14 Days from Hanoi to Saigon – Riding a Motorbike across Vietnam (Part 2)

If you missed Part 1, the background to riding across Vietnam, it explains what convinced me to take the risk in hiring a bike and ride from the north to south of Vietnam. You may also be interested in my (semi-serious) guide to road laws in Vietnam.

Motorbike on a country road on the way from Hanoi to Mai Chau

I am very grateful to Style Motorbikes who assisted me during this trip. I have not been paid to recommend them, however I would happily encourage anyone looking to rent a bike in Vietnam to check them out. This route was mostly their recommendation with some personal touches along the way. Accommodation is everywhere so grab a bike and get exploring!

Finally you may be wondering why I use the names Ho Chi Minh City and Saigon interchangeably, I explain this at the end.

Day 1 – Hanoi to Mai Chau – 140km

Tip: Before leaving Hanoi make sure you have explored the sites in the city and Halong Bay. I recommend visiting Halong Bay on an organised tour rather than riding there. Most operators offer free, or low cost, hotel transfer to the boats. Having watched as my bus driver fought the traffic on some rather shabby roads it would be a long and stressful first ride to meet the boat on time on your own, especially if that was your first day riding in Vietnam.

Bike loaded with luggage in the shop before leaving

Picking up the bike and seeing my luggage strapped to the back for the very first time I felt a strange combination of the most excited, and most terrified, I had been during my whole trip so far. I hadn’t ridden in several years and the idea of being let loose on the crazy streets of Vietnam got the adrenaline pumping.

The first hurdle was finding petrol. As the bikes are all kept inside the shops overnight they have just enough fuel in them to get to the petrol station. Waving goodbye to the helpful staff I pulled onto the main road and immediately had to cross 4 lanes of traffic to get to an exit on the other side of the dual carriageway. Still wondering if I had made the right decision I quickly came across the petrol station and watched the cost tick up in the hundreds of thousands for a couple of litres of fuel, just like being at home!

Fully fuelled and having checked the map it was time for the hardest part of the next 2 weeks, escaping Hanoi. Traffic in the cities is hard to imagine. Lane markings, one way streets, traffic lights, all of these are advisory it seems as hundreds of mopeds and bikes fight for space amongst the cars, buses and trucks in an amazing ballet that leaves you mystified how there aren’t more crashes. Horns blare and lights flash as you’re passed on both sides with vehicles travelling in all directions. This is not for the faint hearted!

The best advice I heard too late is to find a Grab driver (think Uber on a bike) and ask them to lead the way out of the city so all you have to do is follow them.

Instead I slowly made my way from junction to junction, stopping every few hundred metres to check Google Maps, occasionally finding myself in a swarm of mopeds sitting perilously exposed across lanes of cross traffic and hoping the adage about safety in numbers was true.

Eventually the roads widened and the high rises fell away leaving only pot holes, the odd cow and an endless parade of street food vendors.

Here it started to become enjoyable. The average speed increased to a dizzying 40km/h (25mph!) and I was able to relax a little and appreciate the scenery.

View of limestone monolith and fields of rice en route to Mai Chau

The route to Mai Chau involves generally sticking to the main road and heading straight and there are plenty of road side huts providing food and drink if you need it.

As you get farther away from Hanoi the countryside begins to show its beauty with gigantic limestone monoliths, similar to those found in the waters of Halong Bay, surrounded by mountains and lush green forests. You could stop a hundred times to take photos on the way and still miss things.

About 100km in you’ll start heading up into the mountains themselves. The climb is quite impressive and there is a noticeable temperature drop as you rise higher and higher.

Avoid the massive diesel trucks hauling everything from coal to pigs either struggling up the steep inclines at 10km/h or barrelling down in the opposite direction hoping their brakes will work to stop them disappearing over the cliff edge.

Tip: When you stop to fill up with fuel at one of the petrol stations outside the main city grab a plastic poncho in case it rains. I had 12 days of brilliant sunshine, but the 2 days of rain really made me wish I had planned ahead!

Once you’ve reached the peak and begin descending on the other side you’ll be able to look down into the valley where endless rice fields and jungle extend into the distance. That is Mai Chau, the first overnight stop.

View of sun setting over rice field in Mai Chau

Coming back down the other side of the mountains I was very conscious of the unknown history of the bike I was on and the constant warnings about 10%+ declines. Rather than risk falling off a mountain on my first day I erred on the side of caution and made steady progress in 2nd gear engine braking all the way down! Eventually I made it to the valley floor and the beautiful village of Mai Chau, a place I imagine that is only going to get more popular with tourists but for now is just hard enough to get to that it limits the numbers, helping it retain the authentic feel.

Day 2 – Mai Chau to Pu Luong – 110km

Waking up early I first set off in the wrong direction. Just north of Mai Chau is a tiny village and hidden behind some houses is Go Lao Waterfall.

Go Lao waterfall - three distinct streams can be seen cascading over the ridge down a rock face to a pool below

Surprisingly busy with a steady stream of visitors, despite the early hour, it has avoided most of the commercialisation that other waterfalls, especially those further south in Da Lat, have suffered.

Continue reading

Riding a Motorbike across Vietnam – Part 1 – The Background

Over 10 years ago Top Gear broadcast their travels across Vietnam and the amazing beauty and thrill of doing this by motorbike. Watching their journey along with millions around the world a dream formed in me to experience this myself one day. Like most, though, I never actually imaged I would achieve that dream.

Having arrived in Hanoi only a few days before any desire to drive on their roads, which have questionable adherence of traffic laws, quickly disappeared.

First impressions of Vietnamese traffic are fear and confusion. You see tourists standing for several minutes at the roadside, hoping that a break in the constant stream of two wheeled vehicles will occur to let them cross. A symphony of horns join with the whine of hundreds of 50cc mopeds as riders criss-cross through junctions ignoring red lights, one way signs and any other impediment to their intended direction of travel.

It doesn’t help when you learn that road crashes in Vietnam are responsible for nearly 1 death per hour, with over 8,200 deaths in 2018. For comparison in Great Britain in 2018 there were only 1,782 fatalities, despite faster roads and only a third less population.

It is funny though how quickly you adjust to local conditions. After only a couple of days of dodging beeping bikes and the sirens of buses and trucks (they have siren like warnings when indicators are on to help avoid collisions with the swarms of motorcyclists that scramble around them) I began to feel at home on the streets of Hanoi.

Appreciating the fact that traffic laws in Vietnam are like the Pirate’s Code I felt confident enough that I considered again living the Top Gear dream.

I spent some time researching various companies and finally settled on Style Motorbikes. I liked the fact that they had shops across the country so if you got into difficulty en route assistance would be a little bit closer, as well as the fact they have a 24 hour WhatsApp helpline. Thanks to Vietnam’s awesome mobile phone coverage this meant assistance was always a phone call away. They also had some brilliant reviews which reassured me.

Unlike the Top Gear guys who had an entire support crew of 30+ people I would be on my own and this connection to a helpline that could offer assistance in Vietnamese and English was really appreciated.

I went to the Style Bikes shop in Hanoi intending to just look around and without even taking my name I was being given the opportunity to test drive my bike of choice. A beautiful red Honda CB 150.

It had been a few years since I last rode a bike and it showed when I stalled twice going round the block! Never one to be put off by minor set backs though I felt happy with the bike itself and before I could stop and properly think about the risk I was taking I found myself putting down a deposit for the next day.

The staff were incredibly helpful, providing a map and guidance on which routes to take, where to sleep and where to avoid. In particular I was warned about the police I may meet on the trip, as there is a small issue when renting a bike in Vietnam, especially for those from the UK and other European countriesā€¦

Continue reading