(Sarah Goodson ditches the guidebook, hops on her motorbike and discovers the local life in north-eastern Vietnam. Below is her Vietnamese Speed Motorbike Tour Report)
Original location: http://www.netbackpacker.com/DisplayArticle.asp?articleid=193
Firstly to set the scene I need to outline the Vietnamese road rules – obviously, these aren’t written down anywhere and you simply learn as you go.
1. Big always wins (makes sense really unless you are suicidal!);
2. Bicycles think they are big;
3. Water buffalo are big;
4. Do what you want as long as you use your horn (there is a lot of beeping going on);
5. At intersections don’t look – just go, especially if you want to cross a major highway;
There were five of us – Caryne, a French-Canadian woman, whom I shared a bike with; a Dutch couple (Jan and Larissa); a German (Clemens) and two local guides – Tuan the crazy moto guide and Thuong. And we were about to embark on one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had.
I only just (not sure how) missed a cyclist following rules 2 and 5. I was passing a truck and a cyclist came from nowhere and was right in our path etc. In fact, I had two choices:
a) slam on the brakes and hope I stopped in time;
b) speed up and hope we would go around him (the Vietnamese way).
Luckily I chose the Vietnamese way and narrowly avoided hitting him. Jan wasn’t so lucky – slamming on his breaks he slid into the cyclist – the cyclist landed safely on top of Jan, who had a few minor injuries but nothing serious. The guidebook states discrepancies like these are either sorted out with money or fists. Figuring that he had no chance with either the Vietnamese guy jumped up, got on his bike and speed away hoping that Jan wouldn’t be able to catch up with him.
6. On the highway (dual carriage way) choose whatever lane you want even if you are going the wrong way;
7. If you kill anything either pay for it or eat it with the family. Number of near misses with animals approximately 1000 – most notably dogs. Jan had to pay for one chicken;
8. Stop wherever you want including in the middle of the road;
9. Dress appropriately (an oxygen mask is preferable);
10. Have a beer (or rice wine) before you go!! The rest of the rules will make more sense.
On Russian motorcycle tanks (125cc Minsks) we rode out of Hanoi like a motorcycle gang. Hanoi was scary – surrounded by a sea of bikes, trucks and cyclists there never seemed to be any room but somehow we managed to get through the traffic without being hit. The first 100 km the traffic was crazy and overtaking was an experience (don’t look just go!) and on one occasion I just managed to squeeze between two trucks going in opposite directions (nothing like a bit of adrenaline to wake you up). Caryne often commented that I drove like the locals – I am still not sure whether that was a compliment or not!
Finally, the traffic gave way to quiet country roads with spectacular scenery – rice paddies, mountains in the background and as the evening sun glowed it was magical. The last 15km was off (way off) road – muddy and treacherous with potholes so big I thought the bike might actually completely disappear into one. Luckily it was dark so we couldn’t really see what we were getting ourselves into. We survived most of it except for one pothole I saw too late to avoid and we did this very impressive (according to everyone else) wheel stand. Caryne grinning through the mud asked, “did anyone get a photo of that?”
Thankfully we all made it in one piece to Mister Lô’s where we spent our first night in a traditional bamboo stilt house. Four generations lived here. Despite our lack of Vietnamese, the family was very welcoming and open. Within no time we were drinking the obligatory rice wine (it’s impolite not to) – this stuff it like rocket fuel.
Eventually, nature called – toilets were always a bit of an adventure although this description has to be the best: “The toilet is down the stairs, under the house, past the horse, up some stairs, past the pigs and it is on your left”. (They forgot to mention the chickens). I have never experienced anything like this; it was such a different world and couldn’t have been further away from my London existence.
The next day the riding was a little easier; the countryside was spectacular with lots of children screaming “hello” / “bye-bye” as we passed through villages. The only traffic this time seemed to be water buffalo (they are big especially when you round a corner and they are casually strolling in the middle of the road), pigs and chickens.
Arriving at BaBe Lake – an emerald green stretch of water surrounded by mountains and forest – our hosts took us out on a low and unstable boat to a restaurant. If you think you are going to lose some unwanted pounds while on this trip think again – the food is fantastic. As we headed back the setting sun made everything appear even more green and lush (maybe it was the rice wine!) Then a storm approached, one by one the mountains behind disappeared, eventually catching up with us as night fell. Half the trip in the dark and pouring rain added to the adventure.
The next day upon arriving at Mr Kiêu and Madame Chinh’s house – we drove our bikes through the lounge and parked them in the kitchen. Again we were welcomed into the family and the entire neighbourhood. The people in the countryside were so friendly. At first, some were a little wary of these tall, white, strange looking people but all we had to do is smile say hello and the warmth is returned ten fold. On one occasion we stopped off to harvest rice. Casually walking into the nearest rice field we were soon put to work – harvesting rice by hand. The family took a break to watch these crazy westerners carve up their field at snail’s pace. So delighted at our gesture we were invited for dinner and to stay with the family should we ever return.
We spent two days in and around Quang Hoa, which is on the border with China. We spent one afternoon on a bamboo boat at an impressive waterfall on the border. I quite liked the idea of nipping across to China so I jumped into the water and swam towards the shore. I didn’t actually set foot on the land though as the Chinese police apparently aren’t very friendly. Their Vietnamese counterparts, on the other hand, were – too friendly in fact and were plying us with rice wine and inviting us to stay the night.
The last night we spent on Mt Mau in a beautiful, but run down, French colonial style hotel with panoramic views. Finally, we had a room to ourselves and our first hot shower in five days.
We made it back to Hanoi in one piece in total awe of what we had just seen and done. As a result of some of the things, I learnt- the look of surprise and the thanks I got when I did things the local way was incredible. If this is the only thing you do in Vietnam you won’t regret it.
More travellers die through accidents than by any other means. If you really are planning to hire a motorbike you will need to keep your wits about you at all times. Check the mechanics of the vehicle and always let others know of your detailed itinerary and expected times of arrival at identified locations. Not only may you have an accident but there is also the risk of being bitten by a rabid dog as you travel around with your ankles exposed.
With the freedom that a motorcycle affords, you also run the risk of wandering away from the main tourist locations into regions endemic for malaria and other mosquito borne diseases. Your food consumption may be more in keeping with the local population and your stomach may seriously complain! A motorcycle also leaves you exposed to the serious effects of the sun especially as the wind gushes past. A variety of vaccines will need to be talked through as well as the need for malaria prophylaxis. Good travel insurance will be essential and make sure it includes adequate medical evacuation cover and a 24/7 support service.
There are more articles about motorcycling in Vietnam and you can read more by following this link