I’ve wanted to ride a motorcycle around the world for a long time, and Vietnam became a prime target for that in my mind ever since the Top Gear Vietnam Special came out, in which Jeremy, Richard, and James ride cheap scooters across the country. And over two weeks this January, I finally got to do it!
I can tell you’re getting impatient, so here’s a sneak peek:
If you’re just here for the motorcycle bit, you can skip ahead. If you’re in a reading mood, let’s learn some more about Vietnam first:
The ancient Vietnamese nation was a part of China for over a thousand years, with the first independent kingdom emerging around the 10th century. France conquered Vietnam and made it a part of French Indochina in 1887. The country declared independence after World War II, and the French were finally kicked out by the communists under Ho Chi Minh in 1954.
The country was then divided into the communist north and the anti-communist south, with other nations pouring in significant resources to one or the other nation. This intensified during the Vietnam War, which ran from 1955 until the communist victory in 1975 (though direct US involvement ended in 1973 under President Nixon). Between 1,326,494 and 4,249,494 people died in the war, including 58,318 Americans. The country was reunified after that as a socialist state.
Following dismal economic development, the communist party instituted a series of economic and political reforms starting in 1986, and Vietnam has been among the fastest-growing countries in the world since then; GDP is still growing at 6.8% nowadays.
- GDP per capita is $8,066 (PPP) - 128th in the world - growing at 6.8%
- Human Development Index (HDI) is 0.693 - “medium” - 118th in the world
- 73% Folk Religion or Irreligious
Vietnam is part of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership - the free trade agreement that replaced the Trans-Pacific Partnership after President Trump pulled the US out of it.
It’s interesting to note here that my impression of Vietnam was that it is far more developed than either Laos or Cambodia, in particular as far as infrastructure is concerned. And yet, the GDP per capita (PPP) for Vietnam is about the same as for Laos. Why is this superior infrastructure not captured in this number? Is it to do just with how the two countries report their GDP?
Saigon / Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) was formed at the conclusion of the Vietnam War by combining Saigon with some nearby provinces. Nowadays, the term Saigon refers to the urban core of HCMC.
Some 8.4 million people live in HCMC; it’s huge. Traffic here is crazy. One of my most fearsome experiences on this trip was the first time I had to cross a busy street in HCMC. The cars and scooters never stop; you would die of old age if you tried waiting for them to do so. You just have to walk out, slowly, and traffic should generally drift just around you. It’s almost a surreal experience the first time. It feels absolutely crazy to westerners… and yet during all my time in Vietnam I didn’t see a single accident involving a pedestrian. Yes, it’s chaos… but it’s controlled chaos, and the locals know how to operate in it. In fact, while I would say that traffic here is more chaotic than anywhere else I’ve been, I would also say that the roads here feel distinctly safer than, say, the Philippines.
Here’s how a scooter can function just fine as a family vehicle for a family of five:
Motorcycles are sometimes treated as second-class citizens here, but sometimes also better than cars. They are forbidden from some roads, and made to stay only in some lanes on others… but on the other hand they also don’t pay any tolls, and often there are motorcycle-only parking spots that are in good locations.
The manic energy here reminds of New York. There always seems to be something going on, and it always seems turned up to 11. This was a huge adjustment for me coming from Laos, where the people are very reserved.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The Cu Chi Tunnels are a huge network of tunnels located just north of HCMC, created by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War, serving as the Viet Cong base of operations during the Tet Offensive.
The tunnels are very narrow. I fit OK, but after duck-walking through one tunnels for some 30 meters, I was ready to get back out again.
The tunnels had multiple levels, with the lower levels getting still smaller and narrower. Our guide claimed (with what sounded like pride) that by the end of the war, no Americans could fit into the lower levels of the tunnels - they were made just large enough that Vietnamese guys could crawl through them.
We were only allowed to go on the first level, because some twenty years ago, a tourist went down to a lower level (it was allowed back then), panicked, got a heart attack, and died.
They also showed us some examples of traps the Vietcong would set for the GIs. These were truly terrible, designed to stab and poison and kill slowly. Our guide always referred to the other side as “GIs”.
I was the only American in my tour group for the Cu Chi Tunnels, and the guide too full advantage of that with a number of jabs. He’d pick up a piece of shrapnel from the ground and hand it to me, or he’d point at the wrecks of US military vehicles, and say “bring this home and give it to Trump. Tell him he forgot it here”. I felt it superfluous to point out that Trump, in fact, never made it to Vietnam on account of what looks a lot like dodging the draft with a phony medical issue. Instead, I did a lot of polite smiling.
What a terrible war.
Can Tho Floating Market
Can Tho is south of Saigon, on the Mekong River Delta. The local geography becomes very clear flying in to Saigon - it’s incredibly flat, just fields as far as the eye can see, fields upon fields upon fields.
The fields are criss-crossed by a network of canals of varying widths. The canals seem to be more common here than roads - people live along them, and they truly seem to form the arteries of the area, fulfilling the same purpose that roads fulfill for most of us.
Floating Markets thus seem very natural:
It’s a really cool experience. I think this inspired the scene from The Fifth Element where Mr. Kim bring Bruce Willis dinner in his flying barge.
My group’s tour guide insisted that we call him Brian, which he says is his “English name”. Brian quit his job as a factory maintenance worker a few days prior to become a tour guide. The goal is to improve his English, which will in turn help him emigrate to Canada, he hopes. In Canada, he hopes to make a bunch of money… so that he can bring it back to Vietnam to start businesses. Good luck, Brian - I hope it works out!
From Saigon to Danang by Motorcycle
Now we finally come to the heart of this post. From Can Tho I hurried back to Saigon, where I rented this gorgeous BMW F800 GS:
OK, obviously that’s not actually a BMW F800 GS. It’s a 150cc Honda XR. But you know what? Comparing US and Vietnam standards, this is basically Vietnam’s GS. I was a little worried that it wouldn’t have enough power… but such worries were unfounded. The highway speed limit is 60 km/h here, and even on this bike I struggled to stay below the speed limit. And when I had an inviting lonely stretch of new road somewhere north of Qui Nhon, I watched the speedometer slowly climb all the way to 100 km/h!
Here’s the approximate route I ended up taking from Saigon to Danang, with overnight stops shown:
Tigit, from whom I rented the motorcycle, has great guides to motorcycling in Vietnam, including this route map, which I mostly followed.
If you haven’t watched the video embedded at the top of this post yet, now might be a good time to do so.
I tried to avoid highways where it was straightforward. The highway miles were dull misery, while on the mountain roads my face would hurt from smiling all the time. Vietnam is a beautiful country.
Riding through the countryside was really great. Vietnam has surprisingly good infrastructure, and drivers here also seem to be better than those I’ve gotten used to from Indonesia, The Philippines, Cambodia as well as Laos. Here’s a theory: the sanity of the driving is directly proportional to the quality of the infrastructure, perhaps because you can get places in a reasonable amount of time even when you don’t risk lives. It’s still chaos out here by western standards, as discussed above… but it feels like controlled chaos, and like no one is actually trying to die or kill anyone else.
In some of the towns I stayed and ate in, hardly anyone spoke English, and my Vietnamese, despite my efforts, is not sufficient. Thank God (or Google… or are they the same omniscient entity nowadays?) for Google Translate.
One thing that makes ordering food easier is the fact that many small places have just one meal they offer. You just raise one finger to indicate one, and they bring it to you. Based on my small sample size, the places that only make one dish make that one dish really well.
As in Indonesia, I’ve also had many people request selfies, or ask for my Facebook, especially in the small towns. Sometimes that’s nice, and I’ve had some nice conversations with locals that way. Other times it’s drunk people who go in for hugs when I’m just trying to eat my dinner in peace after a long day of riding.
Cops here seem to go fishing among passing motorists, just hanging out at the side of the road and flagging passing vehicles to stop seemingly at a whim. I got pulled over like this once. I politely turned my engine off and took the keys out (as I’d been warned to do), and flicked up my helmet shield. The cop looked at me, walked around the bike, and said, “No. Go!”. And so I went off on my merry way.
In Phan Rang I arrived after a long day of riding, and went to the closest restaurant at the recommedation of people from the homestay. At the restaurant, I asked what they recommend, and they suggested a local specialty, which I decided to try. Here it is:
When they brought it, I couldn’t help but think of my parents’ cats, which I’ve watched eat similar lizards. Now it was my turn. To keep a long story short, this was the most expensive and least tasty meal I had in Vietnam (but don’t worry, “most expensive” here means about $10 US). The sauce they gave me with the lizard was pretty good at least.
At the Vinh Hy Pagoda, in the little seaside town north of Phan Rang, I ran into these kids:
They really liked my motorcycle gear - they all took a number of punches at me in my motorcycle jacket to test out the padding. The boy on the left even put on my helmet and armored-knuckle gloves, and then started punching everything he could reach before I could put a stop to it.
The motorcycle I had isn’t exactly made for long-distance touring, and through experience I found that after four hours of riding time in a single day I was toast. My butt and legs would be sore, and my mind exhausted. I would arrive in a hotel and go straight for a nap.
So I took a rest day in Nha Trang, which was pleasant. Nha Trang has a large touristy area, with big hotels near the beaches and restaurants catering to tourists. It was a huge change to arrive there after the places I’d been prior.
On the beaches in Nha Trang I first saw what I’ve come to refer to as Vietnamese Sand Baths. Locals would go on the beach, and scrub themselves all over with wet sand. I even saw a guy lie down on his back, and then push himself along using his feet, thereby scrubbing his back. I was inruiged, of course, and tried it myself. It felt very rejuvenating, and distinctly like something you’d pay good money for in a spa.
The next night I slept in Quy Nhon. The Vietnamese Under-23 national soccer team was playing in the Asian Football Federation championship, and the game was on all screens in all bars and restaurants. It ended in a 0-0 tie, sadly. Meanwhile, rather than watching the first half, I played keepie-uppie with some local guys on the beach.
North of Qui Nhon, the huge statue of the Buddha at Tượng Phật Chùa Ông Núi Temple was visible from miles away. I rode up to it, and then hiked up the steps to the top.
The next night I spent in Quang Ngai, and from there headed to Da Nang for the final few nights.
From there I did a day trip to ride through Hai Van Pass, which has been made famous by Top Gear. Indeed, there were many tourists riding motorcycles there. I even saw a couple that weren’t comfortable riding a motorcycle on their own… so they’d paid some Vietnamese guys to take them on their motorcycles.
I also did a day trip from Da Nang to SunWorld Ba Na Hills, a famous Vietnamese theme park and resort in the mountains near Da Nang.
It was founded in 1919 by French colonists as a destination for French tourists. Today, it features an impressive replica French town, some rides and attractions, and the famous Golden Bridge. The cable car to reach the top of the resort boasts four Guinness World Records, including the greatest change in elevation at 1,369 meters.
In the parking lot below that cable car, a white guy parked next to me with the same exact motorcycle I had - which is rare in Vietnam; I’d only see one other one. He was dressed in all-black motorcycles clothes, like me. We spoke in English for about fifteen minutes, and there was something familiar about his accent. After that I finally asked where he’s from - and it turns out he’s also from the Czech Republic! We got dinner and a few beers that evening, I think both of us happy to speak some Czech again. If you’re interested, you can check his motovlog here… though if you don’t speak Czech, you might have a hard time understanding it.
The food is really great in Vietnam. A few months ago, my friend Kat and I had a discussion on the relative merits of ramen and pho. Kat said that she thought she could eat pho every day. I found that hard to believe.
Well, I spent about two weeks in Vietnam, and I ate pho every day, sometimes more than once. I am still not sick of it and still find it delicious. I’m with you, Kat.
Also, Vietnam, is the first country in a while that I’ve been to that has good bread! They’re basically short French baguettes, and you can buy tasty banh mi from small carts on the side of the road. Thanks for that, former French colonial overlords!
Vietnamese people also love their coffee, and I like their coffee, too. It’s just sweetened coffee with condensed milk, but it’s tasty. Sadly, though, coffee places here generally only have coffee and similar drinks - no food. It’s strange - I bet they would do better business if they also offered some tasty banh mis.
People in Vietnam, as in much of Asia, love karaoke. I saw people singing everywhere, from a guy alone in his living room to busy karaoke places to everything in between. One evening I was having dinner in a locals restaurant with Petr (we were the only foreigners in the place), and two guys set up a huge speaker across the road from the restaurant, plugged in a microphone, and started belting out some Vietnamese pop tunes with the volume turned up to eleven. You had to shout in the restaurant to carry a conversation.
I took a bus from Saigon to Can Tho and back, and found out that Vietnamese buses are on a whole ‘nother level:
This was easily the most comfortable long bus ride I’ve been on; I got a very nice nap during it. The back of the seat moves from about 30 degrees from horizontal to about 30 degrees from vertical, so that if you don’t want to lie down you have a decent seat, too. And the whole 4-hour bus ride cost just $7 US - complete with a minivan ride to and from my hotel!
Airlines really should do something similar - I would prefer a trans-oceanic flight in seats like this any day over the status quo. My friend Patrick and I did some back-of-the-envelope calculations, and we think this might not take more space per passenger than the current layout (you’d trade some vertical space for more horizontal space - a good deal!). There have been some similar mockups before, but as far as I know such seats have not made it to any economy sections yet. Based on our research, it appears that at least part of the reason might be regulations that require all passengers to be seated during takeoff and landing. If that is truly what’s holding it up… that’s pretty sad.
I had a great time in Vietnam, especially riding my motorcycle through the mountains. I’ve now ridden through the southern half of the country… so I think that I need to come back and ride through the northern half. I hear it’s even more beautiful than the south.