The most experience I’d had with scooters was riding on the back of one in Bali. Melanie had driven one for A day in Flores. Yet the two of us made the bold decision to rent our own bikes and drive them north from Hoi An to Hue through the Hai Van Pass and along a backroad scenic route, which we were told would take us between three and five hours. Let me preface this by saying that all over Vietnam (and Southeast Asia for that matter) you see tourists with cuts, scrapes, bruises, stitches and broken bones… all from scooter accidents. And those are just the one that are lucky enough to be walking around not long after. I’m writing this so you obviously know I’m alive, but it’s nothing short of a miracle.
We started fairly early so that we’d have plenty of daylight hours to make our way north, stopping along the way at various sites and taking breaks for food and pictures. If you were to do something similar in America you’d need to produce a license (perhaps even a special one), insurance, maybe even take a short course. Not in Vietnam. I paid the woman and she showed me the throttle, break and gas tank, and sent me on my merry way. Hoi An is not a large city – in fact it’s a town. But the amount of scooter traffic and manner of driving in Vietnam are what make it unsafe. There are NO rules save for the one that you should honk for just about everything. When in doubt, honk. I took this advice quite literally and hoped the other drivers (and animals) would understand that my honks meant, “Get out of the way, I’m a tourist who doesn’t know what she’s doing!!”
Departing from Melanie’s hostel, I eased into traffic and turned onto the appropriate street. So far so good. I was approaching a stop light so I started to squeeze my break. Nothing. I squeezed harder. Nothing still. The more tense I became, the more fierce my grip, which resulted in me throttling even harder while I simultaneously attempted to break (pro tip: this doesn’t work). I nearly plowed into a pack of other scooters, but veered off to the sidewalk and let go with both hands, dragging my feet to a halt at the last second. Shaking and panting, a group of pedestrians looked at me and then each other as if to say, “this bitch is gonna kill herself.” Funny. I was thinking the same thing.
From this I developed my scooting mantra: confident, but not comfortable. You have to have a certain amount of guts and gumption to do anything new (let’s call this confidence), but in order to excel at it (or just not kill yourself and others) you need to be actively engaged, aware and mindful at all times (the opposite of comfortable). So far this mantra has served me well – and is strangely applicable to many aspects of life. After repeating my mantra several times with a few “you can do this”‘s thrown in, I was finally on the road and enjoying our ride.
I compare driving a scooter to flying an airplane; When your’e cruising at altitude you’re gravy, it’s take off and landing that are the most dangerous parts. This proved the most true when we arrived at Marble Mountain; our first stop on the road to Hue, just about 20-30 minutes outside of Hoi An. We wanted to have a look around the religious site and thus pulled over among the side streets to park. Surrounding the base of the mountain are countless shops selling marble figurines, as small as the size of a chess piece and as large as a gawdy statue you’d find in the gardens of an art museum. One lady waved us over, telling us she’d watch our scooters (for a price, of course). She instructed us to park our bikes on the walkway between her shop and another. There was a substantial lip on the curve separating the street and sidewalk, so I gave my bike a little gas. Then a little more. It still wasn’t enough. Instead of easing it a bit more, I accidentally gunned the sonofabitch and came INCHES from taking out two shops full of finely carved marble statues. While swerving wildly, the woman and two men shouted “WHOA WHOA WHOOOOOAAAA!!!” while lunging to grab my break. Once stopped they rightfully shook their heads and gawked at me in fearful disbelief. Not only was I terrified, I was MORTIFIED.
I was more than happy to ditch my bike and hike up a mountain at that point. We climbed the stairs to what we thought would be a quick stop, but we were so breath-taken with the site that we wandered around for more than an hour. Wander into a cave, turn the corner and suddenly you’re standing face-to-face with a 25-foot Buddah carved out of solid marble. Climb some stairs, up a dirt path and onto some boulders to take in a 180-degree vista of the town and ocean. Head down a path, through an ornate entrance to see temples and pagodas inhabited by monks who are praying and serving the under-privileged. It was mesmerizing and although a fairly popular tourist attraction, I couldn’t help but feel like Indiana Jones, discovering some lost treasure in a forgotten land.
Once back at our bikes I received a stern warning from the shop owners: “Slowly lady. You go slooooowly.” I’m trying here, folks! We drove a bit more, navigating our way through a decent-sized city and, once on the road leading towards the pass, we pulled over to have a swim in the ocean. We parked our bikes, changed right on the beach (there wasn’t a soul there) and ran into the water, feeling like free, wandering women of the world. We cooled off in the water, dried as best we could and changed back into our clothes.
I could wax poetic forever about this drive, but suffice it to say it was spectacular. Winding up the mountain through the pass, we had views of the ocean, fields, waterfalls, and small-town Vietnamese life. It was exactly what I had wanted it to be.
Noticing that we weren’t making great time, we opted to forgo lunch and some of the superfluous stops we’d planned on. But when riding through the backroads and forgotten towns of Vietnam, we came across a small gathering of women who’d set out food just off the road like a market. Melanie spotted some fruit, so we pulled over for a quick snack. They clearly weren’t used to white visitors, but also paid us no mind. We waited our turn and pointed at the few fruits we wanted. To the left of the fruit stand was one tiny table and two stools – the set up resembled a small, makeshift restaurant. I was hungry for more than bananas so I suggested we check out what they had to offer.
I saw some sauces and what looked like hard boiled eggs. I was jonesing for some protein, but Melanie said, “I don’t think those are regular eggs…” Melanie was right. The woman placed an egg in front of me, cracked it with a spoon and reveled what appeared to be an alien. Melanie explained that it was a Vietnamese dish she’d heard about: a fertilized egg that was less than a chicken, but more than a yolk, which had been boiled. It was, essentially, an aborted chick and HANDS DOWN the most disgusting thing anyone had ever suggested I eat. I try hard to be respectful of other cultures’ customs and cuisines, but this was too much for me. I gasped, pulling back in horror and, waving one hand and clutching the other to my chest in horror said, “No, no no nonononononoooooooooo!” Luckily they found this amusing. I tried to indicate that while I wouldn’t be touching the egg, much less put it near my mouth, I would pay for it. But before I was able to communicate this, a little Vietnamese girl ran up practically BEGGING for the egg. I was thrilled to get rid of it, but Melanie and I watched in poorly hidden disgust while she devoured the fetus.
Once our stomaches had turned enough, we bid farewell to the town and got back on the road. The last part of the drive was probably my favorite as we wound through small villages whose inhabitants were also not used to white visitors – especially two white, blonde female visitors. When Melanie led I’d see heads turn and then look at each other as if to say, “Did you see that white girl?!” Then I’d zoom by and they’d laugh. “There goes another!” The kids (and even the adults from time to time) would come running out to the road waving, throwing us the peace sign and yelling, “Hello! Hello! Hello!” This went on through each town and it inflated our egos to Kayne levels.
We wanted to stop, take picture and talk to the locals, but it was getting dark and quickly. The entire trip was supposed to take us 3-5 hours, but we were already six hours in and had a long ways to go. We were racing the sun, trying to make it to Hue before dark. We put down our visors and hauled ass, but it was no use. It was well past dark by the time we arrived in the city traffic of Hue. At the beginning of the day we were novices at best, terrorizing the roads. Luckily we were experts now, weaving in and out of traffic and complaining about slow drivers. At 65 kilometers per hour we darted through rush hour, Vietnamese traffic, honking and swerving like locals.
We made our way to a hostel where there was “no room in the inn,” but they happily recommended a place just down the street for us. The owner of the hostel called the bike company and not five minutes later our packs arrived and our bikes were lugged off. We’d gotten the adventure we’d looked for (and then some), and although dirty, tired and a bit on edge from our night ride, our traveler spirits were fulfilled.