Ba Vì Mountain is just a couple hours drive West of Hanoi. It’s supposed to be beautiful, so my roommate and I decided to make a motorbike trip of it. I’m going to tell you now—our first attempt was a miserable failure. It was not until our second attempt that we summited that S.O.B.
Ba Ví Mountain: Attempt #1
We agreed to set out at 8:00am on a Sunday morning. We decided to take our bikes in for a quick tune up before we headed out of the city so we didn’t actually get on with our trip until about 8:45am.
The roads outside of Hanoi are a dangerous place. The roads are very bumpy and often full of potentially tire-popping debris. On top of that people drive pretty much as fast as their vehicles allow out there. At one point I hit an unexpected bump in the road going about 80 km/hour and, (cue the slo-mo) for a brief moment, my bike was a few inches off the ground and my body was a few inches off my bike seat, with my hands barely clinging onto the handlebars. In the deep, comical slow motion voice I yelled “o h h h h h h s h h h h h i i i i . . . . .”
Don’t worry—I handled it. But about 30 minutes into our trip we caught a chilling reminder of what can go wrong out there. Two drivers had apparently had a head on collision because the mangled remains of their bikes sat like piles of scrap pointing in opposing directions. Blood was splattered on either side of the site. It had clearly happened in the past 60 minutes.
Once we got into Ba Ví District things went down hill. We got very lost. Spending 30 minutes at a time traversing great distances down the wrong roads in the wrong direction was getting very frustrating since the mountain was always visible in the distance above the squalor of the small town roads of rural Vietnam.
To be honest though, we didn’t really have much room to complain. We were sort of winging it. My roommate’s Vietnamese is much better than my own so we pulled over to ask some street vendors for directions and eventually got ourselves onto the right road. Unfortunately we blew right past our turn off road and continued on until we came to a dirt road that was on the complete opposite side of Ba Ví Mountain.
At this point we were no longer in Ba Ví. We had passed into Yên Bái. Yên Bái is a vast, mountainous, rugged province, but one that I am no stranger to. This past winter I endured the bus ride from hell to visit the H’mong (an ethnic minority group in Vietnam) in the more distant reaches of the province. Based on that experience, this dirt road seemed about right.
[EDIT: It turns out that this was just a small town that is coincidentally also called Yên Bái—not the actual province. The geography of Vietnam is confusing to me, but that makes more sense now in retrospect.]
We continued on down the dirt road until it became painfully obvious that we were not on the right track. The road was bumpy too. Like really bumpy – knee deep potholes kind of bumpy. My roommate blew out the suspension on his bike rolling over one of those potholes. It was beautiful out there though.
Although the picture from afar doesn't quite do it justice, the tuft of trees here is one of the coolest little areas I’ve ever seen. That little hill covered densely in tall bamboo shoots (above) is a little graveyard. I wanted to go down to poke around but I was advised against it. People are very traditional out there. It’s probably best not to tromp through graveyards. Still though, it was the kind of place that sparks the imagination; it was like something out of a Miyazaki movie!
Once we got back onto paved roads and the slight crusting of civilization, we pulled over for some Nuoc Mia (sugarcane juice) to regroup. From there we gritted our teeth and braved the hot mid-day sun and dust on the way back. But not before locating our turn off once and for all. We would be back. Oh yes… we would be back.
Epilogue to our first attempt: turns out I forgot to put on sunscreen. Go Peter! Also, the dust did a number on my eyes.
Ba Ví Mountain: Attempt #2
1 week of skin peeling and aloe using later, it was time to re-attempt Ba Ví Mountain. This time my roommate and I were joined by a couple Vietnamese friends of ours. We had eventually found the road that leads up the mountain last time, but having a guide never hurts.
We left earlier in the morning in order to get a jump on things but the light rain that started in on us once we got out onto the road slowed us down. No matter - we pulled over and put on our ponchos. Aside from the rain, it was a smooth ride to the small town near the base of the mountain, Sơn Tây. We stopped there for some giant bowls of Bun Cha (a local favorite). As we struggled to finish our enormous portions our friend told us how most of the food in Sơn Tây is prepared by men who have recently been released from prison. He said that these ex-cons have a passion for cooking. Um... okay then!
From there it was time go up the mountain! That is where our video picks up, so you can start that now, or circle back to it if you don't want the story to be spoiled.
When we arrived at the entrance of the National Park it was raining again so we took refuge in a small coffee shack. After about 30 minutes the rain was beginning to let up so we decided to a make a break for it up the mountain. Entrance into the park costs 26,000 VND (1.19 USD). We presented our ticket stubs and our caravan of motorbikes roared off up the misty jungle road.
I had been preemptively bummed that it was raining that day but once we were on the road the foul weather translated into an eery jungle fog. It was a pretty cool atmosphere - very Avatar-esque. It reminded me a lot of biking over the top of Bali in Indonesia, which I also did in inclement weather. That was a much longer trip than this one though. The roads on the mountain were narrow and winding but they were (mostly smooth). The pavement was wet and mossy but we didn't have any issues on our way up.
We had heard that about halfway up the mountain there were some ruins dating back to the French occupation of Vietnam. Most notably there was a church and a mansion within a few hundred meters of each other. When our turn-off came we switched into 1st gear to climb the steep slope of our alternative road. The road to the ruins was smaller, less well-kept, wet, and covered in moss. Along the side of the road other small structures, now unidentifiable with the jungle swallowing them back up, whizzed by us. Eventually though we came to a large clearing and there it was: the church.
It was empty and the jungle surrounding it was quiet. The church itself was in ruins. The roof was gone and in its place the forest canopy now provided it with shelter. Every surface inside was covered with moss. Entire plant and fungal ecosystems thrived on the narrow space at the top of the walls that encircled the main room. In the windows we could see that there had once been stained glass. Outside the windows we found some of the broken shards. The roots of trees were beginning to creep up the walls like giant, slow tentacles. On the walls of the church, like any cool, deserted structure, were carved the initials of countless couples. Pairs of Vietnamese names scrawled in the middle of hearts and circles were the wallpaper for this step back in time.
There was a long, stone, mossy stair case that led us away from the clearing and farther up into the woods, towards the old mansion. When we reached the top we discovered that the road would eventually have taken us right past the old mansion. We crossed the road and began poking around. These ruins were much smaller than the church, but as we would discover, considerably more creepy.
On either side of the mansion's ruins were fireplaces and chimneys. We thought it would be a great idea to look up the chimney and see what there was to see. I stuck my head in... and what I saw haunts me. On the walls, silhouetted in the sunlight cascading through the open hole at the top of the chimney, were what looked like long hairs. My first instinct was to think that it must be part of a spider web but no - there were brown strands going in only one direction and they were waving, as if there were some sort of breeze going through Hermione Granger's long brown hair. The light illuminated and drew particular emphasis to the brownish color. And then I saw them: the biggest, creepiest, most unidentifiable bugs I have ever seen. Perhaps they sensed that my eyes were on them they all seemed to stop and look up at me. They looked to be part spider and part grasshopper, and they were way bigger than any bug should be; they were like aliens. Sticking my head into that chimney was like entering a sci-fi movie. I had to GTFO. But when I did one of these monsters fell out, almost on top of me. These were my best attempts to photograph this creature before it ran off back into the darkness. Taking into account the full extent of the long legs and antennae, this thing was easily bigger than my hand. And I have big hands.
There was supposed to be the ruins of small house somewhere nearby as well but we weren't interested enough. We hiked back down to our bikes, me taking pictures of the jungle as we went. I have a tendency to get caught up when I'm playing with my camera. Everything was just so green though! Here's some of my jungle macro shots. Can somebody PLEASE tell me what the pink and blue thing is? (And that big bug while we're at it). Seriously, if you know, hit me up. I'm curious.
Once we got back onto the road we began the air began to get cooler as we went up. As the walls and cliffs on either side of the road began to get more steep, there were occasional breaks in the foliage where we could see out for miles over the flat lands below. We could also see how much farther up the mountain we had to go. Looking up we saw dense jungles shrouded in mist. Clouds swirled around the summit mysteriously. Looking down we could see clouds below us, floating over the lowlands.
Eventually, we reached the summit... sort of. At the top of the mountain there is a parking lot and 3 trail heads. There are two summits of the mountain. One of them has a famous pagoda with a traditional Vietnamese tower big enough to be seen from the ground, looking up at the mountain. The other summit only has a look out, is what we were told. The 3rd trail head leads back down the mountain to more ruins. These are the ruins of an old prison that the French used to hold Vietnamese people when they still occupied Vietnam.
We chose to start with the ruins. We hiked down a steep stone staircase a few hundred meters before arriving at what had apparently been the warden's house. It was interesting, but we were getting tired and with no way of knowing how much farther down the mountain side the actual prison was, so we chose to turn back. Climbing back up was rough. It was very steep and the altitude was not helping. We arrived back in the parking lot sweaty and out of breath, but the worst was yet to come.
We decided to go to the peak opposite the pagoda. It would probably make for a more scenic view if the tower of the pagoda was included. We embarked on the trail only to discover that it was steeper than our worst nightmares. It was a stone staircase akin to the stairs into Mordor followed by Frodo, Sam and Gollum in Lord of the Rings (pardon my nerd reference).
As we struggled and wheezed our way to the top of it, there were a few times that old Vietnamese women passed us on their way back down. These were old ladies - probably in their 70s - and they did not seem the least bit put out by these stairs.
Luckily I was able to pass my tears off as sweat.
Eventually, we reached the summit. There was a small deck and a series of smaller pagodas. One of them had a stuffed tiger in a glass aquarium, which was a first for me. We followed the path further until we found one final flight of stairs. This particular flight seemed to lead us straight into the rock face, and was the steepest yet. But the mountain didn't go much higher. We climbed to the top to find another tiny little mountain pagoda tucked away up there. The roof was overgrown with little plants and the statues and religious paraphernalia were covered in dew from the clouds that swirled around the mountain top.
It from there it was an easy climb down to a rock that gave us the best view we had seen. From this protruding boulder we could see the the peak opposite of us lost in the clouds. To our right we could see a river, farmland, and the beginnings of the mountains in the neighboring Yên Bái Province. Clouds swirled around them as well. Our view was limited though because the moisture in the air was so thick that it turned the horizon into a haze. This sort of ridiculous humidity is common in Southeast Asia. Clear days are rare, but supposedly, if you do ever happen to find yourself at the summit on one of them, you can see Hanoi off in the distance.
From look-out 1...
From look-out 2...
We sat there, exhausted, until a group of Vietnamese hikers came and blew up our spot. Then it was time for us to leave. We walked back down the narrow, slippery flights of stairs. About a hundred or so meters from the bottom we came across a 50-something year old man who had stopped to smoke. He saw us and said "I'm so tired!" (in Vietnamese) with a laugh. That made us feel a little better about being outdone by a troop of grandmothers.
The ride down the mountain was not as relaxing as I'd hoped. The reason that a manual transmission bike is preferable for riding in the mountains is that you can use the engine to break by shifting into a lower gear. This will save your actual breaks, which will become less effective the more they are used. So if you are coming down a mountain, the protocol when you want to slow down is not to pull the breaks, but to switch into a lower gear. You will hear the transmission roar but don't worry, it was made for that. The road was steep, wet, and mossy so there were a few scary moments. Sometimes, at hair-pin turns, I would throw the bike into 1st gear and feel the back tire swing out behind me, slipping on the moss. All you can do is hope a bus doesn't pop out from around the corner and kill you. Luckily none did.
Before heading home we stopped in Sơn Tây, where we had had breakfast that morning, for some food. Our Vietnamese friends had a very specific place in mind. It was a tiny alley called Ngo Lac Son and the food was quite good. I'm not a fan of Chicken Feet but the rest of it was tasty. If you are ever in Sơn Tây past 4:00pm, try it out.
Sơn Tây is actually a charming little town. The center of the town is an old military fort, which is surrounded by a moat. The town is built around this moat like many cities have a river-front area, and certain stretches of it are very picturesque.
From there we headed home. I was exhausted. Words cannot describe how badly my ass hurt by the time we got back to Hanoi.
So a quick recap of the practicalities of this trip:
Entrance into Ba Ví National Park: 26,000 VND (1.19 USD)
While there is (some) food available both at the bottom and the top of the mountain, the bottom is much cheaper
It takes about 1.5 hours to get from Hanoi to the mountain
It takes another 1 hour to get from the bottom to the top
There's a solid 2 hours of hiking to be done at the top, and it ain't for the faint of heart