Moto Vietnam: Day 6 – And the circle is complete

Mang Truot Falls

Mang Truot Falls

The longest day riding, and overall one of the longest days of my stay in South Vietnam. We set off from Da Lat at 7:45am with the aim of getting to Ho Chi Minh City by early evening. The route is quite simple – you follow the “20” which leads you directly from the mountains down towards the former Saigon.

It’s a tremendously busy route, though, and used by all manner of vehicles not just bikes. There are a few sights to see on the way, many of them waterfalls.

We stopped at the Mang Truot falls which are just off the road not far outside of Da Lat. Thao opted to stay with the bike and have a quick snooze while I walked down to see the falls by myself. They’re rather pretty and have the bizarre addition of a go-kart/toboggan track leading to them similar to the ones I’d seen in Rotorua and Sentosa (Singapore).

More water

More water

A fair bit further down the road we eventually spotted the turnoff for another falls and took ninety or so minutes out of our day to see them also. They were a fair bit off the main road, but well worth it. As with most Vietnamese natural features, you can clamber all over the thing if the mood takes you. No silly guard rails. It’s a lovely place to stop with a lot of shade to chill out if you need it.

Our next stop was for food, just off the main road. We ordered while a table of men kept waving at us and eventually convinced us to join them. Despite having just finished our own food, they fed us some of their wild boar and then insisted I have a shot of rice wine with each of them for photographic purposes. As ever, it’s nice being the foreigner!

We managed to say our goodbyes after a while and got back onto the road. One long section was full of roadworks, puddles, mud and potholes. Progress was slow as we couldn’t get past the heavy trucks and a refreshment stop was definitely needed at the bottom.

From there, it was moderately plain sailing. Until we were pulled over by the police. I’d not done anything wrong, it was just a random stop and you do see them often enough in Vietnam.

New friends

Say cheese - now drink more rice wine

The police decide to target cars, trucks, bikes… whatever. We joined the pool of bikes and I removed my helmet and sunglasses… to see the police officer’s eyes widen as he realised he’d pulled over a foreigner.

This isn’t a bad thing, though I’ve heard of a few cases where bribery has had to result to ensure you were allowed on your way, and the chap was more put aback by the fact that he couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t understand him. Quickly, he grabbed someone else’s documents and showed them to me – he only wanted the registration document for the bike. Thao had this in her purse and he happily accepted that and waved us on our way with a smile.

As we reached the outskirts of HCM City, the rain started. And continued. And got heavier. Thao had packed one of those huge waterproofs that cover the rider and passenger and we quickly unwrapped it and draped it over ourselves. The rain was tanking down as we got into the city proper then eased off as we neared her house.

Once more, the best thing about the day was the hot shower and change of clothes. It was 6pm by the time we parked up. A very long day in the saddle indeed.

After the freshen up, Thao directed me along the roads and over the river by ferry to District 2. We wended through streets and past the “real” HCM City. No big buildings, but small houses and shacks where the non-bankers lived. Over one of the bridges we found a lovely place to stop for a bia hoi. Free peanuts were provided and a wandering woman sold us pork sausage from a basket. This, really and truly, was the life.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end. The bia hoi place closed its doors and we moto’d back to Thao’s place.

Thao, her sister and her mother all slept on one side of the room and I slept on a reed mat on the other. One of these days I’ll get used to that!

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A week by motorcycle around South Vietnam: Overview

another street in Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh
At one with the locals

I’m very late in typing this up and getting it posted but I’ve been really busy since getting back from Vietnam. This post is a brief overview of the trip I took with Thao. I’ll be adding more detailed posts for each day shortly and they’ll be linked from here.

The idea of this one is to let someone interested in following out route know road details, distances, times and the like. Note that we did this trip in August 2009 with good (hot) weather. The roads are changing a lot in Vietnam so don’t rely completely on Lonely Planet for your directions. Ask locals and get a new map.

A lot more hints and recommendations relating to motorcycle travel in Vietnam can be found in this accompanying post.

Sun 16th Aug

Set off from Ho Chi Minh City at around 11:30am. We had one stop for a flat tyre just outside the city limits and passed through Phan Thiet where we stopped for an hour or so. Just outside Mui Ne we went to take photos of the orange sand dune and got to accommodation around 5:30pm.

Mon 17th Aug

Left Mui Ne around 9:00am. Got to Phan Rang at 1:00pm then left again at 2:30pm after viewing the Cham structures. Arrived in Nha Trang at roughly 6:00pm including one internet stop of about an hour on the way.

Tue 18th Aug

Full day in Nha Trang

Wed 19th Aug

Left Nha Trang at 8:00am. 20km south of the city is a “new” road which is signposted for Da Lat. We followed this in a straight line for maybe 10-15km to a very small roundabout in a small-ish town where we turned left. This is the first sign for Da Lat after the one on the main road.

The first proper petrol station we passed, many kilometres later, wasn’t open yet though looked near completion. The next one we hit was around 70km from Nha Trang. We filled up there and had lunch just along the road before passing another station a kilometre or so further along.

The next fuel station is a long way off and the journey to it includes a lot of uphill driving. There are some little home-brew petrol pumps on the way as well, but I believe these are pretty pricey. On a small bike you must fill up at one of the main ones or you’ll realy run the risk of being stranded.

We arrived in Da Lat around 2:00pm

Thu 20th Aug

Full day in Da Lat

Fri 21st Aug

We left Da Lat at 7:45am and took the “20” direct to Ho Chi Minh City as it was the fastest route. It’s mainly downhill and gets very busy. There are plenty of waterfalls to see off the route, but the signposting for them varies from “can’t miss it” to “virtually non-existant”.

Including one lunch and one internet stop, we made it to HCM City around 6:00pm.

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Moto Vietnam: Day 1 – HCM to Mui Ne

Puncture number 1

Puncture number 1

We set off at around 11:30 after going to Thao’s to repack our things into small bags. Thao had had a friend check out her motorbike and he deemed it satisfactory for our journey – no need to rent others so a huge money-saver!

Aiming for the 1A main road, we zoomed east for about an hour until the bike started to wobble. Badly. The back tyre had punctured. A great start! Fortunately, we were a stones-throw from a repair shop, and even closer to a guy who was sat under a tree with some spare parts. He sorted everything out for us, including getting is a new inner tube and charged us around 65,000d (about £2) for the privilege. At least breaking down isn’t expensive here.

Two on a bike

Two on a bike

After a lot of driving and swapping roles (front seat is far nicer on your bum than the back), we got to Phan Thiet at 3pm where we visited s small temple that houses a complete whale skeleton – apparently the largest on display in Vietnam. They also have the largest publicly viewable collection of whale bones in the country, a fact attested to by a trophy and certificate from the Vietnam Book of Records!

Despite the bonkers signposting (or lack of it), we reached the outskirts of Mui Ne about an hour later. We ignored the junction to head along the lovely new (and very empty) bypass and check out the orange sand dunes for which the area is famous. The skies were just starting to darken which allowed a wonderful contrast between the deep orange sand and the deepening blue sky.

Whale-y big!

Whale-y big!

We doubled back and checked out some guest houses before settling on a nice one run by a lovely little old lady who was fascinated by my passport. I think she generally only hosts Vietnamese holidaymakers and had never seen a Vietnamese tourist visa before!

Dinner was at the Wax Bar further along the road where a young girl stood taking sneaky photos of me. I talked to her very briefly and found out she was from Belgium, but she didn’t speak French or very much English. Instead she showed me all the photos she’d taken. Cute kid.

Mui Ne orange dunes

Mui Ne orange dunes

Her (I think) cousin appeared and we sat talking to her and her boyfriend for a while. We had a great chat and a lousy game of pool. Seriously I don’t think I’ve ever played to bad in my life!

The guest house had a TV in the room so I got to watch a fair bit of the Liverpool v Spurs game before I slept. Very soundly. Sitting on a bike all day is a lot more strenuous than you may think.

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After the engagement

How to relax in Ho Chi Minh City

How to relax in Ho Chi Minh City

In the afternoon, we headed back to our resective homes (Thao her place, myself to the hotel) to get changed into something more comfortable. Well, for me that was just another shirt as I was all out of trousers havign ripped the crotch of one pair wide open getting onto her bike the night before.

As such, our first stop of the afternoon was a supermarket where I picked up two pairs of rather decent shorts (XL size, naturally) for a little over £3 each. Bargain.

Now I wrote in an earlier blog post that crossing the road in Vietnam is like dropping a pebble into a bowl full of fish. The fish simply part and swim round you as you continue on your way. Today I was one of the fish.

We drove north east out of the city centre towards the Binh Quoi Tourist Village. This is mainly for “local” tourists rather than foreigners but it’s a beautiful spot to spend an afternoon. The most common usage locally is for wedding photographs and we saw many couples being dragged around by teams of people and bent into shape as they had their pictures taken.

Wedding Photo Central

Wedding Photo Central

The whole place is pretty artificial, with “old” walls in the middle of fields, bridges, waterwheels, unused fishing nets and the like. It’s still tranquil and beautiful and is a great place to go for dinner. There’s a 100,000d eat-all-you-can buffet from around 5pm with a huge variety of dishes from all over Vietnam available to try. Be aware, though, that very little English is spoken and you’ll be taking pot luck with a lot of the food!

Thao realised that she had a class that evening which she’s forgotten about, so we bolted the food and hopped back on the bike. Somehow I managed to get her to college just on time without killing us both despite the amazingly busy traffic in the city centre. She told me to go out and see the area while she was in class. Using her bike. On my own.

I wussed and sat and read a book for a bit until she came out during a break and chastised me. I mounted up and wobbled into the traffic.

Obviously things went OK or I’d not be typing this up now. In fairness, the locals treated me like some kind of backwards cousin who didn’t know what the hell he ws doing and I’m sure they gave me more leeway as a result. For this I am grateful as it allowed me to ease into the whole experience of being on my lonesome in a very confusing city.

I'll have a leg, please

I'll have a leg, please

I managed to find a garage and filled up, and a corner store round near the backpacker area to grab some munchies. Then I returned to the college where Thao was later coming out – but I sat at a cafe opposite and watched the footie with the staff instead. As ever, being sat in a generally non-touristy area, I had someone approach me and chat about the football for a while.

Eventually Thao appeared and I drove us to the hotel where she regained control of her motorbike and headed home. The fast, free wi-fi in my room meant I got to watch us crush Reading 3-0 on a dodgy streaming site. A good end to a good day.

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This ain’t no wedding!

Spot the odd one out

Spot the odd one out

My first morning after arriving in Vietnam was to be spent at the wedding of a friend of Thao, my kind guide. Only I discovered the night before that it wasn’t a wedding at all but an engagement ceremony / party. It seems here that more emphasis is put on the engagement than on the wedding which follows. In a way, this does make sense. After all, the engagement is where the initial promises are made – getting married is only a confirmation of those promises.

Either way, it was wonderful to have the invitation and I dressed as well as I could for the occasion. Which was not very well, I admit. My only long trousers (which needed to go in the laundry but seeing as I ripped the crotch out of my only other pair the night before, this hadn’t been possible) and my ProDive Bali polo shirt, as it’s the only thing I have with a collar on. Not exactly classy, but thankfully nobody seemed to mind.

We come bearing gifts...

We come bearing gifts...

Thao looked far better in a traditional white ao dai. I don’t think I quite have the figure for one, but it would still have looked better on me than the clothes I picked.

It took us an hour to get there with me driving and Thao guiding. Or trying to. We managed to get completely befuddled by a one-way system, something that Thao says has never happened to her before. Fortunately, one of her friends met us at a petrol station and was very easy to follow in the crowded traffic, being that she was wearing a striking pink outfit.

I was made to feel very welcome by everyone when we got there, and was the only obvious westerner. I did talk to one chap from the US and a young boy from Canada both of whom were obviously of Vietnamese heritage. I was pleasantly surprised by how many people spoke English of varying levels and was more than happy to sit and chat with as many as possible.

Thao in ao dai

Thao in ao dai

Soon enough, though, the “bride” arrived and the ceremony began. It was very simple and I couldn’t follow a lot but what I did see and picked up from Thao follows.

A selection of large round boxes are handed to the bride’s side of the family by the groom’s – men pass them to women, one of whom was Thao. These are filled with small gifts such as fruits and placed in a table.

In front of this table, the fathers of the bride and groom introduce their families to each other – it all seemed very informal and there was a lot of laughing. Half of the contents of the boxes are taken by the bride’s family and half left alone.

And the ring goes on

And the ring goes on

The bride and groom then take centre stage and the engagement ring is slipped onto the bride’s finger – formalising the engagement. Much applause and smiles all around! The bride then takes some tea and offers it cup by cup to all the members of the families.

After this, they all disappeared upstairs. Virtually all Vietnamese households have a shrine to their ancestors and this house was no different. I didn’t see this part, but a ceremony took place whereby the engagement is “shown” to these ancestors so that they can approve of their descendents’ actions.

Then we ate.


And I thank the families for their generosity! The food was excellent and the conversation both enlightening and enjoyable. I only had about a pint of beer, but Thao decided I was “drunk” so she drove me back to the hotel.

Before this, though, one more part if the ceremony had to be observed. The half-empty boxes brought in at the start were officially handed back by the bride’s side to the groom’s. The bride and groom also very kindly let me have a snap with them.

Again, thank you so much, people. Hopefully everything here is correct – by all means if I’ve cocked up any details, do let me know and I’ll update it.

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