The Vietnam Special

A few weeks ago, I’d never ridden a motorbike in my life.  While I’ve always seen the appeal of motorcycling, this appeal has never quite managed to over-ride my trepidation at adopting what, in Britain, seems about the most dangerous means of negotiating the highway network yet devised.

However a few weeks ago, I wasn’t in Britain.  I was in Hanoi, North Vietnam.  And in Vietnam, the only logical mode of transport is the bike; such is the degree to which the streets are choked with them.  For in this country of 87 million people, there are over 20 million bikes, and most of them seem to materialize into a tidal wave which floods towards you every time you step out to cross the road.  Trying to make progress in a car in any of this nation’s cities would be an exercise in frustration, such is the humble scooter’s dominance of the roads.  And so, if I wanted to see Vietnam, realistically I had two choices – to travel by public transport, or break the habit of a lifetime and buy a bike.

Predictably, I chose the latter, and so following a mildly inebriated transaction outside a backpackers hostel in Hanoi a few weeks ago, I found myself $300 down, having just purchased a 100cc Honda Win.

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To say the decision to buy a bike was a bit of a baptism of fire is an understatement.  I had no idea how to ride my new purchase, and had to get help to even figure out how to start the engine.  My first attempt to ride my new steed had it sliding along the tarmac on its side, as my ability to stay on the bike was overwhelmed by my lack of clutch control.  But eventually I managed to wobble away for the first time, not even getting out of first gear, as the chaotic traffic of Hanoi’s old quarter flooded past me.

A few hours later, I’d figured out the gear-changes (not helped by a sometimes slipping clutch) and met up with Brummy to the south of the city, who’d also bought a bike – a 110cc Honda Wave, and was undergoing his own similar baptism of fire.  Leaving the city my bike had stalled in traffic and refused to start on 3 occasions, leaving me stuck mid flow in the road as the rest of Hanoi’s scooters parted to swept past the obstacle on their fully functional machines – suffice to say I wasn’t enjoying my first day of motorcycling very much at all.

As I got used to the bike, however, things improved, and the prospects of my surviving the planned 1,200 mile ride from Hanoi to Saigon increased dramatically.  For several days we swept down highway 1 towards Hue, dodging buses and trucks as we joined the local’s flow of bikes and got used to life somewhere near the bottom of the automotive food chain, just above the pushbikes and donkey-carts, but firmly below anything else.  Life on the bike wasn’t without its frustrations however.  My starting issues continued, with the bike often dying for 10 minutes for no apparent reason before it could be coaxed into life.  However this issue paled in comparison to just how painful it is sitting on a tiny bike for hours on end, as our purchases’ seats weren’t exactly designed with long range touring in mind, and covering any distance over the 150km mark in a day turned the ride into an exercise in pain management, an aspect made worse by just how slowly the hours ticked past.  For most of the previous 12,000 miles we’d been covering the miles quickly, effortlessly and painlessly; however suddenly, we found ourselves in a situation where 40km could mean an hour’s painful ride, cooking under the sun.  However there were benefits to being on a bike.  Fuel costs ran to about £3 a day, while 750km down the road in Hue, when a trip to a garage was called for a new clutch, a full service and some other fettling, the bill came in at the equivalent of £11 – a definite improvement on the Corvette!

South of Hue, on the way to Da Nang, the road changed.  Mountains forced the previously straight Highway 1 closer to the sea, until it was forced up and over the undulations, clinging to the mountainside as it rose high above the azure sea.  The twists and hairpins piled up as we climbed through the mountains, and for the first time I flew along a fantastic driving road on two wheels.  While my tiny 100cc Honda was a far cry from being the bike of choice for such a road, it was still great fun to ride as hard as I dared along the fantastic strip of tarmac (which Clarkson had once described as “…a deserted ribbon of perfection — one of the best coast roads in the world,” ).  From never having ridden a bike 5 days previously, I was finally beginning to get some confidence, leaning into corners and banging up and down the gears at each hairpin in a manner approaching smoothness.  On that awesome 30km stretch of road, I finally experienced first-hand why to some people, two wheels are the only way to enjoy the roads.

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Following a rest day in the preserved old town of Hoi An we headed inland, joining the Ho Chi Minh trail which snakes south through the Vietnamese highlands towards Saigon.  These lightly trafficked mountain roads offered a further opportunity to push the bikes and we continued to enjoy hustling our tiny steeds through the twists and over the hills, and also through the odd tropical downpour; which would always put a halt to the fun.  We spent about a week crossing the highlands, passing dusty villages, flooded rice paddies and jungle hills, while spending the nights staying in remote towns, far from the tourist trail.

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Our ride across the highlands wasn’t totally idyllic however.  Pretty much every day one of our bikes broke down, with issues including my sump plug falling out and draining all the oil from the engine, Brummy’s bike being stopped in its tracks by electrical gremlins, my handlebars coming loose, and warn sprockets causing my chain to fall off and lock up the rear wheel, at 40mph.  Which was fun.  In total the bikes suffered 12 breakdowns during their journey across Vietnam, though usually they cost no more than a pound or two to put right at the many small roadside garages spread throughout the country.

Two weeks and 1,200 miles after leaving Hanoi, we crossed our fingers that the breakdowns were over, dropped out of the mountains and re-entered the world of tropical heat on the final run-in to Saigon.  As the city traffic built around us we bustled our way through the melee with a confidence that I couldn’t imagine a few weeks previously when I took my first faltering steps in Hanoi, and soon we were back in the bar on the 23rd floor of the Sheraton Hotel, toasting our second road trip to finish in Saigon in 3 weeks, as the city’s 2 million motorbikes swarmed through the streets far below.

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