The temperature dropped significantly overnight, so when I stepped out into the open I felt the bite of the chill. Fortunately my motorcycling jacket is very warm, and the gloves I bought in Hanoi keep my fingers reasonably warm (many ladies here use mittens that are permanently attached to the handles of the bike, so they have full finger mobility when it comes to operate the turn signals or the always present beep-beep horn).
Somebody should write a Motorcycle Guide to Vietnam. The first thing you would learn from the guide is that scootering around like the rest of the natives is the only safe and comfortable way to see the country. I have seen the long distance buses here, and they look pretty crowded. Also, the way the bus drivers swerve over the uneven terrain makes me suspect that many passengers end with mer maladie. The motorcyclist, in contrast, can take his or her time, enjoys the breeze, gets to look at colorful markets and magnificent scenery, stops to eat wherever is convenient, and literally merges with the country.
On that book the road between Thai Nguyen and Lang Son would deserve a five star rating. It is an excellent road and has very little traffic of cars, buses, or heavy trucks, so you get to commune with your fellow motorcycle riders and with the stunning scenery. Yet, it is a mountain road with plenty of gentle curves where you can practice your technique, yet with grades that are gentle and pose no great challenge to smaller motorbikes.
The first part of the road reminded me of the road between Monterrey and Saltillo, with the majestic Cerro de la M and La Huasteca, but in a tropical setting. Instead of yuccas you find banana trees, and instead of struggling corn fields and chaparral you see vast rice paddies and green everywhere. Once you get out of the initial valley the road goes through smaller karstic hills, very similar to what one sees in the Sierra Madre Oriental around La Huasteca Veracruzana.
For lunch I stopped, at exactly midday, in a small outfit that had a roasted duck on the counter. So I ordered myself a quarter duck lunch, a spring roll of sorts, and a beer. The boss lady must not have liked me because the duck was cold (albeit delicious), and my spring roll and beer never materialized. I had the usual complement of steamed rice and vegetable soup (chayote squash to be precise), so I was quite satisfied, but this is the first time where I could not make myself understood. Maybe it was the timing. At noon sharp the men take their lunch, so the boss lady may not have had the time to address the individual requests of a foreigner. Yes, I was quite surprised, but only men come to take lunch. There were plenty of women on the market place, but they must take their lunch at a different time or place. I will have to make further observations to support my theories.
The delicious ride was about 150 km long, but then I joined Highway 1, which is really busy. Fortunately they have a generous shoulder for scooters, and I only had to follow the Highway for about 10 km before entering Lang Son, which is another delightful city with European and Asian flavor. The main road is busy, but again nothing like Hanoi, and the small streets are quite and charming. I lucked out with finding a gorgeous hotel in its own grounds, reminiscent of a small chateau.
So far all the rooms I have stayed in have been really comfortable (the beds mostly being “firm”), with their own bathroom, TV, and even small servi-bars. Prices of sodas and bottled water are very reasonable. Prices have been escalating as I have moved closer to bigger cities, the range so far being 150,000 to 300,000 dongs. It looks like a lot, but once you convert them this would be equivalent to US$ 7.50 to US$ 15. Definitely a bargain!
I have had no problem getting money from the ATMs that are present in every city and major town. The only thing is that I can only pull 2,000,000 dongs at a time. I do feel like a millionaire, and the pleasurable sensation only costs me US$ 100 a pop!