Vietnam

Carlos and Adrián's Top Gear: Vietnam Special

Last Summer I took a holiday trip to Vietnam with the single purpose of crossing the country on a motorbike with my friend Adrián, who convinced me to join this adventure.

I had never ridden a motorbike before. Seriously, not even in high school. But after watching Top Gear: Vietnam Special — just look for it in TPB — it sounded like a great vacation plan. I had already been to Sri Lanka three years before and the idea of coming back to Southeast Asia for a long trip resonated well.

We asked for holidays at work, bought our plane tickets and waited until the last minute to prepare all the rest of stuff while drinking beers and eating croquetas. 1

We were departing from Madrid to Ho Chi Minh City, make our way to Hanoi, and then come back. The initial plan, as in the original Top Gear route, was to drive across the whole country from South to North, but after checking the distances and all we wanted to do — plus, remember the fact that I didn't know how to ride a motorbike — we discarded this option early, and ended up making use of different means of transportation: car, plane, motorbike, bike, train, bus, and boat.

It could be tempting to squeeze a lot of places to see and things to do, but we arranged a good mix of touristing, resting and traveling. We were on holidays, so the last thing you want to do is stressing out.

Regarding the motorbike: you don't need a driving license. You will find a lot of info online about how you are not supposed to ride a motorbike in Vietnam unless you have a Vietnamese driving license, besides how dangerous Vietnamese roads are. Honestly, I hardly saw any police, the roads are even better than many secondary roads in Spain and the only thing you have to worry about is to wear a helmet and orientate properly. 2

Of course this is my personal experience, and maybe we were just lucky, but I wouldn't make such a big deal of it. Either way, buy good travel insurance which covers driving a vehicle: World Nomads is the quality standard.

In the following text I basically will leave out all the general information you can find in the Lonely Planet travel guide and recommend the places and advice that worked for us. 3

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City received us with a warm welcome, and after booking an Uber 4 from the Airport to the Bich Duyen hotel the first drama bursted out: I had lost my passport. I assumed this could happen at some point, but we had not even spent an hour in the country and we were already in trouble. Retracing our steps: we went to the airline desks to clarify some doubts for the upcoming internal flights (more on this later), we bought the SIM card for our smartphones 5, and we withdrew several millions of VND from the ATM. 6 I must had it forgotten somewhere along that path (with the rest of my documentation). That's where I learnt one of the good things of traveling with a sidekick: you always have a backup when things go awry. Before I could freak out the Lost and Found office of the airport contacted me to pick my passport up: phew!

A tough touristic day was awaiting the next day, so we had a Phở for dinner at Pho Quynh, went back to the hotel and called it a day.

One of the things I liked most about Vietnam was its assorted food dishes. You can have Phở for breakfast but the majority of the hotels will serve you a mix of scrambled eggs, bacon, and fruit. So that's what we had, as well as drank some juice and the worst coffee ever. Damn, as good the food is there, they still brew a horrible coffee, but we needed the energy boost.

Sputnik statue at Central Post Office

Sputnik statue at Central Post Office

We headed to the Reunification Palace, and then we visited War Remnants Museum. You may think you know what happened in Vietnam as you've seen it in the movies and such, but words can't describe the atrocities that these poor people suffered, it was a really moving visit. We also went to see Phuoc An Hoi Quan Pagoda and we walked our way back to Backpackers district through old Saigon: Ho Chi Minh Square, Notre Dame (yes, they also have a Notre Dame), and Central Post Office which I discovered it has a Sputnik commemorative statue (I couldn't find this in any guide!).

Once at the Backpackers district, we drank the cheapest Saigon beer at some corner bar, had the tastiest Tikka Masala for dinner at Baba's Kitchen, and ordered Jack Daniels shots at a live music place before passing out.

The day after we had quite a hangover but we were just a communist burger with fries away to fix this. Luckily there was Chuck's Burgers to help and once we were fully recovered we visited the Fine Arts Museum. As said, there were several days of not doing very much, I read a lot on those days (I finished Tim Urban's SpaceX series, The Martian, and Elon Musk's biography) or just rested: it's even better at a French café drinking an iced coffee.

At the end of the day we packed up our bags and prepared everything for the next days on the road.

Hoi An

We had bought plane tickets from HCMC to Da Nang. This was one of the things I was least sure. First we were going to go by motorbike, then by train, and finally we decided to stay one night more at the hotel and fly. We wanted to be fresh and have a whole day at our disposal to get used to the motorbikes. In the end it was the best decision, whenever you can, just fly long distances.

We had already arranged with MotorVina Motorbike Rentals we would be arriving in the morning to Da Nang to pick up the bikes so we had the entire day to go to Hoi An, where we were going to be staying for a couple of days. I can still remember the face of the guy when he first saw me:

Has your friend ever ridden a motorbike?

Ha! A couple of minutes and I had already tamed the beast in our way to the closest petrol station, next stop: Hoi An. There wasn't really much to do in Da Nang so we went by the coastline until we found the village of Hoi An and we checked-in at the Full House Homestay. I was totally blown away by the kindness of the host family, who treated us like kings since the very moment we crossed the door. This wasn't an exception as this story already happened at HCMC and will repeat in Hue.

The thing to do in Hoi An is to get a bespoke shirt or dress; I also took the opportunity to walk through the market stalls, and buy some souvenirs. The food was delicious too, and we had a lunch composed of the local dishes: banh vac, banh bao, cao lau and my favourite: banh xeo. We had to wait until the tailor finished the clothes so we sunbathed in Cua Dai Beach for the rest of the day.

Hai Van Pass

The great day arrived. I mean, the whole travel made sense (if it made any) because we wanted to drive through the roads that one day served as the highway for the country. The itinerary for the day was: start at Hoi An and arrive to Hue, making some pauses in the middle.

My motorbike was a Honda 150cc

My motorbike was a Honda 150cc

  • Marble Mountains
  • Hai Van Pass
  • Lang Co Bay
  • Elephant Springs

I really liked the sensation of driving the bike and the turns in the pass; the sights were also astonishing. Everything went smoothly until the last part of the route when it started pouring. I thought it was ok to hit pedal to the metal, this way we could arrive as soon as possible to our hotel and dry ourselves, but when Adrián overtook me to pull-over it was clear it was not ok. I still laugh when I remember telling this to our new friends some days after.

Hue

The Jade Hotel in Hue didn't let down. Actually this would be an understatement. We arrived to the entrance with the motorbikes and two bellboys parked them and brought our backpacks inside, where two fruit juices were waiting for us. Many restaurants and bars piled in the streets beside the river, where we had a well deserved dinner.

Tomb of Tu Duc

Tomb of Tu Duc, photograph by Adrián Perez

We wanted to make the most of time with the bikes so we went to Tomb of Tu Duc in the morning, and spent the afternoon in The Imperial City after waving goodbye to our beloved Hondas. Some beers at the Why not? because why not? and back to the hotel.

Tip: unlike in Spain, if you ask for peanuts you'll probably have to pay them.

The last day at Hue was really quiet as the only agenda was taking the train to Hanoi. We bought some supplies as we were going to be spending more than 12 hours (all night long) in a soft berth.

Despite we initially wanted to take the Livitrans Express (the luxury train) they were sold out and we finally took the Reunification Express. We weren't sure about the conditions of the train but it really surprised me: Adrián, who is 1.90 meters tall slept through the night.

We arrived on time to have a proper full breakfast at Puku before embarking in our Ha Long Bay love cruise.

Ha Long Bay

Maybe the most difficult part about going on a cruise by Ha Long Bay is deciding which travel agency to trust, as prices vary for the same type of cruise. Or even worse: you're sold a quality which doesn't correspond for the price you're paying. We had already done our homework and chose Lily's Travel Agency. We went on a 3-day cruise sleeping the first night at the Fantasea boat and the second night in Cat Ba island, all-but-drinks-included.

Peter —Mr. "hello, everysbody"—, our excellent guide for the next three days picked us up at Lily's office and we got on the bus for a dull 4-hour journey to the tourist boat wharf. Passengers on board, plenty of food for lunch, and first stop at a cave with a cock shaped rock. Some swimming and kayaking before dropping anchor between the beautiful karst rocks.

Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay, photograph by Carlos Matallín

In all these travels there's this sort of epiphany where induced by the drinks and the gorgeous landscapes I think of how lucky I am; to be able to travel to the other side of the world —literally— and enjoy with some new friends we made on the boat.

That or we were drunk as hell. 7

The second day we set course to Cat Ba island, the largest of the archipelago which at its heart lies a National Park. We did some intense sweaty hiking and checked-in at the Cat Ba Palace Hotel for lunch. A quick nap after we were already on our way to Monkey Island, quite a place to celebrate the 25th birthday of the game laying at the beach. Spoiler: it's full of monkeys and no trace of Guybrush Threepwood.

After the unexpected party the day before on the boat, a couple of drinks were more than enough to return to the hotel early.

The third day on the boat was mostly to return to land first and then to Hanoi in the damn bus. But before that we attended a Vietnamese food cooking class on the deck, where we prepared our own lunch.

Hanoi

We didn't like Hanoi as much as we did HCMC, maybe because we had spent some more time in Saigon and knew it better. You can visit all the interesting places in just one day, however, you can't miss some of the best restaurants and cafés of all Vietnam.

Sharing all that time on the Fantasea cruise invited making a special bond with some people, so once we got off the bus we had a quick shower at the hotel 8 and went to have a beer and some dinner at Nola Café, the most charming café in town hands down.

The day after we woke up early to go to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum complex, not that we were very into the Government buildings, but seeing the bearded guy everywhere got me intrigued at least. The place looks very Soviet-era as expected, and there was an special exhibit for the 70th anniversary of Vietnam People's Army. 9

The highlight of the day was the lunch at Koto, we shared a mix of starters, the duck dish, and finished with a piece of cake: delicious.

Other spots that are worth paying the visit are the Temple of Literature and the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, with the later being as impressive as the War Remnants Museum.

The trip was coming to an end and we had to catch a plane the next day, 10 so after wandering a bit through the Old Quarter streets we found a nice place to have dinner.

Back to Ho Chi Minh City

We spent the last day in HCMC visiting those places we didn't have time on the first days: Museum of Ho Chi Minh City and the saddest zoo and botanical garden in the world, but at least we enjoyed a Japanese-inspired pizza for lunch at 4P's and a fulfilling barbeque at Quan Nuong to wrap up our 2-week travel to Vietnam.

End of travel

One of the things that surprised me most about the country was despite the fact that it is a Communist regime the day to day doesn't differ that much from any other Western country. The Vietnamese way of being ranges from the uncanny kindness to the ruthless unenthusiasm, depending on the opinion of the tourists having an impact on their jobs or businesses. In any case, it is praiseworthy how they have overcome any kind of resentment the war may have provoked in them.

To cut it short: this is the perfect trip for couples —at this point I won't avoid the joke— and there's a wide range of things to do if you like outdoors, motorbikes, and food. If I missed anything it was a bit more of adventure. It's difficult to get away from the tourist circuit, but this doesn't mean you won't enjoy it a lot. Also, it's moderately cheap, so you won't spend a fortune. The only downside was it gets pretty hot depending on the hour of the day.

We're already thinking of the next destination.

Here's a list of resources I used for the article besides my own notes:

I couldn't be grateful enough to Fran, Ricardo, and Javier for proofreading an early version of this article, to Adrián for putting up with me the whole travel, and to NYT from where I got the inspiration for this post.

  1. Note for future self: buying plane tickets with a bar public wifi may not be the safest Internet practice.
  2. This is the part where I can't enter the country anymore.
  3. The Lonely Planet travel guide is a must, to know what to see in the major cities we relied on TripAdvisor, and for the reservations of the flights and hotels we used Kayak and Booking respectively. For foreign travel advice the page of the Embassy of Spain in Hanoi is the way to go, as well as the page of the Vietnam Embassy in Spain. This post by Mar Barbera is also priceless, and helped us prepare most of our itinerary, as well as the Vietnam series of Los Junys.
  4. I'm not the biggest fan of Uber practices, but I prefered not to get ripped off by taxi drivers. It payed off because when we had a problem with a driver who got lost in one of the journeys, the company responded very well to my feedback and got a reasonable discount.
  5. Look for the MobiFone stands just by the airport exit. You can give your mobile to the girls in the desk to set it up (and a backdoor) for you. You can get a data plan for few hundred thousand VND and there's good 3G coverage in the whole country.
  6. 1 Million VND ~= 40 EUR. We had enough with 6M each, and payed the food and accomodation with credit card (they charge 3% per transaction).
  7. We spent 1,000,000 VND on beers. One. Fucking. Million.
  8. By far the Backpackers Hotel was the worst of all in which we stayed, bad hygiene (cockroaches in the bathtub), not enough breakfast, and bad service (we had to ask for toilet paper). I'm not even linking it.
  9. I'm not sure if this was normal but there was propaganda on every corner. It's true that our visit happened at the same time as the country's celebration on 18 Aug. and 2 Sep.
  10. The airport is located far from the city but it only takes less than 2 hours and several thousand VND to go by bus.
  11. There are several gaps (i.e. in the train arriving to Hanoi) after running out of battery.

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