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How NOT to drive a motorbike through Vietnam

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I love driving motorbikes.. And I love a challenge..

So when my friend came back from Vietnam last year and told me that you can buy a motorbike and drive it through Vietnam, I was immediately sold. I REALLY wanted to do that! There was absolutely no doubt in my mind.

There are several ways you can buy a bike, and different types of bike you can get. I wanted a manual bike, because to me, that’s the only real bike. In Vietnam, that automatically leads you to a Honda Win. And you can buy them either from other travelers, or from local people.

I spoke to several people in Ho Chi Minh City about buying a bike, among which an Australian dude who had been driving bike for 20+ years. He said he had just helped a girl buy a bike and he was very happy about the local guy who sold the bike. He said the guy was trustworthy and the bikes were of good quality. He gave me the business-card of this local guy so I could check it out.

Now, honestly, that sounds like a great reference, right?

I was really confident that I would get a decent bike! (That confidence lasted for about 2 days.. but more about that later)

So I went to the guy, and test-drove 4 of his bikes.. Did you know that in Asia, the gears shift in a different way?? Neither did I !!! I honestly couldn’t even get the first bike into the second gear when driving it.. Can you imagine what the locals would have thought: “There goes another silly white girl on a motorbike and she doesn’t even know how to shift gear, let alone drive it“.. It was probably hilarious for them to watch!

The 4th bike felt the most comfortable to me, so I set my mind on getting it. When I got back to the ‘shop’ (lets call it a roadside sales booth) we checked the bike, looking for anything out of the ordinary. We agreed on a price and he would give the bike a last run-over: new oil, gasoline, fix the lights etcetera. I was still very happy! It didn’t last long!

Later that day I set off for the Mekong Delta. It was already afternoon, and the destination I had in mind was too far away (the bike was a lot slower than I’m used to) so I stopped somewhere else for the night. So far, so good.

Next morning, I wanted to get going: the bike wouldn’t start. The hotel owner managed to start it for me, and I got on my way. When I got to lunch, it started raining. I left the bike outside and went in. When I came back out, the bike wouldn’t start again. The restaurant owner managed to start it for me. I drove on. I came to a ferry terminal. The bike stopped working, and I couldn’t start it. The ferry manager managed to start it for me.. Really, in less than 3 hours I had to have 3 different people start the bike for me, because it kept dying on me and wouldn’t listen to me. I was getting nervous.

Then, at some point after the ferry, I drove onto a 3-lane roundabout. The engine of the bike stopped working..
IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROUNDABOUT!!
With hundreds of other motorbikes rushing past me in all directions!

And of course, it wouldn’t start AGAIN! I had to walk the bike to the sidewalk, while trying not to be hit by the crazy traffic that is Vietnam. It took me almost 10 minutes before I finally got it going again.. And wait for it: next roundabout, it happened again!! For Fuck Sake!

I don’t know very much about motorbikes, but generally I know enough to get me on the road again. I honestly got very demotivated by the behavior of my bike. It was just completely screwing me over! That was not the deal! Did I mention it was still raining at that point? That didn’t improve my mood either..

A little while later, a guy drove passed me and pointed to something on my bike. This is a general indication that something is wrong. I sighed (again), looked down and saw to my horror that my rain poncho had caught between my gears and was now stuck in my chain…

What the fuck????

I pulled in at a gas station, and together with an employee we managed to remove the poncho. My day really wasn’t going great. You would think that it couldn’t get any worse, right?

Well.. guess again!

I got to the village I wanted to go to. It was crazy busy, and there had been a flooding in the streets. There was an area in the streets where the water was about 35 centimeters high, and there was no way around it, you had to go through it. And of course, just before I tried to pass this pool of water, with dozens of other drivers surrounding me: my engine stopped again.. For Fuck Sake!!

A local guy stopped next to me and offered to get the bike going again. It took him a full 10 minutes to get the bike going, and I was completely out of my mind by then! This was supposed to be fun, and it really wasn’t!!

Thankfully the hostel was close by, so this was the last error of the day. I parked, gave the keys to the hostel staff to park it, and ignored the bike for the next 2 days. I really didn’t wanna deal with that shit!

2 days later the weather was nice. I got the bike and started it up. It worked like a charm, nothing wrong with it! I talked to a local guy, and he told me that sometimes, the Honda Win isn’t really waterproof. Maybe the rain of the first day had caused some problem that was now dried up. Sounds like a legit explanation, right?? Let’s hope so!

So that day, my bike didn’t have any problems.

I was getting happy again. I was loving the trip, loving the scenery, the drive, the freedom: all the positive things about driving a motorbike. This was awesome! I’m glad that this feeling at least lasted for 1 day 🙂

The next day started positive as well. I did my thing, the bike did fine and I managed to actually shake some time off my schedule in the process. UNTIL…. I was driving down the highway, and the engine just stopped. Really stopped. The other times, it had responded but just not started up.. This time, there was literally no response.. ZERO!!

Thankfully, it died right in front of a restaurant. So I rolled up the curb to the restaurant, looked at the people there with a sad and helpless face, and within no-time there were 3 guys working on my bike to fix the problem. What happened?

Well, apparently a bolt came loose and fell off, dislodging my entire engine. Small thing, right? So the guys got some iron thread and fixed it back up again. I got back on the bike and managed to get to my destination (Mui Ne) in one go. It was not great, but could have been a lot worse that day, right? Lets stay positive!

Because Honda Win (I found out that day that I didn’t actually have a Honda Win, but a Chinese fake version called Sirena) has a small engine that takes a lot of work, it needs to have regular oil changes. When I got to Mui Ne, I wanted to stay there for a few days, so I figured that I might as well have my motorbike serviced. It needed an oil change, I wanted the iron thread replaced by an actual bolt, and my exhaust had started becoming very noisy. I started my bike to drive to the mechanic, and the exhaust started emitting white smoke..

Hmmmm, is that good??

I drove to the mechanic and told him what to look at.. He had a look, tried to start the bike, and told me I needed to replace my battery, and that the exhaust was actually broken off its hinges and needed to be replaced as well.. Hmmmm, me not happy.. but fine, lets do it.

Later that night I went back to pick up my bike.. The mechanic had bad news: he had done all the replacements, but he found out that I also needed a new engine!! (A whole fucking new engine!! My frustration started growing again!) The white smoke that was coming out of the engine apparently indicated that the engine was failing, and it wouldn’t last me very long.. The mechanic said I could risk it, but then I wouldn’t be sure where I might get stranded.. Fair point well made, but I really was fed up with all of it.

For a moment I considered giving up on the bike. I asked the mechanic how much he would pay for it, but he didn’t even want to buy it from me.. That was a bad sign. I thought about it some more but figured I was already committed and I might as well keep going: with a new battery, new exhaust and new engine, I would have pretty much a whole new bike, so I should be pretty solid.. And the new engine wasn’t very expensive either (about $ 40,-)

I agreed to have the bike fixed (again) and to come pick it up the next morning. Another positive day of lovely driving and amazing scenery awaited me, I thought. Right….

That was probably naive…

I drove, through gorgeous mountains and lovely little villages.. and heard something rattle on my bike.. I couldn’t place it, but it scared the shit out of me: what is failing this time, and how vital is it to the welfare of my bike (and me?)
After a while I noticed it coming from my rear wheel, and when I looked I saw that a bolt had come off my chain cover, which was now rattling against the chain every time I hit a bump (and there are many bumps in Vietnam!)

I stopped at a little roadside stall, the guys there had a spare bolt and they fixed it for me. Or so I thought. I continued on my way.. I drove up a massive mountain, absolutely beautiful with amazing views: you could see everywhere!! My bike had a difficult time, but it slowly progressed up the mountain.. I was almost at the top of the mountain.

But then…..

Then, a guy on a motorbike passed me, and pointed towards the bike..

REALLY?? SERIOUSLY?? ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME???

Again, I stopped and looked at my bike.. Looked at the back, the front, the wheels, the engine, everything, but I just couldn’t find anything wrong with it. It all seemed fine to me.. I continued on my way, not knowing what the guy had been pointing at, but sure that he had seen something wrong (again). It’s absolutely not a comforting thought that you know something is wrong, but you don’t know what and you really don’t have a choice but to keep going.. It takes all the fun out of riding a bike!

While I drove on, and listened to my bike, I got more and more frustrated: this was not fun at all! This was not riding a bike and loving it.. This was not enjoying your surroundings and your freedom.. This was absolute stress and anxiety and frustration, and no way I wanted to continue feeling this way. I made up my mind: if anything else happens, I’m done! I’ll get rid of the bike and just call it a day.

Guess what? Before I even got to the hostel that day, the bolt that had been replaced earlier, came off again. Pffff…

But I could have lived with that…

When I pulled up at the hostel, I got off the bike and tried to take my bags off the bike. The whole luggage rack fell off! The welts holding it together had all broken, and only one elastic band had prevented my backpack from falling to a horrible death down a mountain!! That was what the dude was pointing at earlier!!! SERIOUSLY?? I could have lost all my freaking luggage (or pretty much everything I currently own!) down a mountain.. SERIOUSLY!!!!!

I was so totally done, you can not imagine! I couldn’t bring myself to have it fixed and to have to get back on a bike I absolutely did not trust. I wanted to get back to the comforts of a bus.. The smoothness of a train.. anything better than this.

I also didn’t want to pass my problem on to another traveler. I asked the hostel for a local buyer, they called up a guy who offered me an absolutely horrible, abysmally low amount of money, and I just took the offer. I didn’t care anymore. I’d rather sit on a bus stress-free, than have to worry every second of the day while driving myself around. Forget about it. No more buying fake Asian motorbikes for me!

Oh yeah, and somewhere along the line I also managed to burn my leg because my flipflop slipped in the mud and I landed on my exhaust.. Why not, right? It was already such a lovely experience anyway! And for your information: In the end I managed to only make it up 1/4 of the entire route I wanted to drive.. Whahahaha..

Anyway, in case you’re wondering: I’m still loving it, still having fun and mostly even enjoyed myself on my motorbike (which I hadn’t given a name, which might be a part of the problem: we didn’t bond enough)

I just prefer a stress-free environment while traveling 🙂

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