Vietnam Motorcycle diaries. Day One: One breakdown, six hours, 170km’s, a red light hotel and complimentary condoms. Used.
Now, where were we...ah that’s right, Vietnam, motorbike, adventure.
Like in all healthy attacks on the habitual rational self, there were certain things left out when deciding to undertake this caper, traversing from the south of Vietnam to the north on the back of a motorbike.
For example: I have never owned, ridden or even straddled a motorbike. So the prospect of negotiating the manual gears and clutch on one was quite daunting. But when in doubt, call on Google. But while Google could teach me how to ride a bike, it couldn’t teach me how to cure my severe incoordination.
But I guess we all begin as virgins and even though evolution had left me behind somewhere along the line I am determined to catch its tail.
Statistics sound harmless, until you become part of them. A daily scrum between over four million motorbikes plays out on Saigon’s streets daily - A detail my tragically un-insured safety depended on.
As a pedestrian Looking on to the madness this congestion has organically created, you can do nothing but shake your head full of orderly traffic rules from home - and avoid the odd motorbike using the footpath as an overtaking lane.
Crossing the road can be quite an exhilarating experience in Saigon; like walking directly towards a firing squad’s relentless bullets with your eyes closed, hand over them - one eye peaking between the parted fingers; Like Moses parting the red sea, taking a step from the footpath and in amongst it; bikes coming within an inch on either side and it’s all playing in slow motion as I slither between the chaotic arrangement rushing past me, like a furious river’s current.
This was to be the environment I would learn to ride a motorbike for the first time. The length of the trip is 1700km, from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north.
I bought a motorbike of a mongrel breed, thrown together with all different parts and given a black body. A red communist star is painted on the front. It cost me $300. Danh, the mechanic selling it to me tries to convince me it’s a Honda Win- a popular old 90’s bike. After I arch my legs and mount it like a horse, I don’t care what it is as it feels formidable beneath me. It sends out vibrations of the risk, the hedonism, the adventure, the courage, the original pioneer, one-small-step-for-man-and-one-giant-leap-for-mankind feeling inflating in my breast and edging my chin upward, with a slight lean to the right. But this is soon deflated.
“I sell ten bikes a week to people just like you,” Danh tells me with a smile oblivious to the naive pioneer spirit he has just taken to with a sizeable reality check.This is how the French must have felt when they ran into Captain Cook on Botany Bay.
Buying a motorbike has become part of the well oiled tourist market in both Saigon and Hanoi. It’s become a fad for the breed of backpackers that love to feel the pressure of the frontier as they break on to the other side, as long as thousands of others, awkwardly balancing the Lonely Planet travel guide on their handlebars, are right there beside them.
But with a resolve to take a different route, the adventure bloating my chest, I flicked back the kick stand and pressed the ignition... Stalling once, twice. Lurching forward, the motorbike disgruntled by my rude impatience to join the traffic, I wobbled out into it.
If my speedometer were to work (which it didn’t) it would certainly be struggling to reach 20km’s an hour. Like bones grinding together in communal movement the herd of traffic poked and prodded toward the fringe of the city.
The sky looked pale and felt as if it had a fever. The air is clammy. I buy a face mask from a road-side vendor and a helmet to go with it.
They speak in a tongue here that is communicated with the horn. The louder the horn the more clout you possess on the road. My bike was a mouse with an elephant’s trumpet. The horn was loud and alarming, exaggerating my existence for truck drivers that cannot see me in their rear vision mirror and they move aside.
Bikes push and shove forward. The sun is a nag and merciless; the road is a grill. At every traffic light I receive warnings from fellow scooterers that I should cover up my arms to avoid sunburn. They are extremely sun conscious here like in the rest of South East Asia. Their reasons are not related to health, yet the same reason one is unable to buy a moisturiser not containing bleach whitener in it - their desire to be as pale as a Scottish highlander. All the while, I tell them I’m working on my tan – our desire to be as brown as them.
I am not 60km out of the city when my clutch lever falls limp. The clutch cable has snapped. A chorus of horns erupt. I get off and push. My rucksack is heavy on the back of the bike, making it hard to keep it steady. I have no idea what I am going to do until I spot a mechanics tin shed on the other side of the road.
I’m dripping like a sponge as I’m taken into the shadow of the workshop. A fellow dozing in a hammock amongst a tin cave of spark plugs, scrap metal, tools jumps up and runs over to me. I click at me limp clutch cable to indicate the problem. He smiles, retreats to the back to his cave. He comes out smeared with grease, black; As if he has applied it like mascara to look the part. He’s holding a cable and jabbering something at me, laughing. I suspect he is just informing me of what a crazy foreigner I am. You get that a lot here. But the Vietnamese are used to crazy foreigners. The Americans were here long enough.
He gets to work on the cable. I imagine back home the smarmy grin of the mechanic as he informs me it will take a day to have me back on the road. To order the part. To fit the part. To then charge me hundreds for the inconvenience. In the matter of two minutes the clutch cable is fitted. It costs me the equivalent of five dollars.
I am back into the stampede on wheels with a sudden lurch and resume the constant stop-start shuffle towards the hazy horizon.
I had set out at 8am. It’s now 7pm, dark is descending and I am only 169 kilometres from Saigon. I feel the marinade of dirt, soot, grit on my body. My arms are black and have all kinds of bugs stuck in their hair. While I am 60km’s short of my target, Dalat, I am going to have to pull off the road before dark. The cracked light hanging on by a wire off the front of my bike only lights up if I give the bike enough revs. I have turned off the main highway and am now heading inland towards the infamous Ho Chi Minch trail - The hills where the Viet Cong used to hang out when the Americans were here.
The collective scooter’s constant bee-like hum have given way for ox and cart that veer off the road in fright every time one of the Mitsubishi tourist buses flies past at roaring speed.
I’m relieved when a town comes into sight. It’s only small and its only living organ is a market that has cattle head and fish hanging from hooks while woman sit in the dirt with baskets of vegetables spread out before them.
I ask a woman if she knows where a hotel is. She asks me up to her place to stay for a rate of 10 bucks a night. I’m not in the mood to share my night with a family. The gas gauge-which doesn’t work- and has its needle below empty, reflects the stamina my nerves and exhaustion are at. I ride up and down the one street the town is perched on and find its sole hotel at its entrance. Riding the bike up into the foyer (as is done in Vietnam) I ask for a room. With an over enthusiastic nod of his head he asks me where I’m from. I tell him Australia and he seems relieved. “My sister is studying in Sydney, he says proudly. He goes on to offer to organise dinner for me with the neighbouring kitchen. I accept gratefully. “You like steak?” I nod. I would eat the toupee he was wearing if seasoned with a bit of salt and pepper. My stomach is mad with hunger.
He takes me to my room and I collapse on the bed and fall asleep, waking after dark in a mucky sweat. I cannot see a thing and scout blindly for a light switch. My legs are still vibrating, my forearms burn and my ass aches. I find the switch, which upon flicking unleashes a red glow from a lonely bulb hanging from the ceiling. Feeling awkward, but too tired to notice I unpack my clothes and search the room for a towel. In the corner is a cupboard with doors wedged closed by a piece of cardboard. I yank it open and am hit by the smell of bleach. Neatly lined up along the shelf is an arrangement of oddly shaped dildos next to a neatly stacked pile of condoms. The smell of bleach is permeating from a used one slouched on the wardrobe’s floor. For some reason I thought of the Lion the Witch and the wardrobe. I wonder what kind of world one would step into if they were to find a door in this wardrobe. While unexpected to ones expectations, I was not surprised by what I had found and calmly closed the wardrobe door, and re-wedged it with the piece of cardboard.
I shovelled the marinade steak and rice with a desperation that is only known to somebody that are well aware that there is no Starbucks or Mcdonalds “off the beaten track” and returned to bed where I slept deeply and imagining what photograph would my family use if I was ever to end up on a notice board at an Australian consulate MISSING PERSON: HAVE YOU SEEN THIS MAN?
Riding past the market the next morning on the way out of town, the sight of a woman in a broad hat hacking away with a cleaver at a bloodied dog’s head provoked me to wonder what exactly ‘steak’ meant in Vietnam.
First instalment in a series of tips and tricks for buying and riding a motorbike in Vietnam
- There are an abundance of motorbikes being bought and sold in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi) everyday by other travellers. However, if you begin your trip in Saigon, my advice would be to visit Danh at Saigon Minsk located at the heart of the city’s hotel and tom foolery central: 07 Bui Vien Street, District 1, Saigon. http://saigon-minsk.com/about.html
- The essential service and check-up is included in the price ($300 for most models)
- The most popular buys are the old Honda Win and the old Russian Minsk (The Minsk tend to be older and less reliable. Parts are also scarcer, whereas Honda parts are plentiful throughout the country, therefore are cheaper to repair.
- · If you have never rode a motorbike in your life, like myself, watch a few Youtube videos and ask Danh (Saigon Minsk’s mechanic) for a lesson.
- Use your horn to speak on the road: changing lanes, overtaking, in congestion, on roundabouts etc.
- Try to get out of the cities early in the morning to avoid the masses.
- If you value your life, try to avoid the main highway which connects the south to the north of the country: Highway A1.
- When taking the route ‘off the beaten track’ (along the Ho Chi Minh trail) Plan your route (allowing about 200km’s a day) to ensure you do not get stuck in a hotel in the middle of nowhere.
- Steak will often translate to be a filet of canine in Vietnam.