9. Learning How to Ride a Motorbike
- Transportation: Honda Win
- Location: Vietnam
- Date: October 2013
- Injury: Minor scrapes
- Damage: Bent front forks
- Cost: VND 200,000 (£6)
- Fault: Roadside mud, James Harper
In October last year, Rupert and I embarked on a 2-month trip stopping briefly in Germany for Stuttgart and Munich’s beer festivals before travelling through South-East Asia. Having spent a week in Cambodia we arrived in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) and began planning for our most ambitious adventure. Inspired by Top Gear’s Vietnam special, we planned to purchase motorbikes and drive the length of the country’s coast – a distance of over 1,000 miles – with a timeframe of just over two weeks.
Our first challenge was to find suitable bikes: a task we found more difficult than expected. Assuming that this was a popular route for tourists that either started or finished in Saigon, we struggled to find postings for people selling their bikes as it was a little outside of the busier tourist months. Rupert had never driven a car, so was happy to find a zippy automatic scooter for around 7 million Vietnamese Dong (US$350/£220). I was running out of available options and was weighing up the alternative of renting from a company with offices in both Saigon and Hanoi.
Then we met James – another English traveller that planned on completing the journey through Vietnam and beyond. He had just purchased a motorbike from this company and advised against buying their second bike for sale. Instead, he recommended another bike for rent as he had received good reviews from the tourists that had just sold them, having completed the opposite journey from Hanoi. He seemed to have a strong background in motorbikes so I accepted his recommendation and we decided to at least begin our northward journey together.
Before we could leave the busy city of Saigon, I first needed a quick tutorial in riding a manual motorbike. In a small concrete part of a city park, James helped me make my first baby steps on Daisy, my new spotted motorbike. My progress included starting the bike, changing gears, turning (gradually) and maintaining verticality of this heavy piece of machinery. After a celebratory final night together in Saigon, we still deemed it wise to pay a local taxi driver to drive me out of the crazy city streets the next day. So after a morning tour of Saigon, various delays and last-minute purchases of ponchos (the heavens had opened dramatically) we eventually made our way to the edge of Saigon.
It was a nervy start but I quickly gained confidence and soon we were speeding along the highways leading North from Saigon. On that first day I even overcame the challenges of driving through torrential rain, passing through flooded streets (we had to lift our legs above the water level) and completing our day`s journey in the dark. Our bikes spent the night in our hotel rooms so we could develop our friendships and we set off the next morning in high spirits with the sun beaming on our backs.
As we travelled, James communicated that he needed petrol but we managed to miss our opportunity. So we pulled over to the right side of the road before Rupert and James confidently performed their U-turns. I waited for a longer gap in traffic and cautiously steered Daisy across the road to point in the opposite direction. As I completed my manoeuvre, I rode through a patch of wet mud and lost control of my bike. At first Daisy reared upwards as I lost grip and fell off the back, then she bucked downwards to land heavily on the front wheel.
I pulled myself up from the mud with nothing to report aside from a couple of scrapes, but one of Daisy`s front forks was visibly bent. A local mechanic emerged from his workshop nearby and motioned us in to assess the damage. James used his bike knowledge to communicate the problem and the mechanic set to work in removing the front wheel and sent the fork off to be straightened. After servicing our bikes, we sat down for some breakfast while we waited for my repairs.
We did not have to wait too long and before we knew it, the front fork was re-fitted and Daisy`s front wheel was re-attached. I handed over a mere 200,000 Dong (£6!) for the repair and we continued our journey. Days later my bike suffered more problems on a remote pass and we required the assistance of a passer-by. He was very eager to provide a quick-fix and demanded higher than this amount. I settled on the standard 200,000 Dong fee but the problem recurred and this emphasises the incredible value and integrity of the first mechanic.
10. Thai Tattoo: The Twisting Road to Pai
- Transportation: Scooter
- Location: Pai – Chiang Mai, Thailand
- Date: November 2013
- Injury: Major scrapes & cuts
- Damage: Scrapes to left side
- Cost: THB 3,500 (£70)
- Fault: Thailand Ministry of Transport, Zeus – God of Rain
As my 2 month adventure in South-East Asia drew to a close, I decided to squeeze in an overnight trip to Pai. What better way to enjoy the scenic mountain route than by taking on the 762 twisting turns by scooter? I departed from Chiang Mai in the afternoon after another night of fun festivities and the beautiful journey to Pai was somewhat numbed by my hungover state.
The next day, however, I was refreshed and exhilarated by the sweeping corners after visiting some beautiful sites around the small town of Pai that morning. Travelling uphill for the first half of the return leg, I confidently injected speed into the straights and allowed the incline to help reduce my speed quickly as I approached each corner. I did not drive arrogantly or dangerously but exercised caution while using my experience of over two weeks riding Daisy (a much heavier, manual motorbike) across Vietnam, as well as the two days exploring the southern Thai island of Koh Lanta on a similar scooter.
Rain began to fall as I neared the highest point along the mountain pass, so I adjusted my cornering speed appropriately. I reduced my speed and steered the scooter around one 180° left-turn where the camber of the road sloped downwards across the chicane of this corner. Having completed the sharp turn, I steadily accelerated out of the corner but felt the back of the bike wiggle out of control. Releasing both brakes and throttle, I attempted to re-gain control of the scooter but the back kicked out and sent me skidding on my left side behind my scooter.
Fortunately there was no traffic in either direction, so I quickly picked myself up and collected the debris of one discarded flip-flop and my broken watch from the road. I picked up the scooter and wheeled it to the side of the road before hurrying to a nearby marquis to shelter from the rain and tend to my wounds. I was again lucky to find a stall where I could purchase toilet paper to mop the blood that covered my exposed left leg and arm – admittedly riding in a vest, shorts and flip-flops did not offer me much protection. At the sight of so much blood, the shock caught up with me and I stumbled to the ground as the world around me continued spinning.
At this point one kind Thai man retrieved some sort of rubbing alcohol from his vehicle and took over with cleaning my wounds. I sat down as I was treated and eventually recovered from the shock and dizziness. I offered the man some money for his assistance but he would not accept my offering, so I repeated my gratitude and bid him farewell. I briefly assessed the damage to the bike and it seemed only to have scrapes to the same side that it was previously damaged.
Since my flight departed for Bangkok that evening, I had no option but to continue back to Chiang Mai, with half of the 3-hour journey remaining. I was already less confident travelling downhill, particularly braking and cornering in the rain, but now I nervously progressed along the winding mountain road. I would momentarily develop the confidence to accelerate to my normal speed then lose all courage as I remembered my fall and would drop back down to snail’s pace.
Once I had completed the mountain pass and continued along the straighter, flatter roads taking me towards Chiang Mai, I took a much-needed break for lunch. Here, I mopped more blood from my left side and sheltered from the continuing rain. Zeus, God of Rain, eventually showed me mercy and allowed me to complete my anxious journey in the dry.
Before returning the rental bike, I stopped at the hostel to disguise myself with a jacket, long trousers and walking boots. I hoped to avoid paying any repair fees but it turned out that my earlier assumption was incorrect: the bike had previously been damaged on the right side. I waited as he identified seven new areas of damage to his mechanic and got quoted prices for repairs to each part. I assured him I had not crashed and he seemed convinced by my story that I had returned to my bike to find it lying knocked to the ground. I pretended not to worry about each quoted price as it was made, since I claimed I was going to claim for these costs through my travel insurance. The bill came to around 3,500 Thai Baht (GBP 70) and I handed over the cash, ruing yet another costly (unlucky) transport misdemeanour.
Back at the hostel, sympathetic backpackers offered medical supplies and one girl helped dress my wounds with iodine after I had cleaned them with potentially unclean Thai water. The stinging pain along with the yellow stains around my raw wounds served as a reminder to my naivety/misfortune for the remaining 24 hours of my time in South-East Asia. I left my wounds uncovered for my last day in Bangkok and flew back with Rupert to London, casting a bizarre appearance in snowy Munich with my summer attire and receiving strange looks from London commuters with my exposed wounds. I was treated again by my local doctor shortly after arriving home, who confirmed I had no serious injuries, and merely prescribed me with a cream to apply to the almost 3rd degree burns.
From these 10 overseas transport misdemeanours I have racked up around £ 1,500 worth of costs. It could be argued that many of these were avoidable and careless on my part, but there is no doubt that I have suffered some bad luck and should not be solely to blame for these outcomes! Nevertheless, with each stressful, painful, damaging and costly incident comes a valuable lesson to learn, a great story to tell, and an experience to add to life’s rich tapestry.