Vietnam – Ride Like Hell, a Motorcycle Journey from Saigon to Sapa
Vietnam was tough. Not tough in an angry sort of way, but tough in a rough and tumble you’re-a-tourist-and-I’m-going-to-get-your-money sort of way. Vietnam was tough like a beautiful exotic woman who takes your money, slaps your face, yells at you, but then takes you home to bed and fixes you an absolutely wonderful breakfast in the morning. Difficult while absolutely stunning and dangerously alluring. You feel alive and you’re forced to remember that life is hard and beautiful all at once. Deep down you get the sense Vietnam is kind and wonderful, slowly she’ll let you in, but she’ll never fully open up and you’re always an outsider. Freedom, danger, beauty – riding a motorcycle through Vietnam is the stuff travel dreams are made of and it was the single greatest travel experience of my life.
All in all, I spent a month in Vietnam and rode roughly 3,500 kilometers or 2,200 miles. The trip transversed beautiful coastal roads, endless mountain highways, jungle, lush green valleys, rice paddys, hill tribe villages, and the street chaos of Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. Quality of the roads ran the gamut from perfect strips of desolate highway to completely bombed out, washed out, dirt/mud/gravel paths. Each turn brought something entirely new; an unbelievable view, waving children, water buffalo/chickens/dogs/cows/pigs, busses barreling directly at you, and a million other motorbikes. I hit the major tourist towns in the country and I also spent days and days riding up the Ho Chi Minh highway through small villages and towns without seeing another Westerner. I saw stunning natural beauty and met some lovely people.
The excitement came from the fact that you never knew what was going to happen. Despite all my best-laid plans, there was no morning briefing telling you:
“OK, you’re going to ride 200km easy in the morning, which will take you five hours. So you’ll leave at 7am and get into town at lunchtime. After eating you’ll feel pretty good and decide to take it another 200km in the afternoon, but after your eighth hour of riding it’s going to start raining. You’ll end up putting on your poncho and getting soaked; you’ll spend the last two hours of the ride in the downpour with low visibility and dangerously slippery roads. You’ll finally pull into town just before dark, exhausted, and you’ll still need to find a place to stay. Oh, and by this point your boots will be completely filled with water and your hands will be pruned and numb and your ass is going to be literally black and blue. When you finally find a bed it’s going to be hard as a board. But don’t worry, today isn’t the day that your bike is going to break down, that’s going to happen tomorrow. And tomorrow you’ll have tea with your mechanic.”
Nope, there’s no one there to tell you these things, and there’s no one there for you to count on but yourself. I did the ride alone and I had to deal with everything; the bike, the route, the heat, the rain, the mechanics, the hostels, the thieves, and the hawkers trying to sell me things I didn’t want.
Hello, where you from? Motorbike? Hello, motorbike! You smoke mariwana? Massage? Massage, boom boom?!
Vietnam is naturally beautiful, rich in history, and is unquestionably one of the world’s great food countries. Every day I woke up, ate pho (noodle soup) for breakfast, strapped my bags to the rack, and kick-started a ramshackle Honda Win 100cc and headed North. Every day I rode like hell and every single day of the ride I felt alive. It’s impossible to understate the sensation of freedom you get as you lean a motorcycle down into a sweeping corner, pushing the throttle as you whip through a mountain pass or bomb through a beautiful green field. No schedules, no guides, no one to complain to, no one to count on but yourself.
The trip is a test of character, I truly believe it. It was the single greatest travel experience of my life, yet I fell off my bike, the bike broke down multiple times, I got pick pocketed, I saw other people get robbed, I saw accidents, I got ripped off. It taught me the importance of patience, resilience, and perseverance. It taught me that I had what it takes to figure it out, to deal with it – whatever it was. It taught me to be humble and acknowledge my limitations; to ask for directions or to find a mechanic and ask for help. I had to deal with the fact my phone got stolen at a bar. I had to deal with the fact I fell off the bike on the third day; I got back up, dusted myself off, calmed myself down, and I kept going. I had to deal with the fact that riding that much is physically, mentally, and emotionally difficult. The trip, time and again, taught me that when the road got rough (literally) and the path was uncertain, to follow my convictions and press forward. The ride was a challenge and was enormously rewarding for me personally. It’s a trip I’ll never forget.
Ride a motorcycle through Vietnam and all that matters is you and the hard sun, which keeps pace of the days that you’re alive and you’re never getting back.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Buon Ma Thuot
Dien Bien Phu
Honda Win 100cc mini-chopper
Nickname: Black Betty
Kick start only, electric start non-functional
Speedometer, odometer both non-functional
Fuel gauge, non-existent
Bought for $300 from a Dutch backpacker sold for $225 to an American backpacker
After purchase replaced: both tires, chain, brake shoes, battery, spark plug, oil
Maintenance along the way: oil changes (4x), replaced brake wire, fixed oil leak (2x), had rear wheel straightened, replaced spark plug (1x), replaced broken pedal shifter, chain tightened (2x), flat tire (1x), had luggage rack welded into frame
Total cost of maintenance: $100 to $125