Pictured: Petrified owner of a motorbike. Note the fear in her eyes.
I’ve written about how I traveled to Sapa in part to get myself out of a bit of a sad funk. In truth I also traveled to Sapa to buy myself the time to gain the courage for the next part of my trip: motorbiking from the north of Vietnam to the south.
I decided quite some time ago that this was the way I wanted to see the country. I would buy a bike in Hanoi and head all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City. 1700 kilometers as the crow flies, quite some more as the 110cc motorbike rides.
I have never ridden a motorbike before. I rode a scooter for the first time in Pai and as I explained, I was shitting myself. But I had to. You need to prepare for Vietnam, I thought to myself at the time.
I did my research, I read blog posts by travelers who had done the trip. “It’s easy,” “you can learn it in no time,” “you’ll never ride alone” were some of the popular sentiments I encountered. “Everyone does it” was another one.
Upon arriving in Hanoi I thought I would meet hordes of backpackers on bikes heading out to do the trip. I thought I would arrive at a hostel with countless Honda Wins parked outside, big ol’ backpacks coming and going on the daily.
Instead, what I encountered were backpackers with road rash from scooter accidents and backpackers who hadn’t ridden scooters or motorbikes at all out of fear of getting said road rash. “This is fine,” I keep telling myself.
I encountered backpackers in awe of the plan. “Wow you have guts,” “so you’ve ridden a bike before,” and “I could never do it, it’s too risky” were now the sentiments I encountered. Shit. I don’t, I haven’t, maybe it is too risky.
It didn’t help that all of the Vietnamese folks I spoke to called me crazy as well. “But you drive in Hanoi! The traffic here is crazy,” I said. “Yes but Ho Chi Minh is too far, it’s dangerous,” they would counter.
Shit, fuck, shit.
As the days in Hanoi slipped by, my plan began to seem ridiculous. The self doubt began to creep in, first slowly and then before I knew it, it was all over and difficult to ignore.
But here’s the thing. Though I am one to listen to advice when it is doled out to me, I am also stubborn. So many people have done this ride, why shouldn’t I be able to?
It didn’t help that one of the things I heard the most was “that’s no trip a girl should make.” Oh yea? Watch me.
I finally decide that this is what I came here for, so I just need to do it. No backing out. But maybe buy a semi automatic bike instead of a manual. Seems easier.
In theory it will be easier but somehow the decision doesn’t make me feel any more confident. I am, very clearly, stalling for time.
And then there is Paul. Paul from the slow boat, Paul who we reconnected with in Vientiane. New Year’s Eve Paul who on the 2nd of January bought his Honda Win and on the 3rd drove out with a guy named Michael, headed for the northern loop. Ha Giang, Ha Long Bay and everything in between. Paul, who after the northern loop, plans to head south.
I message him.
I float the idea of joining them when they headed south. “Would be nice to have someone to go with instead of going it alone,” I say.
I was trying to play it cool. I didn’t want to impose. I also wasn’t sure whether two guys on motorbikes wanted a scared girl on a semi automatic riding with them. A patriarchal limitation that I am aware I impose all on my own.
His answer, of course, is that I am more than welcome.
We decide that he will keep me up to date on their progress and estimated arrival in Hanoi. In the meantime, I need to buy a bike.
First, I quickly set my Sapa trip into motion. If I want to see it, I have to go now. Two days there and back and then I should have another two days to buy a bike and learn how to ride it before the guys are back in Hanoi.
Shit, fuck, shit.
Sapa flies by with the speed at which time flies by when you have something coming up that you’re avoiding. Zoom, over in the blink of an eye.
Back in Hanoi again, I pop onto the Facebook groups for people buying and selling bikes in Hanoi. I find an ad by a Ms. Linh. Her ad includes photos of several bikes, a few addresses, a phone number where she can be reached by WhatsApp and, most important to me, a selfie. That’s right. A selfie which shows her smiling face and kind eyes. I like the cut of her jib and I decide I will go find her.
I enlist the help of a friend because quite honestly I have no idea how to buy a motorbike. I also feel very strongly that I may vomit.
We reach the address and find there is nothing there. I send Ms. Linh a message. She replies within one minute and sends me a new address. This is not helping me to not vomit.
At the second destination – a back alleyway, I will note- a man comes up to us. Kind face, soft voice, he tells us he is Mr. Linh.
Follow me, he says, and off we go, crossing the massive 12 lane – or is it more?- highway. We arrive and I am relieved that this street is a little quieter. At least this way when I test drive the thing I won’t risk killing women, children, tourists and chickens while doing so.
“Here,” he says, “I have this one for you.”
She looks very much like a scooter. “But I want a motorbike,” I say, the words popping out of my mouth before I have a chance to stop them.
“Yes, yes, motorbike. Semi automatic,” he says. He walks around to the left of the bike and shows me the pedals, points at the dashboard and shows me the gears.
Right, okay. So that’s what semi automatic means.
“Not a real Honda,” he says, and his honesty quiets the countless fears whirring in my brain.I already know I want her, but I am trying to keep myself to the small checklist in my head:
- Don’t look too excited, you need to negotiate the price.
- Check for faults. Rust? Faults in the frame? Tires okay? Do the lights work? The horn?
- Ask if there is a blue card.
- Test drive. Test the engine and brakes well.
Everything seems to be okay; now it’s time for a test drive.
Mr. Linh shows me how to start her, how to shift the gears. It’s cold out but I am sweating.
“You go now.” I gulp.
I start her up and slowly roll down the street. I shift the gears up once or twice. I shift them back down. I make the world’s clumsiest, slowest U-Turn and return.
“I’ll take her,” I say.
She has a few cracks in the frame which are held together with zip ties, but Mr. Linh has assured me that the engine is in tip top shape.
$260 and I hardly negotiate. I simply ask whether he can attach a cell phone holder and a luggage rack. He agrees and says he will give me the bungee chords and a helmet as well. He will also do an oil change. I pay him a deposit and we agree that I will be back later to pick her up.
I walk away, hands shaking with adrenaline, ears buzzing, heart thumping. I look back at her and I know.
I know just as I did the moment I first saw her: her name is Elektra.
Together she and I will head south. Time to chase the sunshine.