Adventure Bike Rider


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Amazing Vietnam

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Travelling Sam Reviewed by Travelling Sam
June 24, 2010

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If you watch movies, or know anything about SE Asia you’ll know something about Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. But Vietnam still seems a million miles away, and for most of us it feels as if its one of those unreachable areas of the world. Of course, the BBC’s Top Gears recent visit to Vietnam has opened many UK bikers eyes to the possibilities of riding there, but the guys wonderfully tongue in cheek report did absolutely nothing to even hint at the delights that await you in Vietnam. The Delta is a biker’s dream, especially if you are into the concept of stepping back in time.
Back in time? The Mekong Delta is not only the chance to ride a bike through a time warp but it’s the chance to challenge every sense you have. Things look different, they sound different, taste different and the culture of the Nine Dragon Delta, as the Vietnamese call it, is the equivalent of flipping the coin on our own. When you can experience all of this on two wheels, well, what more can you ask for?
Like many of us, I was brought up on a visual diet that included war movies about Vietnam. Remember the sights and sounds of US Army choppers, rock music blaring as they blasted at low level across a tropical land veined with rivers and canals? A land that is patch worked by lush green paddy fields being worked by small dark skinned people wearing conical rice hats. The choppers no longer do their angry dragonfly act across the landscape but little else has changed.
Fly into Saigon, or if we are being politically correct, Ho Chi Minh City, and you are so easily able to head south into a land where much of time seems to have stood still. But look out, it’s on the cusp of change and that makes it a great time to be there.
You can rent bikes from a score of places in Saigon and once you have escaped the madness that 3 million plus motorcycles turn the streets into, you are on a roll. Renting a bike will cost you just £5 a day though you might be surprised to know that the rental offerings will hardly ever be anything above 125cc. I’d not ridden a 125 since I learnt to ride a bike and quite frankly it was a pleasure that I’d completely forgotten about. My first fear was that like in this country, I’d feel horribly underpowered and incredibly exposed on a bike like this. And anyway, would you choose to go touring on such a diddly size bike?
Fear not. Ninety-nine percent plus of the bikes on the road in Vietnam are 125cc and under, and the other traffic is made up of a sprinkling of trucks, buses and a few cars. Horrendous import taxes on vehicles means that only the rich have cars. This means that pretty much the only duelling you’ll be doing is with bikes of your own size. Trucks and buses have loud horns and they will always let you know that they are there. In fact they use their horns for two reasons – I’m here, and I’m coming through. No panic though. Everyone drives or rides with this in mind and this code of the road is one of the things that make cruising on two wheels such a doddle. The scare stories are rife though and I suppose they are a no smoke without fire thing. The key lessons to learn are that you only watch what is happening in front of you, and know that everyone is going to do the unexpected. You soon get into the mind set and its great fun anticipating what madness is going to happen next!
As soon as you are out of the sprawl of Saigon, the traffic lessens dramatically and with the help of a map and a compass – the roads signs are scarce - you are free to meander through a stunning land. One of the first things to hit you is that the main roads are literally lined with buildings. You’ll find more open space on a run between Nottingham and Birmingham than you will between Vinh Long and Can Tho. These houses, offices, shops and cafes are tall, thin constructions that stretch back from the roads at ninety degrees. The building tax is not on how much land you cover, but on how much of your house fronts the road. Once you are off the beaten track then you are in the land of paddy fields, canals and the many branches of the mighty Mekong River.
The next thing that strikes you is that there are very few bridges for vehicles. There are plenty of so-called monkey bridges across the narrower stretches. These tend to be lengths of bamboo strung together and then hung across the water like mini suspension bridges. With just one width of bamboo to walk on, you certainly aren’t going to get a bike across, unless you are strong and daft enough to risk carrying it. Even on many of the main roads you have to queue up to get your bike on a ferry. These can be much like slightly smaller versions of cross channel ferries. The kicker comes when you realise that the queue to get on board can be 4 miles long. On a bike of course, you just scoot down to the front. There though, you’ll be joining all the other motorcyclists who have done exactly the same thing. No worries, they are great people watching opportunities. And, when it’s realised that you are a visitor you’ll often have people come over for a natter. This is helped by the fact that some of the heaviest US presence during the war was in the south so many people speak English.
On the smaller roads you’ll be loading your bike aboard small wooden boats that will take anything from 20 bikes to just 5. The latter are an adventure in that the loading ramps are often no more than a couple of wooden planks that have been spliced together. The locals take all of this in their stride and the boat crews are more than happy to help you with the loading. They take one look at you, know that you’ve no idea how things work, and they leap over to help.
This willingness to help is an aspect of Vietnamese culture that swept away a large percentage of our uncertainty about riding there. I was constantly surprised at how welcoming and hospitable the people were.
As a biker perhaps I shouldn’t write this, but its well worth getting off your wheels from time to time. There are some great trips in small boats along the canals and waterways and these give you the chance to sit back and enjoy the wealth of bustling life along the riverbanks. Traditionally the main form of transport in the region has been by boat and many people still live along the watersides. Their houses, mostly wood and crumbling damp stained concrete, lean crazily out over the water with the wake of boat traffic constantly rushing against the supporting poles. The many waterways are one of the reasons why there is so little truck traffic on the roads in the Delta. Most cargos are transported by boat, some of which are huge. All are painted with giant, very fierce eyes on their bows. These, folklaw says, keep away the evil river spirits and keep the boat crews safe. Many people actually live on their boats and being out on the water gives you a fly on the wall look into a form of life that you just won’t see from the roads.
River life also gives the chance for some very odd ways of making a living. The oddest, were the guys who pump silt from the riverbeds. The 4,350 kilometre long Mekong River, with its many name changes as it crosses the eastern side of Asia from Tibet, China, Burma (Myanmar), Lao and Cambodia to the sea, collects tons of silt. When this silt gets to the sea, it extends the coastline by as much as 80m a year! This rich in minerals silt is sold on to farmers and city folks alike. The silt goes to the farmers for their fields, to combat the water run off and to enrich the soil, and to the latter to help produce some stunningly beautiful city gardens.
Another sound that’s quite unforgettable is the blast from the engines of the long tails. These boats have car or truck engines mounted nude and in the open onto long stems that are bottomed off with shiny steel propellers. These long tail boats zip up and down the waterways at an amazing speed and I for one wouldn’t like to be anywhere near their propellers. An inevitable cloud of dark exhaust smoke and a plum of spray from the thrashed water below, follow the boats as they make their dash bow up through the waterborne traffic with incredible agility.
Floating markets are a tradition of the Delta that has stood the passing of time. You can get to the waters edge by bike, park up and then hop on a tour boat or a water taxi. As dawn breaks, these markets are a hive of activity. Each vendor strings samples of their wares on tall masts at the front of their boats. You have no problem locating the vegetable, fruit, rice or meat sellers. Smaller boats dart like minnows between the floating shops, some propelled by long handled oars that are pushed rather than pulled. Some are zipped around by mini versions of the long tail set-ups.
This time of day is also the coolest. Even at the best time of year to be there, that’s when it’s not the rainy season (May to December), the air is hot and humid. Midday on an average day and you’ll find yourself riding in anything from 35 to 40 degrees. For sure that makes you select your riding kit really well. It also encouraged us to be up early, and get off the road by the middle of the afternoon when the air some days seemed so heavy that you could almost drink it. The locals have got this totally sussed though. They are early birds and many crash out during the hottest part of the day, but are up and about again with the cooling dusk. We used the dusk to go exploring on foot.
Though many of the old towns were blitzed into heaps of burning rubble during the war, there are winding back streets that hold markets full of lush vegetables. You’ll find tiny shops selling everything from hand woven palm baskets, to rice and chicken heads. All of which are beautifully displayed, even the chicken heads. Stopping your ride early in the day also gives you the chance to hunt out a good hotel. Hoteliers are quite happy for you to pull your bike off the road and park it inside the hotel foyer. When in Rome…
It’s not possible to visit Vietnam without being amazing and totally impressed with the locals and the way they use their bikes. White van men are a very rare breed in Vietnam. But seeing six fully-grown pigs strapped to the back of a 125cc step through is not an uncommon sight. Nor is seeing a family of five off out for a cruise on one bike, and half a dozen beer barrels? No worries - plenty of room. The lager beers by the way are excellent, but I had to ask the question. Do the bikes have beefed up suspension to be able to deal with all of this? The answer is no, not at all. The fact that most of the roads are in really good condition helps this and as for being underpowered, not a problem in the Delta. It’s so flat that once you get going you hardly need to do any throttle twisting at all. Even 125cc is more than enough to ease you along though the paddy fields.
Other than tall slim houses that look like moored boats, river crossings, roadsides dotted with rice barns and fish farms, and the occasional dozy lumbering water buffalo, what delights do the roads of the Mekong have in store for you?
Some very pretty girls for starters. Being on a bike gives you the chance to enjoy these slim, immaculately dressed women, most of whom are probably better bikers than I am. It’s another cultural thing, we had the feeling that in Vietnam you are born, nurtured for a few years, and then put on two wheels. Immaculate? Many of the girls dressed as if they had just stepped off the pages of a fashion magazine. People really care about what they wear and keeping clean is vital. How they managed it we didn’t know. We by days end always looked as if we had been on the road for a week, not 6 or 7 hours.
What else will you find? Police, on 250cc bikes, who will ignore you unless you have forgotten to wear your crash helmet or have broken the speed limit. In the towns – that’s 40kph, and 60kph on the open road. It sounds slow but these are perfect speeds for meandering along enjoying the sights. Of course you have to change your thoughts radically about how much road you can easily ride in a day.
You’ll also find temples perched on the few hillsides, stark and colourful propaganda posters from the communist government, school kids who wear spotless uniforms and ride bicycles two or even three up to and from school. You’ll find palm trees, rice laid out to dry by the roads, old ladies riding motorcycles as if they are Victorian ladies out for an afternoon’s promenade, and an amazing collection of restaurants. Food is a key delight for any trip to the delta and if you like fish then you are winning hands down. The local delicacies include Basa fish, Catfish and huge shrimps.
The Mekong Delta is a land that will grab you, enthral and amaze you. Everyday on two wheels holds a stream of challenges that taken gently almost miraculously turn into memories that have both an adrenaline buzz, and a grin attached. It’s a ride that needs no fear, just a chunk of respect for a very different part of the world, an open mind and a lust for adventure. The bonus is that it’s delightfully easy to get such a magnificent taste of a very foreign land, and you don’t need to be anyone special, nor a vastly experienced biker to be able to do it. You also don’t need more than a two week holiday slot to be able to make a full on adventure happen. The best time to be there? April, so start planning now!

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