We’ve never really been ones for planning… We like to go with the flow & just hope for the best. So that’s what we did whilst in Vietnam on our journey from Hanoi to Sapa, riding our motorbike ‘Betty’. Possibly not the brightest move on my behalf considering I suffer from Anxiety. An unfamiliar environment, no one who speaks English, crazy drivers, potholes all over the road and tons of traffic, what could go wrong?
We already planned the route we wanted to take to Sapa, it’s on the way to the Northern Loop & has incredible scenery along the way. Except we ended up leaving from the North rather than the south, to bypass the insane peak hour traffic in Hanoi. This was the first of many poor decisions…
We ran out of petrol...
After a while, we realized the bike was lagging. Only to find that our petrol tank was empty, I guess that’s one way to realize that our petrol gauge doesn’t work. The freeway began & we saw a big sign saying “NO MOTORBIKES”, therefore we had to change routes.
Our phone battery is horrific and died within the first two hours of driving and our portable charger I swear I had had the day before, was nowhere to be found. Things just weren’t going our way at all.
Nothing seemed to be going out way!
We were stopping every 5 minutes to ask for directions. Somehow we stumbled upon an old ancient complex, believed to have belonged to the Tang Dynasty who used to be the Chinese rulers of Vietnam. The winding roads were picturesque, we were sheltered by a natural canopy of vines blocking the piercing sun. We drove past beautiful lakes, with pathways wrapping around them. Old stone dragon statues protruded out of these perfectly manicured bushes. The entrance was just incredible with a huge main gate and guards. We snapped a quick picture, just before we got caught in a huge storm.
Somehow I was doing okay, despite everything that had gone wrong I tried to be positive. Dylan kept reassuring me that we are on some crazy adventure and that no other traveller who visits would experience what we did.
After the storm passed we got back on the road & somehow managed to make friends with another couple whilst riding our motorbike. It’s quite normal to ride next to each other on motorbikes and have a conversation. Thankfully I wasn’t the one driving. The Vietnamese girl asked, “Where are you going”... “We came from Hanoi & we’re going to Sapa,” we said, “follow us” she answered, “we’re going the same way”.
Turns out we were not going the same way, in fact, the opposite... She thought we were going TO Hanoi not coming FROM Hanoi… I definitely should have just answered ‘Sapa’ instead of trying to have a proper English conversation! She said ‘sorry’ and told us to go back the way we came. Yeah, now my anxiety and stress were settling in.
We were forced to turn around
So we drove two hours back the way we came as it turned from dusk to complete darkness. We somehow found a cheap hotel, got some food and connected to WiFi. Only to realize that we didn’t have to backtrack two hours, just turn right instead of left. I was trying so hard not to lose it.
Despite everything, we had an awesome adventure on our first day, even though we only actually rode 120km and were only two hours from Hanoi. Tomorrow we had some major riding to do if we were going to reach Sapa.
Day 2. Lost in Northern Vietnam
We woke up with a bright, positive attitude that today was going to be our day. It’s a shame a positive attitude can only get you so far when everything that could go wrong does go wrong.
We had our phone charged, route sorted and a clear sense of direction, but even that couldn’t help us. Once again we drove on the same road for the third time in a row.
We worked out the route we were going to take, had a pretty clear sense of our direction and this time our phone was fully charged! Off we went to embark upon the same long stretch of road for the 3rd time (thanks to yesterday’s mishap). Thankfully the drive was beautiful as it wrapped around a river alongside rice fields with water buffalo.
Google Maps are liars!!!
Google maps soon directed us towards the road to Sapa, YES. Our hearts dropped once we saw the “No Motorbikes” sign. This is when our killer plan & positive attitudes turned to shit. So we took the alternate route that weaved under and around the freeway we longed to be on. I wouldn’t even call this a road; it was a dirt path full of potholes, rocks and thick sludgy mud. We even had to cross through rivers and almost drowned our motorbike.
When I thought things couldn’t just get any worse, my phone battery died at 25%. My anxiety started to kick in, but Dylan was reassuring me that “it'll be fine”. So we decided to kick it old school and follow a map that was missing majority of the roads, including the one we were on. What could go wrong?
We saw a sign that said Sapa at a 3-way intersection, so we had a 1 in 3 chance that we were going the right way. Every time we stopped and asked for directions, they just kept waving us through along the same road. So we just kept going.
We got lost, so damn lost in Northern Vietnam
Realistically, we should have turned around when we reached the first hill full of massive rocks at a 45 percent incline. I had to jump off and run up the hill that many times because our bike wasn’t going to make it. We were passing little ethnic villages with people wearing their tribal clothing and jewellery.
Everyone was running to the road waving at us, giving us high fives or just genuinely laughing at us. We were quite the celebrities.
I guess the incredible scenery and our lust for adventure distracted us from the reality that we were, in fact, going the wrong way. Our bike was struggling, nightfall was approaching, and we were in the middle of bloody nowhere! We were now 22km from the town we thought we had to get to, and then our exhaust pipe fell off attempting to get up a rocky hill!
The whole village has come out to see what brought these two stupid foreigners here. I point the way we were heading and said ‘Sapa?’ and the whole town bursts out in laughter.
"Is Sapa this way?"
So it’s dark, we’re in this tiny little village with not even a Pho place to eat dinner, nowhere to stay, our motorbike is broken, no one speaks English and everyone is laughing at us. It’s no wonder I had an anxiety attack.
I started hyperventilating; my brain wasn’t getting enough oxygen, I couldn’t stand anymore and started to get dizzy. There were Vietnamese people everywhere, laughing, pointing at me and speaking Vietnamese. My limbs started to tense, I was sobbing and couldn’t move. How could I be in this situation right now, so lost and so far from civilization?
What are we going to do, it’s dark and our motorbike is broken, we have nowhere to stay, nowhere to eat and we’re in the middle of bloody where?
I freaked the fuck out!
Thank heavens my husband Dylan was there. He helped bring my breathing back to normal and calm me down. A few local guys screwed on our broken exhaust to temporarily fix the problem and invited us to dinner and to stay at their house.
Everything that was running through my head, giving me this serve anxiety was soon resolved. It took a while to feel normal again, I think the rice wine they were feeding me helped, a lot.
The people were actually so beautiful, kind and lovely. They fed us beer, a massive dinner and put a roof over our head for the night. The whole village came to see us, take photos and practice their English. Some people in this village have never actually seen a foreigner before in their life, so it was really cool to be the first western person that they’ve ever seen. We communicated through Google translate and practised our really limited Vietnamese.
After charging our phone, we realized why they were laughing. We were well and truly nowhere near Sapa, way out in the Yen Bai mountain range! I can see why they got a giggle out of it.
We were so grateful for the hospitality we received and relieved at how the situation turned out. It really restored our faith in humanity that people can just open their hearts and their homes to complete strangers, without asking for or accepting anything in return, even though these local people had so very little.
Suprise sleepover in Northern Vietnam
After another two hours of backtracking the next day, we got to that fork in the road. A local Vietnamese dude told us to follow him leading us past the ‘No Motorbike’ sign and onto the freeway… So it turns out that we could have just taken the freeway from the beginning, signs in Vietnam are more of a guide than a must.
After running out of petrol, stumbling upon a monastery, getting lost, having tons of bike dramas, driving deep into the Yen Bai Mountain range, having to stay at a local family’s house, visiting villages, trekking through rivers and mud pits, tons of backtracking and time wasting, we had finally made it to Sapa!
We just wish that it had only taken us 7 hours like it said on Google Maps! Ah well… It was a crazy experience, we overcame many hurdles and learnt so much from the mistakes that we made along the way. This is a travel experience that we will definitely never forget. One day we'll tell our future kids of how we got lost in Northern Vietnam...