The ‘Nam Files

Usually, what goes on tour stays on tour – until now! Groff spills the beans on an adventure in Aug/Sep 2016 by a group of SR500 Club members.

Five Honda XR125s, five SR500 Club members and a map of Vietnam – what could possibly go wrong? President Gillman, Paul Newbold, Peter Hickey and Dave Moss joined me in Vietnam recently to ride from Ho Chi Minh City up to Sa Pa and then back to Ha Noi – a distance of around 3500 km. The bikes were hired from OffRoad Vietnam in Ha Noi and sent by train down to Ho Chi Minh City where we picked them up. In Vietnam, a 125 is considered a ‘big’ bike and they were, in fact, just the right size for the trip. Dodging water buffalos, kids, dogs and other road users means anything more than 80 km/h is reckless.

The plan was to follow the little-used Ho Chi Minh Road up the west of the country, rather than the busy and dull Highway One route made famous by the Top Gear trio in 2008. The Ho Chi Minh Road follows large sections of what used to the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail – the route used during the war with America to take supplies from the north to the south. The Vietnamese made the road using the shelter of jungle canopy to hide its presence, which led to the Americans defoliating large sections of the country searching for the ‘enemy’. One story we heard on the trip was that when the Vietnamese road builders came to sections of the rocky mountains too difficult to pass, they’d light flares there at night and the Americans would bomb the area, breaking up the rocks and allowing the road to continue.

We visited Dalat (home of Vietnam’s only vineyards, and producer of the legendary Dalat Red) and the resort town of Nha Trang, before joining Ho Chi Minh Road proper, where it twists and turns for hundreds of kilometres through mountains and jungles. The roads and scenery were spectacular. Highlights of the trip included a night in Khe Sanh, which was also a lowlight, in that it took a couple of days for all of us to stop singing the Cold Chisel song inside our helmets. Gillman, in particular, suffered terribly.

We left the Ho Chi Minh Road when we got into the deep north and headed to Sa Pa, a village in the mountain range that separates Vietnam from China. While it’s hard to pick the best riding in Vietnam, the climb here was memorable, taxing even the reserve power of the 125s. From Sa Pa, the road winds back to the nation’s capital, Ha Noi, where the Australian crew enjoyed some ‘rest and recreation’ before heading home.

There were two crashes (Hickey, twice), the first of which snapped the end off the gearchange shaft. It was welded back together by a local bike shop which refused to charge for the service. Newbold broke a chain when he was attempting to cheat during an engine-off race down a mountain, but apart from this, the trip was incident-free. Oh, Hickey ran over a puppy which had gone to extraordinary lengths to manoeuver itself under his bike’s wheels. The coroner’s report suggested suicide.

What did it cost? Airfares excluded (tip: AirAsia is currently selling flights from Australia to Vietnam for May 2017 for $180!), a holiday like this is pretty cheap. The total cost for each bike rental for three weeks was $350 and that included training them down to Ho Chi Minh City. With three meals a day, drinks (beer is between 70 cents and one buck a can), fuel and accommodation in hotels each night, we were lucky to spend $50 a day, and some days were considerably cheaper than that. Admittedly, we got the bikes at ‘mates rates’, but full price isn’t that much more expensive.

Did we get lost? Yes, mostly due to Newbold’s slavish devotion to SatNav which regularly took us in completely the wrong direction or detoured us through major city industrial estates. My map-reading also occasionally got us into trouble as the writing on the goddamn maps is so small. It seemed to be bigger when I was younger. Did we fight? Of course, but fortunately, having the Club President on the trip helped. He regularly used his supreme diplomacy skills to separate the combatants. Would we do it again? In a heartbeat…!