Vietnam Bike Tour: Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Day 1)

Day: 01Screenshot from 2014-05-31 21:53:03
Distance: 169km
Origin: Hanoi
Endpoint: Mai Chao
Today’s Author: Zach
Left Hanoi for first day’s ride.  Some pretty photos, and Felix has a crash.
Screenshot from 2014-05-31 21:53:10
About 170km on day one. Mostly on highway and up/over a mountain.


Felix and I got up fairly early with the intention of getting on the road before lunch. We met a friend of Felix’s that he knew from his Wharton MBA program at a fancy breakfast cafe. The cafe was really rather nice by any standard and was still reasonably priced. I think we all ate perhaps a bit too much — sadly we forgot pictures of that meal. Just imagine a giant fruit salad, an egg sandwich thing and smoothies.

The one piece of riding gear we couldn’t get from the rental place was gloves for me. So, we set out to try and find proper motorcycle gloves for sale in Hanoi. Turns out there is one motorcycle gear shop pretty much in the whole city, even though the interwebs told us there were two — the first one only sold snow gloves. With the help of Felix’s friend (a native Vietnamese) we found the shop and got some gloves — I paid an american price for them, but safety’s worth it!

The bikes all saddled up for the first time!

Alright, no more lollygagging, time to get on the road! We packed up the room and took all our stuff downstairs (it took three trips in the elevator, with saddle bags etc.) and got ready to load up the bikes. The first time we put all our gear on it was around noon. In the sun. In front of the hotel. Strapping down bags. Sweating buckets. It took us about twenty minutes to finally get it all secure and roped up; hopefully we get better at this! We then went back inside to the AC to look at the map and plan our day 1 trip one last time.


We figured trying to follow any real preset route to get out of the city would be hopeless, so we set off heading vaguely in the direction of the highway (south east). Turns out this was a pretty good strategy and we ended up doing pretty well and got remarkably close to the highway when we stopped to check the GPS. Felix and I both have years of motorcycle riding experience and didn’t have any trouble blending into the unashamedly chaotic streets of Hanoi, though for a novice I can imagine it would’ve been way too much. I can only describe the experience as organic; unmolested by the vampiric fun-hating health and safety people that would dare to add rules to a traffic system. Street lines? None of those. Traffic lights? We found maybe two of them. And, I’m going to get flak for this I know, but I feel like the system works rather well. There are millions of motorbikes on the street, and I’m certain in the city there are hundreds of accidents a day, but since in the city everybody is doing maybe 10-15mph max at all times, they’re all extremely minor. And the upside is there is almost no standing still, traffic flows rather well and you get where you’re going quickly. Even for the full size cars, they’re almost never standing still and can make their way through pretty well, though admittedly there are not many four wheeled vehicles in the city.

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I lost my first pair of $2 sunglasses. Picked up a new $2 pair on the way out of Hanoi.

It took us about 45 minutes to get out of the major city area, though we never really left civilization. All along the roads there were buildings or huts of some sort. People living in some way most of the way. About 30 mins out of Hanoi we stopped in some shade to get water. We bought a pineapple from a vendor (which is really a charitable description of what this was) which we watched them cut up right infront of us. $1 for 2 pineapples! A great road snack.

A lady cutting up a fresh pineapple for us. This is the entire extent of her store. We’re maybe 30 miles outside Hanoi, and he only civilization (if you can call it that) is this one road.

After our short water/pineapple break we got back underway. We used a bit of a “stop and go” navigation technique. We’de ride for maybe 45 minutes or so, or until we hit a major fork in the road, and check GPS there. Look at what the next few turns where and then keep riding until we forgot what the turns were. Check GPS again, rinse and repeat. Seemed to work fairly well all in all.  On some of our stops we simply had to stop and take photos.

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All along the road, there were many obstacles. Trucks trying to overtake each other forcing traffic off onto the side of the road, cows crossing the road, children in the road playing badminton, more cows crossing the road, people with crazy stuff on their bikes taking up more than a whole lane’s width etc.

Unfortunately this picture came from Google Images, as we didn’t actually have a camera mounted on the bikes. But it’s fairly accurate.

As we continued on, there continued to be people living pretty much all along the main road so far. We found a really gorgeous clearing somewhere around 5PM. Took a bunch of photos. Even there though, there were locals nearby. Everybody knows the word “hello” even little Vietnamese children!

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Kids by the side of the road that knew “Hello”. Literally in the middle of nowhere Vietnam countryside.

We kept going, though now we were somewhat racing the sun. Felix didn’t want to ride in the dark, which is understandable. I was in the lead and was going at a fairly good pace. Went up a big mountain for some of the best riding I’ve ever had. Stellar views, well paved roads, windy twisty bits, straight bits, up bits, down bits, you name it! There is nothing like the thrill of a good ride on a motorcycle.

We got to the bottom of the mountain for our last intersection and Felix took the lead for the last 10km or so. About 2km into the stint we came across a left hand bend in the road. I guess it tightened up a bit more than expected, I had a thought myself that it was quick and I guess Felix did too. He must’ve just lost concentration for a split second and went wide, road in the gravel for a few seconds, kept it together and would’ve been fine had it not been for that stupid wooden mile marker. He hit it going maybe 25mph or so. His bike did a complete cartwheel.  Or three.  Felix super-manned over the handlebars and tumbled into a ditch, ending up on his back.

I parked and got off my bike as fast as I could without also falling over. He was moaning, so definitely not dead. That’s a good sign. I got his helmet off as quickly as I could, had him move all his limbs. No problems so far. He was calming down a bit, I made sure for him to not move. After a minute or so he calmed down and it was clear there were no serious injuries. So, I took that opportunity to take a photo. He promptly gave me the finger. After another minute or two I helped him up, and he could stand no problem.. Yay for high quality safety gear!

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He’s clearly in intense agony.

So, now for the bike. It was about halfway into the ditch, thankfully it stopped well short of landing on top of Felix. With the help of a local we managed to get it out of the ditch for an inspection. Bent clutch pedal, broken luggage rack, bent wheel. It did start up just fine though.

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This guy is just awesome.
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Bit of a ragid shop.









The local guy that helped us pull the bike from the ditch gave us a lift to a local mechanic shop.   I guess shop is the right word for it, more like flat area with some tools. There they fixed the clutch and luggage rack with some of the most clever mechanical techniques I’ve ever seen.They even gave unbending the wheel a solid effort, but ultimately it wasn’t going to happen. The dudes were really amazing, incredibly kind and unbelievably clever as mechanics. Much better than me or anybody else I’ve ever seen work on a vehicle. We called the bike rental place and they arranged for a wheel to be sent down to arrive the next day. Not so bad for middle of nowhere Vietnam!

From there we paid the mechanics, what we found out was a fairly generous amount (10$), and limped the bike the last 7km to the home stay. Glad just to no longer be riding and to have arrived safely, we dropped our stuff and were about to go to bed when we realized we were both starving and hadn’t had lunch or dinner. The home stay made us a MAMOUTH home cooked dinner. 5 peoples worth of food for 2 people. It was delicious, but also hugely wasteful.

The room itself is basically just a bamboo hut. Kind’ve a nifty place to stay really. I almost didn’t mind the lack of AC. Almost.  We both passed out sometime north of midnight looking forward to fixing the bike and getting on the road again for day 2!

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