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Stairway to Heaven: Central Vietnam on a motorbike

This week’s best road trip sees Thomas Fanning break up a six-day odyssey with pitstops for pagodas, diving and incredible mountain views.

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MY BEST ROAD trip was driving a Suzuki motorbike around central Vietnam.

Who: Thomas Fanning, Dublin

Route: Central Vietnam

Distance: 1,155km

Time: 6 days

When: February 2016

Vehicle: Suzuki en150a

I arrived in Hoi An after midnight the night before I was due to start a six-day motorbike tour in Central Vietnam. I’d never driven a manual speed motorbike before and had been a little loose with the truth when describing my bike experience to the tour company. I was worried that if the tour guide realised I didn’t know what I was doing I’d be relegated to sitting on the back of a bike for the duration. Obviously this didn’t appeal to me so I sat up watching YouTube videos on how to start a motorbike.

It’s 9.15am the next morning and I’m sitting on what I hope will be my bike for the next six days. Tommy, my tour guide, and his associate have asked me to drive the bike down the road and back. They’re testing me to see if I’m a capable driver.

This is it, my moment of truth.

I start the bike, run through the steps I’ve watched repeatedly online and slowly take off. I pass their competency test, despite driving far too slowly and on the wrong side of the road.

Moments before takeoff Moments before starting the trip

I have a chat with Tommy about hand the signals he will use to communicate with me on the road. Speed up, slow down, and the one we needed most, letting me know I’ve left my indicator on after taking a corner.

If you’re considering a motorbike tour in Vietnam, Hoi An is a good place to start. The traffic isn’t nearly as hectic as other parts of the country so you can get used to controlling the bike before having to take on the hair raising experience of navigating through a larger city.

We set off on the back roads driving through paddy fields and making a couple of quick stops when Tommy wanted to explain what the workers were doing. There was virtually no traffic and having to make a couple of stops and starts early was really helping grow my confidence on the bike. By the time we got onto our first main road I was eager to open the bike up a bit, but, as was the case for the entire trip, Tommy insisted on a more sensible pace.

Marble Mountain Pagoda guard at Marble Mountain

Our first designated stop was Marble Mountain, featuring a large number of caves, sculptures and pagodas.  I spent an hour hiking around including almost giving myself heat stroke climbing to the top of the Stairway to Heaven. One ice-cream and a few bottles of water later and I was ready to get back on the bike and continue our journey.

We took a course that ran alongside the My Khe beach and onto one of my favourite parts of the trip the Hai Van Pass. The view the entire way up was incredible and seemed to improve with altitude. We had a well-deserved lunch at the top of the pass before continuing on the the Elephant Springs for a swim. After a dip in the refreshing waters and almost breaking my back trying to perform acrobatic dives for the locals we headed onto Hue.

Day two we continued up the coast to the DMZ taking in the Vinh Moc Tunnels before setting up base for two nights in Vinh. Day three was spent exploring the Thien Duong and Phong Nha caves. I also tried do a zipline into a mudpit but was told I was 15kg too heavy to use it – must have been all the fattening Vietnamese cuisine.

Day four and we drove down the Ho Chi Minh trail along the Vietnam-Laos border. Unfortunately, the weather was against us here and we spent most of the time driving through clouds. When the clouds did break I got quick glimpses at the views I was missing out on but these were few and far between. We stopped at Khe Sanh Combat Base which was covered in mist as we walked around which gave it an almost supernatural feel.

rain gear If you're even a little tall I'd suggest bringing your own rain gear

Day five and six was spent visiting ethnic minorities still living traditional lives. The weather had cleared up too so I was able to fully appreciate the beauty of the mountain passes we were driving through.

I was surprised by how friendly and welcoming everyone was no matter where we went. I wrongly assumed that Vietnam would be suffering a post-war hangover and all Westerners would be viewed with suspicion but this couldn’t have been further from my experience.

pipe smoking lady, total badass Pipe smoking badass

It wouldn’t be right to review this tour without giving special mention to my guide Tommy. Along with refusing to let me drive recklessly, he was a fountain of knowledge and was able to answer every question I had. His food and drink recommendations were always spot on and he was a willing photographer when needed. If anyone is thinking about doing a similar trip I couldn’t recommend him highly enough. You can get in touch with his company here

Tommy Tom and Tommy

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