Good Morning Vietnam!

Not long back, Birgit and I managed to scoot off to Vietnam for 4 weeks and what we found there far exceeded our expectations. Over the next 4 posts I’ll be telling about what we saw there, why we were inspired, what a day on the road is like and some facts you ought to know about if you rather fancy the idea of riding there. I hope you enjoy.

For most of us Vietnam only leaps into mind when the disastrous and very damaging war of the 60s and 70s is mentioned. But the country now has the growing reputation for being one of the most desirable countries in the world to visit. The fact that the BBC’s Top Gear has made a fairly recent and very tongue in cheek visit to the country has opened the eyes of a growing number of UK bikers to the fact that it’s even possible to get into this communist country, let alone travel there on two wheels.

So what’s the score? Birgit and I set off to explore and to sort out the fact from the fiction. We asked ourselves, with so many other exotic destinations in the world that can be visited, is it worth considering taking valuable holiday time to fly half way round the world to get to this once war torn country?

The conclusion is, emphatically yes. The glossy brochures and guidebooks aren’t lying. If anything they don’t do Vietnam justice at all, but that’s a good thing for the likes of you and I. Our advice is get there soon or at least within the next couple of years. It’s definitely a country that should be at the top of your list of must visit places.

Vietnam is absolutely stunning and it’s quite unique. Some of that uniqueness comes as a direct result of the devastation of the war and in fact, when you consider the pretty harsh effects of war and colonialism over the past century, it’s quite amazing that this country is as vibrant as it is. It’s even more amazing that we foreigners are made welcome with such an incredible level of honest friendly warmth.

What are the options open to you? If you want to explore this country by bike then you have several. One downer is that technically you still can’t temporarily import your own bike. Latest data is that it’s against the law to have motorcycles over 175cc in the country anyway. But that law seems to be a bit more relaxed for locals – the wealthy ones that is. I’m only saying that because the few Harley Davidson’s we saw really stood out from the crowd! We also found a couple of ancient, smoke belching Chang Jiang 750s up in the mountains. This is the Chinese clone of the Russian M72, which itself is a copy of the pre World War II BMW R71. When we saw a couple of 250cc trail bikes our eyes opened with a twinge of envy. Most of the bikes you see on the road, and there are literally millions, are 125cc and under. Part of the reason that this remains this way is that import taxes on vehicles are horrible. Ninety to one hundred percent tax on foreign assembled bikes puts them far out of reach of most citizens. The other reason for the small size bikes is that only the posers need anything bigger than a 125. These tiny bikes do everything that can possibly be asked of them, except perhaps fly.

The best options are to either buy a local bike or to rent one. Over the past few years it’s been quite the tradition that travellers would get hold of Russian origin, Minsk 125cc 2 strokes, particularly if lots of mountain riding and a fair amount of off-roading was the plan. The locals in the cities and towns don’t like them much any more though. In part because they smoke like hell – when you are riding one it’s considered to be extremely bad manners not to turn your bike off at traffic lights! The up side for travellers is that this means there is a well of bikes that are available for the likes of us to get hold of. We were told on numerous occasions that in fact the older models are much better value. They are tougher, simpler and far less likely to break down than the supposedly up to date versions. When we talked to Minsk owners about their bikes there was a muttered undercurrent to the conversation about poor build quality on the newer models, and some fairly grim things were said about the quality and workmanship of the spares. One guy told me that the Minsk factory, trying to compete with the sleek and efficient Japanese style bikes, had sacrificed durability for some flash plastic panels and some pretty decals. ‘Nough said we thought.

We met Stuart and Rhianydd the far south of Vietnam. They’d bought a bright red Minsk Sport, named it Poppy, and headed down from Hanoi. This trip to Vietnam was quite a leap for them as they had only been riding bikes for a couple of years, but the bug had well and truly bitten. The two of them, in spite of clutch problems, had had a ball and after 3 weeks on the road were chilling on the island of Phu Quoc in the Gulf of Thailand. Check out their blog on www.mytb.org/stuartandrhianydd. Stuart assures me that his Freudian slip of calling the bike a Minx had no base in reality.

What else can you sensibly expect to do a trip on? I lost count at 49 different types of 50 -125cc bikes that were on offer either from bike rental shops or from dealers. Most seem to be Hondas and the word Honda is actually the accepted Vietnamese slang word for motorbike. Just about every repair shop you see advertises themselves as fixers of ‘Hondas’. But you’ll also find a sprinkling of Yamahas, Suzuki’s, Piaggio’s and Vespas. The rest seem to be of Chinese or Korean origin. The latter two have a pretty poor reputation for reliability but their price reflects that. The only other thing they seem to have in common, besides their ability to rival the Minsks for smoke production, are their powerful rather incongruous names. We saw Kaisers, Explorers, and Chiefs to name just a few. Oh, and Lifan cruisers. If you are more into the cruiser style of travel then just perhaps one of these is for you. They are big flashy bikes that are covered in gleaming chrome, but incongruously they only house 125cc engines. You can pick up a new one for around $950.

For years, Chinese small cc bikes were imported and though horribly unreliable they were amazingly cheap, less than half the price of Japanese made bikes – this helped get round the importation tax costs. Most were actually copies of Jap bikes and a major legal battle was brewing between the Japanese, the Chinese and the Vietnamese over the situation. Cleverly the Japanese solved the problem without going to court. They persuaded the Vietnamese to let them make and assemble bikes in Vietnam; many of the parts would still be imported from Japan. For the rest of the parts they granted licences to the Chinese to make them legally. The parts were then imported from China and assembled onto the Japanese models in the Vietnam based Japanese factories. This kept the cost of the bikes down, satisfied the Vietnamese laws, provided jobs for locals and kept the quality up whilst keeping everyone out of a potentially unwinnable and very long court battle. We were told that many of the parts on the very popular Honda Waves and Dreams come from China, and it’s this that’s a major contributing factor to the number of these bikes you see on the road. So many are in production that I frequently wondered how you’d pick your own bike out in the parking rank.

These workhorses well and truly live up to that title. You have probably seen or heard of them being used as the method of transport for the whole family – our record was six to a bike. It looked as If Gran, Mum, Dad, a teenager, a pre-schooler and a baby was on board. They rode with such ease and panache that it made me embarrassed at the comments I’ve made in the past about overloading my 800cc GS!

In fact these bikes are almost casually made to do things that you or I would never sensibly dream of trying to get them to do. Imagine five fully-grown pigs stacked onto the back of your 125 in metal cages. How about forty coconuts, with the husks still on? What about eight crates of bottled beer – useful thought when heading for a bike rally? We even saw one bloke who was riding so overloaded that all you could see was the leading edge of his front wheel and the top of his head. My favourite though was the guy in Vietnam’s capital city Hanoi. He was setting off into lunatic traffic with a two-metre tall, one-metre wide sheet of plate glass on his lap. His hands could just reach the tips of his handlebars and he had to look through the glass to see where he was going. He saw me trying to snatch a shot of him and even had the balance to take a hand off and give me a cheerful wave as he humped down off the edge of the pavement into the traffic. Did I actually get the picture? No – I was too busy being gobsmacked and waving back!

This is one of the things that are just so special about this country. We arrived there with fairly experienced travellers eyes and a set of preconceived ideas. Within hours we’d had all of those ideas pretty much astounded out of us. Excellent! After all, that’s what travel is all about isn’t it – broadening the mind I mean.

Something that will broaden your mind if it doesn’t scare the living daylights out of you first is the sheer magnitude of the traffic on the roads in the cities. The difference is that there are hardly any trucks, buses or cars. In Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City if we are being up to date, there are over three million bikes on the road! Birgit and I sat dumfounded for an hour of rush hour in Saigon, just trying to get our heads around how there never seemed to be any accidents. At one set of traffic lights, within seconds, there were over five hundred motorcycles lined up for the green light. And that was from just one direction. Oh and yes, people do wait for the lights. Many of the traffic lights are actually quite trick. They have count down displays set into the Red, Amber and Green so you can see how many seconds you have before each light changes. It makes for some very revved up take offs. But as not everyone pays attention to the lights you need to keep your wits about you. One of the quirks is that if you want to turn right at a light, you can just go for it even if the light is against you. The wide boys and the fate junkies just go for it anyway.

As with every country you’ll ever visit, you’ll be pleased to hear that there are rules to the road and they are quite simple. We took the first couple of days after arrival to walk around, watch the traffic and see what people did in the different variations of chaos.

Actually, if you just learn two main rules then you’ll probably survive your first ride there. The first is that you drive on the right in Vietnam and the second is that no one ever looks behind themselves. They rarely look to the sides either. As everyone rides with this style, accidents rarely seem to happen.

Another good rule to learn is that if you see an obstacle in your way, perhaps 20 bikes suddenly riding at 90 degrees directly across your path, you always try to go behind them. Again, as almost everyone does this then there are hardly any spills. Please note that I said almost everyone! I rode there with the constant feeling that I was in the midst of some sort of World War I aerial dogfight! My favourite obstacle was a bloke who was doing some maintenance works on a manhole cover in the middle of a main street in Saigon. The only protection he had, and warning to the traffic that he was there, was a blue plastic chair that he’d plonked just up stream from his hole in the road. Health and safety?

We only saw two spills in a month on our way from the South to the North and they were an eye opener too. You’ll be pleased, disappointed, surprised to know that the average sort of speed you are likely to achieve is about forty kilometres per hour. That means that when people do hit each other or fall off, it’s all done at such a slow speed that potential damage is minimised. With both accidents we saw, the riders collided and hit the deck. The rest of the traffic just swirled around them, hardly slowing at all. The riders picked themselves up, apologised, helped each other pick their bikes up, helped brush the dust off each other, climbed aboard their bikes again and headed off back into the stream of traffic. No drama, just good manners and a matter of fact attitude. Yes they and their bikes had collected a few scratches, but that was all. The lack of shock and aggressiveness or the yelling and outrage that would follow many a spill in this country just didn’t happen. It is very much down to saving face and fatalism. It’s against the Vietnamese culture to lose ones temper in public. How nice.

That paragraph has a hidden message worth taking note of. You’ll spend most of your time riding not much faster than forty kilometres per hour, so you need to take that into account when you are planning your route. You ain’t going to go anywhere very quickly. It does mean that you don’t really miss riding anything more powerful than a 125, and in fact we really enjoyed having such light bikes to scoot around on. Another thing that’s nice is that you can ride for just about a whole day on just one tank of petrol at those speeds.

Talking of fuel, you are never very far from a town or a village. Sometimes you’ll go for a 100-kilometre stretch but that doesn’t mean that fuel isn’t available. In and around the towns you’ll find completely recognisable petrol stations, but in the more remote areas you find people selling fuel from plastic jerry cans, bottles and even museum piece hand pumped fuel dispensers that have the fuel cranked up into a large glass jar and then gravity does the rest. In the big towns you’ll usually find two types of petrol 92 and 95 octane. The bikes seem to work absolutely fine on either and we didn’t notice much of an improvement in performance from the higher-octane version, so stuck with the 92. A litre costs about 12,000 Dong – that’s just 67 US cents! Fuel is so cheap in Vietnam, not only because it has to be with the average earning at $100 a month, but because Vietnam is an oil-producing nation – the third largest in SE Asia.

It’s not only the level of traffic and the risk of bright blue chairs that will keep your speed down. Vietnam may only be 1,650 km from north to south as the proverbial crow fly’s, and just 50kms wide at its narrowest point, but forty percent of the land mass is mountainous. Of the rest, just twenty percent is flat. In many places there are no bridges so you have to wait for a ferry. The waits can be very long unless you are an official or on a tourist bus! Scoot down to the front of the queue? Good idea except that everyone else on a motorcycle has done the same thing so you’ll just be joining a swarm of gently seething but patiently waiting bikers. You quickly get used to this stop and go existence when you are riding down in the Mekong Delta – they are brilliant people watching opportunities and enough Vietnamese speak English for some great conversations to start up.

As you probably know, this area is veined by rivers and canals. A huge number of people live either on or close to the water and traditionally the waterways are the ways to get around. Some of the ferries are rickety old wooden boats that look as if they don’t have a nail in them, but are being held together by gravity, fate and the Vietnamese version of baling twine. Getting your bike aboard involves wheeling it up an eighteen-inch wide, very wobbly gangplank. Not so funny to us but the locals took all that in their stride. To them it was the most normal thing in the world to be doing. By the time everyone is aboard the ferries are down to their gunnels and the deck has disappeared under what looks like a combination of the veggie counter at your local supermarket, a motor jumble and the cattle pens at a farmers market.

It’s the challenges that this rugged, ever changing and majestic landscape throws at you which are a large part of what makes Vietnam such a joy to explore on two wheels. There are Sahara sized sand dunes on the coast, long twisting curving roads, high mountain passes, endless terraced paddy fields that tumble down the hills and mountainsides. The terrain has meant that the remote and originally more difficult areas to get to have their own unique and frequently colourful cultures. Some of the mountain people wear costumes that are quite stunning, and in many ways rather bizarre. One tribe sports what looks like tangled tubular air-conditioning ducting on their heads. This is topped off with what looks like some sort of new fangled aluminium TV aerial. To be kinder, it looks more as if they have just stepped off the set of a Star Wars movie. Others sport flamboyant red headdresses and another tribe, the HMong, top themselves off with indigo caps that are covered in brightly coloured tassels, sequins and buttons. The majority of the tribes’ people we met were fun to be with. Few of them seemed to have reached the stage where they were feeling jaded by the number of tourists passing through. It’s one of the reasons why we say that you should get there soon.