Riding Motorbikes in Vietnam (With a Little Confidence and a Lot of Help)

I don’t think it’s any secret, or surprise, that motorcycles kind of freak me out. I’ve hated the roar of them since I was a child. I’ve seen countless cocky tourists, from Indonesia to Thailand, in bandages and casts after wiping out on their rental bikes. I once had a near-death experience – sadly, I’m not exaggerating here – on a Segway. So motorized transportation on two wheels isn’t just something that’s never held any interest for me — it’s something I actively avoid.

Just a tiny little traffic jam.

But to say that motorcycles are ubiquitous in Southeast Asia is like saying cabs are ubiquitous in New York. Actually, you know when you look out the window of an NYC office building and you can see below that 90% of the cars on the street are yellow taxis? Replace each of those taxis with about four motorcycles. Imagine the discontinuance of all traffic laws, road lanes, turn signals, and safety precautions. On half the bikes, visualize infants, families of five, yard-long panes of glass, bushels of live geese, full-sized refrigerators. Picture one giant, constant game of chicken in which the driver with the least desire to get smashed into is the one who swerves out of oncoming traffic first.

Got it? That’s what many of the streets in Southeast Asia look like. Imagine trying to cross the street in between these motorbikes when there are no crosswalks or traffic lights, or trying to hail an actual enclosed taxi cab amid it all. Picture the extreme stupidity required to bicycle or walk alongside the motorized madness. It’s these kinds of scenarios that have made me wuss out of renting motorbikes, time and again. It’s knowing I could never hack it amid such grumbling chaos that made me refuse to even be a passenger on motorbike taxis in cities from Sanur to Saigon. I’d freak out on a motorcycle, I was sure: I’d get too wobbly and fall overboard as a passenger; as a driver I’d hesitate at intersections and get in the way of some driver texting at 90 mph.

But after two months in Asia, I started to wonder if I was missing out on something fundamental by sticking to my feet and four wheels. Was never so much as sitting passively on a motorbike the equivalent of never taking the subway in New York, never getting on the water in Venice, or never hitting the trails in New Zealand? If everyone else was doing it, was I missing out on something by staying safely in my comfort zone?

By the time I reached Hue, Vietnam, I’d decided it was time to find out. Or, rather, two new friends had decided for me. Kit and Tao, a young couple from the States I’d met on a southbound sleeper bus from Hanoi, assured me they’d traveled many of Vietnam’s major cities exclusively by motorbike. It was completely safe, they told me, and the only way to travel.

And so, during a three-hour stop-over in the imperial city of Hue, between Hanoi and Hoi An, Kit and Tao convinced me to get on the back of one of three motorcycle taxis. The moto drivers had offered to zip us between the city’s major attractions and have us back in time for our departure to Hoi An and, not wanting to sit at the bus station for three hours, I accepted.

Thien Mu pagoda, Hue, Vietnam.

Sitting on the back of a motorcycle driven by some guy you only saw for the first time five seconds ago is a pretty jarring experience. I usually make a point of carefully looking over the taxi driver’s license number posted in cab windows in New York, and I’ve turned down motorcycle rides at home from friends I’ve known for years. But after a few minutes on the back of this stranger’s bike, I was passing my new friends on the road and waving gleefully as we left them behind in our wake. I was letting go of the hand-holds on the sides of the seat-back without toppling over. I was hopping on and off at stops without burning my leg on the exhaust pipe. I was relishing the wind in my face as we weaved maniacally around cars and bikes and pedestrians.

Someone’s tomb in Hue. Seriously, so many people are entombed in Hue, I cannot begin to guess whose tomb this actually was. Sorry.

Further tomb-iness.

So when I ran into Kit and Tao a few days later in the beachside town of Nha Trang, it wasn’t too much of a stretch for me to agree to rent motorbikes for the day with them. Still, as Tao negotiated the terms of our rentals in Vietnamese with the rental agent, I couldn’t believe how calm I was sitting next to him. I’d been far more nervous jumping on the back of that moto in Hue than I was signing up to drive one now. My mind had gone into bigger tailspins just deciding the best moment to cross the street between motorcycles in Hanoi than it was now as I handed over my deposit and put on my helmet.

And that’s when I realized: there’s a difference between being too scared to do something and not having enough confidence in yourself to try. Over the last six months, I’ve surfed, I’ve hang-glided, I’ve driven on the other side of the road, and I’ve finally learned to ride a bicycle without supervision. I’ve survived accidental fish-intakes; life in a caravan; and leaving my friends, family, and job behind to go live in a country I’d never even seen. Surely, all those things were infinitely scarier than a little motorbike ride, and I’d managed to pull them all off with a little faith in myself. Why not this, too?

The look on the station attendant’s face clearly says “Who let this girl on a motorbike?!?”

It helped that Nha Trang had straight-forward, well paved, coastal roads, and a relatively small number of people riding on them. It helped even more that Tao was gracious enough to show me — about five times — which switch was the turn signal and which was the horn, to fill up my tank, and to slow down so I could follow him on the road. Kit, bless her, spent half her time twisted around on the back of Tao’s bike taking my picture because, as I explained to her, no one would ever believe I’d done this without photographic evidence.

“Oh hello there. I almost didin’t see you because I was zooming along so quickly and competently.”

So, after an afternoon on the bike, what’s my verdict? It’s an incredibly freeing feeling, even when you’re cautiously following someone else’s lead. And being in the driver’s seat helps you realize there’s actually a method to the madness of the motorcycle drivers around you: you swerve, they swerve; you turn when you see an opening and expect them not to set a collision course, they respect the fact that you’re taking your chances and actually slow down. You all make a concerted effort to swoop around pedestrians — though suddenly, you can’t help but yell obscenities out to the ones who dart in front of you. And when you pull up into a grumbling, vibrating pack of locals at the (extremely rare) stoplight, you feel a sense of belonging you’ve never experienced before as a westerner standing hesitantly on the street corner.

Also: it makes you feel as if you’re starring in one long chase scene from The Italian Job – even at about 30 mph.

Yep, that’s me!

So now, I’ve done it. I’ve checked another can’t-miss travel activity off my list and come out with all my bones still in tact and a nice little boost in confidence. And maybe I should have been happy and left it at that; perhaps I should have assumed I’d used up all my motorcycle luck and gone back, sated, to the world of sleeper buses and taxicabs and trains.

Instead, I turned around and took a two-day motorcycle trip through Vietnam. But that’s a story for another time.


11 thoughts on “Riding Motorbikes in Vietnam (With a Little Confidence and a Lot of Help)

  1. I can’t believe you did that and actually lived to tell the tale. When I see you, I am going to hug you tight tight tight, my lil daredevil!

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    • Trust me, if I can work up the courage to do it, I think anyone can! The key is starting off on flat roads that aren’t too busy — and not going any faster than you’re comfortable with! I’m sure you could pull it off 🙂

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