Having fun in the sand dunes of Mui Ne, Vietnam!
sunset in Mui Ne, Vietnam
Elephant Falls — Dalat, Vietnam
When we arrived in Hoi An, Vietnam, everyone was gearing up for the lunar new year festival, called Tết. This is the most important holiday of the year for Vietnamese people. It’s like Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Year’s and Birthdays all rolled into one. Families prepare grand feasts, gifts are exchanged, the dead are honored, and everyone turns a year older. That’s right…birthdays aren’t celebrated in Vietnam as we know them. Tết is everyone’s birthday! For some Vietnamese, it is the only time off they get all year.
Tons of yellow flowers being shuttled around for Tết
Tết flowers for sale
Busy market place
Hoi An was the perfect place to be for Tết. They city is already naturally festive and colorful.
Japanese bridge in Hoi An
In the days leading up to Tết, the waterfront area was filled with colorful illuminated sculptures. There was a huge carnival setup with a talent show, music, raffles, games, and food stalls. At midnight on Tết, a big fireworks display went off over the river.
2014 is the year of the horse
The day after Tết, everything was quiet. We rented bikes and rode out to Cam Nam island. The people are really friendly in this part of town. Everyone wished us a happy new year as we passed by!
The narrow streets of Cam Nam
Beautiful sunset sky
Hoi An was definitely one of the prettiest towns we visited in Vietnam. Apart from its visual appeal, you can get great food there, as well as relax on the beach.
Hoi An Beach
We were very fortunate to arrive at this particular time and watch locals and Vietnamese tourists enjoying the holiday!
Ever since we rented a motorbike in Palolem, India, we have been addicts!
Motorbiking for the first time in Palolem, India
Having freedom of transport means we can get out of the cities, explore the countryside, and visit small towns and villages with no time limits. Most importantly, renting a motorbike is cheap! Often times, it’s cheaper than the cost of hiring a tuk tuk driver for the day to take you from site to site. In India, we rented our motorbike for $4 USD/day. In SE Asia, they cost between $5-8/day. Our motorbike rides have been the highlight of our time in Southeast Asia. Below is a recap of our motorbiking experiences.
The road conditions vary from country to country and town to town. Some places have nice paved roads and some have gravel or dirt roads. Some spots are crowded with people and trucks, while other times we share the road only with lovable cows.
Crowded gravel roads in Phnom Penh, Cambodia…wear your face mask!
Quiet paved roads in Chiang Rai, Thailand
Off-roading in Cambodia
Traffic patterns are nothing like they are in the US. There doesn’t seem to be any road rules…each man for himself! You can go the wrong way on the road, ride up on the sidewalk, and weave past larger cars on your bike. This freedom seems to make all drivers more conscientious and observant, and it usually all works out in the end. A flow of traffic emerges from the chaos and it isn’t as hard as it looks…at least that’s what Simon says.
I am only able to go on these motorbiking adventures because Simon is a fantastic and brave driver. Simon tried to give me a driving lesson once in a dirt field outside of Chiang Rai, but I crashed the bike…whoops! Luckily, the bike only had a few scratches (I was fine). In my defense, it wasn’t an ideal training ground. Some day, I will learn!
Here are two videos of Simon expertly navigating the busy streets of Hue, Vietnam and avoiding a herd of cows in rural Cambodia:
When your bike breaks down in Southeast Asia…
With all this time spent on the bike, it isn’t surprising that we’ve had our share of mishaps. The first motorbike we rented in SE Asia was from a (terrible) company in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We prepaid for a 3 day rental and they gave us a beat up looking bike and two helmets painted with marijuana leaves on the sides.
Our first day of the rental, we drove the bike 11 kms outside of the city to see the Mae Sa Waterfalls. We enjoyed ourselves at the falls and took our time looking around the park. When we got back to our bike, it was 5pm and the park was closing. The food vendors were closing up their stalls for the day. There was only one other car in the parking lot.
To our dismay, our bike would not start. We struggled with it for a minute or so before the food stall vendors and people from the remaining car came rushing over to help. I was surprised at how quickly people came to our aid! They all examined the bike and tried to fix it. It appeared the battery was dead. To make matters worse, the kickstarter was broken. All attempts to start it failed.
I tried to channel the Thai concept of “Mai Bpen Rai" (don’t worry about it!) and not panic about the fact we were stuck 11 kilometers outside of town, at night, in the middle of nowhere. The group of people in the other car were 3 young Thai tourists visiting Chiang Mai from Bangkok. They appeared to be in their early 20’s. One of the youths called the bike shop for us and explained our situation in Thai. The bike shop relayed a message to us that it wasn’t their problem, and we had to deal with it. The youths took immediate charge of the situation, instructing us to park the bike for the night and they would drive us back into town. They spoke to the park guards in Thai telling them we needed to leave the bike in the lot for the night. Everyone was very understanding.
On the drive back to town, we found out they were on their way to pick up a fourth friend at the airport and then they would be going clubbing that night. I wondered if I, in my early 20’s, would have interrupted plans for a big night out on my vacation to help stranded tourists in need. We felt really lucky to have such helpful and kind people nearby in this situation.
The next day, we went to the bike shop seeking to remedy the situation. They reluctantly agreed to send their mechanic out to the waterfalls to “fix” the bike.
Simon, on the back of the mechanic’s bike, driving out to the waterfalls to fix and retrieve the broken bike
The mechanic and Simon drove out to the waterfalls. The mechanic replaced the battery on the bike, and Simon drove back into town. By the time Simon returned, it was early afternoon. We parked the bike and got some lunch. After lunch, we returned to the bike to find it had a flat tire! We had to push the bike back to the shop to have it repaired.
Pushing the bike to the shop
It took the mechanic some time to repair the flat, and by the time we got our bike back it was 2pm. Determined to make something of the day and not completely waste the daily rental cost, we rode out to Doi Suthep, a temple about 6 kms outside of the city. We got there around 3pm and parked. The place was packed with people everywhere and traffic was congested.
Just to be safe, we tested the bike before we went in to make sure it would start up again once it was turned off. The bike again failed to start. Simon went off to search for a mechanic, while I tried to reach the rental company - unsuccessfully. I was having trouble finding my inner mai bpen rai, and it must have been obvious on my face, as a Thai policeman came over to me concerned. I swear they have a 6th sense! He didn’t speak English but I did my best to explain the situation. He called the bike shop on his phone and then handed his cell to me.
The bike shop owner proceeded to scream at me, telling me he had wasted enough time on us today and that it wasn’t his problem. He suggested we walk the bike back into town. I handed the phone back to the policeman a little teary eyed with anger. At this point, Simon came back, empty-handed. We were about to admit defeat, when a man wearing a Thai army uniform motioned us and the policeman toward a hardware stall. The Thai army man tried to fix the bike and kickstart it (as the others had tried to do yesterday) to no avail. Clearly the bike had some sort of electrical problem. They both shook their heads when they saw the name of the bike shop - I guess they have a reputation for this sort of thing!
Just when I thought the situation was hopeless and that we would indeed be walking it back to town, the Thai army man opened up our bike, removed our dead battery and replaced it with his own. He was able to start our bike on his full battery. Once our bike was running, he put our dead battery back in and said “do not turn off!!!”. We thanked him, praised the Thai army, and quickly made our way back to town. We didn’t even get a chance to see Doi Suthep!
Although the people at the bike shop were enraging, we were impressed at how quickly people came to our rescue and how we were able to get help even with a language barrier. In fact, the ease of getting help ‘in the wild’ is one of the main reasons I didn’t oppose to us renting more motorbikes in the future…even after such a disastrous first attempt.
We continued to rent and our future motorbiking experiences in Thailand, Laos and Northern Vietnam went smoothly. We were able to see the White Temple in Chiang Rai and the Kuang Si Waterfall in Luang Prabang. When we got to Vietnam, we motorbiked around Cát Bà Island and saw the Hospital Cave and Cát Bà National Park. We rented bikes again in Hue to see the Royal Tombs. In Hoi An, we motorbiked to the city of Da Nang and to the beautiful nearby beaches.
Riding to the beach in Hoi An
Everything was going pretty great until we hit Dalat, Vietnam. We were riding out to see Elephant Falls and explore the countryside. Other than some dusty roads, and a malfunctioning speedometer, we had no problems with the bike.
Dirt biking in Dalat, Vietnam
The fuel arrangement works differently in SE Asia than it does in the US. Instead of getting the bike full and returning the bike full, you get the bike empty and return it as close to empty as you can. As we were driving back into Dalat to return the bike, our fuel gauge was low but not yet empty. We thought that we had enough to get back into town. We were wrong and our bike puttered out (even though the meter read that there was still some gas remaining!). Our bike was due back to the shop in 30 minutes and according to google maps, the next gas station was a few kilometers away. We started wheeling our bike through the village and wondered if some kindly stranger would come to our aid. Our reception in Vietnam up to this point had been a little…icy, so I was somewhat surprised when a man, noticing our distress, came rushing over.
Again, the man did not speak English and we do not speak Vietnamese. No matter! We pointed to our empty gas tank and he sprung into action. He motioned for us to push the bike up the hill to a nearby road. Once up there, he got his motorbike and motioned for us to follow him. Since the road was downhill, we could coast down on the bike without any power. He led us to a roadside stall and a man emerged from the back with a liter of gas in an old wine bottle. After filling the tank, the bike did not start up immediately. We worried that maybe we had a bigger problem than running out of fuel. The Vietnamese man tinkered with it some and after several valiant attempts, the bike started. We thanked the man profusely and made it back to the bike rental shop with time to spare.
The moral of the story is that people are helpful, friendly, and awesome everywhere we go! If you are planning to do some motorbiking, be prepared for untimely mechanical failure. When the inevitable does happen, you can count on the kindness of strangers. The language of distress is universal and one should have faith in humanity. Just make sure your brakes work before you leave the rental shop!
Business in the front, party in the back
Have faith & look both ways!
Things started warming us for as we headed south from Ha Long to Hue in central Vietnam. Flowers were in bloom, the sun was shining and people were cheerfully gearing up for the upcoming Tết holiday.
Tết decorations on a budding tree
Tết flowers for sale
Hue is the former imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty, who ruled Vietnam from 1802-1945. The Nguyen Dynasty was the last ruling family of Vietnam. We rented a motorbike (as we always do now!) and biked to the Imperial Citadel.
The Imperial Citadel was badly damaged in Vietnam’s 20th century wars with France and America. Many of the buildings have been partially or entirely destroyed. The damaged buildings being reclaimed by nature give the citadel a melancholy beauty.
Destroyed building in the Imperial Citadel
Nature taking over!
We also rode out to see the tombs of Nguyen Dynasty emperors. These tombs are more palace than tomb, each with a sprawling complex that reflects the personality of the emperor buried there.
At the tomb of Khai Dinh
Our favorite tomb, the tomb of Tu Duc, an emperor with a “poetic spirit”
We also came across a cemetery for regular Vietnamese citizens as we drove around. Although not as stately as the emperors’ tombs, they were still pretty cool!
My favorite thing about Hue is the food! I wasn’t a huge fan of the food in Northern Vietnam. No matter what I ordered, I’d always end up with a subtle and mild pho. After a month of spicy goodness in Thailand, it was a difficult adjustment. When we got to Hue, I was relieved to see less Thit Cho (dog meat!) stalls, and a variety of flavorful foods.
Spring rolls at Nina’s Cafe, the best restaurant in Hue
Nem Lui, delicious lemongrass skewers!
Bún bò Huế
We’re getting excited to head down south, eat more food, and see more of Vietnam!
Ha Long Bay is one of the most beautiful and iconic places in Vietnam. The bay is made up of over 2,000 limestone karsts, small islands, sea caves, and a thriving underwater ecosystem. It was at the top of our list of places to visit in Vietnam!
We decided to base ourselves in Cát Bà, a large island in the middle of the bay. From here we planned to hike, bike, and kayak our way around this beautiful area. We had some trouble getting to Cát Bà. It is the off season, so there weren’t many boats going to the island. To make things worse, I was going off outdated information from a 2006 lonely planet post…whoops. After two nightmarish days trying to get a boat, we finally succeeded in getting on a rusty old car ferry headed for Cát Bà. Woo hoo!
On the ferry!
Our first day in Cát Bà, we rented a motorbike and explored the island. We hiked around Cát Bà National Park, saw some of the island’s beaches, and visited the Hospital Cave — a giant cave converted into a secret, three-story military hospital used during the ‘American War’ (as it is called here).
Jungle hike in Cát Bà National Park
Cát Bà Beach
Our second day, we went on a kayaking trip with Asia Outdoors. We kayaked around Lan Ha Bay (south of Ha Long). It was incredible to see the limestone karsts up close. The water around the karsts was often very shallow, which allowed us to see the underwater world of coral, urchins, shellfish and schools of small jumping fish. This is definitely the best way to see the bay!
It is winter in Northern Vietnam now, so the first half of our kayak trip was foggy and overcast. It didn’t bother us though, the fog added to the ambiance. It reminded us of Myst, the classic computer puzzle game from the 90’s. We passed by floating villages, paddled around a large lagoon, and stopped off at a beach to end our morning session.
Floating fishing village
The only entrance to the lagoon!
The Vietnamese build many things out of concrete. Here: an abandoned concrete boat.
A group of cuddly snails
One of the many interesting tidal beaches in Lan Ha Bay
Limestone beach by a popular rock climbing wall
Ha long Pup greeting us at the dock
After a delicious lunch, the skies miraculously cleared up and we had sunshine for our afternoon kayaking. The afternoon session was open kayaking, so we were able to explore independently. Our group was small enough that at times it felt like we had the bay to ourselves!
Islands as far as the eye can see
Pulling up to our private beach
If you visit Vietnam, be sure to make a stop at Ha Long Bay. There are many tour packages available that will take you around the bay. We actually did not tour the greater area of Ha Long Bay, but we enjoyed the relative tranquility of the less-trafficked Lan Ha Bay. There is no place like it!
In Luang Prabang, we rented a motorbike and rode out to Kuang Si Waterfall. The water cascades downstream into beautiful turquoise pools. You can view the falls from below, then hike up to the top and stand in the water before it goes over the edge!
Beautiful Luang Prabang, Laos.