Vietnam by planes, trains, automobiles… and then some

CNN  — 

If a Harley Davidson is said to throb to the rhythm of the human heartbeat, then the guttural barking of a classic Russian Ural motorbike is probably what a coronary feels like.

The analogy came to mind as I rattled through the clogged arteries of Hanoi’s Old Quarter in the sidecar of a 50-year-old Iron Curtain motorbike.

Perhaps it’s something to do with the shape of Vietnam – a sinuous, serpentine country, snaking 1,000 miles down the eastern seaboard of Indochina – that makes imaginative transportation such a fascination in the country.

I’d started my journey in an infinitely more leisurely style – with a seaplane flight to mystical Halong Bay and a few days exploring that intriguing archipelago in a Vietnamese junk.

Now I was back in Hanoi and quickly falling in love with the bustling Old Town.

Guided jeep tours visit the tangled alleys and lakeside roads of Old Hanoi.

Local guide Cuong Phung – who’d led the likes of Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman on motorbike tours of Vietnam – had spent the morning showing me his enchanting city from the 360-degree vantage point of an open-top American military Jeep.

Now he was revving his old Ural motorbike down towards Hanoi’s railway station (still signposted Ga Hà Nội from the French) with my kitbag stuffed between my knees in the well of the sidecar.

I had more than 1,000 miles to travel from the traditional northern capital down to the colorful metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City and had been looking forward to the first leg of a 14-hour rail trip down to Hoi An on the legendary Reunification Express.

It’s one of the world’s most evocative rail journeys, but accommodation is basic and notorious shared washrooms tend to dissuade all but the most dedicated rail fans from making this trip.

I spent a night swaying in the upper bunk and was pleased when the rising sun brought with it a view of the gleaming waves of the South China Sea and the promise of an invigorating surf session at Danang’s China Beach.

‘That’s not a boat, it’s a basket’

Danang was once a major American base and a “rest and recuperation” center for frontline GIs, including a handful of Californians who pioneered surfing in this area.

Although the waves are far from Golden State quality, the chance to ride a few cruising China Beach breakers was irresistible.

Basket-like trungs are said to have been designed to circument a French tax on boats.

“Charlie don’t surf!” yells Robert Duvall in Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic movie “Apocalypse Now.”

But in fact, Vietnamese fishermen have been surfing these waves since long before it was ever called China Beach.

And, what’s more, they surf them in simple circular boats known as “trung,” which, with neither bow nor stern, might be the world’s most basic rowing boats.

Battling out to sea, crouched in the belly of one of these boats, I soon realized that steering a trung takes a level of skill that surpasses the mere handling of a Californian Malibu board.

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Often considered an ancient version of the medieval coracle, the Vietnamese trung was actually a trick to circumvent a French tax on boats: “That’s not a boat,” they’d say, “it’s a basket!”

As befits a country with more than 2,000 miles of coastline, Vietnam has an endless variety of boats. By sunset I was drifting slowly down the Thu Bon River in the ancient city of Hoi An (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) amid an entire fleet of eagle-eyed sampans.

The people of Hoi An believe that their boats avoid collision primarily because of the eyes painted on their bows, but the shrewd skill of the cigar-puffing old woman who manned the oars certainly played a large part in maneuvering safely along the busy ribbon of gilded water as darkness fell on the ancient town.

With its creaking cycle-trishaws and alleyways strung with Chinese lanterns, Hoi An could be the most picturesque spot in all of Indochina.

From the riviera to the rice basket

Travel in Vietnam is often about powerful contrasts, and the next morning I hauled my kitbag out of a trishaw and onto a long-distance sleeper bus where I slid into one of a series of molded cubbyholes that allowed each passenger to lie stretched almost horizontal.

We gazed out of the low-level windows or dozed, slotted in line like hibernating astronauts, through much of the 10-hour journey to Cam Ranh Bay.

Moped taxis are a popular transport option in Vietnam.

Cam Ranh is an up-and-coming luxury resort area that sees itself as the Vietnamese Riviera. A great stretch of gleaming white sand is fast becoming the setting for some of the country’s top luxury hotels.

The Anam is one of the finest, with sprawling lawns leading down to the crystal sands and suites decorated with original paintings by local artists. The area itself has little to offer culturally, but the idyllic serenity of The Anam offered a perfect spell of R&R as I prepared myself for the sensory overload of Ho Chi Minh City.

Although I’m now in the south, my Vietnamese overland trip is far from over. The great watery sprawl of the Mekong Delta lures me onward with dreams of peaceful afternoons cycling along riverside paths and more waterborne adventure among the 15,666 square miles of Vietnamese down-country bayous that are known as the rice-basket of Vietnam.

It’s only when I check out of the pretty little Ma Maison Boutique Hotel (656/52 Cach Mang Thang 8 Street, Ward 11, District 3; (84-8) 3846 0263) in old Ho Chi Minh City to head for the rendezvous for my Mekong visit that I discover what is surely the most charmingly named of all Vietnam’s countless forms of transport.

Apparently, the moped taxis that had already shuttled me through half a dozen cities down the length of the country are known here as Honda Om.

“Om” means “hug” in Vietnamese and these vehicles are named for the apparent affection of a passenger clinging to the back of the rider as he darts through the swarming traffic with the daring of a Mig pilot.

This might be one of Asia’s most diverse countries, but it seemed to me that the humble “Honda hug” could be a unifying symbol of modern Vietnam.

Asia experts Backyard Travel offer 9-day overland tours from US$1,105 per person, including Mekong Delta and Halong Bay, and taking in the main sights between Saigon and Hanoi.