I'd set my heart on buying a motorcycle in North Vietnam and riding to Saigon; a trip that would take me a month to cover almost 1800 miles. Hostel conversations revealed the bike I needed was a 100cc Honda Win, and that a well maintained four-speed manual with all the trimmings (maps/ tool kit/rain covers/blue card) would cost me £200.
I’d done some basic planning before I got to Vietnam, deciding to travel down the Ho Chi Minh Highway as I’d heard it was a lot nicer than QL1 (the coastal route that Top Gear did on mopeds). After buying a retro Honda Win from one of the many little dealers, I spent a long evening drawing up a list of places I wanted to see – the rest I’d make up as I went along.
Strapping my backpack to the back seat I set off on a grey Hanoi morning into its legendary traffic. I loved it, the bike was pretty nippy sliding through gaps, weaving around lorries (you have to compensate for rubbish brakes), and it sounded like a beast thanks to a low-tech straight through exhaust. It had all the mod cons – front and back drum brakes, lights and a speedo that didn’t work. It did have a few issues though – the gear shifter fell off, the engine kept cutting out (later I realised this was due to dirty fuel and no fuel filter) and there was also something wrong with the gearbox.
And so I visited my first xe may (motorcycle garage) and with the help of a local from my guesthouse managed to get the engine repaired so I could ride back to Hanoi. I rushed the bike to the dealer I’d bought it from, conscious I’d nearly used up five days of my one month visa and I hadn’t even gone south yet.
I returned the next day to discover the mechanic had replaced the engine and gearbox for free, the new power plant sounding a lot tighter than the first one. Thus began my experience of Vietnamese kindness, friendliness and generosity.
Strapping my worldly belongings once again to the back seat I headed south out of the city on a short ride to Ninh Binh. I arrived in the late afternoon and checked into a freezing guest house, the proprietor helping me wheel my now perfectly running steed through the building and into the rear courtyard as all motorbikes in Vietnam are highly valued and kept indoors at night, even if that involves parking in the kitchen.
The next morning I headed to the Bich Dong Pagoda. Set in the side of a mountain, this 15th Century temple has three levels and looks like something out of a Tomb Raider game, and a short scramble to the top provided great views of the surrounding paddy fields. From here I began the two day ride to Phong Nha National Park and its incredible cave systems. Riding with some other travellers, I left in heavy rain hoping to ride half the 300 miles to Phong Nha on the first day. How wrong I was. Rain, cold and the fiddly roads between Nimh Binh and the Hoi Chi Minh highway slowed us down and our bodies gave in to fatigue on the small engined bikes. After stopping for some pho (soup) in a workshop/ wood yard/house/restaurant and warming ourselves by the fire we eventually reached Ho Chi Minh’s road. This glorious piece of tarmac increased our pace and we decided to spend the night in the town of Yen Cat. The whole day saw us barely cover 75 miles.
A cold night in a half finished hotel with a giant hornet for company preceded a morning of glorious sunshine. The scenery was incredible, passing through hilly farm land, villages and jungle all with mountains in the background as we headed south. As I powered my way along the twisting road I was blown away by the beauty of Vietnam and its people, who every time I stopped to check the map came over to talk, point, stare, giggle or admire the bike that was propelling me through their glorious country.
The group was split up as night fell due to chain problems and an oil change. Honda Wins don’t have oil filters so changing the fluid every 250 miles is essential for engine smoothness and reliability. Most of the units also develop oil leaks as they heat up, the liquid leaking out of various seals, normally the output shaft (aka the Vietnamese Scottoiler).
On average my bike used half a litre of oil every 200-250miles. Luckily it’s cheap, oil changes only costing around 80,000 vnd (£2.40). Next I decided to go to Hue, which had been Vietnam’s capital until 1945 and has some historical palaces and tombs. It wasn’t a long ride from Phong Nha, and after four hours travelling out to the coast through what looked suspiciously like Hampshire I arrived with plenty of time to wander around the sights.
A few days in Hue saw me exhaust its sightseeing and I headed south once again towards the Hai Van pass. As recommended by Top Gear, this strip of tarmac is pretty much slap bang in the middle of the country and is the dividing line between the north and south climates. The road hugs the cliff face above the sea and winds up the mountain before peaking at an old French fort. I stopped for a quick picture in the same spot Clarkson was filmed sitting on the side of the road looking over the bay and headed over the pass down the weirdly warmer south side and on towards Hoi An. It was four days to Christmas and I was at the halfway point. Five days, one tailor made suit, a cookery course, great parties, and an amazing Christmas later and it was time to leave on the long road south to Saigon. My aim was to reach the city by New Year’s Eve so I was going to have to do some serious miles. I was starting to wish I hadn’t already agreed to travel plans in January – I could easily spend an extra month exploring Vietnam.
During my stay in Hoi An I met an Aussie who was planning on leaving around the same time with a similar goal. Even better, he knew four other guys on bikes who were up for the trip as well – another Aussie, an Irishman and Swedish twins with no previous motorcycle experience. After a drunken night out they’d created a motorcycle gang.
So at 9am on Boxing Day ‘The Rolling Filth’ rolled out of Hoi An with myself as their first prospect. I’d ridden the 1500km from Hanoi mostly on my own and it was great to have a group to travel with. We gelled well, and the Swedes eventually got the hang of the bikes after a slow morning taking it easy down the Ho Chi Minh road’s endless rolling hills, jungle covered mountains, muddy rivers, vast lakes and plains.
After numerous crashes from the Swedes and a few technical issues, we reached Plei Ku by nightfall and checked into a hotel on the outskirts. I arose hungover. The previous evening we’d met a group of young Vietnamese who insisted we join them for food and home brewed spirits (served in a clear plastic bottle and probably used as degreaser). Our pace was a bit quicker than the previous day but one of the Swede’s confidence was shot and, depressingly, the beautiful countryside had been replaced by endless towns and villages, dusty markets and HGVs.
In the morning we had a chat with the Swedes. One had become competent, but his brother wasn’t and we didn’t want him to take the risk of riding into Saigon. They ended up selling their bikes to a local, getting the bus and meeting us in a few days.
The rest of us hit the road. Three weeks riding had changed us – we had become experienced Asian riders and our pace was quick, the kilometres falling as the day wore on. The country’s rural views returned and our bikes buzzed reliably on towards Da Lat, the scenery changing from plains and farm land to Alpine vistas as we climbed toward the city.
After breakfast the next day my centre stand snapped in half and one of the bikes had a puncture so we headed off for repairs and a service. A litre of oil and a new centre stand cost 200,000 vmd (£6).
We had been told about a beautiful route that would bring us onto the main road towards Mui Ne. What a road. The surface was smooth black-top with perfect bends, lush green foliage on all sides and was completely deserted. Our pegs got scraped and brakes began to fade on the downhill curves as we headed into Southern Vietnam and its endless summer.
A few hours of main roads next day saw us joining the throng of traffic trickling into Saigon in the failing light along its multi laned arteries. The rumours of the city’s traffic are true – 8 million inhabitants and 5 million motorbikes make for an entertaining ride. We laughed and joked with the Vietnamese who travelled around us, waving back at locals and generally larking around.
As we pulled into Saigon’s backpacker street, it finally sank in that I had finished my road trip. I was overwhelmed with emotion – both relief and sadness. My 100cc Win had carried me from Hanoi to Saigon with minimal problems in just under a month. I had become attached to this little bike and was tempted to try and ship her back to the UK. But that was madness. I sold her a few days later to a backpacker who rode her back to Hanoi and I imagine she has done many more trips between these two cities. Who knows, she might even have a another new engine.