In Kingdom of Motorbikes, Hardly Anyone Walks
Around 92 million people and 45+ million motorbikes! One can imagine how motorbikes play an important role in all aspects of everyday life in Vietnam, particularly in major cities. One of the top five markets for motorbikes in the world, Vietnam, its people and its economy moves on motorbikes. Vietnam experience would not complete unless you rode a motorbike here.
Motorbike is not only a commuter vehicle for locals, but it is also an easy mode for travelers to explore and soak in the immense beauty of the country. That is why motorbiking through the country is a backpackers’ thing here. My initial plan was to travel through the whole country on a motorbike. I was pretty confident as I rode motorbikes in India before. There is a saying among travelers that once you have ridden a motorbike in India, you can ride one anywhere in the world. However, Vietnam surprised me. There are streets in Hanoi that were totally dominated by motorbikers. And, I did not see many people walk. Vietnam is a long country, so a natural backpackers route is from north to south or south to north. As I landed in Hanoi, my plan changed due to rainy conditions in various parts of the country. I decided to travel through the country using all mediums of transport available there: motorbikes, buses, trains, ferries and bicycles. The strategy was to take trains and buses for inter city travels and tour local and regional places by motorbikes, boats and bikes. I was set for a 3,000+ kms adventure that took 16 bus rides and hundreds of kilometers of motorbiking.
My Vietnam expedition started in the SaPa valley in the northern part of the country. Known as “the Tonkinese Alps”, the region is a home to hundreds of hill tribes. I did home-stay for a few days with one such hill tribe family to experience simple and slow-paced life here. Motorbiking through the high mountains and rice fields near the Vietnam-China border was kind of a lucid dream. Straight from cold mountains to humid Ha Long Bay was quite a change in climate as well as in the pace of life. It was a good day to shoot the towering limestone islands with empty beaches and unreachable rainforests, the things I had seen in wallpapers and movies only.
After motorbiking a few days to explore some of the popular caves in Ninh Binh and Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, I arrived in the historic city of Huế from where an exciting motorbike trip started to cross the Hải Vân Pass. As soon as I got on the motorbike road, the focus quickly shifted from the thrill of motorbiking to breathtaking views of mountains and coasts. The orange orb was setting on the Thu Bồn river as I reached the ancient town of Hội An. It was time to cool down for a couple of days before Vietnam part-2 begins.
Not many backpacker go to Pleiku, and I was also told not to go there. I still went just to go away from the backpackers route for sometime to experience a typical local life a Vietnamese city. To my surprise, English was so rare in this part of the country, and so were the travelers. I did not speak more than a dozen full sentences of English in two days I spent there. I had a motorbike and Google Maps. That’s what I needed.
Mountains were calling again, so I headed Dalat.