I wanted to escape the cold Japanese winter so I dusted off a plan I had to ride from Saigon to Hanoi.
Vietnam is long and narrow and the weather varies considerably from the south to the north. In the lead up to this trip there was a huge amount of rain and I started to have doubts about riding the entire length at the same time of year. I contacted Tom a motorcycle blogger living in Vietnam a who writes the excellent Vietnam Coracle and he suggested the north might be best ridden at another time.
I already had one way motorcycle booked so I changed this from one way to 10 days loop from Saigon to see the coffee growing mountain region and then the beaches. I flew Vanilla Air out of Tokyo. Huge delays from start to finish but I arrived hotel eventually early in the morning about 4am.
Fortunately I had a few days before riding to relax and enjoy the great food so soon forgot the torture modern air travel has become. There are dozens of bike rental shops in District one Saigon but none with big bikes, all are 125cc-150cc. I arranged a Yamaha XT125 dual purpose model through Flamingo Travel. I was due to set off on Christmas day but arriving at Flamingo that morning it was raining and Tram suggested I reconsider as there was a typhoon coming that night. There should not be rain this time of year but seems I have lucked out and encountered a once in twenty years type weather event.
Going over my route it was easy to cut two days off the most northerly part and so with the rain picking up Tram helped me alter and cancel hotels and then I went to find a room for two nights, fortunately this was not difficult at all unlike other tourist spots which book out over the Christmas period.
What to do then. Have a beer of course and not worry.
Come the 27th I set off. The weather was still mixed but the rain was passing showers not steady. Riding out of HCM city was not as hard as I imagined. I got lost once mainly due to the GPS not being specific enough at junctions with flyovers but otherwise fairly painless. Traffic was not that bad, bikes all ride on the shoulder like in Thailand but even more so here with dedicated lanes.
I went south via the ferry copying the exit/entry route used by the blogger I contacted and this seemed to have me away from the city fairly quickly since the river formed a natural barrier to expansion in that direction.
My riding up to lunch time was just getting used to the road conditions and the motorcycle. The Yamaha XT 125 had a seat that was both narrow and firm and I regretted not bringing my Airhawk seat pad which I had considered then left behind. I looked for a shop that might sell something in the way of a cushion but could not find anything.
I stopped for lunch at one of the many coffee shops. Vietnam certainly has a big coffee culture. Not many photos, an uneventful afternoon. Having spoke wheels means tubes which I strongly dislike as a puncture cannot be fixed with the inflation can I carry with me so this situation was always on the back of my mind like when I had the transalp in Croatia.
I arrived my hotel just flaked out awhile. I could feel I had a cold coming on so rested before going and looking for dinner. My room tonight cost just $15 yet was superb near new quality hotel. Same would cost $40 in Thailand, $70 in the Philippines (but be broken in some way) and $100 in Australia.
I wound up in another hotel that had a restaurant and being the only westerner was a source of amusement. The girls there suggested a couple of dishes and I ended up with this huge feast for next to nothing.
Day two I wandered north west to ride the Ho Chi Min route close to the border with Cambodia. This area grows a lot of coffee and nearly every house was drying coffee beans in their front yard. I was fighting a cold/flu but nothing bad so far.
I was warned this day would be a big ride on poor roads but actually apart from one section on route QL28 about 20km before Gia Nghia the road was good with nice sweeping curves. However you cannot go too fast. Besides having a front brake smaller than I have seen on some pushbikes around any corner can be a vehicle in your lane on a suicidal overtake or a cow, goat or dog.
Trucks from behind also expect you to be off the road when they sound their horn and will use all the lane. Towns all display the national flag proudly and all have decorative arches. (these are illuminated at night with colourful LEDs)
The noise pollution here is possibly worse than India due to the same custom of beeping but with everything having air horns. However the bikes all use standard mufflers rather then zero baffles like in Philippines which means off the main road it can be surprisingly quiet.
The volume of traffic is not as high as I expected. People told me the riding here was insane however the roads are mostly in good condition, in major towns they are wide and landscaped and rival some western cities.
Things are cheaper here yet everything is also better looked after and there is not poverty like found everywhere in the Philippines. Indonesia IMO has higher volume of scooters and their speed is higher in towns than Vietnam making it a more intense riding experience than here.
The seat on the XT125 was still troubling me but I was distracted by the weather when a huge storm appeared overhead. I pushed on to ride away from it wearing my rain jacket too try cut the chill. I should be 30 degrees hot and fine this time of year so I was not prepared for autumn type conditions.
Eventually I got clear of the worst of it with just as some light so I stopped for a bite to eat at a banh mi stand, which is like a subway roll with tasty filling. Cost was just 0.50c.
Took shelter in a coffee shop for while as a few showers passed. Coffee here is strong like a espresso shot (yet via drip filter but not weak like drip coffee usually is) that drips into a small cup with some condensed milk in the bottom. You add ice to this that melts and dilutes to taste. It’s served with barley tea and is really unique. Cost 55c.
I arrived at my hotel by just 3pm which was great as I beat the rain that started shortly after in earnest and it was also about the time my energy was on reserve with the flu. Tonight I am staying in the best hotel in town. Real four star high floor room tonight but still cheap as chips. I promptly fell asleep for an hour. Not feeling as young as I think I am today.
Day three I should have been riding north into heart of coffee growing region but I cut the ride at this point due to loosing two days at the start and will just go to Nha Trang today. Conditions were cold and gloomy with occasional showers – after affect from the typhoon. I slugged it out and forgot about the hard seat with the cold and often muddy roads being rather slippery.
The descent to the coast was not bad riding, the road was drying and I was glad to feel the temperature rise and be able to get out of the wet weather gear.
Riding here this is what you will encounter a lot, often with just seconds to react and get off the road, you cannot go very fast.
I had a wonderful experience when I stopped outside a school that had a shady tree to eat another banh mi roll I had just purchased from roadside vendor. Within minutes I was surrounded by young guys all trying to speak to me. They had very little English but I managed to show on the phone a map of Australia and communicated a few things.
Everyone here rides scooters from a young age but the Yamaha XT was a novelty so a few guys tried it out for size. Everyone was offering me cigarettes, smoking being the other national pastime besides coffee even for youngsters and I was really touched by the friendliness. These sort of things do not happen riding a bus.
Actually everywhere I have been the people have been incredibly friendly. It flies in the face of some of the negative blog reports I had read and other peoples often savage feedback on visiting the country which had put me off riding here for many years. Basically everything bad I had been told so far was proving to be false. You really have to go everywhere and see for yourself.
I arrive at Nha Trang on the coast but the weather is not good, the seas are rough and brown after the typhoon. It is a shame as I will stay here a few nights and wanted to see some of the islands and ride along the beach but then on the flip side of the coin I now have the flu good and proper and need to rest up so this weather suits that.
Nha Trang is a beach resort town which has not yet been over developed but there are a lot of cranes. The southern few beachside blocks everything is in Russian and the streets are full of Russian families escaping the harsh winter. It reminds me a bit of Jomtien beach Pattaya but with less development.
Happy new years! I am writing this as the clock ticks over, very quiet night for me just resting up in my room with a couple glasses of wine. Back on the bike tomorrow, short route but nearly all of it is a climb up a mountain range to a place they call the Paris of Vietnam.
Hopefully the weather and I will both be better!PART TWO