On our last day in Hanoi I did the one thing that I’d promised my poor mother that I wouldn’t do.
Helmets and ponchos at the ready, Tom and I jumped on the 100cc Honda Winn that we’d bought (that’s right, not rented, bought) and began our journey down Vietnam.
Let’s just pause there a sec to talk about the crazy Vietnamese traffic. In Vietnam everyone, the world, his wife, the in-laws and the family dog has their own scooter. Sometimes two. And it feels like they’re all on the same roads all at the same time. There are no rules. You’re supposed to drive on the right-hand side but most of the time people just go wherever the hell they like, usually with a cage of chickens and four crates of beer balanced on the back of their bike. As a pedestrian, I’m pretty sure it’s safer just to close your eyes and cross the road, rather than actively try to avoid the unrelenting stream of motors.
With this in mind, you can kind of understand why my lovely mum didn’t want me jumping on the back of a bike. And to be honest, I’m not entirely sure why I thought it was a good idea. I’m not usually the reckless type. It had been a dream of Tom’s to do a Vietnam motorbike trip ever since he watched that episode of Top Gear, but this was far from just his idea. I was all for it.
Our life was made ten times easier (and safer) by the hostel we’d stayed in in Hanoi. Not only did they put our massive backpacks on a bus for us, they even arranged with another hostel in Saigon to keep them stored safely until we arrived. Which meant that we had two small rucksacks, a second-hand bike and about 10 days to make it down to Ho Chi Minh City.
I have to say this. Riding on the back of a motorbike is NOT glamorous. In the slightest. Now, don’t get me wrong, I hardly thought it’d be like getting a limousine or my own private jet. But truthfully, most of my time on the bike was spent thinking of my poor bottom, getting number every second. Most of my time off the bike was spent attempting to tame my hair, which somehow managed to turn into a bird’s nest within 5 seconds of riding. And I’m not talking “fancy messy bun” bird’s nest. I mean hairbrushes get stuck and combs just snap trying to get through it kind of bird’s nest. Oh, and you generally just feel dirty from all the smog and the road dirt that gets spattered at you.
So, Mum, you have no need to worry, I am far from converted.
Still, although I couldn’t keep up any pretence of neat, chic glamour, it was fun. It was refreshing not to be restricted by departure points or check in times, not to mention a huge relief not to be lugging 20kg on our backs every step of the way. Being able to grab the bike and go wherever, whenever was a very liberating feeling.
The first day’s ride was the longest. We went all the way from Hanoi to Vinh, which was almost 300km and a good 10 hours ride away. We stopped a few times to stretch our legs, each time in a village smaller than the last. Every now and then we’d be met by groups of Vietnamese kids. They would huddle around giggling until the most confident stepped forward to say hello and ask us our names. We were like aliens in these tiny towns.
There wasn’t much to see in Vinh. We mostly stopped there because it was getting dark and we couldn’t ride any longer. We wanted to make a good headway so that later we’d be able to spend a little bit more time in other places. Our time limit was quite restrictive. Other people I know have done the same journey in a couple of weeks, even up to a few months depending on how long they stayed in each place. Tom and I didn’t mind. We’re both overly competitive and it felt a bit like a challenge.
The first place that we stopped properly was a small fishing town called Dong Hoi. It was so small, quaint and pretty that we stayed for the night, even though the original plan had been to drive for a couple more hours. There was a great restaurant there called the Tree Hugger Café which sold amazing vegetarian food. We booked into the hostel next door whilst we were waiting for our dinner to arrive. It all felt just too easy.
The next day was another long ride, but after a couple of stops in middle-of-nowhere villages (mostly to hide from the rain!) we arrived in Hue. Hue was a recommendation from pretty much everyone that we’d spoken to about Vietnam. It’s easy to see why. Crumbling citadel walls surround what remains of the Imperial Palaces. The Perfume river winds its way through the city, marked with the tombs of Imperial Emperors. There’s no end of history and there’s also loads of shops, restaurants, bars and markets.
We spent three, very relaxed, days in Hue. It was nice to have some time off the bike! It also allowed me to get some semblance of a routine back. There was an awesome gym just around the corner from our hotel, so I started my mornings with a quick workout, before alternating between sightseeing, market shopping and eating our bodyweight of Pho.
By the end of day three we’d almost forgotten what motorbike-induced leg cramp felt like. Obviously this was our cue to get back on the road. We set off from Hue at 4pm, due to arrive at our next destination, Hoi An, by 7pm. 7.30 at the latest, according to google maps.
That’s until we found out that motorbikes can’t take the fast route, and we’d have to go through the mountain pass instead.
But I’ll hold it there for now. That’s a story for a different time.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve done whilst travelling? I’d love to read your experiences in the comments!