This trip is starting to remind me of the Italy trip
, where I'd draft posts in my head while I was riding, but by the time I sat down to write, so much had happened that I couldn't get it all down (consolidating multiple week stretches into a single post). I do have half of the first Thai post drafted. I should finish it, and write up the rest of that tour while I still remember enough of it to say something.
However, that's not the post I felt called to write today.
I'm in Vietnam now. This is the trip that inspired me to fulfill my teenage dream of getting a Vespa. In early 2019, I spent a month+ in Singapore, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.
On that trip, I discovered three things:
1. There are places in the world where you can't be a self-sufficient traveler if you don't know how to ride a motorbike.
2. There's too much to see in Vietnam - it deserves its own trip.
3. Riding a motorbike is hella fun!
Hence: this trip, the one I've been looking forward to for 4 full years. My 2020 Crater Lake tour and 2021 Italy tour were in some ways biding my time until it was reasonable to travel to Vietnam.
The original vision for this trip was to quit my job, buy a motorbike in Asia, and travel around pondering what the next phase of my life might look like. The pandemic has dragged this life-inflection-point out 3 years. Between shifting entry rules, insurance requirements, and the economic mess finally catching up with itself, this doesn't feel like the right moment to quit for no reason. So I've truncated the trip into a 3 month sabbatical.
For reasons, some universal and some personal, these last months and years have been hard. I was the most exhausted I'd ever been when I finally got on the airplane. Motorcycle touring in a very foreign country seemed more intimidating than fun. I was wondering if this trip was the one I should be taking now, or if it's a misguided attempt to fulfill a promise to my self of 4 years ago.
That's how I ended up starting in Thailand. I'd been there before. I remembered Chiang Mai being chill, and Pai being somewhere that warranted further exploration - somewhere I might meet interesting people, so I spent the first couple weeks of my sabbatical riding around Thailand.
There are some friends and family trips happening in April that I'd like to be a part of. Therefore, I've got about 6 weeks in Vietnam. I could do the famous Saigon-to-Hanoi trip in that time, but I'm not here to check a motorbike trip off my list; I'm here to see Vietnam. More importantly, I'm here to hopefully recharge and figure out where to steer my life next. Feeling pressure to grind out the miles, spending nights in some shit motel that only exists as a waypoint between here and The Next Place doesn't seem fun at all.
I still definitely have itinerary editing to do. (I'm not historically a planner - I have been known to get off a dozen+ hour flight to walk around town finding a hotel for the night.)
The rough strokes so far:
- Spend a few days in Saigon.
- Go to Dalat. Spend a few days riding around. Do the loop to Nha Trang and along the coast - it's supposed to be some of the prettiest riding in the country.
- Fly to Danang. Get another motorbike. Ride through Hue, Hoi An, Phong Nha, Hagiang… all the pretty places in the north.
I'm trying to use an airplane to skip as many grind days as possible. That last leg might be whittled down further in the same aim.
For now, I'm in Dalat.
Getting a motorbike in Dalat
I spent my first full day in Dalat walking around, both to get accustomed to the town and to hopefully find a motorbike to rent. I was a bit surprised at how much of it can be most accurately described as Old Garbage. Most had no mirrors at all. The ones that did were often small aftermarket pieces of questionable utility (that certainly wouldn't support a phone mount). Some lessors saw a white guy walk up and wouldn't even unlock the door. As far as renting goes, it was not a successful day.
The closest I came was renting a Honda Airblade 150. It's in the same family of peculiar Honda motorbikes that only seem to exist in Southeast Asia, which usually share major assemblies with one another. This one is an older cousin of the Click I rented in Thailand. The gas tank is between your feet, wrapped in a steel rack that would be more at-home in an oven than a motorcycle. The rack eats into your footwell, further restricting how you can rest your feet on the road. I did notice an ABS sticker on it, so that at-least ticked one of my boxes.
Like so many others here, it was missing both mirrors; one of the things that undercut my confidence/excitement about giving it a try. The deal was left forever unsealed when I asked the guy if he'd be willing to move the mirrors over from one of the other bikes and he straight up said "no." I'll probably have it for a week, it seemed like a reasonable (and easy) request.
As I went to dinner, I realized there were four big elements to be on-the-lookout for in a Vietnamese motorbike:
1. ABS brakes, LED headlights - whatever modern safety features I could find here
2. Stock mirrors, both for awareness and so I could mount my phone
3. A charging port (or at least somewhere to stash a portable battery), so I could keep the phone powered during long rides
4. An appropriately powerful engine, hopefully at least a 150
Having had no luck walking in, I opened Google Maps and spent dinner sending messages to numbers that appeared for "motorbike rental." One replied, saying he had an Airblade that met all these expectations.
As agreed, I messaged him the next morning letting him know when I'd be coming by. I grabbed my gear, grabbed some food, and hopped on a Grab over to where Maps said his shop was. I arrived to a three-walled shed of motorbikes, fronted by a locked gate. I texted again. I waited. I shouted to see if anyone was in the back. I asked the shop a couple doors down. I finally got a text back "Wait me a few minute."
While I tried to hide from the heat in the shade of a small tree, one of the men from the shop next door walked over. He was a veteran of South Vietnam, and Dalat's first easy rider
. He spent 20 years taking tourists pillion in the area around Vietnam.
Someone rode up, unlocked the gate, and rolled out a freshly-washed 2020 Airblade 150. I took it on the customary test ride, mostly making sure the brakes worked. By this point I had realized I wasn't going to find anything better than this in Dalat. I returned to find another motorbike parked there, with his female friend aboard. It quickly became apparent that she was there to translate.
The rear tire is a Kenda, but it's new. The front is Vee Rubber, which looked like it might be original. There are cracks in the tread that I hope aren't dry rot. I tried to point them out, but he was unconcerned. If I want to do something about it, it'll have to be of my own accord (and expense).
I've rented twice in Italy and once in Thailand. This was by far the most casual transaction I've ever had. He asked for my driver's license as a deposit. I gave him California (I still have the Thai one
). I tried to explain to him and his companion that I didn't know the exact date I'd be returning, but I expected to have it about a week. They said it's 150k per day, with no change in price for longer rentals. At the last minute, they asked for "a small deposit." I gave them 500k, which would cover the first 3 days. They seemed satisfied.
Before they rode off, I asked if they had a USB charger. (For some inexplicable reason, the 2020 Airblade has a cigarette lighter under the seat. It's designed for charging, but it's BYO charger.) They keyed the address of an electronics shop into my phone.
A small goose chase and $9 later, I emerged with a USB charger and an extension cord. Over the course of the day, I realized that the charger wasn't actually keeping my phone charged; it was draining much faster than it was charging. I stopped by my hotel room to switch out my sunglasses and discovered the charger also had a USB-C port. As it happens, I had packed a long USB-C-to-C cable, just-in-case I needed one. Thankfully, my phone seems to like the USB-C cord much better.
Riding in Vietnam
I was quite happy to have not-ridden in Saigon or Hanoi. Those cities are famous for their traffic chaos, and it doesn't take long to see why. In my 3 days in Saigon, a motorcycle and/or rider made contact with me at least 4 times. On the walking street
, an impatient rider's tire abutted my calf. While I was on the back of a Grab, someone else's shoe grazed my leg. Any sense of personal space you're used to on the road in other countries simply doesn't exist here. Even as a pedestrian, I haven't uncovered the rules of the traffic system. You're told to just confidently walk across the street and they'll make room, but "yield to pedestrians" doesn't seem to be in the ethos.
My time in Vietnam's biggest cities was well-spent to start to form an understanding of how traffic works here. At intersections, people seem to weave in. I don't mean "weave" in the "dashing between cars" sense, although some definitely do that. Instead, I mean in the other sense - the way you might describe the interplay of your fingers when you've interlocked them behind your head. When making a turn, they'll sneak into a gap, stop, and wait for another gap further through the turn. Keeping in the correct lane on either the source or the destination road doesn't seem to be a concern.
On my way to get the charger, one of these weavers cut me off, pulling straight into my right-of-way and stopping without giving me enough space to adjust. I squeezed the brake levers and felt the backend start to fishtail. Like the Click, this has an ABS disc up front and a drum brake in the rear. Unlike the Click, the left lever isn't linked to both brakes. Apparently, that means you can fishtail this one.
My first destination was to one of Dalat's "coffee shops with a view
." I spent my time there watching YouTube videos about what to do if you fishtail. (Seems the answer is "don't change the brake pressure unless your wheels or straight, or you risk a highside when you find traction again.")
I was stopped at a light en-route. Someone else's tire came to rest against my boot. He made an "excuse me" gesture, but it unlocked a fear that had bounced around my brain in the chaos of San Francisco's return-to-office traffic. If he had gone any farther, that probably would have been the end of my Vietnam tour, at the least. Urban boots aren't designed to protect the tops of your feet.
Dalat is laid out unlike anywhere I've been before. Like many mountain towns, a collection of roads bend between the buildings. Dalat is different with tiny alleys that connect the roads. They bend every which way. Sometimes a few tight bends in, they'll be punctuated by a couple of stairs, just enough to tell you you can't go that way on a motorbike - good luck turning around. They're also unbelievably steep, and this is coming from someone who learned to ride in San Francisco. I've been on mountain bike courses that pale in comparison to some of these, and then they just T off into a busy street with pedestrians standing on the shoulder where the two meet. It's not quite intimidating, but there is a reflexive bit of mental finger-crossing whenever you descend one.
The bible of riding in Vietnam is called Vietnam Coracle. It's the main site I've been using to pick where to ride and where to fly. They have a collection of 5 daytrips from Dalat
. I did the first one today.
It wasn't fun. Hyperbolic internet people like to say shit like "imagine everyone in a car is actively trying to kill you." In Vietnam, that's too close to how it actually feels. I'm so fucking tired of people honking all the time, everywhere. On the first leg of today's tour, two big trucks were climbing the hill I was descending. One was in their lane, one was in mine. The one in mine just honked, like it was my problem for being in my lane - after all, he's bigger. I haven't learned much about traffic here, but the biggest and loudest do act like they own the road, and getting out of their way is everyone else's problem.
There's some nice scenery around Dalat, but most of what I saw today wasn't special in the way that the parts of California, Italy, and Thailand I've toured are. I know there are parts of Vietnam that are.
(The roads where I am now often smell like dry pet food - somewhere between dog and fish. I do not know why.)
Today, I was too distracted by stress to enjoy the ride, either the feel or the scenery. "What if someone else does something monumentally selfish? What if these tires slip?" Those are of course factors on any ride, but in other places, I can find equipment that puts me in my comfort zone. I can expect other road users to approximately behave, or at least to approximately behave predictably. When something does happen, I have confidence in my ability to put myself in a safe place on the road, through a combination of my own skills and a sensibly chosen machine that can speed up or stop when you need it to. As added failsafes, traction control and anti-lock brakes keep the tires where they should be, which keeps the rest of us where we should be.
Anyone who's ever been on two wheels knows there are dangers inherent with sharing the road with other people. Usually we have the confidence to let the pleasures of the ride make those dangers feel theoretical. You only live once, after all. Riding an Airblade in Dalat does not give me that confidence. (It certainly doesn't have the pep of a GTS or a Click.) Maybe I'm tired for whatever reason today, but it wasn't fun.
This isn't how I want to spend my time off. It's certainly not restorative. I've got a lot to consider about the trip I want to have, and if riding around Vietnam can give it to me.
The coffee farm and ride back
The first stop on today's ride was a coffee farm. It was at the end of a road so narrow that I certainly would have missed it without my phone mounted on the bars. Just as I was in the doldrums of "What the fuck am I doing here? Should I cancel the trip?," I finally caught a glimpse of some scenery that felt special. After a few sharp bends, the cement terminated into a dirt road, which itself was overcome by a small river a few seconds later. Google suggested that I might be able to take an ATV trail around, but some workers I met on the trail assured me that was a bad idea. Trusting neither the tires to keep me upright nor my 20-month-old boots to keep my feet dry, I parked at the end of the road, tiptoed across some rocks peeking out of the river, and hiked 5ish minutes to the top of the road.
There were a couple other people inside who had followed the same map I did, talking to two workers behind the counter. I ordered a ca phe sua da
- a Vietnamese iced coffee. The idea of drinking coffee that had been grown a few yards away seemed cool. The experience itself was unremarkable - it was a little sour, not bad, but not particularly delicious. After a few minutes, the workers left us to ourselves. If we wanted more coffee, feel free to make it ourselves. Check the menu for prices, and leave cash on the bar when we leave.
Apparently the usual barista was out of town, and there were questions about which milks in the fridge were still good. I tried making a mocha. Their chocolate was a Hershey's syrup. The only cream I could find was condensed milk, so I experimented. I did finally find a bit of milk that the girl who was at the bar before me - the one who had made the first remarks about not trusting the dairy - could vouch for. The concoction was drinkable, but not delicious.
Shaken by the ride over (which had an additional pall cast over it with intermittent drizzle), I was in no particular hurry to leave. If not for the two other travelers there, I would have attempted a cathartic phone call with my best friend back home. (He's got an infant; I doubt I could have got a hold of him anyway.) The first thing I heard when I walked in was the girl's American accent. I appreciated the company of two people who felt a bit less foreign on a day that everything else felt too foreign. Unfortunately, they were both Main Characters - people who spend their time waiting to speak rather than building a conversation together. I took respite in the moment, but I wouldn't go out of my way to see either again.
The sky modulated between dark, ominous clouds and flits of blue sky. As the afternoon wore on, I became aware that the ride ahead would burn up most of the remaining daylight (not that there was much today in the first place). I waited for an opportune time to part ways, but it clearly wasn't coming soon. I finally made a quick interjection, and said my goodbyes.
Throughout the day, Google insisted there was only a minuscule chance of rain, with no accumulation to speak of. Indeed, it never rained too hard - enough to get you to put your rain layers on, but not enough to make you glad
you had. The drizzle that began just as I twisted the throttle away from there got me to suit up for the first time this trip. In fact, I had swung back by my hotel after lunch to grab them when I saw how dark the skies were. I hadn't even been carrying them with me until today.
It was about 5 o'clock - too early for dinner, but late enough that I could definitely use a snack. I stopped at a bahn mi stand. It was actually the first one of this trip - the ones I'd seen until now did not inspire sanitary confidence. Ordering was surprisingly complicated. It took us a minute to establish what the two menu items were (one was with chicken and the other with pork). I thought I'd ordered one. Then, one of the clerks video-called her boss and had me speak English with him - a sweet gesture, but difficult over the sound of the traffic. Along with the bahn mi, I took a mystery banana leaf concoction. Inside was a slice of pork sausage, wrapped in a sticky rice bun.
I caught a few glimpses of sunset breaking through the clouds on the way back, which punctuated the end of the day with some of the scenery that had been missing in the middle. It's nearly midnight now, so I guess that bahn mi was dinner after all. I don't know why I felt worn out all day today, but it's probably a sign that tomorrow needs to be chill. I need to make arrangements for the mini tour this weekend, and find a good massage.
Oh yeah, and meditate on if I still want to be here.
The charge cable running from the underseat bucket
under the fuel tank rack, and up to the bars
Is this tire safe?
Dalat's descents belong on a mountain bike track
The end of the road
across this stream
to get this view
Making my own coffee
An actual roadside snack
while being kissed-off by the sunset