“George and Belinda, are you interested in participating in the city tour by motorbike once we get settled in Hue?” inquired JP Kolvstad, our G Adventure CEO.
“Not bloody likely,” I growled. That might render our travel insurance null and void. “Besides, those two-wheelers scare the hell out of me, the way they swarm through the streets, darting in and out of traffic.”
“No, JP,” echoed Belinda. That activity is too dangerous. Too many things can go wrong, and what happens if the bike tips over? There’s little or no protection.”
“That’s fine. Let me know if you change your mind.”
A few hours later, the two nervous, highly cautious Canadian travellers (the oldest “adventurers” on this tour) were having second thoughts. Riding behind an experienced driver must surely be a lot safer than driving the motorbike, yes? Think how much fun we might have. And we’ll get to see monuments, historic sites, rice paddies and water buffalo from a biker’s eye perspective. Heck, let’s do it!
Well, that’s how one mad impulse—a moment of wild, reckless abandon—turned two of the most risk-adverse vacationers, G and B, into road warriors racing throughout Hue and far off into the city ‘s outskirts. Yes, I exaggerate the danger. In theory, nothing could be safer. Our Vietnam contingent consisted of 17 participants, with 17 drivers operating 17 different motorbikes. Each of us, then, were supposed to don a helmet, perch on the seat immediately behind our drivers, then sit back and enjoy the ride.
My driver was a short Vietnamese man in his mid-fifties. Though he spoke scarcely ten words of English, he was polite, good-natured and often quite funny. Before mounting the bike, he glanced at my fat knee projecting outwards from the seat. “You must start family,” he suggested. Zen and the Art of motorcycle maintenance?
I agonized over proper motorbike etiquette for the infrequent passenger. For instance, how was I supposed to hold on? There was no passenger handlebar between me and the driver. I knew that, in such cases, it was permissible to place both hands around the operator’s chest or waist, yet I was squeamish about doing so with a male driver. While I was musing about the non-existent alternative of slipping my arms around the slim waist of a young, attractive Vietnamese female driver, I came to my senses when the Honda engine coughed and the machine lurched ahead. That was it. We were well on our way. . . .
As I tightly gripped the edges and back of the motorbike seat, we eased out of the motorbike parking lot and into traffic. It was really great to be riding a bike, quickly becoming part of the traffic flow near the market area of Hue. All 17 bikes kept in tight formation, dodging around cars, other motorbikes and aggressive pedestrians darting quickly across the street. As the market was in full swing, I could not resist glancing at the many shops gaudily displaying their wares: brightly coloured hand-sewn purses; good-quality leather goods; and touristy t-shirts. As well, there were a bizarre number of tailor shops; the store-front offices of tour guide operators; and, of course, the ubiquitous massage parlours trading in body rubs or . . . sex.
Well, the euphoria of flying through the streets of Hue under a bright, tropical sun swept aside all my dark misgivings about what might go wrong in the event of a collision with a lumbering cement truck. I reflected, merrily, how effortless this method of transportation was compared to all the huffing and puffing we did while cycling up and down the streets and outskirts of Chiang Mai, Thailand on sports bicycles.” What a glad-happy day THIS is turning out to be,” I reflected. Adventures in Indochina!
No sooner had I luxuriated in great expectations of a wonderful, carefree day’s outing than I reflected that I might, perhaps, tighten my tenuous grip on the edge of the (shared) motorcycle seat. By this time we had left behind the old downtown area and were on a highway, whereupon my intrepid driver accelerated. With the abrupt increase in speed, we sped past rice paddies with farmers toiling away planting rice in the fields; the agricultural workers, along with the water buffalo, were not much more than a blur.
With a fright, I threw my left arm and, before long, my right arm, around the chest of my driver. At last I felt secure. Perhaps I might even survive! We hurtled down the highway, my Vietnamese driver tenaciously holding his own in the swirling, chaotic traffic. Gone was my earlier reticence about grabbing the driver by his middle. Heck, this isn’t so bad! Once again, I was living in the moment, casting aside my inner doubts and insecurities.
Ah, what pleasure to snake along the back roads fronting the green countryside. We noticed one male farmer, clad in short pants, laboriously pulling his own plough to cut a deep furrow in the black soil. Was he too poor to afford a water buffalo? In contrast, the females wore loose-fitting pants and wore the traditional cone-shaped Vietnamese peasant hats. There was much to enjoy on this motorcycle tour . . . .
Abruptly, my driver turned his back sideways and made a few brief utterances that I failed to catch. When I did not respond, he began squirming in his seat, gesticulating wildly with one free hand. Awakening from my pleasant reverie, I finally grasped what he was trying to say. Oh yes, now I understood. In my terror of falling off the motorbike and cracking open my head—a cracked egg!—I had inadvertently been hugging the poor fellow as tightly as a boa constrictor. Rigor mortis must have set in as I clawed desperately and hung on for dear life to my all-too-accommodating driver, who, by this time, could barely breathe.
With a series of delicate maneuvers, I gradually managed to unhinge myself from my gallant driver, who soon breathed more easily. One arm at a time, I shifted each hand behind my back to grip the rear handlebar, from which I began pulling forwards lest we hit a bump in the road and I somersault head over heels.
Our motorcycle tour consisted of about six or seven rides interspersed with short strolls or longer walks around the central historic palaces, temples and other buildings of Hue. Faded or well preserved, they provided remarkable evidence of the grandeur of the ancient capital city of Hue. However, it is the motorbike convoy that concerns us here. . .
Like my plucky driver, I was beginning to breathe more easily. We were now far from Hue and well into the countryside when the drivers made a beeline for a wooded area overlooking the Perfume River, with the hills of Laos in the distance. I assumed that we were going to stop, park the bikes and leg it the rest of the way. To my horror, the crew zoomed up and down a bush trail, treating us to a prolonged stretch of off-road dirt-bike motorcycling! I bounced up and down on the seat as the bike zigzagged over rough, bumpy terrain. At one point, my driver’s control of his machine became quite erratic: the bike started to tip and I was starting to fall off, when I yelled at him to stop. While that indignity was soon over, I wondered what the return journey—downhill—would be like. Sure enough, by the time we reached the gravel road my driver wobbled his bike, which careened wildly towards a ditch on the opposite side. Alerted by my frantic shouts (no, screams!), the driver managed to regain control of his motorcycle just short of ramming us into a medium-sized tree.
With my nerves shot, I crawled off the bike with cramped feet and trembling hands during the next pit stop. To varying degrees, All the others, including Belinda, were enjoying themselves. “Of course it’s scary. That’s the point” suggested my wife, who advised me to close my eyes during the scary parts. Neglecting her advice once we were back on more solid pavement, I kept fixing my eyes on the road ahead, praying for . . . deliverance from my inglorious career as a road warrior in Vietnam.
Ella, one of our Vietnam tour members, had been following at some distance behind me. She later commented that she caught a glimpse of me, with head bent and motorcycle helmet askew, and, astonished, wondered if I had fainted from sheer fright. In fact, my ill-fitting helmet had been slipping around for quite some time. As the damned thing turned sideways, I kept swatting at it, to no avail. Through some devilish trick of fate it eventually flipped over, and lo and behold! I was wearing my helmet backwards. . . . First indignities, then what? Mutilation or death?
Well, I survived that bizarre experience. You cannot imagine how relieved I was when our convoy of motorbikes pulled up in front of our hotel. It was almost enough for me to get down on my knees and kiss the pavement in rapture. In the end, I high-fived my long-suffering driver, handed him a lavish tip, and blessed him as my Vietnamese motorcycle brother.
George Hanna teaches English at Grande Prairie Regional College. He once spent a year backpacking around Europe, later served two years as a volunteer teacher in Nigeria, West Africa, and has spent the last ten summers travelling extensively in Australia, Turkey, eastern Europe, South America, southeast Asia, and the countries of southern Africa. Apart from his love of travel, he has an even greater passion for teaching.