I figured that I couldn’t get lost if there was a huge river guiding the way. It did a bit or a circle around but ended up at Thanh Hoa. I don’t know what happened.

It ended up 90 kms of driving around before arrive 15 kms south of Thanh Hoa. I rolled into Ninh Binh about 9pm, found a nice hotel, got into bed, curled into a ball and rocked myself to sleep. Physically, mentally, and emotionally drained, again. This motorcycling stuff is rough.

Ninh Binh turned out to be just what I needed with a nice hotel, good street food, and some fun day trips. The place was just as described. Huge lime stone rock formations with rice paddies, little villages scattered around, and a lot of ancient burial/ceremonial grounds. I would like to give you some examples of these but the batteries for my camera have now died so the sponge of the camera is also power insufficient. Just beautiful.

My next stop was going to be Halong Bay which is a bay with the aforementioned limestone rock formations but this time in a bay, however, since I was just as close to Hanoi I figured I would go there, get Sasha fixed up and pick up a few things which would include a new camera. Depending on time I could either head back to Halong Bay, or just head on up to Sapa my last destination in Vietnam.


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