After a dinner of sautéed crickets followed by a bowl of pho, I sat in my hotel room reading the Hoi An section of my guidebook to Vietnam. I was intrigued by the write-up of Hoi An Motorbike Adventures, a company which offered tours on motorbike around Hoi An and Danang. The allure went beyond the opportunity to ride a motorbike around Vietnam’s gorgeous central coast. The allure was the opportunity to ride a 1950s era, Russian-made Minsk motorcycle around Vietnam’s gorgeous central coast.
Hoi An Motorbike Adventures owned and maintained dozens of Minsks. Getting to ride one of these 125cc, two-stroke , vintage Soviet steeds was one of the company’s main selling points. Even though it had been more than twenty years since I last slung a leg over a motorcycle, I wasn’t going to pass up this adventure.
I booked a day-long tour called Higher Than Hai Van Pass. Here’s the tour’s description from Hoi An Motorbike Adventures website:
HIGHER THAN HAI VAN PASS (8am- 5pm)
On our way out of town, we visit a Cham temple and a former US war base. We then follow small country laneways around Danang before we head up the steep slopes of the Son Tra peninsula, otherwise known as Monkey Mountain. We ride the narrow road that snakes around the mountain, offering grand views of the sea, Danang, the Hai Van Pass and the Truong Son range. We enjoy a picnic lunch with scenic views at the highest point, 696m. Looping around the other side of the mountain, we visit a pagoda with the country’s biggest Buddha statue, and see colourful fishing boats being repaired along the coast. Before our return, we enter the sacred Marble Mountains, where we can explore the caves or take an optional abseil into the temple at Hell’s Cave.
Sounds awesome, eh?
The morning of the tour, I met the other participants at Hoi An Motorbike’s office in the old part of Hoi An. Aside from myself, there were only two other participants, a young Brit and a young Aussie. From the office we were taken by taxi to a garage outside of town where the motorbikes were housed and maintained. Waiting for us at the garage was the company’s owner, Mark, an Aussie married to a German. Mark opened his motorbike tour business in 2009, and it has been an incredible success.
Mark took us into the garage and outfitted us with helmets. He then showed us his impressive stable of Minsks. He owned dozens of these bikes, all of them painted an army green color. He had one of his assistants roll three Minsks out of the garage for us. Mark told us a little bit about how to operate the bikes and their quirks. Then he told us to pick a bike and take it for a spin. At that point, I found myself feeling quite nervous. My nervousness wasn’t due to not having ridden in many years. My nervousness was due to the fact that in Vietnam, motorists generally don’t obey any traffic laws. I was afraid I was going to be seriously injured or killed.
I put my helmet on, swallowed my nerves, steadied my legs, and placed a foot on my bike’s kick-starter. After a few kicks, the Minsk’s engine came to life. I slung a leg over the saddle and familiarized myself with the bike’s layout. While still in neutral, I gave the throttle a twist, and the Minsk’s engine sang to me in a whiny vibrato. Just the way I remembered small-bore, two-stroke engines.
The three of us motored out onto the dirt road for our test spin. I was the last in line, and motored down the dirt lane cautiously, slowly accelerating through the gears, trying to get a feel for the bike. The engine produced a significant amount of vibration, which was transmitted through the handlebars to my hands and arms. The brakes were soft and spongy, requiring allowance of some distance for stopping, something Mark cautioned us about.
As I took a few practice runs up and down the dirt road, I felt fear from the thought that my bike was nothing more than a ratty old deathtrap. But in being honest with myself and looking back to past references, I realized that I’d driven dirt bikes of equal rattyness at high-speed through the woods. Also, the Minsk did what any bike should be able to do: it stopped and turned. It also had lights and a horn. I calmed myself and decided that I wasn’t going to let fear ruin this experience.
Our guides for the day were Mark, the owner, and one of his assistants, a Vietnamese mechanic. Mark took the point, while his assistant brought up the rear. During the first part of the trip, we slowly motored along dirt roads through a rural area, passing rice paddies, cinder block homes, Vietnamese riding motor scooters, water buffalo grazing vegetation in wet fields, and women walking along the roadside carrying loads of fruit and vegetables on shoulder poles. Our bikes stirred the dust from the dirt roads and trailed clouds of bluish smoke.
After a half-hour or so, I was really getting comfortable on the bike. My breathing was relaxed. I rode at a speed which I was comfortable at. A sense of delight and giddiness had replaced any feelings of fear and nervousness.
During the morning we stopped at an old Cham temple, a couple of war memorials, and a cemetery in the middle of a vast rice field. At each stop we snapped pictures and drank some water. It was quite hot, approaching 40C. The heat wasn’t much of a problem when riding, due to the natural air conditioning. But if stopped out in the direct sunlight, it was brutal.
After stopping at a café for a snack and some cold drinks, we headed into Da Nang, Vietnam’s third largest city. Da Nang is developing rapidly. Da Nang’s beaches along the South China Sea draw more and more visitors every year. Large hotels are cropping up everywhere along the waterfront. It’s definitely a city on the move. But I can easily see it being overwhelmed by tourists within five years.
While Da Nang is growing, it’s doing so with good planning. I was impressed with Da Nang’s wide avenues, clean streets, and new buildings and bridges. I initially was wary about driving through this city, but it turned out to be an absolute pleasure. If I were to pick a place to live in Vietnam, it would be Da Nang. It’s atmosphere was more laid back than Hanoi and Saigon, and it has both the sea and the mountains close by.
From Da Nang we motored onto the Thuan Phuoc suspension bridge, which crosses the lower Han River. The Thuan Phuoc was completed in 2009, and is Vietnam’s longest suspension bridge. Bicyclists, pedestrians, and motorists are all allowed to cross. We stopped at mid-span to take in the surrounding view and snap more pictures.
From the bridge we road onto the Son Tra peninsula and toward Monkey Mountain. The trip up Monkey Mountain took us on winding, sometimes steep roads. The mountain was covered in thick forest. We slowly wound our way all the way to the summit. From the top we had a commanding view of Da Nang, the Hai Van Pass, and the South China Sea.
Returning partway down the mountain, we stopped to have a picnic lunch in the shade of the forest. Mark entertained us with tidbits on Vietnamese life and stories he’d heard about the American war in Vietnam. After eating our sandwiches, we got back on our Minsks and motored down the mountain to Linh Ung-Bai But Pagoda.
The Linh Ung-Bai But Padago was a very special place. Nestled on a hill overlooking the sea, the grounds of the pagoda is home to a 67 meter tall, pure white statue of Guanyin, the Bodhisatva of Mercy. It is the tallest Buddhist statue in all of Vietnam, and one of the tallest in all of Southeast Asia. Guanyin translates to “the one who listens to the cries of the world.” The Guanyin at Bai But stands facing the sea, holding a small vessel in its left palm while gesturing in Buddhist fashion with its right hand. I was absorbed in the aesthetic beauty of this statue; it communicated an inner stillness.
After spending quite a while at Bai But, we motored back across the Than Phuoc bridge and stopped at the Marble Mountains, a group of limestone formations. We entered a cave in one of the mountains which housed a shrine. There was a central altar in the cave with various Buddhist statues and ornaments. Placed in recesses within the cave were various statues of the Buddha sitting in meditation. The Marble Mountains were our last stop before leisurely motoring back to the garage in Hoi An.
Back at the garage we thanked Mark and his assistant for a wonderful day, and Marked thanked us by giving each us a cold brew. We hung out in the garage for a little while chatting before saying our goodbyes.