Wind whistles past us as our bikes splutter and misfire through the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh and onto the offramp and into the tunnel that will spit us out of this big friendly city. There’s a deluded optimism that fends off the unending list of reasons not to do this in favour of the sole positive that promises to multiply, adventure. Or maybe it’s just the unnatural buzz of Viet coffee that lifts us well above the trepidation we know we should be feeling. Either way our bikes make it for ten straight minutes and even up the incline to take us out of the darkness and send us into the living metaphor of light at the end of this tunnel and no return.
The adventure ahead is palpable, we dive into it as if into a thick soup we can’t drink up or ride into fast enough, weirdly enough Ho Chi Minh city feels now like a safe secure bubble rather than a culturally foreign new frontier. Signs we can’t read whizz past us as we plod through places we can’t pronounce, all the while letting the safety net go with more and more exuberance than is advisable. In this modern world we have internet access usually to get us out of, or into, any situation we could want with such ease, such security; the abandonment of easy WIFI is just one ingredient to this deviation from the lives we know. In good time we are crossing a bridge with shadows cast in the wrong direction and a city looming ahead of us instead of behind. We made it about half an hour before a wrong turn, or was the wrong turn a long time ago?We now enter our first venture into the urban fringe bush bash of Vietnam. Signs mean nothing, asking for directions is a little tough when the only word we know is ‘thank you’ so there’s nothing for us to do than just keep positive and keep going; this is after all the adventure we signed on for. Alarmingly we’re about two hours in and the bikes are still going, grudgingly mind you but going none the less. GPS satellites are now a thing of the past, we cling like early explorers to the direction of a cast shadow just hoping we make it to somewhere before we break down, an inevitable, not an uncertainty. Apparently our battlers need a rest every two hours such is their fragility which comes at a ferry crossing. We’re pretty sure we need to do this.
Still with no idea where we are other than roughly east of Ho Chi Minh, we bash over dirt roads dodging heavy machinery and other bikers alike on roads that may or may not be on the map. The permanent spectre of this trip is the dreaded breakdown, we cling to the dubious assurance that if we break down people will just appear; apparently you’re never really alone in Vietnam. We’re not sure if this is a good or bad thing but everyone that has told us seems to say it with a smile on their face, lets just go with believing it’s a good thing. So quick recap if I may, a few hours in we’ve barely breached the city limits, we’re hopelessly lost, lucky to be still moving and pitting our hopes on mysterious people who apparently emerge from the jungle; this is going well.Four hours in we’ve done about two hours of the day but we are fairly sure we know where we are, roughly. the bikes are still going somehow and with us burning to a crisp in the horrid Vietnamese sun it’s time to give everyone a break, machine and man alike. The idea of choosing a lunch stop seems so trifling, there’s somewhere that looks like it sells food and we’re not in a position to bargain. The smiley dude at the restaurant greets us with a simple statement blessedly in English ‘I do chicken and rice’. “We’ll have two chicken and rice please”. That was easy. Simple but tasty, lunch is a treat as we gather together renewed confidence in making it this far resolving to push on to Mui Ne rather than taking an alternative early stop. I do wonder if this foolhardiness is going to bite us in the bum soon or sooner?
A few hours along and it’s bike stop time but really the fragile nature of the bikes acts as a handy masculinity foil for our own need to recoup. Safe to say that the bikes aren’t the most comfortable things ever. The road emerges only to fade into the distance behind us and with it the ever assumed security of knowing where we are in the world, even though a faint sliver of confidence begins to threaten the un-safety net we are learning to rapidly embrace. Bingo, we know where we are, right turn. A few minutes, looks weird, lost again. We have surely spent more time off the proper roads than on them so far, knowing what’s going on is best left to package deal type travellers we tell ourselves.
Another rest stop, for the bikes of course, and we’re scouting anything cold and or liquid before a veer into a roadside restaurant calls for a quick deviation back to the road; police. We are after all riding illegally and with our larger bank notes secreted away we’re ready to recall our Spanish, pretend not to understand and go for the bribe option. On a day that’s threatening to deliver adventure overload this is however one fun interaction we’ll happily defer to another day, as inevitable as a breakdown but today has no more space for adventure stories. Staring in the face of every sign that might say that this venture is a bad idea it’s time for more Viet coffee, the local version of a Quaalude. We can’t read the local signs anyway so caffeine seems like a fabulous idea.It’s amazing how maps start looking more like they’re meant to when you are were you think you are. We’re burnt to a crisp with wind-burnt faces and sore bums but after ten hours of continuous relief that the bikes are alive overlaid with fear that they soon won’t be, two bundles of frayed nerves roll onto Mui Ne. The bikes need an oil change but they have made it, for the first time today we can be certain of where we are, we haven’t had a run in with the law, a disagreement with local traffic or a marriage breakdown; dare I say we have a successful first day on our hands?
Locals have laughed at us the whole way and routinely given a big smile and a thumbs up, there’s a tourist bubble somewhere but we lost that somewhere after the first wrong turn out of Ho Chi Minh. Over two hundred kilometres lies behind us but a grand total of nearly 2000 kilometres is the task for our bikes that remarkably show just 2km ever ridden on their speedometers. The African road trip was the road trip of the decade but now it’s hard to say if this one is grander, better or bigger; comparisons seem out of reach when not even making it is such a likely possibility. Our former lives never seemed so far away; we’ve abandoned a travellers life that was already escaping a real life only now to plunge into a life we have no name for. Tomorrow has never been a cleaner slate.