Month: April 2012

Ejo #29 – Second Gear: Our Vietnam Motorcycle Adventure (Part I – The Adventure Begins)

Late last year, David and I were invited by some friends to travel with them to Vietnam.  Nicole and Chris were doing a five day motorcycle tour and wondered if we’d be interested.  Now, this is the same couple who braved life and limb in a Rickshaw Run (look this up, it’s amazing), driving 3000km through India in a two week period in a (yep, you guessed it) motorised rickshaw.  To call them intrepid is an understatement.  Riding a motorcycle through Vietnam’s hinterland had never really been something I’d considered doing before.  I’m just not a very daring traveller.  My idea of adventure is trying a new cuisine, or sampling an exotically flavoured boutique beer.  Sure, we’ve travelled to some pretty amazing places but we usually stay somewhere comfortable and get around using fairly mundane forms of transportation.


The first (and last time) I’d ever ridden a motorbike on my own was twenty years ago, so my riding experience was minimal, to say the least.  After a bit of probing, I discovered that David’s wasn’t much more extensive.  So, naturally, we said yes!  By the beginning of December everything was booked and paid for.  We were locked, loaded and very excited at the prospect of such a daring holiday ahead of us.  I started writing lists for everything we’d have to do before we left.  We had to organise entry visas for Vietnam, buy suitable footwear and clothing for the trip, book hotels for the couple of days either side of the tour, organise travel insurance, learn a few Vietnamese phrases – hang on, let’s just go back one.  Organise travel insurance.  For some reason we kind of dragged our heels on this one – our medical insurance in Dubai covers travel but we only realised quite late that we’d have to get special insurance for riding motorbikes.  When we started researching it a bit more thoroughly we were dismayed to realise that no insurance company on earth would cover us for riding in Vietnam if we didn’t already have motorbike licenses from back home.


Actually “dismayed” is a monstrously restrained way to describe how we felt.  “Devastated” is a little more accurate.  But the idea of riding a motorcycle in a foreign land with no insurance really didn’t appeal to either of us.  We were left with no choice but to pull out of the tour.  It was with very heavy hearts that we broke the news to Nic and Chris.  They were naturally horrified for us (and themselves of course, since they’d now have to ride without us).  They had no problems with insurance because they both have full Australian motorbike licenses.  I must admit to feeling a little foolish for not checking the insurance requirements before we’d booked the trip.  We’d just been so excited and I guess we got a little swept away with the romance and drama of such an adventurous experience.


Sadly resigned to the fact that we’d now have five free days to do as we pleased in Vietnam (apart from ride motorbikes, that is) we started planning a different itinerary.  Chris, on the other hand, doggedly refused to resign.  He chased it up with the tour company and, after some back and forth, a representative emailed me to explain that as long as we had some kind of medical insurance, special motorbike insurance was unnecessary.  I was sceptical, but I read on.  It seems that insurance is pointless in Vietnam because if you are involved in an accident in which a Vietnamese person is injured, whether you are insured or not (or even whether you are at fault or not), you are liable.  If you happen to be injured while riding a motorbike, the standard procedure involves bribing the reporting doctor to state that you were on a bicycle when the accident occurred – and most insurance policies will happily cover bicycle accident costs.  Dodgy?  Hell, yes!  Standard operating procedure?  Absolutely.  It’s just a risk that everyone who hops on a motorcycle in Vietnam takes – licensed or not, insured or not.  We weren’t entirely convinced.  The notion of being involved in an accident and not being covered by third party insurance is just terrifying to me – but we threw caution (and yes, commonsense) to the wind and decided to hell with it.  We’d be super careful (famous last words, I’m sure) and ride really slowly and not take any risks.  The tour was back on!


A couple of weeks later the four of us met in Singapore before flying out to Vietnam to start our adventure.  Things didn’t get off to the smoothest of starts.  Surely that doesn’t surprise you (haven’t you ever read any of my travel ejos before)?  The flight from Singapore to Hanoi was delayed by an hour because of a fierce thunderstorm.  We had allowed a three hour layover before our connecting flight to Da Nang and, even with the delay out of Changi, we figured that would be plenty of time to process our visas on arrival.  We figured wrong.  The line at the visa collection office in Hanoi was already long when we arrived.  By the time someone kindly told us we were in the wrong line (WHAT?) it was even bigger.  Oh well, we wearily ventured down a short corridor to another desk, where our passports were taken for processing, before going back to the first (now enormous) line.  In fact, so many people had gathered there now that all semblance of a “line” structure was gone, replaced by a chaotic throng.  In seemingly random order, people’s names were called out.  One by one, people jostled through the crowd, handing over their application form, passport photos and money in exchange for their stamped documents.  It was at this point that Nicole and Chris mentioned that they didn’t have passport sized photos for their applications.  I don’t think any of us actually panicked at that moment, but I do believe our stress levels may have gone up a smidge.  And all this time, the clock was tick-tick-ticking, closing in on our scheduled departure time for Da Nang.  We never actually thought that the lack of passport photos would prevent Nic and Chris from getting their visas.  After all, what was the alternative?  Being forced on a plane back to Singapore?  We thought not.  And a little while later when their names were called out, they were offered the chance to take some pictures right there amidst the swarm of waiting travellers (for a nominal fee of course).  Unfortunately, by the time we had all collected our passports, it was very clear that there was no way on earth we’d make our flight to Da Nang (the second time David and I have ever missed a flight – the first being our connection from Madrid to Barcelona in September 2011.  We were getting a little more comfortable with it, it saddens me to say).


After a bit of running around, we managed to catch a later flight and arrived in Da Nang at around 11pm (a few hours later than expected).  We jumped in a cab and headed straight for our hotel in Hoi An, arriving at midnight just as the gates were closing.  Waving away our profuse apologies for being so late, the staff happily reopened the gates for us with smiles and friendly nods.  At the reception desk, a bleary eyed young woman greeted us and asked if we wanted to stay the night.  We started pulling out our respective booking confirmations when she told us, “Sorry, we fully booked.  No room available”.  Huh??  The four of us looked at each other.  Confused.  Tired.  Slightly worried.  “What do you mean?” I asked, thinking that perhaps I’d misunderstood her.  “We have a reservation.”  As if stating it with confidence would make it so.


She looked at us with compassion and shook her head.   “Sorry, no room available,” she said.  My heart rate doubled as I frantically searched my bag for our booking confirmation form, running our options through my mind, wondering what other hotels would be open at this time of night.  After what seemed like an interminable period of rummaging, I finally found the confirmation paper.  I looked up at her, brandishing it in one hand when she suddenly broke into a smile and said, “Just joking!”  We burst into relieved laughter.  And thus we were introduced to the Vietnamese sense of humour.  We were to experience a lot more of it over the next few days.


The lovely staff of Hai Au hotel in Hoi An - the first stop in our adventure


Something else we were lucky enough to encounter again and again on our trip was Vietnamese hospitality.  Even though it was blatantly clear that everyone had been about to turn in for the night (and perhaps a few of them had already been in bed) when we’d arrived, they asked us if we wanted something to eat.  The answer, of course, was a resounding yes!  We were starving.  So they reopened the kitchen and cooked us an incredible feast of Vietnamese rice, three different types of spring rolls and other local delicacies which we immediately devoured.  We washed it all down with refreshing local beer.  Yum!  It was a nice way to end our first day in Vietnam.


We could tell that everyone attending to us was sleepy (and we were too) so we scoffed down all the food, and with our bellies comfortably full we went up to our rooms for the night to get some rest.  David and I were feeling a little scummy from our long travel day so we decided to take showers before bed.  Unfortunately they ended up being cold showers, which we chalked up to the water heater not having had time to warm up.  No bother.  Nice and clean, we happily retired to bed for a very good night’s sleep.


The next morning I had another shower (in terms of hygiene, I am what you might call high maintenance).  I was disappointed to discover that the water was still cold.  Brrr!  Still, nothing could dampen my spirits.  I was excited about what the day held for us.  After breakfast, the four of us took a walk to the Hoi An Motorbike Adventures office, for a pre-tour briefing.  The company is run by a couple of Australian expats with several years of tour-guide and motorbiking experience between them.  It was great to meet Peter, one of our tour guides, and go through some of the broader brushstrokes of what we could expect on the ride.  Normally there is just one guide per tour but Peter was being trained to do the longer, five day tours by the senior guide, Joe (who we met a little later).  We were also told that we were to be accompanied on tour by their best mechanic, a guy called Hung (pronounced Hoong).  According to them, Hung was somewhat of a Minsk Whisperer.  He could, apparently, repair a Minsk motorcycle (no matter what the problem) with just a small toolkit and whatever else was at hand.  He had, in the past, patched up bikes with cigarette butts, twigs, chewing gum and a little bit of duct tape.  We were travelling with the MacGyver of Minsk-Moto.  And since we were also warned that Minsks are prone to breaking down rather a lot, the fact that Hung would be riding with us put us (a little) more at ease.


Me - I might LOOK calm, but I'm totally freaking out at all the motorbikes on the road.


Complete chaos on the streets of Hoi An.


After signing our lives away on the release forms, we took off to explore the bustling streets of downtown Hoi An.  The first thing that caught my attention was the number of motorbikes on the road.  They were everywhere.  Literally.  I think they made up about 95% of the road traffic and didn’t really seem to follow any kind of road rules that I could see.  This made me a little nervous in the pit of my stomach.  The next day we would be flung out into the madness, and the concept was beginning to startle me.  After observing the traffic for a little while though, I realised that even though it seemed quite random and out of control, there had to be some kind of sense to it (for, just like a school of fish flitting around a bed of coral, they always somehow managed to miss each other).  I wondered if I would be able to pick up on this “sense” when I got on my bike or whether I would die in the first twenty minutes.  For now, I decided to forget about it and just enjoy taking it all in.  We spent the rest of the day meandering through busy markets, admiring the flowers and balloons for sale on the street, cooling down by the river and eating wonderful local food.


Bustling Hoi An market, selling everything from fresh meat to postcards and pointy Vietnamese hats.


Colourful bowls for sale at the market


Nic and Chris chilling on a streetside cafe.


It's a glorious day for a walk across a bridge.


Plantains for sale on the street.


Bright and colourful Lunar New Year balloons for sale.


When we got back to the hotel I remembered to mention to the reception staff that the hot water system in our room wasn’t working.  The lady behind the desk, who introduced herself as Yummy (and she was – by name and by nature), flicked a switch on a panel and said it should be working within half an hour.  On our way up the stairs she teased me, asking if I’d had to endure a cold shower.  I nodded, and she said, “Oh well, you still alive.”  We laughed at her cheekiness.  But it was true.  I had survived the cold showers.  As Chris pointed out afterwards, the Vietnamese people have been through so much, and they have not just survived but they’ve come out the other side with their humour intact, able to smile at everything.  It’s an admirable trait and one which makes travelling through the country such a heartwarming experience.


The next morning was grey and drizzly.  We got picked up by taxi and taken to the bike warehouse, from where our journey would begin.  This is where I met Theresa, my Minsk.  In my mind I’d pictured a nice, modern, ergonomically designed, scooter-type motorbike.  What I got was a Soviet-era, military-type, functional piece of hardware.  And it was big.  And it looked heavy.  And rather scary.  And, at that point, I didn’t actually think I could do this crazy thing.  I wanted to run away, in fact.  Mark, the owner of the tour company (oblivious to my internal fight or flight reaction) explained to me that my bike had two saving graces.  Firstly, she didn’t require kick-starting.  All I had to do was turn a key to get her going.  And secondly she’d been retro-fitted with a scooter’s gearbox which meant that I could change gears without having to use a clutch.  Thank god, because I honestly think that if I’d had a clutch to contend with as well, I’d still be sitting at that warehouse trying to work out how to ride the damn thing.  I didn’t feel too much like a loser for choosing to ride a clutchless bike.  I mean I already felt like a hero for even going on this tour, so it would take a lot more than that to knock me off my perch (and to give them credit, no-one else in the group made me feel like a loser either – thanks guys).


Mark went on to explain that the bike was configured so that I could actually keep it in second gear the entire first day, until I got used to it.  I could even start it in gear and it would just idle away.  Easy peasy.  So, after he explained all the ins and outs to me, he gestured towards her and said, “Why don’t you take her for a spin?” before stepping away to check on the others.  My heart leapt into my mouth.  I knew I would have to eventually ride this beast, so it was in my best interests to get comfortable on her.   But I was really scared.  I nodded to myself, stepped up to her and swung my leg over.  My eyes widened.  Oh my god, she was so freaking heavy.  I was terrified.  It suddenly all just seemed beyond me.  I guess I could have simply backed out of the whole thing right then, but as tempting as it was to do just that, I knew I wouldn’t.  I would confront my fear, as reckless as that may be, and just get on with it.  I had a feeling that my experiences over the next five days were going to well and truly boot me out of my comfort zone.


I looked down at the Belarusian instrument between my legs and tried to convince myself that I could do this.  “Come on, you’ve done it before,” I whispered to myself.  Sure, it was a long time ago, but at least I knew I was capable of it.  I did a mental check of all the equipment.  The accelerator is on the right handle bar.  So is the handbrake.  No clutch (phew).  OK.  I pushed back the kickstand and revved her up a little bit, forgetting she was in second gear – and she promptly reminded me by lurching forward.  Brake.  Nervous giggles.  More revs, feet up.  And just like that, we took off down the narrow back street.  And suddenly I was riding!  Not very fast, mind you.  But I was riding.  It may not sound like a big deal but I was seriously exhilarated.  I rode about a hundred metres down the road, my face lifted to the wind and the light drizzle.  I smiled and let out a quiet “Wooohoooo!”  The first of many to come.


When I returned to the warehouse I had a huge grin plastered on my face.  This was going to be fun.  As I tried to dismount, my smile was wiped clean, replaced by a moment of panic as I lost my balance and nearly toppled over.  I managed to somehow remain upright, looking up at the others, hoping no-one had seen.  Nope, they were all preoccupied with their own bikes.  Phew.  But wow, she really was very heavy.  I’d have to be very careful, I told myself.  The next half an hour was spent getting ready, packing up our saddle bags, and putting on wet weather gear.  The tour company provided water proof pants and an enormous ankle-length poncho, that resembled a blue plastic mumu.  Not the sexiest riding outfits in the world but they would keep us dry.  As the rain continued I was happy that I’d gone shopping for special footwear before the trip.  I’d initially planned on riding in my Converse sneakers but changed my mind at the last minute when I’d found a cute little pair of leather slip on boots (in grey python print, don’t you know)!  They seemed far more suitable, especially now that it was raining.  I didn’t expect them to be 100% waterproof but they were surely better than canvas sneakers.


While we’d been busy packing up our bikes I’d noticed a Vietnamese man walking around the warehouse.  He was very smartly dressed in creased slacks, leather loafers and a very groovy black and white leather jacket (reminiscent of something Michael Jackson would wear).  I wondered who he was, speculating that perhaps he was a part owner of the business.  As the time to depart approached I saw the dapper Vietnamese dude pull on some wet weather pants over his trousers.  I was intrigued.  Was he coming with us?  Was he yet another guide?  It was then that our senior tour guide, Joe, introduced him as Hung, the infamous mechanic.  He was absolutely, hands down, the best dressed mechanic I have ever seen.  I was impressed.  He smiled shyly and it was obvious he didn’t speak very much English.  I liked him immediately.


Finally, we did one last check of the bikes and we were off.  Riding through the quiet back streets in a conga line formation, I imagined for a moment that we might be in for some easy riding.  I even convinced myself that my comfort zone might not be so seriously breached after all.  We were riding fairly slowly and there wasn’t much traffic.  We were easy riding!  Hey, this was going to be a breeze!  Five minutes later my head was spinning as we were surrounded by the buzzing and beeping of a million motorbikes and scooters whizzing past us as we entered a main road.  The adventure had begun.

To be continued…