Vietnam had a number of motorbike firsts! It was the first time I’d ridden a fully manual bike having previously always rented either automatics or , more recently in Laos, a semi-manual bikes where we had gears to change but no clutch. This time we were riding “proper” motorbikes (little 100cc Honda Wins) and what greater baptism of fire than Ho Chi Min (HCM) traffic! I was also riding my bike having decided to buy one rather than rent.
There really is only one traffic rule in Vietnam – he who is biggest has right of way. When riding through a green traffic light, be sure to look left and right because no doubt there is sideways traffic. Bikes routinely cut across lanes of oncoming traffic and everyone just doges round one another. Plus no-one gets angry because everybody is doing it. Traffic circles are by far the best though – put simply, it’s a free-for-all. Bikes and cars enter/exit as and when they please and it makes no difference if you’re boxed in should you wish to exit as you just cut across passing traffic. There are thousands of bikes on the road and getting lost in rush hour on my 1st afternoon is an experience I will never forget.
After meeting and travelling with Maarten in Thailand, where we biked the epic Mae Hong Son loop, and then Laos, where we biked the Thakek loop, we went our separate ways but had planned to meet up again in Vietnam. This we did sitting on plastic chairs in the streets of HCM drinking many cold USD 25c beers. Unbeknown to me, Rob was also in town and had bumped into Maarten a few hours earlier and so we had our initial ‘biking gang’. (Rob had rented scooters with us in Chang Mai a few months back). The group of guys was balanced out by Rob’s awesome girlfriend, Megs, who I’d heard heaps about in Thailand and was so chuffed to meet. Along the way we would pick up Sean, an Aussie, Jon, from the States, and Anna from the UK and that was our awesome crew.
Although the Cu Chi tunnels on the outskirts of HCM are very touristy, they’re definitely worth a visit. You can also play proper tourist if you like and rent an AK-47 – at $1/bullet, I had maybe only 3 shots and I hope your aim is better than mine. I also wouldn’t miss the informative and interesting War Remnants Museum (centrally located in district 3). Unlike many museums which overload you with info, this takes only around 90 minutes to wander around and it will leave you with a real sense of what the country went through during the Vietnam War.
After a few days in HCM, we made our way north. The route is fairly standard and its very popular for tourists to do on bikes (many also travel south from Hanoi). There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the narrow shape of the country lends itself to being explored by bike. Secondly, because literally everyone Vietnamese person rides a bike, there are mechanics EVERYWHERE so breaking down is not an inconvenience. In fact, it’s part of the experience I’d say. Also, the bikes are super cheap to fix when things do happen … USD$ 4 to change one’s oil and $6 for a puncture being just 2 examples. We all broke down a few times but thankfully when we did, we were always close to a town which invariably meant close to a mechanic and thus soon back on the road.
As for buying a bike, that’s really easy too and you’ll no doubt be approached by someone as you step out of your hostel. The challenge is knowing what you’re buying and that’s a little lottery really.
First up after HCM was the kite surfing and sand dune capital of Vietnam, Mui Ne. Normally, you are only allowed on the sand dunes on a 4×4 but when Maarten, Sean and I arrived, however, there were a group of young kids milling about who clearly wanted to have some fun at our expense. So they insisted we take our own bikes on the sand and once Sean said he was keen (note Sean’s been riding bikes for years), Maarten and I had no choice but to follow. Let me tell you, it’s freaking hard! But we enjoyed a spectacular sunset on the dunes and managed to head back with our heads held fairly high I thought.
En route to Dalat, which was a day later than planned after bikes issues the previous day had forced us to overnight in a small town, we got chatting to a few people when we stopped to take a picture. They were coming from Dalat and mentioned this canyoning tour they recommended we do with a company called Groovy Gecko. They were spot on – it was UNbelievable!! Rappelling down 25m high waterfalls, going head 1st down natural slides (the rocks are positioned in such a way that you can slide down them with the current) and then jumping off 11m high cliffs, this was one of the best days of my month in Vietnam.
There were many stretches of fantastic riding over the month with the sweeping curved pass from the 1500m high city of Dalat to the beach town of Nha Trang being one of them. Nha Trang is Vietnam’s premier beach town and it’s a wicked partying spot if you fancy a few big nights. Plus there’s some good diving if you’re able to get out of bed on time after the previous night’s party, which Sean and I managed to do on our final morning (we were both very proud of our effort!).
Next up was the tailoring city of Hoi Ann. We’d put our bikes on the train for this 800km stretch and boy was that a fun train ride with Anna, Sean and I only having hard wooden seats for the 14 hour overnight train. I wasn’t planning to have anything made but when I saw a certain jacket on the mannequin, I knew I had to have 1 and so two days and $40 later, I had added to my wardrobe. Along with a tailored smart white shirt that had the jacket pattern on the inside collar, down the middle button line and inside the sleeves – just the items to have in your backpack on a trip round the world!!
As we headed north from Hoi Ann, the riding just got more spectacular. The day’s riding from Hoi Ann was particularly beautiful as we climbed over a curving pass and then dropped down steeply on the other side to the city of Hue at sea level. From Hue it continued to get better and better as we headed north on the Ho Chi Min trail to the Phong Nha national park.
The sweeping roads, spectacular mountain scenery in the national park and gorgeous weather made for two unbelievably phenomenal days of riding.
The Phong Nha national park is home to the world’s largest and 2nd largest caves and while the largest is still being mapped and thus off limits, you are able to visit Paradise Cave and walk in for 2 kms (it goes some 31 kms back!). The size of the cave defies belief and there are some amazing formations as you walk through with more information available here on opening times and prices available here.
From the national park it’s a long slog of some 650 kms to Hanoi but the roads are flat and the riding easy. Like HCM, Hanoi has super fun beer streets with beer being just as cheap as down south. Like the rest of Vietnam, one finds noodle soup on just about every street corner and this is pretty much the staple diet – soup with either chicken, beef or both. I was also pleasantly surprised by the awesome coffee, which is served with condensed milk. Being on bikes, we stopped often to stretch our legs etc. and the coffee all round the country is great. And very cheap!
While no-one I’d met had mentioned the coffee, many people said the Vietnamese aren’t the friendliest and I think the best word to describe them is unpredictable. Sometimes they are incredibly friendly, other times incredibly rude and I guess it is just how it is. Unlike a few people I met, though, I definitely wouldn’t say the people “ruined the county for me” so don’t be put off if you do hear bad stories. Like I did, you’ll no doubt meet many fantastic Vietnamese.
Finally, Halong Bay is absolutely spectacular and a must see. I remember canoeing along at one point and wondering how this was all made as it really defies comprehension. I’d say the best way to visit is to take a two or three day boat tour and if you fancy a few large nights, hop on the “Rock Long, Rock Hard” two night trip offered by Hanoi Backpackers.
All too quickly we were selling our bikes and our month’s visa about to run out. I was hoping to also make my way to Sapa but we’ll now save that for another trip. It’s been an unbelievably fun month exploring this super country with a great group of friends.