Episode 1: Mui Ne to Hoi An
Early in the morning on 25th April 2019, we set off from our home in Mui Ne on what will be our biggest motorcycle expedition as a family so far, en route for Ha Giang in the far north of Vietnam.
Myself (Shina) and my wife Christina, and our two monkeys Marcy & Milly (6 and 4), on two Honda XR150 dirt bikes - and accompanied for the first leg of the journey by Christina’s sister Mirjam, who is joining us as far as Hoi An before she flies home to Switzerland. The adventure begins...
Our first day’s target was Dalat, a hill station in the highlands of south Vietnam, about 160 km from Mui Ne. This is a drive we’ve done many times before, but usually in a car. It is mostly a lovely ride on a motorbike - once you start heading out of the hot plains, gaining altitude and getting into that cool mountain air, with plenty of bends to enjoy.
The kids ride in front of us, with a retaining strap around both rider and child. If you’re from Europe it might seem strange to imagine kids on motorbikes, but this is Vietnam, and it’s how pretty much everybody gets around, and carries their family around. Our kids have both been on motorbikes since they were about six months old, and love it, as long as the days on the road are not too long, and there is plenty to see, with frequent stops. The XRs are modified to provide footrests for the kids, and with cushions on the bars so they can have a sleep when they feel like it, which they frequently do.
The ride to Dalat took us about 5 hours in total with stops, and on arrival we checked into a cute little AirBnB house with great views across the valleys surrounding this old French hill-station town. We had a rest day in Dalat the following day, and visited a couple of the kids’ favourite spots here, first the Crazy House - .this description nails it:
A free-wheeling architectural exploration of surrealism, Hang Nga Crazy House is a joyously designed, outrageously artistic private home. Imagine sculptured rooms connected by superslim bridges rising out of a tangle of greenery, an excess of cascading lava-flow-like shapes, wild colours, spiderweb windows and an almost organic quality to it all, with the swooping hand rails resembling jungle vines. Think of Gaudí and Tolkien dropping acid together…
And after that a visit to Datlana, one of Dalat’s many waterfalls. An impressive waterfall, but the kids just are more interested in riding on the rollercoaster that takes you down to the falls at top speed.
Onward from Dalat, and towards over to our main route for most of the journey north: The Ho Chi Minh Highway. This road runs the length of Vietnam, a fair way inland and often near the borders of Cambodia and Laos. It used to be the main route for travelling the length of Vietnam and mostly runs along the old Ho Chi Minh Trail that was used by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam war (more commonly known as the American war in these parts). The route was used supply the southern-based Vietnam guerillas, known as the Viet Cong or VC by the US (and US-backed) southern army. These days most of the traffic between north and south is on Highway One, which is near the coast, and horribly busy in places - so definitely more relaxing, and much safer for us on the Ho Chi Minh road.
Our destination that night was Dak Mil, in Dak Nong province, at an Orchid farm homestay. The farm had a litter of kittens and two litters of puppies so the kids were well entertained - one litter had lost their mother within days of their birth, so the family were bottle feeding the pups. Nice to see Vietnamese looking after their dogs with such care.
The next day we were heading for...elephants! North of Dak Mil lies Yok Don National Park, where there may still be wild elephants, but from what we heard difficult or impossible to find. However, there is a village near the park, Ban Don, which has a long history with the elephants and the local’s ability to train them. We were keen to give the kids an experience of seeing elephants close up, so we headed over. After a pretty nice lunch in a very busy spot in the village - seems to be popular with the Vietnamese, especially on 30th April as it was, Reunification Holiday (marking the fall of Saigon and the end of the war in 1975) - we headed into the elephant area. Great fun for the kids, crossing bamboo suspension bridges, we found half a dozen elephants giving rides to many Vietnamese, trekking round in a circle through the river. They looked pretty happy, maybe a bit bored, but Marcy and Milly really enjoyed the spectacle, and we bought some mia (sugar cane sticks) which they were allowed to hand-feed to the elephants once they let off their passengers - and they seemed to really enjoy that! It’s a pretty touristy spot, but it isn’t every day you get the chance to feed elephants by hand, the kids loved it.
After a pretty nice ride through back roads amoung coffee plantations, we stayed that night to the north of Buon Ma Thuot, coffee capital of Vietnam, and had a tasty BBQ at a local restaurant, all you can eat for 99.000 VND (under $5).
We dodged rainclouds all the next day, through fairly boring scenery as far as Pleiku then more inspiring scenery from there onto our next overnight stop, Kon Tum, a highland town with a nice feel. After about an hour after arriving there we experienced a massive rain storm complete with thunder and lightning, even bringing down trees in the street, so we felt pretty smug about not even getting our bikes wet! Happy to stay dry, but I’m kind of curious to see how effective our wet weather preparations have been - after our last motorbike tour in the far north 2 years ago when we were woefully unprepared for rain, this time the kids have all in one rain suits and wellies, and we found some bike luggage panniers, made by Mad Fox, which claim (and look) to be fully waterproof - I’ll report at a later date how those hold up.
The next day we continued onwards north, still on the Ho Chi Minh road, with the scenery and road getting more interesting as we progressed onwards towards Kham Duc - twisting bends and real jungle making for a nice ride. It’s great to experience the smell of this ride, especially having just been through the hot season in Mui Ne, where the baked-sand countryside doesn’t have any real scent. At first the pines, then the jungle here has a heady, rich smell, a pleasure you get when you’re motorcycling that you won’t experience if you’re in an air-conditioned car.
At Kham Duc we stayed at the Yoga Guesthouse, a simple little guesthouse but with a lovely vibe, hosted by a Gai, a lovely lady who is incredibly welcoming. Gai used to be an accountant working for the government, but gave it up to train as a yoga instructor and to open her own little place for yoga courses and travellers. We didn’t experience her yoga class (5 a.m. start!) but we were lucky enough to be there for her son’s 9th birthday, to which our girls were invited - they love to party, so it was brilliant timing. Loads of Vietnamese kids, toys and enough candies to stop them from sleeping until about 10pm that night!
From Kham Duc it was a fairly short blast down to Hoi An, where we’d planned a few days R & R, before Mirjam flies home to Switzerland, and the four of us continue our trip north. This town is our evergreen favourite in Vietnam - maybe our eighth visit over the last ten years and again lovely to spend a few days there. We stayed at the lovely Quin Riverside Villa, owned by our friends Phuc and Van who also operate a high quality tailoring business in the town. The hotel is very new, but we’ve been using their tailoring services for the last 12 years, and they even made our wedding clothes for us. Time to get the bikes serviced and ready for the next leg, enjoy the amazing and unique food of Hoi An, and recharge our batteries for the next leg of the journey, which will be back onto the HCM Highway and onwards to Phong Nha Ke Bang National park and the biggest caves in the world...