x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Last scooter out of Saigon: the wonders of Vietnam on two wheels

Richard Whitehead braves bad weather, bumpy roads and blistering sunburn to experience the wind-in-your-face thrills and memorable views of a scooter trip round Vietnam.

Richard Whitehead on his 125cc Honda Air Blade, which he used to travel across Vietnam from Saigon, through Vung Tau, Da Lat and various rural locations, then back to Saigon, on a four-day trip round the South East Asian country. Courtesy Richard Whitehead
Richard Whitehead on his 125cc Honda Air Blade, which he used to travel across Vietnam from Saigon, through Vung Tau, Da Lat and various rural locations, then back to Saigon, on a four-day trip round the South East Asian country. Courtesy Richard Whitehead

The policeman can only chuckle when I ask him for a receipt. Middle-aged and portly, in a groaning olive uniform, this is probably the first time that he’s heard such a bizarre request.

My journey hadn’t begun well. Less than four kilometres out of Saigon (only foreigners and officials of the Communist Party of Vietnam refer to the city by its official name, Ho Chi Minh City), traffic officers were summarily rounding up every passing scooter and issuing riders with 750,000 dong (Dh130) speeding fines.

My policeman tells me that I’d been clocked doing 54kph in a 40kph zone, though I don’t believe a word of it; I’d been going closer to 80kph.

This is southern Vietnam: dominated by the seething, bustling, booming and beautiful megacity of Saigon. Even such a short distance out of town, the expat condominiums and manicured tennis courts have already made way for swamps and bushland on the south-east route to Vung Tau, a bright city on the coast of the South China Sea where expat oil and gas workers and Saigon city trippers mingle at weekends to give the area a distinctive and thrillingly seedy Atlantic City feeling.

I’ve just begun a journey that, over the next four days, will cover more than 800km of coastline and mountain passes on a tiny, 125cc Honda Air Blade – the only way to travel in a nation where motorbikes outnumber cars by a ratio of 18 to one.

While I generally see scooters as a bit of fun, I’d never claim to be an ardent biker. Bikes make me feel like I’m a victim in waiting. They don’t offer the protection of a car’s chassis and frame; they’re less visible; and if you do get hit by a dozy motorist, you know about it right away.

But when you and your fellow riders form the majority of road users, there’s definite safety in numbers. What’s more, Vietnamese road planners make travel exceptionally easy for scooters, giving us plenty of segregated and free-flowing bike lanes well away from the Innovas and Freightliners doing battle on the business part of the highways.

The beauty of bike travel is that you can park up anywhere to have a look or take a snap. And in a place like Vietnam, where you aren’t being challenged by cars and trucks, the freedom that two wheels gives makes the heart race.

There’s no question that Vietnam is heartbreakingly beautiful, but its landscape still comes as a surprise. I’d been expecting the hinterland to be undeveloped, full of peasants on packed bullock carts travelling from bamboo village to paddy field or shrimp farm, but the reality is a fast-developing network of neat, concrete-clad roadside towns and villages decorated with red hammer-and-sickle flags and overrun with coffee shops.

Vietnam might have had a turbulent recent past, but its present and future are thrusting. Until the country emerged as one of Asia’s new tiger economies, driven by Saigon’s commercial and industrial ambition, it was better known as a place best avoided by American teenagers. Now they flock to it with backpacks or oil-rig overalls.

The Vietnam War is but a distant memory, though, and, aside from a few war museums and Saigon nightspots with names like Apocalypse Now, there’s precious little to remind you of the United States-led efforts in Indochina.

The road to Vung Tau is brand new, part of the country’s seemingly successful effort to upgrade its road network to modern standards. The area to its west comprises the mighty Mekong Delta, with dense mangroves and soft wetlands providing most of the scenery as the main road turns into miles of bridges over rivers and swamps.

You can’t go too fast on a scooter, but you don’t really notice. Even at an average lick of 50kph, it feels like you’re eating up the miles. It’s only when I check the map at my Vung Tau hotel that the reality hits home: I still haven’t got very far, in spite of all the hours in the saddle.

The coast is the focus for the second day, with a 150km journey to Phan Thiet over pristine secondary roads that, for the most part, hug the South China Sea.

The Vietnamese clearly spurn the seaside, judging by the miles of virgin white sands completely devoid of humanity, and the winding coastal road is ridiculously clear of traffic. This allows the little Honda to use every bit of the great surfaces and sporting cambers.

But I’ve forgotten the sun, something that’s really easy to overlook thanks to the cooling airflow over the bike. As someone with European skin, I only notice the sun’s legacy after checking into a ridiculously cheap, five-star beachside hotel and running the shower.

It’s only once you feel the hot water running down your face and arms that you truly begin to realise quite how burnt you are – I’d been grilled on the way up to Phan Thiet.

After the previous day’s coastal bliss, the third leg is completely different: a 180km inland climb to Da Lat. The day starts easily, but something ominous shadows the black mountains in the distance: heavy weather.

One doesn’t think too much about climatic conditions in a car, but it’s different on a bike. Aside from the discomfort of getting thoroughly drenched, bad weather also brings a number of dangers, with rain slicks disguising deep potholes – and, worst of all, lightning.

When the rain comes, it doesn’t last for long, and what could have been soggy, or even dangerous, passes quickly with the help of a peasant, who has a hut nearby.

Bathed in sunshine now, the mountain pass opens up in earnest. With sheer drops down one side and mangled surfaces thanks to the goods trucks that ply the route, the Da Lat road is far from being the safest in Vietnam, but it’s surely one of the most ­beautiful.

Hairpin after rising hairpin bend, the Honda pushes ahead willingly. It’s hard work for its rider, too, with a treacherous road surface of potholes and boulders to navigate, requiring a supreme level of concentration, balance and sometimes brute force to avoid catastrophe.

It takes close to six hours at an average of 30kph to reach Da Lat, and boy is it cold and painful towards the end. The town nestles in a valley at a height of about 1,500 metres and the locals wear coats even in the daytime, which looks bizarre in a tropical country like Vietnam.

There’s a regal feel to Da Lat. Its centrepiece is a serene lake in the middle of the city’s bustle. But, aching and burnt, arriving an hour after nightfall and then setting off early the next day for an epic, 300km journey back to Saigon, there’s little time to check it out before bed.

By this time, the skin on the backs of my hands has begun to blister, and it gets no shade from my back as I set out south to Saigon. In the spirit of innovation borne from adversity, I cut thumb holes in a pair of socks to make some jerry-built mittens, and they work well.

The ride back to town might be the most torturous journey that I’ve ever completed in a vehicle. The entire length of the ride consists of busy, lumpy and dusty trunk roads that had been so badly churned up by the wheels of juggernauts over time that the additional misery of roadworks (and the grit, sand and dust that they offer) is tremendously punishing.

My aim is to get back to Saigon before sunset – a tough job given the distance and the discomfort. By the second rest stop, 200km into the journey and only 100km from Saigon, it’s tempting to give up, dump the bike and hitch a ride.

Every single muscle is screaming by now; my face and nose have crusted over, the result of the dirt in the air and the penetrating rays of the sun; and I feel like I’ve left my backside at the hotel in Da Lat. But still, squinting at the sinking sun, I manage to coax the Honda forward bit by bit in the midst of a new onslaught: the evening commuter rush.

Thankfully, the road surfaces improve, but I find no cheer in that as I writhe on the scooter seat, trying to ignore a nose that feels like it’s about to break away. Google Maps suggests two routes: one longer by 10km, while the other involves a bridge, so I take the latter. This proves a bad choice, because, grand as it is, the bridge still isn’t finished, leading to an awful gridlock just a short distance from the looming city.

Here, three paved lanes merge into a single dust track, a battalion of scooters battling with trucks, oil tankers, cars and vans to squeeze off the bridge.

Nightfall has passed by now, the final 100km leg taking as long as the first two put together. The run into the city centre is nothing more than a blur, with my brain focused solely on getting to my hotel, grabbing a bite and finding aloe for my burns.

But Saigon, one of the most captivating cities in South East Asia, doesn’t let you do that, and I find myself heading out for one last night in the town. However, the only way to get around after sunset is on the back of a scooter taxi – the last thing I want at this point. I covered a lot of clicks on foot that night.

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