For some of us, this has become a familiar ritual: standing in Anh Wu’s Offroad Vietnam office – essentially a two-storey wardrobe and definitely not designed for big, ugly westerners – handing over the money for the trip to come. It’s the big moment that confirms we’re really heading off.
We’re in the old quarter of Hanoi, which means the streets are narrow little lanes overshadowed by an odd mix of architecture, packed with people scurrying about their daily business. For the newcomers in our group of 19, it looks like the city is one handlebar wobble away from a major catastrophe.
Even crossing the road is a major undertaking, until you learn – despite what all your instincts tell you – the best thing to do is simply step out onto the road and calmly do the water buffalo walk. That’s a slow and measured pace, eyeing the traffic with contemptuous disinterest, entirely predictable and unflinching. Believe it or not, the traffic will go round you.
For some of our motley crew, aged between 16 and 60-something, the prospect of riding through that chaos is enough to make them feel queasy, despite our reassurances. Trying to lighten the mood with stories of buffalo skidding down embankments on their arse, and bouncing out onto the road in the country, doesn’t seem to help.
Behind their saucer-like eyes, you can see them thinking, “What in hell have I got myself into?” Oh dear.
Some of us are repeat offenders on this gig. Spannerman and Ms Spannerman have done it four times, while Ms M Snr and I have clocked up three. Of course, friends give you that mystified and pitying stare when you say that, gently pointing out there are other places in the world we could go. Yep, there are, and we get to some of them.
Vietnam is special, however. It’s relatively cheap, different enough from home to keep you on your toes, and the people are fun. Though to say ‘people’ undersells the place. There are numerous ethnic groups within the country and huge differences between the two major cities, Ho Chi Minh (aka Saigon) in the south and Hanoi in the north.
We’re told Hanoi folk see the southerners as ratbags, while the Ho Chi Minh residents see the northerners as a bunch of stuffed shirts.
This is the only trip the Spanners and us use guides for, as we’re big and ugly enough to find our own way in most places. Having the full guided service offers a few things: you can actually relax and have a proper holiday, as someone else is worrying about accommodation, food, flat tyres and where you are. You also get to places that you’d have no hope in hell in finding on your own, particularly given some of them simply aren’t on the map.
Weirdly enough, the one time the guides will abandon you is if you’re pulled up by the police. “Don’t worry,” they say, “We’ll wait just out of sight.
Just keep talking English and they’ll soon get sick of you.” The reasoning is, if they hang about, they’ll end up having to palm off a bribe. However a foreigner spouting fluent gibberish isn’t worth the trouble.
One significant change for this trip was the sheer size of our gang meant home stays, in country stilt houses, weren’t realistic. We managed one, where normally a group about half our size would see at least a few. The home stays are a treat, with closer exposure to the locals (and their lethal rice wine), often in little out-of-the-way places with picture-postcard views.
ON THE ROAD
For this trip, day one was 260km – in retrospect, that was ambitious. It represents a very solid chunk of riding over there, assuming all goes well. For the newbies, it was an exhausting day and, unusually, we didn’t get in until after dark.
Up to that point we’d experienced one of the long and confusing exits from Hanoi, a surprising mix of countryside, some moderately rough road works and dirt, plus a healthy taste of the chaos that is Vietnamese traffic.
My daughter, Ms M Jnr, had that shaky look about her, as if she’d just walked away from a small train crash. Not surprising really, as she’d met more challenges in a day than she’d see at home in several years. A decent slug of Hanoi vodka (about $5 a bottle) seemed to settle the nerves.
Over the coming days, most of which were much shorter distances, people settled into a rhythm and started to relax. An exception was a longish stretch of dirt – mud actually – which was rough but had a surprising amount of grip thanks to a rocky base.
At one point I pulled up to check how Ms M Jnr was going, steering her XR125. She was hopping mad: “They said it was only 20 kays – this is way more!”
Yup, she was right and discovered one of the first principles of dealing with local guides. Twenty kays could mean 100, it’s just they don’t want to spoil your trip by revealing the full story too early.
In the first couple of days, you hit sensory overload and struggle to know where to look. Is it at the scenery that is indescribably beautiful, or the dusty mad chaos of a small backwoods town? Every second corner seems to be hiding some variation of the ducks, dogs, goats, cows, chickens and water buffalo that wander about the place at will. Or the women and girls of all ages carrying impossibly large loads as they amble along the track towards
At times we found ourselves climbing sinuous ‘snakeways’ into and even above the clouds. Looming out of the mist you’ll cop the local buses flashing past at an incredible pace, before finding yourself slowing down to barely walking pace as you enter a local market. The locals there are dressed up in their finest, trading everything from mundane household gear through to handcrafts and livestock.
Markets you can readily understand, but we struggled to get our heads around the survival and optimism of one family group sitting by the roadside, literally in the middle of nowhere. With no passing trade to speak of, and background scenery that was straight out of a movie epic, they were selling what seemed to be a pathetically modest offering of vegetables.
If the scenery starts to pall, the traffic will certainly fill in the gaps. People move houses with their scooters, so seeing mum, dad and the three kids on board is fairly ommonplace. Truck axles, live and fully grown pigs (often two), a few dozen antelope heads and even a live cow were among the loads that got our attention. As I commented to Brian F, “Where else in the world can you have a downhill race with a giant chicken coop?” “And lose,” came the sarcastic response.
With that sort of intensity, eight days on the road can seem like a long time. So, for many of us, it was about time to head back. Even the run into Hanoi was different, this time following narrow little built-up backroads, avoiding the far less interesting highway option.
The finale was the run through the old city, rubbing fenders and mirrors with the locals as you politely barge your way through. Somehow the crescendo of horns, touts, market stalls and general madness seemed like a fitting end to the journey.
If you’re considering a motorcycle adventure around Vietnam, do it.
Up till now, any foreigner riding over there without a Vietnamese licence has, strictly speaking, been doing so illegally but the authorities have turned a blind eye. From this year, an international driver/rider licence will be recognised which you can get from your local auto club (NRMA, RACV and the like).
The trick to survival is be patient, use your horn liberally and expect surprises around every corner. In the city, the traffic can be utterly chaotic, but there is no aggression and everyone tries really hard to avoid a spill. However, you will occasionally rub elbows with someone.
In the country, small gives way to big, and anything resembling road rules is loose at best.
You will come across people overtaking on blind corners or herds of buffalo wandering across the road.
Speeds are low – you’re doing well if you can average 40-50km/h out in the hills. The actual limit for bikes is 40km/h in the city and 70km/h in the country. That means anything more than 200km can be a big day.
We’ve taken relatively inexperienced riders there and they’ve done fine – with a dramatic improvement in their riding skills becoming evident by day three.
Pillions find it more challenging. It can get uncomfortable. The combination of sometimes tricky low-speed maneuvers and two-up bikes with a high centre of gravity means the occasional tumble is possible.
Most pillions we’ve taken have thoroughly enjoyed it, but they need to be aware this is not a luxury cruise. The reward for the occasional discomfort, however, is a fantastic experience you won’t get any other way.
Small bikes are the way to go. The XR125s and 250s we used were ideal and we hear Offroad Vietnam will soon update to a fleet of XR150s. The 250s are a big bike over there and heavily taxed, while a 150 would do just fine.
There are more than 10 touring companies based in Hanoi, and around four regarded as reliable, according to the locals.
We’ve used Offroad Vietnam several times now and recommend the company.
Another we believe would be fine is Adv Ride Vietnam, run by a former Offroad Vietnam guide.
Expect to pay in the region of $US140 ($170) per day with bike, fuel, meals, guide and accommodation covered.
Mobile phone access is generally excellent, and Wi-Fi internet access is surprisingly widespread. However you will find limitations placed on the web access in remote areas.
If your cameras rely on disposable batteries, bring plenty of spares. Good quality replacements are very difficult to find in Hanoi and impossible in the countryside.
Automatic bank tellers are available in larger towns, tend to be multi-lingual, and spit out local currency.