You’re in Hue –this is the center of Vietnam, the halfway point, this is the place where the North and South were separated during the war. The North was Charlie, the Vietcong. The South was with the U.S. and the puppet governments the U.S. were funding. You’re here and it’s kind of cool, but not too cool, grey but not too grey and it’s a bit quieter than Hanoi, which screamed out with energy, horns, touts and chaos.
You want to ride south on a motorcycle, from Hue to Saigon. You’ve heard this is a great way to see the country, despite the 13,000 people who die annually in traffic accidents. For some reason though, the idea just seems too good to pass up.
You meet a Canadian couple that wants to ride to Hoi An, which is about six hours south. This sounds good –there will be safety in numbers. Later on that night, you run into the tall Dutch beauty you said goodbye to in the north, while you were in Hanoi, where you turned 33 years old and felt so trapped in your room and your body that you wandered around clutching your head and weeping like a big, giant old baby.
She decides she’s coming too. You all decide you’ll leave in the morning. Then you go out and eat amazing Vietnamese food in a restaurant with no other white people and you all drink far too much. You wake up in the morning and get your bikes. They’re rentals from locals, who will take your bags and bring them to a hotel in Hoi An.
The bikes are shitty, but not too shitty. There are three, one for you, one for the Canadian couple and one for the Dutchess and another Canadian tag along that doesn’t bring anything to the table. You put your helmet on and you’re off –into the crazy traffic, into the wind and the sun and the open road. You take the lead and there’s a rush of freedom, you’re not on a train, you’re not on a bus and other than the fact that you’re with other people, you’re completely on the loose.
Everything goes smoothly, soon you’re riding on dirt roads through small towns where the locals look at you and the others in a state of shock, the children smile and wave, some of the adults do too, they point and talk to each other, “Who are these white people? I don’t know, but the tattooed one sure is handsome,” they reply. The ocean is creeping up on the right with the mountains in the distance.
Soon there’s a truck with a shit load of ducks running out the back of it, a constant stream of ducks. Everyone stops. None of you ever see things like this in the developed countries you all live in, and you look at each other with amazement. The locals look at you like you’re retarded.
The mountains, the valleys, the rice paddies, people drying rice on the asphalt, sea-side cliffs and the cutbacks, the smoke from trucks and burning trash, you ride through all of it, past all of it. Everyone else is hungry and you are too, you pick a restaurant on the side of the road where you saw families chowing down, it looked promising. You hang a U-turn and park the bikes in front of plastic tubs full of crabs and fish –cigarettes get pulled out and smoked, then everyone makes it inside for an incredible meal of crab, fish, squid, rice, beer, noodles and spinach for about $5 dollars a person. Everyone smiles.
You arrive to Hoi An, pull up to a small market run by a friendly old woman who sells cold beer and gives you chairs to sit on. You check the maps and find your hotel.
The next two days are spent relaxing in this small town that is supposedly the cheapest place to get custom tailored clothes in South East Asia. You eat pizza, ribs, seafood and drink on the beach with other tourists and locals. It’s nighttime now and people are running into the ocean naked, you can’t help but stare at the cold breasts and what the cold water does to them. You run into the water in your boxers and manage not to lose anything. Score.
You decide it’s completely possible and not entirely crazy to buy a bike and ride the rest of the way to Saigon. It’s the April 6th and you have to fly out of Saigon on the 15th to go work at Dynamic Tattoo in Melbourne. You have nine days to do 566 miles.
The Dutchess has a name, Marianne, and she’s in. So now you have a partner. Someone to watch you on the road and keep you cozy at night. The hotel sells you the bikes, they ask for $350 dollars. You both take them for test-drives and talk them down to $300 each.
With bikes bought it’s time to put some miles on these fuckers. Marianne’s a fast and fearless rider. You feel badass riding these roads, but a damn reasonable sense of fear accompanies that feeling of being badass. You ride down the 1, the main road –you pass rice paddies and people working in the fields.
Big-rigs scream past you with their horns blaring and then buses come straight for you as they pass the trucks, pushing you onto the edge of the road. Chickens run out in front of you as road dust from the car that just passed you flies into your eyes. A motorcycle passes with crates of pigs strapped to the back, sides and front. Another bike with a family of five passes, the baby on the handlebars.
A local goes delusional and points at the white girl ahead of you doing 80 KMH, while taking photos and sucking on a lollipop. You ponder the possibility of God. A bee stings you in the bend of your left arm. You freak out, flail around, almost crash into a telephone pole and decide that if God does exist, you don’t like him very much.
Spend the night in an $8 dollar hotel in no-wheres-ville and you’re off again in the morning. The Dutchess stops every 15 feet and asks for directions or if anywhere sells Snickers; you think of making it to Saigon in the next eight days and get pissy. You split ways later in the day so she can search for the ocean and Snickers, and you can breathe toxic fumes on the 1.
You both decide it’s safer to ride with a partner and meet up the next day in Nha Trang, a beautiful beach city. You run out of gas a block away from the hotel, buy some from a lady on the side of the road who has it in an old plastic Pepsi bottle. You score a sweet room overlooking the ocean for $20 bucks, realize how sunburned you are and take a nap. Your nose glows in the dark.
Two days in paradise. Good food, good people. You meet a 71-year-old woman who says she has traveled all over Vietnam but never to Hanoi, “Those motherfuckers! Fuck Hanoi! Them motherfuckers! Never-never never! No! Never!” she said as she waves her middle finger in the air. Even with her one tooth you can see she was once really pretty. And she’s still fucking cool. You feel a bit like an asshole for being an American and she makes you feel better about it. She had a G.I. lover from the war. She likes Americans and she likes you. You spend three days there and you’re down to four days to make it to Saigon.
You were hoping to sell the bike in Saigon but now you’re wondering if maybe you’ll give it away –maybe you’ll find some nice person that needs a bike and they’ll smile and you’ll smile, and you’ll feel good about yourself and your nose that’s sunburned to fuck.
You decide, along with Marianne, that you’ll head to Dalat a town up in the mountains. On the way there you ride up-up-up the cutback roads and up more into the clouds and you look down behind you and it feels and looks like you’re on top of the goddamn world. You think about all of the napalm and the Agent Orange that was dropped on these towns that you’ve ridden through and you see how lush, green and stunning it all is and it makes you feel better that nature won out against war and attrition.
Your bike makes a loud popping noise that sounds like it’s coming from the rear brake as you head down hill and around a turn. You look down at the tire and the engine, like you could do anything about it at all and then you look up and you’re heading towards the edge of the cliff and the gravel and the dirt you hit the brakes and skid out, crashing while doing maybe 35 or 40 MPH.
“OH SHIT!!!” you scream as you see your left hand reaching out to cushion the fall, you think of tattooing and the job you have lined up in just four days, it all happens in slooow moootion and then you hit that pavement hard, it’s painful, you’re bleeding, your watch is smashed and laying in the middle of the road, your headphones are broken. There’s gasoline on the ground, and broken glass from the rear view mirror that used to be there and is now just jagged shards of plastic. You check your body and nothings broken but your hip hurts and your palms are all gross and bloody and filled with dirt and Vietnamese cement. You shake somewhat uncontrollably.
You lift the bike up; it’s kind of fucked, but not totally fucked, just like you. You reach down; grab a double handful of balls, start it up and you’re off again. Marianne is pulled over around the bend almost out of gas, she asks if you’re okay and you say, “Yes” shook-up but okay.
Now, every moment is another potential crash in your vulnerable little head and that kind of sucks. You stop at a roadside garage to get gas for her bike and a man from a store across the street sees you pouring water on the cuts of your hands and searching through your First-Aid kit for bandages, he comes across the street and takes you to his house, you limp behind him, the children laugh at your red nose, he cleans you up with antiseptic and bandages.
You make it to a hotel and do nothing but lie down for two days and eat food. There are painkillers too.
You finally make it to Saigon with just one day to spare. It’s a nice city. The traffic is insane, like an obstacle course. You feel a part of it, like atoms in a molecule. It’s absolutely insane. Your hands are healing and it’s hot and sunny. Life is good.
You eat some really amazing food on the side of the road, sitting on children’s chairs while the traffic passes by and people watch in awe at how well you use your chopsticks.
You visit the War museum, which weighs heavy and makes you feel horrible. Inside a young man with no eyes plays the piano. Flesh passes over his ocular cavities, smooth and taut. You’ve never seen anything like it. He’s a product of Agent Orange and the horrible chemical Dioxin, the photos, the stories; all of it crushes the good feelings and replaces them with feelings of guilt and extended responsibility. The fact that the Vietnamese, welcome Americans back on friendly terms is a testament to the people of Vietnam and just how cool these fuckers really are.
It’s the day of your flight and you still have the bike, it’s time to get rid of it. You haven’t found the perfect person, someone who really needs it, but you did buy a t-shirt off a nice young girl and you decide to go give her the bike. She’s happy and you feel good that you did something nice for someone else.
You kiss the Dutchess goodbye and head for the airport, with your healing hands and your peeling nose. Ready for the 14-hour flight from Saigon to Melbourne. Ready to tattoo, ready to work and thankful that you’re still alive.
Melbourne Australia, April 2011