Vietnam VIA motorcycle

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Flag of Vietnam  , Hồ Chí Minh,
Tuesday, July 12, 2011

          Hanoi is a Vietnam's second largest city, consisting of about 8 million people.  After being in the city for about 15 minutes, I was convinced that all 8 million people spent the entirety of there day racing each other around town on there motorbikes.  On top of this, there seemed to be no rules to driving in Hanoi.  Stoplights were about as useful as clothes in a nudist colony.  An American living in Hanoi described trying to cross Hanoi traffic like this; "imagine you are the rock in a flowing river, and the motorbikes represent the water flowing around you.  If you want to cross a street, waiting for a clearing in traffic is pointless; just walk at a consistent pace through the middle of traffic".  And this was the place I was going to learn how to drive a manual motorcycle…Shit!

            After returning to Hanoi from Halong Bay, Mike, Blake and I were all pretty excited to go pick up our bikes.  After checking into our hotel rooms, we headed to the dealership to pick them up.  Before leaving for Halong, we each paid ($333) for our bikes and were given a receipt to bring back to the dealer to pick them up.  Once I presented the dealer with the receipt, he looked at me and said “what is this, this is not from my shop”.  My jaw dropped.  After everything we had been through in the first week of arriving in Vietnam, this was the final straw.  Right before I could open my mouth, he informed me he was joking and led us to the bikes.

            Blake was the first to test drive his bike.  With prior motorcycle experience, he drove the bike down the street and back without any problems.  Mike went second.  He had driven manual dirt bikes in the past, so he had little trouble picking it up himself.  Then it was my turn.  Not only had I never driven a legit motorcycle before, but I have never driven a manual automobile of any type, ever, and I was about to attempt to learn how in Hanoi, Vietnam.  A friend described my new experience as being thrown into the running of the bulls and not knowing how to walk.  After about another 10 minutes of trying to get it into first gear without stalling out, I took off down the busy street, my terrified friends looking on.  I made my way down the mini-highway at a blistering pace of about 8 MPH, squeezing the handle bars with all my strength.  Eventually, I came around a corner, back to where my relieved friends were standing.  It was finally time to start our journey towards Saigon.  

            We wanted to get right on the highway, and avoid any traffic.  We headed back down the same mini-highway I practiced on.  After a quick pit stop to fill our bikes with gas, we were ready to go.  None of us are very good with directions, and we quickly became lost in the Hanoi rush-hour traffic.  After several ineffective stops to ask for directions to the highway, we finally came across a man willing to lead us there for 100,000 VND (about $5).  We followed the man for about 10 minutes until we finally hit the highway (an hour after we started the journey).  After about 30 minutes on the highway, it started pouring.  I can not emphasize the word pouring enough.  We pulled over to get out of the rain, and wait for a brief clearing to continue the trip.  When we finally got the clearing Blake and I took off like a bat out of hell.  The only problem was that Mike was no where to be found.  It took me about a mile to catch Blake and wave him to pull over again.  At this point, the rain had picked up again.  Blake volunteered to drive against the traffic (there was no way to get to the other side of the highway due to a long barrier) and find Mike.  About an hour later, Mike and Blake came zipping down the highway to where I was waiting.  They informed me that Mike’s bike did not start when we took off, and he had to find someone to fix it.  Luckily, there are roadside shops everywhere in Vietnam, so Mike didn’t have to drive far to find help.  The problem was the sparkplug, which would prove to be a common problem along our journey.

            We had originally planned to have a short day of driving and stop in the city on Vinh.  We didn’t even come close.  Having spent half of our day on the side of the highway, darkness quickly began to approach.  To make matters worse, our highway turned into a dirt road and it started raining heavily again.  This is where I started to really question what I was getting myself into.  We decided to stop in the city of Ninh Binh, which was less the half of the way to Vinh (our original destination for the first day).  Ninh Binh was one of the prettier cities we stopped at in Vietnam.  The surrounding mountains framed the entirety of the city.  I took the rest of the evening to get my accelerated heart rate back under control.

            We planned to get back on the road at a reasonable time the next morning.  However, after an eventful first day on the road, we didn’t leave the hotel until after lunch the following day.  The following week consisted of frequent breakdowns, and a majority of our time spent at road shops getting our shitty bikes worked on.  The only upside to spending our days at roadside shops was that we got to know some interesting locals.  Usually, our stops served as the evening entertainment, as the shop owners would call the entirety of the town to come by and stare blatantly at us.  From Hanoi to Hue (central Vietnam) there are no tourists, and we were often the first white people these people have ever met in person.  There was no English spoken, which made it very difficult to interact with anybody outside of our group.  This also caused a problem when ordering foods.  Vietnam is known for its strange and interesting foods, which was something I was looking forward to prior to the trip.  Not being able to read or speak the language, we were stuck with ordering the only Vietnamese food we knew of…pho. 

            Pho is a common delicacy all over Vietnam, but outside of Hanoi and Saigon, that was just about all we could find.  It consists of noodles, parsley, and some kind of mystery meat with a broth dumped on top.  It was OK the fist few times I ate it, but after a week of Pho three times a day, I never wanted to see a noodle and broth dish again. 

            We had one memorable day on the road with few problems.  There is a stretch of highway from Vinh to Hue, which consisted of some breathtaking scenery.  During this stretch we rode through rice paddies, mountains and alongside the ocean.  The best part about this stretch was that the bikes didn’t break down once…we’ll almost.  We had agreed to make some good time this day and not stop until we got to the costal city of Hue.  About 20 miles outside of Hue, my bike sputtered and shut off completely.  Luckily there was a house nearby, and I was able to roll the bike over and ask for assistance.  As usual, I didn’t even have to leave my bike to find help.  I was quickly swarmed by a group of Vietnamese kids and an older man.  Some of the kids and the man were clearly wasted and found humor in our arrival.  The drunken man tried to help by draining my gas tank onto the ground, spilling gasoline all over himself and the kids feet.  About five minutes later he pulled out a cigarette and a lighter.  The man’s hands were completely bandaged, and I questioned whether this was a common occurrence for him.  I tried to explain to him that what he was about to do would not be a good idea, but having not spoke the same language, this was infective.  He grabbed the cigarette, put it in his mouth and attempted to fire up the lighter.  We all backed up and anticipated a disaster.  Luckily there was no disaster.  The man lit, smoked, and put out his cigarette without an incident. It was obvious that this man was not capable of help me, so I thanked him for his efforts and crossed the street to another house with a roadside shop in front. 

            The house was occupied by a young family who seemed to be happy to offer a helping hand.  Not speaking the same language, I went through the same process of motioning what went wrong with the bike.  He spent about 45 minutes trying to help me get my piece of shit Russian motorcycle running again.  The man had a wife and young son, about 12 years old.  The wife spoke a small amount of English, so a short conversation ensued.  I informed her that we were all English teachers working in Thailand, and we had decided to spend our holiday trying to make it from Hanoi to Saigon on our $300 Russian motorcycles.  She translated to her husband and a short burst of laughter followed.  She informed me that her son was a young English student named Hai, and never had the opportunity to practice his English with a native speaker.  He was very shy, often covering his face after he would blurt out short English sentences.  After disappearing into the tiny cement house for moment he returned with an English phrase book.  We spent the next 20 minutes or so having a basic conversation.  Meanwhile, the bike situation was not looking that great, and through his wife, the man informed me that we would need to ride into town to get a specific part for the bike.  After a week or so of breakdowns and having replaced nearly every part of the bike, this was the last straw.  It was already pitch dark out, which was sure to lead to an eventful evening ride to Hue.  We gathered to discuss what to do with the bike.  We had discussed giving the motorcycle away for a while, and this seemed to be the perfect opportunity.  This family was helpful and kind, even offering us food and drinks.  I really admired Hai’s desire to learn English, and thought who better to give the bike away too than Hai.  After handing over the keys and registration, the boy was ecstatic.  I told his mom to keep it for him to drive when he was old enough.  Whether the family kept or sold the bike was not a big deal.  We knew they could easily sell it for $300, which was about a third of the annual salary in Vietnam.  Having done our good deed for the day, we rode to Hue, happy with our decision.

            With 2 bikes and 3 people, we ruled out the idea of driving all the way to Saigon.  We spent the first day trying to sell our bike to anybody who was interested.  We passed a tour shop which offered Motorcycle tours VIA Minsk, and though we would give it a try.  The woman told us to come back later that evening when her boss would be around.  Blake and I decided that we had enough of trying to sell the bike for the day and headed to a pub offering 25 cent beers.  After numerous rounds of beers, 5 o’clock came, and we headed back to the shop to hopefully sell the bikes.  We agreed that $150 for each bike was the minimum we would take.  The guy offered us exactly that, and took the bikes off our hands. We decided to celebrate the sale of the bikes with a “few drink” at the only western bar in town.  We ended up spending the majority of our profits on a crazy night of partying.  More than anything, I was just happy to get rid of the bikes.  The next afternoon, I dragged my hung-over, half drunk ass onto a bus bound for Hoi An.  I’m sure that whoever had the unfortunate task of sitting next to me wished they had never got onto that bus. 

            Hoi An was great.  It has a big French influence, and offered a few attractions to westerners.  We spent a few days there including Cinco de Mayo, before heading to the beach town of Nah Trang via sleeper bus.  The beach at Nah Trang was nice, but living in Thailand, I’m spoiled with some of the best beaches in the world.  After a few days of relaxing, we left for Saigon.

            Saigon is Vietnam’s largest city, consisting of almost 10 million people.  It has a long history with a lot of Vietnam War attractions.  Having three days to spend before flying back to Bangkok, we all wanted to visit the war memorial museum.  Like expected, it was depressing, offering graphic stories and pictures of the wars gruesome nature.  That evening we decided to see a movie at the local theater.  The film, “Thor” was in English with Vietnamese subtitles, and was the first move I had seen in theater in almost a year.  Mike flew out the following day, and Blake and I decided to go to the Chu Chi tunnels, another of Saigon’s famous war attractions.  The tunnels were constructed by the Vietcong and used to infiltrate American defenses.  We spent the day learning more about the war, and even got the opportunity to crawl through these tunnels.  Let me tell you, this is not for a cluster phobic person.  I though to myself “its open to the public, how bad can it be”.  It was about 3 feet high, two feet wide, hot, and pitch dark.  After entering I mentioned to Blake that fat people must get caught in here all the time, how is this legal?  The following day, we flew back to Bangkok.  Vietnam was a very unique experience to me, opening my eyes to a culture and set of lifestyles that I had no clue existed.  
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