The South - From Hanoi to Saigon

In the end, it’s not going to matter how many breaths you took, but how many moments took your breath away  –  Shing Xiong

Blue sky, bright sunshine and I gave my brother a “free ride” from the airport to the old quarter of Hanoi. Shortly before his arrival I ended up in a discussion with the police who wanted me to leave the public parking area at the airport. Motorcycles are supposedly not allowed here and they just asked me to go back to the city. No way! After a brief (and decisive) argument, I parked my bike right next to their guardhouse. Excellent solution.

The next day we bought two bus tickets to go to Ha Long. It turned out to be a very exciting four-hour ride. The bus driver did everything in his power to be the fastest on the road, and the closer we came to Ha Long, the more frequently our mini bus got alerted by headlight flashers of oncoming vehicles …

However, we made it sound and safe to our destination and spent three great days on a boat in Halong Bay. Since 2011 the bay belongs to the New7Wonders of Nature and is indeed amazingly breathtaking. If you stay more than one night on board, you have the chance to explore Halong Bay off the beaten track. Definitely worth experiencing! When do you ever get the opportunity to jump into the ocean from the rooftop of a boat …

A few days later it was again time to say goodbye. While my brother took the shuttle to the airport at 8:00 a.m. on a Monday morning, I made my way to Hue. I had only one week left in Vietnam. A part of the special permit I received from the Ministry defined in advance the border gates I had to use. Therefore, I had to travel far south to cross the border at the coast to Cambodia. Now comes the tricky part: Roads in Vietnam are very often not comparable with those in Germany. That’s probably no big surprise but I mean neither with highways nor with country roads and what a car means for the Germans, is the moped for the Vietnamese.

Never before I have seen so many two wheels at a time. More than 90 percent of the vehicles on the road are supposed to be mopeds or scooters. Hence, you will see millions and millions of these little things trying to find their own individual way through the traffic.

Three people on a scooter? No problem. Four people? Still works fine. Oh, we also have to take the baby with us? Comes on the arm … Now, let’s see what the right cloths are to ride a scooter in Viet Nam: flip flops, t-shirt and shorts. Occasionally, a helmet, but its not really necessary. Once someone asked me why I wear my KLIM suit.

My answer: For safety.
The Vietnamese guy: Ahh, because of the sun.
Me: No, for safety reasons in case I crash or get involved in an accident.
The Vietnamese: Hmmm.

Accidents happen and they are daily business in a country with such a density of vehicles on the road. I passed an accident scene on a small road in the south. The scooters were 30 meters apart from each other while the police was busy with chalk drawings on the road. I better did not try to picture how the involved people must have looked like.

And now more than 2,000 kilometers of crazy traffic were waiting for me. Let me try to illustrate what riding a motorcycle in Vietnam means: The distance between Hanoi and Hue is close to 650 km. According to the Lonely Planet, cars and motorcycles should calculate about 16 hours to get there. Making use of all my options – including the hard shoulder (usually reserved for mopeds) and the fast lane for overtaking – I needed nine hours. I only stopped to regulate my water supply.

“Objects” came into my way from everywhere. Cows standing on the road, mopeds driving in the opposite direction, scooters crossing without paying attention to the traffic around them, impatient bus drivers (those guys really tend to overlook the smaller players in the game) and oncoming trucks, giving you a high beam flash to make you understand that the overtaking maneuver will not be completed until they meet with you on the road. At this point, it is not a good idea to insist on ones right … Where to escape? Your problem. The truck takes your lane that’s for sure.

At times, it seemed to be a fast running computer game. Only that you usually have more than one life when playing a game and you just press a button to restart the session after “Game Over” pops up on the screen.

What was often underestimated is my own speed. The 1200 GS is not a scooter and I travel without a problem the same speed as a Land Rover or a coach. These days, I learned to appreciate two characteristics of my bike in particular. Firstly, the extra power, which allows for spontaneous evasion maneuvers and secondly, the extremely well developed integral ABS. I got under the impression I used my brakes in Vietnam as much as I used them on my way from Europe to Asia. That’s probably not true but a look at my brake pads underlined the feeling that the wear was considerable high on my way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh. Several times I had to brake as hard that despite ABS the front tire caused a squeaky sound on the road. This week a lot of adrenalin got pumped into my bloodstream …

The south has some beautiful beaches to offer although there was nearly no time left for sunbathing. Sunday evening I arrived in Ho Chi Minh. Under the name Saigon, it was the capital of the French colony of Cochin-China and later of the independent republic of South Vietnam. I spontaneously decided to stay two nights instead of just one night. As I had to leave Vietnam on Tuesday, the original idea was to get closer to the border the next day. However, the city was too attractive to just stay there for an evening and I used the time on Monday to explore the city on foot. Hence, on Tuesday I was already on the road at sunrise, heading to the border. It was the last valid day of my my visa and of the permission letter for the bike and I had to master another 350 kilometers of crazy traffic before I could leave Vietnam and enter Cambodia.

There was a highway leading from Ho Chi Minh towards the border and this kind of ExpressWay was indeed comparable with German motorways. I used a similar highway when leaving Hanoi Unfortunately the section was only 60 kilometers long and I was hoping for a much longer stretch today.

But trouble comes up when you least expect it. When I approached the toll station the security guard blocked my way, telling me motorcycles are not allowed on the highway. Any argument was meaningless. Going back to the “crazy road” would cost me valuable time. Anyway, there was not much I could do about it right now. Only 15 minutes later the police pulled me over, claiming I was using the wrong lane. From their point of view I was supposed to use only the right lane for scooters. Now these guys really started to get on my nerves. I travelled more than 2,500 km in Vietnam. Never had a problem but today of all days when time was my most valuable asset, things seemed to be different. And now we had an argument! I clearly stated my case and somehow I must have been convincing. One of the guys indicated the guy with the ticket to just let me go.

Nevertheless, within the first two hours I didn’t manage to get very far. Therefore, I had to consider a tactical change and this time it would not be fully in compliance with the local traffic regulations. We have done it a couple of times in China … using the ExpressWay even though it was forbidden for motorcycles. Two times we were caught by the police and escorted of the highway. The first encounter with the police does usually not belong to the most romantic moments. However, they wanted to make us believe that country roads are safer for us. Yeah, sure. Country roads are safer with all those lorries, trucks, scooters and buses, where animals run around, construction sides are badly marked, holes and broken parts are omnipresent and where little kids play at the side of the street. On one of those roads, BigJim rammed a metal rod through his panniers which ripped the entire aluminum case from his motorcycle. “Safety” was not much worth on these country roads. Whereas ExpressWays are usually much less crowded and perfectly paved.

A look at my map and I set out to find the next highway entry. The toll was not the issue. In most countries, those charges do not apply for motorcycles. But I still had to pass the toll station without getting stopped. Within a few seconds, I had to find a barrier that gave me enough space to pass through. This was the difficult part and the right timing was everything. Oh boy, I was not a big fan of the idea, but I had to make sure to get to the border in the afternoon.

I drove up to the toll boxes. The guard got out of his seat the moment he saw me approaching the gates. I scanned my options, the officer started wildly gesticulating, running into my direction … clutch, downshift, throttle … the boxer burst into life and by the moment he got there I had already passed the barriers …

It was a great highway with little traffic. Of course, I wondered how long it would take before I would get company. Still, every kilometer on the highway made up for ​valuable time today. The next toll station came 50 km later in sight and it came not as a big surprise that I was already expected. A police car was waiting and three police officers were on the look-out for me. The whistle had a clear sound, and this time the guys had all rights to pull me over. I stopped in front of their police car and took off my helmet. I listened to what they had to say before I started to show them my special permits while explaining the case. After a minute the situation became relaxed. They repeated, however, that motorcycles are not allowed on the highway in Vietnam. I agreed. We shook hands, I expressed my appreciation for their understanding and they let me go. By the way, the ExpressHighway ended here anyway.

For the next couple of hours I was back on narrow roads, coping with impatient bus drivers, hundreds of mopeds, trucks, cows, you name it … but I made it to the border in time and left the country towards Cambodia in the afternoon.

Viet Nam is an amazing country and I actually spent much more time here than I had planned.

But it was worth it.


Note: After five months on the road I thought it might be a good idea to add a gallery with “Impressions & Best Shots” to the menu.
Impressions & Best Shots