The trembling, high whine of a wide open 110cc engine and a gearbox hell-bent on throwing me over the handlebars were pleasant companions along the Vietnamese shoreline, heading north towards more adventures.
I was liberated. Back amongst the frondular foliage and fractal ferns, adorning the sea cliffs like the tiered audience at a theatre, rapt, watching the sea. It was a whole different world to Nha Trang’s sky scrapers – the legs of giants through which pedestrians and vehicles wove in ant-like procession. Here the beach had reclaimed the sands from oil-slick Russians, slithering around on their sun beds. A broken, rocky shore invites only solace through solitude – and maybe pirates.
The route was mapped out for the next six hundred kilometers. While not without interest itself, the old fortified city of Huế (Hway) was simply at the other end of an iconic road. The Hải Vân “ocean cloud” Pass – immortalised forever by the ridiculous Top Gear trio many moons ago. Ask any gaggle of Honda-Win riding foreigners about their route and it is never overlooked. I allowed myself to build a little anticipation…
But six hundred kilometers were still dusted with interest. My late start from Nha Trang meant I could only take two hundred clicks off the tally, which is enough to justify another, increasingly frequent, trip to a local mechanic for some basic maintenance. The highways had relented to narrow but pristine roads coiling up the mountainside and teeming with cyclists going the wrong way, sweating in the dull grey evening light. After plunging down to timid little city streets, narrow with white walls and small mosaics patterned onto posts, I eventually found my hostel – a trendy little haunt in Qui Nhơn. Compared to Nha Trang, this sleepy city was welcomingly deserted – only a handful of cars and bicycles painted their little lights along the arrow straight road to the beach.
Following a good nights rest I continued tracing an interesting line along the Vietnamese coastline happy with the slower progress, when I uncovered an unusual and as yet unexplained phenomenon. Around one hundred kilometers south of Hội An, a UNESCO heritage old trading port, the red sand that bordered the road in all directions started to turn white, at first in veins and then in entirety. As the floor fell white-hot, glinting in the midday sun, burial mounds, tombs and intricate mausoleums flecked up alongside. I wanted to stop and taste it, you know – to see whether it was indeed salt, but graveyard salt was a different matter. Being a stupid foreigner means I’m probably more likely to anger the dead by licking their burial salt – last thing I want to string along are chemically dried asian zombies… I slipped through the salt flats and back amongst the rice paddies, following a rough, raised concrete road to Hội An, where I discovered the night’s accommodation was a sixty bedroom party hostel, with a compliment of early twenties dregs you might expect on a low-budget TOWIE lounging around the outdoor pool. I was a little uncomfortable – I’m a fucking adventurer man, I don’t lounge chatting about “Chastity’s new boyfriend or, like, whatever“. I’d just eaten zombie salt. (You heard it. I actually couldn’t help tasting the white sand).
Despite my chode hostel Hội An, in particular the old quarter with waterways, ornate bridges and hodgepodge buildings from different eras, was actually really beautiful. It bristled with tourism but somehow remained chaotic and local – the squawking of enclosed markets and sweaty shoppers beading about their business. An untold number of tailors, all offering bespoke suits to order, lined the streets, mostly fashioning some bizarre requests for groups of English lads with too much money (the TopGear blokes had vivid neon suits tailored here for their assault on Hải Vân). I contented myself with walking about, enjoyed watching the array of coloured lamps bought out for a night festival and an accidental night out with my comparably cynical room-mates.
Da Nang was my last stop before reaching the Hải Vân pass. A little more relaxed but born of the same big city vibes as Nha Trang, the marble mountains nearby give a surprisingly impressive viewpoint – all modern blocks and grids, with the ocean lapping at the beach to the West. Deeper, cavernous rooms are carved into the marble and limestone, concealing hidden temples lit with heady layers of incense. I jumped back on the bike for some wind, the humid air stifling hot in my jeans and armour, and spent the afternoon exploring other nearby viewpoints and the carving turns of a coastal road, swinging above a long drop into the ocean. I got back to the city with just enough time to catch the dragon bridge’s show. Held every weekend at 9pm, the bridge is closed to all traffic as it spews light, fire and water over the excitable crowd. It was ok – not the most impressive – unless you were already hammered from afternoon drinking, as many in the crowd certainly were.
I’d made some adaptations to my riding rig before beer and bed got the better of me. Rucksack, emptied of all but necessities, on my back. Camera bag slung over my right shoulder, hanging at my left hip. Lens bag dangling nearby with my GoPro tied onto one of the straps. There was no denying I was equipped for photography – and it looked awesome snuggled against my alpinestar motox gear. Dead professional!
Unfortunately, after only half an hours riding from Da Nang, I’d already reached the top of Hải Vân pass and hadn’t got my camera out once. The road wasn’t especially impressive, so I kept waiting for that perfect moment or perfect angle to shoot a quality photograph. Then I was at the top in a car park.
It would have been obvious to anyone looking, as I craned my head to glance over each shoulder, that I was hit by a colossal “Was that it?“.
It was it. And it barely registered on my good road scale… Never believe the BBC.
Having raced my way up, I walked around for a bit, took an ice coffee and proffered cigarette at a nearby tourist cafe, explored some of the smaller tracks leading through the jungle and finally started riding down at a much more casual pace. It was very much the same scenery – small villages bordering the highway, with the sea and cliffs occasionally breaking out and carving back into civilization – wash, rinse, repeat. Huế was just another big city – and, coming to terms with flatly rejecting the recommendations from other tourists, I made no effort to explore its old fortress walls or abandoned water park. I had no more energy to be disappointed after Hải Vân. I’d fall back, as I always did, to the ride. Getting away from the tourist laden highway and into the deeper inland, entombed by jungle, following the parallel Ho Chi Minh trail ever further North. When in the neighbourhood…
The decision didn’t disappoint. The Ho Chi Minh wasn’t any more primal, undeveloped or reclaimed by nature – it was as perfectly surfaced as the highway – it was just inexplicably barren. I would ride for a whole, drawn-out day – relishing every crest that revealed the emerald rivers tickling the valley floor above the canopy for a few seconds, before the maws of green closed overhead and clamoured with jungle life – and I would only encounter two other foreigners. I would stop with locals, drink coffee with locals, eat big bowls of Phở made with thin slices of Beef (hopefully..) with locals while some bought over their kids to say hello. Verbal communication basically didn’t exist, but they and I were happy. It felt like Vietnam again.
Then the landscape began to alter. Martian monoliths, granite crystals growing from flat rice fields, appeared, draped in scraggly vegetation that upon closer examination were actually fully grown trees. A brand new road rose from the rice and teased out its passage between these giant rock gardens towards Phong Nha, a broad spanning national park that encompasses some of the largest cave networks in the world. In fact Hang Son Doong, the world’s largest cave with its own jungle, river and ecosystem, is in Phong Nha, although expedition slots are booked up for the next few years and cost over £6000 for just a few days inside. It would have been a bit of a dent in the budget… so I satisfied myself with a day-long tourism package that included a swim in some mineral-rich mud baths (you float!) and kayaking.
Phong Nha, while another pinprick on the tourist map of Vietnam, also shrugged off the type of travellers only interested in the beach and maintained an air of authenticity. The national park is home to some of the most incredible jungles and wildlife I’d ever experienced, so it would be a shame to totally sell-out as most coastal cities had.
After glorious, sticky weather for my entire stay in Vietnam, the heavens opened as I reached Ninh Binh after a gruelling 400km stint (a long ride on a tiny seat at a tiny speed). I benched my plan to explore Ning Binh, which looked on the surface very similar to Phong Nha, as the floodgate sirens in the next valley wailed and trees splintered over in the gales. I’d wait this one out – it was not a day for riding. When the weather cleared and the days rolled into the final week on my Visa, I set out for the iconic Halong Bay – where the supposed monoliths ascend sharply from the ocean and not the jungle. I rode until the ground ran out at a run down bamboo cabin selling tickets for the next boat. Within half an hour I was disembarking onto the rickety jetty of one of these floating islands, and up onto the road etched precipitously into the rock above. This was Cát Bà – the biggest island on the archipelago.
Apart from the rocky start, the omnipresent shoreline and stunning islands out in the bay Cát Bà could have been anywhere in Vietnam. A handful of local eateries, spattering of nightclubs and expensive foreigner’s restaurrants. Happy locals and useless mechanics. Perhaps the most useless mechanics, as I supervised them attempting a clutch plate switch over four hours, often trying the wrong components that yes, would *fit*, but wouldn’t operate properly and probably blow up my engine. It was like pulling teeth, especially as I thought they left to collect the correct parts on a number of occasions only to return with some Yamaha bits and a bastard file. Usually I’m fairly generous, but the sheer time wasted meant I cut most of his labour off my bill and did not veneer over my disappointment.
One last tourist tour (I was pointedly ignoring the three day booze cruises that depart the island every morning), took me out to see another couple of islands, climbing to epic viewpoints as monkeys leapt through the low canopy as vines strangled the narrow paths. I snorkelled in crystal clear waters and backflipped off boats. Kayaked through caves and visited floating fisheries; hanging out with the tour gang for food and drinks late into the night. The next morning I followed the short but steep roads to a wide basin that led to the islands second ferry port – this one being a longer, slightly more scenic way to reach the mainland and on a boat that seemed to leave the front ramp down the whole time, dredging the deck and pushing the hull deeper into the water. I could only hope this was intentional and not an incredibly obvious error on the captain’s part.
I was hauling ass to Hanoi. The ferry had taken a little longer than I’d thought and after cramming down a coffee and some food the sun was already in its golden retirement. It was in this haste I, somewhat recklessly, barreled along between lines of traffic and rushing past cars to reach the front of the queue at traffic lights. And of course, I came unstuck. Hustling a rapidly evaporating opportunity another biker bumped me shoulder to shoulder. It was barely anything – but in the game of millimeters it was enough to shunt me too close to a rolling lorry. In the blink of an eye my clutch lever, with a click, was thrown across the front of the bike and out of sight.
It wasn’t a crisis as I was already moving, but it was really inconvenient, and a real lesson in just how jerky the bike was without throttle feathering at low speeds. But hey, this is Vietnam, and within five minutes I’d found a garage with a replacement lever. Night was hanging just over the horizon when I reached Hanoi, a city that is thankfully easy to navigate, albeit I did get caught in one-way systems twenty meters away from the hostel for a while…
With only a few days left of my Vietnamese visa, I opted to stay in Hanoi rather than exploring the mountains to the North. The days of drizzling rain and nights spent reaquainting myself with a bar culture justified this plan enough, and even though I didn’t explore the fringes of the city I can safely say the rain enhanced the atmosphere here and flushed the life back into a world of sun-bleached colour. After five days, and only the night before my flight, I managed to sell my little Honda to Jas, a new friend from the hostel. I cut him a good deal, but included my helmet and my kneepads in the deal. These things had been with me for the entirety of my trip – so I felt a little sting handing them over. A playful reminder not to get attached to things unneccessarily.
Besides I wouldn’t need them. I’d had enough biking for now.
As with every country I’ve visited, I only began to appreciate my time here in the taxi to the airport. But it wasn’t a time for mourning – it was a time for sun and surfing and, ironically for a renowned party island, a detox from drink.
I was flying to Bali.