The last time I was on the back of a motorbike my age was still being counted in months, and, needless to say, the bike wasn’t started. My friends had never been on one. But two wheels are a way of life in Vietnam, and the opportunity to travel the 200km from the lantern speckled city of Hoi An to the bustling city of Hue with Hue Riders was more than enticing. So we bundled our bags on the tour bus with the rest of the group and set off for sightseeing along the Ho Chi Minh Trail on two wheels.
The Ho Chi Minh trail is a vast stretch of road that follows the coast of Vietnam, undulating with the terrain, weaving through busy cities and vast open spaces. Stretching thousands of kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City in the south, to Hanoi in the north, it was a logistical route connecting the north and south during the Vietnam war and is now one of the busiest trade and tourist routes. Made famous amongst westerners via Jeremy, James and Richard, a la the Top Gear crew, we are far from being the only passengers exploring pillion style, but the route is still untouched and exhilarating enough to make it a glorious treat.
The sky looks threatening as we depart. Rain streaks in the distance, and the alluring blue sky comes and goes, elusive in nature. We have wet weather gear (which once donned, makes us look like obese smurfs) and swimming costumes, vests and jumpers, we feel prepared. Once the helmet is on and the visor down none of it matters anyway. An adventure awaits.
Just outside of Hoi An is Danang, a busy industrial city not usually visited by tourists. Viewed from the back of a motorbike crossing the bridge it is a spectacular sight of economic and business activity to rival any western city, a sparkling haze of grey shades. The road from here takes us past numerous beaches, deserted and all the more delicious for it. To my eye, the steamy mountains in the background seem incongruous with the trolling waves and soft sand of China Beach. We delight in a different kind of environment experienced in a different way while having the thrills of experiencing a new country. Near here we also visit the famous Marble Mountain, its name acting as an adjective. The temple at the peak is worth the walk order to look out from it, rather than at it (temple fatigue has already set in on my travels) and many other people seem to agree. Five marble outcrops topped with delicate pagodas, presents an attractive lull to the velocity and vigor of the road trip.
Hai Van means “Sea of Clouds” and it is certainly like that. When crossing over the top of the Hai Van Pass we are literally surrounded by clouds on one side with stunning ocean views below us on the other. The white sands of China Beach are on the agenda, and whilst the foaming waves and cool breeze make a swim prohibitive, a little paddle is cooling. The highest point of our trip, in terms of metres above sea level, is at the peak of the pass. Mist surrounds us as we ascend the winding road, skill and luck surely enabling us to remain on the roads. The atmosphere is damp, thick, and even when not raining there is a sense of being in water. But no matter, the grey veil acts like a wrapper on the scenery, and every time a layer is pulled aside a new vista is revealed. Like sedimentary layers of rock, the clouds sit above broccoli trees that cavort with rivers and sea.
The tip of this giant mass is the bunkers used during the twenty five years of war. We stop for their beautifully bittersweet coffee, and at any moment I expect to see King Kong emerge, but our biggest threat is diminutive Vietnamese ladies selling their wares. The coffee is something else here. Two main varieties exist, both produced in ways far beyond the comprehension of Nescafe. Some is roasted with butter and sugar, rich, creamy and sweet. An alternative approach is to collect the beans digested by weasels, which adds a certain potency to the flavor, even if it is not something to dwell upon. Fueled by caffeine, we are once again ready to sit astride the bikes and press on.
The vast hills and mountains are like shadows on the horizon, with no stark lines or brutal finality, but constantly deepening hues. To the left and the right rice paddy fields spill off into the horizon, wet from the rains, verdant and vital in appearance and application. Water buffalo work the fields, local women carry heavy loads, the countryside community creating and nurturing. One stopping off point is a fishing village, their working day long over by the time we arrive, having started at 2am. Their boats are circular, like a nursery rhyme my mind cannot fathom.
A swerve to the side of a road and it is lunchtime. Our restaurant can only be described as a shed. There is no menu, just a woman crouched down with three receptacles. One contains a white viscous substance, rice paste made from the straining of grains through a filter, another a piping hot mixture of pinky russet chunks, which we learn is shrimp, chili and the ubiquotous spring onion. Quickly spooned into banyan leaves, dexterously wrapped together, and kept warm in an iron stove, these little parcels are magnificent to taste. Lunch leaves me only a dollar poorer, full to the brim, warmed to the soul, and we continue on.
From here it’s a short ride to Hue, a historic town now densely populated with students. The city is the only time that I feel on edge on the bike, swarms and sweeps of bikers weaving their way over, under, around and through the traffic to their destinations. Two wheels and a motor are definitley the dominant mode of transport in Vietnam, the cost of a car outpricing most locals and the dense streets most easily navigated by a narrow vehicle. Which is of course exactly why it is a must do activity.
We arrive in Hue and explore the citadel. We grin and giggle at how we reached our destination. Our fellow tour group arrive sweaty, harried, piling out of their small minibus. We chose the right way. Sometimes travel really is all about the travelling.
I was travelled with Hue Riders. www.hueriders.com
About The Author: Francesca Baker is a freelance writer currently wandering the world with her eyes wide open and scribbling about. Partial to music, reading, culture, walking, cycling, wine, crazy events, smiling, and life, you can read her musings at www.andsoshethinks.co.uk and follow her www.twitter.com/andsoshethinks************************************