Thursday, February 20, 2014

Trip Overview, Costs, Summary, Final Thoughts

Vietnam - Top to Bottom: Final Summary:

In this final post I will attempt to wrap-up our Vietnam Top-to-Bottom Adventure listing information that might be useful for the next traveller intending on doing something similar, travelling through Vietnam on motorbikes.

I will break this section down in categories with regards to Budget/Finances (basically how much the trip cost), travel Visas, thoughts on Gear, thoughts on our Route, options for Bikes, Tech/Computers, and maybe some final thoughts on anything else I have missed.

Finances - Rough Budget of Trip:

Flights: $2343 ($1171.50/each) Spokane, Washington > Hanoi, Vietnam return-trip
Galaxy Premium Cruise:  $488 ($244/each) 3 days - 2 nights HaLong Bay
Visa upon arrival:  $40 online then $90 at airport = $130 for 2
Vietnam Hotels total: $859.50 (not including Spokane Airport hotel)
Motorbike Rentals:  $723.35 total
2013 Honda XR 150 = $25/day @ 23 days -15% = $488.75
2010 Honda Future X 125 = $12/day @ 23 days - 15% = $234.60
Other = Food/Fuel/incidentals etc.= ~ $800-$1000

Total for trip?  Roughly ~ $5300-$5500 total for the month long Vietnam Adventure

Bikes and Gear:

We were very happy with our rentals through Flamingo Travel in Hanoi (see link here)

Vietnam has many rental outfits to choose from.  I was happy with our decision to set it all up in advance, therefore we spent literally zero time dealing with it upon arrival... we met the people at the company and got on the road fairly quickly.

We rented a Honda XR 150 and a Honda Future X 125.  The XR 150 was more than double the price to rent, but I was really happy on this bike, the suspension was fine as was the handling, the power and the rest.  The SEAT was brutal however.  In most of the RRs I've read about motorcycle travel through Vietnam, it seems as though the seats are one of the main problems.  They just aren't good for long distance travel.  I brought a 'Therma-rest' brand canoe-seat pad and this helped, but it wasn't enough. Looking back, I would get some type of AirHawk or Wally'sWorld ATV seat pad for both the bikes to save the butts.

Below:  The Future X 125 cc semi-automatic that Amanda was riding was a great bike.  One of the challenges though, when fuelling, she would have to move her luggage in order to 'pop' the seat to access the tank.  She got used to this on a daily basis on the road - especially with the inner-tube straps that were given to us in Hanoi.

One of the main positives with this type of scoot, is that you can get them fixed ANYWHERE.  This is the main style and type of bike that most folks are on, therefore they are easy to get fixed and to find parts if need-be.  Tube sizes and tires are easily accessible in pretty much all of Vietnam.  Whereas, the tubes and tires of the Honda XR 150 that I rented have obscure sizes that might be harder to find if a replacement was necessary.  We were provided with x2 tubes per bike in addition to a simple tool kit and chain oiler from Flamingo in Hanoi upon departure.

Below:  Craig and his wife from Australia were on Honda 125 bikes with a more traditional styling, complete with saddle bags on the racks, provided by the rental company.  They said they really enjoyed these bikes.

Flamingo Travel had this really new/nice Honda CRF 250L for rental.  I'm guessing you could get a bike like this for about $40/day minus a 15% discount for a long-term rental if you wanted.  It would be a nice bike to ride, but again, hard to fix and/or get tubes/tires if need be.

My thoughts on 'Bigger-Bikes' in Vietnam is that they would be a message for potential disaster.  A big bike would be fun to ride, but on the open road, they would be scary in my opinion.  The big thing with a bike like this (250cc or larger) is that it would enable you to travel at much higher speeds on the open highways.  Higher speeds in 'Nam could end very badly.  All of the truck/bus/car traffic are used to the typical Vietnamese bikes traveling at roughly the same speeds along most roads.  Sure, some riders/drivers travel faster, but most people are all traveling the same speed on their scoots.  Faster only means more of a challenge stopping quickly, and yes, this WILL happen.  Regardless of speed, you will get cut off, you will have to get on the brakes, it is Vietnam after all, where there is no rhyme or reason on any road.  If you decide on a bigger bike, be extra defensive, extra cautious, but of course have fun.

Below:  Flamingo Travel's Honda CRF 250 L for rent:

Renting Vs. Buying a Bike:

This is obviously personal preference.  I would definitely do it the same way again though.  Rent, rent, rent.  With buying, you never know what you are going to get (Read RTW with Noah's experience).  It might say a 'Honda Win', but it turns out, it might be a cheap Korean knock-off that won't get you very far down the road before your first rebuild.  There is a huge market for used bikes in both Hanoi and Saigon, the challenge is finding something decent from a reputable seller.  The other thing is the time it takes to find a bike, buy it and then to turn it over and sell it and the end of the trip.  You'll need to allocate some good time for this.

To each is their own, but for our trip, renting was definitely the way to go.  There are many options for both.  We bumped into a young Canadian couple from Quebec towards the end of our trip, they were travelling south to north...  and I remember the dude telling me how much trouble their 'Honda Win' was already causing them.  I gave them maps and some gear to help out and I hope they made it to Hanoi - I'm sure it was an adventure.


Below:  As mentioned at the beginning of this RR, I ordered the two maps to the left online before our travels.  I literally opened them once.  I wouldn't recommend this.  It was suggested by a fellow ADV Rider (Stan) to buy the map book to the right once arriving in Hanoi.  This map book is fantastic. Without question, I would buy this map book again - it was used each and every day on our trip.  You can pick it up at most book stores in Hanoi (and I'm sure Saigon as well).

GPS:  Below:  I was using a Garmin 60Cx with a cracked screen that I taped over with packing tape.  It worked fine and I was glad to have it.  I loaded maps on this unit from a source I found on VietHorse's All-About-Vietnam  thread (here).  The maps were fairly good and the odd time, the detail wasn't that great, but good enough to get where we needed to go.  One time... the road continued on the GPS and map book, but it actually ended up as a LAKE... and we had to get on a boat (one of the most exciting days - See Day 12 - Saturday November 16).

iPhone with Location Service turned 'ON'

We didn't have any sort of SIM card or roaming packages on our phones (although we were giving a pre-paid Nokia cell phone for emergencies included in our bike rental from Flamingo).  With my iPhone on airplane-mode and all cell and roaming turned 'off', I was still able to use the phone's location services and Google Maps.  This worked SO well.  Especially when it came to navigating Hanoi streets (while walking around).  As far as I understand, you have to calibrate the phone and maps via WiFi then it uses WiFi hotspots and cell towers to locate you on the particular map you are using.  With Google Maps - you can type 'OK Maps' into the search bar which enables you to use a map in offline mode without problem.  We weren't able to use this feature while we were riding the motos, but it came in handy once in a town or city, calibrating it via WiFi and then using the maps.

You could find WiFi virtually everywhere in Vietnam.

Helmets and Rain Gear (Below):

We ended up buying helmets in Hanoi and this too was a great decision.  We had a few to choose from at the Hanoi Flamingo Travel office, but none of them fit us that well and we didn't want to 'settle'.  We got directions to one of the main helmet areas of the city, took a cab there and picked out these two.  I would recommend a full face shield.  Full face helmets were not as common, but I'm sure you could find them.  I seem to remember buying these helmets for about $20 for mine and $15 for the red one.

We both brought Patagonia rain jackets from home and I had a Gore-Tex shell-style pant (while Amanda had a cheaper pant).  We both agreed that this was our most-used piece of gear without question.  We had our rain jackets and pants out way more than we would have imagined.  It also worked well when the weather was getting cold in the north.  It rains in Vietnam.  Lots.

Below:  Therma-Rest canoe seat pad.  It helped, but wasn't perfect.  How I missed the hard/flat custom Corbin seat on my Dual Sport at home...

We used OR (Outdoor Research) dry bags for some extra gear and they worked well.  As well, our small 'day-bag' backpacks that we would wear while riding were also dry-bags and some days we were SO soaked, buy our luggage and gear was always dry on the inside.  

Below:  The 'inner-tube' straps provided to us by Flamingo Travel were great... really useful.

Above and Below:  Our main luggage were 35 litre dry-bags from MEC (Mountain Equipment Co-op) in Canada.

SPOT GPS tracker was super useful for the daily 'check-in' feature which sent emails home to family.  I also set it up using SpotWalla (link here): as SPOT doesn't save your tracks for more than 7 days or something of the sort.  With SpotWalla, you can save your entire trip logs etc. very useful.  

Above:  Basic Tool-Kit in green bag provided by Flamingo Travel at the beginning of our trip.  I generally just left this strapped to my bike - although took the chain oiler out from time to time to lube up the links.

Headlights:  When travelling with 2 or more people... headlights - USE THEM.  The headlight on my XR was 'on' all the time and I couldn't switch it off.  Amanda put her lights on each day and it worked as a very good tactic especially when looking in my rear-view seeing where she was at behind me (or vise-versa).  Local Vietnamese NEVER use their headlights, so it is an easy way to keep an eye on each other.  On the flip-side, it is annoying at times when people are flashing you with their lights, waving their arms at you, just because your lights are on.  It is as though your bike is on fire they way some of them wave at you... quite funny.  Because no-one uses their lights, you will definitely stand-out when using them.

Visas On Arrival:

For Canadians, (not sure about US citizens), but you need a travel Visa to enter the country.  In my past travels, I would send in my Canadian Passport to a particular embassy within Canada to get a proper Visa set up in advance.  In Canada, it is more expensive to do this through the Vietnamese embassy and it also takes a great deal of time.  I had read via a few sources that you can get a 'Visa upon arrival' through this process.  You basically need a 'letter of acceptance' into the country and you can get this through a variety of websites (this sounds sketchy but it isn't).  We went with this one.  Once you have your acceptance letter ($20/each), you go directly to the Visa on Arrival counter with this letter at either the Hanoi or Saigon airport.  Here, you pay an additional $45/each and they place a sticker/stamp in your passport giving you 30 days in Vietnam.  You can buy either a 'single' entry visa or 'multiple' entry visa.  You'll obviously need the multiple-entry if you plan to go to Cambodia and back etc.


We decided to first do a loop in the northern areas of Vietnam before heading south all the way to HCMC.  Without question, our favourite parts of the trip were in the north and in the magnificent mountains.  It was truly spectacular in the north.  This isn't to say we didn't enjoy the south and parts of this route, but the highlight for us was definitely the north.

If you plan a trip to Vietnam, and only have a set amount of time, I would almost say plan a loop in the north basically Hanoi to Hanoi.  If you have more time, maybe fly into HCMC and work your way north from there along the HCMH dipping into the coast from time to time.  There are a zillion roads to travel, but of course, certain ones stand out as exceptional.

I am always a 'save-the-best-for-last' kinda-guy, therefore ending in the north and into Hanoi might be a bit more like the Vietnam 'icing-on-the-cake' type scenario.

Unfortunately, we didn't have as much time as I was hoping to spend more time on the Ho Chi Minh Highway closer to Laos.  I'll guess we'll have to save that for another trip.

In Closing:

If anything, I hope others can take a few things from this Blog - Ride Report as I did before our trip.  I found ADV Rider an invaluable resource in planning our Vietnam Adventure.  I was in correspondence with Stan via ADV Rider and he went above-and-beyond in helping me plan our trip. I was also lucky enough to read Momi's RR in addition to ComradeArt's and Roly's... you can find all of these at VietHorse's page Vietnam by Motorcycle or by the Bikers << a very useful resource when planning any scoot-trip through 'Nam.  Thanks to all of these folks above, I'm glad that I can now add to this 'resource'.

Please feel free to send me a PM and/or email at anytime with any questions about this adventure.

Thank-you to everyone who followed.

Next Adventure?

We'll have to wait and see...

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Hanoi to Seoul, Korea

Day 28/29 - Monday/Tuesday, December 2/3
Distance -  ~2740 kms = 4 hrs (flight from Hanoi to Seoul, Korea)
Trip Odometer =  3291 kms (Total for Vietnam trip on bikes)
Route - Flight from Hanoi to Seoul on Korean Airlines
Hotel -  No Hotel - stroll around Seoul for the day during a layover
Weather -  Hanoi = beautiful and warm.  Seoul = cold, chilly 'Canada-like-weather'.

Our final day in Hanoi was spent relaxing and shopping around.  Our flight home was at 11:35pm, therefore we had the entire day to stroll around and spend the last of our hard-earned Dong.  

Shoes!  Shoes!  Shoes!  You could pick up a pair of whatever your heart desired and generally you could work them down to about $10-$15/pair.

Above:  'In my shop - you get what you pay for (4 sure)'.... hmmmmmm, oh realllly?!?!  I actually bought my Dad and Sister North Face Jackets from this shop, it was fun negotiating down the prices.

A mango-lassi.... delicious!  We spent more time at the 'City View Cafe' watching Hanoi life-go-by.

City View Cafe (above):  Our go-to-hang-out.

Above:  We noticed bird cages all over the city in front of residences and shops.  The alleys were 'alive' with beautiful bird songs and chirps...

Below:  More birds in cages along sidewalks

Below:  Another video - this time Hanoi traffic by night... shot from the City View Cafe:

As mentioned, we were able to relax for part of the afternoon at the Hanoi Charming 2 Hotel even though we had already checked-out.  They gave us a room to rest and to have showers before our evening flight from Hanoi to Seoul, Korea.

We arrived to Seoul at about 5:30am local time and didn't fly back to the USA (Pacific Northwest) until 6:30pm.  We had the full day to tour around Seoul.  From the airport we took an express train direct from the airport to Seoul Station in the heart of the city.

Seoul Station.  Most shops and businesses were closed upon our early arrival, but we did find this cafe 'Beans & Berries' open for business.  I ordered up a latte, smoothie and a couple of pastries for a grand total of $15.72.  I think this was the point when we missed Vietnam prices...

15,300.00 KRW=15.7212 CAD

Above and Below:  The new and old Seoul Station - train station

Above:  Clothing store for plump-children?  

Namdaemun - officially known as Sungnyemun - or gate of exhaulted ceremonies.  It is one of 8 gates in the Fortress Wall that surrounded the city of Seoul in the Joseon Dynasty.  The gate is located right in the heart of the city between Seoul Station and Seoul City Plaza (with the historic 24 hr Namdaemun market next to the gate)

Above - Gangnam Style Psy!  Korea's most 'recent' famous Pop-Star.  As far as I understand - Gangnam is actually a district in Seoul... I guess the song is based on this area or the 'Style' of the area perhaps.

A couple of Korean scoots.

Above:  My guess is that there isn't much 'Style' in this 'Stylish Bar'.  I don't think this would be an establishment I would want to take my mother to...

Above:  Some shopping around at the Lotte Outlet stores in Seoul - one word:  expensive!

More Seoul Station....

Around lunch - we decided to try out the Food Court in the Lotte Outlet.  It was a very interesting and unique procedure.

First - we decided on the number that we were interested in.  They had numbered sections 1-14 and under each of these numbers, there were another 8-10 odd choices.  For example, you could order a 8-2 or a 5-1 etc.  Luckily, they had english descriptions of the food-plates although they were quite vague as to exactly what you were getting.

We then paid a cashier after giving our numbered choice.  We had printed receipts that had numbers on them, each main number #1-12 would then have a booth where you would pick up your selected and paid for choice.  You knew your choice was ready when you saw the number on your ticket flashing on one of the many flat screens.  As mentioned, it was quite the process and it turned out that the food was very good.

After a good taste of Seoul, we decided to take the train back to the Incheon International Airport.  We headed back to the airport in the early afternoon as we were exhausted with the time change and the rest.

I couldn't believe the Incheon Airport, it was the nicest airport I had ever been to in my years of travel.  Turns out, for 7 years in a row (2005-2012) it was rated the best airport worldwide by Airports Council International.  I can see why it was awarded this for 7 years in a row.  The airport has a golf course, spa, private sleeping rooms, ice skating rink, a casino, indoor gardens, a movie theatre and a Museum of Korean Culture.  It was amazing.

At one point, I noticed a sign that stated 'Relaxation Center' pointing up an escalator.  The sign was beside a 'First Class Lounge' sign and we both thought that they might be the same thing and that we wouldn't be allowed in with our measly regular coach-class tickets.  We headed up to the relaxation center anyway.  We then saw a sign for 'Free Showers' and thought a shower would be a perfect way to warm-up after a chilly morning in Seoul City.

A young man at a desk gave us x2 towels each and gave us separate numbered rooms to have a shower.  The individual rooms were nicely tiled with glassed in showers and rain-shower heads with all the hot water and pressure a tired traveler would want.  Perfect!  

We then made our way deeper into the 'relaxation center' and found some nice lounges to nap on.  I strolled around and also found a bank of 'free' massage chairs which I spent a good hour enjoying. They also offered banks of computers with free internet, Skype headsets and video, and free WiFi throughout the airport as well.  It was a great place to spend a few hours during our afternoon layover.  We were both very impressed.

It was a long flight back to the northern U.S. followed by a 3 hour drive back into British Columbia and finally home sweet home.  We arrived to a good dumping of snow which we were both excited about - you can take a Canadian out of Canada, but you can't take Canada out of these two Canadian Kids, especially when it comes to snow.  

Thanks for following our Vietnam Top-to-Bottom Blog.

It was an excellent adventure that I would highly recommend to anyone.  

I'll include a final Trip Summary and some final thoughts in a separate post.