northern vietnam by motorcycle

If you mention riding a motorcycle in Southeast Asia to someone, chances are the first thing they say is how dangerous it is. “So many tourists die doing that.” Well, let’s look into that quick fact for about 30 seconds, because I absolutely love ripping apart quick facts. Most tourists in Southeast Asia have never been on a motorcycle before. I have a theory that this is possibly a large contributing factor to “so many people crash there!” Why anyone thinks that downtown Hanoi, in rush hour is the perfect place to learn how to ride a manual-transmission motorcycle is beyond me. I was nervous about getting out of the city, even with the license (my license means nothing in this country, side fact), but I managed it. Here’s where I rolled to:

The morning of my departure, I ate breakfast like it was my last meal, because for all I knew, it could have been. I methodically listened to all instructions, which were brief: This is how to check the oil. Check it every 500km. Change it if it’s below this level. Oil the chain every morning. Don’t turn on the headlight unless you need it. Bye bye! “But what if I get a flat?” I asked. Front tire, unlikely. Back tire? Just ride with it until you find someone to fix it. You’ll be fine! Little did I know that until you find someone in the mountains of Vietnam could be quite a wiggly, steep, long stretch of road.

I barely breathed getting out of Hanoi. All limbs were poised for an emergency stop and my thumb remained anxiously on the horn. You cannot be horn shy in Vietnam. There aren’t really any rules of the road and definitely none at uncontrolled intersections. You just honk your way through in first or second gear. When I cleared most of the traffic 60km later, I almost hit a kitten, a goose, a puppy and a piglet. To order lunch I drew a chicken on my hand and looked apologetic. It worked. By 5:00PM I was in a small town in the mountains, trying to find a hotel. My brain felt like mush. Everything was written in Vietnamese, so I had to ask three different places where to go, charading “sleep” to them. If anything, I think they thought I was highly entertaining. I tucked my bike in and fell asleep at 8:00PM, sunburnt. 

If you want to feel out of place, try this. Pull an accidentally loud U-turn outside of a local “restaurant” (more on the Vietnamese definition of that in the next blog post…) alone at 7:40AM, on a bike like this one, unstrap your 45L backpack and order pho -which isn’t actually pronounced like all us foreigners say it- by pointing at ingredients. You will be the only foreigner in the place. If you’re lucky, the only girl, besides the woman behind the pots of soup. You will be able to tell they’re all talking about you when they call across to each other’s tables and giggle, especially when they’re raising drinks in your direction. What are they drinking at 7:40AM?! If you want to feel extra special, get paranoid and drop your chopsticks. That’ll complete the experience. I’m not saying this happened or anything. 

Out of the city, the roads were empty, dry and smooth and I sang myself over mountain passes and through sharp karst landscapes. I leaned through curves and coasted on little roads between rice fields. Golden hour lasted for two hours, lighting up the rice terraces in golds and bright greens. I passed children running home in flip-flops and pedalling madly on bikes. As I went over the last mountain pass towards Sa Pa, the sun was blood red in the haze on the horizon. 

In Sa Pa I caught up to James, a guy from Australia who had left the hostel in Hanoi the day before I had. He was riding a Honda Win 100; these are really popular, but I don’t think they were made for mountains. He had a first aid kit and no schedule, so I convinced him to come with me. 

On our first day together, we traversed the roughest roads I have ever been on, save for 4x4 vehicle. They were narrow, cliff-edged, cut through old landslides, climbed mountains at ridiculous grades and snaked back and forth for hundreds of kilometres. Huge angular rock would shift under my wheels as soon as I rolled onto it, and James was surprised he got through it without getting a flat. At the top of a mountain, my bike stopped running. I tried starting it, but it died a second later. “James… I think I’m out of fuel.” He siphoned fuel out of the Win’s tank and I rolled down the mountain with my bike for as long as I could. From then on, I was always looking for gas stations. 

We couldn’t pronounce any of the town names, so rather than sound like idiots to each other, we would just make up names for our next destination. Vinh Quang became “The V Place”. Ha Giang became “H-Gang”, Dong Van became “Donkey Kong”, Bao Lac was “Bad Luck” and Coc Pai became… you get the point. 

Kids would wave and scream and giggle as we rode by. On the third day, two little boys roadblocked me with their arms out to get me to stop for them. An hour or two later, a group of children ran after me and grabbed onto my backpack. I didn’t even notice, but James was behind me and saw the little sneaks. 

Then a typhoon rolled onto the coast, sending rain and cold temperatures into the mountains. Soon, the roads were sometimes more puddles than ground. I don’t want to say “pavement” because sometimes it was simply… mud. When Vietnamese roads need to be reconstructed, they don’t give any thought to nice detours. You just ride straight through the active construction site. They use a very clayey base soil, and when it rains it’s a deep, thick, slippery mess. Tires would rut into the reddish muck by 4-6”. I don’t know how the locals get through this on scooters; they’re like mountain goats. We managed to stay on the bikes, but we both had ohnonono moments. My legs and boots accumulated a thick layer of mud and I showered with my jeans on. The water came off gritty. My jeans would remain sopping wet for the next 3 days. 

It’s hard to describe this kind of “trip” to someone who wasn’t there, because the photos do not begin to describe what the experience was like. And, I didn’t take a lot of photos. I didn’t have time, plus it was cold and usually rainy. Sometimes we rode through clouds so thick that we only had 20m of visibility. How can I describe what steering around a dirty switchback feels like? Or how it sounds when you gear down for a stretch of sharp deep potholes? How it feels to stand up on your foot pegs every once in a while because your butt is numb from sitting for so long? How do I explain how we passed trucks any way we could: inside shoulder, outside shoulder, honk honk hooooonnnnnk, on the gravel, in the mud, in the puddles, 6” of clearance, one bike on each side of it. Is your heart beating faster yet (Mom’s probably just stopped)? I was not prepared to ride on small jagged mountain roads in the middle of nowhere, in a t-shirt and jeans and what could reasonably be called an ill-fitting eggshell protecting my head. But I did it anyway… and now I have no fear of dirt roads.

How do I properly describe the sketchiest hotels we stayed in, the hilarity of the questionable noises emanating from the lobby downstairs (“Is that a monkey being tortured, or the kid? That’s creepy as hell”)? Patchy paint jobs, leaking faucets, bathrooms labeled To the Standard that American People Like, pathetic hot water, cobwebs, geckos scurrying along walls and a cockroach in the helmet in the morning. The receptionists would always smirk at me when I asked for a room, because this is how we asked (100% success rate when I drew it, 75% success rate when James drew it):

When the weather cleared and the roads became more pavement than pothole, life was good. It was a lot like bike touring actually. I was even using the same bungee cords that accompanied me through Europe. The stories those bungee cords could tell.

Most people travel Southeast Asia in a hostel bubble, and most of the time, I don’t blame them. Vietnam can make a foreigner feel very out of place if they’re alone, on a bike in the mountains. So generally, the foreigners come in flocks and they travel from hot spot to hot spot, hostel to hostel, on buses filled with only foreigners. It’s comfortable, but don’t fool yourself: that is not Vietnam. The beach resorts in Nha Trang don’t speak for the ethnic minorities in the mountains. They don’t mention the women that walk up and down the passes in traditional clothing, with dye-stained hands and massive jungly-looking leaves over their heads for umbrellas, while carrying massive loads of wood or plants on their backs. You won’t be dodging cows, goats, pigs and toddlers on the roads in the city. You probably won’t be openly stared at. 

Do yourself a favour -go off the beaten track and roll over some new ground. Get a little bit lost in a place that calls you a “foreigner”. You will be uncomfortable for half the time, but during the other half, you will realize that even though this country does not know you, they’ll still help you out. They may dress differently, run barefoot in the mountains, butcher their own chickens, wash their clothes in rivers and speak not a single word you understand, but you still have something in common with them. I might be the American-looking girl going past locals on the back roads on a motorcycle I don’t own, in a country that is completely alien to me, but that doesn’t stop children from waving at me excitedly. That’s how the whole world should be operating: be nice to each other. Wave at strangers, and maybe one day we won’t be so strange to each other anymore. 

Cheers from Hanoi, Vietnam. 

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