When I was 25 years old I made a sweeping declaration that I would never ride a motorcycle, dirt bike, quad, ATV, or any other two-wheeled or off road vehicle again. They scared the shit out of me. I was never the driver of any such vehicles. Well, aside from driving my uncle’s ATV through cornfields in rural Illinois when I was a kid. But, I’ve always associated with motorcycle drivers and off road racers. Because of this, I have witnessed the aftermath of a few horrific accidents.
I vowed that because I was a real grown-up, 25 symbolized true adulthood to me, I could put my foot down once and for all. No matter how much someone tried to convince me to go on a ride with them, my answer was a hard “hell no.”
Well, four and half years later, who whoulda thunk it? I’m not only driving scooters all over Southeast Asia as a means of transportation but I drove a motorbike through the mountainous Ha Giang Loop in northern Vietnam! As cliche as the saying is, “never say never.”
Before arriving in Bangkok, I had a vague notion that motorbike transport was common in Thailand. But I had no idea how common. The first time I saw a motorbike taxi pick up a girl, with all of her bags, I gasped! How can two people and two large bags balance? Is it legal? It can’t possibly be safe.
Grab (the Uber of Southeast Asia) even has a Grab Bike option. Seriously, you can order a motorbike to pick you up instead of a car. Even though it was the cheapest transportation option, I still wanted nothing to do with it!
Learning to Drive
When my Skyscanner to Everywhere experiment had me headed to Vietnam, I decided I should at least learn how to drive a motorbike. (I had heard rumors that motorbikes were even more prevalent in Vietnam than in Thailand).
One of the yoga instructors at Suan Sati taught me how to drive on a quiet road in northern Thailand. It wasn’t quite as scary as I thought it would be. But I was still in no rush to drive in the city or faster than 10 miles per hour.
Welcome to Vietnam
The rumors were indeed true! It seems like everyone drives a motorbike in Vietnam. I met several people who had driven a motorbike through the entire country! Although the idea scared the shit out of me, I thought the people who did it, especially the girls, were badass. A small part of me started to question if I could drive a motorbike on real roads, in real traffic- real Vietnamese traffic that is, which is crazier than any traffic I’d ever seen… Hmmm?
My First Motorbike Taxi
My first motorbike taxi caught me off guard. I had been traveling for two months so I was getting used to the idea that I would eventually ride on a motorbike. Seeing a family of five, caged pigs, or a full sized refrigerator on the back of a motorbike was starting to seem normal. However, I was still not ready to ride on one myself.
When the travel agent handed me a helmet and said “we go now,” I almost had a panic attack. I thought a bus was coming to take me to the ferry dock where I’d catch the ferry to Phu Quoc Island. Considering the ferry was about to leave, and I did not want to spend another night in the port town of Ha Tien, I followed the woman.
I strapped on the ill fitting helmet, put my large backpack on my back and my small backpack and purse across my chest. Without my bags I was twice the size of the driver, with them, I have no idea how I didn’t knock her off when I hopped on.
When I reached the dock in one piece, I was happy I’d been forced into the ride. It was exhilarating, and not that scary after all.
Phu Quoc & Ho Chi Minh City Passenger
On Phu Quoc Island I met a guy who’d driven a motorcycle from the northern border of Vietnam all the way to the southern island. When he offered to drive me out to Starfish beach (in exchange for a haircut) I felt confident in his driving ability and accepted his offer. That trip kicked off five days of off road motorbike adventures on the island, followed by a week of cruising around Ho Chi Minh City as his passenger! By the time we went our separate ways, I was not only comfortable on the back of a motorbike, I really enjoyed it!
I wanted to hike to the top of Lang Biang Mountain in Dalat but was still too nervous to rent my own motorbike and drive out there. Everyday for a week, I said to myself Tomorrow, I will rent a motorbike and go to Lang Biang! And every morning I woke up with some kind of excuse… It is too rainy… Bikes are too expensive… What if it breaks down? … I’m too tired… It’s too cold… The list goes on and on.
On one of my last days in Dalat, I was eating breakfast and trying to convince myself, yet again, to rent a motorbike and go. I’d almost talked myself out of it, for the umpteenth time, when I over heard this German kid I’d met earlier that week ask the front desk girl how to get to Lang Biang.
I knew he had bike.
Impulsively, I interjected myself into his conversation by sarcastically asking “Would you like company on the hike?”
He immediately said “Yes.”
“Really?” I double checked, surprised by how forward I’d been. He assured me he would be happy to have someone to hike with and reminded me that he had a bike and could drive us to the mountain. Perfect.
At this point, I realized it might be possible to make it out of Vietnam without ever driving a motorbike myself. Surprisingly, that thought made me sad. Not motorbiking in Vietnam would be like not riding any rides at Disneyland- you’d miss out on half the experience! That’s when I decided I had to drive at least one of the famous motorbike routes in Vietnam before I left the country!
I finally rented my own bike in Hoi An! At first I only drove short distances around the small town. Until, one day, kind of bored of the small town vibe, I decided to drive into the nearby city of Da Nang- 20 miles away. Other than a minor freak out at a massive roundabout in central Da Nang, I made it there fearlessly and thoroughly enjoyed the drive!
On the way back to Hoi An was when I really learned how to drive a motorbike… I hadn’t been on the road for more than 5 minutes when it started pouring rain. Everyone pulled over to the side of the road to put their ponchos on, I followed suit, but my pathetic purple poncho didn’t save me from getting soaked! The entire drive back the rain didn’t let up once. Cars, trucks and other motorbikes splashed me as they passed by. My feet were soggy and I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. It was getting dark and I couldn’t check my phone for directions without risking water damage, so I relied solely on memory and gut instinct to get home. I definitely didn’t take the most direct route but I made it!
The Hai Van Pass
If you only take one motorbike trip in Vietnam, chances are the Hai Van Pass would be it. From Hoi An to Hue, the Hai Van Pass is 77 miles of well paved mountain roads. The route is so popular with tourists that motorbike companies offer one way motorbike rentals and drive your big bags up for you! The Hai Van Pass was my chance!
Up until the day I left I wasn’t sure if I’d have the guts to do the Hai Van Pass by motorbike. By guts, I do mean inner strength but I also mean actual guts. I had spent the last week in Hoi An bed ridden from the most god awful food poisoning of my life…
On July 26th, the day before my 29th birthday, I woke up not feeling 100% recovered but 100% determined to do the Hai Van Pass, by motorbike, that day.
I drove slowly, taking in the scenery and stopping to sip on coconuts along the way. The serene and empowering drive distracted me from my rumbling tummy. I made it to my guest house in Hue seconds before it started to rain. (And without any motorbike or bathroom related incidents)!
The Hai Van Pass marked a pivotal point in my travels as well as in my life. I started my 29th year as a new version of myself- a healthy version, a fearless version.
The Ha Giang Loop!
The Ha Giang Loop is another famous motor bike route in Vietnam. It is more intense than the Hai Van Pass. It takes several days, the roads are steeply mountainous and many are unpaved. And, like someone said to me early on in Vietnam, “One wrong move on the Ha Giang Loop and you could go flying off a mountain…”
Satisfied with successfully completing the the Hai Van Pass, I made no plans to do the Ha Giang Loop. However, by the time I got to Hanoi, I found myself looking into it! While sorting out the logistics of renting a bike and determining the route I’d take, I reconnected with this Belgian guy I’d traveled with for a few days in Hue and Phong Nha. We decided to do the loop together!
It took us 4 days and 3 nights to do the loop! On the very first day we linked up with four other guys, a pair of German biotech/ computer scientists from Spain and two recent college grads from Montana. Along the way we stayed at homestays in the mountain towns of Yen Minh, Dong Vang and Du Gia. We hunted for waterfalls, drove through rain storms and down avalanche ruined roads, sang karaoke, ate street food and drank rice wine with locals.
From Hell No, I made it to the Ha Giang Loop! (And I didn’t fly off a mountain!)
Seriously, never say never.