A day on the road in Vietnam may require you to break with habit. If you aren’t a morning person then you’ll struggle a bit more than those lucky people who think nothing about bouncing out of bed at the first sound of the sparrows. If you are a morning, get up and go sort of person, then you are already winning and can have an absolutely amazing adventure in a land that sounds different, smells different and tastes different.
If you are anywhere at lower altitude you are going to find that the day kicks off for many Vietnamese people at 4.30am. By that time you’ll probably have had 2 or three hours of relatively peaceful sleep – the night doesn’t quieten down until the wee hours so you’ll be happy you’ve take earplugs. In this sort of country, quite logically, people get on with the scurry of life in the cooler hours. That means early morning and late at night.
As the dawn breaks you’ll find that life sleepily and gently eases into action. It’s an amazing time to be up and about. The parks and gardens in the towns and cities fill with people exercising and doing Tai Chi. You’ll even see a few joggers, with yes, head phones fixed to their ears. You’ll see speed walkers with towelling headbands and you’ll even see fat men exercising their stomachs. I didn’t know this, but it seems that if you bear your stomach to the dawn light and chastise it with a good hard slapping, something wonderful happens to it. We watched the rows of men beating themselves up, very carefully but didn’t hang around long enough to find out if the process actually does work.
But these are the people who don’t have to leap out of bed and rush straight into earning a crust. The dawn sees a multi coloured tide of market stallholders riding the dusty misty roads into town from the countryside. Their bikes loaded impossibly high with lush green just picked vegetables, incredibly vibrant collections of exotic tropical fruits, and those that have been shipped down from the mountains. It’s not unusual to see the reds of mangos, the yellows and pinks of papayas, spiky green jackfruit, and vivid yellow bananas on display next to furry-coated apricots, rich red apples and giant grapes that look as if everyone is going to be a taste bud sensation. Motorbikes loaded equally high with vast bowls of fresh fish, or cages of squealing pigs or racks of squawking, honking white geese, tied by their ankles to hang upside down, dodge the potholes and the collections of rubbish that have been put out over night. Many ride through the cool gloom with their headlights off, as if they are trying to prolong the cool and friendly darkness.
In amongst this tide are those on rickety old black bicycles which are stacked high with breads or eclectic collections of plastic household goods. Some carry enough copper coloured chicken feather dusters to fill a duvet, and others have their bicycles loaded so completely and densely with neatly woven tan coloured palm leaf baskets that you could easily imagine the collection is floating in the thin morning air.
Ducking and heaving their loads through this lot are the food stall ladies. They weave their way through the growing chaos with their conical rice grass hats bobbing with each pace. Their loads are suspended in round bottomed, open topped baskets on either end of a length of split bamboo pole. The baskets often contain, a small stove, pots and pans, a collection of small plastic four legged stools that are so low to sit on I felt like a slightly less hairy version of Harry’s mate Hagred. The baskets will also contain water for cooking and washing, a container of freshly made chicken stock, fresh rice noodles, perhaps a little chicken, pork or beef that’s been cut into almost paper thin slivers, bowls, chop sticks, herbs and spices and if you are lucky, limes and a wickedly hot chilli sauce.
By the time the sun has crept over the horizon and people start to see each other, it’s as if they also realise that they must be both seen and heard. By 5.30am the streets are filled with the sounds of bicycle bells, motorbike horns, taxi horns and the ding dinging bells of the cyclo men. As the guys pedal their tall and almost cumbersome three wheeler rickshaws, touting for early morning business, the sound of their bells instantly transported our thoughts to the trams of San Francisco.
Mixed in with these noises are the sounds of cooking pans clattering, breakfast being eaten, peoples voices nattering, televisions, radios, babies crying or laughing and the chatter of kids heading off to school in their immaculate uniforms. As a sort of connecting glue to all of this you’ll often hear political broadcasts being powered out into the streets via giant loudspeakers – no one, by the way, seems to play a blind bit of notice to them.
What people do take notice of though are the smells of crusty bread, omelettes frying and the scents of fresh coffee floating through the air. Vietnam is a land of excellent coffee and the locals like it strong. What a great way to power into a new day. We were never too sure of the concept of weasel poo coffee though! Do a Google on it!
By 7.30am, the day is on a roll and if you are in a city, but intending to head out for the open road then you are already late getting under way. By 8am the rush hour proper is in full swing and the walls of whichever town or city you are in will be ringing with a cacophony of noise that sounds like its an out of tune percussion band on steroids. You’ll also just be beginning to sweat. It’s like riding amongst a million guided missiles. Though limited to 40 kph they are just as relentless. The only sympathy I ever had was for those poor or brave souls who were riding bicycles in the midst of this organised chaos. They are the complete underdogs and have to give way to just about everything. They made me think of minnows swimming frantically against the flow of a river in full spate.
As you ride through the traffic there’s an air of resigned desperation that has been thrown into a street sized cooking pot to mix with bravado, youth, age, road conditions, experience and inexperience, stupidity and face. The crazy thing is that it all works. People almost never hit each other and bad tempered shouting simply never seems to happen. The worst I saw was a cut you dead, incredibly scathing look from a young very smartly dressed lass on a Vespa scooter who had just been cut up by an idiot with go faster stripes on his Honda Dream. When she saw that I’d seen her glare, she looked momentarily embarrassed and then giggled before roaring off, if you can say that a Vespa roars anywhere! She, by the way, was wearing a suit with a skirt that was so short and so tight that she could only sit on the front 3” of her saddle. If she hadn’t, she’d not have been able to dab her stiletto heels onto the deck.
There’s a very obvious riding style difference between the majority of male and female riders. Younger women sit on their bikes, heads up, their shoulders back and their knees together, with such elegance that they could quite easily have ridden straight off the cover of an Italian fashion magazine.
Most of the guys however, have a completely different riding style. They grip their handlebars, heads down and shoulders hunched as if they are aiming to squeeze every second of extra speed possible out of their bikes. The girls cruise, flitting between the traffic, the guys roar through.
The riders I liked the most though, were the elderly ladies. They are Vietnam’s version of the blue rinse brigade. They don’t seem to have a steed of choice but whatever it is, it’s nearly always in good condition, or at least spotlessly clean. These women are the mental bosses of the road. They are haughty, proud, and elegant, and always seemed to have expressions that were slightly disdainful, don’t mess with me looks that never seemed to hide successfully the fact that they were someone’s mother and grandmother. They rode as if they expected the bedlam to be forced apart by the power of their stare only, and amazingly it always seemed to. I tried to ride behind them when I could. As a sort of old world meets new, part of their elegance came from the paper fans that many held as sunshades over their heads as they rode through the heat.
The only times when you don’t really notice a difference between riding styles is when peoples bikes are completely loaded up with goods or when its throwing it down with rain. Not many people bother with waterproof jackets and trousers and who can blame them, it’s still hot when it’s raining. It’s a bit like standing under a warm power shower. Some people just flip up an umbrella and set off one handed back out into the rush, but others will don pastille coloured plastic ponchos. Some of which are really quite trick. The way to use these ponchos is to sit on the tail and to drape the front bit over your handlebars so it gives both your torso and your knees some sort of protection. The trick bit comes with the see through panel that’s heat welded into the front of the poncho so that your headlight will still shine through – sort of.
I’ve digressed though haven’t I. Winding back, it really helps you if you can get loaded in the dark and get out of town as soon as you can see the first light coming. Your day will start on a fascinating and far less stressy note. It’s also a brilliant time of day to take photos, and an early start will also give you the whole day to play on the roads. If you are wise then you’ll probably want to take it easy in the shade for an hour or two in the middle of the day, but still allow yourself time to get to the next place before it starts to get dark. Sign posting in Vietnam is unpredictable at best and frequently non-existent. The best map you can find, a compass and a willingness to forget about GPS’s and ask the locals the way, is the go. Most are delighted to help you. GPS? Yes, you can get the software for Vietnam, but do you really want to? Isn’t a touch of uncertainty and the contact with the locals much more fun?
Once you are out of town the ride becomes far easier but there’s no time to ride on autopilot. There are rules to the road and when you get used to the apparent chaos, you realise that just about everyone is following them. The rules will challenge you because they are not what you are used to at all and in fact at first look, some of them seem downright dangerous.
Let’s take crossing the road on foot. Loony, lovely Saigon is the best school to learn this rule of life in. There are few gaps in the traffic so there’s no point whatsoever in standing at the edge of the road like a giant lemon, waiting for one to appear. You have to make your own gaps and you definitely don’t do this by rushing out into the traffic, trying to get across to safety as quickly as you can. Sometimes, just sometimes, there is a bit of a gap for you when a traffic light changes. But these moments can be the most dangerous because all of a sudden you can have vehicles coming at you from all directions. You have to pick what feels like the most auspicious moment, look the oncoming traffic straight in the eye and then step slowly, common sense yelling “Noooooo”, into the traffic. You move forward very slowly, all the time looking at the traffic heading straight at you.
But nothing hits you. By moving so slowly, everyone has time to avoid you and after a while you’ll notice that most riders and drivers will try to go around the back of you. It’s a wonderful brain tease that’s rewarded with a great sense of satisfaction when you make it to the other side of the road. When you are out riding your bike, you should follow this rule and you’ll swim along quite nicely. In fact, everything you do on the bike should be done gently and at low speed. You’d have to be there for months to be able to ride at the nuttier darting speed that the local young bucks manage. You need to treat everything else on the road with respect and courtesy and know that at any second someone will do the unexpected. For example, it’s quite normal to be on your side of a dual carriageway and to have bikes riding straight towards you, on your side of the road. If you know that’s going to happen, its cool and everything is ok. You’ll be glad from time to time when the locals are quite comfortable with you doing that too. Why is it that hotels are always on the wrong side of the road?
There are bullies out there on the roads though. Yes the trucks, many of which are Kamaz or IFA’s, have right of way, as do the buses. The cars are inevitably owned and driven by the rich who seem to think that they own the road. But it’s ok, you get used to the pecking order very quickly. You also get used to the fact that every few seconds, even when you are doing everything right, someone is blaring a horn at you. You learn this code though. Most of time a brief couple of taps on the horn as a vehicle comes up behind you, is only to let you know that they are there. You aren’t expected to do anything except the unexpected. If there’s a risk or a bully involved then those brief taps will quickly turn into something far more urgent and then, yes, you do get out of the way. ASAP!
You can’t guarantee what is behind you though. The volume of the horn isn’t particularly reliable. People may not be able to afford to upgrade their bikes but they can upgrade such things as their horns. A blast from truck horn could mean that you are about to be done over by a Honda Wave.
The biggest problem I found with riding a bike in Vietnam was that there is so much of interest going on all the time that I was torn between watching my riding p’s & q’s, and trying to take in the amazing roadside scenes. It’s a challenge, but one that ensures that you never run the risk of falling asleep on your bike, however early you got on the road.
There are all sorts of hazards to be aware of, but whatever happens, please don’t let me put you off going. It is a shock when a lumbering water buffalo changes direction at the last minute and suddenly appears in front of you as an immovable, mud clad grey horny island. Especially if you were scooting along at the open road speed limit for bikes – a very zippy 60 kph! But it’s ok. You knew something like that could happen so you’d been keeping a watchful eye on it and anyway, how often at home can you say that you had a near miss with a buffalo? Dogs and goats are like dogs and goats the world over. Sleeping one minute and then on the move as if they’d just been given a shot of adrenaline the next. The hazards of the bridges always woke me up. Not because they had the ability to react to adrenaline but because they made my adrenaline pump! I should have asked why Vietnamese road engineers don’t seem to be able to make the level of the bridges match with the level of the tarmac. Sometimes you have a steeply sloping half-meter drop over just a metre and a half distance… And don’t be surprised when you suddenly come across a small tree branch or a bunch of rocks in the road. They mean that JUST ahead is a broken down vehicle.
Families on bikes are no such hazard. They are the norm and it was great to see. They seem to go some really long distances, five and six up too, though I guess that it was more normal to see three or four to a bike. Parents are amazingly proud of their children and some go absolutely overboard with the way they dress them up for a bike outing or even a run to the market. Mostly they don’t have helmets, though they were available after a fashion. What they did have were anti-pollution facemasks, brightly coloured very smart clothes and a pair of plastic sunglasses to finish off the effect. The richer families buy high stools for the children to sit in – the feet of the stools sit down in the foot well of the bikes. Some of the kids were so totally at home with the precarious way of getting around that while their parents were dicing with death, they were reading comics completely oblivious to the swirling, monstrously noisy ducking and diving that was going on around them.
Many roads between the closer cities are edged almost non-stop with houses, cafes, workshops and mini stores. The houses are like none you’ll see anywhere else. Most of them have tiny frontages but stretch way back from the road, and these long thin buildings are often multiple stories high. Why are they this way? You pay a very heavy tax on how many metres of your house edges the road. The cafes always seem to be empty, though open, and the main road versions often have hammocks slung between the inevitable shade trees. To see countryside you have to get off the main routes or at least ride the stretches between the further apart cities. I must admit that I wasn’t a great fan of the never-ending buildings, but once into the countryside a whole new world opened out. Hillsides are stepped with terraces. Some are paddy fields and in April they were glistening with water and the fresh bright green shoots of new rice. These silver and green steps mirror the sky to provide a never the same scene as you meander your bike along, all 125cc humming enthusiastically. Other terraces are given over to tall maize plants and some hold coffee and tea or the fresh vegetables and herbs that are in every market.
At the service stations you are served. Only don’t make the embarrassing mistake I did of not knowing how to get at the petrol filler cap. They are usually under the saddle but the locking mechanisms can be very different. The first day we had bikes we tried so many different ones and on the bikes we chose, guess who forgot to check. It was nice to be a dash of entertainment for the petrol station attendants, their mates, the other bike riders, their families and their geese and pigs!
Birgit and I always tried to stop the days ride by mid afternoon. The heat can be incredibly draining and that combined with the challenges you are dealing with for just about every metre you ride, mean that you get knackered quite quickly. The up side was that we could look for somewhere to stay when it was light, have a rest until it got a tad cooler and then head out to explore on foot while it was still light. We found that we very quickly fell into the habit of living by the sun. Within a couple of days, those dawn starts were easy and appreciated, and by the time darkness fell we were usually happily knackered enough to fall straight into a deep sleep, oblivious to the sounds of life on the streets outside.
Your days on the road in Vietnam will be full of fun, and they will challenge you wonderfully. You’ll be constantly amazed by the warm welcome the locals give you and delighted by the fact that in these times it’s still a land where fair play and honesty remain an important part of Vietnamese life and values. It’s a land where just about every corner rounded holds a new surprise and the views are constantly spectacular. The food will delight you, whether it’s a freshly made chicken noodle soup eaten on the street, or king prawns cooked in coconut milk in a posh restaurant. And it’s so nice to wake up knowing that the sun is going to shine almost every day you are there, if you have picked your seasons right of course. Would we go back we asked ourselves as we sat in the plane at the end of the trip?
As the aircrafts giant wheels left the concrete runway of Hanoi airport, we decided that yes we would. We’d be back. It had been tremendous fun to meander around a strange and exotic land on tough little bikes that were light as a feather and far less thirsty than an old lady at a tea party. Perversely enough we’d had a nice adrenaline buzz out of riding at slow speeds, and the big time bonus was that we hadn’t spent each day zipping past things we should have been seeing. We’d even had enough time to sample white sand beaches and to swim in turquoise waters. Quite simply, Vietnam is a prize destination for bikers. The country seems to conspire to challenge and delight you. What more can you ask from a holiday?
And perhaps read the Facts post to find out a little more about going riding in Vietnam. Happy travels out there.