A traveler motorcycling across Vietnam finds solace in the hospitality of the locals he meets.
When I disappear into the evening Hanoi traffic on my Honda XR 150, I am not quite sure where or to whom I belong anymore.
Phương climbs onto the passenger seat, and we are off into the night. As I shift into fourth gear, we traverse through timelines in which man and machine are fated to collide, only to gracefully land in a safer reality seconds later. “Turn left,” she says, the direction of her finger indicating otherwise. She meant to steer us right and corrected herself lightheartedly. Her mental map of the city is otherwise unimpeachable, and I am lost without it.
We narrowly make it along her intended path as I tilt downward on the handlebar and shift my weight slightly left. A cascading sea of motorists chaotically pours into the roundabout up ahead, yet flows together symphonically, as if directed by an invisible conductor. This collective dance is the lifeblood of the city, and to challenge it without equal conviction is to court certain death. I’m certain of nothing except that the motorist in front of me has decided to merge.
With a leap of faith, I follow his lead. I am now part of the hive mind, my every decision simultaneously being guided by and factored into the storm. The city lights shimmer brilliantly across West Lake as we pass through the surrounding neighborhood. Hanoi has now bewitched me, and I welcome whatever it has in store.
Dropping down into second gear, we pull over for Vietnamese barbecue back in the Old Quarter. I fuss over where to park and free myself from the confines of my sweaty helmet before taking my seat on a low plastic stool next to Phương. Enticing aromas from nearby tabletop grills saturate the air as the evening breeze makes amends for the day’s sweltering heat.
As usual, I have no idea what I’m about to eat, but I trust that it’s going to be delicious. By now, Phương understands that there’s nothing I won’t try at least once, and she seems to enjoy selecting dishes as much as I love eating them. As she speaks with the waiter, I suspect they are plotting to finally push the madness of my palette beyond its limits.
We pick at the grill with our chopsticks, turning the sizzling meat over as it browns before delivering finished pieces to each other’s bowls. There are five different sauces to dip the meat in, but the egg sauce emerges as the clear winner. The food cooks fast, but the pace of life is blissfully slow.
I look around and feel remarkably lucky to be here. Two years ago, the onset of the pandemic forced us travelers to set our plans aside. In my case, I had grand designs for a motorbike trip. When Vietnam suddenly reopened for tourists, I didn’t hesitate. As a cancer survivor, I feel it’s my duty to live in the now as much as possible.
It was an hour past sundown when I arrived in Hà Giang the week before. I had completed the drive from Hanoi in one day despite a couple of false starts. If you had seen me kill the engine outside the hotel that morning as I wrestled with an eleven-year hiatus from motorcycling, you might take issue with the swashbuckling hero riding into town that I had pictured in my head. Your skepticism might only increase if you had seen me, puzzled by all the drivers frantically waving me down, exit Hanoi by way of a highway off-limits to motorcycles.
With the little bit of cognitive function I had left, I stumbled into a small restaurant that required that I lift no more than a finger to point at the dishes I desired. Ever restless, I moved further down the road in search of a celebratory beer before collapsing into a deep sleep back at my guest house. The real adventure was to begin tomorrow, but I had foolishly exhausted all my energy driving here instead of taking a bus.
None of that mattered the next morning as I downed two Vietnamese iced coffees, filled up my tank, and set off for the Hà Giang Loop. Once a well-kept secret, this winding, mountainous journey through the far reaches of northern Vietnam showcases some of the most breathtaking views the country has to offer. Those who seek extremes are rewarded with endless landscapes of towering limestone peaks and Vietnam’s iconic rice terraces–not to mention an onslaught of vertigo-inducing heights.
Travelers find themselves calculating how much time there is to stop and enjoy the scenery while still reaching the next town by sundown. Speeding trucks racing against the sun regularly whip around tight corners and come right into your lane as if possessed by apocalyptic visions. While such an encounter has about the same effect on your heart rate as those iced coffees, it is preferable to driving off a cliff in the dark of night.
The flat highway out of Hà Giang immediately gave way to a winding ascent up the first mountain pass. A wild sense of adventure began to take hold as I drove further into the enveloping fog. Out here I could be whoever and whatever I wanted to be.
Hanoi had been the perfect warm-up. Gratuitous coffee breaks. Bun cha and beer at noon. When offered roast duck and a side of raw blood by a total stranger, I happily consigned myself to a rice wine-infused day of tomfoolery that ended in us singing our hearts out at some karaoke place I can barely remember.
I met Phương in Hanoi as well. Having already been friends online, we made plans to meet in the lobby of her office building on the fourth day of my trip. I wondered if it was a little unrealistic to be stirring up the idea of romance on a vacation, but then again, it seemed like the best idea ever.
At half past six, I looked up and saw her making her way through the secure exit. Playing it cool, but not too cool, I confidently got up to greet her. As we walked down the steps outside, it felt a little surreal.
We dropped into a cocktail bar and got lost in conversation for an hour before going on the first of our many culinary adventures. I felt lucky that she proudly shared her culture with me. Before saying goodnight, she expressed a healthy skepticism toward my claim that I would make it to Hà Giang by sundown the next day.
My interactions with locals along the Hà Giang Loop were at times impersonal and transactional. Other times, I experienced spontaneous acts of kindness and was welcomed like family.
One time, I came upon a small village and purchased some instant noodles and beer. The gentlemen sitting at the table next to mine began inquiring where I was from and how I was doing, which I translated and responded to with an app. I went over to sit with them. They pointed to a building across the street where another group was eating and asked if I wanted to go with them. How could I say no?
Next, we were toasting one shot of rice wine after another. When I asked my friend what I was eating, I’m pretty sure he said “puppy.” At that moment, I had an impossible decision. Spit it out and offend my hosts, or possibly consume an animal I regard as a lovable pet.
I thanked the animal for its sacrifice and reluctantly digested it. I think at that point they could sense my discomfort, though I certainly wasn’t judging them. If nothing else, I walked away from the experience with an open mind and deep feelings of gratitude.
Whether it was the pharmacist patiently navigating the language barrier or the family who fed me in their restaurant when I was sick from dehydration, I felt people’s humanity everywhere I went. I sensed that they recognized mine, as well. To travel in this way requires a willingness to put your faith in others repeatedly. When I needed something, I just had to have the courage to ask.
But there were also times when solitude gave way to loneliness. After completing the northern half of the loop, I decided to continue east. This involved much longer stretches of uninhabited road. In my exhausted mental state, the mere sight of a dog sleeping on the road reminded me of home and brought tears to my eyes. I wondered who was looking out for this lovable creature.
Meanwhile, the humidity was becoming increasingly difficult. What would I do if my motorbike broke down in the mountains? I didn’t have a good answer. Yet, the natural beauty of this sunset jungle drive sustained me until I made it to Bao Lac.
It was time to take a day off.
The next morning, I went through my videos from the end of the loop. There was a lot of footage from one incident when Google Maps took me on the ride of a lifetime. I had typed in what I thought was the main viewpoint of the Tu San Canyon, arguably the Hà Giang Loop’s most spectacular view. Instead, I found myself driving up an off-road trail called the Sky Walk, which lacked a guard rail and spared only a few inches of clearance on either side. To my right protruded the jagged mountainside, and to my left awaited a quick death over the cliff’s edge.
After passing an abysmally slow-moving truck, I turned on my GoPro and began recording a wide-angle shot of the terror-inducing heights before me. One tourist making his way back warned me that this road wasn’t really meant for a motorcycle of my size.
I kept going anyway.
Suddenly, the path transformed into a small dirt trail up along a steep hill. My Jedi-like powers of meditation could no longer sustain my spirit. I began to panic when I realized I couldn’t safely turn the bike around. Thankfully, my inner voice of reason interjected. I just had to handle this situation one step at a time.
Slowly, I began a controlled descent in reverse, braking ever so carefully until I had enough surface area on which to turn around. When I made it back, I texted Phương. “Stick to the main roads your first time,” she advised with a smiley emoji. Having internalized her wise admonition, I got back on the highway.
I used to fear that this travel addiction would leave me feeling empty inside. Thankfully, travel has taught me to accept that I’ll never find what I’m looking for. By fully surrendering my search for meaning, I dare to receive something far greater: the peace of the present moment and the humanity of those who are part of it.
When I finally came upon the magnificent view of the turquoise colored Nho Quế River, not even the infinite grandeur of southeast Asia’s deepest canyon could contain my gratitude.
There is a peaceful stillness to the streets of Hanoi at 1am. Phương and I race down the road in tandem, this time on separate bikes. Unencumbered by motorists and pedestrians, our only concern is not getting pulled over by the cops whose mere presence reminds me that I’m dumb enough to be riding without my passport and license. No matter. We’ve got our helmets on, which mitigates most of the risk.
I roll the throttle and blast off into the tunnel up ahead just to show off, channeling my inner teenager rather shamelessly. It’s no longer just a lack of traffic that releases me. In this moment, all notions of constraint are obliterated entirely, and I exist in a void of boundless freedom.
I’m free to create, free to explore, free to be myself. Free to receive this gift.