Many have said exploring Vietnam on a motorbike is the best way to see the country. While I certainly didn’t travel the whole country on two wheels, I managed to fit in three separate motorbike day tours. With the wind in your hair (or through the helmet, rather) and the scenery unobstructed by windows, it really is a heightened experience. Sounds and smells surround you as you connect with each dip and bump on the ground below. It has become my favorite way to explore Southeast Asia… for the most part.
Touring the Mekong Delta
During my solo week in Saigon, before Sheila arrived, I decided to seek out a motorbike tour. After my initiation in Cambodia riding my own scooter, I felt ready to try one out. In Cambodia, organized motorbike tours aren’t the norm- they’d rather just rent you a bike for the day. Vietnam has its act together more in this arena, so I was happy to take advantage of an organized tour. Going it alone wasn’t something I was quite comfortable with yet.
After some online research, I booked a tour with Vietnam Vespa Adventures because they gave the option of riding your own bike or having a driver. Perfect. I was picked up at my hotel at 8am and taken to Café Zoom where I met the others on our tour. There was an American couple on vacation from their current home in Dubai, and an Australian family consisting of mom, dad and three kids ranging in age from about 7-12. Pretty adventurous group! We were then taken to their garage in the suburbs so we wouldn’t have to ride through the city- yay! Once there we were fitted for helmets, given a quick lesson about the bike and asked to do a few test rides up and down the street. I was a tad nervous, but super excited. The Australian family each opted to have a driver, while the American couple and I each rode our own bikes. And then, we were off.
Initially we had to drive through some traffic, although it was pretty light. There was a long line of us bikers so getting through intersections sometimes took a little time, but we got the hang of it pretty quickly. After a few minutes on city streets, we were on smaller roads approaching the delta. We went over bridges and through green landscapes. Beautiful! We even boarded a ferry to take us across the Mekong, then rode to a local wet market where we stopped for a spin around the stalls and some snacks. I’ve been to more impressive markets, but the food we had was fantastic: clams steamed with lemongrass and broiled scallops. Fresh and delicious.
Then it was back on the bike to visit an incense-making operation. Incense is used a lot at temples and it was cool to see the process. A machine takes the paste and coats a narrow wooden stick. Then it dries and the sticks are bundled for sale. Who knew?
The rest of the day had us riding on mostly dirt roads and small concrete paths through rice paddies, resulting in a few minor tumbles for each of us riding our own bikes. I was first. Going through a construction area on dirt roads (hopefully turning them into NON-dirt roads), I went over a piece of broken concrete and lost my balance. My left foot went straight into mud and the bike tipped over. Thankfully it was the left side and not the right where the hot exhaust pipe is. I was completely fine and just needed help getting my bike upright. After a few attempts at restarting the bike, we were back in business.
Then… not five minutes later, the female half of the American couple toppled her bike. We were riding through really soft dirt which has zero traction, but fortunately provides for a soft landing. She was fine and back on her bike in minutes. About 10 minutes after that, her husband bit the dust on one of the concrete paths. They were really narrow- no more than two feet across- and some stretches dropped straight down into rice paddies, so not much margin for error. He was on a sharp curve and slowed down too much so he tipped. Thankfully there was dirt on either side so he didn’t end up rolling down into a paddy. One, two, three, right in a row! Fortunately that was the end of the spillage, and no one was hurt. We just had a little more respect for motorbike riders after that.
On the ferry ride back across the river it started to rain. Our guides provide plastic ponchos which were ever so stylish and only slightly functional . The dirt roads were fine for a while as the rain was light, but then it started to pour and the dirt turned mud. My helmet didn’t have a visor to shield my face, so it felt like I was being hit by a bunch of tiny little pellets. By the time we reached the restaurant for lunch, our final stop on the trip, everyone was drenched. Over a well-deserved meal of rice, beef, vegetables and noodles, we all recounted the crazy, wonderful day. The Aussie kids loved it, and it was fun to hear them talk excitedly about how different everything was from home. We said our goodbyes and were taken back to our respective hotels. Tour on my own bike- check. Riding in the rain- check. Small spill legitimizing my new biker status- check!
Cruising in Central Vietnam
It took a little convincing, but I was successful at getting Sheila to agree to a motorbike trip when we got to Hoi An. This time we used Hoi An Motorbike Adventures. Unfortunately they wouldn’t let me ride alone without a Vietnam license (darn reputable company!) so Sheila and I both rode on the backs of bikes. The upside is that I got a lot more photos, snapping with my right hand while holding on with my left. The irony is that the ride was easier than the one I did in the Mekong, but alas, it was still a great adventure through stunning landscape.
We passed sprawling rice fields and went over floating bridges. There were cows and water buffalos along the way, as well as rural farmers out in the fields. Sheila and I were the only ones on the tour, so it was nice to go at our own pace and stop when we wanted. Duncan was our tour guide, a Brit who had been living in Hanoi for a few years and recently moved to Hoi An. We were only his third tour, but he was great and already knew the roads well. We stopped for a refreshing Vietnamese iced coffee at a small stand, but otherwise just wound our way through green fields and waterways. Even though Hoi An isn’t a big city, it was still nice to see more of the countryside and the people who work the land. Thankfully Sheila had a good time as well and didn’t curse me for talking her into it. In fact, it laid the groundwork for Hanoi…
Holy Hanoi Motorbike Adventure
No, this was not a religious excursion, but I did think I might be seeing God at any time. Duncan from our Hoi An trip recommended Flamingo Travel for our journey outside of Hanoi. First of all, I commend Sheila for not only wanting to do another motorbike trip, but allowing her 15-year-old daughter to join as well. This also turned out to be a private tour for the four of us with Sheila and Mikaela having drivers while her husband Zach and I each had our own bike. Zach had ridden before, but not in years, and my experience was still quite limited.
The day tour we booked was supposed to be partly in Hanoi and partly outside. We actually requested for it to be TOTALLY outside Hanoi as none of us wanted to be on city streets, and visiting Uncle Ho was something we could do on our own from the comfort and relative safety of a taxi. I told Zach we would probably head to a garage on the outskirts of town to get our bikes since that was my experience in Saigon. Actually we were taken to a garage on a VERY busy street. I looked at Zach and I think we both wondered if we had bitten off more than we could chew. Admittedly, I was nervous. So nervous in fact that I reached into my purse and pulled out an Ativan to calm myself. I thought the only thing worse than riding in city traffic would be shaking while doing so.
We confirmed with our driver Minh that we’d be going outside the city. “Oh yes, yes,” he reassured us. But to get out of the city we needed to ride IN the city. Our first task was getting across the crazy crowded street and up a ramp to another road. Gulp. In Vietnam, drivers don’t stop. You just commit to going and do it, hoping the other drivers will swerve around you. No hesitating. It was terrifying, but we made it. We were then rewarded with more traffic, more merging and more intersections. Swell, just the relaxing bike ride I had envisioned. Then we were greeted by a huge bridge. Think the Bay Bridge in San Francisco (ok, maybe not quite that long, but it sure felt like it). Seriously, what were we thinking?? I just kept my eyes focused on the road and steadied my breath.
We finally got to outskirts of town and onto smaller roads. At that point I relaxed a bit and started to enjoy the ride. We saw green landscape and drove on dirt roads through rows and rows of trees. This is what we rode through the madness to see! Along the way we stopped at a ceramics factory to watch the craftsmen throw clay on a wheel, dip it in glaze and paint. It’s amazing how uniform they were able to make each piece- mostly tea pots and cups.
But then… not long after our scenic drive, we were back on that huge bridge headed back into town. WTF? I had no idea where we were going, but I just had to keep driving.
Then, on a roundabout, it happened. I was on the inside, close to the cement ring in the middle when a man came in between me and the center. He was so close I lost my balance and literally fell into him. He gave me the dirtiest look as we unhinged our bikes from each other and he sped off, leaving me in a daze. As bikes and cars and trucks whizzed past, I had no choice but to hop back on and keep going (insert horse metaphor here). Sheila saw the whole thing, and her driver rode up next to me to make sure I was ok. I was shaken (I guess the Ativan isn’t crash-resistant!), but otherwise ok. We then rode a bit more through the city and ended up at a bun cha stall for lunch. When we asked why we were back in the city, Minh told us the rest of the afternoon would be spent sightseeing around town. I told him about my little collision and that we specifically requested not to tour the city. I was honestly ready to call it a day, but reconsidered when he offered to take us back outside Hanoi. The only problem- we had to get back out. And then we’d have to come back in. Deep breath. I can do it.
Back over the bridge we went. It turns out, the second half of the day was fantastic. We visited an artist’s home in a small village. Minh sometimes takes tours there, but the artist had never been home before. This time a long-haired Vietnamese man greeted us upon arrival. His home/studio/gallery is about as artsy as you can get. There were wire sculptures in the garden, along with a treehouse that he would sleep in during the warm summer months. Inside there were pieces of art on walls, on the floor, just about everywhere. We were introduced to Dao Anh Khanh who, interestingly, was a former cop in charge of policing art. Now he’s a thriving contemporary artist who travels the world and contributes to the proliferation of art in Vietnam. He even organizes these huge outdoor music and art festivals out in the countryside, akin to Burning Man. It takes years to organize and construct the enormous sculptures made especially for the event. After walking around his gallery, he showed us his private area upstairs where he had a wood-burning fireplace (yes, it gets cold in Hanoi during the winter) and lots of eclectic furniture. It was the ultimate artist retreat, and I felt inspired just standing there. Zach and Sheila actually bought one of his paintings, and we all took a photo. Great pit stop, Minh! Definitely worth crossing that damn bridge again.
After leaving Dao Anh Khan’s place, Minh took us to a temple where they were having a special Buddhist ceremony. Locals, dressed in brown robes, gathered inside and started singing. We took off our shoes to enter the temple and watch quietly as we received warm, welcoming smiles from those inside. It was fantastic. Very peaceful and soothing. Ok, another feather in your cap, Minh. I’ve almost forgiven you. We were lucky to catch Dao Anh Khan at home, and to find the temple active with devotees. Neither would’ve been as special otherwise.
Eventually it was time to return to the city and finish the tour. Minh asked if we wanted to just ride to the apartment where we were staying, and we all agreed that would be easiest, although it meant driving through the Old Quarter. Feeling a bit more confident than at the start of the day, I agreed, and so we headed back into the traffic jungle.
The Old Quarter is its own beast because the streets are narrow and many intersections don’t have lights. People drive extremely close to each other so you must take notice of everything around you at every moment. It’s mentally exhausting. Bikes will sneak up right next to you, and that’s what freaked me out the most. Well, that and crossing intersections. When there’s no light, you just slow down (don’t stop!) and ease across while others come from all directions. The traffic flows around and between you like a choreographed dance, only I was still learning the steps and made a rookie mistake. My instincts took over and I stopped at an intersection when I should’ve kept going. A motorbike hit me from behind and I got another stare-down. UGH! It was only a tap so I composed myself quickly, but it was another reminder that I was not ready for the mean city streets of Hanoi.
Once we arrived at our apartment building, Zach and I breathed a huge sigh of relief and applauded ourselves for not becoming road kill. That was some serious baptism-by-fire riding. If I had known what was involved from the beginning, I never would’ve done the tour, but in retrospect I’m really glad we did it. Not only did we get to visit the funky artist dwelling and temple ceremony, but I also earned some riding stripes. Now when I rent a motorbike and someone asks if I have experience, I can say, “Oh yeah, I’ve ridden in Hanoi.” Talk about street cred.