Hanoi to Saigon – an eye opening adventure

My decision to ride from Hanoi to Saigon was very unplanned. I had been idly toying with the idea, but when I flew to Hanoi I wasn’t really sure what I was planning. I told my landlord in Saigon that I was going for “a couple of days”.

I flew into Hanoi over farmland and a wide sprawling city in contrast to Saigon’s intense and concentrated beauty. I arrived, planning to meet a friend who didn’t show up and wandered around the “Old Quarter”, the tourist district of Hanoi looking for a hotel. I found a reasonable one for $12 a night in a central location. That night I went out for my first beer in Hanoi. I pulled up at a nearby “bia hoi” (the local “freshly brewed” beer) place, and as I sat down with a beer, the owner said something to a young Vietnamese guy sitting nearby and nodded her head in my direction.

The guy wandered over and introduced himself as Hue (like “Hugh”) and asked if he could sit down and chat to me a bit to “practice his English”. It turns out he was an English teacher, running a small teaching establishment out of his house with his brother and some friends. After putting away a few beers I told him I was off to Hai Phong in the morning and he promised that if I was ever in need of anything to give him a call. I thanked him and hopped a $3 bus to Hai Phong the next morning.

Hai Phong is a tough city. It is renowned as being a big mafia town and housed some of the toughest fighters in North Vietnam during the war. They say that in Hai Phong even the dogs walk around in pairs. As I walked down the street, sweating profusely and looking for a hotel, I passed a few young Vietnamese kids going the other way. They said “Hello ! Hello ! Hello !” to me as I passed and I wearily returned it, but as they passed me they turned and yelled “F**k You !” and broke out laughing. It was my first experience of the Hai Phong non-hospitality, but it was mostly in jest. Vietnam is a very safe place and physical violence is virtually unheard of due to the very tough penalties which include the death sentence for all serious violent crime.

I rented a motorbike from a nearby hotel and rode around Hai Phong a bit. It was my first time ever on a fully manual bike and only the third time I had ever ridden a motorbike in my life, having done it for a few days in Malaysia and Laos the previous year. I called my mother and told her I was planning to go and buy a motorbike and ride back to Saigon. I come from a big motorbiking family. My parents met because they both rode bikes and my dad had run a motorbike shop. She still rides a Harley even into her 60’s, but I was the white sheep of the family and I had no idea what I was doing. She told me “Please don’t. You’ll die. What if you break down ?” I didn’t care. I was determined, if a little disorganised.

I called Hue and asked him if he could help me buy a bike in Hanoi and he said he’d love to, so I hopped a bus back to Hanoi and met up with him and he took me to a street of “Cam Do” (pawnshops) near him that was full of used bikes. I had a budget of $600 for my entire trip back to Saigon. I spent $450 on a nice looking black Yamaha Nuovo. It was a decent looking bike but I later discovered it was in poor condition. Hue asked me if I would come back to his house and meet “the family” and have dinner with them. When I got there it wasn’t quite what I expected.

I arrived and sat down in the entrance which was setup like a reception and stared fascinated at a framed picture of Steve Jobs. Hue’s little brother Doan came out and introduced himself. He saw me looking at the picture and said “Do you know Steve Jobs ? He is our hero. We all think he is the most successful businessman who ever lived. No one understands promotion like Steve Jobs does. We have his picture here to remind us of the example he sets that we all wish to follow. We have an ecommerce farm here you know ? We’d love to hear your thoughts”. I was then thrown into a room where some students were preparing for their English exams and I ran through some practice questions with a young university girl.

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I was dragged downstairs to a lavish home made Vietnamese dinner made by the oldest member of the house, affectionately known as “Big Momma” because he was always bossing them around and making sure they ate properly. We enthusiastically discussed ecommerce, teaching, culture and what Vietnam needed to do to become the economic powerhouse it desperately wanted to be.

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Reluctant to come at first, I was even more reluctant to leave, but several days had passed and it was time to go. Hue rode with me to the city limits and wished me the best of luck and I promised to stay in contact. I looked up Google Maps and jumped onto a surprisingly empty freeway. I started to feel a bit nervous about the fact that I was the only motorbike on a very empty freeway, and I soon found out why when some guy parked on the side of the road desperately started waving his arms at me. I pulled over to see what he wanted and he pointed up the road yelling “Police ! Police ! No motorbike !” I’d already guessed this. Some of the new freeways in Vietnam are for cars and trucks only and bikes are forbidden on them.

He guided me down an on-ramp (the wrong way) and off onto a side road and pointed the direction I should go and then held out his hand for some money. I was so short on money at that point that I was reluctant, but I fished out a dollar in Vietnamese Dong and handed it to him. He slapped me on the back and thanked me and I continued on my way.

The old road was pretty poor. It probably wasn’t the best route to take but I really didn’t care where I was headed. I had no real plan except to ride until it was dark and then find a hotel. So I rode through the countryside south of Hanoi. I saw the typical fascinating things of people carrying strange goods on the back of motorbikes, like goldfish or chickens. I took a very roundabout route and it was quite dark when I made it into Phu Ly and pulled into the first hotel I could find. I paid $15 for the night which was more than I wanted to pay, but I had little choice. I got a good night’s sleep and vowed to do a better job the next day.

[UNSET]

Unfortunately I didn’t. I took the wrong route out of town and ended up back-tracking almost all the way back to Hanoi by accident. I rode into the small country town of Hoa Binh at lunch time and pulled into a cafe for a cold drink and a snack. The staff were very interested in chatting to me and the young girl who spoke no English motioned for me to sit and wait.

Her sister arrived shortly after and introduced herself as Hue although it was written and pronounced differently (like “who-way”) to my friend in Hanoi. She spoke a little English and we chatted for a while. She sang me a beautiful song in Vietnamese and then demanded I sing one in return from my country. I came up blank so I sang Advance Australia Fair for her. She insisted I stay for dinner with her family but I told her I had wasted too much time already on my trip and I had to get home before my money ran out. She let me go and I got back on my trusty steed and headed off.

It was only about 10km out of town that my back tyre got a puncture and went flat. It was the first of many problems to come but fortunately I pulled up right beside a “Xe may”, a mechanic. I wheeled the bike in and the guy nodded and motioned to me to sit down. For $5 he promised to fix it, but it would take a while because it was a rear tyre. An old woman handed me a large bamboo pipe packed with some harsh country tobacco. I politely accepted and took a large toke and they all chuckled as I coughed like crazy. I don’t smoke cigarettes so it gave me an incredible head-spin.

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About an hour later I was on the road again. Unfortunately I was only ten minutes into my ride when my back tyre blew out again. I had to push my bike for about ten minutes this time before finding another mechanic. He took the tyre off and pointed out without words that it had split wide open. It was faulty. I sighed and nodded. He put another one back on and handed me the broken one. I took it and turned around and rode back to the first mechanic. I rode in and held the split tyre out to him with a frown. He just nodded and pulled out his cash and gave me my money back apart from a dollar for his labour. I was pretty happy that I’d actually managed to get a refund but it was getting dark and I figured today was a write-off so I texted Hue and said I was coming back into Hoa Binh.

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I arrived at her cafe again and her and her sister were thrilled to see me. They promised me we would be having dinner with her family. Her mother was inside cooking furiously and came out and patted my big stomach with a grin and a “troi oi” (Oh my god), apparently joking that she was going to have to make extra food to feed me.

Her father arrived shortly and I was forced to consume quite a few beers. Hue was the only one who actually spoke English but we shared a few different language terms. I already knew the famous Vietnamese drinking toast of “Mot Hai Ba Yo !” (one, two, three, drink !) and I taught them “Cheers” in English and “Kumpai” in Japanese and then her father said “China… Gambei”. That one means “bottoms up”. I obliged him.

Hue said to leave my motorbike there and we would go to the park to meet her cousins. We went to a lovely outdoor park at dusk where children were flying kites and sat down with her beautiful cousins. They spoke a little English and I couldn’t help but ask if they were really Vietnamese. One laughed and said “No. We are half Taiwanese. Our mother is from Taiwan”. Ahhh. This explains why Hue’s father speaks some Chinese, I thought.

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We ate some snacks of dried squid, had a couple of drinks and then Hue said she would find me an inexpensive hotel. I was very grateful for this because I’d covered very little ground and I had no idea how I would make it back to Saigon on so little money. She said it was run by some family, although I know that in Asia, “family” can mean second cousins, cousins of uncles or something even more distant. It was $5 and I slept well and was grateful for the cheap price.

I took off early the next morning determined to get some miles under my belt. I headed East to get onto the A1, the coastal road that runs down the length of the country. I went through Vinh, stopping for a luxurious but inexpensive meal of kimchi at a Korean restaurant and then south to Dong Hoi over the next couple of days before I turned back West to the only destination that was a must visit on my trip.

When I told the local Vietnamese people that I wanted to visit Khe Sanh they always asked “Why ?” and I would have to explain that in Australia, Khe Sanh was the name of our most famous rock song and more people knew of that Vietnamese city than any other. I came to be on my way to Khe Sanh very late at night. I had gotten incredibly sunburnt over the last few days and I looked like a lobster so I decided to do as many miles at night as possible.

Riding along a back country road at midnight I was following the only truck I’d seen. I rode close enough behind that I could see his tail lights as he hit every bump in the road and I would grit my teeth and hold the handlebars tight knowing that I would hit it a second later. It was on one of these little bumps that my bike suddenly died. I tried starting it up several times but it would have no part of it. I sighed and checked my map, thankful that even here in the middle of nowhere that I could still get mobile signal. The nearest town was 15 km away. Resigned to my fate I decided to push the bike.

About 30 minutes in, the first bike came past. It was a young boy and his little sister. They pulled over amazed to find me out here in the middle of nowhere. They spoke no English and the boy took the bike and tried starting it several times to no avail. He motioned to him and his sister and then me and then made the motion of a roof over his head and pointed off down the road and then motioned for me to follow. They were taking me back to their house.

Thankfully it wasn’t far away and we pushed the bike down a small lane as his sister rode ahead. When we arrived his house was lit up and his family had already been told I was coming. The entire extended family came out to greet me, gibbering away quickly. I spoke a little Vietnamese by this point having spent a year in Vietnam, but there was no way I could keep up to this regional family.

They told me go to sleep and I shared a large wooden bed frame with no mattress with the young son. As tired as I was, it took me ages to get to sleep but I was dreaming deeply when the sun finally came up and I was roused by the family to come and eat a breakfast of plain rice and a tiny bit of fish. When they offered me some pork I tried to refuse. I understood that for a family like this with four generations living in the same house, meat was a special treat that they likely didn’t eat every day. But they insisted, so I savoured it and thanked them profusely.

The boy suggested without words that I brush my teeth but I shrugged and indicated I didn’t have a toothbrush. His mother pointed off down the road and the boy jumped on his motorbike and ran off and brought me back a new toothbrush. I thanked them again and then brushed my teeth in a filthy barrel of green water. We sat down and “talked” for a bit. They had seen the photo of my daughter on my phone screen and the whole family had shown it around to many cries of “dep qua !” (so cute !) and then the mother enumerated her children. But I noticed not all were present, particularly two of the babies she mentioned. I pointed around at the children present and held up my fingers with a confused look. Her son shook his head sadly as the mother looked away into the distance. He pointed to the barrel of water I had just brushed my teeth in. I understood. Their youngest children had died due to disease and dirty drinking water. It was the first time I really had my eyes opened to the vital importance of clean drinking water to impoverished people.

I was taken to a nearby mechanic who stripped the carburettor on my bike and then put it back together only to have it still fail to start. He began removing small hoses as I sat quietly watching and eventually after blowing through one small hose he put it back on and the bike roared back into life and everyone cheered. I guess a fuel line had become blocked. The guy charged me about $7 for the repair and we said goodbye to the family as the boy took me out to the highway to see me off.

We went to a cafe to have something to eat and a couple of beers. I showed him how to use Google Translate on my phone to input the complicated and massive Vietnamese alphabet (which contains over 90 letters) and to my surprise I learned he was 21. He told me it was his dream to work in Australia and I asked him him why. He replied with a sentence that translated with eerie accuracy. It was “So I can break my family out of the circle of poverty”. I related that it was very difficult to work in Australia but if he wanted to, he should learn English first. I suggested he move to Hanoi and visit the sort of “bia hoi” places where I had met Hue. Many of my Vietnamese friends learned English this way, by chatting to foreigners at street bars. I shook his hand and he wished me good luck on my trip and I left with a lot more to think about than I had arrived with.

It’s easy to see poverty around you, but when you see it up close and you meet families who have lost children through nothing more than unclean drinking water you wonder why it’s something that can’t be fixed. In the last few years I’ve given money with increasing regularity to charities such as Water For Life and others that aim to bring clean drinking water to impoverished countries. Vietnam is not so impoverished. It’s a tiny up and coming economic tiger, but when you visit places like this and meet these people and see that there are children who are dying due to lack of clean water you understand that it’s not such a big and unsolvable issue. It’s something any of us can do something about and I urge everyone to donate money to these charities.

I thought about this nameless boy and his family all the way to Khe Sanh, determined that I was going to help out in some way. But as I neared Khe Sanh I got more and more excited about being in the one place in Vietnam that every bar-goer in Australia was familiar with. I listened to a little Cold Chisel on my phone as I rested beside the road and I stopped to take a photo of myself beside one of the road signs just at the entrance to Khe Sanh and then rode into town.

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Khe Sanh is a sleepy little country town. I can understand why locals are confused why anyone would visit. There’s not much there. But the war memorial is quite spectacular. It’s in a bit of disrepair though. If there wasn’t a small town around it you’d almost think it was abandoned until you saw the fresh incense and flowers that were left there regularly. I stopped and took photos of the memorials, the plaques full of names and the pictures of the young deceased war heroes. I reflected on how recent the war was and how little of it you saw around you. To the locals it was like it happened a hundred years ago. I wanted to visit the old airstrip but I had to get going.

When I set off on the long trip down the mountain, the Ho Chi Minh Trail I was full of enthusiasm. I passed a sign in English, Vietnamese and Laotian informing me that it was frontier country and it certainly felt like it. I felt I’d had an eye opening experience in the last few days. I’d seen the real Vietnam and it had affected me. But as I rode down the beginnings of that long mountain trail I was full of adventurous spirit. I overtook a large dump truck as though I was playing a mountainous racing game and the guy in the passenger’s seat nearly fell out of the truck waving so enthusiastically. I guess it’s sort of rare to see a white guy riding alone down the Ho Chi Minh trail alone. Every person I saw grinned and waved at me.

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I pulled up in a small town to get fuel and the guy made sure I filled up to maximum. He warned me with his hands that fuel was going to be scarce up ahead. I dropped into a small town and pulled up for some Pho, the iconic Vietnamese noodle soup. A police officer pulled up outside and parked his bike and approached me. He asked in English “Why you taking photos ? Cannot take photos here”. I told him I was a journalist and he asked to see my camera. I was worried he intended to take my memory card but really he just wanted to show off his own camera. Turns out it was his job to take photographs of the mountain communities too and he just wanted to exchange notes and talk about cameras. He envied my D90 and I told him that his D3100 was a very good camera as well. He wished me good luck and said nothing more about my photos, getting back on his bike and waving to me with a pearly grin.

I continued on my way and attempted to cross back to the Eastern side of Vietnam to get back on the highway. I wanted to stop in Da Nang, having read many Biggles novels as a child that talked about it but again in the middle of the night I took a poor road full of pot holes and I turned back and headed south a bit further. Google Maps told me that I could take this long winding road back east to Da Nang and I took off down it. Thankfully it was smooth but it was disturbingly empty. After riding for nearly four hours without seeing anyone but a couple of road crews repairing the road I was getting very nervous about petrol as I was down to less than a quarter of a tank. I pulled into a small town that had some road signs, none of which were to towns I recognised.

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This was the first time in my trip that I had no mobile reception. I had no Google to guide me anymore and the towns here had no “khach sanh” (hotels). I decided to sleep somewhere and look around in the daylight and I pulled into what looked like an empty house but a rowdy guard dog chased me out. I rode up and down through the sleepy town at about 2am until I heard some noise and saw some lights down in a side street. I rode down and saw there was some party going on. At that moment I saw a guy with an old mechanical hand-pump outside a tin shed. I knew he sold petrol and I rode right up to him and his wife sitting beside the pump and said in my best Vietnamese “Xang ? Sau muoi nhinh ?” (Petrol ? 60,000 ?) He stared at me with surprise and repeated it back to me and let out a laugh that let me see his toothless gums and he nodded enthusiastically and repeated it several times with a chuckle as he filled up my tank.

I took off with $3 worth of petrol in my tank, but my energy was flagging. Just out of town I stopped on a hill that had a small shrine on it and I parked my bike beside it and curled up on the tiles beside the shrine and covered my body in my spare clothes to keep the mosquitoes off me and I slept in the warm Vietnamese night air until the sun came up.

[UNSET]-2

The next morning I rode through the most amazing little communities. I knew from their clothes that I had not made it to the East. These were mountain folk with brightly coloured clothes that I knew were associated with the H’mong people.

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They were carrying baskets on their heads as they walked in single file along the roadside with little children trailing behind carrying sticks and drawing lines in the dirt. It was a beautiful scene and felt like the most remote place on Earth.

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When I got mobile signal I realised I had somehow ended up back in the mountains at the very east of Vietanm. I’m not sure if I even crossed a border in the middle of the night, so close I was to the Laotian border that I had been turned back from the year before while trying to cross into Vietnam. But with fuel in my tank and food in my stomach and even battery in my phone (the one thing I never failed to be prepared for, carrying multiple spare batteries and various chargers including hand and solar chargers) I felt there was nothing that could stop me. I rode down beautiful mountain passes and into valleys that took my breath away. I was so far off the beaten track that I imagined the guy the previous night telling the story for years to come of how the white guy rode into town well after midnight to ask for petrol in Vietnamese.

I finally made it to Da Nang and I stayed for two nights, not even leaving my room, just sleeping and charging my phone batteries. I’d had my tablet stolen from my room in Hanoi, an unfortunate side effect of staying in a less reputable hotel. The best places to stay are the family-run establishments, but sometimes you take a risk. At least I still had my papers and my money. Heading off from Da Nang I again rode at night. One of the scariest moments of my trip was riding through a huge, long, and completely un-lit tunnel in the middle of nowhere. I imagined that a lynch mob would be waiting for me at the other end, or something even worse. I was so far from anywhere and it was so dark and I was tired and it was about 3am. I was quite terrified, but I got through the tunnel and back out into the open night air with no problems.

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On the A1 late at night with no one around I decided to open up my little 125cc motorbike (I called it my “little ninja” because it sorta looked like a small version of a ninja) and see what it could do. I got it up to 115km/h before I chickened out and slowed down, the narrow tyres being too thin to maintain that sort of speed safely. I got another flat tyre at around 6am the following morning while coming into some seaside town. But as per usual I only had to push the bike for about 20 minutes before I passed a house advertising that they did mechanical work outside. I was at the point where I always took note of Xe May shops and houses, so even a small sign or a tyre on the fence was enough of a sign to let me know that someone inside could fix my bike. An old guy came out and waved to me and took me next door where a guy replaced my tyre. He pointed out that my back wheel was very wobbly and he made a makeshift attempt at fixing it but warned with just his hands it was not a good repair and I would have to get it fixed later, which I did in some back alley for a couple of dollars by a guy rather too vigorous with a hammer.

I rode south of Da Nang to a border checkpoint. I had seen almost no police the entire trip other than the one guy in the highlands, so I was very nervous when I saw the cream-suited traffic patrol guy pulling over trucks to check their license. I knew my international license was worthless here and I had also been warned that my bike was illegal since it had no mirrors. I had nothing but my passport and my bike registration. I knew I could get out of anything minor by paying a small fee, but money was short and I was in the middle of nowhere. I cruised through the checkpoint as slowly and inconspicuously as possible but about 20 meters past the provincial borderline I heard the officer yell out “HOI !” and my heart sank. I turned back to look at him, but to my surprise he was grinning like crazy and giving me a huge wave and a thumbs up. I waved back with a relieved smile and kept on my way, grateful for that beautiful Vietnamese hospitality which respects those brave enough to travel alone through the countryside.

Unfortunately on the previous night I had dropped my phone somewhere. I had it in my top pocket because I had made enough detours on this trip and I wanted to get home and I guess it jumped out at some point. I had ridden back up and down the road in the middle of the night looking for it, and some police officer who saw me was even generous enough to offer to help look for it, but we never found it. So from here on in I was on my own, but I was on the A1 and almost back into the part of Vietnam I knew well. However I had not packed spare contact lens fluid and I knew from experience that it was a hard thing to ask for because when you pulled into a pharmacy and asked for eye drops they always assumed you needed medication for an infection and getting saline was a tough task.

In Vinh I’d had had to translate to buy sunscreen, but without any phone I was on my own. I found a pharmacy in a small town and stood there in the front of the woman trying to think how to approach the situation and not have her hand me eye drops. I waited in silence for a while realising I had to think outside the box. I motioned for a pen and paper and then, knowing that a pharmacist must know the language of science I wrote down something odd on the paper and pushed it across the table. The woman gave me a curious smile as she read it and brought me exactly what I wanted. What did I write ? “NaCl + H2O”. Yup. Science saved my butt when language couldn’t. I was very proud of that moment and I would have hugged my high school science teacher if I could. Who says you never use the periodic table in real life ? I just did !

I took off, riding all day until sunset hoping to stop in Nha Trang, when the road suddenly came up alongside the ocean just as the sun was setting and I could see the ocean through the trees I glanced into a small park with tables beside the beach. I pulled in for a rest and a woman sold me a couple of hot beers for 50 cents each and I sat down on the beach to take photos and enjoy the view as I watched some Vietnamese kids build a big bonfire. I wish I still had the photos, but somehow they got lost.

I rode into Nha Trang in darkness, but fortunately it was the northernmost city I had previously visited so it felt almost like I was home and I found a hotel with ease for a decent price and got another good night’s sleep. The next morning I headed off, stopping to get fuel. One of the guys looked at my number plate, the telltale two digits at the start telling him it was from Hanoi. He asked in Vietnamese where I came from and without fully understanding what he’d said I just pointed north and said “Hanoi” and then pointed south and said “Saigon” and his eyes opened and he laughed and talked loudly to the guy filling my tank for a while and then slapped me on the back and said “Hanoi .. Saigon ! You number one !” I grinned and thanked him and took off.

I tried to avoid adventure for the last part of my trip. I’d had some amazing experiences on the way but I was worn out and sunburnt and covered in dirt from head to foot. I stopped into a small cafe on the outskirts of Saigon for some noodles and prepared to brave the crazy Saigon traffic for the last bit of the trip. I had never been so happy to see the outskirts of Saigon in my life.

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I pulled into my house late and parked my bike in front of my wide-eyed landlord who said “I worry so much you die ! Where you go for so long ? Where you buy the motorbike ?” I just pointed at the number plate and said “In Hanoi. I rode all the way home. Almost 2,500 kilometres. I go through the countryside so much, north south, east, west. Many places. I’m sorry. I need to go sleep now”.

And that’s how I got from Hanoi to Saigon on a motorbike, riding from North to South, East to West and back again so many times. Getting lost, being saved and having the most eye-opening experience you could have. And did I die ? Nope. The only accident I had was on some steep back country road when I tried to pull up too quickly on a dirt-covered road to take photos and my tyre slipped out and I hit the dirt and grazed my knee. But apart from a sunburn that made me look darker than a girl from Sa Pa, I was in once piece and boy did I have a story to tell.

It was shortly after that that I went back to my pastime of teaching English for free to some local Saigon friends and my landlord asked if I could do her a favour in return for having helped me out with some stuff before. She wanted me to teach the young girl who lived downstairs and worked at the famous Benh Thanh markets because she was a family friend. Only a few short weeks later we got engaged and I began a whole new chapter in my adventure as an Australian living in Vietnam. A land where everything is illegal but anything is possible.

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One Response to Hanoi to Saigon – an eye opening adventure

  1. Leon says:

    So after all, a journey of a little over 30 hours by train, the one I’ll take in a few days from Saigon to Hanoi, is nothing compared to what it might take on a motorbike! Thanks for the compelling story. Maybe I’ll do it some days on a bicycle. At least it makes me want to ;)

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