Vietnam - Top to Bottom (a motorcycle adventure through Vietnam)

By SoloSurfer, 11/01/2014 12:31:34
I love to travel. I've been lucky enough, and have worked hard enough (to give myself some credit) to have traveled quite extensively over the past 23 years. It all started when I was 17 yrs old. I took off on one of these Rotary Exchange Programs and I ended up going to Finland of all places. It was an amazing year, full of learning, experiencing a different culture, being away from my family for the first time, meeting new people, and most importantly, learning about myself and all things in between.
I love to travel. I've been lucky enough, and have worked hard enough (to give myself some credit) to have traveled quite extensively over the past 23 years. It all started when I was 17 yrs old. I took off on one of these Rotary Exchange Programs and I ended up going to Finland of all places. It was an amazing year, full of learning, experiencing a different culture, being away from my family for the first time, meeting new people, and most importantly, learning about myself and all things in between. 

This year long journey to Finland literally changed my life forever. It sparked my desire for travel. I used to keep a running tally of countries I have traveled to since this youth exchange program but I have no idea where it ended up. The formal tally of countries is within me, those experiences all locked away for me to remember and enjoy. 

This desire for travel all started before the internet age. I was a kid from British Columbia in the early 90s writing letters home for correspondence and organizing phone calls with my parents once a month. I was always excited on 'phone-call' day to chat with my parents in detail on what I had been up to, it was hard to pack it all in to a 30 minute call (we tried to keep it that tight as overseas phone calls were quite spendy at the time). As the years ticked on, when on my travels, I was able to email home to friends and family which was a much more efficient way of keeping in contact. I have a memory of being in Ecuador back in the day, 'chatting' to my parents online thinking that was so great to be able to have a 'live-chat' all the way home. I noticed a headset on the computer and remembered my parents had a microphone and speakers at home, so I decided to try a voice chat over the messaging. There I was, talking with my parents through the computer all the way from Ecuador with some obvious delays. I was thrilled. 

A few years ago, I loaded up my dual sport motorcycle, strapped my surfboard to the side, and headed on an adventure of a lifetime. I rode solo from British Columbia south to the Panama Canal and then turned around and headed back home. A zippy 20,054 km sojourn which I completed in 90 days. My Sister was always wanting me to blog my adventures. She knew that I kept extensive journals of my travels and adventures, but I never shared those experiences aside from telling them the odd story here and there via email or through a slide show upon returned home. She ended up twisting my arm enough and I decided I would blog my moto-surf-adventure for friends and family. This also turned into a Ride Report on a global motorcycle trip forum called ADV Rider. It was a great way of documenting my trip and sharing my experiences. I still wrote a trip journal and I would share this as often as I could, which ended up being about once a week, and I posted tons of pictures for friends and family on my blog and I then 'cut-copy-pasted' it right into ADV Rider. (ADVers, see my RR 'A motorcycle-surf journey through Baja, Mexico and Central America below:)

My Central America moto-mission was a soul searching trip of sorts. It was something that I needed to accomplish on my own and I succeeded, I got home in one piece with some stories to tell. I'm not too sure what I was looking for on that trip, but after about 8 months upon returning home, I'm more than certain I found it. My life has been better each and every day that I get to spend with her. I feel like the luckiest guy on the planet and at the same time, I know with life's hurtles, I truly deserve this one. So, my next motorcycle trip was bound to include Amanda. 

We just got home a few days ago from a month long motorcycle trip to Vietnam. We were in contact with family at home almost daily through social media, FaceTime, and iCloud photos uploaded daily (and efficiently). Times have definitely changed when it comes to communicating while on the road. As my sister mentioned to me the other day, it was the first adventure that she was fully able to be apart of because of these daily updates. She really enjoyed following along as did other family members and friends. Some think that constantly being wired on a trip can detract from the actual experience while being there. I would agree with this if you were online 24-7, but on this trip my better-half and I were online just enough to touch base, load some photos, have a quick chat and then turn off the devices and enjoy one another, our experience, and everything Vietnam had to offer. 

This blog will now cover our 'Vietnam - Top to Bottom' Moto Adventure through photos, stories, maps, and some videos (granted I can post them). For all of you over on ADV Rider, I also plan to 'cut-copy-paste' these blog entries onto a RR (ride report) for you to also enjoy - remember this is coming from my blog, so hopefully the format will work out and the rest.

Hope you all enjoy.

'I got a map, my passport, and I grabbed my Dong,... we are all set to go!'

Day 0 - (Travel Day) - Flights from Spokane, WA > Seattle, WA > Seoul, Korea > Hanoi, Vietnam (November 3 - 4th). 

Day 1 - Hanoi, Vietnam - Tuesday November 5th

Views from our hotel in Hanoi (Hanoi Symphony Hotel)

We had quite the long haul to get to Hanoi, but upon arrival, we both agreed that all flights went well. We flew from Spokane to Seattle on Alaskan Airlines and then with Korean Airlines to Seoul and onto Hanoi. Korean Airlines were great. We were stuck in the back of the economy section with loads of room and reasonable food. Our flight from Seattle to Seoul actually felt like a quick 10 hours which surprised us both. 

I had arranged our stay at the Hanoi Symphony Hotel before jetting over and they suggested we arrange our hotel shuttle through them as well. After extensive research online, I had also read that hotel shuttles were sometimes cheaper than a regular taxi from the Hanoi airport. For us it was a no-brainer having the peace of mind knowing that we weren't going to get ripped off or brought to another hotel with the same name (common scam in Hanoi, but easily avoided), it was well worth the $18 and 50 min ride.

We arrived to Hanoi on November 3 in the evening. After our 50 min airport shuttle, we hunkered down into our $25/night hotel room and called it a night. We were bagged from travel and wanted to get our game faces on for the following day in Hanoi. We knew that Hanoi was hectic, but I don't think either of us were fully prepared. It was absolutely nuts. 

Apparently there are about 80 million people in Vietnam. I have read that at least 1/4 of the population rides motorcycles - 20 million motorcycles! There is no doubt about it, that Vietnam is a country of motorbikes and a country to travel via motorbike. Motorbikes are the most efficient mode of transportation in this country, they are easy to acquire, cheap to fuel and easy to get fixed.

In North America we would call these bikes 'motorscooters' as they are generally 125cc or under. It is tough to own a bike over 125cc as you have to pay greater taxes and tariffs on those bikes in Vietnam. Another reason, is that the average speed that one travels is about 5 - 30 kph in and around cities, and roughly 30 - 60 kph on main roads and highways. There really aren't too many big bikes in this country as the amount of traffic and the average speeds really limits how fast you can actual go... or would WANT to go, it addition to the taxes and fees you have to pay to own and operate a big bike. 125cc works just well and fine in this country, and if you pin'it, these little bikes can rip just fine.

Our first experience crossing a busy street in Hanoi was terrifying. We were told that you had to start by slowly crossing and to keep crossing, without hesitation or stopping, otherwise you would get hit. This was tough. Our guts were telling us to stop as we had zippy scoots coming at us in each and every direction. I think at one point, I did hesitate and almost stop and this in turn almost caused a local to fall off his bike. After a few street crossings, we almost had it mastered. Keep your slow pace, keep walking, and don't stop. It works. It is surprising that in the midst of this chaos, it all seems to work. People get to where they want to go, bikes zip by going where they are going and everything flows. One thing we noticed, is when you put a car or bus in the mix, things go slightly array. These 'massive' forms of transport seem to disrupt the whole system as they are almost 'too big' for the process to work and have louder horns to create more disruption. Surprising again, even the big buses and cars get to where they need to be, although it takes them a great deal longer to sneak around.

One of our missions for our first day in Hanoi was to head to Flamingo Travel - their main office is in Hanoi where I secured our motorbike rentals for our month long adventure. I shopped around online before heading to Vietnam and I went with Flamingo based on reviews I had read from previous travelers posts and also from the vibe I got through their website in addition to email correspondence with them. I am very happy with our decision, Flamingo was excellent.

Hanoi isn't the easiest city to navigate. I was lucky enough to discover an amazing resource to navigate the city: my new iPhone... who knew? Now, I'm a relatively tech savvy kind-of-guy, but what I didn't know were the capabilities of these phones in 'offline' mode. The phone was brand new, therefore in Canada, we can't pop the SIM card out until after x3 months or something. So, I switched my phone to airplane mode and made sure the cell and roaming buttons were clearly clicked off. I then turned the 'location services' button on and low-and-behold, by opening Google Maps in my hotel room (using WiFi), getting a clear location of where we were, then walking out of the hotel, the phone was still able to use WiFi locations and cell tower locations to pin point my location on the map while walking around Hanoi. It was brilliant and a lifesaver to get around. I plugged in Flamingo Travel, and found it very easily following my 'active' location all the way to the Flamingo Office.

Amanda in front of the Flamingo Travel office - Hanoi

I had planned our rough route through Vietnam before arrival to the country thanks to a few excellent ride reports on ADV Rider and route suggestions from Flamingo Travel based on the time we had. We knew that we were picking the bikes up in Hanoi in the north and then eventually dropping them in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC - formally Saigon) in the south, thus traveling 'top to bottom' or north to south. We arranged through Flamingo to put the bikes on the train back to Hanoi and we would then fly back up north.

I followed a very detailed Ride Report last year thanks to Stan and his son Zach who did a lengthy moto trip through Vietnam. I emailed him through ADV Rider and asked for some advice and suggestions. One of the things Stan mentioned was to pick up this map book once in Hanoi (see picture below). This map was invaluable. For anyone who is going to travel via the roads in Vietnam in whatever capacity,... motorcycle, car, donkey, walking, this is the map book to have: (Thanks again Stan!) I didn't even open the other two maps I had bought in Canada before leaving.

We weren't set to pick the bikes up for x4 more days as we had planned to head to Ha Long Bay first, but we were told to drop by the Flamingo Office upon arrival to get a few things sorted such as deposits on the bikes etc. We decided not to bring our bulky helmets from Canada, so once at the office, they wanted to fit us with helmets (which were included in the price of the bikes) therefore we'd be all set to go early Saturday morning - our day of departure on the motos. After seeing their selection of helmets, we decided to venture out on our own and purchase a couple of our liking that fit us well. The office staff were excellent in providing us with directions to the motorcycle shop area of Hanoi and in particular the 'helmet street'. We caught a cab there, shopped around for an hour and found our helmets of choice which was tough with the variety available. We paid $35 for both ($20/$15) and were very happy with our decisions having a good fit and more coverage than most of the others we had looked at.

Looked cool - didn't buy this one.

Hello Kitty helmet - complete with gap-in-the-back for pony tail

Mmmmmm, street meat - looks like chicken!

After dealing with our bikes, arranging details for our Saturday morning departure, and buying helmets, we were set for lunch. We stopped in at a local 'Pho' restaurant close to our hotel and had a nice, steamy bowl of 'pho ga' or rice noodle chicken soup. It was delicious.

Passed this Vespa dealership when on the search for our helmets

'Yo quiero Taco Bell!' - Well little buddy, you have a long way to go.

We both really enjoyed our first day in Hanoi. It is a bright, vibrant city with loads going on. It was easy to blow and afternoon checking out the Old Quarter and sussing things out. We were very exhausted from both the jet lag and our first day of high-test-stimulus, so we grabbed a bite for dinner at Bun Bo Nam Bo (highly rated restaurant on Trip Advisor). There we had a really tasty meal, a couple of Bia Ha Noi's (local beer brewed in Hanoi) and we ended up calling it an early night.

Monument near Hoan Kiem Lake - in Hanoi's Old Quarter

Next up... 2 night, 3 day boat cruise of Ha Long Bay and then we start on the moto-scoots! 

Stay tuned.





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