This month is a little different to the others, mostly because it is 7 weeks long, closer to 2 months! We originally intended to only spend around 3 weeks in Vietnam, but our dream of riding a motorbike from Saigon to Hanoi was something we couldn’t turn down. However it turns out that touring a country this way takes much, much longer! But this in turn resulted in the most amazing adventure we could have imagined, continuing from Hanoi to Sapa we rode over 2500 miles and saw so much of this amazing country. So here’s my attempting to round it all up for you!
Where we went this month:
Ho Chi minh was our first stop in Vietnam and it is such a chaotic place to be. If I am honest the whole time here was a bit hectic, we were constantly in two minds whether to get the bikes or not, swaying from one opinion to another. We of course explored the city, its wonderful colonial French architecture contrasting wildly with the grimy motorbike filled streets, but there was something to love about the place within all that craziness!
The area around the church and old train station was really quite stunning and of course visiting the war remnants museum an eye opening experience. It was new to us to hear about the war from the side of the Vietnamese and although clearly heavily lined with propaganda is gave a view point in the west rarely heard.
After getting the bikes we set off on our grand adventure, to ride from Saigon to Hanoi was our initial aim and our first stop was to be Mui Ne. Only it took us over 3 hours to escape the highways and oppressive traffic of Saigon. Have you ever seen a 4 lane road completely grid locked with only motorbikes! I have now!!
So motorbike touring it turns out is time consuming and hard work, add this to the fact that I was on a bike for the first time in my life and surrounded by traffic, I was panicking and having second thoughts! But we ploughed on and decided to stay in the seaside town of Vung Tau for the night before carrying on to Mui Ne. This night it turns out was New Years Eve and Vung Tau had put on a party in town, complete with countdown, live music and fireworks! So we celebrated bringing in 2017 in the most random place ever and with dancing communist soldiers around us!
Mui Ne is a coastal area that has been pretty much taken over by holidaying Russians, even the signs for the shops are in Cyrillic. Despite finding something comforting in this, as it reminded me of those wonderful days in Eastern Europe, it was also quite unauthentic and touristy.
There were some lovely spots to enjoy, the huge sand dunes here are quite a sight, if you can avoid being ran over by the hundred of people unable to control their quad bikes. The fairy stream is probably the thing we enjoyed the most here, a lovely 5km long sand canyon with a warm river running through the middle as the red and white sands mix together.
Here is known also for police corruption and on a certain stretch of the road you are guaranteed to be pulled over on your bike as a foreigner and expected to pay a bribe. A German guy we got stung for almost $50! We decided to take the back roads and avoid the police barrier. However riding around the region, the coastal roads were stunning, the sun was shining and the blue as deep and bright as we could ever have imagined. Riding a bike along here was a new found freedom!
Now for us this is where the real adventure began and where we really began to love Vietnam. It was time to really get to grips with these bikes, heading up into the colder climate of the central highlands and the stunning mountains of Vietnam. The ride up here was the most spectacular of the journey so far, continually climbing up winding roads and seeing the layers of mountains roll out below us. At this point we were getting more used to the bikes too, so it really was a point in which we were starting to enjoy this crazy adventure much more!
In Dalat we also got to do some really cool things, being up in the mountains means for us more opportunity for adventure and having the bikes too also really helped. We were able to explore the region, visit many of the stunning waterfalls, some of which we were completely alone at, see the little villages and coffee plantations. It was quite a wonderful experience.
But the main attraction for us here was the canyoning, one of the things we identified as something we really wanted to do before we set off. Again we were lucky enough to get the tour in exchange for a us working with the company through our blog and it turned out to be one of the best. Taking us on a route that includes a 100ft abseil over a waterfall, amazing zliplines, trekking and the best part: a 7m and then 11m jump!
The ride from Dalat was our first in the rain, we were quite unprepared for this change in weather expecting Vietnam to have the hot weather of the rest of South East Asia. However it turns out that they have more of the usual seasons and in January its bloody cold at times! However the weather couldn’t dampen our spirits for this adventure and on reflection getting caught in this torrential downpour and on a mountain pass totally alone in 5m visibility was an experience we won’t forget.
The road was also really stunning, and once the clouds finally parted we were treated to some of the best views so far on this 1500m pass. Down in the valleys towards Nha Trang we also saw our first rice paddys, complete with women picking rice in the fields wearing the traditional triangular hats. Its funny looking back that we slammed on amazed by these scenes as once we continued further north they would become a constant feature!
Nha Trang itself wasn’t really anywhere of much note, quite similar to Mui Ne but a little nicer, just plenty of Russians also! It was a nice place to hang out for a couple of days, visited a waterfall, had a nice Indian and saw a pug so that was good! Lol.
Quy Nhon was supposed to be a short two day stop over before we headed off again. Knowing pretty much nothing about the place before we arrived we were greeted with our first real destination that was well and truly off the beaten track in Vietnam. Here they were not used to visitors at all, no Russians, only 2 hostels and beaches lined with traditional fishing coracles and boats rather than bars. It was everything those other two beach resorts probably were before the tourists started to arrive.
We enjoyed the laid back vibe and the smiles of the locals as they caught sight of us. We even ate with monks one night in a very local vegetarian place near the temple for almost nothing! We also had a really great day riding out to Gahn Da dia, a Vietnamese version of the Giant’s Causeway.
The ride here took us across a rickety bamboo bridge, through even more farms and rice paddys, into tiny villages where everyone would come out and wave before finally ending up at the coastal attraction. Unlike when we visited the Giant’s Causeway this place was empty apart from the local fishermen parking their boats on the rocks! Again one of our most memorable days on the bikes and a really great opportunity to see local culture in an authentic way.
Hoi An itself is a quite lovely place, an old UNESCO listed port that combined the crumbling pastel shades of French colonial architecture with Chinese influences. At night the beautiful streets come alive with an array of bright and multicoloured lanterns that light up the old town. The river is awash with candles in little paper boats, old women wear traditional hats and carry fruit over their shoulders. It all sounds like the perfect Vietnamese town. Only its been taken over by tourists and pretty much ruined!
We spent quite a while here but in truth only ventured into the old town twice. Its actually not so much the tourists who have ruined this place, but the money-grabbing locals who made it sheer hell to walk down the streets day or night. You are constantly getting shouted at, money for picture, eat here, hey rich westerner, motorbike taxi, new suit, boat ride, buy candle. Literally you cannot just have a peaceful walk without feeling completely overwhelmed by it all. Sometimes in Vietnam, not in all the area, but in many of the more touristy ones, that they actually don’t like westerners and just see us as a game to see how much money they can get out of us. It’s quite annoying and really ruined this town.
However we did have an amazing experience on the outskirts of the town. We managed to get a quite expensive Eco tour again through the blog and working with the company that would have set us back $200!
This allowed us into the lives of the local people, we spoke to people who had been effected by the war, injured and had children effected by Agent Orange. Got to fish on the river with local fishermen and try out their technique and unique boats.
As well as having a go at rice growing, trying out every step of the process and learning just how hard and unrewarding it is for all that effort! It was such an eye opening, rewarding and moving experience and a step towards us seeing the other side to the Vietnamese.
Again another unintended stop off for a couple of days but a really great one. Whist in Hoi An we had headed to Da Nang to get our oil changed and at the Honda garage met a lovely guy from Alaska called Bob. He had been biking the country too but from North to South and got his bikes from the same place as us. A retiree with over 50 years biking experience we loved Vietnam but also said it was one of the craziest and most dangerous places he had ever ridden!!
We agreed to met up with him in Da Nang, a city he had been staying in for 3 months, to have a ride around the amazing mountains here. It was such a fun day on these perfect and empty roads and we also learnt so much from him too on how to ride our bikes, especially in this environment. It was also fun stopping along the way and sharing stories and travel tales before getting a beer and an Indian together!
Hai Van Pass:
The Hai Van pass has now become famous after the Top Gear episode which inspired so many people, including us, to have this crazy idea to motorbike through Vietnam. Lamented as one of the best roads in the world it snakes through a high mountain pass on the coast from Da Nang to Hue. Now after a tunnel was opened below to cut out this longer route the perfect road is almost empty but for bikers.
The challenging route climbs rapidly from sea level around a series of winding bends on almost new tarmac. There is pretty much no other way to describe it than a bikers paradise, and by this point this is exactly what we were. If there is one place to turn you into a biking enthusiast then Vietnam is the place! The only thing I can complain about here is that it wasn’t long enough! One of the best and most enjoyable rides for sure! However sitting at the middle point in the county it was also the point in which we crossed from the warm part of the country into the cold and wet part. Shorts were packed away and rain covers purchased, from here on it was going to get chilly!
Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park:
The home to the worlds largest cave the ride up here was one of the best things we did in Vietnam and also one of the most intimidating. From Hue we set off on the two day ride through the jungles that border Laos and along the famous Ho Chi Minh trail. This route took us through some of the most isolated areas in Vietnam and required us to take with us extra petrol, water and food as the roads here were so desolate.
Along the way we would often not see another person for hours, the thin concrete track winding its way through thick jungle, mountains and amazingly wild scenery, it was hard to believe that we were really in such a place and all on our own! Often the only people we would come across where in tiny minority villages where they would come out and wave and the kids would run alongside the bikes, it was really refreshing and wonderful to see such a way of life. Women would walk from miles along the track with knives to cut down bamboo and carry back, really very simple and traditional.
Getting into the park and the amazing scenery continued. The UNESCO world heritage site has some of the oldest karst mountains in the world and inside of them the biggest and most impressive cave systems. Unfortunately the largest costs over $3000 to visit, so we gave that one a miss. In fact this whole area was crazy expensive with everything being closed off and tour guides or tickets required to visit them. It was frustrating as they prices weren’t even of the like where you could maybe stretch to it.
The one we wanted to do, the third largest cave in the world on a two day trek for example was $500! We did visit Paradise cave however, the largest in the park when it was discovered and named for its most stunning and beautiful features. The biggest cave we have ever been in by some distance and despite it being a more tame affair than the abseiling, crawling, swimming and climbing we have done to enter caves before back home it was still a really stunning place to visit.
We only wish our budget stretched to doing more here, but just riding around the park, the Ho Chi Minh trail continuing through the mountains and forest here, was an epic adventure. We said we would love to return here in the future maybe on a trip on its own and do some of the larger caves on multi day trips!
Most people don’t ride from Phong Nha to Ninh Binh, even along the highways it is a ridiculous distance to even consider! However we didn’t fancy stopping at any of the places along the way, everyone we spoke to said this section was a black hole of interest! Given we had been in Vietnam a while now we were eager to make sure we had time for our intended adventures in the north.
So after setting off along the Ho Chi Minh highway and making great progress we decided to go for it. On a route that would take 18 hours and cover almost 500km we finished in the dark and arrived in Ninh Binh late into the last evening before Tet (Vietnamese New Year!) It was quite the effort and something we were actually pretty proud of, it just showed us after that first failed day how far we had come in terms of riding ability and confidence.
Ninh Binh itself was a really cool place, another area full of karst mountains it was much cheaper and much easier to access. Many of the peaks were easily climbable on our own and offered simply breathtaking views over the area and the famous Tam Coc river. It was also a nice area to just ride around and at this point we really did just enjoy going out on the bikes and riding through the countryside! We also got to celebrated Vietnamese New Year here with the family that owned our guest house, it was quite a fun night and the owner was drunk off one small beer! They also made us some lovely food too and all for free.
Ninh Binh is just 90km from Hanoi and so the ride into the capital was an enjoyable and relaxed ride. Even though we knew we would be now continuing on further north it was a strange feeling to be finally on the last few km into Hanoi and achieving what we first set out to do. In the first few days I honestly felt it was impossible but as time went on I grew to love it more and more each day. It was a little emotional rolling into town after such an adventure.
Our first time in Hanoi we really weren’t overly impressed and really were a little bored. Maybe we were a little jaded from such a long and tiring journey and at this point over Vietnam. But as it was during Tet is was quiet and almost empty. We really didn’t do much other than rest and catch up with some work, it was even hard finding somewhere to eat at all!
The second time when we headed back to finish our journey on the bikes we actually fell in love with the place. Meeting up with people that we had met along the way in Asia, having Bia Hoi and Banh Mi, just wandering around the city and taking it all in. It was such a different place really and one where we strangely felt a home. We also went and paid Ho Chi Minh himself a visit, it was really quite surreal and almost identical to Lenin!
Riding up to Sapa was our last real adventure on the bikes in Vietnam, we would be heading right up to the Chinese border 6 weeks after crossing in from Cambodia and also traversing the Laos border and the coastal region. Up here is was cold and foggy as we climbed and climbed. But we had high hopes from this stunning area. For us Sapa was the highlight of Vietnam and really everything we had hoped of.
On the two day ride up here we also stayed at a wonderful homestay with a local family, eating with them in their stilt house and drinking rice wine to celebrate the last day of tet and sleeping in the communal room with them, singing into the night and learning about their culture as a minority tribe. Really one of the best things we have done.
Riding up to Sapa was a bit like Phong Nha, only we were less prepared for how few petrol stations and cash machines would be along the route, but were again treated to amazing scenery and friendly locals in tiny farming villages. Sapa is known as the home of many minority tribes in Vietnam such as the H’mong people and Red Dio. These people still wear their traditional ethnic clothing and live very different lives to even the everyday Vietnamese person as well as speaking unique languages.
The steep and rugged terrain up here is as a result home to miles and miles of stunning and ancient rice terraces that have been used by these people for centuries. We have been wanting to see rice terraces since we got into Asia but had to skip some in China due to time and cost. But these over here are some of the most impressive and beautiful in the world, add that to the local culture here and it is one of the most enjoyable regions of the country.
Again we got a 2 day trekking tour through the blog and it turned out to be one of the best things we did in the whole of the 7 weeks in Vietnam. The two day adventure involved trekking through the mountains and terraces with local tribes women and learning all about their unique culture whilst seeing some of the most impressive landscapes we’ve ever set eyes upon. We stayed in a lovely home stay in a really remote and tiny village we had trekked almost 20km to high up in the mountains.
Here we really got to know the rest of the group and made friends with people we feel we will continue to be friends with for life as well as learning so much about the culture here and having amazing locals food and “happy water”. Those two days with amazing people in amazing scenery and amazing culture have to be a highlight of our entire time in Asia so far. We also had some other days here where we explored on our bikes, taking the last chance to carve around amazing mountain roads and just take in the whole area. Including riding up some ridiculously thin and steep tracks into a small village where a child had to let us into their yard as even our brakes wouldn’t hold us as the path was so steep!
Ha Long Bay and Cat Ba:
Coming back to Hanoi it was an emotional farewell to the bikes but time to decide what was next. We were in two minds for a while about what to do. The tours to Ha Long bay were so much as we were waiting it out to see if we could get one through the blog. It nearly worked out but the tour didn’t sell enough. We figured after so long in Vietnam we would regret not seeing this wonderful place and the extra few days in the long run would go unnoticed. So we instead decided on the budget option of heading to Cat Ba island on the bus, boat, bus route which costs $10, hiring a bike and exploring the island and doing some kayaking! It would be so relaxing and fun and a great way to end out adventure!
Then the night we arrived I got food poisoning, I felt the most ill I have ever felt in my entire life, I had nothing else to expel from my body it kept trying! I was doubled over in pain! It came on so fast from eating at the hotel that night and is kind of ironic after all the street food we have eaten! In the end Shorty said I had to go to hospital after I had been like this for hours, I ended up having to spend the night there and the next few days in bed and it cost us £30 for the most grim hospital ever!
I still felt ill for a little while afterwards but on our last day on the island we decided to take one of the cheap $16 Ha Long bay tours to at least see it. After not expecting much for the money is was actually a really great day and the scenery really spectacular. Climbing up monkey island the view was amazing and the island full of monkeys stealing things off people! Kayaking in the bay and through some small caves also has to be a highlight of Vietnam, it really lived up to our imaginations and for so much cheaper than its costs in Hanoi too!
By far what made our time in Vietnam so special was the bike. We decided to go with a company where you buy almost new bikes for $1000 with a guaranteed buy back at the end of the trip for $800 rather than buy one of the cheap Chinese fake Honda Wins most backpackers do. These cost around $200-$300 and constantly break down and at the end you can sell it for hardly anything and it has cost you do much more. Having the bikes really allowed us to see the country in so much more detail, to get of the beaten track with so much more ease and experience everything with much more intensity. It was also one of the hardest things we’ve done but by far one of the best. The riding days were long and tiring and we would often encounter the full range of weathers and temperatures in one day! Before getting on a bike here I had never ridden a motorbike, I had to learn in the crazy traffic of Saigon and quickly! But after this I feel like I have found a new passion and hope to get a bike one day again and maybe even travel like this again. It’s also nice to have acquired a new skill, it was also strange getting used to km instead of miles!!
Here are some stats from the bikes:
NIC: 3788 KM / 2354 MILES
SHORTY: 3855 KM / 2395 MILES
NIC: 915,000 / £32.30
SHORTY: 1,085,000 / £38.30
OIL CHANGES: 3 EACH
TOTAL: 498,000 (DONG) / £17.58
Once: 40,000 / £1.41 (Shameful I Know, but its just so dusty it seemed pointless!)
Cost of bikes:
COST OF BIKES FROM TIGIT: $200 EACH / £160
$400 / £320
GRAND TOTAL: £409.60
6 WEEKS: 42 DAYS / £9.80 PER DAY FOR BOTH / £4.88 EACH
Keep in the loop!
If you want more regular updates be sure to check out our facebook page: www.facebook.com/Hilditchshortexplore as we will be uploading photos more often and shorter updates as to where we are. We also update Instagram: www.instagram.com/the_roaming_renegades/ daily too. Keep an eye out in the next few weeks for more detailed posts about the places mentioned here!
Read about our first 4 months in Eastern Europe here:
Read about our adventures in Asia so far:
Post for each country are under these links (most are not online yet as is why I did this post!)
Stats from our third month:
Running total in Asia:
China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam (5)
Transport methods used:
This month we covered most of our ground on our Honda Blade motorbikes, over 2500 miles! Other than that we used: Fishing Boat, Coracle boat, mini bus, ferry, Army jeep, sandboards, bicycle, buffalo, Cat Ba ferry, taxi, motorbike taxi, scooter, kayak, ship, broken down boat!
Running total in Asia:
Plane, bullet train, hard sleeper train, hard seat slow train, subways, buses, mini bus, taxi, ropeway, Tobbogan, Cable car, Bikes, Yulong ferry, bamboo raft, Electric cart, star ferry, Peak Tram, personal car!, Airport bus, Metro, Sky Train, Bicycle, scooter, Canal boat, Bangkok tut tuk, scooter, Cambodian tuk tuk, ferry, fishing boat, stand up paddle board, mini bus, sleeper bus.
Miles covered and time travelled:
Running total in Asia:
18,047.2 Miles including flights / 8,657.2 Miles without flights
340:40 hours including flights / 323:40 hours without flights
These are of course only estimates but it gives you an idea!
Beds slept in:
27: Including dorms, homestays, floors, sleeper buses and a hospital!
Running total in Asia:
47, including sleeper trains, sleeper buses, dorms, a 4 star hotel, guest houses, home stays and a hospital!
I am currently on a 2-day slow boat making its way down the mighty Mekong river in Laos as I write this. It has taken me so long to put this all together after such an amazing adventure that we have spent 2 weeks in beautiful Laos and are now on our way over to Northern Thailand! Hopefully you have seen some of the wonderful places we have been in this impoverished landlocked nation many forget about!
So next for us is back to Thailand, this time to explore the north of the country and mostly in the regions of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Pai and the Mai Hong Son loop. Then a brief return to Bangkok to fly to Myanmar (Burma). It looks like we will skip the islands of South Thailand and instead fly from Myanmar over to the Philippines and enjoy the much less crowded and even more beautiful beaches, diving and coastal region over there instead of the overprices tourist packed Thai ones!
After that we continue our plans to do Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and maybe East Timor and Brunei before we end up in Australia and New Zealand.
See more from our backpacking adventures:
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Latest posts by Nicola Hilditch-Short (see all)
- Visiting the My Son ruins, the ancient Champa temples that narrowly survived the Vietnamese war - March 24, 2017
- A guide to Hoi An, Vietnam. The lovely town that tourism spoilt! - March 21, 2017
- How to avoid the corrupt traffic police of Mui Ne, Vietnam…for those on motorbikes and scooters! - March 18, 2017