Upon completing the Ha Giang Loop we were excited to continue on with our next Vietnamese adventure. We were told about a 850km loop called the Northeast Motorbike Loop which begins in the nearby city of Cao Bang City.
The northeast region is like a pastoral garden made up of rice fields, lakes, green forests and crystal clear fast running streams and rivers which pass through limestone corridors. A beautiful mixture of meandering, lazy back-roads and newly sealed highways carve their way through the three provinces of: Cao Bang, Lang Son and Bac Kan; all three of which, are among the most sparsely populated provinces in the country.
Vietnams minority’s living here actually comprise the majority of the population and whose ethnic culture and fascinating ways of life dominate the people of this area. The pastoral scenery is peaceful, dominated by the dramatic presence of the giant limestone karsts.
To the north, the omnipresent China looms large. An infamous history of revolutionary invasions followed by the back and forth of economic recovery adds a special flavor to this scenic ride. The Northeast Loop was the ideal follow-up to our just completed Ha Giang Loop ride.
We began the Northeast Loop in the city of Cao Bang. This quaint city sits on a promontory formed by the merging of the Bang Giang River and another small tributary river. Cao Bang has plenty of good food, welcoming accomidationis and small town Vietnamese charm. Enough to keep us happily entertained for a couple of nights.
We began the Loop by heading east and crossing over the Bang Giang River on the TL203 road. Once out of town we were immediately enveloped by the lush countryside. Tall bamboo shoots grow skyward towering over the two lane road forming a shadowy archway, creating an mysterious atmosphere over the road ahead. Thus we began the first stage of our new adventure with a sense of excitement and expectation.
The picturesque scene that unfolded was one of farm houses built from stone standing along the roadside as well as in the fields of simmering rice which were carved through by gentle blue streams. Towering sculpture like limestone karsts rose up from theses green rice fields appearing to be giant spikes covering the landscape both far and near.
This is the northern end of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail which runs the entire length of Vietnam. This particular section is considered sacred by many Vietnamese because it leads to a remote section of the Chinese Border which marks the spot where Ho Chi Minh crossed back into his native Vietnam in 1941, after more than 30 years of exile. It was here in this area that Ho, living only in a cave, began the movement that would eventually lead to the Declaration of Independence from French colonial rule.
Pac Bo Cave is located at the very end of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This is a mesmerizingly beautiful area with which we were truly enthralled and one which we totally enjoyed visiting. It is easy to see why Ho choose this spot to live for all those many years while planning and working on the revolution.
After leaving the cave we rode back down to the crossroads just north of Xua Hoa. We headed east on road TL210, which was sign posted to Tra Linh. Here the road climbed sharply up limestone cliffs while acting as a back-road along the Chinese border, appearing as a large white gash on the landscape as it twisted through a forest of karst sculptures. Here we passed several small remote villages that looked as though they were locked in an ancient time warp. Homes that were made of packed mud and straw covered by baked tile roofs. The roads were filled with horses, oxen and buffaloes transporting crops of corn and soybeans as well as people and farming equipment between the villages and the fields. The fields were divided by stone walls adding to the rural ambience of this picturesque setting.
Eventually this wonderful road ended at the small dusty crossroads border town of Tra Linh. Only a short hop from the Chinese border gate. We purchased Chinese beer and candy in a local shop. Large mysterious looking trucks loaded with covered cargo, waited for the blanket of darkness before continuing their secretive journey across the Chinese border.
We stayed the night in a rather tired looking guest house, Nha Nghi Quang Dung, for only $10. While very simple it, to his credit, was kept alive by the hard working son of the owner, Son Lock.
Surprisingly Tra Linh has an interesting and somewhat entertaining night market which displays a number of goods from across the Chinese border. In the morning we returned for breakfast which consisted of an excellent Chinese influenced noodle soup and dumplings.
Before continuing south we back tracked north for a short five minute ride to see the spectacular view at the Ma Phuc Pass. It was amazing and well worth the small effort. We then continued on the Loop as we began our second day.