Riding in Vietnam

 

In 2008 Top Gear's Vietnam Special aired for the first time. I was just 13 years old and was absolutely fascinated by it, I had just started my interest in photography and watching the guys have such an adventure, experiencing a strange new land with such camaraderie was really intriguing. In short, it was what first inspired me to travel.

 
 

When my year abroad studying in Arizona was drawing to a close I made a plan with my friend Rupert; who had been spending his year abroad in Australia. Neither of us wanted our time away from home to end, so we decided to return to the UK the long way round.  I flew to Sydney where we spent a week catching up before flying on to Vietnam together. With Rupert an even bigger motoring show fan than I, it was not hard to pitch a plan where could retrace the steps of one of the best televised adventures of our childhood. 

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The Plan

We would explore the length of the country from Ho Chi Min (formerly Saigon) up to Ha Long Bay with a few surprises along the way. We had no concrete plan other than our flight home out of Hanoi in the North in 3 weeks time and knowing we would have to stop in central Vietnam to see the ancient town of Hoi An from which we could rent mopeds and tackle the famously beautiful Hai Van Pass.

The Hai Van Pass is a twisting road over the mountains between the cities of Hue and Da Nang, since the construction of the Hai Van Tunnel traffic has vastly reduced, leaving it a haven for travellers on bikes.

 

The road was featured in the Top Gear special and its beauty was obvious. It was also the point in the story where because of the road's twisting turns above secluded beaches and dense jungle, Jeremy Clarkson finally understood the appeal of biking.

We were lucky to be doing the journey from South to North as it gets progressively more beautiful. At the start we would pass through Da Nang, a booming coastal region for tourism and shipping, when the beaches end we would turn right, avoiding the new tunnel to head up hill. As we begin to climb the pass the jungle will get thicker and we'll leave the refreshing sea breeze behind for the sweltering heat of the Vietnamese sun. The road is mostly exposed and we would have to find creative methods of cooling down.

The Journey

Staying in Hoi An for a few days meant we would have a chance to experience the ancient town, famous for its tailors and the full moon lantern festival that happens once a month; which we mistook for being a quaint village tradition. In fact it is a huge event which attracts locals and tourists alike, the old streets teem with life as they are filled with vendors selling candles and lanterns for you to put in the river. With no electric lighting in the centre of the town it makes for a beautiful evening. Our night had a particular type of ambience as a giant thunderstorm rolled passed on the horizon. The town's many bars and even boats floating past have live musicians and it became apparent that festival is the right word! 


It was a great to end our visit, with our newly tailored suits carefully compacted into our luggage we headed to our bike rental shop to start our adventure. When you leave Hoi An the first interesting stop along the way is the Marble Mountain, we had no idea what to expect, but had repeatedly been told it was a very popular stop and so we decided to give it a quick look.

You have to park your bikes in a particular car park and you pay the so called 'guard', then you have to get a ticket for entry to the mountain but there are two areas to pay for, the inside of the mountain and the top. At the top there is a nice garden, a small temple and a new elevator installed to take you there. We only went inside, the cool interior was welcome in the midday heat but we never expected what we found inside.

The mountain has a series of caverns which have been turned into shrines with amazing statues, whilst their intricacy is quite amazing they are somewhat overshadowed by the use of neon lighting as decoration. Given that we had no idea what to expect we accepted the psychadelic experience and really enjoyed exploring the caverns to see what could possibly lay waiting around the corner.

It is well worth a visit as there are so many hidden sculptures and dioramas within the caverns that you are free to explore. As for the top part of the mountain, we heard that it is not worth it for just the view but that the gardens are nice.

Some Tips

Leaving the cool air of the caves again the searing heat blasted our faces which brings me to my biggest pieces of advice for riding the pass: bring water, food and plenty of sunscreen. There are many places to stop to stock up before and after, but on the pass there is only one cafe which is not worth relying on as it isn't always open. Given that most people will be making it on to the road at midday or towards the afternoon having snacks to keep you going makes it far more comfortable and water is just so necessary when outside sweating so much all day. 

My second biggest tip would be to acquire some sort of rain poncho. We weren't there during the monsoon season but we experienced one nonetheless and after it's short spell we both felt as if we had gone for a swim we were so drenched. I was lucky to have my obviously fashionable blue wonder jacket but it paled in comparison to what the locals came equipped with. At the first few drops of rain they pulled to the side of the road and unravelled a tents worth of waterproof sheeting that was enough to cover themselves, their passenger and the bike, with a small plastic window at the front for the headlight to shine through!

The Journey | Part 2

When leaving Marble Mountain we continued through Da Nang, a very industrial city with a booming travel industry thanks to its stretching sandy beaches. However, this meant instead of an endless sea view we had miles of building sites of new resorts boarding up their section of coastline. We saw this as our best chance of stopping for some lunch before taking on the pass itself. This resulted in our most shameful activity on the whole trip. Having been determined to stick to street food wherever we went we scanned the area for any vendors or carts but struggled to see even a restaurant or bar that was open. 

Finally we stumbled upon what seemed to be a small family restaurant with an open patio connecting to the street and a BBQ well underway, we fumbled with our usual butchering of Vietnamese in an attempt to ask for food and they directed us to a table. It was only when halfway through our serving of BBQ chicken that we realised with the amount of kids running around and helping out, this wasn't a restaurant at all, this was a family gathering that we had walked into and asked for food. A testament to the hospitality of the locals, they had ushered us in, adapting to the opportunity host and trade and none seemed perturbed at all. Realising our mistake we agreed between us to pay whatever our hosts suggested at the end which left both parties feeling good and we got on our way. Leaving Da Nang, the beaches and cool shade behind. 

Once on the pass we were flying along, with so little traffic we could carve around the roads and there was plenty of space either side to stop a bike to take in the views.. 

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A long the way we saw a lot of fellow bikers and given that we stopped a lot to take pictures we eventually got to speak to some fellow travellers; they had been spending their whole time in the country travelling by bike and we all agreed that we had never been anywhere with such hospitable people and as long as you stayed alert and savvy you could avoid the cons.

The best ways of avoiding cons is to not engage in improv package deals, to not just listen to what your hotel recommends and of course being independent with your own mode of transport.  World Nomads has a quick article on some of the scams locals may try to run on tourists but we found the most frustrating to be taxi drivers. We had bought tickets for a bus to the airport and went ahead of time to the bus stop to make sure we didn't miss it. During that wait we were incessantly hounded by taxi drivers telling us the bus was cancelled and we should go with them. We even saw a bunch of them gather across the road and talk to each other, laughing together before each making an attempt to convince us. Luckily we had been warned about this and the bus did eventually arrive allowing us the opportunity to smugly wave goodbye from the window as we made our way to the airport.

It is important to remember, when doing anything in Vietnam, TripAdvisor is your friend. We looked at reviews for every company we booked anything with and it gave us a real insight into what to expect and we never experienced any scams because of it. The industry there is dependent on good TripAdvisor reviews and you can see how accommodating they are, knowing a bad review could end their business. So do your research, stay alert and you will have an amazing experience.

The Road to Hue

The end of the pass gives you a great view of a lagoon called Vung An Cu, we stopped for a while taking in the view, watching the boats tug beneath us with a giant bridge looming in the background. To bring it back to Top Gear, they made the perfect summary - which was that this very view encapsulated so much of the essence of Vietnam, from the humble fishermen and small village to the mega infrastructure of bridges and pylons behind with untouched mountains in the background, and for us, crazy weather.

In the time we were stood there a storm cloud rolled in that was the biggest I had ever seen and that was the cloud that delivered our monsoon experience.

Looking back at these images does help explain why I found this clip when reviewing my footage. 

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The rest of the journey was a bit more treacherous, now on wet busy roads with the wind and rain hitting our faces we had to really focus and be cautious, but at the same time maintain a good pace because we had both agreed we absolutely did not want to be riding in the city at night. A particular junction was absolutely terrifying, crossing a highway packed with trucks, lorries and coaches carrying everything from tourists to farm animals and then just us on our two little bikes. We had the setting sun right in our faces and glaring off the road, making it increasingly difficult to see what was coming the other way. It was only after some particularly vigorous horn honking from the lorries behind us that made us certain it was our turn to cross. Rupert led the way and we made it across quite speedily, not slowing down to look behind us and see if we had in fact been the right people to move at the time. After another refuel stop we could see the sun setting on the horizon, having chosen quieter country roads we knew it would be longer to Hue but a considerably easier ride, especially as the roads have dedicated bike lanes so overtaking was never an issue. 

After discovering the mopeds lights were standard Vietnamese hire quality, which, much like the speedo, fuel gauge or anything else electric, is barely functioning or not at all. We decided we really should get back quickly.

To be honest I don't know how long it took us to get to Hue, I just remember following the back light of Rupert's Moped until we got to the city. When in Hue we found the route that required the least crossings of mass roads and carried on through the night. The dimly lit city a stark contrast to our mountain pass earlier in the day, the brightest lights where from other riders bikes which again made seeing where we were going difficult, but the smell of cooking food from the infinite street vendors was enough to spur us on.

Finally we came to the last road crossing, a main road filled with hundreds of bikes all hurtling up and down, none crossing. Out of the darkness emerged an 80 year old women wheeling a car sized dumpster. She wanted to cross too, shaking her bell to alert the motorists of her presence, without hesitation  she stepped into the road, dumpster in tow. We seized the opportunity and rode alongside her, the bikes surrounded the three of us as we slowly made our way across. 

It is fascinating to watch the bikes in the cities of Vietnam, they really do act like a swarm, dodging and diving but never hitting any pedestrians or each other, it is a chaotic ballet of petrol and steel as the collective masses make their way to their respective destinations and finally, we were at ours. After returning the bikes and retrieving our luggage we dumped them in the hotel and headed out for food to explore the city.  

It was an amazing adventure and we felt a huge sense of achievement and so for anyone else wanting to ride in Vietnam, here are my top tips to have similar success!

Renting the Bikes

Thanks to Rupert's thorough research we had rented our bikes from a company called MotorVina. They have locations in Hoi An, Da Nang and Hue, which means we could ride over the pass to Hue and drop them off without having to return to the original rental location. Whilst this might seem normal for those that rent cars from large companies, in Vietnam every man and his goat wants to rent you a bike, so it is rare to find a company with multiple locations but MotorVina have it sorted. They also took our luggage in a van so that it would be waiting for us at the finish line, allowing us the freedom of travelling with just our backpacks. 

As usual with all Vietnamese activities, it is far more expensive to book online, booking in person can easily give you up to 40-50% discount and everything is negotiable, so as a pair in person we rented two bikes with helmets and bag transfer for a hefty sounding 1.200.000, which equates to around £20/$30 each. Considering the distance you'll need about 3 refuel stops which is only £2/$3 a time and then with food along the way, you're looking at a day's travel and adventure for less than £35/$50.

We also actually finished later than we were supposed to and the shop in Hue had closed, which was a great concern given that they supposedly had our luggage somewhere. The people hanging around the street could tell that the two sweaty sunburnt white guys were clearly dishevelled tourists waiting for MotorVina and made some calls for us. Eventually a young man told us to follow him to the warehouse where they stored the bikes and had our bags. Well, he waved his arm at us and said some things in Vietnamese with enough authority for us to follow him down some dark alleyways, but eventually all was made clear.

I am certain if this had happened in the UK or US we would be told to come back the next day to get our bags as it was our own fault for being late and that we'd have to pay for another day's bike rental. So I can highly recommend MotorVina as a rental service but I do suggest booking in person to get a better deal and build a rapport with the gentlemen you are entrusting to carry your belongings 140km.

Ride before committing to the day trip
 - I had never ridden before and we rented from a local for an afternoon in Hoi An before making the big journey, we visited the My Son UNESCO site which allowed for a fair amount of riding and a quick explore and we both felt confident to take the bikes up the pass the next day afterwards.

Water
 - This is a no-brainer, always always carry water when travelling anywhere and in Vietnam it is just so hot you will never have enough.

Layers
 - Be prepared for rain!

Allow yourself plenty of extra time
 - We stopped a lot to take pictures, set up GoPros and so on which meant that we not only arrived far later than expected we even had to cut out a stop, The Elephant Pools are a popular stop on the Hue side of the pass and we had heard from fellow riders that it was well worth a visit but we simply didn't have the time. 

 Carry a phrase book
 - For the whole of our travels I had a Vietnamese phrasebook from Lonely Planet, I am afraid I can't recommend it because any attempt at reading the Vietnamese words assisted by the books phonetic spelling resulted in laughter and confusion from anyone I tried to speak to. What it did become useful for was pointing at the words. As the book is filled with anything you could want to say this gave me peace of mind that I could get out of a situation or assistance should I need it.

Wear your Helmet
 - Again a no brainer, it might be hot and sweaty and very appealing to not wear it but it is just not worth the risk. 

Always wear sunscreen
 -  When travelling at speed the wind on your bare skin does cool you down, which means you really don't notice how burnt you are getting particularly with your arms outstretched in front of you for 5-7 hours straight. Bring the bottle, stop and reapply because you will sweat it off.