LONELY PLANET VIETNAM 2012 GUIDE BOOK
This is one of the best travel guide books. In fact, it’s the most popular due to the precise information and updates. However, with the online search and smart phones, it becomes less popular in recent years. Therefore, you now can order PDF guide or even have online updates from this publisher. They print the book every two or three years.
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Hanoi has several good operators with well-maintained bikes. See p520 Lonely Planet Vietnam 2012 for additional information.
Offroad Vietnam (map p48; 913047509; www.offroadvietnam.com; 36 P Nguyen Huu Huan) For reliable Honda trail bikes (from US$25 daily) and road bikes (US$20). The number of rental bikes is limited, so booking ahead is recommended. Offroad’s main business is running excellent guided tours, mainly dealing with travellers from English-speaking countries.
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THE HIGH ROADS ON TWO WHEELS
With spectacular scenery and relatively minimal traffic, more travellers are choosing to motorcycle around the northwest loop from Hanoi up to Lao Cai, over to Dien Bien Phu and back to the capital. For the really intrepid, the roads venturing north towards China into the spectacular provinces of Ha Giang and Cao Bang are the newest frontier for travel in Vietnam.
Hanoi is the place to start making arrangements. Consider joining a tour (p520) or hiring a guide, who will know the roads and can help with mechanical and linguistic difficulties. Be sure to get acquainted with your bike first and check current 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 devotees (see www.minskclubvietnam.com). 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. 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 provide checklists, but 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 let the train take the strain on the long route north to Lao Cai. Load your bike into a goods carriage while you sleep in a berth. You’ll have to (almost) drain it of petrol. Then in Lao Cai, pick it up, fill up and off you go.
Take it slowly, particularly in the rain: smooth paved roads can turn into muddy tracks in no time, after heavy rain. Do not ride during or immediately after heavy rainstorms as this is when landslides 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 petrol is less likely to have been watered down.
If running short on time or energy, remember that many bus companies will let you put your bike on the roof of a bus, but get permission first from your bike rental company.
Recommended specialists in Hanoi include Cuong’s Motorbike Adventure (p80) and Offroad Vietnam (p80).
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Specialised motorbike tours through Vietnam are growing in popularity. They are a great way to get off the trail and explore the mountainous regions of the north and centre – two-wheels can reach the parts that four-wheels sometimes can’t, by traversing small trails and traffic free back roads. A little experience helps, but many leading companies also offer tuition for first-timers. Mounting a bike 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 guides. Based on the group of four people, you can expect to pay from 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 include the following:
Offroad Vietnam (39263433; www.offroadvietnam.com) Professional, well-organised tours on Honda road and dirt bikes. Trips across large swathes of northern Vietnam including Ha Giang and Dong Van. Also offer competitive bike hire (from US$20 per day) and rents riding gear including saddle bags.