No Prior Experience Neccesary
The alarm went off at 3:40 AM. Alex, AJ, and I got up out of our beds, packed our things silently in the quiet dark hostel room, and quickly walked downstairs and out the door to the alley where our bikes were parked. It was quiet outside, or at least as quiet as it possibly can be in Ho Chi Minh City, and in the silence we tied our backpacks to the luggage racks of our bikes with bungee chords, put on our helmets, and mentally prepared ourselves for what was about to come.
Our goal for the day was to make it from Ho Chi Minh City to Mui Ne, a beach town 220 Kilometers to the northeast. It would have been a fairly easy ride, except for the fact that out of the three of us, Alex was the only one with motorcycle experience. Toss in the notorious traffic of Ho Chi Minh and the no rules mindset of driving in Vietnam, and you have a dangerous mix. Recognizing this, we decided to wake up early to take traffic out of the equation, so by 4 o’clock, we were ready to start.
After getting our bags squared away, we all got on our bikes, and looked at each other. The look on my face must have silently said something like “why don’t we just go back to bed guys” or “help me”. But I’m 24 now, I’m a man! So with that in mind, I told myself it was now or never, as I backed out my bike, and pushed it up to the edge of the deserted street. Sizing up the empty street, i felt a surge of nervous excitement. After a moment, I took a deep breath, pulled in the clutch, switched to first gear and pulled out onto the mean streets of Saigon behind Alex (I also “killed” the bike three times trying to get going, but that’s not important). After a quick stop for gas, we continued on our way out of Ho Chi Minh.
How to Drive a Clutch Motorcycle:
For anyone who hasn’t riden a motorcycle before, and might be confused about how it works (like I was) let me break it down for you in layman’s terms. The Honda Wins we are currently riding have 4 gears and neutral. Like a manual car, you have to have the clutch engaged (pulling the left hand brake) to change gears (using your left foot), but if you don’t have the clutch engaged, you have to be pulling the throttle (right handle bar) to give the bike gas, or else it will “die”, meaning the bike will shut off and stop on the spot, and this is what creates the complication when riding a motorcycle for the first time, especially when trying to get going. So, when you are at a stop, you have to have the clutch pulled in since you are giving the bike no gas. But when the light turns green and you want to accelerate, if you completely let go of the clutch and pull on the throttle, the bike will most likely fly out from under you. So what you have to do, and this is the hard part for beginners like me, is slowly let off the clutch, very gradually, while also slowly pulling on the throttle to accelerate. Then when you want to switch from 1st to 2nd gear, you have to do the same thing. You really have to find the sweet spot where you can be pulling in the clutch slightly, and pulling on the throttle slightly so you can accelerate and change gears, while not killing the bike in the middle of traffic. So now that you are going, to move up a gear, you have to let off the throttle, pull in the clutch, and kick down on the back of the gear shifter pedal with your left foot. When you want to shift back down a gear, you do the same thing, except you push down on the front of the gear shifter pedal — imagine it like a seesaw. Still with me?
It all seems very complicated, and is very intimidating at the beginning (especially in traffic), but after a short while you will you will get the hang of it and will be cruising down the highway wondering what all the worry was for. So for anyone thinking about doing this trip from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi on a manual motorcycle with no experience, I would say if you want the full experience go for it! It will be difficult at first, but you will pick it up quickly, and once you do and are riding through the Vietnamese countryside, you will be glad that you did. Just remember, if you are starting from Ho Chi Minh, leave early in the morning!
I would be slightly more hesitant to recommend this to someone who hasn’t driven in South East Asia at all though. AJ, Alex, and I rode automatic scooters a fair bit in Indonesia, so when we got on the Vietnamese roads, although we were motorcycle noobs, we were familiar with the crazy rules of the road down here.
Notes on road rules in Vietnam:
Like most South East Asian countries, the driving conditions in Vietnam are pretty extreme, especially for any westerner. Here, almost anything goes, and you will constantly find yourself sharing the road with all sorts of vehicles and livestock, but as long as you are alert and on your guard you will be ok. When it comes to driving on the highway, you have to be doubly alert for a few reasons.
In Vietnam, the rule of thumb on the highway is “the biggest vehicle wins”. What this means is that you are on the lowest rung of the food chain being on a motorcycle. The massive tourist buses, semis, and other improvised vehicles, they are on the top rung of the food chain, and they know it, so if a bus decides to pass another while coming right at you, they do it if you are there or not, meaning you have to take action and pull to the side of the road when this happens. One of the nice things about driving a motorcycle here is that on some of the major freeways you do have your own “lane”, even though this lane is really just the shoulder of the freeway. Regardless, it does allow you to stay away from most of the larger traffic which alleviates the biggest concern for most of us.
All in all, the motorcycle experience has been a massive rollercoaster ride so far, pun intended (forgive me for that one). I started off the day very anxious and uncertain about the whole idea, but after a day of cruising along the countryside and witnessing the beauty of Vietnam I’m convinced the idea of motorbiking through Vietnam is 100% genuine, and I’m optimistic that the next month will be one of the best of my life. I just hope these motorbikes stay together for long enough! It’s going to be an interesting couple of months, and I’ll do my best to tell you guys all about it and take you along for the ride!
As always, thanks for checking in on us my friends. The three of us are all doing well and enjoying the trip to the maximum so far, so here’s to that continuing 😀 on that note, I hope you all are enjoying life to maximum as well, no matter where you are or what you might be doing. Life is a beautiful gift, so lets make the most of it!
Much love everybody,