On the Road in Vietnam
It has been nearly 5 weeks since Martin and I arrived in Vietnam, strapped on helmets, and hit the road on motorbikes. In those 5 weeks, we’ve only made it to the center of the country! Vietnam is long! But we’ve also fallen into a sort of routine.
First stop: coffee.
Vietnamese coffee is crazy strong, like twice the strength of an espresso, and about that size. It is brewed in a personal-sized tin that slowly drips the coffee into your cup. Most Vietnamese drink it with sugar and sweetened condensed milk, a leftover influence from the French. Sometimes the coffee beans are even ground with sugar. Martin and I prefer our coffee black without sugar. Coffee is served with a cup of tea that is sometimes iced and sometimes hot, depending on the mood of the coffee shop owner. I like to add the tea to my coffee to water it down to my strength preference. I get plenty of strange looks from locals.
The main road in Vietnam is Highway 1.
We avoid this road as much as possible. It is filled with huge vehicles that assume motorbikes will move out of their way no matter what. When the road is a divided highway, it is tolerable. Four lanes of traffic provide plenty of room for busses to pass other cars while motorbikes stay to the shoulders. However, when the median disappears, all hell breaks loose. It becomes a two lane road with tiny shoulders.
More times than I can count an oncoming bus will be passing a huge truck and will be taking up the entire road, pushing me onto the very edge of the shoulder, whizzing by just inches from me. My strategy (yes, it happens so often I have a strategy) is to slow down to not meet the bus and the truck in mid-pass. Slowing down also helps me keep control of the motorbike should I need to drive somewhere else other than the road.
We start looking for a place to spend the night in the late afternoon.
We usually spend $12-18 USD/night for three people in one room. The rooms vary in quality and size. We always check the room before agreeing to the price. Clean, fast internet, hot water, and soft mattresses are critical. For some reason the Vietnamese think sleeping on mattresses as hard as the ground is good for you. My bones beg to differ.
The motorbikes are Honda ‘67s.
They were built in the late 1960s, and most Vietnamese laugh at our bikes (except for the re-built one; they offer to buy that one). Because they are nearly 50 years old and generally repaired just enough to work, we visit a mechanic nearly every day. Flat tires, leaky oil, headlights, engine rebuild, front fork rebuild, chain tightening, carburetor cleaning, oil change, missing bolts and nuts, new clutch wires, etc. Most of the time, the repair is no big deal, costing only $1-2 USD and taking only minutes to fix.
One day we were halfway through a mountain pass when my bike’s chain fell off. It was drizzling and foggy. Tour busses and big gas trucks whizzed along the narrow mountain road. Fortunately, this happened at a bend in the road where an extra pull off lane existed, making it a safe place to take apart a bike. Also fortunately, a German bicycler we had met earlier stopped to help; he knew how to fix motorbikes. Since the chain fell off both the front and back gears, we were worried the bike had a more serious issue. The German assured us everything looked normal. I made it safely down the mountain pass and promptly visited a mechanic who finished putting the rest of the parts back on my bike. I paid the man $0.45 for 5 minutes of his time.
We are usually on the road for 7-8 hours a day, driving about 100-150 kilometers.
The road, weather, and traffic all dictate how fast we drive. We also stop often. To take a photo. To use the bathroom. To get a drink. To eat a snack. To rest. To fix a bike. To put on rain gear. To take off rain gear. We usually have a destination in mind at the beginning of the day, but as corny as it sounds this is all about the journey.
Throughout all of this, I accepted a job working for Wall Street English in Shenzhen, China.
I’m thrilled about this opportunity to teach English again and I’m excited to move to China. However, getting a work visa in China requires a ton of paperwork (not unlike many other countries). So, I stop at photocopy places and print off medical report forms as we pass through a town. I take photos of signed documents while waiting for the mechanic to fix a bike. I research which hospital in central Vietnam will be the safest for me to get a chest X-ray, EKG, and blood drawn. I use Skype to call the FBI about the status my background check. I take courses to earn my TEFL certificate. I research flights back to the United States. (Yep. Part of the visa process has to be done in the US.)
The motorbike road trip is almost over.
My friend needs to be in Saigon in less than 2 weeks. In that time we will drive over 500 kilometers. I don’t know what I will see or what I will experience or if I’m ready for any of it. But that’s part of the adventure of life.