Starting in Hanoi we spent a couple of days monitoring Craigslist – similar to gumtree and the main hub which travellers use to buy and sell motorbikes in Vietnam – and traipsing around dealers in search of the noble steed which would carry both of us (we ain’t small) and 25kg of luggage 2,500km to Ho Chi Minh. If you fancy making this journey – which you definitely should because it’s awesome!! – I would recommend doing a good chunk of research before you go in search of your bike. Although I know little to nothing about bikes, luckily I had Johnny who knows a damn sight more than me! Ideally, you are looking for a Honda Win 100 which you won’t have a problem finding..however preferably you want to look for a Sufat. Sufat’s are generally much more reliable than the Hondas made in China and although it may be a bigger investment at the time, it really is worth it. Our bike travelled all the way to Ho Chi Minh with no major issues, the only repairs we had done were simple maintenance. I would recommend buying the bike off of a fellow backpacker if you can – there will be less bullshit involved in the buying process as the Vietnamese can be pretty sneaky. If you take care of your bike on the way you will be able to make your money back or even make a profit!
Thanks to a few travellers’ advice, we headed inland and travelled down close to the Laos border until we got to Khe San where we crossed over to the coastal road at Hue. Highway 1 is definitely the quickest route from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh but I would advise staying off of it as much as possible – it is a mass free for all with lorries overtaking buses overtaking cars with you pushed into the side. It is super dangerous and also not the most exciting road to drive so avoid when you can.
Week 1 – Chasing The Sunshine
From Hanoi we travelled south west to Mai Chau and from there we travelled south inland over the most beautiful roads. Keen to make steady progress south and chase that sunshine – which had evaded us since our arrival in Vietnam – our first week saw us riding 200-300km each day (8-10 hours on a bike). Throughout this first week of riding, every night we collapsed at the first guesthouse we could find, shivering despite wearing 7 items of clothing, falling onto the beds which, at best, were marginally softer than you would imagine sleeping on a pool table to be. Every night we got better at communicating through hand gestures and repeating the word for rice in Vietnamese to gain some semblance of a meal. Every night we surrendered to the under side of our eyelids, giving way to a deep sleep in an attempt to rest our bodies from the days riding whilst simultaneously preparing our aching bums for the next days ahead.
– pretty unimpressed with the lack of sunshine
Life on the Road
Life on the road passed in a flurry – one of laughter as we drove through magnificent mountainous villages whilst children sprinted alongside the bike, waving their arms frantically, screaming ‘HELLO’ whilst delight sparkled in their eyes. This delight was reflected in my own eyes as I smiled back at them, my heart swelling with warmth at their welcoming nature.
This laughter continued into moments of exhaustion as our bike chugged through the mountainous roads, 300km already behind us, and 100km since we had seen another soul, with darkness quickly consuming us as the sunlight faded over our shoulders. Laughter came to us then, as we danced with the shadows on the road, attempting to stretch the numbness and the cold out of our limbs.
Laughter came with our lunch stops – ‘cafes’ constructed out of someone’s house, consisting of a few plastic tables and chairs (all child sized of course). Bemused looks creeping onto the Vietnameses’ faces as we attempted to act out rice and vegetables, repeating our, probably, awfully pronounced Vietnamese – hopelessly attempting to communicate in the narrow overlap of our minimal Vietnamese and their little English. The lines on our faces slightly creased in disappointment as we were served beef noodle soup, but quickly sharing a knowing look, our smiles returned as we picked our way through the steaming noodles.
The bike gave us the opportunity to experience the stark contrast of Vietnam as a country. From the bustling streets and manic roads of the cities – where ‘rules of the road’, as we have in Britain, simply don’t exist – to the serene mountainous paths, where we travelled hundreds of kilometres deep amongst the forest, with the promises of creatures behind the rustling trees as our only companion.
The cities are cluttered with rickety stalls selling banh mi and noodles with Vietnamese ladies, whose wrinkles are intensified by the scorching sun, wearing brightly patterned clothing – the material of pyjamas. They lounge behind their stalls, taking comfort in the shadows whilst shouts and corse, harsh laughter forces it’s way from their mouths aimed at their companions across the street. Dark, thick clouds of smoke pollute the, already too thick, air – pumped out of vehicles ever performing a deathly dance with one another.
As darkness approaches; Vietnamese women are found forcing flyers into your hand, persistently throwing the word ‘massage’ at any foreigner who passes, men who earlier in the day sought you out – like a mammal to its prey – insisting you need a motorbike for wherever you may be headed, now sleep soundly with their limbs piled on top of each other on their bikes, miraculously never falling off! Others, plagued by their disabilities, drag their dysfunctional limbs across the filthy streets, coating their clothes in food waste, urine and litter from the day, desperate madness painted across their face, holding lottery tickets for sale in the air. The wafts of sewer stench drift along the streets and are inhaled into your nostrils, making you gasp for fresh air and momentarily pause with your words – in time we grew accustomed to these stinks, but still they never quite passed without our knowledge. The cities of Vietnam are a wild combination of travellers sipping beers and laughing at their companion’s comments, to dirty narrow lanes where women sit on childlike plastic stools gossiping to their neighbours whilst intermittently shouting to travellers what the downstairs of their house may have on offer – be it an assortment of snacks and drinks, a hairdressers, or a guesthouse. In these dark lanes we witnessed a small child locked behind bars at ground level, madness creeping into his innocent eyes, whilst ravenously chewing on a plastic bag – the cause of this, we determined, was the horrific lasting effects of Agent Orange, a result of chemical warfare, used in the Vietnamese war.
Rather than limiting ourselves to a few well known and already discovered places, we were free to stop and start as we pleased, exploring villages and towns where it was clear by the intrigue coupled with confusion on the locals’ faces that travellers were not a regular addition to their quiet village life.
Steep inclines give way to sharp bends where you are faced with cliff edges boasting startling views of the sea for miles. The quaint countryside villages are connected, often 50km from one another, by dirt paths laden with boulders scattered across the road and stray goats, cows or dogs wandering obliviously into your path.
Villages only exist of a few houses – predominantly made of bamboo or wood – each overflowing with family members and kids. Some are surrounded on either side by deep forests, some by fields spanning as far as the eye can see, and some by rivers which widen and narrow as the murky water meanders through the valley. By daylight, women bend over in rice fields – their faces hidden from the sun behind tepee shaped hats – tending to their crops, whilst others lay in hammocks swinging the day away by sipping on ice tea in the shade. Children, momentarily excited by irregular visitors, go back to aiming stones at a tree trunk – whoever’s stone lands closest is the winner. Although unfaltering stares analyse every inch of you, their fascination with you as a foreigner rarely stretches to a fascination with your money. In the rural areas of Vietnam, you must search the deserted streets for an evening meal, constantly hoping the next light you can see in the distance is an eatery of some form. The simple life which they lead – detached from the manic city life – holds so much charm to me. Many of their tensed faces, at first cautious of our arrival, ease as we smile in their direction. Suddenly they grin back at us, ushering us into their homes, gibbering away in fast pace Vietnamese. As my mum says… ‘Smile and the world smiles back.’ – turns out that one is universal!
Our journey down Vietnam – 2,500km in 3 weeks – has been one of beauty, amazement, sheer adventure and sore bums! So…buy a bike, ride the length of Vietnam, live the dream – it’s worth every second of having a sore bum!
Do not ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. – Howard Thurman
Be weird. Be wonderful.