The day after I purchase Elektra, the guys arrive back from the North. We meet for drinks and between their tired faces and their stories from the road, they already look every bit the experienced biker. They congratulate me on my purchase, they ask how she rides. “Well, I haven’t actually ridden her yet.” Out of fear of driving for the first time in Hanoi of all places, I had the seller bring the bike to my hostel. That’s right, I chickened out. Since then, she has stood there and remained untouched.
“Okay we’ll take her out for a test drive tomorrow. You can come to the mechanic with me,” Paul says. I agree, even though the mere prospect of it makes me feel ill.
The guys spend their time resting up, and Paul and I do the test drive. It is equal parts successful and catastrophic. The bike rides well, save for one moment on the highway where, mid crossing the 6 (or however many) lanes of traffic, my engine cut out.
I couldn’t get her started again. There isn’t much of a way I can explain it other than that it was, in all senses of the term, a moment of sheer and utter panic. As the lights turned green and a sea of scooters, motorbikes and cars enveloped me, I vainly tried to start the engine. It’s meant to be in neutral, is it in neutral? Press the little button thing and rev the engine, just do it. It’s meant to work. Yea dipshit, it’s not working though. Okay you also have a kick start thing. Which I haven’t learned to use yet. Sure it’s in neutral? It’s in neutral. Where is Paul? Where is Paul? Where is Paul?
In a minute that seems to last hours, Paul stops his bike on the side of the highway and comes back for me. The moment I see him up ahead of me on the sidewalk, relief washes over me. He zig zags his way through the traffic and reaches me. “What’s up, dude?” he says. His voice, his body language, his very core is cool, calm and collected. The triggers in my brain immediately slow. They say: “Paul’s here, you’re going to be fine.” They also tell me that we like this guy’s style.
A part of me wonders whether my engine cutting out in the middle of the highway is a sign of warning for the trip, but I tell myself to shut up. We are heading south by motorbike, come what come may.
We head back to the hostel and spend some more time together. Paul and Michael ask what “my” plans are. My plans are the same as your plans, I think. Doubt creeps in. Do they not want me to join them? It’s a useless thought, so I ignore it. Plans are made and we decide to leave the next day. 91 kilometers to Ninh Binh; an easy ride – except for that little detail of Hanoi being an absolute madhouse of traffic. Easy, really.
“You think you’ll be ready to leave tomorrow?” Michael asks.
“I was born ready,” I say, while also trying not to vomit. Remember how I said I was stubborn?
The next morning is Sunday, January 13th. I wake up and reluctantly pack my things. I am more frustrated than ever when my belongings do not fit into my bag easily. I am packing and repacking and cursing the whole way. I am aware that my anger has zero to do with a packed bag and everything to do with tension regarding what I am about to do. We head downstairs and have breakfast. I order the same breakfast I have ordered for my entire two weeks here: fruit and yoghurt. I push the fruit around on my plate, I nibble at a piece of watermelon or two. I seriously think I might faint.
Before I feel ready, I am checked out and standing beside my bike with my backpack and a set of bungee cords. Getting my backpack onto my bike takes ages; the guys are way faster. They leave me to my own devices – it’s like they know I have a need to do things on my own- but the moment I look up with questioning eyes, they are quick to jump in with a tip or two.
After what feels like forever, it’s all on there. It is ramshackle at best, but it’s on there and with a bit of luck won’t fall off. I feel a sense of completion, excitement. Plus a whole lot of dread because that means it’s time to go. Our friends take a photo of me.
“Ready?” someone asks. At this point my brain has gone so loopy I wouldn’t be able to tell you who said what.
“Absolutely!” I say as brightly as I possibly can. “I’m just going to pee real quick.”
I walk into the hostel and I feel like I am walking on air. And not in a good way. I walk up the stairs to the bathroom and think I may faint. I’m seeing stars behind my eyelids. I reach the bathroom door and feel very strongly that I may puke. This is not good. My every cell is telling me this is too scary, my every molecule says this is too much. My every atom says: you can still back out. No one will judge you.
I splash some water on my face, I dry it off. I grip the edge of the sink and I stare myself in the eyes. Deadpan. I say: “you can do this. Lots of people have done it, you can do it too.” I finish it off, I will admit, with a: “you are a strong, independent woman.”
I walk out of the bathroom and feel a little less faint. Still vomit-y vibes, but that’s something I can handle. I stride downstairs and give everyone a cheery “alright I’m ready!” We say our goodbyes and hop on. I maneuver Elektra off the sidewalk and start the engine. One last wave and I’m off.
I wobble. The weight of the backpack is something to get used to and as I head down the street I am aware that I am swerving. I dimly think that our friends waving us off must be saying a whole lot of Hail Mary’s. I suppose I am, too.
I begin to get used to it and I get in formation. Paul in the front on Tangerine Dream, me in the middle on Elektra and Michael at the back on Jackie. The traffic is chaotic and hectic and mad and a hundred things all at once and while at first it is terrifying, once I am on the highway I begin to see how organic it is as well. We swerve in, out, through and around one another like a school of fish and I am in awe of how seamlessly we all avoid collisions. We drive slowly – for my benefit, I think- and getting out of the city takes quite some time.
In, out, through, around.
In, out, through, around.
All the while, Paul looks back regularly to check that we are with him. A quick tuck inwards of his left elbow, his eyes searching for mine, and a nod when he catches them. I do the same to Michael. Tuck, search, nod.
About an hour into the drive (and barely really out of Hanoi), we stop for lunch. Our arrival at the roadside restaurant results in a flurry of excitement. The owner scurries to the kitchen to get some banh mi ready for us. An older woman (his mother?) comes over to watch us, smiling all the while. Chairs are arranged around us in a semicircle and a young boy (her grandson?) is sat down. It takes a moment before I realize why.
He speaks English.
We get through some of the niceties – how old are you, what’s your name, what do you like to do after school – and then get to his real passion: Pokemon. With an iPad in his hand, he shows us more Pokemon than I can count, describing their powers, evolution and more. All the while, the family watches and smiles.
When our interest wanes, we kindly ask for the bill and excuse ourselves. “You come back one day?” Absolutely, we say.
Having left the bulk of Hanoi traffic, I am feeling much more confident. Sure, driving out here is still madness and I am making sure to focus, but the tension in my shoulders has become less and I am beginning to enjoy the drive. At this point we are all full, happy and ready to get on the road.
We get back into formation and are doing the usual weave through traffic when, truth be told, shit hits the fan.
The two lane road is quite narrow for what is obviously one of the main roads out of Hanoi. In front of us, a big truck has come to a crawl – almost a standstill. Its indicator is on: turning right. Paul is in front of me, with one bike between us and one bike ahead of him. We have all slowed down, allowing the truck to turn. The only thing is, there is no right turn to be seen. Only the endless stretch of guardrail. They must have forgotten to turn off the indicator.
The driver in front of Paul seems to have reached the same conclusion and, using the empty space to the right of the truck, overtakes it.
I can practically see the wheels in Paul’s mind churning. We have talked about how in Vietnam drivers overtake on the right, something which is unnatural to us. We have also talked, however, about how it might be best to do the same because it is what they expect of us. I see him now, wondering whether to go ahead and overtake, or whether to wait for traffic to die down on the left and overtake there.
He goes for it. He doesn’t go fast (he doesn’t need to), but the impact is just as hard as if he had.
As he reaches the front of the truck, he is level with the door when all of a sudden, it is thrown open. It is not opened carefully as if to check whether closed or not, no, no. It is thrown open. With full force, full weight. It hits Paul, swiping him clean off his seat.
It’s strange how an adult person turns into a rag doll in a moment like that. How muscle mass is suddenly irrelevant, how bones and ligaments are forgotten. Seeing a human fly through the air in a moment like that, all I can think of is a puppeteer bouncing a puppet mercilessly on a string.
Paul hits the guardrail and falls to the ground. Tangerine Dream is half on top of him, but only for a moment. The driver between us has jumped off his bike and is helping lift the bike and lift him as well. My brain is numb and feels like it is processing things in both hyper speed and slow motion. Why did they open the door? I’ve never seen a person fly like that. He better still be breathing. Okay, he’s okay, he’s moving. Christ Nicole, get off your bike and go help him! How do you turn the bike off? It has to be in neutral right? Ok kick it into neutral. Goddamnit, kick it harder. Now where’s the kick stand? How the fuck do you do this?!
While I numbly (and dumbly) struggle to get my bike onto the kick stand and get off without falling into the traffic that has continued to move around us, I see that Michael has already gotten off his bike behind me and is sprinting past. His helmet clatters into the guardrail as he throws it onto the ground.
Finally I am there with them as well, and we get Paul to stand up. He sways, but at a first glance nothing seems broken. The occupants of the truck have been watching us all along and now drive off. The man who helped us has disappeared as well. We didn’t say thank you.
“Are you okay? Paul, are you okay?” we ask.
“Ow. For fuck’s sake,” he says.
He has also, however, gone very, very pale. We get his helmet off so he can get some air. I’m not sure whether he knows it, but he is supporting his left arm with his right. Michael and I share a look and proceed to look over his arms, his chest, and his shoulder. Nothing seems broken, but he is obviously in pain.
“We can keep going,” he says. Michael and I share another look and propose that we should take a break.
“We should all just sit down for a bit,” we say. “Get some fresh air.”
We walk Paul across the street and sit him down. We go back for the bikes and helmets and cart those across as well.
We sit on the dusty side of the road and, because neither of the guys know what actually happened, I tell them what I saw. “Fuck, I thought it was my fault or something. I thought I had gotten too close to the truck,” Paul says.
“It wasn’t, they doored you,” I say.
“Fuuuuuck.” Pretty sure we all said that one in unison. Several times.
While Paul continues to insist that he can drive, we maintain that a break is in order. We say things like “I’m tired anyway,” and “we’re in no rush.” I offer to go buy us Cokes because I feel helpless and useless. I can’t get off my bike fast enough to help you, but I can do this.
As I walk through dusty side streets I am thinking about signs. This is not a fortuitous start to the trip. I am also wondering what will happen next. I do not see how Paul is going to manage another 70 or so kilometers when he can barely use his arm. I cross my fingers that we don’t keep driving.
As luck has it, by the time I get back to the guys (warm Colas in tow), they have come up with a rescue plan of sorts. We are going back to Hanoi. Thank god. The plan is as follows: Michael will ride one motorbike back to our hostel. He will take a Grab taxi back to us, we will put Paul in the Grab and then he and I will ride the remaining two bikes back to the hostel. It’s going to take a few hours, but it’s the only way.
We move to a shaded area and park the bikes there. Michael shares his live location with us on Whatsapp and then he and Jackie are off.
Paul and I pass the time by looking over his injuries once more. We Google things like “how to know if your collarbone is broken,” or “signs of internal bleeding.” We determine that, in our expert opinions, nothing is broken and he should be fine. The fact that we’ve even had to Google it makes me feel a little sick inside. He asks me to tell him again what happened, and we go through the events. We wonder aloud whether Elektra needs to have her gas filled up. Filling up the tank entails removing the entire backpack, though, as the tank is under the seat. We decide that she’s got enough gas to get me back to Hanoi.
We check Michael’s live location regularly.
Eventually we get a message from him: he’s made it to the hostel. We track his live location as he takes the Grab back down to us and I breathe a sigh of relief when he arrives. Phase one is complete. Paul gets into the Grab and we send him off.
Michael looks tired, but he is quick to propose that we get a move on. Adrenaline is one hell of a thing. He hops on Tangerine Dream and we agree to go a little bit faster back into the city than we did on the way out. We don’t get far when all of a sudden Elektra stops running.
I notice a bit of a shaking while I ride, then a slow loss of power and finally a full stop. Engine out, that’s it. Michael turns back for me. “Do you have enough gas?” he asks.
“We thought so,” I reply sheepishly. I proceed to undo my backpack and as I throw it down into the dirt I am angry with myself. I open the seat and check the tank. Pretty damn empty. At this point I would almost prefer it if Michael would get angry with me, but he is in “fix it” mode. “Stay here,” he says, and he hops on his bike to go get me some gas. I stand on the side of the road, dust swirling around, ruminating.
Soon enough he is back, we have filled her up and we hit the road. We swerve through traffic and though this day has been an absolute shit show, I begin to really feel the appeal of riding a motorbike. It feels, for lack of a better term, really cool.
As we get closer to the city, the traffic increases tenfold. It’s around 5pm on a Sunday afternoon and I find myself wondering if this is the result of people heading back into the city after the weekend. There are motorbikes everywhere.
Michael and I are both getting antsy, I can tell. We ride our bikes hard and try to pass mostly everyone we encounter. We are making good time, but Tangerine is beginning to kick up a fuss. Several times in a row I lose track of him momentarily because his engine has cut out and he needs to run and start it. It’s only a minute or so each time, then he’s there again.
He’s been navigating our way into the city on Google maps but with Tangerine’s fussiness and the increase in traffic it has become tiresome to keep taking his phone out of his pocket. Which is why during one quick moment at a traffic light he hands it to me and asks me to put it in my phone holder.
I do so quickly, wanting to get it in there before the light turns green. I click it into place, the light turns green, Michael is running Tangerine along and starting her engine, the other bikes are swirling around us, I get Elektra into first gear and get her moving and –
Engine cut. She’s out.
I drop her into neutral and try the electric start but all she does is splutter. The bikes are moving around me faster now that the light has been green for a while and I try the electric start again. Come on, come on, come on, not now please. Nothing put a splutter and a gasp. I look ahead and I can feel a franticness begin to bubble up in my throat. I can’t see Michael anywhere. All I see are hundreds (thousands?) of motorbikes.
I look down at his phone in my phone holder and as I feel my own phone practically burning a hole through my pocket I realize that the worst part is that I have zero way of communicating with him now.
I roll Elektra up onto the sidewalk and continue to try starting her, but it just isn’t happening. I do the only thing I can think of: I send Paul a panicked voice note on Whatsapp. I continue to try starting her and he calls. “Hey man, what’s going on?” Oh Paul, you most calming, soothing, wonderful motherfucker. In a frenzy, I explain what’s happening, finishing with a dramatic “and now I have his phone. He doesn’t even have a phone!”
Paul talks me through the issues with Elektra, coaching me through a few things I can try. It doesn’t work and I am cussing and my hands are shaking and I hate that this is happening. He tells me to just turn the bike off and sit back.
“Dude there’s not much you can do right now. Just relax, chill a bit. By now Michael will have noticed you aren’t with him and he’ll have waited. When you don’t come along, he’ll come back for you. He’ll come back for you.”
“But there are so many people, I don’t know if he’ll be able to find me.”
“He’ll try. For now, just lean back and hang out. He’ll come back for you.”
I rant for a little bit about how I don’t even want the bike anymore, who the fuck did I think I was and that I’m just going to leave her on the pavement. They can have her.
“Don’t leave the bike. Whatever you do don’t leave it. Just hang out, Michael will come.”
I finally shut up, do as he says and sit. I try the electric start again and turn the bike off when it doesn’t work. I try walking her along the sidewalk to start her. I am awkwardly running her along the sidewalk and revving her spluttery engine. It doesn’t take. I turn her off and sit. And sit. I scan the swarm of motorbikes, hoping desperately to see Michael and Tangerine. I wish for some sort of flare.
As the minutes tick by I realize it has now been 15 minutes since we lost each other. The chance of Michael and I finding one another is very, very slim. I call Paul.
He confirms what I’m thinking. “Yea if anything by now he’ll have tried to find you and given up. At this point it’s every man for himself.”
“I know.” My mouth has gone very, very dry.
“You’re going to have to kick start it,” he says.
“How do I do that?”
Over the phone, Paul talks me through how I need to kick start the bike. Our conversation ends with “one last thing. We’re going to have to hang up now because you’ll need both hands.” I know. I’ve been trying it already while we’ve been talking.
One more “good luck” and “you’ve got this,” and we hang up. I put the phone in my pocket, get the stand out and I kick it hard. Nothing. Come on, come on, come on, please. I kick it again. Nothing. I stamp my feet and grit my teeth because I feel I am about to cry. And I refuse to cry. I put my foot on the stand one last time and kick it with all that I’ve got.
She comes back to life.
I send two last texts: “omg it worked,” followed by “follow Michael on the map.” My fingers are trembling so much that I don’t want to take the time to figure out how to share my live location. I have Michael’s phone anyway and he’s shared his location with Paul.
Paul types. I rev the engine while I wait to see what he says. I’m still on the sidewalk but the traffic light in front of me is counting down to a green light. The minute it turns green I am flying off this sidewalk and into traffic. No stopping. 13, 12, 11… Come on, Paul, type faster. 10, 9, 8…
“If you have to stop in traffic or at lights, put it into neutral but keep tickling the gas. It shouldn’t cut out.”
I send out a quick “ok,” shove the phone away and look up. 3, 2… I hit the gas. Hard. I fly off the sidewalk and into traffic. Republik, here I come. And I am not stopping for anything on the way.
The sun is setting and as I speed up a ramp onto the motorway, alone and engulfed by a tide of innumerable motorbikes, I begin to laugh. I laugh at how absurd this day has been, at how absolutely ridiculous these circumstances are. A crash, running out of gas, two testy bikes making their way back into one of the busiest cities in Vietnam, and all of that on my first day on a motorbike. Ever.
I speed up the ramp, swerving between motorbikes. I laugh and laugh and laugh.
I follow the navigation on Michael’s phone and save for a few turns missed here and there due to traffic which, as I already said, I was not about to stop for, the route is easy enough. It has gotten dark now. It is overcast and it sort of looks like a storm is rolling in. I fiddle with the different buttons on my bike and find the one that turns my lights on. I mount the pavement another two times to avoid having to come to a stop. I somehow manage not to kill myself or anyone else.
When I turn onto the street of Republik, I am borderline euphoric. I see Paul sitting on the sidewalk outside the hostel and cannot believe what a day it has been. As I turn into the hostel someone honks at me, yelling “what, are you gonna cut me off?” I turn my head, ready to tell this person to fuck right off. As I turn I see that it is Michael.
Without navigation and having lost one another, somehow we have arrived at exactly the same time.
My mind is buzzing.
A voice in my mind says: surely this is the only sign that matters.