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The Top Gear Experience

Possibly the best tourism advertisement I have ever seen for Vietnam is the episode of Top Gear where they have to travel from Saigon to Halong City by motorbike. I don’t know how to ride a motorbike but I sure as heck had to do this at some point in my trip, and the best place to do this was from Hue to Hoi An through the renowned Hai Van pass, which in the words of Jeremy Clarkson is “one of the most beautiful coastal roads in the world”.

Most modern motorbikes in Vietnam are like high powered scooters, and it’s easy to hire automatic ones where all you have to worry about is go, stop, don’t fall off, don’t get hit by a truck. This all sounds well and good, but if you have seen the roads here at first glance it is complete chaos. Trucks and buses drive on either side of the road beeping horns as the only indication that if the motorbikes in front of them don’t move they will plow through you. Trying not to think about that Doug and I hired bikes, and Sophie rode double on the back of our guides bike. Doug had ridden once before in Thailand, and still had wounds on his legs to prove it (he had fallen off riding in the rain). Our guide was called Dr Phu, and when he found out Sophie was from England he proudly told her “Dr Phu very famous in England”. She didn’t have the heart to tell him that it’s actually Dr Who.

On the road
Posing at our first stop at near a small fishing village just outside of Hue.

After a few sketchy rides up and down the street in front of the hostel we were deemed good to go and set off, Doug and I in our matching Tin Tin in Vietnam t-shirts. Dr phu took the lead, followed by Doug, with me bringing up the rear using Doug’s bright blue construction worker like helmet as my landmark. Getting out of Hue was a bit hairy, especially getting through some off the large intersections, but pretty soon I was starting to feel comfortable and we were out of the city and on Highway 1A heading south.

Doug and a lake
The scenery at the start of our ride between Hue and Hai Van pass.

We stopped a few times for photos but the best part was just riding and takin in the amazing country. If you want to know what it looked like watch the Top Gear episode. It was definitely one of the best things I have done on any trip, and anyone who comes here should do it. The trip wasn’t without amusing incidents however.

To start with, for out lunch stop Dr Phu took us to some huge beach resort with an expensive menu (where he probably gets to eat an awesome meal for free). We began to protest but he was all “don’t worry, cheap”, and told us they had some mixed seafood soup bowl thing for only 25,000 VND (about $1.50). We conceded and went in, and it turnout out that this dish, essentially a rice porridge with some seafood in it, was literally the cheapest thing on the menu, and everything else was up above $4 (expensive for Vietnam when you have been living off street food like $1 bowls of tasty noodle soup). We ordered our 3 bowls of the cheapest thing and it ended up being pretty tasty, and then we spend half an hour trying to locate our guide so we could get back on the road.

The beach we stopped at for lunch

We also had rain. Miserable, miserable rain. Thankfully it didn’t arrive till after we had reached the top of Hai Van pass and started our decent to Danang. We wanted to stop to put on raincoats but Phu said it would only last for a minute then we would be through it. 5 minutes later in heavy downpour we stopped to out on coats, though by this time all our clothes were already drenched. We had to go down the winding last half of Hai Van in heavy rain and strong wind, it was pretty scary and to top it off just as we were starting we passed an accident where a biker had been cleaned up by a truck in the wet. Not a good omen, but we made it down safely, and the last hours drive from Danang to Hoi An was wretched. The wind was strong and cold, the driving rain stinging our faces and making it almost impossible to see through our cheap fake sunglasses. I started shivering and as it got worst my shivers were almost strong enough to give the bike death wobbles. Eventually we made it though.

Hai Van View
The view from the start of Hai Van pass

Even with the misery of the last couple of hours we still saw the funny side of it, and the awesomeness of the rest of the day far out weighted it. For a silver lining the rain resulted in the following photo which had us laughing for days after. Doug’s blue helmet with his black glasses, chin strap beard, and too cool grin and motorbike stance made him look like a male stripper or a member of the village people.

Village People
Me getting soaked while Doug poses like pro.

So all in all, it was an amazing day and amazing ride, and anyone who goes to Vietnam should definitely try and ride at least part of the way on a bike. One day I’d like to go back and to the whole thing on bike, and heading south to north is supposed to be nicer driving. When I was un Hanoi I met an Aussie called Reece who had just done that. He had bought an old Minsk in Saigon (the same type of bike used by Hammond in the top gear episode) and rode all the way up on his own and had had a great time doing it.

Hill pass
Stopping to enjoy the view while going over our first hill pass.