Hanoi to Saigon – Day 1

Sorry if these stories are a little bit late or posted patchily, but I have a lot of riding to do and not much time for writing, but I will try and relate everything to the best of my ability. As you may know, I wanted to ride across Vietnam. I’ve talked about this for a while, in various forms, although apparently it was news to my parents, because my mum seemed to have no idea that I’d been planning it for the better part of a year, but whose parents ever listen to them, right ?

Just to make things interesting, I might start each story off with a picture, and then unravel the story that explains it. So to start this story off, let’s see this beautiful black Japanese steed.

What’s that ? That’s my motorbike of course. A sexy black Yamaha. Way cooler than some piece of shit Honda Wave like most people ride in Vietnam. Because I have that sort of class, and a cool guy needs a cool bike. Yes, I know it’s currently having its tyre changed in that photo. That was taken today, on Day 2. But that’s another story.

Hieu helped me buy it. I had told him I wanted a motorbike and that while I could buy one easily in Saigon via a street advert from another foreigner, I was reluctant to walk into a bike shop alone, because I knew that the second they smelt a foreigner, the price would more than double.

So Hieu had a look around for me. Just around the corner from him is a massive long street which is just full of “Cam Do”, or pawn shops. He dropped into one and said he saw a great little Suzuki for only 5 million ($250). I sorta know places that you can get a bike cheaper than that in Saigon, but I’m not IN Saigon, and the whole point of buying it here was so that I could ride it BACK to Saigon.

When I got back to Hanoi and hooked up with Hieu again, we went out to the place where he’d seen the Suzuki. Sadly, it was gone. But that’s not an entirely bad thing because I was a bit funny on buying a Suzuki. Very, very few people buy Suzukis here. By my reckoning, Honda has to account for at least 80 if not 90% of all motorbikes in Vietnam. So I was a bit wary that maybe I would have more trouble getting parts or service on a Suzuki. Also it wasn’t a very cool bike, but that really wasn’t a huge priority.

We looked around a few places in the street. One guy said he had a Sym for 4 million. Really, a Sym ? I’m not owning a fucking Sym. I’d by a Piaggo before I bought a bloody Sym, and that’s not too likely, I can assure you. Also, it was old as the hills. The front wheel needed replacing totally, as did the suspension (which the guy would do for $25) but he insisted the the engine was good. One look at the corroded-assed body and I was like “No thanks dude. Hieu… let’s keep looking. That piece of shit is not going to make it to Saigon”.

While looking at a Honda, Hieu noticed a black Yamaha nearby. He enquired and was told it as 9.5 million, or close to $500. That was more than my budget would permit, since I had come out expecting a $250 bike, or even better. But we looked at more and more and more shops, and got quoted some stupid prices of well over 10 million for quite old Hondas. I had a feeling that despite me hanging around in the background and pretending to look boredly across the street, they all knew the deal. Hieu was buying the bike for a foreigner, and therefore the price should be higher.

We saw a couple of possibilities. There was an old but seemingly well preserved Honda Wave that a guy only wanted 7 million for. But it just looked like such a kid’s bike. The frame on those older Waves is so thin and while I was starting to accept the fact that I was going to have to pay more than I had intended, the old Wave definitely did not set my heart on fire.

Hieu said “I think the Yamaha was a lot better. Very fashionable bike. Popular, powerful engine. But too expensive for you, right ?” I nodded. I only had 12 million dong and I still had to get all the way back to Saigon, paying for hotels and food and petrol, not to mention incidentals like a helmet and whatever else the bike required. Hieu stopped to look at a digital camera. Some very worn out old Samsung. I asked “You looking for a camera ?” “Yeah,” he replied. “Just something cheap. This one is 700,000. You think it is good ?”

“Price is good, but that camera’s a little old and worn out. You know, I have a spare Samsung camera at my hotel. Almost brand new. Red. Big zoom and LCD. Much better. I’d part with it for a million if you wanted. I could maybe afford the Yamaha then”. “Really ?” He asked. “It is good. Works good ? You sure, only one million ?” and I said “Well yeah. I don’t really want to sell it, but it is a spare camera, and if it means the difference between me getting a good bike today that I like and an average one that I don’t like, then it’d be worth it”.

“Deal” He said. “You wanna go get the Yamaha ?” “Yes. Yes I do. I can’t stop thinking about it. It was black and had big flares on the front and a much larger body than these Hondas. I think it would suit a big guy like me much better, and it was, as you said, much more fashionable”.

We went back to the store with that Yamaha and haggled like mad, and after a test drive where I noticed that the front brake pedal was completely sloppy and did nothing, we managed to score it for an even 9 million. I made sure it came with paperwork. One guy had told us that he could sell us a much better motorbike, but that it wouldn’t come with paperwork. I said “No way” to Hieu. “I am riding a long way and there is a good chance I will get pulled over, and I don’t have a license. If I am riding unlicensed on a motorbike without papers, I’ll be fucked. Not interested at all”.

Having your “blue card” is vital in Vietnam. Ownership doesn’t get transferred from the original owner, but you get their blue card which is proof of valid ownership. It’s just a little blue laminated piece of card with info about the bike to prove it’s legit. If you get pulled over by the police, the most important thing of all, more than your licence, is that you have proof of ownership of your bike. So I was very relieved when the guy produced it and held it under a UV light to prove it was genuine, and then wrote me a proper and detailed receipt in Vietnamese. That would indeed be enough to satisfy any officers of the law.

Jumping on my newly acquired Yamaha steed, we went to a Xe May (mechanic) at the end of Hieu’s street, who quickly adjusted the brake line properly for the modest fee of 25 cents. After that we picked up a cheap but not uncool looking helmet at a nearby store. Returning to his house, he once again invited me in to dine with his brothers and friends. We had another meal, chatting about stuff and watching music videos. Everyone came out to look at my bike. Hieu’s little brother commented “I think lots of girls will flirt with you with this bike. It is a very sexy bike”. I laughed and agreed.

Hieu said “Yeah, I’d trade you for mine. That’s a great looking bike. We should go for a race down the street beside National Stadium”. I burst out laughing. “Yeah, um. I do a lot of crazy and sometimes dangerous things when I travel, but having a street race in the busiest and most accident-filled city in the world is probably not top of the list, so as much fun as I’m sure that would be, I’d rather not die thanks”.

I met one of Hieu’s friends, Nguyen (yes, original name, I know) who was about to take her English test which was necessary for her to become a teacher. She was very nervous and asked me if I would give her a dummy interview. Hieu handed me a textbook and told me to ask her some of the questions out of the book at random and wandered off to do something. I asked a couple of boring questions like “Where are you from”, “What sort of house do you live in”, “Do you like movies” and “Do you prefer the seaside or the mountains”, and Nguyen answered them all clearly and I understood pretty much every word she said.

She surprised me by saying she much preferred holidaying in the mountains because it was peaceful and relaxing, whilst the beach was very busy in Vietnam, so she didn’t like it as much. I wandered off track asking her various questions, and what wasn’t completely surprising was when she told me that despite being in her early 20’s she had only just learned to swim a couple of months ago. From there the “interview” just wandered off into a discussion about culture, with me telling her all the stuff I’d recently learned about Vietnamese history from visiting the Jade Island and Emperor Ly Thai To’s monument and she insisted she would love to take me around and give me a tour and explain more history.

Somehow we even got onto the subject of anime, because she mentioned she loved Pixar films (everyone in the house is a Steve Jobs worshipper, so no surprise there), and then I mentioned anime, and after a couple of boring ones like One Piece and Doraemon, she said she really liked Spirited Away. Well, clearly that was all the encouragement I needed and I quickly launched into a big discussion about how great Miyazaki was and how his movies appealed to young and old and always featured a great moral message. I asked if she’d seen Totoro and she got equally excited saying that she’d first seen it when she was very young, but that just last week she had re-watched it and loved it just as much as when she was a child.

After lunch, I bid my new friends goodbye, with them again insisting that next time I was in Hanoi I had to stay with them instead of at a hotel, and Hieu said I should really consider being a teacher in Hanoi and that he could get me work easily in that role. We took off back to my hotel to pick up my bags and had a final beer together and I gave him my spare camera, since the money from that would get me a hotel for at least 4 nights.

We headed off back towards his place, and I joked once that I thought my bike was faster than his and he said “Yes, it is. Much better engine than mine in your Yamaha. More powerful”. I was secretly very happy. It may have cost me a bit, but it was a bike I could really be proud of. I’d never owned a motorbike in my life, and now I owned a pretty cool one by Vietnamese standards.

When we got to an intersection, Hieu said “David, I have to go left here now to go home. The highway is at the second overpass up ahead. Take a right and you’ll be headed south. Best of luck on your trip”. I said “Hieu, if I hadn’t met you and your friends, I would have left Hanoi thinking it was an awful place and not wanted to come back, but after you showing me around and meeting your friends, I like it so much more and I hope I can come back soon”. “Stay in touch. You have my email” he said, and the light changed and he revved his Honda and disappeared into the sea of helmets and I was on my own.

I headed south for a while, getting onto AH1, the main highway. Even close to Hanoi, a lot of it was under maintenance and there were large areas of it that were just dirt or gravel. Google Maps showed a more major road nearby, which I made my way to. It was a huge, smooth freeway. Wow. I didn’t know they had those. I jumped on and gunned my bike and took off at a solid 80 km per hour, but I quickly noticed there were no other bikes on this road. Just cars and trucks. I had a strong feeling I wasn’t supposed to be on this road.

Actually, I knew I wasn’t. But I was making such good time and I was even overtaking trucks like they were standing still. But I was nervous about it. After some distance, I passed a couple of guys on the side of the highway with petrol cans. One quickly took off on his bike following me. He pulled up along side, pointed to my bike, shook his head and said “Police”.

I knew what he meant. I wasn’t allowed to be on that road, and the police would not be impressed. He insisted we turn off the wrong way down the nearest on-ramp. It’s lucky we did, because I saw the orange-clad figures that represented a police checkpoint just up ahead. The guy made some hand gestures to indicate where the road I should be taking was, and then made a rubbing motion with his pointer finger and thumb. He wanted some cash. At first I was like “No way” and shook my head. He looked all hurt and upset and repeated “police” and pointed back to the highway.

He was right. Had the police stopped me (which they absolutely would have), I would have paid a fine of between $10-25 and could potentially have lost my bike from anything between a few days to a month. I gave the guy 20,000 dong ($1) and he smiled happily and waved. While it would have been nice if the advice were free, realistically the guy save me from a much larger fine and a whole lot of hassle, so I really had to be grateful.

From there, I headed south… ish. I got a bit lost. My phone only has A-GPS, rather than proper GPS, and it could only narrow my location down to a radius of something close to 1 kilometer, which made it very hard to figure out when I was at an important intersection or take the right road. As a result I quickly ended up a fair way off track, but I kept telling myself “It’s ok, there’s plenty of side-roads marked on Google that will get me back to where I’m going”. But of course, once you start telling yourself that, the battle is already lost, and it wasn’t long before I was miles away from where I wanted to be, heading west insted of south. I did my best to correct, but I just seemed to keep ending up going the wrong way.

My sense of which way is north is normally infallible, but in Hanoi, it seems to have gone a bit skewif and after trundling along in the country traffic at 40 km an hour for a couple of hours, I was in the sticks. Google showed roads leading back to the AH1, but when I took them they quickly narrowed from a paved road, to a gravel road, to cobblestones, to a little dirt goat track. Night was falling and I was in an extremely regional area. Bullocks blocked the road frequently and farmers led their geese from one side of the road to the other, and all the little children turned to stare because their was a foreigner in their little village.

Pausing to stop and look at Google again, some guy yelled out and came over and wanted to look at my phone. I said the name of the town I was looking for which was on the way back to the highway and he nodded and pointed straight ahead and left me. So apparently I wasn’t totally lost. Just … definitely on the road less traveled. I still managed to take a couple of wrong turns and ended up on a raised bit of dirt between the rice paddies thinking “Wow. This really isn’t a road. This can’t be right” and doubled back and asked someone else, who made some hand motions to indicate I’d missed the turn.

The worst part about riding at night is that the air is packed full of insect. Billions of tiny little things that squash against your sunglasses, which you have little choice but to wear even at night if you don’t want your eyes to become full of bugs. Also I was paranoid as hell about hitting a large pot-hole or ditch as I had done in Laos and end up flying over the handlebars. Fortunately that didn’t happen because the roads in this area were traversed almost soley by motorbikes, which meant the road was smoother and had fewer holes in it.

Riding along in the darkness amongst the towering mountains surrounding me on all side, screaming past rice paddies and banana plantations, I felt like this was the true Vietnam. Middle of nowhere, no other foreigners around for hundreds of miles, and it was just me and my Yamaha, racing through the night towards the small city of Phu My on the east side of Song Day, the Day River.

Pulling into the city over the bridge, I did one quick circuit of the main streets to see what accommodation I could find. There was a few hotels but they seemed very fancy and out of my price range. Eventually I found one near the river and right beside the train line that despite being still very tall, looked older and more reasonably priced. I pulled into the parking garage and sat on my bike beside the reception desk (which was beside the garage) and indicated I wanted to stay one night.

The girl struggled to find the English words to tell me the price and it took her ages of thinking before she finally and very deliberately said “Two hundred, fifty thousand Vietnam dong” while looking to her co-worker for assistance, of which none was available. “Hai tram nam moui nghin ?” I asked. The look of relief on her face was palpable when she realise that not only had I understood her, but that she had said the price correctly. I said “Ok” and parked my bike in the corner with the other bikes, giving my dear Yamaha a friendly pat on the seat for having brought me here reliably and took my bags upstairs and flopped down on the bed and was asleep in seconds, dreaming about motorbikes and rice paddies and the Vietnamese countryside at night.

Look forward to my report on Day 2, when I met a lovely Vietnamese girl and her sister and ended up having dinner with them and their whole family and then having a picnic in the park with them and their two pretty cousins ! Stories, stories stories. That’s why I’m doing this, because the most amazing things happen to you. But right now, I’m suburned and tired because day 2 has been exhausting and troublesome, so I’ll tell you about that tomorrow !

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