After spending the majority of the previous day sleeping after the flight, I was up and about in Ho Chi Minh at about 5am. I made a start on the “New Country Checklist” of SIM, cash and a guitar shop, all achieved much easier than usual by about 9am. Score! My job for the next few days was to buy and prep 2 motorbikes ready for Charlee arriving. This country is completely powered by motorbikes and scooters, they are used for everything imaginable and they choke the streets and alleyways of the city 24 hours a day. It shouldn’t be too hard to find 2 decent ones to buy.
It turned out to be even easier than I thought and by 3pm on the first day I had a bike, in near perfect condition. The first bike I saw was quite a ways out of town, and it was utterly awful, leaking oil, brakes not working and a clanking engine, listed as “newly rebuilt”; by a monkey I guess, I’ll pass thanks. A bunch of bikes were listed for sale by backpackers so I walked around the tourist district seeing them and realised that chatting to the owner was a much better way of gauging a bikes condition. There was a huge correlation between state of the bike and the amount the owner knew about it. One extreme case was two Polish guys who had absolutely no idea when the last time the battery, chain, tyres, brakes or oil were changed, no surprises both of their bikes were in a terrible state. The one I ended up buying was from a British guy who worked as a mechanic and could tell me every detail of the bike. His bike ran sweet and looked in good shape, he bought it brand new only 1 month previous in Hanoi and with his Mrs they’d ridden around the North and then down to Ho Chi Minh, so they had some great advice about the route for me too.
After seeing a bunch of bikes I realised going newer with less hassle was much preferred, they were nearly double the price but the quality difference was night and day. $250 seemed to be the minimum and included all manner of shite ready to fall apart at a moments notice, $400 and up was were the nice bikes were and where it was worth bartering for small mechanical blemishes. Me and Charlee could afford a bit of extra cash but not delays, we only had 12 days to get to Hanoi where he was flying home, and I predicted we’d need at least 9 days of riding.
Given my quick progress with purchasing bikes I spent the next couple of days resting, occasionally looking at other bikes and sightseeing. The war museum was eye opening, outside is filled with American military vehicles and planes, bomb casings and bunker weapons. The inside is filled with records and photos of the atrocities of the war, I’m not sure any museum in the US would go into quite as much detail or reveals as much about their acts in it, so much so that I doubt the accuracy of some of it, I learned a lot either way. The history museum was about as exciting as a history museum can be, but more interesting than I was expecting, getting see a summary of history and evolution of a part of the world I don’t know anything about, very different from the European story.
I did eventually decided on another motorbike, this one from a dealer who made a final few tweaks before I bought it. Then it was only one more day until Charlee arrived, time for the final work on the bikes in the garage, putting some chargers on, changing the oil, brake pads and cleaning the carbs. I was all prepared and ready to do the work myself, looking forward to learning on these simple bikes, but the mechanics work for basically free here. I asked how much an oil change was “80,000 Dong” (£3) and what about if you don’t do the change, just the litre of oil “80,000 Dong”… OK, you do it. It’s just too cheap to worry about getting it wrong, especially carbs. About £5 later all work was done and they were ready to roll.
Day 211 had the best alarm clock ever, Charlee calling my phone to say he’d arrived and was outside. Reunited after 7 months, in Vietnam no less and ready for an adventure, we were both pretty happy. We had breakfast and tried to construct something like a plan for getting to Hanoi, some milestones to aim for and sights we wanted to see. Then we had to do Charlee’s “New Country Checklist”, except his didn’t have guitars, it had motorbike practice. We rode out to a big empty estate in the city so he could get to grips with the bike, his only experience so far is the CBT in the UK, a one day “crash” course that allows you to ride tiny bikes legally. Getting there was a laugh in itself, me riding, Charlee on the back. This poor bike is about 3ft off the ground and weighs around 70kg wet. Me and Charlee are both over 6ft5 and combined weigh over 160kg. Safe to say it was a little wobbly, and we got a lot of looks and laughs from the locals. He took to the bike within about 3 seconds and even I had a practice, these tiny bikes are so different from riding a big bike like Donkey that I had to learn some stuff over again. I had planned out some stuff to show Charlee in this practice, like emergency braking without ABS and slow speed control, but when I got on I realised with brakes made of fudge and such a tiny bike, I didn’t really know them any better than he did.
We may have got a little carried away with the drinks that night, being back together finally and laughing our asses off all night, so the morning was pretty groggy. We didn’t get breakfast until near 11 and were trying to pack the bikes up by 12, sweating our asses off in the heat, me particularly, wearing all my normal big travel gear. We finally got on the road and on the way out of the city by 1pm, until I realised the camera was missing off my helmet. SHIT! I spun around to go look for it and it was right where I was hoping, tucked in a corner of the parking garage, in all the faffing packing the bikes it had been knocked off and rolled away. Damn lucky it was still there at all. That made it nearly 2pm by the time we were actually driving away from the city, pretty typical start for my trip, mishaps and messups, nice to see it’s carrying over to Vietnam too. The roads opened up nicely though and we made some good ground in the afternoon, cruising at a monumental top speed of 37mph.
We found a decent hotel in a town on the road that night and marvelled at the shear amount of seafood available, most restaurants had more tanks than most pet shops, filled with all sorts of fish, squid and crabs. The next morning was much more efficient and we made good ground before lunch, sitting at max speed for most of the time on nice rolling hill roads.
The afternoon was not so great, when the threatening rain finally gave way into a monsoon I slammed on the brakes to get to some cover at the side of the road, I heard a noise on my right and knew straight away Charlee was way to close to be able to stop and he’d had to swerve around me onto the wet mud on the side of the road. His front tyre gave up what little grip it had and I turned to see him rolling along the road, his bike sliding along on it’s side next to him.
Four Vietnamese guys that had been sat by the side of the road picked Charlee up off the floor before I could even stop my bike. He was all in one piece and walking, just a bad scrape to the elbow and hand. He had some first aid gear with him so I could clean up his arm and wrap it up, while he tried not to laugh at my first aid skills, typical that the one with the first aid training would be the one injured. The bike hadn’t fared too badly either, the front fender had bent into the front wheel and the front brake lever had snapped. We contemplated just not fixing the front brake lever, they’re so completely useless anyway, we’re pretty sure they’re made entirely of fudge. The Vietnamese guys pointed me back up into town and a bike garage that might be able to help. Twenty minuets later the bike was back in working order and we could get on the road again.
The delay meant we were riding in the sunset which was beautiful for all of 20 minutes, then all light was gone. It got very dodgy very fast, trucks and cars on the wrong side of the road with full beam on, illuminating all the rain on the visor. We somehow didn’t die within that hour of night riding, but we came very close a few times. It was so dangerous that we just stopped in the next town with a hotel, we couldn’t be too picky and this place was creepy, run by an old lady who refused to communicate in any fashion and just kept shouting for help from various people in different shops. It was a bed though and some good food and beer finished off Charlee’s first full day, and very “trip day” it was, one where non of the plans worked and everything is unexpected.
A grim ride until lunch the next day, drizzly rain and not much to see, but a weird lunch pushed that out of our minds. We could only find one place serving food in town and it was a nicely finished restaurant run by a family we’re sure had never seen a foreigner, they loved us. I got handed their toddler for photos and selfies with every member of the family and they cooked us the only thing they had: random processed frozen meat in small balls. They tasted like the old Turkey Twizzlers, the ones that got banned from schools in the UK because they were so unhealthy, we didn’t like to think about what it actually was.
A very long run in the afternoon left us knackered but in the big town of Kon Tum, the first time since Ho Chi Minh, so we were looking forward to a nice restaurant, everything was dead though, the best we could do was a small cafe that had some ready made stuff. We did get a quick oil change on the bikes though and fixing a few rattles on them. They need pretty constant maintenance, they’re not the most reliable things.
The next day was going to be a very long one, we wanted to reach Hoi An about 300km away, but it was the first properly enjoyable day. The rain held off, the roads were windy and quiet with some amazing views and sights right on the road; a different kind of “trip day” where it doesn’t seem real and just get’s better yet weirder all day.
A couple of huge waterfalls along the road alone with some of the mountain ranges looked like they were straight out of a Jurassic Park movie set. A gigantic dam came out of nowhere, spilling a huge amount of water a couple of hundred feet through its overflow. We also came across what seemed like a weird Vietnamese game of digger wars, trying to get a couple of huge boulders up a dirt hill, one at the top dragging and two at the bottom pushing, this blocked the road for a good 20 minutes while we just gaped in wonder, a health and safety officer may have a heart attack. The day somehow finished riding in the dark again, on tiny paths through rice paddies on the outskirts of Hoi An, with mosquitoes pinging off the helmet like stones and bikes coming at us with full beam on inches away, we may have taken a wrong turn because I don’t think that was the main road into the town.
We did eventually get in to town, knackered but happy after a very long day of riding. Hoi An is a big tourist town, so we got a nice comfortable hotel, with a bathroom that seemed to be on top of a sewer, and collapsed before heading out for food. Just to round off the weird day the power in the town kept going out, leaving Charlee in darkness in the shower at one point, then left us sitting in the dark in the restaurant for a little while.
A day off the next day with a lie in, a visit to the beach and planning our next few days. There was a few things we wanted to see in this area but with a big storm hanging over the whole of central Vietnam it might be pretty wet for the next few days. Hoi An itself was absolutely beautiful, it’s a very well preserved old port town and it really feels like walking through a pirate paradise. Some very old sites are preserved and just dotted throughout the town ready for exploring, coupled with nice food everywhere and great coffee makes for a perfect rest day.
Charlee had a nice surprise the next morning, I finally had time and opportunity to decorate his bike for Christmas on 2nd of December, pink tinsel and decorations on the indicator gave a bit more reason for him to be stared at by locals for the rest of his trip.
We made the most of the relatively dry morning and headed for the Marble Mountains in Da Nang, a limestone karst covered with Buddhist temples, really, really covered. Someone started in 1825 and just went to town on it. We spent over an hour wandering the inside of the cave and climbing some deadly stairs, then exploring the top, yet we still missed a lot. We had to get a move on though, the rain was starting to come down and we wanted to head up the Hai Van pass.
I first heard about this pass like most people, from Top Gear and their Vietnam special in 2008, way before I was even interested in bikes, or even finished with college… They made it sound like an epic stretch of road for miles on end with the best views in the world, so we were going rain or shine. Some of the splendor was probably taken away by the seriously thick fog and rain but it was a pretty short pass. The views we could see through the fog were amazing, down on to the bay below, but Charlee didn’t see much, I doubled back when he disappeared and he had gone full Clarkson: “I AM THE WORLDS WETTEST, ANGRIEST MAN”. His bike decided it didn’t like rain and somehow managed to break down going down hill. The spark plug cover was leaking so adjusting it and getting the water out got him going again. Fighting with buses, up steep hills, in freezing rain without waterproof gear on wasn’t making his day though.
It was still pretty amazing to make it the spot made famous by Top Gear, looking over the bridge and tunnel that was built to shortcut the pass, onto the little fishing village. A bunch of other people were stopped there too for that same reason.
Getting to Hue was simple enough, a very wet, flat, straight road from the pass in to the middle of town. We emptied the water from our boots into the bath, I drained the water out of my helmet camera (R.I.P) and we hung clothes everywhere. We basically destroyed a hotel room with the manky wet clothes and the stank of them. It was pointless trying to dry anything though, the rain basically didn’t stop for 2 days after that.
21/11/2017 – 02/12/2017