Today I bought a motorbike. Her name is Moon. She’s smooth and easy going, but she doesn’t take any shit from anyone. She’s a backpacker’s dream; strong, reliable, and she looks badass. She’s only 10 years old, but if she could talk, she’d have more stories than a history book. She’s been up and down Vietnam more times than I can probably imagine, bought and sold from one backpacker to another since her conception.
Her previous owner, Lisa from Holland, is the most kind-hearted and lovely person, and treated Moon with as much care and kindness anyone could hope for. She went to the mechanic in every town she stopped in just because, just to make sure Moon was holding up on the 2000+ km trip from HCMC to Hanoi. When something didn’t feel quite right, she had the part repaired or replaced, even when the mechanic said it wasn’t necessary.
But let me go back in time for a second. Why did I just buy a bike and what the hell am I going to do with it?
It all started a few weeks ago in Thailand. I was chatting with a bunch of people I’d met in my hostel, we were having the typical conversation every backpacker has with another backpacker, how long have you been traveling, where have you been, what’s there to do there, where are you going next?
I’d been hearing a lot about Vietnam recently, about how it’s the most beautiful country and I needed to go. This rumor was confirmed again by a few fellow backpackers. Everyone I told I might make it there said, you have to, and you should bike it.
Bike it? What do you mean exactly? It’s a thing backpackers do in Vietnam, apparently. They start in either Hanoi in the north or in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in the south, they buy a motorbike from another backpacker who has just completed the trip, and they take a few weeks to drive the length of Vietnam.
One guy said he hadn’t done it and regretted it immensely, another guy said he had done it and it was the best thing he’s done during his entire trip.
It would be too dangerous (and lonely) to do by myself, so it was looking impossible for me until I met Adam.
I met Adam during my last week in Thailand while bathing elephants at an elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai. In typical Sammie fashion, I criticized his bathing technique and he responded by splashing me with an entire bucket of water. Fair play.
After an extended water fight, ending in introductions and a truce, I learned he is from England and is also traveling solo, so I asked him out for a drink later (and apparently beat him to the punch in doing so).
Over drinks I told him about wanting to drive from the north of Vietnam to the south on a motorbike. No I’d never ridden a motorbike before. He hadn’t either. Actually we both hate motorbikes – death traps, as we both call them. But four days later I landed in Hanoi, Vietnam and he met me two days later.
While waiting for him, I researched and asked around at my backpacking hostel for advice on what kind of bike to buy, where to buy it, and for how much to buy it for. I was told to buy a Honda Win for no more than $250. The backpacking community is obviously in agreement because when I looked on Craigslist I found listing after listing of Honda Wins for $250.
I sent out a bunch of emails in the afternoon and owned Moon by dinnertime.
2 couples and 3 bikes showed up in front of my hostel an hour after I sent out the emails. They had just arrived in Hanoi after 3 weeks traveling from Ho Chi Minh City, the opposite journey we would be doing.
I tried all three bikes out and picked Moon because she felt the most comfortable and smooth. I told them that if I bought her, they’d also have to teach me to ride her. Her owner’s boyfriend took me around the block a few times explaining how to use the clutch, when to switch gears, how to dodge pedestrians, bikes, cars, etc.
He also gave me a bunch of tips and tricks:
- There will be police checkpoints along the way which is bad because we’re driving without international drivers licenses. The first line of defense is not to stop. Just keep driving. If they’re motivated enough to get on their bikes and chase you down, you will have to bribe them. They will take as much money as you have, so the trick is to have a fake wallet with only 100,000 VND (about $5) in it. That way when they take your wallet and look through it, they’ll only take the 100,000.
- Use your horn and use it constantly, as the locals do.
- Get oil changes every 400 – 500 km and oil your chain every 300 or so km.
- If you get into an accident with a local, check yourself and your bikes and of all is ok, ride away. When they see westerners, they see walking ATMs and they will take you for all you’re worth if they can.
Adam completed the purchase of his bike, Hank, today! Hank belonged to Moon’s owner’s boyfriend. So they will make the trip back down to HCMC as they did to Hanoi, together.
After a lot if stalling, hemming, hawing, and waiting for traffic to die down, Adam and I got on our bikes to practice driving manual around 8 p.m.
As if trying to learn how to drive a manual bike isn’t hard enough, this city is absolute chaos. No one stops at intersections. Everyone goes in head on, bikes, cars, pedestrians, and honks, shimmies, and pushes their way through until they (hopefully) make in to the other side.
It’s intimidating, to say the least. Actually, it’s fucking psychotic. Adam and I can’t wait to get the hell out of the city, away from intersections and a million people.
But at 8 p.m. we finally got up the courage to get on our bikes since the traffic had noticeably calmed.
They hadn’t been driven in 24 hours, so the automatic starter wasn’t starting them up. They were too cold. The parking attendant watched in amusement, laughing at our complete ignorance for a good 10 minutes as we struggled to self-teach, but he finally gave in and came to our rescue. THANK GOD.
Adam was, admittedly, hesitant to start. He took a lot of time positioning his feet, testing the horn, and sizing up the traffic. I went around the block twice before swooping in with a gentle, you’ll never learn if you don’t start, and that’s all it took. Off he went like a bat out of hell, such a natural.
We rode around the lake where there were 4 lanes and minimal intersections so could practice changing to higher gears and going faster than the cramped streets of the old quarter allowed.
I hadn’t wanted to continue practicing, but was so glad we forced ourselves to do it. We have a lot to learn yet, but we’re on our way.
Soaked to the bone, freezing, and exhausted from nerves, we searched the streets for a restaurant still open to celebrate with food and a strong drink, a beer for Adam, and coffee for me.
Adam said a few choice, English phrases, bullocks, for fucks sake, etc, and I smiled, apologized for getting him into this. We agreed we really missed sunny, warm, friendly Thailand from the back of an automatic scooter.
Yep, this is going to be one helluva adventure. We’re scared shitless and excited. Both of us are 100% out of our comfort zones and looking forward to challenging ourselves.
We took one more day to get ready for the big ride. We ran around the city all day trying to try find random odds and ends such as leather gloves, ponchos, tarps to wrap our bags in, our fake/extra wallet to keep on us if we get pulled over by police, medicine, snacks, etc.
This would have been easy in the states. I would have gone to a strip mall with a Super Target and a Home Depot next to each other and it all would have been done in a matter of a half hour. But not in Asia, and especially not in Hanoi.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter, where my hostel is located, is an odd place. Each street sells one product. Can you imagine it? There is a shoe street, store after store after store of all shoes, there’s a sunglasses street and a motor street and a craft street and a toy street.
This has evolved due to the history of Hanoi:
“Although the old section of Hanoi is often called the “36 Old Streets,” there are more than 36 actual streets. Some researchers believe that the number 36 came from the 15th century when there might have been 36 guild locations, which were workshop areas, not streets. When streets were later developed, the guild names were applied to the streets. Others attribute the 36 to a more abstract concept. The number nine in Asia represents the concept of “plenty.” Nine times the four directions makes 36, which simply means “many.” There are now more than 70 streets in the area.
Some streets have achieved fame by their inclusion in popular guidebooks. Han Gai Street offers silk clothing ready-made and tailored, embroidery, and silver products. Hang Quat, the street that formerly sold silk and feather fans, now stuns the visitor by its brilliantly colored funeral and festival flags and religious objects and clothing. To Thinh Street connects the above two and is still the wood turner’s street. Hang Ma glimmers with shiny paper products, such as gift wrappings, wedding decorations and miniature paper objects to burn for the dead. Lan Ong Street is a sensual delight of textures and smells emanating from the sacks of herbal medicinal products: leaves, roots, barks, and powders.”
And when I say store, you probably imagine a proper store with a door and display area in the front. Instead picture going to the storage unit you keep all your old stuff in. That’s what a store here is like, the metal roll down door and all.
Not only is it difficult to find what you need because of the one product per street thing, but also because of the absolute unwillingness of the people to help you even when you have managed to find what you need. I’ve become used to being blatantly ignored or being told a cold, flat “no” while trying to mime/sign language a question.
The combination of all these factors made today less than enjoyable, but by the end of the afternoon we had all the items we needed checked off our list.
We’re ready to ride!
Due to the absolute freaking chaos of the traffic, Adam and I agreed leaving early would be best to try to beat some of the traffic.
My alarm went off at 5 AM. I wasn’t ready to give up my warm bed for a (most likely) rainy, cold, long, scary day yet, so I reset my alarm for 5:30. It rang again far too quickly and, this time, Adam stuck his head over the edge of the top bunk to see me in my bottom bunk. Time to get up.
I stepped outside of the blackness of our 20 person dorm room and 6 people were sitting around the door with empty bottles of beer and Jack Daniels, still drinking from the night before.
Adam and I walked down empty streets to the parking area to gather our bikes. After successfully kick-starting our bikes without the help of the parking attendant (small victory!), we drove them back to our hostel, gathered our things, and stuffed down a quick hostel breakfast and coffee.
We wrapped our packs in tarps we bought on tarp street and bungeed them to the racks on the backs of our bikes.
We hid our real wallets and made our decoy wallets more available if we were stopped by police, we strapped on our helmets, looked at each other and knew it was time to go.
By this time the traffic had started to pick up, but still wasn’t in it’s full force.
10 minutes into our drive out of the city, a man on a scooter pulled up to us at an intersection and pointed to Adam’s front tire. Wouldn’t you know, it was flat.
Adam was beside himself and I couldn’t help laughing. Our luck! In situations such as these, all you really can do is laugh anyway.
Two men were standing outside of the store we happened to stop in front of. One of them pointed to the flat tire, put up his hands to tell us to wait, and ran across the street. Adam and I looked at each other and shrugged. Sure, why not? We didn’t know what else to do anyway, so we waited.
A few minutes later, the man came running back with a pump and a tire repair kit. Praise Jesus, this man is a saint.
We watched in awe as he found a tiny pin in the tire, repaired it, pumped it up and gave it back to us as good new. Adam gave the guy 100,000 VND for his trouble and then we were on the road again!!
The next 2 hours were a blur of honking, LOTS of honking, dodging cars and motorbikes weaving in and out of each other, checking my mirror to make sure Adam was still behind me, dodging cows and chickens crossing the road (Insert why did the chicken cross the road joke) rice field after small town after rice field, food carts and women with baskets of fruit on bikes and women in bamboo hats in rice fields and stray dogs watching us ride by and ducks being roasted on skewers and buses almost running us off the road and men waving at me as they drove past and children playing in the dirt and town after town after town.
At 10 AM, after two and a half hours of driving, my ass had had enough. I pulled to the side in a small town and told Adam I needed a coffee. A woman ushered us into her restaurant (again, picture a storage unit, but with a low table and plastic children’s chairs). I made a cup with my hand and motioned drinking from it while saying coffee? She nodded enthusiastically and waved us in. We shrugged at eachother and sat down, thankful to be still for a minute.
A few minutes later a large bowl of Pho, noodle soup with cabbage and onions and duck, was placed in front of me. I started laughing. Adam joked, enjoy that coffee! Another bowl of Pho was placed in front of him seconds later. We laughed and laughed. It was actually very delicious.
On the road again.
Smaller towns, crappier roads, longer stretches of rice fields in between towns, less bikes and cars on the road.
I finally started enjoying the ride.
32 km to Ninh Binh.
27 km to Ninh Binh.
18 km to Ninh Binh.
(My ass is killing me, but we’re so close.)
15 km to Ninh Binh.
9 km to Ninh Binh.
3 km to Ninh Binh.
WE MADE IT to NINH BINH.
Police were stationed at an intersection in town. We looked the other way, not giving them the opportunity to stop us.
After checking out Ninh Bihn and not being impressed, we decided to continue driving to Tam Coc, a national park we were going to hit the next morning. And what a great decision that was. We found a backpacker hostel with friendly, helpful staff and clean room with an ACTUAL SHOWER instead of only a hose over the toilet. Haven’t used a shower with a door in 5 weeks!
We treated ourselves to a beer (or two), cheers to making it here alive!
My horn stopped working halfway through today and Adam wants to get his oil changed, so we’ll be heading to the mechanic in the morning before heading to Yen Cat, our day 2 destination!