Sunday, 13 December 2015

Making Personal History in Hanoi

I don't think its any secret that I have been enjoying some motorbike time since I arrived in SE Asia. After my first 5 minute ride on the back of a mototaxi, I was hooked. From that point on I would take any chance I could get to hitch a ride with whoever was heading the same direction I  was. I was also inspired by how many girls I met who had decided to bike across Vietnam by themselves, with no previous experience! This enthusiasm was tempered by the amount of motorbike injuries I saw, and by the utter craziness of Vietnamese traffic. My fears and somewhat cautious nature have held me back from renting my own bike...until last week.

When I arrived in Hanoi, cold and shivering, I booked myself into Flipside Hostel, a brand new Kiwi/Vietnamse-run establishment in the Old Quarter. The reviews on Tripadvisor had been good, and I was banking on the promise that the owners were allegedly super helpful in figuring out non-touristy ways to see the north. I had 2 items left on my Vietnam list, and 10 days to accomplish them: Sapa, and Halong Bay. Both were apparently beautiful, but absolutely overrun with tourists, ruining the whole experience.

As soon as I walked into the hostel, my eyes landed on the oversize posterboard advertising a 4N/3D motorbike tour through Ha Giang, the Northern province next to Sapa. I felt a sudden surge of adrenaline...this was it! After a long conversation with the hostel owner, Linh, I was convinced this was my opportunity to see the beautiful, remote North, and to try my hand at driving the bike. One quick credit card transaction later, and I was committed (and I was also signed up for a relaxing cruise through Halong Bay to commence directly after the motobike tour!).

Before long I was tucked into a berth on a night bus to Ha Giang, to awaken early the next morning and begin the adventure! I was in a group of 12: 2 x 22-yr-old Kiwi guides, 8 guys of varying nationalities, ages, and motorbike experience, my new Scottish friend H (I met her at Flipside Hostel), and I. The testosterone factor was mugh higher than I had anticipated, so I was grateful for H's presence. The senior tour guide seemed intent on convincing the two of us girls (but not the guys) not to drive our own bikes, using several tactics...fear (its dangerous, there's no medical facilities nearby), guilt (you will probably be really slow, and hold everyone back), and doubt (once you get out there, you can't turn back). H wasn't set on driving anyway, so she was happy to ride on the back of a bike, but the sexist intimdation tactics got my back up, and I put on a very convincing show that I no doubts whatsoever about hopping on a bike and driving off into the unknown for 3 days! Fake it 'til you make it, right?
trying to pass some trucks...I am in the grey sweater!
There was almost nothing in the way of driving lessons. Our guide told us how to turn on the semi-auto bikes, how to switch gears, and then told us to drive down the road and come back again. We were parked on the main street of the town, and we would have to make a left turn almost immediately, with oncoming traffic...Vietnamese style.
lots of rain and mist on the 2nd day!

I will admit, there were doubts in my mind.
Until I accelerated.
I made a smooth left turn, and cruised down the circuit.
It felt good.

My guide still didn't sound very happy that I wanted to drive, but we compromised by getting me an automatic bike, so I would't have to worry about gear changes...and I'll concede that this was probably a wise choice.
On the order of China

However, I am pleased to report that despite one incident (now I have my own war wound!), my motorbike tour was a huge success, I was able to keep up to the leading group for the most part, and I was not the weakest link. It was a huge thrill, I had an incredible amount of fun, and accomplished something I wasn't entirely sure was possible for me! I also confirmed my love of motorbiking.
Lots of this plant growing on the side of the road to fend off those aches and pains...

Cruising down those narrow, muddy, winding roads, navigating traffic, and dodging obstacles was a challenge that required the utmost concentratiion and may sound ridiculous, but for me it was almost meditative. There was literally nothing else going on in my head but facing what was in front of me and controlling the bike. I was surprised to find that it wasn't stressful at all...instead there was just peaceful clarity. Whether it was ripping down a straight paved stretch, or bouncing across a slippery mud-puddle-strewn construction zone, I absolutely loved it!

I am so glad that I took the risk and tried something new! I saw some amazing scenery, got off the beaten tourist track, challenged myself, and found something new that I love to do. I don't know when or where I will have the opportunity to drive again, but I feel like my trip through Ha Giang will not be the last time!


Julie Fair said...

The pics are amazing! What an awesome way to tour around. Good for you for showing those guides what you're made of 😉.

But now I'm ever so curious.... What is your war wound?!

Jill said...

Haha! Maybe I'll PM you some pics Ju...I didn't think the grisly deets were blog appropriate!