Crazy Stuff I Make My Husband Do: Vietnam by Motorbike
Off the Beaten Path on Phu Quoc Island
By Kattina Rabdau-Fox
Phu Quoc, Vietnam
[“Crazy Stuff I Make My Husband Do” is an occasional Globejotting.com column by Dave Fox’s wife.]
Dave is accustomed by now to my requests for oddball outings, “more hiking,” and so-called “adventure travel” (a.k.a. going where there are really big bugs and no medical clinics). What do you ask of a guy who, upon cajoling, goading, or feeding him beer, usually, eventually agrees to try something new?
“Let’s go motorbiking in Vietnam.“
This is nothing new to a lot of people, such as the 87-million or so who live here in Vietnam and use their motorbikes for carpooling, furniture deliveries, and places to nap. Then there are the foreigners who try riding in Ho Chi Minh City, only to make it a block before becoming overwhelmed by the mayhem. They end up bringing the bikes back, paying their 100,000 dong (US $4.80) rental fees, and heading immediately to the nearest bar for a Saigon beer.
Every time we have traveled to Vietnam, we’ve been in awe of the motorbike culture. I compare it to a coral reef, where schools of fish swarm and move as one shifting body. When two schools meet, the fish don’t crash into each other, driving up the cost of insurance for all fish; they simply maneuver around each other in one graceful sweep. This is what watching motorbikes in a large Saigon intersection looks like. Horns beep endlessly as riders demonstrate a patient flexibility, without which this system would not function. The organized chaos of millions of motorbikes and no stoplights works just fine.
On our first trip to Vietnam five years ago, we stood at a street corner and begged local pedestrians for guidance on how to ford this endless stream of riders. “You would never see me on one of those,” Dave said to me then. “I could never do that.”
(Back then, Dave didn’t realize that when he says, “I could never do that,” I immediately file whatever it is away for a future column of “Crazy Stuff I Make my Husband Do.”)
A few days later we had to ride as passengers, out of the Mekong Delta jungle, after it grew too dark for us to see on a long bicycle ride. The feeling was thrilling, albeit bumpy. As we pulled up at our lodging that night, Dave said he would never do that again if he could avoid it.
Fast forward four years: Dave’s been a passenger on long motorbike rides all over southern Vietnam. He’s endured a two-day, 400 kilometer trip with our friend, Phúc. He has been initiated as a real local passenger. But he had yet to achieve local driver status.
Until last Tuesday.
* * *
“We should rent motorbikes,” I say as we arrive on Phu Quoc Island. I don’t expect Dave to say yes. This is just my latest fishing expedition to see how he will react to other crazy requests I might make.
What I expect him to say is, “Let me think about it.” If you’ve read my other columns, you know this is Dave’s way of fishing for beer. So I’m gobsmacked when this time, without hesitation, he agrees.
Phu Quoc seems like an excellent training ground for motorbike driving. It has a low population, little traffic, and a semblance of paved roads. It doesn’t hurt that the rentals cost five US dollars per day – no pesky questions asked about valid driver’s licenses or proof of insurance.
As we pay our money, we need a little guidance from the lady who runs the small shop next to our hotel. She points to the key and turns it a few times to show us how to start our bikes. She flips up the seat to show us the gas tank. She points out the hand brakes. Everything else we can figure out as we go. Simple enough.
We drive up a short dirt path. Intuitively, I know I should brake and put my foot down on the ground after I come to a stop, before we intersect with the main road. I just lack the skills to do that, and nearly run into cross traffic. Dave does the same.
We decide to head to Phu Quoc’s wild north coast. The only obstacle is getting through town.
A pontoon bridge floats across the harbor river. It is 10 feet wide and appears to contain around three thousand motorbikes, walkers, and even a blind guy with a cane. They are all slowly crossing this narrow bridge, which has no railings. We must finesse just enough power from the motor, staying ready to brake and stop at any moment. I pull forward. Dave is somewhere behind me. I lose him in the crowd.
“Fuck it,” I think, rolling on without him and leaving him in the dust. “It’s every man for himself here.” (Dave, did I tell you I love you? Because I do.)
I make the crossing. Dave eventually catches up to me.
We cut across several intersections to the other side of town. We find ourselves horribly lost in a residential neighborhood. We are guided out by four kids on their motorbikes (who eventually insist on riding our motorbikes) – through back roads and up over steep berms of soil and clay. They deliver us to flat pavement that unrolls in front of us in the manner you hear about in country western songs. Dave speeds past me in a straight away. He honks at locals as they veer into traffic. He honks at dogs that wander on the shoulder. He honks because he can. Because honking is what you do when riding a motorbike in Vietnam.
We drive down the red rutted roads of northern Phu Quoc, taking in the scenery. With a sense of satisfaction, we can say we drove motorbikes in Vietnam and did so without incident. We are locals now. Sort of.
[Ahem…except that when Kattina left Dave at the bridge, he found himself in an incident she did not see. You can read the sordid details in Dave’s version of this story.]