The romance of Fall was beginning to wane and she feared the effect winter’s depths would have on her soul. So, she did what any self-preserving woman would do… she picked up her overflowing bucket list and called me up with an inquiry on my availability for adventure?
By Christmas, our flights to Vietnam were booked and by January two 150 cc Hondas were reserved. Ashley and I waited anxiously for our February departure; of course, it helps to pass the time in a place you love to live.
We departed from the Kootenays on February 12th, with butterflies filling our bellies. With a few celebratory airport pints to calm the flutters, we were primed for the 18-hour flight to Vietnam’s capital city of Hanoi. After a couple of days of acclimating, we were ready to pick up our bikes and get those wheels rolling.
Anna, our most gracious host at Eco Luxury Hotel offered to hold our extra baggage until our return and organised our taxi for departure. As we experienced many times down the road, many people do not speak English and pfffft, Google Translate is for the birds. I handed the taxi driver my phone with Google Maps cued up for navigation to Tigit Motorbikes.
After a short and seamless drive, we spot the shop a couple blocks down the way, however, our driver started backing down a side road, taking us away from our destination. Promptly I started looking for a garage door opening, wondering what his plans were.
Maybe I watch too many TV shows, but maybe, just maybe our life was about to take a turn…
Without hesitation, I demanded that he stop immediately. With nerves and excitement running high, we jumped out and grabbed our bags. Had something been lost in translation? Was he truly turning around? Or did we narrowly escape harm’s way?
We walked the rest of the way to the bike shop and acquired two of the newest whips on the lot. We asked to do a practice run down the street and back, but my hands were shaking as I looked at the tiny curb where I needed to descend.
Knowing I’d jumped much higher at home, did not provide that much comfort, as I’ve never done it while landing in a street filled with chaos… it felt like the times we had lined up for the gates on race day and that had me feeling like something else was also nearing the gate. It’s funny what your nerves can do to your mind and what bodily functions get triggered.
We received some helpful tips on our city escape and with shaking hands, I turned on Google Maps to navigate us through the chaotic city streets towards the unknown.
While the streets and language were daunting, we found refuge in our first stop, an all-woman-operated grocery store with cold beers and six puppies.
A pretty good place to decompress from the first few hours on the moto… ten minutes of which were spent witnessing two people hit from their scooter and laying lifeless. A cold beer was in order, to wash that sight from our memory and have a chat about keeping our eyes wide open.
It certainly felt good to be on the bikes with the wind blowing through our hair. We’d decided to keep on, keeping on as far as we could before tiredness kicked in. Our days in the North were misty, cold and moody around some of the most incredible passes.
While views weren’t always enjoyed, the high of being at such grand elevations and being surrounded by such magnificent peaks was enough. We found ourselves laughing at the recurring comment that Vietnam induced around every corner… “Wow! It’s so beautiful;” it truly was. The expanse of Vietnam’s fertile soil had a reach far greater than the eye could see.
We made tentative destination plans, but typically took the day as she came. With a relaxed speed limit of 60 km/h and more S-bends in a route than I’ve ever twisted the throttle around, we didn’t make a mile that quickly.
Riding in the country was far more relaxed than in the city, but there was still an element of fear, with big rigs, tour buses, sleeper buses and cars ruling the roads. The line between oncoming traffic was often disregarded.
Honking was persistent. Sometimes it meant to move, I’m coming. Sometimes it meant to stay where you are, I’m coming. Sometimes it just meant… I’m honking.
What I liked about Vietnam’s rules of the road is they seemed more like friendly suggestions. Though, you need ninja moves because when other vehicles merge from the side streets, they come in hot and they are not shoulder-checking.
Thankfully our experiences from hitting the dirt trails back home, had us moving like a ninja more than once which ensured we kept the rubber side down and our lives intact.
Regardless of the fear factor on the roads, we found our groove along the way with navigation and it seemed Ashley’s skills for maps were best on country roads and the open highway while I was better at the city streets.
Teamwork made the dream work.
Never knowing where we would lay our head at the day’s end meant trying to spot a place before the night fell.
Ash had eagle eyes and could spot a homestay from a mile away. Our homes-away-from-home ranged from $8/night to $70/night.
Sometimes we were in pink lacy throws, another time we were on a floor, lined with well-used fleece blankets while an entire family, including grandma, slept behind a curtain.
There were nights where bed bugs thrived, stained sheets lay beneath and Jack Nicholson’s The Shining haunted our minds.
Those nights we slept with minimal skin showing and rose when the roosters crowed.
On the nights that fell after several days of riding in cold, dismal weather we found rest in down-filled blankets on ever so plush mattresses, with the mini fridge stocked and slippers at the door.
Our morning travels were a groggy couple of hours before we would find ourselves a thick Vietnamese coffee and banh mi or mystery meat for breakfast. While the coffee didn’t agree with me, the banh mi subs sure did. It soon became our morning goal to find a street cart serving up the delectable cuisine.
While most of our trip was flying by the seat of our pants, we were adamant about making it to the Dong Van Market, a stone’s throw from the Chinese border. Villagers trickled down from the mountains adorned in their custom attire, setting up products for sale before the sun rose.
Scooters were not only transportation for the entire family but also lugged 150 kg pigs, baskets filled with chickens and gallon-deep jerry cans, filled with home-made rice wine.
As we walked through the market, the local barber trimmed hair at the pop-up shop near a tree… pigs shrieked in refusal as they were dragged towards tables… roosters crowed and chickens clucked… perhaps with the knowledge of what was in store.
In the centre of it all, we found a table occupied by four elders having a nip.
All it took was one smile and genuine eye contact, then bam!
We were welcomed to the picnic table and offered a shot of rice wine.
And a shot it must be, there is no sipping tolerated… you must toss it back in one soul-warming gulp. I loved it.
Not many words were spoken, just many smiles shared, but it was enough, it was more than enough.
Much of our travels through both the north and south were like this, welcomed by many and a curiosity to all. Calling us from the side streets to eat their soup or buy their vegetables.
Vietnam… she will have you smiling non-stop… the people were tiny in stature but big in personality. If we weren’t revelling in the fresh food that had filled our bellies, sharing a smile, a laugh, or having a hug we were giving a hand squeeze and letting them practice their English with us, which inevitably had much laughter throughout.
It is incredible how people with less in their life are likely to offer much more than those with lots, never have I received a tube of Lay’s chips and left a 10 minute conversation feeling so full of happiness.
After 16 days of riding, we returned to Hanoi. With more confidence and a little more understanding, but no less fearful of the loose road rules, our re-entry to the city was less stressful than our departure.
Our last couple of days were spent hitting the streets for souvenirs, pleasing our palettes with newly acquired tastes and a massage to soothe our 40-something bodies.
The smell of an old musky mop infiltrated my nose whilst I lay on the table awaiting my masseuse. Soon enough I forgot about the smell as I focused on the beating on my back and the torturous dry scalp massage I endured. Never has an hour been so long but I wouldn’t take that hour back for anything.
After all, travelling is not meant to be perfect or go smoothly…
It’s meant to open our mind, fill our adventurous spirits, push our comfort zone and fill our journals with many stories.
And that is just what our 3,202 km moto loop through Vietnam did.
Story and Photographs by Jenny Bateman
Kootenay, BC, Canada
To read more of Jenny’s yarns, she’s our regular columnist, She’s Every Which Way…
See some more of her amazing photography: Jenny Rae Bateman Photography