Hanoi to Saigon - Part One

This was it, the big one. The Northwest Loop was just the practice run, this was the real deal.

Back in Nanning I had met a cool Norwegian guy named Joakim. We had kept in touch via email, and coincidentally he was arriving in Hanoi shortly after I had intended to begin my journey. A friend of his named Raj was also due to fly in to meet him, so we all arranged to ride south together.

We rocked up at the local motorbike market, with an amazingly friendly local guy we'd run into named Dung (pronounced Doo-ng before you start laughing!). He actually took time out of his weekend to take us here, purely because he didn't want to see us get ripped off too badly by other more 'touristy' places. Just one example of the great kindness shown by Vietnamese people since I've been here.

Raj needed some more money to buy her motorbike. She headed off in search of an ATM and still hadn't returned one hour later. We became increasingly worried. Each of us - including the motorbike dealer, I can only assume because he didn't want to lose a sale! - headed out on bikes searching for her with little success. She eventually showed up around two hours after she'd left, explaining how she'd been clipped by a motorbike while crossing the road, and had been getting looked after by a kind local shopkeeper for all that time. The start of the journey wasn't the smoothest we'd hoped for.

With Joakim's and Raj's bikes purchased, we faced our next obstacle. Raj had never ridden a motorbike before - and as I've mentioned previously, the Hanoi traffic isn't exactly the easiest of introductions to riding you could ever have. As Joakim had one or two days prior experience, we agreed that I would carry Raj on the back of my motorbike, with her wearing my backpack. Joakim would ride his own bike and once we had got out of the worst of the traffic, Raj and Joakim would wait there and have a riding lesson or two, while I got a taxi back to the market to pick up Raj's bike and her bags. This was all perfect, except that due to the unavoidable delays we'd had earlier in the day, by the time we'd all reached the outskirts of Hanoi with all of the bikes, it was already getting dark. We headed to the nearest guesthouse, which luckily was very close, and rested up in preparation for an early start the next day.

The early start saw Raj crash. It was a relatively minor crash as far as crashes go, but I'm still pretty sure you can call it a crash. She didn't break heavily enough for some slow moving bicycles we came across, shot past the side of me, round the bicycles, into the bumpy, muddy ditch by the side of the road, and inevitably ended up with the bike tipped over on its side ontop of her. She sustained scrapes and bruises, she was lucky. The bike picked up the same injury as my own during the fun Northwest Loop "Hell Day". The footpeg had been bent up, making changing gear impossible. We got the bike to the nearest mechanic, who managed to bend the peg back into position, and we were (in theory) ready to roll again.

However, after the ditch excursion Joakim and I were hesitant to say the least. We explained to Raj how dangerous we thought the situation was, as she looked very unsteady and uneasy on the bike. She was insistent though, that we carry on regardless as she was fine and she was getting the hang of the bike. I disagreed but something I've come to learn is that it's almost impossible to change Raj's mind once she's made it up!

We set off again, at a slower pace than before, and made it onto a much quieter road where Raj was able to settle into riding a bit more. Nearing the end of the day, we saw a guesthouse and decided to stop for the night. I'm not even sure where we were, at this point nowhere near big towns or cities, just riding through the tiniest villages in the middle of nowhere. The following day was much the same, making steady progress along the Ho Chi Minh Highway, a road which runs from north to south. We were to follow this road for much of our route, taking diversions onto other roads where necessary. Our stop that evening saw us drink a few too many alcoholic beverages (I believe they call them"beers"). This unsurprisingly made the early start the next morning all the more difficult.

It turns out the temptation to drink any more that evening would not be a problem for me anyway, as I had conveniently run out of money. I had not anticipated the lack of any major towns or cities (and the ATM's these would bring) along the route, and obviously did not withdraw enough before leaving Hanoi. Luckily between us we had enough to cover food and accommodation until we reached the next big place, but it was touch and go for a while.

We had intended to have a marathon stretch the next day to try and make up some of the time we'd lost at the beginning. We didn't realise at the time exactly how much of a marathon it would turn into. We made good progress all day, keeping up a decent average speed. But as it got towards the end of what we considered to be enough of a run for one day, we discovered we were unable to find a guesthouse or hotel at any of the places we were riding through. We managed to find out from a villager in extremely broken English, that the nearest place to have a hotel was some twenty kilometres away. This is not something you particularly want to hear when you are already exhausted, and it is beginning to get dark. We wearily rode on, eventually getting to our destination after riding for five minutes in the dark. Not a pleasant experience on Vietnamese roads. I was so glad to see the neon lights of the hotel that night.

As it turns out, that was slightly later than Joakim, as he'd made the turn off the main road to the hotel, after seeing the sign. Unfortunately with it being dark, I didn't notice him turn and rode on a couple of kilometres further down the road, with Raj behind me. We soon realised our mistake, and turned back around, to find Joakim heading towards us having guessed our error. Happily reunited, we checked in and ate some much needed food, drank some much needed beer (becoming a theme) and gladly retired to bed.