Following is a bunch of high (and low) lights of the last four days of our Vietnam Motorcycle Adventure. I hope you enjoy it.
The scenery was just incredible. Unfortunately, it was cloudy or foggy or rainy for most of the trip, and we could barely make out where we were going (more about that later). But there were several moments when the sun shone down on us as we traversed winding roads that took us past gorgeous sparkling lakes, or mountain passes overlooking the ocean. Vietnam is really very beautiful, and the further out from the cities you go, the more beautiful it becomes. It really is an unspoilt paradise and sometimes it felt that we were able to see and experience things that you never could, unless you were sitting atop a Minsk motorcycle.
I really enjoyed the sense of freedom that came from riding a motorbike. As I’ve mentioned before I am a pretty cautious person so I never really did anything risky but honestly, just riding around the Vietnamese countryside was enough to pump me full of adrenaline every single day. Several times as we zoomed down another deserted mountain road, or roared past a stunning waterfall I found it impossible to restrain myself from shouting with joy. Just yelling into my helmet (or if the weather was nice and the visor was up, into the wind). It was truly exhilarating.
Taking off after a break on Day 2, I forgot to put my kickstand up (oops!). When I tried to veer left to follow the bend in the road, the kickstand butted against the ground and prevented me from actually turning the bike. In my panic, instead of braking I accelerated (something to do with how white-knuckled my grip was on the handlebar, perhaps). And this acceleration took me directly towards a four foot deep concrete ditch. For a second there I honestly thought I was going to end up in the ditch with the bike on top of me (again!). I was saved by the fortuitous engagement of my brain telling me to cease accelerating and (for the love of god!) commence braking. Disaster averted.
There were plenty of other scary moments though, for all of us. Nic came very close to coming off her bike on Day 4 simply because the quality of the roads was so bad that it was virtually impossible to avoid potholes. Combine this with the number of crazies out on their bikes and scooters, and there were some definite hair-raising moments. We were in Vietnam during the Lunar New Year, and around ten o’clock in the morning on New Year’s Day I’d estimate that around 75% of the other riders on the road were three sheets to the wind (i.e. staggeringly drunk). There were two types of drunks that I personally encountered. The young, aggressive ones who would ride next to you and try to get too close, almost pushing you off the road. And the old, oblivious ones who drove super slowly but swerved from side to side completely unaware that they were creating a hazard to other riders. Both were equally dangerous, and I was so happy to leave the big towns behind and head back into the countryside.
If you are involved in an accident with a Vietnamese person, you are automatically liable whether you were actually at fault or not. This doesn’t seem fair, but it’s just the way it is. We knew this before we signed up for the tour but it wasn’t until Day Four of the ride that Pete mentioned that if we accidentally hit someone on the road we weren’t to stop. We were to keep riding and get the hell out of there, even if it was a serious accident. Especially, he emphasised, if it was a serious accident. Because if you killed a Vietnamese person in a small town in a biking accident and you stopped, there was little chance of the matter proceeding through legal avenues. The townspeople would take care of you themselves, doling out their own justice. As you can imagine, this scared the living daylights out of me, and while I would have perhaps appreciated some warning of this fact before we’d set out for the trip, I think in a way it was better that I didn’t know it. I was nervous enough as it was. I’m not sure what the knowledge would have done to my ability to ride.
Everywhere we went, the children would run out screaming and shouting with joy, waving at us and even putting their hands out for high fives as we rode past. We felt like rock stars! Though occasionally the high fiving did get a little robust, almost knocking us off our bikes! The ultimate experience was on Day Four, when we stopped for petrol in a tiny village and the entire population of children came out to greet us. There were about thirty young kids all looking up at us in awe and excitement. It was a really lovely experience. They were so intrigued by us, but also adorably shy. It didn’t take them too long to warm to us, particularly when Chris started showing them photos of themselves that he was taking on his iPhone. They all started clamouring for their turn to get their photo taken and then would burst into ecstatic giggles when they saw themselves on the screen. It was just delightful.
The Vietnamese people are renowned for their hospitality, and we were warmly welcomed everywhere we went. On Day Two, our group split into two after Chris’ bike had a major malfunction. David, Nicole, Joe and I pulled over next to a small town garage to wait while Hung worked his voodoo on Chris’ bike. After standing around for a few minutes chatting amongst ourselves, the garage owner and his daughter brought out a little plastic table and chairs, some tea and a few snacks for us to nibble on. I can’t imagine that happening anywhere else in the world. It just warmed my heart. I don’t think it was expected, but when we packed up and got ready to leave Joe gave the garage owner some money to say thank you, which I think was a nice gesture in return.
Several times during the trip we encountered severe fog, which limited the visibility to as low as 20m. It was pretty frightening riding around in that. Also, during some mountain riding we were actually driving around in cloud, and that had pretty much the same effect. My already high levels of concentration had to be tripled in these conditions and the result was fatiguing. Several times Joe would try to convince us to take a longer course to our destination, and if the weather had been blue skies and sunshine I would have been more than happy to take the scenic route. But when it’s foggy and drizzly and you can’t see and you’re getting wet, it’s no fun.
And speaking of getting wet, I got wet. My python skin leather boots were no match for the rain, or all the water spraying up from the bike and by Day Three they were completely saturated. This, as you can imagine, was very uncomfortable. David’s boots were slightly more heavy duty and offered a little water resistance, and Nicole had brought her waterproof riding boots so she was good as gold. Chris, unfortunately, was in the same boat as me having only brought sneakers. On more than one rest stop I took off my shoes and socks, in order to wring my socks out – about half a cup of water’s worth. And you know what’s worse than wringing out half a cup of water from your socks? Having to put them back on. Chris took up Joe’s suggestion of wrapping his feet in plastic bags before putting on his shoes and he reckons it helped a little bit, but the idea didn’t particularly appeal to me and I was happy to be miserable with my wet socks and shoes.
On our last day, heading back to Hoi An, we encountered a pretty large patch of wet, soft clay that we had to ride through. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to ride a motorbike through clay but it’s extraordinarily difficult. The clay is soft enough to be slippery, but firm enough to resist the direction that the tyres want to go, so it’s impossible to go straight and you end up kind of slip, sliding along. This makes it super hard to keep your balance. I had the additional challenge of, again, being so nervous that I squeezed the handlebars super tight, and by doing so I (again) inadvertently revved the accelerator, lunging forward and sideways. Unfortunately, I saw only two possible options. One, keep going and end up face first in a big mud bath. Or, stop and plant my feet in the mud. I chose the latter, my gorgeous python skin boots squelching into the mud, which reached half way up my shins. Not my finest hour. I looked ahead at Joe, who had (naturally) made it all the way through. Then I looked back at the others, waiting expectantly. I was probably about mid-way through the 100m long mud patch, and the last thing I wanted was to keep going. I wanted to just dismount and be transported to a nice beach somewhere with a pina colada in my hand. I actually yelled back that I couldn’t do it. I saw Joe preparing to come through the mud to help me and I guess my pride kind of took over. I gave it one more try, determined to ride slowly and surely (and to keep my hand off that damn accelerator) and a minute later I was on the other side. Sure, I had bright orange mud all over my shoes and jeans but I’d done it!
HUNG, THE MECHANIC
So, I’ve mentioned Hung before. The man is a legend and we were lucky to have him on tour. During the five day ride he fixed David’s gear box, which kept popping out of fourth gear, Nicole’s footstand, which kept dragging along the ground, my spongy foot brake, Nicole’s clutch cable and motor chain (on two separate occasions), David’s horn (which, at one point, decided it liked the sound of its own voice and wouldn’t stop blaring), and Chris’ engine block which completely exploded on Day Two spraying oil and parts all over the road. Now, this might sound like a pretty major repair job, right? Right! It took Hung all of half an hour to fix it. I bet it would be a two day job for some mechanics, but Hung eats, drinks and probably dreams Minsks. He knows them inside out and it is just magic to watch him working on a bike. In addition to the repairs that he carried out above, he also made a multitude of minor adjustments as well as swapping bikes a few times so that we could continue on the tour while he stayed back carrying out the mechanical work (which I thought was rather lovely of him).
He was a true gentleman and had a gorgeous, free-spirited laugh which was joyous to hear. Oh, and he also taught us how to do a Vietnamese drinking cheer! Raise your glass, shout, “Mot, Hai, Bah, YOH!!!!!!!” and drink! No-one did it with as much enthusiasm as Hung but I, at least, nearly lost my voice trying. Fun times.
BEING IN THE MOMENT
Chris made a rather profound observation about our trip, that I think I’d been subconsciously aware of during the ride but hadn’t really been able to articulate. He said that while you are riding, you aren’t thinking about work. You don’t worry about emails piling up, or accounts that need updating. You don’t concern yourself with your annual performance review or about making credit card payments. You don’t think about those extra kilos that have been creeping on, or the noisy neighbours who keep you up all night. All you think about is staying on that bike. You might think about swerving around that great big steaming pile of buffalo shit too. And that’s OK, because it means that you are completely and totally in the “now”. For someone like me, who tends to worry about the past and stress about the future, it was a welcome holiday for my brain to just switch off and look at the scenery and focus on staying alive. It was the deepest type of meditation I’ve ever experienced, making the journey not just a physical one, but spiritual too. And one I’ll never forget.