Hi, if you have the February 2018 Issue of the AMA Magazine, you may have seen my Vietnam travel story. For the rest of you, here it is, it is kind of long and no photos, just a story.
I really didn’t give it much thought. I got a text from one of my Baja tour clients, “Hey we are planning to go ride Vietnam next fall, want to come along?” I am always up for an adventure, so I told them to count me in, especially since I didn’t have to do any of the planning, just like a real vacation. Much of my own riding is for work, so getting to play tourist is a real treat for me.
I think it is safe to say, for Americans Vietnam is a land of mystery. Having grown up in the era of the war, the idea of visiting would have seemed inconceivable when I was young. Images from my youth hardly prepared me for the stunning natural beauty and warmth of the people.
This is a land of hearty inhabitants emerging form generations of political struggles and hardships. Yet one of the only outward signs is the outright diminutive size of the people. Many look like children to us and we like giants to them. Nowhere did I encounter anyone who wanted to talk politics or social issues. They seem to know as little of me as I do of them.
Arriving in a foreign country for the first time is always an experience in sensory overload. Hanoi is no exception. Spending one evening in Hanoi was entertaining. The crowed tourist area is full of bars, outside markets and street food.
Scooters dominate the country. They are everywhere and do everything. 4 people is generally considered the max capacity. As for scooter hauling capacity, I saw 5 pigs, 2 bags of cement, 1 motorcycle, lumber and window deliveries. Oh, and there is scooter Uber too. They even bring you a helmet. During our first ride day I estimate I rode in concert with more two wheeled vehicles than I have in all my life combined, literally thousands of scooters.
The next morning in Hanoi we were off early to find our tour guide. “Offroad Vietnam Tours” lies tucked in an alley just off a main street. They were ready for us. We quickly dressed (in the alley), met our guide Thon and found our bikes awaiting us.
The bikes are electric start versions of the venerable Honda XR250. Not quite cutting edge, but very suitable. We came prepared with dry bags to strap our gear to the rear rack. With no support vehicle, lightweight packing is a must. Thon gave us a quick riders meeting and we were off into Hanoi traffic.
I would attempt to describe the traffic, but there are not enough adjectives and expletives to do it justice. On the surface there appear to be nearly no road rules, yet somehow everyone accepts it and goes with the flow. Literally like a school of fish dancing one way and then another, scooters, trucks and busses all get along. There are few cars outside of the city. The horn is used for everything. Unlike our perception, it is considered a courtesy.
We spent much of the first day traveling northwest along the Red River. Our 8 day loop would take us north near the border with China and then west and back south again. Heat and humidity were strong this first day, but in the following days as we moved north, we enjoyed lots of mild temperatures and seemed to miss most of the forecasted rains.
While you can’t throw a rock without hitting a scooter, motorcycles are a rarity. Like most places I have traveled, people seem naturally drawn to them. Based upon the reactions of locals, you would have thought the XR’s were factory Supercross bikes. It was easy to find locals to talk to, even though few spoke English once we entered the mountains. One of their favorite things was to stand next to one of our group and measure themselves next to us (both in height and girth). Yes, they might be giants.
We spent our first night at a homestay, one of three we would visit on the trip. Our second floor open air sleeping area was sparse; each person had a foam mat, pillow, blanket and mosquito net. The family was inviting and even took us out on the lake in their large steel boat. Cold beer and a swim in the mild water made for a perfect evening.
All of our meals were served family style and typically consisted of rice, fried spring rolls, greens, clear soup and green beans. Meats were marinated bits of pork or chicken, most quite tasty. Breakfast was usually crepes and bananas with a black syrup they call coffee. I think our meals were slightly westernized for us. For example, locals tend to eat Phō soup for breakfast.
A word about the coffee, Vietnam is the world’s second largest producer. Coffee shops are found at a ratio of about 1 per 20 scooters. Coffee is everywhere. It is brewed strong in a small sieve style aluminum pot that drips directly into the drinking cup. Typically served with sweetened condensed milk, it is thick and potent. Asking for it cold and letting the ice melt was one way to suitably dilute it.
After a full day in the lowlands we started to climb towards the mountains. The landscape was just starting to show its natural beauty. It was hard to make time on the road due to stopping to take so many pictures. I finally gave up and set my GoPro to camera mode so I could shoot on the fly. The best vistas were still to come as we entered into the lands of the Karst Limestone formations.
Looking like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, the sharp green covered Limestone formations dot the Northern landscape. Below, the terraced rice paddies, just in harvest, complete the surreal scene. So often the image seemed to have jumped straight from a travel poster.
No one appreciates a good tour guide more than another tour guide. Even on the first day it was clear that we were going to experience so much more of the country and people that we would have otherwise missed. Much of the first two days of travel was road, but we constantly made small detours through hidden tracks that took us all around the countryside.
Many of the routes we rode were small dirt or concrete paths that looked almost like cart paths. Each of these was the route used to access (by scooter) some small community in the mountains. No matter how rough the terrain, scooters are the sole means of transportation for most. Geographically Vietnam is about the same size as New Mexico, but holds 95 million people. So no matter where you go, there are people. Even in the seemingly remote areas, there are always people.
As our days progressed, we passed through many such small villages, most growing rice, sugar cane or tea in the nearby fields. It seems women who do much of the field work. Farm animals are everywhere. It is novel to see so many Water Buffalo. Often they will lie in the middle of the road and all the vehicles find their way around them, same with dogs.
Each day brought new scenery and more mountain villages. Children dressed in sharp school uniforms crowd the roads in the afternoons. There are distinct differences in looks among the mountain peoples. One morning as we traveled, nearly everyone along the road looked very slim, almost gaunt. But as we crossed a mountain range in the afternoon the faces changed, showing rounder, fuller figures.
Out of the remoteness of the mountains there would appear rather large cities. These are centers of travel and business located near border crossings with China. When staying in hotels (all nice), we would wander the town before dinner to see the sights. People were always friendly and engaging. Even with the language barrier, we would find food to test at the outdoor markets.
We all agreed our biggest regret of the trip was failing to purchase one particularly appetizing portion of pork ribs from a portable BBQ stand. We were on our way to dinner and didn’t want to ruin our appetite. Dinner turned out to be goat shank Hot Pot and proved a sorry substitute for ribs. But this was the probably only meal of the trip that I didn’t care much for.
The riding was very much what I consider to be true adventure. It was a mix of all kinds of terrain on bikes well suited. It is difficult to travel anywhere in the country over 40pmh, so the little 250’s were plenty. As we proved adept at not crashing or damaging our equipment, our guide took us on more challenging routes.
One such was down a river with numerous crossings. Currents had changed the river course. Going first, our guide Thon ended up in a deep hole. I had to wade in to help push him out. Initially I was concerned about having a drowned bike. I had forgotten just how easy Honda XR’s are to work on. In no time Thon had the spark plug out and drained the carb. Then it was just a matter of pushing the starter button long enough to clear everything out. Soon we were on our way again.
Lightweight riding gear was the right call for this trip. I wore fully vented jacket and pants and an adventure style helmet. Packing as light as possible, I choose hiking boots over regular moto style boots. They lacked a bit of protection, but I made sure to wear full knee guards. After a day of riding in the river, the light boots proved to be a good choice. Once back on the open road, the wind would nearly dry them before the end of the day. Laundry service was available a couple of the nights and quite inexpensive.
Other highlights of the ride included visiting Ban Gioc Falls and Ngoum Ngao Cave in the Cao Bang region. Boating and spending the night near Thac Ba Reservoir was special too. Yet, I still feel like we only saw a small part of the country.
With 7 days of solid enjoyment behind us, our last day was a straight shot back to Hanoi. After a number of days in the relative calm of the mountains, it was a shock to the system to be back in the thick of traffic and sea of people. But I guess these are the days that make you appreciate the beautiful ones so much. Vietnam traffic is daunting for even the most experienced of riders. The seeming lack of order and control were difficult for me. This is the one reason I would recommend this trip for experienced riders only.
We all arrived back safe and sound. As much as I loved the trip, this mere fact was a big deal for me. It is the tour guide in me coming out. We did get a flat tire a few miles from the finish, but Thon masterfully rode the bike right through the heart of Hanoi with the rear end sliding from side to side.
For me Vietnam was an experience like no other. I have ridden and raced in 10 different countries, yet nothing can quite compare to this trip. The terrain, geography, people, food… all were amazing. Everything seemed exotic and beautiful. It is not lost on me the fortune of being able to travel and visit with those who have so little, yet seem happy in life.