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You are here:      Home News What a trip!
What a trip!

Love marketIn northern Vietnam the loop from Hanoi through Sapa to above Ha Giang and back is regarded as one of the most challenging and spectacular motorbike rides in the region. Hanoi – based artist and writer Bradford Edwards made the grueling trip to attend the annual “Love market” in Khau Vai near the Chinese border.

The most practical way to get around in Vietnam’s highlands is by Minsk, the 125cc Russian motorcycle that has achieved cult status among a small group of adventurous Hanoi expats. While these bikes beak down regularly (what can you expect for $US300 second hand?) they can take heaps of punishment on the trail. The best way to begin a Minsk ride is to bypass the boring and congested routes out of Hanoi and transport your bike on the night-train to Lao Cai.


I was tenderfoot, a neophyte in the Minsk touring subculture, having only gone on day – rides. Fortunately I was with Glenn, a Minsk tour guide, and that was to prove in the days to come. Instead of heading up to Sapa like all the other tourists we headed east toward Bac Ha, eventually spending the night in Tan Quang. This tiny town was most memorable for its unbelievably good value guesthouse – VND 20, 000 or the price of a coffee at Starbucks. After arriving in bustling Ha Giang and securing our travel permit (the area around the bolder is considered “sensitive”) we started the long ascent toward Meo Vac.

The ride u was gorgeous. The greens kept getting greener and the canyons steeper. Well – paved canyons, the richest colors imaginable, sprouting waterfalls clean air …It just doesn’t get any better than his in northern Vietnam.

Looking for love

With the arrival of spring comes the annual “Love Market” in the small village of Khai Vai. This is mostly a Black H’mong event, with some Long Trouser Dao also present. The young can meet potential mates and (rumor has it) established couples can experiment a bit without condemnation. This is an unusually large regional market where people trade essentials like’s livestock, tools and produce.

Few outsiders make the trek to this particular event, which takes place just a few kilometers from the Chinese border. The variedly of what we call “costumes” but is really the H’mong daily garb was andless – no two people were dressed exactly alike. Every year the colors get more vivid as the H’mong use more synthetic materials, which tend to be brighter than natural fibers.

There were food stalls and vendors selling plastic Tupperware, utensils and fabrics. It was the H’mong version of a Western “county fair” with exactly the same dynamic of drawing people together from long distances to hang out, do some business, and party.

Copious thimble – sized glassed of ruou (potent locally – brewed rice wine) formed a common language at this marketplace. Borders were only as far apart as the knee next to your own as you sat around a short wooden table topped with a bottle of cloudy herbal ruou.

Marcos, an expatriate who is relaying his near perfect Vietnamese into learning basic H’mong, had a telling conversation with a man during lunch. “Where do you like? And how long did it take you to come to the market?” Marcos asked the farmer. The man replied, “It took me two days by canyon over from here. What about you? How many days did it take you? And by the way, where is your horse” Indeed.

Times change

The night before the market musicians performed Khen flute dances and sang their distinctive lifting songs. Apparently this performance is a new feature at the market, perhaps started in response to the growing influx of Kinh (ethnic majority) Vietnamese tourists curious to see what Khau Vai is all about. An interesting, and somewhat surprising, itilization of technology can be seen in the portable ghetto blasters that are now carried around playing recorded tapes of H’mong songs.

Heading up the rocky trail to the road back to Meo Vac ofter the market ended, we encountered “rush hour”. Most people were heading out the same way, tire to tire; a few stragglers lay stretched out on large boulders, trying to recover from the rigorous demands of communal toasting. One more night in the capital town Meo vac, nestled high in the surrounding mountains, and we headed back to Hanoi.

Slip sliding away

We opted for added adventure, deciding to use a less travelled route than the road on which we had come, this time from Ha Giang via Bac Me to Ba Le Lake.

We started at noon on what we estimated to be four – hour trail. It soon became obvious that it would be slow going. On the flats we sank in the mud so low that my feet became like snowmobile skis – the font tire had no grip t all. We slid downhill with brakes locked and heels dug in. The uphill were brutal with no surface where we could get a solid foothold – we often pushed the bikes up with the help of two or three hill tribe people. We faced team crossings where half the bike was submerged and we had to try to race slick stones. It rained the entire day.

My pride at not dumping the Minsk for the first hour was quickly dashed. I must have gone down at least 10 times that day – sliding down slopes, spinning out in the deep mud, losing control while racing uphill. Even Glenn, 18 years my junior and an experienced Minsk rider, was having a rough time. Pushing, pushing, and pushing toward an unknown goal. Another K? Where are we now/ How much farther to go?

Well past nightfall with my lights about and driving a few meters in front of Glenn, I was squinting through fogged and rain – streaked glasses – we had to stop. We were somewhere in the middle of a muddy, rocky track bordered by the occasional stilt house. Our luck turned as we reached a ranger station. We were saved. With a dry wooden bed and running water we were truly blessed.

The next day we slogged through two more hours on that rough trail to end up at the riverside and on to gorgeous Ba Vi Lake by flat boat. Eventually we reached the much longed for paved road. For me, this trip was the perfect reminder that the journey is the real destination.


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