Fourteen thousand people between the ages of 15 and 29 die from motorbike accidents each year in Vietnam.
This means you’re more likely to die on a motorbike than from disease or crime. It’s easy to see why since motorbikes outnumber cars twenty to one.
I knew this before arriving to Vietnam. I had heard about the dangers.
I had read stories about foreigners visiting Vietnam to ride a motorbike, only to be shipped home to a grieving family.
The bikes in Hue made me nervous, and the traffic scared the hell out of me.
Despite the dangers, I grew fascinated by the motorbikes that swarmed the city’s streets. I had spent a week exploring Hue by foot and eventually developed an urge to rent a motorbike.
I fought through my nerves and walked into a rental shop.
The owner presented me with a bike that coughed thick smoke. I didn’t have a license and I had never ridden a motorbike.
My stomach was in knots as I put on the helmet, sat on the bike, and awkwardly cruised out of the shop.
I slowly got the feel of balancing the bike as it puttered down quiet country roads. It wasn’t long before the bike was moving at top speed and the wind was rushing past.
As I rode, I saw the sun reflected in the lakes.
I passed long mountain ranges and local Buddhist temples set amidst thick jungle.
I stopped to try local dishes, such as banh xeo and salt coffee.
When I returned to the shop, I begrudgingly handed over the keys.
Curiosity to Necessity
In bed that night, I thought about the bike, the scenery, and the feeling of freedom. I knew what I had to do.
I spent the next day searching the motorbike shops of Hue.
As I was about to leave the eighth or ninth shop, a lonely bike in the back caught my eye. The owner allowed me to take the bike for a spin.
There was no black smoke coming from the exhaust, no odd noises, and nothing was held together with tape.
I felt comfortable on the bike; however, after the test drive, I stared at it with doubt.
People die on these things all the time, I thought.
I was alone and didn’t speak the language. Everything I owned, including my passport (my key to getting home) and my laptop (my source of income), would be exposed to the elements by riding on the bike.
I almost walked away.
Did I really want to risk losing my passport, laptop, cash, and potentially my life just to experience the thrill of traveling without limits?
Yes. Yes, I did. Ultimately, the risk was worth it.
Forgetting My Fears
I forgot about my fears once I saw the beautiful Hai Van mountain pass nestled next to blue waters.
I smiled and maxed out the throttle. The bike let out a ridiculous pipsqueak roar and earned the name, Beast.
Pleasant days passed in the cities, Da Nang and Hoi An, as I visited landmarks that saw few foreign faces.
Beast and I passed through jungle roads, local markets, cemeteries, parks, and ritual celebrations.
We dodged herds of cattle as we passed broken bridges and massive waterfalls.
While I was working out in a park, Beast sat and waited.
I drank as much Vietnamese coffee as Beast burned through gasoline.
More Than I Bargained For
Eventually, I wanted to get far away from tourist meccas like Hoi An, so I took the Ho Chi Minh Road to the tribal village, Kon Tum.
I admired the country landscape, vast mountainside, and picturesque streams as Beast and I twisted and turned along the mountain road. In the horizon, black clouds quickly covered blue skies.
Realizing I still had hours to go, I felt myself grow nervous.
Torrential downpours began as I put on a poncho. The bike and my face were pelted with sharp rain.
It was growing dark, the rain wasn’t letting up, and I felt trapped on the mountain. There was nowhere to wait under cover. The only way out was to keep driving.
Coming around a sharp corner, Beast hydroplaned.
The brakes were useless as the bike slid toward the road’s edge. My heartbeat roared in my ears, drowning out the thunder above me.
There were no guardrails, and I knew there was a far drop to rocks below.
This can’t happen, I screamed inside.
My teeth clenched together, and I stomped my feet into the ground. I didn’t care if I broke my ankles or mangled my feet—I was not going over that cliff.
Rocks crunched and the bike strained as I put everything I had into stopping.
I watched gravel fall over the cliffside. I had managed to stop the bike and swing it back onto the road.
My shaking hands were ghostly white from gripping the handle. Nearly every part of me demanded to quit this fantasy.
This was not the storybook adventure I had expected.
I wanted to throw the bike over the cliff, wait for a car, and hitch a ride. The rain continued as I caught my breath, and the lump in my throat slowly dissipated.
Reflecting on Motorbiking Vietnam
Beast and I remained in that spot as I thought about my adventure so far.
Since arriving, I had experienced the kindness of the Vietnamese people as strangers invited me to park picnics and dinner celebrations.
I had seen hidden natural wonders, including raging waterfalls and oceanside mountains with no one around to ask for an admission fee.
I had visited tribal villages that instantly made me feel humble and grateful. Most importantly, I had found a courageous side of myself that I didn’t know existed.
I would have been stuck on a bus, forced to look at predesignated sites that hundreds of tourists see every day. That’s not the Vietnam I got to experience.
It’s not an adventure without some trouble, I thought to myself.
Something of a smile formed on my lips as I picked up my feet, started the bike, and continued down the mountain.
I had to contend with the urge to give up as much as I had to deal with the storm. The negative voices didn’t stop until the rain did, and that was hours later when Beast and I finally arrived to Kon Tum.
Farewells and Lessons Learned
Over the course of two months, Beast and I had many more adventures: we found an abandoned waterpark, were stopped at some shady police checkpoint, and got comically lost in the jungle.
But no other adventure was as powerful as the one on the mountain road.
When it came time to sell Beast and leave Vietnam, it was more like saying farewell to a close friend than selling a puttering piece of metal.
Motorbiking Vietnam showed me the value in taking risks and facing fears. Every new challenge in my life has had the volume turned down.
If I ever feel nervous about a new trip or experience, I think about what happened on the mountain.
I ask myself, “Is this as bad or scary as that road in Vietnam?” The answer is always no, not even close.
Without great risk, you can never achieve worthwhile rewards.
Have You Ever Had a Close Call While Traveling?
Did you end up quitting your travels? Was there a hospital visit involved? What did you learn about yourself from the experience? Tell me about it in the comments below!