I am about to start my motorbike adventure in Ho Chi Minh City right after sunrise. A free breakfast at the hostel causes a changes of plans though. I end up in the middle of the morning rush hour. Constantly, I need to stop to check the map. One thing is for sure, Ho Chi Minh City is huge and definitely not the right place to learn how to drive a motorbike! Finally, I leave Ho Chi Minh City and am hitting the highway to Bà Rịa. The locals are really interested in my trip and keep approaching me while driving for a small chat. Several times, I am stopping because those conversations get too intense to keep driving. One local Vietnamese is even so kind and invites me for lunch.
In Bà Rịa, I am leaving the highway to follow smaller roads along the coast line. As I discover a small market, I decide it is time for lunch and have some grilled fish. On the other side of the road, a Vietnamese wedding reception is going on. Some games are played and people have balloons tied at their butt and try to pop them. I continue along the road which is dotted with dragon fruit plantation to the left and sand dunen to the right. Older women are offering their stacked colourful fruits. I cannot resist, buy a few, and have a picnic at a lighthouse a while later.
Late in the evening, I arrive full of proud in Phan Thiết. It is a small town shadowed by Mũi Né, where all the western tourists go. This place, however, seems to be very popular with local tourists. The streets are full of life. Finding a place to sleep turns out to be not as easy. People barely speak a word of English and I have to rely on my calculator to bargain down the price for the room overnight. After the deal is sealed, I am heading out into the night. A small bar is selling fruit shakes and plays local life music. I cannot image any better place right now. Life is good!
Next day, my adventure continues to Đà Lạt. It is cold and it is raining and I cannot find the recommended hostel in the winding streets of the city. Asking locals gets me no more than some pieces of paper with drawings on it, which I cannot make sense of. Eventually, I am soaking wet and take a random hotel. Travelling in the monsoon season is definitely an experience, but it is sometimes quite demotivating; especially when on a motorbike. In the evening, the weather clears up and I am heading out to the local market. Vietnamese food is really the best!
I am also getting quite confident driving, but first had to learn one essential skill: how to use the horn. Today, I truly used the horn more often than in my entire life before. Perhaps the most important traffic rule is another one though: size matters. It is quite common that busses, which are coming from the opposite direction, overtake trucks on your lane. Then it is your responsibility to make some space. I wonder how driving school looks like.
When leaving Đà Lạt early in the morning, I see the sun rising over the huge number of green houses. The climate is relatively mild so that a lot of vegetables are grown here. As a result, the Vietnamese sandwiches, which are called Banh Mi, taste fresh and juicy. The road to Nha Trang winds through jungle with spectacular views on the misty mountains. Nha Trang itself, however, is not my cup of tea. Too many luxurious hotels built along the too crowded beach. So I find myself driving back inland to Buôn Ma Thộut, known as the city of coffee.
The area was heavily destroyed by Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Trees haven’t recovered yet, road conditions are terrible, and the villages are empty. Overall, the place makes you feel sad and mad at the same time. A short detour to a nearby lake and a Vietnamese coffee later, I arrive at my destination for today.
More and more, I am leaving the beaten touristic tracks. Kids run after my motorbike, women comment on my blond hair, and men invite me for drinks. In Kon Tum, I even get to see a grilled dog at the local market. My journey continues through remote villages surrounded by deep jungle and misty mountains, playing football with local kids in the evenings. A group of local men in Khâm Đức are especially interested and do not want to let me go. We end up spending hours drinking beer together, while they are teaching me some Vietnamese language. My pronunciation is far from good though.
Eventually, I am heading back to the coast and naively follow Google Maps. Obviously, if there is a road on the map, it should also be accessible. Right? Well, it turns out that the Vietnamese understanding of a road is quite different from the German understanding of a road. Due to the heavy rain, the road turned more into a muddy path. Driving is getting increasingly harder until the point where the back wheel of my motorbike is spinning in the mud. I come to realise that I have to turn around and take a small detour to Huế, crossing the Hải Vân pass.
The Hải Vân pass is breathtaking. Next to the sea, the road crosses the mountains and rises up to an elevation of about 500m. My Honda Blade is hard working. Several 180 degree turns allow spectacular views on the coast line. Afterwards the pass, I end up in a traffic jam on the highway during rush hour. Certainly not the best place to be with the exhausts and the heat. In Huế, I rest a couple of days exploring the city before driving back to Hội An, crossing the Hải Vân pass once again. There, I meet my future colleague in Sweden to whom I got in contact through email while looking for an apartment. We spent the next days together in Hội An and I get to try a lot of local specialities. What a small world!
Next, I am heading back inland to follow the Western Hồ Chí Minh road that runs along the mountainous spine of Vietnam. Somewhere on the way to Khe Sanh, I team up with two British travellers. The road from Khe Sanh to Phong Nha is about 250km of hardly any shops, one gas station, and no hotel. One road that winds incredible mountains, stretches dense jungle, and crosses abandoned valleys. Very early on the morning, the three of us buy lots of water, shop plenty of food, and stock an extra bottle of gas. The first few kilometres, it is very foggy and I can barely see more than 50 meters of the concrete slabs that pave all the way to Phong Nha. Slowly, the weather clears up as I am heading deeper into the vast remoteness. Every turn offers a more spectacular scenery than before. It is simply amazing!
After twelve hours of driving and with the last bit of gas, I am arriving completely exhausted in Phong Nha. Because it is so beautiful, I decide to stay a couple of days to join a jungle tour and check out some caves. The Jungle Boss walks us through an abandoned valley in the rainforest, where we get to see some wild monkeys in the far distance. After a delicious barbecue, we explore a river cave in crystal clear water, swimming the 500 metres through the cave back with switched off head torches. A truly scary experience. The Dark Cave and the Paradise Cave are a whole new level. For example, Paradise Cave is about 31 kilometres long and up to 150 metres high. The stalactites and stalagmites inside the cave are huge and took millions of year to form. In 2009, the world largest cave, namely Sơn Đoòng cave, was discovered nearby (check out the National Geographic article). Multiple-day-tours with camping inside the cave is offered by Oxalis, but will set you back several thousand dollars.