I recently traveled through Vietnam on motorcycles with my friend from college. Since I really went all out doing many new things, the trip was very fun despite the summer heat. Had I traveled by car, I’d only get to experience the trip through the windshield. With a motorcycle, I can feel everything around me. Traveling by motorcycle made the journey more difficult so that the destinations become more rewarding.
Vietnam is a beautiful country that still has the charm of authentic Asian atmosphere. I wanted to experience Vietnam like how Vietnamese people live. I could have gone on a group tour and been easy on myself. But that wouldn’t be an adventure where I got to travel freely. Getting lost, eating street food, riding a motorcycle, and learning a new language by talking to the locals were all the fun I would have missed with a group tour. Most importantly, going in a small group allowed me to slow down and be spontaneous about what we want to do. I learned so much from this trip.
The total distance we traveled on motorcycles is about 571 km (354 miles) over the period of seven days. We rode from Qui Nhon to Dong Hoi with some help of train and bus. We passed and stopped at several interesting places including Nhơn Lý, Mỹ Khê (Quảng Ngãi), Lý Sơn, Hội An, Huế and Đồng Hới.
Since I wanted to travel light, I took the photos using Olympus OM-D cameras and Android phone LG G4. I didn’t have much choice anyway. A motorcycle can only carry so much stuff. On the positive side, traveling light made the trip more fun as I didn’t have to worry about my luggage.
Slept to Qui Nhơn
We started off the trip just the day after I landed from Korea. I still had jetlag.
So on the first day, we took an overnight sleeping bus and then sleeping train from Vũng Tàu to Qui Nhơn. The sleeping bus’s seats were actually flat beds. The train’s air-conditioned cabin accommodated four passengers with two bunk beds. The restroom was surprisingly clean too. I mean, the restroom on the plane I flew in smelled worse. We rested comfortably along to way to begin the trip at Qui Nhơn.
While on the train, I woke up early to see the sunrise on the beautiful coast of Vietnam. The view reminded me of California’s west coast without all the surfers and expensive parking spots. On the other side of the train, I saw the rural areas with rice paddy and small towns.
I felt like I was traveling back in time to places where lives are simple when people didn’t look at their phone all the time. The kids played outside, not on computers. The cows and chickens walked around outside like how they used to. Plus, the service staffs on the train were very friendly. They allowed me into the staff car so I can take photos. One of them even lowered the windshield for me.
Motorcycle to Nhơn Lý
We got off the train at Qui Nhơn to rent motorcycles to really start the trip. The rent was very cheap at about $5 per day but the motorcycle I got doesn’t have a working speedometer, fuel meter, and side mirrors. I had to go with it because it was the only one the renter has. I was always very careful driving it.
We traveled south to a small coastal town Eo Gió in Nhơn Lý. The roads are generally chaotic and efficient. There were very few traffic light and stop sign at intersections. Paying extreme attention to my surrounding kept me alive. People honk in Vietnam to let everyone else know where they are to avoid accidents. Most people on motorcycles there drive safely and avoided me from running into them. Like in every country, some drivers have no common sense. They would often try to merge into a bigger road when there is still traffic. But overall, I was impressed. I don’t understand how Asians are associated with poor driving when I see how safe and efficient the streets in Vietnam are.
We rode through Thi Nai bridge, the longest sea bridge in Vietnam, to Phuong Mai peninsula where Nhơn Lý is located. The area looked empty and clean. There were several constructions of shopping malls and resorts in progress along the coast.
We arrived at Nhơn Lý and ate at one of the many seafood restaurants there.
I think I was the only foreigner there. But they can’t tell. We had braised abalone, sea urchin porridge and some kind of fried rice. I really like the abalone so I tried not to each too much since there were three of us and the serving was small.
After the meal, we hiked around in the hot sunny day. I had to take a nap for a while after that. We didn’t have time to stop anywhere for more than a day. So I had to see as many things as I can. It was worth it. The view from the mountain down to the coastline and the towns was amazing. The towns look like it’s still in the 80s.
Camp by the Beach
In Vietnam, people don’t generally go camping as a way to travel. Designated camp sites were very hard to find there. We just set up our tents on the mountain next to the sea. The view was beyond awesome. There were many goats and cows walking around too. We made sure we didn’t set up our tents on their shit.
For dinner, we bought fresh seafood and grilled them at our camp. The Vietnamese seafood sauce is very spicy like Thai’s seafood sauce. I had to be careful since we didn’t have a lot of water with us, not to mention a toilet.
Since the place is very far from the city, there was very little light pollution for stargazing. Unfortunately, the clouds moved in at night, making stargazing not possible. On the positive side, there was no mosquito. The weather was very hot and I had to leave my tent open. It was hard for me to sleep because I was still adjusting to the time change. However, the soothing sound of the ocean helped a lot.
Cold Drinks for Hot Days
We woke up early and rode as far as possible to get near Port Sa Kỳ. Riding motorcycle was fun until the sun burned my nose. Summer in Vietnam is merciless. Fortunately, finding cold tasty drinks in Vietnam is as easy as finding junk foods in the United States. My favorites are sugarcane juice, coconut water, and salted lime juice. Smoothies and other fruit juices like pineapple and jackfruit are very common too. At one of the stops, there were even durian smoothies too. The less healthy but popular drinks are Red Bull M-250 and sodas.
On the road, we ate very average foods that are already prepared to save time. The one we stopped by only had one menu for lunch. It was a rice plate with several types of sides. As expected, it came with fresh vegetables. This dish didn’t taste good enough to write home about. But I’m okay with that. Nothing is or has to be perfect. I wanted to experience what people there eat on a daily basis.
Instead of water, most restaurants and drink shops served cold tea free of charge. The tea tastes like very diluted Oolong tea. I like it so much. There’s some truth in how the best thing in life is free. But be careful drinking anything in the restaurants. I think the water is clean but the cups may have been used by previous customers.
Authentic Coastal Town, Mỹ Khê (Quảng Ngãi)
We stayed near Port Sa Kỳ at Mỹ Khê (in Quảng Ngãi province). The beach here is not impressive so the area mostly caters to Vietnamese tourists. Instead, I got to see how the locals live and eat. We stayed a night at Hoàng Sa Hotel for about $10 for a very spacious room with two beds. This was my first time staying at a hotel in Vietnam. I did not expect to find that the room has almost every toiletry a person need. There were toothpaste, toothbrush, cotton swab, soap, shampoo, razor, shaving cream and even a comb. I don’t need a comb but it’s nice to have. We ended up staying in hotels for the remainder of the trip. We easily found rooms for about $10 per night using apps like Hotel.com.
I woke up at 3AM to take photos of the milky way. But the clouds were still in the way for the most part. The beach was very dark. I constantly used a flashlight to scan my surroundings for anything dangerous. At one time, I found an old couple exercising very close to where I was at. I didn’t see them coming at all until I flash them. I also didn’t hear them since all I heard was the wave. I was ready to fight and almost kick one of them because their bodies were moving quickly (exercising). I thought they were going to do something.
When morning arrived, many people came out to enjoy the beach. Many locals, young and old, came to run, swim and do other aerobic exercises along the beach.
Port Sa Kỳ
We got to Sa Kỳ and ate breakfast there. I had Mi Quang, dried noodle with pork and shrimp. Then I ordered another dish of eggs with beef. For some reasons the eggs and beef costs more than Mi Quang (pork and shrimp). I guess shrimps are cheaper because fisheries contribute significantly to Vietnam’s economy. After breakfast, we boarded a ship to Ly Son Island. The process was straightforward. We parked our motorcycles at the port since the cost to bring them to the island is higher than the cost to rent them there. The ship was not very big so it rocked a lot. Several passengers got seasick. I almost got it too.
Lý Sơn Island
With the total area of just four square miles, this little island did not disappoint our short visit. The island has a history of volcanic activities. Some coves and mountains here are covered with black volcanic rocks.
Along the road, I saw several plant fields as we rode our motorbikes around. I could smell the green onion from these fields. The local seems to grow foods everywhere to make use of the little land they have.
We got to the top of the highest mountain to see the sunset. The view of the ocean is very serene. The only people I saw are the fishermen in their boats as the day ended.
Next morning, we rode through a cemetery to visit the statue of a Buddhist lady next to a mountain. The weather was beautiful so we hiked up the mountain. I got a good exercise because I was carrying everything expensive with me everywhere. I had two cameras, 4 lenses, a medium tripod, a 15″ MacBook Pro and several other accessories with me. The backpack was very heavy. If someone steals it, he would not be able to run off with it. I would be able to chase and Muay Thai him easily. You probably think I’m exaggerating. Sadly, I’m not. That MacBook is really heavy but I needed it because I was working part-time while traveling.
After visiting the statue, we rode to a temple cave. We walked up the stair for a while from parking to the cave entrance. It was exhausting. When I entered the cave temple, I thought I was playing Skyrim in real life. The shrines look like coffins. So I expected some skeletons to pop up and attack me. To the contrary, the cave feels very safe, peaceful and well isolated. I guess it must be easy to meditate there. So easy a caveman can do it.
After we got off the cave, we hired a solar-powered boat to look around the island. The boat looked homemade so I really felt like an Asian traveling in Asia. It is not fast as it is solely powered by the sun. I didn’t see any battery on the boat.
Hội An Ancient Town
We got back from the island and headed to Hội An. Hội An means “peaceful meeting place.” The city was a major trade port in Asia. Today, its buildings and streets are still well-preserved. We visited the city at night to enjoy the city lights. There were many shops selling clothes, furniture, foods, and arts. Additionally, Hội An has many museums and old buildings to appreciate. There are several Japanese influences in the city.
While the city is beautiful, it is not my type of travel destination because of too many tourists. If you enjoy walking along an old and beautifully decorated street with foods to eat everywhere, this is for you. If you are a couple, the place looks rather romantic to walk around.
Hải Vân Pass
We rode through Danang for our next stop at Huế. Danang is a well-developed industrial city in central Vietnam. The streets were very busy. I almost ran into a van at a roundabout. After getting off the city, we rode along a beach. It was as clean as a beach can be. Although no one was there since it was too hot.
We passed through a very scenic mountain roads known as Hải Vân Pass. We could have traveled faster by an hour through Hải Vân Tunnel under the mountain but we would miss a lot. The view of the ocean from the mountain was beautiful even though we were not there at the best time.
According to a Vietnamese poet from the 17th century, Hải Vân is Vietnam’s most dangerous mountain. As a traveler, I would say it’s the most exciting mountain. The road is very winding and changes in elevation often. Visibility is very limited. At one point, I lost control of my motorcycle and fell into the gutter. I was accelerating instead of braking while enjoying the scenery. Could have been worse.
Just before arriving at Huế, we stopped for lunch. The menu, this time, is something I’ve never seen before. To make the most of the opportunity, I ate more than I should have. That’s my excuse for eating a lot.
Huế Imperial City is the highlight of this former capital of Vietnam (1802-1945). The city, surrounded by stone wall and moat, encompasses the palace. We paid $6 each to get in. I think that’s very expensive for Vietnam. Fortunately, the money paid for the maintenance of the palace well. Almost everything is in good condition. I didn’t expect this since Huế is in the middle of Vietnam. The city must have seen much destruction during Vietnam War.
Visiting this place was like going back in time. The Chinese architecture here is very beautiful. The throne room is skillfully decorated with very sophisticated details. There are many Chinese poems written on the walls and ceilings. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take pictures in the throne room.
The palace courtyard is very large and we didn’t have enough energy to explore thoroughly. Remember it was very hot. We stopped by at a garden to rest. It was very peaceful. Then we walked a bit more before deciding to leave. Luckily, we found an ice cream shop as we were leaving.
When we tried to exit, the guard didn’t let us exit from the entrance. The actual exit is at the opposite end of the entrance. We had to walk all the way there and walk back to the other side of the entrance again to where we parked our motorcycles. I think the guard wanted us to walk more and be healthy.
We left Huế on a van to Đồng Hới. The weather was hot and the AC didn’t work. The driver lowered the windshield and let in the polluted air. In Vietnam, pollution is a problem even in a small city. I had to wear a pollution filtering mask when outdoor. There’s saying. In the third world, don’t drink the water. In the first world, don’t breathe the air. Vietnam is in between. So I kind of cannot drink the water and cannot breathe the air.
The main attraction for us here was Paradise Cave (Thiên Đường Cave). The cave was far from our hotel. I was able to see much scenery along the way. Vietnam’s countryside is very beautiful with rice paddies, mountains, and interesting people. I saw a person riding a water buffalo on the road several times. Since my friend was driving for this part, I was able to take photos on the road. This gives a new meaning to a drive-by shooting.
Paradise Cave was discovered in 2005. So the place has a more modern facility than other places I’ve been to. The entrance is like the subway entrance in the U.S. where you slide in the ticket, walk through the gate and get your ticket back. Except, in Vietnam, you don’t get your ticket back since they are trying to save money.
We had to walk a lot after this entrance to get to the actual cave. I felt like it was a bait-and-switch scam. I thought that the cave would be immediately at the entrance where we paid for the ticket. No. We hiked about two miles after passing through the entrance to get into the cave. At first, it was easy since the path was level. After that, we hiked up the mountain. The path was very windy too so when I thought I am at the end, I was wrong. I wouldn’t complain if I didn’t have to carry my backpack with me.
Fortunately, at the real entrance, they sell ice creams. I got a made-in-Thailand durian popsicle. It tasted just like durian. They also sell foods as well but I can’t imagine how hard it is to get the foods up there since I didn’t see any kitchen nearby. Being a very thoughtful person, I didn’t buy any food so that no one will have to walk up here to deliver. I wonder why they didn’t sell the entrance ticket here. I think they want to force people to exercise by walking up the mountain. I mean, you are already here and paid for the ticket, might as well make it to the cave and lose a few pounds doing it.
Inside of the cave was very cool like there is AC turned on. Yet this is a natural occurrence. I overheard a tour guide said that in summer, the cave is cool. While in winter, the cave is warm.
We walked to the dead end of the cave since it was nice and cool inside. We wanted to avoid the summer heat. The cave is surreal to behold. I’ve been to many caves but none of them has so many large and interesting rock formations inside. The cave is very vast. I felt like I was in another world.
On our way back, we stopped by a water spring. I was too tired so I didn’t go in even though the water was refreshingly cold. I took photos of my friends instead.
From Đồng Hới, we took a train back to Huế. But I was too tired to ride a motorcycle from Huế back to Vũng Tàu so I stayed behind in Huế to rest while my friend and his wife went ahead. I was sick probably from mosquitoes. Fortunately, I recovered quickly with plenty of sleep and Vietnamese diet. After I got well, I decided to explore Huế more. Huế is a vibrant and historically interesting city to explore. I visited Tu Dam Pagoda, a major Buddhist temple there. The interior carving looks very sophisticated. The artists must have spent so much time making these walls. Not too far from that, there is a really epic looking Catholic church. I thought it was some kind of castle when I first see it.
At Huế. the local foods are very good and healthy. I really like Bún bò Huế. It’s a bowl of rice noodle soup with beef. Unlike phở, the soup is spicy, sour and has lemongrass flavor. Like most Vietnamese dishes, this one came with side vegetables including lime, cilantro, green onions,banana blossom, red cabbage, and basil. Most of the times, I ate more vegetables than the noodle itself. The restaurants would keep refilling the vegetables. I just can’t help it. The vegetables were fresh and tasted very good with the food. I lost 10 pounds at the end of this trip probably from this kind of diet, a lot of hiking and being sick.
Since I didn’t visit the imperial palace long enough during the day, I decided to visit again at night. I wasn’t allowed inside but it’s full of activities outside.
At the end of my stay, I flew from Huế to Ho Chi Minh City. Huế airport is small but seems surprisingly modern and well maintained for an airport this size. I mean, it looks better maintained than major American airports like the LAX. I flew with AirAsia since the cost is about the same as taking a train. The plane itself was in very good condition. The seat had plenty of space too. I expected something like Spirit Airlines.
This was my first time in Vietnam. This was also my first time riding a motorcycle. Trying new things and seeing new places are what make traveling fun for me. Vietnam is like Thailand except for the language I don’t understand. The people are friendly and helped me figure out what I need. The cost of everything is very low in US dollars. The foods are healthy and tasty with plenty of fresh seafood and vegetables. The only things to watch out for are pollution and hot weather.
If you plan to go to Asian countries, I highly recommend motorcycles. They are very convenient to get around with. Pay attention to your surrounding and you will be safe. Once you get used to it, you will find it even more fun to ride than a car. I also used a motorcycle in Chiang Mai, Thailand as well after leaving Vietnam. Getting around is easier than using a car. A car costs more to rent and is harder to park.
Thank you to my friend and his wife who helped me with my travel. I had a great time traveling with them. If you and your partner plan to travel, for a fee, I’m happy to be your photographer man.