The smell of the ocean mixes with dragonfruit blossoms and lingers in the salty, humid air. The weather is perfect, the warm wind brushes my face as the road meanders along the coast. Approaching the next in a series of what seems like a hundred corners along the coast, I gear down and lean into my turn. The chorus of a great song kicks in as I accelerate out of the corner and quickly lean the other direction to catch the next turn, my knees nearly touching the ground and the speedometer climbing with the tempo of the music. For me, this is living. This is what it feels like to truly be alive.
Before my plans came together for a year of travel, the one thing I knew for certain is that it would involve riding a motorcycle. My dad bought me my first bike when I was 13, an old Kawasaki that I rode around our rural sub division delivering news papers and causing trouble. I can’t remember a time that I haven’t had a motorcycle. From sport bikes to cruisers, even a dirt bike for a while, I’ve had 5 or 6 different bikes and ridden many others in various countries throughout my travels. Riding has been a part of my life for a long time.
When you tell someone that you’re about to spend a couple of months travelling through Vietnam on a motorcycle their first reaction is to look at you as though you’re insane. You’ve lost it, gone crazy, have a death wish or are completely out of your head. “Have you seen the roads there? You’ll get killed!”, “You know it’s illegal for foreigners to drive there, right?”, or the most common: “I was there for a couple of weeks and they have busses that go everywhere, why would you risk your life?!”
After spending the last month riding around Saigon (now known as Ho Chi Minh) and through the Mekong Delta I can confirm that yes, traffic here is crazy. Of all the places I’ve been, Vietnam is home to the worst, most ignorant drivers on the planet – and I’m from Alberta, so that’s saying something. That said, the majority of the serious accidents we’ve witnessed the aftermath of here were caused by and involved the busses. The odd time you do see the police here, they’ve got a big red bus pulled over. People get injured or killed driving in cars and busses in Vietnam all the time. The first two days I spent riding here were an eye opener, but once you understand how traffic flows it’s very easy to ride. In fact, I think it’s much easier and much safer to transport yourself on a motorcycle than it is to rely on someone else’s weak driving skills. To get a license for driving a bus here, one requires a pulse and little more.
Anyone that learned to drive in the Western World and has a bit of common sense about them should be able to drive here – you just have to pay attention, because the Vietnamese do not. At all. Ever. They turn out onto a major highway without even looking, while holding a baby without a helmet. You’re expected to watch for them, and not the other way around. People honk to let you know they are about to pass, not because you’ve done something wrong. The rule of the road here, as elsewhere in the developing world, is that he who is larger has the right of way. Pay attention and follow that rule, you’ll be fine. As to the legality of riding here – I wouldn’t encourage anyone to break the law, but I’ve ridden for a month with no issue. The police in general are corrupt here and if they give you a hard time you just pay them off. If you have a go pro on your helmet they will leave you alone. There are hundreds of other back packers doing the same journey that we are, some of them we’ve run into several times along the way. No one has had any serious issues apart from having to pay a couple hundred thousand dong (less than $20CAD) in bribes.
We started our adventure in Ho Chi Minh city, and chose an outfit called Tigit Motorbikes based on the reviews of other travellers. Skip to the end to read more about acquiring a bike in Vietnam. After a few days of touring around Saigon to the various markets, picking up some riding and camping gear and enjoying the wonderful street food while we became acquainted with traffic it was time to head South, toward Phu Quoc Island for some much needed escape from the chaos and some beach time.
Tom over at the Vietnam Coracle blog has been an incredible resource for information throughout our trip and we followed his guide to riding to Phu Quoc as it took us on some wonderful back roads and away from busy highways for the duration of the journey. Following Tom’s advice, we left Saigon early in the morning to avoid the traffic and dust caused by large trucks heading out of the city. We spent the entire day riding, nearly 10 hours, through the beautiful Vietnamese countryside or as the Mekong Delta is known “the Grocery Basket of Vietnam.” Through fields of rice dotted with Cranes looking for their next meal, passed orchards of fragrant Pineapple, along ditches filled with Banana trees, through villages with kids yelling “Hello! What yo name?!” and “Oh Canada!” at the sight of my flag flying proudly behind me. We stopped at small street food stands with hammocks hanging between trees and off building frames next to quiet Lotus ponds where we ate Bun Thit Nuong (rice vermicelli with grilled pork, fresh vegetables and sometimes if you are lucky a home made spring roll) and drank the local Saigon beer (Saigon Green being my favourite, incidentally) or the incredible strong Vietnamese coffee – Cà Phê Den Nong (Iced black coffee) or if you are the sweet tooth type Cà Phê Sua Da which is the same coffee but sweetened with condensed milk. More on Vietnamese coffee in my next post which covers our visit to Dalat and the worlds most expensive coffee.
A stop we made along the way that was notable and shouldn’t be missed was in Ba Chuc, Vietnam. On April 18, 1978 the Khmer Rouge crossed the border from Cambodia in the nondescript village of Ba Chuc just 4 miles away. They brutally murdered all but a couple of villagers, men, women and children. Today, in the midst of this town there is a part memorial, part Buddhist temple that acts a sombre reminder of the horrors of war. Inside the temple the remains of every person killed are on display. It’s a quiet, sad, and sobering place to gain some perspective on what it’s like to be Vietnamese, and what it’s like to live through constant violence. In Ho Chi Minh you can visit the war remnants museum, which is also very sombre but it’s not like this place. Something about the Ba Chuc memorial is haunting, like this crime against humanity just happened last week. We spent a significant amount of time here, more than
expected. I walked around the grounds a few times, with our unofficial guides (a group of playful kids from the neighbourhood that saw us drive into town and followed us around) pointing and trying to explain as best they could with limited english what we were seeing. We sat by the lotus pond for a while and contemplated this sight, and current political events that will some day lead to more sights like this. While very sad, it’s something everyone should see.
As our legs tired and our tail bones felt numb from hours of riding, we arrived at our first ferry. We rode into a crowd of bikes boarding a small boat on the Mekong river. As we parked our bikes we found ourselves surrounded by locals taking pictures and trying to speak a few words of English. In this part of the country, foreign tourists are a rare sight. Most take a bus from Saigon to Chau Doc, our home for the night. We endured the quick 10 minute ride up and across the river while posing next to our bikes for pictures, feeling strange about the whole situation but smiling never the less. Riding for a while longer we arrived at one more quick ferry that shuttled us straight into the heart of Chau Doc. We booked a hotel last minute on booking.com, checked in, showered the very visible dirt from our skin and headed to the “world famous” Victoria hotel for dinner beside the Mekong river before strolling around the night market and turning in.
Up early again we headed for the port town of Ha Tien, riding through more rice paddies and Banana tree groves until we reached the blue water of the Gulf of Thailand. Ha Tien was a quick ride from Chau Doc and we spent the rest of the day exploring the area and chatting with ex pats about the best way to get our bikes to the island. There is a quick ferry that will take smaller bikes, but as I opted for a larger dirt bike it would be too large to take on board and so we had to take the vehicle ferry. This three hour journey turned out to be quite comfortable. My experience with ferries in other Asian countries has been interesting, sharing seats with ducks, chickens and goats, urinating off the side of the boat, even watching a Philippine truck driver scrape his roof on the ceiling of the ferry without anyone batting an eye. This experience was far more comfortable with a below deck restaurant that served us noodles and coffee in a quiet and air conditioned cabin while we chatted with other travellers and passed the time. Soon the water turned a much nicer colour of blue and green as we travelled away from the pollution of the main land and toward the island.
Arriving on the island we drove away from the ferry terminal and down a dusty red clay road until we reached a roundabout that put us on a brand new, freshly paved four lane highway. This new highway touches most of Phu Quoc, and there isn’t nearly enough traffic to justify it. Absolutely perfect for motorcycle rider. Twists, turns, fresh air, no traffic and finally a chance to use fifth gear. We ended up riding this entire highway three times because it was so fun. The main town on Phu Quoc is called Duong Duong. We stayed at the Mango Resort and Residences where a bungalow with breakfast was less than $30CAD per night and the location was perfect. A quick walk to the beach, and good restaurants near by. We ended up extending our stay on Phu Quoc to explore it more, and if you go I would suggest doing at least 4 days, maybe even 5 if you’re a beach bum. Duong Duong is home to “long beach” where you can go spend a day on a lounger drinking cocktails in between swim and tan breaks all day long. If you have the budget to stay at a nice resort on the water, you’re good to go – think Mexico all inclusives. If you are on a backpacker budget like me, stay away from the beach and just walk down. If you buy a drink or two at any of the beach bars you are welcome to use a lounger. Some places charge extra for it, but just ask. When you tire of the main beach, rent a bike if you don’t already have one and explore the island. The Pepper Farm was a highlight for me, it’s a nice quiet retreat where you can rent a bungalow, camp, or do a working farm stay. Sadly I didn’t visit here until our last day, but if I would have I think we’d have spent a night here. The restaurant is excellent and learning how our most common spice is produced and marketed was actually pretty cool. The micro brewery on site produces great beer as well, and on my tour I was told they must keep the brewery locked up as the local monkey population has figured out how to get in and open up the large fermentation containers full of beer. They’ll break in, get drunk and cause all sorts of trouble – I’m told they are local, but based on that story I feel like maybe they made their way over from Australia!
Phu Quoc is home to numerous small fishing villages that can be visited by tour busses (lame!) or the more remote ones can be visited on bike. We rode to the far north of the island in search of quieter beaches and found the village of Rach Tram along with a large stretch of quiet, albeit dirty, beach. Walking through the village was great, people all smiling and saying hello offering you fruit from their homes, it was obvious that most tourists don’t make it out this way. Sadly, like many of the parks and beaches this one was covered in garbage. More on that below.
The best beach on Phu Quoc was called Bai Sao beach, and on your way to it consider stopping at Thein Vien Truc Lam temple which overlooks the ocean and one of the cleanest beaches I’ve seen in Vietnam. The temple is beautiful and very peaceful if you manage to visit between bus loads of selfie stick toting tourists posing for their 400th selfie of the day (If I sound jaded, it’s because I am.) Bai Sao beach is a beautiful white sand beach, and you can choose to bring a blanket and pick a spot along the beach, or opt to spend a few bucks to rent a beach bed a club paradiso. For 130,000 Dong ($9CAD) you can rent a bed for the day and chill by the water. Drinks and food are certainly more expensive here, and all over this touristic island, than elsewhere in Vietnam but still reasonable by Western standards. We enjoyed a great day lounging by the beach sipping Gin and Tonics and swimming in the clear water.
Back in Duong Duong town for the evening, there is a fantastic night market. This night market is obviously geared toward tourists, and I typically try to avoid those traps however this one was still quite fun to visit. Watch the chefs prepare monster sized lobsters over coals in front of the restaurants, or prepare snakes for grilling or soup. Enjoy various coconut related treats, or crepes with fruit and chocolate. Buy locally produced chili and lemongrass peanuts which are as tasty as they are spicy. Know that for souvenirs and clothing you are better off shopping in Ho Chi Minh, Hoi An, or Hanoi as the pricing on the island is quite inflated, but the market is still worth a visit just for the atmosphere on a warm summer evening.
With our time on Phu Quoc coming to an end, and the Lunar New Year (Tet) celebration approaching it was time to head back to Saigon. During Tet the entire country shuts down for 7-10 days, and travelling during this time is difficult. We took the ferry back to Ha Tien and rode to Rach Gia for a night. Our plan was to ride further, to My Tho, but plans often change in Vietnam and this time it was due to torrential downpours that caught us out of no where. It was during this ride that the true kindness of the rural Vietnamese really showed. During the first downpour we stopped on the side of the highway, and it had been a very long day. I was a cranky man. I stood there, letting the rain soak into me, absorbing the idea that our plans were about to change and I did not feel like being flexible. I looked up at the sky with my eyes closed, and if I’m being honest I really just wanted to shout out a few obscenities very loudly… suddenly a voice calling from the ditch below invited us in to a restaurant that wasn’t visible from the road. We rode in, where the owner moved tables so we could bring our bikes and gear in from the rain. We bought water, put on dry clothes and waited out the storm. Further along the road it hit again, this time in a small town where we could see no cover. I drove up onto a sidewalk toward a large tree for at least a small amount of shelter, when a lady in a pharmacy came running out and invited us in. I thought that to be courteous we should buy something and found a container of nuts to buy. Before I could even buy them she was pouring us tea and serving us coconut and nuts. Her husband came downstairs and it turned out he spoke English. We spent half an hour with them waiting on the rain, and they wouldn’t accept our money. Our experiences with the Vietnamese people throughout this trip have not always been positive, but in rural Vietnam, especially the Mekong Delta, the people were so warm, kind and generous that it left a very positive mark I will not soon forget.
We arrived safely back in Saigon the day before Tet and ended up staying for 5 days. We’d already seen most of what we wanted to in the city, and very little was open during this time. If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam I would encourage you not to come over the Lunar New Year. If you have hosts or family here to join, I’m sure it’s a great time, but for tourists you will likely find yourself visiting the same expat owned backpacker bar every night with people feeling “stuck” during the holiday. We did enjoy the flower street celebration and the lights and decorations that covered the entire city, a very beautiful sight to behold. Some restaurants and coffee shops remained open and most hotels. The backpacker district was almost fully open, so there was always something to do but all in all it was a fairly quiet time for us to recharge our batteries before heading North on the next leg of our journey into Central Vietnam where my blog will continue.
Tips and Observations:
- Don’t plan on coming to Vietnam during Tet (Lunar New Year) unless you have a host family. It’s difficult to travel, things are more expensive, and most things are closed.
- Don’t bother booking hotels in advance. There are so many of them, and you’ll get a better rate if you check the hotels out on booking.com or agoda.com and then just go to the hotel and negotiate a rate. Typically 10-20% below the online rate, and the hotel is usually grateful to not have to pay a commission to the online agency.
- Use Uber in big cities, you’ll avoid taxi scams and it works very well especially in Ho Chi Minh. It’s also very cheap.
- Don’t miss the Ben Thanh market in Saigon, bargain hard. Start at half of what they tell you the price is.
- Big C Market is a traditional super market and you’ll find some of the western foods you might crave if you need.
- Take Dukorol before you come, and bring Pepto Bismol. Enough said there.
- The “lunch lady” of Anthony Bourdain fame that everyone comes to see is over rated – instead, visit random street food stalls near the Ben Thanh market for fantastic Bahn Mi sandwiches, Bun Cha, and Pho. Try some new things, the food here is amazing, and quite good for you.
- If you decide to ride a bike:
- Google maps works well here, best if you have headphones in for turn by turn navigation.
- Helmets are of varying quality, feel yours over very well and make sure the straps are on well. My first helmet came apart in three days. In theory, you don’t have to wear one – I’ve watched a number of much younger backpackers blast by me driving way too fast and not wearing a helmet. You aren’t invincible and if you’re looking to test that theory out, this is the place to find out. Medical care in Vietnam is lacking, and this is the last place you want to deal with brain swelling – wear your helmet.
- Pay attention to your surroundings, especially in cities and towns. Huge pot holes are all over the place that will send you flying, people will turn out in front of you regardless of your speed without looking, and for the love of dog make sure that you watch out for the busses, especially the Red ones.
- Stay off of highway 1 if you can. It’s too busy and there are too many busses. It’s not a fun ride and you’ll miss so much just to save a few minutes.
- Check out Vietnam Coracle for loads of great information and the best routes.
- Be confident. If you’re scared and shaky this isn’t the place to learn how to ride, take a lesson first.
- The speed limit is generally 60 everywhere, most Vietnamese drive 30-50 so even though traffic is chaotic I don’t think it’s really quite as dangerous as people make it out to be.
- Wear a Go Pro, if you get stopped by police it will make the interaction quick and relatively painless. We’ve passed several police check points with Go Pro’s on and haven’t been pulled over where other tourists have.
- If you’re asked for a “fine” to be paid directly to the police, it’s no more than 200K Dong – you’ll have to stand your ground on this. This advice direct from the Motorcycle company we bought from and lines up with what other tourists that had to give bribes told us.
- Tigit Motorcycles is a great outfit to rent from, or if you’re here a little longer you can do as we did and use their “guaranteed buyback” program. It’s essentially a rental, but you own the bike and receive the registration allowing you to cross borders if you’d like. My Honda XR 150 will cost around $400USD for a couple of months use.
- Mechanics and tire repair shops are everywhere, if you run into a problem just start pushing the bike. It will not be long before someone stops to point you in the right direction. Yes, you’ll pay more and that person will get a commission for bringing you in but when you get the bill you’ll still be astonished by how cheap it is.
- Sadly, Vietnam is a pretty dirty place. Sanitation is a problem, and garbage is everywhere. Washing up on beaches, floating the oceans, all over national parks – it’s everywhere. They have a real problem with education here, and it’s super common to see someone finish a drink on their motorcycle and then just toss the bottle behind them on the highway. We watched busses just dump the garbage can straight out onto the highway causing people to swerve and dodge garbage. Vietnam is the dirtiest country I’ve ever been to, and it’s sad because without the filth it could easily be the most beautiful.
- Don’t let this deter you, it’s part of visiting the developing world and you’re going to see it any most other Asian countries – but be prepared for it. I thought I was prepared for it from my previous travels but it really caught me off guard. I wasn’t prepared for how bad it was – it makes taking pictures difficult, and many of the shots you see in this blog entry have had pieces of refuse photo shopped out. Hopefully as more people travel to Vietnam and write about this problem, the Vietnamese government will realize that they have to get this situation under control and educate people about the environment.