Fighting the Fear


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It’s early morning and I’m on the motorcycle in very heavy traffic. I’m anxious, paranoid, and can’t stop thinking about crashing — I’m close to panicking. I know what the problem is but I don’t want to admit it. I’ve got the Fear.
Riding a motorcycle requires a certain amount of trust. Trust in your own abilities, in being able to spot trouble ahead and anticipate what others will do, adjusting accordingly. Trust in the physics that makes it possible to balance on two wheels at high speeds without falling off or the bike flopping over. Trust in your bike, knowing that the tires’ contact patch will still hold if you lean the bike just a few more inches because you came into that corner too hot.

The Fear swallows that trust, eats it whole. It leaves you with the acute awareness that you’ve strapped your ass to two hundred pounds of steel and plastic and are doing a high-speed dance with ten-ton vehicles hurtling the other direction — millions of joules of kinetic energy that must be avoided, never met. It’s an ugly feeling.

I can’t stop thinking about accidents and broken bones. Nothing is flowing as it should.

As I dodge and weave my way along the mountain road, I try to figure out why I’m so uneasy. I can’t stop thinking about accidents and broken bones. Nothing is flowing as it should — I’m getting cut off by trucks and my timing is off, forcing me to brake heavily to avoid collisions with bikes and carts on the shoulder. It’s rush hour for the bus services and I’m being passed by one after another — they ride up on my ass with multi-tone horns blaring, refusing to slow or give ground.

But, none of this is different than any other day I’ve spent on the road. Why is it getting to me today? What would normally be a challenge to be met is now an ax waiting to fall. I feel hungover and feverish, my stomach in knots.

The morning started off poorly, certainly. The power had been out all night and I’d slept fitfully in a hot room with no windows or fan. With a long day ahead of me, I’d skipped both shower and breakfast, packing everything on the bike and heading out in the early light.

Ten kilometers down the road, the chain jumped off and I spent twenty minutes on the shoulder fixing it, while buses and trucks roared by at full speed, horns Dopplering as they passed. It was enough to put me in a foul mood, but not to justify this unyielding sense of imminent, very-personal destruction.

As I’m considering all of this, an oncoming bus pulls into my lane to pass a truck, forcing me off the road and onto a two foot wide strip of dirt between pavement and ditch before I can even slow down. I’m furious, too busy holding on to the bars to give the driver the finger he deserves.

The scenery is stunning, but I can’t enjoy it. I’m following a high mountain ridge through heavy pine forest with steep drops on both sides. The valleys below are filled with small huts and plots of vegetables growing on terraced hills. Everything is gray, wrapped in dark cloud, and I stop to put on my rain jacket to fend off the occasional patches of drizzle.

I’ve covered a mere 50 kilometers, with 200 more to go and I’m wondering just how in the hell I’m going to manage this. There’s really nowhere to stop for the night between here and Kon Tum — I just have to grind my teeth and get it done, no matter how much I hate it. It’s going to be a grudge ride.

A mangled, black moped lies in the middle of the road, dripping fluids, its front tire missing.

As I come around a tight bend, I find a dozen motorbikes stopped in a bunch on the road. There’s been an accident and the police are directing traffic. A mangled, black moped lies in the middle of the road, dripping fluids, its front tire missing. Ten feet behind it sits a bus with a perfectly-round, five-foot-wide impact crater in the front — windshield shattered, grill and bodywork caved in. They hit head-on at full speed.

Days before, I’d overheard some ex-pats talking about accidents in Vietnam. “Unless someone dies, they don’t even bother to investigate,” one of them said. There are a half dozen cops here, measuring distances, taking notes, and drawing circles and arrows on the pavement with silver paint. Someone, somewhere will be crying themselves to sleep tonight.

Mercifully, the cop waves us on after just a minute. About thirty feet further, I pass the front tire lying in the weeds by the side of the road, with oily, black smoke still pouring off of it. The last thing I needed, the first thing this morning…

The roadblock gives me a brief respite from the over-taking buses behind me, at least, and I get a grim satisfaction from knowing that those going the other way will soon be stopped and fuming over the delay. It doesn’t really make me feel any better.

It occurs to me that my blood sugar is probably low. I’d had lunch in Buon Ma Thuot the day before, but it had proven inedible — pho noodles with gristly beef and whole pig’s hooves sticking out of the bowl. Dinner had been crackers and cheese spread, chased with a couple of Saigon beers. I pull over at the first road-side eatery I find to have a soda.

There are five men sitting in the standard red plastic chairs but they refuse to even acknowledge my existence. I sit at the only other table and drink a bottle of “BIG COLA from ENGLAND” over ice, while chain-smoking three cigarettes. I can’t waste too much time, since I still have a long way to go and I have no idea what the roads are like. Thanking the owner, I climb back on and roll out.

Five minutes later, I see a break in the clouds and watch the line of sunlight on pavement as it creeps my way. I pass out of the cloud cover and the early mountain light is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Everywhere I turn, I see a thousand shades of green. Colors are so saturated that they leap out at me — the gleaming yellow shirt of a young girl on a bicycle, brilliant red flowers hanging from woody vines in the trees. What was in that soda?

I feel like I’m viewing the world through a polarizing filter, my depth perception increased tenfold, contrast pushed to the max. Traffic has eased up and I roll along, entranced. After a few miles, I come to a bend in the road and stop for a photo — the first of the day. The valley far below is a quilt of green, green fields, so utterly alive and immense that it staggers me.

I’m reminded of my buddy Dave, standing at a similar overlook years ago, exclaiming “It’s just like 3D! I feel like I’m really here!” and I chuckle. Then the realization hits and I laugh out loud.

The Fear is gone.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Emily @ Maiden Voyage July 1, 2010 at 11:18 pm

You are braver than I! Motorcycles scare the bejesus out of me, especially since I’ve heard so many horror stories. But I wish I had the guts to ride them–they seem like such a great way to explore a place.
.-= Emily @ Maiden Voyage´s last blog ..Guest Post- Why I Wish I Traveled Long-Term in My 20s and 9 Reasons You Should =-.


wes July 2, 2010 at 2:14 pm

Best way to travel, in my opinion. Certainly not the most convenient or comfortable but you really get the feeling that you’re traveling *through* the landscape — dramatically different than by bus or car.

That said, Vietnam would not be the best place to start riding a motorbike ;)


AJ Alexy July 2, 2010 at 12:14 am

‘It’s just like 3D’ indeed! That’s funny, I think I know the Dave of which you speak. Excellent post, unfortunately that’s how most people view the world these days, behind an HDTV with goggles on. The Discovery Channel can only go so far.


wes July 2, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Yup, we’re talking about the same Dave ;)


Natalka July 2, 2010 at 2:23 pm

I will be there again in March travelling from Siem Reap into Saigon and up the coast to HaNoi. Last year I was limited on time and flew very cheaply. Not sure whether to do bus or train this time. I’m leaning toward the train as I don’t think I have the nerves for more road travel in Vietnam. To motorcycle in Vietnam is so out of my league.


wes July 2, 2010 at 2:41 pm

I can’t remember if you said you’ve been to Dalat or not, but it’s a must-see in my book. Not on the coast, but lovely. I haven’t had a chance to ride the trains here yet, but that is one of my favorite ways to travel — much nicer than bus.

wes July 2, 2010 at 2:42 pm

also, the bus ride from Phnom Penh to Saigon is pretty comfortable — 6 hours if I remember right and pretty trouble-free.

Natalka July 2, 2010 at 12:21 am

I wouldn’t travel alone but I’d certainly try the motorcycle tour with a companion. A sure way to see real life. Sounds like it may be a highlight. Travel safe.


wes July 2, 2010 at 2:26 pm

That’s easy to arrange too — the Easy Riders are all over the Central Highlands and will gladly tour you around. Most I’ve met have seemed like genuinely friendly guys, too.


emilie July 2, 2010 at 1:14 am

great post, wes … and happy birthday!


wes July 2, 2010 at 2:11 pm

Thanks, Emily! It’s been a good one :)


clive July 2, 2010 at 1:46 pm

fear is a good thing when on a bike,but dont let it control you,awesome read,wish we were back there!


Natalka July 2, 2010 at 2:53 pm

I’ve not been to Dalat but will include it into my itinerary this time since reading your thoughts. I would not have visited HoiAn if it weren’t for my sister saying beautifully quaint it was and she was right.


wes July 2, 2010 at 3:04 pm

You’re both right — I’m really enjoying Hoi An. Lovely place :)


Casa De Hamilton Pool July 6, 2010 at 10:07 am

Ha! I’m famous! :) You weren’t joking on the phone, that was crazy!



Eli July 10, 2010 at 5:51 am

Wes, you are like Hunter S. Thompson, Robert Pirsig and Jack Kerouac all rolled into one. Not only are you budget traveling internationally, you’re doing it on a motorcycle. You are my hero, man. Keep doing what you’re doing. And keep drinkin’ that English cola.


wes July 11, 2010 at 9:00 am

Wow, you are way too kind, but thanks! And bonus points for mentioning 3 of my heroes in the same sentence :)


Corinne July 14, 2010 at 3:55 pm

First time reader here. Great post. I am on a walking journey around SF Bay (1,000 mile walk, in segments). There have been days (usually those involving walking too close to cars and big semi trucks ripping by me at 65 mph+) when I’ve felt the same way. You put it very well. And, as you experienced, once I get going, adventures unfold, new sights appear, and all is well in the end. Feels good to overcome fears.
.-= Corinne ´s last blog ..Fremont Dr- 8th St E to Ramal Rd – July 11- 2010 =-.


wes July 16, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Wow, best of luck with your journey. That sounds amazing. I lived in the Bay Area for 10 years and it is *gorgeous*. Have fun!


Corinne July 16, 2010 at 11:36 pm

Your writing is great. Very real. Keeps my interest, and part of that is that you’re very honest about what you’re saying/observing. Keep it up, and happy travels. e-book, article…? Who knows.
.-= Corinne´s last blog ..Skaggs Island Road – July 14- 2010 =-.


Corinne July 16, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Sorry, I meant to say, your writing AND your photos are great. :-). Love the rich colors in some of the places you’re going.
.-= Corinne´s last blog ..Skaggs Island Road – July 14- 2010 =-.

wes July 17, 2010 at 4:07 pm

Appreciate that, Corinne :) I’m just gonna keep plugging along and see what happens. Would love to find a way to keep the trip rolling…

Sofia August 27, 2010 at 9:12 pm

Isn’t it crazy how when we see something extra ordinarily beautiful we refer to tv and such things? I sometimes find myself enjoying a view, thinking that it looks so amazing it looks like it’s Photoshoped!


Matt E. May 21, 2011 at 8:14 pm

Dude! You’re so nuts for riding a motorcycle in Vietnam!! But totally awesome story.It gave me a Hunter S. Thompson kind of vibe. *High-Five*


Candy April 18, 2012 at 8:33 am

I am truly enjoying reading your Vietnam escapades! It’s a little like re-living my travels there. The colors (when the grey faded) were amazing and something that I never did truly catch on film. It’s a magical place….