It started with a bong. Head foggy, helmet clouded, screaming down the ten-lane two-way in downtown Hanoi, clutching my life in a white-knuckled grip on the handlebars of the motorcycle I haven’t the foggiest, cloudiest idea how to control. In spite of the cool breeze wafting through the streaks of streets, I’m drenched in a nervous sweat that chills to the bone. I lost my travel buddy long ago and can’t focus enough to get my bearings. I stall again at a stop light, hop off on shaky legs, and guide the metal beast to a quiet street corner. Snatching the key and snapping a picture of the intersection, I head out in search of my distant hotel, guided by nothing more than a desire to get away from the bike. And the black comedy of my situation brings the taste of blood to my tongue: we’re leaving tomorrow for a 12-day motorcycle trip from Hanoi in the extreme north of Vietnam all the way to Ho Chi Minh City in the extreme south in order to beat the clock and make a flight out of the country in time.
Let me catch my breath for a second. Let’s leave past-me wandering the crowded metropolis alleys for a while, clutching his helmet, dazed and annoyed, desperately mispronouncing the street on which his hotel is located to anyone who will listen and gesticulating like a mime in a poor bid for directions, while we recap on how exactly the pitiful sap got here.
I arrived in Hanoi two days previously with my South-East Asia travel buddy, James Wise. After spending a month roaming south Thailand and the parts of Cambodia near the Angkor Wat temple complex, we finally arrived in Vietnam, the place where we’d learn to tame the two-wheeled metal monster.
A mutual friend of ours, Jon, had set us out on the trip with grandiose visions of a bachelor blow-out for the books. Jon was getting married in England the following summer to his beloved, Jess, and when this was announced, we three lads put our heads together laying plans to celebrate his last days of bachelorhood in an unorthodox way – instead of spending our savings on a night of seedy Louisiana stripclub-hopping foolery that none of us would remember the next day let alone the rest of our lives, we’d spend as much on a few months of unforgettable country-hopping adventures on the other side of the world. So, with the free schedules of youth, we all bought open-ended tickets to Bangkok and planned a route to Vietnam, where we hoped to spend a month riding trains, taking a three-day guided motorcycle tour of a small section of the north, and eating delicious food cheaply.
Fast forward to a month before departure. Jon decided he’d rather spend the money and the time with his fiancée in her hometown in England and in the place they met, McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, India. While James and I had hung out many times over the years, we only knew one another through our friendship with Jon; but we’d spent a lot of time, energy, and excitement on thinking about the trip – and a considerable chunk on a flight to Thailand – and so we we were still on board, resigned to either spending months together and becoming fast friends or else hating one another and going our separate ways in Asia.
And as much of my time as my patience will allow. At least a week.
Whatever the fate of our fellowship, we both planned to still accommodate Jon, and now Jess, into the excursion abroad, deciding to extend the trip to India and meet the couple in Dharamsala once we’d experienced South-East Asia.
Our trio reduced to a duo, we set out in early May 2014. I arrived in Bangkok a day before James, and once we met up, we ate like kings and took in the devil-may-care nightlife. From there, we lazed on a beach on the Thai island of Ko Chang, explored the ancient Angkor Wat temple ruins and impoverished alleys of Siem Reap, Cambodia, trekked through the Thai jungles of Khao Yai National Park, and returned to Bangkok for a coup and a curfew.
On Ko Chang, we rented scooters and zoomed around the lone circular roadway that spans the island, and it was there, perhaps overconfident from a week of scootering, that our plan for the brief guided motorcycle trip of north Vietnam morphed into a country-spanning autonomous mad dash between the time of our arrival in Hanoi and our exit from Vietnam via Ho Chi Minh City fourteen days later. And it was on Ko Chang that we booked our flights accordingly, seeing each leg of our trip leading up to Vietnam as a prelude, a preparation for the bike adventure, the beginning stages before the boss battle with the unruly mechanized beasts.
And we stocked up on magic mushrooms, accordingly.
Hands on driving in Ko Chang let us rehearse the basics of balance and steering, balcony watching in Cambodia taught us the fundamentals of motorcycle gear-shifting and braking, while excursions out into the wild woodlands of the Thai countryside or the wilder back-streets of the Thai capital taught us to trust one another and each others’ instincts in foreign lands – all useful lessons for two people soon to embark on a quest to traverse an unfamiliar country on an unfamiliar machine.
We arrived in Hanoi on a rainy morning and, despite learning to navigate the clogged, boisterous streets of other big South-East Asian cities, the Vietnamese mega-city found us both underprepared and overwhelmed. Our cabbie from the airport to downtown Hanoi tried to rip us off (and probably still made more money off us than was fair), my wallet was zapped and no ATM could be found, and the stormy weather brought added congestion to the already packed roads, along with the attendant wailing of horns and short tempered uvulae. Add to this the uncomfortable feeling known to many a traveler to a new and alien place who has yet to find accommodations, of having all of your possessions on your person, weighing and slowing you down psychologically and physically. Needing to get our bearings and stow our backpacks, we checked into the first hostel we come across, the aptly named Backpackers’ Hostel.
Exploring the premises, we immediately regretted the decision to stay here one night and immediately were thankful for our decision to stay here only one night. One of the most wretched hives of scum and villainy this side of Mos Eisley, the Hostel caters to some of the vilest clients anywhere in the galaxy – the young brotastic Western traveler. Replace the Modal Nodes with euro-pop, and there you have it.
“What is love? Baby, don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me. No more.”
A real dudes-with-sleeveless-shirts-and-pastel-hats-crushing-beers-with-identical-chums-while-throngs-of-blonde-girls-with-Sanskrit-foot-tattoos-and-noserings-exchange-vegan-baked-good-recipes kind of place that I may have enjoyed five years previously (and did enjoy five years previously in Athens) but apparently have grown too old and set-in-my-ways for, the kind of place that is best described with a hyphen-full sentence, because you don’t really feel like wasting any more time on describing it.
After dropping off our backpacks and having a beer and a cigarette – simultaneously picking up tips from fellow Westerners on where to get bikes and how to avoid getting arrested for illegally driving in Vietnam, we made a quick getaway, thankful to be back on the mad streets, feeling more at home now in the flow and commotion than in the drunken boasts and gap-year travel stories. We booked a room at a quieter place for the next night for a dollar cheaper than we were paying at Van Wilder’s Vietnamese Bender, and spent the next two days becoming more accustomed with the pace of the city and making tentative plans for our trip south. Deciding to rent a pair of newer Honda Winn motorcycles, which we could pick up in Hanoi and drop off in Ho Chi Minh City, we did so, obtaining them the day before heading out of town.
Let’s return to past-me, still out there wandering aimlessly. Before long, he’s lost. Really, he’s been lost since he picked out a helmet and left the garage of the bike rental office, riding on the back of a scooter driven by an employee out to the thoroughfare many blocks from the few streets that had become familiar over the last two days. Lost since he first beheld the Winn that would become a part of his story for the next two weeks and the rest of his life. Lost since the mechanics gave him and James a broken-English, onomatopoeiastic crash course in how to guide the throbbing metal monsters – right hand throttle (“vroom-vroom”), right fingers front brake (“no”), right foot back brake (also “no”), left fingers clutch (“tchok chang-change”), left foot gear shift (also “tchok”, “one,” “N,” “two,” “three,” “four”).
It looks angry that you’re even attempting to figure it out.
Lost since the instructions were given and he was told he’d need to find gas soon and was pointed in the direction of the nearest station, across a Frogger nightmare of a sea of motorbikes, scooters, buses, and semi-trucks. Lost since his first encounter with the Vietnamese tobacco bong offered by the mechanics and his head started swimming in the tobacco buzz of a lifetime – thuoc Laos, “Laos tobacco,” strong shag smoked through a bamboo cylinder that hits you in the chest and the brain like Mike Tyson in the late 80s, ubiquitous among the shopkeepers, drivers, and other service providers of north Vietnam; if you patronize the establishment, you can take a puff from the communal cancer reservoir before you go, but you probably shouldn’t be driving anywhere any time soon.
Perhaps as he trekked through streets, all dedicated to one product – the one with numerous shops all selling only wooden ladders, or another road with only light bulbs on offer, or another catering solely to the area rug market – perhaps as he pointed questioningly and chanted the name of his destination like a mantra, “Hang Bak” – undoubtedly not pronounced nearly the way it appears – at everyone he came across, his mind drifted to the parts of the city he knew. The beautiful stone walkway surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake (“Lake of the Restored Sword,” the divine saber used to ward of the Chinese in the 15th century, returned to its heavenly owners at the lake’s bottom by a giant golden turtle), where dance and t’ai chi classes took in the view of the island fortress by sunlight or where the peddlers of photo-copied travel books and any upper or downer you could desire prowled under the halogen lamps by night. The landmark of a three-story KFC, known to him for having a quasi-public bathroom, near one end of the lake, the remnants of the old stone city gates and the archways bedecked in hammers, sickles, doves, and red stars (clovers and blue moons!) on the other. The bookshop near the eight-story karaoke bar, where he and James had bought a map of the country to plot out their course. The eateries and kopi luwak coffee stalls near the hotel. The fleet of xích lô rickshaws that swept through the more touristy sections of town, piloted by reed-thin men in head-to-toe khakis and pith helmets.
As I began to see the green helmets of the xích lô charioteers bobbing in and out of the crowd, I figured I was on the right track and eventually stumbled into the bro-packers delight, Backpackers’ Hostel, whose staff pointed me to my new hotel, probably before chest bumping and shotgunning a Heineken. I sat down in the lobby/restaurant of our new hotel, where James was waiting with a Tiger beer for each of us, telling me how he was starting to get worried in my hour-long absence.
Shortly before losing him on the bikes earlier, I saw James shift accidentally from first gear to neutral – something quite easy for novices to do, on these bikes anyhow, since gear shifting is done with a flick of the left foot (up once for first, up again for neutral, then up again for second, again for third, and fourth, then the same back down for down-shifting, except for neutral, which is only engaged once you’ve shifted all the way down to first and then back up once; so you can forget that neutral is between first and second when up-shifting if you aren’t used to the machine).
Hey, kids! Connect the dots to create a magical gear-shift pedal!
Once you’re in neutral at a red light and panicking to get back in gear when the light turns green and motorists behind you are liberally laying on the horn, if you’re revving the throttle like mad while changing gears, you may frantically kick the bike from neutral to second and pop a sweet, but unintentional and shocking, wheelie. On this occasion, James did so, and his front tire came down hard, brushing the trunk of a car parked on the side of the street. After giving a thumbs up to a nearby teen and zooming off swervingly, he disappeared from sight, but he somehow, amid much stalling and restarting, found the hotel relatively quickly, and his bike was secured out front. He seemed confident that we’d be able to learn the ropes, or gears, and be able to roll out the next morning.
I, on the other hand, did not share this feeling, nor did I want to betray my utter terror or the wobbliness of my trembling-kneed meander back to the hotel from where I’d left my bike stranded. Similarly, I didn’t want to think about the bike at all for a while, never mind that, again, we were leaving on a twelve-day motorcycle trip in the morning. Playing the tough guy, I rolled a cigarette, finished the beer and ordered another to go, and, with a hardened nod to James, took my vices alone up to the rooftop balcony, where I partook ruggedly as my headphones blasted the one album I had on my phone – part one of Justin Timberlake’s “20/20 Experience.”