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Who doesn't dream about getting away from it all, letting the spirit flow and emerging into a world full of freedom, nature and adventure? An adventure on two wheels beyond all convention...

Photo: Nathalie in the classic sidecar of a vintage Ural 650 military motorbike

Last year I wrote in several of my columns about an unforgettable lifestyle experience that took you on beautiful BMW motorbikes across Thailand. After this motorcycling adventure full of excitement, stunning scenery and new friends, I was convinced that, should the opportunity arise again, I would jump at the chance to mount up once more. In March 2010, finally, I was ‘back on track’ creating my own personal ‘Road Movie’ in Vietnam. This time not on heavy BMW’s but on stunning, vintage, Russian built bikes! I was sitting in a classic sidecar, of course! The Ural 650 bike, complete with my ‘personal chauffeur’, is famous for its military past. It truly has the look of motorcycling days gone by. For two weeks I was living in the past and loved it...

Hitch a ride along with me from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City via Sapa, Mu Cang Chai (Mount Fansipan), Mai Chau, Vinh, Hue and Hoi An, and enjoy the sights from a passenger’s point of view.

Our Vietnamese Tour 2010 started in Hanoi, a unique city with its coffee house culture, socialist artwork and French colonial architecture. A small group of experienced bike freaks and I stayed in the Golden Lotus Hotel, a charming boutique property located in the trendy Old Quarter. That’s where we met James Shayler (41), our tour guide on this trip and owner of ‘Ultimoto Adventures’ based in Bangkok and the UK. With more than 20 years experience as an off-road biker, the smart and well-travelled Briton is indeed the best ambassador for the unique explorer trips that he organises in Asia and other parts of the world.

“I wanted to arrange a Vietnamese tour spectacular that not only covered all of the must see parts of the country, but did so by combining paved roads with off road adventure sections including river crossings, and plenty of mud..!” says James. Some of his clients really want to get dirty, he continues with a twinkle in his eye. So after much research and a recky of the tour last year he found those exciting dirt tracks and sweeping mountain roads in the middle of nowhere and added to them a bit of beach action and plenty of opportunity to experience the cultural and historical aspects of Vietnam

One of my strongest memories was our ride through China town, the French Quarter and around the lakes of Hanoi. We had a great opportunity to see the presidential residence and the beautiful opera house, both built by the French in 1901. Then there was the Temple of Literature, the war museum and Uncle Ho’s mausoleum, and of course plenty of Vietnam’s war history and sights en route during the following days as well

“I put the word ´War´ on my list, too”, says James. “I’ve learnt a lot about Japan’s part in the Second World War since visiting Kanchanaburi in Thailand. Vietnam and its history will be much the same. Our local guides have a wealth of information on the country’s troubled history and I’m sure, as I did, you will come away very much the wiser...!”

I’ll certainly know more after 1900kms and two weeks of discovery, that’s for sure. Although the country is no longer divided there are still two very different aspects to Vietnam which are clearly noticeable when travelling between the North and the South. Both have different cultures, different landscapes and different climates. The weather was unfortunately cold and wet while we were winding our way towards the Chinese border into the rugged mountains of Northern Vietnam. Mount Fansipan is the country’s highest peak reaching 3,143 metres and the view over cultivated rice paddy terraces on the mountain sides is stunning. This section of our tour included several river crossings, 40kms of horse tracks with steep drops either side, bamboo bridges and lot’s of mud that we washed off in the crystal clear waters of a mountain lake, well off the beaten track

Highlights in the North: our fantastic train journey through the night to Lao Cai; the charming hill town Sapa established by the French in 1922; the ‘Tran Tam Pass’ at 1,900 metres and the ‘Tu Le Valley’, only populated by a few hill tribes which we passed as we wound down to the Nghia Lo valley floor. In the Mai Chau valley we had a delightful overnight stay with a local family in their stilt house, being pampered with a great home cooked dinner and lot’s of homemade rice Vodka.

A cultural must is a boat trip to the grottos and caves of Phong Na – a UNESCO world heritage site where local civilians and military sheltered from incessant bombing during the American war. Fortunately, as we went further south, the weather warmed up considerably. The climate in Southern Vietnam is much more like that of Thailand: humid, hot and balmy! Along the way we passed a number of intersections where the bulk of North Vietnam’s foot soldiers crossed into Laos.

Highlights in the South: Hue, the former imperial capital of feudal Vietnam; China Beach in Da Nang, where the first US marines landed in 1965 and the charming World Heritage listed Hoi An - a major trading centre in SE Asia in the 16th and 17th centuries. Quite apart from the beauty of the city and world heritage listing, the beach is great, the atmosphere is relaxed colonial French and we couldn’t hope for a better spot to mingle with the locals and rest our sore derrieres.

Towards the end of the tour I was particularly excited to visit the Viet Kong tunnel complex ('Chu Chi tunnels') close to Ho Chi Minh City and its shooting range where I tested my skills using a Russian AK-47 rifle and other weapons

However, what impressed me most were not the remnants of war, but the traffic in former Saigon. I thought it was hectic in Bangkok, but in Ho Chi Minh it was absolutely crazy. The city is home to around 7 million inhabitants and they all travel around on motorbikes in swarms that look like locusts...!

To my delight I found some very well preserved examples of French colonial architecture and some excellent French restaurants. Who would have thought it was possible to enjoy pure and authentic French “l’Art de Vivre” in South Vietnam

For a short weekend brake some members of our 'bike team' went to Vung Tau which used to be the holiday destination for the rich and famous in Saigon. Its beautiful beaches and its proximity to the South capital of Vietnam sure is 'a plus'. Nowadays you can reach Vung Tau from Saigon in an hour with a fast ferry

Our tour ended officially with a sumptuous dinner at the chic Temple Club, followed by drinks at the roof top bar of the Caravelle hotel, a former watering hole for journalists during the war. The night ended with witty anecdotes and fond memories of the past 14 days. Everybody around the table agreed that ‘Ultimoto Adventures' does indeed provide the ultimate motorcycle touring adventure, and that we all want more of it! One thing’s for sure; we’ll all get together again soon as we’ve already signed up for our next tour! Like last year it doesn’t matter that I was only a pillion rider - or, in this case, a passenger in a sidecar! What matters is to be able to get away from it all from time to time, letting the spirit flow and emerging into a world full of fun, freedom, nature and maximum adventure. An adventure on two wheels beyond all convention...

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