“When life gives you a unique time window, take advantage of it to forge new life experiences, learn and grow, or just mint some beautiful memories ”
For me, such an opportunity arose again in the second half of 2016, the last time being in 2015, when I spent two months in Fiji Islands, Australia, and New Zealand. Having since acquired the soul of a wandering backpacker, it took me no time to embark on a serendipitous adventure that I had fantasized about for some time – a solo motorbike trip across Vietnam. Starting in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and ending in Hanoi, after 28 days and more than 2000 kilometers on the road, that fantasy became a reality.
I mixed up the classic coastal route with the newer inland/mountainous Ho Chi Minh Highway, zig-and-zagging a couple of times between the tracks. With 12 stops in between, I:
- Survived driving through the chaotic rush hour traffic of Saigon https://youtu.be/6yk135UNPy8
- Savored the cheap/delicious street-side seafood in the romantic coast city Vung Tau
- Ventured off the main road (and got lost) to avoid traffic police near the forgetful town La Gi
- Downed bottles of Vietnamese moonshine with friendly villagers on the way to Bao Loc
- Treated to a heart-warming family dinner in the charming colonial mountain city Da Lat
- Enchanted by the grandeur mountainous landscape along the path descending toward beach city Nha Trang and disenchanted by its tourist-laden commercial development upon arrival
- Strolled through the culture-blending streets of UNESCO World Heritage Site old town Hoi An
- Drove through the stunningly beautiful Vai Hai Pass (featured in Top Gear) overlooking Da Nang city
- Pondered midst the ruined imperial place in the ancient capital Hue
- Passed the Vietnam War battleground in Khe Sanh
- Took temporary shelter from a landslide in the small but beautiful village of Long Son
- Marveled at the sublime limestone mountains in Phong Nha, and crawled through its winding caves
- Rested in Pho Chau town before the last day of riding
- Toughed through a 9-hour/400-kilometer final stretch to Hanoi, only to have the bike chain fall off 100 meters from the hostel, and pushed the bike through the finish line
In “The Hero with A Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell laid out a structure called the Hero’s Journey that he found in many myths and folklore across cultures – the monomyth. Campbell sums up the monomyth archetype below:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from his mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons upon his fellow man.” — Joseph Campbell
This has (intended or unintended) served as the inspiration for a slew of therapeutic and self-help contexts. Alas, a heroic life does not have one universal template and neither do I view myself through this lens. At least this time, I was not trying to get lost to find my true self, nor was I hoping to draw out any greater moral lessons when there are none to be extracted. My narrative is that this adventure is just a little man’s journey to expand the reach of life and to reinforce what is there – a desire to grow and a love for bounded freedom. If anything, most real-life journeys are anti-heroic as life is inherently random when no force and effort is spent to direct it, and SHIT happens even if one does.
The less pleasant side of the journey includes:
- Bitten by a puppy in Saigon (not out of recklessness) just before setting out on the road, and had to plan my stops at cities with hospitals to receive five scheduled rabies shots
- Suffered severe full-body heat rash twice (due to the hot and humid tropical weather), one at the beginning of the trip and one in the middle
- Hit cold winter weather in the mid of the country and spent four days driving through pouring rain along a deserted mountain road
- Stopped by a fresh landslide just before reaching Phong Nha
- Lost a camera SIM card and a good portion of my photos
- Received some unfortunate business news that severely/temporarily dampened my mood for the trip
Note: Top – The Ho Chi Minh Highway between Khe Sanh and Phong Nha was blocked by a fresh landslide. Bottom left – receive wound treatment and first rabies shot in Saigon. Bottom right, river flooding a bridge in Hue.
I started and finished the journey on my own, here and there shared a portion of it with other fellow bikers, and parted ways when our pace diverged.
There were a few moments when I felt exhausted and doubted the meaning of the trip, and there were long stretches of the road where I was the only one, but there was not a single moment when I felt lonely or sorry for myself, I just pushed on and pushed through. I believe that despite having friends and family, we are by and large lone journeymen/women on our own paths, each grappling with our own realities. If there are any thesis and metaphors that I want to draw out from the journey, that is:
- Hold much love for others, but we do not need other people to validate our existence, at least not as much as we think we do
- Heed the call to adventure and just fucking get going as setting out is the hardest for most people. Strength, endurance, and knowledge/skills will grow along the way
What’s next? Maybe a backpacking trip to Patagonia or a return trip to Vietnam, I left with the northernmost part unexplored.
P.S. Vietnam Motorbike Trip Resources:
- You could buy second-hand bikes for $180-250 from other travelers at hostels, bike shops, or on Craigslist. For ease of mind, I got my bike from a rental shop called Style Motorbike. They offer new/semi-new bikes at very affordable prices, and the shop owner is a very honest and helpful person. My almost new 120cc 2017 Honda Win costs $250 for 4 weeks, plus a $300 deposit that was immediately returned upon returning the bike. You could either pick up the bike from Saigon and drop it off in Hanoi or vice versa.
- For travel planning and travel guides, I relied heavily on another blog called Vietnamcoracles.com. Tom, the blogger, has lived in Vietnam since 2005 and the website has become the definitive go-to source for rich insights on road-trip planning, sightseeing, food tasting, and cultural awareness for fellow backpackers. Thank you Tom!