Meet Bessie. She’s slightly faster than a donkey, doesn’t like first gear and likes to stall at traffic lights for no apparent reason. In fact, I don’t think she likes me very much at all seeing as how she keeps trying to kill me! But hopefully together we’ll make it all the way from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) to Hanoi. I bought her off some backpackers who’d come down from Hanoi for $250USD.
Day 1 – HCMC to Can Tho (172km plus the hour I spent lost!)
After getting off to a rocky start figuring out how to secure my backpack, I was headed for Can Tho and the famous floating markets. Driving in HCMC was terrifying but I thought I was doing pretty well until about an hour in when the GPS on my phone told me to get onto a highway with a massive “no motorbikes” sign. Right. Now what? I decided to backtrack and head inland figuring my GPS would eventually recalculate the route, but it just kept telling me to go back to the highway. Eventually I realised I could turn motorways and tollways off (Doh!) and then I was on my way again with a new
journey time significantly longer than when I’d set off. I wound through the back streets of god only knows where before finally getting back on the main road and back onto bitumen. After the dirt roads and wooden bridges I’d driven across this was a great relief, until I realised I was much more likely to get pancaked by the aggressive truck and bus drivers who just honk and don’t stop regardless of who is in their path! But aside from getting rear ended once at traffic lights and the back end of my bike sliding out as I slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the slow moving truck that had just pulled out in front of me and the speeding truck to my left which missed me and the slow truck my millimetres I made it unscathed to Can Tho (well apart from the dirt that is) and cruised into the parking lot of my hotel with 1% battery left on my phone.
Day 2 – The Floating Markets
The reason I came south in the opposite direction to Hanoi, the famous floating markets of Vietnam and they didn’t disappoint. I was up well before the sun at a lovely 4am for a 4:30am pick up from my hotel to head out to the markets. We boarded our small wooden boated and started down the river. After about 20mins we stopped at “Starbucks” for some coffee to wake us up and then we continued on our way. The markets were a lot smaller than I had expected but it was still an amazing sight seeing everyone selling their fruits and vegetables from rickety wooden boats in the middle of the Mekong Delta. After a lap of the first market we stopped for breakfast and then it was off down the small canals to the rice factory to see how they make rice noodles. We picked up some rice noodle pizza then headed back to the first market which we’d skipped on the way when it was still dark. We sat on the top of some random lady’s boat and ate
our pizza and the pineapple we’d bought from said random lady then it was time to head back and the tour was over. Definitely worth the 300km detour!
Day 3 – Can Tho to HCMC (172km)
Time to head back to HCMC and north towards Hanoi. It was also time to swallow my pride and dress like local so I didn’t end up with a black face by the time I made it to HCMC! The ride back was relatively uneventful, and the whole way I kept thinking I can totally do this, I can make it to Hanoi, and then 6mins away from my hostel
in the middle of the peak hour rush, Bessie had other ideas. She decided to stall and refused to start again. So there I am in the middle of the road, with people honking and flying past and bumping me as they were trying to get through and I’m stuck. There is a massive curb to my right, not that it would have helped given in HCMC they ride on the footpath as well, and cars and bikes in the road to my left. So I decide to give the kick start ago given the electric start is busted, but nope, the kick start doesn’t work either. Then all of a sudden out of nowhere in perfect English I hear “do you need help?’ Enter Justin, my 17 year old Vietnamese savour! He helped me push the bike out of the traffic, did some translating and got some guy with a scooter to get me to the nearest garage to get Bessie fixed. So through the streets of HCMC I went sitting on my bike steering while the new dude with the scooter pushed me with his foot and pointed which way to go while talking to me in Vietnamese. A quick stop at the garage where they played around with the wiring and replaced a part and for under $5USD I was on my way again.
Day 4 – HCMC to Bao Loc (256km)
Finally I’m beginning to head north away from HCMC and its chaos. Before leaving the city, I decided to invest in a new helmet, one with a face guard to try and stop all the dirt from getting under my sunglasses and into my eyes! This was my longest day yet, and with all the pit stops I took it ended up taking me 6 hours to get here, but it was such a beautiful ride. This is the Vietnam I’d been waiting for.
Day 5 – Bao Loc to Dalat (123km)
My ride to Dalat was a nice and short one which took just over three hours. It took me through a beautiful mountain pass before heading back down into town. While in town, I had some amazing Italian food and stopped to check out crazy house.
Day 6 – Dalat to Buon Ma Thuot (213km)
Before leaving Dalat I decided it was about time that Bessie got an oil change, and it was a good thing too given that not much came out and what there was was pitch black! It was then time to head on my five and a half our journey to Buon Ma Thuot. The further north I go the more stunning the roads and the scenery seem to get. It’s also getting colder so I bought myself a nice warm $10USD jacket at the markets around the corner from my hotel.
Day 7 – Buon Ma Thuot to Kon Tum (249km)
The further I ride the worse Bessie’s clutch seems to get so after limping her into town the previous night I decided it was maybe time I took her to a mechanic. For $1US some guy tinkered around with the clutch cable and she was good as new! The ride to Kon Tum was even more beautiful than the day before, and took me through some beautiful little towns that wouldn’t have looked out of place 200 years ago. The hotel I stayed at was actually half an hour north of Kon Tum, and I was starting to get worried as I was still driving, the sun was setting and there wasn’t a town in sight, but all of a sudden out of nowhere a small town and my hotel appeared. I’d been worrying for nothing!
Day 8 – Kon Tum – Hoi An (258km)
Given how long my ride today was going to be, I was actually pretty grateful I’d stayed half hour closer to my destination! The ride started out fine, well, fine if you don’t take into account I had two sips of very bitter black coffee before leaving because no one spoke English and I had no idea how to order regular coffee! For about three hours everything was great, but then the rain set in, and the trusty jacket I’d purchased for $10 turned out to not be quite as waterproof as I’d anticipated. Thankfully though, the rain cleared up and I started to dry out. Well it stopped for about half an hour anyway and then it started to absolutely bucket down! By the time I rolled into Hoi An I was dripping; literally dripping! There was also a small swimming pool in my shoes and with every step I took water bubbled out the top and onto the floor. Sorry Family Hotel!
Which brings me back to my not so smooth arrival. So shivering, wet and dripping I was almost in sight of a nice warm shower and a change of clothes, but google maps had other ideas. It took me nowhere near my hotel, and after doing laps of the street where my hotel was supposed to be I finally called them and the girl from reception came on her scooter to rescue me. Turned out the hotel was about 1km from where google maps had taken me. Thanks a lot google maps! I’d never been so grateful that I purchased a Vietnamese sim back in Saigon!
Day 9 – Hoi An
Given half my stuff was soaked and dirty and wasn’t going to dry overnight, and after seeing how beautiful Hoi An was, I decided to stay here an extra day and do some sightseeing as well as some much needed laundry. I was down to three pairs of clean socks! I found a coffee shop that served flat whites, an amazing one too, and headed out to the My Son ruins an hours drive from town. Bessie had also decided to start bunny-hopping while in third gear (and only third gear) so on the way back from the ruins I stopped at a mechanic and had to explain this with actions given they didn’t speak any English. (I really can’t imagine why they were laughing at me while I was explaining what was wrong…)
After taking her for a test drive he pointed at the chain, spoke some Vietnamese, and then tighten my chain for slightly over $1USD. After a thumbs up I assumed this meant it was all fixed and was on my way. Given I was back in town and couldn’t get over about 30kmh I didn’t make it to third so had to hope when I embarked on my journey the next day that she was in fact all fixed.
Day 10 – Hoi An to Hue (149km)
She wasn’t. I managed to get to Hue by mainly avoiding third gear. This trip took me via Da Nang and it’s dragon bridge and also via the Hai Van Pass made famous by Top Gear. While the views from the pass were stunning it sadly wasn’t all I’d hoped it would be. I was told by my hotel in Hoi An that
most of the locals don’t use the pass anymore since the tunnel was opened in 2005, and it did seem to be mainly only other backpackers that I saw while on the Hai Van Pass. I can only assume this was why the road was in a such poor condition. I was so busy dodging all the holes in the road that I didn’t really get to enjoy it as much as I’d thought I was going to; the pass in Dalat had been a lot better. Given it only took me three and a half hours to get to Hue, it meant I had the afternoon free to explore the Imperial City which was amazing, but sadly it began to bucket down while I was there. After checking the weather forecast and seeing that the rain had set in for days, in true Top Gear fashion, I decided to get the train to Hanoi rather than drive in the wet. Given it was nearly Lunar New Year the train I had hoped for was fully booked and I managed to score the last available bed on the top bunk of the train leaving at 11:30pm the next day. I had to leave my bike that night, hope for the best, and get a taxi back to my hotel.
Day 11 & 12 – Overnight train from Hue to Hanoi
I had planned to do some more sightseeing before leaving Hue but the weather was awful so I paid to keep my room and binge watched some TV instead. I was a little terrified of catching the train given I was on the top bunk in a six-berth cabin (yep, the bunks are stacked three high!) and after much googling I was afraid I wasn’t going to fit! When I got on the train after it rocked up at midnight instead of 11:30 and found my bed, I just stared at it for a couple of minutes; I had no idea how I was supposed to get myself and my 20kg bag up there. Thankfully the nice man on the middle bunk helped and shoved my bag up for me standing across the two middle bunks. I’m so glad he didn’t fall! After my bag was up I tried to figure out how I was now supposed to get myself up and the nice man showed me the tiny little fold down step halfway between each bunk. It wasn’t pretty, but I did manage to haul myself up there to the laughter of the rest of the cabin. It wasn’t exactly roomy but I fit and managed to get some sleep. I just couldn’t sleep on my stomach because then there wasn’t enough space for my arm and I couldn’t sit up without hunching over but it worked. Come morning the train had thinned out a little and I moved to the cabin with seats so I could sit up for the rest of the journey.
It took eighteen and a half hours but eventually I made it to Hanoi and my motorbike was there, and after finally finding some fuel I was on my way to my hotel. For about a minute; Bessie had other ideas. She decided to come to a spluttering halt at the traffic lights and refused to start again. After about five minutes of some guy trying to help me start her she finally coughed back into life and I was on my way again. Except google maps struck again and took me to the wrong street! A quick phone call to my hotel and someone came to rescue me. It was a rocky start but I’d made it! After a quick shower I went out, found a bar with some Captain Morgan and got just a little bit drunk.
Day 13 – Hanoi to Halong Bay (166km)
I decided not to stay in Hanoi but to head to Halong Bay instead. The ride was pretty smooth, boring and uneventful until 14km from my hotel my throttle cable decided to snap. Given I’d been going quite fast I had enough momentum to roll for a bit and when I rolled past a motorbike wash place I decided to stop and ask if they could help. Again they didn’t speak a word of English but after much pointing he worked out what the problem was and began to pull my bike apart. He jumped on his scooter, went and bought me a new cable, and about 15 minutes and $11USD later I was on my way again. He’d badly over charged me but given the situation I was in I was in no position to argue!
Day 14 – Halong Bay
Halong Bay is beautiful but there isn’t really a lot to do here if you aren’t on a cruise and given it was the eve of Lunar New Year almost everything was closed. I spent lunch time in a bar looking out over the bay drinking pina coladas and then went up on the cable car and sun wheel in the afternoon. At midnight there was a few fireworks and that was it.
Day 15 – Halong Bay to Hanoi (should have been 166km!)
It was time to head back to Hanoi to sell my bike and leave Vietnam. Given google maps had taken me to Halong Bay via major highways I stupidly assumed it was going to take me the same way back. It didn’t. After about half an hour of driving I knew this wasn’t the way I’d come but after zooming out and seeing that I was headed for Hanoi I decided to trust google maps and figured maybe this way was quicker today because there was no traffic on New Years Day. I’m still not sure exactly what google maps was thinking but after about an hour I was faced with a single lane “road” that turned into rocks. Yep, my road turned into rocks. There were tyre tracks in the mud between the rocks so clearly other people had used it and I decided to give it a go, but Bessie’s small tyres and engine just couldn’t make it up the hill.
I thought maybe I could push her up, but after leaving her to walk up to the top and seeing that there was no end in sight to my rock path, I decided to head back to the main road and keep driving in the hopes google would recalculate the route. It did, but it wasn’t done messing with me just yet. It had me again turn off the highway (after zooming out this particular highway didn’t go to Hanoi so I had to trust google maps) and at first it all seemed ok. I only had to go thirteen kilometres and then I was back on a major road, but the further I went the worse the road became. It was made from concrete and there were huge cracks that I had to navigate meaning I spent the whole time in second gear going about 20kmh. With 7km down and only 6km more to go I was met with a boom gate and a guard that wouldn’t let me pass. It had taken me forever to get this far and it was my last option. The only other way to get to Hanoi was to go back to Halong Bay and start again and I didn’t have enough fuel; all the petrol stations I’d passed had been closed and I only had a 1.5L bottle spare, only enough to get me to Hanoi without all the detours. So I pointed through the boom gate and hoped for the best. He shook his head, and I burst into tears. After crying and repeatedly saying Hanoi he finally took pity on me and let me through. I’m still not sure why the road had been blocked, there was nothing on the other side of the boom gate to indicate why and I’d already driven past the quarry which is what I’m assuming the boom gate was for. What should have only taken three and a half hours ended up taking just over five but I made it back to Hanoi and I didn’t run out of fuel. It was time to go back to the bar I’d discovered the first time and have a few more drinks!
Day 16 & 17 – Hanoi
Leaving my bike parked outside my hotel with a big ‘for sale’ sign and my contact details on it I decided to see some of Hanoi. I started with the Ngoc Son Temple. Normally it costs 30000VND to get in but today it was free because of the New Year. It was also crazy busy, but it was a nice experience seeing all the locals come to pray. Next up was Hoa Lo Prison which was an extremely eye opening experience. Before coming to Vietnam I didn’t know much about its history and learning all about the things the French did here was sad. After the prison I headed to the Imperial Citadel and while not as impressive as the one in Hue, it was still impressive. A lot of the original buildings are gone but they are starting to uncover the ruins that were built over. There is also two bunkers here from the Vietnam War which you can walk through. My bike still hadn’t sold and flights to Laos were getting more and more expensive so I decided to stay another night in Hanoi. Eventually I found a buyer for my bike and tomorrow it’s time to say goodbye to Vietnam and start my next adventure!
It’s been a whirlwind two and a half weeks and while at times it’s been hard it’s also been amazing. Things going wrong are part of the adventure! I’m ready to leave and see some more of the world but I would love to come back to Vietnam and do it all again one day.