Riding Vietnam Day 187: Entering Heaven’s Gate to Begin the Ha Giang Loop

I woke up and went to the Ha Giang immigration office to acquire my permit for the province which is now probably just a money grab for the government. Originally with the tense Chinese border lying so close it once had a purpose. Even though I may very well be able to get around the law and avoid the $10 permit, the small fee is just not worth the hassle if it were to come around and bite me in the ass. After the whole charade took perhaps no more than ten minutes to process, I went in search of morning eats with the only the requirement being that it cannot be pho. Not far from my hotel’s doorstep stood the convenient Com Binh Dan restaurant from yesterday. As soon as I sat down a group of Vietnamese men (I don’t know why I need to specify their nationality) in their thirties and forties welcomed me over to their crowded table with some hollering to get my initial attention and hand waving to encourage me to be in their company. Beyond knowing ‘hello’, they knew no English and beyond numbers and some extremely basic conversational phrases, I know little Vietnamese but that didn’t stop us from smiling to one another and shaking each other’s hands as if we were all old friends. They ordered another bowl of whatever they were eating so that I could share in on their morning feast. The bowl can only be described as blood soup. It had a jellylike top layer composed of probably coagulated animal blood (again I don’t know why I need to specify that it must be animal) with a thick soupy bottom of most definitely some cartilage that brought a whole new definition to the word crunch. Along with some herbs and chilies mixed in, it actually tasted better than tolerable. Also on a couple of platters lay piles of dark meat and mysteriously filled intestines with fatty chunks inseparably attached to them, both of which were dipped into a lime, salt, and pepper mixture. Whenever I wasn’t busy attempting to communicate with them, they encouraged me to keep eating. This meal was all fine and dandy but what really defined everything was when they unveiled their plastic water bottles filled with the ever foul rice wine. Each time they took a shot when they challenged or shared in the experience of another, they shook the hand of that person firmly as if they accomplished some unbearable, gut-wrenching task, which they did. They had been taking shots already before I arrived but I think they were even more eager to keep the rounds coming knowing that they had foreigner to entertain. Out of respect, I took the shots but had no plans on letting things get out of hand. I played along enjoying my time with them, shouting out ‘mot, hai, bah, yo!’ for the Vietnamese cheers of one, two, three. Even though I tried to explain to them I was going to ride a motorbike today, they kept refilling that damn shot glass. I planned on only drinking till the point the one bottle went empty since it was nearing its fiery end but as soon as the last drop disappeared a new bottle came in its place. As soon as I saw that fresh bottle’s getting twisted open, I covered my shot glass to the dismay of the one rotten tooth but good natured guy beside me and then pleaded to the one waiter/kitchen aide who spoke some English to save me. Luckily I was able to get out of there and despite my efforts to pay for what I rightfully should have, they waved off any and all efforts on my part. Even though I had wanted to get onto the road, I went back to the room to pass out for a bit and decongest from my morning hangover. Once I was able to bring myself back to earth, I loaded up the bike to begin what was reputed as one of the best tracks in Vietnam. The main road through the impoverished and little populated province of Ha Giang is essentially the one and only road that loops around the area and is extremely narrow to the point of being just barely wider than one lane. One lane is all fine and good for the use of motorbikes but when I encountered trucks and cars bypassing and especially barreling down at me in my opposition it can be an unnerving experience.  As I hugged the edge of the road I seized up all my limbs in the hope that the truck would not hit or clip me. With the speeds they were traveling, it didn’t matter how tightly or securely I seized up, one mistake would have ended me. After the strong gust of air with the passing of the vehicle, I could swallow a deep full breath knowing that I dodged another one. The road was mostly good but with the occasional construction all traffic in both directions paused while motorbikes crept over the debris and ducked under swinging mechanical shovels from the earth movers. The scenery was already living up to what I had hoped along with the many switchbacks and gentle curves that make a ride a joy to slalom across. Based on the narrow dimensions of the road, I laid down on the horn not knowing what lurked on the other side of the bend. I could go into great detail about the scenery and the unspeakable nature my eyes were allowed to behold but any efforts would short of what I actually saw with my very own eyes that  no well-versed writer could conjure. At the summit of one pass, I crossed over Heaven’s Gate and looked down into a low hanging valley sidled by rice terraces and most prominently what I can only describe as mole hills with one of them famously called Fairy Bosom for its inherent features. The mole hills were scattered about rising from otherwise insignificant green flatland as crumbling bits of former coal grey limestone peaked shards. If the many mole hills lumped around my full 360 view weren’t enough, mountains rose up in the distance as almost like a barrier to another world on the other side. I contemplated staying in this first city on the loop for the night to explore some more of the area and its surrounding villages but I pressed on for Yen Minh as a night stopover. This land rose and rose creeping up with every switch and turn of the road. The rice terraces golden and green like an Irishman’s dream etched themselves most visibly and steeply as I took my slow purposeful time enjoying the views while still keeping an eye on the road that held its fair share of tricks. Even on this first day of the loop, I already knew that I made the best decision to come here. Each viewpoint further emphasized the fact that the north of Vietnam has the best nature and riding, so much so that I would consider coming back here again one day in the future just to re-ride its harrowing roads. I pulled into Yen Minh and scored my own single room, since these parts obviously have no hostels as the usual backpackers never come here or have even heard of such a place, for roughly $7. With enough lychees to satisfy my hunger, I skipped dinner and ran across the French guy and girl I met on one of the passes a few hours ago while working my way slowly to Yen Minh. After some chatter, I returned to my solitude which has begun to feel more lonely with the amount of time I have been away from others who I can have a conversation with. 

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