FROM the chaos of bustling city streets to the incredible serenity of the mountains, from gaudy displays of wealth and bling to the incredibly poor countryside, from a war-torn past to a blossoming future, Vietnam is an incredible country.
The people are wonderful and they get around by scooter and small capacity bike, so we did too when the editors teamed up with Vietnam Motorbike Tours to explore the country with a group of Cycle Torque readers.
Vietnam Motorbike Tours is a well established motorcycle tour company, run by Australian Jason Thatcher, and his local Vietnamese guides and management team based in Nha Trang, a seaside resort town about 50 minutes flight from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
Just the trip by bus from Saigon Airport to our hotel was enough to get the pulse racing. There are literally thousands of bikes filling the streets of Saigon.
Our guide told us that because it was Saturday traffic was light. On Monday it would be chaos. Well, that just blew everyone’s mind, that and the few close shaves between our bus and motorcycles/pushbikes.
A week later back in Saigon and the close shaves were just second nature for the tour group, we were used to them by then. Saigon itself was where the group of 22 eager souls met for the first time, with a meet and greet at a local restaurant giving most of us our first taste of the local food and beverages.
We had actively promoted the tour in Cycle Torque Magazine, on our website and Facebook page, and we were overwhelmed with inquiries. Unfortunately Vietnam Motorbike Tours doesn’t have a limitless supply of machines so a number of people missed out. From NSW were Glen and Sue Thackeray, Tony Penfold, James Alvarez, Ben Goodwin, Cherie Welsh, Glenn Rumford, Kim and Kay Miller, Laura Jones, Mandy Jones and Dave McIlvenny and from Cycle Torque there was Nigel Paterson and Chris and Kerrie Pickett. From Queensland we had Peter Russell and Thor Kampe along for the ride, as well as Katy and Jurgen Harmsen.
Flying in from Perth were Mark and Teresa Cifuentes, while Colin Price was the lone South Australian on the trip. A few of the group has arrived a couple of days earlier and had already sampled the ‘wild’ night life of Saigon, but Jason ensured us we were in for a taste of the ‘real’ Vietnam, away from the bright lights and tourist traps. The next day we flew into Nha Trang where we checked out the bikes, met the local guides, got an idea of our itinerary for the week, and had dinner at a fantastic beach-side restaurant.
For the rest of the week though there would be no plane rides, we would be getting amongst it on motorcycles. We weren’t sure what we were in for.
Tour Day One: From the looks on people’s faces there was some trepidation about riding in local traffic conditions. Nha Trang was nothing like Saigon but it is certainly much more chaotic than the average Australian is used to. It was therefore a smart idea when Jason and his team took us for a jaunt around the Nha Trang area for the day. We travelled to an area called Long Beach where local people have constructed a beach-side village. The structures are built from bamboo and scrap timber, with awnings out into the water. In high tide the water rushes up to the deck chairs, wetting the feet of a number of our group. Little cafes catered for locals and tourists.
It was a very basic affair but you could buy drinks, hot food and fresh fruit. It was a very cool interlude and a great way to spend the day.
Of course we didn’t have all day so we continued on to the outskirts of Nha Trang where we rode down some dirt tracks, past rice paddies and to a riverside restaurant. How much for the three-course lunch? Try six dollars including a cool drink or two. In the afternoon we cruised along to a fishing village north of Nha Trang where we saw people sorting through the day’s catch – everything is used, nothing thrown back – and fishermen readying the vessels for the evening’s fishing. When we say fishermen we do mean men and women.
We quickly worked out that Vietnamese women are very hard workers, something we would continue to see during our trip, especially in the countryside. One of our group even got into the swing of things by helping a fisherman bag ice so it could be transported out to the boats. Riding back into the town itself at peak hour was an eye opener but everyone got through unscathed.
Nha Trang is renowned for its blue water and clear skies but the area was on the tail-end of a unseasonal cyclone so we didn’t get to see that side of it.
Nevertheless it is a very beautiful area with nice restaurants, and lots do do if you are a tourist, like scuba diving, parasailing or fishing. If, like a few of the ladies on our group did, you feel the need to be pampered you can check out some of the spas which are popular and cheap.
Tour Day Two: The first major leg of the tour was from Nha Trang to Da Lat which is located on the Langbian Plateau some 1500 metres above sea level. The City itself was very popular with the French, which was heavily involved in Vietnam for around 100 years up until the mid-1950s. The main reason the French loved Da Lat so much was the cool climate, and you can find many examples of French Architecture there, including the very pretty railway station.
The trip to Da Lat saw us travelling through numerous villages.
Almost like Eastern Europe it seems it’s one long village, with the roadside usually taken up with housing, and open countryside behind, not suburbs separated by open countryside like we are generally used to in the Australian countryside. We visited a small workshop where tools to cut plants were being made.
There were piles of them and our guide explained that the metal used to make them were of inferior quality so many needed to made because they wear out quickly. For many years local people used the steel from American tanks and planes left over from the Vietnam War, but these are almost non-existent now, with examples more likely to be seen in war museums, not the countryside.
We also visited a local village inhabited by what our guides called ‘Minority People’. About 80 per cent of the population is a certain race, with the other 20 per cent a little different and found in less populated areas. Even the dialect is different, with city people only understanding about 60 per cent of the minority language.
To get to Da Lat we had to ride over a mountain pass which was breathtakingly beautiful, even if it was raining for much of the trip. At one lookout we caught up with a couple of French guys doing the Vietnam bike trip, only they had bought bikes in Vietnam for a few hundred dollars.
They were having a blast and were travelling lightly indeed. We were to see a number of other western tourists doing the Vietnam gig during our trip too, some riding their own bikes, being doubled by guides or doing a trip like ours, although our group was much bigger. There was a bit of good natured racing between a few of the tour participants too, all at 30-40km/h up the steep mountain pass.
Once in Da Lat it was out to check the markets and grab a meal. Normally in these areas finding western style food is not easy but Da Lat had a few, especially one built right on the lake. A pretty city, and at night it was a most spectacular sight.
Tour Day Three: On our way from Da Lat to Lake Lak we stopped into a crazy house in Da Lat, designed by celebrated architect Hang Nga. Crazy House, yes that’s what it’s called, rises about five storey above its suburban neighbours, rattling and squirming its entrails and bones into the skyline, great sweeps of black and yellow concrete, bizarrely shaped glass openings, beautifully peach-coloured walkways that are a cross between a tunnel and cave, and sculptured rooftops that appear menacing. It’s also an active hotel and had everyone on the tour amazed.
After this amazing piece of architecture it was up the road to where the staple crop is coffee. There is a few types of coffee grown but the most interesting is the Weasel Coffee. The coffee beans are eaten by a local Asian Palm Civet which looks alarmingly like a weasel, and as the pulp of the coffee berries are digested the left over hard coffee beans pass out the little Civet’s rear end, and are then processed for consumption via a coffee machine of some sort. Don’t worry they are washed first. Not everyone in the tour group was adventurous enough to sample this particular coffee but those who did came away impressed.
Outside of the major cities the Vietnamese drink coffee a little different to westerners. A small glass has a condensed milk product poured in first with the coffee placed in second. Once it’s stirred you drink away but it’s gone in two or three mouthfuls. It’s normally luke warm or it can be taken with ice to make it real cold. After this we ventured to a silk factory where the little worms were working away like slaves. It’s a very interesting process but what perhaps more interesting is the machinery used to produce silk products.
A couple of French made weaving machines are used and they were built in 1927. It’s amazing to think they are still in use and do look as though they have not been modified to bring them into the 21st Century. They are fully automated too, with a script used to produce the specific design of the silk which is then placed onto a roll. It’s the same method you would see on an old Pianola which uses a different script to play different songs. You have to remember that Vietnam is still a third world country and new machines cost money the manufacturers don’t really have.
A massive Buddhist temple was next on our travels. Most of Vietnam’s population are Buddhist, and the temple is open to all visitors. Some took the opportunity to check out the temple while others relaxed on its steps. Once we arrived at Lake Lak we were treated to a display of singing and dancing by local Menong tribes people which included most of us sampling rice wine from the communal pot and having a bit of a dance ourselves. A great night topped off by a great meal overlooking the lake.
Bikes, traffic, roads
GENERALLY speaking the capacity limit of motorcycles in Vietnam is around 175cc unless you have a work visa and bring your own bike in to the country. Locals mostly ride scooters, and it’s not uncommon to see four people on one, even though the law states only two are allowed.
Our bikes were Chinese made Lifan cruisers, with 125 or 150cc single cylinder engines providing the mojo. We did have a mechanic with us on the tour but there were very few repairs needed, and they were minor.
Everyone seemed to be pleasantly surprised with the reliability and how well the bikes handled the conditions. A few couples went two up, and just about everyone had backpacks or throw over panniers strapped on to the bike. They are a lot bigger than you might think a 150cc machine would be too, plenty of room for big guys and couples.
The little Lifans are just like any bike you might ride in Australia except the gearbox is a bit different – neutral is all the way up, with the next five gears going down. It’s a rotating style gearbox too, so if you were in top and thought you weren’t you would snick another gear only to find neutral again. This took a bit of getting used to for most riders, although by the end of day one everyone seemed to be coping fine. Riding in Vietnam is much different to Australia.
Because the bikes are of small capacity top speeds are about 100km/h down a hill. We were lucky to average about 50km/h most of the time, so a 250 kilometre day feels a lot longer than here, where you might do those kays before brekkie. Power wise it would have been nice to have a little more, only because we are used to it but you wouldn’t want to have a big bike there and try and cope with catching up quickly to slower traffic, we think this could be more of a danger than keeping up with the traffic.
While there’s plenty of bikes in Vietnam (90 million people in the country, 10 million in Saigon, with six million bikes in Saigon alone. In fact you would be lucky to go 30 seconds without seeing another bike) we reckon the biggest hazards are the buses and trucks. If you hear a loud horn most likely it’s a bus or semi trailer belting along. You need to get out of the road to stop yourself being run over.
The traffic is a bit chaotic, especially in the cities, but it’s on the open road where you’re most likely to face these crazy bus and truck drivers. If they drove like that in Australia we reckon you’d have road rage killings every day. That said, you do get used to it and spend lots of time looking in the rear view mirrors, plus you will hear the horns warning you to move aside or lose a limb, or worse. Bike riders give plenty of horn toots as well, and we were all doing it as well to let slower riders know we were coming past.
Overall you’d have to say the ability of Vietnamese riders is very high, and seeing we saw lots of babies on bikes you could say they are born on them. You get the odd thrill seeker carving you up but we found the vast majority of riders courteous.
If you are a confident rider you will be fine. Road conditions vary from reasonably good to down right atrocious. There were some sections where the road was a series of huge pot holes and washouts, and at times it was almost like a racetrack. We also did some dirt road which was ok. You have to remember Vietnam is still a third world country. Vietnam Motorbike Tours does provide open face helmets and some on the tour took this option, with nearly as many bringing their own.
Apparently February is the best time of the year to go weather wise but at times it did get hot, so some took to riding without a jacket, wearing anything from T-shirts to long sleeve light jumpers. It pays to take wet weather gear too, but a few of us bought rain jackets and pants from a local market, only to have the rain keep away for the rest of the trip.
Managing editor Paterson was very happy wearing his mesh DriRider jacket and one-piece oversuit when it rained, DriRider kevlar jeans and a flip-top Vemar helmet (which was left open 90 per cent of the time). The trick with the jeans is to get the hotel to launder them every night: that usually cost less than $1, and they were fresh for the morning.
Watch the Vietnam Tour video | YouTube – Cycle Torque Vietnam motorcycle tour Part I