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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Diary of a Pretend-to-be-Biker : Why most People Take the Bus


By the 7th hour of my three hour bus ride to Saigon, Vietnam - covered in the drool of my fellow passengers who mistook my shoulders for pillows - I swore I’d never take the bus again and 10 days later, I’ve managed to keep that promise…


After a spontaneous Sunday stroll through motorbike dealers and a couple of hours of negotiating, haggling, and pretending I knew what I was talking about (not that it would have made any difference really seeing as nobody speaks English anyway) I headed to the safe confines of my hostel on Percy – Who I now know is a 93cc Chinese look alike bike (that says “Made in Korea” on the side). I do love him anyway.

Five minutes later I slammed on my breaks as a suicidal biker whacked the motorcycle in front of me straight into a car. Less than a minute later, another accident. It’s not surprising really, there’s about 100 motorbikes per Capita in Ho Chi Minh City. My first stop was the helmet shop – I didn’t really believe I’d want a $1.40 helmet being my only lifeline… I forked out $10 instead.

By my second day of proud ownership the indicators, hooter, and speedometer had all decided to take a vacation… but no worries… mechanics in these parts can fix anything – and by the end of it Percy was less Chinese already. I got the oil changed and tweaked the breaks too and was all set for the 1800ish km adventure that lay before me.



Proudly accomplishing the impossible - all my worldly belongings on one bike!
Day 1: Tuesday 14 Feb
I delayed departure as long as possible – the traffic freaked me out and I thought it impossible to fit all my worldly belongings onto one bike (even if the general population does it on a daily basis with grandparents and children aboard too). But it worked brilliantly and by 9 am I was winding in and out traffic, doing loops of the city trying to find the road out of town. I suppose I should have thought of maps.


 was loving life until some part of my back wheel dislodged itself and had the whole bike screaming at me. Mechanic visit the second was even free… and apart from the minor glitch, I survived the 227.7 km drive to Mui Ne effortlessly!



Day 2: Wednesday 15 Feb
After a morning spent racing kids on bum boards down sand dunes I set off for Da Lat only to discover a fuel leak which took a 9 year old only about two hours to fix (after I finally managed to act out the problem)…





The rolling hills and rural villages had me feeling like I was living in a movie and when dark descended 100 km out of town I didn’t mind finding a random village hotel to crash in.

Day 3: Thursday 15 Feb
I’m proud to say I survived a whole day mechanic free which in retrospect is a massive accomplishment, even if it was only a 100 km drive… My randomly acquired roommate in Da Lat (Land of wine and flowers and the crazy house – definitely worth a visit) wasn’t so lucky though – she was blown off the road by a speeding truck and had just returned from the hospital…


 Day 4: Friday 16 Feb
Rain. Masses and masses of rain. Mixed with the fog and mountainous clouds it made visibility very poor which really isn’t ideal when you’re gliding through some of the most beautiful mountainous terrain on earth and it’s even less ideal when the roads come standard issue with pot holes and speeding busses… but mind-blowing none the less. I was happy to arrive In Nha Trang 258 km later though – mostly for a warm shower!



Day 5: Saturday 17 Feb
With the need to celebrate a friend’s birthday for a third day in a row and an urge to actually explore places, I let Percy rest and spent the entire day aboard a local boat exploring islands with half the world’s Irish population.

Day 6 : Sunday 18 Feb
I was wondering how exactly my ex-roommate had been blown off the road. But Sundays ocean breeze was more hurricane like than anything else, and when it wasn’t blowing you off the road it made headwind that would let you max out at 30 km an hour. The rain didn’t help either… but the coastal road made it all worthwhile – mountains and beaches strewn with sporadic luminous green rice paddys for kilometers on end! I only made it as far as Tuy Hoa (137 km) but I didn’t mind too much – it’s a fascinating little town!



Day 7: Monday 19 Feb
I was quite impressed at my wind resisting abilities and even the pouring rain didn’t get me down. I was making great progress and with my ipod blaring I was loving life!

I was ironically trying to find a mechanic (Percy’s battery’s dying fast) when I got my first ever motorbike flat – very different from a car really in that you have to balance yourself, the bike, and the 30 kilogram odd luggage strapped onboard. I somehow managed to dodge the passing truck and was lucky enough to be only meters away from a tyre repairsman (of which there are so so many). An hour later I was on the road again thinking back to the 21 flat tyres I got in Mongolia a few years previous when it happened again.

Wheel change take 1

Wheel change the second

 I pushed Percy to the closest repairsman and tried to explain that there must be some sort of actual problem to lose the same tyre twice and they assured me there wasn’t – but then again, I’m not entirely sure they understood either… This time it was only a 30 minute wait and 1/5 of the price. I drove off slowly stopping every couple of kilometers to check the tyre.

Wheel change the third
I was beginning to believe the problem was solved when the bike next to me waved me down and I felt the bike swerve below me. This time I used photographs and a diagram and charades to explain my predicament and I’m still not sure he understood – but he did double-line my tyre and there was literally nothing else I could do – I even checked the wheel’s inside myself…

10 km passed, 15… everything was going great until masses of sparks started flying and the loudest scratching filled the air just as school kids filed out for home time. I didn’t even want to look – the wheel had exploded for sure…

Fortunately enough it was only the chain guard that had come apart and wedged itself in the wheel and a quick visit to a welder had me sorted.


I’m still not sure whether my tyre problem’s have been solved – but I’ve decided to crash in Bong Son for the night in a hotel that also sells coffins (no jokes). There’s no English, no wifi, and I’m pretty sure there’s no house keeping either… but that’s okay, because if I don’t get eaten alive by the bed bugs and if my bikes alright in the morning (assuming it doesn’t get “borrowed” in the night) then I’ll actually get to post this and we can all have a good cup of coffee to celebrate aliveness!

Now this might all sound pretty pessimistic, but I’d do it all again if I had the option – this picturesque country was made for the motorbike!!! Tomorrow starts a new day and I’m hoping a good night’s sleep will mark the end of my worries!

Most people just take the bus… I can understand why.