Vietnam from a Motorbike (or Forcing Myself to Change Gears)
I’ve been in Vietnam for three days. In the past three days I’ve driven about 270 kilometers on a motorbike. I’ve slept in three different hotels. I’ve learned to say about three Vietnamese words. (Vietnamese is so hard!) I’ve had so much fun!
Martin’s friend from high school, Coy, visits Vietnam every year for a few months and happens to be in Vietnam right now. He is one of the reasons why we decided to come to this country. My Vietnam experience would be much different without Coy. I am driving one of his motorbikes. I can depend on him to communicate in Vietnamese. He navigates. He knows how to pick good hotels. He can find a mechanic when we need one. He knows a reasonable price for things. It’s like having a tour guide except he’s been your friend for years. It’s pretty much the best thing ever.
Almost everyone in Vietnam travels via motorbike.
You can drive motorbikes anywhere, including through a crowded market. I’m amazed at the things people carry on a motorbike – sometimes more things than would fit in a car! Most motorbikes don’t have very big engines; they rarely go more than 50 mph. All of Coy’s motorbikes are Honda ‘67s (or Honda SS-50s). They are the quintessential Vietnamese motorbike. My bike has a 100cc engine, which is tiny when I compare it to my brother’s Honda Shadow in the States with a 750cc engine.
I had never driven a motorbike before three days ago. On the afternoon of my first day in Vietnam, Coy took me to a quieter area of Saigon and taught me how to drive. By the end of the 30 minute lesson, I knew how to start, stop, and shift. Knowing how is a lot different from being able to actually do it…
Our biggest challenge was to get out of Saigon on the motorbikes. In the States, typically 1-2 motorcycles take up one lane. In Vietnam, as many motorbikes as you can fit in one spot can take up a lane. I’ve sat at stoplights surrounded by motorbikes, often so close we are bumping feet. Since I typically kill the engine at least once when trying to get moving (especially on the first day), that situation terrified me. But when I did manage to get moving, the feeling of success was exhilarating.
We try to stay off the major highways and take country roads. This means more scenery and less traffic. Today, one stretch of the road was lined with thousands of blooming plants and trees. We rode along the coast, smelling the salty ocean air. Riding the motorbike reminds me of hiking in the woods. The outdoors is part of the experience. I’m not cut off from the world like I am in a car or bus. I’m part of the world. It’s amazing.
Rest areas are a favorite part of motorbiking in Vietnam.
Fully equipped with hammocks, lounge chairs, cool drinks, shade and sometimes WiFi, these spots are just what my body needs to recuperate from the taxing nature of riding a motorbike. Coconuts and cane juice are plentiful. At one rest area, several brides and grooms were having their pictures taken.
Breaking down is part of the Vietnam motorbiking experience.
Coy had a flat tire and ran out of gas, twice. Martin’s carburetor is a little wonky, backfiring occasionally. The cable for his clutch broke. My front tire’s ball baring wore out causing my front tire to shake back and forth violently. And that’s just what happened after we left Saigon. It took us over 2 hours to leave Saigon on the first day because of needed repairs. Thankfully, it’s been relatively easy to get things fixed since there are mechanic shops everywhere.
We are hanging out in Lagi for a couple of days. Lagi is a nice coastal town with delicious seafood and friendly people. I love being near the ocean again.
Similar to some coastal places I visited in Mexico, half-built resorts stand abandoned along the beach. This resort would have been impressively large.
The market is my favorite place to get dinner. Street vendors have all sorts of foods, some delicious, some are an acquired taste. One delicacy here is duck fetus. Essentially, it is a hard boiled egg but the egg has been allowed to form into a baby duck. Coy got tricked into trying one, but then discovered that he actually liked it. This friendly woman tried to get Martin and I to try it too. No thanks.
Motorbiking through Vietnam is by far the scariest thing I’ve ever done, yet I am having the time of my life. Every day my nerves are tested and get a little bit stronger. I’m moving fast yet I’m relaxed and happy.
We don’t have much of an itinerary. February 8 is TET or Vietnamese New Year. The country pretty much shuts down for a week surrounding the holiday. Therefore, we need to be in a touristy town so that we will be able to get food. As a result, we have a couple of days to drive the 80 kilometers to Mui Ne. What will we do until then? Enjoy the laid-back pace of Lagi.