It all started, as many of our adventures have, with a glass of wine and a pizza on a cold Melbourne evening. We had a few weeks to kill after the Sofia Saly School build project in Cambodia, we were going to be in the area, and Louis had always wanted to tick this one adventure off his bucket list. “Let’s buy motorbikes and ride from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi!” he exclaimed with all too much enthusiasm. That was about as much convincing as I needed, so we locked it in. We’d spend 4 weeks from South to North and see the real Vietnam whilst having the adventure of a lifetime. How hard could it be?
We started our journey across the Cambodia-Vietnam border in the most fitting way we could, on a long boat down the mighty Mekong River. After a few days exploring the Mekong Delta region we headed north to the ex capital of South Vietnam, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Having worked ourselves to the bone for the last few months in Cambodia, we felt we deserved a little indulgence so we headed straight to the main backpacker street and straight for the pub. Saigon is a bustling metropolis, a mix of old meets new and east meets west and a far cry from what my preconceived ideas of what a communist country would look like. The thing that struck me the most however, was the sheer number of motorbikes on the roads. There are over 30 MILLION bikes riding the streets of Saigon every single day and the road rules seemed to me as though they were non-existent. My only thought was “how the hell am I going to make it out of this city in one piece?!”
After a few too many days in the pubs of Saigon, we decided it was time to look for bikes and leave, and as you’d expect, within 24 hours we were the proud new owners of a couple of old Honda’s. Louis opted for the Honda Win, one of the most commonly used bikes for this journey given their reliability and ease of finding parts. I decided to go for something a little different, and chose a Honda 67. As the name suggests the bike is indeed 47 years old, and is considered the work horse of Vietnam. The locals absolutely love these bikes. Every time we stopped I’d have a handful of people run over to admire it and I received no shortage of amused looks from people when I told them I’d be riding it 3200kms to Hanoi.
After a few hours of practice, we decided it was time to hit the road. The first two days riding provided some of the most nerve racking moments I’ve ever had. The amount of concentration it took, constantly being on the look out for busses, trucks, buffalo and all manner of other obstacles was absolutely exhausting. After two days of riding we reached the mountain town of Da Lat. What we saw when riding into the main street was so unexpected that we both had to pull over and pinch ourselves. THIS is in South East Asia?! The scene before us looked far more like it belonged in the Swiss Alps than Vietnam, and the temperature matched the views. Cool, crisp air with soaring mountains and freshwater lakes all around us, this peaceful little town was once a play ground for the rich and famous during the French colonial days. After calling two friends we’d met in Saigon and asking directions, we set off in search of our Hostel.
Happy Hostel is run by a local guy named Binh, and is far and away one of my favourite hostels in the world. That afternoon we met up with Frank and Mercedes, and Binh’s dad offered to take us fishing. So we grabbed some cold beers, jumped on our bikes and off we went. Sitting by the ice cold water of this massive, peaceful lake was a real gift. After a few hours with no luck we headed back to the hostel and walked into town for dinner. Walking down the main street we hear a shout of “Drew!” from behind us. We turned in unison only to see Lars and Marie, a Danish couple we’d met in Saigon. After a brief chat it was agreed that they would join us for a meal and drinks, and make their way to Happy Hostel to get a room as well.
The next day Frank and Mercedes kept heading north, but not without giving us some tips of the “Must Do’s” in Da Lat. At the top of that list was Canyoning. From what we’d heard, essentially you spend the entire day trekking through the jungle, abseiling down waterfalls and jumping off cliff’s into the rivers below. What a day it was. Along with Lars, Marie and our new friend Minh Chau, also from Denmark, we booked in and off we went. We started off small with an 18 meter abseil down a cliff, followed by a 22 meter face, and then onto the big one. 28 meters high, or the equivalent of a 10 story building, down a raging waterfall. I’m not talking about a trickle here, this thing was a fast flowing, massive waterfall. After watching a few of the others make it to the bottom without too much trouble, we watched as the girl directly before us slipped and went face first down the initial drop of 5 meters. Hmm, perhaps it’s not as easy as we’d hoped. After no less than 20 minutes of crying, screaming and sheer terror, she finally made it to the river and was greeted with a huge applause. “Okay boys, you’re up” says the guide, eyeballing Louis and I. Now I’m not going to pretend that my heart wasn’t jumping out of my mouth at this stage, because, to be perfectly honest I was terrified. We were both given the “hard run” on the right hand side of the falls just to add to the amusement of our guides. After a few deep breaths Louis and I set off down the falls. What a rush! About 7 metres before the surface of the river we both noticed that we’d run out of rope. After exchanging some bewildered looks and historical laughter, all whilst being pounded in the face with seemingly tons of water, we heard the shouts of “Drop! Drop! Drop!” from below. Without much choice in the matter we let go and fell – without a hint of gracefulness – into the rapidly flowing river below. Just when we thought the day was over, we were told there was one last obstacle to get over… The Washing Machine.
Upon reaching the cliff face, the guide gave us only one piece of advice. “Don’t look Down. Look at me. DO NOT look down“… Now, I’m no expert on human behaviour, but I can say that when someone says “don’t look down” it takes every piece of discipline you possess to heed that advice. And clearly Louis and I do not possess enough, because the first thing we both did when leaning back over the edge was turn our heads towards the bottom. This time I wasn’t so much scared as utterly confused. All I could see was about 5 meters of rock face, followed by two 20 meter waterfalls converging into one, with nothing to abseil against. Regardless, we pushed on down the face and then instinct took over. The theory was we could just lower ourselves slowly down the line in a free fall type manoeuvre. Unfortunately I didn’t consider the fact that this free fall would take place in a spot where two waterfalls from opposing directions met and became one… Spinning out of control, using all of my strength to lower myself down and being pounded by water from every direction, I again find that I have only enough rope to carry me two thirds of the way down… “To hell with it” I think, “what’s the worst that could happen?”… Letting go and falling into the cave below, the force of the water pushes me under, into a rock tunnel. I don’t know which way is up and smash my elbow against the wall amid the confusion. Still underwater (for what seems like far too long) I get the distinct feeling that something isn’t right, when all of a sudden I’m shot with force out of the river and up towards the bank. What a ride!
After a few more hours of jumping off 13 meter cliffs, and sliding down natural waterfalls all 5 of us had survived and pushed ourselves to the limit. Unfortunately Marie had an accident which left her with a dislocated wrist, but all in all, it was a fantastic day. I made a few commitments to myself before we left Australia, one being to do something that scares me at every chance I get. So far I have pushed myself in many ways, and feel like I am definitely growing from it. The only way to grow is to force yourself outside of your comfort zone, and I’m glad to say we are both reaping the rewards from living this way each day. Vietnam went on to provide many more such moments, and by the end of the trip we truly felt we had accomplished something very special. Stay tuned for more stories on our adventures through this beautiful country!