Motorcycling Through Vietnam

What happens when you hit Ho Chi Minh Highway on a two-cylinder Honda?

By Elisabeth Robinson
Photograph: Photo courtesy of iStock

At least I wasn’t spinning my wheels at a desk. After 15 years as a film executive and a producer, I’d stored up enough determination and money to quit and pursue a dream of writing. My first novel sold, and then I froze. Bills were piling up faster than new pages. But rather than confront my fear of failure, I was learning how to downshift and say “help!” in Vietnamese.

The morning we were to start riding the trail out of Hanoi, I called my mother. I knew that if I was going to die, she’d expect me to phone first. When I hung up, I realized that I was truly afraid of sliding under a truck of pigs. But after all this buildup—even my doorman said he’d pray for me—how could I just ride in the outfitter’s van? Then I remembered something I had seen my first night in Vietnam. Across the street from my hotel, a little girl in orange velvet pants walked behind her mother, with her face in a bowl. She stopped eating when she noticed me. I smiled. She stared, then timidly waved and smiled back. It felt like a blessing, a personal welcome to Vietnam. So I strapped on my helmet and got on my Honda.

CORIANDER, LIME AND LEMONGRASS
The spices of Vietnam color its lush hills and valleys. Shades of green and yellow blurred into each other as I buzzed down the blacktop, the rain-sweetened breeze cooling my face. After three days on the bike and 300 miles of miraculously empty pavement, I was feeling confident enough to take my hand off the handlebar and wave at the children who ran after me in multicolored ponchos, screaming “Hello! Hello!” This loud welcome was part of what I loved about the country, and about being on a motorcycle: I was close enough to feel the friendliness of the people.

Imagine you’re on a bus, sitting halfway back. You can’t see anything, so you move up to the first row. It’s better, but you wish you were in a car. Now you are, but the windows are closed. You crank them open and fresh air rushes in. You still can’t see enough, so you put the top down. Suddenly the whole world is yours: the treetops,
the blue hills, the clouds. Now remove the doors and the dashboard (and any passengers who don’t want to stop at that flea market—or do). It’s just you flying through the countryside. Free. The wind isn’t just blowing on your face; you’re in the wind. You can see the entire road, and you can react quickly because the machine you’re driving has power, and you control it.

That’s why you don’t just take the bus.

INDIGO MOUNTAINS STRIPED WITH WISPY CLOUDS
As the road climbed into the Truong Son Mountains, past a river and strawhutted hamlets, I witnessed a day in Vietnam: a man fixing an ancient bicycle; a girl in a pinafore cutting a stack
of playing cards and handing an eight of clubs to her friend; an old man and a woman sleeping in separate corners of a shack on stilts; between them, a father playing with his daughter on the floor.

Life is lived in the open in Vietnam. And everywhere, women are working. Hard. Bent over rice paddies and bubbling pots of noodles, or driving cattle, motorbikes and boats, often with children strapped to their backs.

One night, over spring rolls and pork with lemongrass, Cutright and Cuong swapped war stories. I pointed out that they had once tried to kill each other. “Not out of hatred,” Cuong said. “I wasn’t fighting him,” Cutright added. “I was fighting communism.” In part because a generation fled Vietnam in the 1970s, about 50 percent of its population now is under 25; for them, the war is just a story. Near the lake where John McCain’s plane was shot down stands a memorial to his capture, as well as a supermarket and a disco. On the Khe Sanh battlefield, where thousands of Vietnamese perished in Quáng Tri Province, the new military museum resembles a Howard Johnson’s. The Vietnamese have moved on.

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Comments

Anh Wu09.29.2013

Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam was replaced by the newly built Ho Chi Minh road. The part in Laos is more original but covered in jungle. Vietnamese traffic looks scary but has its own rule: it's like a river and you flow in it.

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