- Posted by Jacobus Du Plessis
- On February 16, 2017
- 1 Comments
- adventure, motorbike, vietnam, Vietnam motorbike tour
Picture yourself riding a motorbike at full-speed through the mountains of Vietnam as the early morning sun begins to evaporate the mists covering the primordial forests surrounding you. The hairs rise on your neck rise and you can’t tell whether it is from the cold early morning wind or the feeling of excitement that you usually get when you are doing something that terrifies you. This is the story of Bikenam – Vietnam’s Premier Motorbike Tour Company.
It all started when three South Africans, Dolf Du Plessis and his two sons, Jacobus and Divan, set out on an epic bicycle tour from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). The plan was simple, fly to Vietnam (a country where they had never been before), buy three bicycles (they couldn’t speak the language and didn’t know the layout of the city) and then set off on a 2100km cycling route. Through Vietnam, a country made infamous for the terrible scenes of warfare relayed to all our TV screens in the West during the 60s and 70s, and later eternally enshrined in cult classic films like Apocalypse Now and Good Morning Vietnam.
For four weeks we cycled, and cycled, and cycled and finally reached our end destination. After 2100 km on a late afternoon we cycled over the main bridge entering Ho Chi Minh City and the traffic was rushing past us, near-misses no longer phasing us. Within those four weeks we had been pushed to the limit physically by the extreme weather conditions. Days of blistering sun were only exchanged for days of monsoon rainfall, we weren’t sure what was worse. Mentally we had struggled to keep ourselves motivated to stay on course and also to deal with the strange foods and cultures surrounding us. But, we had grown immeasurably. We could confidently say at the end of our adventure that we were no longer the same three people who had started this adventure. We had toughened up and mentally our minds had been broadened by all we had seen. Our hearts too had opened and were gladdened by the innumerable little kindnesses the Vietnamese people had done for us along the way. Some merely gave us a cold drink of water, others invited us into their homes to rest while the midday sun was too hot for us to continue, still others went out of their way to help us by showing us the right way or spending an hour helping us fix a broken bicycle.
The day after our adventure had ended we were drinking a few beers and reflecting on what we had just accomplished. Everyone was talking excitedly, but think it was Divan who first said it, but once we heard it we knew we had to do it, he said “we should take more people on adventures like this.” This is when we decided to start Bikenam. An adventure tour company specialising in epic motorbike and bicycle tours through Vietnam.
About one year later we were back in Vietnam, after months of organising we had established our tour company in Vietnam. We were ready to start sharing this beautiful country with people from all over the world. By December 2016 we had planned our biggest tour yet with participants coming from Australia, France, Hong Kong and South Africa.
Part I: Relaxing Before the Storm
On the first day our tour participants arrived in Hanoi after long flights from all over the world. You’d expect everyone to be exhausted but the way it always goes with this is that everyone is so excited to be in a new country for the first time that no one seems to be tired. After checking everyone into the hotel we set off to eat some Vietnamese delicacies for dinner and grab a few beers. Despite the long-haul flights it turned into a late evening spent next to Hoan Kiem Lake sipping beers until 3 am in the morning.
For the first part of the tour, we would be setting out to go to Halong Bay on a two day boat cruise to see the incredible Karst Mountain peaks that pierce through the emerald waters of the ocean surface. Halong Bay, meaning nine dragon bay in Vietnamese, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is beyond beautiful. During the days we explored the bay, kayaked around limestone peaks and went deep into one of thousands of caves that are spread across this area. In the evenings we ate like the Vietnamese Emperors of old, with so much delicious food that we never really stood a chance of finishing it. Our stomachs being full, we went to sit on the boat’s roof where we listened to the sounds of the water splashing against the boat as we chatted until late in the evening.
The relaxing part of the tour was about to come to an end though – it was time to start the motorbike adventure.
Part II: The Adventure of a Lifetime
We flew in from Hanoi to the majestic ancient capital of Vietnam, Hue. Hue is the home to the Vietnamese equivalent of the Chinese Forbidden City. It is here where the last dynasty of Vietnam, the Nguyen Dynasty ruled from. It is also here where one of the most destructive battles of the Vietnam war took place, the old walls, towers, forts and temples were briefly transformed into cover for American GIs and soldiers of the Northern Vietnamese army. Fortunately, a lot of the historical parts of the ancient city survived the carnage and today make up the Hue Complex UNESCO World Heritage Site. Having thoroughly explored the narrow old alleys, temples and palaces of Hue the next morning we would set-off on the motorbike adventure part of the tour.
We gathered up early in the morning and one of our guides took the guys for a short “introduction to riding in Vietnam”. Essentially, the basic lessons are this: First, never hesitate on the road, just continue at a constant pace and go around any obstacles. Second, use your hooter to say “Hey! I’m here”, not to say show your anger. Third, road traffic signs are merely advisory at best, don’t expect anyone to pay too much attention to them. With those pearls of wisdom we all mounted our motorbikes.
We started off and escaped the city and within minutes we were cruising along a road winding through the rice paddies of the central plains. All around us lay half-submerged buddhist temples that have been flooded in the last few weeks, there is something spiritual or quiet about the scene. The slow ebb and flow of the water against the colourful walls of the temples is something I could stare at for hours, but we had to keep pace because we were heading to Hai Van Pass.
After a long day of riding we finished in Hoi An Ancient Town. A little fairytale town which has been used as a small fishing and trading outpost for centuries. So many different cultures have left their mark on this little place. Japanese bridges span the river, French colonial villas line the water’s edge, Chinese temples add some ostentatiousness to the scene. It’s a place unlike any other, and you spend ages walking these ancient streets dreaming about what came before.
However, this is an adventure and not a luxury holiday so the day after having been properly acquainted with our little fairytale town we set off again. This day was one of the most challenging days on the route and takes us away from coast and inland to the Southern Highlands of Vietnam. The Southern Highlands are remote and isolated and they are best known for their ancient misty forests and numerous minority peoples that live in the remote corners of the mountains. We’ve had good weather so far, but today it decided to start pouring down with rain. Look, we wouldn’t say that riding in the rain is always a pleasure, but the when the clouds start covering the mountain tops all around you it makes for a pretty sight. We stopped for lunch at a spectacular waterfall rest stop and laughed the cold and the wet off of us before continuing again. The bulk on the route for that day was a steep climb into the mountains of the Southern Highlands, however once we reached the peak of one of the biggest mountains it was all straight and smooth riding down to Kon Tum where we would be sleeping that night. One of the most remarkable things about Vietnam is the rate at which the scenery changes. We started the morning in a tropical coastal climate, went up into a tropical forested mountain region and when we started descending the scenery changed again we could have mistaken the alpine covered hills for somewhere in France or Switzerland. This country never ceases to amaze us. After another long day of riding, we turned in for the evening into our luxury rooms at a hotel run by one of the ethnic minority tribes of Vietnam and enjoyed some of the local delicacies.
The next day was a comparatively smooth ride through the Southern Highlands. It gets a little chilly sometimes at this sort of altitude so I bought a sweater off a lovely lady on the side of the road, it was a little too colourful for my liking but if you need to get warm fashion concerns are secondary. Today’s destination was a beautiful and large inland lake. What made this place special, besides the obvious natural beauty, was the fact that this lake was home to one of Vietnam’s minority tribes and we would be spending the night with them that night in a traditional homestay experience. We spent the night in one of their traditional stilted homes which they tell us is constructed this way to serve a double purpose. “If the home is built on stilts then there can be no flood inside.” and “less hot inside if air goes under home.” This practical wisdom appeared to us to be correct as our little stilted house neither got flooded or hot that evening.
I can’t describe every kilometre of our epic route through Vietnam as that would take too much space, but before ending this part I can’t omit telling you about the most difficult of all the days we rode. On our way to our last stop before we’d fly to Ho Chi Minh City we were winding through the steep mountains in the south east of Vietnam. Gradually the road turned from smooth tar, into concrete, into gravel and finally into slimy mud. Now anyone who has ridden a motorbike before knows that this is generally not ideal, but sheesh was it a lot of fun. Sure our group had the occasional slip here and there, but at these low speeds nothing more than a bruised leg and a bruised ego was the consequence. And best of all through these winding muddy roads we accidentally came across a remote village that almost never sees any tourists. Their interested and friendly faces were so refreshing to us after the long fight along the muddy slopes. The rest of the route went by quickly and before we knew it the motorbike stretch of our tour was at and end. We’d ridden over 1000km together on our trusty motorbikes. Tomorrow we’d be flying to Ho Chi Minh City for our new year’s celebrations.
Part III: Unwinding
It’s amazing to see how close we’d become in such a short period of time. From complete strangers eleven days before, we were now all great friends. After using our first day to explore the tree-lined roads of Ho Chi Minh City and staring at buildings such as the old US Embassy which was familiar to us from numerous Hollywood Vietnam War movies, New Year’s Eve was coming closer.
Ho Chi Minh City is in general a very festive place, but on New Year’s Eve the streets of Ho Chi Minh City turn into one massive festival. Music is playing everywhere and everyone is caught up in the celebrations. When it was time for the New Year’s count down all the revellers filled the streets and danced together. We all counted, shouted and embraced when the New Year was with us. We ate and drank and danced until 4 a.m. the morning and honestly I can’t think of a better way to have brought in the New Year.
Too quickly our tour had come to an end and it was time to say goodbye to our newly made friends. Just like the first few times I had travelled up and down Vietnam this experience was unforgettable and I can’t wait to show more people everything that this amazing country has to offer.