The Tour Company

About a year before the holiday we started to investigate what tour company we would choose.  The deciding factors were availability of dates (I had to take holiday during college half term), length of trip, experiences, price and customer feedback.

We went to MCN bike show and spoke to ‘Vietnam Motorbike Tours’, an Australian based company with representatives in the UK who provide a fully supported tour.  I started to follow them on Facebook to check out reviews, photos etc. all looked good.  The only issue was the dates and length of their  tours didn’t match up with what we wanted.  We were looking for a tour of around 8 days on the bikes, with a stop in Hanoi 2 days before and 2 days after.

I did some research on Trip Advisor and ‘Vietnam Motorbike Tour Expert’ consistently got 5 star reviews.  I checked out their website and emailed the owner Chung Can with some questions.  They are a Vietnamese owned company and email communication was easy and responses very quick.  The holidaymakers photos looked awesome and rave reviews revealed an adventurous tour in the North Vietnam mountains getting to know the real Vietnam.

We paid a deposit of $400 to secure our place.

The Kit

We had 30kg allowance each with Vietnam airlines and that gets used up real quick once you start adding motorcycle kit.  The tour company said they would provide a helmet, however we really wanted to wear our own stuff.

Between us we owned enough kit, but decided on buying new open face helmets, with visors and I purchased textile trousers off of eBay. We also purchased 2 hydration packs. Having looked at the temperatures and humidity in Vietnam in April we decided these would be useful.

Packing the bike on the road

We also took with us our Knox and Halvarssons vests which have removable shoulder, elbow and back amour. We had a couple of waterproof roll bags which we purchased from Lidl some years back that would be just the right size for our bike travelling luggage and easy to strap on to the back of a bike. All this went into 2 very large suitcases.

The Insurance

We already had an annual insurance  policy with Holidaysafe for our motor bike trips. We were given some advice to check the small print as there are sometimes exclusions which you don’t expect i.e. riding in mountains above a certain height above sea level for example.

They say you never know how good an insurance company is until you have to make a claim.  Unfortunately we had to put this to the test.

The Flights

We booked the flights through Last and chose Heathrow – Lay over in France – Hanoi.  On the way back Hanoi – Lay over in Frankfurt – Heathrow.

We arrived in Hanoi on Monday  8th April and had a couple of days to relax and get rid of any jet lag before we started the biking tour.  The traffic is crazy in Hanoi, there are 12.5 million scooters on the roads in and around North Vietnam and we contemplated with trepidation having to ride out of town at the start of our tour through the mix of scooters and taxis to get to the rural area.

Hanoi depot of Vietnam Motorbike Tour Expert

VMTE arranged a taxi to pick us up from our hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi on Wednesday 10th April,  we met our tour guide Linh for the first time. We had packed our roll packs and left the rest of our luggage at the hotel. The taxi took us to the VMTE depot where we would pick up the bikes and change into our bike gear.

We met the owner Chung Can at the depot and he looked through our bike gear making sure we had all of the right equipment for our tour. VMTE have a selection of kit to borrow, as some tourists do day trips and would not necessarily take their own gear with them. Chung also chatted to us about our riding experience as Linh our guide would tailor the route according to our experience, especially when off-road.

The depot
The depot

Chung looked at our hydration packs and said “hmmm, I don’t think they are going to be suitable it is too hot to wear them.  The guide takes plenty of water with him, and it can be purchased along the way”. So we reluctantly left the packs at the depot.  He asked if we had packed waterproofs and no we hadn’t and would rely on our textiles to keep us dry.  He smiled and said he would provide us with waterproof suits against the biblical rain.

The bikes we were given were Honda CRF250L for Phil and Honda XR150L for me.  The seat height was higher than I was used to. No problem, the bike was lowered to suit and a smaller wheel was put on the rear to lower it even further.  I could put my foot on the floor, not flat but enough to give me the confidence to ride the bike.

The Lidl roll bags were strapped to the back of the bikes and we were ready for the off through the 35 degree heat and humidity of Hanoi. Linh’s advice to negotiate the melee of traffic to get out of town was to stick to him as close as possible. Anyone that has been to Hanoi will know that there are virtually no rules, ‘go for it’ seems to be the norm even if you are travelling the wrong way down the road.

Luckily it did not take us too long to get out of Hanoi and very quickly self preservation kicks in and you learn to ride like a local, no hesitating, if there is the smallest gap get in it, if you have to ride on the pavement to make progress just do it, use your horn at every opportunity it is compulsory.

The Journey

This was the start of our 8 day tour, just me Phil and our guide Linh, no back up trucks. There were so many highlights of this tour that I have picked out the significant ones, these are the moments that will stay with us forever.

During the tour the accommodation was a mix of Homestay (with families) and budget hotels. The best Homestay was in a rural area of Tu Le on day 4. The family hadn’t hosted any Westerners we were the first, so when we arrived they quickly sent one of the children to get beer and toilet rolls. Our dinner, a cockerel made an escape out of the kitchen and legged it down the road, only to be brought back through the rear of the house as an ex-cockerel. He was a bit tough but very tasty cooked with lemon grass and ginger. We shared the sleeping accommodation on the first floor with 4 generations of the family and Linh. Only a curtain separated our sleeping mats. Our hosts were a farming family and the pigs, chickens minus one cockerel and water buffalo were kept next to the house.

So many routes that were ‘the best’, that I have struggled to pick one. Day 6: we ride high into the mountains and stop at a viewpoint in Quan Ba a UNESCO world heritage site. Here we photograph the ‘Fairy Bosoms’ or Twin Peaks. Riding higher into the low cloud at 2000m (I am glad of the presence of the Armco barrier at the edge) we rode past the villages of the Hmong people. Many of the mountain roads on our route were challenging, no barrier at the edge, passing large vehicles with only just the road width of the bike and a sheer drop to the left.  The hazards in the road were quite different to what we are used to.  The top speed that anyone rides is around 40 mph. In the rural areas there is so much else you have to share the road space with – cattle, pigs, chickens, goats children and kamikaze scooter riders.

Fairy Bosoms
Fairy Bosoms

The Vietnamese are a resourceful people. Their scooters are their lifeline especially in the rural villages where the roads are impassable by car. We saw a lady riding a small scooter, with a man pillion holding a 52″ Smart TV, the scooter was bumping in and out of the rutted unmade road. Tradesman ride scooters from village to village selling their wares. The egg man would have trays of eggs piled high at the back and sides of the scooter, riding through the roughest of roads, such skill. We met up with the duster man, who had a tune blaring out from a loud speaker to announce his arrival. He let me sit on his scooter.

Duster lady
“Roll up, roll up! Half price dusters!” – duster lady

Cargo trucks are the most dangerous hazard on the main roads. Linh told us in order for the drivers to get their pay, they must deliver their goods to the destination as quickly as possible. It was not unusual to see a 40 tonner coming on your side of the road, overtaking another lorry.  The drivers flash their lights sound the horns at you so we had to ride on the grass verge or pavement to get out of their way. Linh said the drivers are on drugs to keep them awake so they can keep driving. Very scary, they don’t stop for anything.

Cooking in Kitchen
No kitchen nightmares here…

We stop at a village cafe where the local police are having a lunch break. The top man comes over to our table with Rice Wine shots (40% proof) and encourages us to drink the liquor knowing full well we are on bikes. It is a custom to drink shots after a meal and we don’t like to upset the local constabulary so we down the shots and then worry about getting breathalysed when they catch up with us down the road.  Apparently the police should not have been drinking whilst on duty so we say nothing and we don’t see them again after we set off.

Every day we ride around 200km and stay at a different location. Linh organises our stops for lunch, coffee and orders our food for us. The places where we stay are all booked ahead. I don’t think we ate the same thing twice, all the food was freshly cooked as we arrived and without exception tasty and varied (not everything with Noodles). Homestay, hotels and food is included in the tour price apart from our drinks (beer, canned drinks). We just carried around some of the local currency to provide tips.

Day 5: we ride the most Northern point of Vietnam at Laos within spitting distance of the Chinese Border.  A small bridge separates the 2 countries, we aren’t allowed to cross the bridge as we don’t have the right papers. We sit in a cafe nearby and watch fully loaded hand carts take goods back and forth across the border.

Chinese border in Laos
Chinese border in Laos

An unscheduled dismount

Day 7: I have an off. We leave our hotel early this morning, put the wets on as it has been raining all night, and is still drizzling. Out of town back up the hills to the Ma Pi Leng pass in the Meo Vac valley. A lot of low cloud but the scenery is still stunning. We have lunch and set off for Ba Be Lake through the back roads which are slippy, wet and muddy after the overnight rain.

I lose control (slowly) and slip 45 degrees across the road into a ditch. I get up and my right arm hurts. No bones broken thankfully but I have dislocated my shoulder. My arm is hanging down by my side like a piece of useless cotton. No more riding today. Phil and Linh take 2 bikes (mine and Phil’s) down to the local village, we are about 30 miles from a main town. My bike is left at a house in the village and another tour passing with a truck will take it back to Hanoi later. Phil and Linh come back for me and I pillion with Linh. I am in a lot of pain and Linh asks the locals if there are any medical centres nearby, a fortunate moment of serendipity there is a clinic not far away!

The clinic is manned by a lady and a man in a vest, shorts and flip flops. He goes out to the back room and puts on his white coat, he is the doctor. He looks at my shoulder, and yes it is dislocated. He gives me some Ibuprofen and in 15 minutes he will pop my shoulder back in. I was hoping for gas and air. I have become the unintended celebrity, the local children come to watch the spectacle. I am laid down on a bare metal bed leant against a wall, Phil holds my legs still and Linh holds my head while the doctor puts his foot in my armpit and pulls and twists my arm. I scream so loud I make the babies cry. I can move my arm better, but it is still very painful. Charge for his services £4

Aquarius Hotel
Aquarius Hotel

Day 8: We ride back to Hanoi and I am pillion on Linh’s bike it is a slow and painful journey for me around 260 km. We arrive at Hanoi during rush hour. Linh stops just outside Hanoi to brief Phil on how best to negotiate the traffic back to the bike depot and get there in one piece. No amount of briefing could have prepared Phil for the sheer wall of traffic, noise and chaos and for the first time I am very happy being pillion. After dropping off the bikes we get a taxi back to the hotel, shower, change and set off in a taxi again for the French run private hospital where my arm and shoulder is X-rayed and I find out the humerus bone is fractured, it isn’t very funny. They put my arm in a sling.

Day 9 should have been a trip to Halong Bay but that is cancelled as I have to go back to the hospital to see the orthopaedic surgeon. He said no operation on my arm was necessary and I can travel back to the UK.   The hospital provide me with a ‘fit to fly’ document which will cover me for insurance purposes. We spend the last day on a guided walking tour of Hanoi.

What would we have done differently?

Not much really apart from I would have preferred not to come off the bike but thankfully that happened towards the end of the holiday and as Ted Simon said ‘the interruptions are the journey’ it was certainly an exciting ride from start to finish. I am now on the mend and back on my bike after 3 months. As far as kit was concerned it was much too hot to wear the Knox and Halvarssons vests, and the hydration packs were unnecessary. We left some of our kit behind in Vietnam with the tour company (textiles and my uncomfortable boots), which we had planned to do. The tour company will clean the kit up and re-use it for other clients. The Lidl roll packs were spot on and kept everything dry during the trip, they will do for the next tour…. and the insurance company paid out for my accident with no problems!

We plan to go back in 2021 to do the South Vietnam tour, with the same company, but with a little bit less off-road next time.

Group Secretary and National Observer