When you think of Pamplona, you envision the running of the bulls. Make those charging beasts motorbikes, and you have Hanoi. Racing toward you, overflowing the city’s narrow streets, are thousands of motorized Vietnamese rushing to work, to school and back home. They are transporting four or five children, stacks of bamboo, televisions and mattresses. And they don’t bother with traffic lights or laws, relying instead on good brakes, a good horn and good luck. Their engines whine like lawn mowers, and their horns, as if they were the Road Runner on helium. These are the sounds of Hanoi.
The bustling capital was the starting point for my 16-day motorcycle tour of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh Highway. My guide, Le Van Cuong, was a former North Vietnamese soldier. My traveling companions, John Cutright and Randall Ruble, were both avid bikers, and vets of different kinds: Cutright fought in the Vietnam War, and Ruble is a veterinarian who cares for draft horses.
On our first day, we rode in a pedicab through the twisting maze of Hanoi’s overflowing street kitchens and silk shops to the tree-lined boulevards of the French Quarter, where a van waited to take us on a side trip to Ha Long Bay. On a fishing junk, we sailed between the deep green limestone islands of the 580-square-mile Bay of the Descending Dragon, stopping in a grotto to eat freshly caught squid and prawns. I slid my bare feet into the cool water and let the tranquillity and beauty of the bay dissolve some of my fears about hitting the trail—and Hanoi’s traffic chaos—the next day.
On the road back to the city, which was barely wide enough for two vehicles, I watched as buses, towering trucks and motorbikes hurled themselves at one another. The near misses were breathtakingly comic, until I saw a mangled bike next to a casket. When traffic accidents are fatal in Vietnam, they don’t bother with a stretcher—they bring a red, gilt-edged coffin right to the scene. Why exactly was I risking my neck when I could just take the bus?
THE ROAD TO REINVENTION
“If you go on this trip, you will come back in a coffin,” Kim Stuart told me when I was planning my trip with the outfitter Myths and Mountains. Last year he had taken—and survived—the same motorcycle tour, which runs alongside the former military supply line known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, from Hanoi in the north to what was once Saigon in the south. “You’ll face every hazard imaginable,” he warned, “and some you can’t
believe, like wandering water buffalo.”
I am not a thrill seeker. Ask any of my friends, who call me Practical Pig. But as a 40-something, I was so stuck in a rut, and so eager for something to propel me out of it, that when the opportunity to take this adventure came along, I grabbed it even though I’d never been on a motorcycle. There was also the fact that, for my generation, Vietnam has always meant war. I wanted to see what had happened to the distant country whose images were etched in my memory. Besides, I had driven a scooter in Greece. Once. How much harder could a bigger bike be?
In a storefront driver’s ed class that I took before the trip, I learned about single-vehicle fatality rates while the instructors, a couple in their forties, dropped references to the time she “went over the handlebars” and he “slid under a semi.” I whispered to another student that the teachers sure had a lot of accidents. “My dad says there are two kinds of bikers,” he replied. “The kind who have fallen, and the kind who will.”
The next morning, I hoisted my thigh over a black Yamaha 125cc in an empty parking lot, and I felt cool just straddling it. I recalled that my nickname in the seventh grade was Easy Rider, inspired solely by my initials. When the engine revved, I said, “This is going to be fun.” Then I released the brake and my motorcycle lurched forward—without me.