The Final Stretch

Pictured: Beers at our final stop. You know the drill: “cheers, we did not die today.”

Our last ride together in Vietnam is on February 20th. We start our day slowly – hung over, of course – and my mind is both everywhere and nowhere at all. I am thinking of the kilometers that have already come and gone; I am thinking of the places we have seen. I am remembering the nerves I began with; I am thinking of boundaries pushed and growth experienced. I am dreading impending goodbyes.

The guys and I pack our things up and strap them to our bikes and I am both acutely present and very far gone.

With Yasmin the yellow Honda Win having been added to our ranks and Elektra having been sold, our posse has switched up a little bit. We have a bit of back and forth about who will ride who, as I want Michael to have the opportunity to finish his trip with the bike he started with – Jackie. After thinking it over, however, he has decided that he may as well rip off the proverbial band aid. Before we know it, money is exchanged and keys are officially handed over. Jackie is officially mine. This means I will ride her into Ho Chi Minh City. Michael will be on Yasmin, and Paul will, of course, be on the one and only Tangerine Dream.

We say our goodbyes to our latest crew of friends and hit the road, my beginner’s nerves suddenly back in full force. I am trying to get the hang of riding a manual bike and though traffic is very light in Mui Ne, my first minutes of riding are wobbly at best. I hand over the responsibility of navigation to the boys so that I can focus. What the fuck have I gotten myself into… again?

The ride is 216 kilometers (about 5.5. hours) and as is usually the case with “lasts”, the kilometers seem to melt away far faster than ever before. I still mess up regularly, but altogether I am beginning to get a hang of shifting gears. We stop for a lunch of noodles and I am jubilant. Sitting here with Paul and Michael, sweaty, overheated, with my hands dirty from the handlebars, has come to be the best feeling in the world.

We must be about halfway through the ride when we begin to encounter heavier winds. Gusts hit me unexpectedly from one side or another, and I can practically feel Jackie being lifted off the asphalt as I am moved side to side. It is not a pleasant feeling. We pass a crowd of people tending to two backpackers who look like they’ve just had a crash, and one of us calls for a break. We take a breather, discuss the winds and decide that we ought to slow down – at least for now.

Soon enough, the number of motorbikes, scooters and cars begins to multiply at a rapid rate. People come zooming out of side streets I barely noticed were there, and it is becoming easier and easier to lose track of one another. I begin to struggle more with shifting gears, finding that my reactions are always one step behind all of the madness surrounding me. There is dust in my eyes, I am tired, and I am finally incredibly frustrated. Where is Elektra when I need her?

We take one last break and while the boys savor the before-last break of the trip, I am in a foul mood. I find myself resenting the fact that after all of these kilometers, I am driving into the one and only Ho Chi Minh City feeling like an amateur on a bike. I resent that I feel quite this insecure, and that I am making this many mistakes. I sit there and ruminate, and suddenly I decide I need to cut it out. This is not the time, Nicole. I give myself a pep talk; I tell myself to get my shit together. These weeks have quite literally been some of the best of my life. Sure, I may be riding like a newbie again, but semi-automatic or manual, I have done this. I have ridden down the entire country of Vietnam and I have done it with some seriously incredible people to boot.

So shut up, buck up, and enjoy it, Nicole. Don’t ruin the feeling now. 

(I may have mentally added in a “for fuck’s sake” just to drive my point home).

And just like that, I do.

I go to the bathroom and I wash the dust and dirt off my face. I reapply the red lipstick I put on this morning to feel better about it all. It’s my thing, so sue me. I walk out with a smile I can finally feel. “Ready to go?” I ask the boys, and we pile onto our bikes, ready to complete the last stretch and head into the city.

The sun is setting now and we are on the outskirts of the city, heading in. We go around one of the many maddening roundabouts of Saigon and I stall. I have messed up and I am stuck (again) with a sea of motorbikes racing past, swallowing me whole. I can still see the boys’ taillight but then they are gone and I am restarting Jackie and racing out of there, eyes searching, mouth muttering curse words into my helmet. I pull into a side street and instead of having the meltdown I secretly want to have, I open up my helmet for a breath and a I grab my phone. It’s okay, I tell myself. You’re still getting the hang of this. Be kind to yourself. I check the boys’ locations in our Whatsapp group and race off in that direction. See? No biggie.

It’s dark now, making traffic seem even crazier and as we race onward, zigzagging between trucks, cars and bikes, I feel positively electric. We ride in formation when possible and I savor the familiarity of checking over my shoulder to see where the guys are. I savor the joy of seeing them check for me too.

There are several elevated highways crisscrossing their way into the city, and our trio races towards the sea of lights of Saigon. We are three tiny people climbing a highway into the sky in a city of millions, and I am blinking, checking that this is all real, and I realize:

 I will always have a limitless love for this chapter right here. 

And with that in mind I ride on, eyes wide open and in formation.

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