Don’t die, but also try to live – motorbiking the mountains of Vietnam

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All photos in this post are the author’s own

By Steve Fisher

I spent the first half of November motorbiking around the mountains in the north of Vietnam, including the areas around Sapa and Ha Giang near the border with China. In a country full of natural beauty, this area is one of the most spectacular, and I have lots of photos and thoughts to share.

Does motorbiking around the mountains in Vietnam strike you as dangerous? It can be, but crossing the street is potentially perilous as well, particularly if you look at your phone while doing it. For me at least, life is not worth living if I need to huddle in my room to feel completely safe.

The real risk in life, I think, is not doing what we want to do. 

The French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that “all men’s miseries arise from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Having motorbiked around Bali, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, I can tell you that almost all deaths and injuries from motorbike crashes arise from driving too fast, using a mobile phone while driving, not wearing a helmet, driving while intoxicated and other forms of stupidity.

Avoid stupidity, avoid death.

No matter how carefully you drive, however, there is of course the troublesome problem of other drivers, not all of whom have their own safety and yours in mind. To stay safe on a motorbike in Southeast Asia it’s best to drive safely but assume others will not. Rules of the road and concepts like right-of-way don’t apply at all in these countries and driving as if they do can get you hurt or killed.

Locals believe that as long as they make an effort not to hit people, animals or property, they can drive wherever they want, as fast as they want. Passing blind around a curve? You see this constantly in the mountains. Driving on the wrong side of the road? It’s accepted and common, both in cities and in rural areas. Bus drivers tapping out a text on a cheap Nokia phone while negotiating a winding mountain road with a bus full of passengers. You can’t go a few minutes without seeing this.

Drive safely but assume other drivers will not. Expect a large truck to fly around the curve in front of you halfway into your lane. 

There are additional challenges imposed by the road conditions. In much of the developed world, if you stay between the lines and observe traffic rules you’ll probably be okay. In mountainous and rural areas of Southeast Asia, it’s common to encounter craters in the road large enough to throw you off your motorbike if you hit them too fast. There are live cows and dead chickens. Furniture or other large objects fall off the back of trucks and onto the road. In short, you need to pay more attention to the surface of the road than you do in developed countries.

With this trip and with life in general I do avoid things that are extremely risky, but over-caution carries its own hazards – all the rich experiences and other rewards that are lost.

I think that all too often we greatly overemphasize the risk of doing something new, and under-appreciate the big rewards of doing so. When contemplating a potentially rewarding new experience I try to have a clear-eyed and realistic view of both the risks and the rewards. If the likely downsides are small and the potential benefits are great I’ll usually do it and this trip is an example of that.

Here are my favorite photos from motorbiking the area around Sapa and I’ll share photos from Ha Giang in a future post.

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(Above seven photos) Straight photos of scenery are not my favorite – anyone could take a lot of these photos or you could just google photos of Sapa – but readers will naturally want to know what the area looks like so I included a few of my favorite shots of the landscape.

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(Above six photos) Many of the ethnic minorities that live in the areas around Sapa make a living by selling small handmade souvenirs to tourists or by selling food or other necessities to locals. Some of my favorite photos are from interactions with these vendors.

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(Above six photos) Locals in the minority areas around Sapa get around mostly by walking and I had a lot of fun saying hello to people on the road and taking their photos.

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(Above three photos) Adults and children work really hard in these areas and most of the work is farm related and done by hand or with the help of oxen. You almost never seem farm machinery in these areas.

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(Above four photos) Wherever I travel, I find that no matter how poor, children find ways to play and have fun. In fact, children with fewer material comforts are often better at this.
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This photo of an old man resting in the doorway of his house in a small farming village is one of my favorites from the trip
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An ethnic minority grave site
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I’m not a fan of standard poses like this (or of selfies) but this woman guessed my age as 26 and for that she will forever have a place in my heart
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I met this fellow traveler, a professional chef from Madrid, when we were both lost in a minority village and we motorbiked around together for the rest of the day
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