LONELY PLANET VIETNAM GUIDE BOOK 2009
Page 119 Lonely Planet Vietnam: If you plan to tour the north by bike, you’ll find several tour operators in Hanoi which offer well-maintained bikes, and who can help you with itinerary planning (and guides). Check out p507 for more details.
For a reliable Honda trail (starting from US$20 daily) and road bikes (US$15) or a moped (US$5 to US$8), as well as great advice, head to Offroad Vietnam (map p92; 39263433; www.offroadvietnam.com; 36 P Nguyen Huu Huan)
Page 189 Lonely Planet Vietnam
TAKING THE HIGH ROAD
With spectacular scenery, little traffic and improved roads, more and more travellers are choosing to take a motorbike around the northwest loop from Hanoi up to Lao Cai, over to Dien Bien Phu and back to the capital.
Hanoi, where you’ll find several specialist motorbike-tour operators, is the place to start making arrangements. Consider joining a tour (p507) or hiring a guide, who will know the roads and can help with any mechanical and linguistic difficulties. Be sure to get acquainted with your bike first and check road conditions and routes.
Most motorbikes in Vietnam are small capacity (under 250cc). For years the sturdy Minsk, built in Belarus, was the bike of choice for travellers and it still has many devoted aficionados. For the full story consult www.minskclubvietnam.com, which even has a free PDF breakdown manual to download. Minsks are quirky bikes, not known for their reliability (though they will deal with rutted, rough roads well). They were common in northern Vietnam for years, and many mechanics know how to fix them. But today numbers have dwindled as mopeds and Chinese road bikes have proliferated.
Honda road bikes (such as the Honda GL160) and trail bikes are other good choices. These bikes have a good reputation for reliability and have decent shock absorbers. Some folk bike it around Vietnam on mopeds (like the 100cc Honda Wave), which tend to be reliable and their automatic gears make things easier for inexperienced riders. However you’ll find bumps tough on your butt.
Rental agencies will help with checklists but some essentials include a good helmet, local mobile phone for emergencies, rain gear, a spare parts and repair kit (including spark plugs, spanners, inner tube and tyre levers), air pump and decent maps. Knee and elbow pads and gloves are also a good idea.
Highways can be hell in Vietnam, so it’s wise to let the train take the strain on the long route north to Lao Cai. Load your bike into a good carriage (180,000d) while you sleep in a berth. You’ll have to (almost) drain it of petrol. Then in Lao Cai, pick it up, fill up, fire it up and off you go.
Take it slowly, particularly in the rain: smooth paved roads turn into muddy tracks in no time, after heavy rain. Do not ride during or immediately after heavy rain storms as this is the time a landslide might occur (many mountain roads are quite new and the cliff embankments can be unstable). Expect to average about 35km per hour. Only use safe hotel parking. Fill up from petrol stations where the gas is less likely to have been watered down.
And if you’re running short on time or energy remember that many bus companies will let you put your bike on the roof of a bus (around 500,000d from Son La to Hanoi), but get permission first from your bike rental company.
Recommended motorbike specialists in Hanoi include Cuong’s Motorbike Adventure (p119) and Off Road Vietnam (p119).
Page 507 Lonely Planet Vietnam
Specialised motorbike tours through Vietnam are growing in popularity. It is a great way to get off the trail and explore the mountainous regions of the north and centre of the country – two-wheel can reach the parts that four-wheel sometimes can’t, by traversing small trails and traffic free back roads. A little experience helps, but many of leading companies also offer tuition for first-timers. Mounting a Minsk to take on the peaks of the north is one of Vietnam’s defining moments and should not be missed.
Foreign guides charge considerably more than the local Vietnamese guides. Based on the group of four people, you can expect to pay around US$100 per person per day for an all-inclusive tour that provides motorbike rental, petrol, guide, food and accommodation. Some of the best companies running trips in the north include the following: Offroad Vietnam (04-3904-5049; www.offroadvietnam.com) This is a Vietnamese-run company, and these guides generate really good feedback from their guests. Honda bikes from 125cc to 250cc. Tours from US$100 per day.