I love the road, not the asphalt or the hypnotic rhythm of the white lines sliding underneath you, but the path ahead with its possibilities, mysteries, and stories yet to be told.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

I had breakfast in bed this morning. It wasn’t a lavish spread of gastronomic delights, but a couple of simple fried eggs and some break. That’s as close to a European breakfast as my hotel could get. As I sat there watching the morning mist burn away I studied Google maps for todays route.

I’m no longer on highway AH1 that leads right into the throbbing heart of Hanoi. Instead I’m going to thread my way on various roads to Hay Long Bay before turning back to in the direction of Hanoi and the end of this road trip.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

The possibility of navigating my way along some 300 kilometres (186 miles) of back-roads in Vietnam is somewhat daunting, but as I load up my bike and leave the hotel I’m excited. Yes I don’t have a map, and yes road signs are a rarity here, but I’m not worried. If I get lost, I’ll find my way eventually.

Throughout the day I pull over and stop to squint and the tiny screen of my iPod touch, and Google maps. It’s not ideal, but it works most of the time. The problem here is that the back-roads appear to have been numbered by someone with dyslexia. For example the QL357 also appears to be shown as the QL375, and the road signs often switched the roads numbers too. I found this a few times and could see no logical reason for the disparity.

Another factor that can add to map reading confusion is the strange way that a road number can apparently relate to more than one road. This makes following signs alone rather tricky, so you have to study the map and look for landmarks to confirm your desired route.

Regardless, and perhaps even boosted by this geographical uncertainty, I ventured far from the busy highways and down a series of roads and pathways, through villages, hill passes, rice fields, and small towns. Along the way people would often smile and wave at me and shout “Hello!” Each time I stopped the bike for a rest or to take pictures local people would gather around and look at me curiously. If I looked directly back at them they would smile and sometimes say things.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

“Manchester United,” said one young man among a gaggle of teenagers who found his English speaking very amusing. “Liverpool,” I replied to another round of laughter from the gathered crowd. “West Ham,” he said with a big smile on his face, obviously proud to be having such a fluent conversation in front of his friends. I nodded then said “Chelsea.” He fired back the name of another football club right away and one girl actually clapped.

As I passed through one remote village I noticed some kind of fair happening on the side of a hill. I turned the bike around and headed up the hill to what turned out to be a Buddhist monastery that was having some kind of event. The place was heaving with people and various stalls selling foods and books.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

A group of women were performing some kind of offering ceremony which was watched by several hundred people. They chanted and sang and lifted up objects on red cushions, I would tell you what they were doing if I could, but truthfully I had no idea whatsoever.

My attendance at this event seemed to be causing a stir and pretty soon it seemed like everyone wanted to come up to me and shake my hand. I moved away from the religious ceremony because I didn’t want to disrupt that, but it made little difference, people would come up to me in growing numbers and shake my hand while smiling and speaking enthusiastically in Vietnamese. In the end the crowd became a little overpowering so I made my way back to my bike, making sure to shake every outstretched hand along the way. (And no, they weren’t begging!)

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

I might never reach Hanoi if I continue to average the kind of speed I’ve been doing. On the roads I barely go over 40 Kmh (25 mph), but the frequent stops must bring that average speed down to something resembling a brisk walk. But then again, I’m in no rush.

Toward the end of the day I was following a road that was shrinking with each passing kilometre. On the map it came to a dead-end at the edge of a river, but a small icon indicated that there was a ferry. I hoped that was right because it would be a long way back if not.

Thankfully when I reached the end of the road there was indeed a ferry in the form of a small barge boat. I rode the motorbike onto it and then waited for more passengers before we made the gentle cross for a mere 2,000 Dong (15p / 22c).

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

The light was beginning to fade as I picked up the road to the city of Ninh Binh where I planned to find a hotel. Thankfully the road was a beautiful flat fresh strip of unspoiled asphalt. For much of the day I had been negotiating my way around giant water filled potholes and rocky roads.

The road to Nam Dinh was lined with beautiful churches that look like were stolen, brick by brick, from small European towns. At one point I could see 10 of these magnificent churches serving a community that looked like it would struggle to fill just one of them.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

So after another long day I had done just 100 kilometres. By my rough calculations there are another 200 kilometers to Ha Long Bay, then another 200 back to Hanoi! This could take a while.

Vietnam on a motorbike by Simon Jones

Slow Road to Hanoi – Day 7
Read my tips about touring Vietnam on a motorbike

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