Wednesday, January 13, 2016

How to Drive a Motorcycle Across Vietnam

Two handsome lads take a bend at top speed on their motorcycles on Ho Chi Minh Highway


In November and December of 2015, I drove a motorcycle from Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) to Hanoi, Vietnam. The journey was incredible and changed me, and I'd like to make it easier for others who want to do the same.

Riding a motorcycle across Vietnam was one of the most enriching experiences I've ever had. The act of putting together a small enough backpack to carry around for a month, reducing to the barest essentials, imbued a sort of zen minimalism that I brought back home with me. Talking with Vietnamese people who run businesses out of their own homes so they can provide for their extended family gave me an appreciation for the simple objectives in life, and guided me in my thoughts on my own career path. Driving a motorcycle every day made me respect how awesome motorcycles are, and how I want to drive a motorcycle always, oh my god, they are so fun, I wish I was on one right now.


Panoramic shot of the view of an island, en route to Hue from Hoian.
Famous road from Hoian to Hue.

Is this Journey for You?

Often people tell me how they could never do what I did - they've never ridden a motorcycle.

A week before my flight, I took a motorcycle safety course, then got my motorcycle license. Before that, the only experience I had was a day trip in Taiwan on a scooter and extensive bicycling experience. I've talked to many travelers who had even less experience. The long and short of it is, you can do this trip if you've never ridden a motorcycle before in your life. Be realistic about your abilities, and if you can get some practice time in beforehand, do. At the very least learn how a clutched motorcycle works. Worst case scenario, you can get some practice time in with whoever you're buying the bike from, and there will absolutely be other backpackers willing to lend you a hand.

Having a motorcycle gave me freedom I'd never experienced as a traveler. Rather than only seeing tourist traps in major cities, I could see everything that stretched across the countryside. When staying in a town, I could tour around it on my bike, riding right alongside the locals. When hungry, I'd drive until I saw a decent restaurant. Thirsty, the same for a cafe. I could choose when to hit the road for the next town - I wasn't restricted to a bus or train timetable. When traveling, I could pull over and rest whenever it pleased me, or whenever I saw something I wanted to stop and photograph. Not to mention, I believe I saved a good couple hundred dollars on bus and train tickets.

This trip cost me approximately 2,000USD. I paid 750 for a round-trip plane ticket from Houston to Ho Chi Minh, spend on average 10 per night on hostels, 5 per day on food, 300 for the bike, 50 for gas over the course of the trip, 100 on repairs and oil changes over the course of the trip, .25-1 per beer, 10 per massage (I got a lot), and the rest on tours and activities which ranged from 10 to 75. I believe spending another 500 on the trip would have granted me god-like accommodations, food, and souvenirs to bring back, and that the trip could have been done for ~500 cheaper without too much lost. Your results may vary.

The trip lasted from Nov 13th to Dec 8th.

Various spices and goods on display in a market in Hanoi
Spicy

The Route - Basics

Your first decision is where to land - Saigon or Hanoi? I have only done the trip South to North, so I can't speak as to how it would be the other way. I can say that bikes sell for higher prices in Saigon. Then again, there were a lot more options for purchasing in Saigon than there were in Hanoi. Up to you, but this guide will assume you're driving your bike from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi.


Sunset on the road from Ho Chi Minh to Muine
Outside of Saigon.

The Plane Ticket

You can get a ticket from Houston to Saigon for about 700-800USD. I highly recommend using Flightfox to save some cash. Find a ticket on Skyscanner first and for about 50 bucks they guarantee they'll find you a cheaper ticket minus their finder's fee, or your money back.

I went in November because it's the end of the rainy season. Weather in the South was perfect nearly every day. This is generally recommended as the best time to travel.


A lighthouse on a rocky island near Muine, Vietnam.
Lighthouse near Muine.

Visa

I won't speak for anybody other than Americans. We need a visa to get into Vietnam. Your options are to either go through the embassy, or take the cheaper option - Visa On Arrival. This isn't a typical "show up and get a stamp" type visa, you have to get an invitation letter from a travel agency. If you don't have this on you in the airport, your airline probably won't let you fly, and when you get to Vietnam, you'll be sent back home. Get it done.

I used Hotels-In-Vietnam and paid about 25 bucks for the service. At the airport I paid another 65 USD for the visa itself. Make sure to bring USD in cash for this, as the ATMs in the airport aren't guaranteed to work.

Entrance to the temple of literature in Hanoi, Vietnam
Temple of Literature, Hanoi.

Money

All transactions in Vietnam are done in cash, except for most hostels, which can be done on a card with a 3% service fee. I wouldn't recommend ever having more than 2 million dong on you. I kept 1.5 million in a hidden wallet, and the rest of my petty cash loose in my pocket. If you get pulled over, the cop will take whatever money he sees on you, so make sure he doesn't an unreasonably small amount or he'll search for where you keep your real money. Same goes for muggers.

I had no difficulties using my Visa debit card to withdraw from Vietnam ATMs. Max withdrawal was 2million per session, though I'm not sure what the daily limit was. I did several withdrawals to pay for my bike.

Call your bank and tell them you're travelling to Vietnam, or after your first charge they'll turn off your card until you can contact them.

Two hostel guests relax in a hostel in Hanoi, Vietnam
Our hostel in Hanoi was supreme after days on the road.

Room and Board

Every city in my route had a decent enough hostel or hotel to stay in. Generally I paid under 10 bucks for a dorm. Sometimes when I traveled with others I found it was cheaper to get a private 1 or 2 bed and share. It was nice to get a shower to ourselves in cases like that. Vietnamese hostel staff often know the best places to tour, eat, drink, and party in their given city - get your money's worth out of them.

A motorcycle loaded with two backpacks for a ride from Dalat to NHA Trang, Vietnam.
The day I drove a girl to NHA Trang.


Preparation and Packing

On this trip, you want to go as lightweight as possible. For me, this reduction to the bare-bones was a sort of meditative experience - after the trip, I took a Goodwill trashbag to my closet and cleared it out.

I went with a 50L Osprey pack that could be converted into a strapless duffel bag, with a detachable day pack. I never wanted more space, and sometimes felt I could have had less. I'm a guy, so girls, add to this list as necessary.

Bring as little as possible, and buy whatever else in Vietnam. Vietnam is cheap. If you really need an extra item of clothing, it can be found for less than 5USD somewhere.

I brought:

  • 1 pair sturdy pants (for when you're on the bike. I brought two, wish I had just brought one. It was never too hot for pants in November)
  • 1 pair gym shorts (sleeping, swimming, laundry day)
  • 3 pairs boxers
  • 2 pairs socks (get good socks)
  • 1 pair boots (you should wear boots when you ride. I wore mine as my every day wear, and bought flipflops in Saigon for 5USD for beach/lazy days)
  • 3 t-shirts
  • 1 tank top
  • 1 long-sleeved shirt (good to keep from getting hilarious farmer tans on the bike, and for going out)
  • 1 water-resistance light jacket (bring something that packs well and isn't stuffed with down or whatever. It doesn't get THAT cold in Vietnam, but the mountains can get chilly). 
  • 1 bandana (sweat. Trust me.)
  • Ziploc bags (all my clothes went rolled up into ziploc bags. This ensures everything stays dry, compact, and organized)
  • Small Camera (I used a Canon Powershot. If you want a DSLR, bring at your own risk. It'll probably get stolen if you aren't vigilant)
  • Cheap Sunglasses (absolutely necessary for the road or you won't be able to see a thing)
  • Traveler's Wallet (or some other secret means of storing large bills and your credit card. Your passport will stay at the hostel)
  • Kindle
  • Notebook, pens 
  • Netbook (itty bitty Asus. Some people made do with tablets, though I don't see how those are any different from a smartphone. Not strictly necessary.)
  • Smartphone, unlocked (this made my trip a hundred times better. I got a 3g sim card that made navigation a breeze. Make sure to put Vietnam google translate offline mode on here, as well as a currency converter)
  • Headphones/earbuds (the drives are long, people snore in dorms)
  • Charging cables (hit up monoprice for cheap small chargers)
  • Toothbrush
  • Small toothpaste
  • Razor
  • Deodorant
  • Medication (ESPECIALLY anti-diarrhea pills and hand-sanitizer) 
  • Contacts
  • Glasses
  • Passport
  • Visa On Arrival Documents and Passport Photos
  • Int'l Driver's License (I never needed this, though I've been told cops can ask for it)
  • 100USD cash (you need 65 for the visa and the rest can be petty cash for your first day)


Optional:

  • Insanely expensive Motorcycle Helmet (I brought my Shoei cause I didn't want to die. Everyone else just wears cardboard caps that are included with a motorcycle purchase. You're on your own, here. I was not inconvenienced by the helmet at all and I'm a safety nerd.)
  • Motorcycle Gloves (nobody wears these but me. When you fall off your bike, the first thing to land is your hands. Your choice.)
  • Small multi-tool
  • Zip Ties
  • First-aid kit
  • Go-Pro or similar (knock-offs available for ~20-50 in Vietnam)


I felt with the above I had everything I needed to tackle the journey. When I had to, I bought sunscreen or shampoo or whatever, and spent pennies in doing so. Your primary mission is to get from one city to the other alive and with good memories and photos, what else do you need to accomplish that?

Front facade of a police station in Hanoi, Vietnam at night
Vietnamese government buildings are always so imposing.

Phoning Home

On your first day, get to a Viettell store and pick up a 3g SIM card with unlimited data or at least 1 GB. Your hostel can help you. Make sure your phone is unlocked before you get to Vietnam! If you aren't sure if your phone is unlocked, just start Googling or call whoever you bought it from.

I use a Google Voice number as my primary US phone number, which allows me to use the Hangouts app to continue texting my friends back home from my US number as long as I have a data connection. You can do the same, see my post on using Google Voice for more information.


A Vietnamese man carrying a wheelbarrow full of sticks, followed by a strapping American lad on a honda win in Vietnam.
We're racing. 

Buying a Bike

Assuming you're starting in Ho Chi Minh, you can expect to pay 250-350 USD for a bike. It'll sell in Hanoi for 250. I got a Honda Win, full standard with a clutch, 110CC. I recommend the same because it didn't take long for me to learn how to manage a manual bike and it was wondrous for the mountains. My friends on auto scooters did not have fun on the mountains.

There's plenty of shops on Bui Vinh street, but I recommend buying from a backpacker. Shops will have stripped the bike to turn a profit, whereas backpackers have spent the last month or so adding to and repairing the bike.

To find a bike, hop on Vietnam's Craigslist and send out a few emails. Check if there's a Facebook group for "Americans/French/Germans/Backpackers in Ho Chi Minh/Hanoi", or "buy/sell Saigon," or etc. Stop by all the hostels in your area, backpackers will have posted up ads for their bike in their hostel. Ask around when you go out for drinks.

When buying a bike, ensure that it comes with a Blue Card. The license plate number on the Blue Card should match the plate on the bike. Check that the left and right turn signal work on the front and back, and that the horn works. Ensure that the back light works and that the brake light works when either the front brake or rear brake is deployed. Ensure that the headlight works in normal and brights mode. Take the bike into a dark garage to make sure the headlight is bright enough and pointed in the right direction to actually be functional. Make sure the rear and front suspension is in good condition. Make sure the tires won't need to be replaced too soon. Make sure the engine, when running, isn't sputtering or backfiring. Make sure the clutch and gear system is changing smoothly. Ensure the kickstarter and electric start both work. Check the oil to see if there's bit of metal floating around, and check the chain tightness. Get it all the way to 4th gear on a test ride. Make sure the brakes are tight and will stop you in an emergency. Ensure the forks are tight. I've never seen a Honda Win with a functional speedo/odo/tachy, so don't worry about that.

Finally, take the bike to a repair shop and see what they say about it. Just look for any shop that has an air compressor. Chances are you'll be stopping at a couple of these on your journey.

Several goats cross the road in front of travelers on motorcycles on Ho Chi Minh Highway, Vietnam.
Watch for goats.

Safety

I was never mugged, robbed, or burgled. I had friends who were mugged, but nobody who was injured. I never crashed my bike or fell off it, but I had friends who did. I was never pulled over by the cops, but I had friends who were. I never got food poisoning, but I had friends who spent days hovering over a toilet.

Vietnam is not Taiwan, Japan, or Iceland. If you get stupid drunk, hit the ATM at 3am in a dark alley, and come out waving around 2 million dong, you're going to get surrounded by four or five guys and they're going to take the money from you. If you keep your wits about you and don't get smashed beyond belief, you'll probably be fine. Just carry you bulk cash somewhere hidden (your shoe, your weird traveler's wallet, your buttcrack) and have a sizeable enough hunk of petty cash to satisfy any potential muggers enough that they don't start asking for other money.

So, some tips:

  • Carry your bulk cash in a hidden location that can't be determined except from the most vigorous pat-down. Carry enough petty cash to satisfy cops/muggers if they are persistent. 
  • Stay in groups late at night. 
  • Muggers are skilled at getting you to pull out your backup wallet. A cabby may say that your money is no good because it's counterfeit or use some other strategy. Just say "sorry, this is the only money I have and I lost my credit card." If they try to take you to an ATM, sprint away. 
  • When in doubt, sprint away. You'll rarely be followed. 
  • If a cop waves you down, 80% of the time you can get away with smiling, waving back, and driving off. If they persist in pulling you over, pretend you're German and don't speak English. Never give up your passport. Show your Blue Card if asked, other than that, if they get a hold of an important document of yours, they own you. Any cash they see belongs to them. 
  • During the day, pay attention to the cab companies that are most prevalent in your city. Only take metered cabs, and ensure the meter is turned on when getting a ride. At night, only get cab rides from official taxi companies. Never take a motorbike cab at night. 
  • Vietnamese criminals want your money. Rape, kidnapping, and murder are not common crimes against foreigners. If you encounter a particularly persistent criminal, just give him what he's asking for. Don't spoil your trip by getting shanked over 50 bucks. 
  • Vietnamese roads are not always high-quality, and even the best ones often have gravel spills or an idling bus in the wrong lane around a corner. Drunk driving is a major problem and you can't depend on Vietnamese drivers to do the right thing. Don't drive at night if you can avoid it, go slow around bends, and always watch out for gravel. 
  • Suck up your pride. Foreigners are always in the wrong in the eyes of the law. If someone tries to fight you, run away or brush them off. If you get in a wreck and nobody got hurt, drive away. If someone did get hurt, get ready to pay, no matter who is at fault. Bite your pride, pay, and move on. A couple nights in a molding Vietnamese jail will ruin your trip more than 50 bucks lost. 
  • Bring anti-diarrhea pills. 
Mild traffic on a road in Vietnam
Traffic in Vietnam

The Route

Half the fun is figuring this out on your own, but for the exceptionally lazy and/or worried, here's the exact route I took, with a helpful Google map!

When in doubt, leave at 7am. Driving at night means you can't see the sights. 

There's a lot to do in Saigon, and you'll need time in your first city to get your head on right, learn a bit about how things work in Vietnam, get over your jet lag, buy a bike, practice on the bike, etc. I would recommend towards the end of your week going on a few day trips to places like Vung Tau or Monkey Island. Good to test your bike on little journeys. Hit Bui Vinh street at night for the bars, make some friends, check out a couple museums, and get prepared for your trip.

New Saigon Hostel - 270 Bùi Viện, Phạm Ngũ Lão, 1, Hồ Chí Minh, Vietnam. I used their relatively expensive airport pickup service to avoid the difficulty of a taxi on the first day

Travel from Ho Chi Minh/Saigon to Muine: 5-6 hours
The first leg of the ride you'll be puttering around in and out of Ho Chi Minh trying to find your way out. This will take more time per mile than any other part of the trip. You'll also be hopping on a ferry at one point, which is pretty cool. After the ferry you'll be in a forest and on dirty roads, some of which are under construction. Drive carefully and don't make a wrong turn or you'll end up on some serious rally-cross roads. If you've left too late and aren't sure you'll make it to Muine before collapsing from exhaustion, stay overnight in La Gi. If you've really messed up and haven't managed to leave Ho Chi Minh until around 2, just stay in Vung Tau for the night. Just before Muine, enjoy the gorgeous beach/cliffside roads, and stop by the beach near the lighthouse I marked on the map.

Muine: 2-4 days
One of my favorite towns in Vietnam. Muine is a relaxed sea-side village with a strip of resorts and bungalows. I stayed in a hostel my first night and then befriended the owner of a nice little bungalow. Guesthouses are also an option. Relax on the beach, take a kitesurfing lesson (Mr. Lee's Kitesurfing), catch live music at Joe's Restaurant, eat seafood somewhere, get a massage. There's also the Red Sand Dunes, to which you can just ride your bike and pay to park at a nearby restaurant. Dragon Bar offers a bit of a club, with beds looking out over the water if you get lucky.

Muine Backpacker's Resort - 88 Nguyễn Đình Chiểu, Hàm Tiến, Mui Ne, Bình Thuận, Vietnam. While I enjoyed this hostel, if I went back I would stay at a guesthouse or somewhere cheaper. Definitely stick near this area, as it's the most relaxed of Muine. I stayed in a bungalow next to Mr. Lee's Kitesurfing school after I stayed here.

Travel from Muine to Dalat: 4-5 hours
Your first taste of the mountain roads Vietnam will be hitting you with later in the journey. Mostly uphill, just keep it in first or second gear and make sure the engine doesn't get too hot. Pull over regularly for pictures and to chill out. Stay far to the right in your lane, don't get destroyed by a bus with broken brakes. In the last leg of this trip there's a couple car-only highways you can roll the dice with, they're faster but if you get caught it's a ticket. I've marked them on my map. Put your jacket on as you get closer to Dalat, it'll be cold.

Dalat: 2-3 days
A wonderful little tourist trap frequented by the Vietnamese on their rare days off. Great for coffee, hiking, and sports tours. Your hostel will be able to set something up for a reasonable price. Try doing a day trip on your own to some of the waterfalls, and doing another day with a guided tour that includes cliff diving and rappelling. At night, go to "Crazy Bar," also known as "Rooftop 100 Cafe," or "That Place with the Maze and Alcoholic Oreo Shake." It's a bar with an unbelievably intricate maze. There's also a fantastic nightmarket.

Hobbit Hostel - 22 Hai Bà Trưng, tp. Đà Lạt, Lâm Đồng, Vietnam. One of the top two hostels in Dalat. I really enjoyed my stay here, and the family dinner was a fun experience. In walking distance of everything in Dalat worth doing.

Travel from Dalat to NHA Trang: 3-4 hours
Variable travel time due to weather. If you're lucky, it's a sprint down a beautiful mountain with a view of the ocean. If not, it's a bone-chilling, butt-clenching slide through choking thick fog with a visibility of ten centimeters. Hold on tight.

NHA Trang: 1-2 Days
Moscow on the beach. I did not enjoy this city because Muine had spoiled me. Waves were too big for a swim, all tourist attractions were a money-grab. Good restaurants, nice hostel. No recommendations other than go for a walk on the beach.

Mojzo Dorm - 50 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Nha Trang, Khanh Hoa, Nha Trang, Vietnam. Really is the best hostel in NHA Trang. Great staff, yummy restaurant

Travel from NHA Trang to Da Nang/Hoian: 1 Night
Take a train for this. The train station is here (12°14'53.7"N 109°11'03.1"E). It cost just under 50 bucks for you and the bike. Drain your gas (unhook the fuel line and put a bottle under it) and put it in a couple water bottles, or they'll drain it for you and keep the petrol for themselves. It's pricey, but it's a couple day's boring motorcycle ride between NHA Trang and Hoian otherwise. Once you arrive in Da Nang, it's about 30 minutes to get to Hoian on a good, clean road.

Travel from Da Nang to Hoian: 40 minutes
Nothing to speak of in Da Nang. Get off the train, grab your bike, refill the gas tank, grab breakfast, and head to Hoian. Lots of cops in Hoian when I was there, so ride careful.

Hoian: 2 Days
Great place to get a tailored suit if that's your thing. Fun little market, good place for souvenirs. Good tourist spots for little day trips. Decent nightlife, just be careful on the way home as it's notorious for muggers. Decent beach. Get the "famous banh-mi," It won't be hard to find via Trip Advisor.

Hoian Long Life Hotel - 30, Đường Bà Triệu, Phường Cẩm Phô, Thành Phố Hội An, Tỉnh Quảng Nam, Vietnam. Nothing really of note, though they have a nice pool and poolside restaurant.

Travel from Hoian - Hue: 6 hours
One of the most gorgeous rides on the whole trip. Takes the famous and once-deadly coastal road. It's a lot safer now that they've built a trucks-only route more inland. Rip open the throttle and get ready for your breath to be taken away.

Hue: 1 Day
The original capital of Vietnam. Not much to do here, has an OK nightlife (go to "Brown Eyed Girl"). Some pretty decent food here, just ask your hostel where to eat.

Kim's Homestay - 35 Nguyễn Thái Học, Phú Hội, tp. Huế, TT, Vietnam. Kim was kind, though we didn't stay long so I don't have too much to say of the place.

Travel from Hue - Khe Sanh / Border of Laos: 9 hours
This will be the longest leg of the journey. Bring a couple liters of extra fuel, there's nothing along this road. Fill up your tank at every opportunity, have a mechanic make sure your bike will make it without failing catastrophically. It's shorter if you take Ho Chi Minh Highway East, but who wants that? Mountains on mountains, gorgeous driving. Villages where kids run out of huts to wave at you. Cows. Very little traffic. Take regular breaks, you will be exhausted.

Khe Sanh: 1 Night
There is nothing here. It is a strange, mist-covered place awash with Vietnam military. Get something to eat and go to sleep, there's another long ride to follow.

Thai Ninh Hotel - QL9, tt. Khe Sanh, Hướng Hóa, Quảng Trị, Vietnam. One of very few options in this small mountain town. Wifi was lacking but all we needed was a place to rest our heads on Ho Chi Minh Highway.

Travel from Khe Sanh to Phong Nha: 8 hours
At this point you'll be exhausted. If you want to tap out of mountain roads. you can head east to Ho Chi Minh Highway East which, while longer distance, I'm told is a much easier and faster ride. Otherwise, keep on Ho Chi  Minh Highway West for what was for me one of the most emotionally challenging rides I've ever had. Altitude will change, which will cause dramatic temperature changes, forcing you off the road to take your jacket on and off every 30 minutes. The road is well-paved, but gravel will surprise you, forcing you to be cautious on every bend. The road is almost entirely empty, except when it's not, forcing you to be alert for the rare truck flying around a corner in the wrong lane. Luckily it's a gorgeous drive. Take breaks often, relax, and enjoy it.

Phong Nha: 3 Days
Other than the fact that you'll need to relax, this little town has a good little smattering of activities. I recommend a day to relax, eat, and talk to folks, another day to do two or three cave tours (don't miss Dark Cave, it's incredible), and another day to just drive around on your own and enjoy the fascinating geology. At the end of day 3 would be when you want to schedule a bus to Hanoi if you aren't driving it.

Easy Tiger Hostel - Nhà bán vé và hàng lưu niệm., TL 20, Phong NHA, Sơn Trạch, Bố Trạch, Phong Nha, Sơn Trạch, Vietnam. Run by foreigners, overpriced and lots of little cash grabs. Still, everyone stays here and the quality is fantastic. Don't pay for any of their tours, just go on your own.

Travel from Phong Nha to Hanoi: 1 Night
Across the street from Easy Tiger Hostel are several travel agencies with which you can book a bus for yourself and your bike, costing around 30 bucks. Just like last time, drain your gas into some water bottles.

Hanoi: 5 days
Hanoi is an enigma I never quite solved. There's plenty to do here, though I didn't like it as much as Saigon. Hit the museums, see a water puppet show, and absolutely get an egg coffee or five. This city is pricier than Ho Chi Minh and the local seem more keen to scam than down South, so keep a strong head on your shoulders. If you have the time, money, and inclination, I was told a Halong Bay tour is worth it, as are the mountains to the north of town for some more scenic riding.

The Sanctuary - 38 Ngõ Huyện, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội 100000, Vietnam. Easily my favorite hostel in Vietnam. After having a terrible experience at Green Hanoi, these guys took me in and made me a friend. I will only ever stay here if I'm in Hanoi.

Caleb at the temple of literature in Hanoi, Vietnam


Why Do This Trip?

I'm sticking this at the bottom because it's not really necessary but I like to drone on in excess sometimes.

I took this trip at a sort of weird time - recently laid off from an Oil and Gas job, applying to coding bootcamps and Comp Sci masters' programs, living off of savings. A lot of people told me it was vacations. Trips like that are for the employed and sustainable! You'll get malaria, get shot, crash your bike, die! Maybe it's an American thing, because when I got there, I met tons of Europeans two months in to a three month tour of all of Southeast Asia. Anyway, I didn't die, and the trip changed my life.

I reflected recently about the past year. Things I'd learned, what the most exciting bits were, what the most meaningful were. Other than a few exceptions, I packed more learning and growing-up into that month in Vietnam than I did in the entire year. Corny, fine, I'll grant that.

You should go, especially if you're not too experienced in traveling to someplace so different from your own country as Vietnam is from the USA. Below are some pictures I took. I've selected my favorites and put them in this Google photos album, but if you want you can also take a look at this album containing every picture and video I took over there.

If you have any questions or suggestions, comment below. 


Housing in Saigon
Saigon. A family will own a small plot of land for more generations than anybody can recall. Buying new land isn't an option, so they build up and down, as high and low as regulations allow. The houses were clean, but packed full of extended family members, with the business being run out of  the first floor. There's no safety net in Vietnam, so everybody works together to support the entire family.

View of the skyscrapers of Ho Chi Minh City
Saigon

A meal in Vungtau
Food was incredible, and almost always cheap. I felt wealthier than I ever had before - I would order extravagant dishes at beachside resorts. My  little taste of what it must be like to be loaded.

A tourist holds hands with a local Vietnamese man on a walk
While we waited for Jose's bike to get repaired, two men consistently tried to talk with us and show us around the crummy area surrounding the ferry. Eventually, one took Eric by the hand and went on a walk with him. Later we found out they were the local crackheads, but they were kind. 

A tall mixed drink served at a bar in Saigon
Vietnam has an obsession with unnecessarily dandy drinks. Many times I'd try to order something simple, like a manhattan, and end up with a monstrosity like this. 

Vietnamese boy chops coconuts at a coconut farm.
It rained while I was riding from Saigon to Muine, so I pulled over into a coconut farm. They had set up tarps and hammocks for people. Three young boys, all under age 10, wandered around. With no adults in sight, the boys took my order of coconut milk, chopped up some coconuts, and made it right there for me. 

Motorcycle next to tarps at a coconut farm outside of Ho Chi Minh City
Later, while I was dozing in one of their hammocks, the tarp above me tore open and dumped gallons of rainwater on me. The boys thought it was hilarious. 

A Vietnamese girl and tourist pose at a restaurant in Dali, Vietnam
Hopelessly lost and spending the night in a strange town on the way to Muine, this girl and her three friends invited me over to their table at breakfast and labored to get me on the right track. 

A snake is killed for its blood and venom at a restaurant in Muine, Vietnam
In Muine, we had a live snake killed and drained of its blood and venom to make us an alcoholic drink.

A shot glass full of snake blood and vodka, served at a restaurant in Muine, Vietnam
Snakeblood shot, with vodka. Tasted like copper. 

Two tourists on top of a sand dune in Muine, Vietnam
Jose met Slava in Saigon and traveled with her for a couple more towns. After he had his wreck, he went back to Saigon with her. Last I heard, they're still together over in Vietnam.


A tourist with a large plate of food in Hue, Vietnam
A good friend I made. Hannah, Lewis, and I traveled through several towns together. 

Two tourists walk on a beach in Hoian, Vietnam
Me and Lewis. Still miss them. 

A tourist looks at a cow in a small village in Vietnam.
Sometimes we'd end up in the tiniest towns. 

A tourist overlooks the ocean on the road between Hoian and Hue, Vietnam.
If you get nothing else from the trip, I can guarantee you'll at least get your next profile pic. 

A small child looks at tourists in Vietnam
Near the border of Laos. One of those places where children wave at you from the side of the road. 

A small Vietnamese child looks at tourists on motorcycles near the border of Laos in Vietnam.
Or cast a suspicious gaze. 

A menu in Phong Nha, Vietnam, offering strange dishes.
Sometimes you encounter odd translation errors on menus. 

A phallic dessert served at a restaurant in Phong Nha, Vietnam
Sometimes those aren't translation errors. 

A crowded overnight sleeper bus on the way to Hanoi, Vietnam
The buses are packed, but cozy. This is the last time I saw Lewis and Hannah. 

Two tourists pose in a restaurant in Hanoi, Vietnam
Two more good friends, in Hanoi. He's a Chinese sculptor, she's a British diplomat.

A train passes by next to a small island enroute between Hoian and Hue, Vietnam
Really, Vietnam must be seen sometime in your lifetime.