Riding high in Vietnam
For a novice like myself, who has never set their lazy butt on a scooter or motorbike, the idea of driving several hundred kilometres down a country overrun with bikes like Vietnam might be daunting. But a split decision while travelling south from Hoi An to Nha Trang Vietnam had me saddling up on my first ever “ride”
Motorcycling is not for everyone, Vietnam is not for everyone, but if you’re going to learn to ride somewhere, Vietnam is it!
First of all, bike riding is cheap in Vietnam. I paid $150 USD for 3 days riding, which included an amazing local guide, basic guesthouse accommodation, a few sightseeing options and the bike. Additional food, petrol and sightseeing were paid for by myself as I travelled.
The tour was private and included a 1hr lesson on the bike- it was then that it was determined I was not going to ride a proper motorbike for the trip, and instead given a scooter. A small plastic dinky scooter. The guide said girls will struggle on a bigger bike without experience on Vietnam’s roads. I wanted to have a real life tantrum. How dare he say an inexperienced girl who hasn’t ridden so much as a bicycle in the past 10 years couldn’t ride a motorbike down gravel roads with traffic whizzing past and indifferent road rules?
But of course, he was right.
No matter what your skill level on a bike, Vietnam is sure to test you. As a novice, the twists and turns of a paved road started me off, but after a few hours, the city roads gave way to the rural and I was stuck learning to control the 2 wheels on the loose gravel. It is hard and tiring work for a newbie.
You are certain to get the hang of it eventually. You either ride on or get the bus and anyone who has taken that wretched overnight backpacker bus in Vietnam can attest, just stay on the bike. It’s a much nicer option, with the wind in your hair and the world fleeting by you… Why would you ever step foot in the stinky slow bus again?
Day one was about finding my feet, or pedal, so to speak. Learning when to go fast and slow, and when to break. Dodging potholes became second nature and we winded our way up through the jungle villages and headed towards what was once the Viet Cong front line.
The local guide made sure we were having the time of our lives by ensuring we were safe on the roads, but also that we were well fed. Some of the best meals in Vietnam were had on that short road trip. Being on two wheels, we travelled slower, we took in more if the small towns, and in doing so, we were able to stop at local roadside stalls. The food was fresh, local and plentiful. We slurped down fresh Pho soup made by grandmothers out of their house, munched on mangos picked right from the tree, and dined in beer halls on goat curry with rowdy local men. Every meal told a story.
I started getting cocky by day 2 but is was quickly pushed out of me within minutes after falling off the bike into the side ditch of the road. Cow sewerage, old water, oil and food scraps covered me. With no change of clothes and 2 days left of riding, it was sure to make anyone cautious on the road after that. I can still recall the smell… It lingered for days!
The third day is about getting amongst it. We were lucky enough to drive up next to cashew nut trees and pepper trees and taste the fresh produce along the way. We stopped by the Dalat waterfall and swung by a coffee plantation to check out the extravagant Kopi Luwak, the world’s most expensive coffee. I didn’t try it, as the reason it is so expensive is because it was excreted the small Asian Palm Civet. Basically, cat poop coffee.
By the fourth day, this novice rider was ready for the big time. Ho Chi Minh City. With a population of 8.2 million people and 7 million motorbikes and scooters, this was not child’s play. A foreign driver here needs wit and understanding to get from A to B in rush hour traffic.
As the monsoon rain crashed down on our bikes, and visors went up, I reflected on the amazing journey I had experienced the few days before. From never setting foot behind the pedal to mastering it in rush hour city traffic, it was eye-opening and made me feel like I had won an Olympic medal of travellers. Here I was, 4 days after ever sitting on a bike, to masterfully navigating the 5 pm traffic of Saigon. My bike was skidding through 6inches of water as I entered my first roundabout. Back home We are lucky to encounter one or two other cars. Here? The roundabout was filled with close to 80 other bikes and scooters and vying for a spot to get to their next destination.
Sure, there was an element of fear, but this was very quickly replaced with sheer awe, as I learned the Vietnam city road code. If you have seen the pictures of a chaotic Vietnam, you will probably also understand why I had my heart in my chest as I approached the intersection, but what my guide had failed to tell me, I learnt in the next few minutes.
Give way rules in Vietnam are taken very seriously.
As I came up to the roundabout and flicked by indicator, I was surprised to find the path around me clearing. The other road users were actually giving me the right of way. No one was yelling, no horns were being tooted. It was a very civilised affair. It was nowhere near as scary as the guidebooks will have you believe. The unwritten driving rule in Vietnam seems to be “give way to anyone who’s wheel seems to be in front of yours” which means slower traffic in the city, but also a more placid and forgiving road.
If you can drive in your home city, you can drive in Vietnam. I feel like I am proof of that!