If you’ve been with us since the early days, you might remember that our original plan was to ride motorcycles through most of SE Asia, starting in Vietnam before tackling Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, possibly moving on to India and Sri Lanka.
If we’ve learned anything on this journey, it’s that things can change in an instant – your feelings, your circumstances, your health, the political stability of your current country, the weather, anything. It is a must to remain flexible and open to adjusting your plans.
Things started to change for us about halfway between Saigon and Hanoi in Phong Nha when we were riding our crappy “Honda” Wins. Mechanical problems that had cropped up once a week or so turned into an almost daily occurrence, and many of these were beyond our expertise (i.e. electrical issues). All of a sudden, the majority of our time was consumed by these problems and the consequent rearranging of our plans instead of riding. Not exactly how we envisioned the trip.
We decided to give the Wins a last chance to make it right. We got an expensive tune-up and put them on the train to Hanoi. Our first ride post-tune-up was from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island in Halong Bay. Everything went great for the first three hours, and then H’s bike died. Just straight up shut off in the middle of riding. He was not out of gas, and the electrical had just been completely re-done, so we were at a loss.
It took four men over two and half hours of playing with various things to get the bike running again. We ended up missing our ferry and had to stay in the not-so-charming port city of Hai Phong. All this on the first ride after an expensive tune-up that was guaranteed to ensure this kind of thing wouldn’t happen … at least for a few weeks, anyway. Suffice to say our time with the Wins was so, so over.
Despite all this, we were still determined to see our bike adventure through. We bit the bullet and bought new bikes guaranteed to run, cross international borders, and handle the mountains of Vietnam’s famed Ha Giang province. We went with Honda XR-125s, purchased from Cuong’s Motorbike Adventures. Cuong is the best in the business and has worked with Top Gear, Charley Boorman, Gordon Ramsay, and everyone who’s anyone who comes to motorcycle in Vietnam.
We left Hanoi on February 22nd feeling renewed and invigorated despite the drizzly, cold weather. Our new bikes could hit 100 kph to the Win’s 60 – yeah! Our enthusiasm was dulled as the day wore on and the rain continued. By the time we arrived at our destination, Lang Son, we were soaked through to our underwear. We had to stay an extra day just to allow our clothes and shoes to dry.
This happened for a week straight. We bought new rubber boots that all the local farmers use to keep our feet dry. We bought big furry mitts that fit over the handlebars for me. We everything we could, but it was still no use. We just could not keep the rain out, and it went on like this for three more weeks, a few sunny days excepted.
It’s hard to describe how demoralizing this was, which I’m sure you picked up on from our posts during that time. We spent so long saving for and dreaming about this trip, and that dream did not involving sitting on a motorbike in freezing cold rain, soaking wet and shivering for days on end, nary a view to enjoy.
Other things also started to change during this time. Food options dwindled to nothing. Most of the towns we stayed in had very few restaurants – maybe a pho joint (open only in the morning), a banh mi cart or two (again, open only in the morning), some ladies grilling hot dogs street side, and an uncomfortable number of dog and/or cat establishments (not kidding). We spent our fair share of nights eating aforementioned hot dogs and chips in our room.
The town of Tra Linh was particularly inhospitable – after being inexplicably turned away from three restaurants that were clearly serving customers, we ended up eating chao (porridge) with meat that was definitely not familiar-tasting. Best case scenario is horse meat, and sadly, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. Suffice to say it was not exactly the culinary adventure we were hoping for.
Then there was the cultural shift. Northern Vietnam is decidedly less friendly than the South, and many people were downright hostile to us as foreigners. It’s not entirely surprising – the area is home to various hill tribes, notorious for being insular societies, as well as other ethnic minorities, hardened by years of conflict with both Laos and China (violence between Vietnam and the latter is still on-going).
That it is understandable doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. For example, what do you do when you find the 14-year old girl working at your hotel sitting on your brand-new $3,000 motorbike without permission, giggling? If she drops the bike and damages it, I’m sure she will be sorry, but can she (or her family) afford to fix it? Could you ask that of someone who has so little when you have so much? Can you even explain this to her without sounding like an asshole? Will she understand since she barely speaks English? Are you even in the right to be angry since she doesn’t mean any harm by it?
What do you do when you are in the middle of nowhere and a mechanic charges you over $10 to fix a flat tire, when the going rate in Vietnam is around $1? When a taxi driver tells you a rate and then demands double when you arrive at your destination, threatening to call the police if you don’t pay? When a hotel manager promises you safe parking inside the hotel for your motorbike, only to renege on that promise after you have already paid and unpacked? Or when you try to get your laptop fixed, and the shop sends it to Hanoi without your permission, telling you it will cost triple to repair and take three days as opposed to the one day promised? We dealt with each of these situations and more.
People say that the best thing about traveling is getting the chance to bond with people all over the world. Sadly, that just didn’t happen for us in this case. For the most part, any effort we made to talk to local people was ignored, and when it wasn’t, we were often asked for money. We felt as if we were treated as ATMs and not as human beings.
Of course, there are two sides to every story – maybe we were being overly sensitive and/or misunderstanding the culture. I’ll admit to the sensitivity part, but in our defense, we were worn down after over a month of dealing with the aforementioned situations. It’s hard to have patience and understanding when people are constantly trying to take advantage of you.
As for misunderstanding the culture, we’ve done some serious soul searching on this, and we just don’t think that’s true. We do our best to be polite, easy-going, tolerant, and thoughtful people and succeed in that at least some of the time. It was a shock to be treated the way we were, and if we did something to invite that kind of treatment, we truly have no idea what it was. The experience left us both shaken and questioning our worldviews.
All this is not to say that we quit because we had some bad food and people were mean to us. That’s just silly. But, this period did prompt us to seriously examine our expectations and priorities on this trip. With a limited and dwindling amount of savings and thus time, we had to ask ourselves if how we were spending it was worth it.
Riding through a country will give you a better sense of place than anything else, save walking or bicycling. You won’t a miss a smell or sight, and you’ll be at the mercy every rain drop, every gust of wind, and every bump in the road, traveling just like the locals do. It’s a truly immersive experience, and despite some of the more difficult moments, we had some great times too.
Ultimately, we ended up riding through most of Laos and a bit of Thailand before finishing in Siem Reap, Cambodia, where we sold our bikes. Laos brought us almost instant relief in the form of sunny and warm weather, a different cuisine, and the nicest people we have met in all our travels thus far. We had a blast riding through there, and I’m so glad we didn’t miss it. By the time we got to Cambodia, the eat, sleep, ride routine started to get old, plain and simple, and we felt ready for a change – namely, the chance to experience a lot more countries in places beyond SE Asia.
So why did we wait four and half months to tell you all this? It boils down to two reasons: fairness and fear. We felt we needed emotional distance and more travel experience under our belt to be fair and analytical, especially in our discussion of northern Vietnam, which we knew would ruffle some feathers and/or hurt feelings. As it turns out, writing negative things about another country or culture, even if done so eloquently and respectfully, is any easy way to get yourself labeled uncultured, uneducated, and/or racist.
So then why write this at all? Obviously, my intent here is not to hurt feelings or smear a country, but I feel like it’s important to share the whole experience, not just the good stuff.
Too much about travel, especially the nomad lifestyle, is idealized. We’re inundated with pictures of perfectly stunning places, stories of wonderful human connection, mind-blowing experiences, and quotes like: “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” If that’s you, I’m here to tell you that you should revise your list. Not everything is worth seeing and experiencing, the world is not perfect, and sometimes people just suck. Read this if you don’t believe me.
Travel can be HARD, and we were so, so beyond naive about this. We had romantic visions of zipping through stunning landscape that didn’t include terrible weather, rampant pollution and litter, people trying to take advantage of us, near constant bike breakdowns, horrible road conditions, and the monotony of the ride, eat, sleep routine. You’d think we would have known better in our 30s, but we just wanted it too much. We were like the geeky kid in the movies who spends his teenage years pining over the hot cheerleader – he grows up, becomes rich and successful, and finally gets the girl, only to discover she’s a vapid bitch. The signs were there all along, but he was too deep into the fantasy to see it.
I wish our experience in northern Vietnam had been different, but it wasn’t, and no amount of wishful thinking or revisionist history will change that. To be honest, I think we’re still trying to get over the disappointment of reality not living up to our expectations. That is a hard lesson to learn, and one that cost us a good deal of money and time.
So was it worth it, and would we do it all over again? Right now, the answer is decidedly undecided. Despite the rough times, we had the opportunity to see some incredible places, meet amazing people, and experience things we probably never will again. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves and the world. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve answered the “what if” question. 20 years down the road, we may both be back behind a desk, this time with 2.5 kids at home and a mortgage to pay, but we won’t be wondering how our lives might have turned out differently if we had answered the call of adventure.
Having the answer to that is certainly worth something, and it HAD to be answered. Worth draining four years of savings. though? We’re not done traveling quite yet, so only time will tell.