A Harrowing Ride Through Vietnam

Story by Dave Lemke// Photos by Dave Lemke
December 1 2014

A Canadian living in Vietnam takes his 250 Rebel on a hellish ride through loose sand, deep mud, dangerous construction, dense jungle and over mountain passes, just to say goodbye

It was with a mixture of excitement and anxiety that I pulled my 1992 250 cc Honda Rebel out of my garage and into the small alleyway. Excited, because for the first time since setting foot in Vietnam, I would be making the journey of over 2000 kilometres between the country’s two main cities: Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. I was anxious for the exact same reasons I was excited.

Riding in Vietnam, it should be explained, alternates between being one of the most incredible experiences one can have on a bike and being perhaps the most dangerous and stupid thing you could possibly do. The statistics don’t lie: between 29 and 35 people die every day in road accidents. The stats do not reveal how many minor to major injuries also occur every day. Watching people drive in Vietnamese towns is like watching chaos theory put into practice. Watching it on the highways is the same, but sped up three times.

Rebel on the Road South

Vietnam Motorcycle Travel I have ridden a great deal in Vietnam, but a long solo ride is a serious undertaking, no matter how you slice it. Although I loved my Rebel, I knew that somewhere along the line, tarmac would change to sand, then gravel, and then – inevitably – mud. Yet I could think of no better way to say goodbye to this particular bike. The trip was going to be a swan song, as I had a buyer in Ho Chi Minh for the Rebel.

So I set off – the cold afternoon rain drizzled down, but all I could see was the road ahead.

The average speed in Vietnam is slow. The traffic dictates that in the cities or towns, 40 km/h is standard, and on the “open” highways, one can reach up to 70 km/h, but driving fast in Vietnam is a roll of the dice. All it takes is one dog running across the road, one bus swerving to pass in the opposite lane, one rock on a road already full of gravel and sand and rocks, to create certain disaster. What the law of average speed means, and how it relates to riding in Vietnam, is that a 300 km journey is a six-hour ride, minimum, if you do not stop; and not a cozy, comfortable six hours either. It’s usually an intense, highly concentrated effort. Including lunch and rest stops, 300 km takes up to eight hours. A full day’s ride will often cover only a small distance.

I was running a bit behind schedule and didn’t want to be on the roads at night, so I sped through countless towns and villages as the countryside began to open up. Outside of Cuc Phuong National Park, karst limestone cliffs loomed up, towering over fertile rice fields and lush jungle. Traffic was thankfully light, and I pressed on with only one stop for a very late lunch. As dusk fell, I entered a town in the middle of nowhere with a huge government-run hotel. It had a bed, a hot shower and even a restaurant; I was in heaven.

A Walk in the Park

stopping to meet the kidsRiding a motorbike means seeing the country up close and personal. Like anywhere, it’s a brilliant way to meet locals and get off the beaten track. Day one had been the total opposite of this, and I was determined to do better for day two. I had over 300 km to travel before reaching my final destination at Phong Nha – Ke Bang, Vietnam’s most renowned national park and home to the largest cave in the world.

An hour into my ride, I was struck by the change in landscape. Huge tracts of land had been cleared, leaving kilometres of upturned, reddish-brown soil. I was driving through one of Vietnam’s milk-producing regions, and hundreds of trucks transporting milk products lined the road. As fascinating as it was, the morning drizzle and the lack of trees made for hazardous driving. Cars and trucks shot out wet mud from their back tires, and the road was slick. Morning slid into afternoon, and as I came closer to Phong Nha, the sun came out, the sky opened up and the temperature rose eight degrees. I had driven through truck-filled mud mania into open highway, blue skies and a solid 25°C. With only 50 km to go, I had officially left the city and dense populations far behind me.

The late afternoon sun turned the rice fields and jungle into a golden neon green, and rivers, wide and deep, brought water to the land from the surrounding mountains. It took two days to get to, but I had entered Phong Nha – Ke Bang National Park.

Scared Witless in the Jungle

After a day’s rest in the park, I was looking forward to an experience unparalleled in Vietnam. The Ho Chi Minh highway splits here, one road heading east and through populated areas, whereas the western road, which I took, was 300 km of pure wilderness, carving its way through the heart of the national park. I left civilization and drove into dense jungle, with immense roadside drop-offs and thick towering overgrowth. As I began to climb the first pass, the rain and fog rolled in and immediately covered everything. The temperature dropped to 12 or 13 degrees. Although I was dressed properly, it was still cold, and when the bike’s spark plugs began to misfire, I knew I was in deep trouble. Never in my time motorcycling had the situation become this dire – alone, on a dangerous road, with the bike malfunctioning. If I stopped, the bike may very well have not started again, so I dropped it into first and opened the throttle, over-revving the bike – forcing it to keep the power on. Many times it nearly stalled, and after more than an hour of cold wetness, with my concentration stretched to the max on the few feet I could see in front of the bike, I was almost spent. For the first time in my riding life, I was scared. Minutes crawled by, as did the odometer. I was going nowhere fast.

At some point, the rain stopped and the fog cleared a bit. The warmer it got, the better the bike began to perform. I was elated to click into second and third gears. I had reached the halfway point of my day’s ride, but it was already mid-afternoon. I had not stopped to eat, go to the bathroom or sightsee. What was supposed to be the best day of the trip had already turned out to be, easily, my most challenging day as a rider. After a necessary pit stop, I carried on, passing through inspiring natural landscapes. The clouds continued to billow in and over the mountains. A few times I saw what I was missing – deep ravines covered in lush green, with rolling mountain tops all the way into Laos. But as soon as the view would present itself, the mist swallowed it up again. At around 4 p.m., I approached the park’s edge and the miraculous happened; I broke through another rain- and fog-filled pass into a clearing of blue skies, sun and 28-degree weather. Laughter broke from my lips. What a way to end the day. I hung all my wet gear over the bike and savored a slow drive into Khe Sanh.

Out of the Haze, and into Coffee Country

Mountain Road Vietnam By the time the fog dissipated the next morning and the sun came out, I was already down to shorts and a T-shirt. The entire morning was perfect – the road, mostly devoid of traffic, wound its way along a large river, popping in and out of small villages with children running and waving. I swerved occasionally to avoid chickens that darted across the road, and slowed for herds of water buffalo ambling along. Neon-blue skies were punctuated by white clouds, and the ride was characterized by the pure joy of being in the moment; I had missed out on the Phong Nha western road, but had struck unexpected gold here. I rode past interlocking lakes and some of the region’s massive hydro power plants. The hours flew past – and even though I did not arrive at the day’s destination until the sun had gone down, I was wired from such an exhilarating ride. It was just beautiful.

The next day, I entered the country’s coffee- and tea-growing regions. Riding in the mountains and along semi-dried riverbeds reminded me of being in the valleys of the Rocky Mountains. I had heard about a superb track that led into Kon Tum, my day’s destination, where the Ho Chi Minh Highway branches off. One could ride the normal route AH 17 or take the QL 14C south at Plei Can. I was told it passed through untouched pine forests and skirted a national park that was shared with Cambodia (the thrill of being chased by border security was also enticing).

I headed south on 14C around 2 p.m., and initially, the road was brilliant. I was riding through rubber-tree plantations and picturesque forest when the road literally disappeared. It was replaced by thick sand loosely covering small boulders. I began driving on the exact sort of road that one should not ride on a cruiser, and it was hard, sweaty work to keep the bike in order. After an hour and a half of riding, I had successfully driven 20 km. A decision had to be made. I was already tired of sliding down sandy embankments and avoiding huge lumber trucks that came rolling by, so I turned around and tried to backtrack as quickly as I could. It took just as long again to get back to the tarmac, and much to my chagrin, the last 60 km of the ride into Kon Tum on the AH 17 was all construction. Potholes, rivulets carved through the road, and heavy traffic characterized a truly awful experience into the city.

I arrived broken, exhausted and dirty as sin. Worse, I was told that the entire next day’s ride to Buon Ma Thuot would be the same. Doing it, Vietnamese-Style No word could describe my ride between Kon Tum and Buon Ma Thuot better than “hellish.” More than 200 km of road construction – Vietnamese-style – awaited me. No order, no safety regulations, no actual planning – and thus, pure chaos. All lanes merged into a single sandy mess, accommodating semi-trucks and trailers, buses, cars, motorbikes and bicycles.

The kicked-up dust left little visibility. Where there was tarmac, it was destroyed by all the construction vehicles. The bike (and my ass) was bumped, banged and shaken into submission. I pushed on, hell-bent to just get through it. The journey made mincemeat of the Rebel. The licence plate was being held on with bungee cord, a mirror snapped off and the odometer swivelled in its socket. The bike felt rough, I felt rough. I left Buon Ma Thuot the next day after consuming my weight in coffee (this is the main coffee city in the country). I got off the main highway, opting instead for Highway 27 toward the hillside resort town of Da Lat. Today would be my last real day of riding, as I knew that once I joined the country’s main highway, AH 1, all the fun and games would be over.

The national highway is essentially a dance with death – nothing to see except maniac bus drivers pushing you off the road and the blaring, ear-bleeding decibels of truck horns. The Final Push, with Mixed Emotions I was not expecting much, but what I discovered on this little-used highway was as pretty a ride as I had experienced anywhere in Vietnam: long, wide, flat valleys ringed by hills, mountains and fields. Streams cut through the land reflecting blue under the brilliant sun. Lengthy climbs over mountain passes gave way to marvellous views below. When I arrived at the intersection of National Highway 1, I could not help but feel a little nostalgic. That ride and that road made up for the pure evil I had experienced over the previous day. I stopped and took photos to prove that I had reached 2000 km on the odometer, and relaxed under the shade of a tree, taking it all in. To finish the day, I pushed on to Bao Lac, a mere 182 km from Ho Chi Minh City.

My hotel room looked over a valley and forests. I went outside and hung out with the Rebel, checking her over one last time. She certainly wasn’t perfect for what we did together, but she was a great bike overall. She looked great, rode like hell and was (almost) always dependable. I made it into Ho Chi Minh City without any drama, and two weeks later – after a number of necessary repairs – I sold the Rebel to a Vietnamese around my age, who was buying his first bigger bike as a birthday gift to himself. I lost money on the sale, but I knew he was the right person to sell her to. When he rode away, grinning ear to ear, absolutely in love, I felt the way most do when someone close leaves you. Mixed emotions, we’ll call it. Would I ride 2400 km with that kind of bike again? Hell, no. But I would not for the world give up all the experiences, good and bad, that I had on my drive south. I didn’t get hurt, I learned a lot about biking, and I saw incredible scenery. Thus, I carry no regrets, only the contentment of a ride well done.


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