Vietnam road trip: Saigon to Hanoi on a Honda Dream – Part 1

IN July-August 2010 Jo Lane travelled 1700km from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi on a $300 scooter. This is her story… 

MY search for a motorbike in Saigon hit the jackpot today thanks to English expat Kevin Raven, who makes a business of finding and doing up old bikes. At just US$300 my Honda Dream looked a bargain – or at least I hope I’m still saying this after I’ve trundled the 1,700km to Hanoi.

I’d looked at bikes in the tourist area but wasn’t overly sure I trusted some of the rather too-keen salesman. One guy drove me half way across Saigon, even though I was told the place was “very near”, to meet some friend with what looked rather like a dodgy Chinese model to me – advice is to stay well clear of these. They insisted it was Chinese body but Japanese engine but the writing still was Chinese.

They started out at US$450 and came down rather quickly to $350 but when I told them I wanted time to think about it they got a little heavy handed, saying I could take 10 minutes and have a coffee, they could not wait long too hear from me and they’d brought me all this way so I should buy a bike. It all spelled disaster so I bought them some beers thinking it might help smooth matters over but they kept demanding money so I just left them there and strode it out on foot back to District 1.

Old Russian Minsks, complete with Soviet star. Pic: Joanne Lane.

I’d been tempted by all the cool bikes – a funky Honda Cub offered me by an English guy at my guesthouse (although one of the staff told me later it was rubbish), there were also snazzy Vespas about and even klunky old Russian Minsks complete with a Soviet star.

But in the end I stuck with the Vietnamese bike of choice – nippy, reliable and very plain – the Dream (the older version of the Honda Wave). No one was going to steal this old beast and so with that in mind, I’ve christened her Beauty. She’s got plenty of beauty spots and her own Soviet star.

Kevin’s mechanic checked cables, lights, oil, the choke, tyres etc. while Kevin gave me the low down on what to expect along with another customer who was checking out a Minsk. I was glad Kevin seemed more concerned about this guy’s riding abilities than mine, but then any old mug should be able to ride a Dream. Once helmets, luggage racks, hockey straps and everything else had been secured and paid for, the first task for Beauty was to get me about 15km across Ho Chi Minh City.

Kevin's mechanic at work on Beauty. Pic: Joanne Lane.

Kevin’s garage is out in District 9, really just straight down the highway, but it took a good 40 minutes on that before we hit the traffic nearer the city centre and another 20 minutes dodging trucks, cars, buses, a million other motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians to get the last few kilometres home.

I’d timed it to avoid the worst of peak hour but instead ran into a storm. The streets were awash in muddy water that slopped right up your legs, blew in from passing buses and generally created havoc. The rest of it blew in your eyes and I’d left my helmet up so I’d be able to see properly. Diabolical.

If I wanted a baptism of fire, or rather water, I got it.

The traffic was better than I thought, ebbing and flowing in very logical ways and if you stayed in the mix with everyone else it was safer than going it alone.

I cruised past the waterfront, went a little bit the wrong way up Dong Khoi before someone shouted at me, then turned down a block from the Continental and headed back to District 1 and the guesthouse – by luck or good management I finally pulled in and parked while the staff and other guests came out to have a look.

Triumphantly I eased my sodden body off the bike, legs a little shaky I must admit, but I’d done it, and promptly went out to get a coffee to calm me down.

Fifteen kilometres down, only 1,685 to go…

Read the next installment of Jo’s trip here