adventure

Ejo #31 – Second Gear: Our Vietnam Motorcycle Adventure (Part III – The Rest)

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

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.

 

Theresa and I developed a rapport during our five days together. I was sad to say goodbye to her. She and I experienced a lot together – she never let me down (except that one time when she tried to break my ankle).

 

THE FREEDOM

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.

 

THE DANGER

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.

 

THE LAW

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.

 

THE CHILDREN

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.

 

As soon as we pulled up to the petrol pump all these kids just appeared out of nowhere to look and smile at us. It was awesome!

 

They loved Chris and David as they are so much taller than anyone they’ve probably ever seen before.

 

Chris started taking pictures and showing them to the kids to break the ice. It worked a treat!

 

THE HOSPITALITY

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.

 

THE WEATHER

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.

 

Day Two: Walking around a war memorial in total fogginess. Riding in this was really frightening.

 

Cold and wet. Thank god we were provided with these ponchos and rain pants or the entire trip would have been a bust. Not the fanciest attire, but SO worth it!

 

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.

 

Day Five: Chris finally taking off his plastic bag socks. They may have protected his feet from the rain but I reckon they would have been pretty gross and sweaty!

 

THE CLAY

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).

 

Hung worked on every single bike – a lot of minor repairs and a few major ones. The man is amazing. It’s like he was raised by Minsks.

 

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.

 

It felt like an awesome achievement for all of us to return unscathed!

 

 

 

Ejo #30 – Second Gear: Our Vietnam Motorcycle Adventure (Part II – Day 1: Riding to Ba Hom)

Our first stop on Day One was at a small, ancient Cham temple just sitting in an empty lot overgrown with weeds.  There was nothing to proclaim its importance in Vietnamese culture or history, but it was still standing after enduring several wars and several hundreds of years of neglect.  And amazingly it was still in use, as was evidenced by the offerings laid on a table inside.  In places the walls were at least a metre thick, so even though we were right by a main road, the moment we entered into the belly of the temple all outside noise disappeared and an eerie, but peaceful, quiet pervaded.  Looking around I was startled to find a tiny kitten stretched out behind the altar, reaching into a bag of potato chips.  On closer inspection I realised that the kitty was actually dead.  Awww.  The scene led to the question of whether the pussy cat had died whilst trying to eat the chips, or if some kind soul had placed the chips in front of the poor animal in the hope of providing it with some sustenance (and if it was the latter, had it been intended for this, or the after, life)?  How existential!

 

Milling around the Cham temple

 

Stone elephant outside Cham temple

 

After taking a few photos of the temple, we hit the road again.  I tried really hard to take in the verdant countryside, but I must admit that the bulk of my attention was focused on remaining upright on the motorbike.  Even though the rain had stopped, the roads were still wet and I wasn’t yet 100% comfortable going around corners.  One thing that I didn’t have to worry about was changing gears.  True to Mark’s word, my motorbike stayed in second gear that whole first day.  I’m not entirely sure she was happy about being in second gear all day but I didn’t hear any complaints!

 

Flung into the madness of Vietnam’s main thoroughfares was certainly a baptism of fire.  It was a matter of sink or swim, and to be honest I needed a little help keeping afloat in the beginning.  The first point at which I said, “Nope, I cannot do this,” was about an hour in.  I reached a T-intersection at which most of the others in our group had managed to turn left, in a gap in the traffic (keeping in mind that they drive on the right in Vietnam).  By the time I reached the intersection though, there were no gaps to be had.  Just a seemingly endless stream of motorcycles and scooters in both directions, as far as the eye could see.  Every time I spotted a small opening in the oncoming traffic from the left, I’d turn to the right to see that there was nowhere for me to squeeze into the traffic coming from that direction.  I was stuck.  I started to go at least half a dozen times before slamming on the brakes at the last second.  These false starts did nothing for my confidence, and my spirits were quickly dampening.  I felt very small and helpless, and a little bit sad.

 

Suddenly, amongst the riders approaching me from the left I spotted Pete, one of our trusty tour guides.  He zipped around beside me and shouted that I should just go.  I looked at him blankly, “Say what?”  He nodded sagely and said, “Stick close to me.”  Okey dokey then.  And with that he just weaved into the traffic, veering left towards the centre of the road.  With no chance to think about the fact that there was no room for me (or my bike), I closely followed him, semi-flinching in anticipation of the inevitable crunch of several motorbikes smashing together.  I may even have closed my eyes.  I’m not proud of that, but I think it’s true.  Amazingly, the other riders just naturally avoided our bikes, making room for us on the right hand side of the road, and just like that we were back on track.

 

One of the great things about the tour was that all the food was included so when we stopped for lunch, our lovely guides put on an amazing picnic spread for us.  Roast chicken, olives, tomato, cucumber, lettuce, cheese, bread and a super delicious ranch-style sauce that we just couldn’t get enough of.  After we stuffed our faces with that, we were treated to thick slices of home-made banana bread.  There really is nothing like eating good, simple food in the great outdoors after building up an appetite (and it’s astonishing how much of an appetite you can work up just sitting on your ass, astride a motorbike)!

 

Lunch on Day One: a relative Smorgasbord!

 

Excitable puppy we made friends with at lunch

 

The place that we’d stopped to eat was a very basic, general store with a few tables and the tiniest chairs I’ve ever seen outside a daycare centre.  In fact, the chairs at all the cafés we visited on our trip were positively Lilliputian.  They were literally children’s chairs.  Of the four of us, Nicole was the only one that could comfortably fit in them.  They were a pretty snug fit for my child-bearing hips, and for the two boys (who are both over 6’3” tall) they were just comical.  But we managed to squeeze into them, several times over the next few days.  We didn’t always manage to squeeze out of them – not without help anyway!

 

Chris wedged in his little chair playing with the crazy puppy!

 

After lunch, the lady that ran the store offered us coffee.  With the exception of Chris (being a die-hard tea drinker) the rest of us gladly accepted.  Now, Vietnamese coffee is not your average, run-of-the-mill cup of joe.  A glass is presented with about 1cm (sometimes more) of condensed milk in the bottom.  On top of the glass sits a tin contraption filled with ground coffee and hot water.  The coffee slowly drips through the tin filter into the glass, and once it’s all through, you stir, and voilà, Vietnamese coffee!  Taking Joe’s lead, we added ice-cubes for a Vietnamese version of iced coffee.  It’s certainly a lot sweeter than I normally have it, thanks to the lashings of condensed milk, but I admit to very quickly developing a taste for it.

 

Yummy Vietnamese coffee. I kinda miss it!

 

Riding off after lunch, even I was able to register the changes in the landscape.  We stopped a couple of times at particularly picturesque spots (ostensibly to take photos, but I suspect really for Joe to have a cigarette break).  One of these spots was at the top of a considerably steep hill, overlooking Da Nang.  Chris and Nicole had fallen behind because of mechanical problems, and Hung had hung back (see what I did there?) to sort them out.  As I pulled up behind David on the verge, I turned the engine off and attempted to dismount.  I guess I forgot to put down the kickstand and, losing my balance, I found myself falling to the left (towards the road).  Now, Theresa is heavy.  I may have mentioned this before.  I’ve since looked it up and I now know that a Minsk motorcycle weighs about 105kg unloaded.  Mine was fully loaded.  So, I was on one leg (the other one flailing helplessly in the air) rapidly losing verticality, trying to hop away from the beast that was doing her utmost to flatten me.

 

And…. well, I’m not going to lie.  I didn’t make it.  The entire weight of the bike forcefully propelled me towards the ground, which I hit like a sack of potatoes.  First to impact was my left elbow, which I landed on with all my weight.  And shortly afterwards, my head bounced on the paved road.  Fortunately, I was wearing a helmet because I hit the road pretty damn hard.  Unfortunately, I had forgotten to actually do up the strap (oops)!  So, while the first bounce of my head was protected by the helmet, it was so forceful that the helmet was flung off, and the subsequent thump (not as hard, but still bloody painful) was all skull.  I blacked out just for a second, and for the next three seconds I saw stars.  And then… well, then came the pain.  I felt the full mass of the motorbike crushing my left ankle, and it was at that point the howling and the swearing commenced.

 

It all happened so quickly, I’m not sure our guides even saw it.  David says he helplessly watched me go down, unable to get off his bike fast enough without falling over himself.  Joe turned around to see me lying half on the gravel shoulder, half on the road, and (rather redundantly) suggested I get up.  I cursed and suggested that he remove the @#$% bike off my @#$% leg first.  Please!  There was another moment of hesitation before the situation seemed to sink in (during which I let rip with a few more curse words), and eventually the bike was lifted from my poor, smashed up ankle.  I rolled away from the road and helped myself to a little cry.  My ankle hurt like hell, and my elbow and head were also feeling rather bruised and battered.  Joe anxiously asked me to try to get up and, luckily, I was able to (tenderly) place my weight on my foot and walk around on it.  So phew, nothing was broken, but I could definitely feel my ankle swelling up.  I took a moment to gather myself (and wipe the tears from my eyes) just as Nic, Chris and Hung rode up over the crest.  Peter suggested we keep the “incident” a secret between the four of us, and at the time my pride was so wounded that I was happy for no-one else to know of my embarrassing, stationary crash.  Looking back though, it seems silly to have kept it from our travelling companions.  Sorry Nicole and Chris – I should have told you about it.  Perhaps my punishment for not sharing is that my ankle and elbow are still kinda messed up, even four months later.

 

You can rest assured that before we set off again, I made 100% sure that my helmet was tightly strapped on, and less than an hour’s ride later we arrived at Ba Hom, our destination for the night.  Well, technically we arrived just outside Ba Hom.  To get to Ba Hom proper required riding our motorcycles over a rope bridge laid with crumbling wooden planks precariously swaying about 25 feet over a wide, flowing river.  This was some Indiana Jones shit, right here.  OK, so even though I had agreed to go on this crazy trip, I am at heart quite anxious about putting my life at risk.  I’m no adrenaline junkie.  And yet here I was, contemplating riding a (heavy) motorised vehicle across a bridge that was barely more than a metre wide, and which dangled rather alarmingly over a rocky river.  My mother would have been horrified.  It just seemed like insanity.  And whilst I pondered that insanity, the others just casually rode across, as if there was nothing to it.  For the love of god!  Now, there were no excuses!  I kind of thought that I’d reached my limit for enduring physical challenges that first day but I steeled myself and, guess what, I just did it.  My heart pounding in my chest, I rode over that Indiana Jones bridge and I even managed a quick peek over the edge to the river below before deciding that wasn’t the best idea in the world (unless I wanted to lose my balance and flip over the side, bike and all).  Before I knew it I was across, joining the gang on the other side.  We were in Ba Hom!

 

Crazy Indiana Jones bridge we had to ride our bikes over!!! OMG, are you CRAZY!!!

 

Ba Hom is a small, Vietnamese village inhabited by just 300 Co Tu people (one of the smallest ethnic minorities in the country – numbering only 60,000 out of a total 89 million Vietnamese), and we were lucky enough to be spending the night as their guests.  We parked the bikes in the centre of the village (a large, sandy square the size of a soccer field), lined with thatch-roofed huts on stilts.  This is where we would be eating and sleeping.

 

The bikes resting after an eventful first day! In the background is the hut David and I slept in.

 

We cracked open some well-deserved beers and watched a group of rowdy kids playing a game on the other side of the square.  After a while we wandered over, trying to figure out what the rules of the game were.  They were taking it in turns throwing their shoes at a bunch of candy piled up about a dozen feet away.  Their throws were rather wild and most missed the mark, but once in a while a kid would score a direct hit, spraying the candy all over the place.  They would all shout and dance with excitement, before gathering up the lollies and making a new pile to start over.  Deprived of video games and computers, this simple game kept them occupied for the rest of the afternoon, reminding me of my own carefree childhood.

 

Enjoying a well-deserved beer.

 

The kids of Ba Hom entertaining themselves with fun games.

 

The little nutters – they may look sweet and innocent but I assure you they are possessed!

 

The kids inspecting David, wondering who this giant man was. Check out little Binh wearing his best suit.

 

After we unpacked and settled in we were shown around, checking out the newly built school, as well as the separate men’s and women’s community areas.  The men’s hut was pumping, and as we walked past we were raucously invited to join them in their gambling games and to share a drink of rice wine (a drink closely resembling moonshine in its potency).  We politely declined, but they drunkenly insisted!  Only after extracting a promise from us that we would return after the tour were we allowed to continue on our way.  On the one hand, I think it would have been kind of fun to stop for a while.  On the other hand, I have a feeling that had we done so, our motorcycle adventure would have started and finished in Ba Hom.  So it was probably for the best that we broke our promise, quietly sneaking back to the square after the tour of the village.

 

Ba Hom’s water and electricity run on generators, which are turned on after dark.  Unfortunately, that evening there was a problem with the water.  The problem being that there was none.  Which meant no shower.  No toilet.  Oh well, I’d known that we would possibly have to “rough it” a little on this trip, so I just surrendered to being somewhat grubby for the next couple of days.  To answer nature’s call we took a roll of toilet paper for a walk into the surrounding forest (and hoped that a wandering Co Tu didn’t chance upon us “in flagrante”).

 

Nature’s bathroom – the picturesque river running next to Ba Hom.

 

Soon enough it was time for dinner and we joined the others in the open dining hut, where a fire had been built in a pit.  Several plates of tasty food were brought to us by the village cooks.  One really groovy dish was a platter of steamed bamboo tubes, each about ten centimetres in length.  We watched as Hung demonstrated how to peel the bamboo away to reveal incredibly delicious sticky rice that had been cooked inside the tubes.  Amazing!  Next were massive skewers of yummy pork and chicken, cooked over the open fire.  Super delicious, fresh green beans and stir-fried morning glory followed.  I do believe I had about three servings of everything, all washed down with the incredibly robust local tipple.  Sated by the food, and warmed by the fire, the rice wine went down pretty smoothly, especially considering it was probably 20-30% alcohol.  David and I certainly had our fair share. Chris and Nic, more wisely, abstained (and probably suffered less of a hangover the next day as a result).

 

Nom nom nom. Please sir, I want some more. Check out the bamboo tubes of sticky rice.

 

After dinner, the campfire stories started, and Joe (being a consummate storyteller) shared more than a few tales of coming to no good after a night of rice wine consumption.  While we chatted, the village children snuck into the hut and started playing on a mattress on the other side of the room.  Hung, perhaps feeling a little left out of our conversation because of the language barrier, went over and joined them.  Even though they’d been loud before, his presence seemed to ignite them like rocket fuel and they went absolutely berserk!  They squealed, shrieked, and flung themselves on top of Hung as if they were high on crack.  It was very entertaining (and not a little frightening) to watch.

 

The kids attacking Hung!!! I have a feeling he loved every minute of it, judging by his delighted laughter.

 

Around 9.30pm the children’s parents started calling them home and they slowly dispersed, leaving just the grownups behind.  We were briefly joined by one of the tribal elders, all dressed up in his three piece suit, pinned with medals (I wonder if he wore this outfit for our benefit or if that’s just how he liked to dress every day).  We were told the story of how he’d been wounded in the Vietnam war, whilst working as a courier for the tunnel-dwelling Viet Cong, bringing them food and other necessities.  He proudly showed us his scars and his medals, beaming at all the attention before shaking our hands and retiring to bed.  Taking his cue, we all yawned and stretched and made our way to our own huts to rest before a dawn wake up call the next day.  Apart from a slightly scary foray into the pitch black night for a toilet break in the wee hours of the morning, I slept like a baby.  And thus ended Day One.

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…