Tag Archives: SE Asia

SE Asia Trip Part 4: Getting Fitted in Hoi An and Da Nang

With a promise never to fall into another tourist trap for the rest of our trip, Zach and I arrived back in Hanoi to rest up and prepare for the beginning of our road trip through Vietnam. Our original plan was to ride the A1 down to Hue, Da Nang, Hoi An, continue south to Nha Trang and then cut west inland through De Lat and ending our trip in Ho Chi Minh City.  After riding for nearly 5 days in absolutely miserable weather and stopping in a few towns off the A1 highway (the road trip summary and video can be found here), we eventually found ourselves biking through Hue.

We meant to push through Hue to Da Nang to save time, but after a random encounter and a day of partying with the locals, we holed up for a day there. We woke up refreshed–albeit a bit hungover–and continued onwards to Da Nang and Hoi An, Vietnam.  We trekked the mountain motorbike trails on the east coast to come up Da Nang seated in a sparkling blue bay surrounded by the mountains that we still had to descend.  After almost a week of rainy weather, no sun, and impatience, we were finally glimpsing the beauty of the Vietnamese coastline.

Top of the switchbacks.  Cruise down to Da Nang.
Top of the switchbacks. Cruise down to Da Nang.

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As far as my travel through were, Vietnam, Da Nang and Hoi An were my absolute favorite places to visit.  Da Nang is a vibrant city with an entertaining nightlife that I didn’t really get to experience due to illness, but from my bed I could hear a few venues with patrons belting out karaoke, loud laughter, and the city pulsating; we weren’t even in the heart of it either.  Hoi An is a different kind of liveliness that sits just a 30-minute motorbike ride outside of Da Nang and although it is much, much smaller, it felt like there was so much more to do.  Hoi An is a more pleasant, peaceful cultural hub that contrasts Da Nang’s city life.

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I must’ve been too enamored with both Da Nang and Hoi An because I filmed very little and I have almost no video or film of the latter.

En route to Hoi An from Da Nang, we decided to stop and check out a temple that resided on a random chunk of rock that towered over the roadway off to the side.  I have no recollection on what it was called or what its importance was, but it was still cool to wander around.

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Although my experience in the world is very little compared to many others, I still proclaim Hoi An as the tailor capital of the world; it didn’t matter what you wanted, you could buy it at a cheap price (after haggling) and get it tailored very cheaply. Sneakers, dress shoes, sports shoes, winter coats, suits, Hawaiian shirts, jeans, sweats, summer dresses, skirts, tanks, gloves, winter hats, snapbacks, dress shirts, socks, and even custom-made underwear were all available in wooden shops lining the market street; I couldn’t believe it and I probably didn’t cover everything that you could get. The men’s suits shops were more of an episode than a minute shopping experience.  You get to flip through a catalog highlighting styles from Hugo Boss to Ralph Lauren to Versace; if I could guess there were more than 60 styles.  Next they bring you through the material and color options depending on your price range (I was originally only going to spend $200, but ended up purchasing 2 three-piece suits for $480. Damn those adorable Vietnamese women with their flattering salesmanship).  After a detailed sizing measuring every nook and cranny of your body, they set 2-3 fitting appointments to make sure your suits are to your liking and they fix every single one of your concerns.  You choose your jacket-lining, fit, color, style, etc…everything.  I was overwhelmed and mesmerized at the same time.  Whether you are male or female, I suggest going to Kimmy’s Tailors; they specialize suits but also sell dresses, Hawaiian shirts, winter jackets, and a few other things.  Their packaging is travel-friendly–small and not to bulky–or you can have it air-mailed/ship-mailed back to your home with the price depending on where you live.

The Hoi An night life includes peaceful house bars that allow you to people-watch the inebriated tourists from afar.  We talked up a older British man who just happened to be a SE Asia veteran with his own travel company.  For about 3 hours he gave us hints and tips about traveling through Cambodia and Thailand as he chain-smoked and enjoyed his beer; it was a great time.

Motorbiking through the cramped streets of Hoi An at night, during a full moon, while the orange and red paper lanterns beamed overhead made for a great experience as well.

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Although I find it as an odd descriptor for me to use, I would probably label Da Nang and Hoi An as delightful.  Apart from a small amount of rain, these two places are sunny and very friendly towards travelers.  I want to think that they enjoy travelers because of our personalities, but it’s most likely due to the fact we spend so much money. All of those $5 purchases really add up.

Due to time constraints with our schedule, we decided to ship our bikes by train to Ho Chi Minh City and fly.  If the weather wouldn’t have ruined 3 days of riding through Vietnam, we could’ve complete the entire Hanoi-Ho Chi Minh City extravaganza.  Maybe another time…

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SE Asia Trip Part 3: The Tourist Trap in Ha Long Bay

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Just to the east of Hanoi resides the pristine waters of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. Maneuvering through hundreds of colossal rock islands, numerous small cruise ships jet through these waters giving tourists a look at Vietnamese floating fish villages, island-top views spanning overlooking miles of the bay, and a chance to hang around some monkeys.

The rock formations in Ha Long Bay were incredibly diverse.
The rock formations in Ha Long Bay were incredibly diverse.

Before arriving in Hanoi, I’d already booked a 3-day cruise in Ha Long Bay and was looking forward to kayaking, fishing, biking, cave-walking, and hiking throughout this UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the first day walking the streets of Hanoi, I found out that you can buy various cruise packages, in the 1,000s of travel agencies scattered throughout the backpacking area,  exploring these waters for much, much cheaper than what I purchased online, but oh well; I was still anticipating a great time.

In the morning, we were picked up from our hotel and on our way. Think of every terrible “Dad joke” you’ve ever heard.  Not the “it’s so bad, it’s good” kind.  I’m talking about the “I’m cringing because I can’t handle how awkwardly bad that joke was and now it’s really silent on the bus” jokes that you see in family vacation movies.  We endured that for 1-2 hours before arriving at the embarking location for our ship.

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Now, I cannot remember where we booked our cruise from or what company it was, but I do remember specifically reading that we would be welcomed with a free beverage upon boarding. We were greeted with a 1/4 coffee cup of something that tasted pretty familiar, but I couldn’t quite identify what it was; more on that later.

After boarding the ship with 10 other unknowing travelers (4 of them turned out to be a family from Minnesota; small world) and finding that Zach and I had a pretty cool cabin for the night, the ship set sail for the first stop of the day.

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We arrived at a smallish island that held a beach and a stairway, leading you up to a beautiful top view of the surrounding area. Immediately upon disembarking, our crew was greeted with a sign warning about getting too close to the monkeys who had decided to come out to the area in a large group.  The group of monkeys postured on the main rock face and we just chalked it up as them being conditioned to sit there for food.  As we headed towards the beach and stairway, we looked towards the rock face from a different angle and I kid you not, there were manmade shoots leading out from cages planted in the back of the rock.  Zach and I began to have an inkling that we may have signed up for a tourist trap.

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The first destination did provide a fantastic view, a beach restaurant where everything was extremely overpriced, the chance to swim in the waters of Ha Long Bay, and I actually had a monkey jump onto my backpack and jump back up into a tree when I was trying to take a selfie with it.  I even captured the thrilling moment on film as it is in my Ha Long Bay video if you haven’t taken a look.

View from the top of the first island.
View from the top of the first island.
One of these dudes probably could have bit me if they wanted to.
One of these dudes probably could have bit me if they wanted to.

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The second destination was a visit to Surprise cave where there were hoards of other tourists to welcome our arrival.  While the cave itself was pretty cool, the walkway moved at a sluggish pace as it was pretty overcrowded.  Once you moved through the cave, you end up at an outlook point with a view of the entire bay harboring the cave.  Guess what was at the top as well… Another over-priced tourist stand with some lackluster handmade jewelry and a few souvenirs to commemorate your visit to Surprise Cave.

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I read the full rundown of our Ha Long Bay cruise before the trip so I was excited about the third item on the list: kayaking.  We stopped at the location and everyone hopped into their two-person kayaks.  All of us were a little surprised to find out that we were being given only 45 minutes to traverse the waters of Ha Long Bay; oh, and we couldn’t leave the kayaking bay. I understand that they have liability issues and there is safety hoopla, but from the description that I read on the website, it was going to be a much more exciting experience and we would get the opportunity to explore the surrounding area, but no.  We were able to aimlessly paddle in a small bay with the only semi-exciting aspect being drifting near the shores of the rock spires surrounding us.  I will admit that this cruise began to sour for me at this point and we were only on day 1 of 3. I guess we still had the night in the bay and the next day to look forward to.

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Once we were shuttled back to our ship, we were treated to a dinner of fried foods.  We were offered the opportunity to make our own Vietnamese spring rolls, which were delicious, but apparently the money all 12 of us on the ship had used to pay for this cruise only bought us enough meat to satisfy a goldfish; this was split among everyone.  Hooray. With the oily, fried food and one spring roll in my stomach, it was time to endure some more “Dad jokes” as our dinner entertainment.  They offered everyone the option for karaoke, but everyone single traveler chose to enjoy the mini-bar and enjoy the peacefulness of the night anchored in Ha Long Bay.

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Now it was time for another one of the things I’d been looking forward to: some squid fishin’.  Now anyone back home that fishes with me can tell you that I am not the most capable of fishermen (See: does not understand line allowance and rapola depths so his lure just drags off the bottom until it inevitably snags a rock and snaps off).  Thankfully this squid fishing was just bobbing a tri-hook and waiting for the squid to see it flash and attack it.  I bobbed for about an hour before I saw my first squid, but missed it. After about another hour–and 4 drinks later–I managed to snag one of those bastards.  With an excited whooping yell, I ripped that thing out of the water and onto the deck with ink flying everywhere.  I was also the only one to catch anything.  The crew said they would make calamari for me in the morning for breakfast, but I never saw my catch again.

I never said it was huge...
I never said it was huge…

After that, Zach and I talked with two Australian backpackers we befriende–Jack and Shanae(?)–to the tune of the ship crew belting out karaoke while we enjoyed a couple more drinks.  The wind blew both Zach’s and my empty glasses off where they were sitting and shattered them on the deck.  The crew must have thought we were pretty loaded although we really weren’t, but they didn’t believe us and just thought we dropped both of them.  Ok then.  After hanging out a little bit longer, we decided to hit the sack.

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The next morning, we were treated to a basic breakfast with no sign of my calamari (the crew never answered what they did with it) and we transferred ships to begin day two of the Ha Long Bay cruise. Little did we know that those broken glasses were $3 each (price gouging intensifies) and that Zach and I had spent about $30 a piece on drinks the night before.  Although I was told a different price at the time, the 2-fingers of Johnny Walker Red Label I enjoyed at dinner ended up being $8 and my White Russians $6 each.  These may not sound expensive, but for Vietnam this is highway robbery. We couldn’t transfer ships without paying the tab so we begrudgingly did so.  Twas’ not a great start to the morning.

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We were offered coffee on the next ship only later to find out it was $2 a cup although there was no mention of this when it was given to us and after paying that and the bar tab, we were on the spectrum between irritated and furious; the cruise had basically cost us $300 at this point.

The ship journeyed to our next location: a dingy oyster farm.  This stop showed us bags of oysters in bags floating in the water and a showing of how these farmers begin the pearl-making process (this was actually pretty cool, but very brief).  Our group was then led to a big display room featuring…and you guessed it, a bunch of overpriced “pearl” jewelry with prices being cheap at $100 and reaching upwards of $1,000s.  This had to be some type of joke.  This cruise was not what we had read about or even slightly anticipated. There were a few good things, but oh man.  I don’t even know how to describe our feelings at this point.  We still had two more things to do that day before reaching the hotel at Cat Ba Island.

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The next activity was a bike ride around one of the bigger islands in the Ha Long Bay area.  Ok this could have some potential.  I remember sitting on top of the deck cruising towards the bike ride just laughing about the past 24 hours.  How could it get any worse?

The bike ride redeemed a large portion of the experience for me. It was a neat ride through mountain terrain (still on a paved path though), areas with dense vegetation, and a remote village surrounded by large mountains.  We cycled for a few hours through the island before heading back to the boat.  The bike ride had actually made me feel a lot better and calmed me a bit and I even got to witness the after party of a Vietnamese wedding at the village.  This was a taste of the scenic and cultural adventure I’d signed up for.

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We then meandered to our 2nd to last destination at Monkey Island. About 8 monkeys hung around the beach area as we walked onto the beach.  Some were looking at us for food while others were play-fighting.  I witnessed a monkey snag a whole bag of fruit from a tourist’s hand and scurry away.  I even had a monkey hiss at me as I was climbing the rock trail that spilled over onto the hiking trails, but I wasn’t given much time to explore the forest areas of the island. Our group stayed here for about an hour before disembarking to end of the cruise experience and head to our hotel on Cat Ba Island.

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Top of Cat Ba Island
Top of Cat Ba Island

The past two days had deterred Zach and I from even thinking about partaking in something remotely similar to that tourist trap the rest of the trip.  When we arrived at Cat Ba Island, we asked our guide about night buses back to Hanoi because we just wanted to start our road trip down to Ho Chi Minh City.  The company was really concerned about us asking for a refund and didn’t care about our feedback about how disappointed we were with the cruise.  We just said screw it and bought bus tickets back to Hanoi for $20 each.  Six hour later, we were back Hanoi preparing for our road trip.

Cat Ba Island
Cat Ba Island

Overall, it was a pretty fun time being within touching proximity to monkeys, biking through a tranquil Vietnamese village, and catching a squid for the first time of my life.  Unfortunately it was the tourist-heavy events that sucked the soul out of the experience.  It just felt very generic, but I would still recommend visiting Ha Long Bay; just don’t buy the tickets online and don’t go into it with high expectations.  The views are incredible and it is a peaceful place to relax.

Oh and the welcome drink we were offered when we first boarded? Zach came to the conclusion that we had been given orange pop as the welcome drink and after reflecting on the taste, I realized it was most likely Fanta. We couldn’t help but laugh hard at this realization. What an experience.

SE Asia Pt. 2: Hanoi, Vietnam

My main goal of teaching in China right out of graduation was to use my holiday time to travel SE Asia.  An incredibly generous 5-week holiday—January 25th-March 1st—was given to me by the Nanjing No. 5 High School and I took full advantage of it.  After saving 70% of my paycheck every month for 5 months and a couple of unforeseen expenses, I had about $2,500 in my pocket and a rough itinerary of what I wanted to experience.  

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I paired up with a buddy who was also teaching English here in Nanjing at the time, planned to meet up with two other friends during the trip, and we headed out from the Nanjing train station with just our backpacks and a sense of adventure. After an hour train ride to Shanghai, another hour ride on the subway, a 20 minute lift on the Maglev train (a 186 mph heightened subway that rollercoasters through Shanghai), and a 3-4 1/2 hour flight from Shanghai to Hanoi, we had arrived.

Shanghai Maglev speed
Shanghai Maglev speed

Funny thing about Vietnam is only one type of visa available for tourists who do not live by a Vietnam consulate: visa on arrival.  The nearest Vietnam consulate to Nanjing is either Hong Kong or Beijing and we weren’t going to spend the money to travel there and back, so we opted for the visa on arrival which you can obtain online and only if you fly into Vietnam.  Unfortunate thing is that as soon as you land, you have to bring the visa approval letter, $45, and your passport to the processing area and wait until they call your name.  There is no method to the madness.  

The officials just hold up a processed passport and you collect it. The order and time you gave them your passport doesn’t matter.  I received my visa after an hour of waiting, receiving it before others who had definitely been there longer than me.

Just make sure you bring cash to pay the processing fee.  I ended up giving an Israeli guy $50 because his bank accounts were frozen and he had been at the visa processing center for about 2 hours and no one would help him, which was disheartening to see.  I don’t believe someone should be prevented from traveling for a minor reason like a visa fee and although he wanted my address to send the money back, I just told him to make the most out of the his trip. Maybe good karma for the trip (?), but it seriously pissed me off that no one would help him.

We paired up with a brother and sister (let’s name them Brian and Lily, both in their 30s) we had met in the visa processing line—Brian had travelled Vietnam numerous times—and hopped into a taxi from the airport.  The funny thing is that the tax driver wouldn’t reset the mileage ticker no matter how many times Brian yelled at him, and while this was our first red flag with the taxi, Brian just told us not to worry about it.

We finally arrived to the Hanoi city center except there was another problem that sprung red flag #2: the taxi driver kept driving.  The travel application I have on my phone showed that the taxi driver decided he was taking us north to drive around all of West Lake just to squeeze some more Vietnamese dong out of us (it’s the currency, get your mind out of the gutter). After some more awkward shouting from Brian, and me showing the taxi driver that I was tracking his route in relation to where our hostel was, he played dumb while bringing us back to the city center.

Traveling from the airport.
Traveling from the airport.

We arrived near our hostel and Brian told us to get our stuff out of the trunk and that he would pay for the taxi ride since he wasn’t going to give more than 200k dong (10$) compared to the 500k dong the taxi driver wanted. After an exhausting 13 hours of travel to start off the holiday, we were finally settled at our hotel in Hanoi.  Hoofta.

First night out wandering Hanoi
First night out wandering Hanoi

Besides the chaotic traffic (seriously, Vietnam traffic makes China’s traffic look organized), Hanoi is an old and pleasant city with a history that resonates through the neighborhoods you visit.  The smell of Phở wafts from local restaurants and whether we were in the backpacker’s area, the Old Quarter, or north of West Lake, Vietnamese coffee was a prevailing temptation. I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but during our time here I swear I was drinking 3-5 cups of this heaven each day.  Now whenever I do go for coffee, I’m disappointed it isn’t drip coffee with chocolate mixed-in; this caffeinated heaven in a cup was our fuel to ingest on every stop during our road-trip and I am fully convinced I’ll never have better coffee.

Dat Pho doh
Zach and Dat Pho doh
Vietnamese coffee, ain't nothin' better.
Vietnamese coffee, ain’t nothin’ better.

Hanoi has everything to offer travelers.  From lush, green parks to historic attractions to unique Vietnamese food, Hanoi is a large city with much to explore.  

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Fried spring rolls, roasted duck, and glass noodles
Fried spring rolls, roasted duck, and glass noodles
Sweet and sour chicken
Sweet and sour chicken

One of the most popular attractions harbored in Hanoi is the Temple of Literature.  I thought of this place as taking an ancient Vietnamese college campus tour and the design of the place really sends you back a few centuries. The entire compound is ripe with historical information.  I personally found the old, scholarly tablets sitting upon awkwardly smiling turtles to be the coolest part of the visit and if the University of Minnesota hadn’t already stolen my heart, I totally would’ve enrolled here.  

Entrance to the Temple of Literature
Entrance to the Temple of Literature
Temple of Literature garden
Temple of Literature garden
Just past the first area
Just past the first area
2nd main area
2nd main area
Those smiles...
Those smiles…

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We also dropped by the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the location where Ho Chi Minh read the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, establishing the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.  I was a little uncomfortable walking around so many soldiers carrying AK-47’sI would hold and shoot one of these badboys later in my travels—but walking behind the monument in the gardens eased my mind. Besides the heavy military presence, it really is a tranquil area separated from the busy Hanoi streets.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

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Mausoleum Gardens
Mausoleum Gardens

Our visit to the Hoa Lo Prison was a more solemn experience. I found it appalling how many pro-Communist Vietnamese prisoners were held hear during their fight for independence and what they had to endure.  I actually didn’t know this prior to my visit, but learning about its use as an American POW camp was pretty brutal.  Sadness aside, as someone who enjoys learning about history, it was a great place to visit.

Just inside the entrance.  Broken glass is cemented into the top of the walls
Just inside the entrance. Broken glass is cemented into the top of the walls
Prison cells
Prison cells
Hoa Lo Prison Memorial
Hoa Lo Prison Memorial

My absolute favorite place here is the Botanical Gardens located just behind the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  The park is a peaceful oasis from the city where many of the Vietnamese locals go to workout, play a variety of sports, and enjoy the beautiful weather.  The serene pond is surrounded by walking paths that take you through the profuse vegetation.  We talked with a few locals, strolled the park, and enjoyed watching a game of shuttlecock.

Shuttlecock.  Awesome to watch two really good players go at it
Shuttlecock. Awesome to watch two really good players go at it
Botanical Gardens Park center
Botanical Gardens Park center

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Zach and I decided to buy two motorbikes off two British travelers, in the Hanoi backpackers area, who just ended their road trip from Vietnam and the next day we decided to take our new bikes out for a ride through the city.  Cruising around the West Lake was an impressive trip that gave us even more views of Hanoi.  We also learned that if we can handle the traffic hell that is Hanoi, we would be just fine for the rest of the trip.  

North part of West Lake
North part of West Lake

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The Hanoi ultimate street shopping experience resides in the Old Quarter near Turtle Tower Park. Numerous times, random guys on bikes would pull up next to us wondering if we wanted prostitutes or drugs (I found this common in almost every place I visited during my SE Asia trip so you just get used to it), but thankfully once you tell them no, they don’t hassle you.  Otherwise you can find a great deal on shoes, trinkets, yummy food, and many other items in this area. There is a great bar scene as well and apparently the Vietnamese really like roller-blading in this area at night.

Red bridge to enter the Jade Museum at Turtle Tower Park
Red bridge to enter the Jade Museum at Turtle Tower Park

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Red Bridge at night
Red Bridge at night
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Turtle Tower beginning to light up
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Turtle Tower Park at night

I found the nightlife of Hanoi to be a bit tricky.  Due to government regulations, most places have to “close” at around 10.  Usually alcohol serving businesses just close their front shutter, but they won’t kick people out. Unfortunately, government officials and police came in and shut down a foreigner bar around 11:30pm when we had only been there for 15 min. The entire city turns into a borderline ghost town after 11pm.

Roller blading party before bedtime
Roller blading party before bedtime

Hanoi was my 2nd favorite place that I visited during my time in Vietnam. The city is exotic and the people are extremely friendly.  We kept busy for 3 packed days of exploring what Hanoi had to offer and I wouldn’t have minded staying a whole week if we had the time.  Day and night, the city and its people had me loving my vacation, and it had only just begun…

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Locations visited: Temple of Literature, Turtle Tower Park, Old Quarter, Botanical Gardens, West Lake, Hoa Lo Prison, Lenin Park, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Highlights: Motorbiking around West Lake was an awesome experience although Zach got in a minor accident during our roll.  I thought I saw his leg go under the bike of the person he collided with and proceeded to freak out, but he just yelled “GET THE F@%& OUT OF HERE,” and we peeled out.  An extreme adrenaline rush, a few scrapes and bruises on him were, a broken mirror, and some cosmetic damage to his bike were (thankfully) all that happened.

Favorite Food: Phở.  More Phở.  And Phở.  By the end of the first week, I was sick of eating it.

Snake wine.  Also saw scorpion, bee, worm, and a few other less than appetizing additions.  Needless to say I didn't try it.
Snake wine. Also saw scorpion, bee, worm, and a few other less than appetizing additions. Needless to say I didn’t try it.

What I want to do and where I want to visit when I return:

  • Get out of the Hanoi city center and explore the north area and east of area of the Hong River.

Total money spent: $200 ($400 including the bikes)

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum area at dusk
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum area at dusk

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.