Motorcycle diaries: adventure through the mountains of Vietnam

By Jonathan Garber   May 27, 2016 | 12:18 am PT
Having finished his grad school studies in China, Jonathan Garber had the chance to explore Southeast Asia, and that adventure climaxed with an unforgettable trip through the stunning terrain of northern Vietnam.

And while the entire summer was amazing, nothing was quite like the motorbike trip I took over my last 10 days in Asia. Here's what it's like to experience offroad Vietnam.

The trip began in Hanoi, Vietnam's capital, and spanned the mountainous Northwest region of the country. The estimated location of the trip is highlighted by the red square on the map.I had never been on a motorcycle before, and had just one hour to learn the day before we left. Having never driven manual transmission before, I ended up with this scooter. It was less powerful so I struggled climbing mountains, but was faster on the straightaways.


We arrived at the the Offroad Vietnam office at about 7am to load up the bikes. When we finally left, it was rush hour in Hanoi. This picture doesn't even show how crazy and chaotic the streets are. There are motorbikes everywhere.


The views were breathtaking when we finally hit the open road. There was lush, green vegetation as far as the eye could see.As we began our climb into the mountains, Vietnam's famous rice fields came into view. It was common to see workers in the fields for most of the trip. Vietnam is one of the largest rice exporters in the world.


One of the things that I noticed almost immediately was just how narrow the roads were. There was very little room for error, especially if a truck was coming around the bend.


We came across a river that proved difficult to navigate, so we loaded our bikes onto a boat and ferried across.

That's when we got our first taste of the off-road portion of the trip.


We saw this bridge. Luckily we didn't have to ride our bikes across it.


Soon after, that's when things started to get crazy. We found ourselves riding through roads that were washed out by water and mud.Since it was August in Vietnam it was rainy season, and that meant a storm could creep up at any time.The heavy rains usually didn't last long, but created more difficult conditions.


Our tour guide got stuck in the mud

Since I was a beginner, sometimes I had to hop on the back while a more experienced rider got me through the difficult terrain. Here, the water had completely washed out the road. As you can see it was pretty deep. We crossed carefully so our engines wouldn't stall. Several times over the course of the trip we were forced to wait for a bus or truck to navigate the difficult terrain.You never knew what you were going to see.


With water buffalo crossing the road virtually anywhere, it made for dangerous conditions. Ronnie went around the bend too quickly and crashed into one. Luckily, both he and the water buffalo were ok. If a motorist kills a water buffalo they must pay the owner fair value.


For the most part all of the locals were friendly. Along the way they would wave and even run along side us as we rode. A few times a day we would stop for Vietnamese coffee and other beverages to get some rest and fuel up. A few nights we stayed in tribal villages.

The sleeping arrangement made for close quarters. Luckily, no one snored.


A traditional Vietnamese meal consists of pork, spring rolls, and veggies. Sometimes, there is chicken too. Men and women eat separately.

When we weren't staying in tribal villages we stopped in small cities along the way. Generally, the main strip was nothing more than a few blocks along the road. 


Sapa was the only city that was a tourist destination on our trip - a popular place for tourists who want to take a trek in the mountains.

Unfortunately for us, a typhoon struck on our descent into the city and we didn't get to do any hiking. Water was pouring down the side of the mountain and through this restaurant.When the rain finally stopped, we had this stunning view.


The typhoon caused mud and rock slides to block the roads.Notice how narrow the passage was. One wrong move, and you could easily fall of the side of the mountain. Luckily for us, we were on motorbikes so we could pass through. Other tourists had to pay the $100 to hop on the back of a local's motorbike to navigate the terrain.This shows the scope of how muddy it was in some places. 

After a day or riding we were back in Hanoi.Then we pulled into the Offroad Vietnam offices to end our trip. The trip was amazing and definitely the greatest adventure of my life.


Photo by Jonathan Garber

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