– Words and photographs by Antoni Mysliborski –
What was a pretty good idea just a few days ago, now seemed completely mad. The plan was simple – buy a motorbike in Ho Chi Minh City and head north, all the way up to Hanoi. But now that I was sitting on my newly purchased Honda Blade, facing the terrifying task of navigating Saigon’s traffic, things were getting complicated.
Out on the road
I was drowning in a sea of motorbikes, bicycles, cars and trucks, all of which seemed to be moving at the same time, but not necessarily in the same direction. While most vehicles were using the right side of the road, there seemed to be a constant flow of motorbikes on the left side… going against the traffic. Traffic lights were treated as a mere suggestion, and it was not uncommon to spot someone ignoring the red and braving an intersection. Mysteriously, it never seemed to cause much disturbance, with other vehicles simply going around this intruder, nobody as much as slowing down in the process.
“I don’t have much choice” I thought, and joined the traffic, hoping my trip would not finish before it even begun. To my surprise, being on the inside turned out to be much less scary that one could expect observing from the outside. There was a method to the madness – in some organic, intuitive way, almost like in a beehive. I had to forget the traffic rules I knew and just tune in, react to what was happening around me and just try not to hit anything or anyone. A life-size computer game with a single life left.
Fast-forward a few days and I find myself cruising a brand new, and almost completely empty, superhighway along the coast of Vietnam. In the future, there will be a long line of luxury resorts here – at least that’s the plan. But for now, an odd rider can enjoy empty, pristine beaches, occasionally taking a break in one of the sleepy fishing villages along the way.
The landscape in those parts is surprisingly dry, more Mediterranean than lush and tropical – at times, it felt almost Saharan. One of the very few resort towns on the way – Mui Ne – is particularly famous for its red and white sand dunes.
Vietnam has a rich coffee culture. Even in the smallest and most remote towns, one can find nicely decorated, air-conditioned cafes, which make for great stop on the road. And the coffee itself… Oh my! Brewed using a metal filtering device called phin, it’s very strong and aromatic, usually served with a dash of sweet milk and, if you ask for it, ice. It always comes with complimentary green tea and there’s usually a bamboo water pipe and supply of free tobacco available as well.
Coffee serves as a great symbol of Vietnamese resilience. After the whole industry got nearly wiped out during the Vietnam War, it quickly bounced back and currently Vietnam is the second biggest exporter of coffee in the world, with Brazil just ahead.
Finally I arrived in Hoi An, wonderfully preserved Chinese trade town, roughly in the middle of the country by the coast. Regarded as the finest trading destination in Asia in XVIII century, it later lost its importance to nearby Da Nang. Thanks to this (and a Polish architect Kazimierz Kwiatkowski, who managed to convince the overzealous government not to demolish the town to make space for modern architecture), it retained the original character and is now one of the biggest tourist attractions in Vietnam.
The town is intersected with a channel in the middle (over a famous “Japanese Bridge” over it) and rather small, but every single building here, is an original, few hundred years old merchant house. They look especially attractive after dark, when most are adorned with Chinese lanterns. Walking here feels a bit like traveling back in time – that is if you manage to ignorer the crowds of other tourists and vendors of all things possible, easiest achieved very early in the morning.
I spent a few relaxing days in and around Hoi An – the town surrounded by some idyllic landscapes featuring a beautiful mix of rice fields, forests, small villages and coast line. It’s also one of the best places to enjoy Vietnamese food in the country – from plush restaurants in the most prominent historic buildings to small, cheap street stalls serving inexpensive but delicious food, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
Switching to Top Gear
“Hai Van pass Mister? Rent motorbike, one way to Hue, very cheap!” You can’t avoid hearing those words at least a few times a day in Hoi An. The Hai Van pass gained fame thanks to an episode of “Top Gear” in which Jeremy Clarkson declared it to be “one of the best coastal roads… in the world!” Since then, countless daredevils traversed it. Some of them go to really far extend in their attempt to recreate Clarkson’s trip, like this one guy who was riding his bike clad in an orange and green suit and with a colander on his head. My outfit of a motorbike jacket and a proper helmet was much less stylish (and as I like to think, more professional) as I took up the challenge of the pass.
The road through Hai Van pass used to be part of a super busy AH1 highway, connecting Saigon with Hanoi, until some years ago, a long tunnel through the mountains was opened. Now only motorbikes and a few trucks with livestock use the old way, which is one of the things that greatly contribute to this steep, winding ride’s unique appeal. The other things are, of course, mesmerizing vistas.
After scaling what seemed like a never ending ascent followed by an exhilarating ride down, I stopped in a small restaurant for lunch. As the menu was only available in Vietnamese, the owner tried using an online translator to help me make a choice. “Do you eat beef offline?” his phone’s screen asked me. Not exactly sure what to reply, I said yes. Soon, I was handed a plate of boiled ox tail, chopped into pieces. When I hit the road again (still a bit hungry because while what was edible in the tail was quite good, most of it was just bones and thick skin), I decided to take a longer side road, to avoid the superhighway, which already emerged from the tunnel.
After a few kilometres down a road surrounded by rice fields, I arrived at the beach. But what a beach! Long, wide, with perfectly clean golden sand and palm trees providing shade. And hardly any people around, just some local kids frolicking in the waves. I immediately knew my plans needed some adjustments – I had to stay here. Fortunately, I found a small guesthouse nearby, whose owner, while quite surprised to see a foreigner, showed me to a room.
Few hours later, I was walking through the forest, in darkness, trying to find my way back to the guesthouse. The fact that I was rather drunk definitely didn’t help. And it all started so innocently. After a refreshing swim in the sea, I went to a local restaurant for dinner. My arrival there caused a sensation amongst the people – not before long, I was sitting surrounded by locals, with a plate of steaming seafood in front of me and a glass of vodka in my hand. “Mot, hai, ba, yo!” – one, two, three, yo! – we yelled, before gulping down the contents. My Vietnamese was as limited as their English, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone – especially with the level of alcohol in our blood rising quite quickly. A second one, then a third, and a fourth followed the first bottle… When I finally managed to find my place, it wasn’t before a few unintended intrusions into wrong households. I still hope I didn’t wake anyone but ever-vigilant dogs, always eager to inform me that I took the wrong turn.
Hue Of Hue
Next evening I arrived in Hue, Vietnam’s historical capital and abode of the emperors. Although the palace was reduced to debris during the war, it’s almost completely rebuilt by now. The nearby imperial graves – some very impressive – are a big local attraction. Having my own transportation allowed me to visit them in the afternoon, shortly before closing, when they were almost empty and very serene.
In Hue I left the coast for good and started climbed the mountains, to enter the famous Ho Chi Minh road – a new highway connecting Hanoi with Saigon. Although it’s in great condition, in this area it receives hardly any traffic. For hundreds of kilometres it leads through sparsely populated, jungle covered mountains – in short, perfect road for a motorcyclist.
I spent the next few days meandering through breath-taking, pristine landscapes where I often didn’t meet any other vehicle for kilometres at a time. As I went, the scenery was becoming more dramatic. I was entering the Phong Nha National Park, which became famous in recent years after the discovery of the biggest cave system in the world. Although I couldn’t visit it – the week-long trip there costs 3000$ and you need to book a place two years in advance – there are many other, easily accessible but still very impressive caves for a normal mortal to visit.
Pushing my luck
After leaving Phong Nha, where I spent a few relaxing days exploring the caves, I continued on my way to Hanoi. For a while, the landscape became less striking – though still pretty. Surprisingly, as I was getting closer to Hanoi, things started to get wild again. Modern mechanized farming gave way to more traditional rice fields, ploughed, as it happened centuries ago, by ever-patient buffalos.
After a night in Cành Nàng, I decided to continue through Pù Luông Nature Reserve. In the beginning, it was a rather ordinary ride. That is until the road took a sharp turn right and I approached a nearly vertical, 500 meters high wall. I checked the map – the road appeared to be leading right over it. And indeed, it did. The ascent, which started relatively mild, soon got really steep. My motorbike was struggling even on the lowest gear, but never gave up completely. Views were becoming more terrific with every meter gained.
On the top awaited a plateau. The road was winding gently, through beautiful landscape and friendly villages… until it disappeared. Confused, I checked the map again – it should be here. I asked the locals for the way to Mai Chau. They pointed to a narrow dirt path.
Having little choice, I followed their pointing fingers down a less than half meter wide, bumpy, in some parts rocky and in some muddy, path. After climbing it up for some time, I stopped before a very steep and slippery ascent, to ponder whether should I continue or turn back, before it was too late. That’s when a girl on a motorbike appeared on the top. Some other guy passed me and made his way up. This reassured me for a moment – the road was apparently passable – until they both crashed into each other. Fortunately they came out of it unharmed and rather unfazed, as if this was the most ordinary thing that could happen.
I decided to continue – the road couldn’t really get any worse. Soon I got to the top of the pass, where I stopped to admire a beautiful panorama of endless mountain ranges. I thought that if I got out of there safely, this view would make up for all the trouble. I hopped back on the bike, hoping that the ride down won’t be too bad. It wasn’t – less than 100 meters from the top, asphalt road has returned. Instead of crazy off-road downhill on a bike not really suited for such stunts, I enjoyed a pleasant ride. Pleasant, until I finally reached the hustle and bustle of Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. But that’s a different story.