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Letter from Asia – Vietnam

2100km, 8 days, 4 maps, 2 motorcycles, 1 hell of a ride

When my brother Lucas and I decided to embark on a motorcycle trip from Hà Nội in the north of Vietnam, to Hồ Chí Minh in the South, we were regaled with stories from other travelers who had conquered the trek before us. They said it was an incredible journey chocked full of beautiful sights, historic places and delicious food. However, when we told them we had about a week to do it, they couldn’t help but laugh and tell us we were crazy.

Looking at Vietnam on a map, a country residing in the gigantic shadow of China, it looks easily conquerable in 8 days. However, the people we spoke to unanimously agreed it would take
at least two weeks, if not more. By our calculations, not only could we do it in 8 days, but we would even have time to spare. We came up with a rough but conservative (or so we thought) equation to figure out just how much riding we would need to do each day to make it to Hồ Chí Minh City, just in time to celebrate Lucas’ birthday on the last day of the trip.

2100km divided by 8 days = 262.5 km per day.
262.5 km per day divided by an average speed of 50 km per hour = 5.25 hours of riding per day.

We surmised that the fastest route was to stick to Highway 1 as much as possible which goes all the way from Hà Nội to Hồ Chí Minh (which is still commonly reffered to as Sài Gòn in Vietnam), and is the most scenic and iconic road in southeast Asia. The QL-1A as its known, is a part of the Asian Highway Network that connects Istanbul to Japan and also connects a string of historic places and monuments along Vietnam’s eastern coast. Our trusty steeds for the journey were a couple of dated, under powered dirt bikes equipped with knobby tires, loud exhaust pipes and engines not much larger than a sewing machines.

We figured that if we were on the road by 7 am (and the bikes didn’t break down) we would be at our next destination by early afternoon with time to break for lunch along the way. This would give us plenty of time in the evening to get settled in to our accommodations and explore each town before heading out again early the next morning.

We were so confident in our plan that when we left Hà Nội we decided, before we even got started, that we were going to take a little detour. We mounted up and headed in the almost opposite direction to check out the iconic Hạ LongBay. We calculated the 160km ride would take a total of 3 hours, but after 5 hours of winding through the country side and up the coast, we arrived in Hạ Long Bay just in time to watch the sunset light up the sky above the limestone karsts that stud the horizon. A little perplexed, we grabbed an incredible dinner of fresh local tamarind crab and grilled prawns, then called it an early night as we had to be up by 6am to fuel up on cà phê sữa đá (Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk and ice) and petrol before hitting the road.

After our second day of riding we realized our calculations were quite inaccurate due to a very important factor we failed to take in to consideration… the condition of the roads. What should have been a leisurely coastal ride quickly turned into a race against the setting sun, each day a gamble whether we would make it to our destination before nightfall.

We rode through the historic walled city of Huế which was the Imperial City during the Nguyễn Dynasty and visited the Thiên Mụ pagoda which is the tallest religious building in Vietnam. All before stopping for a bowl of bún bò Huế, the lesser known (but way more delicious) relative of phở. We crossed the Hải Vân Pass, climbing its switchback roads before cresting the mountain top that provides the most unbelievable views of the Vietnamese coastline. We strolled the beaches of Hội An at sunset and partied all night in the resort town of Đà Nẵng. We drank snake wine with a hilarious Russian family in Nha Trang and cured our hangovers with more cà phê sữa đá before getting back on the road again. Our route ran the gamut from immaculate highways with scenic ocean views, to dirt and gravel roads that split through rice fields as far as the eye could see. We crossed over rivers that hosted floating rafts and houses, and through countless tiny towns where even though the locals did not speak any English but they were always waiting with smiles, high-fives and a spread of delicious local dishes. Our accidental detours through the remote and stunning countryside enabled us to capture incredible photos and experience a side of Vietnam we otherwise wouldn’t have had the chance to see. Although it was a tiring, dirty and exhilarating ride, there is no doubt I would do again in a heartbeat.

When we finally reached our destination on the afternoon of Lucas’ birthday, we felt like General Hồ Chí Minh himself rolling in on 125cc tanks ready to take on Sài Gòn. Although the route was under construction just as often as not (which nearly doubled our ride time each day) and we managed to lose 3 maps over the course of the trek, the 2100 km journey along the coast of Vietnam was easily the most unforgettable road trip I have ever taken. Sweaty and still caked with road grime we traded in our bikes for a couple of ice cold beers, sat street side on District 1’s party street known as Bùi Viện, and soothed our parched throats. At one point I looked at Lucas and we both burst out laughing, amazed at the task we just accomplished. With a fresh round of beers, we said “Cheers!” to Vietnam and one hell of a ride. And with that the birthday festivities began.

So long from Sài Gòn
-Dylan




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