Vietnam – Hoi An to Hanoi

After four relaxed days in Hoi An it was time to get back on the road again and continue our journey north. Vietnam is a country that gets about on two wheels and if you don’t have at least a scooter you’re considered a nobody. Scooters and Motorbikes are used not only to transport people (often whole families are seen on one bike) but are also used like vans to carry large amounts of goods.

Therefore we thought it only right to do part of our journey through Vietnam on two wheels. The chaotic roads in Vietnam, where the only rule is small yields to big (pedestrians are the lowest of the low!), are not the place for amateur riders to fool about. Therefore, after some avid recommendations, we decided to join up with the Hoi An arm of the ‘Easy Riders’ for a 2 day motor biking tour to the ancient capital of Hué via the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail. This meant we could leave the driving to these experience bikers/guides whilst taking in the amazing scenery along the way.

We were picked up from our Hoi An hotel early morning by tour leader and ‘Hells Angels’ wannabie Leo and his band of ‘Easy Riders’, but before leaving town we went for a Vietnam style coffee – bitter sweet, thick, and muddy – where we met up with an Aussie couple who also were on our tour, Chris and Jackie. Chris is an experience rider so he rode on his own, but the rest of us were passengers – our backpacks strapped on the back of the bikes. Lisa rode with a quiet young lad called Chao, whilst I was driven by the cheerful Mr Binh – who I though looked a bit like Ho Chi Minh!

The guys rode 250cc Honda motorbikes (with Harley Davidson stickers), which were surprisingly comfortable – I’ve been on a few scooters but this was my first time on a proper motorbike! Where possible we took country roads away from the main Highway 1 that runs the length of the country and soon after leaving Hoi An we found ourselves riding through scenic rice fields where workers were Communistically tending their crops – a common sight in rural Vietnam.

After passing through the large city of Danang we made a brief stop at the Marble Mountains – five marble outcrops one of which has a pretty pagoda on top. Once past Danang we turned off onto country roads that were almost deserted and rode through some very picturesque villages up into the mountains of the Central Highlands. Whilst we were off the ‘tourist trail’ the kids were obviously used to these bikes carrying tourists as they rushed to cheerfully wave and shout “hello, hello, hello!’ at us. We stopped at several villages where the residents live in simple pointy roofed bamboo huts.

We were always enthusiastically greeted by the village’s kids who swarmed around us, they particularly enjoyed having their photos taken and seeing themselves on our digital camera screens.

We stayed overnight at a small guesthouse in the small town of Prao, about 125km from Hoi An, where we had a few beers with our new biker friends and enjoyed a no frills but delicious meal – they always took us to places where the locals eat. Next morning we joined the HCM trail, which during the war was a vital supply route for communist forces running from North to South Vietnam, with some sections through neighbouring Laos and Cambodia.

In the war the trail was little more than a track through the jungle, today, in honour of HCM, it has been tarmaced to become the perfect biker road! As most traffic uses the quicker main highway it often seemed like we were the only ones on the road. We passed pigs, buffalos, goats, and lots of smiling people along the way.

The scenery was breathtaking, I had never imagined that Vietnam was a mountainous country with lush green valleys and gushing rivers. Sadly we also saw that the affects of the use of the Agent Orange defoliant in the war still affect the land nearly 40 years later – there are large barren areas where nothing will grow. We stopped at some more villages where the kids happy received the small Koala toys that the Aussies handed out.

It was pretty hot, even on the bikes with a breeze in your face, so we made a stop at a waterfall where the pools made for a refreshing break.

At the end of the HCM trail we joined up with the main highway and I was thankful we didn’t have to ride on it for too long. There was lots of traffic that we had to dodge in between, including some really big trucks!

We did about 200km of riding on our second day and our bums were getting a bit saddle sore as we arrived in Hué in the late afternoon! We were glad to get off the bike but nevertheless we had really enjoyed the tour, it is a great way to see the amazing scenery of rural Vietnam, which we would never have seen on a bus on the main highway. Whilst it is expensive compared to the bus the experience doesn’t even compare, I would throughly recommend a tour with the Easy Riders.

Ancient Hué served as the capital of Vietnam when it was under Chinese influence from 1802 to 1945. It is a nice enough city with plenty of historical sights to see, including Pagodas, Tombs for Emperors, Temples, and a World Heritage listed Citadel.

On our first day in Hué we took a tour on a (tacky) Dragon Boat along the Song Huong River where we stopped at some of the ancient sights. The impressive Thien Mu Pagoda, built in 1601, is one of the oldest buildings in Vietnam with obvious Chinese styling.

We visited a couple of Tombs for Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty and were amazed by the size and grandeur of them. Firstly we visited the Tomb of Minh Mang, emperor from 1820 to 1840, which has expansive gardens and temples surrounded by a moat. The second tomb, built relatively recently for Emperor Khai Dinh who served only nine years from 1916 to 1925 was just as impressive. With its stone figures reminded me of the Terracota Warrior tombs of Xian in China.

The mosaic and golden statue of the Emperor inside the tomb were amazingly detailed and majestic.

When you’ve had enough of the old stuff there’s a vibrant backpackers area packed with bars and cafes on the south side of the river. We found a French restaurant where much to Lisa’s delight they had (real) Cheese and to mine good Coffee and chocolate cake!

We spent our second day in Hué wandering around the mighty Citadel. To get to the gates of the Citadel we took a scenic ‘Cyclo’ – a tricycle with a comfy seat on the front – ride through the small alleys of the Old Town. I did feel a bit sorry for the driver in the baking heat but it was a fun experience nevertheless!

The Citadel was constructed in the 19th century and is huge! It was the scene of some fierce battles in the wars with the French and Americans and much of it was destroyed – bullet holes are visible on many of the walls.

Since the war there has been some painstaking restoration work and the Citadel is again showing something of its former glory. It is pleasant to walk around the buildings and gardens and it is easy to spend hours here.

Probably most impressive is the Forbidden Purple City (Tu Cam Thanh), which was reserved for the private life of the Emperor.

After all that walking we needed some refreshment, which we found at the friendly Mandarin Cafe in the form of Beef Noodle Soup (Pho Bo), which is a staple meal in Vietnam. After two days in Hué we continued our journey north to the modern capital Hanoi. As this was a 700km (15 hour) journey we decided to treat ourselves and take the much more comfortable ‘Reunification Express’ sleeper train rather than the bus – its double the price but well worth it!

Whilst we left in the dark the morning sun revealed an impressive landscape of rice fields and distant mountains – Vietnam never ceases to impress.

We slept really well and arrived at Hanoi’s central station feeling fresh (unlike with the bus!) 15 minutes ahead of schedule just before 11am.

Straight away we entered the madness of the city as we were ripped off by a taxi driver with a dodgy meter – be careful. We stayed at the nice Tung Trang guesthouse in the city’s ‘Old Quarter’, a bustling district of commerce in a historic setting. As in Saigon there’s a bit cathedral, St Josephs, right in the middle of it.

Hanoi is more about soaking up the atmosphere than sightseeing but we did have a walk around the Hoan Kiem Lake, which sits in the centre of the city and offers plenty of photo opportunities. The small Ngoc Son Temple sits on an island in the middle of the lake and is a relaxing retreat from the city.

We also visited the notorious Hoa Lo prison, aka. The Hanoi Hilton, which is now a museum. Built by the French to imprison political enemies it was where captured US pilots were brutally interrogated during the war. The exhibits were had a propaganda tone but it was an interesting place to visit.

We have really enjoyed walking around the cities streets and we found some really nice cafes in which to sit and watch the world go by. A real favourite place to eat is the small ‘Bun Bo Nam Bo’ cafe on the ‘Ly Quoc Su’ street. This simple cafe has only four dishes, one of which, and our favourite, gives the cafe its name – rice noodles with beef, salad, and peanuts. One can eat like a king here for a pound, if you come to Hanoi check it out!

Last night we watched a Water Puppetry show, which is a North Vietnam tradition. With a good live band, skilled puppeteers (hidden behind a screen), and humorous stories it was surprisingly good and we really enjoyed it.

Afterwards we went to the Bia Hoi junction on hectic Hang Bac street, north of the lake, where beer is cheap and you sit on small plastic chairs on the street – a fantastic place to people watch and see how the locals socialise.

Today we are taking it easy as tonight we take a sleeper train to the Northern Highlands of Vietnam, we’ll be back in Hanoi in a few days, and the town of Sapa – it is supposedly a very scenic place and we hope to do some trekking to visit some of the hill tribe communities in the area. Vietnam just keeps getting better and better and time seems to be flying by – less than 5 weeks of our trip left!

There are a load of photos from our Vietnam trip here – check out the Easy Rider photos!

2 thoughts on “Vietnam – Hoi An to Hanoi

  1. matt

    Great blog, im coming that way over the summer and wondered if you could tell me how the weather has been in vietnam so far.

    cheers

    matt

  2. Andy Shirres

    Excellent times Shep! Reading this brings back some of the many happy memories we had in Vietnam. It really is an excellent place. Hopefully see you and Lisa back in the UK in the not to distant future. Look after yourselves and enjoy Sapa, but watch out for the super cheap native clothes, the dye doesn’t half run!

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