(Ron Coslick reviews of 14 days The Great North Loop, ~2,000 km)
My two-week motorcycle trip in Vietnam was one of the best travel adventures of my life. I loved the country and the people and would have happily spent many more weeks riding through the country. The Big North + Ha Long Bay loop was a great ride. However, future travelers should understand that this particular route reflects a choice to leave the north near the end of the trip in order to get to the coast to see Ha Long Bay. While Ha Long bay is a natural wonder of amazing beauty, the route from the central north to the coast is not as beautiful as the other parts of the trip.
For me, I really preferred the remote interior parts of the country where people continue to live in their traditional ways, and as you get toward the coast the country becomes more developed and less interesting in that sense. So if you are deciding between itineraries, keep this point in mind.
Tempo of the tour and the stop-over
The tempo of the tour was good. We rode on 13 of the 14 days during the tour. It sounds like a lot but it’s really not. The riding itself is a lot of fun because of the curvy, hilly roads, and the people, animals, villages and other sights along the way keep things interesting. And some of the best parts of the tour are the unexpected encounters that happen at the stops that you make along the way. I would have happily kept going for weeks more.
The amount of riding each day was also good. Some days we rode for most of the day, but we took breaks whenever we needed, usually every hour, and with one exception we arrived at our destinations at mid-afternoon, with lots of time to clean up and have a beer before dinner. The riding was never uncomfortable. There are some challenging sections of dirt or gravel roads, and some sections are dusty, but that’s part of the variety that keeps things interesting.
We used the Honda 160cc bikes (upgraded to ~200cc). They’re comfortable and have enough power to handle the occasional steep claims as well as to pass other traffic in any situation. The bikes held up well during the trip – a few routine things needed to be addressed during the two-week trip, but our guide had the necessary tools and some spare parts. A flat tire and a cracked fender were easily dealt with in towns along the ride, and those stops were part of the fun.
Most of our nights were spent in small hotels, and a few were home stays. The hotels were varied but each had an acceptable minimum of an in-room bathroom with hot water and a toilet. Beds were always simple but comfortable, with warm covers that were more than adequate for the cold nights. We had electricity everywhere that we stayed.
The home stays are by far the best accommodations because you get to share the living space of a local person and have a meal with them in their home. The contact that you have with people in Vietnam is the most rewarding part of the experience and home stays are a big part of that, and I recommend doing as many home stays as possible. The facilities at the home stays are less than at the hotels – they’re open buildings that let in the outside air and noise, sometimes with outdoor bathrooms, and sometimes with hot water from a large pot boiled over a fire. But I always felt that the facilities were sufficient to clean up and be comfortable.
The food, for the most part, was excellent. Nearly every meal had lots of plates of different delicious foods in large amounts. We tried dozens of different dishes during our two weeks. There’s nothing like having a big tasty meal and a dozen little glasses of rice wine after a day on the road. Although there were a few meals that were of notably lesser quality than the rest (some in places that were obviously geared toward tourists in Sapa and Ha Long, one in a place where the tour hadn’t gone before so we just had to pick something along the road) the food was generally very good, with some meals being just unbelievably enjoyable.
One note – food hygiene will be an issue for Westerners. You will encounter bugs that your body is not familiar with and they may cause some upset to your digestion. Our guide was very proactive at every meal about washing our bowls and chop sticks in clean boiled water before we ate, which was very helpful, and we avoided raw fruits and vegetables unless they were peeled. In my case, by the end of the first week of the road, I was beginning to feel mild effects and decided to start taking the antibiotics that I had obtained prior to the trip (Cipro). This took care of the symptoms and I had no further effects during the remaining week of the trip.
The organization – Guide services
Offroad Vietnam can be relied upon to provide a quality travel experience. Prior to the trip, we exchanged many emails with Anh Wu, and he always responded promptly and answered our questions to our satisfaction. The web site is very professional and is a reflection of the quality of the organization. The trip was everything that was promised and more.
Our guide Minh was really great – attentive, knowledgeable, and eager to make sure that we were enjoying our trip. He had a lot of information to share about the places we saw along the way. He also took a lot of initiative to talk to people along the way and facilitate the spontaneous encounters along the road that are so much fun. We spoke to lots of children who were curious about us (that happens everywhere and is a lot of fun), we visited a school where women from the village were learning traditional dances, we had toasts with restaurant owners and their families, and one old woman even let us plow her rice field with her buffalo! Minh was up early every morning checking the bikes, washing and fueling them, and calling ahead to all the hotels and home stays to let them know we were on our way.
He’s also a good photographer! Give him the camera, he’ll get lots of good pictures for you. And make sure he brings his guitar. It’s tough spending two weeks on the road with a couple of strangers but Minh was up to the task and was a good guy to travel with.
Vietnam is inexpensive compared to Western countries. We paid $80US per day per person for a 14-day trip. That covers bikes, fuel, hotels, meals, and any tickets or entrance fees. Compare that to costs of $600US per day for a three-day all-included guided motorcycle trip that I saw recently in California, and you see that these prices are very low.
The only thing you will pay for is drinks (bottled water, beer) and things that you buy for yourself along the way. Those costs will be very low. For example, $0.75US for a one-liter beer or bottle of water. During our two weeks on the road, my buddy and I together spent only about $75US total for incidentals (that was almost entirely for drinks, we bought few other things).
How did you hear about us?
I googled “motorcycle rental vietnam” and the Offroad Vietnam web site was at the top of the list.
Full name: Ron Coslick
Address: California, U.S.A.
For more customers’ reviews of Offroad Vietnam motorbike tours riding a full North loop, please follow this link