How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Motorcycle


When I first told friends that I was going to Vietnam, reactions varied:

"Cool! I hear it's amazing."
"Is it safe?"
"I know a guy that can get you into Canada."

Vietnam evokes a wider reaction, it seems, than any other country. People seem to agree that travel to places like Western Europe is cultural, travel to Africa is exotic, and travel to Iraq is more or less a day at the beach. But opinions and predispositions to Vietnam are across the board.

Naturally, my choice to make the journey was an easy one.


As I carried on the typical conversations with friends and family about my upcoming journey to Vietnam, more than one person expressed disbelief, surprise, incredulity, and other synonyms for the same sentiment I just expressed three times using different words. At least a few expressed concern. My dad asked "Is it safe?" To alleviate his concerns, I simply reminded him that the war ended over 30 years ago. Another reader was genuinely concerned for my safety. She honestly believed I would come back maimed or killed. I had to explain that Vietnam has less -- in fact, far less -- violent crime than LA, New York City, and Memphis combined, and that's even excluding police brutality. Parts of Asia may be third world -- and parts are indeed very third world -- but don't let that fool you into thinking those parts are dangerous. You and your wallet may quickly be parted, but you will never hear anyone say "Give me your money or I'll slit your throat." I mean, who are we kidding? That kind of conjunctive and future tense construction is far too complex for your average non-native speaker anyway.

Make no mistake, Vietnam is a safe country, insofar as violent crime is concerned. Crossing the street is another story entirely.

To travel in Vietnam, one must first master the essential skill of dodging motorcycles. Motorcycles are not just ubiquitous, they are the only means of private transportation for 90% of the population.  Walk down any street in Saigon (no one calls it Ho Chi Minh City) and you will see throngs upon throngs of motorcycles passing by.  So "dodging" is perhaps the wrong word to use. "Praying that motorcycles dodge you" is much more appropriate.

Intersections with street lights are as rare in Vietnam as Oscar Winning Eddie Murphy movies. Even when there are street lights, road rules in Vietnam are, as in most of Indochina, somewhat open to interpretation. While some might argue whether or not it actually is ok for a motorcycle to go any time there is no traffic coming from another direction, few would argue the fact that if such a motorcyle hit you while walking, it would hurt.  In Vietnam, "Yield to Pedestrians" is a concept best left at home.

As a pedestrian, your job is simple: try to wait for somewhat of a gap in traffic and walk across the street at a near constant rate of speed. And it wouldn't hurt to light a candle in the nearest Church before doing so either. As a motorcyclist, your job is also simple: honk a lot and dodge pedestrians.

If you think about it, the pedestrians have the easier job, but accomplishing it successfully is far more rewarding.


As with just about any country popular amongst tourists, there are two ways to explore Vietnam: on an organized tour where all of the sights come neatly packaged and the most culturally alluring experiences are carefully pre-arranged for every paying customer; or "a la carte," so to speak, where the traveler is left to his or her own devices to arrange all of his or her transportation and where cultural experiences can only be had by taking risks and being adventurous. Tours, of course, are safer. I've been both attacked and robbed in my travels abroad, and both times I was on my own, far from the safety and comfort of an organized tour. Some would say getting robbed isn't fun. Personally, I had a blast. The stories I got as a result were well worth it, and the free drinks I've received for telling my story more than made up for the amount of money I lost.

Nonetheless, when trying to explore the Mekong River Delta in under 36 hours, it is very difficult to tackle the most interesting experiences in such a short amount of time without the help of an organized tour.

And so it was that I succumbed to the pressure and left Saigon on a cramped tour bus to explore -- or rather to be guided around -- the Mekong Delta. The tour included many nicely canned and packaged experiences, like a visit to a honey factory, a rice farm, and the chance to shoot an AK-47 or blow up a cow with a grenade.

I politely declined the last opportunity, preferring my cows to be properly killed in a slaughterhouse before ending up on my plate sans shrapnel. But I was lucky to have one experience as authentic as Mark Mcguire's home run record.

Most countries have some version or other of a guesthouse in which travelers can stay in a person's home, meet and get to know the family, and experience some aspects of life in that country. In Vietnam these are called homestays. Some homestays literally have the traveler staying in the Vietnamese family's second bedroom -- the first being used for the entire family. Others are slightly larger, being more akin to a classic bed and breakfast. The homestay I stayed at in the Mekong Delta was deep in a small village, far from city lights, discotheques, and tourists.

That, of course, meant that getting there was the real challenge.

The only way to get out to an average homestay is on the back of a motorbike. As I said before, Vietnam is a very safe country. Except when you're on the back of a motorbike. Then you'll really be lucky to emerge in one piece.

As an intrepid motorbike rider, you must first decide where to put your arms and legs. This seems pretty universal: girls and women put their arms on the driver's waist. Guys, in the ever so important battle of giving the appearance of masculinity, lean back and grab on to a small bar underneath their seat.

Now come the legs. For women it's easy: grip their legs as close to the driver's backside as possible, and politely walk away when he asks if it was good for you. For guys, you can either risk the issue of your masculinity arising (wait... poor choice of words), or you can risk losing everything below your knees. For me, the choice was clear. I can live without knees.

The motorbike slowly picked up speed as I considered what would happen if I lost my balance. I kept feeling that my natural reaction, should I fall, would simply be to put one foot down. But then I realized that would be rather insane, so I spent the first few minutes constantly reminding myself "Keep feet up... Keep feet up." I managed to turn it into a song that was sort of a combination of an Irish jig and the hokey pokey. I was humming my happy little Irish hokey pokey to myself, smiling at how fortunate I was to still have feet that were attached to knees and in turn attached to hips, when my jig was interrupted by a loud SCREEEEEECH!

Motorbike drivers love to stop suddenly. Sure, they make it seem like they are avoiding traffic or otherwise watching out for you, but really they all have a game they play amongst themselves. Whichever driver can cause the most heart attacks in a single month gets to wear the cool looking helmet and a yellow jersey for the next week.

I instantly became even more on edge than I was. We picked up speed again, and began gently weaving between the throngs of people that clearly were in less of a hurry than we were. Other motorbikes ran red lights turning in front of us, sometimes coming the opposite direction down the wrong side of the street, and my driver's response was 3 short blasts of his horn. I felt like my response should've been 3 short blasts of heroin, but I did not take the time to learn that word in Vietnamese. We weaved through traffic, left and right, speeding up, slowing down, and braking suddenly.

The driver paused and handed me what looked like a blood pressure cuff, but I knew that to grab it I would have to let go of the small silver bar underneath the seat that I was now holding onto for dear life.

As my tensions rose, I knew if I had to I could always grab the driver's shoulders, but then, maybe getting thrown to the pavement is a better alternative than having some Vietnamese motorcyclist that will never see me again in his life think I'm gay. (Not there's anything wrong with that! Nor is there anything wrong whatsoever with stealing jokes from Seinfeld in order to make an irreverent joke about a sensitive topic.)

It was with relief that we pulled off the main road 10 minutes into the ride. It was less of a relief to learn that for the next 10 minutes, we would be driving the exact same speed, but now on a small path barely wider than Ho Chi Minh's beard.

We began slowly meandering down the small paved path. I was finally getting the hang of being a hapless rider behind a motorcyclist who was obviously up to date on payments for his malpractice insurance.  I slowly looked down at the speedometer: 50 km/h.  In your average Volvo that might not be so bad. Now picture yorself in a Volvo without the steel reinforced safety cage. Or the airbags. Or the little Volvo logo on the front of the car that reminds you that since the car is Swedish, you can't possibly get hurt.

So at 50 km/h, I suppose I became a little concerned. But my Zen acceptance took over and I relaxed. Nothing could hurt me as long as I told myself nothing could hurt me. The honks of the horns of the other drivers passing in the opposite direction became a swan song... The whizzing and pulsing of the other bikes were like hummingbirds flapping their wings. The narrow bridge ahead was like -- oh SHIT! The bridge could only fit one motorcyclist and I'm sure my driver was not the type to back down from a game of chicken.

Sure enough, the driver pulled on to the bridge as another driver in the opposite direction did the same. Each revved his engine as they challenged the other. They approached the middle and screamed something in Vietnamese which I can only assume translates to "one shall stand, one shall fall.... Let the battle to the death begin!" There was staring, growling, drooling (the driver tossed me a napkin when he noticed I was doing that) and genearal exchanges of menacing looks. As the drivers began to pass each other, I tucked my knees in tight to my driver.

The other driver saw this, looked at my driver, and said, "Passenger gay?"

Minutes later, we arrived at my homestay. Despite nearly 20 minutes of narrowly dodging traffic at high speeds, crossing tiny bridges, trudging through mud tracks, and getting whacked on the head by the occasional stray branch, I survived the experience completely unscathed.


Getting close to locals is the best part of traveling. When people offer to meet me in foreign countries, I always gladly accept, but I warn them that I am not a sightseer. I could visit a country and never see a single sight, but as long as I met as many locals as I could, I would be content. In fact, I went to Brazil more than 10 times before I ever made the journey up Corcovado to see Christo Redentor, or "Big Jesus." But I never missed a chance to get to spend time with locals anywhere I could.

The host of my homestay came out to greet me and showed me to my room. It soon became clear that he spoke "Hotel English" very well, but that we would struggle to communicate about other topics. We soon discovered we were both up to the challenge.

Our conversation began, broken and slow, about the food he was serving, the heat and humidity in the Mekong Delta, and his life as the owner of the homestay. As we shared beers we began communicating more fluently about more complex topics like travel, the dreams of his family, and the nearby village. As time passed on and the quantity of empty beer bottles grew, we talked about politics, religion, and why Mandy Patinkin hasn't had any good roles since The Princess Bride.

Before we knew it, the time was well past midnight -- practically an all-nighter in the Delta. If I wanted to learn more about Vietnam, he said, I needed to explore the nearby village early in the morning. And with that, he stumbled away.

The next morning, I did something so rare and so unusual that even I cannot believe it. I awoke at 5:00 am, energetic and excited. I ventured out into the nearby village, occasionally passing by kids in school uniforms walking the opposite direction. They would say "Hello" and "Good morning" and "Need a hangover cure, Sir?" as I walked by, thrilled at the chance to practice English.

Each time it was the same:

"Hello!" they would say, smiling as if suddenly discovering something no one else their age knew.
"Hello!" I'd reply.
"Good morning!" they'd say.
"Good morning!" I'd reply, as they would turn away in a fit of laughter and giggling.

I had this same conversation with at least 4 or 5 other groups of children, each time relishing the 30 seconds of my role as English tutor.

I soon came upon the school where the children were obviously headed and checked the time. It was 6:30 am and the kids were playing in the schoolyard, ready to start the day of classes. I was amazed at how early life began here, but then realized how early the sun came up. Despite the fact that Vietnam is east of Singapore, the former's clocks are one hour behind. The day begins some time between 5:30 and 6:00 am. I would never have survived the first grade.

I was hoping to jump into a pickup basketball game, knowing the odds would be slightly in the favor of the 6 foot tall white guy, but I meandered on to the daily market.

As I wandered, looking at the numerous vendors selling live fish; fresh raw meat only hours away from spoiling in the rising sun with no refrigeration to be seen anywhere; and ubiquitous rice, I soon became aware I was being watched -- stared at. I was surprised, of course. After all, with the homestay only a 10 minute walk away, don't travelers venture to the village all the time? Surely the villagers had seen western travelers before. Or do they simply sleep in long past the open hours of the market and leave without seeing the buzzing Mekong Delta villages at the height of their activity?

I wandered through the market, occasionally receiving the same greeting I had received earlier from the children, and wandered back to my homestay, where I met my motorbike driver for the harrowing ride back to the city, where I spent a few hours before departing for another world.