This post isn’t so much about us motorbiking, but considering it was a leg of our motorbiking journey I figured it was only fair to include it in the Motorbiking segment. We spent 5 awesome nights in Phong Nha, eating delicious farm to table (literally) chicken and riding around the Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park, but after that it was time to move on and continue our trip north. Our next stop was Ninh Binh, which is about 500km north of Phong Nha and unfortunately there’s not really much going on in between those two stops.
To be honest we didn’t feel like spending 500km riding with nothing in between. We did that on a smaller scale between Nha Trang and Hoi An, and while it wasn’t terrible it wasn’t exactly enjoyable either. 500km is 3 good days of driving and we figured we would rather spend those 3 days somewhere where we could actually go out and enjoy ourselves, so we did what many people do at some point on their road trip: we decided to take the bus.
For those of you wondering: yes you can put your motorbike underneath the bus. It sounds strange, but it does happen. I guess anything is possible (Kevin Garnett voice) in Vietnam for the right price. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with this idea, mostly because I think the bus drivers are crazy in Vietnam but also because we had a bad experience when Breada took her bike from Da Lat to Nha Trang. They took the rack off and broke our spare key in half and didn’t fix either of them. Bastards.
You’re probably wondering now why if I hate the bus so much would we choose the bus over the train? The reason is the bus will pick us up across the street from our hostel in Phong Nha ( Easy Tiger , great hostel! ) whereas the train is 40km south of Phong Nha and since you can’t book a bike online we would have to bring our bikes hours early and sit around waiting at the station for our train to arrive. So rather than do all that the bus just seemed simpler.
The morning we planned on leaving we walked across the street to the bus company to book our tickets and was told they no longer allow bikes on busses in Vietnam anymore. Considering Breada had done it less than two weeks before we argued for a little bit, but the woman even pointed out that they had crossed out the prices for bikes on their price list. She said it was a sweeping declaration by the police across the country and it would no longer be allowed due to safety.
We walked back to the hostel to regroup and figure out our next move and I asked a couple of the staff about this new rule. One didn’t even know about it yet, and the other said it was just implemented a day or two before.. what luck. Apparently there have been a number of fires on busses due to the bikes and even a report of one bus exploding. The staff member himself said he had been on a bus that caught fire due to a bike on there so he wasn’t exactly bummed about this new rule. When you’re loading a bike onto the bus the driver or one of the staff is supposed to drain the gasoline out so there’s nothing flammable, but I imagine some of them get lazy and left it in, which will leak out and potentially cause a fire or explosion. It only takes a few lazy people to ruin it for the rest of us.
We decided we had no other options but to take the train, which is fine and what I wanted to do all along but I wasn’t looking forward to sitting at a train station half the day waiting around. We got there around 6pm and our train didn’t leave till 1am… 7 hours at a train station with nothing going on nearby. It was torture. It was a necessary evil though because we had to get there early enough to ensure there would be space for our bikes and we didn’t want to ride in the dark in an unfamiliar area, so we were left with no other options but to hang around and wait.
When we got there we had to book our bike tickets first before our beds on the sleeper train. The office dealing with cargo shipments is set in the back of the train station and littered with random boxes and wooden crates containing motorbikes. We sit down and the lady, who speaks very little English, takes out a calculator and punches in a price: 800,000. That’s what she wanted for one bike, approximately $36. We tell her no no no that’s way too high and we came back with 400,000. We ended up settling on 500,000 per bike, which I still think was too high, but we didn’t have a whole lot of bargaining power so we took it. It’s amazing that even at a government run train station I can haggle for a ticket. Gotta love Vietnam.
The next 6 hours or so were some of the most boring on the entire trip. There’s only so much you can do in a small and crowded train station in the middle of nowhere. I did manage to get some writing done in my travel journal, which was nice because i neglect that almost as much as I do this blog. The last thing I want to do sometimes is write in the journal, especially since my handwriting is chicken scratch at best and I end up with a mean hand cramp after. I was posted up at a work desk for one of the employees who didn’t mind me sitting there since she was making her rounds around the station most of the time. The only problem was every so often someone would come up to me and start speaking Vietnamese since they thought I was the employee who normally occupies the desk. Needless to say I wasn’t able to answer any of their questions.
As the night wore on and our train started to get closer the station began to get a little less crowded, to the point where there was only a dozen or so people left. We ended up getting to talking to a brother and sister from Atlanta, but had been staying with family in Bangladesh for the summer and were traveling for the next couple weeks. It was nice having someone to talk so for the last hour or so since nobody else in the station spoke English. The brother was telling me about how he lost his GoPro inside of one of the caves in Phong Nha. One of the staff at the hostel warned us about this exact spot and said to his knowledge there were over 50 GoPros lost there. The guy ended up paying a local 800,000 VND (~$40) to dive into the muddy water and fetch it out for him. Again, it’s amazing what a little bit of money will get you here.
When the train finally arrived we realized that all four of us were in the same cabin. I imagine the woman selling the tickets probably did this on purpose and figured it was easier to just throw all the foreigners in one cabin rather than spread them out throughout the train. Works for me! I’d rather have someone to chat it up with for a little bit before passing out.
Even though the berth on the train was hard as a rock and a few times I thought the train was off the tracks, I slept pretty decent. I guess sitting around for half the day at a train station really wears you down. I woke up the next morning to an employee opening the door telling us we would be arriving in Ninh Binh in about 5 minutes. I quickly threw my clothes back on, rolled up my cocoon liner, and got ready to jump off the train.
We left our cabin with our roomies still passed out since they were going straight to Hanoi, and made our way to one of the doors. We get there and the guy working near the door tells us to go to the other end of the compartment. We then have to walk past the cabins in this wicked narrow hall and when we get to the other end the guy on that side tells us to go back to the other side. Now i’m getting pissed. I’m half asleep dragging ass and I got two employees screwing with us. We had to walk again down the narrow corridor and back to where we went the first time. The guy again tried telling us to go to the other end and we told him no the other guy told us to come here and we’re not moving. After a minute or so he just grunted and unlocked the padlock affixed to the door so he could open it. I swear if opening that lock was the only reason he didn’t want us leaving out of that door I would have screamed, but I was still half asleep and didn’t have the energy. The train pulled up to Ninh Binh station, which was surprisingly really nice and modern, and we hopped off.
It took me a few minutes but I finally found the cargo office where our bikes would be waiting for us. I handed the woman our receipts and then she asked for another 40k VND ( ~$2.00) I asked what for and she broke out handy-dandy Google Translate to inform me of the “uncrating fee” that nobody ever mentioned in Dong Hoi. Oh well, could be worse, but I hate hidden fees no matter how small they may be. We paid the woman and she grabbed a hammer and starting breaking apart the crates our bikes were in. After a few minutes I began to help her when I realized if I didn’t we might be here a while. After about 20 minutes we got both bikes out of the crates and we were on our way! Luckily our hostel was right down the street from the train station, which was especially good for Breada since one of her mirrors had broken just before the train ride and was dangling off the handlebar.
And that’s our train journey! Unfortunately we didn’t exactly love Ninh Binh. It was similar to Phong Nha, but I think after visiting there everything outdoorsy would be a disappointment. Maybe we would have enjoyed Ninh Binh more if we started from the north and went to Phong Nha after but who knows. It could also be because Breada was violently ill with a 24 hour bug while we were there so it really put a damper on our time there. I’d say any and all of those played a factor.
We’re wrapping up the Motorbiking segment pretty soon so look out for the last couple posts this week! We still have one more leg to go and finally our experience selling the bikes, which is proving to be a little more difficult than anticipated. Stay tuned!
Don’t Forgot : questions and comments are always appreciated!