Vietnam Without a Plan

Pre-trip

12AM on Skype: I stared at him, he stared back. Frozen. The connection was just fine. On my next screen, I could see the flight prices soaring accompanied with Kayak’s advice: Buy now.

We’d just opened our own Pandora’s box and neither of us wants to deal with it: The trip was in 3 weeks but Manu and I have yet to decide on a country, let alone an itinerary. Despite a growing basket of options that weighed ever heavier on our minds as the weeks went by – Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Yogyakarta, Surabaya, Philippines – we couldn’t decide. In fact, as the body of research grew, so too did our difficulty with the logistical details and our reluctance to commit.

Sometime later, his uncharacteristically decisive comment shoved the monsters back in the box, “I like Vietnam. Let’s just go there and we’ll figure something.”

We booked our flights and left the rest to dumb luck.

Trip details

  • Duration: 14 days 
  • Route: Linear 
  • Dates: 8 Aug to 22 Aug 2015

Rough itinerary

  • 8 – 10 Aug: Flew from Singapore to Hanoi. Stayed in Hanoi. Booked 2D1N cruise in Hạ Long Bay. Rented motorcycle to be collected when we returned to Hanoi on 12 Aug.
  • 11 – 12 Aug: Hạ Long Bay. Returned to Hanoi on 12 Aug in the late afternoon, collected the motorcycle and caught an overnight sleeper train to Lào Cai.
  • 13 Aug: Lào Cai to Bắc Hà town
  • 14 Aug: Bắc Hà town towards Hà Giang through the Lào Cai province.
  • 15 Aug: Towards Mèo Vạc town.
  • 16 Aug: Mèo Vạc town towards the Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark.
  • 17 Aug: Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark towards Ba Bể Lake.
  • 18 Aug: Ba Bể Lake towards Hanoi to return the motorcycle. Stayed in Hanoi.
  • 19 Aug: Early morning flight from Hanoi to Danang. Caught a taxi to Hoi An.
  • 20 – 22 Aug: Hoi An. Returned from Danang to Singapore. 

Motorcycling route

This was most likely the route taken. However, we were waylaid along the way by a number of mudslides and my lousy map-reading skills, so there may be some inaccuracies. Please consult your motorcycle rental company. They can recommend a route that ensures that you get back to Hanoi with their asset in one piece.

Alternatively, if you have the time to deal with the buy/sell process, purchasing your own bike is far friendlier on your wallet and gives you total control over the asset. Search up motorcycle sale ads on Gumtree, read your hostel’s noticeboard, chat with randos in the hotel or approach a bike shop to suss out your options.

If you’re looking for information to help you plan a motorcycling trip, do check out this post: How to do a last min motorcycle trip from Hanoi.

Locations

Hanoi

Hạ Long Bay

Lào Cai Province

Hà Giang Province

Mèo Vạc District

Dong Van Karst Plateau Geopark

Ba Bể National Park

Hoi An

Travel notes

  • How did we manage this? We didn’t make any bookings, but we did a good deal of homework so we were well-informed. For Hanoi and Hoi An, we’d check out TripAdvisor, Google Maps, travel guides and some blogs to figure out which attractions or restaurants we wanted to visit. Weeks beforehand, I had emailed motorcycle rental companies for quotes before the trip (wrote about those here). Finally, once you’re on the ground, a dash of smarts, resourcefulness and adaptability will serve you well.
  • Vietnam’s tourist infrastructure is rather well-developed. You’ll be spoiled for last-minute choices and tours.
  • Whenever there’s no listed price, bargain if you’re serious about making a purchase – note “serious”. If you aren’t, don’t ask, don’t touch or they might flip out a little.
  • We did this 14-day trip when we were both in demanding corporate roles. Here’s a humble suggestion: Request for your leave way in advance. You’re more likely to get your leave approved and you’re less likely to step on your manager’s and colleagues’ toes as it gives them time to respond.
  • Book your flights early. Buy check-in baggage for the return trip if you plan to order up all of Hoi An’s textiles.
  • Summer in Vietnam can be a sticky, sweaty and frustrating mess. Iced coffee, cold beers, talcum powder and the common sense to stay out of the noon sun would get you through this.
  • If you plan to do a motorcycling trip, get travel insurance that covers you for risky activities. I’m on Great Eastern’s TravelSmart Premier (Annual) – force of habit more so than a conscious decision. However, if you’re looking for an alternative, World Nomad seems decent and comes highly recommended by a number of bloggers.
  • Get your International Driving Permit (IDP) from your local Automobile Association just in case. I paid SGD 20 for mine.
  • A printed map is a must. Routes are more updated and towns are listed. Road markers will indicate direction. GPS and Google Maps failed utterly in some rural areas. Ours was provided by our motorcycle rental company, Phung Motorbike.
  • Last minute accommodations are easy to find in major towns through rural Northern Vietnam. There were often 2-3 hotels or guesthouses with large, clear, sometimes lit signs. In 2015, it costs around USD 15-20 a room. I wouldn’t stress about being homeless so long you plan your stops and don’t arrive when everyone’s asleep.
  • We’d packed the bare minimum for a motorcycling trip: Jeans, tough mountain boots, waterproof layer, breathable t-shirts and buffs. Buffs to guard against dirt, debris and sunburn on your neck. Jeans… because you’d love them when your knees kiss the sand, rock or tarmac.
  • Expect bad weather in the mountains.
  • Intermediate-level ride. Roads were mostly worn tarmac with hairpin turns. Occasional sand near construction zones and towns. Common potholes. Animals on the road. Few vehicles in the rural areas, but a test of your mettle in Hanoi. This probably isn’t the best route for a beginner
  • We encountered several landslides that buried the road, including major highways. A path would be made/excavated for bikes to cross but often, this isn’t wide enough for you to walk your bike across. If you don’t feel up to this, stop your bike, take your luggage and ask a local for help. Villagers are usually honest but do exercise judgment when choosing a saviour.

Ending notes

Tips & tricks specific to the motorcycling trip are in this blog post: How to do a last min motorcycle trip from Hanoi.

This trip was completed in August 2015. Interestingly, it was photographed entirely on an iPhone 5S because we forgot to bring the charging cable for the DSLR – meh.

Credits

Written and post-processed by Celeste Choo

Photographed by Celeste Choo and Manu HQ

Please refer to each photo’s metadata for details on Rights of Use