by Sasha Hill
When I think of Vietnam, I think of the motorcycles.
My travel partner, Sierra, and I marveled at the sea of them, flowing in a colorful mass around the city streets. We zeroed in on individuals: tiny young women in heels, families with three generations along for the ride. What for us was a cultural statement of rebellion, of reckless daring, was for them just a means of transportation. My grandpa had once punctuated his description of my mother’s “wild” young adulthood by recounting a story of how she once rode a motorcycle up the East Coast with a friend. “I bet she never told you that”, he concluded, in dramatic satisfaction. If he could only see the middle aged Vietnamese ladies, demure in their business suits and protective masks.
Vietnam was the final stop before we crossed the Pacific to home, after eleven months on the road, from Peru to Asia. We’d brainstormed the trip when we were fourteen, and spent four years planning and saving up.
It was Sierra’s idea to rent the motorcycle. The trip itself was her idea. My role was usually to follow along, checking her only when the ideas got out of hand. Like when she proposed we schlep down from Granada, Spain to Meknes, Morocco a day early on no sleep to make it in time for a Halloween party. Sometimes I regretted my all too responsible reactions. Rent a motorcycle? We had no experience! What if we crashed? And right at the end of our trip.
But I found myself saying yes.
One of the employees of the motorcycle rental place brought out a large, shining bike. Just one. “It’s fine”, I hissed to Sierra, though we’d agreed one for each of us would cause less strife. I was getting cold feet, and felt perhaps it’d be better to trust in her driving confidence than my own lack of same. Sierra caressed the handlebars, patted the long cushy seat. “So how do you start it?” she inquired.
After a few such questions, the woman who was helping us caught on. “You have ridden a motorcycle before?” she asked, knowing the answer already. We smiled sweetly and shook our heads. I wondered if she or one of her male co-workers would stop us, but they just exchanged long looks and shrugged. “Riding motorcycle is easy”, the woman reassured me, “not like car”.
Sierra took a few loops up and down the street. She pulled back up and patted the seat behind her. “Hop on”.
We whizzed past rice fields and rivers, weaved around other drivers. Instead of tugging on Sierra’s shirt and begging her to slow down, I mentally urged her on. She seemed to hear my unspoken plea. We went faster, and faster. The wind stung my face as we passed yet another speeding local.
We arrived at the beach. In Thailand and Laos, we Westerners were called Falang, in Cambodia Barang. We hadn’t figured out the Vietnamese equivalent of that useful word, but whatever it was, we were the only ones there. A man asked for 5000 dong to park our motorcycle alongside the others. On a wood slated platform, we unwrapped the mystery sandwiches we had bought on the way and tropical fruit. Sierra swam and, as I spooned up dragon fruit and cracked open lychee, I amassed a group of spectators: child vendors with their baskets of chips or sodas. I made them laugh by pointing to them and to the ocean, miming swimming, but they’d quickly recover their serious, unforgiving salesman faces and push their wares at me. When I took my turn swimming, they slowly dispersed.
The bright afternoon light began to fade. We hopped a bit unsteadily back on to our motorcycle. This ride was quieter.
Back in front of the shop, I murmured that perhaps I’d like to try driving the motorcycle. Just to say I’d done it. The shopkeepers didn’t hear me. “Wait”, said Sierra.
The woman walked the motorcycle back down to the street. I climbed on. I turned on the ignition and it began to rumble beneath me. I let go of the brakes and it started to roll. On the busy streets of Hoi An, bicycles and buses and other motorcycles hurtled towards me. I was pointed in the wrong direction. Sensing a quick gap, I managed a U-turn.
But of course, I was again on the wrong side of the road, just headed the other way. Feeling sheepish, I glided a bit more and then navigated back to the shop. I read amusement in Sierra’s face, bemusement in the motorcycle lady’s.
You have to start somewhere.
Sasha Hill, 19, is still in re-entry from her first (and hopefully not last) round the world trip. She will attend Barnard College in New York in the fall. Her blog www.offthebeatenboulevard.com, co-written with travel partner Sierra Clark, chronicles the ups and downs of their adventure.