Vietnam Motorcycle diaries. Day One: One breakdown, six hours, 170km’s, a red light hotel and complimentary condoms. Used.
Now, where were we...ah that’s right, Vietnam, motorbike, adventure.
Like in all healthy attacks on the habitual rational self, there were certain things left out when deciding to undertake this caper, traversing from the south of Vietnam to the north on the back of a motorbike.
For example: I have never owned, ridden or even straddled a motorbike. So the prospect of negotiating the manual gears and clutch on one was quite daunting. But when in doubt, call on Google. But while Google could teach me how to ride a bike, it couldn’t teach me how to cure my severe incoordination.
But I guess we all begin as virgins and even though evolution had left me behind somewhere along the line I am determined to catch its tail.
Statistics sound harmless, until you become part of them. A daily scrum between over four million motorbikes plays out on Saigon’s streets daily - A detail my tragically un-insured safety depended on.
As a pedestrian Looking on to the madness this congestion has organically created, you can do nothing but shake your head full of orderly traffic rules from home - and avoid the odd motorbike using the footpath as an overtaking lane.
Crossing the road can be quite an exhilarating experience in Saigon; like walking directly towards a firing squad’s relentless bullets with your eyes closed, hand over them - one eye peaking between the parted fingers; Like Moses parting the red sea, taking a step from the footpath and in amongst it; bikes coming within an inch on either side and it’s all playing in slow motion as I slither between the chaotic arrangement rushing past me, like a furious river’s current.
This was to be the environment I would learn to ride a motorbike for the first time. The length of the trip is 1700km, from Saigon in the south to Hanoi in the north.
I bought a motorbike of a mongrel breed, thrown together with all different parts and given a black body. A red communist star is painted on the front. It cost me $300. Danh, the mechanic selling it to me tries to convince me it’s a Honda Win- a popular old 90’s bike. After I arch my legs and mount it like a horse, I don’t care what it is as it feels formidable beneath me. It sends out vibrations of the risk, the hedonism, the adventure, the courage, the original pioneer, one-small-step-for-man-and-one-giant-leap-for-mankind feeling inflating in my breast and edging my chin upward, with a slight lean to the right. But this is soon deflated.
“I sell ten bikes a week to people just like you,” Danh tells me with a smile oblivious to the naive pioneer spirit he has just taken to with a sizeable reality check. This is how the French must have felt when they ran into Captain Cook on Botany Bay.
Buying a motorbike has become part of the well oiled tourist market in both Saigon and Hanoi. It’s become a fad for the breed of backpackers that love to feel the pressure of the frontier as they break on to the other side, as long as thousands of others, awkwardly balancing the Lonely Planet travel guide on their handlebars, are right there beside them.
But with a resolve to take a different route, the adventure bloating my chest, I flicked back the kick stand and pressed the ignition... Stalling once, twice. Lurching forward, the motorbike disgruntled by my rude impatience to join the traffic, I wobbled out into it.
If my speedometer were to work (which it didn’t) it would certainly be struggling to reach 20km’s an hour. Like bones grinding together in communal movement the herd of traffic poked and prodded toward the fringe of the city.
The sky looked pale and felt as if it had a fever. The air is clammy. I buy a face mask from a road-side vendor and a helmet to go with it.
They speak in a tongue here that is communicated with the horn. The louder the horn the more clout you possess on the road. My bike was a mouse with an elephant’s trumpet. The horn was loud and alarming, exaggerating my existence for truck drivers that cannot see me in their rear vision mirror and they move aside.
Bikes push and shove forward. The sun is a nag and merciless; the road is a grill. At every traffic light I receive warnings from fellow scooterers that I should cover up my arms to avoid sunburn. They are extremely sun conscious here like in the rest of South East Asia. Their reasons are not related to health, yet the same reason one is unable to buy a moisturiser not containing bleach whitener in it - their desire to be as pale as a Scottish highlander. All the while, I tell them I’m working on my tan – our desire to be as brown as them.
I am not 60km out of the city when my clutch lever falls limp. The clutch cable has snapped. A chorus of horns erupt. I get off and push. My rucksack is heavy on the back of the bike, making it hard to keep it steady. I have no idea what I am going to do until I spot a mechanics tin shed on the other side of the road.
I’m dripping like a sponge as I’m taken into the shadow of the workshop. A fellow dozing in a hammock amongst a tin cave of spark plugs, scrap metal, tools jumps up and runs over to me. I click at me limp clutch cable to indicate the problem. He smiles, retreats to the back to his cave. He comes out smeared with grease, black; As if he has applied it like mascara to look the part. He’s holding a cable and jabbering something at me, laughing. I suspect he is just informing me of what a crazy foreigner I am. You get that a lot here. But the Vietnamese are used to crazy foreigners. The Americans were here long enough.