Asia / Vietnam

Vietnam: The North



The plan was to leave early to avoid as much as possible of the frantic traffic we had witnessed the day before, and finally lay eyes on Ha long bay, a destination that I’ve always wanted to visit

. Hanoi’s almost eight million inhabitants – just like the rest of the country – transport themselves primarily on scooters (“motorbikes”) in a driving style that for an outsider seem to follow little logic. They are everywhere and in all directions. When we rolled out of the parking lot at 8 am the bustle was already well underway.

We had picked up our bikes – two almost new Honda XR 150 cc’s – on the afternoon of our arrival, in an alleyway shop in the city’s Old Quarters. “Big bikes!”, exclaimed the locals, “small bikes…” we were thinking, a tiny bit worried that they might not be all that up for a 2500 km journey in 12 days. Little did we know that the little buggers would turn out to be everything we ever wanted.

When we left Hanoi it was cloudy and humid, with the temperature a motorcycle-perfect 26 °C. As in any country that’s run by traffic suggestions rather than traffic rules, it took a few moments of breath-holding and throttle-cramping before the rhythm became comfortable, and we realized that there is much more logic (or at least acceptance of co-existence) to the madness than it seems at first. 
We had heard from other travellers that finding the way out of Hanoi could be tricky, so I snagged a local SIM-card for us to be able to Google-Maps our way out onto the highway. These experiences make me think of our parents’ generation, and how hard it must have been to take trips in foreign lands without the Google Maps Lady competently guiding you through a Vietnamese concrete jungle.

The finish line for our first day was Ha Long Bay, a popular tourist destination famous for its UNESCO protected limestone formations and islands scattered across the water of the bay area in the thousands. The spot had been on our radar since it featured in the Top Gear Vietnam Special. (We know, we know).
Getting out of Hanoi was definitely the intense experience that we had anticipated, with the many highway ring lanes snaking in and out between entry/exit ramps for the larger roads heading to destinations deciphered only in Vietnamese. We had to get on to the expressway towards Ha Long Bay, but quickly discovered the road wasn’t open for motorcycles when we all of a sudden were alone on two wheels among the many trucks and cars. After a moment we spotted the smaller road running in parallel below the airborne expressway, where plenty of our fellow bikers coasted along in the sunny and considerably more fume-free landscape. This was something we would encounter several times over the following weeks on the larger toll roads, where the motorbike lane would discretely turn off just by the toll gate.

The bikes, the scenery, the language, the everyday rituals of exchange for food/water/necessities; everything was new to both of us and we stopped a lot that day for photos, drone filming, water and snack hunting, baggage adjustment, ass and leg stretching and so on. The roads were so far in better condition than we had anticipated, and it seemed to be no problem finding gas stations even outside the larger towns and villages. As for us as riders, we had both done many thousands of kilometres in several countries before and felt relatively comfortable popping up on unknown bikes in an unknown country in unknown traffic. But the season is short in our current home country Denmark and I could feel my untrained motorcycle muscles protesting as the day went on. We hadn’t done any of the previous trips together either, so getting to know each other’s riding rhythm was great fun.

It was only 7 pm and we had barely said a word to each other over the last hour, both nodding off over two warm beers and a plate of grilled oysters fresh from the harvest basket. To try to keep ourselves from falling asleep too early we took a walk down to the beach after the meal to feel some sand under our feet and dip a toe in the warm ocean. Living in Sweden does not make you spoiled for such moments and it was wonderful to hear the sound of waves without being packed into a down-jacket. I was fast asleep in a deck chair in three minutes.

Ha Long Bay

The jet lag helped us up early the next day, but we were still exhausted. After having crashed so hard the evening before we had decided to go easy on ourselves and start the day with a boat tour of the bay, before continuing the ca 200km south to Ninh Bình. Although definitely touristy, the bay area is absolutely stunning and well worth a visit. A traditional Bahn Mi sandwich for lunch, and we were again ready to mount the horses (ponies?).

Ninh Bình

Driving day two was even more enjoyable than the first day and we were whimsically weaving in and out of lanes between trucks, cars and the million scooters. With an average traffic pace of 60-80km/h on the larger roads, our little Hondas had no problems keeping up with anyone. The hours flew by and after a short coffee break where we got acquainted with the strongest coffee known to man, we were already driving into Ninh Bình around five in the afternoon. As we had finally started to wake up from our jet lag coma we drove out to an area just outside of town that looked like it could provide us with some great nature and dirt track riding. That evening was all big smiles, and the landscape was painfully beautiful as the dust settled from us playing around the lily-filled lakes and limestone hills.

First thing in the morning on day three we went back to the limestone area from the night before to get a final hit of off-road riding and natural beauty before heading on South. It was today we were going to find the Ho Chi Minh trail and it was already baking hot. The Ho Chi Minh trail was expanded from old trade routes during the Vietnam war by the Việt Cộng and the People’s Army of Vietnam, in order for the North to transport weapons and materiel to its southern allies. It branches into Cambodia and Laos through challenging mountain, jungle and rainforest areas. Since the construction of the more modern and efficient Highway One closer to the coast, much traffic has re-routed away from the highlands. For us, this meant that we were basically alone on top quality roads twisting through a breath-taking landscape. I have never had a better day on a bike in my life.

Again the hours flew by as we were gliding along in a pleasant breeze at 60-70 km/h. Farmers in the traditional rice hats worked the rice fields and coffee plantations and herded their cattle. Later in the afternoon, small clouds of smoke started drifting in over the road, smelling of grilled meat and burning plastic and mixing in with the heavy smell of tropical forest and rice fields. We were getting further and further away from the tourist trails. For the previous nights’ accommodations, we had sat down with our morning coffee and used the typical traveller hotel web pages to identify an address to aim for as the final destination for the day. Now when we were off the tourist grid we had to pick a town within the desired kilometre range and see what we could find when we got there.

Thái Hòa

Around 5 pm we arrived in the somewhat anonymous town of Thái Hòa in the Nghe An province and tried to locate the only building that Google Maps had associated with “hotel” in the vicinity. We were met by a worn-down pink soviet-era style façade that still hinted to the place’s former glory in the communist heydays, where the rooftop terrace surely must have hosted great barbeque pork dinners for the guests of the 30-odd rooms at some point. It was completely empty now and not unlikely we were the first travellers to have come by in a long time. A giant portrait of ‘Uncle Ho’ next to a few communist flags on top of a heavy solid wood chiffonier and a few cans of Vietnamese-branded Red Bull on top of an equally heavy solid wood reception counter were the only things decorating the lobby.
The fluorescent light tubes, mosquito-net-draped bed and the creaking mint green ceiling fan in our room fit the setting perfectly. Decent bargain for $10 US/€8.5 per night for the two of us. We dropped off our bags, had a shower, and found a busy beer stall on a corner where we squeezed in on two tiny red plastic chairs and shared a plate of roasted peanuts and a few cans with the local construction workers.

At this point in the trip, we had started to find a good rhythm. We could see that approximately 200-300 km per day would get us to Ho Chi Minh City in good time and that any longer distances would be unnecessarily tiring. Ideally, we would avoid the highways as much as possible and spend the extra time going on the slower and twisty outback roads. A 300 km-day meant we had to do more highway driving to get to our evening stop in time, so we squeezed in the long stretches when the landscape and riding possibilities were less interesting. Day four we did a 160 km-day as we were still on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the riding was incredible, while day five we dashed all the 320 km down the coast to the former capital and imperial city of Huế.

Somewhere on the road from Thái Hòa to Huế, there was a small town, a warm breeze and a restaurant with a barbeque serving up the most delicious little dish we ran in to on the trip: Thịt bò nướng lá lốt, or grilled beef in wild betel leaves. How easy it is to travel when you have such a range of simple but beautiful foods within reach everywhere you go. Few food stalls offered translations (or written menus to translate) but pointing and guessing rarely went wrong and we ate ourselves through Vietnam on delicious rice and noodle dishes, soups, rolls, buns, grilled meats, fruits and vegetables. There was an incident with a fish eye soup that we shall consider an unfortunate blip on the radar.

The landscape and agriculture changed with the altitude drop coming from the mountains in the west, and the coastal road to Huế took us through a partly sandy and rice-field scattered area where the smell of sea and seafood mixed in with the smell of forest vegetation. It was very warm and at midday we threw ourselves into the waves for the first time, dying to feel the water and cool down from the drive. We had left really early in the morning to be able to both chew up a lot of kilometres, but also to make a stop at the Demilitarized Zone and the Vin Moc Tunnels at the old border between the North and South Vietnam. After our swim, we headed out to a pointy edge on the coastline where the Vin Moc villagers fought the Americans for their survival between 1966 and 1972. Over the six years they built an underground system reaching almost 2 kilometres, first moving their village 10 metres underground, then 30 metres as the American bombings got more efficient. Around 60 families lived in tunnels, several babies were born underground, and, amazingly, not a single villager died.