The best way to see Vietnam is on a motorbike. For a start, nothing beats being out in the open, having the freedom to take any path you want, and being able to shout hello to all the excited children you pass. Another good reason is because the buses and trains are like hell on Earth. I cannot tell you how much they are Not Fun. The sleeper buses were designed for tiny people with a wild resistance to sharp braking, ear-drum-bursting disco music and painfully bright lights. The sleeper trains, from what I hear, are even worse.
As for being on the back of a motorbike, which is where my bum was parked for 15 days of our 21-day trip to Vietnam, I can safely say that aside from a bit of exhaust burn, it is a hell of a lot of fun.
We started off with a six-day tour around Ha Giang. This is totally possible to do with just yourselves, a bike and a good map, but we decided to take the much safer route of booking a tour. It cost $550 each, but it was the highlight of the trip, without a doubt. There are loads of companies that do this sort of thing, and we went with Vietnam On Trails. The reason I chose them was because after email conversations with several companies, this was the only one who had someone with excellent English and who was understanding of our needs.
“Thomas excelled, whizzing around and then zooming off up and down the main street. I stalled 10 times in a row, gave up and let Thomas be the designated driver”
Our driver was a guy called Tan, and he was excellent in every way. He was the only person in Vietnam who didn’t have a phlegm-spitting habit, he had a Western standard of cleanliness, his English was brilliant and he went out of his way to give us what we wanted. For example, if he heard the shutter of my camera as we were driving along (whenever I was on the back of his bike instead of Thomas’s), he’d slow down so I could get the picture; he gave me his own personal helmet as mine was a bit uncomfortable; he moved tables to the outside of restaurants at lunch (much to the confusion and amusement of the restaurant owners and patrons, who like to eat in dark rooms) because he knew we liked to eat outdoors; and he was an extremely safe driver.
The tour started with a free motorbike lesson the day before, as neither of us had ever ridden any kind of motorbike, even a scooter. The lesson consisted of standing in front of a huge motorbike in a car park, and the company owner Ngoc explaining where the gears, clutch and brake were, then sending us off to do a loop of the car park. Thomas excelled, whizzing around and then zooming off up and down the main street. I stalled 10 times in a row (no exaggeration), gave up and let Thomas be the designated driver.
The next day the tour began. It was really beautiful and so much fun being on the back of a bike. We arrived at our first homestay in Vu Linh while it was still light out, so Tan suggested we head down to the lake for a swim (“don’t worry, it’s clean” he said). We took the bikes there as it was a km or so away, much to our regret, as the path was very steep and sandy, and Thomas came off his bike in spectacular fashion, burning the inside of his right calf on the exhaust and earning himself a permanent reminder of Vietnam. We struggled the rest of the way to the lake to wait for assistance, where we saw a buffalo lower himself into the water and take a massive dump. We didn’t go in for a swim.
“When we got to the lake we saw a buffalo lower himself into the water and take a massive dump. We decided not to go in for a swim”
Getting back to the homestay, we cleaned Thomas’s wound and spent the night in a wooden stilt house with a minority family who taught us “cheers” in their local dialect (“ho me do”) – or maybe that means “bottoms up”, I can’t remember – and made us drink lots of rice wine, which helped with Thomas’s leg pain. We ate dinner in the big communal room that also housed all our beds, sitting on the floor around a delicious selection of homemade food before passing out at around 8pm after way too much rice wine.
Day 2 took us to Ha Giang. The town itself was unremarkable, but the village we stayed in was gorgeous – rice terraces, farms in back gardens, local people who liked to touch my hair… The air smelled fantastic too – in fact it smelled great everywhere in Vietnam, like you’ve stuck your face in a big bag of rice.
Day 3 started out well, with gorgeous scenery (of course) and windy mountain roads. Then my stomach started telling me something was very wrong. As I was sitting on the back of Tan’s bike and we were in the middle of nowhere I decided to keep quiet and hope it would go away. Then we had a rest break, surrounded by nothing but beautiful scenery, and my stomach told me that now was the time. I had to embarrassingly ask Tan to undo my backpack from the back of his bike so I could get tissues and wet wipes, and sprint to the nearest rock. This was possibly the lowest moment of my life.
“My stomach told me that now was the time. I sprinted to the nearest rock. This was possibly the lowest moment of my life”
Then it started raining. Hard. We managed to drive slowly to Dong Van, a nothing town with a few other tourists milling about, sheltering from the rain. We realised we wouldn’t be able to go any further that day, so found a horrendous hotel and holed up for the night. We ventured out in the evening, so that we didn’t have to spend any more time in our grotty hotel room than we had to, and were dragged into an outdoor bar by some extremely drunk locals, and force-fed rice wine once again. The good thing is that it’s so strong it doesn’t take long before you’re so drunk you can’t tell how disgusting it is anymore, and you’re past wondering who made it and in what conditions.
Day 4 was the most beautiful of all. We almost missed out on this part of the trip due to the rain nearly forcing us to reroute – but thank god we didn’t. It was all the superlatives you can think of so I won’t bore you with them here. Just look at the pictures:
I rode with Thomas most of the time over the final few days. The roads were windy, the drops steep and the conditions ever so slightly bumpy in lots of places. At the beginning all he could hear in his ear was “eeeee” “argh” “oh god!!” as I squealed around every slight corner. So after a few days of him getting used to the bike and me getting used to the fact that the bike won’t tip over when we go round a corner, I jumped on the back and enjoyed the view.
As we had stopped early the day before, we were late to turn up at our next scheduled homestay. It was getting dark by the time we arrived, which wasn’t good because we were staying in a national park with no outdoor lighting, only accessible from this side by junk boat. We arrived as the sun was dropping, but as it had rained recently we had a little bit of trouble getting the bikes off the boat and onto the mainland. The banks were steep (very) and muddy and there was no flat bit – we had no choice but to push the bikes up this swampy slope. Ok I admit, I stood and took photos while Tan, Thomas and the boat driver pushed. If they’d slipped or let go, them and the bikes would have ended up in the lake.
We made it up the hill (ok, they did) and we rode in the dark through the jungle along an unlit two-foot wide path to the homestay. I think I’d rather have slept in the junk boat. The house itself was ok, but the bathroom stank. So bad. The toilet was covered in… erm, stuff, and the bathroom had an unshifting stench that even with the door open it felt like you’d fallen into one of those toilets like they have in Slumdog Millionaire. Needless to say I didn’t drink anything for the whole time we were there so I wouldn’t have to go in there, I cleaned my teeth in the bedroom and spat over the balcony, and in the morning when I had to pee, I “went for a walk” and did it in someone’s farm.
Breakfast there was the best we had, though. Fried bananas with honey and sugar. They made these alongside the tiny fish they were frying, to sell outside the house to a boatload of rich Vietnamese travellers from Saigon, wearing jeans and polo shirts.
We left the homestay by boat, and ended up sailing into Ba Be Lake – a major Vietnamese tourist destination. I went for a swim in the cold water (after half an hour of sitting on the edge of the boat, saying to Thomas, “you’ll have to push me or force me to go in, I cannot and shall not do it on my own! I’m too weak!” He counted to three, I plopped myself in and instantly regretted the wasted time whining on the edge of the boat. Five glorious minutes of swimming later and Tan was calling me in to get moving for lunch.
Lunch was amazing too. We ate at the homestay we should have stayed in the previous night, if it hadn’t been too dark to reach it. It was an amazing place. The bedroom overlooked rice paddies on the lake and the toilets were clean to the standard of a person with OCD.
The last night was spent in a small village where the homestay was a bit more contrived. Less a local family and more a travellers’ hostel, the accommodation was clean but the food and company was seriously lacking.
“We were back to reality. Back to crossing a road with a 50% survival rate”
The last day of driving took us through a bunch of ugly towns and highways, before reaching Hanoi. I was still on the back of Thomas’s bike and he had never driven in traffic – and Hanoi traffic is like nowhere else on Earth. I resumed screeching into his ear, telling him about every car or bike that was within a mile’s radius of us. I’m sure that didn’t irritate him at all. We were dropped off in a cab at a hostel we’d booked, a world away from the quiet, scenic countryside we’d got used to. We were back to reality. Back to crossing a road with a 50% survival rate. Back to being ripped off by shops and restaurants. Back to being “just another tourist”. Bah.