Motorcycling in Vietnam: A Layer Cake of Chaos

Motorcycling in Vietnam: A Layer Cake of Chaos

Whew, just returned from 3 days of motorcycling through the Mai Chau area of Vietnam, which was extraordinary. In some ways, the most incredible thing is that we exited the experience (mostly) unscathed. There were a couple of near-misses, but we both ended up with our bodies intact. This may sound like the expected outcome, and I suppose in some ways it is, but having just come through it, I can assure you it’s not the only outcome on the plinko board.

Whew, just returned from 3 days of motorcycling through the Mai Chau area of Vietnam, which was extraordinary. In some ways, the most incredible thing is that we exited the experience (mostly) unscathed. There were a couple of near-misses, but we both ended up with our bodies intact. This may sound like the expected outcome, and I suppose in some ways it is, but having just come through it, I can assure you it’s not the only outcome on the plinko board.

Day 1 – A Layer Cake of Chaos

Let’s start from the beginning of the 3 day trek. After making all the arrangements in advance, we show up at Offroad Vietnam with both a light and heavy backpack. The heavy backpack is hefted up some narrow stairs where it narrowly misses a puddle of chain oil, but is otherwise unaffected for the next couple of days while we head out. The light luggage is strapped to the back of the bikes, and they wheel them out to the street.

Now, you must understand they said we would not need to navigate the layer cake of chaos that is the Hanoi traffic. Yet, as often happens traveling abroad, that was a miscommunication. So, here we are, at a highway onramp/offramp, and Erin hasn’t been on a bike in 9 years since we tour Peru on a couple of 250s. So I walk her through a quick refresh of how to get used to a new bike, feel the clutch engage, turn the throttle, deep breaths to calm the nerves, and we’re off.

The scene is impossible to describe. It’s like you’re in the Battle of Helm's Deep and you’re a tiny hobbit trying to get from one side to the other. So I figure that I’ll run blocking as much as possible while Erin jumps into the fray. And it’s pure chaos from the very first moment.

We were told that we would exit Hanoi on a farm road. But… to get to this farm road, we had to enter the full traffic, then pull a sharp left-hand turn over a pedestrian pass, jump down a curb, re-enter traffic going the other way, raise up to a crowded and single-lane moto/bike/pedestrian-only bridge, exit the bridge, pull another u-turn, climb up a second single-lane bridge, stop halfway through and block all traffic, then descend a harrowing 20% slope on a ramp only 12” wide. Oh, and did I mention it was raining and wet? Helm's Deep, indeed.

Erin navigating the farm roads

So, we’re finally out of the traffic, and into the “farm roads”. Yet, as you might imagine, this was no walk through Hobbiton. To call these roads is an exaggeration. These were, at best, muddy walking paths. We wove through Sandlot cut-throughs that left inches to spare on each side. There were huge pools of clay mud that we had to ride through, and even washed out sections leaving just inches of road available. This was just a normal day for our guides, but a pretty freaking huge deal for us. When we finally left these “farm roads”, we were already exhausted.

In an exercise of remaining optimistic, things took a turn for the worse. We headed out onto pavement (thank you, motorcycle gods) and it started raining. We stopped under a bridge to debate putting on rain coats. The guide’s response was that it probably would stop soon, so no worries about rain pants. Top layer is all you need. Nope. Lies. Pure lies.

For those who ride, there are basically three types of rain. First, rain that don’t really get you wet, but just annoys you. Second, rain where you’re actually getting wet, and need to put on rain gear to stay warm and dry. Third, rain that’s simply painful and there’s nothing you can do without a full scuba dry suit. We went straight from the first to the third, getting pelted with bruising raindrops the size of marbles.

But what are you going to do? You’ve paid for this ride, it’s the first day of three, and you’re still miles away from anything resembling a hot shower. So, onward through the storm you go, every inch of you soaked, trying to avoid the pools of water while you’re dodging the constant traffic.

Suddenly, at a fork in the road, while the rain is still at monsoon levels, the guide stops and turns around. “What do you say? Do you want to go back on the dirt and sand tracks?” I thought I misheard, because that’s simply not a reasonable thought. “What?”, I ask. “Dirt tracks! Do you want want to go on them?” he yells. I turn around to look at Erin, relaying the message more so that I could process than to pose a serious query. “Do you want to do dirt or road?” I ask her, surprised the question could even be formed. She had no such challenge processing. “Dirt?! NO!” I nodded my head in agreement, water dripping off like a rainshower. The guide, in the classic riding gear of soaked yellow tshirt and crocs, seemed disappointed by my answer, but accepting. Onwards we went into the storm, but at least on asphalt.

Overlooking the Da River

As we rode through the day, the traffic and weather did clear, almost at the same time. We dried out somewhat on the bikes, cruising at a top speed of 50mph with our small-but-capable 150 cc engines. The hotel was a very welcome respite, and we overlooked the weird carpet, the cigarette burn in the sheet and the condoms in the drawers while we took long, amazing hot showers. It’s all about priorities after a day of riding in the rain.

This town was one of the very reasons that I wanted to take a motorcycle tour. We were far off the tourist track, getting a glimpse into the world of Vietnam outside of the museums, Hanoi, and the cornucopia of amazingness that draws us all.

There’s no reason for people to pass through. Phu Yen, so they simply don’t. Both children and their parents excitedly wave to us and say the one word of English they know, “Hello”.  We passed a number of karaoke spots, a zumba class in session, people cleaning their cars, and the local walking track.

We sat at a bar to play a game of cribbage while we digested the day, recovered our bodies and spirits, and listened to the propaganda being played from the loudspeaker at full volume. Then we ate an unremarkable meal and headed to the cigarette-stained sheets for the type of sleep only exhaustion can bring.

Day 2 - This Was What We Dreamed About

We woke at 7am, refreshed and ready for the new day. A quick walk around town revealed noodle shops, scooter stores, state buildings and propaganda posters, but otherwise nothing out of the ordinary. Breakfast in bellies, we headed out.

When planning any bike trip, the first and last day tend to be about getting into/out of town. It’s usually not great anyway, regardless of whether it’s sunny or monsoon. So, our second day was the one that was supposed to be the good stuff. And boy did it deliver.

This was what we had dreamed about. We were on a road that followed a lake shore for the morning while we looked at the fishing systems stretched across the river, the mountains dropping steeply, and the small mountain towns that we were passing through.

Tea farms in the Mai Chau Mountains


This was a road of twisties that makes every motorcyclist smile because they know the feeling of being out on the road, exposed and part of it all. And in Vietnam, there is a lot of be part of. The roads and towns are alive with activity. The farmer is moving their crop on a hand-pulled wagon. The rancher is transporting pigs or chickens in cages strapped to the back of a moped. The truck stopped in the middle of the street offloading cargo while cars and motos move people around. There’s simply a lot to experience on a small road in rural Vietnam. You might think it boring, but it’s fascinating.

After a couple hours, we stopped to wait for a ferry. I initially thought there was a schedule, but then our guide mentioned that we were simply waiting for a truck to come. They wouldn’t run the ferry for motorcycles, or on a set schedule. They just waited for a truck, then they’d go. It only took about 30 minutes of waiting for a truck to appear with 5 people in the cab, including 2 kids who played Erin’s favorite game of waving energetically with a happy grin plastered across everyone’s faces.

After the ferry was successfully navigated, we climbed, climbed, climbed out of the lake and into the mountain passes of the area. Photo upon photo failed to convey the beauty of the rice paddies in the valleys frocked by tea farms and banana trees climbing impossibly steep mountainsides. These fields can only be  built through a massive amount of effort spanning generations, made usable for something as mundane as a cup of tea. Yet here they were, another farm and spectacular view just waiting around every bend of the road.

At one photo stop, two small children came walking up the road with skateboards that reminded me immediately of Marty Mcfly’s wooden board in Back to the Future, but infinitely more amazing as it was the product of boredom, scarcity and invention. A single piece of wood nailed to a couple blocks and a single bolt connecting a rod with wheels. Incredible. Erin convinced them to show us their moves while their mom stood on the side, looking proud as only a parent can.

Erin celebrating with the local skateboard kids

The day ended with a turnoff onto what was essentially a cement golf path raised through the rice paddies, which wound through small White and Black Thai villages. We had passed through the colorful Flower Hmong villages earlier as well, just adding to the layers of complexity and fascination.

This day was much easier than the first, which is good because I don’t think we could have taken another day like that. The hotel sheets were blissfully clean of cigarette burns, though the bed was directly on the floor, no frame at all, so there was a small ant issue that plagued one side. I’ll let you guess who took that side of the bed.

Day 3 – Re-entering the fray

I didn’t expect the last day to be fabulous, but it had some moments. Granted, those moments ended about an hour into the ride as we crested the pass, stopped to snap some photos, and then the rain started yet again. It wasn’t a big ride, and we wanted to make sure that we arrived in Hanoi well before anything resembling the 5pm rush hour, but adding rain to our equation wasn’t really welcome, per se.

Motorcycling through the rice paddies


Yet, again, what are you going to do. Slow down, take the turns with caution, watch out for other drivers, let the fast ones pass you, and keep a cool head. Thankfully we were fully geared out in this case, so the majority of the water stayed off with the exception of the crotch, where it seems water just wants to pool. Not a great feeling, honestly, but if that’s the option instead of a full body soak, I’ll take it.

The rain passed as we approached Hanoi, and we stopped for a mediocre pho meal, then it was back for the final stretch.

Even outside of rush hour, the traffic of Hanoi was intense. At least we didn’t have to navigate the city as well as navigate the traffic. Tackling both at the same time would likely have ended poorly. But the swarm of people, mopeds, motorcycles, cars, buses, and trucks has a life of its own, and you certainly feel like a bee in a beehive just trying to make your way. Stop, go, slow, lean left, honk, scan around, speed up, swerve around the oncoming traffic going the wrong way.

Wrap up

Yeah, it was a lot. It was a lot a lot, but we made it through in one piece. It was an incredible few days, with a clear crescendo on the second day as we were out in the rural mountains.  

It's nice to get out of Hanoi for a couple of days to escape the hectic pace here, and just go be a tourist for a bit.

And now... off to Ha Long Bay!

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