So, despite all fear and inexperience, I bought a motorcycle.
Backpackers either take overnight buses or motorbike Vietnam. And when faced with the choice, it was an
easy one obvious one. Let me be clear: I’ve never ridden a motorbike before, let alone on a long-distance trip in a foreign country. But how exciting do overnight buses sound…?
I bought a manual Honda Win 100cc. It’s the most typical motorbike backpackers buy to ride Vietnam, either Hanoi (north) to Ho Chi Minh City (south) or vice versa. And once you arrive in your destination city, you sell your bike to a fellow backpacker traveling in the opposite direction. I’ve started in Hanoi and will be riding south to Ho Chi Minh City over the next 5 weeks.
If you’re interested in doing the same, follow my journey through the country! I’ll be giving you all the details on my ride: where I’ve stayed, where I’ve stopped, and what I’ve done completely wrong.
Motorbiking Vietnam: Part I
Hanoi – Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
Duration: 4 riding days
Distance: 591 km
The safest, most scenic route to go south is the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It’s through the countryside and mountains, and therefore much less direct but more beautiful than the coastal Highway-1, full of trucks and buses with zero mercy for motorbikes.
Hanoi to Ninh Binh / Tam Coc – 100 km (61 miles)
On January 10th, I left Hanoi for Tam Coc, Vietnam. It was a bit scary setting off, on my own, on a motorbike I just learned how to drive. Hanoi is a scary city, with herds of motorbikes weaving in and out of each other through the tiny city streets.
After about 3 hours, though, I successfully made it to Tam Coc, home to giant limestone karsts towering above rice paddies. In Tam Coc, there are multiple boat landings where you can hire a row boat and guide to take you through the rice paddies and through caves. It costs about 130,000 Dong per person for entry and 150,000 Dong per boat. Go with two other people (3 person max) and split the boat fare.
There is also the Bich Dong Pagoda, just a few kilometers from town. While the pagoda itself isn’t necessarily spectacular, you can climb through caves and up to the top of the mountain with beautiful views of surrounding rice paddies.
Where to Stay
I stayed at Tam Coc Backpacker’s Hostel, which cost $7/night for a dorm room (20 beds) including breakfast. It’s one of the only hostels in Tam Coc and the staff will help you plan your visit. Many people stay just outside of Tam Coc, in the main city of Ninh Binh.
Tam Coc to Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park – 490 km
This leg of the trip was a “nightmare.” It took 3 days to get 490 km, two days of which I drove in the cold rain for hours. And as I was just getting acclimated to my bike, I broke down many, many times. Let’s just say I visited 6 different mechanics on this leg of the trip and fell off twice. But it wouldn’t be nearly as fun without a little challenge.
And on my last breakdown before the national park, a family invited me in for lunch as the mechanic fixed my bike. I enjoyed one of the most delicious meals of rice, vegetables, pork, peanuts, and fish, washed down with a little rice whiskey. Though the family spoke nearly no English, they were so kind, gracious, and welcoming. And they refused to accept any money at all. Maybe breaking down isn’t so bad!
Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park is one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam and should be on every traveler’s itinerary. It is home to caves, mountains, and a major location of the Vietnam (American) War. It’s also got the largest cave in the world, discovered in 2009, but more on that later.
Phong Nha/Dong Tien Cave – Phong Nha cave was used in Vietnam War to house ammo and supplies. The Vietnamese outsmarted the Americans by using a dinghy bridge at night to transport supplies across the river and to the south. The Americans could not see any such bridge by day, since it was stored in the cave. Dong Tien Cave is about 400 steps up from Phong Nha cave and worth the trip up, with views over the valley. To get here, charter a boat from the Son Trach tourist office on the river. It costs about 360,000 Dong per boat and 230,000 Dong entrance fee (150,000 Dong for Phong Nha Caves and 80,000 Dong for Dong Tien, about 400 steps up from Phong Nha Caves). I went with 12 other travelers, making it a bit more affordable.
Paradise Cave – Discovered in 2005, Paradise Cave is a magnificently huge cave, stretching over 31 km. Included in the 250,000 Dong entry is the first kilometer of the cave. If you book a day trek with a guide, around $100 USD, you can explore the first 3.5 km.
Dark Cave – By far, the Dark Cave is my favorite of any of the caves. First, you hipline over the river, then swim a bit, before entering the cave with a helmet and headlight. This is one of the few caves that isn’t lit up along the way, only to be explored with your own lights. You wade through water for a bit until you enter a branch of the cave that you squeeze through. It becomes more and more muddy as you venture on, until you find yourself stomach deep in a pit of mud. From there, depending on your group, a mud-fight may ensue. Be prepared.
Outside of the cave, you kayak back to the main area of the river, where there are zip lines into the water and an obstacle rope course. The Dark Cave costs 250,000 Dong for everything: guide, zipline, headlight, kayak, and obstacle course. It felt like the most adventurous of any of the caves, as you explore with your own headlight and trek through narrow passageways through mud.
Hong Son Doong – Discovered in 2009, Hong Son Doong is the largest cave in the world. However, because of it’s recent discovery, 5 day/4 night treks are only run with Oxalis Tours, and cost $3,000 USD. It is currently booked until 2017.
Pub with a Cold Beer – Just outside of town, you can relax and take in the views of mountains and rice paddies with a nice cold beer. This place was once a side of the road market, now turned popular hangout spot for travelers. If you order a chicken dish, be sure to give it time. They literally catch one of their chickens, kill it in front of you, pluck it, and cook it. True farm to table.
Where to Stay
Without a doubt, stay at Easy Tiger Hostel in Son Trach. It’s where every backpacker stays, has a good bar area to meet others, and a great staff. Every morning at 9 am, they hold a talk for all the new arrivals, discussing caves, the surrounding countryside, war history, and safety (there are still a lot of unexploded ordnances in the area). It’s $7/night for a 4-bed dorm room, but if you stay multiple nights, you may be able to negotiate a better price.
It’s only just the beginning and I’m having the time of my life. Riding a motorbike through Vietnam is both terrifying and exhilarating, especially on my own. I am proving just how brave and capable I am to myself. And when things go feel like they suck, I just remind myself that I’m riding a motorbike through Vietnam. No matter what, it’s not that bad.
- Invest in good rain gear: pants, jacket, and a good cover for your backpack.
- Xe May = Bike mechanic, Ngha Nhi = Hostel