30.12.11

The wind in my face

Summer has finally reached us in Sydney! It's been pretty dismal since my return from Japan, with cold, drizzly rain every few days, followed by the dreaded humidity. But the sun was back today, warming my face and blinding my eyes. The sun makes me think of motorcycling - it is the season and I'm a motorcyclist. (or some would say that I was, I sold the bike just before my trip to Japan, due to lack of use and lack of funds, well the funds were better used in my travel fund!) But stay with me on this train of thought, I'm nearly there - motorcycling makes me remember my favourite part of my trip through Vietnam. That was my time spent on the back of a Minsk. What is a Minsk you ask? It is a German designed, Russian made, war era 125cc 2-stroke motorcycle (if my memory serves me correctly). It has a kick start, a gearbox that requires erm, deciciveness, and a maximum speed of about 60km/h. But let me tell you, it is a whole lot of fun to ride, especially on the roads of Vietnam, which are always full of surprises.

I had always intended to spend some time on a motorbike in Vietnam - my riding friends were always asking me if I was going to do something like the guys on Top Gear. But the trip rolled around and I hadn't really organised anything (I'm really not much of a planner, which is possibly surprising given my profession) so I just hoped something would come up.

My adventure started when I stumbled across Hoi An Motorbike Adventures, a motorbike touring outfit based in Hoi An, Vietnam. This Australian owned business run tours across Vietnam with English-speaking guides, and locals work in the office and spin the spanners. I decided to go on a half day tour around Hoi An. Our guide was a lovely Dutch girl with perfect English, and there were about 8 of us on tour, mostly from Australia coincidentally (or maybe not such a coincidence, there's a lot of Aussies in Vietnam!) and then a couple of drivers/mechanics for those who didn't wish to ride. The ride was a lovely cruise through the villages around Hoi An, with plentiful stops to soak up the scenery and talk, plus an opportunity to meet some locals at a little cafe (and drink the best Vietnamese beverage, iced coffee with condensed milk, try it, trust me). Most of all it was such fun to be riding, with the wind in my face - motorcyclists liken it to how a dog sticks its head out of the car window!

It is a stunning part of Vietnam, the photos hardly do it justice.

Hoi An rice paddies  Hoi An river crossing
Hoi An Half day tour rice paddies
Hoi An Half day tour groupHoi An river

So in love with cruising around on those glorious machines was I that I decided a longer tour was in order. After checking in with the office I discovered that they had a 2 day tour from Hoi An to Hue leaving a few days later so I booked in, hardly able to contain my excitement.

As with the half day tour, the overnight tour was fantastic. Our NZer guide was again, amazingly friendly and there were only 2 of us on tour. We stopped in at a little village and met some local children, had yummy picnic lunches (just simple ham & salad sandwiches but I was so happy that they had real cheese - a rare sight in Vietnam!), saw the spectacular Vietnamese landscape and gave kids hi-5s as we rode through towns. I was giggling in my helmet while riding along the Ho Chi Minh Highway, having a complete ball. I don't think you could wipe the grin off my face! Men would often point at me as we rolled through towns when they realised that I was a girl - in Vietnam girls ride scooters, not kick-start 2-stroke motorbikes! We stayed overnight in a little village in the mountains called Prao which is very much off the beaten tourist track, it was very quiet and great to escape the buzz of the bigger towns I'd spent the rest of my time in.

When I told people I rode a motorbike in Vietnam, the main 2 questions people as is:
1) Was it just like Top Gear, and
2) What are the roads like?
Well it was a bit like Top Gear! Except I didn't get a traditional suit tailored from Asian silk or carry any stupidly enormous souvenirs on the back of my bike. We had breakdowns and I got bogged in mud from a landslide (happens all the time on the highway). Fortunately there is a mechanic on every tour - he weaves his magic on the bikes (often I couldn't get mine started and he simply had to touch it and it would start - I swear that bike was playing tricks on me) and he rode my bike out of the mud when I was dumb enough to ride straight into it!
And as for the roads... well they definitely keep you on the ball. The obstacles I encountered, from memory, include bricks, rocks, mud, children, cows, goats, dogs, trucks, buses, chickens and I'm sure there were others that I have forgotten. Some of them are funny, some are scary, but it is really all part of the adventure. 

Vietnam war memorial Village children with attitude <3
River rapids Ho Chi Minh Highway landslide Ho Chi Minh Highway
Waterfall - Laos border over the hill View from Ho Chi Minh highway
Trusty steed post bogging
View from above the tunnel GOATS

I also spent some time riding when a a friend and I visited the mountain village of Da Lat. We hired a driver/guide for my friend (one of the famed Da Lat Easy Riders), and I rode around on a little automatic scooter. It definitely didn't have the character of a Minsk but it was still a heap of fun to zip around with the wind in my face. Da Lat is also a very pretty area, and we visited coffee plantations, a silk factory (not at all as glamourous as you would imagine), a buddhist temple, the waterfalls and some other lovely landmarks. Our guide was full of knowledge of the local area, super friendly and eager to show us what his town had to offer.

P1050469   P1050447  P1050481 
P1050475P1050459

The days I spent riding were the most exciting and fun-filled days of my entire 5 weeks in Vietnam and I would love to go back and do some more time. Originally I was going to organise my own bike and stuff but realistically I don't know enough about mechanics, so it probably wouldn't have been the best idea to embark on such an adventure alone so an organised tour was the perfect alternative. Seeing Vietnam on the back of a motorcycle is a fantastic experience though and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who has a bit of a sense of adventure and wants to get off the beaten track a little bit. There are quite a few motorbike tour operators throughout Vietnam now and I don't know how good they are but Hoi An Motorbike Adventures are definitely a top notch operation in an industry where it can tend to be a little hit and miss.

Disclaimer - I have no relationship with Hoi An Motorbike Adventures apart from being a happy customer. This is an honest review. 

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