Motorbiking Southeast Asia – The 14,000km Trip
Motorcycling through Southeast Asia was one of the greatest experiences of my life. We travelled for 14,000 km along some of the best and worst roads that Asia had to offer, venturing off the tourist trail onto the road less travelled. In this article I wanted to share some of our more memorable experiences as well as highlight some of the best places to travel.
Our trip started in a relaxing way. We arrived into Hoi An in central Vietnam planning to spend a month unwinding before setting off on our adventure. We quickly sourced a bike from a local family who buys and sells bikes and dutifully christened him Rusty. Rusty was a Yamaha Nouvo 3, fully automatic and came complete with a rack for all our luggage and a bike lock (which we lost in the first week).
That first month in Hoi An Rusty took us around town visiting cafés, beaches and a few trips into busy Danang. Apart from one puncture we had no issues riding around and we were glad to have the freedom a bike offered.It was on this drive we learned our first lesson. Distances are going to take a lot longer than expected. The drive from Hoi An to Hue is only about 150km but it took us about 5 hours to complete the trip. Click To Tweet
Eventually it came time to move on. Our first big day took us from Hoi An to Hue via the incredible Hai Van Pass. This beautiful stretch of road winds through the mountain ranges between Danang and Hue that once served as a natural barrier keeping the northern invaders away from the prosperous Cham empire hundreds of years ago. It was on this drive we learned our first lesson. Distances are going to take a lot longer than expected. The drive from Hoi An to Hue is only about 150km but it took us about 5 hours to complete the trip. We left late in the morning and were exhausted by the time we got there.
From Hue we cut across to the Ho Chi Minh Highway which follows the old Ho Chi Minh Trail. This road cuts through mountain passes, valleys and ethnic villages offering some incredible scenery. It is remote and you can go many hours between towns so we made sure we always had some basic tools as well as puncture repair kits. On this section we visited Phong Nha with its many cave complexes as well as some more remote villages and towns including one small Vietnamese city where we were almost treated as celebrities. As we were the only foreigners to visit in what I assume was a very long time, strangers would shout hello from the other side of the road and kids would wave from the back of motorbikes. This was our first taste, on this trip, of ‘real’ Vietnam away from the tourist areas.
Our next aim was to get to Hanoi but in doing so we had to tackle Highway 1. This is the highway that runs between Ho Chi Minh City in the south and Hanoi in the north. It’s basically one giant truck and bus route. I can tell you after riding about 200km of this road into Hanoi to AVOID IT AT ALL COSTS. This highway is crazy dangerous and even with my extensive experience I had multiple ‘Oh Shit’ moments in just one day! From that day on Highway 1 we never spent more than a few minutes on that road for the rest of our trip.
We didn’t ride much in Hanoi. Traffic is terrible and taxis and Grab cars (Asian Uber) are cheap as chips so we tended to get around that way. When we left Hanoi we didn’t know how much fun the roads in the north would be.
I’ll be doing an entire article on the Ha Giang Loop, a spectacular motorcycle ride in the north of Vietnam so I won’t be going into great detail here except to say that the roads and the scenery here are stunning. And I’m not just saying that to be dramatic!
The north of Vietnam is like something plucked straight out of a fairy tale. I still don’t even believe that scenery that beautiful exists anywhere in the world. We spent about a month riding through the north finishing up in Sapa. When we were in Sapa I got sick. It meant we were delayed in Sapa and all of the sudden we had 3 days to ride 5 days worth to leave Vietnam and head into Laos. So instead of killing ourselves on the road we decided to try loading the bike onto a night train.
It’s fairly straightforward. We rocked up at the train station. They drained our petrol, charged us an unlisted ‘fee’ (was about $5) and the bike was loaded on. We got a bunk room for the evening too. It was a great way to chew up 600km of boring Highway driving to get back down to Hanoi and I’m glad we got the rest because the next part of the trip was the most difficult riding I have every done in my life.
If you have a Vietnamese plated bike you can cross the border into Laos, so we thought why not spend a month there after our first Vietnamese visa expires?
When crossing into Laos in the north there is only one point you are allowed to cross with a bike and that is the Na Meo border. There had been some rain in the lead up to our crossing and I had heard that the roads can get difficult after rain so I was prepared for the worst…. it was worse than that.
The crossing at Na Meo was straightforward. Stamp out, pay an unofficial fee for the bike and stamp back in. We arrived early at the border because we knew it was about 70km to the nearest town on the Laos side and we were hoping to make it there for lunch… nope.
We set off and the roads almost instantly became mud. For the next 10 hours we slipped, slid and pushed our way through essentially one long muddy road up some inclines that seemed almost impossible for vehicles to use in the middle of dense tropical rainforest. We were grossly underprepared for what we had gotten ourselves into. This was completely mental.
When lunch time came around we had probably ridden about 30km in a small village had nowhere that we could eat so we ended up eating Oreos for lunch (and again the next day).
The conditions after the first day improved slightly but our entire road experience in Northern Laos was plagued by mud and landslides. On multiple occasions traffic was stopped, sometimes for up to an hour, while heavy machinery dug the most recent landslide off the road. If one of those landslides had have happened while we were riding it would have taken us off the side of the cliff and we’d be dead. There is no doubt in my mind that it must happen regularly here.
On the day we rode into Luang Prabang we had been held up at a landslide as the sun was going down which meant the last hour was spent riding in the dark. At some point over the previous few days our headlight must have blown and we had no idea. Our solution was for Casey to hold each of our phones, torch on, over my shoulder as I crept along the last 20km as fast as I dared for fear of one of the millions of potholes appearing out of the dark ahead and sending us flying.
Riding Northern Laos was not what I would describe as a fun experience but it certainly made for some great stories afterwards!
Heading south from Vang Vieng the roads flattened out and eventually, past Vientienne, you begin to follow the Mekong River towards Cambodia. It was along here that we really started to make up the km’s. We headed as far south as we could and spent some nights on the 4000 islands. Rusty came too, riding him down the steep riverside embankments and onto a makeshift motorcycle boat was hairy but fun!
Eventually we headed out of Laos via the Bo Y border without incident. Riding this region you can see the scars left behind in the countryside by the relentless bombing of Laos by the Americans during the Vietnam War. The effects of these bombings are still seen today. There are an estimated 80,000,000 unexploded bombs left in the country which has meant farmers are too scared to farm new land for fear of dying. As a result Laos can only produce enough rice to feed their population for 2/3 of a year. It’s no wonder their roads are in such poor conditions when the country can’t even afford to feed itself. It’s very sad.
After Laos we were excited to get back onto decent roads. As soon as you cross the border the quality of the roads improves dramatically. We made a beeline for the coast as we wanted to get some R&R after a month of hard riding. On our first day heading to the coast we managed to pick up two punctures. Luck would have it that both the punctures we got that day were within 100 metres of mechanics and neither delayed us too heavily.
We hit the coast started to slowly work our way down towards Nha Trang, a beach resort town. We hung out here for a couple of weeks resting and catching up on some work before we turned our sights to Da Lat, right in the middle of the mountainous south central region of Vietnam. Moving away from the coast the mountains begin to rise in front of you until you hit a major pass. Riding up through this pass we saw monkeys jumping in the trees above us and we caught views back towards the coast the higher we went. This section of road made us fall in love with the bike again after a tough month in Laos.
From here we headed towards the main border between Vietnam and Cambodia. Crossing here was completely pain free and they asked exactly zero questions about the motorbike. No money changed hands getting the bike across.
Purely from a motorcycling point of view there is not a lot to say about Cambodia except that the roads are long, straight, dusty, boring and downright dangerous. Drivers in Cambodia are the most dangerous I have ever experienced anywhere in the world.
They drive without any regard for the lives of anyone else around them and would overtake into oncoming traffic even if it meant we had to leave the road into the soft gravel or sand on the edges. Basically if I was doing this trip again I wouldn’t ride a bike in Cambodia. I also wouldn’t catch a bus there either after seeing dozens of smashed, crashed and burnt buses on the sides of the highway. It is not unusual for there to be mass casualties in bus crashes in Cambodia and tourists are not exempt from it.
The only time we were stopped by police on our trip was also in Cambodia in Phnom Penh. We had just gone through a green light when the police pulled us over insisting that we had run a red. Now the correct way to handle this situation would be to apologise and ask ‘how much is the fine?’ and they will likely fine you a few dollars. But I was pissed that they were trying to rip me off and I bluntly refused to admit I had done anything wrong and insisted that they were incorrect. I think after a while they realised they weren’t getting anything out of me easily and let us go. In hindsight that could have turned nasty and I would have been smarter just to pay a small bribe.
The Mekong Delta
The final leg of our trip was 3 months exploring the Mekong Delta region. Purely from a riding point of view it wasn’t that exciting. The entire delta region is relatively flat so roads are generally pretty flat, straight and in very good condition. We did have to catch a few ferries because there wasn’t always bridges at every river.
It was nice to end our trip with a lot of easy riding as after 10 months on the road we were sore and tired. Our trip with Rusty ended in Ho Chi Minh City. It came time to say goodbye and a friendly European guy bought it from us while we sat at a café. He was headed off the next morning to make the long trip back north.
I like to think that Rusty will spend the rest of his life ferrying travellers through Vietnam allowing many more travellers to see and experience everything that we did.
If I was to do it again would I do it the same? No.
First, I would have bought a more powerful bike, possibly a semi-automatic more capable of tackling the mountain roads. Rusty was okay at this but only okay.
Second, I would have lowered the distances we needed to travel each day. It was too easy to accidentally end up spending 10 hours on the road because we were pushing for the next town when we just weren’t in a rush. We would wreck ourselves to try to get an extra rest day which we would use recovering from the day on the bike.
Finally, I would not ride in Cambodia. That place is just mental dangerous.
Overall though, riding Rusty through Southeast Asia was one of the best experiences of my life. The things that I have seen and the people I have met I will remember for the rest of my life. Sure I would have had a great time if we had have used public transport still (as we did in a lot of Thailand) but in my opinion there is nothing that compares to the immersive nature and the freedom you have of riding through a foreign country.