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Bike trip of a lifetime?: Independent in Vietnam

By James Keen -

Touring & travel

 15 February 2010 11:30

Now is the time to book a biking holiday. But they are expensive – so you need to choose wisely. Independent or guided tour? US or Third World? We’ve tried both to help you decide on your trip...       

Independent in Vietnam
►500 miles ►Two weeks ►Minsk 125 ►Follow your nose ►Typhoons

The sell
Motorcycle trips are about adventure. If you want an experience, strap a map on the tank and go it alone. Guides, itineraries and support trucks are for tourists. That’s why our (my girlfriend Maria & I) trip of a lifetime was 3 weeks hacking around Vietnam on an ancient 2-stroke 125cc Minsk.
The beauty of travelling by motorcycle is the freedom and flexibility. You have your own wheels to go where you want, when you want. So why take that away by going on an organised tour with pre-booked hotels, pre-arranged lunch spots and a rigid daily schedule? 
We arrived in Vietnam on the same day as Typhoon Ketsana, so the trip didn’t go exactly as planned. But isn’t that the point?

How hard was it to arrange?
My trip to Vietnam started months before the flight out there… pouring over Lonely Planet guides, sticking pins in maps and obsessing over tiny details like what boots to wear or how to say ‘petrol station’ in Vietnamese (it’s cây xăng, in case you wondered). It was time-consuming, but never a chore.

What was getting there like?
The flight was 16 hours, via Hong Kong. Arriving in Vietnam with no one there to help you was a little intimidating. We weren’t prepared for the bustle and noise of Hanoi, or the poverty we saw in the short cab ride to our down-town hotel. It hit that we really were in another world and a little exposed.

What were your fellow travellers like?
We didn’t have any fellow travellers, which is exactly how I wanted it. It was just me and Maria spending time together. It meant we could do our own thing, at our own pace. We did enjoy a few beers and some kayaking trips with a few backpacker types in Halong Bay though.

What were the locals like?
The Vietnamese are an amazing bunch of people. They have so little and work so hard, but they’re so generous, friendly and hospitable. They exude a sort of quiet pride and dignity. It really took the edge off the trip because at no point did we feel threatened or at risk from the locals. I wish I could say the same about some towns in England…

What was the bike like?
The bike was a slice of history – a 125cc ex-soviet 2-stroke Minsk, complete with military webbing (full of spare parts) and paint job. It was a shakey, screaming, kick-start tribute to the raw beauty of biking and it drew a blue smokey line across Vietnam without a single complaint.

How many miles a day did you do?
Who’s counting? Some days the only riding we did was from the hotel to a beach-side bar for cheap beers and fresh seafood. Others we hit the road early and didn’t stop until it was dark, but with a 70kph (43mph) cruising speed and homicidal Vietnamese Lorry drivers it was slow-going and you had to work for every kilometre.

How was the riding?
The riding had nothing to do with the normal hunger for big lean, acceleration and speed. But even though the fastest we ever went was 50mph, it was terrifying and intense. I had more butt-clenching chest-throbbing near-misses in a 30 minute ride across Hanoi than I’ve had in the last 8 years of riding. 40 people die on the roads there every day.

What were the wows and how wowy were they?
The Perfume Pagoda south of Hanoi was breath-taking. It’s a network of temples in the hills only accessible via a tranquil 1hour 30min rowboat ride. I’m not a religious person, but the spirituality of the place was tangible and something I won’t forget.
When we reached Halong Bay we took a ferry to the beautiful Cat Ba Island and liked its laid-back vibe, sandy beaches and fresh seafood so much, we stayed for a week. 
What was tough about it?
It was hard to see the conditions that the people live in over there. When we arrived we were both hit with a wave of melancholy that lingered on throughout the trip. We passed through towns that your average tourist will probably never see and the poverty was hard to deal with. Giving ridiculous tips when stopping for water or food didn’t make us feel any better. 

What would you have tweaked to make the trip better?
The typhoon arrived with us and hit central Vietnam, cutting off our planned route south to Hoi An. If there’s one thing you can never control, it’s the weather, but I regret not seeing more of the country while over there.

Sum it up
After a fairly hard day of riding, we arrived in Halong Bay and checked into a hotel close to the port. We’d had a couple of near misses with reckless Vietnamese drivers and our nerves were shot. My white t-shirt was so filthy from truck fumes and road dust that I had to throw it away and Maria was aching from the time on the back of the cramped, buzzing little Minsk. We were wondering what we were doing there, so far from home.
But the next day we got back on the bike, caught the ferry across to Cat Ba Island and everything changed. The ferry wound out among tiny islands that were little more than rock outcrops and the views were overwhelming. As the ferry docked in Cat Ba, I kicked the bike into life and we roared out of the small port and straight into one of the best rides of my life. The 16km trail leading to the other side of the island skirted the sea before whipping inland and up over hairpin-strewn hills that the Minsk could only tackle in first.
Suddenly we were there, in the adventure that we’d imagined when we stuck the map of Vietnam up on the wall back home. Some parts of the journey didn’t go as planned and others were just plain unpleasant, but the liberating feeling of being out there together on our humble little Minsk, exploring an exotic island on the other side of the world, made all the bad parts worth it. 

Overall cost - £1750
Hotels and food £650
Flights £500 each
Bike rental about £6 a day
Petrol £40
Typical daily spend £20
Bike arrangements Explore Indochina supplied the Minsk through Cuong's Adventure Motorbike Shop in Hanoi. They also operate tours.
Contact info -  www.exploreindochina.com