Road Warriors

I hooked up with another backpacker, Chris, not long after I arrived. He’s currently trying to offload a Minsk motorcycle that he’s been using for the last month or so. In the meantime, he’d planned a day trip out up the Red River Valley.

Seemed like a nice idea, so I hopped out and rented a moto for $8. Nothing anywhere near as rugged as the Communist tank ridden by Chris, but it had two wheels and didn’t stall so it was fine by me. I rented from Voyage Vietnam on Luong Ngoc Quyen, not far from Bia Hoi Corner. I’m happy to recommend them – lovely people.

The original aim was to try to get to a lake around 200km out of town. However, getting out of Hanoi is not very easy, even if you have a map.

Between the one way system, helpful locals who pointed us at the wrong highway and our utter lack of a sense of direction we finally passed the city limits after over 90 minutes. We didn’t manage this by any kind of navigational means, more by circling enough times that we achieved escape velocity.

Instead of heading north west, we found ourselves going more directly north towards Noi Bai airport. Not a huge problem until at one point I realised we were the only motorcycles on the road, surrounded by trucks, cars and buses. It seems the large bridge on the way up is for non-bikes only. Which would explain why the police were waving frantically at us to pull over before we got onto it. Oops.

We swung a left at the first roundabout onto what was clearly marked as a highway on the map. Thing is, “highway” in Vietnam basically means “the main road from A to B”. The quality of that road is indeterminate until you’re on it.

In this case, blacktop gave way to dust and potholes very quickly. Chris’ Minsk had far fewer problems than my little around-towner.

However, we really didn’t know where we were. As Chris put it, “I think we’re having a Top Gear moment”.

Navigating by the sun (that is, guessing) we headed north west, finally passing a couple of towns marked on the road atlas Chris had stored in the ammo boxes he used as paniers.

The roads varied a lot from nice tarmacced ones to potholed dirt tracks. The thing is, they can change very suddenly. Whereas Chris’ Minsk had no porblems dealing with this (except his seat falling off at one point), my little bike needed a bit more care an attention, so I was a fair bit slower that him.

In many areas, the roads were covered in grass as the locals used it to make hay. At least it would give a soft landing if we fell off (we didn’t).

Realising time was a little short, we crossed to a different road and worked our way back south east again. After a petrol stop, we pulled in for a couple of beers at a small shop. Very quickly we had a small fan club – a grandfather (70, but looked 50) with his little grandson, another old chap and a few other members of the family.

The grandad took a great interest in Chris’s Minsk, first circling it for a good couple of minutes before squatting and staring at the motor. I guess he used to have one or perhaps rode one in the war.

We were made most welcome, and had a great time taking photos of each other and trying to converse. This is what makes little day trips out in Vietnam so enjoyable. The scenery and so on are lovely, but the people make it.

Hanoi was in rush hour mode by the time we got back, so it took a lot longer to return to the hostel than intended. Still, despite losing track of each other we managed to both find the place again even if it was an hour after the bike shop had closed. I returned the bike the next day and they only charged me $3 as they’d stayed open an hour late waiting for me. I’ve no problem with that and would recommend them.

My forearms are sunburned, but it was worth it. As Chris said on the way back – “Great day out.”

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Motorcycling around Vietnam

Sunny biking in Vietnam

Sunny biking in Vietnam

All of these hints are from personal experience of a recent (August 2009) round trip from Ho Chi Minh City through Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Da Lat and back again. We used one bike between two of us, a small-ish automatic, and covered around 1100km in six days.

  • Don’t take too much luggage. It increases fuel consumption and reduces manoeuvrability. Just because your average Vietnamese can somehow carry three family members, a dog, a month’s groceries and a shop display (complete with stock) on the back of their bike does not mean you can.
  • Along the main highways there are loads of fuel stops so you shouldn’t have a problem filling up as and when you need to. Sod’s Law dictates that if there’s a median then the next five stations will all be on the left, however, so you can’t get to them. Plan ahead on your fuel use and figure out how far you can travel between refills. Our little beast did a shade over 100km on a tank. And watch out for the newer roads, such as the one from Nha Trang to Dalat where there hasn’t been time for many fuel stations to be planted and grown as yet.
  • Fuel prices are set by the government so you should pay the same price everywhere. However, if you’re off the beaten track you may find a higher price even at the “proper” fuel stations. The little one-man manually-operated pumps you find on country roads are noticeably more expensive. Also, it’s worth checking the pump to ensure the price quoted is the price charged.
  • Watch the roads carefully, not just the traffic. Generally, they’re pretty good but you can suddenly hit a potholed area. Trust me when I say that you can’t bunny hop a motorcycle the way you used to be able to do with your old Raleigh pushbike if you haven’t got time to swerve round the worst holes. Hitting one at speed will hurt and could throw you off the bike. This will probably ruin your day if not your whole trip.
  • If you’re travelling alone, carry a spare inner tube, repair kit and pump. On the main roads there is usually a tyre repair place every couple of miles (or less), and when you’re away from the cities the locals you may meet are every helpful. However they can only be helpful if they’re actually there to be helpful and you may not see many passers-by on the more remote stretches.
  • Learn the “rules” before hitting the highway. Get a feel for the bike and the locals’ driving habits by heading somewhere quiet and safe first. It’s not as scary as it first seems when you arrive in Hanoi or HCM, but you do need to drive well and with confidence.
  • Get a decent map. The road signs are not too helpful and very few, if any, have lights on for night-time navigation. They will often only point to the next town along the road, or to the one at the end of the stretch, not detailing the two or three you pass through to get there. Unless you know the other towns along the road, you can be sat at a junction not knowing where to go.
  • Plan for and take breaks. Unless you have a very comfy Easy Rider or a backside padded significantly more than my skinny effort, you will quickly find out what “saddle sore” means. I found being a passenger was far harder on the bum than being up front.
  • Eye protection is more important than you may think. Large sunglasses are passable, but a liability at night and dust still flies about after dusk. A pair of goggles will cost you next to nothing and it’s easy to find a shop selling them (and helmets if the one you’ve got is rubbish).
  • Think those Vietnamese people look a little silly with their faces all wrapped up in surgical masks and hats? Wait until you’ve driven behind a lorry spewing diesel fumes, dust and mucky water for 3km before you can overtake it. One look at the cloth you use to wipe your face with afterwards gives you an idea of the muck the road can kick up – and you’re breathing that in. There’s a whole hardware store worth of pots calling an entire kettle manufacturing plant black here, as I didn’t use one, but I would next time.
  • Weather can be changeable. Carry some kind of waterproof clothing in case the heavens open, because when they do they usually don’t mess about.
  • Check your choke. It’s very easy to nudge the thing when you’re lugging bags on and off the bike and it can play havoc with performance and fuel use. We thought we had a major problem for over a day until I spotted we’d knocked the choke half on and were partially flooding the engine. D’oh.
  • Unless you want to turn a lovely bright red colour, slap on long sleeves or a decent amount of sun tan lotion. This stuff is still hard to find and expensive in Vietnam so pack it before you leave, or pick some up in Thailand.Don’t forget your face otherwise you’ll end up looking like a very irate panda courtesy of the sunglasses or goggles. Trust me when I say you will burn very quickly as you won’t feel the damage being done due to the wind.
  • Drive within your limits. Don’t think that just because one person went past you at 80km/h that you have to do the same speed. There’s every chance he knows every pothole on the road and has been driving a bike through insane traffic since he was 12. You don’t and you haven’t.
  • Be polite if you’re stopped by the police. It’s very unlikely they’ll have flagged you over because you’re foreign. In fact, in my experience, you’re far more likely to be treated leniently as a foreigner. Make sure you have the vehicle registration document – it should be supplied with a rental bike. Having your passport or a copy is also useful, but I wasn’t asked for mine. As far as I’m aware, the only driving license they care about is a Vietnamese one, and it’s unlikely you’ll have that as a foreigner so they won’t ask. However, obtaining a license is very cheap and very simple if you want to freak them out by handing them one. Should any questions arise – is your best legal advisor.
  • Have fun. Stop and take pictures once in a while. Enjoy the looks from the locals as you pass by them on country roads. Gawp at the scenery. Chat to the people. Blog about it afterwards. Just take care and revel in the sense of freedom of making your own way through one of the most amazing countries on earth.

As ever, any further hints will be more than welcome. Please just add them to the comments below.

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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 2 – Mui Ne to Nha Trang

Cute pedestrians

Cute pedestrians

We got up at 8am and the first thing we did after checking out was to hit the shops. I needed sun lotion, mainly as my face resembled that of a red superhero wearing a white Zorro mask. Not flattering, but at least I knew my sunglasses were working.

Our route took us back onto the road running past the orange sand dune and on towards greener land. The lush green plant life contrasted strongly with the orange sand it seemed to be growing out of.

The rest stop was to be Trap Cham, about four hours up the road. Just outside the town is the Po Klong Garai, a collection of three Cham buildings up on a hill. The cost of visiting these has recently risen to 10,000d – double that listed in the current Lonely Planet. One of the buildings is currently used and we had to ask someone to unlock it so we could see inside.



The heat was incredible so we had a quick siesta before remounting the bike and starting the last leg towards Nha Trang about 100km away. On the way we stopped for an hour for an email check at a very swish cybercafe. Big comfy armchairs, LCD screens, working keyboards, aircon and only 4500d per hour. Well cheap.

We’d traveled maybe 20km north of our pit stop when – would you believe it – the back tyre went flat again. Fortunately we’d once again come a cropper right by somewhere we could have it fixed. This time the fault was diagnosed as being the inside of the tyre itself. Some wear on it was rubbing on the inner tube and creating a hole in it. Solution: new tyre. Cost: 250,000d. Ah, well.

Cham tower

Cham tower

While we were waiting, I was invited to sit with about a dozen men who were sat – topless – eating and supping on rice wine. As usual, I was offered a shot glass full of wine. As usual, I necked it in one – to a cheer and cries of “very good!” Conversation was limited due to my complete lack of Vietnamese, but it was – as ever – humbling to experience such a welcome and generosity.

Thankfully that was our last stop until we reached Nha Trang. We picked a guest house a little way from the tourist bustle and settled in. which is where I wrote the draft for this post. Next stop would be somewhere selling food. After a long day biking I was starving!

We went to the Texas Steak place down the road (26a Tran Quang Khai St – no web page!). A bit pricey at first glance, but great quality and generous portions. The owner is a genuine American who’s been in Vietnam for 2½ years. Nice guy.

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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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