a.k.a ‘The Kham Duc rock and roll karaoke dust up’.
Motorbikes in Asia.
If you don’t know much about riding motorbikes, Southeast Asia is probably not the place to start. Just because almost everybody else is doing it is not the best reason to take up a fairly dangerous new hobby.
But if you have some experience and are willing to set aside everything you have learnt about road rules in western countries then chances are you can have the experience of a lifetime. Because they are inexpensive to buy and run, motorcycles and scooters are the mode of transport in Asia. Vietnam has 45 million motorbikes alone.
Used to transport entire families (six on a bike is the best I’ve seen), food, building materials, livestock and pretty much anything else you can imagine.
If you’re looking for a new highly entertaining pastime, try this. Buy a latte in a café on the main street in the town of Pai in northern Thailand and watch young white backpackers hire a scooter for the first time in their lives.Then drive it straight into a food stall.
Licensing and insurance
In most countries in Asia (except Bali who now implement their own revenue raising licensing system) most hire companies and even the police don’t care if you have a motorbike license.I have produced an international driving permit on a number of occasions but apparently this isn’t valid in Vietnam. If you are pulled over usually a small bribe will see you on your way.
A face covering while riding stops you choking on dust as well as not alerting the police to the fact that you are a foreigner with a fat wallet. Even if you do have a valid licence a lot of insurance policies will not cover you in case of an accident. But like I said it’s not mandatory. It’s one of those glaring paradoxes between east and west. Self-responsibility means you wear the consequences of your mistakes.
Cat Ba Island
Motorcycle touring is a cheap and preferable alternative to public transport. You’re on your own schedule, you can get off the well warn tourist path and get up close and personal with the locals.
That was my intention after I had flown into Hanoi and then taken a bus and ferry to Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay. It wasn’t high season and I managed to snag a room in a waterfront hotel overlooking the main pier for $8 US per night.
The next day I did a junk and kayaking tour of the Bay and got paired up with a rosy-cheeked happy-go-lucky Swiss national named Florian.
He was doing some backpacking before his national service and he seemed impressed by my intention to ride a motorbike through Vietnam.
‘Sounds good’ he declared in his laconic and easy going manner ‘but I haven’t ridden very much.’
‘Maybe we can hire some bikes here on the island’ I suggested ‘and you can see if you like it.’
The roads on Cat Ba are fairly well made and at this time of year there was barely any traffic. Perfect conditions to get a feel for it. I gave Florian a few tips on the subtleties of riding in Asia-
Rules of the road
No 1- Take it easy, it’s not a race. Maybe it’s the weather or the culture or just the shit roads but no one is in a hurry to get anywhere. Unlike the west, no one is fighting for their position on the road. The aim is to fit in like a little fish in a big school.
No. 2- Forget about road rules. They don’t exist here. There are so many people ignoring the basics that it’s easier for you to imagine that there aren’t any. Always assume someone is going to do the unexpected and pull out in front of you at an intersection. Change lanes without notice. Ride the wrong way down a one-way street.
If in doubt, toot your horn. For everything else, toot your horn.
No. 3 – Always give way to the bigger vehicle. Bikes give way to cars, cars give way to trucks and elephants don’t usually move for anyone.
After exploring Cat Ba Island for a day, Florian was hooked. Initially I was a bit reluctant to throw my new young friend to the two wheeled highway wolves. But this guy had the perfect mix of enthusiasm and tranquillity.
After meeting up a bit further south we procured two scooters and spent the next couple of weeks loosely following the Ho Chi Minh Trail through central Vietnam. Eating Banh Mi and Pho Bo at roadside food stalls, hiking out to the worlds biggest caves. Admiring the simplicity of rural Vietnamese life and avoiding head on collisions with domestic pigs and crazy truck drivers overtaking other crazy truck drivers.
Rock and Roll Superstar
After an all day ride inland from the beautiful coastal town of Hoi An we arrived into the very obscure medium-sized destination of Kham Duc. Way off the tourist radar, we didn’t find anything that resembled beautiful karst formations or rugged unpopulated beaches. Not even a single sign to indicate a place to eat or sleep. With our packs strapped to the back of our bikes we slowly cruised the Main Street looking for anything that resembled a hotel.
Whilst contemplating where we might be camping in the lightly falling rain, we noticed some locals waving to us from across the road. They were inside a bar that had loud music blaring shakily from the speakers.The floor was strewn with empty beer cans, food scraps and paper plates. The Vietnamese like to keep the table clean and just throw everything on the floor to be swept up later.
A little hungry and with limited options we decided to check it out. Instantly we were made to feel like the guests of honour. We were shown seats and given plates of strange food and plied with alcohol. It seems as though these guys have been at it for quite a while already as the atmosphere is pretty buoyant.
Some guy approaches me with a microphone and says ‘You sing.’
‘You don’t really want to hear that mate ‘ I tell him honestly. The crowd urges me forward and the DJ encourages me with certainty –‘You sing. Rock and Roll.’
With the reverb turned up full tilt I belt out a completely made-up-on-the-spot instant rock classic about the rigours of travel in Vietnam. The crowd love it and Florian is the centre of attention as he busts out his best Michael Jackson moves on the dance floor. The ladies are all clapping along and lining up to snap selfies with the crazy white guys.
I’m feeling about as close to a rock god as I’ll ever get, brewing up my next ingenious verse – and then it all goes pear shaped.
Kam Duc Karaoke Dust Up
My Swiss sidekick has a pretty lady on each arm and is posing for the cameras like some sort of celebrity when an angry looking little man steps up and grabs one of the girls by the hair and violently drags her to the ground.
‘Positively unnecessary’ I’m thinking to myself as the jealous boyfriend angrily swings his boot at his beloved as she lies helpless on the ground.
A couple of guys grab the man and drag him away while the other women help the poor victim to her feet.
The music stops and Florian and I exchange disbelieving looks. Obviously we both feel the need to condemn this brutish behaviour but no one can understand a word we say. If we start shaking our fists and finger pointing then we might just end up being chased out of town by a pack of drunken karaoke kung-fu warriors. Considering it was kind of Florians fault to begin with.
The beautiful rich tapestry of life
As luck would have it, we soon made the acquaintance of a young boy who called himself Dave. I’m sure his real name was a bit less complicated. He said he had learnt English from the Internet and translated to his parents our predicament in not having secured a bed for the night. Soon enough they had us follow them to a comfortable hotel that we never would have found without enduring this rather bizarre set of circumstances.
Just one of many unexpected crazy interludes I’ve had. At the time it can seem overwhelmingly funny, confronting and downright scary. On this trip alone I was surrounded by an angry mob of taxi mafia, robbed, ripped off, run off the road and abused by an over zealous tour operator. I’ve had my fair share of injuries, heat exhaustion, food poisoning, lost and broken gear and run ins with the law. But they make up the rich tapestry of life and it sure beats the hell out of knowing what’s going to happen every other day of your existence.
Are there inherent risks involved in riding a motorcycle through unexplored foreign territory? You bet there is. But in this seemingly risk averse world are we forgetting that the rewards we get are often in direct proportion to how far out of our comfort zone we’re prepared to extend?
Rewards like deep late night conversations with fascinating locals who sometimes give you directions to places you never would have dreamed of. Mind blowing sunsets and sunrises over landscapes so beautiful that me and my problems seem downright insignificant. What about having a meal with the most striking and sensuous combination of flavours that I feel like any adversity I withstood was a miniscule price to pay to bring me to this unique point in time.
The risk versus benefit factor plays a role in almost every decision we make in life. Feeling uncomfortable is probably a sign that you are about to get on board with something that will take you places you’ve never been. Do it carefully and thoughtfully and the pay off could be priceless.