I’ve written this article to share my opinions, experiences and my advice (for what it is worth) to those who are considering a road trip in Vietnam. I’ve just come back from 14 days touring from North to South, basically doing the Top Gear Vietnam Special
in reverse but with some added sections.
I’m not a battle hardened adventurer, I love seeing countries by motorcycle but am also partial to the odd bit of creature comfort along the way. In the past few years I’ve ridden in the USA, Australia, Western Europe, The Balkans and all over the UK using various types of motorcycle and can say my Vietnam experience stands out as being the most unique in terms of challenges, terrain and riding conditions. Riding in Vietnam is not for the faint hearted but for those who are willing to give it a go the experience is very rewarding.
A few weeks before my flight my research led me to many online forums where the majority of the comments were along the lines of “its suicide”, “copying what the idiots on top gear did will get you killed”, “absolutely no way should you ride in Vietnam”. This huge level of negativity gave me doubts and I began wondering if i was doing the right thing. On returning from my trip I’m now pretty sure these comments came from beige wearing killjoys who think women shouldn’t wear hotpants, Coldplay can be classed as rock music and chicken korma is a bit too spicy. Yes there is a degree of danger to riding in Vietnam but with extra vigilance, the right gear and the right mental attitude you can keep yourself out of trouble.
A motorcycle road trip in vietnam
HIRING A GUIDE
The negative comments did lead me to making one good decision which was to spend a few days with a guide before heading out on my own. I would highly recommend this for a few reasons. Firstly everything you’ve learned so far riding in Westernised countries you might as well throw out the window, the system (if there is one?) is completely different to what your used to. FollowIng your guide and listening to their advice will help you hugely to understand how to deal with the various situations with on the road. Secondly they will help you get to know the local customs and how to get around when your off your motorcycle. I used Bamboo tours in Hanoi who did everything and more to be helpful before, during and after my ride. I couldn’t recommend them more. If you don’t use them as a tour guide then they have an excellent range of motorcycles available for hire as well. For the first part of my trip I used their Honda XR150L which was in excellent condition and much comfier than the Yamaha XTZ125 I used later.
CHOOSING A BIKE
Choices of motorcycle in Vietnam is pretty much limited to low capacity machines but to be honest thats all you’ll ever need. Speeds of over 80km/h would put you much faster than everything else on the road and with the constant stream of obstacles coming from all different trajectories could make things very dangerous.
The vast majority of machines available are modern Japanese semi-auto 125cc’s. Alternative cult bikes such as the Honda Win and Russian machines such as the M1nsk 125 and the Ural Tourist 650 can also be purchased or hired. Be warned, Russian bikes have notoriously poor reliability and a lot of the local mechanics wont have the parts or knowledge of how to fix them. You may want to consider this if your planning to travel to remote areas…every little village has a guy who can fix an old single cylinder Honda 125 and probably has a bungload of spare parts.
My initial plan was to buy an old bike but after hearing a few stories of woe I’m glad i chose a different option. For both parts of my journey I hired scramblers, firstly a Honda XR150L
and then secondly a Yamaha XTZ125
Both bikes handled perfectly on and off road and dealt very well with the huge range of surfaces. Neither is fast but they do pull well from low revs, very handy with filtering through traffic or tackling tricky off road sections. In places I had long distances to cover on rocky roads, and it was great to have the right tool for the job making good pace where other bikes would struggle, not to mention the piece of mind that modern Japanese reliability brings. Neither bike was overly comfortable, but the Yamaha wins hands down when it comes to pure agony from the seat. The Honda caused mild discomfort after a while but the Yamaha was so bad it seemed to have been modelled on a plank of 2×4. See seat modification below – my desperate attempt to alleviate serious arse pain!
RIDING ON THE ROADS
Where to start on this one?!? Ok, lets start where I started in the centre of Hanoi, the capital city. I have never seen such automotive chaos!
Thousands of mopeds jostling for the same patch of tarmac, the sheers noise of tiny engines and horns overwhelms the atmosphere in the city. When you reach a junction forget giving way, everybody just meets in the middle and sorts it out there. Sometimes it grinds to a halt as paths meet, other times everyone manages to snake through the gaps in scenes reminiscent of classic stunt motorcycle display teams. As you ride down crowded streets people walk across your path, vehicles come the wrong way down the road, inexperienced riders wobble at slow pace and bikes join the road without looking. When I got to Saigon things were the similar but on a larger scale.
I did notice a hint of a system there and things just felt slightly more predictable…that was until the added cars in the wealthier city caused complete gridlock so all the bikes took to the pavement!
Once you get out on open road things calm down a lot but your presented with new dangers. Buses and lorries seem to be the easiest way to end your life prematurely. They drive at the highest speed of anything on the road and have no intention of losing their momentum just for the sake of some motorcycles in the way. The attitude to overtaking and junctions is to firmly depress their extra loud horns and watch as motorcycles scatter to get out of the way. Its not unusual while winding round a mountain road to come round a corner to find two heavy vehicles side by side heading straight for you, blasting their horns, and the only way to survive is to get yourself off the road.
While this sounds dramatic, if you drive defensively, planning ahead for this kind of thing, you can always find a way. Forget racing lines, motogp lean angles and clipping apexes, its about being in the right place on the road for when the worst is coming round the corner. There’s always some way to get out of the way on a motorcycle, its the cars that have a real problem. Twice on my journey I saw the results of head on collisions, and neither looked like the occupants could’ve survived without serious injury or worse. Its not often you get to say this, but I think in this instance your safer on a motorcycle!
Other obstacles include stray animals, children, tractors, pedestrians, road workers and overloaded bikes, none of which seem to behave in a rational manner when your used to Western systems. However, these all only need to be minor inconveniences if you ride in a way that expects the unexpected.
Road surfaces vary a lot. In a few places the roads offer silky smooth tarmac but often the surface is very varied. Off the beaten track the road can be very rough with potholes big enough to swallow cars (exaggeration, but they are huge!). B-routes can degenerate into crumbling road, dirt tracks or rocky paths which couldn’t be passed with a normal car.
For navigation I used an Iphone app called Vietnam Maps which offered a basic sat nav and mapping of all of the major routes. For most roads I found it to be generally very reliable but on the minor roads I had a few problems. At one point the road simply went into a lake, and another time the route clearly hadn’t been used for a long time and degenerated into a slippery muddy path only just wide enough to walk down.
Perhaps with time and supplies this route could’ve been passed, but with 100km to cover in less than 3 hours I didn’t want to risk it. It goes without saying that if a route is no longer being used the chances of getting assistance from a passer by are slim to none.
THE VIETNAM EXPERIENCE
So why, with all this going on, would anyone want to ride in Vietnam? Quite simply the country is an outstanding place to tour on a motorcycle. The scenery is spectacular, the locals are friendly, and it has so much to see and do.
Those who go to a sight of natural beauty and cringe when they find unnecessary guard rails have been installed, gift shops are everywhere and twenty buses are parked outside will find a Vietnam tour refreshing. While the main attractions can get busy, the experiences haven’t been watered down by overly catering to the casual lazy tourist or murdered by the health & safety brigade. Once you get out into the countryside away from the main attractions the only other travellers you’ll meet are the few with a similar lust for adventure so are well worth a chat.
Even during the few sections where the scenery isnt spectacular its just great fun getting involved with the Vietnamese and marvelling at their way of life. Vietnam is a country on the up and developing fast, but out of the cities still much of it remains unwesternised and it’s fantastic to see how they go about their business.
My favourite thing to watch was how they make use of the motorcycle. Cars are still very much a luxury item so people have to make do with their bike for everything. Its their commuter, family car, van & hgv all in one. Some of the things I saw strapped to the back of a motorcycle were beyond belief, and I have no idea how they manage to ride them like that. At one point, while I was making reasonable pace, a family of 5 overtook me! Impressed as I was, the next time the dishwasher packs in my first thought wont be to head to Dixons on my Triumph with a load of ratchet straps.
Thanks to the developing nature of the country its still incredibly cheap to tour in Vietnam. Once you’ve got your bike you can get by easily on £15 a day which will cover 3 meals, fuel and motel accommodation. If your willing to scrimp and save a little more Im sure you could do it for less. Pulling over for lunch at the village food bar will get you presented with a hefty chunk of noodles or rice for around 30,000 Dong (£1). While I’m on the subject of Dong, my guidebook (for sake of anonymity ill just refer to it as Solitude World) insisted that American Dollars would be accepted most in places. I found this not to be the case and after a frustrating first day ended up using Dong for the rest of my trip. Takes a little getting used to the conversion rate, but there’s nothing quite as satisfying as going to the cashpoint to get 1 million dong out! (about £30).
My route was very much exploratory and not necessarily the definitive Vietnam trip, but some of the sections I rode I’d like to share with you. Since making the trip I’ve seen many pictures of the route up to Sa Pa which looks truly spectacular and will definitely be first on my itinerary for my next trip.
My journey started in Hanoi, a bustling hive of activity which is a fantastic place to fly into. There’s a real culture shock when you get dropped off into the city centre for the first time and its very exciting. The sheer noise of small bikes and their horns is totally overwhelming and something seems to be going on in every last square ft of the city. Just trying to navigate down the pavement involves stepping around food being cooked, stalls selling stuff, workmen at work, wires, and hundreds of people making their way around.
Dare to step out onto the road and suddenly bikes are dashing by within inches of your shoulders, and crossing it just seems impossible. It is possible, but until you are practiced at it I recommend this technique – wait for a local to do it and then mimic their every step, using them as a kind of human shield to the traffic! The quickest way to get around is to hop onto a motorcycle taxi, for £1.50 equivalent you can get anywhere in the centre and hanging on tight while a local scythes his way through the traffic is a hell of a lot of fun!
I’d highly recommend taking a day or two to take in this great little city before setting off on your bike. The best is in the old town who’s narrow crowded streets never seem to sleep. You get amazing food and drink at almost any time of night, and the atmosphere in the street is electric. For a bit of luxury the Marvellous Hotel
in the city centre comes highly recommended, ideal for getting over your jet lag before your adventure ahead.
DAY 1 – HANOI to Mai Châu
My guide Vinh hops onto his bike, beckons me to follow and immediately speeds down the tight crowded street during rush hour. I dont get a moment to get a feel for my motor before I am thrust into the madness. Finger constantly resting on the brake Im already dodging people and bikes to try and keep up. At the first major junction I just see a hive of madness which my guide just disappears into, hesitantly I try to follow but have to repeatedly stop as my cautious riding style clashes with the local etiquette. By the time I’ve made it through the other side he’s out of sight. Great, two minutes in and I’ve lost him already…I can see this being a frustrating day at work for him!
He turns back to find me and once again we’re riding together. I try hard to keep up but its a nervy experience. I find myself trying to give room to everyone, but as soon as I leave a space someone else fills it. Glancing in the mirror only exacerbates the problem as by the time my eyes are back on the road ahead theres something new to dodge. Every junction all the bikes cram together trying to get their wheel infront, by the time the light goes green I’m millimetres from bikes on all sides and setting off in anything other than a perfect straight line would surely result in contact.
The first 10 minutes I don’t think my heart rate dropped below 150, but over time I became accustomed to the system. As we neared the outskirts I found myself hustling a bit and getting stuck in at the traffic lights. The continuous “bogeys” coming from all trajectories reminded me of playing some mad driving computer game, only this was real life and soon I found myself actively enjoying the experience.
As much fun as I was having I did feel a sense of relief as we left the city and the traffic calmed down. Soon busy roads gave way to beautiful countryside and the road trip was truly underway.
The finishing point for day 1 was Mai Chau, a beautiful little farming village surrounded by rice fields.
Day 2 – Mai Chau to Nimh Binh
The 160km journey from Mai Chau to Nimh Binh offered a time-travel back into simpler times as the road winded through rural Vietnam.
When we reached Nimh Binh it was time for a bit of tourism. At Tam Coc you are rowed 3 kilometres up a river which wanders through amazing limestone outcrops and caves. In winter the lakes are pretty quiet meaning its a peaceful experience, a welcome break from the noise, dust & vibrations of motorcycle travel.
Day 3 – Heading to Hai Phong & Cat Ba Island
I don’t have much to show from this section of the journey…it was unspectacular to say the least! A 200km dash along busy, dusty roads attempting to catch the last boat to Cat Ba Island. Tired, dirty & sweaty we arrived only to find we’d missed the last boat, meaning we’d have to stay the night in the uninspiring port town of Hai Phong.
Day 4 & 5 – Cat Ba Island
Getting onto Cat Ba Island isn’t the most magical experience ever, 2 hours at dirty ferry ports and on a very slow moving boat, but once your on the island it’s worth it. Those who’ve seen Top Gear Vietnam, where at the end the trio convert their bikes into water craft, will be familiar with Halong Bay. Cat Ba Island is just next door, offering the same stunning scenery but the added hassle of getting there keeps the hordes of tourists at bay. Roads round the Island are great, but you’d be really missing out if you didn’t take one of the jungle walks, or a boat trip around the famous rocky stacks. The is now a huge bridge being built to make easier access to the island, and I do fear that in a few years this easier access will take away some of the magic of the place.
Day 6 – Back to Hanoi
Once Cat Ba island was done the first part of my trip was drawing to a close. All that was left to do was make the journey back to Hanoi. I am aware that there are more interesting routes than the main road, but time constraints meant this was the path we would have to take. Like the journey from Nimh Binh, this route was mostly uninteresting, the monotony only broken by a puncture which would have to be repaired by a road side garage.
Once again the traffic entering Hanoi was crazy, but after 6 days road experience negotiating it was a fair bit easier than my first effort.
Part 2 – Hue to Saigon
After a few days break in Hanoi I was ready to take on the second part of my trip. Due to holiday visa restraints time wasn’t on my side, so to make the trip more manageable I took the overnight train south to Hue.
From there I hired the Yamaha XT125, leaving me 5 days to make 1200km and reach Saigon in time to catch my flight.
Day 1 Hue to Đăk Glei via Ho Chi Minh trail
Setting off from the pretty town of Hue I was immediately greeted by the exceptional Da Nang Pass. A snaking road taking you all the way over the top of a mountain, the alternative route to a much more boring direct tunnel that goes underneath.
I then head inland, seeking out the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail, a vital military supply route during the Vietnam war that meanders through mountainous terrain and dense rainforest near the Cambodian border. The trail is now well tarmacked, and didn’t disappoint as it took me high up into the clouds.
Day 2 – Following the Cambodian Border
The most direct route to Saigon was also the most remote, so I decided to take this option and see what the isolated rural areas of Vietnam looked like. I continued to hug the Cambodian border for another 300km, at which point the road turned to a rocky path as it carved its way through the jungle.
Passing through the sparsely scattered villages being waved at & greeted by the locals, who were more than surprised to see a 190cm white man pass through their village on a scrambler, is an experience I’ll never forget! One of the few villages I stopped at had a small plastic table under some shade that passed for a restaurant. Although English is not spoken in these parts and my Vietnamese is pretty much zero, I managed to negotiate some lunch. I noticed a pool table round the side and challenged the local to a match. Fair to say I was properly school in straight games by the local shark!
Day 4 – Setting sights on Saigon
Having covered 1000km in 3 days and with only 350 km (slight detour) to go in 1 1/2 days I allowed myself a morning off riding in Da Lat. By 12pm I was ready to set of and began the winding descent on the East side of the Da Lat mountain.
After some very full on days of riding, it was nice to take it easy for a change. When the heavens opened mid afternoon I decided I would sit this one out and watch the rest of the world battle their way through it from the comfort of a cafe.
Within an hour the storm had passed and it was back to beautiful weather. Quick stops for fuel & food meant meeting more fantastic locals, and the Yamaha, being quite a rare sight in these parts, got a lot of attention.
By the time the sun was setting I had only 100km to go, an mere trip to the shops in comparison with the miles I’d been doing on the previous days.
Day 5 – The adventure comes to an end
The final 100km went pretty smoothly…ok I admit it, it turned out to be 160km thanks to a real schoolboy error. I turned the wrong way from the hotel onto the road and rode for 30km before I realised the sun was in the wrong place in the sky! 6am in the morning I’m not at my sharpest. My aching rear and now blistered hands did not thank me for this! Aside from this getting to Saigon was a simple straight road, made interesting by the usual dodging of various obsticles I’d encountered throughout the trip. When I got to Saigon the traffic was the usual craziness, and I got my last taste of the Vietnam city riding melee which I’d become accustomed to.
For the small time I was riding in Vietnam I had some fantastic adventures on my bike. It has certainly whet my appetite for further trips which will certainly be happening soon. To improve future trips I would invest in some more navigational aids such as up to date detailed maps of area and perhaps a compass for when I can’t see the sun. This would allow me to take even more adventurous routes and feel more confident when leaving the well trodden track. I also think it would be preferable to travel with another rider, mainly for the security when heading into the unknown. I never felt under threat from any of the people in Vietnam, they were always friendly and helpful, but the terrain & environment itself could become an enemy if stranded alone.
To anyone reading this and thinking about heading to Vietnam, I cannot recommend the experience enough. Get a bike and a sense of adventure and go explore this beautiful land.