In the beginning
Couple months ago we were looking at online forums about riding motorcycle in Vietnam. Some folks raved about it, praising how easy it was to acquire and ride a bike around the country. Others pointed out the insanity of the traffic and that even experienced riders should not venture in this choice, highlighting the amount of accidents and the legal side effects of a crash. So we kind of parked the idea on the side for the time being.
You buy a Honda Win 110cc in Hanoi for $250-300 and sell it in Ho Chi Minh City. Or vice versa.While in Thailand, we met many travelers just like us who did buy a bike and travel with it for several weeks, without major concerns. With a couple other pointers, we looked again, this time looking for short term rentals with potentially a guide that would know where to go. We reached out to a few companies but the one who got back to us didn’t seem to be a great fit, from a budget and values standpoint. One company who had been recommended to us, Easy Riders, never answered us and given their shady website we assumed they were not around anymore. So we had given up the idea of riding in Vietnam altogether and were going to only rent a scooter here and there to go around the towns we would visit.
And this happened. Getting off the train station in Da Nang one morning, declining all taxi rides and hotels’ offers we were getting, two guys came up and talk to us a couple times to get us to our hotel in a surprisingly good English. Their price was very realistic so we said yes, and followed them. They took us to their bikes and on the front wheel I noticed the “Easy Rider” plate. Wow! You found us!!
I’ll cut short of the next steps but we basically signed up for a 3 days trip with them through the central part of Vietnam.
So Mÿ picked us up at 8:00 with his bike and … a scooter! We agreed that I would ride one of the bikes, but no way I would do 500km on a scooter. So Solene and I hoped on the Honda Master 125cc while our guide took the scooter with the luggage. Quite an odd looking set up…
Our road map for the next few days:
Sightseeing as you can imagine
We went through the Ruins of ancient civilization Cham at My Sòn. The Cham were fishermen and pirates in the III century who escaped the Chinese domination at that time and through the next 500years built their own culture, influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism. They resisted the Khmer attacks during the X century and their golden age was in the XI century. They later defeated the Mongols but the civilization disappeared in the 1600, under combined attacks from North Vietnamese and Khmers.
The site was a capital and had over 70 towers and buildings. Nowadays, only a dozen remain, still beautiful but time, wars and bombings from the Americans got the most out of the site.
Later we stopped by at some minorities villages in the high Plateau. Different from the Chams, they speak their own language (similar to the Mhongs in Sapa), and have their own traditions and customs. Each village has a tall roof building which is used as communal room where the elders meet or where traditional customs are celebrated. The kids were very friendly even if we forgot to bring them candies.
Vietnam might be highly influenced by Buddhism, Christianism is very present and we encountered several churches along the way. Christianism started to spread in Vietnam in the early 18th century. On the left the Wooden Church in Kontum, erected by Catholics missionaries in 1913. On the right, the more recent church built by local minorities.
We rode on the Ho chi min road, which was initially the trail used by communists to smuggle weapons at night during the war, from the north to the south.
There was also this War memorial, may be 40km north of Kontum, in the middle of nowhere. Our guide explained that this place was the first town that the communist took back from the Americans before winning the war. The guy on the foreground in the statue is rising a Kalashnikof and we had to take a picture on the tank. I think our guide would have left us if we didn’t do it. It seemed a big deal for him.
Local culture we would have never seen
This is one of the reason we don’t regret the independent “ride your own bike”. Having a guide was great to know where to go, but also to know what to do and who to talk to.
We met locals who make tiles for traditional roofs:
We visited a cotton factory that then sell their raw cotton to local artisans (remember the numerous tailor shops in the nearby town of Hoi An?)
We smoked tobacco in a tiny market the same way than GrandMa’ has been doing it for over 40years, straight out of rolled up leaves! It gave me quite a headache…
There is something in south east Asia about swiping. Everywhere there is someone swiping the front of their house, a street corner or the sidewalk. And always with old school broom. We still don’t know why it’s such a big deal but we got close to the brooms! It’s all made by hand, each women is part of a “factory line” and does one task, then hands it off to the next person.
All about rice
In case you didn’t know, rice is at the center of the Vietnamese cuisine. “having a meal” is “àn cóm” in Vietnamese, which means literally “eating rice”. And we got the chance to see several aspects of it:
Planting rice was on my secret bucket list after seeing of the rice fields in Sapa. They were not planting at the time so when I saw people at work from the motorbike I stopped to take pictures. They were super friendly and when offered me to get dirty with them, I didn’t think twice! As you can imagine, it’s a lot harder than it seems, especially if you try to match their pace.
We then met the rice crepe maker. Basically, they boil rice and water and then crush it together to make a milk-like liquid, that is then spread a few times over a hot linen to make rice crepes. The crepes will be sun dried for 10-15 min in the sun. They will slice the crepes and make rice noodles with it but it can also be roasted in the oven to make crackers for a Phó.
As you can see, it’s pretty easy to make!
Finally, we went into a small house in the mountains where they were making rice wine. It’s fermented rice and alcohol that is then heated up and distilled. Take a sip and you are back on the road!
On the road
A road trip wouldn’t be complete without a few unexpected stories and some beautiful landscapes!
It’s not quite the rainy season but we went through a few scattered showers here and there. Fortunately, our guide had a few rain jackets in his bike and had wrapped our bags in plastic.
Monkey bridges are fun!
We even had a waterfall for ourselves! Quite a refreshing break after a few hours on the bike.
Some little guys who ended up on a Vietnamese BBQ somewhere…
Great scenery all the way!
Motorbike added a new flavor to our trip, getting us to remote places that we would have never seen otherwise.
Wonders on roadside
All along the way, Mÿ would pull on the side without any obvious reason. We quickly realized that these quick stops were very interesting for that we learned a bunch about local fruits and plants that we would have easily missed. Pineapple, Peanuts, Cinnamon, Rubber, Cashew nuts, Manioc, Pepper…
All in all, Motorbike proved to be the best choice for independent travels. It added a new flavor to our trip, getting to remote places that we would have never visited and learning from our local guide about what is Vietnam.