Vietnam on Two Wheels — A Rough Start


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I had considered just buying a motorcycle in Saigon.
Many people do it this way, buying a beater for $300 or $400, riding it north and selling it cheap. I didn’t want to be stuck waiting to sell the bike in Hanoi and was worried about having mechanical problems, so I decided to rent a bike for a month and ship it back to Saigon.

“Where are planning on going first?” the owner, Pat, asked. I said I’d been thinking of heading to Mui Ne, a beach town that was a 4 hour bus ride from Saigon. “Can’t do it — you’ll never make it before dark.” The cardinal rule of riding in the developing world is ‘never, ever ride after dark’.

I ask if there’s anyplace worth stopping at midway. “Not really,” is the reply. Great.

“Wait, I take that back. Vung Tao is a nice beach town that you can reach in time. They’ve got hotels, bars, and restaurants. It’s about three hours away.” He pulls out the photocopied road map and sketches out the route. “You’ll have go through Saigon to the ferry. After the ferry, the road splits — take a left, then all rights and it’ll lead you straight to Vung Tao. Can’t miss it.”

Can’t miss it? I think. If it can be missed, I’ll find a way.

I can’t help but notice that there’s no road on the map where he’s marked the route.

As he’s saying this, he draws a wavy line from Saigon to the town of Phu My, about two-thirds of the way to Vung Tao. I can’t help but notice that there’s no road on the map where he’s marked the route. “Umm… I don’t see a road here, Pat.”

“Yeah, it’s a newer road — not on the map yet. This map sucks, but it’s the best available. The ferry is nearly impossible to find, so I’ll call you a moto taxi — he’ll lead you to the ferry for 100,000 dong. Once you get past the ferry, it’s easy.”

I pack up the bike –a small, Taiwanese 125cc KTM– and strap my huge backpack to the back, sideways. It looks ridiculous. I step back and look at it skeptically, then raise an eyebrow in Pat’s direction. He eyes it for a moment, then shrugs and says “I’ve seen worse.” Good enough for me.

It’s now two o’clock (the shop opened at noon) and I’m worried about time, so I don’t bother looking up Vung Tao in the guidebook. I choose a helmet from a large stack, throw my day pack on my shoulders and saddle up. The moto rider is a sweet old guy and he leads me out through twisting, tiny streets, checking over his shoulder from time to time to see if I’m still there. We stop for gas and then make our way south, through the heart of Saigon.

We stop for gas and then make our way south, through the heart of Saigon.

I’m glad he’s here — it’s all I can do to keep up with him and dodge the thousands of cars, trucks, and motorbikes on the roads and sidewalks. Saigon is full of chaotic roundabouts, where people drive in any and all directions. It takes all of my concentration to avoid crashing into someone — navigation would be impossible.

After about forty minutes, we cross a bridge and turn onto a long four-lane road. The driver pulls to the side of the road and waves me over. He points ahead. “You go straight.”

“But what about the ferry?” I ask. “Pat said you’d take me to the ferry.” He looks confused. “Ferry?”

I pull out the map and he stares at it for at least ten minutes, tracing it with his finger. Traffic is roaring by as we stand, sweating, by the side of the road. Finally, he says “You here,” stabbing at a blurry spot on the map. “Go straight.”

After more debate, it’s apparent that this is all the help I’m getting, so I pay him and head out. Maybe he took a different route and we don’t need the ferry — we did pass a bridge, after all. Fifteen minutes up the road, I find the ferry. For 3,000 dong, it takes me across a wide river, choked with container ships and tugboats, depositing me onto a red, muddy street on the opposite shore.

The traffic is a lot lighter here and things are starting to look up. About five kilometers on, I find the junction and take a left while dodging potholes and mud puddles. A little further on i find a right and take it, convinced that going straight will take me back the way I came. The road looks fairly new and there are fruit trees lining both sides of the road. Pat had mentioned that the ride went through plantations, so I’m pretty sure I’m on the right road.

For the first time, I’m able to relax a bit and enjoy the view and find myself grinning like a jackass.

For the first time, I’m able to relax a bit and enjoy the view and find myself grinning like a jackass. Vietnam on a bike. I’ve got this.

Before I can fully complete the thought, the bike –which was loud to begin with– suddenly gets really loud. Something is definitely not right.

I pull to the side of the road and discover that one of the two bolts holding the exhaust header to the engine has vibrated out. This can’t be good. I call Pat (I had thankfully bought a Vietnamese SIM for my phone just that morning) and explain the situation. “Just limp it to any Honda shop — they’ll be able to replace the bolt. If there are any questions, call me and I’ll translate.”

After five minutes of very loud riding –with people turning to stare as I ride past– I find a small hut with a Honda sign. The young mechanic fiddles with it for a half hour, finally replacing the bolt, but it’s just as loud as before. He shakes his head and shows me a small washer, pointing at the header. The exhaust gasket is missing — it must have fallen out somehow or disintegrated.

He doesn’t have the part and refuses to take any money for his troubles. I thank him and hop back on the road, nervously making my way to the next town. There I find a bigger shop and two men set to work on it after letting it cool for fifteen minutes. They remove the entire exhaust, replace the gasket, and bolt it all back together. It sounds divine.

As he’s testing it, twisting the throttle, he grimaces and begins digging under the tank with some pliers and a screwdriver, adjusting the carburetor. I’m not thrilled with the idea of him tweaking it, but I don’t want to be rude and they’ve both proved themselves to be competent. The bike does sound better when he’s finished, so I can’t complain. He charges me 20,000 dong ($1 US) and helps me find my location on the map.

My worry now is that I’ve lost an hour repairing the bike and have maybe two hours of light left.

I’ve managed to miss the invisible road –imagine that– but I’m near a major highway that will take me all the way to Vung Tao. All I have to do is turn right about three kilometers ahead. My only worry now is that I’ve lost another hour repairing the bike and have maybe two hours of light left. Rain clouds are building in the distance. None of the towns between here and there seem large enough to have much in the way of hotels or services.

The turn is where I expect and I find myself on a four lane highway with very heavy traffic. The carburetor adjustment has, indeed, given me a little more power but it’s now running rich and produces a low, burbling backfire every time I let off the gas. It sounds like another Honda visit is in store.

For the first time today, I know where I am, where I’m going, and how far I have to go.

I finally spot a road sign that says “Vung Tao, 52 kilometers” and let out a whoop. For the first time today, I know where I am, where I’m going, and how far I have to go. I’ve got this, I think. Again.

I’m making good time and have started to get the rhythm of the traffic. There’s a large intersection about every kilometer, with no traffic lights or stop signs — they’re basically huge free-for-alls, with the biggest vehicle having the right of way. I try to shadow big trucks through and it seems to work well.

As I pass through one about ten minutes later, I find an accident with a scooter on its side and a shirtless Vietnamese man lying sprawled on the tarmac. His legs are crossed in a figure-four, with his arms out, palms up. His eyes are closed. There’s no blood that I can see, so hopefully he’s just unconscious. All I can do is wish him well and continue on, albeit a little more slowly.

I reach Vung Tao about fifteen minutes before sunset and make my way to the center of town in rush hour traffic. The bike is sounding very loud again and people are staring. Deciding to check the guidebook for cheap hotels, I turn onto a side street and pull up on the sidewalk. I swing the kickstand down and hear a loud, metallic clank. I look down to see the kickstand and its spring lying on the ground — the bolt has vibrated out. You gotta be shitting me.

After pulling the bike into the hotel, the receptionist holds it steady while I tie the kickstand back on with a spare shoestring.

I have to lean the bike against a lamp post, and then get off to pick up the parts. Checking the exhaust, I find that the bolt is loose again. The guidebook shows that the cheaper motels are clustered along the beach to the east, about ten minutes away, so I make my way there and spot a hotel name from the guidebook. After pulling the bike into the hotel, the receptionist holds it steady while I tie the kickstand back on with a spare shoestring. She thinks this is hilarious.

They claim that all of the cheap rooms are taken — all that’s left is a 350,000 dong ($18 US) hi-class room. I’m sweaty, tired, and frustrated — all I want is three things: a shower, clean clothes, and a cold beer. It’s now dark out so I agree to take the room, carrying all of my gear up at least twenty flights of stairs to the fourth floor. The room is a huge double with AC, wifi, and a balcony that affords a beautiful, 180 degree view of the beach front. $18 buys you a lot in Vietnam.

After a quick shower and change of clothes, I find an open-air noodle shop where I order chicken with rice and a beer. You’d think I’m the only white guy they’ve ever seen, as everyone turns to stare and point with a smile, but soon drift back to the World Cup game on television. The beer arrives and it’s lukewarm at best.

Oh well, I think. Two out of three ain’t bad.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Rich June 17, 2010 at 10:45 pm

Is this the point at which I remind you of our conversation regarding multitools? You remember the one where you decided on the metro-tool with corkscrew that the ladies will love versus the titanium leatherman with the jaws that let you..say..tighten bolts?


wes June 18, 2010 at 5:26 pm

dude, don’t go insulting my multi-tool. Them’s fighting words ;)

Actually, neither tool will help — the bolt is in a recessed spot.


Kelsey June 18, 2010 at 12:27 am

Your bike sounds like the one I bought and rode for a year when I lived in South Korea. Learned a lot about working on bikes during that time!


wes June 18, 2010 at 5:24 pm

oh, man… I hope not ;) I think we got the problem fixed for real today. hopefully, no more hassles…


Kelsey June 18, 2010 at 7:24 pm

I highly recommend carrying some duct-tape-style tape and string. I can’t tell you how many things I fixed on my bike with those two items.
.-= Kelsey´s last blog ..Party on the Newseum Roof! =-.


wes June 19, 2010 at 6:24 am

agreed! I’ve found double-sided velcro tape and zip ties to be very handy too.

ayngelina June 18, 2010 at 12:44 am

I cannot believe you are actually riding in that craziness, you are one brave man.


wes June 18, 2010 at 5:24 pm

or just not very bright ;)


Nomadic Chick June 18, 2010 at 2:48 am

Soo enthralled with these bike tales. And dude – sounds like you got yourself a 125cc lemon.
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..Gypsy Wednesday – Is the Cubicle Slowly Killing You? =-.


Casa De Dripping Springs June 18, 2010 at 4:18 am

brilliant story!


Jen June 19, 2010 at 2:14 pm

It’s like you’re reliving Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance except in Vietnam

great story
.-= Jen´s last blog ..Megabus: From City To City In Comfort And Style =-.


Jackie June 19, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Just discovered your blog. Huge fan! I love you! <3


wes June 20, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Wow, thanks Jackie! :)


Lexi June 21, 2010 at 8:11 am



Kien Nguyen October 19, 2013 at 12:37 am

Many people who started riding in Vietnam chose scooters. One thing they might not pay attention to is hair trigger acceleration. Scooters usually don’t have manual clutch and/or gear shift so there is no option for power control. In reality, most accidents happened with scooters. On the other hand, manual motorbikes are ways safer but also require riding experience. If you want to know some rules for riding motorbikes in Vietnam, I suggest to have a look at this link:

Ride smart and ride safe!