Vietnam: Riding Like a Local

Vietnam Motorcycle Trip
For a long time, it was difficult for foreigners to travel to Vietnam. That has changed. The north of the country is still a very remote, but very much worthwhile destination.

Traffic in Asian cities is not for the fainthearted, and Hanoi is no exception. After a couple of days, though, we begin to understand the unusual traffic that’s somewhere between Zen and anarchy. Written rules are either nonexistent or neglected. You could sum it up like this: if you have a goal (like doing a U-turn on a busy intersection) go for it in a very deliberate manner. Hesitation results in failure and, most likely, chaos. On the other hand, if somebody wants to do a U-turn in front of you against all of Western society’s common rules, don’t try to enforce your putative right. Otherwise it’ll just be chaos again. Make some room for them instead. That would be the Zen part that we’re about to witness.

Vietnam Motorcycle Trip
Guardrails in the Dong Van Highlands are painted for a reason. The sheer drops seem almost endless.

Armed with these pieces of wisdom, my friend Michiel and I start on National Route 1A (or QL1A) north out of town to head into the remote mountains of northern Vietnam. It is still an unusual shock to share the four-lane road with chickens, a bread-selling woman, diesel fume-spewing trucks, and kids on e-scooters on the way to school. As if that isn’t crazy enough already, some miles farther the same amount of traffic is forced onto two lanes. Construction traffic from a parallel site doesn’t make things any easier. We are on the main trade route toward China, which explains the abundance of people and vehicles.

After a couple of hours of craziness, we turn off and escape the traffic toward the peak of Mount Mau Son at 5,200 feet. It feels like we’ve entered a movie from the ‘60s. Luxury hotels covered in thick patina, often with only the facade remaining, compete with old fortresses from the time of French occupation. On a clear day, the 360-degree views will stretch far into China, the reason all the construction was done up here.

A typical homestay meal consists of many different vegetable and meat dishes, all served on rice mats on the floor. The moonshine is for digestion and works against back aches.

Dinner on a Wooden Floor

After yesterday’s main road mayhem, our route today reveals only sheer beauty. Leaving the China route’s traffic, we see for the first time those typical Asian mountains that look like Sugarloaf Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. Looking as if straight from ancient myths, they rise out of the morning mist. Fishermen stake their boats across lakes, while bamboo forests line the road. After a relaxed day of riding, some excitement waits for us at Ba Be Lake, our stop for the night. Like a black pearl, it hides in the jungle-covered mountains.

Vietnam Motorcycle Trip
My friend Michiel meets local fellow riders. Vietnam has a fast-growing economy, meaning more and more people are able to travel.

To reach the shore, we have to go down a wet and slippery dirt road. The village where we want to stay overnight is located on the other side of the lake. But there is no road. The lightweight Yamaha 125s become a huge advantage, because we can take them onto the small wooden boats. The steep approach to the waterline alone would have been tricky on a larger dual sport bike. And then there’s the ramp onto the boat—a thin wooden board that would have brought bigger bikes in contact with the water. With our little ones, it only bends a bit.