Motorcycle Diaries, Day One (HCHM -> Mui Ne, Vietnam)

Three Challenges – Challenge One – Challenge Two – Challenge Three

I know what you are thinking.  Motorcycle Diaries? You mean like Che Guevara?  Haha, yes, cliché isn’t it?  Or should I say, cli-Ché?  (This cheesy joke is hereby patented by Mark Ayling).

Well, if Che Guevara had ridden across South America on this Russian-made piece of crap, he probably would have switched sides in the Cold War and swapped the Minsk for a Harley Davidson.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  I knew it was going to be a difficult first day, and I saw three sizable challenges ahead of me:

  • Challenge Number One – Get The Minsk started
  • Challenge Number Two – Successfully Leave Saigon and Get to Highway 1
  • Challenge Number Three – Avoid death and rain and drive down Highway 1 to Mui Ne beach. 

It would not be easy but I was determined to make it.  I packed up my bag, strapped it on the janky luggage rack, put on a helmet, sunglasses, and riding scarf, cracked my knuckles, and confronted my first challenge of the day.

Challenge Number One – Get The Minsk Started

Starting The Minsk required a special touch, a knowledge of which buttons to push, which levers to adjust, which pedals to pressure at which times and to what degree.  I lacked this touch.

The hot Saigon sun crept steadily in the sky, and as it reached its zenith I had yet to successfully start The Minsk.  I was sweating, I was tired, I was frustrated, and I was sure I had been duped by that slippery Limey.  It was reaching an ungodly temperature, and I knew I had to reach Mui Ne before the late afternoon, for the monsoon had begun in earnest and each afternoon the sky poured down an ocean of water upon the fields of southern Vietnam.  If I did not get the bike started soon, I would either die of heatstroke in Saigon or slide off the road and die in a tropical storm on Highway one, thereby failing Challenges 2 and 3.

I called over a motorcycle taxi driver and asked him to start it.  He got it first try.

Challenge Number 1: Completed!

Challenge Number 2: Successfully Leave Saigon and Get to Highway One

Emboldened by my successful completion of Challenge Number One, I charged onward to Challenge Number 2…Excuse me, Mr. Motorcycle Taxi Driver, would you please escort me from here to Highway One?

You might laugh, but I tell you this was the biggest Challenge of the day, even with the guide!

Saigon is a crowded city and it sprawls outward for miles in each direction.  The people drove like madmen.  Attempting to avoid collisions and simultaneously navigate was impossible.

Every intersection was a free-for-all, and I had about thirty intersections to cross before I got to the highway.  At a four-way stop, the light would turn green and then all four sides would go at once.  Everyone would approach the center at the same speed, all would arrive at once, and then the bold drivers would begin weaving their way through the mess.  Somehow, no one completely stopped, no one put their foot down and no one crashed.  I just plowed right through the center of it all, barely able to co-ordinate my clutch, accelerator, and brake, let alone avoid hitting anyone.  I almost crashed four times in the span of five minutes.

The chaos did not stop there.  Rules were being broken everywhere.  It was a mockery of Western Law and Order, a physical repudiation of the French’s intended purpose of Saigon’s grand boulevards.  As I idled at the traffic light, a motorcycle would zip around the corner to my right against traffic, then continue along the curb for another fifty meters or so before cutting right across the street and back into his proper lane.  And this was only at the four-way intersections; the round-abouts were another matter entirely.

Somehow I managed to follow the moto driver through this mess and after 45 minutes I was on the outskirts of Saigon.  I jumped off my bike in excitement and went over to pay the driver his due…and accidentally allowed the bike to stall.  Back to Challenge Number 1 again.

Challenge Number Three – Avoid Death and Rain and Drive Down Highway 1 to Mui Ne Beach

The highway looked only marginally easier to navigate than the roads of Saigon.  As trucks, cars, motorcycles and tour buses zoomed past me, I stood on the side of the road and decided to sacrifice a large goat in Zeus’ honor.  Oh mighty Zeus, high on Mt. Olympus, please spare me for one day.  Do not bring the storm cloud upon my head, do not put obstacles in my path.  Just make my first day on The Minsk somewhat easy.  I finished the sacrifice, wiped the blood from my hands, restarted the bike (after twenty tries), and delved into the swirling traffic on Highway 1.

Highway 1 is much like Highway 1 in California; it traces the coast along the South China Sea and connects all the beach cities from Saigon to Hanoi.  It supposedly held incredible scenery and life-threatening traffic.  As I stared out over smoggy suburban Saigon, I could only see the latter.

There appeared to be a system on the highway, unlike the roads in Saigon.  All the motorbikes were keeping to the right shoulder, so I followed the other bikes and moved with the flow.  Cars whipped past us, minivans rocketed by, massive lorries stumbled and chugged along, and enormous double-decker VIP Tourist buses whizzed by at Mach 1, honking their horns and overtaking dozens of bikers at once.

The bus drivers were crazy – they were driving their machines like they were Subaru WRXs in a rally-car race.  Often, a tour bus traveling in the opposite direction would pass a slower bus, swinging into our lane, squeezing the cars into the bike lane, the bikes onto the roadside, and the roadside vendors into the rice paddies!  And the only warning you received was a deafening HOOOONNNNNKKKKK!!!!!!

Ah, the horns.  In Vietnam, a vehicle’s horn varies in pitch according to the vehicle’s size and its ability to end your life abruptly.  While my bike squeaks a high-pitched Beeeep! Beeep!, the massive lorries belch a frighteningly deep growl, and for a moment you believe that, by some work of the gods, you are about to be passed by the Titanic! 

On top of this all, the roads are pocked with patches of gravel, dirt, and water, around which you must navigate while fending off hundred of Evil Canevil wannabes and dozens of ocean liners.  And once you think you’ve mastered that, then a Vietnamese bus passenger will chuck the remainder of his noodles out the window of his bus and right onto your head!

But despite all the hazards, my first day on the bike was one of the best experiences so far.  Once I left the city behind, the traffic dissipated and I sped past rice paddies and mountains strewn with boulders, then over rivers and canals to the fishing villages along the coast.  I passed through Phan Thiet, a charming seaside village with aging buildings which looked over the brightly colored fishing boats anchored in the water below.

As the sun set over the mountains to the west, I traced gorgeous beaches to my right.  The South China Sea appeared in the late afternoon light, windblown but inviting nonetheless.  The beaches were lined with palm trees for miles, and to my left marvelous sand dunes fell down to the side of the road.

But above all, I enjoyed my liberation.  Freedom from pre-planned itineraries, freedom from bargaining bus drivers, freedom from tuk tuk drivers, and freedom from my fellow travelers.  After months of complaining about being stuck on the tourist track, I had finally done something about it.

For the first time in my four and a half months of traveling, perhaps for the first time in my life, I felt truly free.

Free, yes, but also tired.  I had knocked out all three challenges with no problems and I was in need of some relaxation.  Mui Ne fit the bill nicely.  It was an 11 kilometer beach that curved in a large crescent, completely covered in coconut trees, fishing boats and luxury resorts.  I found one of the few budget places on the beach and spent a day swinging in a hammock, reading Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad (highly recommended summer reading), and trying to avoid death by falling coconut.

I took advantage of The Minsk and explored the nearby fishing villages.  Without The Minsk, I would have stayed within walking distance of my guesthouse, but instead I went into local neighborhoods and sampled local seafood on the street.  Of course, I still lacked “the touch” for getting my bike started, so after spending two hours trying to start it in three different places, I decided to save the bike riding for longer distances.

After two nights, I packed up my bags and hit the road again.  Next stop, up the coast to the beach town of Nha Trang.

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