Vietnam: The Long Unknown – Update 2

This blog covers Hanoi, our first breakdown, Vietnam traffic and Ha Long Bay. Distance covered; 155km. Tank fill; 180’000VND.


Hanoi. Quite an introduction to Vietnam. I needed a Visa to enter, and had already started the process via the Visa On Arrival option. There’s only one desk at the airport, clearly marked, at the Immigration area. Handed over the letter, they checked a database, plastered a huge sticker into my passport and stamped an exit date on it. The immigration queue took ages, and was rather unclear. Some said “Diplomatic” or “Crew” but there seemed no real structure. A sign of things to come, I can tell you!

Our first hostel (Golden Time Hostel 2) had arranged a taxi transfer, and thankfully even with all the paperwork delay he was still stood outside, my name sprawled in black marker. Luckily I checked the hostel address with him as he was taking me to the wrong place. His driving opened my eyes to fear, once again.

Now I’ve mentioned the driving in Turkey before, and it appears they share their National Committee For Road Safety Board with Vietnam. The board, which clearly has no members (and doesn’t really exist, because I’m joking) must be disappointed with all their efforts to paint the lines and fit all those traffic signs. Absolutely nobody appears to pay attention to them. What they do is honk their horns. Nobody looks behind them, but assumes the people behind can see them and will therefore adjust so they don’t all clash. If anyone gets to close, or a massive transport truck with no intention of stopping comes along, constant honking or one long honk does the trick. Bizarrely, it works.

If you’ve ever seen the driving scenes in The Fifth Element, I’d guess they were inspired by Vietnam.


Hanoi showed me that society can work on necessity and not luxury. It made me realise that anything can be worked to the bone (organically or mechanically). And if anything needs done, there’s someone who can do it.

In my world back home, a replacement part for a car would start with a mechanic sucking his teeth and announcing “gonna cost you, mate. I can have it done for next week”. In Vietnam, they’ll dismantle said part, clean and lubricate it, repair and replace the smallest of components and have it running in an hour. Clarence had his rear hub completely rebuilt (ginormous undertaking) and it was done in an hour and a half. And the cost? 600’000VND (less than £20). And just for fun, a beer works out at 30p, going out for dinner is £1, a litre of fuel is around 60p and a second-hand (102nd hand?) motorbike is £150.

We spent 2 full days in Hanoi, eating Mexican food or beef and noodles from a local cafe. We walked several kilometres and passed hundreds of shop fronts selling literally everything. Some streets sell just one thing. We resorted to calling things “washing machine street”, “shoe street”, “towel street”, “cigarette street”. It helped us both navigate.

Getting a SIM card was easy too. A whole £5 got me a PAYG number plus 1.5GB data for a month. At home that costs me £25. Our only concern is coverage across our whole trip (from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh is likely 2’000km or so). So far we’ve been lucky…

We bought our bikes from a place Clarence had come across. Our positivity was bolstered by glowing reviews from two other backpackers at the hotel who’d bought the exact same bikes. Not sure they had the same 100-point inspection we’d planned. They’d bought for $230 dollars each (apparently), with the promise of a fresh oil change and tyres, etc. As much as we aimed for the same type of service, I can’t help but think we got ripped off. On arrival he showed us the head lamps worked, as did the indicators. Absolute basics for the impulsive buyer. Though any right minded mechanic (ie, not me) would have given more than a tyre kick. Clarence gave each bike a ride and dictated problems. Tyres, brakes, suspension, support racks, gear box, front forks, etc. our added attention to detail meant an increase in price. In the end we agreed $275 for each, though on collection the next day this had risen to $300. We paid $290, therefore $90 over budget each, much to my dislike.

Our first official ride was on collection the next morning. 180km or so from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay was planned, but we just took them on a local spin and onto the hotel for departure the next day. The genius invention of Google Maps and 3G meant we could keep an eye on our journey the whole way. This wasn’t a problem. But then the rear hub snapped on Clarence’s bike a mere 20km into the 180km trip out of Hanoi. Major problem.

Literally, the first major road we were on, on a bridge crossing another major road, the chain came off followed by a mechanical sound which in English would have sounded like “HOLY SHIT, BRACE BRACE!!”. A few mixed words later and I was on the other side of the bridge, Clarence frantically pushing the remnants of his bike off the major highway, sweating profusely. We’d stopped in the middle of nowhere outside a warehouse or factory of sorts. Two guys trundled over to watch us, and then one appeared with some tools. He helped get the chain back on but there was mechanical damage somewhere. We think it was about 2km later, 3 garages waving us on to the next, before someone agreed to fix it for the total price of 600’000 VND (£20). It lead to a mechanic dismantling the wheel and refitting the hub. Something in the UK we’d probably bypass by just buying another wheel. Over here they fix things for requirement, rather than necessity or speed. And for tuppence over remortgage.

2 hours later, having sat on tiny kids plastic seats in the garage and had hundreds of locals stare in bewilderment at the lost and broken Westerners, we were back on our way. Slowly but surely we made our way to Ha Long. And it took forever.

Eventually tall limestone islands rose around us, emerging from the mist, in a way I can only compare to my generations vision of a computer game. They appeared from the mist and vanished behind us. They came and went as we progressed, being overtaken by every tourist bus from Hanoi. It really was quite the trek.

After a handful of stops (luckily sunset) SUNSET PIC, we arrived at the hotel. The Light Hotel, Ha Long, was a family run place. Clean rooms and wifi, good food and an English speaking receptionist. “Jenny” took off on her scooter, followed by Clarence, towards a garage for an essential service on the broken down bike. Overall both front and back brakes were replaced as well as the front bearings. Total cost for this was 180’000VND. Or, less than £6. Try getting that service in the UK.

It was decided that my bike should get a similar “cheap” service the next day, and my brakes were sorted too. Funny that they felt useable on the first trip, whereas they were actually bearably doing anything. A few other bits and bobs were tweaked for the same price and we were both good to go.


Ha Long Bay wasn’t as spectacular as I’d hoped. The weather really affected the view, and the view was everything. Low cloud and mist meant we barely saw anything. We took a short tourist boat trip (there are 4hr, 6hr, 1 day and 2 day trips), which took us to the closest big island where we got a short history lesson and stopped off on a floating village. The guide points out a few fishing boats, which are actually floating homes of entire families. They live and work on the boats, never touching dry land. Some tour folks took out kayaks and paddled over to a cave. The guide suggested the cave is only open 4 days of the month due to the tides. I got major RSI from kayaking in Turkey so I opted not to go, but 4 of us went out in a boat rowed by a local girl. It was amusing how many bumps we had as we rode into other boats and kayaks. It was a fun experience.


The tourist boat then chugged its way to the next island (remember, there are almost 2000 of them). The guide told us a cave was discovered there in 1993 and that we could walk through. Once up quite a few steps we made it in. The stalagmites and stalactites are spectacular, and they’d lit some of the corners with coloured strip lights. It did pretty cool. I wasn’t as impressed with the guides attempt to tell stories based on shapes of the rocks. “People come here to get married because there is a love heart on the roof”, as he draws out a shape with a laser pointer. There were a few “ooh’s” and “aah’s” but I wasn’t falling for it. “Look, a finger! Look, a rabbits head!”. All I saw were dragons heads and skulls. A sign I watch too much TV.

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