By Brian Rix & Shirley Hardy-Rix
Original article link: http://digital.turn-page.com/i/452099/4
Below is the video of the ride on Offroad Vietnam YouTube channel.
BMW Owners News’ intrepid Australian members, Brian and Shirley, replaced their BMW 1200 GSA for a 250 cc Honda with an improvised pillion seat for an eight-day tour of northern Vietnam.
Brian. You know how these things happen. Sharing a cheap lunch with biking friends in Melbourne’s “little Vietnam” each Friday, the conversation rollicks around from bikes, life on bikes, politics and bikes, bikes and more bikes. Then it turns to bike travels and adventures. These guys live and breathe motorcycling; they’re my kind of people. They have motorcycled in Vietnam and often regaled us with stories of their adventures. After one or maybe two glasses of ‘truth serum,’ plans were being fermented for another ride in the land of the little people. Raised eyebrows greet me from the pillion in a million, guessing we’re off to ride Vietnam. She’d heard the stories of the manic drivers, bad roads and a death toll of 30 plus a day. Despite all of this she was up for it.
Shirley. We’re standing under a freeway overpass on the edge of the old centre of Hanoi. The bikes are all there. Our luggage was picked up from our hotel earlier this morning. There are 19 bikes in all, and we’re creating a great deal of attention. In the past couple of days I’ve spent a lot of time checking out the traffic.
It’s manic. The advice from our guides is simple: just go with the flow. Treat it like a river. There don’t seem to be any rules, but we haven’t seen any major pileups either. I’m nervous as we ride into the traffic, but all goes well. Before we know it, we’re on the outskirts of the city, and the magnificent countryside opens up. Vietnam is a beautiful country. We’re heading north, into the mountains. It is winter so the rice has been harvested, but the rice paddies are still a sight to behold. We cruise alongside rivers, through tiny villages where the kids wave and run alongside, delighted to see us. The Vietnamese people are so friendly. We never feel intimidated or threatened.
Brian. The infrastructure is certainly not what we’re used to in Australia or the U.S. There are plenty of potholes to be avoided, narrow ribbons of tarmac that taper off to rocky edges that are best avoided. The trucks do tend to travel on your side of the road, and everyone overtakes when it suits them rather than when it is safe. The motorcycle horn is probably as important as the brakes!
The XR 250 doesn’t have great suspension and some of the unavoidable potholes are bone jarring. Shirley’s a trooper though and never takes up the opportunity for a sit in the support vehicle for a few hours. It’s amazing how much better you feel at the end of the day after a hot shower and a cold beer! Riding, you need to keep your wits about you, but while saying that, we never travel very fast. The bikes won’t do it. The roads and traffic won’t allow it. So even piloting the bike, I get to enjoy the countryside. Our guides make sure we take regular breaks. There’s always a ‘café’ in the tiniest village that will make a cup of tea or provide a cold can of coke for all of us. When the view is particularly spectacular they pull over so we can all take photos while getting a much needed stretch of the legs. Not all the roads are made, of course. There’s plenty of unmade tracks and some very rudimentary bridges. These bridge crossings will only take one bike at a time and are more suited to pedestrian traffic. A local sits in a hut collecting the tolls. Our guides pay for all of us to get across. The bridges are all made from bamboo, and the surface is undulating. Go too slow and the slope will push you towards the edge and a raging river too quickly, and the bucking bike could end with the same result. Most bridges don’t have side railings, but the more elevated bridges do have a railing of sorts – made of bamboo or rope. A lot of fun, particularly with a pillion.
Shirley. My heart is in my mouth when we cross our first bamboo bridge. By the third it’s not a problem. I just sit tight and let Brian do the work. When we get to the suspension bamboo bridge it’s a bit more exciting. This is certainly something we’ve never done anywhere else in the world! I’m extremely surprised by how cold it is. I never thought of Vietnam as a country that had a winter. I thought of it more as a tropical country. Up in the mountains, we miss the view at Heaven’s Gate. Sapa is shrouded in cloud, and the last 10 miles of the ride into the town the visibility is down to about three bike lengths. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Sapa is a real tourist town, and you can buy the most magnificent souvenirs here, including hand embroidered shirts and bags made by the hill tribes. The street sellers can be a little persistent, but they do take no for an answer. We see many of these talented women creating their delicate craftwork on the side of the road and in marketplaces. We visit a local market where you can buy anything from live chickens to stylish scarves made by the local women. The women come to market dressed to the nines in their traditional clothing. It’s not for the tourists. This isn’t a tourist area. We are as much on show as they are. They love having their photo taken. We always ask before we shoot and show them the result. It creates lots of laughter.
Brian. Vietnam is everything we’d hoped for and then some. While the riding was difficult in parts it was exhilarating to get to the end of the trip without dropping the bike and having my pillion still happy to get on the bike every morning.
License – Unless you are going to stay in Vietnam for more than three months, legally you can’t sit the exam and get a licence to ride. My seasoned compatriots said in typical Aussie fashion, “Don’t worry about it.” Researching the topic of licensing didn’t help much. Vietnam doesn’t recognise foreign country licenses. What about an international drivers’ license? They are not a signatory to that either. So what happens if you get pulled over? My more experienced compatriots tell me that’s never happened to them on previous trips but if it does, just pay the ‘fee’ (bribe) and “don’t worry about it.” What about an accident? Their sage advice was “don’t’ involve the police, negotiate a fee (bribe), and “don’t’ worry about it.”
The tour – We travelled with Offroad Vietnam – www.offroadvietnam.com. Our more experienced Vietnam travellers tailored the eight day trip to include some of the highlights of the north including the border with China at Loa Cai and the fascinating tourist town high in the mountains, Sapa.
The bikes – It’s virtually impossible to use anything bigger than a 250cc. Offroad Vietnam organised XR 250 cc and XR 125cc motorcycles. For those travelling two-up, like us, they fitted the 250s with the seat from a Honda Cub, bolted onto the luggage rack. It was surprisingly comfortable!
Fuel – Our guides always know when we’ll need fuel and lead us into the petrol stations. We line up and fuel up, and they pay the bill. It’s all included in the tour.
The accommodations – We stayed in three-star hotels and a ‘home stay,’ which is very popular in Vietnam. There was also one night spent in a very luxurious resort on a river. All the hotels were clean and comfortable, including the ‘home stay.’ There was free Wi-Fi and breakfast included – either the traditional Asian noodle soup or eggs.
Meals – Lunch and dinner was also included. We stopped in small villages and towns along the road and dined on fine meals of chicken, pork, spring rolls, rice and soup. There was always plenty of fresh fruit for dessert.
The guides – we had four guides, accomplished riders who knew their country and loved sharing it with visitors. They all spoke excellent English and were able to answer questions about the history and culture of Vietnam.
Support vehicle – We chose to pay extra for a support truck. It carried our luggage, allowing us to just take small day packs on the bikes. It also carried spare parts and two spare bikes. Our guides could fix just about any breakdown.
There are many more articles about motorcycling in Vietnam and you can read more by following this link