One of the best things about traveling solo* is the freedom it gives you to make impractical, ridiculous, somewhat expensive decisions on the fly. Don’t get me wrong: as we traveled together, Hayley and I were always eventually able to agree on what we wanted to do in each place and what our budgets were. But there’s nothing quite like deciding at 4:00 a.m. that your trip is going to take a major detour, then waking up a few hours later and making it happen without consulting anyone.
So, a few weeks ago, I made a spur-of-the-moment decision to ditch my sleeper-bus routine in Vietnam and hit the open road on a mode of transportation that had terrified me up until earlier that very day.
Vietnam’s sleeper-buses are efficient, I suppose, if not incredibly comfortable or reassuringly safe. But after covering the bulk of the country cramped and virtually sleepless in a top bunk hurtling down the road, well, you start to wonder if maybe there isn’t a better way of getting around.
Splashing around in the ocean in Nha Trang with new friends late one night, the idea of catching my 7:00 a.m. bus to Mui Ne just a few hours later began to sound unreasonable, unappealing… unthinkable, if you want to know the truth. So I slept through my morning alarm, marched out the door at 8:00, and put a two-day motorcycle tour on my credit card at 8:10. It set me back about three times what my ticket to cover the entire country by sleeper bus had, and I had no idea if I’d enjoy it or spend the next two days in white-knuckled terror. But my mind had been made up. Impractical or no, a motorcycle had to be better than the bus.
From Nha Trang I’d head inland, motor up into the mountains of Dalat, then cruise back down south along the coast to the beachfront town of Mui Ne. All on the back of a bike.
The next morning, breakfast bahn-mi in hand, I stood outside my hotel and watched as Jolly pulled up. My driver wasn’t exactly what I’d pictured: easily in his 60s, decked out in a plaid shirt and sandals, Jolly hardly looked bad-ass enough to pilot motorcycles for a living. But then again, I still hardly felt bad-ass enough to ride one. I handed over all of my earthly possessions, watched skeptically as Jolly strapped them to the bike, popped on my helmet, and climbed awkwardly up onto the back of the seat. I had a faint, ironic realization that it was the fourth of July, and that I’d be celebrating America’s most patriotic holiday by motorcycling through Vietnam. And then we were off.
Within an hour we were well outside the city, working our way up curvy, nearly deserted roads as we headed to Dalat. As we passed through small towns or by roadside stands, we’d stop for lunch or for fresh-pressed sugar cane juice, swinging in hammocks slung up under tin roofs while stray chickens strutted around us. We weren’t in any hurry to get to Dalat — in fact, I’d told Jolly specifically that Dalat wasn’t the draw for me. I was far more interested in the mountainous roads we’d have to take to get there, the vignettes of daily life we’d pass along the way. Once again, the journey – not the destination – was the whole point.
Along the way, Jolly would act as my vegetarian food interpreter, finagling special-order veggies and tofu at hole-in-the-wall little restaurants. He’d pull the bike over the second he heard me start snapping off rapid-fire pictures at drive-by viewpoints. I felt the dust in my face and the wind on my arms, and started to wonder what I’d ever seen in sleeper-buses in the first place. They were cheap and convenient, sure, but only barreled along at night, when Vietnam’s huge vistas sat darkened and removed behind a thick layer of window. This felt more like the real Vietnam: I could smell it, touch it, taste it, interact with it. I could scrub it off my face at the end of the day and clap it off the soles of my shoes.
The next day, we shot off from Dalat and back down the mountainsides toward Mui Ne. The valleys turned to flat, red earth; the forests gave way to peanut fields and sandy coastline. The air went from chilly and foggy to warm and salty. And I could see and feel it all as it happened.
What’s more: I got a chance to look daring, if only for one photo. And for that alone, I’d do the whole thing again.
*Now seems like a great time to address a question I’ve been getting kind of a lot lately: What happened to Hayley?
Don’t fret: we didn’t have a falling out or get sick of each other. In fact, when we finally did separate, a few days after arriving in Vietnam, it was amid much sniffling and hugs. The truth is, we split up because Hayley’s much better at managing her time and finances than I am.
Being the Sensible Brit that she is, Hayley actually purchased her July 2nd ticket back to Auckland weeks in advance. She’d given herself a deadline to get back to Queenstown, find a job, and start replacing all that money she’d spent on our two months of vacation. So by the time we reached Vietnam on June 21st, she already knew she’d need to get through everything south of Hanoi quick-style.
I, being more of the Irresponsible American type, waited much longer to book my flight back to Auckland. This resulted in a one-way ticket for July 21st and quite a bit of time to kill before then. After a quick visit to Halong Bay together, I had time to head north to Sa Pa while Hayley opted to shoot directly down to Hoi An. So while much of our time in Vietnam overlapped, she remained a city or two ahead of me up until she left Asia. (For those dedicated Hayley fans out there: she’s now living in Queenstown, which was exactly what she’d wanted, working as a cashier at the local supermarket).
So, unless otherwise specified, you can assume I’m traveling solo throughout the rest of my Asia posts.