It’s 8.20 am on Monday morning. Today, the hotel is full of French people and the breakfast I ordered 20 minutes ago still hasn’t been served. My bike rider, due to arrive at 8.30, is here before my breakfast appears and is strapping my backpack onto his bike already. I’m a little disconcerted because the bike looks kind of tiny, and I had visions of it being a bike Harely-style machine with a comfortable back seat.
I was planning to get a car to drive me to Hue (at a cost of around $55). The route from Hoi An to Hue is about 180 km, and it passes through Da Nang and crosses the Hai Van pass as it makes its way to the old imperial capital of Vietnam. This pass was made a lot more famous when Clarkson, Hammond and May traversed it in the Top Gear Vietnam Special in 2009, and most travel companies advertise it as the Top Gear Tour or the Top Gear Road.
I was convinced to try it on the back of a bike by friends who have done it, and I thought at least it will be an experience and something I have never done, so I booked my tour with Le Family Riders a few days ago. A one-way trip from Hoi An to Hue costs $58 as a passenger, and a little less if you are riding your own bike.
It’s sprinkling with rain. The driver passes me a big, baggy set of rain gear and a couple of plastic sandwich bags to put over my shoes. My backpack is strapped across the back of the bike and my small backpack is strapped in front of the driver. I’m surprisingly not nervous, though I feel a little foolish putting on my rain gear in front of everyone in the restaurant.
I clamber onto the back of the bike. I have only ever ridden pillion once, on the back of a tiny scooter in Siem Reap, Cambodia, a few years ago, but this is a proper motorbike. We set off and I let out a nervous ‘Woah’ as we take the first turn. The driver turns and asks me what’s wrong.
I’m telling myself to relax, to not be tense, to ease into it and enjoy the ride. I’m not sure what the etiquette is – do I hold onto the driver’s shoulders? I’ve pried my fingers between the rack and my backpack in its plastic wrapping in an attempt to have something to hold onto. It’s not as weird as I thought it would be, but it’s an unusual feeling. I’m much taller than the rider, so I can see everything okay above his head. But when we get to the first crossroads there’s a bike on its side and a group of people standing around. There’s been some kind of accident or crash. I sincerely hope it’s not an omen for the day.
I quickly get used to leaning into the turns. After a couple of minutes we stop and the driver tells me to get off. Is something wrong? Did the bike break down? He tells me to walk one minute down the road. I’m kind of confused. It turns out he’s just overshot the turn for a road and he wants to do a U-turn. We’re picking up a couple of other passengers at another hotel, which I hadn’t expected. It’s nice to have some company, though.
We’re in a convoy of three, and my driver stays at the back. This is a good thing, as I can see what’s happening in front of me and anticipate what my driver will do. When the first rider, Ky – our guide – pulls out to overtake or motions to the other drivers to stop, I know that this is what we will do. It’s somehow calming to know that.
We get to the Marble Mountains. The rain has stopped, so we get out of the rain gear. Although it was cool and overcast this morning, it’s now humid again. We are to go up to the top of Water Mountain, the only one of the mountains that it’s possible to climb. We take the lift up and join the groups of tourists.
The Marble Mountains are close to the beach just outside Da Nang, and have been mined for their marble for decades. Littered around mountains are tens of marble workshops. Up the top of the mountain there are pagodas and temples and shrines. There are a lot of steps up the hillside, further exacerbating the sweating problem. By the time I get to the cave, I’m drenched again.
I climb up through the cave. The hole at the top that we must exit through is tiny, and the stairs and footholds are small and slippery. I’m holding the water the guide gave us and my camera. I down the water and get rid of the bottle and put my camera around my neck to free up my hands. As I climb through the cave it swings and bashes into the side, but no damage is done.
More steps to the top, but there are some lovely pagodas and temples, and the view across the other mountains is quite something. As we make our way down, we realise we’ve crossed the mountain and not looped back around to the lift. We’re not the only ones, it seems. We trudge along the streets and eventually find the tour guides. They hand us ice cream and water and we sit and chat for a few minutes.
Back on the bike. The wind is great following the sweatiness, and I’m starting to dry out. I’m more relaxed now, and I even stop clinging onto the back of the bike and rest my hands in my lap. We stop on the beach front to take a photo with Da Nang’s lady bhudda in the background before continuing. My driver pulls over. Something is wrong with his back wheel. Someone pops out with a piece of equipment, the wheel is adjusted and he pays about a dollar for the work. I ask him if it is the extra weight of me and the bag on the bag that is causing the problem. Yes, he says. Okay, I think…
Now it’s time for the Hai Van pass, a steep, winding, route across the mountains. It peaks at 500 metres. The name translates as ocean (hai) cloud (van) and true to its name it is a little shrouded in clouds as we climb up. Goats trot along the roads the roads, a huge tanker thunders past, we see the Reunification Express train snaking through the bottom of the valley. It’s really quite something.
I feel a little bad for the driver – it sounds like the engine is straining, and we’re falling behind the others. I try to lean forward to help urge the bike up the steep, twisting pass. I take movies and photos from the back of the bike. I’m getting into this now.
At the top we stop for coffee and a take look around the bunkers at the summit. The French army used the mountains a strategic fortress, as they cross the narrow waist of Vietnam roughly through the centre of the country. During the war the Americans took them over. The ocean is on one side, and the road back down is to the other, snaking down the side of the mountain in a serious of sharp hairpins and cutting through steep and lush jungles on the mountainside.
We snake down the other side of the mountain through a series of hairpins and stop for lunch at a small fishing village. I did not expect so much food. We had fried shrimp, King prawns, mussels, beef hot pot, fried chicken and rice, followed by a local beer (Huda) and a huge plate of watermelon and rambutan. I was expecting a shack-like operation where they dish up fried rice, but it’s a big restaurant floating on the lake. The scenery is stunning, and very reminiscent of Inle Lake in Myanmar.
We’re off to the Elephant Springs now. This is a spring that flows down the mountainside and into a five-meter deep well at the end. I wasn’t sure I would swim, having not brought a towel with me and having not swiped one from my hotel in Hoi An, but the water looks so inviting and it would be nice to cool off after the sweatiness of the Marble Mountains. Ky borrows a towel for us from one of the small cafe/restaurants at the entrance to the springs.
The rocks down to the water are slippery, so I inch my way down on my bum. The guide says standing under the waterfall gives you a massage, so I inch my way back towards it, finding a foothold in the rocks beneath and enjoying the pounding that the thundering water applies to my shoulders. Then I slide over the rocks with the water and down into the well. It certainly is deep. Some locals are diving from a rock perched above, and one of my fellow riders gives it a try. The guide wants me to do but there’s no way. I’m sure I’ll gash myself if I do.
I go back to the waterfall and have another massage. The guide commandeers my camera and takes photos for me, then instructs me to climb on top of the carved elephant standing over the waterfall. it beings to rain – another downpour – but we’re wet anyway, and it’s fun to walk around in the rain with a Huda in hand. I feel like a kid at a water park.
Our final stop is a small fishing village about 40 kilometres from Hue. We learn about how the locals lived only on the boats until 15 years ago, going out at night to catch their haul and selling it at a local market. The government gave them free land and they built houses along the shore. Interestingly, the boats are made out of sheets of aluminium that the Americans left behind after the war, and after more than 40 years they are still intact and still in daily use. As we listen to the guide we are subjected to a chorus of ‘Hello! Hello! Hello!’ from inquisitive children in the house behind us. The guide says now that the people have more wealth the kids get to go to school, which is something they didn’t get to do twenty or more years ago.
We come to a rest stop. My two fellow riders are going back to Hoi An so we wait for their car to pick them up. I’m transferring from my bike to Ky’s, and he’ll take me on to Hue. I thank my driver for keeping me safe on the ride, ask him for a photo together and then give him a tip and tell him to get a couple of beers from me. Aside from a moment on the path down the Elephant Springs when a buffalo suddenly charged in front of us and we skidded to a halt, the whole ride has been smooth, the drivers have been very conscientious and I have never once felt unsafe.
Ky’s bike is lower and more uncomfortable, and my hips being to hurt, but he takes me through the countryside as the sun goes down to show me Viet Cong tunnels and a huge Chinese temple, the dragons at the entrance to which have eyes made from glass beer bottles and are the only example of this in the whole of Vietnam.
We get to Hue as the sun goes down. It’s certainly very different to Hoi An, being a bigger city. There are big apartment blocks being built, way more traffic and noise and music and life here. I thank him as we pull into my hotel, and I also give him a tip for getting a few beers on me.
I wander along the Perfume River, past a small market place and street food stalls, and enjoy a dinner of beef vermicelli at the riverside and then a local beer, Huda, in a bar near the hotel. The ride seems to have taken it out of me today, so I head back to the hotel fairly early and have a good rest.
I’ve had worse Mondays…