Day One – Hanoi to Cuc Phuong National Park
We started loading up our bikes in front of the Green Diamond hotel in Hanoi at 6 am. Leaving early we hoped to get out of Hanoi before the traffic madness began. After taking extra care that our bags were secure with four foot long bungy cords and snapping some quick pics of us and our “new” bikes we were ready. Jolene and I were really excited even though we had no idea what to expect.
Meanwhile, Tash was feeling so nervous that she felt as though her stomach was upset. This is much better than the day before when we were riding to a fuel station and I asked her “are you feeling good?” and she replied “am I feeling good, no I’m terrified”. That same day was the first day Tash had ever ridden a motorcycle and she picked it up faster than I could of ever expected. For the record, I did not push her to do this.
As we clicked through our first few gears and started feeling comfortable we had our first turn to execute. My GPS alerted me to make an upcoming left turn and as we approached the intersection I saw a sign with a left hand arrow with a large red slash through it. I thought to myself, “seriously, this is how the trip starts?” Eventually we got back on track and weaved through the heavy traffic, just like everyone else. After another hour of riding and only one more wrong turn we made our way out of the city and into some clear highway.
It was hard to keep our eyes forward at times with all of the beautiful landscape surrounding us. Looking at large fields and palms trees closed in by tall jagged limestone formations we kept riding onward. It’s hard to believe that there is a place greener than at home in Oregon but Vietnam offers more shades of green than anywhere I’ve seen.
It is impressive what the locals can carry on a scooter. Some carry large bull heads each with eight large horns protruding from the sides and others with a dozen cages full of chickens.
Everyone had been extremely nice to us and during one of our stops on the side of the road one man got off of his bicycle just to shake each one of our hand’s. His English was non-existent, but when I pointed to my bike and said Ho Chi Minh his eyes lit up. He then started singing a song that mostly included the lyrics of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh over and over. We tried to sing along with him and I couldn’t stop laughing for the next five miles.
Six hours after we had left Hanoi we reached the Cuc Phoung National Park. We found a little bungalow to stay in that was tucked into the trees and by the time we ate some lunch, we only had a few hours left to explore the park.
So we took off to do a two hour hike to see a one thousand year old tree and a cave that is hidden in the jungle. After walking only a few hundred feet into the cave we turned back in order to finish the trek before dark. Sleeping to the sounds of the jungle was a perfect way to finish our first day biking through Vietnam.
Day 2 – Cuc Phuong to Tan Ky
First thing in the morning, after breakfast and coffee of course, we headed to the turtle and primate conservation center within the national park. We saw about ten different species of turtles during a short guided tour. The primate center is dedicated to the protection of many species of primates including different varieties of gibbons and langurs. Seeing the Cat Ba langurs was exciting as there are only 65 of them left. Thankfully the park is helping to increase those numbers.
On our walk back to our motorcycles, I thought I saw something moving in the grass.
After passing through many small towns and dusty construction zones, we eventually found ourselves on a wide, smooth highway that crossed over the Song Chu river. We stopped in the town of Lam Son where we found a motorcycle mechanic and had the oil changed for $4 each. He even fixed the luggage racks on two of our bikes that I tried holding together with paracord. Ordering lunch was just as difficult as getting the oil changed as we had to Google how to say different phrases.
It seemed as though every small town we went through we had at least a half dozen kids waving and saying hello as loud as possible. Each kid looked excited to see the three of us cruising through their town, but I think I actually gained more joy by seeing how happy it made them. The day ended with driving past people working in fields and feeding their cattle. I even saw one woman waiting for her buffalo while it rolled around in a mud bath.
Tan Ky couldn’t of showed up at a better time as we were all feeling sore from riding and in need of some rest. We stayed at the KMO hotel and could not believe how nice the hotel was. I think it was the most luxurious place we have stayed in months. We walked around the quiet little town, into a small market with people selling meat and large varieties of fruits. Jojo bought some of the biggest grapes I have seen, they were delicious. Everyone there seemed so genuinely happy to see us, we had many kids and adults all eager just to say hello. Never have I felt so at ease in a place where I know we are the only tourists around.
Day 3 – Tan Ky to Minh Hoa
Following our morning coffee, the weather appeared gray. Not the ominous dark gray that warns of incoming rain, but the kind that says go ahead and wear a tank top and shorts, it won’t rain. Shortly into our trip all three of us were soaked. After waterproofing with windbreakers and ponchos we continued on our way to our destination of Phong Nha, home of the world’s largest cave.
Battling through sprinkles followed by downpours, we took a rest after fifty miles. Finding a cafe to shelter and warm us, we drank coffee as we delayed the inevitable. Tash was freezing (not unusual) and the warmth of the coffee and tea was hard to leave.
Setting out again we knew we had another three and half hours until reaching Phong Nha. The rain never ceased. After we broke the one hour to go mark we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Finding our way into a labyrinth of limestone mountains the scenery made me forget about the rain. It reminded me of Lan Ha Bay except there was a road instead of a bay. Wait, scratch that “Is that a river in the middle of the road?”
Suddenly we found ourselves confronted by a pool of water (Silverton people think Mallories) and a few motorists not sure what to do. One man looked at us and pointed at his knees while informing us of the depth. A truck had just finished driving through but gauging the depth of water next to a tidal wave is difficult.
So, I put my bike in neutral and started walking it through the flood. I carefully watched the water creep higher and higher up to the center of my rims. At one point I stopped to look around and I was halfway across so I decided that turning back was no longer an option.
After reaching the other side I started the bike and everything was ok, I waved to the girls to follow. Wading back through the water, I helped Tash push her bike through the deepest part. We were all excited at our accomplishment and our spirits were high…..for about 15 seconds.
Around the next corner we found even more flooding. This time I left my bike behind and walked for about five minutes through knee deep water. As far as I could see the water continued. If it wasn’t for the guard rails it would have been mistaken for a lake.
Reluctantly we turned around and once again pushed our way through the flooded road. Within the short amount of time we were gone the water had already gotten much higher. My knees were almost invisible this time and our exhausts were completely submerged. Luckily, we didn’t experience any problems when we reached the other side and we backtracked towards our detour.
As we drove through the small town of Minh Hoa we spotted a sign reading Nha Nghi, meaning guesthouse. After a long cold day we decided to give in and hunker down. Going into this trip we knew there would be plenty of unexpected setbacks. Not making it to Phong Nha that day didn’t bother us one bit, we were just proud of what we had accomplished that day.
Day 4- Minh Hoa to Ba Don
Listening to the rain all night, we knew it was going to be a soggy day. But we had no idea the severity of it. None of us had ever seen rain like that before. When we get heavy rainstorms at home you can hear heavy surges of rain for maybe a minute or two. This was like a constant, unrelenting surge. (It was so wet I didn’t feel comfortable taking my camera out and my GoPro was out of charge….sorry no pics)
Our power had been out all night, so as we packed up under the light of our headlamps and put on our soggy riding clothes we could all sense that it was going to be a difficult day. As we rode through town we could see that the rain had only made things worse. All of the low areas of the street had a foot of standing water and the whole town was out of power. After riding through many large puddles we eventually had to walk our bikes through two puddles that must have been 2-3 feet deep and a few hundred feet long.
Looking through the lens of my helmet was difficult as the sky was dark and the constant battering of rain created an endless obstruction to my vision. As we drove out of town it was hard to believe what I was seeing. Both sides of the road had deep ditches that were overflowing and the water appeared to be moving faster than us. On my right I saw a monastery with a dozen large steps that had water cascading over them like a fountain. Farther out of town we started to climb into some hills where it felt good to be away from the flood plain. But as we kept riding it only started to feel more eerie.
We passed multiple spots where impromptu waterfalls pushed their way out of the hillside and across the roadway, taking large rocks and mud along with it. It seemed as though the whole mountainside was leaking. Making our way around a sharp corner we all came to a quick stop. A hillside had gave way and both lanes of the road were covered in large jagged rocks tumbling through the water’s current. I quickly jumped off and pushed my bike across as I wanted us to get out of there asap. After helping Jo and Tash push their bikes through the debris we continued on.
It took us an hour to ride 40 km as we never shifted out of second gear. We made it to a small town and took shelter at a gas station. As we checked our phones for directions some people on scooters pulled up to do the same. I tried to ask if the roads were clear to Ba Don but I couldn’t get a clear answer. After the gas station worker fired up a generator we were able to fill up our bikes with fuel and we pushed on. On our ride to Ba Don we didn’t encounter anymore obstacles in the road but we did see a lot of flooding. In a large valley we could barely see the tops of the boundaries between rice fields as the rest of the valley was submerged.
We finally were able to relax after dropping off our bags at a hotel, getting back on our bikes to get oil changes, showering and removing everything from our bags to dry out.
Day 5- Ba Don
Once again we listened to it rain all night. But no worries, we were staying in a large city this time, surely they had all the proper systems in place to handle a little flood. Wrong again.
At least we didn’t have to wander around in the street for coffee again. So after our morning routine we set out with full tanks of gas and fresh oil. A few hundred feet from our hotel the road slowly dropped in elevation and what do you know, another lake in the road.
Previously riding through so much water, I think we got a little overconfident. We just kept our bikes in gear and tried riding through the water, but by the time the water had buried half of our bikes we shut them off to try and prevent any damage. We found ourselves wading our bikes through flood water yet again. As we reached dry ground we stopped and dumped as much water out of our mufflers as possible. Then we tried to start them…..
None of our bikes would fire.
Luckily we had a crowd that had gathered around us and they all wanted to help. A local man named Tran who lives across from where we stopped was the first to step in and give us a hand.
Then more people started to help and before we knew it each motorcycle had three or four people, dumping out water and drying off our spark plugs. Eventually all of our bikes fired back up, but my bike spewed out a large puddle of light gray oil. I thought that was the end of our motorcycle adventure. Tran ushered us across to a mechanic’s shop where they told us we just needed to change the oil. Not sure if that was all we needed, I let them go for it anyway.
We ended up hanging out and trying to communicate with a few of the locals while waiting. It was hard to effectively communicate, but it was a cool experience to see how the locals interact together. What we did find out with the help of a translator app, was that the main highway (the largest highway in the country) was flooded out and nobody was able to head south.
After the three oil changes all the bikes ran perfectly!! But before we could leave, the shop owner insisted that we drank a beer with him. So we toasted our beers to Vietnam and we stayed and laughed a little longer. Tran let us park all of our bikes at his house where they were safe and we headed back to the hotel for the night.
When we reached our hotel after wading through more water, we checked back in and decided to see if there was anywhere open to grab a snack. As I looked down the street Tash and I saw the same thing, some guy in a SUV was stuck in the deepest section of water we had seen yet. Soon after, Jojo came out of the hotel and the three of us walked through a few hundred more feet of water until we reached the stranded man.
He didn’t speak English, but he was definitely thankful that we showed up. The water had already gone inside of his vehicle and was over the floorboards. This was the deepest water we had been in and when large trucks drove by they created waves that were chest high. It felt like we pushed his vehicle for an hour, although it was probably 5 minutes.
At one point we crossed a bridge and if felt strange to still be in the river. Walking through waist deep water and pushing a car is very exhausting. After getting him to dry land he shook our hands and we then turned around and walked back through the water. It felt good to repay the kindness that we were given earlier in the day.
Day 6 – Ba Don to Hue
Finally! We woke up and it wasn’t raining, so we set out early just to be prepared. All of the flood water had receded from the day before except for a few small puddles of water. It felt great to be to be cruising through town without rain as the warm air created the perfect temperature to ride in. We drove through many small towns along the way and didn’t see any more flooding on the highway.
Our spirits were high as the first sunshine in many days had appeared.
Although the roads were clear we still saw many flooded areas.
Luckily we had no problems that day and we made it to Hue safe and sound (and dry). That evening while eating dinner, we overheard two guys who were also trying to motorcycle to Phong Nha, the place we couldn’t make it to. Tash asked if they had made it to and they told us that they had to detour as well, they drove through Hue and even more flooding until they reached Phong Nha. Unfortunately for them, when they made it there the whole town was shut down. The area of town that has a majority of the hotels and hostels was underwater and some tourists had placed their motorcycles on rooftops. Eventually everyone in town (and their bikes) had to be boated out!! Of course all of the caves were closed too, as one would have to swim to get inside. That officially put an end to our decision to still ride to Phong Nha. We opted to stay along the main highway (HWY 1) to reach Da Nang and Hoi An.
We were under the assumption that this kind of flooding was a part of daily life in those provinces of Vietnam. But as we talked with the other two travelers, we found out that this was the biggest flood since 2011 when 60 people lost their lives. We were saddened to hear that 14 people perished in the flooding this year and others were still missing.
Day 7 – Hue
Just a lazy day in Hue, a little relaxing, a little sightseeing and getting the nasty smells out of our wet clothes! More info later on another blog post. 🙂