4 month trip through Vietnam on a rusty Honda Win

Discussion in 'Vietnam - Motorcycle Trip Report Forums' started by Iwantablackrz, May 22, 2012.

  1. First up, apologies this has taken so long to get up. It's still not even halfway written but now that atleast part of it's posted I feel like I have some accountability to come back and finish it. So, a work in progress but I'll update and add further photo's and details as time permits.

    I flew in to Hanoi on the 28th of August 2011. The plan was to take three months exploring Vietnam and Laos. As it turned out I enjoyed Vietnam so much I didn't end up leaving until nearly four months later. I love this country, its countryside, its people, tradition, food and... well, everything it pretty much has to offer. I love it so much that even though I’m currently back home in Melbourne I’m seriously thinking that one day, in the next year or two maybe to move over and call Vietnam home. Or atleast temporarily.

    I’ve tried to break this up as best as I can. Hopefully it reads ok and isn’t too confusing.

    Hanoi is a beautiful place. Admittedly I didn’t get outside of the old quarter as perhaps as much as one would like but I never felt like the time I spent there was wasted or that I didn’t see enough. Sometimes I feel you see more from staying in the one place than rushing off with a checklist of sights to see.

    That said speaking of checklists here are some of the things I recommend doing whilst in Hanoi:

    Water puppets

    The laneway of the 'old' Hanoi backpackers
    The lake
    The masoleum where Ho Chi Minh now resides
    I saw more Bentley's and Rolls Royces in Vietnam than I do in affluent Melbourne suburbs!
    The view of the lake from a wonderful and very hidden local cafe
    Perfume Pagoda
    Enroute to Perfume Pagoda

    Places to stay:
    I originally stayed in the Hanoi Backpackers west of the lake. This was not ideal as it was one shower to ten people, the A/C didn’t work and overall it was not the most enjoyable experience. The area west of the lake is certainly a nice place to stay but I do feel there is more to see and do in the more frantic paced area found north of the lake. Here I stayed in the ‘new’ Hanoi Backpackers which is significantly better than the older sister establishment of the same name. Put simply this place is much, much better but it’s also has much more of a party vibe in comparison to the older building. I left after the second night as I was fed up with the English girls bringing home a myriad of men to our dorm room in the early hours of the morning. In a room full of strangers... I mean really? Ugh!

    The place I would recommend is the Hotel Advisor. I stayed here for close to one week. It had only just been taken over by a new owner and he was probably one of the most helpful people I met in Vietnam. So much so that he even rode with me all the way to the train station to ensure I made my train to Sapa and then helped to ensure my bike was loaded on to the train. He filled out the paperwork for me, wished me luck and waved me off. When I told him I needed a bike lock he was even kind enough to go out during the day to get me one. Would have saved me a good half a day trying to find a place to buy one! I seriously recommend this place but I would suggest you negotiate on the price. I ended up getting a twin room down from $22US to $12US. Sometimes the best thing to do is to walk away. I WAS the first person to stay at the Hotel Advisor under the new management/owner so I’m sure they were desperate to have someone in but still do negotiate as the first price doesn’t have to be the last price.

    My 'Oscar'. '96 Honda Win 100cc. So many headaches.... but so many good times. I had a real love hate relationship with this thing

    Hanoi - Sapa.
    I opted to take the train from Hanoi rather than ride the 10+ hour ride on my first day into the trip. Research on other travel forums seemed to recommend this idea (as did Lonely Planet) so it was the route I opted for. Something to keep in mind that ALL bikes on the train MUST have an empty fuel tank. If you go the train station with a full tank (as I did) your tank will be drained. Keep that in mind and donate extra fuel to someone who you think who deserves it before you get to the station! Also, wear your winter woollies as the train cabins tend to be on the icy side once they get moving and that A/C starts pumping. I opted for a 250D soft sleeper carriage. The motorbike cost roughly the same to transport.
    With a rather sleepless night on a rather cold and bumpy train from Hanoi to Lao Cao I arose to rain. ...and lots of it. My bike, a ’96 110cc Honda Win painted in black with a red star on the tank and whom I had affectionally named ‘Oscar’ was pushed to the nearest petrol station, filled up and with no idea where to go I picked a tour bus that had Sapa written on it and followed it out of town. Once on the main road I opened up the bike (all 110cc of wheezy fury) and rode it into Sapa. This road is a brilliant one and I wish had it not been raining I could have taken the time to pull over more often and enjoy the sights. Fantastic mountain views and lots of hilltribe villages dotting the roadside. The trip from Lao Cao to Sapa would have taken just over an hour.

    Sapa was cold and wet. I was here for nearly two weeks and not so much because I liked it THAT much but because so early into my trip I was hesitant at riding into the pouring rain. It rained a LOT but I still got a great grasp of the place. There are some great little restaurants around and there’s certainly a lot to see.
    I would recommend going for the short walk from the centre of town to Cat Cat village. The overall walk is a loop and I would still recommend a good half day for it. Cat Cat village is very much a tourist village and without no doubt operational as a ‘real’ village it’s clear to see the village caters very much to the tourist crowd. That said, it’s deserving of visiting and the walk there and the town itself are certainly worth the time. There’s also a waterfall to check out on the circuit and if you’re tired and don’t want to take the walk back there will be plenty of moto riders offering to ride you up the hill and back into town. Haggle hard with these guys. Even if you have to walk away they will come after you and you’ll probably get the cost down to a dollar or two. The trick is to not want the lift back!
    The real ‘hit’ of Sapa to me was the Tram Ton pass which is enroute to Lai Chau. I actually did a day trip of this rather than potentially rush it as I left Sapa. Many consider the Tram Ton pass to be one of the greatest roads (for views) in Vietnam and I’m thankful I took the gamble and rode off into the grey sky. Fortunately the weather held out for the first few hours and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a countryside so beautiful. Stunning and I know that even with my photography skills (I actually have a BA in photography!) I could not even I could give those mountains justice. I really need to get around to sorting through my SLR photo’s as these are from my ‘point and shoot’.
    Enroute to the Tram Ton pass you’ll pass the massive Thac Bac (silver waterfall) which is certainly worth the time to stop and marvel. It’s a big one!

    Just before you approach the actual pass there’s a building (or a series of small shacks behind the main one) as you go uphill on your left. Pull in there and there’s a nice little walk (budget an hour or so for the round trip) to see the ‘Love waterfall’. Sadly I left my camera on the bike for this one but it was probably the nicest waterfall I saw in Vietnam!

    Tram Ton Pass
    On the way to check out the local village with Sue and helpers
    Rice paddy views to the village

    House stays. I spent the day in Lao Chai village (not overnight). I didn’t go with a tour group and I recommend that others do the same as that way the money doesn’t end up in the hands of the greedy tour operators but instead those locals (usually the one) who show you around their own village. Grab a coffee in the centre of town and you’ll no doubt be swarmed by Hmong and Red Dzao wanting you to buy their wares. A lot will offer to show you their village and although out of some peoples comfort zones it’s something worth doing. I had a blast and with the help of ‘Sue’, a little old Hmong lady I got to see the way she lived. It’s certainly a big hike just to the village though and puts into perspective the work the local Hmong/Dzao women put in just to get into town to sell their wares... and that’s before they sell anything! In Vietnam it is polite to feed your guests so that there is food left over in their plate once the guest has had their feed. In western cultures it is polite to eat everything on the plate! So, adopt the way of Vietnam here as you’ll find what you don’t eat the family will. Eat enough to be polite but don’t eat them out of house and home... which is easier said than done as although simple the food was delicious! The fare for this very ‘casual’ but rewarding ‘tour’ was up to me and I was told to pay what I thought it was worth. I paid 300k reasoning that this was about the same as a more organized tour. She accepted the fare humbly and after I walked off I shot a look backwards to find she was holding hands with a close friend and dancing in the street. 300k or $15US is nothing to me but I probably made her week.
    I stayed at the Mimosa Hotel (was previously called Sapa Green Tree Hotel) 21 Tue Tinh Str, Sapa. The guy here is a real character and loves his music. If you can pick up a guitar and play a note you’ll be a massive hit! I paid $7 for a large twin room that I shared with another aussie guy I met on the road. Super cheap, clean with AMAZING views. On a clear morning I could see Fansipan (Vietnams tallest mountain) from any window. No lift though so have fun with the stairs but it’s right next door to the market so the location is brilliant.
    The kitchen
  2. Sapa – Dien Bien Phu
    I got a break in the weather, loaded up Oscar and was on the road by 7am. The plan was to get to Muong Lay (the old Lai Chau) by mid afternoon. The roads were easy to navigate with ‘most’ signs well marked. The roads are a mix of sandy, rocky road, corrugated gravel and sealed road. It’s unusual in comparison to the Australian roads I’m used to as it was not uncommon to be on rocky, potholed dirt roads to go to a wide sealed road in the middle of nowhere and then turn a bend a few kilometres down the road to find your back on dirt roads again. The first day was a wet one for me. Vietnam roads don’t seem to be built for rain with a lot of them literally turning into rivers. At one point I was riding ON the road with the fast moving water a good foot and a half deep. What bitumen road was underneath was covered in rocks and mud so it certainly made it interesting to keep ol’ Oscar upright. I won’t lie, I dropped the bike on that section of road!

    The town signs here are very confusing. The Muong Lay I was riding for WAS called Lai Chau. The town mid trip is now called Lai Chau but WAS called Tam Doung. Confused yet? The original Lai Chau is due to be flooded due to a dam project and Vietnam is determined to make the new Lai Chau the ‘capital’ of the North West. Mixes of signs have been changed so some still remain with the old town names and some have been updated. I passed so many towns that weren’t on the map too. I don’t know what’s going on there. Either the maps only recognize large towns or they all sprang up over night. Infact, some of those towns weren’t that small at all! I’d be very interested to see how Lai Chau is in a few years as Vietnam is pumping lots of money into the area. New hotels are built, fresh bridges and massive, massive dual way 10 lane highways (5 lanes each direction). It’s an unusual ghost town with currently very few Vietnamese actually living there. Doing this trip again I would recommend this town be your first stop on your journey to Dien Bien Phu as this gives you plenty of time leaving Sapa to check out some waterfalls and admire the Tram Ton pass.

    I was determined to hit Muong Lay by mid afternoon but as I approached Muong Lay I hit a snag. There had been a landslide the week prior and the road I was meant to ride on had slid down the mountain and into the river that runs parallel below. I back tracked and found some small boats that were ferrying passengers (off buses) up the river and to what I assumed to be the other side of the landslide. I negotiated a fee and for $7 Oscar was lifted up onto a small dinghy and we floated down the river to the designated drop off, then Oscar was lifted off the dinghy, ridden up the hill and then lifted (thanks to 5 Viet chaps) over the guardrail.

    After 7 hours I finally reached Muong Lay ...and clearly they don’t care too much for the place given it’s soon to be underwater. The roads weren’t sealed and like a lot of roads I’d already ridden through they were streets of mud. I’m not talking about big puddles with some dry patches mind. I’m talking about half a foot deep across the entire street. Footpath to footpath. It was nearly comical watching all the bikes and cars slip and slide down those streets. I decided not to stay there and instead ride on to Dien Bien Phu. I mean, it’s only 3 hours right?
    The roads improved remarkably after Muong Lay with only a short stint of roadworks that claimed the poor scooter in front of me that slipped on to it side and sent its two ‘occupants’ into the mud. Despite the rear tyre on Oscar looking a bit bald we got through upright despite slipping and sliding for the whole duration. It sounds fun… but it’s more fun in a car.

    Chasing the last of the sunlight I came into the valley where Dien Bien Phu City resides at around 6pm. The roads leading into Dien Bien Phu were beautiful. I’d left the mountains come down into the valley to a rice field paradise. Golden afternoon light, a myriad of kids laughing as the walked home from school on the roadside, green rice paddies and a nice cool breeze. It just felt happy. At 6:30 I had navigated into town and found some accommodation. Close to 4 hours on the dot.
    My bag was comically large as I'd missed the post office in Sapa to post some things I had purchased
    Dien Bien Phu. My rice paddy paradise from an epic day on the road.

    Dien Bien Phu:
    I stayed at May Hong Guesthouse (DC Pho 3 - P. Thanh Binh). I can't remember how much it cost but it WAS great value and the rooms were quite clean. There’s a few Com Pho places nearby and as an easy reference point it’s right across the road from the bus stop. They don’t speak any english but a game of charades is always fun and they have a good undercover area to store your bike.
    I was only here for the night. I left on to Son La the next morning at around 11am. There was nothing really I wanted to see here and I was getting too much enjoyment from the open road at this point to not want to keep going.

    Dien Bien Phu – Son La
    The ride to Son La was relatively uneventful with the exception of Oscar starting to play-up. I’m not sure what was causing it but the engine seem to bog down whenever I opened the throttle more than halfway. I put some fresh fuel in the tank thinking I may have got some dirty fuel and/or was running low and the engine was sucking up sediments in the bottom of the tank. Either way, it didn’t fix it so I swapped the spark plug over thinking maybe I had a weak spark…. this didn’t fix it. I concluded it was a carbie issue and with no real way to fix it I pressed on and grew increasingly frustrated. It was manageable atleast and as it seemed to be only at random occurances I lucked out with it only bogging down on the flat roads... and not when I was struggling to get up massive mountains.

    The roads on this leg are absolutely magical. Sealed... and with magical views. I wish Oscar had a bit more juice though as the roads go up and up and I struggled with some of those inclines. I stopped regularly to let the bike cool down but really, I could be just saying that because the views warranted a good perve. When you reach the top though you wish you brought a soap box racer because wow, talk about a long downhill leg! With the bike turned off I was rolling down the hill at well over 70km/h!
    Up and up and up!
    A storm a brewin'

    Son La:
    In Son La I stayed at the Sunrise Hotel. It's in the guidebook HOWEVER Lonely Planet stuffed up and have the location on the map where Restaurant Com Pho is and vice versa. It's only a few doors up though but might save you some confusion. Nice rooms and the one I had had a great view overlooking the gardens across the road. My only qualm was when I paid the bill I was asked for more than what was agreed. It may have been an honest mistake. It was still reasonably priced, had a great view of the communal style garden that seems to be in the middle of town and was quite clean. I also got to catch up on some episodes of Bear Grylls Man vs Wild.
    Idyllic Son La

    Son La – Mau Chau
    I left Son La early in the morning. The roads were sealed and the sun was shining... but unfortunately that wasn’t too last. The riding was brilliant for the most part. The niggling issues of my bike bogging down continued until I decided to pull over and have a go at seeing what was wrong. Whilst I was sitting down pulling random things off the bike I had one kid rock up on a push bike and proceed to help me out. Not a word was spoken but he cheerfully got the bike running a bit better, test rode it up and down the road and when he was content with how it ran gave me back the handlebars, gave me a wave and jumped on his bike. My interactions with local Vietnamese have been really hit and miss but this was one of those moments where I was blown away with the helpful nature of a complete stranger.
    The rains then came.... and boy did it rain!

    A little while later I kept right as the road split at the fork and rode down the very beginning of The Ho Chi Minh Highway... a tiny dual lane country road through Mai Chau, and a little way down the road I turned right down a little road that leads you through rice paddies for a few hundred metres into Ban Lac Village. A full day of riding but I had plenty of sunlight to put my feet up and sink back a cool Bia Ha noi.
    Spot the truck!

    Mai Chau:
    Mai Chau is wonderful. Cool, green and blessed with natural beauty. I stayed in Ban Lac Village which is very much the ‘tourist’ spot for those staying in Mai Chau. That said don’t think that means it’s full of seedy bars or top end hotels. It’s a tranquil place with basic lodge style accommodation and surprisingly no restaurants. Food is usually served at a set time at the lodge you chose to stay in and in my experiences it’s good, basic Vietnamese fare. I stayed at the Nature Lodge (36 Ban Lac Village) but I believe most accommodation is similar. They have a 'dorm' room which I had to myself but they do have a few bigger double bedded rooms. For memory these rooms weren't that cheap ($30US) and I do know that the Nature Lodge was one of the more expensive places. The food there was utterly fantastic and I still think it was some of the best food I had in Vietnam.

    Mai Chau has quite a few mountains that seem to randomly pop out of the otherwise flat countryside. One of them (a very short walk from the centre of town) has steps leading to its peak. Now, I’m not sure how many steps exactly it is but I was told that it was 3000... it may be an exaggeration but if you feel like a walk to self enlightenment then this is for you. It’s certainly a climb and the best views are about ¾ up but the views certainly highlight the natural splendor.
    The view from the top of the mountain. Mai Chau

    Mau Chau – Cua Lo

    After a few days resting the backside it was on to Cua Lo. I have to say, this was a very uneventful leg other than getting completely loss and using my natural sense of direction to head in the direction of the coast. It managed to work but to this day I still have NO idea how I managed to get to Vinh. The road out of Mai Chau is pretty and winding but you’ll need to watch for trucks as they have a habit of cutting blind corners. Once the road opens up and you are on the ‘true’ HCM Hwy you can sit the bike up at your maximum sustainable speed (if so desired) and enjoy the countryside. The road is utterly flawless and is up to standard with the worlds best. The whole time I was wishing I was on a sports bike or at the very least, had my car. I’m not sure where I turned off the HCM Hwy enroute to Vinh but whatever I did got me hopelessly loss. I ended up riding through ridiculously bumpy roads through fields and although hot and dusty it gave me great insight into the country life. It was busy harvest time and although I have no idea what they were harvesting it seemed everyone was out in the fields working hard bringing in what appeared to be wheat or barley.

    I came into Vinh (and wasn’t it a relief to see that sign!) at around dusk. I was told there wasn’t much in Vinh so instead opted to head a few kays further south Hwy 1A to Cua Lo. Hearing it was a beach style resort for the local Vietnamese I thought it could be a nice place to kick up the feet. It was well and truly dark by the time I got to Cua Lo and by the time I found what appeared to be the only hotel that didn’t offer in room massage services it was a good 8pm.
    IMG_0620. IMG_0637.
    On Ho Chi Minh Hwy

    Cua Lo:
    I didn’t like Cua Lo. I ended up staying a day because I felt I needed the rest from the ride to Mau Chau but I probably should have pressed on and spent the time in Dong Hoi instead. Cua Lo is nothing but a rub and tug town. It’s not as in your face as perhaps in Thailand and the town here is very much a ghost town of sorts. I liken it to a show ground, once or twice a year they’re bustling with local Vietnamese tourists who come down from Hanoi for the sun, surf and seedy massage. Every other time of the year it’s a grave yard town. It’s a strange place, ‘taxi’s’ are golf buggy’s decked out with sound systems and neons and most hotels will have an adjoining karaoke and massage business. Hey, might be your thing but I didn’t like it and was happy to ride out... in the rain.

    I did have a very amusing encounter with a girl at a small local restaurant. She just couldn’t comprehend that I couldn’t speak or understand Vietnamese. ...so she handed me a menu... in Vietnamese. I was fortunate that another local chap came in for a feed and I was able to point to his table and get the same... after first getting the tissue box from his table, his fish sauce and a beer. I ended up taking photo’s of the menu and then that night painstakingly translated a few items so come the next morning I knew what I was ordering!

    Cua Lo – Dong Hoi
    Dong Hoi:
    Dong Hoi – Hue
    Hue – Danang
    Danang – HoiAn
    Hoi An – Qhi Nhon
    Qhi Nhon:
    Qhi Nhon – Nha Trang
    Nha Trang:
    Nha Trang – Mui Ne
    Mui Ne:
    Mui Ne – HCMC
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  6. Dave,
    I've been waiting on this for a looooong time but now reading it justifies the wait. A fantastic read; I love the way it flows (literally at times) along. Like you I love VN & everything about it; like you I was disappointed with Cua Lo. Yep, I missed the truck in the fog on first glance!
    Looking forward to reading the balance of the report.
    Where's Oscar buried?
  7. Amazingly enough Rod I was able to sell it in Ho Chi Minh City. Sold it at a huge loss but then, I expected that to be the case anyway. The most dissapointing part of my trip was that I had my camera stolen towards the end of the trip and everything since my last back-up (waaaaay back in HoiAn) was lost. So those photo's of Oscar coming into HCMC? Lost. :( Unfortunately that's why my Nha Trang thread was never updated with photo's. Just means I'll need another trip to reshoot my trip! ....although this time on a bigger, newer and better bike.

    I've been reading your updates and still lurking these forums a bit. Loving your threads and being able to 'travel' through your stories. :) Can't wait to get back whenever that may be.
  8. Nice report Dave,

    It was great to read and see your report of the far NorthWest (DBP/Son La) that me and my friend missed. But so sorry to hear about the theft of your camera and the loss of some irreplacable photos :( Interestingly, we had absolutely no issues with theft in the North at all and quite to the contrary. A few times we left things (my $600 Arai helmet in the GH lobby) unattended by mistake overnight and everything was right where we left them. I have heard that camera theft and theft in general is much more common in the South. More due to the concern of breakage or data corruption, I transfer/copy pix from camera to Netbook/Laptop every night to avoid major losses.

    Interesting that you found the food to be fantastic. We had huge issues with finding what we considered palatable and safe outside of the larger cites and touristed areas. Unless we were willing to go native and eat things that were unrecognizable, we were surviving on fruit and prepackaged snacks. The thought of getting serious intestinal trouble while on a bike for many hours was disconcerting to say the least.

    Looking forward to getting South for the next trip. My friend has some Vietnamese co-workers (Saigon natives) who were shocked when he told them where he was riding. "You went up THERE!! Why? No wonder you couldn't find a 4 hands massage, no good girlie bars, and nothing decent to eat. Damn communists never know how to have any fun!" LOL, obviously they got out of there to the USA before SHTF.

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