Riding Around Vietnam on a Motorcycle

I’m perched behind Ankit on the back of a motorcycle as he whizzes us through the streets of Nha Trang. We’re on our way to our apartment after an afternoon of sightseeing, and I’m wondering why I keep agreeing to being transported this way.

Every time he revs the engine and changes gear, the cycle jerks a little and my heart jumps in unison. And while at any given moment he’s not going faster than 40 km/h, to me this journey is highly perilous. Whenever there’s a lack of other motorcycles on the road, I feel it’s safe to relax, but that pleasure is short lived; soon enough another motorcycle appears from nowhere and overtakes us. And, for some reason, the drivers like to come close enough to be able to reach across and poke us in the eye should they wish to do so.

The view from the back seat

The view from the back seat

We reach a cluster of motorcycles, and we’re all driving with what seems like a mere inch of distance between us. One wrong move, and we’ll all be in a heap on the floor. On one scooter, a mother is cradling her baby on the back, and the kid appears to be sleeping. On another, an entire sink has been attached to the back with ropes; it seems like they take everything plus the kitchen sink out here.

Ankit weaves in and out of the motorcycles that are ahead of us like he’s on a rally course. I get a lungful of exhaust fumes, and I suddenly realise why it is that people out here wear what I like to call the Michael Jackson mask.

“Billyyyyyyyy,” I shriek into the air.

“What baby,” he says and I detect a hint of annoyance in his voice.

Me, pretending to enjoy the ride

Me, pretending to enjoy the ride

How dare I criticise his driving! Thing is, it’s not his driving that I’m worried about. As a pedestrian I’ve been witness to how the Vietnamese like to drive their motorcycles, and let’s just say it’s not filled me with much confidence. Little to no attention is paid to the basic rules of road – who wouldn’t be a bit concerned?

I try to talk with Ankit a little bit more, but my voice is muffled by the onslaught of crosswind. I decide to try and relax, which is almost as hard as trying to meditate at a rave. It’s no use, and as we approach a roundabout, where the rule appears to be there are no rules, I close my eyes and hope for the best.

A little further down from the roundabout and my fears are confirmed. Ahead of us is a gathering of stopped motorcycles, and they appear to be observing something. As we get closer, I realise that there’s a motorcycle on its side, all mangled up. The driver is sat next to the wreckage, looking perplexed. Thankfully, he’s unharmed, which is a miracle considering the state of his vehicle.

Chaos personified

Chaos personified

While witnessing this commotion and cruising past at a slow speed, through the corner of my eye I see a motorcycle that is coming towards us at a seemingly high speed; I panic and scream in the middle of the crowd. Soon enough, everyone’s eyes are on me – the pathetic Westerner who is causing more fuss than the guy who has just crashed and is on the floor.

I vow this is the last time I’ll ever be on a motorcycle in Vietnam.

Like in many Southeast Asian countries, motorcycles are the main mode of transport here. And boy, do they transport everything with them on these things. It’s one of the country’s many charms, and you can spend an entertaining afternoon merely observing what people are carrying with them. Thus far, after only three weeks in the country, we’ve witnessed everything from steel building rods, the aforementioned kitchen sink, baskets, bulk packaged noodles, and crates of eggs being balanced on the back of motorcycles. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at some of the photos that a Google search brings up. Oh, and I’ve even seen a family of four – yes four – somehow squeezed onto one.

An extremely rare sight in Saigon - an empty road

An extremely rare sight in Saigon – an empty road

I’m told that people prefer motorcycles here as they’re far cheaper to have than a car; not only is it less expensive to fill them with petrol, but they’re also very economical. As a result, the roads are full of them, making it all rather overwhelming.

Crossing the road as a pedestrian is scary enough; with drivers showing little regard to trivial matters such as traffic lights, you’re left trying to scurry across without being run down by a two-wheeler. Whenever we would ride around in cabs, I would think two things: a) the driving here is absolutely mental and b) you’ll never see me on one of those things out here.

Traffic central

Traffic central

There’s no denying, however, that when compared to taking a cab everywhere that renting a motorcycle as a visitor is the cheaper option. It’s also quite the experience, and one I wish I were able to enjoy a little bit more; however my phobia of these two-wheeled machines stems from my teenage years, when I fell off one that my friend was driving (badly). Ever since then I’ve found it very difficult to be on one.

The next day, however, despite all better judgment I find myself back on the motorcycle seat. As we drive along the coast and reach an unassuming yet totally fascinating fisherman’s village at the edge of the city, I’m happy for the fact that I’m able to enjoy unadulterated views from the back of one of these damn things.

Views like this, however, make it all worthwhile

Views like this, however, make it all worthwhile

It just wouldn’t be the same in a cab after all.