Grudge Ride: On Two Wheels in Vietnam


This is the leg of the journey that I’ve been dreading. It’s a straight run up Highway 1A — 560 kilometers of heavy traffic and little else. It will take me two days, provided everything goes according to plan, and I climb on the bike with very little enthusiasm. It’s going to be a grudge ride.

The bike’s owner, Pat, had told me that there wasn’t much to see north of Hue. “It’s just a bunch of dusty towns with ugly, Communist architecture and not much else,” he said. Leafing through the guidebook and talking to other travelers had shown me nothing that suggested otherwise.

It’s too far to cover in one day, so I head first for the town of Vinh, some 360 kilometers to the north. It’s the most distance I’ve covered in a day so far and the best I can hope for is a nine hour ride. I’m knocking out the longer day first, knowing that I’ll be tired and saddlesore by the second. I’m also fighting a head cold that refuses to go away and my stomach has felt queasy since the night before.

I’m on the road by 6:30 and the traffic out of Hue isn’t too bad, once I find my way out of town. I normally hold the bike steady at 50 kph, but today I’m running around 60, hoping to shave a couple of hours off the trip.

After only a half hour on the road, things turn ugly.

After only a half hour on the road, things turn ugly when I see a good-sized pig run in front of a large dump truck in the oncoming lane. He stops between the tires but is too tall and unable to crouch. The front axle hits him and he tumbles beneath the truck in slow motion, emerging behind it, torn in half, his mouth still moving in a silent cry. I really didn’t need to see that.

Just a few minutes later, I pass through a small town and four men carrying a brightly-painted coffin cross the street in front of me, forcing me to slow and swerve. Okay, okay. Enough symbolism already…

I’m making pretty good time, but soon notice that the bike is developing a burbling backfire — the exhaust bolt is acting up again. I pull over and find it loose, tightening it several turns with the cheap wrench I now carry in my pocket. It had been holding fine for a couple of weeks, but I think the increased speed is creating too much vibration for it and I drop back down to 50.

Ten minutes later, I have to stop and tighten it again. The bolt head is rounding off and it’s harder and harder to get a good grip on it. I return to my old habit of stopping every 20 kilometers and tightening it.

The miles roll by and the sun creeps higher as I make my way north. Traffic increases again, filling the narrow road with buses and battered trucks hauling rocks and dirt. Small towns are more and more prevalent, slowing my progress. Between towns, the scenery is as majestic as before, but I’ve become jaded.

It’s like every scene is built from the same kit — drop a checkerboard of rice fields here, paint in some blue-tinted mountains over there, and sprinkle a few random brick huts about. Add a few dozen people in conical hats, some water buffalo, and maybe a goat for a change of pace and you’re done. I’ve been on the road too long and the extraordinary has become mundane.

I’m dusty, sweaty, and am running out of positions on the bike seat.

It’s mid-day now and the sun is leaning on me hard, with a dry wind blowing in from the north. I’m dusty, sweaty, and beginning to run out of positions on the bike seat. The saddle is only eight inches wide and thinly padded — my butt is starting to really ache. Imagine straddling a 2×4 for nine hours while someone hits it repeatedly with a baseball bat and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how it feels.

The hours drag on as I stop more and more often to rest or check the exhaust bolt. My guts have been protesting for a couple of hours and I finally give in, stopping at a gas station to use the toilet. And, of course, it’s a squat. I’ve been traveling for over four months now and have managed to avoid using one, but my luck has finally run out. All I can do is take my own advice, do the deed, and get back on the road.

The sun has leeched all of the color from the world — even the rice fields lay mute and listless. A large truck roars by, raising a huge cloud of dust and spackling me with grit and sand. Four old women on bikes emerge from the dust cloud, like refugees from some distant apocalypse, their bikes loaded with stacks of cardboard, plastic, and scrap metal.

Something about the moment forces me to admit that I’m tired of riding the bike. I’m done.

Something about the moment forces me to admit to myself that I’m tired of riding the bike. I’m tired of fighting traffic and trying to maintain the focus and concentration required to survive on the road.

I’m ready to turn in my sunburned road warrior badge and go back to being a tourist. Let someone else deal with the trucks and buses and pigs — I’ll sit happily in my air-conditioned bus seat and read or nap while the world rolls by. I’m done.

Two hours later, I pull into a gas station to fill up. Vinh is only 20 kilometers away and I’ve been on the bike for over 8 hours. My stomach is acting up again, but I refuse to use a squat toilet twice in one day. A man has standards, after all.

The attendant is a gorgeous young woman in her mid-twenties, wearing fancy sequined shoes and pumping gas. She gives me a bright smile. After I pull to the side to drink some water in the shade, an older woman tries setting me up, implying that I should take the younger one with me. Her bold smile and steady gaze suggests that she isn’t completely against the idea.

The last part of a long ride is always the slowest and I finally roll into Vinh wanting nothing more in the world than to be off the bike. My guts are in a knot and I’m desperate for a clean bathroom and a shower. I find my way to the hotel I’d picked out from the guidebook, confirm that they have a single room, and park the bike.

Dragging my luggage behind me, I arrive at the desk to be told that the only room they have is the VIP room at $20 a night, about double what I hoped to pay. I suspect that they have a cheaper room available and we banter back and forth, but the lady behind the counter refuses to budge. It’ll take me 15 minutes to pack up the bike and find another hotel, but I have maybe 5 minutes before my pants explode. She’s read my situation perfectly.

I grudgingly agree and take the elevator to the room, a small suite on the top floor. It’s one of the nicest places I’ve stayed in yet, with a leather couch and great views, but I’m too tired to really enjoy it. All I want to do is sleep. Tomorrow, I have to do this all over again.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Tavia July 12, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Bring on the 2 x 4! HA! It’s my favorit part…sorry, but it is. ha! :-D
Good luck on the open road thats ahead of you. Get well soon cousin.


Nathan July 12, 2010 at 6:24 pm

damn Wes, really loving following your adventure, so many crazy, fun things happening, and the way you write keeps us addicted over and over again -perfect!


wes July 12, 2010 at 9:03 pm

Thanks, brother. Very much appreciated.


ayngelina July 12, 2010 at 10:05 pm

Oh I would have been traumatized over the pig, it bothers me to see road kill but less see it being killed.
.-= ayngelina´s last blog ..How I spent my 33rd birthday part 1 of 2 =-.


wes July 13, 2010 at 9:34 am

It was *ugly*. I left out a lot of the details…


lily July 12, 2010 at 11:59 pm

poor you.. but at least you CAN stop when you need to, and not at the mercy of a crazy bus driver high on Saannggthiiip!


wes July 13, 2010 at 9:33 am

Nice pronunciation ;)


Andi July 13, 2010 at 3:18 am

Wow, what a looooong ride! But, you made it in 1 piece!!! Best wishes with the next leg. Don’t give up!
.-= Andi´s last blog ..India- Day 6 =-.


wes July 13, 2010 at 9:37 am

The second day was shorter, thankfully — just 5 or 6 hours. Didn’t even touch the bike for 2 days after that ;)


Natalka July 13, 2010 at 12:55 pm

You are a trooper… pretty impressed with your stamina. You can take the bike part way to take it all in but when the butt cheeks can’t take anymore Vietnam Air has cheap domestic flights ($30US) to fly from Danang to Hanoi….just sayin’


Mitch July 14, 2010 at 4:15 pm

I also found that stretch pretty dull, even though we were on the Ho Chi Minh rather than the 1A. Two solid days on the 1A would do my head in. And that pig- urggh! We saw a human fatality, but fortunately it was after the cops had arrived and covered it up.

It was actually on those last legs that I began to truly loathe the Vietnamese and their utter disregard for human life. And I know what you mean about the scenery; after Phong Nha National Park and Tam Coc, huge limestone karsts have become monotonous, so now I’m in Ha Long Bay and I’m all “eh.”

Anyway, you’re clearly not *completely* jaded yet, so I’ll shut up.
.-= Mitch´s last blog ..DAY 76- The Old Quarter =-.


Laura July 23, 2010 at 10:45 pm

The pig incident left me a bit scarred. I have high hopes to rent a bike and romp around Vietnam on it, but I’m wondering how long it will take for that excitement to dwindle…
.-= Laura´s last blog ..Likoma Island- A Little African Paradise =-.


wes July 24, 2010 at 11:16 am

I think the fun factor will depend on how far and where you ride. Getting out of Saigon or Hanoi is about the least fun thing you can imagine. If you’re just renting a bike and doing day trips from a town like Dalat or Hoi An, it’ll be a blast. The traffic you’ll find between major destinations can be pretty intense, so you’d definitely want to take that into account.