A group of bikers from Chicago spent three weeks this spring touring Vietnam by motorcycle.
Dubbing their trip the Hilo Project, the five American bikers were provided with vehicles by Ducati Vietnam. They started their trip in Saigon in early April, and made their way north to Hanoi.
The group made friends with bikers and other locals over the course of their trip even though only one of the bikers, Catherine Pham, was able to speak Vietnamese.
We spoke with Chris Force, who spearheaded the trip, about the group's experience and how the biker scenes in Chicago and Vietnam differ.
BUSINESS INSIDER: How do the five of you know each other?
Dave Mucci (from left), Juan Francisco, Catherine Pham, Laura Heinrich, and Chris Force in Ha Long Bay.
CHRIS FORCE: "Laura Heidenreich and I own a small business together. I do some magazine photography and had used Cat (Catherine Pham) as a wardrobe stylist. We met Dave Mucci and Juan Francisco through the Chicago motorcycle community. We all had kinda followed each other on Instagram and all love motorcycles, so it we came together pretty easily."
BI: What's your relationship with motorcycle culture?
Laura Heidenreich in the mountains outside of SaPa.
CF: "We’re all pretty big bike nerds with multiple bikes. Dave runs a custom bike shop in town and runs a moto blog. Cat’s background is in moto-related fashion and retail and is really active in the Chicago bike club community. Juan is currently a full time motorcycle tourist and connoisseur of high end moto gear and accessories. I work full time in media and write about moto travel and design. I also do a lot of “organizing.” Laura’s a really avid rider, and her identical twin also just got a bike — so they stop a lot of traffic in town, haha."
BI: What's the biking scene like in your hometown, Chicago?
Local guide Ha Anh Tu with his motorcycle in Vietnam.
CF: "The bike scene here is great. It’s a hard-working, fun, and supportive group. Like any other scene it has all its little factions and stuff, but everyone is united by a very-Midwestern no-nonsense vibe. It’s a lotta dudes, but that’s changing and really exciting. The community is very friendly and encouraging of new riders and female riders. When the weather permits we try to stay on our bikes as much as possible since winter lasts for six months here!"
BI: Do bikers always make trips like this?
Tai, a Vietnamese friend the group made, celebrates making it to the top of a mountain pass.
CF: "We were the first tourists to travel Vietnam by Ducati motorcycles. Big bikes like Ducatis are very rare in Vietnam. and they are not yet available to rent there. But as far as making adventurous trips like this, yes, bikers make trips like these very often! Bikers love to travel and take adventures, so we're just a very small drip in the huge ocean of moto adventurers."
BI: Why did you choose to visit Vietnam specifically?
Laura Heidenreich on a Ducati Scrambler in Nha Trang, a Vietnamese beach town.
CF: "It was an opportunity of a lifetime. We were chosen to be the first tourists to ride the entire country on Ducati motorcycles, so to be able to act as ambassadors for a company like Ducati was too rare to pass up. It’s also a very interesting time in Vietnam. The country is changing and modernizing very quickly, and that feeling of change is everywhere. It was also an important trip for one of our riders, Cat. She is Vietnamese American and had only been to the country once as a child. It was a powerful experience to be able to share the trip with her."
BI: What made you choose the name Hilo Project?
This road, the Omega Pass, is considered one of the deadliest roads in the world, Force told us.
CF: "Well, as tourists with a really high exchange rate we knew we would be able to stay at some nice hotels affordably if we wanted to. And, of course, we were going to be on luxury motorcycles. But we wanted to make sure we experienced more rural and traditional aspects of Vietnamese culture. We wanted the 'high' and the 'low.' So that turned into 'Hilo.'"
BI: Where did you sleep throughout your trip?
A bike in a field in the small village of Mai Chau.
CF: "Well, we stayed at a gorgeous fancy hotel when we first landed in Ho Chi Minh city. It set the bar high, way too high. We traveled through many very, very small towns and had really modest accommodations at most. We always had electricity, and most often hot water, but that was often the extent of things. Some of the places we stayed you could definitely rent by the hour... if that hints at the caliber of options."
BI: Any interesting stories about where you stayed?
Outside of the Mai Chu, the view heading north.
CF: "What we expected to be one of the most rugged nights, a homestay in the mountainous rural village of Mai Chau, actually ended up being one of the most gorgeous. The accommodations were simple, but the villagers were amazing and were gracious hosts. After getting us thoroughly drunk on home-brewed liquor that they served in old water bottles they dragged an ancient karaoke machine out into the middle of a rice field. It was a great night."
"Except for Cat none of us speak Vietnamese, and few locals speak English. When we were on the bikes it didn’t really matter, everyone kinda spoke the language of the “road.” But off the bikes was always a bit distant. But nothing like a couple dozen bottles of home brew liquor to knock out culture barriers."
BI: What was it like to hang out with Vietnamese bikers?
A Vietnamese mother and child next to the highway.
CF: "So in each big city the local biker clubs would come out to meet us and join us for a few days. It was awesome getting to meet and ride with so many locals. These guys could rip! Especially the guys that lived in the mountains, they were fantastic riders — terrifyingly fast."
"The Hanoi club in the north were really smart and used some of the buzz about us coming to help raise money for a really poor orphanage outside of the city. It was really kind. They got the whole club to ride out, they raised a bunch of money and donated clothes, bicycles, and blankets to the kids — who were some of the cutest, but saddest kids we had ever seen. It was an emotional day, but goes to show what [motorcycle] clubs can do when they all work together for a good cause."
BI: How does Vietnamese bike culture differ from that of the US and Chicago?
The crew arrives in Nha Trang.
CF: "At home you don’t need much money to get a bike. A lot of guys fix up or build their own amazing bikes. And that applies to scooters in Vietnam, but not motorcycles. Bikers in Vietnam all ride really super expensive bikes, vintage and custom bikes don’t exist there — yet. So the culture definitely reflects that. A lot of the guys rode with Louis Vuitton backpacks and Rolex watches. We don’t see that in Chicago."
"However, the sense of camaraderie and good times was really similar. And on the road, watching out for the other riders and making sure everyone is having a good time, that was the same."
BI: What's the perception of motorcycle culture in Vietnam?
Members of the crew enjoy themselves on the road.
CF: "Well, the entire country is scooters. Very few people have cars, and even fewer motorcycles. So it’s really too early for there to be much of a perception on bikes. But it’s absolutely a two-wheel culture — everything happens on two wheels in Vietnam — everything! And everyone rides, men, women, young and old. Helmets are made with holes for a pony tail to stick out of. So definitely not a 'macho' scene, just super practical. I think motorcycles will evolve there easily and will be looked at in a similar way as SUVs are looked at here."
BI: What advice would you give to someone who wants to take up biking?
Laura Heidenreich looks over a rice field outside Ha Long Bay.
CF: "Take a MSF course. They are fantastic, thorough, and used to teaching people of all backgrounds. All you need to do is show up, they provide the bike and a helmet. Buy a good beginner's bike — something like the new Ducati Scrambler is actually a great bike. It’s light, low, safe, but also super fun and versatile. You won’t grow out of it."
"Have fun, ride with friends, and be a 'joiner.' Look up local events and attend. All you need to do is show up on a motorcycle and you’ll have to keep people from talking to you, haha. Bikers love to talk about bikes!"
BI: What advice would you give to someone who wants to take a trip similar to yours?
Laura Heidenreich leads the crew into a town.
CF: "Most other countries, I would say, 'Just do it.' But I would reserve Vietnam for experienced riders only. The terrain is very technical and there isn’t a lot of support out on the road."
"We traveled with our own medic and mechanic, and used both. It’s a really dusty terrain, so the bikes needed some maintenance, and there were handful of roadside repairs that were beyond a beginner's skillset. We had the local clubs to 'escort' us, so we didn’t have problems with locals or law enforcement. But that’s not always the case for just a few tourists traveling solo."