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

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.

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.

Nowhere did I feel that more than in the seaside town of Hoi An, originally a trading port in the fifteenth century. Its cobblestoned streets are crowded with cafés, galleries and antiques shops; several luxury resorts have opened on Cua Dai Beach. On a bike rented from the Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort & Spa, I rode through a fishing village and stopped for a beer at the End of the World. Tran Van Khoa, one of the restaurant’s owners, took me on an eco-tour of the nearby islands and mangroves that his family has fished for generations. In a wicker saucer, we paddled across the bay, then dined on shrimp and crab prepared by his mother. Progress has allowed Khoa to preserve his heritage at the same time that modernization threatens its survival: Eight years ago, a fishing village just like his was flattened to make room for the Victoria Hoi An Resort.

As we headed west out of Hoi An on Highway 14, a sign indicated a blind curve ahead. I reminded myself that 40 percent of motorcycle fatalities occur on a turn. I steered slowly around it and was rewarded with another spectacular vista, of mountains and clouds. I coasted for miles and found my mind drifting to home, work and my fear of going broke—my fear of failure.

Was it Robert Frost who said that the best way out is always through? Suddenly I was in another bend, where a herd of water buffalo were blocking the road and a motorized tower of hay was
racing toward me. I swerved through the buffalo, and the pavement ahead was smooth and flat and all mine. I gunned the throttle and rode.

ELISABETH ROBINSON IS THE AUTHOR OF THE TRUE AND OUTSTANDING ADVENTURES OF THE HUNT SISTERS.


RIDING THE HO CHI MINH HIGHWAY

Getting Around

Myths and Mountains’ 16-day trip starts at $6,595 per person, including a guide, a Honda 150cc bike, and all meals and hotels; mythsandmountains.com.

You can also rent a motorbike in most towns for around $10 a day.

Where to stay

Hanoi
The hip Cathedral district has several new boutique hotels, such as Church’s, built near the 500-year-old Ba Da pagoda. Rates start at $57.50 per night;churchhotel.com.vn.

Hoi An
The Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort & Spa is a seaside oasis of tiledroof bungalows, koi ponds and a palm-lined infinity pool. Rooms start at $70 per night; http://www.victoriahotels-asia.com/eng/hotels-in-vietnam/hoi-an-beach-resort-spa.

Ho Chi Minh City
In the center of this modern metropolis is the new Rex Hotel, with 24- hour rooftop dining and views (between skyscrapers) of the Saigon River. Rates start at $110; rexhotelvietnam.com.

Before you go
Vaccinations are not required for Vietnam, but the following are recommended: hepatitis A and B, Japanese encephalitis, rabies and typhoid. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov) for updates.

You will need a valid motorcycle license to drive a bike in Vietnam. I completed a 15-hour certification course and signed up for an extra day of private dirt-bike lessons before my trip. Contact the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (msf-usa.org) for information on training sites in your area. —E.R.

(Originally published in the December 2006/January 2007 issue of MORE. Pick up our June issue to read about Jan Goodwin’s experience kayaking through Vietnam’s waters.)

First Published Tue, 2010-05-18 08:53

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