People had warned us that Vietnam had gone the way of Thailand: that is to say overrun with tourists, notably backpackers of the white and dreadlocked variety. This did not sound cool.
There is a huge tourist scene in Vietnam but avoiding that crowd is unbelievably easy. Don’t get on a tour bus. Yes, it’s that ridiculously simple. Just rent your own transport and suddenly you’re in the ‘real’ Vietnam with nary a dreadlock in sight.
According to the map there are highways in Vietnam. The map is wrong. There are one lane roads that run through small towns and over the Mekong canals. It’s the perfect scene for an epic scooter ride. Along the way you can hold snakes! Head to floating markets! Crash your bike! Get pulled over!
I did all of the above.
The Accidental Tour
I booked a one way ticket to MyTho from a local tour company. No one bothered to tell the driver that I wasn’t booked for the actual tour. Instead of being dropped off in MyTho at the beginning of the day, I was taken down the Mekong river in a boat, rode a horse and visited a bee farm. I also met Serge, a massive Russian man who proposed marriage. Together we held snakes, dined on freshly caught river fish and sang Vietnamese folk songs. I finally escaped the packaged tour madness but not before Serge bought me a coconut and took my photo several hundred times.
The ‘highway’ from MyTho to Vihn Long runs through dozens of idyllic, water-soaked villages. Cafes line the street and houses are built on fragile pieces of land surrounded by canals and rice fields. The scenery was gorgeous, but even more interesting to me was the insane amount of shit that village people manage to carry on the back of their scooters. SUV be damned, all you really need is 2 wheels and a 50cc motor. Perhaps, given the scenery and the crazy motorists, I can be forgiven for taking a ton of pictures. And if, when taking a picture, I accidentally drove my bike into the subject, I could also be forgiven?
After a day of scooting I hadn’t yet managed the gas and break basics. I drove my scooter into a coconut farmer and broke the front lights.
CanTho and the Floating Market
When you rent a bike in Vietnam you’re meant to have a Vietnamese drivers license. You also need insurance and proof that the bike is yours. Unfortunately I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t even have a valid US drivers license – it expired in January. In order to rent a scooter I had to hand over my passport and I wanted it back, so I decided to get the scooter repaired on my own. Mechanics in Asia operate pretty loosely, they’re usual just a doorway filled with spare parts and a man smoking a cig. I stopped by every ‘repair shop’ I could find, until someone could fix my bike. $15 bucks later it was good as new!
CanTho is most well known for it’s floating market. Keeping along the ‘I hate tour groups’ theme, I refused to take a tour boat to the market. Instead I booked the slowest, most labor intensive row boat, manned by a woman with no teeth. Most people head to the market and are back in 2 hours. It took us 3 and a half hours. Along the way we broke down four times.
It ended up being pretty cool since she let me row the boat.
Perhaps I got a little cocky with my bike. Sure I had crashed it once and fell over several times while attempting to make sharp turns, but I had learned how to drive in Vietnam – which is saying a lot. In Vietnam the highways are moderately paved roads full of potholes. In Vietnam you only pay attention to what’s going on in front of you because it’s perfectly acceptable for oncoming traffic to veer into your ‘lane’. These are some extreme driving conditions.
So with all that well earned confidence, I began to travel a little faster. And a little faster still. Until I was blaring my horn, letting everyone know that I was passing each and every car on the road. Silly girl.
I was totally caught by a gaggle of cops and their radar gun.
To reiterate: I had no license, no passport, no insurance, and no proof of ownership. I did what any sensible girl would do. I cried.
The cops didn’t speak English, and they certainly didn’t know what to do with me. On one hand they had complete authority to confiscate my bike and charge me a ton of money to get it back. On the other hand, they had to communicate that to me. It looked like just too much work and after some minor discussion they let me go. God bless the Vietnamese.
I think the trip was a success. I got to see the country without dealing with many tourists. I didn’t kill myself. I even managed to return the bike and retrieve my passport from the scooter lady.
And now I have something to remember my trip to Vietnam. My new Vietnamese friends tell me that with this exhaust pipe burn, I’m officially Vietnamese.