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Lost In Vietnam

Nicholas Bergamini

I lie on the operating table in a tiny, rural Vietnamese hospital. The room is dimly lit, with dark red splotches covering the wall on my left. The young nurse diligently stitches the three-inch gash on my right arm, though the tools she uses don’t look sterilised. She speaks no English – matching my proficiency in Vietnamese.

My motorcycle is totalled after a high-speed collision with a stray dog fulfilling an apparent death wish. I have less than $20 on me and my phone is about to die. The backpack containing all my earthly possessions was left unattended at the crash site as an onlooker rushed me to the hospital on his scooter.

I want to feel sorry for myself but my mind keeps returning to one thing. What happened to that damn dog?


Travel junkies often speak of their latest trip as if it’s a romantic relationship. It’s been six months now. (smiles) It’s going well, some rough patches in the beginning, but… getting more adventurous by the day. For some, travel has replaced the need for romantic relationships. Each country is an intensive blind date. And everyone remembers their first love.

Vietnam. I first arrived in Saigon three years ago as a rookie traveller and fell for the country immediately. The food, the people – and most of all, the chaos. Equal parts exhilarated and intimidated, as a travel rookie, the power dynamic in this budding romance was not tilted in my direction.

I vowed then to return one day and ride a motorbike across the country – a rite of passage for the most audacious travellers on the Southeast Asia backpacking trail.

My hand clumsily gropes the handlebars of the $250 motorcycle I’d just bought. Squeeze left hand on clutch, tap foot down. First gear. It’s my first time riding a gear bike and I’m in the last place you’d want to learn. Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, is home to four million scooters each following the whims of their individual owners in the absence of any apparent traffic code.

Squeeze, left foot up. Second gear. I turn out of the parking lot and am instantly enveloped in the madness of Hanoi’s streets. From above, the scooters look like a school of fish, crisscrossing each other and changing direction at random, adding credence to the expression ‘sink or swim’.

Honk horn, squeeze, left foot up. Third gear. Breathe. In Vietnam, the scooter is the all-in-one SUV, pickup, minivan and souped-up race car of choice. Families of five with a mother juggling two small children, full-grown pigs on their way to be slaughtered, toilets stacked four high – the limit to what can fit on a small bike is constantly being pushed.

Check mirror, squeeze, left foot up. Fourth gear. You’ve got this. I merge on the highway and realise that my dream trip, three years in the making, is happening. But the stats on traffic deaths in Vietnam linger in the back of my mind. A driver dies every hour on average, with drink-driving not just endemic but socially acceptable. Rub sweat from my face. Accelerate. Don’t become a statistic.

My hand clumsily gropes the handlebars of the $250 motorcycle I’d just bought. Squeeze left hand on clutch, tap foot down. First gear.

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Looking at a map, Vietnam resembles a soup ladle pointed upwards. Most backpackers drive the roughly 2,000km along the handle – north to south from Hanoi to Saigon or vice versa. Joined by my Norwegian-Vietnamese friend Mike, we would head in the opposite direction (the soup’s spoon) on a two-week tour of the remote, mountainous north. Upon reaching the country’s northern border with China, I’d head south to Saigon solo, taking quiet country and coastal roads the entire way. With lots of room for improvisation, the trip will last 35 days and span some 3,500km.

Finding a ride is relatively easy. Virtually all backpackers opt for a 110cc Honda Win. Though the Chinese-made knockoff is neither a Honda nor a win – at least as far as reliability is concerned – they are easy to drive and repair when (note emphasis) they break down.

A formation of birds flying high above the valley floor pulled up on my left. They flew alongside me, perfectly matching my speed and altitude, their elegant white bodies gliding effortlessly. And just as quickly they were gone. Overcome with emotion, the tough biker persona I’d been carefully crafting evaporated. This was as close to flying as you could get.

The seeds of this trip were first planted by a Montrealer I met during my first foray into the country. He told me about riding his motorcycle through Ha Giang, Vietnam’s northernmost province, which straddles the border with China. The region is home to a surreal landscape of conical mountains and breathtaking, winding, high-altitude roads. Requiring a special permit to access, the seldom-visited province has gained almost mythical status as the final frontier for adventure travel in otherwise well-trodden Southeast Asia.

After seven days of riding, permits in hand, Mike and I crossed the border into Ha Giang, passing a sign that read ‘Entering Frontier Area’. With the sun setting on our backs, we cruised down an empty road chiselled out of the rock face. Some 500m below, a river zigzagged through the narrow valley, straddled by 2,000m peaks on both sides.

A formation of birds flying high above the valley floor pulled up on my left. They flew alongside me, perfectly matching my speed and altitude, their elegant white bodies gliding effortlessly. And just as quickly they were gone. Overcome with emotion, the tough biker persona I’d been carefully crafting evaporated. This was as close to flying as you could get.

The locals – unaccustomed to western tourists – were just as interested in us as we were in them. Though virtually none spoke English, my travelling companion was fluent in their language, affording us personal encounters few could ever experience.

As we passed through villages at the end of school for the day, children would flock to the streets, shouting hello, the bravest darting forward for a drive-by high-five. Groups of men found a universal way to communicate – alcohol – plying us with 10-cent beer and even cheaper ‘local whiskey’, a home-made moonshine distilled from rice or tree bark.

When our bikes broke down seemingly in concert (which happened daily), we were invited to take refuge in the nearby home of Kim, a member of the Hmong ethnic minority that reside in the mountainous regions of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and China.
As we sipped brown moonshine from a four-litre jar so dusty it could have been a remnant from French colonial rule, he vowed that his ‘medical wine’ would cure back pain.

Was it medicinal properties, or drinking yourself to oblivion that relieved pain, I asked our host? ‘Does it matter?’ With each drink, the prospect of driving any further quickly vanishing, we found his argument ever more persuasive.

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As Mike and I parted ways and I headed south to Saigon alone, the reality of riding a $250 motorcycle finally caught up with me. Breaking down in the middle of nowhere is very different when you aren’t with a friend who can drive off to find help and speaks the local language.

Once, I got lucky and was able to roll down a hill in neutral to the next town as night quickly approached. Other times, I had to push the bike in the blazing sun until I found a mechanic.

And the constant near-collisions were exhausting, whether it was an oncoming truck veering into your lane on a blind corner, a drunk, unpredictable driver, or livestock looking to skip their date with the slaughterhouse and get it over with. Gripping the handlebars just a little tighter, I resolved to make it back safely.

On day 28, I got my first glimpse of Vietnam’s beautiful coastal roads that I would follow until Saigon, another three days’ ride south. It was with the sun setting directly ahead and the ocean to my left that the dog darted in front of me. Before I could react, my front tyre made direct contact. I hit the pavement hard, rolled once and skidded for what seemed like an eternity. I sat up in shock and was quickly surrounded by people. My elbow was completely split open, the white of my bone visible.

Fragments of glass from the headlights scattered the ground in front of the wheel of the bike that was bent horribly out of shape. I braced myself as I looked for the body of the dog I was sure I had killed, but it was nowhere to be seen.

***

I was lucky to crash around other people. A woman stood watch over my bag, and the man who drove me to the hospital stayed with me and drove me back. After he bent the wheel back in place, I drove in the pitch dark with no headlights for 20km until I found a hotel. Sitting in my room, feeling more alone than I ever had after six months of going solo, I vowed to never again break a cardinal rule of motorcycle travel: don’t ride alone.

The next day I made a feeble attempt to continue but my arm began to swell the wound’s infection. I started coming to terms with the possibility that I might not make it to Saigon for my flight, which was just a week away. After four days of rest and no closer to being ready to drive I accepted what felt like defeat. Reluctantly, I booked a night bus to Saigon with an extra ticket for my bike to sit in the luggage compartment.

***

4.00am and an hour outside of Saigon, I lay awake on the bus, my arm throbbing with each bump. This is not how I will end my trip. I approach the bus driver and ask him to pull over. We get out and pull my bike out of storage. I’m just 40km from my hotel. You’ve got this.

Like the Jamaican bobsled team walking their sled over the finish line in Cool Runnings, I limp into Saigon as the sun emerges. I am returning to the city that spawned my love of travel three years earlier.

Squeeze left hand, tap foot down. First gear. Street food vendors prepare their stalls for a day’s work, as drunken travellers stagger home to end theirs. Squeeze, left foot up. Second gear. I breeze through towards the city centre, the streets that three years ago had intimidated me now welcoming me as an equal. Squeeze clutch, left foot up. Third gear. My battered bike rides perfectly, the roads as smooth as any in the country. Squeeze, left foot up. Fourth gear. For the first time since the accident, riding doesn’t hurt. And after some of the toughest few days of my life, I remember why I fell in love with this country in the first place. Pull back on the throttle. Accelerate. One last time.


About that dog. When I returned to the crash site after my visit to the hospital, I was surrounded by a group of locals eager to help. As I surveyed the condition of my bike, I saw the greyish mutt I had hit. I stared at it, overcome by relief – and disbelief – that it was alive. It stared right back, safely on the other side of the road.

Nicholas Bergamini is a Canadian public relations professional on a one year travel sabbatical in Asia. He’ll travel just about anywhere, so long as it’s not on a tourist bus.
Instagram: @nickbergamini
LinkedIn: /nicholasbergamini
Twitter: @nickbergamini
Email: bergamini.nick (at) gmail.com

Photography by Michel Vo
Instagram: @michelvo

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