One of the greatest things about traveling by motorbike is the ability to go where and when as I please. While I have enjoyed the cities that you can buy the tourist open bus tickets for, I have loved the places in-between more. Like a great sentence, it is the silent pauses in-between all the busy words that carry more joy for me.
This is not to say there are not hindrances like needing to find parking or dealing with the craziness that is road rules in Vietnam. Yet when I have those times where I am cruising a beautiful empty road with the ocean to one side and endless greenery to the other, it is hard to imagine sitting in an air conditioned bus. I much prefer the rush of wind that makes you feel like you are flying.
The central coast of Vietnam has quite a few touristy cities. Hue and Hoi An are full of touristy old towns, recreated and saved by tourism dollars. Their long mixed histories producing cultures, particularly foods, worth stopping to savor and enjoy. It takes barely any effort then, to escape this cleansed and packaged beauty for that of the unspoiled.
My first encounter worth mentioning is an area along China beach. I stopped at a guesthouse called Hoa’s Place. Hidden in a sliver of land between bunches of five star resorts and luxury golf courses is a rather basic few guesthouses and homes right on the beach. It is on a tiny road that I drove by multiple times even after arriving just north of the Melia resort. Inland from there is a bunch of crazy marble vendors who tried to sell me six foot tall statues to put on my motorbike with a persistence usually held by cyclo drivers, tchotchky vendors and travel agents. Yet this one little oasis is a quiet stretch of beautiful beach. The guesthouse runs a family style dinner every night that is uninspiring for food but lovely in the sense that it isn’t developed. It used to be more welcoming as the owner, Hoa, is a Vietnam war veteran and former English teacher who regales guests with past tales. However after 18 years, he and his wife have semi-retired and are only there in the mornings. This leaves his sister-in-law with much less English to take care of the place. It is not great as far as guesthouses go, not full of amenities, and hard to find but it is the last bastion against the $200 dollar hotels as far as the eye can see in every direction. One of the best things to do while there is to enjoy seeing the locals arrive at 5 am or 5 pm to swim and avoid the sun. Floods of motorbikes magically appear with food and flotation device vendors setting up shop everywhere for a mere two hour swim break. Like watching some crazy dusk bat feeding frenzy, the locals appear to enjoy their ocean in the few hours the sun is not overhead. It makes me incredibly happy that they still can enjoy this slice of beach, even if there are boundary markers for the fancy hotels keeping them from wandering too far astray. You can even spot the round basket like fishing boats used in lives past still being used today.
My second pleasant encounter was on the path from Hoi An to the even more touristy beach town of Nha Trang. I stopped for the night in Quy Nhon, a rather large fishing city. While it is rather populated it is completely devoid of tourists, foreign or domestic. This led to a glorious city that was free of people pestering me for anything and guesthouses with reasonable prices right on the ocean. The seafood was abundant and the mood was laid-back. Had I not been trying to race down to meet my friend in Nha Trang, I could’ve stayed quite a while longer here.
I stopped by the provincial museum to learn more about the Cham rulers of this area for about half of the last millennium. It is ignorance on my part to realize that Vietnam is like China in that it was hardly unified in the past, broken into so many kingdoms.
It is proposed that Cham rule came over from Indonesia and that later Muslim influence came from similar places. While perhaps less individually impressive than Angkor Wat, there are quite a few ruins dotting the land. It is, as the museum stated, a part of our human history. It never ceases to amaze me how the more I learn the less I feel like I know.
The road out of Quy Nhon was also one of the most beautiful rides on this trip. Winding coastal mountain roads gave me a view of the seas clogged with ships in the way that Vietnamese traffic does on land or sea.
The ride reminded me of the curving coastal drives I used to take back home along the cliffs. Like a rose though, the most beautiful things are the most deadly. High winds blew me across one and a half lanes on a one lane highway. Buses and trucks either almost ran into me or ran me straight off the road, almost into ditches one time. We barely braked to a stop half a foot away from each other another time.
It is a ride I am glad I taking with stops I am glad I made. These are not where you’ll go when a tour agent sells you the cheapest option, but I highly recommend a local bus to these places. I seek to see the real Vietnam before the tourism trade took over and this journey is providing it to me in spades. It is not easy and confounds me often but it certainly is beautiful.
I am already on the road less taken but these locales still appear in travel guides. I cannot even begin to imagine what else lies out there.