Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City

I don’t remember exactly where the plans to ride a motorbike through Vietnam formed, but before the trip I was already planning on doing some motorcycle riding overseas. I’d taken a motorcycle course in California, knowing that learning for the first time in a place like Thailand or Vietnam would probably not be the best idea from a safety standpoint.

The motorbike taxi was the easiest way of getting around HCM while I was exploring the city.

Needless to say, I wanted to be careful. Riding a motorcycle was also inevitable to some extent based on the literature I’d read before the trip, notably Jupiter’s Travels, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Motorcycle Diaries. Jupiter’s Travels was the most influential. It’s an autobiographical account from journalist Ted Simon, who rode a motorcycle around the world over the course of four years. The book is a great mixture of storytelling and philosophy, and there is an emphasis on the motorcycle being the ultimate tool for getting off the beaten path to really see a country.

“To go around the world these days you can pay a lot of money to go around it nonstop in less than 48 hours. But to know it, to smell it, and to feel it between your toes you have to crawl. There is no other way. Not flying, not floating. You have to stay on the ground and swallow the bugs as you go. Then the world is immense. The best you can do is trace your long, infinitesimally small line through the dust and extrapolate. I drew the longest line I possibly could that could still be seen as following a course.” – Ted Simon, Jupiter’s Travels

Shopping for a trusty companion

After my ride from Chiang Mai to Pai in Thailand, I felt comfortable with the idea of riding a motorcycle long-distance. I’d done a bit of research before the trip in preparation, and I made the decision to rent a motorcycle in Ho Chi Minh and return the bike in Hanoi. Many backpackers also buy bikes and try to sell them back in their final destination, but these bikes are often unreliable, and I knew it would add some stress on the end of the trip that I didn’t want to deal with. More than anything, the rental was insurance against the fact that something catastrophic would happen to my engine along the way, and I met many backpackers in my travels who had their engines go to shit in the middle of nowhere. That was something I was trying to avoid, especially as a solo traveler.

I rented from a great company called Style motorbikes, and it ended up being a good decision. Style have shops in HCM and in Hanoi, making the one-way rental easy to do.

The three days I spent in HCM were a bit of a blur trying to get everything squared away with the motorbike and getting all the gear I needed for the trip, but I managed to eat several bowls of Pho along the way.

I’d like to say this was an un-pho-gettable experience, but I don’t actually remember where it was taken.

Before long, though, I had the motorcycle ready to go. On the morning of August 4th I headed off, nervous and excited, for the long ride ahead.

Packing up in the basement of my HCM Airbnb


Vietnam – First Miles on the Bike – Ho Chi Minh City to Dalat

On August 4th I set off from Ho Chi Minh, extremely excited for the trip ahead. In Thailand and Cambodia, I really wanted to stay present in the moment, but I couldn’t help at times but be sucked forward to Vietnam and the prospect of riding through the country.

Getting out of Ho Chi Minh was a challenge, though, and I ended up spending two or three hours of what was going to be at least a ten hour trip just trying to get out. I soon found that the route Google Maps wanted me to take wasn’t a route motorbikes could go (they aren’t allowed on some highways). Just getting out of the city involved getting on a ferry across a river, which I wasn’t expecting.

The ferry out of town

Because it was my first day, I was also unfamiliar with how far I would reasonably be able to ride. I trusted the Google Maps time estimate, which I learned later could be wildly inaccurate based on road conditions, weather, etc.

The first six hours of riding were relatively easy and I was happy to be on the road. By 2pm I’d ridden around 200km, which would normally be a day’s worth of riding. I was planning on following a route down along the southern coast instead of going directly from HCM to Dalat, thinking it would be a good way of seeing the ocean and highlands in the same day, but it was an overly ambitious goal, especially for my first day.

First stop along the southern coast

It was the low season in Vietnam, and I stopped for lunch at an empty restaurant on a beautiful but empty beach. It was clear many people didn’t stop here in the monsoon season. From there I continued on to Dalat.

Turning in from the coast towards the highlands

About an hour after I stopped for lunch the rain started. I thought I was prepared for it. I bought a Goretex jacket and waterproof pants, and I accepted my gloves and boots were going to get wet. But I wasn’t really ready for monsoon rain in Vietnam. While the clothes were ostensibly waterproof, if you’re sitting in pouring rain for two hours there’s simply no way to keep out the water. By 5pm I was soaking wet, but I continued along contently until sunset. Between the altitude gain, the sun going down, the continued rain, and knowing I didn’t yet have a place to sleep in Dalat, it turned from fun riding to really cold and uncomfortable on the bike. Making matters worse was the torn up road, and whole stretches for a few miles at a time felt more like a motocross course than a normal road.

By this point the novelty had worn off and I was ready to be in a warm place with dry clothing. It took another three hours for me to get to the highlands town of Dalat. I was happy to be there, but numb from the cold and from the 12 hours I’d spent on the bike by the time I arrived at 8pm.

I didn’t have a place to stay, but thankfully I found a great hostel without too much difficulty. My bag was also an unfortunate victim of the rain, and I realized the rain cover on top wasn’t enough to keep the water from splashing up from below. Lessons learned. I put on some dry clothes and scarfed down three banh mi in town before crashing for the night.

The next day was lovely, though, and I enjoyed the cool mountain air which was a nice change of pace from the last month of heat in India and the rest of SE Asia. My main goal was finding proper rain gear, and I bought a heavy duty poncho and tarp to make sure I could withstand any future rain along the way. Both would prove to be invaluable.

At night in the hostel there was a lovely family dinner, and I met two groups of guys who were doing the North->South motorbike trip instead of the South->North route I was doing. I picked up lots of recommendations and advice, all of which proved helpful in the coming weeks. This sharing of information over beers in hostels along the route would prove infinitely more valuable than blogs I’d read beforehand.

Come the next morning it was time to set out again. I was happy to be out on the road, and after riding for twelve hours the day before last, I was starting to feel comfortable on the motorcycle.

Vietnam – Nha Trang and Qui Nhon

I was happy to head back out to the sunny coast from rainy Dalat. The destination was Nha Trang, a city known for its beaches and its heat.

The ride itself to Nha Trang was short compared to my ride to Dalat, though I ran into some trouble along the way. I could tell from the slapping sound on the underside of the bike that my chain was loose as I left Dalat. I pulled over to take a look on a remote road that, by coincidence, was next to a mechanic’s stand. A guy rushed out of his small stand and comes over and points at my rear wheel and moves his hand back and forth, seemingly indicating that the rear wheel is moving in a non-standard way. He also points to the chain and points out how loose it is. I wasn’t sure what the whole rear wheel thing he was referring to was about, but I knew the chain was loose and figure I’ll have it tightened here. I negotiate a price with him using Google Translate and the calculator on my phone.

We put my bike up on the center stand, and he starts taking apart what seems like an unnecessary number of pieces to tighten the chain, but being my second day of riding, I really had no clue. Before I know it he’s banging apart the whole back wheel and it’s in a dozen pieces on the floor of his shop before I make him stop.

It dawns on me what a bad situation this now is, with my rear wheel exploded on the ground, I’m on a remote road with no traffic, and absolutely zero idea of how I would put this back together if the mechanic refused to do it. He pulls out a bearing and indicates there’s something wrong. I’ve never seen a motorcycle bearing in my life! Thankfully I have reception and I call up Thanh, the guy who rented me the bike in HCM. I explain the situation and put him on with the mechanic to translate. Within ten seconds they’re yelling at each other. I get back on with Thanh, and he says he doesn’t trust the mechanic and he’s probably trying to get me to pay him extra to fix a fake issue with the bike. I ask Thanh to ask him to just put the bike back together. They yell some more.

So now it’s a price negotiation, and the mechanic wants money I really don’t have. I’d forgotten to go to the ATM on the way out of Dalat and only have 170k dong (~$7) on me, most of which I need for gas to get to Nha Trang. He wants 200k dong! The mechanic doesn’t speak a word of English and I dont speak Vietnamese, so we’re gesturing back and forth and using the calculator on my phone. Another younger teenager shows up, a friend of the mechanic, and is enjoying the spectacle. They’re laughing about god knows what, probably me and the situation. We have a contentious back and forth on how much I owe. Finally, he puts the bike back together. I leave 70k on the seat of the bike, knowing I need 100k for gas, and make a “no more” sign. He seems happy with that amount. We shake hands. We’ve been half shouting half laughing at each other in a strange mutual understanding of the oddity of the situation, but the tension is dissipated and I say goodbye with the little Vietnamese I know.

The final stretch to Nha Trang

By 1pm, I arrived in Nha Trang and I had the whole day to explore the city. The city itself was fine, but felt mostly like a tourist town. The heat was problematic, though, somewhere around 97° with stifling humidity, and before long I was yearning for the cool mountain air. I just spent one night in Nha Trang and I met some more motorbike folks in my hostel, also going north to south.

Nha Trang

The next day I continued my route north to Qui Nhon, a small city along the coast. The ride from Nha Trang to Qui Nhon was beautiful, but full of torrential downpours.

The monsoon storms rolling in quickly on the way to Qui Nhon.

The monsoon systems would roll over periodically throughout the day for hour or more stretches at a time. At times I tried to wait them out, mostly because of the strong winds, but the only thing I wanted to do less than ride through rain like that was ride through rain like that at night, so eventually I had to move along despite the weather. Thankfully, the rain gear I had purchased in Dalat worked really well, and I arrived in Qui Nhon almost completely dry. It was comforting knowing with the improved rain gear that I would be able to ride through whatever weather I would encounter along the route north.

Qui Nhon was my first time staying somewhere in Vietnam where there were almost zero tourists. There was lot’s of staring and pointing. It was nice knowing I was in a place few tourists went, but it could also be incredibly isolating at the same time.

I had a lovely Airbnb in Qui Nhon. On the second day, I headed to Ky Co beach, a place my Airbnb host recommended. It has to be one of the nicest beaches I’ve ever seen, and it was almost completely empty, perhaps because it was so remote. From Qui Nhon, the highway to Ky Co was wide, but empty, seemingly planned for huge developments along the route to the beach that never materialized.

Aside from stepping on a wasp, it was an all around incredible day lounging at the beach.

Come morning, it was time to head back inland to Kontum.