Blog by Vietnam based documentary Photographer Christian Berg
Northern Vietnam – Minsk trip to the Chinese border

Minsk North Vietnam 2010

A few weeks ago I had the chance to make an amazing motorbike trip through Northern Vietnam and the Chinese border.

For more than one reason this was a memorable trip: endless hours driving through the rain, breathtaking landscapes, effective mechanics, broken frames, people lying in the ditch of the road, gallons of maize liquor….. but lets start from the beginning:

Minsk North Vietnam 2010I arrived in Hanoi way after midnight and after a few hours of sleep we got up to leave the capital as early as possible. It was raining. And we took almost 2 hours to place all our luggage on the 2 Minsk. As my buddy Nico had his dad as a passenger I had to take the luggage bike. So very early we figured out that we needed some more bungee cordsMinsk North Vietnam 2010Would you know how to call them in Vietnamese? very easy: it is a “cai nay” (“this thing” – which you have to say while making an appropriate hand gesture – you can actually express almost everything using this little trick :P )

First day of riding was unspectacular – basically riding 10 hours through poring rain up to Ha Giang. One thing I figured out: my old trekking boots are still waterproof… from the inside!

Minsk North Vietnam 2010 After that the landscape got more amazing with every kilometer we drove. I don’t want to bore you with every little detail of the trip, so let me quickly sum up the route: Hanoi – Ha Giang – Quan Ba – Yen Minh – Pho Bang (Chinese border) – Dong Van – Meo Vac – Bao Lam – Ba Be Lake – Hanoi (around 1,000 km).

When we arrived in Yen Minh and tried to find a hostel we faced a new problem – we did not know that we were supposed to have a permit in order to enter the frontier areas. But where to get this permit? 150 kilometer back in Ha Giang. Luckily this problem was solvable after a bit of talking. Minsk North Vietnam 2010

Most amazing of all was probably the road between Dong Van and Meo Vac – and we had the chance to drive it 4 times after we lost my Minsk during a little off road adventure while looking for a old French fort which we in fact never found… The sun was sinking and we were in a fantastic landscape driving reckless on what was supposed to be a road but where in fact only small rocks… every few kilometers we would pass small villages and members of the local ethnic minorities. When the road suddenly went very steep and my bike suddenly stopped with a lot of smoke and a small explosion the whole world suddenly became very quiet… and we realized how far in the middle of nowhere we actually were. And the sun was sinking…. after 2 hours of pushing and rolling the bike finally down into the next valley we managed to park the Minsk overnight in a local house. But we still had a long stretch of rocky and muddy paths before us while the night was breaking in… and now we where 2 on 1 bike… plus the 25 kilometers between Dong Van and Meo Vac. A beautiful road during the day as I said… with cliffs that go down several hundred meters on one side… So you can imagine how it feels in the moonlight.

Minsk North Vietnam 2010 We arrived finally at 9pm back at the hotel… had some bottles of local liquor to digest the day and fell into the bed like rocks… next day we got up before dawn for operation rescue… while praying to the god of the Minsk we arrived back in Dong Van at the mechanics house. A small and not very talkative man, who smoked a big water pipe and drank some tea before he was ready to follow us to the middle of nowhere – the bike was fixed quickly. The problem was a little piece of hardware called the “con” or clutch disk.. only problem was that no one in the north had such a piece… so we had to re-adjust it and drive with a broken one, which would have been no problem if not… ok, more later… because our next problem came only 2 kilometers after we left the tiny mountain village… the Minsk broke into 2 pieces! Literally! the frame it is.. So we waited in a tiny piece of shade in a local stone pit hiding from the burning sun… and doing nothing for an hour or so. Finally some people arrived to rescue the bike out of the mountains. then we had to wait several hours while the frame had to be welded. Lunch was interesting: Silk worms, bees, duck and some rice and spicy pickles… And beer of course! Finally at 4pm we got back on the road. We lost 1 whole day. Which turned the rest of the trip into something like a race… BTW: How many people does it take to rescue a Minsk out of the mountains? – 10!

On the way to Bao Lam, while the sun was sinking we suddenly found a motionless body lying in the ditch of the road, ready for the next truck to drive over it. It turned out the the local guy was not dead, but just sleeping. He must have been high on whatever. So we carried him to the frontdoor of the next house and left him to his narcotic dreams… after all the sun was sinking again. Did he mess up our schedule? After that we saw a couple of people lying next to their bikes and sleeping. So we figured that this must be a popular past time in the mountains. Minsk North Vietnam 2010 Finally in Bao Lam (after dark again) we got a drawn a map that would lead us to Ba Be Lake. Only we did not follow it. Too bad.

The next day my bike broke down again on the road that everyone told us not to take. Again we had to pull of a rescue mission that would take us most of the day. And this time my morale was really down… However also this problem got solved and when the sun set we were on a boat to Ba Be Lake!
Minsk North Vietnam 2010

After all a fantastic trip! Some things I learned during the journey: never do a Minsk trip without a “con”! \ And 6 days actually might seem a lot but they are nothing once you are out in the mountains… Next time it will be 20 days! —– More photos from this trip are available on Flickr!Minsk North Vietnam 2010

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