Surviving the road trip of a lifetime

A father and son adventure-filled ride from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.

It’s 1am and I’m pushing my red 1980s Russian Minsk along Vietnam’s busiest road, the AH1 (Highway One). 

Another long-haul truck whizzes by, blasting its foghorn.

Ah, the road that never sleeps. Sleep. That’s all I want right now. 

“Khach saan,” I ask an old lady who tends a dimly lit cafe, as we pull off the road. Like several before her she simply points south, down the highway towards Ho Chi Minh City. 

I ask politely for some hot water to make an instant coffee, then we continue walking. Dad’s once mighty blue Minsk is broken down and we’re desperately looking for a place to stay for the night — if a local offered us a bed I’d probably take it. Suddenly my weary eyes spot a Vietnamese man wandering out of the mist towards us. I give Dad a look of dismay and grab at my throttle. “If this gets ugly, you’re on your own mate,” I murmur under my breath. 

Dad chuckles. 

The man shows genuine concern and kindness, so we drop our guard and gesture to him our predicament. He doesn’t speak a word of English and scurries off, back into his house. Moments later he returns with a length of rope. He sees the old bike tube I picked up a kilometre ago and voila, we tie the two together and before you know it I’m towing Dad down the highway. 

Twenty minutes later and we’re rolling into the much-heralded khach saan (hotel) we thought we might never reach. Just another day in ’Nam and just another friendly local. Time for some much-needed rest.

We try to work out where we are the next morning on our awful map book we bought in Hanoi until the concierge informs us we are in Thanh Hoa. Next, we’re off to find a xe may (mechanic) and fix con tria zao (old buffalo). Luckily, it’s the number one profession in Vietnam and we find one right across the road from the hotel. Take that, middle of nowhere.

 Half a million dong (about $30), a new magneto from the pig shed, three hours of labour later and the mighty blue Minsk is roaring yet again. At this point we have a small gathering of friendly locals who proceed to crack out a round of the local brew to celebrate. After last night, I cherish the moment.

However no beers for me. I’m scared witless on these roads and we have a lot of riding to do today to make up for lost time. They have a saying in Vietnam: If your back is to the sun and your face to the earth, your work is hard. It resonated with me today, so I rephrase it and confer it to my riding partner as he sips his ice-cold beer; “If we keep our back to Hanoi and our face to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), we’ll make it”.

That night as we cruise into the war-scarred city of Vinh, Dad bellows out the lyrics to the Cold Chisel classic, Khe Sanh. We check in to the best hotel our dong can buy — a 4.5 star luxury hotel for about $40. You couldn’t wipe the grin off Dad’s face if you tried. The same can’t be said for the oil our bikes have left, parked up on the hotel’s glossy stone driveway of an entrance. Whoops.

Hoi An is halfway. We toast in a local beer garden in the heart of town, drinking the local brew which costs about 50c a bottle. There is a festive vibe in town for Tet (Chinese New Year) and we’ve just been fitted for tailor-made silk suits. You don’t come to Hoi An, otherwise known as the tailor town, without getting clothes made. Today was our first bike-free day since leaving Hanoi, a welcome rest from the bustle and grind of AH1.

If you’ve watched Top Gear, then you’ll know where I am right now. I tilt my bike and hug the side of a vast mountain in the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone). It takes my breath away as I jerk at young buffalo’s throttle, puttering my red beauty up the hillside. I recall watching the Vietnam episode back home, the very inspiration for this trip.

 Now I’m living it, driving over one of the greatest spectacles this country has on offer, the mighty Hai Van Pass. Winding through mountains and into the clouds I feel on top of the world. A sight that can only truly be appreciated on a motorbike, as I grin at jailed faces on the tourist bus that flies by me at this point. At the top of the pass, the clouds pour over and sweep into the valley. There is a spooky war bunker and a cafe where we savour the moment with another instant coffee. This one tastes a lot better than the last.

We pull over at one of the very last road signs, 66km to go. 

I take a deep breath, the traffic is hectic, things start to sink in and I am almost panicking. 

When we’d left Hanoi it was 3am, the roads were empty as the millions slept. I haven’t joined this amount of traffic. My gut sinks as I realise it’s only going to get worse. 

This is what it’s all come down to though. I feel like a heavyweight boxer, going into the last round of a world title fight. 

The bell rings. I’m going for the knockout. Well, that’s what I felt like after Dad’s pep talk anyway. 

This story needs an ending, one where I fly home in one piece. We had our fair share of close calls over the last two weeks. 

The worst being when I was hit and grazed by a drunk driver on a scooter, standing on the side of the rode during Tet. I try to wipe the flashbacks from my mind.

These last few kilometres are exhausting, the traffic now includes not only scooters but trucks and the unpredictable local buses constantly stopping and overtaking. 

Two weeks ago in Hanoi, I had serious doubts as to whether this 1800km journey was possible. I ride up the left, alongside Dad, my right fist clenched and extended; “Saigon?” I yell over the incredible roar of our engines. “Saigon city!” he bellows back. In what had become a bit of an on-road tradition, this was to be our last fist bump.

 I didn’t want it to end, a month in ’Nam. Two weeks on AH1. The adversity we had overcome. The mateship that blossomed between us. The adventure of a lifetime.


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