So…the whole motorcycle down the coast of Vietnam thing. Where to start…
[Editor’s Note: I need an editor. And to stop rambling.]
Did I plan to do this all along? – No.
What made me decide to do this? – It looked fun. And crazy.
I read online that it’s dangerous and I saw that video about the driving in Vietnam – are you safe? – I think so. I’m doing everything I can to stay alive.
So here’s what happened. I knew that renting a motorcycle was always a possibility, but didn’t know if it be just for a day, or for a much longer period of time. All over the internet there are blogs and forum posts about people renting bikes and driving through Vietnam. Similarly, there are companies that lead guided tours for people who are looking for the experience. Top Gear, a British TV show even did an episode about riding through Vietnam (although with the magic of TV they failed to mention that they were guided by one of those tour companies…). So what I’m trying to say here – the idea isn’t completely new.
After studying the map of Vietnam, it was perfectly clear to me that starting this adventure wasn’t an option in Hanoi. There isn’t much between Hanoi and the next largest city, Hue, and I accepted that if I was going to rent a bike it would happen sometime in the central part of the country. When I got to Hue I started looking around for places that would let me rent a bike long-term but couldn’t find any. Da Nang was a wasted day (as previously mentioned), and the next city was Hoi An. With Hoi An being a tourist town, it seemed likely that I could find a company accommodating to my needs. Unfortunately everyone in Hoi An wanted me to go on their guided tour with one of their riders – since who would be crazy enough to just rent a motorcycle and drive themselves through a country they have no experience with? (Me) Adding to the complication – and actually this was the primary challenge – was the fact that I wasn’t planning to bring the motorcycle back to Hoi An. My plan was to take the bike from Hoi An to Saigon and leave it there. (There are companies that specialize in these types of rentals, but they assume you are going from Hanoi to Saigon or Saigon to Hanoi…)
…Very long story short… After I found someone willing to play ball, we did some negotiating, came up with a price, made a contract, and I think if I wreck his bike he gets my first born son. Also, since the bike “worked” when I got it, it has to work when I return it, and any repair costs are mine to pay for. (Naturally this is going to come into play.)
Moto-Cyclin’ Day 1:
Day 1 was supposed to be an introductory session on the bike. I had driven it around Hoi An and was starting to feel confident in my ability to navigate city streets, other traffic, and pedestrians at around 20km/h. After going back and forth on if I should drive the “Old Ho Chi Minh Trail” through the mountains or take “Highway 1” down the coast, I eventually decided on the coastal route. [Crap, more background…]
Here’s the logic behind that:
The Old Trail is considered more scenic, goes through (and up) the mountains, and is supposed to have much less traffic. It also involves driving long periods in the mountains between civilization, the roads can be absolute crap in some places, and if something does happen, there may not be anyone around to help.
Highway 1 is THE highway that everyone uses to travel the country. All of the buses, trucks, and everyone else drive on this road – meaning that traffic and other drivers would be a regular sight. The roads are also supposed to be patched up more frequently as potholes appear, and a repair shop is never more than a mile or two away.
My predisposition as a morning person, I felt that if I started driving each day around 5:30 AM or so (as the sun came up), I could beat most of the traffic each day, yet still get the benefits of Highway 1. And so, the night before I was supposed to leave, I did not sleep very well. I’m fairly sure this was due to a sense of both fear and excitement. Was I making a terrible mistake? How safe would I be? How awesome was this going to be? My feelings ranged somewhere between “Santa is coming” and “I can’t believe I just bet that much money on ‘black'”
I woke up at 4:30AM the next morning to pack and check out. Check out may not be the right word – the staff was sleeping so I left my key and a note at the desk and set off. I got about 10-15 km down the road before I realized because I never really “checked out”, that the hotel still had my passport. Apparently that’s how this was going to go. I turned around, got my passport, and essentially gave up my ‘early riser’ advantage on the roads. The difference between the first and second time driving on those 10-15 km was evident.
SO…like I said, Day 1 was supposed to be an introductory day. The plan was to ride from Hoi An to Tam Ky – a small city roughly 60km (40 miles) southeast of my starting point. The road was straight and navigation would be easy – just stay on Highway 1. And so that’s what I did – very easily. So easily in fact that by the time I got there it was around 10:30AM and I realized that this city had NOTHING to do or see. So I had to make a choice:
- Stick with the plan and stay here for the day/night and appreciate my introduction to biking
- Drive 250 km further to the next major city (roughly a 500% increase in travel)
I decided to go with option 2. Why not? Things were going well. Sure, it was about 100 degrees at this point, but I had sun screen and a few bottles of water. So – I recalculated my map (Thanks Google Maps!!) and kept going.
The ride was actually extremely calm, and only at one point did I come across any major traffic or chaos. I did happen across various pieces of limestone, brick, animal, watermelon sized potholes, and rice harvests along the way. Those things all add their own challenge to the ride. The rice harvest in particular – apparently after you harvest rice from the patty, you lay it out in the sun (it was 100-something by this point) on the shoulder of the road. The problem is that the shoulder is where you’re supposed to go as a biker when a bus/truck/car/anything bigger than you comes along and wants to pass you.
Along the way, the cities …if you could even call them that… are lined with people who have turned their homes into shops. (This is actually something I’ll write more about later.) I was looking for more water – since it was hot as hell. And so I randomly stopped somewhere – it seemed like a nice little shop/home. I said ‘hello’ and held up an empty bottle of water. As it turns out, I ended up staying for lunch. The guy that ran the shop spoke English and Russian. He was also an English teacher at the school down the street. Go figure! I sat down at his table, he gave me a banana to go along with the bread I had for lunch, and I drank one of the bottles of water I bought from him. It was an extremely odd series of events that I was not expecting – but a really awesome experience. As I was leaving, I got a picture with Chun. Chun was a cool dude.
250 km on a motorcycle does some things to your ass. 2.5 days later, my left cheek is still a little sore. Eventually I arrived in Quy Nhon – a city on the water with a 3 mile coast line and a ton of seafood places to accommodate all of the fishermen that work in these waters.
Day 1 (and all of the rambling that goes along with it) – Complete.