The Tour – November 2017
Hanoi – Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba – Tam Cuc – Cua Lo (Vinh) – Phong Nha-Ke Bang – Hue – Da Nang – An Bang Beach – Hoi An (Typhoon Damrey!!) – Qui Nhon – Nha Trang – Da Lat – Cat Tien – Vung Tau – HCMC
Here’s me just riding around. Soaking in sights and sounds on my first day…
Inspired by Top Gear – OK, Hai Van Pas is just north of Da Nang in the mid part of Vietnam and easy to include in your ride. Right, now that that is settled, we can look at what else to plan for.
There are a number of blogs, guides and different articles on riding a motorcycle in Vietnam. I am sure you have seen many and I also did read several before my trip. As a result, I was completely baffled about what to believe. Some advice seemed sound, while some just bragging and would be simply irresponsible. The comments below are based on my own experience and I hope you find them useful.
This one decision will set the tone for the rest of your ride.
While it is possible to buy a used motorbike with relative ease, think twice before you buy and do not believe all you hear or read. The cheap bikes 200 – 350 USD are usually Chinese made (even if it is a Honda) and you have no idea what you are actually buying or how the bikes have been stitched together. It does not really help that you most likely are somewhat pressed with time and want to get started with your ride.
It is possible that you get a decent deal but as you browse some of the accounts, you can read between the lines that there has usually been some issues with the bike.
Again, there are mechanics around but how long do you want to spend at the garage and how far are you willing to push the bike (with your luggage) if it happens to stall in a wrong place. I certainly have never had a problem with my bike in the RIGHT place! Plus every visit to the garage adds costs. Some blogs even mention that you should be prepared for repairs costing about the same as you paid for the bike. If you do not speak Vietnamese – good luck negotiating!
When riding through the length of Vietnam, you get all kinds of weather. From extreme heat to cold and wet conditions. I rode through a monsoon rain and flooded roads. Chinese bike’s electronics might not have survived the ride.
These crappy bikes can be fun outside the bar after a few beers when there are loads of bar-goers trying to kick-start it for you. But the laugh may be short lived if the bike stalls in the rain in the middle of nowhere. On the positive side, you will have a good story to tell.
In order to avoid mechanical issues with the bike as far as possible, go for a Japanese made bike from a reputable source. Check the websites and contact the rental company to learn about the company. They usually provide a wealth of advise on touring in Vietnam. You can also request more information using email to see how they respond.
The rental process is slightly different in Vietnam. Technically you buy the bike and you get the documents as well – note the yellow card! You make a contract with the company to look after the bike and to return it when agreed. A refundable deposit is left with the rental company.
There are some further requirements for you, such as oil change at required intervals at the official service garage. These are for your benefit as well and the purpose for using the official service is also to avoid mechanics stealing parts from your Japanese bike and replacing them with Chinese parts! You do not want that to happen!
I took my Honda Winner from Tigit Motorbikes and can recommend Tigit. Unfortunately they do not pay me for the endorsement, nor have I stupidly even asked!
My bike was relatively new and was in overall good nick. Service at the Hanoi shop was good and we agreed that I would return the bike in Ho Chi Minh City.
I even took a free helmet on loan. If you choose to buy a helmet in Vietnam, you can leave it behind for the next rider when you return the bike.
No point in bringing a Vietnamese helmet home with you. Unless you want a souvenir.
Cost for the rental? – My Honda Winner was 350 USD for 35 days. Cost of oil change after each 1000km is single digits USD. A reliable bike is not a cost issue!
I was riding solo for a large part of my trip. Obviously there are pros and cons in riding solo, but one big con is not having a wingman, someone to look after your back when surprising things happen. If you do not have a wingman, you need some contacts to turn to when you need help or advice.
And surprising things do happen! In my case, Vietnam was hit by the strongest typhoon in sixteen years right on my path. I am sure there was information available but I do not speak Vietnamese. My home country foreign office did send me a text message warning and made me aware about the typhoon but obviously the message lacked all the detail.
Typhoons, etc happen. Leave your travel plans and your contact number with the proper authorities at home, just in case!
The impact of floods and devastation that followed would have been difficult to understand without my contact at Tigit. Obviously I had no idea what damage was ahead of me and how the country would cope with the aftermath. Jon at Tigit had a large number of bikes out and after being in contact with bikers, he had a very good picture of the situation around the country. Jon was very helpful with his advice and responded my emails very quickly.
Another good feature about Tigit is that they have offices not only in Hanoi and HCMC, but also in Da Nang, half way up the country.
If sh..t really hits the fan, you can return the bike to any of these offices and they will even help you send your bike on a train if needed.
If you buy your bike from a street corner, you will not have the ”base” to contact.
The internet is full of suggested routes across the country and good descriptions about those routes. It really depends on the time you have available. Bike rentals can give you ideas as well.
The main roads get you relatively quick to the next place and for example Google maps is good for finding your way. I also had maps.me in use. As roads change and infrastructure develops very quickly in Vietnam, a paper map may not be needed. I certainly did not have one. Even Google and maps.me disagreed at times and a simple trip from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay with a new bridge was a challenge for them both. And 40 km extra ride for me! So speak with the locals if possible and listen carefully.
Always leave your bike to an attended parking. It costs very little, you get a receipt and eventually you get your bike back! At hotels, they will tell you where to park. They can even take the bike in to the reception for the night, unless there is guarded parking.
You should not use the steering lock on your bike. The bikes will be moved around and should the attendant have a bad day, he may break the lock. At least, he will be pissed off with you.
There are motorbike lanes on main roads leading in and out of cities or towns. Check the rules of the road before you go. The right hand lane is usually for motorbikes and highways are completely off-limits to motorbikes – although Google maps may try to guide you there!
Should you come across a toll booth, there usually is a small entry way on the side for motorbikes and you will not need to pay.
Riding in the traffic – that you will need to experience. Filtering through the traffic is the norm. Perhaps not for the faint hearted but keeping the pace and being very careful, I enjoyed it. Unexpected things will happen and nothing is like in the West. Nothing can be taken for granted and motorcycle is usually the weaker party. You have been warned!
Before you get used to the traffic and even then, travel times may be twice or triple what Google suggests. Therefore before you make any binding reservations, you may want to make sure you actually can travel the planned distance. In my case there were some mud slides which had blocked the road and I had to take a 200+ km unplanned detour!
Fuel is available from stations throughout the country and they will pump the fuel for you. Either full tank or more often, to exact change for ease of payment.
If you go to some really remote areas, you may want to check that fuel stations exist. Alternatively take a full canister with you so you do not have to buy bottled fuel from the road side. This is just to be sure the quality is good and the fuel is clean.
Simple as booking.com or any similar app. There are many hotels available, unless you are in a very remote area. Even the very cheap hotels are usually good and clean. Toilet hygiene is good and bed linen clean. I usually paid between 6 and 14 USD per night, often including a modest breakfast. It is possible to find more expensive hotels as well, but there was really no need. Or even cheaper – Go to a hostel and get a bed in a dorm. Some hotels offer dorms as well.
Try a Homestay. They are often hotel-like, but sometimes only a few rooms and perhaps no reception. If your host does not live there, someone comes in the morning to cook breakfast and to look after you.
While prices may be quoted in US Dollars, payment usually happens in Vietnamese Dongs. This applies practically everywhere. Not just hotels but shops, restaurants, fuel stations, parking – virtually everywhere.
ATMs are widely available and also hotels and shops change Euros or Dollars at favourable rates. My experience was that the rate available in Vietnam was much better than what I got from any currency exchange outside Vietnam. So bring Euros or Dollars and change in Vietnam!
Food is really good in Vietnam and very affordable. Do sample the street food and eat where the locals eat. They will tell you if you try to do something stupid or if the food is more of the Vietnamese taste and perhaps not for tourists. With a few dollars you get a good meal and a couple of beers.
I found the Vietnamese really friendly and both trusting and trustworthy. I felt safe everywhere I went.
Many thanks to all the Vietnamese people who made my ride so memorable! You made me feel a welcome guest in your country.
Just GO! Vietnam is fantastic! You’ll have the time of your life!
The forecasted tropical storm – Haikui – never arrived on our path and Petri and I did not need our rain gear this time. The ride to Vuang Tau was by now typical, smaller country lanes through villages and farms and bigger main roads through busy towns.
The entry to the Vung Tau city was impressive. Several lanes wide roads with separated wide motorbike lanes lined with palm trees, leading to the city. Also the city itself has these wide avenues crossing the city and making moving about very easy. Also the traffic was much more peaceful than in most other towns.
Everything seemed rather recently built and very clean. Vung Tau is a holiday resort for HCMC professionals and expatriates. There is even a catamaran running between Vung Tau and HCMC several times a day and sailing only takes 2 hours.
A very pleasant town where the afternoon was very hot and the evening brought people for an afternoon dip in the ocean and to the streets roller skating, exercising and dancing in the parks.
Ride to HCMC was propably the dustiest and busiest of any approaches to any city on this trip. Well, HCMC is also by far the biggest city with some 8,5 million inhabitants. CT01 -road is off-limits to motorbikes and the alternative route took us along dusty side roads busy with trucks and motorbikes.
As motorbikes can not use the bridge on the CT01, there is a ferry crossing at a very busy commercial harbour with large container ships sailing the ferry’s route. Cost of the ferry was 3000 dong, about 11 euro-cents. Near HCMC even the motorbike lanes were four lanes wide and full!
HCMC looks very different with new sky scrapers being under construction everywhere in the city. HCMC is also more western (?) in a sense that there are many tourists and expatriates living in Asia visiting the city.
Vendors of anything touristy are everywhere. My hotel happens to be near Ben Thanh Market, which could be said to resemble the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, only smaller. A lively night market opens as the market halls close.
Traffc in HCMC is intense, aggressive and much more fast paced than elsewhere. And there is a lot of it! Traffic lights (when someone stops), easily create a 50 m jam in an instant. Traffic light have time signals generally everywhere in Vietnam, indicating how long the lights last before changing again. Green starts a race – or perhaps a jump start a little earlier.
Vietnamese are lovely and genuinely nice people. As the case is in Asia, average age is very young, which also brings a lively and progressive atmosphere. You see progress everywhere.
Arrival to Ho Chi Minh completes my Someday-trip, starting from Hanoi, crisscrossing the country. Not bad for an old guy – as the friendly bartender told me in Hanoi at the start of my trip!
Morning in Nha Trang was sunny and warm. Quick coffee, laundry return – one of life’s practicalities easily sorted in Vietnam – and on the road. The ride to Da Lat would be only some 140 km inland towards the hills.
Navigating out on Nha Trang was easy enough, I had my mobile navigating using google maps and had ear pieces giving instructions. In the busy traffic no need to keep on eye on the map on the screen. Works really well!
We progressed quite fast into the countryside and to green hills, but after some 70 km there was a road block. No passing through after typhoon Damrey. No choice but to turn back.
Just as we turned back, I felt the bike acting funny – Flat tire! All we needed just now! Some 50 m down the road a bike shop mechanic happily took the tire off and only THEN told me he could not fix it – No electricity, no air.
Luckily we were now two bikes, my friend had joined me in Nha Trang and I took his bike and the loose wheel and started to my return ride to Nha Trang. I was told that would be the only way.
Okay, I rode 100 down the road to another mechanic. He said he can help, took his air compressor on his bike and rode away, only to return with the compressor tank full of pressurised air. A quick fix with “camel shit” and the tire was good enough to hold air and let me continue my journey. A journey which was now getting much longer as we had to find an alternative route to Da Lat.
The 140 km we started, turned into nearly 300 km before we arrived to Da Lat. But the ride over the hills was great and the town seemed clean and nice. Check into our hotel and a quick dash to find the Honda garage for tomorrow.
Actually, it is sometimes really hard to find your way even with the address and all the technology in Vietnam. For some reason address takes you wrong and helpful locals guide you even when they have no clue. But eventually we found everything we needed.
The dinner was one of the best during the trip and enough to put us asleed around 9 pm…
The following day was bike service followed by The Elephant Waterfalls combined with some city sightseeing. A great little city of some 200.000 inhabitants.
Road to Cat Tien National Park was a 180 km mix of country hills and main roads. As we are now further south and closing Ho Chi Minh, the towns started following each other very quickly and getting bigger in size.
Our accommodation, Green Bamboo Lodge was at the edge of the park, right on the river Dong Nai and obviously, made of Bamboo! This will be a good base to explore the park and to rest for two nights.
The forecast is yet for another tropical storm… Who lives, finds out!
An Bang Beach, rather, was my base at Hoi An. A very peaceful oasis during the Typhoon,. The weather had chased most tourists away from the beach. Early afternoons at The Deck House, sampling Jurgen’s cuisine and a few beers watching the sea roar. Just great!
My accommodation for the few days of the typhoon was the Sand Dune, a homestay with only three rooms just 2 min from the beach. Linh and Phien took care of the house and prepared our breakfasts.
It was still raining when I left – It was also raining when I arrived at Qui Nhon and it never paused raining on the way! What an exhausting day of some 350 km. First hour was spent trying to find a way out – Roads were just under water, no way passing through. I progressed some 5km in the first hour.
Qui Nhon was also badly damaged by the flooding but water was now subsiding. Rode to the beach and …. the rain and wind just stopped. Great, time for some street gastro on plastic chairs before the rain chased me to my hotel. No problems catching sleep tonight!
The following morning broke sunny and warm. A cup of Vietnamese coffee with local sweet condensed milk was fantastic before the day’s ride. And what a contrast with the day before – all day sunshine, marvelous road, gentle breeze all the way to Nha Trang through the Damrey path.
Time to hit the beach and relax for a while. Nha Trang is a tourist resort apparently very popular among Russian and Vietnamese tourists.
Very lively and fun city, this Nha Trang. But as Vietnam goes, this may not be the best place to come. Not much very Vietnamese or original here v. other places I have visited on the road. Menus and signs are also in Russian and Chinese with western or tourist-Vietnamese food. Much more interesting places are available if you look for a Vietnamese experience. Well, this is a party town.