Vietnam travels by bike. Everything you can imagine travels by bike, from livestock to building supplies to enormous bamboo stems dragged behind. Motorcycles are the backbone of the country. Due to prohibitive import taxes most normal people simply cannot afford to own cars, therefore bikes become used as family transportation. It’s due to the popularity of bikes that heavily populated cities like Sai Gon and Hanoi actually still function, as the population deftly weave in between each other, and the other traffic, creating space and maintaining the flow of the city’s arteries.
So it makes sense that the best, if not the only way, to see the real Vietnam, to get amongst the people, is on a motorcycle. I hadn’t really twigged this last time I visited the country and as such received a very blinkered view from behind the tinted windows of tourist minibuses, sleeper buses and taxis.
This time, however, I’ve been on bikes since the outset. Therefore it made perfect sense to consider a motorbike tour. My friend Dave had been with Easy Riders and strongly recommended them to me. They are the ‘original’ company running bike tours in Vietnam and come with some good reviews.
Owing to the popularity of the Top Gear episode where Messrs May, Clarkson and Hammond wound their way precariously down the Hai Van pass there are now any number of companies running trips which tend to generally go North to South or vice versa, seeing different places but on broadly similar routes.
Many tourists also go it alone, buying bikes and setting out in one direction or another. This wasn’t really an option for me as I hadn’t ridden a motorbike substantially before, but it looks like a great laugh if you have a big group.
So, it came to pass that I booked an 8 day tour via the helpful boss of the company, to start 2 days later in Hue. I’d realised quite quickly that the 15 day visa free period in Vietnam isn’t actually a very long time, and wanted to make the most of what time I had.
My 8 day tour would take me from Hue, down through the Central Highlands and would end in Mui Ne, a coastal resort I absolutely loved on my last visit, allowing a couple of days R+R before getting a bus to Sai Gon and needing to leave the country.
So, bang on time at 0830, my Easy Rider turned up at the Jade Hotel. Meet Quang (He’d introduced himself as ‘James’…Many tour guides adopt a ‘Western’ name since they are easier for us lot to pronounce but we quickly got rid of that bollocks and I learnt to pronounce Quang’s name properly… It’s only polite.
You can see my rucksack already loaded on the back. I am still travelling very light (Under 14kg) but apparently Quang’s had all sorts on the back including a 30kg hard shell suitcase! Quite what people think they need to bring I don’t know. All of the tours are point to point, so being able to have my bag on the back was a big bonus.
So, we loaded up and set off through Hue’s city streets. I’d started off with shorts on but quickly decided to change to jeans for a bit of additional protection- From the sun if nothing else. I would also strongly recommend a neck covering too… You’re exposed to the sun for a long time, I couldn’t find mine on day 1 but had it afterwards and it really helped keeping cool and out of the hottest sun.
As we got out of the city, the traffic eased considerably, and we turned onto country roads. Out into the real Vietnam, winding our way through bustling local villages. Our first brief stop was at a significant local graveyard, the Hue area is almost unique for its ornate tombs, mainly belonging to well-off local families:
Chatting with Quang, it emerged that he’d had to take a 16 hour overnight bus (along with bike in the luggage compartment!) from his home in Da Lat in order to get to me in Hue, and had arrived literally 10 minutes before meeting me, so hadn’t eaten! Whilst I did feel bad about this, I was also getting peckish too (It was nearly 2 and a half hours since breakfast!) so suggested we stop for food. Such was Quang’s wish to be a good tour guide that I had to insist that I wanted food before he would agree. By this time we were close to Highway 1, the main road in Vietnam.
We stopped at the first place off the highway we saw… It was an undeniably bleak noodle dish, and we resolved to do better.
And so, whilst not brilliantly refreshed but having filled a hole, we set out onto Highway 1. Motorbikers hate this road, it’s an absolute death trap (Apparently worse at night) frequented by insane and fast coach and truck drivers, and with little interesting scenery. It was however an unfortunate necessity to get to Da Nang and beyond to Hoi An.
Truck drivers in Vietnam are, for the most part, homicidal maniacs. Our first near ‘off’ on the trip came very early on as we met a truck head on on a narrow country road and it just kept coming, forcing us onto some deep sand on the verge and luckily just keeping the bike upright. It’s generally not much of a problem since we travel quite slowly anyway, but alarming nonetheless when you’re on the high pillion seat!
After a while it also began to rain, which did little to enhance the Highway One experience. Luckily though, the rain disappeared as fast as it had arrived, and we reached our first stop, the Elephant Pools. A fantastic natural waterpark with rock ‘slides’ and deep, clear pools to swim in. As well as a bar, naturally. For this reason there were plenty of backpackers hanging out there.
And so, suitably refreshed and, well, refreshed we headed back out onto the road. Not far to go, since we’d put in some good KMs already on our Highway One schlep. Then, Quang taught me my first lesson of the road:
“Where there are truckers or bus drivers, there is good food”
So, we stopped at a place near the coast where he’d been for good grub before. The parking lot was littered with large trucks, and the inside seemed pretty clean. It was not just good food, it was amazing.
Fresh local tuna steaks, deep fried and still really tender in the middle. The dish in the middle is a spicy chilli sauce with local shrimp in it, and the main veg dish is Morning Glory and garlic… All organic and very fresh, and no more than about £1 each. Perfect.
After lunch we got plenty more KMs under our belts, albeit on more pleasant roads, reaching the Hai Van pass. This has now become somewhat of a Mecca for motorbike visitors due to the Top Gear episode in question. The road achieved importance during the American war in Vietnam due to the strategic checkpoint at the summit of the mountain, of which several buildings still survive.
Nowadays it’s somewhat of a backwater, since the main road has been rerouted through a tunnel under the mountain. Motorcycles are not permitted in the tunnel and besides, the mountain pass is so much more fun! The only other vehicles which seem to be specifically proscribed from the tunnel are petrol tankers, which makes for an interesting ride. The tanker drivers do seem to be relatively sensible however, which makes a change from the vast majority of Vietnam’s truckers!
The road itself has all the ingredients of a classic biker paradise- Excellent views, sweeping and well-sighted corners, minimal 4-wheeled traffic and smooth tarmac.
And so, we carried on up… and up. The 150cc Suzuki did struggle on a few of the steepest hairpins under the weight of 2 guys plus luggage, but we managed it. Plenty of other bike and 4-legged transport around…
So, up to the summit and to join the numerous other tourists taking the bike route. As well as some of the most hilariously pushy food touts I’ve ever experienced… WHERE YOU FROM YOU WAN FOOOOOOOOD? I mean, they definitely do have to earn a living but too much! There are a number of food stalls at the top so competition is intense. “I’m not hungry” doesn’t seem to work either. Anyway, time for an exploration of the old watch towers and a view from back where we had come. Sadly a misty day so I didn’t get the ‘catalogue shots’…
And then back down the winding, panoramic descent to Danang via some fun switchbacks.
Overall conclusion: I need to get my bike licence. Sorry ma. So anyway, we wound our way down to Danang. This is widely considered as Vietnam’s most modern and fast-developing city, and an extremely popular beach resort. It also has a busy international airport. However, fishermen still ply their trade from the seafront:
I found it fascinating to view the amount of development, and actually the thought that has gone into elements of the infrastructure such as a large 4-lane highway along the seafront from what will apparently be a new port. So many of Vietnam’s cities are going to massively struggle when 2 wheels gives way to 4, so it’s good to see some thought in new construction.
Further up the coast between Danang and Hoi An there is significant development underway, hoardings everywhere advertising luxury holiday resorts and a big new golf course. However, I distinctly remember the same number of hoardings and little sign of development back in 2010 so maybe it’s all a bit ‘aspirational’ still…
Onwards, to the Linh Ung pagoda just up the coast. Constructed only recently, however the central Buddha is every bit as spectacular as El Christo Redentor in Rio in its placement and setting. The grounds are beautifully kept and there are some fascinating sculptures guarding the main building.
And so, with the most ominous rain clouds so far looming behind the Lady Buddha, Quang and I set off on the road for the quick Highway hop down to the town of Hoi An, our resting point for the night. I’d stayed in Hoi An back in 2010 and really loved it, therefore was more than happy to revisit this beautiful French colonial town.
En route we passed Marble Mountain, however were too short on daylight and dry time to allow a visit. I did question whether the 140,023 marble carving shops were in danger of killing the golden goose however apparently there’s a designated area where marble is cut away from the scenic mountain… Phew.
Our home for the night was the Hoang Trinh hotel, a little bit Fawlty Towers but far more pleasant than I was expecting. A pile of strange fluffy creatures sat on top of the bed, including a smiling carrot. My kind of place, then. I did later discover a strange quirk of the electrics whereby the light wouldn’t switch off without switching EVERYTHING else off including aircon and sockets, etc. This was slightly annoying since it was both hotter than the sun and I needed to charge my phone, therefore my over-refreshed brain when I returned at 1am went with sleeping under the Blackpool Illuminations.
Showered and refreshed, Quang and I headed out to grab some food. At the outset of this trip, I handed full dietary control over to him. This proved to be an excellent decision as he knew the specialities and best places to eat everywhere. In Hoi An, this was noodles:
These were one of my food highlights of the trip. Nice and firm, like yaki soba noodles, with a decent sauce and crispy crackers, as well as well-cooked pork. Ideal, but not many of them so we moved on to a place serving Com Ga, chicken rice. Quang’s original plan was closed, so we went to the place across the road. It was not a good move! Never mind, 1-1 draw!
Hoi An is home to dozens of decent tailor shops, so I decided to buy a shirt. For wining and dining purposes, a man has to look smart around town! Having asked at one, they quoted 25-35USD, so I tried another place that, despite intense haggling, wouldn’t go lower than 18USD. I ordered it at 8pm and it was ready the next morning by 9. That’s service!
I like it, anyway… 12 quid for a well fitted, well made shirt’s a bargain in my eyes.
So, after much persuasion of Quang that I definitely would be alright on my own, I set out to have a wander around the old town and to hopefully get some good pictures. Hoi An is just ridiculously photogenic, so it’s not hard. Obviously getting well focused shots in the dark is, though…
I crossed the river and strolled around the street full of ‘traveller’ bars, slightly confused as to why I hadn’t seen these last time, until Quang pointed out the next day that this was all new development. I met up with a group of solo travellers and enjoyed far too many beers, swayed by the free drink offers and cheap deals. Oh dear, tomorrow will be spent on a motorcycle.
0100. Good night all. Tomorrow- To the Highlands!