It was long after dark when we arrived in Hue after what seemed like a few hours of playing our own personal video game “riding motorcycles in Vietnam”, a survival drive on pitch-black dirt roads. Taking the twistier village route down by the coast instead of the highway had been a fantastic idea at first; we ended up in the middle of a rice harvest and drove along in crawling speed to take in the beautiful scenery and the buzzing activity of the villagers, who had all come out to contribute their part of the process. Kids and dogs were playing with bicycles and footballs in the sunset as the harvest machines spat out or threshed the raw plants. Lost in the moment, we realised too late that these roads would be almost unrideable as darkness set.
On so many previous trips had I told myself to remember to bring clear-glass glasses for night riding… You could can barely see well enough in daylight and the potholes seemed like craters in the dark. With only our little beam, barely lighting up the roads, we started to think that semi-off-roading after sunset was perhaps not our best decision so far. But, on and on we crept avoiding rocks and potholes until we finally, soaking with sweat from the concentration, found the (lit) highway again. We would try to avoid as much late-night riding as possible during the rest of the trip.
Huế, the little we saw of it, seemed like a fun and energetic city. We had definitely re-connected with the tourist route again and the burger-and-fries-options were plentiful for any culinary-challenged souls in need of a Phở-break (in my view a crime when you for once have constant access to one of the best cuisines in the world). We felt we deserved a morning off and headed over to visit the Imperial City of the former Nguyen Dynasty – the last ruling family of Vietnam.
Huế had been the capital for about a century and a half until the emperor abdicated in 1945 and the communist DRV government entered into power and established itself in Hanoi. Huế was subsequently particularly exposed during the Vietnam War due to its location between the North and South. We observed the palace’s bullet holes without knowing enough about the ‘Battle of Huế’, the ‘Huế Massacre’ and other events important to remember from the bloody years in the sixties and seventies. Estimates vary widely but it is said that between 1.5 and 3.5 million people died in the almost twenty years the war lasted.
Hải Vân Pass
Riding-wise the rest of the day was going to be short but incredible. Man, had we waited for this: the Hải Vân Pass made immortal and gone to motorcycle heaven thanks to numerous travel stories from fellow bikers (and from Top Gear, we know we know). It was so fun. The day was perfectly sunny and the expressway built through the mountain for the busses and lorries kept the heavy traffic at a minimum. The pictures will have to speak for themselves for this one.
Hội An arrived quickly and our wheels stopped at a lovely bed and breakfast just outside town. We had looked forward to this so we showered and changed quickly before jumping on onto the more beer-tolerant bicycles the manager let us borrow. Through winding alleyways between tiny little houses, we followed a large stream of people down to the old harbour.
Since 1999 Hội An has been noted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its history as an old Asian trading port during the 15th to 19th century. The streets and buildings are unusually well preserved and the architecture an eclectic mix of foreign and indigenous influences. But above all, it’s just absolutely gorgeous. We strolled by the water under a million colourful lanterns and eventually ended up sitting by a sidewalk table for hours, looking at people and nursing a few Tiger’s.
The following morning was day 7; half time. We were now driving more determined for some sand and saltwater breaks and happened upon a picture-perfect, white sand beach around lunchtime. Not a single person in sight. Perhaps because only two sun-starved pale-skinned tourists like us would be insensible enough to lay and roast in the middle of the day, but we were so happy to get out of the hot boots and protective gear. Miles away from where the beach curved was a little restaurant just by the water where we pointed out our lunch from buckets filled with lobsters, crabs, clams, oysters, mussels and all other types of seafood we could imagine. Right here, right then, we needed nothing more in life.
The heroin town
Sadly we had to move on as we had quite a few hours on the highway to do before dark. The land was flat here so we used the highway to cover longer distances in less time, giving us more time for beach breaks. We eventually rolled into an anonymous town – which we would later refer to as ‘the heroin town’ – where we managed to locate a decent hotel in the same communist-style as earlier in the trip. On the map, we had seen a land tongue that seemed like a great spot to watch the sun go down (until we remembered the coast of Vietnam is in the wrong direction for sunsets) and we hurried out with the last light hour to go.
At that point, it was hard to put the finger on why it felt strange to drive through the streets of this noname town. Sure, we had come through places where tourists are rare before, but the staring was different and the mood felt a bit hostile. I might overplay this in hindsight, but it made sense when we the following day got an explanation from a young girl with excellent English skills that worked in the pharmacy next to the hotel. She told us that many people in the area were heavily reliant on heroin, using or selling, and that the pharmacy was actually not a pharmacy but a methadone clinic. As she was talking a poor-looking fellow half dragged himself up the few steps to the counter and got his goods. Now somewhat more mindful of the fact that we were total strangers in a completely unknown environment of which we could understand hardly anything of, we drove on.
Day 8 – Em’s birthday! – was sunny and humid and we could feel already in the early morning hours that it was going to be hot. I had the brilliant idea (and Em enthusiastically followed) that we should dive off the road for a bit of filming and sand riding in a cool-looking area with pine-trees and broken sunlight. Keen as she was to do her Dakar-practice debut, she started smashing along in what probably felt like neck-breaking speed, only to come off and getting her foot stuck under the bike. Through all the pain, the worst part was that it looked terrible on film too. She couldn’t believe how slow she was actually riding haha!
My extensive experience with all kinds of breaks and injuries came in handy; I tied up Em’s motorcycle boot hard as it would go and hoped it was just a sprain. Luckily it wasn’t the gear shifting foot, but she did spend the rest of the day in pain and grumpy… At least the landscape was beautiful.
Actually, there was a moment when she completely forgot about the foot. We had skipped our beach break as she couldn’t take her boot off, which would give us enough time to take a loop back inland into the mountains. We left the highway at Qui Nhơn and joined the QL19C to go the last 140 km to Tuy Hòa where we would stay for the night. It suddenly felt like being back at the Ho Chi Minh Trail again. The hours of golden afternoon light felt like they never ended as we settled into a familiar 60 km/h pace on twisty roads in the warm and beautifully smelling mountain breeze. I couldn’t stop smiling at Em in the rear mirror and we arrived in Tuy Hòa way too soon.
At some point in the day, I had sorted out our accommodation. I could see that Em was trying her best to be good company, but was dealing with a lot of pain, so I booked a little nicer-than-usual resort-like hotel right on the beach and checked into a room on the top floor with a view of the sea. The sun set to the sound of the waves as we sat with our feet up at the usual red plastic chairs with a plate of fried rice and squid between us.
In the morning the foot pain was, amazingly, almost gone. We walked down to the beach early and had a swim before breakfast. It was only 117 km to Nha Trang and we were again opting for the QL1A to get there as quickly as possible. Nha Trang is probably Vietnam’s most well-known tourist destination for beach holidays, a fact that is instantly obvious when you drive into town. Hotels are literally everywhere and shoot up almost as you look at them. There are all the recognizable franchise food and drink places you could think of, and suddenly a coconut bun on the beach costs as much as three full meals with drinks for two people, or a night’s accommodation, in most of the rest of the country. That night we were roughing it at the beach club with local microbrew beers an a few games of pool.
“You should leave for Dalat in the morning. Big rains always in the afternoon.” Our hostel hostess had put it plain and simple to us and yet here we were, freezing cold and soaking wet hiding in a watchtower as the monsoon covered the mountain. We really wanted to have that last few hours on the beach before heading inland again, and how bad could it really be? It rained so hard it seemed pointless to keep standing in that hollow watchtower – we might as well get on with it, as it would take several hours to cross the mountain pass.
The road from Nha Trang to Dalat would take us over the highest altitudes we had encountered on the trip. The road was in good condition but it was steep and narrow so it wouldn’t allow us to go very fast in any weather condition. When the rain started dripping we were still in our hoodies and jeans and not prepared at all for the sky to open up with such a force within seconds. When we finally got our rain gear on in that watchtower it was pretty pointless.
With the rain came a thick fog and it was with a mixed feeling of adventure thrill and miserableness we started climbing. Not at any point until now had the driving felt truly challenging (apart maybe for navigating those coast road potholes in the dark). Turn by turn with the sudden appearance of trucks coming towards us in the fog we passed invisible bridges and waterfalls. The steep drop on the one side of the road was more felt than observed. At some point, we passed the peak altitude of about 1700 metres above sea level and slowly descended towards the Dalat valley. It was cold up here and the wet fog really didn’t help. Like drowned cats, we finally, after five long hours, parked outside a friendly little guesthouse in town, got a pot of tea, two packs of Oreo’s and all the covers and blankets we could find and fired up anything Netflix had to offer. We must have slept for 14 hours that night.
Everything was still wet when we woke up and the little hairdryer I borrowed from the reception desk didn’t do much to help. It was much chillier in the Dalat valley in general, which is why it has become the heart of Vietnamese agriculture; produce such as roots, beets, cabbage, broccoli, herbs, berries, etc. grow much better here than in the humid and hot regions of the rest of the country. Reluctantly but without choice, we put on our damp clothes and ran up and down the street to regain body warmth and scan for decent coffee.
“Get on your bike!”I yelled at em as man with the plank had started to run towards her.
Since we hadn’t seen much of Dalat the day before we got on our bikes to go check out the lake down in the centre of the city. It seemed like a wealthy place and because of the colder climate, it also looked more like our Welsh and Swedish home environments with pine trees mixing in with beech and ash. We turned off the road and into a parking lot overlooking the lake and as Em got off her bike a helmet went flying over her head. In the direction of where the flying helmet came from, two men, that seconds ago had been enjoying a peaceful breakfast, were engaged in a full fistfight. I had caught a second helmet and we were confused over what was suddenly going on before us. A third man approached us and Em tried to give the assumed misdirected helmet back to him. He shook his head violently and signalled for us to leave… What?
Before we knew it, one of the fighting men came running in our direction, but it wasn’t until he picked up a long and thick piece of wood plank and started aiming it towards my head we realized he was actually going for us. The other fighting man caught him just as he was about to hit and threw him off balance in the last second. What the hell was going on.
As I was still seated on my bike, I started and drove closer to the street to avoid the man charging at me again. “Get on your bike!” I yelled to Em and as she was fumbling to start it the man with the plank had started to run towards her instead. His friend came to rescue again and we manage to drive off on the sidewalk as the traffic was too thick for us to get out on the street. I don’t know how long he followed us running with that plank raised but he eventually disappeared out of sight of my rear mirror.
What really happened that morning? We told the story to friendly locals we met in the days following and asked what they thought about it. It is not easy to know, but some version of a lingering hatred for Americans, which had translated to white people in general, that some Vietnamese supposedly hold, was usually offered. We will never really know, but whatever the reason might have been, it was not representative of the encounters we had had so far. The slightly deflated mood we had when we finally left Dalat was soon gone when the gorgeous mountain roads opened up in front of us in the sunshine.
Ho Chi Minh City, the finish line
Ho Chi Minh City wasn’t far away now. Two days more on the bikes, and we were getting quite eager to reach the finish line. The most exciting riding was already behind us, minus the two or so hours it took us to get back to the lower altitudes from Dalat. Bikers in droves came swarming up the mountain as we were going down. As the topography flattened out we stopped for our daily coconut rehydration, dug out the sun lotion for the arms and bandanas to cover our mouths from dust from the traffic that would get heavier the closer we got to Ho Chi Minh.
The final night on the road we spent in an unnamed hotel in an unnamed city after sharing a doughy pizza (even I fell in for the western temptation in the end) in an unnamed restaurant. The following morning was dusty and hot, the traffic busy and loud. The final leg of the marathon, and for the first time, it actually felt like an endurance race. Coconuts, Oreo’s, too hot to eat lunch, litres and litres of water, weaving in and out of traffic for hours and hours; it felt like a really long day.
Some 20 km outside Ho Chi Minh we ran out of mobile data and had to do some actual navigation to find the way. What could have taken an hour took three and before we knew it we found ourselves surrounded by a million scooters going in circles on the many on/off ramps that seemed to go around but never in into the actual city. Aiming for the slightly denser gathering of skyscrapers in the horizon we finally reached the square where the statue of “Uncle Ho” was happily waving at us. The guard we accidentally pissed of by disgracefully parking our extremely dirty bikes on the beautiful marble chose not to arrest us in the end, and we concluded the trip with a selfie of our sooty, sweaty, burned and happy faces together with the Nation’s Father.