Motorbiking Vietnam: Swept Up in Spontaneity

Red arches over a roadway with blue skies and mountains in the background

Motorbiking Vietnam: Swept Up in Spontaneity

 

My plan for Vietnam never involved a motorbike.

It also didn’t involve riding that motorbike 1600 kilometers for 10 straight days with someone I had just met. 

Crashes, break downs, and wrecked itineraries – those weren’t part of the plan either. 

I wasn’t supposed to get caked in mud, freeze my ass off, or stare down a plate of dog meat in a dingy, dusty alleyway.

Nope, none of this was part of my plan. But it all happened anyway.

I was supposed to explore Vietnam’s sprawling green mountains with a backpack full of gear, a pen, and some paper. I was supposed to trek around the wilderness, pitch a tent, and write in my journal from my sleeping bag. That was my plan. Until it never happened.

So, how did I end up riding a motorbike through Vietnam on a wild and transient adventure, so far outside my comfort zone?

I followed my gut and chased a whim. I met a kindred spirit at the exact right time. I scrapped my expectations and improvised. That’s the best answer I have.

The result was 10 life-changing days of bliss, frustration, hilarity, and amazement. It was the mind-blowing trip I never saw coming.

And that’s exactly why I travel.


When You Get to a Fork in the Road, Take it

My motorbiking journey began in Hanoi. I’d been meandering its noisy streets for nearly a week and was getting quite comfortable absorbing the culture and gorging myself with delicious street food. The city’s seductive charm had won me over, but I was ready to see something new. It was time to move on.


Read: Hanoi, Vietnam: A One-Day Budget Guide


I stirred around my hostel and squinted at my computer screen as I tried to decide where to go next. I scanned through dozens of trekking blogs and travel suggestions from friends. My backpack full of camping gear was imploring me to ditch city life and hike deep into Vietnam’s more rural side.

But I was frozen with indecision. Nothing I’d brainstormed or researched had felt right. Weren’t these far-flung adventures supposed to be spontaneous and natural? I guess sometimes travel doesn’t work like that.


Man walking down railroad tracks with a beer in his hand

Cris Fisher: a hopeless travel addict

 

The Moment My Indecision Vanished

It was during a quick trip up to my hostel room when I met a fellow traveler that would change the entire course of my visit to Vietnam. As I shuffled through my belongings, I struck up a conversation with a middle aged British man sporting a grey goatee and round rimmed glasses. He’d just arrived in Hanoi that very day and was unpacking his bag when I met him. His name was Cris.

We hit the city streets for a late lunch in a dirty and chaotic restaurant where we talked travel over some cold beer and noodles. Cris was 60 years old and had been traveling the world since he’d left home at 20. He’d witnessed public executions in Saudi Arabia, hitchhiked all over the world, and nearly been murdered by a stranger in Canada.

He was a fascinating guy with some wild stories. I knew we’d get along.

Cris told me his loose plan was to rent a motorbike and ditch town, possibly towards the vast green countryside and rice terraces of Northern Vietnam. His plans weren’t specific or rigid; Cris seemed to prefer traveling without an itinerary.

By the end of lunch, Cris asked if I’d like to rent a motorbike and join him on his journey up north. The proposal, as exciting as it sounded, immediately made me hesitate for two reasons:

1. I’d never ridden a motorized two-wheeler of any kind
2. The traffic in Hanoi was the most chaotic I’d ever seen, absolutely insane. Was Vietnam really the place for me to learn to motorbike?

But Cris was a grizzled travel veteran, fresh off a four month motorcycle trip through Eastern Europe. He swore up and down that the best way to see a country was on a bike. His eyes lit up as he talked about his lifetime love affair with motorcycles. If I headed north with him, Cris promised he’d show me the ropes. Hanoi’s stressful traffic would fade quickly after all.

It didn’t take long for me to decide, I was joining him.

Forty-eight hours later, we strapped our backpacks to a couple of zippy Honda motorbikes and weaved through the smoky sea of Hanoi traffic towards unknown horizons.


Map of a loop route around Northern Vietnam

Map of our 10 day journey around Northern Vietnam

 

Day One: Stay Upright at All Costs

Hanoi to Mai Chau (139 km)
Where We Stayed: Tu Nhung Homestay

Before leaving the city, Cris and I decided to catch one last Hanoi ‘must-see.’ The preserved body of Ho Chi Minh — Vietnam’s revered political leader — is on public display and we weren’t leaving town without seeing it.

We joined a long stop-and-go line of tourists, shuffling forward for nearly an hour before the guards allowed us a brief glimpse of Minh’s embalmed body. Our morbid curiosity satisfied, we were now free to focus on motorbiking.

Two motorbikes in front of a yellow sign that says "Bun Cha"

Our trusty Honda Wave motorbikes

 

We meandered over to Style Motorbikes to pick out a couple of bikes for the journey. Like all newbies, I was offered a free riding lesson, which I gladly accepted. I lurched around quiet side streets, getting a feel for the gears, brakes, and performance of the bike. Shifting and braking with my feet felt anything but natural and it took every ounce of my concentration to get the bike to do what I wanted. After about ten minutes, I told the instructor I was ready. (In hindsight, I definitely wasn’t.)


Read: Vietnam on a Motorbike: 27 Tips for the Perfect Ride


Cris and I strapped our bags to the bikes, donned our helmets, and plugged our destination into Google Maps. It was the morning rush hour, and all streets leaving Hanoi were packed with bumper-to-bumper traffic. I left with the kickstand down, scraping the pavement, and wobbled my way into the chaotic sea of cars and motorbikes. I gripped the handlebars tightly, choked on exhaust, and we threaded our way north through the steel maze. Anxiety radiated from my body.

Sun setting over hilly green mountains

The sun setting over our first day on the road

 

The traffic thinned the farther away we got from Hanoi. I took deep breaths and began to relax as we passed through a string of dusty towns. The familiar city life disappeared behind us and a different type of Vietnam emerged, more raw and rural.

As the sun began to sink, we reached wide-open roads stretching across vast fields of farmland. The sky expanded and my heartbeat calmed. Cris and I puttered up to our first homestay just as darkness fell, something we vowed to avoid for the rest of the trip. We were greeted by a smiling and welcoming family, the first of many on our trip.


Three women smiling and selling fruit on the side of the road

Cheerful road side vegetable vendors

 

Day Two: A Sunny and Rural Paradise

Mai Chau to Nghia Lo (220 km)
Where We Stayed: Binh Nga Homestay

“Good morning!” Cris said as he extended his hand to me with an ear-to-ear smile. I shook his hand firmly as a grin rose on my tired face. That hearty handshake was to become our daily morning ritual for the rest of the trip.

A little girl with short black hair and brown eyes with her hand on her face

Our adorable homestay helper

 

Our beaming homestay host offered us noodles for breakfast, to which we nodded approval and gave a thumbs up. Five minutes later, she returned with a plate of scrambled eggs and bread, with her granddaughter close behind. Cris ordered a cup of coffee, which arrived tepid, and he threw it back like a dose of cough medicine. “I can’t stand drinking lukewarm coffee,” he said as we began to strap our gear to the bikes.

A gentle morning sun bathed us as we fired up the bikes and pulled away from the homestay, waving back at our gracious hosts. I was shifting gears more naturally now and felt my confidence grow. I was getting the hang of it. The chaos of the city had been replaced by welcoming rural roads. We spotted our first rice paddies and soon encountered packs of the burly, peaceful water buffalo that were a staple of the Vietnamese countryside.

A man taking a drink from a water bottle aboard a ferry with his motorbike

Smooth sailing (so far)

 

About halfway through the day, we came to a ferry that hauled us and our bikes across the broad and calm Da River. As we waited at the dock, a local shopkeeper coaxed me into his store where I bought a delicious box of durian and coconut flavored candy. It was so delicious that I forced it on any stranger willing to make eye contact. By the end of the day, the big box was empty.

Down the road, while attempting a U-turn, I caught some gravel and slid out, landing on my side. I lay stunned and embarrassed on the shoulder of the road until an onlooker ran to help me up. No real harm done, but this nonetheless reminded me that I was still an amateur motorbiker in an unfamiliar country, with a lot left to learn.

A smiling man on a rusty boat with a bag over his shoulder and a Vietnam flag waving

Hard at work in the afternoon sun

 

Cris and I pressed on, but found ourselves pulling over to the side of the road regularly. There were countless heartwarming sights surrounding us. Total strangers smiled and waved. Little children ran after us, shouting in excitement. Straw-hatted farmers worked the rice terraces alongside their loyal water buffalo. I’d never been anywhere in the world remotely like this.

We rolled into our homestay after dark, breaking the new rule we had set just that morning. A young boy, perhaps 12 years old, greeted us at the door and showed us around, shyly practicing his English. His parents stayed in the background, content to let their prepubescent boy run the show.

We wandered into town and had dinner in a bustling restaurant down the block. A jar of snakes preserved in dark grain alcohol rested on the shelf next to us. A few feet to my right, a baby lay peacefully in a plastic crib as bright fluorescent lights flickered and buzzed above. A glass case full of meats, vegetables, and animal parts sat on display near the cash register. Cris and I ordered dinner and settled in with a couple of beers, relaxing and people-watching as another satisfying day came to a close.


Layered green rice terraces next to a river with grazing water buffalo

Plentiful rice terraces pepper the North Vietnamese countryside

 

Day Three: Spectacular Views, Treacherous Roads

Nghia Lo to Sapa (242 km)
Where We Stayed: Stunning Homestay

The day started with perfect weather and another hearty, greet-the-day handshake. We cruised through the flowing countryside, blown away by the constant beauty. Countless water buffalo roamed the streets and hillsides. Gentle, carefree beasts, ambling the earth peacefully, every last one of them.

After an hour on the bikes, Cris motioned to pull over at a dusty cafe. I was learning he was more than just a casual coffee drinker — by noon he’d already slurped down three cups of Vietnam’s powerful brew and was on the lookout for a fourth. Cris tended to steer his bike with one eye on the road while the other scanned for the next cafe. I couldn’t blame him. Vietnam has the best coffee I’ve ever tasted.

A group of rice farmers work in the rice paddies in ankle deep water

Not a bad place to put in a day’s work

Water buffalo graze the grass on a green field of rice paddies

Water buffalo: carefree and peaceful beasts

 

After a few hours of the picturesque farmland, we began a slow and steady climb into the mountains. The sunny skies gave way to clouds and thick fog. The temperature plummeted. The weather seemed to change with every curve in the road.

At a popular rest stop, we climbed to a rickety wooden platform that was swaying gently in the wind. The clouds broke right at sunset and we had spectacular views back at the lush, green mountains we’d been climbing. The rest of our ride would be in the dark (again!), but we weren’t worried.

Sun beams shining through clouds over lush green mountains and a windy road

Stunning sunset near Sapa

 

Sapa was swarmed with crowds of people, spilling aimlessly into the streets. We crawled through town, dodging tourists en route to our homestay, which waited for us 12 kilometers outside of the city center.

The road was 12 kilometers of bumpy, rutty, construction filled horror. We spent a jarring hour on the descending dirt path, bumping onwards and trying to stay upright. It was a nightmare. The route to our homestay abused our bikes and tested our patience, but we gritted it out and eventually arrived, drained and relieved.

Cris and I washed every single piece of our dirty clothing in the homestay’s washer. All I had left to wear until the next morning was a pair of rubber rain pants and a rain jacket. Inside, we were welcomed by a nosy, drunk traveler with mangy dreadlocks who babbled at us about where he’d been and what he’d be doing next. We ignored him as we pored over a map, plotting our route for the following day. Eventually the drunk stranger bumbled back across the room to search for someone who might listen.


A woman sitting in a plastic chair sewing with a rooster watching and rice paddies in the background

Sewing the day away

 

Day Four: Struggling in Sapa and Jinxing Ourselves

Sapa to tt. Viet Quang (159 km)

The road back to Sapa, so agonizing the night before, was an absolute delight by day. We zipped up the bumpy incline, dodging obstacles that seemed so nasty just 12 hours before. Funny how your perspective can change when you retrace your steps.

Sapa was packed with people and construction projects, so we parked the bikes and decided to walk. Trinket peddlers swarmed us and tourists clogged the sidewalks while we agonizingly searched for an ATM. After a quick snack and the requisite cup of coffee, it felt amazing to get back on our bikes and escape the madness of Sapa. Cris was right — our bikes felt like freedom machines.

After fleeing Sapa, we took a two-lane highway north. We made great time on ideal roads and under sunny skies. Over our next snack and coffee, Cris said “If the roads keep up like this, we’ll get to our hotel well before sundown.” Naturally, I nodded optimistically in agreement. We both should have known better than to tempt fate.

Selfie of a man with a blue poncho looking worried with grey rain clouds in the background

The look of a weary and worried traveler

 

Any hope for smooth sailing vanished in 30 minutes. Our once-trusty highway quickly deteriorated into the bumpiest, most rutted roads yet. The sky went dark and raindrops started to clack against our helmets. We threw on our cheap, ill-fitting Vietnamese rain gear and braced ourselves for the worst.

The rain mostly held off, but the bad roads seemed endless. Dusk fell as we labored through a series of tiny villages. We hadn’t yet booked a place to stay and began wondering if we’d be lucky enough to find one. We crossed our fingers.

At last we turned a dark corner and a neon sign shouted “HOTEL” just when we needed it most. We had to prowl the premises until a sleepy hotel manager appeared and registered us for a basic room for the night. We dropped our gear in the room, rode our bikes back into the dimly-lit town, and bought instant ramen, which Cris ate out of a tiny teapot. The rain started coming down in sheets as we made a perfectly-timed retreat to our cozy hotel room.


A smiling man with a pole tending to a heard of goats

Tending to his herd

 

Day Five: The Gracious Vietnamese People

Viet Quang to Ba Be (142 km)
Where We Stayed: Duc Khuyen Homestay

We awoke to the muffled sound of pounding rain outside our hotel room, which we took as an invitation to sleep in. Eventually, we grumbled our way out of bed, donned our stylish blue rain gear, and firmly shook hands to appease the rain gods.

A light rain came down early but didn’t linger. Piglets and buffalo calves wandered the streets, so we weaved around them as we avoided the potholes. Cris was jonesing for his first cup of coffee, and a sign for a cafe led us down a bumpy dirt road. A table and chairs beckoned in a driveway.

Seven people smiling with concrete walls in the background

A welcoming and wonderful family

 

A smiling young man shyly greeted us, bewildered by our presence. This far off the main road, perhaps he thought we were lost. We smiled back and gestured for a couple cups of coffee. He disappeared into his house and reemerged with his whole family, everyone smiling ear-to-ear. Just another instance of the kind and gracious behavior I noticed all across Vietnam. Being friendly is in their blood.

We spent the next hour with the family, sipping coffee and tea, eating candied coconuts, and laughing together at the simplest of things. They treated us as one of their own. True, language was a barrier, but friendship was our bridge.

Google Maps told us the way out of town was a bumpy narrow alley that dead-ended in a private driveway. A couple of grinning farmers came over and told us to follow the main road another kilometer and make our first right turn. Google Maps didn’t show any such road, but we decided to roll the dice and keep riding.

We buzzed on through steep, winding dirt roads that pushed us deep into rural Vietnam, through remote tribal villages. Everyone who caught a glimpse of us stopped to stare; this rural road didn’t see many strangers. Cris and I had made our way well into the middle of nowhere, possibly in the wrong direction. We both wondered where we’d end up.

A man sitting on a motorbike in the middle of a muddy dirt road with a wooden shack to his right and jungle in the background

A rough road ahead

 

The weaving mountain path eventually brought us back to roads our GPS navigation recognized. We were getting close to our destination, but the route ahead was not easy. We slogged on through messy, rutted out roads, splashing through mucky puddles and spinning out in the deep mud. For as brutal as the roads were, Cris and I were having a hell of a good time.

Then — surprise! — Cris and I finally arrived at a homestay before dark. We savored our eventful day over a home-cooked meal, scalding hot instant coffee, cold beer, and a couple shots of local corn alcohol. As the sun went down over Ba Be Lake, I wondered aloud about what adventure the next five days might bring.


A water buffalo eating hay and looking towards the camera

“Who you lookin’ at?”

 

Day Six: Life is Cold and Numb

Ba Be to Dam Thuy (208 km)
Where We Stayed: Khuoiky Ban Gioc Homestay

The next morning, after a night of much-needed sleep, we awoke to a frigid, bitter cold morning. We piled on every single piece of warm clothing in our possession, knowing that a long, freezing day on the road awaited us. Every moment we spent on the bikes we’d be suffering from our own windchill, and there was no way around it.

Our plan had been to explore Ba Be Lake before leaving town, but the achingly cold weather forced us to scrap that idea and get moving. The faster we drove, the sooner we’d get off the bikes. We shared our usual morning handshake and were off.

A man wearing a facemark while sharpening a knife with a metal grinder

A roadside knife-making shack? Why not?

 

That day’s ride took us through a series of dreary, smoky villages and offered no relief from the cold. We could sense the local culture changing the further north we went.

We stopped at what I can only refer to as a knife-making shack. Sparks flew as metal ground against metal. We poked our heads in and were met with a couple of flat stares. Our days of sunshine, pho, and roadside cafes were behind us. Everything felt industrial.

We pressed on through the numbing cold, stopping only to eat and fill our gas tanks. Rounded mountaintops broke through the clouds on both sides of the road, but we were too miserable to care. The only sight we wanted to see was our next cozy homestay.

Three children smile and wave while looking over a wooden railing

An energetic and enthusiastic welcome

 

After five brutal hours on our bikes, we arrived at our homestay in a rustic stone village just a mile from the Chinese border. Three giddy and energetic children greeted us at the entrance, but we didn’t share their enthusiasm. The frigid ride had frozen our spirits.

The rustic, uninsulated homestay offered little relief from the cold, but Cris and I were quite happy to be off our bikes. Five hard-working women prepared a big, hot meal while we paced the dining room in an attempt to restore circulation. After a very good dinner, we sat around a fire while the women peppered us with the familiar questions we’d heard all across Vietnam.

“How old are you? Where are your wives? How many children do you have?”

I’m 31. My girlfriend is in Chengdu, China. Her name is Keri. We don’t have any children, thank god.

We roasted sweet potatoes over an open fire. The adults relaxed and chatted while the kids scampered tirelessly. Exhaustion quickly overpowered me and I retired to my sleeping bag, drifting off as my breath turned to steam in the crisp night air.


A man walks across rocks with large waterfalls flowing in the background

Ban Gioc Waterfalls: Vietnamese or Chinese?

 

Day Seven: Majestic Waterfalls and Flat Tires

Ban Gioc to Ho Lung Vai (138 km)

We got an early start and made our way to the majestic Ban Gioc waterfalls that straddle the Vietnam/China border. Thankfully it was a much warmer day as we circled the falls, soaking in their splendor. We jumped back on our bikes, refreshed and eager for the day ahead.

About 15 minutes after leaving Ban Gioc, my bike started clunking and bumping down the road. I had a flat tire. Great. Villagers quickly pointed us to a greasy, cluttered garage, where a sleepy man with a cigarette in his mouth fixed the tire and changed my oil. Nine dollars and 20 minutes later, we were back on the road, our spirits restored.

Two men crouch down to repair a flat tire on a muddy motorbike

Helpful strangers bailing me out yet again

 

Less than an hour later, my tire went flat again. My heart sunk. This time we were in a tiny, dilapidated village with very few people in sight. I wasn’t optimistic about finding a proper mechanic.

But the Vietnamese people always seem prepared for anything. Within a minute of my breakdown, a man emerged from his house and motioned me over. He pointed at the tire, grinned, and give me a thumbs up. I had broken down in the perfect place.

Dogs, cats, and clucking chickens raced around the dirt floors of his unlit house as he got to work on my bike. He and a helper painstakingly ran their fingers all over the tire until they extracted a tiny sliver of metal the size of a fingernail clipping. Using a crowbar and a hand pump, they restored and remounted my tire. We exchanged smiles, shook hands, and I got back on my bike.

Food. I desperately needed to eat. We drove to the next town and stopped at the first dingy restaurant we saw. There, weak with hunger, I pointed at a fish and gave the owner a thumbs-up to confirm my order.

The fish was pungent, full of bones, and served at room temperature. It came with a heaping serving of overcooked rice and a tepid bowl of light green water with large leafy vegetables floating on top. While Cris paced outside, I choked down as much as I could handle. We rode away unsatisfied into another cold and dreary day.

A boot, leg, and motorbike caked with mud

Motorbiking or dirt biking? A little of both

 

Those two flat tires had put us an hour behind schedule and completely zapped our morale. Caked in mud and exhausted, we raced towards the nearest town hoping to find somewhere to sleep.

As the sun set, we happened upon a friendly family who welcomed us into their pastel yellow hotel. They told us to take off our boots, gave us each a pair of sandals, and started cooking dinner. Once again, kind Vietnamese people took care of us in a way that I’m not accustomed to in the western world.

Cris had coffee with dinner, but fell fast asleep by 8:00, lightly snoring from the other side of the hotel room. Staring into the glow of my cell phone, I texted Keri, attempting to sum up my eventful day. My words fell short and the distance between us felt vast. We were missing each other like crazy. We’re both solo travelers, but that doesn’t make the distance any easier to handle.


A woman spray washing a muddy blue motorbike

Washing away a week’s worth of grime

 

Day Eight: A Wipeout and Some Soul Searching

Ho Lung Vai to Ha Long (215 km)
Where We Stayed: Ha Long Fancy Hostel

Cris says I was “absolutely comatose” until nearly 10:00 the next morning. He’d been awake for hours. Another late start meant we’d be racing against nightfall yet again, and it was my fault. The tardy departure didn’t bother Cris though. He was a carefree travel partner, battle-tested by far worse situations during his lifetime on the road.

On the curvy mountain highway to Ha Long, we got stuck behind a semi-truck belching black exhaust. The aggressive driver didn’t like people trying to pass him, but eventually we zoomed by his rig and hit open road. Pumped up and revived by the fresh air, Cris and I took a few lazy, wide turns when suddenly my bike slid out from beneath me.

Life went slo-mo as I skidded across the roadway, my entire body trapped under the motorbike. Its mirror smashed into the ground and shattered as I ground to a noisy halt.

Cris immediately got off his bike and ran to my aid. The friction from the crash had torn holes in my pants and left glove, but my body was intact. Cris estimates that I was traveling 40 – 50 kmh when I lost control. Rattled, we decided to stop in the next town for food and a recalibration. Our day was off to a rough start.

We drove gingerly to the next town and settled in the first restaurant we came across. Maybe a bowl of pho would calm our nerves. We both agreed that making it to Ha Long — still 200 kilometers away — simply wasn’t going to happen. This was a big letdown as we’d planned on catching an early boat tour of Ha Long Bay the following morning.

Two bowls of Vietnamese pho with greens, chili paste, pickled vegetables, and hot sauce in bottles

The fateful second helpings

 

After we each finished our first bowl of pho, we impulsively decided to have another. Our self-indulgent ‘thank you’ to the universe for sparing my life!

We ate until we were uncomfortable, then waddled back to our bikes. It was time to put some distance between us and the crash.

It didn’t take long to soothe my jangled nerves and regain my confidence. We rode for hours, non-stop, down empty country roads with green fields full of farmers and grazing water buffalo. That second bowl of pho had given us energy and hope. We were going to make it to Ha Long and go on a boat tour in the morning, damn it.

At our next gas stop, Cris wandered into a dusty convenience store and found a half-kilo bag of chocolate, Riesen. His big grin said it all.

The beautiful country roads soon gave way to grimy, crowded five-lane highways. We navigated through the chaos and arrived at our hostel in Ha Long well after sundown. A squeaky-voiced receptionist was flirting aggressively with an uninterested guest, but paused to give us our room keys.

Ah, the nightlife. We walked the tourist-filled sidewalks of Ha Long, with off-key karaoke filling the evening air while restaurants tried to lure passersby inside to order overpriced seafood. We were low-energy and sat on a concrete pier, reflecting on our wild day. A slowly rotating Ferris wheel glimmered brightly in the distance against a hazy night sky.

The bag of chocolate was gone before bedtime. It never stood a chance.


Three boats filled with tourists in orange vests while the captains paddle

Ha Long Bay: flooded with tourists

 

Day Nine: The Bane of Tourism

Boat Tour in Ha Long Bay
Where We Stayed: Ha Long Bay Fancy Hostel

Cris and I awoke early, eager to be tourists for a day. We were going on a boat tour of picturesque Ha Long Bay. No motorbikes. No semi trucks. No crashing. No stress.

On the way to the dock, the bus stopped and picked up a middle-aged Canadian couple. They struck up some enthusiastic small talk with us as we neared the harbor. They seemed nice. There was no possible chance they’d annoy us for the entirety of the boat tour.

Not a chance.

Cris and I ended up sharing a table with the couple and a stoic, solo-traveling German man. Within minutes, the couple was aggressively speed talking at the three of us and showed no intentions of stopping. We made helpless eye contact with the German as the realization of our situation sunk in. As Cris put it, the Canadians had taken us as their ear hostages.

The five of us ate a delicious lunch together, then I escaped to the upper deck where I gratefully inhaled fresh air and curled up in a reclining chair.

A small boat floats in front of giant hilly limestone rocks that emerge from the water

Ha Long Bay’s majestic limestone islands

 

Our boat stopped at the Sung Sot Caves and hour later. Eager to escape the Canadians, Cris and I disembarked and started exploring. The caves were vast and beautiful, but jammed with tourists. Literal boatloads of tourists. Screaming children, swaying selfie sticks, and oblivious gawkers clogged the walking paths. The caves were worthwhile but offered no respite.

We were getting grumpy.

We got back on the boat, where the ear hostage situation entered its third hour. At the next stop, the tour guides offered everyone a chance to ride kayaks around the small bay. Cris and I jumped into a kayak and paddled away, hoping for some quiet time.

Jam-packed boats full of tourists screamed “Hello!” and waved aggressively at us as we floated by. Although annoyed, I waved back and said hello. Cris, normally zen-like and patient, started boiling under the surface. “You know, you can ignore them if you want to,” he told me, clearly irked. I nodded my head slowly and sighed.

Our little boat tour was not quite going as planned.

Tourists crouched on a beach taking photos with selfie sticks

Ha Long Bay: a selfie stick paradise

 

Back on the boat, the Canadian couple drank beer and forced their iPhone videos on us. Cris and I fled the boat at its next stop, to explore a beach and make a short hike up to one of the scenic limestone peaks.

The beach and the hike were clogged with tourists. We fought our way through thick crowds the whole way up to the lookout point, snapped a few photos, and headed back. The Canadian couple was waiting for us and asked me to film them shotgunning beers on the beach.

Back on the boat, the Canadian man put his pointless rambling into overdrive. He had a belly full of beer and would not be stopped. Whether we listened or responded – it didn’t matter to him. It had never really mattered in the first place.

The German jumped at the first opportunity to retreat to the roof of the boat. I followed his lead and sat nearby. We made solemn eye contact, like prisoners in front of the same firing squad. Cris soon joined us, shaking his head in disbelief.

The sun broke through the clouds for the first time of the day and shined brightly on Ha Long Bay’s famous limestone peaks. I moved around the upper deck, snapping photos of the impressive vistas all around us.

A man in a blue sweater stares out at Ha Long Bay with giant limestone islands emerging from the water

“This boat tour might have not been the best idea”

 

After surviving the eight-hour tour, Cris and I explored the town, releasing our pent-up frustrations on banh mi sandwiches and wandering through a nearly empty casino. A string of employees followed us around until I finally sat down at a blackjack table. I lost a bit of money and we walked back to the hostel where the day mercifully came to a close.


Day Ten: Dog Meat, Delayed Handshakes, and a Frantic Finish

Ha Long to Hanoi (155 km)
Where We Stayed: Hanoi Amazing Hostel

Cris and I were now quite excited to return to Hanoi. Days of bouncing around on motorbikes and sleeping in new and unfamiliar beds every night had become exhausting. We were ready to ditch the bikes and relax.

We said goodbye to the squeaky hostel receptionist, strapped our bags to our bikes, and prepared to head west. I pulled my neck gaiter snug over my face to block the thick exhaust I’d be dealing with all day.

The ensuing ride to Hanoi was maddening and strange. I didn’t pull out my camera once. Nothing seemed even remotely photo-worthy. Not every day can be full of sunshine and water buffalo.

Cris’s hankering for morning caffeine took us to a cafe just outside of Ha Long, where we threw back a couple cups of lukewarm coffee. When the bill came, it was clear that the shop owner had blatantly overcharged us. Cris was not happy. Everyone along the way had been fair and honest with us up until that point. He muttered a few grievances as we got back on the bikes and rode off.

Shortly after the cafe, we stopped at a gas station to top-up the bikes. The attendant inexplicably grabbed Cris’s bag and started chirping at him aggressively.

Cris was running low on zen.

We needed to eat. The next town was dusty and dilapidated and offered no suitable restaurants. A man saw us searching, emerged from a doorway, and gestured us down a narrow alley to a dirty plastic table. We smiled and gave him a thumbs up as he started to prepare a meal for us.

“I think that’s dog,” Cris said as peeked over the guy’s shoulder. “Those look like dog paws.”

My stomach sank. Today was not the day I was going to start eating dog. I got out of my seat, fired up my Google Translate app, and asked the man what he was preparing for us.

“I am the owner of dog meat,” was his translated response.

Our worst fears were confirmed. We told him that we couldn’t eat dog. We wouldn’t eat dog. Cris pulled out a photo of his dog back home, shook his head, and frowned. The man didn’t have any other food to offer us. Only dog. Our day had just gotten weird.

Dejected, we hopped on our bikes and decided to try our luck in the next town. We happened upon a restaurant fairly quickly, sat down, and tried to order a couple bowls of pho. The owner had different plans.

He proceeded to bring us as much questionable food as we could handle. Cow intestines, over-boiled chicken, light green liquid with vegetables, chewy, fat-filled mystery meat – it was all in front of us. We choked down what we could handle and asked for the bill. The man pulled out a napkin and wrote ‘380,000.’ A normal meal usually cost us around 80,000 Vietnamese Dong and we’d rarely paid over 100,000. We’d been ripped off again. Unbelievable.

Rattled and out of patience, we got on our bikes and rode away from the restaurant. What the hell was going on today?

Then it occurred to me.

We hadn’t shaken hands that morning. For the first time on our trip, we’d broken our sacred daily ritual. That’s where it all had gone wrong. I honked at Cris and he slowed down to a manageable speed.

“Good morning,” I said as I reached my hand out and grinned at him through my helmet. We laughed, shook hands, and pressed onwards towards Hanoi with lighter spirits.

The three-lane highway leading back into Hanoi was congested and polluted. We rode along the shoulder of the road, trying our best to have an uneventful trip back into town. Rush hour was in full swing as we entered the city and joined the chaotic torrent of motorbikes.

Cris and I white-knuckled our way back into town, brushing past cars and dodging pedestrians in the jam-packed streets. We dropped our bags at our hostel and weaved our way back to Style Motorbikes. Our journey was complete. I nervously showed the staff my smashed mirror, but they shrugged off the damage and brought us two cold beers.

Cris and I clanked our bottles together, took a sip, and smiled. We’d done it.


A man with a grey goatee and glasses smiles at the camera while wearing undersized sandals

Big feet, tiny sandals

A man standing behind a blue motorbike in front of a shop called Style Motorbikes

Returning the bike after an unforgettable adventure

 

The Aftermath

We finished our beers and wandered Hanoi, reveling in life without bikes or backpacks. Cris got his dusty boots shined by a sidewalk vendor, erasing the grime from 10 days on the road. We ate bun cha, exchanged a few photos, and pondered the lessons of our wild adventure, born from a random interaction.

It’s strange to think how different my time in Vietnam would have been if I’d never met Cris. I’m glad I never found out.

Cris left Vietnam two days later, a day before his visa was set to expire. He flew to Taiwan on a cheap plane ticket with no expectations or prior planning. A month later, he would fly to Thailand for a two-week long meditation retreat. No coffee or talking would be allowed for his entire visit. I wonder how he handled that.

I continued to explore Hanoi for a few more days before flying to Nanning, China, where I locked myself in a cheap hotel room and wrote my guide to trekking Torres del Paine. Traveling solo and writing again felt great, but I was ready to get back home and reunite with Keri. Soon, I took a bullet train back home, then a taxi back to our cozy Chengdu apartment. We binged on Netflix and played with our foster kittens.

Since our trip, Cris and I have exchanged entertaining travel stories, photos, and general life musings. We only traveled together for 10 days, but there’s no doubt that we’ll remain lifelong friends.

We’d weaved through wild city traffic, ridden amongst water buffalo, soaked in picturesque views, and met wonderful local people. We’d broken down, crashed, frozen our asses off, and cursed the heavens together. And it all happened on a whim.

I look forward to reuniting with Cris one day for another unpredictable journey on open roads with a blank itinerary.

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Have any wild stories about your own trip motorbiking through Vietnam? Any questions about my experience? Let me know by leaving some feedback in the comments below!

2 Comments

  1. This might just be the best travel account I think I’ve ever read. I love everything about this tale. Very, very fond of Vietnam anyway – that’s what led me to reading this – but we’re definitely more fleeting tourist types (we’re not Canadian though) and not the country-in-depth traveller like you. I don’t think I could ever do what you or Cris did but it’s been so good to live vicariously through this.

    1. What kind words, Mark. Vietnam is such a great place, isn’t it? I am a lucky man to have experienced it the way I did. The culture there is so vivid and full of life – I was constantly in awe. I’m glad I could provide an entertaining and vicarious escape for you! I can’t wait to check out your blog, I have a feeling you love to tell a good story as well.

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