One of my favourite days of the entire trip was towards the end of my stay in Hoi An.
Earlier in the week I had met Mr. Uyen and arranged to hire a motorbike and go out into the countryside, along some of the mountain roads and stop off at a couple of places along the way.
My bike for the day was a Honda Air Blade scooter. Which I’ll admit came as a bit of a surprise to me as I was expecting a 125cc cruiser style bike. But it was a surprisingly good bike to ride. It had a little poke, turned easily enough and would hold a line through the corners. Most importantly it was damn good fun; and that can never be underestimated.
There was one other important detail. The back brake didn’t work!
We set off riding through Hoi An. I’d hired a smaller scooter a couple of days previously and so had a fair idea of what the traffic would be like. That was also the first time that I had ridden on the right-hand side of the road. An experience which felt very, very strange. Especially when turning a corner and then having to aim for the opposite side of everything that your automatic reflex is taking you towards. But a couple of hours in and it stops feeling quite as strange, but not yet second nature.
The traffic in Hoi An really isn’t that bad. At least not compared to other built up areas. It is at least a good way of getting you used to way that the roads function.
There are a few big differences. The main one being that junctions have no stops, no right of way, and no-one sticks to a lane when they are turning. This can be more then a little disconcerting when you are using them. The way to approach it is to simply go slowly and thread your way through without stopping. Stopping means risking getting hit!
Oh, whilst your doing that watch out for pedestrians who’ll be crossing the road at the same time, and don’t expect any indication of which way anyone is heading because no-one gives any signals.
Red lights also appear to be optional for most. Even I went through a couple as I followed Mr. Uyen through the town.
After stopping to fill up the bikes, we went through a much larger town then Hoi An. This is something that I would have described as pandemonium had I not already seen traffic in Ho Chi Minh, and latterly Hanoi. What we need is a traffic chaos equivalent of the the Beaufort Scale. With 1. being the very occasional car early in the AM, through to 10 being the full Hanoi/Nairobi experience. If we take London to be a 5 (very busy roads, but safe to drive with a majority of sensible drivers), then we were passing through an 8 (Only one or two near collisions each minute).
I don’t know how people here manage to cope with driving these conditions every single day. I’ve love to see the results of a proper scientific test of their pattern recognition and spacial awareness, in comparison with the average Western driver. You have to be constantly scanning for small gaps, and where gaps are going to appear.
Trying to do this on a strange road, in a strange city, on a strange bike whilst trying to keep sight and follow another person is challenging.
Yet I was having fun whilst doing it. Its possible to forget that you’re on a machine and slip into the mindset that it is a giant game that everyone else is playing. Although a game made much more dangerous then usual thanks to the occasional idiot bus driver.
After we made our way of the city the roads opened up, the cars became rare and even other bikes became irregular.
We had the roads to ourselves and they were magnificent.
Rice fields and mountains as far as the eye could see. We pulled up alongside a bridge to have a stretch and quick chat. Mr. Uyen said to be that he’d been going a little quicker then he usually would through the city as he could see that I knew how to ride, so felt I’d be OK with it. He told me about how some people tell him they can ride, and then he sees them wobbling about, putting their feet down as they try to turn. He’s had one or two that just couldn’t hack the city at all, and pulled over refusing to move.
Those kind of riders, he just takes on the long straight motorways where they don’t have to worry so much, but the views are no-where near as good.
I didn’t tell him that at times my own bowels had nearly emptied during a couple of close calls.
The closest call came as we crossed a temporary bridge made from soil and wooden sheets. It was barely wider then a car and strictly one car at a time. Thats why it came as such a huge shock when the bus almost put me in the water by overtaking me. It basically nudged me over to the side, and I was so close to the edge, that my feet were hanging in air. I sucked in huge amounts of air once the bus had cleared me.
But that incident aside, it really was a pleasant ride. We’d pass through small villages, and children would stand at the side of the road and wave as I passed by. We would stop occasionally at particularly scenic points for a photographs, and we also stopped at a roadside cafe for a drink and a chat. We mainly talked about my travels, and his life in Vietnam. He was interested to know about my time in China; which is something of a recurring theme in Vietnam. Many people really dislike China (hate & fear would be another way of putting it), and want to hear what I had though of it.
I’d always answer diplomatically and say that it depended where I was. That the way people acted in the city, was completely different to those in the country and that most people are just trying to live their lives.
At one point we went across some very bad terrain and then crossed a tiny rickey bridge. It was shaped like a suspension bridge, but really it was just two parallel railings with wooden slats nailed across them. Half the boards were loose at at least one end, and many were just missing entirely. The bridge flexed and groaned like mad as I took the bike over it and I was glad to reach the other side.
The other side was a small village. The people there are a minority race in Vietnam and look different to the average Vietnamese. Mr Uyen told me that is because the people of this village used to only marry within the village itself. They would never marry an outsider, and so there ended up being a lot of inbreading. This inevitably led to problems, and some years ago the government had to step in and educate them about the dangers of marrying within the family. Things have apparently got better now, but it still goes on.
One of the more shocking details about the village was the news that the girls would be married off as soon as they turn 14. They will then spend the rest of their lives in a cycle of pregnancies.
It was whilst we were talking about this that one of the village kids came up and pointed at my rear tyre. My now flat rear tyre. I’d picked up a stray nail going over the bridge, and now it had left a big hole. Of course this being Vietnam somewhere to do repairs is never far away, and this was the case here. Only problem is that the closest was on the other side of the bridge. My Uyen took my bike, I and I rode his.
My first time riding a manual bike in 4 months and the first thing I had to do was cross the insane bridge once again.
I quickly came to the conclusion that I was glad to have the automatic gearbox on the Honda. It’s been a good 12 years since I last rode a manual 125, and I’d forgotten just how many times that you have to change gear.
We pulled up to a garage and they had the puncture sorted in a couple of minutes. The rim of the wheel felt like it was on fire from the friction of riding on the flat. But there was no lasting damage, and we were quickly back into the groove.
Our next stop was lunch at another roadside cafe. We were truly out in the country now and everyone was just staring at me. One man came over and grabbed my bicep. His fiends were across the road and cheering him on. Mr Uyen asked me if I knew what they were saying. I said I didn’t, but was willing to take a wild guess at ‘big man’. He told me that they were saying that the were shouting at their friends to come quickly because there is a sumo wrestler in the village. I asked if that was a good or a bad thing and was told that they were all really excited to see me. Most had never seen a white man before, and especially not one so big and tall. The man that had grabbed me, then came running over with a friend who had a camera on his phone. He wanted a photo of him shaking my hand, which I happily posed for.
The guy was just standing there with this amazed look on his face. He was barely up to my chest hight, and he kept reaching up to pat me on the shoulder.
I gestured to his friend to take another photo, and positioned the guy behind me and grabbing me around the waist. I gestured 3-2-1 with my fingers and as I hit the one count, I did a little jump.
The guy holding me looked really confused, but the guy with the camera was pissing himself laughing. He came running over with the picture and showed it to his friend. When he looked at it his eyes went like saucers and he broke out into a massive smile when he realised that when I did my little jump, it made it look like he was lifting me off of the ground.
He grabbed the phone and went sprinting off to his friends to show them.
Mr Uyen had been watching the whole thing, and came over to say thanks for being friendly with them and that the guy would probably be showing that photo to everyone in the village.
We set off on back towards Hoi An. This time as we went through the mountains there was a little drizzle in the air. As we came around one bend, before me lay one of the most awesome sights that I have ever seen.
Mountain Peaks were covered in green vegetation as far as the eye could see. Above them, grey and black rainclouds gathered lending the air a shimmering gleam.
But the centrepiece of this magnificent vista was the rainbow.
Despite heading down a mountain at the time, I slammed on the brake and pulled over to the side of the road, grabbing my camera and rushing to the railing. I had time to get a few photographs before the rainbow disappeared.
I loved my day out on the bikes. We covered around 200km in total throughout the day. I’d have happily gone further and longer if I could have.