Upon my arrival in Hai Phong, Vietnam, the only major advice my father stressed was to avoid riding the motorbikes there at all costs. Motorbikes account for 95% of all vehicles in Vietnam, and the licensing laws are largely unenforced. With over 45 million bikes on the road, all you really need is a flimsy bicycle helmet in order to comfortably zoom past the police officers on the roads.
With the sole purpose of teaching English in the city, I assured my father that I had no intention of attempting something so careless. With no experience motorbiking and no travel insurance, my well-being was not something I wanted to risk.
Fast forward two weeks — I’m settled into my house in Hai Phong and am eagerly hopping on the back of my friends’ motorbikes to get around. I realize it’s impractical to get places without one and get used to all the crazy things my Vietnamese friends do on their motorbikes (from transporting dogs to carrying washing machines!)
On a weekend trip to Ninh Binh with 13 other teachers and a couple of locals, my friend Maria and I committed to learning to drive. Riding wide open roads through the mountains would by far easier than trying to learn in our huge congested home city. (Fun fact: Hai Phong is the 3rd largest city in the nation!)
After getting a run-down of the bike functions, we successfully drove a couple of loops around an empty parking lot. With boosted egos and adrenaline in our veins, Maria and I decided to rent a motorbike together to travel to the national park 2 hours away from our hostel. Maria would drive the way there, and I would drive the way back.
Shoddy bikes and inexperienced foreigners are an awful combination; the journey to the park was a struggle to say the least. Fender benders, faulty bike parts, and getting keys locked into one of our bikes were just a few of the disaster moments we encountered. By the time it was my turn to drive the 2 hours back from the park, it was dark,I was exhausted, and my inner daredevil had mysteriously vanished. Regardless, I took a deep breath, mounted the motorbike, and headed on my way.
Within 10 minutes, it started pouring; the Vietnamese have an irrational fear of storms, so we we stopped on the side of the road and hunkered down together. The water level only got higher, given the fact that they don’t have drains to clear the rain out from the roads. We didn’t have a choice but to continue on our journey.
Blurry-eyed from the rain and sliding on slippery roads, I really couldn’t fathom how I was going to survive the next two hours. Eventually, however, I got used to the lag in brake time. Although it was pitch black, my headlights illuminated a path in front of me. The wind and rain combined with the deafening cracks of thunder and lightning created a terrifying but exhilarating atmosphere. I’d never felt so free.
In the midst of my liberation, my motorbike gave out completely. The engine had stopped running and I was stranded in the middle of the storm; I’d been so enthralled by the intensity of it all that I lost track of my friends. Eager to get out of the rain, they’d zoomed off.
I hopelessly turned the engine off and on, begging it to rev again. After what felt like ages, a couple of my friends looped back and saved the day; it took one person running and pushing the motorbike from behind as the other repeatedly turned the key to get it to temporarily hum again. We managed to get it to the nearest gas station, and it turned out that I’d run out of gas; my fuel gauge was broken so I couldn’t keep track of this as I drove.
Even after refilling the tank, the bike continued to sputter and stop in the last leg of the trip; patience and coaxing eventually got it home.
The engine roaring over the sound of my voice, I belted ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ in the final stretch. While I never expected to have such a challenging first ride, I’ll never forget the thunder rolling and those jagged streaks of lightning lighting up the sky.
Diving headfirst into the unknown is the best way to get comfortable with the water. After a crash-course through a thunderstorm and an extreme motorbike road trip a few weeks later, I can honestly say I’m addicted to the rush.