Day 1: Arriving in HCMC
As I left Kuala Lumpur the monsoon season that was up north decided to pay a visit – my god – I was waiting to board the flight when the heavens opened, you could not see further then 10ft – the planes were grounded until it passed and a little bit later we were in the air experiencing a lot of turbulence. Its only a 50 minute flight to Ho Chi Minh City so it wasn’t to bad. I got some cash out which instantly made me a millionaire in Vietnam and got the bus into town. I had heard about the traffic in Vietnam and it didn’t disappoint – it was pretty crazy. The accommodation was a bit more expensive as there is no dorm rooms – but its quite nice to have my own room, bathroom, air con and TV for a change.
War Remnants Museum
Crossing the street is an art form in Vietnam – I find the best way is just to step out not looking and walk – if you look your natural instincts kick in and you want to stop. Which is a big no no. The bikes know what to do and they just filter round you. I thought Id see a few of the sights in HCMC so I went to the war remnants museum which was fascinating – I spent hours in there – there is so much information aswell as tanks, planes and helicopters from the war outside. I also went to Remuneration Palace which you can actually walk around – I found myself on the top balcony – definitely not something you can do at the Whitehouse!
Day 2 - Buying the bike
That evening I went to meet a couple that were selling a bike – they had a sign on it saying $250 ono so it caught my attention – I had been round all day trying to find bikes and it was not an easy task – this was seriously the first second hand bike I had seen for sale that was not from a dealer – I mean I’m sure there plenty around but I don’t speak Vietnamese so didn’t really play in my favor, so I looked around the backpacker area to try and find one that a backpacker has had. I d prefer to buy off a backpacker anyway – it will already be set up – ie bag rack etc. The one that they were selling was a 125cc Honda Bonus (well actually its not a Honda – it’s a fake one but they use all the same parts which is handy) – as soon as I saw it I fell in love with it.
Me buying Bonita Negra
I saw a few online but they were around the $400 - $500 mark which I didn’t really want to pay. To be honest I would have paid more but managed to get them down to $220 which was perfect as it had custom bag racks, a back box and helmet included. I was so excited. There were new tyres on it , the engine had been rebuilt 2 months ago and it had all the paper work. By no means was it perfect by a long shot – the seals were leaking on the front forks – it was a little difficult to start when cold and the electrics seemed a little temperamental but its cheap to get stuff fixed – they only paid $60 for the engine rebuild. So we shaked on the deal and Bonita Negra (Black Beauty – its black and I think its beautiful). Now foreigners are not allowed to own a bike in Vietnam so the ownership card has some locals name on it – but its ok – people rarely have that many problems. Technically according to the law you get arrested and the bike gets impounded as foreign and international driving licenses are not valid here so legally your driving without a license, insurance and a bike that doesn’t belong to you. I went for a beer with the couple that sold me the bike and they showed me the route they took and told me how much the ‘fine’ was for driving the bike without a license etc. All useful info that hopefully would come in useful – I planned to set off early next morning for the 300km trip to Dalat – my first stop.
Day 3 – An interesting first day biking – 273km
Now in the morning in my rush to get going I left totally unprepared – sure I strapped my backpack on and got the bike ready but I was definitely forgetting something…
All I hoped for on my first day biking was the following: That I would make it to Dalat without an accident, that I wouldn’t get pulled over by the police, that the bike would not break down and that it would stay dry… well 2 out of four isn’t that bad I suppose…
I set off through the crazy traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, to be honest I wasn’t to bothered about the traffic, as long as you don’t do anything silly or make unpredicted moves your generally ok and I have had motorbikes before so I was more excited then anything. It was surprising easy to get out of the city, ok the traffic was crazy but it was a straight forward road out. I was wearing short sleeves and it was so hot I had to keep stopping for sun screen and water – it was busy so didn’t really get out of the main city and industrial area until midday which would be pushing it to make it to Dalat before dark.
Mountain Road to Nha Trang
The one thing that you have to look out for is the big trucks – the rule of the road is the bigger vehicle has right of way and they really do not give a shit about you on a bike. So the first four hours or so were pretty standard – no scenery to look at just me and Bonita Negra taking the time to get to know each other. All was going fine – she was running like a dream – I took highway 1 out of the city then turned on to the route 20 towards Dalat. I stopped for lunch in the middle of nowhere – it was hilarious, there were no menus so I had to try and describe what I wanted with my hands as they didn’t speak any English and me obviously having not perfect my Vietnamese just yet. It was like being in Sumatra again – people are curious and just stare at you – it doesn’t bother me though.
After lunch I saw dark clouds forming above – ahh this is where I should have prepared more – in my rush to get going I didn’t get any covers for my bag – it had its cover on it but that is only on the front – oops – lots of wet clothes – As I sent most of my clothes home in Australia and downsized I didn’t have any wet weather gear at all so I managed to but a poncho along the way – not much good that it was though – I was soaked right through. The road were terrible, as it was more like a river then a road you couldn’t see the holes – so I really had to focus.
Bonita Negra visiting the Doc
Then my bad luck continued – I was just heading into the mountains overtaking a slow moving truck when I went to change down a gear and nothing happened so I ran out of steam and came to an undignified halt. Shit! It was pouring with ran and Im stuck on the side of a mountain. I had a look and luckily it was just the gear leaver that came loose – unluckily the bolt was sheared off. I was stuck in third gear so I managed to nurse it to the next mechanic in a wooden shack and he got to work – now it wasn’t just the bolt sheared off it was the rod that connects the gear leaver to the gearbox – which he managed to fix in half an hour with an old piece of cable??? I was expecting it to be cheap but I was astonished… 10,000 VND (that’s about 30 pence! For half an hours work – bargain! The problems didn’t stop there however, the bike started backfiring and I was really taking it easy as the power kept on dying – I think its just the fuel and air mix but I thought I would get it sorted the following day whilst in Dalat if it made it.
Boat trip in Nha Trang
More and more rain was coming down, by this time I was soaked through and freezing – the rain had really slowed my progress so it looked like I would be getting in at dark. Then to add another complication my front light was being temperamental and I still had a 100km to go. I called it a day when I went past the next hotel – I turned up looking like a drowned rat. The town I stopped in I think was called Dai Ninh – not that there was anything special to note about it, not that I cared – I’m glad I stopped – ok I wouldn’t get to Dalat until the next day but Im in no rush and its not worth pushing it to much. So I checked in to this hotel, I walked in and it looked expensive but it turned out to be cheaper than the place I stayed in HCMC – they even told me to ride the bike into reception!? I didn’t really think they were serious – this was a nice hotel and me and my bike were soaked – but they didn’t seem to care.
The place was like heaven! A massive room and hot water – just what I needed . I hung all of my clothes up and rested up for an early morning drive to Dalat and to get the bike running better.
Mud bath - Nha Trang
What a first day – at times I was thinking (especially when it was raining hard with big lorries shoving you out of the way) why the hell I was doing this – but it was everything I expected and more – just being free go where you want to go and stop when you want to stop is worth it. Its such a frill riding a bike – I forgot what it felt like. This is going to be a good trip.
Day 4 – Dalat – 70km
A relatively short drive – I really had to nurse the bike to make it to Dalat, the power kept failing and all the hills didn’t make it any easier. I have decided that I will do most of my driving early on as for some reason it always rains in the afternoon. Dalat itself is a mountain town which is a retreat for Vietnamese on vacation but there was a few foreigners around. I checked into the hotel and went looking for a hostel, I got told be the first guy that it needed a new carburetor which was about 12 quid – ok, not overly expensive but Im sure there was a cheaper option and there was. It wasn’t the easiest to explain but he messed around with the mixture and it seemed to be running better, not perfect but I will give it a try – will most probably have to replace the carb at some point but will see how it goes. He also fixed the lights – since the rain yesterday nothing worked – lights, indicators nothing. These guys are magicians – the fuse was melted so he just cut it out put two wires together and it all works – this was a little then yesterday 60,000vnd (1.80) but I’m happy that its all working.
Me getting a pedicure - with Nail Art!
Right enough about the bike… so I was in Dalat… what to do… First stop I decided to go and have a look at a house called the ‘crazy house’. It’s a bit strange really, they have obviously got their inspiration from Guadi the architect that created a lot of amazing building and sculptures in Barcelona. It was pretty cool, quite small but it was worth a visit. Got chatting to 3 English guys outside who were asking questions about my bike – its funny seeing everyone’s reaction when you tell them your riding all the way North.
I had a walk down to the lake which was actually no longer a lake – for some reason it has been drained? So decided on riding up to the cable car and went for a ride on that. Managed to pick up a waterproof coat on the way back.
That was about it with Dalat, nothing to exciting but was worthy of a stop off.
Day 5, 6, 7, Dalat - Nah Trang – 130km
That morning I decided to get an early start so I got up and quickly got lost for a good hour setting me back a bit for the day. I had two choices of where to go – either Nha Trang or up through the Central Highlands on the Hoi Chi Minh Highway. After a lot of deliberating I decided to head to the coast – apparently its not as nice as the Highlands route but I was freezing due to the lack of warm clothes with me. I took the shorter road to Nha Trang that wasn’t on the maps but it was on my local atlas so I guessed it was actually a road… well some of it was a road – there had obviously been a lot of rain and I had to go up one side of a mountain and down the other side – it was an amazing road – a lot of off road style riding but Bonita Negra held up perfectly – with only one trip to a mechanics shed to pump up the back tyre that was looking a little flat (2000VND).
Not sure about the hat??
When I headed down the other side of the mountain all of a sudden it was boiling – I stripped down to shorts and a vest I headed along the coast up towards Nha Trang having a good sing along to my Ipod. I made really good progress and was in Nha Trang by 1pm and hit the beach with a few guys and girls I met in the hostel. The weather was great – good choice getting to the coast. We all went out that night and it was awesome the group of us just clicked and it was like we had known each other for years. It has a great night life – just what I needed after a few quiet days on the road.
Quick fuel stop with Magnus
The following day we all went on a boat tour of the islands which turned out to be more of a party boat – we stopped off at islands, went snorkeling and they even have a portable floating bar. I had also heard about a spa with mud baths 7km away so we all jumped into a taxi the next day and went for group mud baths – it was an awesome day, very relaxing especially after sitting on a motorbike for so long. When we got back into the city me, Adam (Germany), and Lindsay (Scotland) decided it would be good to go for a pedicure – we did get a little bit carried away and got nail art on our big toes… what can I say it was only about a pound!
On the open road
After two nights of partying and the days spent relaxing it dawned on me that I still had a long way to go and although my deadline wasn’t that tight I still had to keep moving – Nha Trang is definitely a place you can get stuck for a while. I just want to mention how cheap Vietnam is at this point – beer is cheaper then water (30p for a Saigon) that’s in a bar – if you get a crate and return the bottle you pay under 15p. Not bad hey. That night I met a Norwegian guy called Magnus who had bought the same bike as me and was heading up to Hoi An – so we decided to join up for the trip the following day.
Day 8 – Nha Trang to Quy Nhon (260km)
One of the biggest rides to date! We got up and decided to set off at 10am – I had to get Bonita Negra to a mechanic as on the last days riding the exhaust had come lose – so I had to get a new gasket and get it tightened up and whilst at it I got them to change her oil – all in all 85,000VND. Still not doing to bad. I just hoped that that would be her last visit for a while – its all been simple things that have needed doing but I wanted to get a good few days of riding in before her next visit to the docs. So me and Magnus headed off – the first 50km was beautiful – ok it drizzled a bit but nothing to bad and the views of bays and islands was spectacular. Then we ran into what I can only describe as a monsoon! To say it rained would be the understatement of the century – we decided to crack on in spite of it. I was soaked right through and it was not possible to get any wetter. The road was in a pretty bad state – the pot holes were deep and when there was water on the road they were really hard to spot.
My new suit - Hoi An
Then were plodding along around 60 and there was a bang – my back tyre decided to have a blow out – Magnus was ahead so he missed it but I thought I was a goner – the back end was snaking but somehow I stayed on. Great another visit to a mechanic for Bonita. As luck had it I was right outside a tyre fitter when it happened. He took the old inner tube out and it was destroyed – I haven’t seen one go like that before. Anyway he got to work and about an hour later we were on the road again. (100,000 VND – I thought this was quite expensive but I didn’t really have a choice – I was in the middle of no where!)
We got into Quy Nhon just as it was getting dark and found ourselves a hotel. Food was turning out to be a bit of an issue on the way – as no one spoke English around here so it’s a lot of pointing at a menu – kind of like a lucky dip! I did have the most amazing beef salad – it almost blew my head off but very tasty.
Day 9 - 10 – Quy Nhon to Hoi An – 306km
We had decided to head off early the next morning – very early like 6am as we thought the weather might be better – nope, that night I got kept awake by the wind and rain outside, we got downstairs in the morning and water was coming in the front door and our bikes in the cellar were in a few inches of water. Not a great sign but we wrapped up and got on our way. Bonita Negra started first time which was a god send, the rain doesn’t seem to bother her. To our delight after about an hour driving the rain stopped and it looked like it would turn into a good day. Our target was Hoi An hense the early start as it was a lot of miles – it was not made easier by the state of the road, the pot holes were deep and the traffic was terrible. It got sunny at last and I really started enjoying the ride – then the unthinkable happened again – my back wheel punctured again! I was on a really nice stretch of road going round a corner and it went – luckily this time it was a small hole in the inner tube. A stroke of luck was that it happened right outside a tyre fixer. The first women mechanic I have seen on this trip. She had her kids with her, they were so cute – we shared some of our chocolate snacks ( a very healthy lunch) and stood around waiting for my tube to be fixed. We were the centre of attention as a school must have just kicked out and kids were riding by shouting, waving and lots of staring. Now I got a bit miffed when I spotted the size of the inner tube I had in my rear tyre – the last fixer put an 17 inch one in instead of a 18 inch. No wonder it went! What a waste of 100,000vnd the day before – the worst thing was she didn’t have the correct size either – so she just patched it up – charging me 5,000vnd – I couldn’t believe how cheap it was (that’s 12p).
Hoi Van Pass
From then on I had to nurse the bike the last 125km to Hoi An – I had wondered why the bike felt a little unstable – the route of the problem must have been that tube. We made really good progress for the day even with Bonita’s problem and were in Hoi An by 3pm. That was our longest days ride yet. I knew I had to find a mechanic to put a new tube in but that could wait for the following day. I had told myself that whatever happens I would not be getting an clothes made in Hoi An (famous for its taylors). Within 2 hours I had ordered a suit from Yaly – the most expensive taylor in Hoi An and 2 casual shirts, and two smart shirts – oh yeah and some linen trousers. To be fair they were great value and the suit is amazing quality (cashmere don’t you know!), so I shipped it home hoping that I wouldn’t put to much weight on between now and October when I get back.
Hoi Van Pass- what a road
The following day I went for two suit fittings and picked up all my clothes. I love my suit – looks very nice if I say so myself. I took Bonita Negra to the doctors and with sign language managed to get her a new tire and inner tube. Now it wasn’t cheap but I cant risk another puncture in te middle of nowhere – I still have a long way to go. 450,000VND – sounds a lot but 13.50 isn’t that bad I suppose.
Day 11 – Hoi An – Hai Van Pass – Hue – Dong Ha – 203km
I was hoping for good weather as this was the day of the trip I have been looking forward to the most – the Hoi Van Pass – otherwise know as the Top Gear Pass. It is an amazing coastal road – it did not disappoint one bit! Its an awesome road and until now I haven’t really pushed Bonita that hard – that changed. Will the back tyre problems sorted I could push her a bit more – it was probably one of the best rides I have had on a bike- it’s a shame it finished so quickly. After the pass we stopped off at the Hue Citadel – it was pretty impressive outside but to be honest the inside was a little disappointing – there’s not actually that much to see once inside. It was a pretty quick stop in Hue but we wanted to get to Dong Ha to see the DMZ (demilitarized zone) that day. On the way out of Hue Magnus had his first bike trouble – it was only his clutch cable so it was a quick fix. We stopped at street stall and got some amazing pork baguettes. I am starting to get used to the constant staring from the locals – they just look at you like your crazy. The riding was getting easier though, its surprising how fast you get used the traffic. You also get used to what people carry on their bikes – pigs, chickens, dogs… but the weirdest thing I saw was a coffin on the back of a moped – just hope it was empty!
Interesting way of transporting pigs!
This was the first day Bonita Negra has made trouble free – I am hoping this trend will continue. It was an awesome day. We stopped off in Dong Ha – which is like the hell hole of Vietnam – it has no redeeming features what so ever. We stopped at the DMZ Café which is a hotel that was recommended in the Lonely Planet – now Im not sure who they paid to get it in there but it was disgusting – its described as ‘a good cheapie’ – sure it was cheap but I just wonder what part of it was good? It was dirty and the room was full of cob webs. To top it all off I got ill, it felt like I had a flu coming on – I was up all night sweating and shivering – great I thought, just what I need when Im in probably the worst place in Vietnam.
So I have around 16 days left - which will see me ride up to Hanoi and ride around the north to Sapa before hopefully selling the bike and going on a boat trip of Halong Bay. Stay tuned...