The (Vietnamese) Motorcycle Diaries

We did something we would never do at home — we bought a motorbike. In San Diego, in order to ride a motorcycle, you have to be comfortable going 80+mph on the freeway and being surrounded by massive cars at all times. And, you know, get a special license. In Vietnam, motorbikes are the primary form of transportation for locals…even if they drive like lawless maniacs.

“Lawless maniacs” may be a bit extreme, but it is the most haphazard motorcycle driving I’ve ever witnessed. After a few days we learned some elements of Vietnamese motorcycle traffic:

  • It seems like no one has the right of way, and everyone is OK with it.
  • Traffic drives on the right side of the road, but only if the motorist feels like it! Sometimes people drive on the left because, eh? Why not!?
  • Sometimes people drive their motorcycles on the sidewalk.
  • If you’re thinking it looks unsafe to pass someone…go for it!
  • Everyone honks for everything. Honk when you’re passing someone, honk when you’re not passing anyone, honk when you’re running a red light, honk when you’re stopped at a light.

That about sums it up! So with our brains full of new vehicular knowledge we gave in and bought a motorcycle for the sweet price of $260. With our new bike (and two super sturdy helmets, hi parents) we decided it was time to venture north from Hanoi to Sapa.

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A quick location entry into Google Maps revealed it would be a five-hour drive. Sweet! We basically needed to stay on one freeway the entire route. This seemed like the perfect segue into our new lives on the open road. Except, once we made it to the highway, a police officer informed us motorcycles weren’t allowed to use it and we’d have to turn around.

No problem! We laughed in the Asian sunshine while hugging each other on the bike…we’ll take the scenic route. Adventure! We told ourselves. As it turned out, the “scenic” route was so scenic that it took us two days to complete.

Lucky for us, we got to explore some quirky little villages and gaze upon beautiful agricultural scenes like this one:

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And no Vietnam tour de force would be complete without a pitstop for pho.

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Look at it! Try to breathe in its savory chicken scent through your computer screen. Mmm.

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After driving for nearly eight hours the first day, we decided to call it quits at 7:45 p.m. Our navigation said Sapa was only two hours away, but we were wiped. (SPOILER: We had about seven-and-a-half more hours to go. Google Maps betrayed us!) We stayed at the only hotel room we could find in Yen Bai and our room displayed some pretty erotic art. Wink wink. This picture brought up so many questions: Who are these people? Did he remember to wash the grapes beforehand? Are the doves in the bottom right corner being held their against their will?! Mysteries for our next road trip, I suppose.

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The next day was even more stunning as we found ourselves farther north in the countryside. It would be impossible to capture the scope of the lush green fields that covered both sides of the road, but this iPhone shot will try to do it some justice.

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Here’s Tay, our tenacious pilot. In rural areas people were very confused by the GoPro mounted on his helmet and I totally get why, we looked quite silly. Something else that’s been interesting is how afraid little kids are of us in rural communities! I’m not sure if it was our helmets, or our large stature, but babies and toddlers burst into tears or hide behind their moms when they see us. Taylor wondered if they thought we were ghosts. Because ghosts are tall and pale?

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After many hours we finally made it to Lao Cai province and knew we were about an hour outside of Sapa. The sun going down on our second day of riding was so picturesque that it even made us forget about our sore butts momentarily.

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Not sure what these signs say but I liked the contrast of the red billboards with the green landscaping. I don’t need to have a reason to take pictures! I am a tourist, after all.

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Our picture-taking devices died before we got into Sapa tonight but here’s one last shot of Lao Cai and the Red River sweeping through it. Look at that sky! I should also point out we were extremely lucky during the ride in that it didn’t rain at all, somewhat of a miracle in Northern Vietnam if the rumors are to be believed.

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After roughly fifteen hours of driving, one cheesy hotel room, and stopping to ask for directions many, many times, we finally made it to Sapa. And it was totally worth it. However our butts are now so sore that we might not ever shake our rumps again. That being said, I think it’s our bed time.

Good night and sweet dreams of motorbikes,

J

This article has 4 comments

  1. Jim Reply

    Oh my! You know how to get to your mother’s hearts. I hope those helmets are certified as I hear many are about as thin as an eggshell.

    Glad you made your destination safely, albeit with sore butts. Now you know how I feel after 8 hours on a friggin narrow piece of leather strapped over two hard, carbon rails.

    Thanks for sharing another beautiful chapter in your venture through Vietnam.

    Love you both.

    Dad/Jim

  2. Mary Anne McGrath Reply

    WOW just received this from your dad,my brother , by the way he sounds great,as always to me. You have been on my mind as, I wasn’t sure if you were still over seas. Your writing is superb and, even without photos, it was easy for me to travel along. You both look fantastic and happy. A blessing you can share and enjoy this together. You are in prayers for continued safety and joy. HEDGEHOGS RULE!!!!!!!! XO Aunt M.A.

    • justinejmcgrath@gmail.com Reply

      We loved it! And ending up selling our bike for $300 back in Hanoi, so it was definitely worth the purchase.

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