The (Vietnamese) Motorcycle Diaries (or Five Days of Helmet Hair)

Sometimes you have a nice relaxing holiday where you waft around in floral maxidresses getting pedicures and drinking mojitos, and sometimes, you have a full on ADVENTURE.

This trip definitely fell into the latter category.  We signed up for the five day Jungle Rider Adventure Loop with Hoi An Motorbike Adventures.  And what a wild ride it was.

On the road

On the road

Gav is an experienced rider and I’m not, so I opted to ride pillion with my own driver, the unflappable Mr Chau.  Gav and the other five riders on our trip (including our mates from home Ray & Jacquie) jumped aboard old school Minsk motorbikes.

The bikes are part of the whole adventure.  They are noisy, bellow smoke and frequently break down, but the amazing mechanic Mr Hung could fix absolutely anything by the side of the road with a plastic bag full of tools.  More amazingly, he never got dirty.  He was the most impeccably presented mechanic I have ever encountered.

Our guide on this adventure was a great big hulking Canadian bloke named Tony.  He was a bit of a smartarse, and often had a cheeky smirk on his face, but it was obvious that he loved to ride and adored the countryside we rode through and had real connections to the people that helped us along the way.  He was a really fun host.

Taking a break and contemplating the view, starring Geordie and Tony

Taking a break and contemplating the view, starring Geordie and Tony

Day One

After a quick instruction on how to ride the mean green Russian machines, we headed out on our five day adventure.  We’d squeezed five days worth of luggage into the paniers (they are surprisingly roomy) and strapped on the wet weather gear HAMA had provided us.  We really hoped we wouldn’t need it.  The first hour or so was spent winding along the outskirts of Hoi An and ducking down laneways and waving to kids standing by their front gates.  We passed schoolkids on their way to school and swerved around piles of food drying on the pathway.  We stopped at an ancient Cham tower where our fingertips caressed bullet holes left over from the war.

Whilst fanging along a nice straight road headed for our first coffee break, Gav’s bike suddenly ground to a halt.  He had thrown his chain.  Mr Hung and Mr Chau went to work and got it back on the road in about five minutes.  It was the first of what was to be many breakdowns for Gav’s unlucky bike number 13.

The impeccable Mr Hung fixes Gav's bike with his magical bag of tools

The impeccable Mr Hung fixes Gav’s bike with his magical bag of tools

Our lunch stop was at the home of an esteemed Co Tu elder.  The Co Tu are a proud minority hill tribe in central Vietnam and are recognisable for the woven baskets that the women wear on their backs.   Yi Kong, our host for lunch was gracious and charming.  I was less excited about the python in the cage next to our table, due to my extreme phobia of snakes, and when they opened the door to the cage, I almost leapt across the table.  I can be quite athletic when there are snakes involved.

Jacquie making friends with the pet python. Please note I am nowhere to be seen

Jacquie making friends with the pet python. Please note I am nowhere to be seen

As ominous black clouds hovered overhead, we wound our way up into the plateau where we would be spending our first night.  We were headed for Bho Hoong, a Co Tu village.  There were a few nervous squeals as we crossed a dauntingly skinny suspension bridge (in our minds, we were destined to plunge off the bridge, motorbike and all.  We didn’t) and into the welcoming arms of the Bho Hoong locals.  Our host, Pai took us on a tour of the village, introducing us to some of the villagers, including a delightful woman who was 100 years old, and showing us their way of life.  When Pai showed us a small monkey that had been found in the jungle (they appeared to be keeping it as a pet), I asked him “Do you eat monkey?”  His answer was an enthusiastic “Yes”.  (This wasn’t a great surprise to us, as we had just come from Cambodia where the locals proudly proclaim that they eat everything)  Inevitably, I asked him “What does it taste like?” assuming that the answer would be chicken, as it always is, isn’t it?  Pai shrugged and nonchalantly said “Dog”.  I really didn’t know how to process that answer, although “traumatised” was a reasonable description.

Co Tu lady - isn't she gorgeous?

Co Tu lady – isn’t she gorgeous?

When I’d heard that we would be staying in a village, I’d assumed that the facilities would be rather basic, and I’d noted when we rode in that there was a rather rundown toilet block off to one side.  I’d sighed inwardly and figured, oh well, it’s just for one night.  Imagine my delight then, when we were shown to our accommodation:  a stilted bamboo bungalow with a better bathroom than we have at home. Absolutely gorgeous.

The gorgeous bungalows at Bho Hoong

The gorgeous bungalows at Bho Hoong

We dined on a magnificent spread cooked by the local women (and downed several shots of homemade rice wine) before we were beckoned outside to where the villagers had lit a bonfire.  Dressed in traditional dress, they began to dance for us, while the men pounded on big drums.  The dance is quite mesmerising, with the women holding their arms up at shoulder height while their hands are bent backwards at 90 degrees, they circle the fire, changing direction often.  They made it look ridiculously easy, of course.  When I tried it, I could cope with the footwork ok (and that’s saying something – I have absolutely no sense of rhythm) but keeping the arms up was a real struggle.  After a minute or so, I was feeling the burn.  The villagers were polite enough to only laugh at us a little bit.

Dinner in Bho Hoong village (including lots of rice wine)

Dinner in Bho Hoong village (including lots of rice wine)

Co Tu women dancing for us

Co Tu women dancing for us

Leanne and I trying to keep our form (and failing)

Leanne and I trying to keep our form (and failing)

The guys banging their Co Tu drums

The guys banging their Co Tu drums

Day Two

After a delicious breakfast of noodle soup in Pai’s cafe, we hit the road again, this time headed for the Ho Chi Minh Highway, a rather spectacular road that winds through the mountains, has hardly any traffic and is in fantastic condition.  These were the perfect riding conditions.  The threatening clouds from yesterday had disappeared and we had a clear, beautiful day ahead.  We stopped often to rest our butts and admire the view (this is more important than you might realise – for those on the old Minsks, there wasn’t a great comfort level and for me, while Mr Chau’s bike was quite lovely, I couldn’t just stand up or wriggle in my seat whenever I became uncomfortable, or there was a fair chance I’d send Mr Chau and me hurtling down the side of  a mountain).  We were riding through some rather spectacular jungle covered country, and then into the A Shau valley, the scene of some rather intense bombing during the war – you could still see bomb craters in the hillsides where they had been cleared for farming.

Our destination was Khe Sanh, the site of some fairly catastrophic fighting in the war, and also the name of an iconic Australian song.  The cultural significance of this song is hard to convey to other nationalities except to say that you can guarantee most Australians have sung it, drunk, at a party with their arms around their similarly drunk mates’ shoulders.  It’s basically compulsory.  So every time I saw a roadside sign for Khe Sanh, the refrain started up in my head again.  Thanks very much, Jimmy Barnes.

On the road to Khe Sanh

On the road to Khe Sanh

We arrived in Khe Sanh, after a minor altercation with a snake in the road (the snake came off the worst, thankfully, but I was amazed at just how high I could lift my legs whilst sitting on the back of a motorbike.  Clearly, with the right motivation, I’m rather flexible), in time to check out the museum at the Ta Con air base, the scene of some particularly bloody battles in the war.  It was a pretty impressive exhibit, with some rather shocking photos, examples of actual bunkers, and plenty of aircraft and bomb shells still on display.  It was getting dark and cold, and made you wonder what those poor GI’s must have gone through when they were dropped unwittingly into the battle zone.  Actually, don’t get me started!

Ray & Gav at the Khe Sanh museum

Ray & Gav at the Khe Sanh museum

Our hotel was run by a warm and welcoming family, who fed us in their own kitchen (it was an impressive spread too – more food than we could eat) and the hotel was clean and practically brand new.  On the downside, the mattress was only a few centimetres thick.  It was the most uncomfortable night’s sleep I’ve had in a long time.  On the upside, there was free wifi.

Day Three

We kicked things off with fresh bread and omelettes at the hotel, before a heart starting coffee at the coffee shop next door.  We had a big day’s riding ahead, but first, we needed petrol.  We dutifully pulled into a petrol station and lined the bikes up next to the pump, before being told that there was no petrol to be had.  So off we headed down the road to a stall by the side of the road, where they filled our bikes out of glass bottles that they had stockpiled for just such an occasion.  I was rather impressed by their entrepreneurial spirit.

We were headed further into central Vietnam through more spectacular mountain country.  At one early stop, our guide Tony casually informed us (mainly the girls, I might add.  The guys seemed largely unaffected) that there weren’t really any toilet opportunities on this day and if we felt the need and saw a suitable place, we should take it.  This was not great news, obviously.  Especially as we were in the mountains.  I looked to one side of the road, where a rock face soared above us, and I looked to the other side of the road, where there was a railing and a sheer drop down into the valley of about eighty metres.  Oh dear, I thought, this isn’t going to be good.  What about at our lunch stop?  I asked Tony (I’ll admit, I used my whiny voice) and he just shook his head and said “Seriously, you’d be better off behind a tree.  It’s really not good.”

I resolved to not drink any more water.  And if I could have sat on the back of a motorbike with my legs crossed, I would have.  Once again, I was thoroughly delighted to discover that at our lunch stop, they had recently installed the cleanest, most sparkliest, most fully functioning western style toilet in all of southeast Asia.  There was even toilet paper and a pleasant smell.  I was so happy I almost wept.  I drank a glass of water to celebrate.

The afternoon was spent riding through the spectacular Phong Nha national park, once again on ridiculously quiet, winding roads.  Considering how hectic the roads are in the cities and on Highway 1, it was staggering just how little traffic we encountered.  The national park is gobsmackingly beautiful, and the superlatives do not do it justice.  Just imagine pristine jungle with enormous trees soaring up above us, and jungle covered limestone karsts rolling away into the distance.  The road hugs the mountainside and there was many a hairpin bend to contend with as the old Minsks sputtered their way around.  Rare langurs (this particular species is found only in this national park and one other location, according to Tony, who knows everything!) swung through the trees right in front of us.   Gav declared it the best day of riding he’d EVER DONE, which is high praise indeed.  In the town of Phong Nha, we stayed in another family run hotel with marginally softer beds.

Gav admiring the view in Phong Nha national park

Gav admiring the view in Phong Nha national park

Day Four

Out of necessity , we rode through some busy city streets before hitting the coast and fanging along gravel roads.  For me, it was bumpy and dusty and not that pleasant as I was bounced around on the back of Mr Chau’s bike.  For everyone else, it was great fun to be belting along off road.  There were occasional ditches with just enough mud and water to get really dirty.  We lunched at Vinh Moc, where we checked out the tunnels that the entire village retreated to during the war.  For their own protection in the face of persistent bombing, they built a series of tunnels.  Our self-appointed guide was a deaf man who was born in the tunnels who showed us through the maze with great enthusiasm.  I’ve been in the Cuchi tunnels near Saigon as well, and these were similar except that there were hardly any other tourists there.  Vinh Moc is right on the coast and the location is rather beautiful.  Once again,  it was hard to imagine the sheer terror that the villagers would have experienced during the war.

Off roading - gravel road by the seaside

Off roading – gravel road by the seaside

Our afternoon ride took us further down the coast to the beautiful city of Hue. Tony mentioned something about an art gallery being near our hotel, but what actually happened was we had to literally ride through an art shop to a courtyard behind.  Which made for a great photo opportunity.

Gav, a motorbike and an art gallery

Gav, a motorbike and an art gallery

Our accommodation for our last night was rather deluxe.  The bed was comfortable, the bathroom was sparkling, there was a minibar.  It felt like we’d earned it.  We headed out for dinner with Tony at an awesome restaurant where we feasted on local specialities (the crispy pancakes were especially amazing).  Several rounds of mojitos later, Gav and I called it a night.  The other five carried on for a night on the town.  I was glad I didn’t have to bounce around on a motorbike with a massive hangover the next day.

Day Five

Our last day saw a few sore heads, but by all accounts the pain was worth it.  We headed down along the coast through fishing villages, and made a merciful coffee stop.  Tony had a fairly reliable instinct for knowing just how badly we needed coffee.  And there were several of us who REALLY needed coffee on this morning.

Our next stop was lunch.  Tony had hinted that it would be a memorable meal and he was right.  We literally rode our bikes onto the beach, where there was a bit of a shack and some tables and chairs set out.  Big tubs of live seafood sat at one end and Tony picked out a bunch of stuff for us.  The owner weighed it then and there, then took it out the back to cook it.  It could not have been fresher.  I’m not a massive seafood fan, but when it’s THAT fresh, even I found it delicious.  The only exception was some cuttlefish that was like eating lightly chargrilled styrofoam.  It was a fitting last meal for us, staring out to the South China Sea, reflecting on the incredible days that we’d  spent together.

Ray contemplating the view at lunch

Ray contemplating the view at lunch

After lunch, we headed up the Hai Van Pass – basically a bloody big hill.  The view from the top (if it’s not too misty) is quite spectacular.  Traffic is negligible, with most commuter traffic opting for the much faster tunnel through the mountain.  At the top, we drank even more coffee and fended off the sellers who were quite keen for us to buy cultured pearl necklaces.  We resisted, even when one guy literally draped them over me.

The last stretch was our run into Danang, with a stop on the bridge to take in the scenery before we returned to the workshop on the outskirts of Hoi An.  We were filthy, tired and incredibly happy.

Another filthy day's riding

Another filthy day’s riding

All in all, we had a truly memorable experience.  Tony did a fantastic job as our guide, keeping us amused, busy and well-fuelled, particularly with coffee.  Absolutely everything is included, even the first beer at the end of the day, so we spent next to no money on the trip.  All the meals were fantastic, and the people we encountered along the way were warm and welcoming.  I’ve been recommending these guys to absolutely everybody I know.

We made it! The end.

We made it! The end.

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