So, for the sake of my mother, I decided not to post this blog until the entire bike trip is over. I made this decision after day 2 and her and i were chatting about the trip so far. I had to keep a very straight face as i answered “Oh its been so great! No issues at all!” Sorry Mom, I lied, but I lied so you wouldn’t have to worry everyday.
I don’t think I could’ve prepared myself for what it would be like to drive in Vietnam. This is my third visit to this country and I knew exactly how crazy the traffic was and have said more times that I can count, “You couldn’t pay me to drive here” and here I am, paying to drive here.
DAY 1 — Hanoi to Ninh Binh
Around 9am Monday, we picked up our bikes at Tigit Motorbikes in the center of Hanoi. We had originally been planning to grab them Saturday afternoon but due to several plane issues and delays leaving Africa, we arrived in Vietnam 72 hours later than expected. Tigit was really great to deal with. We sat down and outlined our entire route and they gave us suggestions on things to do, the safest roads to travel, what to avoid and how to deal with corrupt police officers. It cost 350$ usd for two motorbikes for 10 days, as well as an 800$ damage deposit that you get back when you return the bikes. The bikes we rented were this years Honda Blade, equipped with a rack on the back to strap your luggage to. Very sleek looking scooters that reminded me of the ones Sherry and I rented in Thailand.
Getting out the of Hanoi was quite interesting. For those that haven’t been there before, it is an extremely busy, large city. To sum it up, the rules of the road are, well, there aren’t any rules actually. You can run red lights, you can pass other cars in the same lane as the oncoming traffic, stop signs are completely pointless, turn signals mean nothing, you can drive either way on any side of the road, you can drive down sidewalks and cut off oncoming traffic when making any type of turn, red, green and yellow lights all mean the same thing: GO. It’s basically a free for all which can make driving here incredibly intimidating but somewhat exciting too.
I felt like once we got out of Hanoi, the hard part was over, but I was wrong. The main highway that we took (QL1A) was insanity. The bigger the vehicle the more right of way they are entitled too which makes buses, semis and large trucks incredibly dangerous. They will pass you while passing another bus with heavy oncoming traffic. They will pull in front of you just to cut you off to make a right turn. So take everything you learned about driving in the western world and throw it out of f***ing window! We took our time and stuck to the far right of the road in what looks like a pedestrian lane that is actually for bikes. But you cannot get comfortable in these lanes either. People will drive towards you in that lane, trucks will be pulled over, some people opening their doors even while your about to drive by them, people on pedal bikes, motorbikes driving slowly and swerving as they talk on their cellphone, I’m telling you, anything goes so at no point should you relax. The scariest thing for me is side roads as most bikes wont even look as they turn right onto the road causing you to have to swerve around them so you don’t hit them. At intersections my heart skips a beat and my eyes dart in every direction expecting to be cut off even though I have a green light, it really doesn’t matter. The average speed limit within cities is 40kms and on highways its 60kms. So as long as you stick with slower speeds and take your time, you should be fine. Don’t make any sudden moves and try to go with the flow. Follow the crowd and blend in is what we have learned.
What was originally a 2 hour and 20 minute drive ended up being around 5 hours due to taking our time, stopping and driving slower than the limit. I ended up with a pretty sweet farmers tan from my t-shirt as it was incredibly hot and sunny the entire drive.
We arrived in Ninh Binh around 230-3pm at our Airbnb called Victoria Hotel Tam Coc. A cute little place very close to the Tam Cốc-Bích Động , a gorgeous national park that is described as Halong Bay on land. We took it pretty easy for the evening, had some amazing food at Ninh Loan Rose Restaurant (which i highly recommend their fried rice with egg). We had been pretty exhausted from the day of driving as well as the amount of stress that came along with getting to Asia from Africa so it was a fairly early night for us after a filling dinner.
The following morning we were up early and headed out for the boat tour of Tam Coc. For only 195,000 VND per person you get rowed around the green mountains, through caves and farmlands. Its an absolutley gorgeous sight and completely worth the cost. Expect to have a woman row up to you to sell beer and snacks and have you buy something for your boat driver. Make sure to bargain! Also expect to be asked for a tip by the driver at the end as well. Dont let this deter you though, it is a wonderful experience. After the 1.5hr boat trip we grabbed some breakfast and tried to wait out the heavy rain. Because it was already 11am, we couldn’t wait much longer and headed back onto the road.
DAY 2 — Ninh Binh to Thanh Hoa
This day started off pretty terribly with extremely heavy rains. Even though we had rain jackets, this didn’t keep us completely dry. We continued along the QL1A, which I started to despise and attempted to stay safe while driving on the side of the highway through large puddles soaking our feet while waves of water that sprayed off of the vehicles passing us at 80kms covered us head to toe. Driving in heavy rain without any way to keep the water off of your visor makes it incredibly hard to see. Every few seconds I try to wipe the water away to clear my vision but end up with streaks of water and still limited vision. We dropped our speed about 10kms and stopped several times. We were kicking ourselves for getting off to a slow start this morning and began to worry about not making it before dark.
Once we turned off the QL1A onto the QL36 towards our home stay, the road was much nicer! It was smoothly paved, the rain had stopped, there was hardly any heavy vehicle traffic and mainly just motorbikes. We were finally driving through lush green farm lands, through narrow passes between the tall mountains, passed grazing cattle on the side of the roads. This is exactly how i had pictured the entire drive. My excitement ended quickly as the sun set and darkness fell. There were no street lights and I constantly worried about oncoming traffic, which side of the road they were on, i couldn’t tell if I was coming up to the any potholes or the possibility of cattle crossing the road. I had lost my glasses in Africa and those were my saving grace for night time driving that i struggle with even at home. The last 30 minutes of driving were pretty difficult, not being able to see, our home-stay was very out of the way down some dirt roads and you couldn’t breath through your mouth because of the amount of bugs hitting your face as you drove.
After what should of been a 3 hour drive, we pulled into our home-stay, Dong Du Village Lakeside 7 hours after leaving Ninh Binh. Both of us very stressed and exhausted. The place was a private room separate from the family’s home. Such a gorgeous area surrounded by nothing but green. None of them speaking English, they welcomed us in, showed us to our rooms and invited us for dinner. We ate a delicious meal with them in silence occasionally smiling at each other or posing for pictures. Fresh rice, deep fried eggplant, tofu, spring rolls, beef, omelette and some type of delicious pickled vegetable. We had been using google translate to attempt to speak to each other and when we asked her what the vegetable was, google had translated it to “toad” but there was no way that’s what it was, at least i hope not cause i ate quite a bit of it.
After showering and attempting to use the bathroom and getting chased out by a giant spider the size of a dessert plate, we called it a night. I did a quick sweep of the room for any other visitors (for Marks sake of course) and we fell asleep praying that tomorrow would be a better day.
DAY 3 — Thanh Hoa to Hà Tinh
We woke up this morning by the sound of insane thunder and the flashes of lightening. Both of us a bit stressed that we were going to have another day like yesterday. We pushed our fears to back of our minds and got up for a delicious breakfast made by the host. Coffee, lemon tea, deep fried banana with honey, sweet fried bread, fresh bananas and dragon fruit. It was a great way to start the day and during this time the rain had stopped and the skies cleared up.
We left around 8am and made our way back to the main highway. The drive today was much easier, less traffic and clear skies. We hit a bit of rain 3/4’s of the way to Hà Tinh and pulled off the side of the road to wait it out. It didn’t last long and were back on our way. The drive took us around 5 hours when you factor in stops to stretch our legs and most of the time going under the 60km speed limit. We seem to be getting used to the way they drive here and I am feeling much more comfortable and confident on the roads which is nice. We pulled into the Vinpearl Hotel around 2pm, a 5 star hotel that cost us a measly 42$ including breakfast. What a hotel it was! 37 floors, there is no way we could ever afford a hotel like this at home, or anywhere else for that matter. Food was expensive but that’s expected in these kind of places. We enjoyed lunch, went for a swim on the 5th floor pool. They have an outdoor pool that over looks the courtyard and onto the road below and an indoor heated pool as well. It was so wonderful to relax, swim in something that isn’t salt water for a change and be a tad spoiled by the service here.
DAY 4 — Hà Tinh to Phong Nha
Well, today was a pretty awesome day! We were finally able to get away from the QL1A and take a much more scenic route on the QL15 (Ho Chi Minh Trail). What a beautiful drive even with the torrential downpour almost the entire way. I would gladly take the rain over the hectic QL1A. This drive was fantastic and what we had been waiting for. Gorgeous lush green rain forests, driving through huge mountains, passed farms and over rivers. Keep an eye out for grazing cattle on the side of the road or sleepy dogs at the end of a driveway. I suggest buying a rain jacket to wear over your clothes and make sure your bags and backpacks are waterproof. This route is quite a bit longer than taking the highway but totally worth it. Due to the rain and stopping a few times, it took us around 6 hours to get to our destination. We also stopped a few times for some great scenic photos and to double check our direction on our phones.
We’ve learned to leave earlier so that we can enjoy the drive and not have to stress if weather or unforeseen events slow us down and we have to drive in the dark like we did on day 2.
We got to our home stay that we booked through Airbnb called Phong Nha CoCo House around 3pm and headed straight to get food. We read some great reviews online about D-Arts Zone and headed there for a late lunch/early supper. They are known for their Bun Cha Ha Noi which is rice noodles, vegetables, a delicious homemade fruit vinegar sauce, a protein of your choice and fried spring rolls. For those vegetarians out there, the tofu is exceptional and i highly recommend this vegetarian dish. Mark had it with pork belly, pork patty and homemade smoked pork sausage and he was incredibly happy with it. This was probably one of the best meals we’ve had since arriving in Vietnam and a must visit if you’re in the area! Our homestay was directly overlooking Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with over 400 caves to discover. We made sure to book a cave tour as it was the main reason we planned on staying in Phong Nha for 2 nights.
We were picked up directly at our hotel around 830am by an adorable young woman named Lily. I am really short at about 5’2 and she came up to my shoulders. We got into an already full van and were on our way. We drove about 30 minutes to where the first cave was and all piled into two 8 seater golf carts. There was a hike up to entrance of Thiên Đường Cave (aka — Paradise Cave) that was about 570m high. A fairly easy hike and completely wheelchair accessible with ramps. Its a beautiful walk to the top as you take in the lush greenery surrounding you if you can ignore the relentless humidity causing you to sweat twice as much as you should be.
Paradise Cave is an absolute stunner! At 31 kms long making it the longest cave in the National Park, the height can reach up to 72m and around 150m wide. The limestone formations are incredibly fascinating as well as the size of the stalactites and stalagmites. Some reminding me of a tree covered in snow the way the formations droop down from the point on top. Although the cave is extremely long, only 1.1kms are open for tourists. Its beautifully lit and a wooden walkway winds around the formations allowing you get up close to take it all in.
We paid a visit to the 8 lady cave as part of the tour which a very small cave not far from Paradise cave. There is a memorial temple beside the cave dedicated to 8 lives that were lost there in 1972 while hiding from bombing by the US. This caused the rocks to cave in over the only exit and ultimately they were never recovered. Many locals come here to light incense in remembrance of these 8 lives.
We took a 30-40 minute trek into the jungle down some pretty rough terrain. Even without the downpour of rain, this path would still be fairly difficult. It was straight down and incredibly slick and muddy, but all part of the experience. I didn’t mind getting dirty but i was terrified of the fact that i could end up with leeches on me or if i was to stumble or fall, i could accidentally reach out and grab poison ivy, a tree with an unsuspecting giant spider or come across the path of a poisonous snake. When we got down to the bottom the staff was waiting for us with a tarp set up for us to enjoy lunch under. A delicious feast of sticky rice, tofu, pork, mustard leaves, boiled egg, cucumber and peanuts to make your own rice paper spring rolls. It was so delicious and so much fun to sit around with everyone and dig in with our hands and enjoy a local meal.
From there we got into our bathing suits, put on our helmets equipped with headlamps on and a life jacket to head into the next cave for a swim. The company offers a pair of shoes to use for swimming which are basically a cheap pair of plastic sandals a 5 year old would wear to the beach. Mark looked so good in them and i had brought a light pair of runners to use instead, i was glad i did when i saw what they were offering.
It was so cool to swim through the cave in the pitch black with only your headlamps light to guide you. Because the light on your head attracts all the bugs, this in turn attracts the little hungry bats so you get several of them swooping around your face and dive bombing around trying to catch the insects. I found it really cool but others weren’t too thrilled about that part. The water was clear and the sound was beautiful when we got to whistle and sing. All in all we spent around 45 minutes swimming through the cave and back out and it was definitely the highlight of the tour. I had done this type of thing once before the last time i was in Thailand but this experience was much more real. There was no other tour groups, it was just us with the cave completely to ourselves. It was an all around authentic feel and i was so blessed to have been able to experience it. If you are planning to do this bike trip, you must stop and check out one of these caves!
DAY 6 — Phong Nha to Ðông Hói
What should only be about an hour drive ends up being around 4 hours for us. We decided to avoid the main highway along the coast and get into the National Park and drive through the beautiful green forest of Vietnam. Make sure you have a full tank of gas as there is no places to fuel up during this drive. It is a lot of hills, twists and turns which reminded me of driving back home in BC. We had perfect weather for 90% of the trip and were able to stop several times for pictures. This area is dominated by evergreen trees that flow into each other making it look like running green water. I wonder to myself whats underneath as this area is home to tigers, elephants, macaques, gibbons, the Asian Black Bear, Sun Bears and many types of amphibians, spiders and birds. I had to remind myself that we weren’t on safari and no, Ami, you probably wont witness a tiger crossing the road, but i stayed positive, miracles can happen right?
Today was by far the best of the last 6! Even though i got a little too close to running out of gas i still couldn’t help but be in awe of the scenery surrounding us. I was grateful for the small amount of rain considering every day so far has been incredibly wet. It kept the roads dry and me confident enough in my bike skills to be able to hit 50kms on a short straight stretch of road. We did come across a traffic jam of a herd of cattle crossing the road. i couldn’t help but giggle as mark drove through them honking as they casually sauntered out of his way almost looking irritated that they had to move for him.
We arrived at our hotel fairly early at around 230pm. We checked in and immediately headed to grab a late lunch. We had a delicious meal at a place called Thai Food Restaurant and i had possibly one of the best Pad Thai that i have had in a long time. It got me very excited to head back to Thailand soon. Mark is obsessed with Pho and has been eating it for breakfast lately as they offered it on our continental breakfast meals included at our hotels. I’m on a fried rice kick right now and am determined to eat the best fried rice possible. Nothing has come close to the egg fried rice we ate in Ninh Binh at Ninh Loan Rose Restaurant though but ill keep looking.
We are still trying to catch up on our sleep and have been pretty exhausted lately, which i think makes sense after being non stop traveling for 7.5 months now. We decided to head back to the hotel and binge watch season 2 of Making a Murderer on Netflix as we have an entire day to tour the area tomorrow.
DAY 7 — Ðông Hói
Today was a pretty awesome day. It was fun to rip the bikes around the city with no real agenda, no highways, no long drive. What a beautiful little city Ðông Hói is! We took this free day to explore the water front, stop and take some photos and just enjoy ourselves. We stopped randomly on the side of the road and shared a coconut together which are absolutely delicious in Vietnam. They just cut the top off and you drink the juice with a couple straws and then use a spoon to dig out the “meat” inside. Its very soft with a flan type of texture. We walked around a couple malls and checked out some sunglass stores, Mark lost his on this bike trip so he is looking to buy a new pair. We also love walking around grocery stores and checking out all the different types of products. We stopped to try some bubble tea which was very delicious!
Most of the day was spent ripping around and because the weather is so hot, we hid away in the hotel in the afternoon to escape the hottest part of the day. After relaxing in some AC, we went in search of some seafood as it is highly recommended here. There were quite a few places on one stretch of road along the water but alot of them didnt have anything going on and when we finally stopped at one, they basically ignored us until finally shaking their heads and shooing us away. So this left a bit of a sour taste in our mouths so we went back into town to a place we had researched. Thai Binh BBQ had some good ratings so we decided to check it out. Although the staff spoke minimal English, they were still extremely helpful and friendly. We ordered a seafood hotpot without really knowing what we were getting. They brought over a portable cook stove and not long after a pot of broth with some vegetables in it. The broth was delicious and spicy. Next a plate of an assortment of seafood and another plate of different types of vegetables. You then start putting all the stuff you want into the broth to cook. Its a lot of fun to do and very delicious. We were glad to have tried it and for only 20$ including drinks, it was very reasonably priced.
DAY 8 — Ðông Hói to Huè
Considering it was a total of 180kms, the longest so far, it was a pretty cool day! We had read in another blog to take the QL15 instead of highway 1 which is a nice break. A quieter road with much less heavy traffic. Not much exciting to write about this day but the weather was nice and we were beat by the time we made it to Hue.
We grabbed some food as soon as we got in around 2-3pm at Golden Rice, a highly rated restaurant on google. The food was good but a little bit more expensive than what we have been paying but Hue is a bigger more touristy city so it is expected.
It was so stinkin’ hot that we chilled out in the hotel until the sun set and the heat cooled off a bit. The Beaulieu Boutique Hotel is really nice and i definitely recommend staying here if in the area. We got an unexpected room upgrade when we arrived and ended up with a king room with a balcony over looking the busy street below.
In the evening we walked around the bustling city and grabbed some food at one of the busy restaurants. There are plenty to choose from offering Vietnamese or western dishes which can be a nice option if you’re sick of rice and noodles. If you’re like me and don’t ever get sick of that, check out the DMZ bar and have their Malaysian fried rice, so good! We enjoyed our food and people watched and headed back in to call it a night cause were old and lame.
DAY 9 — Huè to Hoi An
This was a pretty nice scenic drive! As you can see from the map, you drive through Hai Van Pass which is a short but beautiful drive though some mountains. A wonderful view overlooking the water and a perfect shot of Hoi An. Its still a fairly busy road so expect trucks, usually ones carrying farm animals (which i can never get used to) as well as lots of other tourists on the road. We stopped a few times to get some pictures, chat up a couple people and continued on. Expect lots of hills with twists and turns, take your time and soak up the lush green and turquoise waters.
Coming into Hoi An is pretty hectic and somewhat intimidating. You are surrounded by hundreds of other motorbikes, shoulder to shoulder with them making it a bit crazy if you are not used to the Vietnamese style of driving yet. Luckily we have had plenty of practice up until now so it was fairly easy for us. If you’re changing lanes or making a turn, just take your time, move slowly and others will follow you, move behind you or go around. It can be somewhat scary but you just have to be confident, don’t make any sudden stops or changes in direction and go with the flow. Keep an eye out for other traffic to keep yourself safe cause there are a lot of insane drivers here in Vietnam. Every day we are cut off which i will never get used to but just expect it whenever your on the road, it makes it easier to just swerve out of the way and continue on without getting angry or worked up about it. I even had someone cut me off (not a soul behind me so he could’ve waited 2 seconds) and i had to come to a complete stop very quickly and he just laughed at me and kept going.
We had such a great time in Hoi An! Its a very busy place, bright and bustling. It reminded me a bit of Thailand’s Ko San Road, but a much more tamed version. The streets are lined with lots of little souvenir shops and locals pressuring you buy something, not as in-your-face as Ko San Road though. At night the streets are lit up like a Christmas tree with lanterns, neon bar signs and street lights. There are endless places to grab some food, check out the night market and what i was most excited about was the amount of street food carts. You can get ice cream, Thai pancakes, Bahn Mi, fruit Popsicle, tacos and rice cakes, you name it! It is a place i could easily spend a few days at for sure. Its a great place for young backpackers with a big night life and bars open until the wee hours of the morning. Make sure to try a hot and crunchy filled crepe called a Banh Xeo, a traditional dish in Hoi An filled with pork and shrimp. Absolutely delicious and it is offered at many restaurants. I have fallen in love with passion fruit juice, make sure to try that and you can never go wrong with a mix fruit shake. They’re different at every place but always so good!
DAY 10 — Hoi An to Da Nang
We took a walk through town again this morning to kill time after checking out. We can never get enough of markets and Mark is still searching for shoes and sunglasses. We stopped at Minh Hein, a highly rated vegetarian restaurant for some coffee and to escape the heat of the day. Its too bad we weren’t hungry cause the menu looked really good.
Really quick drive today back up to Da Nang to finish off the bike trip. Only about an hour total and all highway driving. Expect insane traffic and shoulder to shoulder bikes when getting into Da Nang. It is a very large bustling city and we arrived mid afternoon and the traffic was still incredibly heavy.
We got to our hotel, Aris Hotel and checked in to a pretty cute room. More like a suite with a small kitchen, washing machine and a little living room area. Did some research on places to eat and decided on a place close by that had really great reviews on western cuisine called Tam’s Pub and Surf Shop. They have a really nice vegetarian burger there and Tam is such a nice lady. You MUST try the mango smoothie, it was absolutely delicious and tastes like sorbet or ice cream. Also, you cant ignore the adorable, white, fluffy puppy hanging around either.
For a small supper we ate at Ken Ta, just around the corner from our hotel. Small place with delicious food including vegetarian options.
We plan on spending the next couple days in Da Nang and checking out ‘The Golden Bridge’ (which i highly recommend! its at an amusement park called SunWorld Ba Na Hills) and ‘Marble Mountain’, a couple big sights to hit up when in the city. But sadly the motorbike trip is over.
I wanted to sum up my feelings on the entire adventure as i felt in the beginning it was quite intimidating. Dont get me wrong, driving in Vietnam is incredibly difficult but day 10 compared to day 1, i have completely different feelings about it. Yes, you can run red lights, drive on sidewalks, cut people off, drive on the wrong side of the road but as crazy as it sounds, you get used to it. It had become the norm for us and by the end i no longer flinched at things like that, i felt more confident in my driving and just ‘going with the flow’. This made the drive much more enjoyable and i would not hesitate to rent another scooter for a long distance drive again in Vietnam. This is an experience of a lifetime that i will never forget.