Prior to this experience, I had never ridden a motorcycle before! I had driven automatic motorbikes/scooters all over the world, but I’d never driven a manual motorcycle.
After six months of traveling through South East Asia, my friend John and I were ready to conquer Vietnam. It was one of the countries in the region that we hadn’t been to yet, and we didn’t know much about it. What we did know was that we were tired of relying on buses and trains to get around and wanted to do something different and decided that the best way to explore Vietnam was by riding motorcycles up the coast.
We did some research and ended up finding a British expat in Ho Chi Minh (HCM) who had decent looking motorcycles for sale. Not only was he legit but he had done the drive himself, so he was also quite informative. He explained that he was willing to sell us the bikes for $600 and if we made it to Hanoi he’d be willing to buy the bikes back from us for $400. He had a guy in Hanoi who would collect the bikes, pay us the cash, and put them on a train back to Ho Chi Minh. We agreed to the terms and officially became motorcycle owners in Vietnam.
Prior to this experience, I had never ridden a motorcycle before! I had driven automatic motorbikes/scooters all over the world, but I’d never driven a manual motorcycle. The guy who sold us the bikes gave us a quick tutorial, and somehow I managed to convince him that I had an idea of what I was doing. John had ridden a motorcycle before so he was fine, but it was a nightmare for me just to get back to the hotel, especially in the chaotic Ho Chi Minh traffic. We gave ourselves a couple more days in HCM for practice and preparation, but soon it was time to hit the road.
Our first stop was Vũng Tàu, a small seaside town catered to locals who want a quick escape from the city. I realized it was much easier to drive on this freshly paved highway than it was driving in the city, there was less traffic, and I didn’t have to switch gears as much. This gave me hope that this journey would be an easy one. To say I was naive is an understatement.
Our next stop was Mui Ne, another seaside town which is a little more popular with tourists. John decided to sleep in and instead of waiting for him, I decided to get a head start and ride to Mui Ne myself. I took my time enjoying the scenic coastline and got there late in the afternoon. By the time John had arrived, it was already quite dark outside. As he approached, I noticed his shirt and pants were torn and bloodied. He told me there was some poorly marked construction and he hit an unpaved road going too fast dropping his bike and sliding on the ground a few feet. We laughed about it, poured some alcohol on his wounds and continued on.
From there we traveled inland to the town of Da Lat. Da Lat is quite different from most parts of Vietnam because it’s up in the mountains and lot cooler than the rest of the country. It is actually quite beautiful and worth the visit if you have the time. You would think we learned our lesson but John slept in again, and I left early that morning. This leg of the journey was where the ride really started to get difficult.
A local Vietnamese man zoomed past me on his motorbike, and I vividly remember thinking to myself that he was going way too fast on this sketchy road. Not a minute later, he hit a pothole and lost control of his bike. He was swaying back and forth and started to fall to his side, but before he hit the ground, he smashed into the grill of an oncoming truck. That’s when I realized just how real this was!
After spending a few days enjoying the cool weather in Da Lat, we made our way back to the coast. We both agreed we would no longer drive solo and that we would leave early in the morning to prevent riding at nightfall. It seems like common sense now, but I was 23 at the time. Despite the extra precaution, this leg of the journey was where I first laid down my bike.
Traffic was tough, animals crossing the road kept me alert, and the bugs hitting me in the face was a nuisance, but the loose gravel was the silent killer. If you hit it wrong, the bike was going to slide out from under you; this is exactly what happened. I wasn’t going too fast, but I was still too close to the truck in front of me. It stopped abruptly, and it was either I slam into the back of it or slam on my breaks. When I slammed on my breaks I happened to be directly over a bunch of loose gravel, and my tire slipped, this is when I fell to the ground with the bike on top of me. Luckily, my bike still worked, and I only had some scratches and a swollen ankle. It could have been a lot worse!
We finally made it to the famed Hoi An. We needed time to recover, do maintenance to our bikes, and get suits made which is one thing this city is known for. Hoi An is a cool spot that I recommend for any traveler heading to Vietnam, and if you made it to Hoi An, then you should take some time to visit Da Nang and Hue which isn’t too far away.
We continued north towards Phong Nha National Park which is home to some of the largest caves in the world. This was the most scenic part of the entire journey. From there it was a long final stretch to Hanoi without much to see. We were both so exhausted by the time we made it to Hanoi that we didn’t even check out that city. We sold the bikes as planned and got out of Vietnam. The whole trip took about a month and a half. To this day, it was one of the most adventurous and rewarding trips I’ve ever been on.