Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City
In 2015/2016 we decided to travel through Vietnam – on motorbikes from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi. 2.400 km full of adventures, amazing people and breathtaking landscapes.
Ho Chi Minh City – the adventure starts
The first thing I remember about Vietnam is the hot, humid air that blew in my face, when we left the airport. There we were – Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon, how the city is still often called. 4 weeks of travelling were ahead of us: from south to the north, from Saigon to Hanoi – on motorbikes.
We shoulder our backpacks and head for the airport entrance to try and get our bearings: “We need to catch the right bus, I think it´s number 152!” I hear Sebo say. A few taxi drivers are already coming towards us, offering their services with bright smiles on their faces. A kind looking Vietnamese man with a colourful shirt is asking me: „Hello you sir and madam! Need taxi? “„No thank you, we´ll take the…“ I couldn´t speak any further, because suddenly I´m interrupted by a wildly waving Sebo, who seems to have found the right bus with the help of some locals. For some Dong we buy two tickets and five minutes later, the bus starts to wind towards the center of HCMC.
After a few meters I begin to realize, what I’ve got myself into: Motorbikes, scooters, busses, taxis and Tuk Tuks – EVERYWHERE! Scattered in between people with bikes or on foot, some are shop owners, trying to sell their goods. I feel sick. How are we supposed to drive a motorbike here? This isn´t going to end well, I hadn´t ridden a motorbike in over three years and I begin to wonder if I could master this chaos. “We are going to die!” I whisper to Sebo, “Have you taken a look out of the window?” ”Oh well”, he says, ”yeah, it’s totally different to what we´re used to at home, but – so many other people have survived this trip, so we can do it too!” He puts his arm around my shoulder and I try not to think about it. It’ll take a couple of days until we ride off with the motorbikes anyway.
How to get a motorbike in Vietnam
At this point, we don’t have motorbikes. There are two ways for a backpacker to get a motorbike in Vietnam: Rent it or buy it. We decided to purchase ours in HCMC: our starting and finishing points will be nearly 2.400 km apart and we don’t want to be tied to a returning point.
Slowly the bus pushes its way through the traffic jam of HCMC and soon we arrive at our hostel, where we thankfully leave our heavy backpacks. We´re starting to get really hungry and a few moments later we find ourselves in a small restaurant, eating a Pho Bo (Beefnoodle-Soup) and watching the busy streets in front of us. It is still a mystery to me, how this traffic works without any accidents: everybody is going everywhere crossing everything, it seems like a rehearsed scene that is going on and on and on, even crossing the streets is an adventure in itself. By the way, busses in Vietnam have an extra feature: indicators with sound! This early warning system is very convenient…as long as you can hear it over the rest of wild honking road users.
In the evening a day later we are sat in a nice little Coffeehouse, drinking our first Ca phe sua (Vietnamese iced coffee). “So, how are we going to purchase the motorbikes?”, Sebo askes me. Before we left Germany, we’d researched bike selling platforms and had pretty soon decided on a website called travelswop. This is a sort of craigslist from backpackers for backpackers and you can buy or sell a motorbike for or after your trip.
The legendary Honda Win
Since we wanted to do the “real Vietnam thing” on real Vietnamese motorbikes we wanted to buy Honda Wins. This little 100 cc machine looks more like a Simson than a motorbike and is a classic among backpackers, often being sold with a luggage rack. Prices are quite steady, around 250 (US) Dollars. There are tons of motorbikes, which are prettier, safer or faster than the Win, but we’d both fallen in love with it, despite, Honda having never officially built a Honda Win, haha.
It doesn´t take long for us to find the perfect motorbikes: Anne and Mike, a couple from Germany, want to sell their two Honda Wins as a pair. They’d just arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, after travelling down from the Phong Nha National Park further north. The bikes are a bit dirty but working fine, so a few minutes later we are in front of an ATM, withdrawing 12 Million Dong, or 500 (US) Dollars, to pay for the motorbikes. “What the fuck am I doing here?” I nervously ask myself while standing at the edge of the rush in the middle of a Saigon street with a small motorbike I can now call mine.
Never look back
Beside the motorbikes we get a bit of advice from the couple: Never look back or in the rear mirrors. The Vietnamese people drive quite slowly and they take care of each other on the streets. But please be careful with vehicles that have more than two wheels; busses and cars always have priority; most of them drive like lunatics. And last but not least don´t forget to use the horn!
One thing is for sure, it is definitely going to be an adventure, because besides the motor nothing really works on my motorbike: The speedometer is broken, the brakes don´t work properly (drum brakes, oh yeah!), the shock absorbers feel like pudding, the mirrors are all different and neutral only works if you tap it veeeeeeery carefully. On our way back to the hostel my headlight breaks too and so we decide to drive to a small garage to at least get this fixed. Light is important and you can find small bike garages on every corner. The capable Vietnamese man, who seems to own the garage, manages to fix my headlight with the help of a plastic bag, he wraps around some electric wires to isolate them. Unfortunately he dismantles my electro starter, because the wire is needed elsewhere. For the next three weeks I’ll have to kick start the motorbike every time, but at least my lights are working, woooho!
Back at the hostel we lock the motorbikes together with a chain and I ask the Vietnamese receptionist about the best time to start our journey: “When is the best time to leave the city, when there is not much traffic?” She gives me an uncertain look but answers: “Never. There´s always traffic.” Oh. Wow. Ok. I begin to sweat while I deliver the news to Sebo. He smirks, hands me a beer and says: “It´s going to be okay. You just have to do it.”
Hen gap lei, Ho Chi Minh City!
Ho Chi Minh City – It’s the next morning, about 6 am and we’re really tired, we didn’t get much sleep, the tension was just too high. It’s already pretty hot outside and I feel like someone wrapped a humid, warm blanket around me. We use some bungee cords to attach the backpacks to the luggage racks on the motorbikes and take a look at the route we want to take today, 205kms to our first destination: Mui Ne. This is now serious, my initiation is about to begin! I take a short look to the left, release the clutch, a little gas and whoosh I´m part of the never ending traffic of Ho Chi Minh City. Well…that was easy?! Maybe it´s just like Sebo said: It´s going to be okay. You just have to do it.