American Motorcyclist February 2018
Exploring Moto Mysteries In Vietnam
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.
I think it is safe to say that, for Americans, Vietnam is a land of mystery.
Having grown up in the era of the Vietnam 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 the warmth of the people.
This is a land of hearty inhabitants emerging from generations of political struggles. Yet, nowhere did I encounter anyone who wanted to talk politics or social issues. They seemed to know as little of me as I did of them.
Arriving in a foreign country for the first time is always an experience in sensory overload. Hanoi is no exception. The evening in Hanoi was entertaining. The tourist area is full of bars, outside markets and street food.
Scooters dominate the country. They are everywhere and do everything. Four people is generally considered the maximum capacity. But I saw scooters hauling five pigs, two bags of cement, a motorcycle, lumber and windows. 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. There were thousands of scooters.
The next morning in Hanoi, we were off early to find our tour guide.
Off-road 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. The bikes were 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. Like a school of fish, dancing one way and then another, scooters, trucks and buses all get along. There are few cars outside of the city. The horn is used for everything. Unlike the American perception, it is considered a courtesy.
We spent much of the first day traveling northwest along the Red River. Our eight-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 mild temperatures and seemed to miss most of the forecasted rains.
About Chilly White
Chilly White comes from a long line of motorcycle riders. His grandfather, Lowell White, got his first bike in early 1920s and went on to become a Harley dealer in Washington State. His father, Gordon White, has a racing career spanning nearly 50 years; he is still racing at age 81. Chilly is a four-time ISDE medalist, who now guides tours in Baja. He writes for the Bikebandit.com blog. You can find him on Instagram @Enduro360.
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 XRs 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, we 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 welcoming 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. 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 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.
Into the Mountains
After a full day in the lowlands, we started to climb toward 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 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 of the country and people that we would have otherwise missed.
Much of the first two days of travel was by 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 some small community in the mountains.
Friendly People, Great Food
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 small villages, most growing rice, sugar cane or tea in nearby fields. It seems women 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 crowded the roads in the afternoons.
There are distinct differences in appearance 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.
A True Adventure
The riding was very much what I consider to be true adventure. It was a mix of all kinds of terrain on well-suited bikes. It is difficult to travel anywhere in the country over 40 mph, so the little 250s were plenty.
As we proved adept at not crashing or damaging our equipment, our guide took us on more challenging routes.
One route was along a river, with numerous crossings. Currents had changed the river course. Going first, 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 XRs 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 a fully vented jacket and pants and an adventure-style helmet. I chose 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. Back on the open road, the wind would nearly dry them before the end of the day.
Back to the Lowlands
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 seven days of solid enjoyment behind us, our last day was a straight shot back to Hanoi. After 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 those 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.
As much as I loved the trip, this mere fact was a big deal for me: We all arrived back safe and sound. It is the tour guide in me coming out.
For me, Vietnam was an experience like no other. I have ridden and raced in 10 countries, yet nothing can quite compare to this trip. The terrain, geography, people, food—all were amazing.
Everything seemed exotic and beautiful. Not lost on me is the fortune of being able to travel and visit with those who have so little, yet seem happy in life.
- Tour company: Offroadvietnam.com
- Visas are required for U.S. citizens; use a service like Govietnamvisa.com
- Tipping is not expected, but a modest tip is very appreciated
- Check the U.S. Centers for Disease Control website for recommended vaccinations
- Credit card use and ATM availability are common only in cities
- Outside of major cities, prices are low ($5 meals, $20 rooms)
- Even in cities, prices are moderate
- Backpacker culture is common in northern Vietnam, with many hostels and homestays
- Exchange rate is 27,000 Dong to $1; the big numbers take a bit to get used to
- Phone SIM card is available at airport; $16 for 60gb data; ATM at airport, too
- We used WhatsApp for group messaging and to phone home; worked great
- Cell service and Wi-Fi are available everywhere
- Make sure to bring basics—like sunscreen and mosquito repellant—that are not readily available outside of cities.
- I took malaria pills, but never saw a mosquito.