The main road from Hue to Hoi An is less than a hundred miles. Even a slow bus can get you there in 3 hours with several stops along the way. So why did I go on a road that took me within 4km of the Laos border, takes 2 days to navigate and passes through such tourist hotspots (or not) as Prao? You know, Prao. No? Exactly. Well, I took that route partly because I could as I have plenty of time, and partly because the road looks like the scrawl you might get if you dipped a spider in ink and let it scurry any which way it chooses across a map of central Vietnam. Oh, and then there’s the Ho Chi Minh Trail thing, but I’ll come to that.
Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that I am not and have never been a biker. I have many friends who are but I’m definitely more of a car guy. And I don’t mean that in the sense that I own a car, I mean that in the sense that I love cars and I’ve been lucky enough to own quite a few sports cars over the years. Motorbikes, on the other hand, have never really appealed to me. However, in Vietnam mopeds and motorbikes are everywhere. They are cheaper than cars, more manoeuvrable, and it seems like everyone has one. They are also very popular with backpackers, even those who’ve never ridden before and, thanks to a police force that can’t be bothered to check and companies that don’t care, there are plenty of opportunities to rent or buy a bike and hit the open road. Instead of risking life and limb by riding a beaten up old scooter or bike myself I did decided to do the next best, and probably only slightly less stupid thing and arranged for someone to ride the bike for me while I sat on the back.
On the morning of the first day, my guide Lau arrived at my hostel and we chatted about the itinerary for the day. He showed me a route on a map and told me about a few of the stops he intended to make on the way. He also asked me if there was anything specific I wanted to do or see, which was cool and make it feel much more like a bespoke trip that was just for me. In fact, as it would be just the two of us rather than a convoy of several bikes it actually was just for me. The other slight difference to a lot of these trips was that my main backpack would be coming with us on the bike, rather than being shuttled to the end in a car. I have to admit I was slightly sceptical but Lau covered it in a big plastic bag and strapped it to the back of the bike before I thought about it too much. Looking back, it actually doesn’t seem that bad compared to some of the things I’ve seen strapped to bikes in Vietnam – from entire families of 5 on one bike, to 8 gas canisters carefully arranged around a scooter, to enormous quantities of beer (the most being 18 trays of 24 cans per tray) balanced on a moped. A 60l rucksack is nothing.
We set off north, in exactly the opposite direction to our final destination. A perfect way to start. The traffic in Hue is nowhere near as bad as Hanoi and we very quickly escaped the town and got out onto the country roads. With very little other traffic it was a smooth and fun ride to our first stop – a honey bee farm. We looked around for about twenty minutes and then got back on the bike to headed up the road. This became the pattern for our day. We would ride for 45 minutes to an hour and then stop somewhere for a while to visit a waterfall, or grab lunch, or take photos, or any one of a dozen other reasons to take a break. I really enjoyed the stop-start nature of it all, much more than I might have done on a bus or train, because each stop I could wander around, stay as long or as short a time as I liked and Lau was always ready when I decided to move on.
Late afternoon we reached Prao, where we would stop the night. We checked into a small guesthouse and for the first time Lau left me to my own devices while he disappeared into his room. The weather took a turn that evening and it pretty much rained all night. When I woke up the following morning it was still raining heavily. I walked down the stairs to reception, propped my rucksack against a wall and went to sit down for breakfast. Lau joined me after a few minutes.
“Lovely day for a motorbike ride”, I commented jokingly.
“Yes, beautiful!”, he replied without a hint of sarcasm.
As it turned out, it was a good day for a motorbike ride. Once we’d both donned the plastic over-trousers and poncho that had been stored somewhere on the bike, we set off along the Ho Chi Minh Highway up through the hills. This road follows partly the route of the Ho Chi Minh Trail which was really a series of trails that ran from North Vietnam to South Vietnam via Laos and Cambodia. It provided logistical support to the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (or Viet Cong to their opponents), and the People’s Army of Vietnam (North Vietnam Army) in their fight against the southern troops and American forces during the Vietnam War. At that time it consisted of mud roads, in many areas only passable on foot or by motorcycles but now it’s a fully tarmac single lane road, and in some places further north it is being expanded to dual carriageway.
It was a spectacular route with long sweeping corners, switchbacks and lovely, if somewhat wet, views over the valley. Even the rain couldn’t dampen my spirits as we rode through the day, stopping at an ethnic minority village (where I distributed sweets to the local children – yeah, I know books would have been better but they’re harder to carry on the bike), a tea plantation (where the rain stopped long enough to encourage a couple of wedding photograph parties out) and eventually the seaside town of Danang.
Danang is a holiday resort, full of hotels and half built hotels, and I was glad to pass through and along the coast towards our final destination of Hoi An. We arrived mid afternoon and having been deposited at my hostel for the night Lau said his goodbyes and set off on his return journey to Hue. It would take him 3 hours he reckoned. We had taken the best part of 2 days, and I mean that in both senses, in that it had been both most of two days and the best of two days.
I am not a biker. I think I mentioned that. But I can think of no better way to get from Hue to Hoi An.