Riding motorcycles and climbing a mountain - Núi Bà Đen, Tay Ninh Province, Vietnam (Black Virgin Mountain)

Time for another adventure!

After calling my mate up to see if he was going to 'the' music festival in Saigon this weekend, he said that he wasn't and that instead was going to ride motorbikes and climb a mountain. So in.

Our basic itinerary was this:

  • Hire motorbike Saturday morning and depart.
  • Ride to the base of Núi Bà Đen, Tay Ninh Province.
  • Sleep at the Pagoda.
  • Wake up at 3am and hike to the summit.
  • Head back down and then ride home.

TL;DR - Before getting into the details of the trip, this was one of the craziest, most interesting and physically tough yet. It felt like something the old Top Gear crew of Jeremy, Richard and May would've done, in the same style too. But anyway - let's get started.

Hire motorbike Saturday morning and depart.

Everyone knows that Saigon and Vietnam is in general is a bike place. With everything from gas guzzling trikes, streams of scooters to classical electric mopeds - and of course the odd Ducati here and there.

So how hard is it to find and hire a motorbike for a decent price, an hour before you leave in the morning?

Surprisingly, not too hard. I walked out of my apartment and headed into random cafes with 'motorcycle for rent' signs outside. The second cafe I wandered into was a winner.

Say hello to my fantastic Honda Win 110cc.

Bike!

The Honda Win is an extremely popular bike in Vietnam. It has a five-speed manual gear box and cost 240k to rent for two days (about £6). There were a few issues though:

  • It hated going into neutral
  • It didn't have a functional electric start button, kick start only
  • The speedo was from a random bike and didn't make much sense
  • The front drum brake didn't really work

Nonetheless, I found this bike and rented it within 20 minutes and instantly started forming an attachment to it. I seem to have a strange fondness for old bikes that leave you a bit unsure if they'll get you somewhere, it adds excitement - sometimes too much excitement unfortunately.

After renting the bike and packing a small bag for the next couple of days, me and a couple of the others headed to a cafe on our street for a quick cà phê sua đá (Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk). Before meeting the rest of the group at Notre Dame Cathedral, in central Saigon (D1). This was also akin to how the Top Gear guys met (for reference), although we set out very optimistically.

Ride to the base of Núi Bà Đen, Tay Ninh Province.

Speaking of optimistically, I soon found out my bike had a few issues. When in the city, the most problematic was it's annoying habit of cutting out in traffic - I think due to a cold engine mixture problem. Usually this wouldn't be much of an issue, but when the bike was super hard (and I mean this bike hated it) to get into neutral and then needing to be kickstarted again - this caused problems straight away. The group split into two and various small traffic jams were caused.

It really wasn't easy riding out of a busy Saigon, on a relatively big bike for Saigonese standards, with a pillion passenger, loaded with bags and a temperamental bike lacking front brakes, but soon enough we made it out onto the highway.

Things really aren't that much better on the highway, it's still difficult to drive - all of the problems that manifested themselves in central Saigon now just had to be dodged at a higher speed.

I find it really hard to describe the Vietnamese driving style - it's truly something I envy and something that scares me - I really think that transcends from a higher level of their culture.

The Vietnamese drive fearlessly

And I truly mean this. As a westerner with a western driving style you're at an automatic disadvantage. Do not look at what is around you, just looking at what is in front of you. That is it. On a side note I once had a passenger on my bike shout at me for looking over my shoulder - I really struggle to adapt after years of throwing western taught 'lifesaver shoulder looks'. But really, the lifesaver may cost you your life here - everything moves so fast.

Now on the highway - the road is broken into two distinct sections; on the far right (the Vietnamese drive on the right hand side) is the motorcycle, bicycle, cart, or anything else that can actually move lane. This separates a two lane wide road where the trucks and cars drive.

The speed in the motorcycle lane is around 40-60kph. 60kph feels fast! As you spend so much time driving around random obstacles, really you can't go much faster.

The other issues here is the sand and stones thrown up by the lorries, as I found out by receiving a huge chunk of dust in one eye. Driving one handed on a fully manual bike here isn't really ideal. So it was time to stop.

We pulled up at a random Vietnamese food place, got some tra da (Vietnamese ice tea, 2k per glass) and chilled for a bit, before reconvening with the other half of the group.

my bike

We then set off again - gradually the roads started to thin out now, becoming less busy. One thing I haven't spoken much about so far is the traffic lights - there are a lot, even on main roads. We were making good ground toward our destination when we had to stop and of course my bike decided to cut out.

We were at the back of the group and had to catch up, so after getting the bike into neutral and running again, it was chase time.

Now I totally forgot the following facts:

  • The bike was only 110cc
  • There were two of us on it and we are pretty heavy for the bike
  • The bike was already unreliable

Let's put the throttle down.

It accelerated rather well and made a fantastic throaty single cylinder noise, a long with the cone air filter adding to the orchestra.

We were doing about 85kph, flat out, heads down. This was all it had - we could see the back of the group and almost caught up. Then there's the feeling. Anyone who's ridden old bikes knows it. That feeling of a slight loss of power, almost akin to when you're running out of fuel. The noise the bike makes starts to change, the revs start to dim and the speed starts to drop.

Then I heard a bang, it sounded like the engine had seized, but I didn't see any smoke. I pulled the clutch in and stopped the bike at a drinks shop.

broken down bike

Having inspected the bike, I noticed some weird parts attached to the carb that looked like they belong to another bike, strange - but having looked the bike over it all looked fine. I let it cool for about 20 minutes before kicking it again, and thankfully - IT LIVED!

After some more riding that wasn't so eventful, we arrived in Tay Ninh Province, stopped for a brief lunch and headed to the Cao Dai Holy See temple. It was literally eye opening.

temple one temple one temple one

Cao Dai (also Caodaism or Caodaiism) is a new religious movement founded in Vietnam. It mixes ideas from other religions. Cao Đài is a syncretistic, monotheistic religion officially established in the city of Tây Ninh, southern Vietnam in 1926. - Wikipedia

The temple was rife with symbology, which I cannot admit to understanding or being able to explain at a comprehensive level - hence the Wiki link. The most outstanding piece of symbology was the eye - in the triangle and on a giant spherical world, surrounded by offerings of fruit.

When entering the temple, much like Buddhist temples, you must remove your shoes and walk on the designated walkways. For this temple, women and men had separate entrances but were in no way restricted or segregated when inside the temple.

Once we'd spent a while looking around it was time to ride to the base of the mountain. It took around 30 minutes in total and the ride was pretty straight-forward, until we were about five minutes away - which is when we could feel the rain spitting in the air.

Right now it's rainy season here (June) and if the rain comes, it usually comes down in a big way. We sped up on the long straight road to the base, but again speeding up causes my bike to not work. We were going slightly down hill when the engine cut out again. Clutch in fast! And roll, keep rolling. Even managing to roll far enough under the entrance arch to the check-in section for the car parking.

And then the rain

rain time

We made it just in time. What came was a huge volume of rain. It was a symphony created by nature - rockets of water droplets hitting the thin tin roof and fracturing through leaves of surrounding trees. The floor around us started to partially flood. This carried on for a while.

So now we had arrived at the base, what next? We assumed wrongly that the pagoda was at the base. In reality, it was 1/3 of the way up the mountain.

Sleep at the Pagoda

There would be no sleeping yet.

We walked over to the entrance of the national park and paid (I think 6k VND) for the tickets. We then began the start of our journey. The climb was pathed and we started ascending sections of stoned stairs.

Some of the statues across the mountain seemed to adorn smoking, although I'm not really sure why.

smoking statue

At the bottom of the climb there was a fairground, with pumping Vietnamese house - but just empty, nothing and no one was there - it was surreal. As we began making our way up the stairs, the humidity from the rain was pretty intense. Market stall vendors lined the journey, creating an eerie sound from the wind chimes for sale and the rain pittering down on the tarpaulin roofs.

We were losing light which is when I noticed the arrival of the centipedes. They were everywhere. On pretty much every step. They were impeding every step I was taking; whether or not they were there, my mind was being tricked into seeing old sticks, or even pieces of stone as centipedes.

As this point, I was soaked in a mixture of sweat, humidity and rain - covered in dirt from the road, sunburnt and super dehydrated. 1/3 of the climb felt like a long way. It was a long way.

Seeing the sunset over the mountain inspired a new confidence and energy and now were on the final push.

sunset

And then we saw it, many lanterns and a long, straight set of stairs. As we ascended, it really felt like an ascension - we could hear the Buddhist chants, the gongs, mixed in with the wind and the lightly spitting rain. As we reached the top of the stairs, we were greeted by an abundance of colour. I remember how vivid and surreal it was - but am struggling for words to describe it. It combined feelings of sanctuary with surrealism.

stairs to pagoda

pagoda

We made it

This was our stop for the night. What a fantastic place.

Now to find somewhere to sleep. This pagoda has a communal dormitory (available to stay in for free). You just walk in and claim your space.

There were two options, table or floor. I felt that the tables were crowded, so opted for the floor - however, everywhere would be crowded within a few hours.

the table option

the floor option

I like to improvise. My bed set up was efficient and not too uncomfortable. I brought a really thin lightweight silk sleeping bag (the blue thing) to keep away insects (and it's not too hot to sleep in), I used an inflatable plane neck rest as the pillow and my rain jacket as the cover.

As the hours drew on, it got busier and busier. Some locals on the next table offered us some Vietnamese Wine (moonshine) which was pretty strong. But there was an impending three am start, plus mountain climb and motorbike ride tomorrow so it was time to attempt to sleep.

Maybe I had about an hour of sleep? It was bright and noisy throughout the night, even with my headphones on. And despite being in the sleeping bag, seeing random insects crawling on you does get a bit annoying. It wasn't ideal, but it was fine - and I was truly grateful for having somewhere to rest.

Wake up at 3am and hike to the summit.

3:00 came around so quickly.

Multiple alarms buzzed. I packed all my stuff away in a couple of minutes and we headed to the showers. Now, the term shower does not mean shower in the conventional western sense. Merely, it was a washroom, with a trough of water and a bucketish-thing that is used to douse yourself. It wasn't the most effective system and I now highly doubt the cleanliness of the water.

We were ready and departed at 3:51 am. Longer than expected - but things take longer in a big group, it's just the way it is.

We get onto the trail and I'm immediately grateful for remembering my head torch. And it wasn't really a trail, it was more like an infinite bouldering centre - it was basically a load of rocks that need climbing.

climbing in the dark

This was probably the best photo I got of the night climbing, the flash really makes it look unpleasant.

After more and more pitch black climbing, the sun started to rise - and we found an amazing ledge to watch it from.

sunrise ledge

on sunrise ledge

Just after this ledge, there is a Vietnamese guy who lives on the mountain and runs a small shop selling water and food. He hauls it all up in giant sacks - it was pretty impressive.

We then carried on and the trail started to have sections like this:

ladder trail sections

We kept pushing on and ascended into the clouds, it was a mix of foggy, wet humidity - not great for my glasses. But when we finally reached the summit, what we saw was totally unexpected.

camping on the summit

I've never seen a summit so crowded, with so many people camping on top. The sad part was the rubbish, there was trash everywhere and an apparent lack of consciousness for the environment.

It was time for a rest.

Head back down and then ride home.

A lot of people assume coming down is the easy part, it really isn't. It's just a completely different challenge to going up. Descending requires a difference set of muscles and places strain on different areas of the body - and requires even more concentration on foot placement, especially when descending wet rocky landscapes.

This was the reality

descending

Further down we escaped the cloud, but the terrain was much the same most of the way. Eventually we made it to the bottom and found a cafe on the track back to the bikes - at this point some pretty serious dehydration had kicked in, as it was the middle of the day and we ran out of water with about a third of the climb down left, not good!

I made the most of the drinks on offer at the cafe, with two cà phê sua đá, two tra da and two waters. It was key to be rehydrated for the long, hot ride home.

Riding dehydrated is frankly dangerous. This became quickly evident as one of the guys had a few near misses straight after pulling out of the lot.

It's common knowledge that most often in motorcycle rides, the most dangerous part of the ride is the last 20km or so back to where you live - this came true for me today.

As I previously mentioned the fearless Vietnamese riding style and their approach not looking over their shoulders, I had one bike side swipe me - fortunately I kept it up - nearly losing the front end from wobble.

The second time I wasn't so lucky.

As everyone rides so closely to each other on the roads here, slamming on your brakes is more dangerous than swerving. I was travelling a long the road when another rider pulls across me to the right - without looking. I caught the footage on my Go Pro (below) but what you don't see is that is break leaver got stuck up my rain jacket sleeve, our bikes joined together, which is why you can see the wobbling, until the point where the bikes disconnect and I keep the front up for as long as I can, until I catch the slanted curb.

Fortunately we were both okay and this kind of accident is pretty common here - before I could turn round the ride promptly exited the scene, so there wasn't much that could be done anyway.

In conclusion, what an awesome trip. :D

Phil Hudson

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