Home » I Tried To Ride Vietnam Like Top Gear And Failed Just Like They Did

I Tried To Ride Vietnam Like Top Gear And Failed Just Like They Did

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Back in my uni days, I was a big Top Gear fan. I watched the specials on repeat, none more so than the original trio’s legendary adventure through Vietnam. The concept was simple: rock up, buy a set of wheels, and just ride the whole damn thing. I desperately wanted to try it myself.

The years passed, I grew up, and I grew out of Top Gear for many reasons. But I never forgot that episode. A short visit to Vietnam, years later, only reinforced my desire. It was a stunning place, and unlike so many other countries, the usual barriers to fun are absent. I vowed to return with a mate and ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and see everything the country had to offer. Or, you know, have a massive incident while trying.

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Last year, that wish came true. It was more similar to the Top Gear experience than I actually imagined possible. This is that story.

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I arrived in the country fit and in good spirits, having had an entire row to myself on the flight over.
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I didn’t expect to see a Ford truck the minute I stepped into Vietnam proper, but there you go.

Freedom to Roam

The challenge had me more excited than a turtle in a pond full of pool noodles. I was going to ride a small motorcycle for over 1,000 miles with no cares and no obligations. Even better, I’d do so in a place where the traffic itself is a challenge to be overcome, and where the mountain roads are scarily beautiful. 

I stepped out on the airport forecourse not long after touching down in Ho Chi Minh City. Confronted with the city streets up close, the task ahead suddenly seemed impossible. The mass of traffic looked as foreboding and impenetrable as the Kowloon Walled City, yet my entire trip was predicated on my learning how to handle it.

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In any case, I was due for a prompt and rude introduction nonetheless. My compadre, Michael, lived in Vietnam and was picking me up on his scooter. He and I met in high school as members of disparate cliques, only to realize after four years that we were actually friends. He had the lay of the land and the language skills that were going to make this whole thing work. I had a can-do attitude and a desperate thirst for motorcycle adventures. 

I’d been in the country for ten minutes before I was on the back of a bike hurtling through the maelstrom. I was unpracticed at riding pillion, to say the least. I clung to the luggage rack with little confidence in its utility. I was quickly reminded by my surroundings that millions of people do this every day and it’s no cause for concern. Copying the locals, I quickly realized the trick was to hold on to the bike with one’s legs, not one’s arms. We became a part of the teeming school of fish that was the traffic, and wound up at Michael’s apartment to prepare for the journey ahead. 

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I was in the thick of it just half an hour after landing.

Choose Your Fighter

The first order of business was to secure a trusty mount and all the relevant gear for the journey ahead. I was looking for a regular bike that was under $1000 USD that would be reliable enough to get me up the country. 

Due to the vagaries of Vietnam’s road network, there’s not much call for big power. Even outside of cities, bikes duke it out for space with cars and trucks and speeds rarely exceed 60 km/h. Inside cities, you’re lucky to top 40 km/h. Thus, most locals ride bikes with tiny engines compared to what you’d see in the US. My research said I’d get up the country just fine with a 110 cc engine, and so I started looking in that range.  As a foreigner, it can get legally complicated if you’re riding anything bigger than 150 cc, too. In any case, I’d be riding illegally anyway, as Australian (and US!) citizens won’t have their licenses recognized by Vietnamese authorities. Thousands of people get away with it every year, usually greasing a few palms along the way to placate police looking for an easy cash injection. More on that later.

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I had my eye on something from Honda, and I got it.

After a hunt around a few Facebook groups, I got chatting to a local who regularly sold bikes to backpackers. He had a few Honda Waves, and invited me to try them out. While a 125cc model tempted me with its supposed greater performance, the “sports” exhaust was purely obnoxious. I settled on the third bike I rode, a Honda Wave 110S that felt like it was in good shape. For 8 million dong (~$314 USD), complete with luggage racks and a phone holder, it felt like a solid deal.

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We then spent a good three hours running around town trying to find a helmet that I could actually wear. I have a large head by Western standards; in Vietnam, store after store came up short. Eventually, we had to make a trek to a special store quite literally called “HELMET FOR THE BIG HEAD.” It’s famous city-wide and was my only salvation. My prime tip would be to bring your own helmet to Vietnam, as even the fancier models in the country offer pretty poor protection. Plus, you’ll avoid fitment issues. 

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Thuong was a local that sold bikes to visitors on the regular.
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You can buy a helmet anywhere in Vietnam, but only HELMETS FOR THE BIG HEAD could help me.
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We spent our first night kitting out our helmets with intercoms and planning the trip ahead.

Appropriately kitted out, we spent the evening filling our bellies and organizing our luggage. I also took the liberty of hooking up our helmets with a radio intercom system I’d purchased via eBay. This would keep us in constant contact on the road. The sheer joy of the banter ensued made them well worth the money ($150 USD), whether riding in formation or both on the same bike. Right away, it was obvious these were a killer purchase. Without them, the trip would have been far duller, indeed.

Escape from Saigon

Sunday came and it was time to kick the trip off in earnest. In most cities, you’d sit in slow traffic for a few hours, jump on a highway, and glide toward the horizon. Not so in Ho Chi Minh City (nee Saigon). After doing a few laps of the block on my bike, I was fairly confident I could keep it upright on the flat. I was less confident I could follow Michael through the swarming pandemonium on the road. I marked his helmet with fluorescent tape so I could spot him at a distance, and hoped the intercom would help us stay together.

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The fluorescent tape really did make Michael easier to spot. I did the same with my helmet.

The next hour or so was the most taxing driving task I’ve ever undertaken. My brain simply wasn’t used to tracking so many moving objects all at once. Nor was I used to the complete lack of lane discipline. If you’re on a bike in Vietnam, you get barely a shoulder width of space to yourself, and the masses will swarm around you doing their own thing. Your best bet is to move clearly and with intentions, do nothing sudden or rash, and never try for any kind of stupid gap. The latter will just end up with you mashed between a car and a wall. 

Learning all this at the same time as learning to ride the bike was exhausting. The scorching heat didn’t help, either. Hilariously, by the time we reached the city outskirts, we also got our first mechanical failure. My rear brake seized, thankfully just a few yards from a bike workshop. Some pocket money got the rear drum shoes replaced on the spot in 20 minutes. I took it as a nice opportunity to rehydrate and let my heart rate settle. Meanwhile, we watched an entirely drunk man stall his bike in the middle of a four-way intersection. It took him a full five minutes to figure out how to get his flip-flop back on, at which point he finally managed to kickstart his bike and ride away. The police sat at a checkpoint nearby, watching impassively. 

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Petrolimex remains my favorite Vietnamese petroleum chain. The color combo just works and their uniforms are always sharp. I tried to buy one as a souvenir.

Another hour or so on quiet roads got us to Vũng Tàu, our stop for the night. We’d done a grand total of 60 miles. My lack of experience didn’t help, and my brain was shot after the overstimulation. Michael was bouncing back after a recent bout of COVID, too, and was more than willing to stop. We crashed out shortly after dinner in a hostel dorm.

We resolved that we’d probably have to adjust our travel plans now we had a better idea of how quickly we could travel. It sounds insane until you’ve tried it, but traffic in Vietnam moves at a different pace. We quickly learned that we’d spend most of our time doing 25-40 mph at best, even on intercity roads, as we dodged trucks and potholes in equal measure. We elected to split our days between short two hour rides of 60 miles, with longer days where we’d do four hours on the road for about 120 miles. We could have pushed harder, but we wanted to actually enjoy the journey and have time to see the sights and do things along the way.

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Escaping the big city was hard going. Dodging cars and fifty bikes took it out of me.
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Cramming on to the ferry out of Saigon required my best low-speed handling skills.
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Because everyone is trying to miss each other, it somehow just works.

Day two let us rack up 100 miles on our way to Phan Thiet, building our confidence that we could get up the country in decent time. It’s a tightly packed town on the coast, full of narrow alleyways that even Europe would call a bit cramped.

In what was perhaps the wildest bit of riding on the whole trip, we narrowly piloted our scooters through these tight passages, in and amongst children walking home from school and builders throwing bricks around at the end of the workday. We later did the same thing in the middle of the night and I honestly couldn’t tell you how we didn’t drop the bikes or roll an ankle, nor how we navigated our way out of there.

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It was a maze. It blew my mind that this was something the locals dealt with every day. 

Other highlights included me foolishly losing my expensive sunglasses as we duck-dived under waves at the beach, and we sauntered about some abandoned buildings for the vibe of it all. Sans the mad scramble through a crowded city, it was a much easier ride in pleasant conditions. Vlcsnap 00115

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Nobody was wearing bikinis (us included), but the beach was gorgeous.
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The open road was kinder.
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We mostly rode close, though the intercoms meant we had freedom to spread out by as much as half a mile if necessary.

A Shakedown, And Not The Good Kind

The next day was a short hop to Hòa Da, since we had some activities planned for later in the afternoon. I’d gotten my eye in on bike, and was settling into the groove of the daily ride, and we were pegging along at a higher average speed. We passed a small village at pace, only to notice we were being tailed on the rural road that followed. Two police on a bike waved us down and we pulled over to stop. Over the intercom, Michael gave me the heads up that he’d be playing pretty dumb to see what would happen. We were expecting the usual tourist treatment: a fine in the realm of coffee money for speeding and riding unlicensed, and we’d be on our way. 

Instead, they instructed us to follow them back to the station. We contemplated running for it, or perhaps I did, but were reluctant to try our chances. Back at their base, we noted the multiple signs indicating that cameras were forbidden. We then sat through fifteen minutes of theater as the local chief ran through our documents and gave us a dressing down for driving unlicensed. He gesticulated and bloviated at us while showing us pre-saved messages he’d put through Google Translate. It was clear he’d been through this script before. He came down hard, stating we were liable for huge fines and the confiscation our bikes. In fairness, that’s what the law says, and he’d have every right to enforce it.

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It was not a fun ride back to the police station.

But this wasn’t about enforcing the law in the slightest. The local police had just refined their collection of bribes to a higher level than usual. They would drag tourists back to the station, scare them with big numbers and threats, and then offer them an easy way out. Since we “didn’t know” about the law, he smiled and said we could pay a lesser fine of just 1.5 million dong ($63 USD) each. We could even keep our bikes! He was also nice enough to note our license plates so we wouldn’t have any issues with other police in the immediate area. We dug out a wad of cash and left.  

We were, admittedly, pretty pissed off about the whole ordeal. In the grand scheme of things, $63 is nothing, but we were frustrated at the idea we might get shaken down to this degree on the regular. It was ten times what you’d usually expect to pay in such a situation. Most bribes in Vietnam are far more “reasonable,” for lack of a better word. In any case, we spat out our bitter words and moved on with our day, electing to try and lay lower in small villages in the future. 

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Sickest one I’ve ever seen.

The evening was far more enjoyable. We both jumped on my bike and headed to the outskirts of town. Once there, we spent a bunch of cash to ride some ATVs on huge sand dunes. We were disappointed to be sent out with safety riders on the back, but once we got out into the sand, it made sense. It would be all too easy to roll the quads by driving sideways on the steep slopes. One wrong move and you’d wrap your trip up in a body bag. 

The quads were heavy and not at all quick, but there was a lurid thrill in chucking them down the huge drops and doing donuts on the flats. I think I’d be out there doing it every day if I lived in the area.

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We took in the sunset over the dunes, a sight so gorgeous that tourists are reportedly often scammed into paying great sums to see it. It remains one of the best things I’ve seen in my life, even if I failed to capture it well on camera. At the time, I didn’t really care. It was too captivating to be fussing with such things. We wrapped the day by taking in the automotive highlights around the dunes, including topless four-wheelers and a chop-top Toyota. 

The ride back should have been uneventful, but alas, no. A difficult discussion saw us fall into a scorching argument on the ride back to the hotel, all due to a miscommunication over the intercom. It was made all the more awkward because we were on the same bike. Michael and I are both righteous and headstrong, rarely but occasionally to a fault. On occasion we’ve had disagreements turn fierce, more often in our younger, badder days. And still, here we were, bitterly arguing over the screaming four-stroke rattle of my Honda. Things hadn’t gotten this bad since a member of the public threatened to throw our 17-year-old selves out of a cafe after an argument over a laptop charger. 

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The world needs more open-top Patrols.

Did I consider leaving Michael on the side of a barren desert road? No, never. Okay, a little bit. Did he consider refusing me directions back to the hotel? He was a touch more mature than I, and also knew I was the only ride back. 

Good friends know when it’s time to stop barking at each other and sort things out later, and that’s what we did. Back at base, cooler heads prevailed, and we cleared things up. We had a laugh about it, made our apologies, and enjoyed a satisfying seafood dinner. 

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Hard to explain the majesty of this much sand unless you’ve been there.

Beach Vibes

Research had told us that while National Route 1 will indeed take you up the whole country, it’s not exactly the best way to go. It’s choked with trucks and generally makes for a poor ride. We instead headed for coastal roads and set our sights on Nha Trang. The beachside town has become a tourist attraction in recent years, and we fancied a splash about in the cool waters after several days on the road. 

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We were blessed with some of the best riding yet, ducking and diving through mountain valleys before running out along the coast itself. A light sprinkle of rain wasn’t unwelcome; if anything it added to the atmosphere of the ride. Traffic was minimal, so we were able to wind out the bikes and ride at our own pace without looking over our shoulders every two minutes. It was proper blissful. Dropout famously joked about where the mountains meet the sea, but Vietnam offers you just that.

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The coast is where it’s at, baby.

Vietnam’s thing is that you’re almost never far from someone who will sell you a cold drink. We stopped at a bunch of beachside cafes, mostly enjoying soft drinks and the country’s famous sweet iced coffee made with condensed milk. Beers were best saved for after hours, given we needed to stay sharp on the bikes. Kicking back with the sand at your feet and an ice-cold beverage in hand… it makes the expensive airfares and hours spent on the road all worthwhile. 

It took us a couple of days to hit Nha Trang. The first day we clocked up a full 100 miles, but by 6 p.m., we were a spent force. Exhausted and with another 30 miles to go, we stopped at a hammock cafe for a pause. They’re exactly what they sound like, and a gorgeous way to recharge throughout the day. After a coffee and chill, Micahel insisted we call it quits. Given I was feeling wobbly myself, and the roads were teeming with traffic, it seemed like the right call. Nightfall would only promise more trucks and we were already wasted. 

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These beachside stops were gorgeous as heck.

We rode into the city proper the next day, refreshed and ready to enjoy its fruits. We treated ourselves to a hotel on the main strip, just by the beach. We elected to spend a couple of days lounging on the sand, building castles and getting dunked by the strangely-powerful break right on the shore.

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At this point, I took the liberty to decorate my bike. My methods were suitably rubbish. They wouldn’t have been out of place in the original Top Gear special. I started out with a coat of fluorescent yellow poster paint which was all I could readily lay my hands on. Spray paint might have been a hardier choice, but it would have required masking, and I was in no mood.

Returning to the hotel astride my newly yellow mount, I realized it might have been altogether too much. The hotel, like so many others, had a security guy who just chilled out front all day. His eyes bulged when looking at what I’d done to my Honda. Michael was similarly uneasy, noting that standing out so much wasn’t a great idea. 

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Pretty tasty view.
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The first coat was dodgy.
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Subsequent coats came good. I painted on a back street behind rows of hotels.
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Tell me that doesn’t stand out from the crowd.

I elected to balance my self-expression with a little taste. The next day, I layered over the searing yellow with green tape, creating a tribute livery in the rough colors of British Petroleum. It gave me a bike that looked like nothing else on the road, for better or worse. At the very least, it drew plenty of attention from gas station attendants from then on, mostly because the poster paint did this curious bubbling thing that I neither understood nor could explain. It looked far better in photos than in person, I dare say, but nonetheless. I was deeply in love with the look.

By this point, it was clear I had to source new glasses to replace those I lost in the surf, with prescription pairs being a touch cheaper than those in the West. We also took the opportunity to get the bikes serviced. Mike got an oil change at the local official Honda dealer, and I did the same. The hotel security guy had also pointed out my rapidly-decaying rear tire, so I had that replaced along with the inner tube. Overall, the bikes were running largely faultlessly, though mine would later pick up a sticky shifter. It didn’t bother me enough to fix it, and we kept rolling without major complaint.

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Really should have given it a racing roundel.
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“It’s much more me, darling.”

Northward Push

As we resumed travel, things started to get more rural in look and feel. The mountain trend seemed to be letting both goats and cows roam free, and we would regularly spot them wandering across live roadways. In the West, this would be a disaster, with cars plowing into livestock at speeds approaching 60 mph. In Vietnam, everyone just kind of drives around them and it’s fine. It’s a completely different attitude and it seems to work. After a week, you’re just used to how long it takes to get everywhere.

We did face a new enemy, however: wind. We spent three days wending our way towards Quảng Ngãi, near enough getting our heads blown off all the while. The buffeting was extreme, creating a huge inescapable noise that overwhelmed your hearing. Riding was all the worse as the wind tried to blow us over ledges or into the gutter. In Vietnam, when a rain gutter is a three-foot-deep trench of angular concrete, you really don’t want to dip a wheel off the side. It was all the more harrowing with buses and trucks blasting past in close confines. 

There was rain, too, and lots of it. Funnily enough though, armed with full-body rain gear, it didn’t bother us that much. It was the continual fight against being blown off the bikes that frustrated us most of all. 

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The third day was our longest of all. We spent over five hours on the bikes, and made it a full 113 miles. Again, it doesn’t sound like much, but at an average speed approaching 25 mph, it’s a lot. We weren’t riding comfortable, well-suspended European touring bikes, either. These were noisy, raspy Hondas, with tiny engines, each going on a decade old. They’d get you where you were going, buzzing their little hearts out, but riding one all day really takes it out of you. 

I’ve done 10-hour days driving modern cars on the highway with enough breaks, and come up fine. A cheap motorcycle on the roads of Vietnam is simply another thing entirely. The trial is more mental than physical. On a Western road, you might be tracking two to three cars at a time on the highway; the one or two in front, and the one coming in the other lane. In Vietnam, you can up that by an order of magnitude. You’re often tracking ten to twenty separate vehicles at any one time. On a bike, as well, you’re forever checking your mirrors and turning your head to make sure you’re not about to get wiped out by a garbage truck or intercity bus. That, and making sure your front wheel isn’t about to be swallowed by the next pothole or deep drainage grate. You’re running at a high cognitive load for hours on end. Experience would definitely ease this in time, but I was green as hell and running my brain hot—day in, day out. 

The final 20 miles into Quang Ngai was some of the hardest riding of the whole trip. It was at dusk, in dirty, wet conditions with visibility growing poorer. I could feel my ability to track moving objects was diminishing as the scooters and motorbikes and bicycles and trucks roared around us, and us around them. It was a filthy quagmire but we had no choice but to push on to the hotel. If the Eagles had written Hotel Vietnam-a, they’d have explained that you can rest at a hammock cafe, but you can never sleep. Well, you can, for a bit, but you can’t stay the night. In any case, we made it to our proper lodgings, unscathed and thankful it was over. 

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Enjoy the hammocks.
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Enjoy the sights.
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We stuck it out through a lot of wind and water.

The highlights of this middle region weren’t the riding, but the sights we saw along the way. A strange rock outcropping was considered important enough to have an electric shuttle service, though I didn’t quite understand its significance.

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What is it?
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No idea what this was about, but it was teeming with tourists.

Our visit to the temple atop a mountain near Quang Ngai was also pretty special, though the fog was so heavy we couldn’t see far at all. But the highlight? The Cham Tower was a combination of a stunning landscape and architecture over 1,000 years old. The views were gorgeous, as was the weird way the groundskeepers let the grass grow through the brickwork.

These three days were hard riding, but we covered a lot of ground, at least by our standards. Three days of heavy weather had taken it out of us. We were on a clock, too. After nine days, we were budging up against a hard limit; I had to return to work at the end of the fortnight. 

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Easily my favorite attraction on the whole trip. The Cham Tower, that is, but Michael’s great too.

We wanted to push on to Hanoi, that was for sure. Unfortunately for us, we had just five days left and 572 miles still to go. That came out to around 115 miles a day. We’d done a few days where we racked up that kind of mileage, but never two in a row. Doing it five days in a row seemed difficult in the extreme, and also not very fun.

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‘Had we really put the hammer down, we might have been able to do it. Realistically though, the maths didn’t work out. We’d have been spending six-plus hours a day doing nothing but riding, and we’d be worn out, tired, and wet in the evenings. As much as we’d enjoyed swapping stories and songs over the intercom while on the bikes, we wanted to enjoy the journey, not simply complete it. 

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This is what you go for.

We’d faltered at our goal to ride the whole country, but we weren’t alone. We elected to compromise, just like Top Gear had before us. We’d push on with the bikes, taking in two more cities, before calling on Vietnam’s railways to carry us the last stretch into Hanoi.

Making the Most of It

Our next destination was the historic town of Hội An. It’s a tourist town through and through, but in a good way. You’ll pay more for a hotel and food, but it is a great place to be. The markets are good fun, and you can eat well, and it’s an excellent place to get yourself a tailor-made suit if you’re in town for a few days. If you forget the latter fact, don’t worry. Multiple locals will remind you as they try to drag you into their shops to get a blazer or a few shirts made up.

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Hoi An is charming, and a great place to get clothes made.
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Road bros, to the end.

I’d had the joy of getting clothes made on my last visit to Hội An, and I had no need for more formal wear. Instead, we focused on shopping and enjoying the bánh mì, though it wasn’t quite up to some of the street vendors we’d sampled previously. The hotel pool was also a treat, as was our visit to the pottery district. Many parts of Vietnam have worked hard to discourage scams and make the tourist experience a nicer one, and Hội An is one of the best examples of this. I left the area with a pair of ocarinas in the shape of a… well, I can’t readily identify the animals but they’re definitely mammalian. 

Our final destination was Da Nang. It’s perhaps the best-known beach city in Vietnam, and it’s been a hotspot since Nha Trang was merely a gleam in a developer’s eye. We spent our remaining days building a couch on the beach and splashing around in the water. It was strange to realize the local lifeguards have heavily restricted the in-water activity; today, you’re expected to only swim in a tiny slice of the miles-long beach. The beachside bars were joyous nonetheless. 

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From there, it was a simple matter of closing out the journey. We threw our bikes on a freight train to Hanoi, a fussy process that costs on the order of 1.5 million dong ($50 USD). We then bought ourselves passenger tickets on a sleeper train for a similar price. 

We left Da Nang by night, sharing our four-berth cabin with another soul or two along the way. I watched what I could of the Bahrain Grand Prix on my phone when the train wasn’t passing through tunnels. The food onboard was pungent and unappealing but was ultimately undisruptive to the digestive system. As for the aftermath, trying to take care of business in a squat toilet on a moving train is a feat of balance and finesse as you position yourself in a rattling shed on rails. Never mind the smell, evoking vivid memories from music festivals past. Ideally, you’ll do what you can to avoid this, but honestly the level of cleanliness was nowhere near as bad as it could have been. If you can pop a squat here and come out with your pants unsullied, you can do it anywhere. 

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The four-bed cabin was okay, though at six feet tall I only just barely fit on the cot. The six-bed cabins were intimidatingly cramped with triple-decker beds, and I would not recommend them to the claustrophobic. The more people in your cabin, the more disruptions you’d face from punters leaving to use the bathrooms and alight at their various stops.

Closing Out

I arrived in Hanoi fairly wiped out, having only caught a few hours sleep on the train. Before I left, I managed to catch up with an old friend and toured around the city, buying myself some lovely green jackets worn by the local delivery drivers. A great souvenir.

I wrapped things up with a final meal with Michael and entrusting him with the keys to my bike. I was lucky enough to sell it on to him, rather than have to fuss around finding a backpacker heading in the other direction. This also avoided any issues around my questionable decorations. 

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It’s amazing who you run into on your holidays.

Funnily enough, I left Hanoi for the airport in a taxi. We ended up on a proper highway, mandated for cars only—no bikes allowed. It was the first time in the entire trip I’d seen anyone pay the slightest heed to the lane lines. It was also the first time I crested 50 mph since arriving in the country. It’s proof that Vietnam is aware of how modern road networks operate, it just ignores this knowledge across the vast majority of the country. 

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I also tried a last-ditch effort to get into the Vietnamese Grand Prix track. This is about as close as I got.

The journey was a trying one at times. The roads were rough, the trucks were scary, and it was far slower going than I ever imagined. I’ve never struggled to cover 100 miles in a single day before. Really, though, it was one of those things that you enjoy because it pushed you. We hung on to the bikes and gritted our teeth when we were hours into a ride, soaked through and pissed off. We inhaled huge quantities of food to replenish ourselves in between stints, relishing the hot buns and oily meat fresh off the grill. And when we did take the time to kick back in the pool or on the beach, it really felt like we’d earned it after thrashing our way through miles of countryside. 

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It’s about the homies, yo.

It was a great way to refresh an old friendship and see some beautiful sights along the way. It was also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect with a different arm of the motoring experience, one that I’d sought after since I saw it on the screen all those years ago. If you’ve got the cash, admire the cuisine, and can take the journey, I’d highly recommend it. It’s honestly hard to be disappointed in Vietnam. It’s a land with so much to give at a price you often can’t believe. 

Image credits: Lewin Day

 

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Linh Luu
Linh Luu
13 days ago

Love the story. Brings back fond memories of when I lived there from 2007 to 2010 and the ONE time a group of us tried to ride from Saigon to somewhere far. After being battered by rain and crazy tractor trailers who I’m still convinced are high on something, we only made it as far as Dong Nai and called it quits. Still such an incredible experience and I’m so glad I was able to live there and commute on my beloved Honda SCR110.

Lotsofchops
Lotsofchops
18 days ago

What a fun read. This is one of those things I think about wanting to try but then realize I’d be way too out of my depth. Having a friend in the country helps I’m sure! Of course it’s doable without help but I don’t think I’m down for that level of stress.

Box Rocket
Box Rocket
18 days ago

Great article and what an experience! Thank you for contextualizing more of that experience, especially in contrast to the TG special where I believe they had camera cars to do a bit of traffic moderation for the hosts.

Do you think if – for instance – you had shipped in a more potent engine ahead of time (since larger engine bikes seemed hard to come by) that would fit a smaller bike’s chassis and found a shop to fit it for you, it would have improved the experience? Especially given the room in the purchasing budget.

Do you have enough knowledge about EV bikes that you think someone could make the trip with one of the better ones with better range (or easier ways to charge)?

It was great to see Kristen here! Since you’re friends with Kristen, could you ask/cajole/bribe her to make us some fresh Fancy Kristen content? It’d fit right in here, and wouldn’t detract from her duties at MT (in my mind, anyway).

Delta 88
Delta 88
19 days ago

So, in regards to that picture fourth from last, are those rails actually used, and if so, what runs on them?

Joshua Christian
Joshua Christian
15 days ago
Reply to  Delta 88

Yeah those rails are actually used! If I remember right, services only run a couple of times a day. It’s a pretty famous attraction these days.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
19 days ago

Great travelogue! Brought back many memories of some of my own travels in Southeast Asia. I had a couple of advantages over you. First, I lived over there and had a lot of time to acclimatize to the pace of life and traffic. Second, I was a flyer and used to processing information at hundreds of miles per hour, which made for an easier adaptation o the calamity of traffic. Sort of became fun after awhile. I figured if the little girls wearing skirts and riding sidesaddle on the back of a motorbike while holding their schoolbooks could do it and appear unruffled, I could, too. Congrats on realizing one of your dreams and thanks again for a fine read.

Rod Millington
Rod Millington
19 days ago

Nice writeup Lewin. It can definitely be an absolute slog trying to get anywhere in Vietnam, but when you do it, it feels so good.

Well, except when it’s freezing cold and you are soaked and muddy haha.

Rod Millington
Rod Millington
18 days ago
Reply to  Lewin Day

Except when the shower doesn’t heat up. Then you learn to check for hot water every time you enter a “Nha Nghi” haha. This is after you have already had to learn to check for water pressure…

Dodsworth
Dodsworth
19 days ago

If a major shake down comes to $63 and no jail time, take my money.

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
19 days ago

So the “old friend” you ran into in Hanoi was Kristen Lee?!? Was this random chance or were you aware she was in town?

Definitely sounds like a once is enough kind of trip, at least to me. Maybe you are more masochistic than I am. Train travel is generally much more relaxing. and still affords plenty of site seeing opportunities. Does the Vietnam railway offer hop-on/hop-off type tickets?

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
20 days ago

Sounds like a great trip! How long do you think you would have needed to complete it the way you imagined?

Rod Millington
Rod Millington
19 days ago
Reply to  MATTinMKE

You definitely need to maximise the time that you have, treat it as something you will never do again. My trip lasted six weeks but I did do close to 4000km by the end and still a quite a few of those days were hard slogs to get the distance you needed.

Scott Hinnen
Scott Hinnen
20 days ago

The slow pace of intercity traffic is crazy. We hired a driver on our trip in 2019 but it was nuts how slow it took to get anywhere. Great story on a beautiful country!

Rapgomi
Rapgomi
20 days ago

Congratulations on a fabulous trip that made for a great read!

Hey Bim!
Hey Bim!
20 days ago

Thanks for this Lewin! Love a good travelogue. I’m a big fan of Top Gear as well, but this is a journey I’ve never contemplated.

BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
20 days ago

He said Dong. <snickers>

Brent Chestnut
Brent Chestnut
20 days ago

Great article! Top Gear made me want to try this trip as well.

Unclewolverine
Unclewolverine
20 days ago

Love it! I know you mentioned several times about the legalities of foreign tourists on larger bikes; but I wonder how it would be handled if someone doing a world tour ala ‘somewhere else tomorrow,’ showed up at the border with a large bike such as a dresser Harley or r1800 transcontinental?

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
20 days ago
Reply to  Unclewolverine

I wonder how it would be handled if someone doing a world tour ala ‘somewhere else tomorrow,’ showed up at the border with a large bike such as a dresser Harley or r1800 transcontinental?

The shakedowns would be equally supersized.

Rod Millington
Rod Millington
19 days ago
Reply to  Unclewolverine

The amount of paperwork and fees required to make this a possibility would be ludicrous. Then you would still have to battle with getting it out of the country and the fact that if anything breaks, your trip is over.

F.Y. Jones
F.Y. Jones
20 days ago

Amazing article. Jealous that you got to experience that.

Taargus Taargus
Taargus Taargus
20 days ago

Awesome write-up! It sounds like an amazing experience, coming from someone that hasn’t done a tremendous amount of travel-adventuring.

I like the honesty about getting into arguments on trips. If there’s anything you can guarantee on a trip like this (or even more traditional vacations) is that there’s going to be moments where tempers flare and people get a little testy. Being able to work through that shit and move on might be the #1 skill required to make a trip not spiral into hell when things don’t go according to plan.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
20 days ago

Years ago, I was in NYC, and the traffic there was unbelievable to a midwesterner like myself. After watching it for a few days, I figured I could probably manage driving there. However, I couldn’t imagine having to LEARN to drive in that chaos!

Vietnam sounds like driving in NYC on hard mode. How does anyone learn how to drive there?!?

Jason Roth
Jason Roth
20 days ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

I went to HS in north Jersey, always thought driving in Manhattan would be insane. Then one day, I just ended up doing it (don’t recall if I was in the wrong lane, or if I just said screw it), and it turned out I love it—you;’re fully engaged, and so is everybody else. No idiots blithely changing lanes or going slow while they look for an address. At least that’s how it was in the ’90s.

Anyway, even with that experience under my belt, a trip to Buenos Aires and Rio convinced me I had no interest in driving in that kind of traffic madness.

ProfessorOfUselessFacts
ProfessorOfUselessFacts
20 days ago
Reply to  Jason Roth

Having been a passenger in NYC, Lima, and Moscow, I can say that NYC is the most reserved and calm of all 3.

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