Before i Forget : Simon Jones's blog

April 2013

TravelSunday, April 28th, 2013, (11:59 pm)

Having escaped the tourist trap of Ha Long Bay and found overnight refuge in the mountains to the north, I began my final day on the motorbike. Along roads that climbed into the grasp of clouds and wound a gentle path through rice paddies carved into the hillsides, this would be the grand finale of a road-trip to remember.

Slow Road to Hanoi - Simon Jones motorbikes through Vietnam.

I made an early start on my final day riding through Vietnam on my £100 ($151) motorbike. The street outside my open hotel window came to life at dawn. The sounds of horns and motors filled the air and demanded that I not spend another moment lazing on the bed. I got to my feet and looked out of the window to the busy street below. It’s funny, for a place that almost doesn’t get a mention on Google maps, the small town of Chu was a hive of activity.

Before I left the hotel owner insisted, through her English-speaking son, that I join her family for some tea. She kindly poured the strong green tea and was pleased when I thanked her and sipped from the small porcelain cup.

In truth it was not to my liking, tasting instead like the runoff from a muddy field rather than something that I would ever choose to start my day with. However, wanting to be polite I finished the cup, covering my grimacing face with smiles and nods of gratitude. However, each time I finished the cup she would refill it with obvious delight at my apparent appreciation.

Eventually, after drinking more green tea than a vegan on a detox diet, I made my excuses and hit the road. The hotel owners son told me that Hanoi was less than three hours away, but I was in no hurry to get to the end of my trip, so I took a back-road that threaded a slow path further into the mountains that lie between my final destination and the border with China.

Slow Road to Hanoi - Simon Jones motorbikes through Vietnam.

On little more than a dirt track, I rode toward the mountain tops that faded into the white sky above. Kicking up a cloud of dust behind me I was smiling broadly as I rode through small villages and rice paddies toward places that maps appeared to make no mention of. Within no time I was seemingly far from anywhere, in the company of misty clouds and a single track road that might as well have been made from yellow bricks.

I saw few people as I made my way along the road. Those I did see always shot me a second look as if checking that I was indeed real. I suspect few, if any, tourists would venture to these parts of the country where the maps seem to have nothing to say.

Small villages go all but unnamed and unmarked as the line of the road curves its way across an expanse of blank road map that gives not the slightest inkling of the beauty of this far-flung road. On paper, I’m wasting my time, lost in a void of nothing but the occasional road number, but the truth of this landscape is anything but blank.

Slow Road to Hanoi - Simon Jones motorbikes through Vietnam.

How to ride a motorbike around Vietnam - Simon Jones motorbikes through Vietnam.

Slow Road to Hanoi - Simon Jones motorbikes through Vietnam.

Slow Road to Hanoi - Simon Jones motorbikes through Vietnam.

I took my time, stopping frequently to snap pictures and look out over spectacular views I knew my camera couldn’t catch. Eventually, I found my way back to the Highway bound for Hanoi. By my calculations, I was now three hours north of the city.

My detour into the mountains meant that I would reach the capital of Vietnam shortly before sundown, and slap bang in the middle of rush hour for what would surely be a rude introduction to the perils of riding in the cities infamous rush-hour traffic.

Still, in a largely unpopulated area, I noticed the motorbike felt a little unstable so I came to a stop at the side of the road and noticed that I had a puncture. My rear tire was completely flat but I wasn’t really worried. With so many motorbikes in this country, you don’t have to look far to find someone who repairs them.

Simon Jones on the roadI wasn’t in a town or village, but as luck would have it, I had come to a stop right next to a shop that repairs motorbikes.

A man sitting in a plastic chair waved me in and got a young man to fix the problem right away. He then offered me a seat and more of that terrible green tea I had earlier sworn never to drink again. This time I sipped very slowly knowing that the refills would keep coming.

In less than ten minutes, and for only 20,000 Vietnamese Dong (less than $1), the puncture was fixed and I was on my way again. The mountains soon faded into foothills that flattened out and changed the landscape from agriculture to industry.

Slow Road to Hanoi - Simon Jones motorbikes through Vietnam.

It didn’t take long before I arrived in Hanoi. I looked for a sign that might announce the city and mark a victorious finish line for me, but there was no such sign. Instead, Hanoi just emerged and I found myself swallowed into a melee of some 6.5 million people who live within its blurred borders.

As I blended into the city traffic my slow road to Hanoi had come to an end. After ten days and 1,554 Kilometres (957 miles), I had made it to my destination. To celebrate, that night I met up with fellow ‘couchsurfers,’ some of whom were on their own adventures. We ate Pho Bo, exchanged stories and travel tips, and enjoyed drinks late into the night. It was a great welcome to the city and a fitting end to this fantastic road-trip.

Slow Road to Hanoi - Simon Jones motorbikes through Vietnam.

Read my tips about touring Vietnam on a motorbike

Show your appreciation by buying me a coffee

TravelSaturday, April 27th, 2013, (11:16 pm)

I was really looking forward to Ha Long Bay. I had seen many beautiful pictures of the vast rock islands majestically towering out of the water and thought that seeing this in person would be a real highlight of this road trip. Instead, it was a complete disappointment.

Ha Long Bay. An anticlimax.

The glossy travel magazines that entice you to visit Vietnam call Ha Long Bay unmissable. The promise of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, with its nearly 2,000 limestone karsts and isles of various shapes and sizes, is a massive draw for tourists. Indeed, on a perfect day, on a private boat, with time to kill, this might in fact be a truly wonderful place to visit, but for the casual traveler, Ha Long Bay has been transformed into something of a trashy tourist trap.

A few days ago I met a couple of English ‘lads’ riding two old bikes around Vietnam. We stopped and chatted for a while and when I told them I was heading for Ha Long Bay they both gave an expression that didn’t inspire confidence. One of them described the experience as “a massive anticlimax.” The other said that while he understands it is a ‘must-see’ he wouldn’t be in any hurry to return there. After my experience, I can only echo those sentiments.

At every turn there is someone who will try to over-charge you and rip you off. It seems everyone on the street has a tour or cruise to sell you, a “better hotel” than the one you’re in, or as the day becomes night you might be offered a “nice woman.”

I did book a cruise, a six-hour boat trip that would, I thought, give me a decent sense of the wonder of this bay. However, after just two hours we were back at the port and the so-called tour was over.

To be honest, though, I wasn’t that disappointed. The weather was a total let down and the bay was rammed with overloaded cruise boats full of people all taking the same pictures.

Nevertheless, I don’t like being ripped off, so with a hefty dose of theatre, I returned to the agent I booked the tour from and introduced her to angry psycho Simon. At first, she refused to refund any of the money, insisting that she too had been ripped off. She then called some man to the office who also refused to refund me.

I didn’t know the man so I asked him who he was. “I am your friend,” he told me, to which I crisply illustrated that I did not know who the heck he was or why he was involved. After getting very close to him he decided to leave and allow me to iron out this situation with the agent.

Simon Jones on the roadIroning out the situation involved me picking up all the room keys to her hotel and telling her she could have them back once I had a refund. She attempted to grab the keys back from me but failed. Standing back at a distance for a few seconds she weighed up her options then decided that a refund was indeed in order. I thanked her politely and left the building.

The whole experience left me feeling pretty disappointed in Ha Long Bay, a place that on its own might indeed be a wonderful location were it not for the greedy people and scammers.

I returned to my hotel, checked out, loaded up the motorbike, and hit the road out of town as quickly as I could.

Slow Road to Hanoi – Day 10
Read my tips about touring Vietnam on a motorbike

Show your appreciation by buying me a coffee

TravelFriday, April 26th, 2013, (11:10 pm)

I took a day off from riding today because the weather was well and truly against me. Dark clouds huddled in the sky as if plotting to ruin the carefully planned days of the camera-wielding tourists who flock to Ha Long Bay. With little wind, they menacingly lurked never far from the mischief they were causing.

Table shower massage?To avoid the anti-social behavior of the moody clouds I decided to go out in search of a decent massage. That in itself was something of a tricky task given the myriad of ‘indecent’ massages that seemed to be on offer. Top tip: Avoid places with flashing neon signs and angry Asian ladies.

I tried the spas in a few of the more upmarket hotels, but in the end, found a place that it turned out had just opened that day. I was their very first ever customer, and while the experience was well within my budget and moderately relaxing, it might have been somewhat more calming had workmen not been busy installing the final fixtures and fittings around me.

After this I headed back to my hotel to tend to the rather boring task of laundry, a task that I have come to understand is little more than an entire waste of time here in Asia.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

No matter who, how, where, or when I clean my clothes in Asia, they never seem to get clean. In fact, more often than not they actually become dirtier! I can be pretty grimy riding along the dusty roads and dirt paths I’ve taken to get here, but I don’t understand how my clothes look worse after a clean?

The shorts I bought for this trip will not be leaving Vietnam with me. Instead, they’ll be discarded after just a few days that have apparently ruined them. Three T-shirts will also be left behind. After little more than a week, having never been worn before, the T-shirts look like they’ve been on worn by someone who has seen several months of hard labor.

I don’t know why this happens in Asia, maybe there is some chemical reason? Either that or perhaps life is just more dirty on a motorbike? I guess I’m just having the grime of my life!

Slow Road to Hanoi – Day 9
Read my tips about touring Vietnam on a motorbike

TravelThursday, April 25th, 2013, (11:12 pm)

Today I got bitten by a dog, smacked in the eye by some kind of large flying insect, and almost knocked out by an angry hotel owner.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

I rode a lot today, eating up the road ahead under a cloudy and rather uninspiring sky. It was perhaps a good thing that the weather was so gloomy because at the speed I have been going, I wouldn’t reach Hanoi until next month. That wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t have to make a flight leaving Vietnam on April 30th. So today I simply got on the bike and rode until I arrived in the Ha Long Bay area as the daylight began to fade.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

I stopped a few times here and there, mostly on bridges to watch the ships rolling over the waters below me. In populated areas, the rivers here are only fractionally less busy than the roads. Floating markets and boats selling cooked-to-order meals drift up and down the rivers. Larger boats travel up and down the river carrying all kinds of things, and often weighed down to the point that water is coming over the bow! As I watched one busy river teeming with overloaded boats, I wonder how many sunken vessels might lay at the bottom of the murky brown river.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

In the afternoon I stopped by a small temple just to stretch my legs and take a look around. My arrival woke a sleeping dog who was evidently quite grumpy about being so rudely awoken. He barked and snarled at me as I wandered around the temple, then as I was leaving he decided to take a bit at my ankle before he skulked off back to his bed. I stopped to look at the bit (very superficial) and as I did he gave one final and rather lazy bark as if to tell me that I wouldn’t be welcome there again.

Later on, while probably at the fastest speed I have ridden (80kph/50mph) a large insect smashed right into my eye. How does that happen? These insects spend their lives flying and surely they could realize the danger or a road? Was it just playing dare or something? I imagine a few of its insect pals sat on the side of the road laughing their insect asses off as their dumb friend misjudges the trajectory of my motorbike he’s supposed to be bravely avoiding.

Eventually, I reached Ha Long Bay as the street lights flickered on and the road was now a sea of red and white lights. I stopped for a bowl of Pho Ba (beef noodle soup) before looking for a suitable hotel for the night.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

The hotel I chose was a simple but comfortable place away from the main tourist hotels. The owner didn’t speak much English, but enough to get by, or so I thought until I asked if there was internet access.

“You have wifi?” I asked.
The manager smiled and said “Yes.”

We then went upstairs to check the room. All seemed well until I realized that the wifi didn’t seem to reach the room he was showing me.

“The wifi is here?” I asked, motioning to the room around me with my hand. Again he nodded, as he led me out of the room.

“Nice room,” he said. “Yes it is a nice room, but I do need wifi,” I explained as we walked down the hall to the stairs. He didn’t seem to understand me so I tried to make things clearer.

As we reached the front desk I pointed upstairs.

“I need wifi in the room,” I said.

He looked puzzled and smiled in that way you know is a question. So I decided to speak and use sign language to help. I pointed at him then made a typing gesture with my hand.

“Your wifi,” I said, then pointed upstairs. “I need inside room.”

His face turned from a friendly and somewhat confused smile into that of a man insulted. He stood up straight and almost puffed out his chest as he began angrily shouting at me in Vietnamese.

I was confused and didn’t know what the problem was. I tried to speak but he just got angrier. Clearly, I had upset the friendly hotel owner somehow.

“It’s a nice hotel,” I said with my hands up in a non-confrontational manner. “Very nice room.” This wasn’t helping.

The now enraged hotel owner came around from the other side of the reception desk, picked up my bag, and stormed toward the hotel entrance, all the while still shouting at me as I followed trying as best I could to calm the situation down.

He opened the glass door and tossed my bag onto the dusty street then manhandled me out of the hotel while shouting and pointing at me with the room key still in his hand and his face now red with rage.

I picked up my bag and wondered what just happened. Then I saw a young woman emerge from a back room inside the hotel. She looked concerned as she rushed toward the man who I later learned was her father. They exchanged a few words before she ran to the door to come and speak to me.

“Wifi?” She asked.

“Yes, wifi. Internet,” I said. I opened my bag and quickly took out my laptop and pointed at it saying “wifi… internet… wifi.”

She shouted something back at her father, which made him rush to the door and out onto the street next to me. He was smiling an apologetic smile, brushing down my bag with his hand and speaking to me in Vietnamese as they both lead me back into the hotel lobby.

The young woman was speaking to her father, interjecting her words with English for me and apologies for a ‘mix up’ she said. As her father carried my bag back to the reception desk a somewhat stocky woman emerged from a back room.

“My mother,” said the young woman as the lady began to ask what was happening. Still confused I stood there as the young lady explained the situation, motioning at me, and the stairs, while her father nodded behind her and echoed what she said.

I didn’t understand any of what they were saying other than the word ‘wifi.’ But the concerned faces and furrowed brows quickly turned to smiles and suppressed laughter.

“Internet?” Asked the man, pointing at my laptop. I nodded, and he laughed.

“Internet,” he said again as he came over to me and patted me on my shoulder while taking my backpack and picking up my bag. “Sorry,” he said, smiling and gesturing to the computer, his wife now laughing and speaking to him in Vietnamese.

Their daughter explained to me that her father’s English is very poor and that people don’t say ‘wifi’ here, instead they say ‘internet.’ Apparently her father thought I had asked him if he had a wife, a question that I’ve become accustomed to answering as I travel across Asia.

However, the confusion arose when the mixup of the word ‘wifi’ and ‘wife’ was combined with my sign language of a keyboard that he interpreted as me asking him to send his wife to my room for a ‘massage.’

So with those little mishaps behind me, I’m now all checked in and ready to explore Ha Long Bay tomorrow when I hope the sun will be shining and the insects and dogs will be behaving themselves.

Slow Road to Hanoi – Day 8
Read my tips about touring Vietnam on a motorbike

Show your appreciation by buying me a coffee

TravelWednesday, April 24th, 2013, (11:43 pm)

I love the road, not the asphalt or the hypnotic rhythm of the white lines sliding underneath you, but the path ahead with its possibilities, mysteries, and stories yet to be told.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

I had breakfast in bed this morning. It wasn’t a lavish spread of gastronomic delights, but a couple of simple fried eggs and some break. That’s as close to a European breakfast as my hotel could get. As I sat there watching the morning mist burn away I studied Google maps for today’s route.

I’m no longer on highway AH1 that leads right into the throbbing heart of Hanoi. Instead, I’m going to thread my way on various roads to Hay Long Bay before turning back in the direction of Hanoi and the end of this road trip.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

The possibility of navigating my way along some 300 kilometers (186 miles) of back-roads in Vietnam is somewhat daunting, but as I load up my bike and leave the hotel I’m excited. Yes I don’t have a map, and yes road signs are a rarity here, but I’m not worried. If I get lost, I’ll find my way eventually.

Throughout the day I pull over and stop to squint and the tiny screen of my iPod touch, and Google maps. It’s not ideal, but it works most of the time. The problem here is that the back-roads appear to have been numbered by someone with dyslexia. For example, the QL357 also appears to be shown as the QL375, and the road signs often switched the roads numbers too. I found this a few times and could see no logical reason for the disparity.

Another factor that can add to map reading confusion is the strange way that a road number can apparently relate to more than one road. This makes following signs alone rather tricky, so you have to study the map and look for landmarks to confirm your desired route.

Regardless, and perhaps even boosted by this geographical uncertainty, I ventured far from the busy highways and down a series of roads and pathways, through villages, hill passes, rice fields, and small towns. Along the way, people would often smile and wave at me and shout “Hello!” Each time I stopped the bike for a rest or to take pictures local people would gather around and look at me curiously. If I looked directly back at them they would smile and sometimes say things.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

“Manchester United,” said one young man among a gaggle of teenagers who found his English speaking very amusing. “Liverpool,” I replied to another round of laughter from the gathered crowd. “West Ham,” he said with a big smile on his face, obviously proud to be having such a fluent conversation in front of his friends. I nodded then said “Chelsea.” He fired back the name of another football club right away and one girl actually clapped.

As I passed through one remote village I noticed some kind of fair happening on the side of a hill. I turned the bike around and headed up the hill to what turned out to be a Buddhist monastery that was having some kind of event. The place was heaving with people and various stalls selling foods and books.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

A group of women were performing some kind of offering ceremony which was watched by several hundred people. They chanted and sang and lifted up objects on red cushions, I would tell you what they were doing if I could, but truthfully I had no idea whatsoever.

My attendance at this event seemed to be causing a stir and pretty soon it seemed like everyone wanted to come up to me and shake my hand. I moved away from the religious ceremony because I didn’t want to disrupt that, but it made little difference, people would come up to me in growing numbers and shake my hand while smiling and speaking enthusiastically in Vietnamese. In the end, the crowd became a little overpowering so I made my way back to my bike, making sure to shake every outstretched hand along the way. (And no, they weren’t begging!)

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

I might never reach Hanoi if I continue to average the kind of speed I’ve been doing. On the roads, I barely go over 40 Kmh (25 mph), but the frequent stops must bring that average speed down to something resembling a brisk walk. But then again, I’m in no rush.

Toward the end of the day I was following a road that was shrinking with each passing kilometer. On the map it came to a dead-end at the edge of a river, but a small icon indicated that there was a ferry. I hoped that was right because it would be a long way back if not.

Thankfully when I reached the end of the road there was indeed a ferry in the form of a small barge boat. I rode the motorbike onto it and then waited for more passengers before we made the gentle cross for a mere 2,000 Dong (15p / 22c).

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

The light was beginning to fade as I picked up the road to the city of Ninh Binh where I planned to find a hotel. Thankfully the road was a beautiful flat fresh strip of unspoiled asphalt. For much of the day I had been negotiating my way around giant water-filled potholes and rocky roads.

The road to Nam Dinh was lined with beautiful churches that look like were stolen, brick by brick, from small European towns. At one point I could see 10 of these magnificent churches serving a community that looked like it would struggle to fill just one of them.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

So after another long day, I had done just 100 kilometers. By my rough calculations there are another 200 kilometers to Ha Long Bay, then another 200 back to Hanoi! This could take a while.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

Slow Road to Hanoi – Day 7
Read my tips about touring Vietnam on a motorbike

Show your appreciation by buying me a coffee

TravelTuesday, April 23rd, 2013, (11:12 pm)

My least favorite part of this road-trip is tying my case the motorbike. It’s always an awkward affair that seems to involve an unseemly amount of sweat and difficulty. A few times various men have helped, but it’s always the women who manage to tie it on expertly so it doesn’t move at all. They sit around laughing at me for a while, then one (usually the smallest) will come over and perform elastic cable magic that puts my efforts to shame.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

Of course, the locals here in Vietnam are well-practiced in tying the impossible to their motorbikes. They’ve been stretching the possibilities of two-wheel travel for years now, carrying everything from cattle to corn, and armchairs to bathtubs! If it can be reasonably carried by one person or two, or maybe even three, then it can be carried on a motorbike. That seems to be the general rule here.

The other day I saw a man on a motorbike towing a trailer with a water buffalo in it! Today I watched several men comically trying to attach an absolutely enormous book-case to the back of a really old motorbike that looked like it would have a hard time moving with anything more than the rider.

They failed (no woman to help them see!) and decided instead to sit on the bookcase and have a smoke. When they saw me they insisted I have a cigarette. I told them I don’t smoke but this didn’t stop them enthusiastically lighting one up for me anyway.

Every so often I’ll see a police roadblock. Officers in ill-fitting uniforms will stand around stopping traffic and performing various checks, though I’m not clear what they’re checking as thus far they have simply waved me by. I suspect the possibility of getting into some long drawn out confusing conversation is more than they’re willing to do, but I don’t want to speak too soon.

It used to be that nobody here wore helmets, despite the fact they have long been a legal requirement. (See Jeremy Clarkson’s Motorworld report from Vietnam in the early 90’s.) However, these days everybody wears a helmet. In fact, they often wear helmets when they’re not even on their motorbikes. I assume this is because their motorbike is not far away, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they just wear them for general safety around Vietnamese roads.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

I wonder then if Vietnam’s crazy roads could ever become anything like the relatively quiet and orderly roads we’re used to in the west? That seems a long way from reality when you are swarmed by several motorbikes paying no attention to the fact that their light is red. Or when you are confronted by buses and trucks hurtling down the wrong side of the road, their headlights flashing and horns blaring in a maniacal symphony of insanity.

Certainly, I doubt that the car will replace the moped until Vietnam is a far more wealthy country. And if one day four wheels did manage to win the roads from their two-wheeled cousins, I think this country would lose something.

The sheer audacity of what you see carried on motorbikes on Vietnam’s roads is undoubtedly part of its national character. Changing that would be like making the traditional English Breakfast a vegan dish!

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

Slow Road to Hanoi – Day 6
Read my tips about touring Vietnam on a motorbike

Show your appreciation by buying me a coffee

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