Motorcycling in Vietnam
The lost motorcycle frontier
Strolling into the scorching day market in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam there was a vendor selling old American G.I. Zippo lighters from the war. I picked up a rusty one and had a look at its engraving, “Vietnam is the land that God forgot, but we were there, and we remember.” It was a small moment, but it would ring in my head throughout my ride in Vietnam.
Having traversed a good bit of North America by bike, my buddy Mark and I decided it was time to go intercontinental and expand our moto horizons. Vietnam was our Moby Dick, the one exotic, untamed, wild ride we’d been chasing.
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Initially we wanted to tear up the route from HCMC to Hanoi, but due to time constraints we had to pick a shorter route. We created a loop starting in HCMC to Bao Loc to Dalat to Nha Trang to Mui Ne down the coast to Vung Tau and then back to HCMC (roughly 600 mi/960 km). Adjusting our route allowed us to spend a little more time in the cities we hit along the way and get lost in the culture without the rush of having anywhere to be.
The first night in HCMC we stayed at Guest House California where we had an awesome experience. It was clean, had informative pleasant English speaking staff, but most importantly it had working A/C for the sweltering Vietnamese heat.
We headed into the city with a local friend where we downed obscene amounts of pho (indigenous highly addictive noodle soup) and bia hoi (locally produced draft beer that sells for about 20 cents a glass). The city is always alive and in motion, even at night; literally thousands of people on motorbikes move in swarms like an exploded beehive everywhere on the streets.
The next morning we got a hearty breakfast at The Elbow Room to coat our stomachs from the damage done the night before and then we went bike hunting. It’s a fact that it’s far cheaper to buy a motorcycle in Vietnam than it is to rent. After some internet research we got encouraging references for a guy simply known as Chan. Chan’s motorcycle place was just a little indent on the side of a building about 30 yards east down Bui Vien St. from a popular bar known as the Crazy Buffalo. He got two 110cc Honda Wins tuned up for us for a meager $325 each. Chan then gave us a detailed free road atlas that in time would come to save our butts and told us when we returned he’d buy the bikes back. Chan’s the man, if you got to HCMC and are looking for bikes find him.
As we went to start our ride Chan realized our inexperience in riding into the Thunderdome that was HCMC rush hour and set us up with his buddy to guide us out of the city, which he did at full throttle bobbing and weaving through droves of motorbikes like Sugar Ray Leonard. It was madness, total disregard for road law and technically vicious riding. It was Heaven.
Before our adrenaline even had the chance to subside we were out of the city and on our way north through the rice paddy laden countryside to Bao Loc. That first day we learned a lot about riding in Vietnam; there are two speeds on the road, fast and not on the road. So we went fast. Do as the locals do. Also we were never in fear of breaking down due to the fact that there were repair shacks on every mile of the road. We met someone who got an entire engine replaced for $7!
Rolling into the green mini-mountains of Bao Loc it became apparent that the beauty of this ride had only just begun. Once in town we perused the hotels along the main strip and picked the nicest looking one overlooking a luscious valley for a whopping $11. Twenty cent beers, 30 cent pho and $11 hotel rooms. Could it all be real? Indeed.
At sunrise we headed to Dalat, which sets atop a massive plateau. After winding through jade mountainous landscapes with an increasing number of pine trees we pulled into town. When the French occupied Vietnam they built Dalat as a resort town to get away from the Vietnam heat in the higher altitudes. Nowadays Dalat is the holiday home to the rich and powerful of Vietnam. The French are long gone, but their fingerprints are everywhere you look with Art Deco architecture, coffee plantations, and baguette stands on every other corner.
We holed up at the swanky Du Parc Hotel Dalat and headed down to the bar to get a couple of bourbons. The bill for the whiskeys was a whopping $50, over 1,000,000 Vietnamese Dong. Bourbon is a massive luxury, but everything else was so cheap and now we can say we spent 1,000,000 Vietnamese bucks on whiskey.
The next morning I had the best coffee of my life and headed out through the gorgeous plantations from whence it came. The day of riding that laid ahead of us would be known as the greatest day of riding in either of our lives (so far).
We took a route that a local bartender told us about. It was a newly built highway that went direct from Dalat to Nha Trang that nobody knew about and he claimed we wouldn’t see another soul. He didn’t lie. As we put mileage between Dalat and ourselves we breached the edge of the plateau and pine forests and saw a view that stretched 20 miles into the distance. Waterfalls to the left, mountains on both sides, and a lush jungle valley below; things were looking good. The road down the mountain snaked and hooked mercilessly; we pushed it full throttle and raced down on our little 110cc Wins with everything they had. I’ve never had that much fun riding a descent in my life and it probably took us 45 minutes just to get to the bottom.
We shot through jungle and then cleared it into long straight roads with endless vistas of crops, rice paddies, the occasional ancient temple and distant green mountains. We were the only souls on this new and sometimes not completely finished highway – a hidden motorcycle paradise.
When we hit Nha Trang and the coast the heat shot back up and a small amount of traffic reappeared, but the riding was just too damn good to stop. So we took a quick peak at Nha Trang and split south down the coast to the beach town Mui Ne where we intended to spend a few days and chill out.
Cutting down the coast it got hotter than hell and the windmills in the distance seemed to be teasing us about a nonexistent breeze. Halfway down to Mui Ne we pulled over at one of the many pristine white beaches and took a quick dip in the crystal blue ocean to cool off. This was one of the few times it was hard to get back on our bikes.
In Mui Ne large amounts of tourists and foreigners reappeared, which provided us with considerable hotel options. We picked a little ocean-side spot that had a pool and seemed central to the main drag of the many restaurants and bars.
A friend advised us that we should not eat at any place that had a roof and that we should pick a place that was basically just a bunch of aquariums of seafood and lawn furniture off the sidewalk. We took his advice and stopped at grill with lawn chairs and indulged in a massive feast of oysters, prawn, squid, and an assortment of all we could eat seafood for a bill of roughly $10.
The next day in Mui Ne we explored more of the coast and headed to the Red and White Dunes, which were small deserts just outside the city. After driving through the occasional herd of cows and sporadic fishing towns we reached the dunes. Under blue skies we crossed the surreal vibrant red dunes and then the brilliant white dunes. Pulling over at a tourist trap we had some enticing options. We could either ride an ostrich around a farm or rent an ATV and go bananas on the dunes. We chose the latter, though some day I’m going back and getting into that ostrich derby action.
After beers at a Czech Brewery we had one last bit of business to attend to in Mui Ne. Someone suggested eating snake would be an experience we wouldn’t forget. We saw a restaurant with a cage out front containing a boa constrictor and figured this must be the place. The owner Sian took our order for snake and excitedly seated us. He then brought out a live spitting cobra in a bag, ordered the cook to reach in the bag, venom shooting everywhere, pull out the snake and cut its head off with scissors. Then he drained the snake’s blood into a massive mug half full of vodka and that’s what we drank with our delicious six-course cobra feast. Sian assured us at least 40 times that cobra is awesome for our libido, (the Vietnamese Viagra?) and that we needed to go find some ladies.
After a fruitless lady search and full on cobra and vodka we went home and slept like zombies. The next day we got fresh coconut juice, rehydrated, and headed south. We were a little more adventurous and weaved back and forth off the coast into small towns and occasionally getting lost. The uber-friendly locals were always eager to help and even though they spoke no English always went out of their way to guide us and draw maps. The Vietnamese people are as amazing as the scenery they inhabit.
We lived it up and closed out our last night on the road in style at the Tropicana Beach Resort just north of Vung Tau. At $75 it was by far our most expensive room of the trip and included private bathrooms, a Zen garden overlooking the ocean, king size beds, our own robes, gigantic pool and pina colada hot tub delivery. We felt like the Donald Trumps of Vietnam for a day.
We rode the final leg back to HCMC and back into the chaotic madness of city traffic. After enjoying Vietnamese barbeque and our last bia hoi we headed back to Chan’s and resold our bikes back at $50 less than we bought them for. We didn’t ask for more because after riding the bikes like demons they never had a single problem and he was a stand up guy. We headed down the street and visited our buddy Terry Do who runs France Passion Tattoo (the cleanest tattoo shop in Vietnam), got some ink to make the memory of the trip permanent and made our way to the airport.
It felt like a dream. I thought back to the Zippo, “Vietnam is the land that God forgot, but we were there, and we remember.” But after cruising through the majesty of Vietnam’s mountains, jungles, rice paddies, beaches and deserts I certainly thought if there is a God he certainly hasn’t forgot this land and its incredible, kind people. I was there and I will remember.