You Weren't there Man
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
The most stunning of any country I’ve ever been to is, by a million miles, Vietnam. The combination of incredibly kind people and properly awesome views of both epic, misty mountains and golden beaches is out-of-this-world good.
Like many countries in Asia, they have a fantastic visa system of “If you don’t piss around in our country too long, you don’t have to pay to come in” – a winner for broke ex-students with £3,000 to last a 3 month trip around south east Asia. Vietnam’s policy allowed you 14 days in the country, and if you surpassed this limit you’d be charged a few hundred thousand Dong (yes, you read that right) when you try to leave the place later on.
This leads to an interesting dilemma for the traveller, as Vietnam is a country rich with shit to do. They’ve got war memorials. They’ve got temples. They’ve got a lot of morally dubious “massage” parlours.
But you have two weeks to try and see it all! At least, you have two weeks to see it all if you’re too stingy to pay the VND 500,000 (US $25) So how do you do it?
What we decided to do - in a horrifically unoriginal eureka moment – was to travel from the South of Vietnam to the North (something America never accomplished) by motorbike. As previously mentioned, horribly unoriginal. This has been the standard tourism technique in Vietnam for decades, especially for reckless 19-year-old hoodlums like us.
The way it works is this: You buy a bike for a couple hundred US dollars from a tourist who’s just completed their own motorbike tour of Vietnam. Then you have your jolly fortnight expedition and at the other end of the country, you sell it on again. The cycle continues (pun intended) until this poor, assaulted bike eventually gives up the ghost to some poor (literally), exhausted backpacker. Normally right on the middle of a dual carriageway, kilometres away from a garage - but more on that later.
This is particularly spectacular because you don’t even really have to spend money on the bikes - they’re more of an investment.
Though that does assume that you manage to not fuck up the bike so irreparably that you loose money when you try to sell it on at the other end – which obviously we did. All in all we only lost US $150, and with the cost of petrol I’d estimate we spent about £170 on transport for 2 people – and it was worth every Vietnamese Dong.
So when you’re planning your 14 day escapade, you’ll need to spend about 10 days riding – that’s if you’re gonna do 150-250km every day that you ride. This leaves you with 4 days spare to sort your shit out. If you want 2 days off in the middle of your trip (to rest up, see sights, etc) then you must buy your bike on the first day you arrive.
Not impossible if you can use Facebook, as there are tonnes of helpful “Bike Selling Ho Chi Minh/Hanoi” pages, but it’s definitely a squeeze.
This also means once you arrive at the other end of the country in 2 weeks, covered in dirt and fuel and quite a few noodles you dropped (because chop sticks are hard) you now have 1 day to sell your bikes – or you lose US $400.
We were incredibly lucky to find two Australians who were parting with their beloved Honda Dreams for a bargain $200 apiece – they were absolute pigs.
Chinese knock offs that we would soon learn did not have the world-renowned reliability of Hondas. Semi-automatic too, so we would get to chose when to change gear, but not have to mess around with a clutch.
This was lucky, because neither me nor my pal had ever ridden a motorbike before.
So we bought the bikes in Ho Chi Minh, having landed a few hours ago. We got a solid night’s sleep in the hostel and set out at 10am the next morning. This was our first mistake. 10am is rush hour, which would have been obvious to everyone expect two kids
who’d never had jobs outside of a restaurant before. It was more manic then I have ever seen a road be.
You know at the start of a disaster movie when the camera’s panning out over scenes of devastation and panic? There’s children running around screaming, people carriers full of desperate families careening into traffic, all put to the deafening symphony of a million blasted horns.
That’s what it was like. Except we were in the middle of it.
This is not the ideal environment to learn how to ride a motorcycle. Our Australian buddies had told us where go and stop were – and had even been magnanimous enough to show us the gears. But apart from riding our bikes two kilometres to the hostel the night before, we had never ridden. Trying to drive out of the Southern Capital during rush hour was certainly an efficient tutorial.
There were thousands of bikes, everywhere. At a red light - if you were the kind of rule abiding citizen then actually looked to see what colour the lights were- you were
packed in like sardines. A foot away on each side of you were more bikes.
There were bikes with three people on the seat, and bikes with wardrobes or bed frames strapped haphazardly to the back. At one part of our journey, we saw a motorbike (with a bigger engine then ours… embarrassing) being ridden by four children, all without helmets and the oldest one looking about 13.
It was total madness. It was also the most fun I’ve ever had driving since.
After a few hours we picked it up (top tip: use your horn for literally everything. Think you might turn left? Horn. Thinking about overtaking? Horn. See a cool looking cloud and want to alert everyone in the vicinity? Horn) After the first few days we were proficient enough to ride reasonably safely; with only one bad crash involving a large chunk of concrete in the middle of a dirt road, and me flying over it.
We stayed in a lot of different kinds of places over the two weeks – we tried dipping in and out of the mountains, which were insane; and the coast, which was beautiful in a way I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. We initially thought the food was very plain, before learning on our last day that we’d been eating it wrong the entire time.
We did make it to Hanoi before the visa ran out, with a lavish one day to spare. As we rode into Hanoi – now well-seasoned to the mesh of honking and metal and exhaust fumes that surrounded each city - we glided through the city streets, heads held high, proud of what we’d accomplished. Or at least we would have, if my “Honda” hadn’t conked out 40 km shy of the capital.
Instead we sort of trundled into the city, bouncing along on broken suspension and praying that each obscenely loud gear change wouldn’t be it’s last. Covered in sweat and soot but with massive grins. In the end my buddy’s bike (due to his significantly safer riding approach) was still in great condition and was sold again for $200, whereas mine had been
beaten around significantly more and was given away for a measly $50 in desperation to get rid of it before our flight.
The best money I’ve ever spent was renting two semiautomatic bikes for a fortnight in Vietnam - for $50.
It wasn’t a graceful end to our trip, but it was certainly more in character of the journey.