The Vietnam Motorcycle Diaries: Saigon to Hanoi
So you wanna be a cross-country motorcycle hero? So do I! But in a foreign country? Is it worth it? Is it possible? To escape the beaten path, and the usual pricey tourist traps and tourist loops? This is the type of trip that will normally take a lot of planning. Except I’m not that type of person. I feel over planning takes away the enjoyment of a trip. It makes travel work (and we don’t want that!). It also reduces a lot of drama and stress of travel, however. But I have nothing to lose! I’ll figure it out along the way with the help of new friends and advisors that I’m guaranteed to meet along the way. And hopefully have enough excitement to justify the added stress and drama of not extensively planning.
The first time I had heard (word of mouth) about traveling to Vietnam, was the first time I had traveled to Europe (in 2000). I met a quite impressive Australian traveler. She had been traveling for six months (overland, more or less) since leaving Australia. At this point I had considered myself a “Rock Star” traveler for planning a vacation from the states for over a month (most fellow Americans I had met were doing extravagant 1 or 2 weeks whirlwind type of trips). So I was quite impressed with this Aussie’s travels thus far. Although I would later discover that it’s pretty common for Aussie’s to do long proper travels in lieu of just “holiday’s”. I was told that this is at least in part due to the high cost of air travel from Australia to anywhere (more or less). In fact many of the Aussie’s I met were the direct inspiration for me to believe that long term travel living is quite possible (especially if you’re willing to work for free/ room and board; and a willingness to clean toilets is always a plus!). But this young gal was also female and traveling alone! She had worked her way through Indonesia, and India, S.E. Asia and beyond. So I was eager to accept her advice. She had advised me to go to Prague (which I had never heard of at the time); and she was right. It was great, and I had an amazing time. But her stories of Vietnam I still remember as the most intriguing. So this was the “Travel Legend” as I call it.
I was told that she stayed with a local Vietnamese family, in which did her laundry, cooked daily meals for her, and gave her a safe assumably comfortable place to stay. All of this for the equivalent of about a dollar a day (or 30 dollars a month)! Sounds too good to be true, right? So I have had Vietnam on my budget “radar” for quite a while. Now it’s my opportunity to see if the travel legend is reality!
Riding Day 0 : Cambodia (Kampot) to Vietnam (Ha Tien to Saigon)
After spending a wonderful couple of months (especially on the coast, and coastal islands), it was legally time to leave Cambodia (according to my already once extended visa). So my next destination is logically, the south of Vietnam. It is a fairly short bus ride from the coastal city of Kampot (Cambodia) to Ha Tien (the closest border city in Vietnam).
If I didn’t have business to attend to in Saigon, I would spend another lazy month on the Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc; which would be the perfect end destination for a cross country journey (if traveling from the north to the south). It is just a couple hour ferry ride from the city. I am just guessing at the beauty of Phu Quoc, by it’s proximity to the Cambodian islands (Koh Rong, etc.).
As usual a trip which should take about 8-9 hours (as promised) will take about 12-14 hours (including multiple bus changes and layovers at the travel business, etc.). “Same same”!
The bus ride across the Mekong Delta is quite beautiful. It really is like being transported to another time. Most of the population in the countryside appear to be rice, beef, or subsistence farmers.
Now that I have finally arrived in busy Saigon, I have never seen such a stark contrast between a city and the countryside.
The city is historically called Saigon, but is also referred to as Ho Chi Minh City (depending on who you ask) after its fall to Communism. Apparently the “domino” that was Vietnam, falling to Communism in the 1970’s, has led to a Starbuck’s, McDonald’s, and every other “Western” brand on almost every other street in the central district of the city. Along with Alan Jackson “Remember When” on the radio at the S. Korean Lotteria mall (great song by the way , though)!
Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)- “The Beginning”
I have always loved traveling by motorcycle when given the chance. It is my prefered way of traveling overland. But doing so in Vietnam was a bit foreign to me. I had heard that it was “a thing” to do for foreigners traveling in Vietnam. But I had no idea just how popular it is to do. Following the advice of a Dutch girl on the bus, I checked in to the “Vietnam Inn Saigon” hostel. It’s known for finding motorcycles, and hooking up with other travelers doing the “motorbike thing”. Although many of the people here have never ridden a motorcycle, and are choosing Saigon as the “trial by fire”. I wish good luck to them. I see many of the people in the hostel with bandaged legs, that I can only assume is a consequence of this “trial”.
I have ended up spending far longer than anticipated in Saigon. But it was worth it because I found a motorbike for 150 dollars. Seems like a risk, but any bike you buy is going to be a “crap-shoot” anyways. So I spent a few more days riding the bike in the city and making daily trips to the mechanic to ready the bike for the journey!
Riding Day 1 : Saigon to Dalat
Most people ride the coastal route (or the 1) from Hanoi (in the North) to Saigon (in the South). I will be doing the opposite. I met a surprisingly cool American couple that almost bought my bike. They recommended a good mechanic, and route, for the bike. They just finished the trip from the north. They recommended taking the inland mountain route along the Ho Chi Minh trail. It sounds like a good idea!
Riding in Saigon (or anywhere in Vietnam for that matter) can be a hair raising experience. I’m quite surprised that many backpackers choose the chaotic Saigon to learn how to ride a motorbike (as mentioned), before setting off on their own cross country adventure. But it’s interesting how the values of a culture can be observed in everyday mundane activities; In this case traffic (for example). Asia in general is known for cultural harmony. The harmony of the group is paramount above the individual. Something foreign to an American. I believe without this value, something like driving in the city might be impossible. There are few traffic lights , and roads often just intersect into each other with little warning. Many times with my stubborn American mentality I have had the traffic right away. But if I slammed into the oncoming vehicle, I would have been right; Just dead right (or badly hurt). So here traffic just moves along, with who had the “RIGHT a way” quickly forgotten!
My first official destination was the mountain escape town called Dalat. Most travelers taking the Highway One north to Hanoi stop first in Mui Ne (on the coast). Mui Ne has impressive desert like dunes, that are recommended to see (even for just a day). Had I known how long the ride would be (all day), I would have stopped also in Mui Ne (that is my recommendation for non “Rock Star” MC riders).
The nice American couple that recommended Dalat (and the HCMT) also recommended the Hobbit Hostel. So that was my first destination in Dalat. I arrived very late in the rain and cold, and they were very accommodating. They also offer tours and motorcycle rider tours in the area! It was here that I got the advice for my next destinations (Lak Lake, and Elephant Falls, along the way). So after a relaxing week, I packed my gear and headed out! I missed Pongour waterfall, but if your interested check out the link to the hostel page below!
Riding Day 2: Dalat to Lak Lake
Elephant Falls is a magnificent hour ride from Dalat (as pictured at the top). The falls are only minutes from the entrance. The hiking is lite to moderate (depending on how close you want to get to the falls to take pictures). There is security to watch your bike or car. Entrance is less than a dollar fifty, and there is more than one place for food and refreshments (inside the park, and outside).
Lak Lake –
I have no idea what to expect of Lak Lake. I’m essentially “Riding Blind” because I know nothing about it. But word of mouth (WOM) has usually served me well in the past , so I’m trekking on! As I pull into town, I see some other riders that I noticed along the way. There is usually camaraderie among fellow riders so I will think nothing of approaching them (although they are tour riders, on the back of the bikes of the tour guides, however). I haven’t booked anything yet, so maybe they have an inside track on cheap accommodations too! The tourists are a friendly enough bunch but the tour guide (riders) seem very paranoid and suspicious that I approached (especially since I was explaining how I bought my own bike and am planning my own MC tour across Vietnam)! I am able to get directions however, to cheap accommodations on the other side of the lake. This is one of those few opportunities I get to actually use the heavy and over priced tour guide book that I brought (which is out of character for me). In this case it was worth it, and I am glad that I have it (the Guide), especially because it was free!
I stayed at a home/ business that offers home stays, and tours etc. Most of their business is from the “Easy Riders” MC tours coming from Dalat (like myself). I decline any additional tours like the home stay, or elephant rides (even though they promise the elephant rides are humane and the elephants are treated well, unlike my experience in Thailand). I elect to stay at the business/ home so I can get dinner, and more importantly A HOT SHOWER (a rarity lately)! The next day the family is very friendly and offers me lunch (with them). Of course the meals they cook for themselves (not the dinner for sale in the evening) is much less fancy , but much more authentic, and much better tasting to me! So I will stay for a few more days.
I end up having a “homestay” after all. Although it was unofficial, more authentic, and had hot showers! Win, win , winwin!
Momason seems to want to set us up, but daughterson seems shy, or wants nothing to do with it (even though I helped her teach a private English class at the home)-haha!
Riding Day 3: Lak Lake to Dreysap Falls
Dreysap/ Dreynu Falls-
I have learned that three dollars is what I call the “Bedbug Threshold” Anything around three dollars or below, you are pretty much guaranteed in my book to run the serious risk of bedbugs. Not only that but at the 3 dollar threshold (TDT), there are slim pickings of female backpackers. Everybody (all the guys) sit around at the three dollar hostel (the TDH) asking themselves (and others), “Where are all the girls at?”. Well as I found out in Cambodia, they are all at the 6 dollar hostel (the SDH), the “Flashpacker” hostel, WITH THE POOL!!!
The falls are on the list of sights that I made in Dalat. Since the Elephant Falls, and Lak Lake didn’t disappoint, I will head for the falls (even though it will take a couple extra days to see). The falls are also recommended by the folks at Lak Lake! I will take the advice of the locals (obviously), and ignore google maps for directions. Which means I have to go through Buon Ma Thout (which I still cannot pronounce correctly).
I make it to the city ahead of schedule. Instead of settling down for the night, I will try and make it all the way to the falls (still another hour to an hour and a half from the city BMT). But as I am riding, the sky just opens up and there is a massive downpour! But since I am already so close I wait until it’s more or less over and continue on. After all it is the rainy season. Like Forrest Gump says “It rained so much it was even raining from the ground”! When I arrive it is still overcast but quite impressive. The pictures could have been more spectacular with an amazing sky to flavor the background, but I take what I can get. Such is travel. My only other option was to turn back, and make another go of it in the morning (which would have turned out futile because it hardly stopped raining the entire time I was there)!
So I will still hang out in the city for a couple of days to rest. Especially because there are no bed bugs at the hotel (thanks again for the find from the guidebook). I have learned that three dollars is what I call the “Bedbug Threshold” Anything around three dollars or below, you are pretty much guaranteed in my book to run the serious risk of bedbugs. Not only that but at the 3 dollar threshold (TDT), there are slim pickings of female backpackers. Everybody (all the guys) sit around at the three dollar hostel (the TDH) asking themselves (and others), “Where are all the girls at?”. Well as I found out in Cambodia, they are all at the 6 dollar hostel (the SDH), the “Flashpacker” hostel, WITH THE POOL!!!
Riding Day 4: Buon Ma Thout (Dreysap Falls) to Nha Trang
Google is a liar!!!!
So I’m feeling lazy because I want to beat the rain and get to Nha Trang as quick as possible. So I won’t bither to get out my “analogue” map. For once, I’ll just rely on google maps because they have worked well so far. Besides, it looks like it is a straight shot, single freeway there, the entire time anyways.
Well, I managed to miss a turn that I wasn’t expecting (according to GM’s). No problem, I will just take a short cut to get back on track with my map course (instead of backtracking all the way).
Well, this shortcut road is definitely not a mainstreet. In fact it has turned into a gravel (when I’m lucky) and dirt road. No worries, It’ll eventually intersect with my map course that google plotted!
Well, the 20-30 minute diversion is taking about two hours now! But I finally rendezvoused with the course (after briefly stopping to get my luggage rack bolted back on, from the rough road). But since I’m back on course, it should be smooth sailing.
I have been following the course now for a couple hours. As I approach the hills, the road is getting smaller and smaller.
I am now literally riding OVER THE MOUNTAIN ON WHAT LOOKS LIKE A PIG TRAIL! No wonder everyone (the few local residents) are staring at me, nobody uses this trail! I have been riding over motocross terrain for the ENTIRE length of the mountain now! Blast you Google, Blast You!
I finally arrived into town, HOURS after I should have. Google, you are a liar! A liar about where to go, and a liar about HOW LONG IT WILL TAKE!!!! Typical “Salesman” that google, an ounce of truth , twisted within an inch of its life!!!
Thanks for Serendipidy! –
While having a coffee at a local cafe, I am fortunate enough to meet another “Easy-Rider” tour guide. He gives me some good advice for the next leg of my tour. I am very grateful. Just as I am leaving I go over a curb, and BANG! Oh no. Something has broken, and the bike doesn’t even want to move. The Easy-rider guy comes over to help me. We realize it’s the exhaust pipe that broke, and is pushing on the brake (why it won’t move). He advises me to take it to a local shop tomorrow, and that it will be an easy fix. But I am just incredibly grateful that after banging the bike around on a mountop for hours, getting here, it decided to break down NOW, while I was comfortably settled and in the city! As I like to say, there is no such thing as coincidences!!!!
Once again I’m “trapped” in a city (and a specific location). The hostel I found is minutes from the beach, and I have the place to myself (due to the off-season), and a computer to use; all for just four dollars a night! But it’s my stubbornness this time, that’s keeping me here (usually it’s just a lack of desire to start the ride/ journey all over again, to find a place to rest my head).
I have gotten into a clash of “wills” with a youngster at the hostel I will call ”Gamer-boy”. Apparently, he’s the son of one of the hotel employee’s (not a guest). While I was using the computer, I began deleting files that seemed to be interfering with the computer (viruses, I can only assume). Then I began liberally deleting files that might be the cause of the viruses. It is only too convenient that they (viruses) are also the gaming files that are probably used by “Gamer-boy” to monopolize the only hotel computer. So I wait daily for “Gamer-Boy” to mindlessly finish killing pixel-zombies so I can get down to “important” meaningful use of the computer.
After finally getting tired of waiting for what seemed like hours, to use the computer, I requested with front desk to encourage Gamer-Boy to finish, so I could have my turn on the computer. Only, I could never predict what this would trigger. A “Digital Cold War”!
So a daily game of mutual file deletion slowly escalated throughout the week. I can only assume “Gamer-Boy” grew tired of my own monopolization of the computer editing photos for hours; Because photoshop was the first casualty of this techno “cold war”! But more casualties were to follow!
I resorted to the only tool I had available at the time. I had to “tell his Mommy”! Clearly this will finally put an end to this insanity. I will get rational level headed adults involved to let cooler heads prevail, and stop this “digital madness”! Of course he denied it all, but my point was made and this is the end of the silliness.
The next day I sat down to log on to the computer, still tire from the night before. Once again I was up for hours trying to reset all of the computer settings so I could use it. But it is finished. I am not even thinking about it anymore. Let bygones be bygones. WHAT IS THIS????? HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE, AGAIN????? Even more of my applications DELETED, AGAIN!!! This is war!
This back and forth continued until the computer was being completely reset and erased of all data on at least a daily basis now. I can only say “well played” because I had invested hours into configuring the computer to be usable for a “foreigner”. All my efforts erased (daily) , and my blood is boiling! Using a computer in another country can be an infuriating experience. All settings are just automatically set in the foreign language (based on the ip address of the computer). And based on Google’s irrational obsession with stalking you and remembering everything, making the computer useable is almost impossible (with daily reboots).
So I went to bed after hours of research to find out about window’s “secret” user administrator settings. At last I have won! I reset the admin. password, left an open, adequate, “limited privilege”, but crippled user account for everyone else (including gamer boy). So off to bed to savor my victory!
It’s a new day and time to make peace. Gamer-Boy is still on the computer (as usual) by the time I’ve rolled out of bed, mid-afternoon (because I was up all night obsessively resetting the computer settings, and reloading applications). I was also obsessively investigation operating systems to hone my digital cold war strategies. I can say this, it has been well worth the time I have invested. I am being forced to learn about computer security, etc. As soon as G.B. finishes his game and attempts to continue his cold war strategy, he will be sorely surprised. So I will take my time, and let him enjoy the computer, knowing I have won, and have a victory brunch before logging back on.
My belly is full, and I am finally ready to get back to work, now that I won’t have to spend the first four hours reloading software, etc. I can use the extra time because I have a lot I want to get done. So I’ll log on, now that I have a moment. WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAATTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!!!! Everything ERASED , AGAIN!!!!! But HOW???? He was “locked” out of control of the computer, by my superior knowledge of secret admin. log on’s? This is impossible!!! Should I just admit defeat? NEVER!!!!!! I have already technically learned so much from these exchanges. Quit now? At this rate, I could become a hacker!
So once again I have spent hours resetting and reloading in order to get some work done. And now I have removed almost every conceivable program left on the computer that could “brainwashing” this beloved computer. This has to be the final check-mate! No more computer access, no more software left to reboot the computer. Is this finally victory? I will go to have dinner now, and give G.B. his hopefully last opportunity to wrestle victory back from my clutches! I think chicken is in order.
It wasn’t like I didn’t try to speak logic to the situation. Previously, I tried confronting the boy about what he had done (more out of complete curiosity at this point). I questioned him through a translator (the other receptionist at the front desk). I had an entire discussion “with the boy” through the translator without him (GB) even opening his mouth , once! This seeming miracle was achieved in the form of his mommy answering every question I asked through the interpreter. But the ironic part is, I wanted to explain that the quicker I can finish “my work”, the quicker I can leave the hotel, FOREVER! But the constant technical wrangling, was just setting me further and further back (especially because it kept giving me more to write about)! I wanted only to finish some photos, and some previous writing so I could go. But every-time I had time to work, the new drama that transpired just set me further and further back on schedule. I was stuck in a digital vortex that I could never escape!
As I log on to the computer now for the last time , I think you can figure out what happened. My fears came true AGAIN!!! I don’t know how the boy has done it, but he has! Yet again, all information wiped clean, and the cu de grace is that now he has finally changed the admin. passwords ON ME, locking ME OUT!!!! Check, and checkmate, my evil little genius (a boy probably 12)! A bitter victory well one. The communists have won again!
As for me, I am admitting my defeat. I have an end to the story. Otherwise I will stay here indefinitely , until retirement, or a new career in computer tech support materializes!
Riding Day 5: Nha Trang To Quy Nhon
Since most of my riding has been in the mountains, this is my opportunity to do a little riding along the coast! What a ride it’s turning out to be. I got a very early start because of some drama at the hostel, and the sun is rising with me as I ride north along this beautiful coastline. It’s mostly quiet fishing villages along the way.
More to come……..