Touring Vietnam On Honda XR250 by Mark Fattore, a travel writer riding scenic Ha Giang country and North-East Vietnam in 8 days. Copyright: Bikesales.com.au
Original article location: http://www.bikesales.com.au/reviews/2012/dirt/honda/xr250/touring-vietnam-on-a-honda-xr250-28912?intref=sr-ed-reviews
Motorcycle riding in northern Vietnam is truly an unforgettable experience – soaring roads, magnificent scenery, cultural diversity, and the food isn’t too bad either.
Now, this is a motorcycle pre-ride ‘safety’ briefing that gets straight to the point: “Tomorrow, we make snake way.” That was a common refrain from Thon, the head guide on a recent eight-day motorcycle tour I embarked on with 11 other blokes through the north of Vietnam.
Snake way? The phase didn’t really resonate at first – the briefings were normally held after we’d consumed a fair whack of the local rice wine and concentration was starting to wane — but it all made complete sense once our fleet of Honda XR250s began threading their way through some of the most challenging roads I’ve encountered in my 35 years of riding powered two-wheelers.
So Thon wasn’t stretching the truth: there was certainly more than enough ‘serpentine’ activity to keep our eyes firmly glued on the road ahead – which was a necessity, as even a small lapse in concentration could have you spearing straight off a nearly vertical cliff, all the way down to a verdant valley below.
Just as some people get their life-affirming motorcycle fix through racing, or hanging it all out on a drag strip, for others it’s riding through places that mere mortals struggle to traverse on other modes of transport.
And that’s the guts of it: there’s no better way to tap into the heartbeat of a country – particularly one with such a rich tapestry as Vietnam — than behind the bars of a motorcycle. And it doesn’t have to be on the latest and greatest machinery either, as our flock of long-serving and slightly ratty XRs attested to.
The genesis for the trip to Vietnam had been a slow burn over recent years, after hearing tales of derring-do – most embellished I’m sure — by a number of friends and fellow motorcycle scribes. And it wasn’t just the lure of riding motorcycles in far-flung outposts; the addictive and mysterious nature of Vietnam was something that was also spoken about in revered tones.
So after first aborting a trip to Vietnam in 1999, I finally pencilled in late 2011 for the eight-day motorcycle tour, engaging the services of Offroad Vietnam, a Hanoi-based company, to guide us every step of the way. Offroad Vietnam has built quite a reputation for its motorcycle tours over recent years, which head in every direction from Hanoi and appear to satisfy all manner of tastes.
The next part of the equation was sourcing travelling companions, and such was the demand that I eventually had to launch a reserves ‘team’. The spectre of a $2500 overseas adventure (flights and tour) was obviously a very tasty proposition that just couldn’t be ignored.
One of my companions was erstwhile motorcycle magazine colleague Rod Chapman, whose description of dog meat as tasting “somewhere between Pelican and pigeon” still rings loudly in my head.
But the dog meat ‘episode’ didn’t come until we were well into our eight-day tour and just starting to sink our teeth (literally) into some of the local customs.
Rewind a few days earlier and there was undoubtedly a tinge of nervousness when we arrived at a hot, steamy, and smoggy Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, and second-biggest outpost behind Ho Chi Minh City. Nearly four million people live in Hanoi, so its population is on par with Melbourne – but the air pollution is far worse, which is why masks are omnipresent, especially among scooter riders.
After five of us were squeezed into a small SUV for the transfer to our hotel in Old Hanoi, we hit the open road – to be greeted by a blizzard of scooters and step-thrus, peppered with vehicles of other persuasions.
I can’t underestimate how much scooters and step-thrus — there are very few motorcycles, as such — dominate the landscape and, apart from a small minority who apparently like to torture them in impromptu race meetings after dark, they are the classic utilitarian vehicles. And they don’t discriminate on cargo either, as scooters carry anything from building materials, fresh meat (including a dog), live animals (chickens and ducks mostly, as well as the occasional pig, wedged tightly into a cane basket), electrical goods, and whole families. Even two and three-year-olds head off to kinder on scooters, a makeshift seat wedged in between mum or dad’s legs for the short commute. And when we started the tour, we saw scooters take on potholed and rocky roads that even some adventure riders would shy away from. Mind-blowing and enterprising all in one.
So the general rule of thumb in Vietnam appears to be that if you’re not tripling the suggested payload and shamelessly mistreating your scooter, you’re not doing it justice. Oh, to be a motorcycle mechanic in Vietnam – a job for life.
COOL AS CUCUMBERS
If you really want to punish yourself, put your hand up for a gig as a traffic reporter in Hanoi – particularly in Old Hanoi which is just crammed to the eyeballs with scooters and people in general. It’s a tourist hub too, so that adds to the density. Then again, it might be an easy traffic gig if you just say the whole place is a log jam and show some patience. And the Vietnamese are tolerant souls too – the constant beeping of horns you here on the roads is a warning that another vehicle is approaching, rather than as an act of bastardy and bad temper as it so often is in Western countries.
We sat at a major intersection in Hanoi, with roads coming from all directions, for a fair amount of time, and we only saw one minor incident involving a scooter. But there was no animosity – the bloke just picked himself up and continued on his merry way. Even if he wanted to thump his ‘attacker’ – or even worse, be like Warney and use Twitter to lambast — he showed restraint.
But off the open road and onto the footpaths, try and tell an enterprising Vietnamese hawker that your new rubber thongs don’t require retreads thicker than a tyre – they get very upset.
The anxiety was evident on day one as we gathered at the Offroad Vietnam headquarters, which is situated in Old Hanoi and packed to the hilt with bikes and other bits and pieces. Even the toilet does its bit for storage.
We were all suited up in our freshly preened adventure gear, but when a couple of the XRs started playing hardball so early in the piece – ignition woes, mostly – our sense of edginess was heightened. But the hands-on Offroad Vietnam boss and the guides soon cajoled and massaged the big red girls back into life, and we were on our way.
Because we were such a large group – 4-6 people is the norm for Offroad Vietnam tours – we left in two separate clusters and met on the outskirts of Vietnam. A tiny support truck – I’m talking really small – also joined us, ferrying around our luggage and some spare bikes – one a Honda SL230. That meant we didn’t have to strap our luggage on every morning – just throw it in the back of the truck and listen to the springs start groaning.
I was in the second group out of Hanoi, and once in motion the butterflies immediately subsided and it wasn’t the white knuckle experience I was expecting. I did touch a few other scooters ‘fighting’ for a position, but that’s why the horn is such a vital tool to provide some form of intent. But common sense should prevail and a scooter will always come off second best against an eight-tonne truck. And the massive road toll in Vietnam – both in raw numbers and per capita — is a sobering reminder that things regularly do go seriously pear-shaped.
RICE WINE APLENTY
But mortality was the last thing on our minds as we rendezvoused with the first group and then continued on our way, travelling about 180km on day one before terminating at Vu Linh, a little farming village adjacent to the beautiful and tranquil Thac Ba Lake. In safari parlance, day one was akin to a ‘transport’ section, and it would be another six days before the roads would straighten up again on our run back to Hanoi.
In Australia, motorcycle riders can knock over 180km in a couple of committed hours behind the bars, but the equation isn’t that simple in Vietnam, mainly because of the sheer volume of traffic – motorised, pedestrians, and animals – won’t allow it.
And we weren’t obliterating land speed records either, with our average speed no more than 50km/h at best, because Vietnam isn’t the type of place where you feel like winding on the throttle to stop. And besides, the aging XRs don’t have the wherewithal to cop such a constant torrent of abuse, as they’ve already done a hard time.
So, with all that in mind, 180km amounts to a fair day’s work, so when we arrived at our farm stay (there were two in the trip) a late afternoon boat trip and swim on Thac Ba Lake was a perfect way to see the sun before we ventured inside the bamboo stilt house for a superb smorgasbord dinner. And we knew some of the fares were fresh because we caught the fish from the back pond – until I broke one of the roads which scuppered our productivity.
We enjoyed copious amounts of rice wine at dinner, thrown down in shot glasses after a countdown in the local tongue. Then we all shook hands, reloaded, and started the process again. There’s no doubt that some of us handled the wine offensive better than others, but we all drifted off to sleep beautifully in our own little ‘rooms’ – a mattress and pillow encircled by a mosquito net. But not before the obligatory snake way briefing!
And Thon was right. We began to meander, and the weather became milder as the elevation rose. The constant on-off braking and shunting through the twisties quickly showed up on the ‘softer’ side of the XR suspension, which put some of us on notice that we’d have to keep hardcore riding to a minimum. But the beauty of the XR250, as it was when it was king of the jungle at Honda, is that it’s just such an easy bike to ride; beautifully mannered and just so civil. Perfect for group tours, really. If the XR250 was still sold as new, it would sell like hotcakes.
A nice – or should I say brutal – a contrast to the soft XRs were the beds at our hotel stopover in Ha Jiang on day two. Lonely Planet’s review of the hotel said the beds were “firm”, but that’s a gross under-estimation: the active constituent in the mattresses has to be concrete. Every toss and turn in bed was met with a cry, and my hip was sore as buggery in the morning. Great pillows, though.
In Ha Jiang, the guides had to hand our passports over to the local constabulary to complete the application process for a permit to head up to the Chinese border.
If that sounds like an over-the-top bureaucratic process, it is, and it’s probably one reason why Westerners aren’t particularly thick on the ground in these parts of the woods. It was a cinch for us with the guides taking ownership of the process, but if you wanted to do it yourself there would probably be a few more hoops to jump through – which I’m sure would ‘escalate’ into some form of the monetary transaction along the way.
Most tourists who head into the north of Vietnam have Sapa on their itinerary, by all accounts the beautiful legacy of the French colonial days.
But it was worth getting the permit, as a few days later we gazed over at the communist behemoth, separated from Vietnam by a massive array of waterfalls. The border is quite a permeable one for Vietnamese and Chinese, and they can cross the river to buy produce and duty-free cigarettes.
Leaving Ha Jiang, we took the Ma Pi Leng pass to Dong Van, an absolute corker of a (fairly narrow) road with great scenery to boot. Now we were really starting to climb, which meant that we had to pay particular attention to vehicles coming the other way, especially on some of the hairy hairpins.
But although we ascended, that didn’t mean the end of civilisation. We continued to pass through villages on a frequent basis, and occasionally we stopped at one for an extended period of time while the guides tended to a flat tyre or a general XR ailment.
At one tiny village, the vendor of a small shop brought out some scales for a weigh-in ‘challenge’, and they were amazed when one of our group – who picked up the affectionate nickname of ‘Little Buddha’ during the journey – measured in at svelte 110kg. The locals didn’t know what to think, as there appeared to be equals doses of shock and awe.
Then larger villages were amazing, especially at a market time when all sorts of food, produce and general supplies were up for grabs from families which had come down or across from the mountains. If a pig’s head is your thing, you won’t be disappointed – but get in quick as Vietnam is now experiencing hyperinflation. Some adults were excited by our presence in the villages – or it may have been the big XRs? — but like anywhere it’s the kids which provide the most effusive greetings.
There might be inflation, but the Vietnamese economy is also booming – but more so in the capital cities, where the perks of thriving commerce are more accessible. But in the higher altitudes, many of the ethnic minorities are still clinging to traditions, their way of life far removed from the economy down south.
Dong Van was a memorable stopover – primarily for the aforementioned dog meat spread. It came after a rice wine and vodka-fuelled evening at a local nightclub, which wasn’t overflowing with patrons when we arrived. Actually, it was empty.
After providing the club with a massive cash injection, one of the owners suggested we have some dog meat for supper. He then jumped on his scooter (what else?), and within five minutes was back with a plate of ‘thit cho’, which also included a dipping sauce and lettuce.
That bookended a great night, and the damage for Dino the Dog: 100,000 dongs, or a little less than $5.00.
Next up was the most spectacular road on tour – the ride to Meo Vac. This road’s lauded in Vietnam just like the Stelvio Pass is in Italy, and for good reason, as the bends are relentless and call for rapid changes of direction.
And the scenery hit a new high mark, too, so we stopped frequently to soak up the setting – most of us will probably never return.
That day also included a fair chunk of dirt riding, akin to fire trails in Australia. The traffic was light, too, so it was my cue to go nuts for a while, with the little XR bouncing from one rock to another. Brilliant fun.
After Meo Vac, the roads took on a more gentle personality, and by the time we had reached our final overnight destination of Lang Son, via Bao Lac, Cao Bang and Quang Uyen, the twisty roads had all but disappeared.
Actually, it felt like we had finished, because the obligatory shot of the tour group had already been taken on the steps of the hotel.
The ‘damage’ to that point had only been a few crash bruises, but perhaps we relaxed too early. That’s because one of our group came to grief on the final day after colliding with a local on a scooter carrying oranges. Our bloke hurt his foot, but the poor scooter rider broke his shoulder. Because a foreigner was involved, the district police were soon on the scene, and they worked out a $US500 restitution figure. The money was paid to the police, not the rider, etc. The rest of us weren’t privy to these negotiations, as Thon stayed behind to sort out the imbroglio while we hit the heavily policed main road back to Hanoi.
We arrived back in Hanoi during the afternoon peak, but this time there was no trepidation as we sliced through the traffic like a knife in butter, our horns always on high alert. It was actually great fun, and a couple of young punks being silly on a scooter kept us entertained.
Half of us terminated at a big car wash, with the XRs receiving a good tub before they headed off on their next adventure.
Vietnam was simply brilliant. The country served up all that I could have asked for – superb roads, sublime scenery, culinary delight, and an amazing array of people. I’m now hooked on this foreign riding caper – but where to next?
There are a number of motorcycle tour operators in Vietnam, but Offroad Vietnam was the only one I approached, as mates and associates all had good things to say about the company. It’s owned by the English-speaking Anh Wu, who was totally on the ball from my first overtures about the tour until it was all over. And every step of the process was clear and concise, so by the time we arrived in Hanoi, it was just a matter of paying for the balance of the trip and getting ourselves sorted. Offroad Vietnam offers a wide array of tours, and can even tailor an itinerary just for you. Prices vary according to the size of the group and the bikes you use – the XRs are at the top of the pecking order. We also paid $US170 a day (or about $US14 a day each) for the support truck. Inflation is hitting Vietnam hard, but you’ll be looking at around $155 a day for a tour, which includes accommodation, bike hire, fuel, guides, and three meals. The only thing you pay for is for drinks And the guides are brilliant – they don’t get lost, which is handy, always jovial, and provide all the information you require on tour without going into overload. For more information, visit www.offroadvietnam.com to kickstart your adventure.
Vietnam, or more accurately the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, has a population of around 86,000,000.
Around 1600km long from north to south, the country has an area of around 332,000km² – roughly the size of Victoria and NSW combined.
The capital is Hanoi, with nearly 4,000,000 people. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, has a population of 7,500,000.
Vietnam shares land borders with China, Laos, and Cambodia.
The local currency is the dong. At the time of writing, one Australian dollar equated with 22,300 dongs. US dollars are still readily accepted in major cities, but elsewhere the dong is king. ATMs are available in larger towns.
Australians need a visa to visit Vietnam – contact the Vietnamese embassy in Canberra (www.vietnamembassy.org.au) for more information. It’s a simple process, too.
As a base in Hanoi, try Camellia Hotel 4, at 44 Hang Giay Street in the heart of the city’s old quarter (and just near Offroad Vietnam). Visit www.camellia-hotels.com for more information.
XR250 AND XR250 BAJA
Mention XR250 to anyone and terms like “tough as old boots” and “reliable and capable” come to the fore. At the time of writing, Offroad Vietnam has 12 XRs on the fleet, which is a mix of the standard XR250 and the XR250 Baja, which is the bike that I rode. The Baja, originally a Japanese domestic model, has a 14-liter steel tank, big twin headlights, and a more comfortable seat than the XR250, but that’s about the extent of the differences. Offroad Vietnam sourced most of the XRs from Cambodia, but when it’s time to replace engines the company will be knocking on the door of China. All the bikes are getting on, and they aren’t without their flaws – little bits and pieces fall off, they are a little stubborn to start on occasions, the discs require machining, and the suspension has seen better days. But those are the concessions you make on motorcycle tours such as this – and no one seemed to care.
There are more articles about motorcycling in Vietnam and you can read more by following this link