Many of the villages we visited on the trail were very small and very remote with only a footpath leading to them. Life must be very hard and simple, though people were usually friendly and generally looked happy.
Different villages had their distinct feel about them, which was easily felt. Some were very welcoming and eager to meet and chat, some more reserved, even fearful.
I should think there is a reason behind this. Either past experience or simply a way of keeping safe. Might be religious. After all, it certainly is not an everyday occurrence that two white guys in their motorbike gear turn up from the woods.
I did not feet threatened at any time. Naturally however, on a few occasion, if we did not feel welcome or it seemed that the people had some reservations meeting us, we continued our way.
Naturally some places are more urban commercial markets and traveling salespeople on their scooters are usual sight on the roads and trails.
Regardless of how urban or how remote the village is, modern world is slowly creeping in. Sanitation and schools are a good example.
In the following film, I tried to collect faces from the trail. Nothing I can do makes justice to these people, but I tried to capture the faces on the real Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Indigenous Artisans, Floating Gardens, Long Neck People
Lake Inle (or how the Burmese say, Inle Lake) in the Shan state is the second largest lake in Myanmar, largest being Indawgyi Lake in Kachin State.
We started our trip from the town of Nyaungshwe on a narrow-boat, which is a long-tail-boat, passengers sitting in single file, all facing front. The sound of the old motors on these boats is deafening even for the loudest biker, with hardly anything to dampen the noise of the engine.
The scenery however is serene as soon as you exit the long canal leading to the lake. The first things you see are the fishermen, who show off their skills in the hope of a tip from the tourists passing. These fishermen paddle in a unique way, standing on one foot and using the other foot to paddle. They keep one end of the oar under one arm and use one leg to paddle.
There are some 70.000 Intha-people of different origins and tribes living on the lake. All tribes have different skills – fishermen, blacksmiths, silversmiths, boat makers, silk weavers, cigarrette rollers,…
Naturally there is a very large Hpaung Daw U Pagoda with golden buddha statues, which today are just lumps of gold as people have for years attached leaf-gold on the statues. These statues a paraded on a special boat each October around the lake in huge festivities. Even boat engines are not allowed to be used that time.
Floating gardens produce 90% tomatoe, the rest being beans, cucumbers, flowers, and gourds. According to our guide, Inle Lake gardens produce some 60% of the tomatoe used in Myanmar.
The sticks in the floating gardens hold tomatoes upright and also keep the gardens from floating away!
The Long Neck decoration has also a history from the time when the people were not at Inle Lake – they are not indigenous for the area. The decoration was protection agains tigers! Tigers attack legs and neck – hence protection around the neck and legs/knees!
Inle lake should not be missed if you head this way. A wonderful day out!
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 commentsbelow are based on my own experience and I hope you find them useful.
First, you need a Bike. THE Q: Buy or Rent
This one decision will set the tone for the rest of your ride.
Buy: Used bike from a hostel notice board, etc. – When the seller is gone, he’s gone.
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.
Rent: Even when it reads Honda, it can be made in China.
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!
Who you’re gonna call? Ghostbusters won’t help!
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.
Where to go – I need a map! Except you don’t!
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.
Practicalities with Motorbiking in Vietnam
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!
You need fuel!
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.
Finding a hotel
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, glorious food!
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.
Are you still wondering?
Just GO! Vietnam is fantastic! You’ll have the time of your life!
… that elusive day we keep putting good things off to…