The Phởregon Trail: Cruisin’ Down the A1 Highway in Vietnam

So you are considering traveling through Vietnam to enjoy its beauty, kind people, and to get your hands on some of that delicious Vietnamese phở. Fantastic. Now, how exactly are you going to traverse Vietnam? Flying will help cut time, but you are also skipping the views of the shining eastern coast along with the elegance of the idyllic Vietnamese country side.  Bussing is cheap, but not exactly a liberating experience since you are confined to maybe 1 or 2 stops along the way; that and you can’t choose when you can get out to admire the view.  What method of transportation allows you to travel on a low budget, gives you complete freedom, and provides an excellent experience that is worth the time and money?  The motorbike/motorcycle.

If your body is in decent shape, you don’t want timetables to rule your vacation, and you want to truly experience Vietnam, then look to purchase a motorbike or motorcycle in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), or Hanoi depending on which city you start in.  I can tell you right now that you will absolutely not regret it.  You can usually find a good bike for $200 or less from expats or other tourists just finishing up their trip; this also puts you in complete power when you are bargaining the price as they just usually want to be rid of the bike.

Getting acclimated to our bikes in Hanoi before beginning the trip.
Getting acclimated to our bikes in Hanoi before beginning the trip.

IMG_0753 Weather will be your only adversary just because it can be a major hinderance on your travel time.  From my experience, heavy rains can set you back a full day or two just because it is absolutely miserable riding through it (especially when it gives you the worst flu you have ever experienced and you go through a week of personal hell). With this in mind, there many things to consider before committing to this odyssey. Now, how do you decide your route through Vietnam? The most convenient is the A1 highway that connects Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. This 2,300 km stretch runs through Hanoi, hugs the eastern coast, and beams through Huế , Da Nang (detours to Hội An), and Nha Trang before heading inland towards Ho Chi Minh City.  The only downside to this route is the major sections of construction that plague the entire A1, but for the most part it is a gratifying ride.

After 2 days of terribly heavy rain, grey skies, and low morale, we finally hit the first coast view on the A1.
After 2 days of terribly heavy rain, grey skies, and low morale, we finally hit the first coast view on the A1.

IMG_0757 So you’ve made the decision: you are motorbiking the A1 highway. BUT you are not exactly an expert on motorbikes (I sure as hell am not). What should you look for in a motorbike that you’re buying from a complete stranger?

  • Inspect the cosmetic damage to the bike.  How is the windshield? The casing? Cracked plastic is going to be common, but you want to make sure it doesn’t cripple the integrity of the entire body.
  • Inspect the overall condition.  Are the fenders present? (my front fender was gone).  Lights work? Blinkers? Horn? Kickstand?  Bike stand?  Is the luggage rack secured to the bike?  Muffler not shaking everywhere when you ride it?  Does the engine stay running after its in idle for 5 minutes or will it die if you don’t keep it revved?
  • Engine volume.  Even if you are buying a beater bike, the engine (with a good muffler) should not be making you raise your voice over the rumbling.  Make sure to listen when you rev the engine and when its idling.
  • Of course, do a test run.  First, hop on the back of the bike with the current owner and go for a ride.  After that, take a ride with you driving.  Then do a solo-run.  Make sure you know how to start it on the first go.  Pay attention to how the bike feels when it turns, when you brake, when you gun it, when you let it idol to slow down, etc.  You just have to get a feel for the bike because you are going to be riding this thing for the next 2-3 weeks.
  • Brakes.  Just make sure your breaks are working perfectly.  Never try to use the front wheel to stop suddenly or—and trust me on this—you will go down hard on the pavement.
Not having a front fender can be a little bit of problem when driving through puddles.
Not having a front fender can be a little bit of problem when driving through puddles.

Obviously—unless you are a motorhead—you will not enough to investigate every single nook, cranny, flux capacitor, and doohickey on your bike.  These are just basic guidelines to finding a bike that will suit you for your trip. So you have found the bike you want, but now comes to negotiating… This is something I will openly admit that I am terrible at: negotiating.  The longer you are in SE Asia, the better you get at it since you can pretty much negotiate anything except lodging and food. If that bike is not a Honda Win motorbike, you should not be paying more than $150 for it; plain and simple.  I impatiently paid $200 for a 2003 Yamaha  in Hanoi and sold it for $150 in Ho Chi Minh City.  Don’t get me wrong, the $50 was worth it for the experience, but I could have easily saved the money if I would have tried harder. Just make sure that after you pay for the bike and the deal is finalized, you get this little blue guy: the vehicle registration card.

SAMSUNG
Photo courtesy of http://motorbike-for-rent-in-saigon.com.

If you don’t have this, Vietnamese police can give you a lot of trouble.  Think of it has your Vietnamese driver’s license. What would you expect to bring for this two-wheeled adventure?  

  • Helmet. Duh. Most of the time, the seller of the bike will just throw this in with the sale.
  • Helmet visor or sunglasses or riding goggles.  The gravel kicked up from construction can be brutal on your eyes.  The sun will melt your retinas and that random bug will totally fly into the slits of your eyes with a 0.01% chance of it happening.
  • Riding jacket.  Saved my chest from being ripped open in my accident.
  • Poncho.  Seriously, I cannot stress how much it sucks riding through the rain without one.  Every single atom of your body will be dripping wet.
  • Binding rope.  Most bikes that you buy will already have ropes and bungee cords for securing your luggage on the back, but you may need more.

All of these things can be bought in your starting location before you take off.


Waking up each morning and mounting my duck-spit colored 2003 Yamaha Nuovo and just lazily drifting down the A1 highway was an incredible experience that I want to do again before my body becomes too fragile.  Not to mention, screaming down a straight-a-way at an adrenaline inducing 100 km/h is quite fun too. IMG_0765 My favorite section of the trip was weaving back-and-forth up the switchbacks just south of Huế on the eastern coast.  At the top, you are privileged with a stunning view overlooking Da Nang.  The mountains towering over the bay that Da Nang rests in makes for a majestic ride down to the city; the sunset makes the water sparkle and dance while the shadows of the mountain engulf the roadways down to to the city.

Top of the switchbacks.  Cruise down to Da Nang.
Top of the switchbacks looking south-ish. Cruise down to Da Nang.
Top of the switchbacks looking north from where we had come.
Top of the switchbacks looking north from where we had come.

It’s affordable, you are on your own time and schedule, and it makes for an exciting road trip.  If you want to truly experience the splendor of Vietnam’s bounty, do yourself a favor, and view it from the seat of a motorbike/motorcycle.   There are many more things to consider when traveling through Vietnam on bike.  If you want more information on the driving customs in Vietnam and general advice, just comment your questions.

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