Road to Ho Chi Minh City – 1 of 4
By Mac McCall
The Vietnamese project was a recurring dream, born of a fascination with far-flung corners of the globe and a chance to visit one of them in the no man’s land between graduation and joining the workforce. Attempting to satisfy this craving, I stumbled upon several websites recommending the motorcycle ride between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The direct route meanders approximately 1,071 miles, exclusive of any detours or side ventures, covering precipitous changes in elevation, a vast variety of terrain, and several cultural divides. I was instantly entranced.
Over the following months, I converted three of my friends, one by one, to my gospel of Vietnamese adventure. The first was Chris, a longtime friend from school. The other two I’d met only within the past year. Sean and I had become friends when we hopped into a car with a mutual friend and drove from Athens to Pasadena, Calif. for the Rose Bowl the previous December. The last of the three, and the last to commit himself to the trip, was Austin, I’d known only as my neighbor in Athens since August of 2018. We were all graduating in December after the completion of 4.5 years at the University of Georgia. Each of us made our own contribution to the planning process; I handled administrative items such as licenses, visas, and insurance, Sean studiously researched our route, and Chris selected durable gear and clothing.
We scheduled our flights for Jan. 8, 2019, in the vain hope that the Dawgs might somehow make it to the national championship. While transiting through the Hong Kong airport, Austin was abruptly pulled aside and interrogated by Chinese customs. China was under a State Department travel advisory at the time due to arbitrary arrests of foreigners because of the tensions surrounding Canada’s arrest of Huawei’s CFO. (In fact, a Chinese court has recently upgraded a Canadian citizen’s arrest from life imprisonment to death.) Icy panic rose in our guts. As we watched, Austin was searched, fingerprinted, and photographed while his belongings were ransacked. He was visibly shaking in his boots (Literally. We were all wearing our hiking boots to lighten our packs). The Chinese had detected a bullet casing inadvertently packed in his dopp kit. After signing a document admitting to contraband possession, Austin was released, shaken but otherwise little worse for the wear. His identity was undoubtedly now tucked away in some Chinese criminal database, but at least he now had the most badass souvenir of the trip; a copy of his arms smuggling confession.
Some 56 hours after our departure from Atlanta, we finally touched down at Hanoi’s airport. We headed straight to the old quarter, a claustrophobic labyrinth of streets with a truly ancient heritage hailing from the formative years of the Dai Viet polity. Homes and storefronts, taxed by width but not height, squeeze the roads into narrow defiles choked with pedestrians and motorbikes. The motorbike is an omnipresent entity in Vietnam, the preferred mode of transport for a population largely lifted out of poverty only in the past few decades. The Vietnamese will pile unimpressive Hondas with herculean loads. Multiple times we tallied five people riding on the same scooter. Ravenously hungry after several days of airport food, we stopped by a pho shop and devoured several bowls of warm meatball soup. The restaurant had no interior seating so we ate in the streets on Lilliputian plastic stools.
Our first task was to obtain Vietnamese licenses. Foreigners can’t legally drive in Vietnam without a domestic license, and our insurance wouldn’t have covered us if we’d been in an accident while riding outside the law. My research left me with the impression that the conversion process was near-impossible to navigate for foreigners. However, in my chronic Internet searching on the topic, I had encountered a Chinese insurance company of dubious legitimacy, who in turn connected me via email to a “Mr. Cong” of Hanoi. In broken English, Mr. Cong informed me he would help us navigate the license conversion process. We rendezvoused with him on a quieter street, where he requested that we hand over our licenses, visas, and passports. We reluctantly handed him our documents. Mr. Cong sped off on his motorbike, soon swallowed by the twisting streets. Part of me was certain that was the last we would ever see of our passports. However, against all odds, Mr. Cong came tearing back down the road less than 10 minutes later, with the key aspects of our identities now translated into Vietnamese and scribbled onto applications for license conversions. We turned them in to a lady at the shabby DMV, had our pictures taken, and were told to return in a week to pick up our licenses.
During that week, we completed excursions to the coast and to the mountains, with Hanoi anchoring us as our home base. We summited Mt. Fansipan, the highest point in Indochina, and kayaked between hundreds of towering karst formations in the green waters of Ha Long Bay. After what seemed more like a month, our week drew to a close, and we returned once again to the tiny “DMV” in Hanoi to receive our licenses. After a not-so-good night’s rest, sponsored by the street bars of the old quarter, we finally picked up our rides from the rental agency and began the long journey south to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
It was a true baptism by fire. Our combined experience on two wheels totaled six days at the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic Rider Course in Alpharetta. After a few seconds of hesitant riding down the driveway of the rental agency, we were cast into the maelstrom of Hanoi’s streets. Hundreds of motorbikes flooded past with mere inches separating their riders. Intersections were a chaotic free-for-all of motorcycles, cars, and trucks jostling for position. Literally no heed at all was paid to stoplights. It was every man for himself as it took every ounce of concentration we could muster to avoid a catastrophic multiple-vehicle wreck. We quickly separated as each of us cut our teeth in one of the most difficult riding environments in the country, eventually reuniting by chance on QL1A, the principal highway traveling the length of the country from Hanoi to Saigon. After miraculously surviving the frenzied traffic of downtown Hanoi, we’d gained some confidence and gathered speed as we headed south. Still, riding on QL1A demands constant vigilance; truck drivers ruthlessly barrel down the road at high speeds and with little regard for those on smaller vehicles. When you hear a truck horn, you need to get out of the way if you value your life at all. Sean thrived in this environment and soon left us in the dust, riding maniacally down Highway One as he weaved in-and-out between the trucks. Austin, Chris, and I soon tired of the highway and opted to take backroads to our destination, Ninh Binh. Within minutes, we left the dusty suburban sprawl and endless storefronts behind us and entered a land of rice paddies, rural villages, and the odd Catholic church steeple. It was open country ahead for miles and miles as we shifted into high gear and rolled out the throttle.