Motorcycle diaries: Riding from north to south Vietnam

A biker discovers that a dangerous road can lead to beautiful things… riding from north to south Vietnam by motorcycle.

It felt like a very long time ago when we were planning our trip over a leisurely pub lunch in England. We were going to take three months off and ride motorbikes from northern to southern Vietnam. It didn’t seem a big problem to me at the time that I couldn’t actually ride a bike. After what seemed like an eternity, we had finally landed in Vietnam, about to embark on our first big adventure. We bought mopeds, ponchos and bungee ropes. I had about four days of riding experience under my belt. We knew that south of Hue, the well-trodden tourist routes, would have us hugging the coast, but we wanted something more adventurous with roads that sliced through forests and threaded through mountain passes.

We wanted to see Vietnam untouched by tourism. My boyfriend Jamie was interested in Pleiku for its historical significance, and I wanted to go chasing waterfalls there.

Tina Woodward

Starting from Danang we turned inland, climbing into the Central Highlands and all the promises of the Ho Chi Minh Highway. We poured over our map, plotting our route on how far we thought we could comfortably ride in a day with weather and daylight permitting. Our plan was to ride approximately 500 kilometers over four days.

Field with buffalos

The road between Kham Duc and Plie Kan was so incredibly beautiful. At one point the road took us to within three kilometers of the Laos border. As we climbed, the temperature dropped. Our 125cc Yamaha Nouvos coped without a hiccup. For as far as we could see were deep emerald green forests on majestic rolling hillsides. It was just breathtaking.

I can’t do it justice in words. To top it all the roads were almost perfect – it was the driving experience we had dreamed of. We rode through remote hilltribe villages where packs of schoolchildren on bicycles waved and smiled at us, or just stopped and stared in surprise. We had been so lucky with the weather until I felt a big fat raindrop hit my arm and, before I had time to even register it was raining, the downpour had drenched us both. Clumsily we put on our ponchos (although it was already too late for me). Having seen Vietnamese people riding along inside their raincoats we harbored romantic ideas about being cozy and dry inside of ours. The reality of it feels almost exactly like being wrapped in a wet shower curtain. In my first attempt I managed to channel the rain directly into my trainers.

house on stilts

We made a pit stop for lunch at a small, unassuming little eatery on the side of the road that only served pho in several versions. Maybe because we were wet and cold, but the pho bo we had was the best I ever tasted in Vietnam. The rain had stopped and we ventured back out to find a place to stay for the night. The town shuts down at dusk, with not a single person in the streets. We had a couple of cans of 333 and laid our heads down for the night, ready to be on the road again first thing in the morning.

Rough Roads Ahead

With over a 45 meter cascade, the Phu Cuong waterfalls is said to be the most impressive in Gia Lai Province, located about 48 kilometers southwest of Pleiku. No problem we thought, a couple of hours each way at the most, but how wrong we were.

Springs

The road out of Pleiku to the falls was horrendous with potholes dotting the highway. I hit a few accidentally and received such a jarring I was certain I’d broken my bike. Accompanying the potholes were fist- sized rocks that would snatch at my front wheel, yanking me off balance. I was twisting and wobbling and struggling to maintain 15 kph. There were 40 ton trucks, coaches, minibuses, cars, all kicking up huge clouds of dust. The number one rule on the road was to not get hit and the second rule was to not hit anything. The bigger the vehicle the more right of way, so our mopeds we were at the bottom of the pecking order. I watched as my boyfriend disappeared into the dust on the inside of an 18 wheeler.

Then it was my turn. I waited to see my exit point, checked the road surface and went full throttle, holding my breath until I was through. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t always like this. I got used to it and became braver. Jamie was more daring so I wasn’t surprised at how well he managed. I’d been so apprehensive at the start, but as my confidence grew I began to enjoy it. I was riding along with a huge smile and I realized, to my surprise, that I loved it – this amazingly beautiful country that is Vietnam. I loved the chaos, the dirt and the dust, and even how much my body ached after 170 kilometers of riding. I loved how every time I thought I was beaten, we’d turn a corner and have to stop – so completely moved by the beauty of the place.

Finally we saw the turning for the Phu Cuong waterfalls. It was VND10,000 each to enter but the guard had no change so he just waved us through. We rode for about another kilometer as a quiet rumbling in the distance slowly grew. Both grinning excitedly we started down a flight of metal stairs. At this point we could only see a tiny trickle of water to the right, teasing us. The rumble had become a roar and the falls came into view. The ride here was absolutely worth it. The falls were huge, the thundering of the cascading golden-brown water pounding against the rocks, the rainbow haze around us – it was magical. I read somewhere afterwards that the crashing water can be heard from up to two kilometers away. The base of the falls was covered in boulders which we scrambled over to get close enough to feel the mist on our faces. In the air were dragonflies, butterflies and songbirds, fluttering in flashes of color. Though the journey was fairly perilous, the destination was worth it.Phu Cuong waterfalls

By the end of our journey through Vietnam we had ridden nearly 3,000 kilometres from north to south. Those few days through the Central Highlands were some of the best days of our trip. When the roads were good the riding was spectacular. The landscape was staggeringly gorgeous. I’ll never forget that enormous sky and the thick emerald jungles, and I don’t think I’ll ever be scared to drive anywhere ever again! The adventure was everything we had hoped for and more. Vietnam is an incredible country and we have fallen completely in love with it.

Way to highland

BIo: At 27, Tina and her boyfriend decided to take a year off from studying and work to discover Southeast Asia. Read more about their travels adventures at www.girlandboygoeast.wordpress.com 

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