This year was our 30th wedding anniversary and we decided to celebrate with a 40-day tour of Vietnam on motorbikes.
That destination was planted in my mind by a series of Youtube videos posted by a friend of my daughter who went south-to-north on a very used motorbike, which he bought in Ho Chi Minh city and then resold to other travellers in Hanoi. We decided on a north-to-south route as the flights were cheaper that way, for mid-march 2019, and it was a perfect time weather-wise. We also decided on 40 days because the excellent site www.vietnamcoracle.com advises its readers that a decent length of time to see the country is 20 days. We simply decided to double that.
I left the planning at that, then Fabienne took over and changed everything. Doing careful research, she realized that long stretches of the country would be rather uninteresting and she suggested that we instead pick scenic loops and travel between these loops by bus or train. One can load the small motorbikes and take them along. But we quickly realized that, with very used motorbikes, we would be spending every second day in mechanics’ shops. We then decided that we would rent nearly new 110 cc Honda Blades at the start of each of our loops.
We landed in Hanoi at night and took a city bus to our homestay. The culture shock, with respect to the driving rules, was immediate. Small motorbikes were whizzing around our bus like schools of fishes around a shark. Motorbike culture is ingrained in that country. Sidewalks have built-in ramps at regular intervals, to allow you to get on the sidewalk to park. Every street corner has a guard who, against a few Vietamese bills, will look after your bike. Lane splitting is mandatory and general rules of the road are optional. Motorbikes are often the only means of transport for families, businesses, delivery services, etc.
After a two-nights’ cruise in Halong Bay, we came back to Hanoi and took a sleeper bus to the small northern town on Ha Giang to undertake the famous Ha Giang loop. That road took us through scenic mountain roads and endless hairpins, with vistas that would bring tears to the eyes. You ride on cliff-edges, with a view of the villages down below, the farm terraces, the snaking road in the distance that you are going to or coming from, the steeply sloped, green-covered mountains.
We then returned to Hanoi and took a bus ride to Ninh Binh. That region is famous for beautiful scenery, thanks to the jagged limestone mountains covered in green that dot the landscape. In Nim Binh, we rented 125 cc scooters and toured the region, wandering between temples and natural wonders.
We then took a scary night bus ride from Ninh Binh to Phong Nha National Park, where we stayed two days to visit its famous caves. There, we rented motorbikes in our homestay. The road and the scenery around the caves and in the countryside were absolutely stunning. Still traumatized by our last bus ride, we took the train instead to the beautiful seaside city of Da Nang. We rented motorbikes for nine days and went on a loop that took us from the Marble Mountain to the beautiful (and touristy) city of Hoi An. That city is traversed by a channel that is lit at night with hundreds of lanterns.
The loop then took us on deserted (except for water buffaloes) jungle roads to Prao, where we got onto the mythic Ho Chi Minh road to Khe Sanh. After a little detour to see the Vinh Moc tunnels and enjoy the Cua Tung Beach, we took the small roads along the coast to reach my favourite city of the whole trip, Hue. At the heart of the city one finds an imperial palace called the Citadelle. At night, families gather inside the walls, an area reserved for pedestrians only, and we enjoyed watching small children driving miniature electric cars. On returning to Da Nang, we rode the Hai Van pass made famous by Top Gears’ Jeremy Clarkson who had his “epiphany” there on discovering what he claimed was the best motorbike road in the world. We thought that many Vietnamese roads were as great, if not better.
Next we flew from Da Nang to Nha Trang, where we rented bikes for a one-way trip to the mountain city of Da Lat. The road started flat and straight but, soon enough, we were climbing up from the sea level Nha Trang to the 1,500 metre altitude of Da Lat. On approaching Da Lat, we rode past an atomic research centre and endless fields of greenhouses. In that respect, Vietnam is incredibly diverse, with farmers using water buffaloes on one side of the highway and large high-tech companies on the other side. From Da Lat, we took a bus ride to Cat Tien, site of a nature reserve, then Ho Chi Minh city and the Mekong Delta. We then left for the southernmost island of Phu Quoc, which we toured on scooters. A vacation spot for foreigners as well as for Vietnamese tourists, the island is surrounded by pristine beaches and boasts the longest cable car in the world, at eight kilometres, linking the main island to an archipelago at the end of which developers are building a tourist complex, complete with theme park and water slides.
All and all we must have ridden 2,500 kilometres in the country and we were amazed daily by the kindness of the people that we met. And the food and coffees were delicious. On our return, our main thought was when can we go back. We already have another route planned.