Why it’s taken me so long to write about this trip
“The trip was characterized by an unbridled high of freedom the likes of which I had seldom ever experienced before. The perilous journey was also accompanied by the constant threat of danger and near-disaster.”
My month and a half long motorcycle adventure across Vietnam was one of the highlights of my life thus far. The reason I haven’t told the story until now is because it’s almost too grand a tale to tell; and I feel as though my heavy-handed words and scant photographs won’t give the journey due justice. And so, I’ve procrastinated up until this point. But that ends now. For the retelling of this epic journey, I will try my very best. I hope my meager efforts will suffice.
It is said that energy and movement go where attention flows. For this trip I had all my thoughts centered on one objective. The name “Ha Noi” was constantly on the top of my mind. This trip was a textbook example of one willing himself to a given destination.
My plan? Drive north. To say that I had done any type of pre-planning, apart from arranging a visa, would be false. I did no research on the country or cities that I’d travel to along the way. I carried no Lonely Planet guide, nor had any desire to look at one. I didn’t book any accommodations in advance. I stayed in hostels, couchsurfed, lofts, with Vietnamese families in their homes, inside of a sauna, outside on the ground, in barns beside piles of hay, shared beds with strangers, and stayed in all types of other wonky places. It was all worth it for an adventure I won’t forget.
People warned me not to attempt the trip – they told me that I would die. Even when I told locals in Saigon that I was planning to drive to Phan Thiet (along the southern coast) they told me that it was too far and I couldn’t drive a motorbike there. But sometimes in life you simply have to press forward and have faith that things will work out, and that’s exactly what I did.
To complete my dream journey of riding a motorcycle across this foreign and exotic land I paid my dues. I took a nasty spill from my motorbike avoiding a crazy truck driver on the return journey from Ha Long. I had an iPod plundered from my room in Saigon. My wallet went on extended holiday – lost or stolen. I endured a difficult breakup with a girl I adored.
I was sipping Vietnamese coffee in an open-air cafe in one of Saigon’s alleys one morning and practicing melodies on my flute. The owner, an older lady, came by to chat with me and told me about a Vietnam legend about a musician named Truong Chi. As she retold the story, Truong Chi was a talented musician who fell in love with a beautiful princess. The princess overheard his music and fell in love with him as well, even though she never saw his face.
Unfortunately, the story has a tragic end as the princess’ father found out what was happening, and by some way or another, Truong Chi was killed. Listening to story I silently hoped that my own fortunes would turn out better.
From the backstreets of Bangkok…
to the rice paddies of the Mekong
“Normally when you have a travel romance, there are no expectations of any type of commitment whatsoever. In a few weeks (or a few days), one or both people are traveling back home. Paths intertwine for a short time and then they separate just as quickly as they joined, leaving behind the bliss of the affair with none of the entanglements or trappings attached to a relationship. But this time, something was different.”
(Note: names of any characters mentioned have been changed in the interest of individual privacy)
First, a bit of backstory.
Where did I get the idea to attempt to undertake such a crazy journey in the first place?
When I first arrived in Bangkok fresh off the plane of my Southeast Asia trip, I met a Belgian fellow named Rocco. Rocco was finishing up several months of backpacking at the time that I was beginning, and had all kinds of stories and advice to share. He completed a motorcycle trip across Vietnam himself, and I thought the experience sounded incredible.
It sounded like something out a book. His stories were perhaps peppered with embellishments and superlatives; for example he told me went through an extraordinary amount of condoms during his time in Vietnam (perhaps 200, if I recall). I couldn’t suss whether all the details he related were true or not. In any case, Rocco had been on all types of crazy adventures, and he inspired me to tackle a few of my own.
Three months of travel around Thailand and Laos had passed and after spending a month in Bangkok for the holidays, and catching up on work for my advertising clients back in San Diego, I was ready to take on a big adventure.
I applied for my Vietnam visa in Bangkok, which was a bit more difficult than the usual visa for an Asian country. For one thing, there was no “visa on arrival” option. On my visa form I had to list a definite arrival date, which was tough because I wasn’t sure what day I would arrive. I planned to pass through Cambodia first.
As it turns out, my very last weekend in Bangkok I had coffee with a Thai girl that I’d met through POF.com. A simple coffee date that changed everything. She spent the night, and Vania (not her real name) and I became completely head-over-heels for one another after only one date. But my Thai visa was nearly expired and I already had my Vietnamese one lined up – I had to travel on. Vania needed little time to make up her mind – she would travel with me to Cambodia.
I won’t go into all the details of our trip through Cambodia, as that’s a topic for another post. But suffice it to say we spent some magical days together. My experiences with her changed my life. I never felt such a strong connection with someone, and in such a short time.
Normally when you have a travel romance, there are no expectations of any type of commitment whatsoever. In a few weeks (or a few days), one or both people are traveling back home. Paths intertwine for a short time and then they separate just as quickly as they joined, leaving behind the bliss of the affair with none of the entanglements or trappings attached to a relationship.
But this time, something was different.
After this experience, I could never go back to the whimsical and detached dating style which characterized my early and mid-20’s. My standards for romance were elevated. Allowing myself to be vulnerable was new and completely terrifying, but ultimately it’s enabled me to value life – and people – more.
At any rate, Vania went back to Thailand after a few weeks and three days later the time arrived to begin my journey across the mystical land of Vietnam.
Bus trip from Cambodia to Vietnam
After three days of island hopping around the South China Sea via sailboat, I packed my things for the night bus from Sihanoukville, Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. And as things usually go in Cambodia, it was chaotic. The moment I stepped out of my bungalow and on to the street, I could not clearly discern which motorbike driver had been sent by the bus company to pick me up. One gentleman kept assuring me that I was supposed to go with him, so I jumped on the back of his bike and off we went…
…To the wrong bus station.
Apparently this guy had no idea where or when my bus to Vietnam was supposed to depart from. The bus “station” where he had taken me was completely deserted, with no signs of life whatsoever.
After a crazed and somewhat confused call to the tour operator, I passed the phone along to the motorbike driver. Apparently the bus was departing from somewhere else, on the other side of town, about 20 minutes away. He wanted a tip to take me to the new location, even after his mistake. With time running out, and nearing the point of exasperation, I promised him a tip if he got me there in time for my bus. It was set to leave in ten minutes!
…Except it didn’t.
As is quite normal in Cambodia, the time on the bus ticket and the time the bus actually departs can be 10 hours apart.
Further, the place he dropped me off at looked nothing like a bus station. For one thing, there were no other passengers waiting there. A couple of restaurants / general stores were open, and people kept assuring me that the bus would arrive.
While waiting, I did some mock sparring with an amiable young Cambodian man, testing my Muay Thai against his Cambodian boxing style. Despite the fact that we could not communicate a word in each other’s languages, he gave me his phone number to contact him next time I arrived in Cambodia.
Arriving in Vietnam
We crossed the border and as the bus began rolling through Vietnam from Cambodia, the two countries seemed as different as night and day. Cambodia is chaotic. Peeking out from the window of the bus as we began our sojourn into Vietnam, it certainly felt as if I was leaving a medieval country for a significantly more advanced one.
Southern Vietnam is full of neat rice paddy farms, everything seemed so clean and orderly, as if it had been planned out beforehand. In Cambodia it seems many of the roads and buildings have no planning to them whatsoever. People throw their garbage into ditches along the main roads and it seems as if there is no waste disposal whatsoever in many parts of the country.
My first glimpses of the wide-open rice fields of Vietnam left me impressed; they were a handsome sight. Several hours passed and we began our foray into the outer reaches of Saigon. Here, a sharp thrill of the exotic washed over me. I looked out of the bus into a new world unlike any I had seen. An exotic world, crowded, packed with life – people going about to and fro. I felt as though I had emerged into a new kind of chaos – one alien and unknown. What new world would I discover here in Vietnam? I silently pondered by myself.
First Impressions of Saigon
“A wretched hive of scum and villainy, Pham Ngu Lao is Earth’s answer to Mos Eisley. It’s the place to find beers for 40 cents, a half-hour massage for $3, or a prostitute for $13 per night. It’s virtually impossible to walk the streets here without encountering hawkers approaching to offer everything from marijuana, cocaine, cheap sunglasses, or shoe-cleaning services.”
Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) is a chaotic place in its own right, but there seems to be some method to the madness. The streets are clogged with millions of motorbikes, taxis, bicycles, and pedestrians – but the traffic moves efficiently, buzzing along like a horde of angry wasps.
As a city, it has all the makings of a modern Asian metropolis: a frantic fast-pace, hordes of people, small shops and vendors everywhere, and a whole lot of different neighborhoods that seemed a bit disjointed – as though they didn’t belong together. There are one-way streets throughout the entire city and no real main roads joining them altogether. None of the streets extend very long before zigzagging in some different direction. It’s an easy place to become quickly and get lost.
Interspersed amongst the chaos are charming colonial structures left behind by the French such as the Notre Dame cathedral, the classic opera house, the Saigon central post office, and the Ben Thanh market.
The other face of Saigon is of a country frantically charging towards modernization like a bull stampeding through a china shop. Alongside the traffic and overall hustle of the city are a smattering of charming cafes, restaurants, a luxury mall or two, high-end hotels, and cluster of imposing skyscrapers. Old and new co-exist side by side, perhaps not in the most harmonious sense, but they co-exist nonetheless.
One comes away with the sense that Saigon, and in particular District 1, is leading the way to modernization throughout all of Vietnam. Vietnam’s future is being built here, amongst the dirty streets, steel and concrete structures, and Christian Louboutin and Louis Vuitton boutique shops.
Settling in to Saigon
Ho Chi Minh city was the first city where I had given CouchSurfing a try. About 5 or 6 days before I left Sihanoukville, I began contacting potential CS hosts in HCMC. Most of the people I contacted lived with their parents and were unable to host me. But then out of the blue, a girl named Linh e-mailed me out of the blue and invited me to her home.
Whereas other travelers who arrived on the bus had to devote the next hour or to search around for hostels or hotels, I already had a local on her way to pick me up! I felt a certain sense of privilege. It was pretty cool.
I waited in Pham Ngu Lao, which is the backpacker’s district of Saigon. This area is characterized by a large park with a bunch of small alleys containing houses, hotels, restaurants, street stalls, and much more. One thing that immediately struck me was that the culture of Vietnam seems so much more “Chinese” than the India-influenced countries of Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.
A wretched hive of scum and villainy, Pham Ngu Lao is Earth’s answer to Mos Eisley. It’s the place to find beers for 40 cents, a half-hour massage for $3, a motorbike for $5 a day, or a prostitute for $13 per night. Pham Ngu Lao is full of all kinds of seedy characters looking to make a buck off the throngs of backpackers that passed to and fro through the area. It’s virtually impossible to walk the streets here without encountering hawkers approaching to offer everything from marijuana, cocaine, cheap sunglasses, or shoe-cleaning services.
On the other hand, it’s certain you’ll meet all kinds of interesting, international characters each time you visit Pham Ngu Lao or it’s sister street, Bui Vien. You’ll have a wild time – and hopefully you’ll leave with all your positions intact. It’s the risk you take any time you visit this area.
I had little time to idle upon my arrival as shortly after Linh picked me up on her motorbike and we went back to her apartment in District 3. Her space was small but clean and comfortable.
After I dropped off my things, Linh took me to hang out with her friends. We saw a humorous Vietnamese flick with English subtitles about a group of four women who pose as brothel workers but are secretly martial arts masters who rob travelers. Afterwards we went to back to Pham Ngu Lao to eat.
Another unusual characteristic typical of the entire country of Vietnam is that many Vietnamese prefer to sit on stools made of plastic rather than chairs. The vast majority of restaurants frequented by locals use stools. Even the homes too. There are restaurants with chairs in some of the tourist areas, but these restaurants usually receive little patronage from the locals.
For the most part, as I travelled across the country, the culture and customs of all Vietnamese seem very similar in fashion, regardless of where you might be.
The Season of Tet
The Vietnamese holiday of Tet (aka the Chinese New Year) was fast approaching and after a few days Linh had to leave for the Mekong delta to spend the holidays with her family.
After a night or two in a hostel, I was invited by another Vietnamese couchsurfer named Đặng to stay in a “Fight-club” style studio in District 1 overlooking the Saigon River. My host was a young man who owned his own coffee shop and bar called the “Mockingbird Cafe” next to the loft where I stayed. It was on the fourth floor of a really old building, inside of an alley. There was no elevator, just a lot of stairs to climb.
The place I slept in was spacious, old, and dirty, but it was cool. I was roughing it but it was an interesting experience. It was at the Mockingbird Cafe that I noticed an interesting trait about Vietnamese: they are obsessed with photography. Pretty much every young Vietnamese person owns a DLSR camera, and it was a favorite past time of the patrons at the coffee shop to share or take photos with one another.
Unfortunately the next day I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom and an older man snuck into my room and made off with my iPod touch. As I came out of the bathroom I saw him peaking his head in, and tried to ask him what he wanted. He didn’t seem to understand, acting like he was lost. There were some shops in the same building and the coffee shop was next door. I thought nothing of it until I spent a good while, in vain, searching for my iPod. Thankfully, he hadn’t taken my laptop (which would have been disastrous), or anything else.
I spent a couple nights in the studio and had to find a new place. Still without luck finding my own motorbike, although I was eager to begin my trip. The road ahead of me was long and I was slightly eager to complete the trip so I could be back in Thailand with Vania. While working out of a Regus business lounge in District 1 I made friends with a few of the Vietnamese girls working there. Vietnamese people in general are just incredibly friendly, welcoming, and eager to socialize with foreigners.
Some girls from the office invited me out to lunch at a fancy Japanese restaurant down the street. We had a great time. We even played a few bouts of thumb war (I won, of course).
Also at the office I met a girl went by “Bicky.” It was actually “Bichi,” so I mis-pronounced it on purpose to tease her. Bicky was fairly well-traveled herself, she worked as a representative of the Israeli embassy and had her own coffee business that she was starting on the side. She was quite attractive, though I had to tread carefully because I was already taken by my girlfriend back in Thailand. All I could do was look.
I invited Bicky to hang out with me and an American friend I met on the bus from Cambodia at the coffee shop owned by my former host. I don’t remember much, just that it was a raucous time and many beer bottles that were formerly full became emptied. Bicky had been holding out an unusual talent: in the middle of the coffee shop, she performed a private belly dancing show to the amusement of everyone present.
By this time I’d purchased a motorbike from an American English teacher named Cayce who was planning to return to the US. I checked a bunch of forums to find a bike to buy, and in the end, the CouchSurfing website came through for me again. My new bike was a so-called “Chonda,” in other words it was an imitation Honda bike made by the Taiwanese. But I got a great deal on it – it only cost roughly the equivalent of $270-280 USD. It was so liberating to have my own bike that I could take anywhere instead of having to rent one that I had to return.
Interestingly, Cayce had actually dropped the title and registration for the bike on the street just before I was about to purchase it. After making a trip back to his home, we returned to the spot to find out that one of the Vietnamese loiterers there had picked it up off the ground. Cayce had to buy it back from him. Unfortunately, in that tourist area of Pham Ngu Lao, there were a lot of ill-intentioned men carrying out plots like this against tourists. I heard a few stories recounted of travelers having their iPhones stolen right out of their hands. I think of all the countries I’ve been to Vietnam is the worst when it comes to petty theft.
At any rate, Bicky invited me to stay with her at her parent’s house for my last night in Saigon and I took her up on the offer.
Keep Reading in Part 2
My main objective was to use Saigon as a transit point where I could purchase my own motorbike. My principal reason for coming to Vietnam was to complete a dream adventure which had seemed so fantastical, so impractical at the time – ride a motorbike over 2,200 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh in the south, all the way to capitol of Ha Noi in the northern end of the country.
It was an epic journey that lasted a month and a half, and one that I’ll never forget. The trip was characterized by an unbridled high of freedom the likes of which I had seldom ever experienced before. The perilous journey was also accompanied by the constant threat of danger and near-disaster.
I completed most of this trip alone. I have seen and witnessed so many things – captured so many little moments through my eyes that no one else will ever know. I can’t describe all the little details and highlights experienced from the road, but I will try my best to recap, share the thoughts and feelings of the journey, and share a few of my favorite photos from the trip.