Our friends from Transmoto Magazine took an awesome trip to Vietnam. A collection of Australia legends, a great dirtbike journalist and some cheap ‘n’ cheerful bikes and 2700km makes for a story worth reading.
I first met Andrew Hamilton on a ride in New Zealand a decade ago. Hammo’s one of those elusive characters who’s constantly got exciting new projects on the go; an entrepreneur cum venture capitalist; a down-to-earth, hardworking country boy made good. But what I most admire about the bloke is that he’s never let business stand in the way of his passion for motorcycles. And to reinforce the point, he inspires a handful of mates to join him every year on a riding trip to some far-flung destination. This longstanding ‘habit’ has taken Hammo and his buddies all over the world, enriching their lives no-end.
For the past decade, Hammo has regularly invited me along on these annual adventures. One year, he’ll be, “Wigan, we’re doing South Africa in March. You in?” The next, it’s, “Ever ridden the high-altitude deserts of South America, mate? Wait till you hear what we’ve got in store for you over there!” Sadly, like some middle-aged suburban chump, I’ve repeatedly declined his offers, citing clashes with magazine deadlines or overseas bike launches. But after a decade, my excuses were starting to wear thin. I wasn’t sure if I even believed them myself any more!
“Now part of the radio gang, I’m suddenly privy to a live stream of observational humour and timely warnings about wayward trucks and animals or dangerous terrain.”
So when Hammo hit me up to join a group of Aussies – most of whom I knew well – for an 11-day tour in Vietnam, I agreed to it almost out of principle. The idea of exploring Vietnam’s northern frontier with a bunch of mates – who range from one of Australia’s most decorated enduro pilots to a former Transmoto staffer turned lawyer – simply sounded too tantalising good to be true.
A veteran of two previous rides in Vietnam with Cuong’s Motorbike Adventure Tours, Hammo had made the brief simple: “Cuong, this time around, I’ve got a bunch of 11 experienced off-road riders from Australia and we want to get right off the grid, mate. Show us the real Vietnam.” The upshot was Cuong’s custom-made 11-day “Grand Tour” – a 2700km loop from Hanoi into the jungles, majestic mountains and remote hill-tribe villages of the north and north-west; a trip that happened to coincide with the country’s celebrations marking 40 years since the end of the Vietnam War.
So, how on earth do you start to capture what this ragtag group of Aussies experienced during those 11 memorable days? I only hope this selection of anecdotes and the boys’ first-hand accounts – gives you some insight into the never-ending winding road that is the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and the pleasures of exploring it via motorcycle.
Travelling anywhere as a big group is seldom straightforward, but everything seems to be going to plan by the time we arrive at Ho Chi Minh Airport. The eight-hour flight’s not so bad, and an official’s stamp on our visa is all that stands in front of our impending adventure. But there’s a problem. “Hey, has anyone seen my wallet?,” asks Bathurst real estate agent, James, who’s patting his pockets and looking increasingly anxious. We spread the contents of his backpack across the tiled floor of the airport, but the wallet’s nowhere to be seen. Relegated to the back of the visa queue, we go in search of assistance. And James quickly discovers that waving cash in the air is the most efficient way to attract it. Ten minutes later, his uniformed search team reappears. They’ve found the wallet in the plane. No cash is missing, but his driver’s licence curiously is.
“There’s no time to bribe anyone or sort the snafu, so the rest of us board the Hanoi flight and tell GB we’ll see him back in Oz with lots of stories to tell.”
Visas sorted, but now in a pinch to make our connecting flight north to Hanoi, we contemplate the identity-theft possibilities. The conversation is cut short, however, by another drama. “It doesn’t look like I’m on the flight with you blokes,” says a confused Geoff Ballard at the boarding gate. There’s no time to bribe anyone or sort the snafu, so the rest of us board the Hanoi flight, facetiously telling GB we’ll see him back in Oz in two weeks with lots of stories to tell.
While we’re in the air, GB sorts the mix-up and secures a seat on the next flight to Hanoi. Two hours later, he finds the rest of us acquainting ourselves with the local beer on the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter – amid a seething mass of humanity and architecture that reflects the country’s French colonial past. We succumb to the charms of the balmy tropical evening air and talk of the adventure set to kick off at 8am the following morning.
Cuong knows that Hammo has already tuned the rest of us about what to expect on Vietnam’s roads – the unexpected – but he offers one last instruction before heading out of Hanoi. “If the police try to pull you over, you just pretend you don’t see them and keep moving,” Cuong explains, raising an eyebrow to reinforce the point. “Leave it to me to pay the police, okay?” It’s a timely reminder that we’re high-vis easy pickings for the local coppers, and better off begging for forgiveness than asking permission.
But keeping a watching brief for coppers is the least of our worries in the early going because, for anyone accustomed to the predictability and order of first-world traffic, Vietnam’s roads initially seem like a overcrowded cauldron of chaos; a death trap for the inexperienced. And it takes everyone few sketchy hours to acclimatise.
“Once you immerse yourself in the mayhem and learn to go with this road-going anarchy, not against it, you realise that it actually works more effectively than traffic lights could ever hope to with this volume of traffic,” observes Michael at a drink stop.
He’s right. The ‘road rules’ in Vietnam are a triumph of common sense over regulation. Despite the sheer volume of intertwined vehicles, there’s no road rage and no accidents. In the first few hours, we learn that it’s all about getting in tune with the gentle art of merging, not swerving; and that horns are used as a courtesy to inform others of your whereabouts, not as a rude sign of indignation.
“Dirt bikes give you the opportunity to see a country – the real country and its people – in a way you never could from a car or bus.”
As we press on and Hanoi’s high-density population gives way to the first glimpses of limestone outcrops and the bigger mountains that lie to the north, we can’t help but ponder whether a greater majority of well-intentioned regulation helps or hinders the western world.
For the first couple of days, I’ve ridden alone with my thoughts. But on Day 3, Geoff Ballard offers me an ‘in’. “Here, Wigan, no one’s using this radio. Strap it on and see what you think.” Ballard and his mates regularly use radios with helmet intercom systems on their BMW adventure rides back home, but it’s new territory for me. Now part of the radio gang, I’m suddenly privy to a live stream of observational humour and timely warnings about wayward trucks and animals or dangerous terrain.
“Fair dinkum, this is like riding in ecstasy. It’s paradise,” says Cater, breaking a radio silence that’s brought on by the majestic views at every turn. “Yep, like a postcard picture everywhere you look,” adds Hammo. “Butterflies, waving kids, pigs, dogs, rice paddies, goats, buffaloes, waterfalls, colourful tribespeople, cornfields, dragonflies, humans in perpetual motion,” says Ballard, rattling off what his eyes are struggling to take in all at once. “And weird-shaped mountains, all of them way bigger than I ever thought possible. Man, my head’s about to explode!”
“And a never-ending series of turns, GB,” says Cater. “Mate, if you smiled this much in Oz, they’d start taxing you for it!”
The radio’s running commentary is hilarious and entertaining. It transforms my entire riding experience.
For the first three days, as we draw closer to ancient, mystical China, take-your-breath-away vistas are a constant. In fact, there’s sensory overload from all sides. Hands and arses are getting accustomed to the beating of progressively rougher terrain. And as we slice our way from one massive mountain to the next, the hot and humid air ranges from fragrant to pungent. It’s a cacophony of sounds, sights and smells.
“So, did you highside or lowside the thing, Nigel,” I ask, surveying the scuff-marks the Bathurst dentist’s bike has left in the mud. “Lowside,” he replies in an instant, still getting his breath back while in the foetal position. He’s lost the front-end in a section of slick mud and landed on a sharp, footie-sized rock, ribs first. He’s clearly dazed and, after sitting up running a hand over his ribcage, he winces in pain. “Shit, I reckon I’ve done some damage to my ribs and shoulder,” he says. “So, what happened? Where are we?,” Nigel asks, suddenly looking paler and more confused.
“Hugo’s miscued that bamboo bridge just outside the village and slid off the edge of the thing.”
Not five minutes after telling us he’s lowsided in the mud, Nigel’s got no idea where he is nor how he ended up on the ground. And an hour later, he’s asked the same “what happened, where are we” question 238 times. It’s like his thought patterns are on loop, so it’s clear a visit to hospital is in order. With full mobile service even in the most remote parts of the country, Cuong and his team organise an evacuation plan while the rest of us press on. That night, while relaxing in our homestay accommodation’s natural hot spring, we get word that Nigel has busted four ribs and got collateral damage to his lung. Sadly, the dentist’s Grand Tour is over after just three days. He’s carted back to Hanoi, filled full of painkillers and flies prematurely back to Oz.
Glenn Willcox suddenly pipes up from the far end of the homestay’s knee-high dinner table. “I love bikes,” he booms. “Nah, nah, really… I love bikes. And I absolutely friggin’ love riding bikes.” The former enduro ace from Port Macquarie has been getting stuck into the local rice wine and his chin is covered in grease and meaty giblets from the suckling pig that’s headlined our evening meal. Clearly, the physical expenditure of the day’s 300km of undulating goat tracks has done nothing to dampen his enthusiasm. “I mean, seriously,” he continues, “dirt bikes give you the opportunity to see a country – the real country and its people – in a way you never could from a car or bus. They’re the ultimate access machines, and I am just so thankful that I’m here doing this right now. This ride is absolutely incredible.”
Laugh as we might at the heartfelt, boozy delivery, he’s dead right. And it prompts a round-table discussion about the countless experiences that motorcycles make possible for the inquisitive traveller.
“I have another confession,” continues Willcox, again totally out of the blue. “I actually didn’t realise that our homestay here has its own personal hot spring, so I wandered over to the communal springs just before dinner for a dip. Apparently, going nude is the done thing, so I stripped off and started down the stairs. But the locals were all frantically yelling at me – no idea what about. I got stage fright and buggered off. Thinking back, maybe I strayed into the women-only hot spring by mistake. Yeah, that could be it. After all, it was dark.”
Under the spell of rice wine or otherwise, the man’s nothing if not funny. Strangely enough, it’s never made clear during the trip why he describes himself as the ‘disturbed plumber’.
By his own admission, Cuong had a bit of a misspend youth. But the tour business has given this Hanoi local real purpose in life and, since launching his own tour business in 2007, he clearly revels in every moment of every adventure. He’s a superb operator, largely because he’s a giving soul who’s incredible well connected. And for his customers, nothing is ever too much trouble. No matter what you ask of him, the answer is always the same can-do, “no pwaablem” – a Vietnamese/French pronunciation of the widespread Americanism, “no problem”. Cuong’s pronunciation of tomorrow (“tomaaawow”) – which is how he’d begin each night’s post-dinner snapshot of the following day’s ride – is even more amusing. And such is his sense of humour, he’d never take offence to the boys mimicking him.
“He’s still challenging himself physically, despite breaking his neck three times in the past 15 years”
Hugo’s the inspirational character of the group, and not just because he’s nudging 70 or, allegedly, packing an appendage the size of a baby’s arm downstairs. No, what’s amazing about this lanky, laconic carpenter is the fact he’s still challenging himself physically, despite breaking his neck three times in the past 15 years – once windsurfing, once falling down some stairs, and once when a tree fell on him while mountain biking. True!
Operations to fuse several vertebrae might make Hugo’s neck a little stiff, but the man comfortably runs the group’s pace for 11 days on both the windy blacktop and technical off-road sections. And the few low-speed step-offs he takes on the early days only seem to give him more bravado – until one ignominious fall from grace, that is…
“Cater, get back here quickly,” barks Willcox over the radio. “Hugo’s miscued that bamboo bridge just outside the village and slid off the edge of the thing. He’s fallen a fair way down into the muddy sludge on the banks of the river below and he’s looking pretty … average,” Willcox continues, dong his best to sound dramatic.
“Once he’s past us, we see he’s got his hunched-over 90-year-old grandmother literally strapped to his back”
“What do mean by ‘average’?,” asks Cater, sensing a practical joke. “You mean he’s hurt himself badly?” When the radio falls silent, Cater jumps into action. “Right, I’m coming back to help. Sit tight.”
By the time Cater arrives back at the scene of the accident, Willcox is playing childish. “Don’t worry. Too late, Cater,” says Willcox, casual as you like. “I’ve plucked him out now. I just wanted you to be the one who got covered in mud while performing the rescue,” he finally confesses, with a snigger.
Hugo’s pride is dented and he’s a buffalo poo shade of brown down one side, but otherwise okay.
“Right, no broken neck. Nothing to see around here, folks. Let’s go,” continues Willcox. The whole light-hearted pantomime makes much more sense for those aware that both Cater and Willcox have had hip replacement operations in recent years.
Surely, it’s amusing enough that Vietnamese currency is called “Dong”! But add to that the fact there’s about 15,000 Dong to the Aussie Dollar, and you’ve got yourself a recipe currency conversion disaster. I lost count of the number of times I overheard the boys ‘negotiating’ Hanoi’s street vendors down from the equivalent of $15 to $10, when in fact they actually meant to be haggling them down from $1.50 to $1. Nothing like a decimal place to rattle the old boys! Still, with hour-long massages costing just $10-$15 and most bottled beer less than $2 pop, who’s counting?
“That has to be some of the steepest, roughest terrain you could possibly get up on these bikes, doesn’t it?,” asks James, as the group congregates at the top of a super-snotty hillclimb. The Bathurst real estate agent owner rides mostly on tarmac back home, but he isn’t wrong. And the hardcore off-road riders in the group are quick to endorse his sentiments. But just as we’re congratulating ourselves on our extreme riding skills, we turn around to witness a local villager aboard a clapped-out scooter with road-going tyres scale this rocky section with consummate ease. And once he’s past us, we see he’s got his hunched-over 90-year-old grandmother literally strapped to his back.
“These people are so ingenious, nothing stands in their way,” says Cater, astonished at what he’s seeing. “No wonder they sent the Yanks packing!”
In the past, those of us from the ‘developed world’ would refer to countries such as Vietnam as “third world”. These days, we like to use the more politically correct “emerging economy” tag, but the tendency for us to be lured by the pleasures of a simple life remains. It’s difficult to overlook the fact that, despite having so little in the way of material goods, most Vietnamese enjoy a level of contentment that the entire western world aspires to. Many of our dinner conversations revolve around the trappings of consumerism and the sobering thought that, the more we seek happiness from external things, the more it eludes us.
Tell us about how your involvement in riding tours started, Cuong.
In 1989, I began as a mechanic with another tour company. Then in 1996, I helped some French people set up a tour company in Hanoi. And in 2007, I started my own company, Cuong’s Motorbike Adventure Tours. Initially, the only bikes I had were Minsk 125s – Russian-made two-strokes – and some vintage 650cc Ural sidecars, which I bought from the Vietnamese police and converted into solo bikes with disc brakes, comfortable seats and modern electrics.
There seems to be several tour operations in Hanoi these days.
Yes, there are about 15 companies who do riding tours out of Hanoi, but many of them don’t even have a permit. The professionalism and quality of our tours is much better. We own all our bikes, our tour guides are all full-time, and we can custom-make tours to accommodate everyone – from families who want to ride in an American Jeep, to people who want to ride a classic machine on the road, right through to those who want an off-road adventure to see the remote parts of the country. We are all about giving our customers an unforgettable, interesting and fun time.
“Apart from good riding, I also like to give customers a better understanding about the country’s history, its traditions and the Vietnam War.”
Where do your customers come from?
At the moment, 65 percent are from Australia. I think that’s because flights from Australia are relatively short, and because many previous customers have recommended our tours to their friends. We also get many people from France and other countries in Europe.
You’ve hosted a few celebrities in recent years, too. The BBC’s Top Gear guys, for instance…
“Yes, in 2008, the guys from Top Gear TV show came to us to help them organise their ‘Vietnam Special’ episode. I built up the special Vespa, Minsk and Cub bikes they used, plus the bikes’ boat conversions. I even appeared in the show a few times – the guy in the white lap coat. We’ve also looked after high-profile people such as Charley Boorman, Gordon Ramsey and a team of BMW riders. And, of course, the famous Aussie enduro riders in your group [laughs].
It seems that you’re intent of giving foreigners an authentic insight into Vietnam’s people and culture, not just the amazing riding terrain.
I love riding bikes and taking people to beautiful parts of my country. But, yes, I also like to give customers a better understanding of the people, the Vietnam war, the hill-tribe traditions, and how the quality of life has changed since 1990 when the socialist system was changed for the better. What seems to amaze visitors most is how the Vietnamese people put the war behind them so quickly and focused on building a better future.
Adding the off-road bikes to your stable must have opened up more tour options. When did that happen?
Yes, it has created a big opportunity. In 2013, I got the chance to import Honda CRF250L bikes, so I bought 15 of them for $US11,000 each. That was a very big investment. Unlike a few of the other companies who’ve bought second-hand Hondas from Cambodia with illegal papers, I bought all 15 Hondas new from Thailand, where they’re made, and registered them in my company’s name. The bikes are fuel-efficient and have been very reliable. We have learned that their subframe needs to be reinforced to accommodate the racks we’ve custom-built for luggage. But aside from that, they’ve been perfect.
Was our 11-day Grand Tour the biggest, toughest route you’ve ever done?
We have had a bigger group before and we have done a longer ride. But because you were all very experienced riders – and I knew this before planning the route with Hammo – your Grand Tour was the most technical riding we’ve ever done. That gave us the opportunity to get to some very remote areas – to go ‘off the grid’, as Hammo puts it.
For more information on Cuong’s Adventure click here.
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