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Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by SoloSurfer, Dec 7, 2013.
Hey Solo Rider, I noticed you still do not have any gloves.
Great report. Subscribed
Very well done. great pics. great attitude.
thanks for taking the time.
I didn't end up finding gloves until Sapa and I was only able to find these crap 'fleece' ones - they managed to keep my hands warm at higher elevations, but that was it, they were bothersome otherwise so I went without.
For the rest of you following my RR... Thanks for all the words. It has been great to re-live this trip via this RR. 17 more days o' Vietnam Adventures to cover... I'm going to attempt another installment today, hopefully I'll be able to figure out my HUGE picture issue and get them back to regular size, if not, they'll be extra-large-and-turbo-charged!
Day 13 - Sunday, November 17
Distance - 180 kms = total for day ~ 6 hrs
Trip Odometer = 1302 kms
Route - Son La - Mai Chau. South from Son La on Hwy #6, then off on Hwy #15 to Mai Chau.
Hotel - Mai Chau Inn (700,000d = $35 w/breakfast)
Weather - No wet! Cloudy and cold at elevation, and then hazy, sunny and quite warm once arriving to Mai Chau.
Our day started with a huge buffet (or as we call 'Jimmy-Buffet') breakfast at the Hanoi Hotel in Son La. The breakfast room was the size of a conference room at any hotel back home and it was packed. The night before I read a little about Son La and it turns out that it is the business 'capital' of the Son La province hence the packed buffet breakfast with loads of suits and the like.
Flamingo Travel in Hanoi where we rented the bikes suggested that we get the oil changed on the bikes every 1000km or so and seeing that we had rolled about 1100km when we arrived the night before, I figured our first stop after breakfast would be a place we could get the oil changed on the bikes.
We literally pulled out of the Hanoi Hotel, zipped down the road a few hundred meters and came upon a Yamaha dealership. It looked fairly empty and mellow in the shop section, so we pulled up and I motioned to the mechanics that we wanted the oil changed. They didn't speak any english and we obviously didn't speak Vietnamese, so it was fun communicating what we wanted. Both bikes were quickly brought in, Amanda's up on a hoist and oil was being drained. Not a very tough thing to communicate. I was also wanting to get a bit of slack out of my chain, so the mechanic quickly tightened my chain, lubed it up and that was that with my XR. Amanda front brakes felt really soft, so the same thing, the mechanic tightened that up after the oil change, all communicated with our gestures on the bikes.
(Above) Shop manager
It was lightening speed by the time we pulled into the Yamaha dealership, motioned what work we wanted done, took a few photos of the shop and of the 'shop manager', we paid up and were out the door... just like that. It was the quickest 10 minutes ever... and all the work, both oil changes, my chain slack and Amanda's brakes, the grand total was 180,000 dong = ~ $9 total. Excellent!
Both chains were lubed up and we were on the road again...
Gold fish anyone???
Loads of corn being dried in huge piles then sacked up - we passed a quite a few of these operations on our route south to Mai Chau. I think this guy was a few rice-wines in, he wanted to chat and he motioned for us to come on in and have a look. We politely declined as we wanted to continue south.
Farm equipment/people hauler - saw loads of these...
At our morning coffee-stop, we met these 2 Vietnamese models... they were hamming it up for the camera and then checking the pictures out, always with huge laughs and then more poses, it was a great time. The girls even shared their snacks with us. One thing I was meaning to load up on in Canada before heading over to Vietnam was stickers for kids, all kids love stickers. Unfortunately, it was one thing I didn't manage to do before leaving on the trip and I regret it, these Vietnamese kids definitely deserved some stickers from us Canadian kids. I guess we'll have to go back with stickers...
Amanda being corny
Below... a Honda Super Dream 'Family Vehicle'... hilarious what english words they had on most of the bikes - and yes, this 'vehicle' would definitely support a whole family... AND a couple bags of rice and a chicken or three...
It was a speedy day of riding from Son La to Mai Chau. The #6 was a main route linking the north west to Hanoi and surroundings. With that, we had more traffic than usual, but more traffic usually meant higher speeds and better roads, surprisingly not our favourite. At times we were averaging 50-60kph which actually got us places way quicker over the long run, literally 50-60 felt like highway speeds back home, it was strange, but we were really getting used to the slow, snail's pace that is normal for Vietnam on smaller, rural roads, a slower pace we came to love and enjoy. Much easier to smell the hibiscus and contemplate 'why the chicken crossed the road' when you are rolling at 30kph.
I had read that Mai Chau was a popular tourist destination because of the influence of the White Thai minority village in the area. Tourists would flock here in hordes to stay in traditional White Thai stilt houses, complete with modern conveniences such as flush toilets and WiFi. We zipped into the main village out of Mai Chau with intentions to find a stilt house. We did a few laps in the village and then ended up on the edge of town at a new family run hotel called the Mai Chau Inn, just down from the expensive Mai Chau Lodge. We checked into one of the lovely rooms and started unwinding and unpacking. It was a shorter day of riding so we managed some time to relax on our private deck overlooking the areas rice paddies, drinking a cold beer and chatting about our day. Even though we were traveling together, you spend so much time in your own helmet and inside your own head, that it was nice to catch-up at the end of each day.
(Above) Drafting a plan for the next few days to come...
We had to make a decision to see Ninh Binh and area for a few days (which was highly recommended by a fellow ADVer) or to zip south to see Phong Nha National park for a few days - unfortunately we couldn't do both... it was a tough decision.
Hi Solo Rider, I'm really enjoying your RR and excellent photos and vids!
Thanks so much for taking the time to share your adventures
'Nam is close to the top of our list, in fact if my Wife hasn't broken her heel driving Trucks in Texas recently, we may have been there now!
For that reason I'm especially interested in the info on costs which you include - certainly great value, - I loved the double oil change for 9 bucks!
Do you mind me asking the cost to hire the bikes?
Hey Shafty, thanks for the shout-out.
I plan to do a full costs overview at the end of this RR - hopefully I'll have enough steam to pull that off. (Bikes, hotels, food, tours, fuel etc.)
As for the bikes, we decided to go with Flamingo Travel out of Hanoi (they also have an office in HCMC) and they were great to work with all in all. I set it all up in advance in order to spend less time dealing with that stuff thus getting on the road faster.
Quick cost breakdown on the bikes:
2013 Honda XR 150cc was $25/day @ 23 days - 15% (long term rental) = $488.75 ($21.25 per day)
2010 Honda Future X 125cc was $12/day @ 23 days - 15% = $234.60 ($10 per day)
A lot of places will rent you bikes for as low as $7-10/day and I'm sure even lower here and there if you searched hard. Another option is to buy bikes, typically 100cc Honda Win or Chinese knock-off version or Russian Minsks for in and around $200-$400 for a used one in various shapes and then sell it at the end of the trip.
We chose to rent newer bikes for peace of mind and then not to have to deal with the selling of the bikes later on - just our choice. Also, Flamingo Travel was always a 'call away' for emergencies as they also gave us a pre-paid cell phone for the trip just in case (never used it).
Also, you can rent Honda Baja 250cc or something similar for anywhere from $30-$50/day (at the end of the trip, I saw Flamingo had a really sweet brand new XR 250 in Hanoi!) It would have been nice to have had a couple extra horseys 'CCs' from time to time, but to be honest, my 150cc and my Gal's 125cc were perfectly suitable for Vietnam. Also, the 'run of the mill' 125s are easier to get fixed and have regular sized tires for Vietnam whereas my XR had unique sized tires which would have been more challenging to get tubes/tires if needed (luckily we only had x1 flat the entire trip and it wasn't on my bike story to follow in upcoming days... )
It is all a matter of preference and choice with what you want to ride and how much you want to spend etc.
As mentioned, I'll complete a more detailed cost breakdown at the end.
Cheers, hope this helps...
Day 14 - Monday, November 18
Distance - 160 kms = total for day ~ 6-7 hrs
Trip Odometer = 1461 kms
Route - Mai Chau - Yen Cat. South from Mai Chau on Hwy #15 to Ngoc Lac, then HCMT (Ho Chi Minh Trail) on Hwy #15 to Yen Cat.
Hotel - Khach San Dai Lam (250,000d = $12.50)
Weather - Hazy to dark skies to hazy sunny. No rain = Dry!
Our included breakfast at the Mai Chau Inn was fantastic. I should have waited to take these pictures as half of our food wasn't even on the table. Fresh fruit, meat, eggs, juice, coffee, tea, the list goes on... and all complete at our table with-a-view.
We planned our next few days of travel while in Mai Chau and we had some tough decisions to make, well, not that tough seeing that we were on an adventure trip in Vietnam. We couldn't stick to our original itinerary planned from home as we were realizing we wouldn't have enough time to do it all, we had to make a couple of decisions. We had enough time to either head to the Ninh Binh area to meet up with a great tour guide named 'Xuan' which was recommended to us by a fellow ADV (Adventure) rider named Stan, OR we would blast south for a few days and spend time in the Phong Nha National Park famous for it's caves and tours. Unfortunately, it was one or the other.
We couldn't do both. It was a tough decision. We had watched a TV program at home about the various cave systems in the Phong Nha Park which included a couple of caves that were quite recently discovered.
It was decided. We would go caving in Phong Nha, but it would take us x3 days to get there... after breakfast in Mai Chau, we fired up our trusty bikes, and we were off...
The riding along Hwy #15 from Mai Chau was incredible. Really fun twisty roads that had tons of mini towns and villages road-side and lots to see. At one point, we came across a zone that was all about chopsticks. We would see operation after operation making chopsticks out of bamboo. We pulled over at one and snapped a few pictures (above).
I managed to strap my iPhone onto my backpack again and I attempted to shoot a video cruising through one of the many small villages. Turns out, the iPhone shoots very reasonable video with anti-shake similar to the GoPro. Below is my rendition with zero editing...
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We then came across an area that was promoting a certain Vietnamese 'cuisine' which we opted not to stop at. I didn't think our x2 'man's best friends' back home would feel very good about us indulging in such a delicacy, instead, we opted to ride-on.
The riding alongside the Sg.Ma River was great. I pulled over to have a look at this river-dredge of sorts - (at least I think that is what it was), and just before shooting my photo, a man in a suit came along on his scoot to have a look as well, he walked right in front of me so I figured I'd give him the honours and include him in my picture.
Along this stretch of highway and while paralleling the river, there also seemed to be quite a few operations harvesting long poles of bamboo on the opposite side of the river, loading it up on simple bardges and ferrying it to the opposite side where the road was.
I know I've mentioned this before, but one of my favourite times each day was during our morning coffee breaks. 9 times out of 10 at these random stops, we would meet at least one or more of Vietnam's colourful characters. We bought some stale, dusty packaged 'wagon wheel' style cookies, a Coca Cola and an iced tea drink from this guy. He then proceeded to sit with us while we enjoyed our snacks and he enjoyed a cigarette. I showed him our map and pointed at where I thought we were and he proceeded to point at an entirely different area on the map. Turns out, he didn't know where he was either and it didn't matter too much, we were there together.
Above - our typical road-side Com Pho lunch stop
We arrived at our destination for the day which was Yen Cat. I noticed this grand hotel off the highway at the north end of town, but I figured we'd push on and maybe have a look around town to see what it had to offer, if there were any other hotels and some options for supper.
Turns out, Yen Cat was a dusty little road-side town with not a tourist in sight. We doubled back to the huge hotel and were approached by a very young and energetic man at the front desk. He checked us into a room and helped us unload our bikes. The place was huge. And, it was extremely creepy. The hallways echoed and there wasn't another soul in sight, we were sure it was empty other than us. We asked the man at the front desk about a restaurant and he motioned over to an adjacent building and said, 'Yes!, Yes!' energetically.
Have I mentioned how creepy this Hotel was?? We ended up calling it The Twilight-Zone Hotel and we both were hoping we would for starters, wake up the next morning, secondly, at this location, alive, ... and not in some alternate universe with zombies. I kept telling Amanda not to look too close at the sheets and/or floors once she already saw holes in the sheets and mysterious items on the floor. I kept saying the closer she looked, the more nasties she was bound to find :huh
It was a place to spend the night, a roof-over-our-heads, and unfortunately this hotel wouldn't be the lowest ranked hotel of our trip. We aren't complainers, we don't have super high standards, but on nights like these, the following morning couldn't arrive any sooner for the both of us.
IF the main hotel wasn't creepy enough, our restaurant experience was another story. Once we were ready for dinner, we headed over to their 'restaurant', as they called it. By this time, it was dark, which was perfect for the setting, and, it was now raining. We walked over to an adjacent building with no lights on and proceeded to walk further to an outdoor area covered with palm palapas and a few people were sitting around a table there seeking shelter from the rain. I said 'restaurant' and a young woman got up and waved us over to the dark building we were just at. She brought us in the front doors, sat us down at a table in a very large, dark room and brought us each menus, only in Vietnamese. The room must have had 30 odd tables with enough seating for at least a hundred, and we sat at large table for 8.
By that time in the trip, we knew how to order chicken, so we ordered chicken and rice and were lucky to order a plate of morning glory (fried spinach) as well. This building was equally as echoey and even more creepy. The next thing we heard is something that we both remember clearly. Just after ordering, we heard our chicken being hacked up on the chopping block, continuous loud 'thunks' of a clever smashing against a thick wooden block followed by an immediate ignition of a hissy propane burner. Not to be a drama-queen here, but it was quite startling.
Dinner was served. We ate. We filled our stomachs as best as possible, paid the bill to a random man who came out of the shadows and then we walked back to our 5-star room. Without discussion, Amanda locked and bolted the door upon entering and I placed a chair under the knob for good measure.
The next morning couldn't arrive soon enough... :eek1
Awesome Solo, thanks Man
Day 15 - Tuesday, November 19
Distance - 240 kms = total for day ~ 6-7 hrs
Trip Odometer = 1701 kms
Route - Yen Cat - Huong Khe. South from Yen Cat on HCMT (Ho Chi Minh Trail) Hwy #15 to Huong Khe.
Hotel - Khach San Son Ha (250,000d = $12.50)
Weather - Started out dry and cloudy and then got dark, darker and then wet, wet, wet, 'soggy-bottom-boys-wet', and then a bit more wet, some very cold, and finally soaked.
Undoubtedly, unequivocally, and fully-completely our wettest day yet. Our theme song for the day was 'Soaked to the Bone', which had absolutely no harmony, lyrics, and character like that of 'Bad to the Bone'. Now, it didn't rain all day long, but when it did, it ramped right up and it became that cold-wet as well which makes riding a motorbike quite the challenge both physically and mentally.
On a positive note, we woke up in the morning from our Twilight Zone Hotel and we were in the same reality, still in Vietnam, both alive, and both very happy to get back on the road. Sorry Yen Cat, but you didn't make the cut on our Top-20-in-'Nam experiences, better luck next time.
In the morning not too far south of Yen Cat, we came across this overturned rock truck. It was hard to say how long it had been there, but we didn't see any ambulance or police, just a few people milling about. It took up most of the road, but when theres a will, theres a way,... all traffic just seem to work their way around it and that was that, traffic was still flowing on the #15.
The rain started shortly after the overturned truck and continued for a good hour or so of riding. When pulling into the town of Pho Chau for our later afternoon lunch break, we were both quite cold. We were anticipating a typical large bowl of Pho for lunch, but instead, they were serving something different at the family run restaurant we stopped at. We had a really tasty alternative which was a combination of rice with pork, fried cucumbers and assorted veggies. It was a delicious meal and the family was great, really interactive with us. I'm guessing this was their daughter below and their grand daughter who was the entertainment at the lunch party.
I ordered a hot coffee and proceeded to ask for some extra hot water to top it up, mainly an attempt to warm my core temperature and also to dilute the extremely strong, syrupy-like consistency of the normal Vietnamese coffee served with sweetened condensed milk. The extra hot water came, but the owner and his wife were also pointing at the coffee poster on the wall motioning that the coffee is often served on ice.
Not before too long, I was double-fisting my hot coffee with an iced coffee as well, they were really interested in showing me all the types of ways coffee is served in Vietnam, and they wanted me to try all of them. Seeing that Amanda doesn't drink coffee, I had to step up to the plate and try them all.
After a great deal of 'cảm ơn bạn' (thank-you), we paid up and then put all of our layers back on for the cold road south. I had a very generous caffeine buzz flowing through my veins before getting back on the road.
We arrived to Huong Khe in mid afternoon with time to hunt around for a hotel. Huong Khe was a much larger town than that of Yen Cat, so we stopped at a bank machine as our supply of 'dong' was running low. We then toured around town looking for a hotel. Huong Khe has a man-made lake right in the middle of town which makes it much more appealing and picturesque. We toured around the lake and found a few hotel options.
We stopped at the first hotel which had a 'palace' type feel and inquired at the front desk to look at a room. They immediately asked for our passports and I motioned that we only wanted to 'look' at a room. Amanda even had this phrase on her iPhone from the day before and she showed the translated phrase to the man and woman at the front desk. It was painstakingly difficult to communicate that we only wanted to look at a room. We ended up checking out a few different rooms, and in all cases, we came across puddles on the floors and black mould on some of the walls. We thanked them and told them we would go and look at another hotel before making our decision. As we were getting back on our bikes, the manager came out and asked us what the problem was. We gestured that all was good and that we were going to look at rooms in another hotel before making our decision.
The same thing happened at another location. The front desk staff were great, they got the message that we just wanted to 'look', there seemed to be good communication at this one, but the manager had an offended look on his face when we decided to push on. I was fine with moving on from this place as the manager seemed like a jack-ass from the beginning anyway.
Our take is that we had time to look, there were a few options in town, so why not be like Goldilocks and find the right situation for us.
Our third option was going to be the best it was going to get in the town of Huong Khe, it was the Son Ha Hotel. Unfortunately, the room was somewhat dank and that was even before we threw all of our sopping wet gear throughout. Again, it was the best option we found, so we decided to go with it as it was a place to crash for the night.
Huong Khe was quite nice situated with a fairly large lake right in the centre of town, it reminded me of Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. We decided to stop at a restaurant to eat which was alongside the lake and as we proceeded to sit down, a young man came out and gestured to us that we were not welcome to sit down. This wasn't in a negative manner, I was assuming that they were technically closed or something of the sort, maybe they were out of food?
We headed two doors down and sat at another establishment. We had a young teenage girl come to us as we sat and the first thing Amanda asked her was if they had WiFi. She gestured yes and Amanda typed a phrase on her iPhone. Even in the midst of a perfect 'Google Translation, the young girl's teenaged angst seemed to prevail. Awkwardness followed, she made a call and then passed her phone to me... sure enough, there was a guy at the other end speaking broken english and I told him we were looking for dinner.
My guess - this town rarely sees foreign tourists. BUT, I had the feeling that Huong Khe was in fact, a tourist town. With its situation on the lake, all of the choices of hotels, and the plethora of restaurants and stands lining the lake, I'm sure Huong Khe is a go-to destination for local tourists when the seasons and weather is right. I think we arrived in the low-season.
(Above) - Our Son Ha Hotel.
We both enjoyed the experiences we had with communication, whether it be looking at a hotel room or ordering food. This was sometimes frustrating when we felt we were clear with our communication and then adding the help from good old Google Translate. The bottom line was that if our communication wasn't clear at the receiving end, then we were back to square one, sitting there waving our arms and smiling, making shoveling motions towards our mouths like cavemen... minus the grunting :huh
We would always end up with food or a room, but sometimes the 'getting' there with communication was more exhausting than the day on the bikes... it was all part of the adventure.
We knew our next night was going to be in Phong Nha National Park and our plan was to stay at the Phong Nha Farmstay - a combination Aussie/Vietnamese owned hostel complete with tour guides and meat pies... I was fairly certain that at the Farmstay we would be able to order with ease, and most definitely with the same smiles
Nice RR! Enjoying your travels!
Looks fantastic guys. Just booked flights to Hanoi so enjoying your RR whilst stealing ideas!!!
Thanks Mark. Wow, I'm honored you found my Little'Nam RR
I've been following you from the get-go and you are a true inspiration. Thank-you so much for your positive outlook on life, your detailed RRs and your famous Radioman 'jump'. Mark - you rock! Keep your 'stick on the ice' (as we say up here in Canada), stay positive and keep us all posted, I wish you all the very best on your next chapter.
(should take me another few weeks to finish up this Vietnam RR so stay tuned)
Thanks. When do you fly to Hanoi? Planning a Moto-trip?? PM me with any questions what-so-ever. And it isn't 'stealing ideas' here on ADV, it is more like, 'building your trip' based on what others have experienced... I did the same before this trip with other Vietnam RRs.
Such a great resource
It hasn't been snowing much in BC so I decided to fly down to Cabo for a week to wait it out. My OldMan is down here, and he is normally up to all kinds of no-good, so I figured I'd spend a week keeping an eye on the old boy and drink some of his cervesas.
I'll get on the next post in about a week.
Day 16 - Wednesday, November 20
Distance - 142 kms = total for day ~ 3.5 hrs
Trip Odometer = 1843 kms
Route - Huong Khe - Phong Nha Farmstay. South from Huong Khe on HCMT (Ho Chi Minh Trail) to Son Trach (for lunch) then to Phong Nha Farmstay.
Hotel - Phong Nha Farmstay (600,000d = $30)
Weather - Dry and cloudy and then wet and cold. By lunch it cleared up which was good.
We had a fairly quick zip to the Phong Nha Farmstay, our welcomed oasis. It was wet, yet again, but we managed to pound down the kms throughout the morning on the HCMT. We arrived to the town of Son Trach at lunchtime so we pulled up to one of the many street stalls in the main market area and sat down for a hot lunch before proceeding the final few kilometers to the Farmstay.
I had made a reservation at the Phong Nha Farmstay online as it was stated that they fill up quickly due to their popularity. There were also a range of accommodation options in the town of Son Trach, but we wanted the luxury of the travellers paradise at the Farmstay.
As it is stated clearly on both their website and on Trip Advisor, the Phong Nha Farmstay isn't really a 'farmstay' per-say, but instead a lovely traveler's oasis set in amongst rural farmland within this area of Vietnam (we weren't sleeping in barns with the local pigs and chickens if that is what you think of when you hear 'farmstay'). They offer a plethora of tours and trips that can be booked right from the hotel reception. Also, seeing that it is in a rural location, they offer a wonderful restaurant at the Farmstay with a variety of western and Vietnamese options in addition to a wide assortment of cocktails, spirits, wines and beers
Our plan was to stay at the Farmstay for x2 nights and to tour the Phong Nha cave systems in the Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park the following day. We booked this through one of the day long tours the Farmstay offers as we wanted to be on auto-pilot as tourists for the day.
Phong Nha Farmstay
The owners are an Australian and Vietnamese couple and the Farmstay is located right in the village where Bich grew up. It employs all of her immediate family and many others from the Village and surrounding area. This is Ben and Bich's Ural pictured above. Ben mentioned that he took the family (they have x1 boy) on a trip throughout the north on this bike and it sounds like they covered a loop similar to our route in the north.
Next day - tour through the Phong Nha - Ke Bang National Park visiting the Paradise Cave, 8 lady temple, and kayaking into the Dark Cave - a full day adventure off the bikes... can't wait!
Day 17 - Thursday, November 21
Distance - 0 kms = total for day ~ 0 hrs by bike
Trip Odometer = 1843 kms
Route - Phong Nha caves tour excursion
Hotel - Phong Nha Farmstay (700,000d = $35)
Weather - Dry and cloudy.
We had booked our cave excursion at the Farmstay the night before, therefore we were all set for our 8:30am departure with a few other travellers staying there. We both loaded up on a delicious breakfast and promptly hopped on the passenger van which sat in the Farmstay drive. Our first stop was in the village of Son Trach where we loaded up a bunch of other travellers who were staying at various hotels in the town. Turns out, the owners of the Phong Nha Farmstay also own a travellers hostel in the town (the Tiger something??). They recently turned their dorm rooms at the Farmstay into private rooms and suggested to folks who want more of a budget option to stay at their hostel in the town of Son Trach.
Amanda's new friend eyeing up her tasty breakfast at the Farmstay...
Our tour guide asked us why the cliff face above wasn't covered with thick foliage typical of Vietnamese hillsides, mountains and cliff faces. Funny enough, I had just read the night before that US bombers would bomb the cliffs in order to expose secret cave systems. The cliff above was bombed during the war and has yet to recover.
Above: The River that flows with blood and diesel.
We had 2 tour guides for the day, a local Vietnamese guy named Hung, and a Vietnamese-American (above) named Dean who had been living and working at the FarmStay for a few years. He is originally from Seattle and had a wealth of knowledge about the area, about the war, and about the cave systems alike. Both of these guides were a pleasure to be around for the day.
We then stopped at a war shrine known as the Eight Lady Cave. Apparently 8 people (turns out, they weren't all ladies) got trapped in a cave after a bomb blast and they died there.
Above: Dean from Seattle was explaining details about the 8 Lady Cave. The National Park had a monument made for the people who lost their lives. It explained their ages and the villages they were originally from. You can see a bomb casing hanging in the tree to the left: Ironically enough, these were used as early warning signals, locals would hit them with a stick and they would send off a gong-like-sound that would echo through the jungle. Vietnamese villagers would also not speak in the jungle as they heard rumours that the American military had areas wire tapped, therefore they used simple and effective techniques as an alternative to verbal communication.
When arriving to the Paradise Cave (one of Phong Nha National Park's premier cave systems), we were whisked off in 'Jurassic Park' style buggies which followed simple, concrete pathways to a system of stairs (just over 500!) which brought us to the entrance of the cave system. We were both very impressed with how set-up and efficient this tour was.
The Paradise Cave was discovered in 2005. It wasn't until very recently in 2011that it was opened to the public. The cave system is over 31 kms in length and we were able to explore the first 1 km which was surprisingly vast. Travellers were also able to book custom multi-day trips in this cave system with private guides.
Above: This sign showed the 1km that we were about to discover with the inset map explaining the full 31.4 km cave system.
Upon entering, our jaws dropped with the size and scope of this cave system. Amazing. We followed a boardwalk style staircase deep into the main chamber and it was so large, it was breathtaking. They had a great lighting system that followed the boardwalks, lighting the walls and features just enough to see the details.
Photographs really don't do this cave system any justice.
We followed a series of boardwalks the full 1 km into the cave. It often pinched down and then would open up into another chamber and cavern, it was incredible. The caves were extremely clean, with rubbish bins and seating areas with benches for tourists wanting a quick rest.
After visiting a few of the cave systems in the Ha Long Bay area in the north, we were both very impressed with the Paradise Cave in the Phong Nha National Park. It was a tour that is not to be missed, well worth it.
I had also heard before our trip to Vietnam, that the longest cave system in the world was recently opened to public and it is also in Vietnam. It is called the Son Doong Cave and it even has a fast flowing river within. In early 2013 a group went into the cave system for 7 days, 6 nights at a $3000US price tag per person. They are limiting access to the Son Doong Cave with a high price tag and a limited number of visits per year.
I found a nice, little, 2 smoker custom en route to the toilets after the tour.
Next up was the Dark Cave. The Dark Cave was accessed by paddling inflatable kayaks along a mellow river to the entrance, entering via a boardwalk and then swimming into the cave with only headlamps for light. It was a adventurous change from the lit-up Paradise cave system.
We were provided with PFDs, hard hats with headlamps, half-paddles ('cause thats all you need I guess) and sturdy one-size-fits-all Vietnamese footwear... we were SET!
'High-Ho, High-Ho... Off to the Dark-Cave we gooooooo!'
Entrance to the Dark Cave...
Our Vietnamese Guide 'Hung' getting down and dirty in the Dark Cave.
The Dark Cave was excellent. We swam along sections to get deeper into the cave and then we were brought along narrow, muddy, off-shoot tunnels that brought us up into other room systems before descending back into the main cavern which eventually brought us back to the entrance.
The full-day tour was fantastic. We arrived back to the Phong Nha Farmstay happy and spent. I decided to go with a pasta special for supper and it was great. The main hall (lobby, restaurant, bar, lounge area) of the Farmstay had a warm atmosphere complete with fire pit on one side. Both nights we were there, we had nice conversations with fellow travellers about our various trips throughout Vietnam and where we were all headed to next.
We both would have loved another day at the FarmStay to unwind and relax, but tomorrow, we would be back on the road, back on the bikes and this time, heading east to the South China Sea and back to the coast which we last visited when we were in Ha Long Bay at the beginning of our trip.
A couple of the guys who worked at the FarmStay suggested a great route for us east into the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone), up past the Vinh Moc Tunnels and then south to Hue along a more rural route - rather than taking the busy, hectic Hwy #1. We were pleased to get some good info and excited to follow this route.
Day 18 - Friday, November 22
Distance - 235 kms = total for day ~ 7 hrs
Trip Odometer = 2078 kms
Route - South on HCMT from Phong Nha to Ben Quan then east on #571 to Hwy #1. South along Hwy #1 to #572 to Vinh Moc then south along 576B to 49B and 49A to Hue (beautiful route).
Hotel - Hue Serene Palace Hotel (600,000d = $30) Nicest, newest hotel to date!
Weather - Wet in the morning, dried up as we approached the South China Sea - sunshine! Then cloudy and dry to Hue.
Leaving the Phong Nha Farmstay was tough, even though we had only been there for 2 nights. It was a warm place to stay with good energy and great folks. We met a fellow ADV Rider and his wife upon arrival. Craig (below) and his wife, both from Australia had travelled through Vietnam once before by bike and he and his lovely wife came back for more. They arrived at the Farmstay the same day we did and were offered a position to work for a week as a employee was going on vacation. They gladly took the position and this is Craig supporting his uniform in style.
Craig and his wife rented the exact same bikes they rented a few years prior... 'His' and 'Her' Honda 125s.
Another reason it was tough leaving the Farmstay was that we had to make another decision with our route. Originally, I had planned to head south along the HCMT through Khe Sanh, as I had heard this stretch of road was amazing, with the road at times literally touching the border to Lao.
We opted to head east instead and along the coast to enjoy the cities of Hue and Hoi An which included riding the famous Hai Van Pass between Hue and Danang. We also thought that the closer we got to the coast, the more rain we could potentially avoid. We were both a tad tired of all the rain, so to the coast it was... to the South China Sea and beaches... miles and miles of beaches.
A couple of creepy-cats at our morning coffee break
By the time we arrived to the South China Sea, the weather was starting the break and it was getting warmer. We were both excited about this, we took a few layers off and enjoyed the warmth. Dean (from Seattle) who lived and worked at the Phong Nha Farmstay told us to head to the 'Vinh Moc' tunnels north of Hue as they were an interesting array of complex tunnels. More than 90 families disappeared underground due to heavy US bombing in this coastal area during the American War. We had heard via other travellers that it was an interesting stop and we both were keen on seeing the area and learning more about the history of Vinh Moc.
By the time we hit the coast, we had realized that we popped out closer to Cua Tung Beach south of Vinh Moc. We also realized that we still had quite the push to Hue, so opted out of backtracking north to the tunnels and we instead pushed south along the coast due to light and time.
My Honda XR 150 work-horse, a surprisingly fun bike to ride (aside from the horribly uncomfortable seat).
Loads of shrines and monuments dotted this section of the coast as did a plethora of deep pits.
Vietnam Tourism monument on the South China Sea
We followed stretches of roads that hugged the coast north of Hue. We were very impressed with the quality of roads along this stretch. We felt like we were following golf-cart tracks with little to no traffic. The traffic we did encounter was mostly other moto-scoots, bicycles and animals for the most part. Also, there were many roadside monuments, cemeteries and shrines in remembrance of those lost in the war. We found that these stretches of roads were ironically peaceful.
We pulled up to a woman selling various items out of a cart in a small village along the coast road. We loaded up for a picnic lunch, bought some fruit and mystery snacks from her and pulled off the road next to this man-made canal for a break just up the road. It was a great roadside stop and we were both ecstatic that it wasn't raining and we could enjoy our surroundings with a bit of heat and dryness in a tranquil setting. It was at times like this that made traveling Vietnam by bike worth every minute, even those minutes spent cold and in the miserable rain. On the bikes, we could stop where we wanted, when we wanted and as long as we wanted, it was perfect.
Travelling along Hwy 576B was excellent. It was mellow and peaceful with long stretches of road that were as straight as an arrow. Hwy #1 was paralleling this road roughly ~15-20km to our west, which is why this road was empty and peaceful. We were still able to hold a good speed and cover a great deal of ground even by avoiding the hectic main route of the #1. We were very pleased with the suggestion to travel along these roads, I would definitely recommend these as an alternate to Hwy #1 between Vinh Moc and Hue.
We had started making reservations online and in advance for hotels before we stopped at Phong Nha. We knew we would be traveling along a more touristy route from this point on and almost all the way to HCMCity, therefore our choice, price and quality of accommodation would be fairly easy to research online and to reserve in advance, especially in the more popular locations.
We had read a good recommendation online for the Hue Serene Palace Hotel in Hue and we went ahead and made a reservation. I also plugged in the location onto my phone via Google Maps and figured I would have an easy time navigating the city and landing at our hotel. Turned out, the address that the hotel had listed on TripAdvisor or their website was wrong. Once in Hue, I circled the block 3-4 times in fairly heavy traffic trying to find it. I stopped in a couple of different hotels and businesses to ask, and still, I couldn't find this hotel. I was just about to snap and blow my top, when finally I asked the right person and they knew the exact location. The address I had on my map was wrong. We were x2 blocks off and hadn't traveled down the right skinny laneway. But we finally found our 'Palace' for the night. And a palace it WAS. The Hue Serene Palace Hotel was rated #1 on TripAdvisor for a reason.
Upon landing at the hotel, the bell boy was battling us to unload our bikes and bring our luggage up to our room (something we weren't used to). We were sat down in the lobby and offered their 'Welcome Drink' upon arrival which they seemed to take a great deal of pride in. I whispered to Amanda that I was keen to get up to our room to grab a shower and unwind, so we both guzzled our passionfruit bevies and headed to the elevator. We paid $30 for our room and were immediately upgraded to a higher priced room 'with city views' upon arrival (I had read that they do this often when rooms are available as they wanted good reviews in order to keep their TripAdvisor #1 standing). We were both very impressed. It was our nicest hotel to date. It was clean, new, and shiny with a huge breakfast spread included in the price. I would highly recommend the Hue Serene Palace Hotel
Trip Advisor link...
After showering we started to unwind with a cold beer after our long day on the road. We then headed out and into the streets of Hue for a nice supper. We headed to the Golden Rice Restaurant and had an excellent meal. After supper, we walked the streets of Hue, enjoyed a few mojitos at Hue's popular DMZ Bar and then called it a night.
Next Day - the Famous Hai Van Pass into Hoi An for a x2 night stop over... closer and closer to our final destination Ho Chi Minh City.
Day 19 - Saturday, November 23
Distance - 140 kms = total for day ~ 5 hrs
Trip Odometer = 2218 kms
Route - South from Hue on Hwy #1 to Hai Van Pass then south on #1 to #608 east to Hoi An.
Hotel - Ha An Hotel - Hoi An ($55 x 2 nights)
Weather - Nice weather in the morning out of Hue. Then rain like it has never rained before, the hardest, most intense downpour yet as we approached the base of Hai Van Pass. Skies opened up to sunshine and warmth once over the pass on the Danang side, then sunny to Hoi An.
Social Media. It can be a royal pain in the ass at times, and at other times, an amazing resource for people to connect and reconnect. Well, a simple post on Facebook allowed a long-lost traveler friend and I to meet up... 14 years later, ... in Vietnam.
I met 'Henning' from Norway in 2000 in Ecuador. We were studying spanish at the same school in Quito and we ended up traveling together throughout South America for about 3 months. We kept in contact over the years via Facebook and when Amanda and I arrived to Hanoi, I posted a pic on FB, Henning saw it, and then sent me a message stating that he and his better half were headed there as well and perhaps we would meet up. We had a fairly tight schedule on the bikes to travel throughout the north and then all the way south to HCMC but the timing would work out. Henning and his gal Pernille were arriving to Hue by train the morning we were set to leave. We told him to meet us at the Serene Palace Hotel and it was a great, although very brief reunion.
Henning and Pernille had tried to reserve at the Serene Palace, but for some reason their booking via an alternate website didn't confirm the booking and unfortunately the hotel was fully booked for that night. The folks at the front desk still invited them in, had them sit for the free breakfast and they helped them find an alternate hotel for the night. (Henning told me that they headed back to following night and he too agreed that this hotel was incredible).
After our brief reunion with Team Norway, we loaded up our bikes to head south to Hoi An and over the famous Hai Van Pass which I was stoked to ride. As I put a final bungee on Amanda's bike, I noticed that her back tire was completely flat. (You can actually see this in 3 pictures above). The bellboy-door-dude saw me pointing at it and without hesitation, he hops on her bike, fires it up and starts riding it down the road, away from us, without gestures or words. I look at Amanda, she looks at me, and we smile... 'I guess he is going to get it fixed, eh'?!
We sat down in front of the hotel to chill and wait. The timing of the flat tire couldn't have worked out better. Amanda then tells me that she saw a small North Face down jacket the night before while wandering around Hue, and it would be perfect for her 2 year old niece for Xmas. We load up on my bike x2 up, head to the shop around a few corners, make a sweet deal for the jacket and hammer back to the hotel moments later. Within a full 10min max from when the bellboy took Amanda's bike, he was coming down the road back to the hotel. Back tire, fixed! 70,000 dong ($3.50) for a brand new tube and the repair... done and done. We then tipped the bellboy another 70,000d or something of the sort, we all highfived and were on our way south. Amazing. Didn't even get our hands dirty. In all of my travels over the years, the hospitality we experienced in Vietnam was exemplary...
Our original plan was to head directly to the coast from Hue and along a more rural road that would eventually link up with the #1. After the flat tire, the reunion with Team Norway, we decided to just hop on the busy #1 south and head directly to the Pass. It turned out to be reasonable riding. It was busy and hectic as the #1 always is, but it wasn't out of control, or perhaps we were just getting used to Vietnam by that point.
As we approached the base of the Hai Van Pass, the skies completely opened up. We encountered rain like we had never seen before. I half thought of pulling over, but we were literally soaked from head to toe in a matter of seconds, so we pushed on. Amanda pulled up to me at one point with wide eyes and we started to laugh, we were creeping along at a safe snails pace, and we had a hard time hearing each other due to the sheer noise of the rain. It was incredible. We started heading up the famous Hai Van Pass and the rain mellowed.
In 2005, a large scale tunnel was opened for larger truck traffic and cars to avoid the 21km Pass. The tunnel is closed to all motorbikes and bicycles, only open for large vehicles which makes the Pass perfect for scoots. This stretch of highway was notorious for bad accidents which occurred regularly every year. Most of the accidents were largely in part due to the constant thick fog on the northern side of the Pass.
As we gained elevation, the rain subsided, but the fog set in. At times, it was so thick, you could barely see in front of you. As we approached the summit, we opted not to stop as we couldn't see a thing anyway. As we started down in elevation on the southern side of the Pass, a magical thing started to happen...
The skies opened up again, and this time, without the heavy downpour of rain. The sun started beaming and we could see blue skies in the distance. We couldn't believe it. I had read that this is quite common, rain and fog on the north side and sun and blue skys on the south side. We were amped. It was crazy to look left over our shoulders to see the grey, loomy skies we had just passed through and now we were cruising down in elevation, warming up, drying out and enjoying the curves without any truck traffic and very few cars.
Looking south from the Hai Van Pass towards Danang. Amazing.
Amanda giving the AOK, thumbs up to some beauty weather.
I started opening up my XR on the way down the Pass enjoying every twisty curve with little to no traffic, giving my 1-Fiddy a run for its money - (or is it a 'run for it's dong'??!) It was hilarious to see packs of automatic scoots heading up the Pass in the opposite direction all piloted by flip-flop and tank-top clad travellers coming up the famous Pass they saw on the BBC's 'Top Gear' in Vietnam Episode
Looking south - you can see the city scape of Danang in the middle (roughly 900,000 people). As our plans and routes were constantly changing with our go-with-the-flow-attitude, we yet again, changed our original plan. Dean at the Phong Nha Farmstay told us a route where we could avoid Danang altogether. We were planning on skirting the city to the east and right along the coast. By the time we arrived to the city, we opted to head straight through to get a jump on Hoi An as we wanted to arrive at a reasonable hour with our shorter day on the road.
I was so impressed with Amanda's skills in Danang. A city of just under 1 million people, the traffic started getting quite thick and heavy as did the traffic lights as we headed through. Amanda was rocking it, she would pull up next to me at traffic lights in the middle of packs of at least 50-100 other bikes and she was talking and chatting to me like she had lived there for years. Light would turn green, we would start out with the other riders like a flock of seagulls all heading in the same direction. Funny enough, going through Danang was actually fun, we both enjoyed it for the most part.
We continued along Hwy #1 out of Danang and we arrived to our turn-off on Hwy #608 east not before long.
Pulling into Hoi An was interesting to say the least. There were SO many tourists and a great deal of action for a smaller town. We knew it would be busy, but we were both very surprised with the layout, it was beautiful. Hoi An's old town is another Unesco World Heritage site with over 800 buildings that have been preserved and restored in the city's Old Town. The town was literally destroyed during the Tay Son Rebellion but was rebuilt as it continued to be an important port until the late 19th century. It was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999.
We had a reservation at the Ha An Hotel in the heart of Hoi An's Old Town and it was a perfect choice. It was close to our most expensive stay, but we decided to splurge on something really nice. At $55/night, it was a perfect fit and a great choice.
Top notch choice of hotels in Hoi An - the Ha An Hotel. Hoi An has an incredible array of hotels at any range, and any price, most in the heart and proximity of the Old Town.
After unwinding at the hotel after our shorter day on the road, I dropped a bag of laundry at the front desk as it had been quite a few days since we had any laundry done. We then headed down the street from the hotel and quickly arrived at the local market. It reminded me of the Sapa Market but much more spread out. The perfect equation and combination of foreign tourists + locals was present, which made it easy to shoot photographs in every direction possible without offence or rudeness.
Locals were piling onto these boats right off the market, heading along various waterways and heading home to various villages in the area. We were told that some were living as far as the adjacent islands 15km from Hoi An known at the Cham Islands where they lived in settlements and villages as well.
Hoi An's famous 'Japanese Covered Bridge'...
And Hoi An's Famous lit-up paper lanterns...
After a few cold ones and a bite-to-eat at the tasty 'Miss Ly' restaurant, we made our way to one of the many custom tailor shops in Hoi An. We figured we couldn't leave Hoi An without a custom tailored 'something', so we both decided to get fitted for warmer wool jackets (petty coats) for home.
The options were endless, you could get them to make you whatever you could dream up and in whatever material you wanted, whatever colour, with whatever buttons... the list went on and on and on...
On our way back to the hotel I made a jack-ass comment joking our 'laundry had better be done or I'll snap-show at the front desk'... we both had a laugh, opened the door to our room and whammo... our laundry was done. Amazing. We both had a huge laugh. Only a handful of hours since our arrival and well before the 'next-day-service' the hotel stated.
Again, Vietnam, number #1 in service!
Our plan for the next day was a relax day in Hoi An... tour around, hit the beach in the morning and we had a fitting back at the tailors in the afternoon for alterations and the rest.
Great ride report SS.
Really makes me want to go back and do it all over again