vietnam: part I
A Motorcycle Adventure
On a very hot Hong Kong day in September, my two travel partners and I were fresh off the plane, excited to see a whole new world of strange people and strange sights. We were immediately going to see parts of southwest China, the incredible province of Yunnan and from there, venture to Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and finally Thailand. Luckily, events went roughly to plan, but we learned one of the big lessons of travel pretty immediately; plans aren’t worth very much! Rough outlines and a good dose of confidence are what you end up using most. We couldn’t get visas to Yunnan because of a Chinese holiday and thereafter, because it was a weekend and the embassy would be closed. Not liking Hong Kong enough to stay, we decided over beers and some confused Hong Kong citizens that we would go straight to Vietnam the next day, buy motorcycles and ride to Saigon, aka Ho Chi Minh City, aka Hoch. Easily enough, we booked a great flight, flew only two hours, ate a free meal, drank a free beer and we were in Vietnam - one of the coolest countries on the planet. You will see why in the coming tale. Even though the journey was not incredibly harrowing, it is a personal adventure classic.
Hanoi was crazy to say the least. For those who have been to far out places, understand that this was my first time in an asian country. It was pretty different than the states in only the greatest of ways. We made a great decision to buy a three month visa instead the one month option, which I recommend because you may want to stay longer than you have planned, trust me. I believe at the time it was 45 dollars for a three month visa, one entry. We landed a quick taxi to downtown Hanoi with a fellow traveler - a great way to save cash. That taxi cab was eye-opening. Vietnam has one great overlording law of the road - keep calm and keep moving. You can somehow safely walk through a traffic fuckdown of bikes and cars, completely in the middle of the road, and completely unharmed. “Just don’t step backward.” That was immediately the most helpful thing we first learned from a fellow traveler as he walked across the swarming street. Our hostel was the incredible Golden Charm, which lived right up to its name and then some. Everyone there was friendly and helpful, going great lengths to communicate in English and provide good food. The rooms were also great. We paid somewhere around five dollars each for a perfect air conditioned room that was clean, had a great bathroom and sizable shower; about as nice as something you’d get in the states for a hundred dollars at the very least. If you do go to Hanoi, stay at the Golden Charm!
We didn't stay long in the hostel before venturing straight out to scour the streets for food, beers and codeine. This is another, I guess, somewhat ill kept secret of Vietnam; drugs are very easy to find. Codeine is available over the counter, as are benzodiazepines like Valium. I’m not a huge fan of this class of drugs, but codeine is a very pleasent high and thus began a drug fueled Vietnam adventure through the jungles and the streets and the beaches. If you ever need to get away from everything, spend less than 10 bucks a day and relax harder than ever before, Vietnam is your place. That first night in Hanoi was pretty sweet overall. Taking in the smells and the atmosphere of the city was incredibly exciting. Nightlife there is enjoyed by everyone - the Vietnamese go out to have food, drink beers, listen to loud music and generally enjoy their temperate paradise. It's a real exciting place to be at night, busy and alive.
Streets full of beer drinking locals and tourists were everywhere, so we decided to join in on the fun, sitting down in the middle of the road and ordering three large Saigon beers. These are the beer corners in Hanoi and they are cool. You have to sit on very tiny seats though. And you might have to get up when the cops come and disrupt the fun to steal your chairs. I seriously don’t know why this happened, but a truck drove in, cops jumped out in their tan-yellow uniforms yelling and threw fifteen stackable chairs in the back of the van, then drove off. Everyone sat back down and kept drinking. Tight, I like this country already. We bought some sunglasses and I bought a four dollar counterfeit Rolex watch that served well through the journey. Wandering around, we came to a courtyard where beautiful Vietnamese women acted out a dramatic ritual scene on an illuminated stage. I felt at home at night there in Hanoi. We had settled down in our minds from the earlier culture shock and were now very much enjoying every minute of all these new sights and new smells. Cigarettes cost a cool fifty cents per pack and beer was everywhere. En route to returning to the hostel we got some street food; a tasty, greasy, oily soup that was absolutely dank, filled with vegetables and small cuts of beef. The street food is safe for the most part, it's super cheap and is usually the best tasting, so don't be shy. We retired to our cool air conditioned room to get a good night's rest - we were buying motorbikes the next day after all!
Upon waking, we had some customary breakfast pho at the hostel and headed out into the heat of the day to explore the city a little in the daytime. Let me tell you, it was hot, hot, hot. I sweated though every pore of my body, leaving a puddle of sweat wherever I sat down. This was much hotter than Hong Kong or any place I had ever been, a wet humid bone crumbling consciousness dimming heat. We walked all around Hanoi, through the various side streets, the central tourist areas, visited Ho Chi Minh’s mosoleum and the Vietnam War Museum as well. The descriptions of the war in the museum weren’t exactly pro american but truthfully they could have been harsher than they were. We were painfully aware of the fact that we were guests in a country our nation sought to destroy because of insecurities and ideology - we should have understood then that the people of this country are a truly resilient and robust people, communist or not. But that’s just hindsight. It's only worth so much.
The day became hotter still and it only seemed right to head back into the central hostel district to find cold perspiring beers. I also needed to figure out a way to get my phone working. A friendly motorbike taxi driver name Vi gave me a ride to a phone store so they could unlock it for international use, allowing me to use the cheap ubiquitous sim cards. It didn't work because the phone had been permentanly locked for some reason - don’t ask me how or why, but we returned to my friends and sat down for some beers with ole Vi. He spoke great english and told us about some bikes that we could purchase from his cousin. We decided to go look at them immediately. He and his bike taxi friends took us across town, jerking to and fro on the back of the small scooters. The part of town we ended up in was outside of the tourist beat and there was lots of dog meat to be eaten there, though we thought better of it and didn’t have any. Vi’s cousin was very tatted up, part of some gang in town we guessed. The two bikes we test drove were Honda semi automatic scooters - simply ones you shift manually but don’t have a manual clutch lever; the foot peg gearshift is connected to an automatic mechanical clutch. The bikes ran well, but I was immediately very aware that riding a scooter was not going to work for me. They are way too small to be comfortable and have the handling of cardboard box. Vi quoted us an outrageous price of something like 400 dollars, which was way too much for these bikes. Most bikes can be found for 200 dollars or less. We decided to disengage the deal and just pay him for his time.
We returned to central Hanoi, had some food and continued to walk around. We made plans to have dinner with a Vietnamese traveler we met in Kowloon, Hong Hong the week before, at a hostel inside a building that sold exclusively sex toys and porn mags. Weird memory. Anyway, our new friend Phan Hong was to meet us to have dinner downtown. The restaurant was a large open air courtyard that had some tasty items, though I don’t remember what I had exactly. Really all the food in Nam is pretty good overall. Hong told us about his work in Vietnamese nature conservation - he was an administrator for government wildlife protection. A pretty incredible job I think. The program sounded like it was in the inchoate growing stages but would be in good hands if Hong anything to do about it. We also made plans to have pho at his favorite place the following night, our last night in Hanoi before hopefully heading out into the unknown.
The next day we followed a lead to some garages on the outskirts of town. There were a small strip of garages amid concrete housing, organized in a sort of shanty town vibe. The bikes we looked at were all pretty clean, some more than others. I was in the market for a Honda Win Sufat - the Vietnamese version of the usually cheap Chinese-made Honda Win. Presumably a more reliable, better made engine. I found one at the place next door and bought it without thinking too much about it. I overpaid for my bike, the 110 cc Honda Sufat, but the bike lasted pretty well considering the shenanigans that followed. One thing that I did not make sure of that I really should have paid attention to was the registration card not matching the Vin number on my bike - I assumed it was correct. My mechanic had just grabbed the wrong registration card out of a pile he had. If you decide to buy a bike in Nam make damn sure the registration is matching, otherwise you can’t sell it in Saigon!! My travel buds bought two scooters, both Yamaha Nuevos, 125 cc bikes, fully automatic trans and with very little room. It’s hilarious that we took these things over 1500 kms through Vietnam, but its doable and fun as hell.
We rolled out of there like kings and followed one of the mechanics to go find full face helmets, something we insisted on buying no matter what. I paid about 80 USD for my helmet and 250 for my bike. So the investment was not so bad considering we now had ultimate control over our transportation. A quick note on what to look for if you want to do a similar motorcycle trip. First, get a full face helmet, they can be found easily if you ask around. The other helmets are trash and do nothing to filter the road grit, plus if you hit any hornets like we did, you won't get stung in the eye or lose your jaw in a crash. Second, choose the bike which will work for your level of riding experience and comfort. A scooter is a quite easy point and shoot driver and the Yamaha Nuevos are a good reliable bet for a completely novice rider. Expect to pay 200 or a little more for one of these babies. The Honda Win has multiple versions. The Chinese ones are generally painted very cool to inspire people to buy them but it's a crapshoot whether your bike will run well or not; they are very cheap. For a Chinese made version, expect to pay 150-200, pay no more. The Vietnamese Sufat version is slightly more expensive and it is possible to find modern 2014 made Sufat bikes for around 450 or so. The modern version will likely give you no maintenance issues besides occasional flat tires. The older Sufats are just like the Chinese bikes only slightly better, you really should look them over and look for the word Sufat on the engine block and registration card. Older Sufats are worth 200-300 depending on condition.
Wins are manual motorcycles and require shifting knowledge but have some advantages if you can ride one as riders will agree. For one, shifting allows you to downshift, which is valuable for taking corners or slowing down without using your shitty brakes. Downshifting regulates the speed your engine is capable of and reduces loss of control that hard braking can produce in corners. Secondly, the wheel base is longer, the wheels are larger and the bike therefore covers rocks a bit easier. It is by no means a dirt bike, but is more of one compared to a scooter. Similarly, you have access to more torque than an auto scooter has and this will aid you in climbing certain terrain. Other reasons include slightly better gas mileage, ease of repair and finally the fact that you are riding a real motorcycle and not a scooter. It matters.
Insurance isn't a necessity and is difficult to acquire if you don't have a Vietnamese approved license. You simply need to avoid crashing, as my friend pointed out to me, as I was considering the implications of no insurance. This is why a full face is a life saver and it is also why you should really gauge your capability on a motorbike and decide carefully. Vietnam has more accidents on the road than anywhere else and you will see why. However, this journey can be done and be done safely if you take it slow. The bikes you will be riding are capable of a general top speed of just over 65 miles per hour, or about 100 km/h, so it's not like you will be flying. Watch Twist of the Wrist Two to learn more about motorcycle handling! It's on YouTube.
Riding around Hanoi was sketchy, but there is a flow to how the traffic works. You use your horn liberally so that people can echolocate you and you just keep going forward until something absolutely stops you. You weave around people, bikes, obstacles, dogs, cats, banana peels, the whole shebang. We took the bikes around a bit more but got back to the hostel pretty quickly to get ready for our dinner with Hong. The pho restaurant was pretty tasty, but pho is good all around that country to be honest. It's really hard to find bad pho. We had a nice quiet dinner with a few beers and laughs, said so long to Mr. Phan Hong and retired to the beds. We would be leaving at 5 in the morning to avoid traffic and get our bearings.
That next morning was super cool; the morning light was just descending on us and the city still enveloped with fog. It was also actually cold outside. I saw an old woman in a conical rice hat driving a cart of chickens, clucking and clambering around. It felt like real Asia and I thought to myself this will be a good trip, four months in Southeast Asia, fuck yes. We secured our bags with bungee cords and test drove a bit to make sure they were sturdy. Our plan was to make it to Cat Ba Island instead of going to the popular Halong Bay. Cat Ba is a close coastal island that is generally less busy than Halong Bay, where people party and shenaniganize. The island is equally beautiful, being only slightly south from Halong and containing similar rock formations. It was supposed to be a pretty easy 110 km ride to Haiphong - our jumping off point. We started driving as the sun ascended and began heating up the foggy humid landscape. The road was pretty well maintained and there were a shitload of scooters out, flying across the jungles and marshes. I decided to take it slow at around 50 mph to get bearings and get comfortable shifting my actual motorcycle - not no stupid automatic scooter. One of my buds, H, decided to take it zero to a hundred real quick and outran us by quite a few miles. Directions are hard to follow along these roads and he got lost pretty much immediately, having to trace steps back to us. One big rule: stay together as much as you can while you're out on the road and don't drive at night! You will get lost very fast. My other bud W and I sat down to have some coffee, or Ca Phe Sua - a super tasty hot coffee drink that is percolated through a small aluminum contraption and flavored by condensed milk. It is a pretty goddamn tasty beverage. We had two of those and sat down watching the rain begin pouring on the streets. All of the motorbike drivers put there ponchos stat and continued driving. Our bags were covered with ponchos and we had some ponchos for our bodies as well. Believe me, you will need at least two good ponchos for this sort of jaunt and at least good 3 bungee cords.
H called us, got directions and finally showed up to eat some slime salad with tentacles and we got the fuck out of there, trying to make it to the ferry in time. The people at the coffee ship had given us the route to a closer ferry and we made it there pretty fast but incorrectly thought that they had given us wrong directions and we decided to send it back the other way to where we knew there was a ferry. That took us an hour of serious rain driving and we managed to get on the ferry with only a few minutes to spare. We secured the bikes on the back of the ferry and enjoyed the brief hour ride along the dirty water embankments. We smoked cigarettes and watched the waves roll back and forth all the way to Cat Ba, which means Sandy Women Island. The legend is that three women died a long time ago and washed up on shore. Kind of a bleak story. The island is incredible though. We got off the ferry and on to our hogs, ready to adventure into unknown island beauty. You have to take a pretty sizable straight away to get to the main part of the island. W and I decided to race it and he won by a sizable margin, his scooter flying with a shrill whirring sound as I was still struggling to shift fast enough to keep up. Didn't work so well. Another note, scooters a faster than Wins, but still they aren't real motorcycles.
That ride up the jungle mountains, rising swiftly above the sea is one of my best memories ever. It was a free feeling, a purely ecstatic realization that the adventure had begun, we had made it.