Across Vietnam on a Motorbike

Published: 14 September 2012

Like many people in the UK I’m a massive fan of Top Gear. One of my favourite episodes of the show has got to be the Vietnam special, where the three chaps all bought a motorbike in Saigon and rode them up to Halong Bay.

Now if you’ve seen that episode then you’ll know just how amazing that experience looked. After seeing the episode for the first time, the initial awe of the entertainment, and speculation as to the reality of personally carry out something like this soon passed, after realisation of the fact that this was a incredibly well funded show and each trip has a small army for back up and support.

However, even after this realisation the thought of carrying this out myself still lingered as a dormant thought. Last month I arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam, as part of a three and a half month trip during which I visited Australia, Fiji, New Zealand and spent the latter half in South East Asia.

Upon arrival in Hanoi this dormant memory suddenly became very active, the trip the Top Gear guys actually did was from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to Hue, they then caught the train to Hanoi, and from there rode to Halong Bay. So I decided that I was going to do the same trip, but in reverse, after all how hard could it be?

So I caught an overnight bus to Hue with the intention of buying a motorbike there and then riding it on a similar route to Jezza all the way to Saigon. Easy. I am an avid rider back home in Norfolk, my dad got me into bikes and I first started riding when I was 19 as a result of getting completely fed up with the cost of and miserable experience that is/was commuting on the London Underground.

So I bought a Yamaha WR 125R, hopped on the train back to Norfolk for the weekend did my CBT there, and the following Monday there I was commuting across London from Kings Cross to White City, having an altogether cheaper and far more pleasurable journey to work (even bearing in mind this was November!).

Then I switched jobs and moved back home to Norfolk where I sold my 125, passed my direct access test as soon as I was 21 and bought myself an Aprilia Dorsoduro 750 Factory, which I’ve been riding for a year and a half now and is a brilliant bike. Anyway back to the trip.

So there, I had relatively little experience riding motorbikes, yet there I was in Hue intending to buy a motorbike and ride it across some rather dangerous roads, having little knowledge of motorbike mechanics, speaking no Vietnamese and having a very small budget, all in the vain of trying to imitate an TV show I thought looked ‘cool’…good idea?

Definitely! I arrived in Hue, pitched up in a swanky air conditioned hotel room (a rare treat after 2 months of backpacking!) with high hopes of finding myself my very own Vietnamese motorbike. I spent the whole day getting rather agitated with used motorbike ‘shops’ trying to rip me off, selling me piles of junk for princely sums, but then what did I really expect.

By the afternoon I had formed a realisation that all I would be able to afford to suit my taste (manual gearbox) and on my budget (around $250 for the bike) would be a Chinese copy of the Honda Win, so this I settled on and went back to the hotel room, did a fraction of research regarding reliability, blah, blah, etc, etc, and how much I should pay for one.

Long story short, by dinner time I was cracking open a bottle of 333 beer and gazing over Albert like he was a shiny new BMW S1000RR. Yes Albert, an appropriate name for the bike I thought. 4.8 million Vietnamese Dong or $230 to be less dramatic bought me my very own Honda Win or rather the Chinese equivalent, complete with very unconvincing registration document in some Vietnamese mans name; it is illegal for a foreigner to own a motorbike in Vietnam.

Again, what could possibly go wrong! Albert packed a 110 cubic centimetre power house of an engine, a 4 speed gearbox and had working indicators and lights…but unfortunately no speedometer (apparently none of the Chinese copies had working speedos, which I found out later to actually be true! Not one person I met on one had a working speedo).

So here I was with my new companion for the next 1500km. From Hue I travelled south down the coast of Vietnam, over the notorious Hai Van Pass to Hoi an, onto Qui Nhon, Nha Trang, Dalat, Mui Ne, Vung Tau and finally two weeks later Saigon!

The trip was the most memorable journey of my life, it had ups and downs, it definitely was not a ‘holiday’, it most definitely was an experience. I regularly passed or rather nearly got run off the rode by the tourist buses with people on their ‘holidays’ happily hurtling passed what was the real and unspoilt Vietnam, enroute to the next big city to be largely immersed in an increasing western influence once again.

The memories from these two weeks I will truly never forget, for instance stopping for petrol in the middle of nowhere, and leaving an hour and a half later rather tipsy from too much rice wine and very full from what seemed to be a Vietnamese banquet, after having paid for none of it, not even the petrol!

The Vietnamese family I happened to come across here would not take my money for any of it, neither of us could speak each others language, but they were so generous for people whom had nothing and so kind for people whom also have everything; they have nothing from a materialistic point of view, but yet they posses everything…a simple house, a beautiful surrounding, and a loving family.

I stopped for only petrol, yet left with so much more. The trip was filled with moments like these, and looking back the best thing about this is the fact that anyone can truly do this! I know because I did, on a feeble backpacking budget: paying $230 for the bike, which I in fact sold for $250, and spending per day on average $9 for petrol, food and drink and $6 a night for a bed in a hostel.

This is a barebones budget; you could stay in a hotel room for $10 a night! Anyway the point is that this TopGgear trip which looked fantastic on TV and like many at first I thought to be only a fantasy, is so much more, it is real and achievable, and oh so much more fantastic when you are the one living it.

I want people to be able to realise that not only trips like this but many others are possible, as daunting as they may seem at first, and they don’t punch a hole through your bank account like all these organised tours you see advertised, granted they're not for everyone, but I know there’s a lot of MCN readers out there whom are dreaming of doing the same thing, and I want them to know there dream can easily be transformed to a reality.

This also shows that you don’t necessarily need a big GS to have an ‘adventure’ on a motorbike, I had around 25kg of luggage in my daypack and big rucksack strapped to Albert and he hill still gladly leaped up the mountainous roads to the inland city of Dalat, which also happened to be absolutely fantastic roads.

This short text is designed to outline my trip and give you a brief glimpse at the experiences involved with it. The aim of it is to establish whether you guys at MCN are interested in my trip and would like to know more about it and hear more about it. It would be great for other readers so be inspired by my story to carry out not only the same trip but similar ones that I’m sure can be done around the world.

I have attached a few photos to give you an insight, and the route I took. I also have videos and many more photos, but I have only just got back home so I’m still trying to get all these together. Thanks for your time.

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