The recent referendum vote by the people of Britain in favour of #Brexit has brought much global attention on the European Union. Formalized in 1992, one of the EU’s most notable features is free movement across borders of member states.
A European motorist can, for example, hit the road from Munich, Germany to Milan, Italy, passing through Austria and Switzerland along the way as seamlessly as we take the PLUS Highway from KL to Penang. At Vaalserberg, off the German border town of Aachen, it is actually possible for one person to simultaneously stand on Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
ASEAN, on the other hand, does not permit such porous movement of people between its member countries, so driving between countries in this part of the world is still a less than straight forward affair.
Therefore, when recently asked if I was interested to go on a road trip from Bangkok, Thailand, to Hanoi, Vietnam, crossing through Laos in the process, I was naturally intrigued and needed little persuasion to respond positively to the invitation.
Together with other media representatives from Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, we were placed in the first of three groups that would take a bunch of SkyActiv-powered Mazda vehicles on a 4,000km roundtrip across ASEAN. The next two groups would then have driven the cars back to Bangkok passing through Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City and Cambodia’s Sihanoukville along the way.
Day 1 – 730km; Bangkok to Nakhon Phanom
An early morning started off with a grand flag off near the royal grounds of Thailand’s national palace in front of the King Rama V Statue. Distance-wise, we covered more than half of the trip’s total mileage in this one day, but the journey was largely uneventful.
After clearing the congestion of Bangkok’s rush hour traffic, it was a smooth untroubled drive to the border town of Nakhon Phanom where we spent a night before crossing over the Mekong River into Laos the next morning.
There was a stretch of winding mountain roads toward the end of the day in which I had the opportunity to pilot our CX-5 Diesel test car (read review here) around some corners, but for the most part, we were driving on straight and well-paved tar roads.
Day 2 – 340km; Nakhon Pranom, Thailand to Vinh, Vietnam, via Laos
Three countries in one day – breakfast in Thailand, lunch in Laos, and dinner in Vietnam. Owing to the uncertain diesel quality in the latter two countries, the CX-5 test car which I drove on the previous day was sent back to Bangkok, and I found myself starting the day behind the wheel of a petrol-powered Mazda3 2.0.
The border crossing into Laos proceeded smoothly, but the first few kilometres driving on the wrong side of the road in the wrong side of the car proved to be a challenging acclimatization process. Because our vantage point was little different than a pedestrian, watching for oncoming traffic on single carriage ways proved to be a major challenge. Indeed, overtaking required teamwork, with the co-driver having to help sight for oncoming vehicles on the opposite lane.
It wasn’t just cars and motorcycles we had to watch out for. For the rest of the trip after leaving Thailand, we found ourselves on alert to everything from pedestrians to tractors to even livestock sharing the roads with us. On these roads, even 80 km/h felt fast.
The most scenic route of the adventure really kicked off following our lunch stop in Laos, which took place some 20km short of our border crossing into Vietnam. Against the backdrop of breath-taking luscious greenery accentuated by clear-flowing rivers and rising mountain ranges, we were faced with a satisfyingly rewarding stretch of curved roads in which the dynamic talents of the Mazda3 could be fully enjoyed.
It was one of those roads which I wished I could split myself into two – to drive and to capture the beautiful surroundings on camera. As things worked out, I was driving on this leg, so you’ll just have to take my word for it on the scenery’s majesty.
Nature’s treat for our eyes continued well after we crossed into Vietnam as did the challenge of negotiating the bends of mountain roads, which we also shared with the stream of heavy vehicles that help facilitate the trading route between Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. Besides pulling far more weight than their engines were designed for, these lorries also required wide berths to negotiate every turn; passing them proved exceptionally challenging. They are a courteous bunch though, helpfully indicating us to pass when oncoming traffic is clear.
We passed through a couple of small towns before arriving at our second night’s stop at the town of Vinh, the birthplace of Vietnam’s famed and revered leader, the late Ho Chi Minh. As we passed these small towns, we were given a gentle introduction to Vietnam’s infamous swarming motorcycles coming at us from all directions.
As our convoy eased into our hotel’s parking lot, I noticed that despite the vehicle’s obvious exertions along the way, our Mazda3 test car recorded a commendable fuel consumption average of 7.7 litres/100km on its trip computer.
Day 3 – 300km; Vinh to Hanoi
Swapped into a CX-3 from the previous day’s Mazda3, much of the third day’s journey was covered on dual carriage highways similar to our own PLUS Highway. Other than swathes of heavy rain at certain points of the journey, the day was relatively uneventful, until we entered Hanoi.
Home to nearly 8 million people with no fewer than an estimated 5 million motorcycles on the road, Hanoi’s roads are simply flooded with vehicles coming from all directions all jostling to get to where they want; many of them not thinking twice to bend a few rules as they see fit. You would therefore imagine that it is a very toxic and hostile driving environment.
Yet, strangely, it is not. Yes, you see outrageous things like pedestrians crossing a busy road at walking pace, a motorcycle dashing right across you, or even a car coming straight at you from the opposite direction; but drive with an open mind and patient attitude, one can discern noticeable order in the midst of all that apparent chaos.
It is noteworthy that despite the seemingly overwhelming congestion, traffic is never at a standstill in Hanoi. Vehicles may move slowly, but they are always moving; and although rules are mostly taken with a lackadaisical attitude, there is evident give-and-take among all road users. Usage of the horn is liberal but only, you’d suspect, to warn each other of proximity rather than as an expression of anger. Compared to the ego-fuelled movements we often see among Malaysian drivers, it’s quite refreshing.
Vietnamese motorists are not averse to squeezing through tight gaps, but they also let people through; the key to navigate through this seeming disorder, whether you’re on foot or holding a steering wheel, is to be firm, steady, and predictable in your movements.
Personally, I found Vietnamese traffic quite manageable, although the sheer volume of vehicles makes effective convoy management tricky. A momentary lapse in concentration on the convoy leader’s part in forgetting to relay navigational instructions in English over the walkie-talkies actually resulted in some cars missing a turning on the way to the hotel. Not being given the hotel’s specific address, we were unable to navigate ourselves there, resulting in a moment’s wait as the convoy organizers scrambled across town shepherding us lost cars to our destination.
True to its well-earned reputation of parsimony, my CX-3 test car of the day recorded a highly impressive 7.1 litre/100km reading on its trip computer. This is despite being put through stop-go urban traffic and having to run most of the day’s 300km journey on RON 92 petrol – the highest available grade at our fuel stop.
Thoughts and Reflections
Driving across three countries; it’s not something that we regularly do, and most certainly not with passenger cars like the Mazda2 or Mazda3. The diesel CX-5 that was turned back to Bangkok aside, all other vehicles of the convoy arrived at Hanoi without experiencing any undue difficulty.
The vehicles were also impressively efficient, returning fuel consumption numbers that most rivals can only achieve on steady highway cruising. It thus proves Mazda's case that SkyActiv Technologies do indeed deliver on their promise of real world fuel efficiency.
The second and third days of driving through Laos and Vietnam were particularly memorable, both for the sheer breath-taking beauty of the unmolested landscapes of these countries, as well as the challenges of dealing with unpredictable traffic whilst driving in the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road. Our final stop at Hanoi was itself a remarkable place, its people full of life and energy; its hustle-and-bustle particularly invigourating.
This trip was one of those adventures that those of us who were present will regard with fond memories and enthusiastically reminisce later in our golden years.