After an odd last night in Laos, I crossed the border to Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu, in the far north. The motorcycle riding I had done in Laos and Thailand barely prepared me for the style of driving I was to encounter in Vietnam. My first wakeup call was no later than 20 km after crossing the border, when a small semi-truck completely barreled out from a side street in front of me. It was like a car chase scene straight out of a movie. This was the first of many times that I came to a near-screeching halt on my bike because of what seems to be the utter disregard that bus and truck drivers have for motorcyclists on the road. It’s absolutely insane. Needless to say, I definitely prefer the less populated Vietnamese countryside over the cities. It’s completely sublime. The sweeping rice fields and blue skies were dreamy on a bike. The countryside – particularly in the far north – was also the most remote and the least touristy place that I’ve been to thus far on my trip. Oxcarts, water buffalo, roosters, cows, horses, and dogs populate the muddy, pothole-laden streets more than traditional vehicles do, and western faces are extremely few and far in between, and some days, completely absent.
I headed northeast from Dien Bien Phu to Sapa – a small and touristy mountain town about 50 km from the Chinese border. The scenery was superb and the culture extremely diverse. Sapa is home to six different groups of ethnic minorities, Black Hmong, Red Dao, and Giay to name a few. When the rice paddies do not require their day’s work, many of the hill tribe women come into town to sell their handicrafts and trekking tours.
Sapa is interesting; you have the amenities of a fairly modern and developed town. And then you can walk an hour or two into the villages of the ethnic minorities, where most live very simple subsistence-based farming lifestyles and have preserved a number of their archaic traditions. For example, some of the Red Dao females still shave their eyebrows because they consider a completely hair-ridden face to be alluring.
One of my favorite parts about Sapa was the 7th floor dorm room I stayed in. It cost me $5/night and the view was killer. Watching the clouds roll over the mountain range directly in front of it was sweeeeeet.
I enjoyed Sapa, but the constant presence of Hmong women relentlessly trying to sell me something eventually became an annoyance. If you’re headed there, I’d suggest staying away from the very center of town for this reason alone. Even walking 50 meters to get a breakfast banh mi was impossible to do without getting swarmed. It’s a good thing they’re so damn tasty. After 4 days in Sapa, I headed onwards towards the capital: Hanoi, home to the dish that was easily the pinnacle of my Vietnamese eating experience: Bún chả Hanoi!! (Thanks to our friend Tommy Lee for teaching me the correct pronunciation).
Alright, so you get a plate of room temperature rice vermicelli noodles. Then you get a bowl of soup broth – a little on the sweeter/saltier side – to which fresh off the grill pork is added, usually in two forms: fatty skewered pork, and pork meatballs. Thinly sliced pickled vegetables are either included on the side or in the broth. A picture doesn’t do this dish justice, nor does my lackadaisical description. At 30,000 Vietnamese Dong ($1.50 US), it’s a winner. I’m not sure if I should be proud or ashamed of this, but one day I came back to the same location three times for my bun cha fix. I’ll choose proud.
I found Hanoi to be an absolute eating paradise. I was in denial that it would match Chiang Mai, Thailand in terms of the abundance and variety of delicious food, but it completely did. Nearly every street in the old quarter of the city is lined with these miniature tables and stools to pop a squat at and enjoy some cheap eats and pint or six of bia hoi (fresh beer).
Xoi Xiew Thit Kho – A Hanoi specialty – yellow sticky rice topped with mung bean paste and fried shallots, served with slow cooked pork belly (Thit Kho). Succulence.
Vietnamese coffee and tra da (pronounced chara – green tea). Cheap, strong, and ubiquitous.
From Hanoi, I tossed my bike and myself on the train to Dong Hoi, where I rode 50 km north to Phong Nha, which is home to some massive cave complexes — most notably Son Doong (the largest cave in the world). At $2000 US for a week-long trip, Son Doong was a bit of a stretch for me…but thankfully there were plenty of budget-friendly caves to visit. One of them is completely pitch black inside and only accessible by kayak, really adding to the Indiana Jonesy feeling of it all. You begin the cave exploration on gravel, which turns to sand, then dirt, then dirt with a few puddles, and by the end you’re wading through thigh-deep mud the consistency of melted Hersheys chocolate. Besides finding dried mud in my ears a week after the cave tour, it was wicked.
After two nights in Phong Nha, I headed onwards towards the Vinh Moc Tunnels, an underground complex where roughly 300 Vietnamese people hid to avoid the bombs and American troops during the US-Vietnam war. The first day I actually couldn’t find the tunnels (ha!), which made me realize this is probably how the Americans felt back in the day when they too searched for the tunnels to no avail. So, we returned the next morning determined and eventually successful, after a Vietnamese girl dropped a pin on Google Maps for me exactly where the tunnels were. The tunnels reach depths of 23 meters deep and stretch 2 km long, and are extremely impressive. The local population safely lived in these tunnels during a period of six years…talk about resilience.
Following a night in Quang Tri after the Vinh Moc tunnels, I rode further south from Hue to Hoi An over the Hai Van Pass, which was easily one of the more breathtaking stretches of the trip.
Once I arrived in Hoi An I quickly realized why everyone loves it there. It’s a relaxed little riverside city with the ocean super close by, there’s delicious food everywhere, and the people seem to be moving at a slower pace than everyone else in Vietnam. I stayed in a homestay called “Under the Coconut Tree”, which I can’t recommend highly enough. The staff members were some of the friendliest people I’d met in Vietnam, the food was tasty and cheap, and it was a 100-meter walk to the beach. Hoi An definitely ranks as my second favorite city in Vietnam, after Hanoi.
Cao lầu – a Hoi An specialty consisting of homemade chewy noodles, soy-marinated pork, deep-fried crisps, and fresh greens. It’s a palatable mixed bag of textures that go so extremely well together. Apparently the secret is that the noodles are made using water from centuries-old wells around the city.
I was heading into town one morning when I spotted a little sign on the side of the road advertising banh beo, another specialty from the Hoi An area. I was slightly hesitant at first to join the large Vietnamese family gathered at their table, but they enthusiastically invited me to sit with them, and damn was I glad I did. Banh beo turned out to be one of the tastiest things I’ve eaten thus far in Asia. For 2500 Vietnamese Dong (that’s about ten cents), you get one miniature steamed rice pancake, topped with fried shallots, ground peanuts, chilies, rice vinegar, fish sauce, and in my case, some sort of garlicky orange peanut sauce. I noticed the tall stacks of empty plates next to each person and then felt it was completely appropriate to order eight of them for my first time, which was met with a warm applause and collective grin by the entire family. I returned to the same place each morning while I was in Hoi An, but I’ll always remember my first!
This bánh mì was my first meal in Hoi An. Heo quay is this crispy roasted pork meat, which I’ve discovered that the Thai and Vietnamese are exceptional at cooking. This stall is another place I visited daily for a $1 sandwich.
I set off and rode south until my lower engine seized near Tuy Hoa, about 550 km north of Saigon. This really sucked. At this point in my trip I was growing tired of traveling on my bike, and the engine seizure just exasperated me that much further. Saigon was close on the horizon though, and should I decide I wanted to sell my bike, I could do it there. All in all it cost me US $55 to get the necessary pieces rebuilt and replaced, which is expensive by Vietnamese standards, but in the states might cost anywhere from 10-20 times that amount.
South of Tuy Hoa I really noticed the scenery change…the waters became bluer and the greenery more lush. The coastal roads in this central part of the country were some of my favorites, and they completely took my mind off of the thought of selling my bike anytime soon.
The Hon Gom Peninsula, Vietnam’s farthest east point. This was the first beautiful beach I saw in Asia that was completely untouched by tourism – not a single resort, bungalow, or beach bar. Just miles and miles of rolling white sand dunes and calm aqua blue waters.
I spent the following night at a hostel in Nha Trang, an extremely underwhelming city that’s overcrowded with Russian tourists. But at this point my mind was on Saigon – it was the light at the end of the tunnel for me. I’d been driving throughout the country for some 25 days now, but I still found myself anxious to navigate the city’s infamous traffic jams.
After a night in Phan Thiet, halfway between Nha Trang and Saigon, I set off for my destination. With 100 km left, it started raining heavily. I took a break under a gas station’s overhanging roof and waited for the weather to clear, which it didn’t. So here I am, already slightly nervous about facing the heaviest traffic yet in Saigon, and it’s relentlessly dumping rain. Semi trucks and busses scream past, everything I’m wearing is soaking wet, and it’s starting to get dark. Welcome to Saigon! The traffic turned out to be a piece of cake though, not much tougher than Hanoi’s in my opinion. The swarms of motorbikes during rush hour were like I had never seen, it was awesome. It might be chaotic, but the Viets have found a way to make it work well. Streetlights and roadsigns are merely suggestions, and the only rule of the road is that you usually yield to any vehicle larger than yours.
Saigon didn’t interest me much. I’d already relished in Hanoi and fallen in love with what it had to offer, and to me Saigon just didn’t have much appeal for a big city. Sometimes in Vietnam there’s this underlying feeling that you’re being hustled anytime there’s money involved, and in Saigon it seemed a bit more blatant to me. That’s not to say that the city isn’t home to some great people though. Friendly university students are everywhere, wanting to take you out for a bite to eat or for a tour of the city to practice their English. Elderly groups practicing Tai Chi and aerobics in the central park crack a friendly smile as you pass by. And some of the food vendors seem to light up out of happiness when you return to their stall. Although I’d heard from others that the Vietnamese people were rude and cold, I found them to be really lovely. They were without a doubt more abrasive than the Thai and Lao people I’d met, but they were every bit as curious and eager to make a foreigner friend as anyone else I’d encountered on my travels.
I spent my time in Saigon the same way I did in Hanoi…walking around, people watching, and eating through the city’s cheap and delicious offerings.
I’d had enough of Saigon after 4 nights there. I’d made some necessary repairs on my bike, and decided to keep it and try and sell it in Cambodia. I left the city heading southwest, towards the Mekong Delta with Ha Tien as my destination. The Mekong Delta was gorgeous, it’s where the Mekong River splits into a ton of little legs that empty out at the ocean. I eventually reached Ha Tien for my last night in Vietnam. I look back and wonder how different my experience might have been if I’d decided to travel the country without my bike, and to tell you the truth now I really can’t imagine doing it any other way.