Renting a Motorbike in Vietnam
With Special Guest Rockers: The Partridge Family
By Dave Fox
Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam
Knowing how it feels to weave and honk your way on a motorbike through Saigon’s chaotic traffic is a prerequisite for understanding the Vietnamese psyche. But I’ve always been happy as a passenger. Driving a motorbike myself – anywhere – has always seemed like a death wish. I’m not good at dodging fast-moving trees.
So as our plane touched down last week on Phu Quoc, a Vietnamese island in the Gulf of Thailand, and Kattina said, “We should rent motorbikes,” I felt sad my wife wanted me to die.
But Phu Quoc’s traffic is tamer than Saigon’s, and the more I thought about it, the more I remembered, travel is about getting out of your comfort zone and collecting memories. A broken collarbone would heal, but the story would last a lifetime. Maybe a short lifetime, but still. Besides, I had ridden bicycles all over Southeast Asia. How much danger could a little motor add? So we went to the shop next to our hotel that rented motorbikes for five US dollars per day. The soft-spoken young woman who ran the shop showed us how to turn the ignition key and honk the horn – a thorough lesson by local standards.
I prepared for the thrill of the wind in my imaginary hair as I pulled back on the accelerator. My bike just sat there and went, “vroom.” I pulled back a little more. My bike then did a Space Shuttle imitation, rocketing up a dirt-road hill at Mach five. At the main thoroughfare, we turned left and chugged along the shoulder at a tamer speed. I started getting the hang of things.
Until we reached the bridge.
It was a pontoon bridge that opened to let boats through a canal. Fifty or sixty bikes were clumped together, waiting to cross with the same gentle patience one might expect from a gaggle of 12-year-old girls outside a Justin Bieber concert.
“I don’t know about this,” I said to Kattina.
But we had to cross. We had to ride to the northern tip of the island because – well, I don’t know why. It’s just where Kattina had announced we were going. So we needed to enter the fray of waiting riders, and to enter the fray, we needed to ride like real Vietnamese people ride: on the sidewalk. Riding on the sidewalk was the only way to get onto the bridge. And getting our bikes up onto the curb was looking dodgy. It was a steep step from road to sidewalk, and our motorbikes, we discovered, were too heavy to lift like one might do with a bicycle.
“Just take it slowly,” I advised Kattina, as if I knew what I was doing.
“Slowly doesn’t work,” she said. “I tried it.”
Then, as traffic started moving, she gunned her engine, popping up the curb like a native, into the flow of other riders. She looked back, tried to wait for me, but waiting was not an option. The honking intensified as other bikers swirled around her. So she went, and I stayed, trying to figure things out.
I gunned it like she did – for just a second. My front wheel popped up on the curb. My back wheel stayed on the road. I gunned it again. My back wheel spun against the curb. I was stuck.
An old lady motored up beside me and smiled sympathetically. “Poor foreigner.” Then she popped a wheelie and disappeared onto the bridge.
People were honking at me to move. I gunned my engine harder. My back wheel spun some more. I gunned it harder still. My back wheel spun faster. And faster. Then it popped up onto the sidewalk. Then, I had my first motorbike crash.
Impact occurred at a slow speed, just as I was locating the hand brake. I whacked into a man’s kickstand. He wobbled, spun around glaring, and then, noticing I was a dumb foreigner who meant no harm, shrugged and proceeded onto the bridge. Now successfully on the sidewalk, I followed him across and located my wife on the other side.
Ten minutes later, we were lost, which was because a small airport sliced through the center of town. Vietnam has liberal rules about where you can ride a motorbike. People drive on sidewalks. They drive down the wrong side of the road. I have seen people ride motorbikes into restaurants and churches. (Yes, really.) But it turns out there are limits. Buzzing across runways is prohibited. In the process of navigating around the airport, we lost the main road and found ourselves in a residential neighborhood.
“Maybe he can help,” Kattina said as a boy of around 10 crossed the street on foot in front of us.
“I show you!” the boy said as we pointed to the road we were looking for on our map. Then he ran away. But three minutes later, he reappeared on a motorbike of his own, with three friends sharing a second bike. They led us to the “highway” we were seeking and shook us down for a tip. Kattina and I were on our way again.
Now, a long ribbon of well-maintained asphalt stretched out before us. As my confidence grew, my speed increased on the open road. It was invigorating, feeling the wind in my imaginary hair. We were flying now! I finally understood the adrenaline rush motorcycle adventure travelers talk about.
Road music began playing in my head. Roaring up the coast, I could hear the thump of a heavy bass line – ooon tst ooon tst ooon tst ooon tst – as I imagined a modern, techno update of that great American biker anthem, “(I’m) on the Road,” by the Partridge Family.
… I can hear tomorrow singing from around the bend
It’s just another dusty mile
And I’ve got dreams to spare and time to spend
Time to speeeeeend….
So I’m on the road
Travelin’ free and easy (Travelin’ on!)
Gotta get on (Well, I gotta get on!)
Gotta fill my life with living
Just tell everyone I’ve gone
On the road
(Ooon tst ooon tst ooon tst ooon tst….)
We rode on for several more hours – off the coastal highway onto dusty, red-dirt backroads. We stopped for shrimp spring rolls and fried noodles at a seaside village restaurant. Kattina splashed in the Gulf of Thailand while I stayed on shore and pondered important matters such as how to gansta up David Cassidy’s wardrobe for the 2013 video remix.
In the late afternoon, as the sun began to droop, we realized we could not make it to our target destination, then back into town, before sunset. And riding after dark was a challenge for a different day. So we headed back toward town, just in time for rush hour. Traffic was again chaotic, but now, we merged like experts.
“I know how to do this,” I told myself as a woman sped toward me on the wrong side of the road. On my eight previous visits to Vietnam, I’d been studying the local driving habits: Drive slowly, honk often, expect the unexpected, and when in doubt, ask yourself, “What would Danny Bonaduce do?”