Hoi An || Ha Noi

Viet Dip 3On our first morning in Hoi An we were sipping strong iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk and discussing our dream of buying motorcycles and becoming the motorcycle gang soon to be known as Late 80s Mercedes. As we stood to leave the cafe in search of our future beloved and badass motorcycles, a man sitting behind us rose and followed us out. He followed us across the street into the first moto shop we’d spotted, which turned out was his shop. He wanted to rent us some scooters but when we told him we were actually in the market to buy a few motorcycles he called up three of his friends with bikes for sale who each drove a Honda Win over to his shop for us to test drive. A few hours later we had each dropped $270 (or just under 6 million Vietnamese dongs; we are millionaires here. And we get to say “dong” a lot.) in the name of true love. Joel’s true love is called The Black Pearl. Austin’s true love is named d’Artagnan. David rides triumphantly upon Carl.Viet Dip 2And then Late 80s Mercedes began a road trip through Vietnam. We left Hoi An heading west toward the border with Laos. Setting off on our bikes felt like the start of an adventure we were not at all prepared for, but one that guaranteed excitement and learning. We rode through rice fields and towns on dusty roads. Gaining elevation, we came upon giant trucks lumbering up mountain passes in low gear. We learned to become confident left lane overtakers. We reached a town where we spent our first night and settled in as the sole guests at a little hotel. When we ventured into town for dinner it became obvious that foreigners were a very rare sight. We filled up on gas and hot soup while the whole village watched us. The next morning we started early, already twice as experienced as the previous morning. We made our way into lush, steamy jungle and  took turns leading our caravan. We did our best to keep at least one member of the gang always in sight and developed a signature horn morse code to communicate with each other on the road: two short chirps followed by one long blare indicates a teammate in need of assistance or a stop.Viet Dip 4We spent the next 7 days riding north on the Ho Chi Minh Highway West. We had the curvy road and spectacular views almost entirely to ourselves as we made our way through jungles, over steep mountain passes, into misty valleys, over rivers and streams, through teeny tiny villages where children ran out of their stilt homes toward the road to wave at us excitedly as we passed, along rice paddies and fields of sugar cane, through vast stretches of landscape that looked like the Shire and into fluttering swarms of butterflies that encircled us whimsically. The landscape was unbelievably beautiful and had us rubbing our eyes wondering if we’d been magically transported into the pages of a National Geographic Magazine.Viet Dip 5We arrived on the second evening in Khe Sanh and prepared mentally for the next day’s ride. We would have to ride for almost 200 miles without passing gas stations, food, mechanics or even other people along the way. We would be in the middle of nowhere. If anything went wrong out there we would be on our own to figure it out. We were even prepared to abandon any motorcycle that dared break down on us. Getting injured was not allowed. While 200 miles may not sound like much, keep in mind that we beginners would be riding through winding jungle roads and over isolated mountain passes on our underpowered, 20-year-old counterfeit motorcycles (the name “Honda” is printed on them, but they are actually just Chinese copycats made in the image of a Honda). We would reach maximum speeds of only about 30 MPH (though we’d have no way to actually know our speed since our speedometers don’t function) and spend several hours winding our way up steep mountains at a blistering 15 MPH.Viet Dip 1.1The jungle which surrounded us was beautiful and lush, and seemed as though it threatened to swallow up the little road that passed through it. It holds a history that represents unfortunate aspects of our culture that we still don’t fully understand and which is likely still occurring in other places. To this day the jungle is littered with unexploded bombs, buried bullet shells and bomb craters. We never strayed far from the road to pee for the very real risk of happening upon unexploded ordnance. It has been estimated that the US fired 8 bullets for every Vietnamese soldier in the battle of Khe Sanh and dropped 5,000 tonnes of explosives for every soldier. Whatever sense there is to make of these numbers eluded us as we rode through the jungle, trying to comprehend war and its lasting impacts. It was hard to connect this beautiful jungle and our feelings of excitement, adventure and gratitude with war, drafts, unexploded bombs, napalm and suffering.Viet Dip 7 (cave)On day 3 we found ourselves in Phong Nha, a stunningly beautiful area of Vietnam, home to the world’s largest known cave. The scenery was so incredible that day 3 has gone down in the annals of the gang as one of the best days ever. We spent an extra day in the national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site to visit the 31-km-long Paradise Cave. Day 4 brought heavy rains and a forecast of nothing but rain for the foreseeable future. We decided there was no point in waiting around for it to stop and braved the rain on two wheels. In a very short time we were all soaked to the bone, our shoes were overflowing with rainwater and our teeth were chattering. While we were able to keep a sense of humor about us for the first hour or two, vacillating between feeling miserable and recognizing the shear ridiculousness of our lives, by the end of our 5-hour ride we were pruney and beyond ready for a hot shower and a dry change of clothes.Viet Dip 6The following day brought us to Ninh Binh, a small, neighborhood-y city south of Hanoi. After about an hour of searching for our hotel, Austin skillfully negotiated the price for our room to half the original price. While strolling around looking for dinner we saw a friendly woman grilling sweet potatoes on the curb. We ordered a few and while we waited for our sweet potatoes to cook, her young daughter joined us and was very excited to practice her English with us. We agreed to stop in the following evening to see them again. The next day we were on a little boat, powered by a sweet woman who rowed us with her feet under a series of limestone caves, past jutting karsts and paddlings of adorable little ducklings. When we got back to town we visited our sweet potato buddies. Upon arriving our young friend immediately phoned her two classmates who joined us. The three of them seemed to have a lot of fun speaking with us and told us how much they loved our American culture. They adore Taylor Swift. Their enthusiasm was very endearing.Viet Dip 10 ninh binh kidsViet Dip 9.9 ninh binhAt the tail end of our 7-day, 1200-km ride was Hanoi, and Joel’s friend Alec who was expecting to meet us there. It was this commitment to Alec that had kept Late 80s Mercedes moving north. We arrived in Hanoi at rush hour via a major highway that was far less scenic than all of our previous days of riding and a little bit scary. As we neared the city the motorcycles were kicked off the highway onto a smaller road. The traffic grew more and more congested. For about 20 minutes an 18-wheeler blocked the traffic in both directions while several different drivers tried to unstick it from where it was very snugly lodged in a sharp turn. We waited patiently among the thousands of other motorcycles on either side of the truck, waiting for the road to clear. Entering the city felt a bit like a video game. The far left lanes were allotted for cars and trucks while the two right lanes were kept for motorcycles only. It was a controlled chaos and the motorcycle lanes were a sea of bikes overtaking and weaving. We were driving sometimes only inches away from other motorcycles and felt a kind of oneness with the sea of motorized vehicles. For the hour or so of driving in the heart of the rush hour traffic we gained an unusual sense of calm, heightened awareness. We met Alec and explored the city together for three days. We ate a lot of delicious food and visited some museums. We then spent 2 days on a boat in Ha Long Bay, a beautiful area on the coast just 4 hours east of Hanoi, where we went kayaking, met some other friendly travelers and took in the almost unreal views of the limestone karst formations jutting out of the water. As we were herded along amidst vast mobs of tourists, we noted the contrast to just a few days prior when we were the sole Westerners visiting tiny villages where no English was spoken.Viet Dip 8 ninh binhViet 100 Dip ha longSeeing Alec off, Late 80s Mercedes prepared for the next leg of our Vietnamese motorcycle road trip. We had originally intended to go north to Sa Pa. We had about 10 days remaining in Vietnam before our visas expired and our rough plan was to tour around the north on our bikes before returning to Hanoi for a few days in the hope of selling The Black Pearl, d’Artagnan and Carl just before leaving the country. But staying true to our spontaneous nature, we woke up on the morning of our intended departure and scrapped our plans entirely. Instead of beginning the journey north, we decided at the last minute that we’d rather go to Laos. The truth was we weren’t ready to part with our motorcycles. If we could ride them across the border into Laos we’d earn another month with them. Plus, we’d heard that it can be very difficult and sometimes impossible for travelers to bring a Vietnamese bike across the border. It requires paperwork (which we don’t have), an immigration official who is in a pleasant mood and most probably some bribes. On top of all this, the roads to the border are reputed to be absolutely terrible. The whole thing sounded like our next great adventure. We were feeling lucky.

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4 thoughts on “Hoi An || Ha Noi

  1. Whew! That was a story of beauty and adventure, some scary. We’re speechless with nothing clever to say that can match. Hats off to the writers, photographers, and travelers. LOVE and thanks

  2. All I can say, austin is that fred would be thrilled to follow your motorcycle adventures and proud of all that you have experienced in the last 2 years. Today is his anniversary and this story celebrates him in an adventurous, amazing way! Thank you. Anne/Mom

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