I’d driven a manual car and pedaled many a bicycle, but this hybrid known as the manual motorbike was completely new. As a passenger on an automatic motorbike in Cat Ba, Vietnam, I knew firsthand how difficult the easier form of this beast could be. I watched, aghast, as my two friends flew over a rough patch in the road and crashed ten meters away on the hard pavement. Rushed to a rural hospital with a rural, non-English speaking doctor, they were treated in a dingy, yellow cell in a very rural way. The one who cried, “I can’t feel my leg,” walked away with ice cubes while the other had the gash on her forehead sewn up in a way that will surely leave an ugly scar.
And yet, the girl who couldn’t feel her leg, two others and I decided to face our fears and try again. This time, our resident Frenchy (with years of motorbike experience) and I (with none) would drive the beasts.
If you’ve ever played MarioKart, this is like tackling Rainbow Road with Princess on a scooter… a bad idea!
Leaving Can Tho was the first obstacle. A city of over 350,000 people, Can Tho’s roads were congested with bikes, cycles, carts, carriages, pedestrians, and potholes. No road is simply a road in Vietnam. This trip would oscillate between city and jungle driving, two skills I had never acquired on a motorbike.
Perhaps out of a fear of imperfection’s cost, the nuances of the bike came quick. Always keep your hand on the brakes when you start the bike. You don’t turn a bike, you lean it. Your weight is your steering wheel. Driving is like dancing; it’s a delicate balance. First gear is impossible, so start with second. Third gear is to get going and fourth when you’re on a straightaway. There were a lot of rules and I almost always followed them.
The first day we got incredibly lost, as if getting lost was our goal (which, in a way, it was). It was a crowded, yet at times, incredibly peaceful countryside of orchards, rice, and fields of flowers. Whereas English was sporadically understood in the rest of Vietnam, not even the hotel workers in the Delta spoke a word of it. This made getting lost in the twisting maze of river, rice, canals, and curves all the more unavoidable.
In the early afternoon, we passed a string of police tape. On the other side sat a beat up bike and the chalk marks of its deceased owner. This was certainly an ominous sign. The statistics for motorbike accidents in Vietnam are absurd. In 2008, 12,800 accidents occurred killing 11,600 people and injuring 8,100. In other words, on any given day in 2008, 35 accidents resulted in 32 deaths and 22 injuries. And, these numbers were down from 2007! Had I known these facts at the time, I would never have paid money for a death wish.
By nightfall, we crossed our second river barge, leaving hectic Vinh Long for the twin islands of Ah Binh and Binh Hoa Phuoc. Cryptically billed as, “…the land of unknown things,” these sleepy islands were diced in tracts by a large network of meandering rivers and canals. As such, the roads petered along like poorly maintained mountain-bike paths, skirting the water’s edge.
The next morning, we set out early to explore the, “land of unknown things.” I had spent the night with Ducati dreams, repeatedly congratulating myself on my uncanny motorbike skills. Everyone was impressed. I was a natural!
We penetrated increasingly shoddy roads, big enough for one bike, but used for two. Like a post-earthquake sidewalk, the cement squares shot up in ice cube edges. The ground was a meter below the path. Bikes were passing handlebar to handlebar, honking. The road was disappearing. The Frenchy was waiting up ahead. I got nervous, sweating. I stopped for a passing bike and switched to first gear to start the bike again thinking, “never start in first.” I shot forward, across the edge of the earthquake sidewalk-cum-jungle road and flew forward, the handlebar twisting into my throat. Felipe, sitting behind me, was thrust off the bike, jamming his left ankle and scraping the skin off his hands and knees. As I stood up, I could not breathe. My face turned white and my brain drifted into cotton candy.
Felipe lay on the ground bleeding as the Frenchy and the girl who couldn’t feel her leg came rushing over to help. Thankful that it was not again her tossed off the bike, Nico, the girl who couldn’t feel her leg, raced to the nearest pharmacy where the man instinctively handed her condoms. After much pointing, she raced back to Felipe and I with supplies. We stumbled our way over to the porch of a local Vietnamese family who had witnessed the accident. They hovered over us, boiled tea with some dirt-speckled rain water, and forced upon us the most gracious hospitality.
I could breathe, but my throat was sore and my left leg scratched and bleeding halfway down my shin. Felipe was bleeding on three limbs and limping around on the fourth. All told, it could have been a lot worse. Shaken, the Vietnamese family grabbed our sunglasses and traipsed around like Hollywood divas to make us laugh. You can never underestimate the kindness – or wackiness – of strangers.
A motorbike cannot drive itself home and we had one more night to complete our loop around the delta. I packed away my fears and continued the trip on the condition that once we left these islands of “unknown things,” we would remain with the known obstacles of the highway.
That afternoon we arrived in Sa Dec, the Mekong’s town of gardens. The botanical beauties of Ho Chi Minh are said to come from this riverside town whose bushy backstreets sprout with spyrographs of color.
We spent the night just out of town and plowed down the highway back to Can Tho the next morning. Zooming down the wide, flat road, I regained both my confidence and my affection for the beast.
Motorbikes are intoxicatingly fun. It’s the dance with danger that makes them even more thrilling. Despite the nerves, the accident, and the injuries, I’m glad I saw the Delta by bike. It’s the only way to get a feel for life in this implausible region of swamp and cement.
The facts are these: I wasn’t one of the 32 people who die every day of motorbike accidents in Vietnam! I was just one of the 22 injured. At the end of the day, this is the statistical group that I greatly prefer.