Traversing Vietnam’s phenomenal landscapes and peeking into history
Story and Photos by Chris Manor
We had ridden on serpentine mountain roads for most of the day after leaving Cat Tien National Park, about 150 kilometres north of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). That morning, we awoke to gibbons whooping in the thick jungle canopy, but had left the muggy rainforest for progressively heavier rain as we climbed into Vietnam’s southern mountain range. The weather finally began to clear as my partner, Jane, and I approached our destination for the evening: Da Lat, formerly a French colonial retreat and now one of Vietnam’s most popular destinations in the south. As we ascended to 1,500 meters above sea level, we whizzed by towering pines and gleefully passed slower traffic.
And then it happened. The familiar rumble of my 110 cc Honda Blade turned to grinding metal, and the accompanying whiff of burning oil led to a sinking feeling. The engine had seized. We were about 500 km into our 2,460-km journey across Vietnam, travelling south to north, during January and February 2018. Exacerbating the situation was that our accommodation in Da Lat was less than 10 km away, evening was setting in and our stomachs were grumbling. For now, we were stranded on the side of the road – not the best way to begin our three-week mototrip.
However, we weren’t marooned for long. A friendly couple riding on a Vespa stopped and we explained through a combination of finger pointing and using Google Translate that the little Blade wasn’t going anywhere. Triet and his wife, Thao, called a towing service while I attempted to reach Tigit Motorbikes, our bike rental company. Within an hour, a small utility truck arrived. We loaded my Blade in the back, tied the bike firmly upright using bungee cords and were on our way to a Honda service centre in the city. After Tigit discovered the technicians could not fix the bike, the rental agency quickly put another Blade on an overnight train to Da Lat from HCMC. Triet even swung by the service centre to check up on us. Our hearts melted a little more toward the endearing people of Vietnam.
The key morals here are: first, always rent from a dependable rental company; second, always listen to your partner when encouraged to cough up a few extra bucks for comprehensive insurance; and third, you can always count on the kindness of strangers.
A New Blade to Carve With
After our extended stay in Da Lat, we continued onward to Nha Trang and Tuy Hoa. The new Blade purred happily and even featured a front disc brake versus the previous bike’s front drum. Heading down the mountains from Da Lat was pure joy as we sliced in and out of thick fog, giggled our way through downpours and rode cautiously by recently cleared landslides.
Nha Trang is a popular beachside city with the tourism and prices to match its tropical setting, but also is a checkpoint to perform minor maintenance on the Blades. As is common when renting motorbikes in Southeast Asia, you are responsible for some maintenance – such as oil changes and flat tires. This may sound off-putting if you’re accustomed to all-inclusive rentals, but inexpensive and readily available repair shops perform minor maintenance with efficiency that would make Henry Ford envious. Riders also get an opportunity during bike maintenance to inspect new models and chat with locals in broken English or Vietnamese over tea provided by welcoming staff.
Between Nha Trang and Tuy Hoa, we roared onto the Hon Gom Sandbar, a stretch of arid land jutting about 30 km into the South China Sea. I even got to test the Blade’s rear brake in the sand, leaving thin drift marks from the skinny rear tire.
North of the sandbar, we headed toward two of Vietnam’s most magnificent yet underappreciated mountain passes: the Co Ma and Ca. These divine, hairpin-laden roads offer unparalleled views of dense jungle that slope down the mountainside into the sea and disappear into crashing turquoise waves and spraying foam. Newly developed highway tunnels have dramatically decreased traffic over the passes, so our euphoria was undisturbed as we wound upward toward the peaks and back down to the coast.
Riding northward from the twin passes, we rode on a combination of village roads and the faster 1A highway heading toward Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Along the way, we passed through fishing villages and coastal hamlets where the smell of burning charcoal and dung often filled the air. When faced with herds of cattle or ox on the roads, we slowed to a crawl and parted a path through them like Moses on a motorbike.
As the prime harvest season was still months away, farmers spread what rice could be gathered at this time of year on the pavement so the grains could dry in the afternoon sun. Sometimes rice covered so much of the tarmac that a thin strip in the centre of the road was all that remained for passing traffic. Veering off the clear asphalt could result in a decent wipeout – not to mention ruining a family’s meal. Thankfully, the Blades are nimble little machines, and navigating around obstacles wasn’t an issue.
Glory and Grief
We arrived in Hoi An in time for the Lantern Festival, a celebration based on the monthly lunar cycle. Observing the festival in this charming port town offered a glimpse into Vietnam’s dynastic and colonial past. Tradition holds that on the full moon, locals float colourful paper lanterns, each containing a burning candle, down the Thu Bon River from the centre of Hoi An’s old port. The city dims its lights in the evening to maximize the soothing ambience and tourists can hire fishing boats to gently glide alongside phalanxes of floating lanterns drifting toward the open sea. Environmental consequences aside, the event is a spectacular sight.
On the ride out from Hoi An, we hit the Hai Van Pass, another sinuous mountain road that has become Vietnam’s most popular motorbike bucket list item, thanks to an episode of Top Gear. The pass, almost 23 km long, has no straight lines and (again) provides fantastic panoramas of the sea on one side and the dense jungle-covered mountains on the other. Our time on the Hai Van was marked by strong, biting winds, but the peppy Blades made easy work of the mountain as we rode upward in short squirts of fun interspersed with wind gusts that attempted to sully our apexes.
After descending from the pass, we headed toward Hue, formerly the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty. History buffs will recognize Hue as having some of the fiercest fighting in the Vietnam War during the Tet Offensive in January 1968. No visit to Hue is complete without a visit to the Imperial City, where pockmarked gates and walls of the citadel are a clear reminder of the month-long siege. The battle was a pivotal moment for the American anti-war movement as stateside families witnessed the gruelling bloodshed, thanks to tenacious television journalists imbedded with American troops.
So Long to Fair-Weather Riding
The time came to leave the comfortable seaside climate. After Hue, we rode toward the Central Highlands, which delineate the border with Laos. We would soon encounter the most spectacular parts of the Ho Chi Minh Road (HCMR) West. This two-lane road runs over limestone mountains covered in impenetrable jungle and coffee plantations, occasionally plunging into river valleys laced with rice terraces. There is little commercial development on the HCMR West, with fewer opportunities for food and gas, so calculating our breaks was significantly important.
Despite the barometer sinking into the single digits during our ascent, we happily returned to the mist-filled mountains. The robust rain ponchos we purchased from Tigit were already trip favourites and continued their stalwart service in the rainy highlands. We were determined not to allow constant drizzle and heavy rain discourage us from reaching our next destination: Khe Sanh, where we stayed for two nights to dry out and rest. This stop was another opportunity to visit the vestiges of the Vietnam War, this time at the nearby Khe Sanh Combat Base. From January to April 1968, U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese battle units endured a harrowing siege while American airpower pummelled the surrounding hills. Trying to imagine that hellacious environment in this serenely quiet town surrounded by mystical-looking spires of jungled hillside was almost impossible.
That evening, our hosts at the Hai Dong Hotel invited us to a family dinner for an early celebration of the Lunar New Year, officially beginning the next week. As we sat, enjoying a pleasant meal with new friends, I could not help but think of the young men and women on both sides of the Vietnam War who fought bitterly for survival. The effect on my mind was both numbing and inspiring – a formerly devastated place, now a capstone location that lures lovers of history, travel and motorcycle riding from around the world.
Uncle Ho’s Road
The longest ride of our trip was now ahead of us: a 230-km stretch without known functioning gas stations (although, in the end, we marked two operating ones on our Google Maps site). Before leaving Khe Sanh, we each purchased small plastic containers to provide five extra litres of gas to see us through to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Our stomachs were full of pho and we packed plenty of snacks before setting out. Tarmac gave way to large concrete slabs as the road etched its way around mountain peaks and threaded through villages of the Degar, the indigenous residents of Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Dogs lay scattered in the villages’ roads, soaking up the warm sun and barely lifting their heads as we rode past carefully, our ponchos fluttering behind us like superheros’ capes.
We dipped into valleys beneath the clouds and watched farmers wade barefoot through knee-high water as they planted rice seeds, replicating a practice that has fed millions for millennia. Frequent stops were required for us to warm up and photograph the towns and valleys that are surrounded by monolithic limestone formations reaching for the sky like teeth erupting from the ground.
After almost 10 hours and countless slabs of concrete, we finally stopped to fill up the Blades at the entrance of Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. We also took the opportunity to have a snack and heed the call of nature. Much to my surprise, especially after not having seen other human beings for hours, a tour group emerged from the bamboo thicket where I had moments before relieved myself. I couldn’t help but erupt in amusement. They must have thought I was insane – dirty, damp and laughing maniacally as I stuffed my face with banh ran.
Motivation for a Mortgage
Not long afterward, we arrived at our hotel and had two days to explore nearby caves. Exploring the namesake of the park, Phong Nha Cave, involves a motorized boat trip upriver to the mouth of the cave, where our boat’s captain switched to oars and we glide through the aquatic cave system. Thien Duong (Paradise Cave) can be visited without a guide, so we arrived early the following day to beat the crowds. Inside, stalagmites stand like natural skyscrapers and stalactites droop down from the ceiling as if in the mouth of some colossal extinct carnivore. Although Paradise Cave goes on for some 31 km, only the first kilometre is open to the public. The Hang Son Doong (Mountain River Cave), the largest known cave system in the world, also is in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. Visitors pay handsomely to enter – around US$3,000 per person – and exploring the cave fully takes about a week.
Our spelunking/motorbike adventure continued as we rode north to Ninh Binh, which is quickly developing into a prime tourist area. For now, it’s still enveloped by magnificent limestone mountains and rice terraces that are penetrated by multiple rivers. We visited Cuc Phuong National Park, which lies west of Ninh Binh, Vietnam’s oldest protected nature area and home to a dizzying list of plant and animal life. Once again, we entered a dark cave in the park, ready to view a place where archeologists found prehistoric traces of human life.
As we delved into the nether regions of the earth, we illuminated the pitch black with our cellphones’ lights. At one point, I spotted a strange blot on the cave wall. We walked closer, focusing on a cocoa-coloured blob that resolved itself into a Giant Huntsman spider, the largest spider in the world as ranked by leg span – adults can grow to 30 cm across! I fully understand now why humankind moved out of caves and into fabricated homes.
A Likely Return
Our route northward to Hanoi had increasingly heavy traffic; once again, we rode bar-to-bar in swarms of motorbikes, the most we had seen since leaving HCMC three weeks before. Although we were glad – and relieved – to return the Blades to Tigit’s Hanoi office without so much as a scratch, we had grown remarkably fond of our little motorbikes and could not help but hug them goodbye. We stayed in Hanoi four days to wind down before we caught our flight to southern China in time to celebrate the Lunar New Year’s with Jane’s family.
Many thoughts come to mind to characterize Vietnam, but no words can adequately sum up the stunning scenery and experiences the country has to offer, not to mention some of the most hospitable people and diverse cuisine you will have met or tasted. I know one day we will return to Vietnam’s enchanting landscapes and ethereal mountain roads. After all, the best riding lies still farther north of HCMC, tucked deep in the northern mountains and waiting to be discovered.