Mekong Motorcycle Diaries

Riding a motorcycle through the Mekong Delta felt like skimming across the surface of a mirror. Checkered patches of white clouds and blue sky appear through the spaces in the rice paddies. The green bouquets and trees sprout symmetrically up and down. Even when the sun wasn’t shining we had the feeling that we were bisecting two parallel worlds as we sliced along the monotonous concrete road that was the same color as the sky. It was an engrossing grayness. The whole trip, we dodged monsoon-like rains; the roads were constantly puddled. The muddy pools reflected the world before us in an other below us.

The ‘other-side’ in the another—end-of-life—sense was a recurrent thread speeding through my mind as I worked the clutch with my left hand, shifted gears with my left foot, and controlled the speed of the Honda Winn with my right side. I had a little bit of prior experience driving a manual bike in Pacitan, Indonesia but I mostly took up the idiotically bold task of teaching myself how to ride while I navigated through the chaotically jam packed city streets of Ho Chi Minh into treacherous delta highways where trucks and semis follow one rule of the road: dodge me or die. 

I chose to end the most action-packed year of my life with the most action packed idea imaginable.  Hunter Rusack, the captain of my college rugby team approached me a few months ago about riding north through Vietnam. I told him I didn’t have enough time to cover the whole country, but if he wanted to come meet me in Ho Chi Minh, I’d saddle up and explore the Mekong Delta with him. 

The Mekong Delta is on the southernmost tip of Vietnam. It’s a rice belt that produces 1/3 of the country’s rice supply and also exports abroad to the United States and Australia. There are other industries, orchars abound growing pepper and there are coconut groves. There is also an industrial wasteland where sand, gravels, and foods are processed in factories and moved along the waterways into ports.

Each year, during wet season, the whole region becomes extremely vulnerable to flooding as the Mekong River, one of the worlds largest that flows down from the Himalaya through Laos and Cambodia into Vietnam swells with snowmelt. The issues of flooding abound as dams are being built upstream in Laos and China that disrupt the natural flow. So low-lying, the region is especially vulnerable to sea level rise. Beheaded by the sea, Vietnam would lose one of it’s major sources of food. However, the Mekong Delta is an interesting place to look to because the south vietnamese are well adapted to living with water. Most trade occurs on the waterways. The canals are labelled more often than the roads. Fisherman live on floating houses above their nets, townspeople elevate their dwellings upon stilts. It’s a hotbed of do-it-you self, “litte-a” adaptation projects. It’s where people live with the water.

I was excited to get exploring. But my excitement was not without serious nerves about the risks involved in biking around the region.

I recalled the four motorcycle accidents I’ve witnessed this year. The collision in Paris where a scooter wedged tightly into the driver’s side door of a Fiat and sent the driver crashing onto the windshield, the crash in Buenos Aires that jellied my legs as I watched a man eject into the air like a rag doll as he rear ended a car, the one I didn’t can still hear, and the petty accident in Ho Chi Minh where I biker slipped in the rain and got his helmet bumped by the trailing taxi’s front bumper (lucking not the front wheel).

Even as I was riding comfortably working the controls, I was constantly reminded of the consequences of a crash. I heard screaming sirens of rusty miniature ambulances that made medieval medical attention look like a preferred option. I swelled fresh cut wood and saw carpenters were constructing coffins in the open door of a garage . The lush green fields were broken up only by white coffins occupied with bodies of the very men and women who once maintained those plots.  They stood above the rice paddies like personal Parthenons, relics to a lifetime of laboring shin deep in the paddy below.

I’m thankful that these images kept popping up; they kept my 110cc engine churning 5 kilometers slower than it might have otherwise.

Of course I could be exaggerating the actual risks. I’m just rather stating what was on my mind.  Regardless, the rewards of this six day five night adventure outweighed the concerns. This trip was one of the highlights of my year.

In my eyes, there was no other suitable way to wrap up and head home.

Our trip took us from a home stay on a river island, onto ferries crossing the Gulf of Thailand, to a dinner that perhaps got me a wedding proposal. It was a culmination of everything I’ve learned about traveling on the road. We were off the beaten down lonely planet path in the heart of the un-touristic Mekong. And best of all I had Hunter ‘down for anything’ Rusack as a wing.

He and I disagree on many things. For example, one of his most treasured possessions is his closet of high powered guns. I personally see no need for firearms besides casual hunting rifles or clay pigeon shotguns. On that issue alone we yell at each other in heated arguments. But we see eye to eye on the important things. For example, we 100% agree that the fish pedicure we went to was equally fun and tortuous. We side that rugby may be one of the best sports on earth. And most importantly,  there is little better than a sip—healthy quaff—of good beer. These activities don’t comply safely with motorcycle trips but somehow we made it work. 

The operation started by scouting out wheels. There is a distinct, and unfortunately quite dreary corner of Ho Chi Minh where most travelers perch during their day or two in Saigon. The alcohol soaked travelers become a magnet for prostitution, drugs, beggars, petty crime, and exploitive prices. It’s a characteristic Southeast Asian backpacker district and adds an alternate personality to the city’s charm. That’s where we went looking.

Since the British TV series Top Gear produced an episode where the hosts ride north along the coast of Vietnam, people, mostly Brits, have flocked to Vietnam to follow suit. It only took us about an hour to scout out a pair of second hand wheels with registration cards. A few of the bikes we found fit our needs but were missing the registration card.

We had read that traffic officers are rumored to turn a blind eye to westerners on motorcycles. It is in fact illegal to drive in Vietnam without a Vietnamese license.  We opted for the risk averse option and sought out the blue cards. This turned to be a huge. We got pulled over our first hour on the road. Ill get to that.

Hunter bought a bike for 270 dollars and I rented mine for 700,000, dong, a little bit less than 35.

We strapped our bags on with bungee cords, turned the key, fired up the engine and turned slowly into the relentless stream of Saigon motorcycle traffic.

Remember playing in a pit of those plastic balls as a kid? You could dive around and swim in the infinite sea of bright color. From the top of a bridge looking down at a red light, that’s what the Ho Chi Minh traffic looks like.

Despite the sheer unfathomable numbers of gears, chains, and suffocating fumes of exhaust, the traffic is extremely navigable once you’re in it. The rule of thumb is to never make sudden movements and to always keep your line. Everything moves around you like you’re among an unbounded school of fish. Conventional rules don’t apply. Red lights are suggestions not law. In round-abouts, they’re is no right of way. It’s a gigantic game of chicken or British bulldog. A clear strategy is to find a bold driver and use him as a lead blocker, trailing in his wake as he moves the traffic to his liking. The traffic moves as cleanly as clockwork. For the incalculable volume of close encounters, there are shockingly few collisions.

Without GPS or a good map, we got lost 20 minutes into our ride. The road was the right name, but the accents were different. We found the right road and drove for two minutes before heavy drops of rain perspired from an daunting black cloud to the southwest. The heavy drops gave way to buckets of rain and we found shelter in a Carl’s Jr Hamburger shack. We were 20 minutes out of town but had driven for over an hour. 

Good start.

We got back on route 1a heading South and made it not too far before we got orange-flagged to the roadside by a traffic cop wearing a neat tan suit and a military cap. As I decelerated and pulled into the abandoned lot two officers were collecting cash from Vietnamese riders, I thought about an especially memorable Yvon Chouinard quote:

“The word adventure has gotten overused. For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.”

The cop didn’t have a full grasp of what he wanted from us, and he spoke no english, couldn’t hold our eye contact. He seized our blue cards, but we got them back after a few minutes with a bribe of about 25 dollars. Then went on our way. Hunter was pretty rattled about having to pay the fee. It bummed him out for the afternoon. But we were lucky. That was definitely the best of all possible situations.

We were on our way to the Delta. The Mekong Delta is described by guidebooks with descriptions that evoke pristine natural landscapes of “impossibly green shades”. But from the road side, all I saw was a archaic attempt at US strip mall. It was Sprawl that looked like it could have been cut and pasted from neither here nor there and all points between anywhere in India, Argentina, Bangladesh, China, or Indonesia and I’d assume then any developing nation.

It was a concrete slab, a monotonous wasteland that has been sloppily laid over the landscape. The concrete boxes, the plastic vinyl signs, the plastic chairs, and muddy roadside punctuated by burning piles of trash. The only things that signaled Vietnam was the text, the unique fruits and vegetables, and the eyes I saw between the small space between the brim of their helmet and the lip of their breathing masks to shield their lungs, perhaps uselessly, from the fumes of the industrial wasteland we were cruising through. 

For the first six hours driving, our first day, this is all we saw.

Out of the gloom, I saw the suspension beams–as ice blue as the Perito Moreno glacier–of a colossal suspension bridge unfitting of the surrounding context. The bridge spans the first major tributary of the Mekong and sent us in a soaring loop a hundred feet above the river. We took cautious one-eyed glances over side out across the the watery expanse that filled the horizon, took a big gasp of fresh air, and descended down into Vinh Long, hopped on a ferry and found a home stay to spend the night.

Among the damp swamps, we spend the night in a bamboo hut shielded from the mosquitos and preying mantises by thin white nets. The home stay cooked us a Mekong River elephant fish that we wrapped up in rice paper spring rolls and gave us breakfast.

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Back on the road the next day and out of clean clothes, we stopped on the roadside to buy Hawaiian shirts from a roadside vendor. It’s the little things.

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We steadily made our way south by southwest  towards the harbor town Rach Gia. The sights and smells improved slightly. We saw factories and processing planets loading goods onto wooden boats by conveyor belts, riverside homes were always built upon stilts, cup-like terra-cotta kilns came in clusters like upside down egg cartons. Massive piles of sand and gravel were loaded into thin barges that expanded their capacity significantly by retrofitting their vessels with bamboo and netting that fans out from the gunnels.

We got to Rach Gia at 1:45, assuming to hop on a 2 hour ferry, called the Superdong, and cross the Gulf of Thailand to Phu Quoc, an island ordained with white sand beaches. Little did we know that there are only two ferries a day. One at 8am and one at 1pm. So we were unknowingly locked into spending a night.

I went inside the ferry terminal to investigate tickets. The window was unoccupied. In this part of the world, our every move is followed by a handful of pairs of curious eyes. It feels like being a celebrity. My presence looming around the ticket counter was brought to the right man’s attention.

The right man was the wrong man. He was a grumpy old timer who was bothered that I broke a link in his chain smoking. Without looking at me—I had my best I’m lost and hopeless I’d love it with you would work with me here smile on—he fumbled around the desk, found a sign that read Bán Ra sold out, placed it firmly in front of me and turned around to walk out.

I knocked on the counter to get his attention–he didn’t like that–and asked what about tomorrow? while moving one of my hands from its clasped position in front of my chest to the right in a rainbow arc. He pointed at the sign. The next day?! as I moved my hand to the right as far as it would go. He pointed at the sign and looked at me probably questioning if I was illiterate. Next week!?!? I asked frustratedly, even though I knew I’d be on the other side of the world by then, and made that same gesture accompanied with a sweeping sideways head nod.

Bán Ra

He lit up a cigarette inside and told me to fuck off with a look so telling it transcended verbal language. 

Meanwhile, Hunter was outside standing guard over our goods. He was harassed by the two english speaking touts at the docks. They were pests in a ploy to steal our money. The only good thing these guys did was call him Strongman, which I commandeered and introduced Hunter as for the rest of the trip.

One guy said he could get us tickets on tomorrow mornings. He said they were 500,000 each but they were listed inside as 350,000 I was suspicious. He took us to an unoccupied Superdong booth a kilometer away from the dock. It remained unoccupied for some time so we sat down next to two toothless woman selling lottery tickets and shared our tropical fruit. I had a gut feeling that this guy was up to no good so I called up a Phu Quoc resort listing and asked where the ticket office was for the Superdong. I got a different address and demanded that the punk trying to steal our money take us there.

I walked into the ferry ticket office. Inside, I had a full-fledged argument in pen and ink diagramming while outside Hunter tried to fend off the same guy who was now trying to coax us into staying at one of his recommended hotels. I walked out 45 minutes later with two tickets and a pass to get our motorcycles on board. 

Photo on 7-27-14 at 15.52

The night at Rach Gia, we ate what was listed on the menu as ‘Interesting Social Clam.’ After, we posted up for a beer at a open kitchen, a home thats opened up to customers as most restaurants in rural Vietnam are. A gregarious grandmother seemed to unload the stale food in her fridge and cupboard onto us. She came out with dried squid saying try this! try this! Then came an unidentifiable fish try this! try! more! MORE! Then a green sour fruit. It was endless. It’s hard to know if those things are actually staples of Vietnamese diet or if they were just seeing how much these white monkeys go. We sure impressed them I think. We kept our stomachs bacteria free by chasing the oddities down with whiskey.

The grandmother took a liking, after a bit she was rubbing my chin and grabbing my cheeks. At one point she got on the phone with her granddaughter, a 16 or 17 year old girl who showed up like she was dressed for prom. Hunter was under the impression that I had a wedding date that next morning so I walked out and went to bed. The absurdity of it all dizzied me and I retreated to the chipped white walls of that night’s lodging. Hunter laid it into me for shattering the confidence of a poor teenage girl  by walking out on her. She’ll get over it.

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For the next two days it rained. We made it onto the island. Circumnavigated the whole thing. Not by choice. We got terribly lost but found some great riding along red dirt roads aside crystal blue lakes and through valleys and jungles.

At our hotel, Hunter fashioned together a backgammon board that occupied most of our time inside the hotel lobby sheltered from the storms. In a gap in the rain, we paddled around the bay in a tandem kayak and got flagged down once again but this time by a friendly old fisherman who wanted to have us aboard the deck of his  bright turquoise and red trawler for tea. He was toothless and his broken up english sentences were interspersed with a sickly smoker’s cough. He had aged dark eyes behind his wrinkled eye lids and worked his way around his boat with ease given his age and poor health. He had a couple of homemade tattoos on his fingers that were only a slight shade off from his skin tone. His hands were as weathered as the shells and rocks that sway along the ocean floor.  His pneumonia like cough between his long puffs of tobacco was sickly. I had a feeling we met him in his last days.

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Later on that day we were walking along the road, when we heard booming music emitting from a tin shack. Some dancing old man walked out and Hunter had a dance off with him from 20 yards away. That was the price of the admission ticket to a full-on 2pm Karaoke party where some construction workers and their rainy day women were wasting away. The poured us beer and never let us see the bottoms of our glasses. They handed us small crabs that were probably just picked up from the beach and told to pop up in our mouths full shell. We gave the Vietnamese karaoke a try but it is impossible to keep up. After 15 minutes over being force fed watery beer, Hunter and I looked at each other, mutually understood we needed to leave, simultaneously stood up, thanked them in unison, and walked out together before it went in a more precarious direction than it already was headed. One whole shell crab was one too many.

After two nights on the island, sleeping to the sounds of rain and heavy waves crashing ashore, we head back to the mainland. The bumpy ferry ride misaligned the rear wheel of my bike and the chain came undone. Without worrying I found my zen and got the chain back into the proper place. But I think I should stick to canvas for my art of motorcycle maintenance proved insufficient. I only made it a kilometer before the chain popped off again and I broke down. Luckily I broke down right in front of a repair shop. About 6 people came over to lend a hand. But one guy took command. Hunter and I watched as he took pieces apart. Hunter knows a good deal about motorcycles and seemed to approve of what was happening. That quelled my worries… slightly. One fella drew diagrams to help me understand what was happening. They asked for 75 cents for their work, mostly screwing and unscrewing. I couldn’t believe how little they asked for and left his young soccer playing son with some spending money.

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The next section of the ride was bread and butter, creme da la creme. The highway became a thin stretch of road. Too small for cars and trucks, the real sharks of the road.

On either side of us were expanses of green paddies. We saw pristine vistas through the breaks in the palm trees. We drove alongside a canal where small dug out canoes were parked in low hanging palm roofed garages. The homes were of bamboo and thatched palm. Many of the small walking bridges across the canal had rotted and collapsed with time so people ferried across on styrofoam boxes, plastic tubes, or wood boats if they were lucky and propelled themselves with their hands. 

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We dodged the rains. Vietnam’s roadways are dominated by motorcycle traffic. You can’t motorbike in the rain. In the United States or Europe, you see throngs of motorcycles posted up underneath bridges or overpasses during downpour. In Vietnam, about every 50 meters people open up their homes to offer coffee and hammocks for rest. It’s an extremely open culture. Privacy is not nearly as big a thing.

Vietnam is one of the safest countries on earth and we never felt uncomfortable in the Mekong. But we did avoid trudging through the countryside because of stories of unexploded mines and forgotten bombs from the Vietnam War. There are casualties and deaths every year, although they’re slowly tapering off with time.

Perhaps the harshest reminder of the war is seeing the left over effects of agent orange from the US’s use of chemical weapons that has caused deformations and grown defects even in generations that were not alive then.

But Vietnam has very much moved on from the war, especially in the South. We were welcomed everywhere with open arms. The gas chamber of my matte black Winn was adorned with a red star decal, right below in the shot my navy blue chuck taylors gripped the footholds. 

We drove across to Can Tho, a city of over a million where we spent  the next night. We went on an adventurous street food tasting. An aquafina bottle full of rice wine was forced down our throats by a rowdy local crowd at a hot pot restaurant we came across. I get the sense that the Vietnamese are big drinkers.

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The rice wine was awful and I collapsed into bed early enough to recover by 5am the next morning to visit the floating markets that make Can Tho famous. The rivers and canals are the arterial highways and the way that produce moves from the farmland into the cities. We hired a man to take us out to the market and back. 

On the ride back, our small wooden’s boat outrigged engine fumbled to a stop. The driver heaved it out of the water. The motor was knotted up in a large plastic bag. I wasn’t surprised the edges of the waterways are littered with detritus. He untangled the plastic and threw it right back in the water.

Connect the dots, brother.

That afternoon we made the long haul back to Ho Chi Minh. In fear of being cliche, here the journey was just as good, if not better than any of the destinations. It’s amazing the things that you see riding on the barely two seats of a two wheeled vehicle. A family of five. A couple carrying a 4 foot framed wedding photo. A lady carrying three geese. A lady with baskets and baskets of geese. The most creative people can’t even dream of it. 

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I can’t tell you how good it felt returning the keys without a scratch on me or the bike or even better without harming anything or anybody else.

Leaving Asia tonight. What a trip. Here’s to a year well lived. Mr. Thomas J. Watson, I owe you one.

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One thought on “Mekong Motorcycle Diaries”

  1. What a GREAT way to end Mr. Watson’s largesse, David! Looking forward to seeing you on ‘our’ island.

    Jim

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