The joy and splendor of travel lost on one man

The Hoi An Death Race 500

I totally could have jumped this river, but our lame guide insisted I use this floating bridge. What a buzz kill.


A week ago, Pam, Rae and I decided to go visit the My Son ruins about 20 miles outside of the Hoi An. (We wanted to visit the My Three Sons ruins, but due to regional codes, the DVD wouldn’t play in my laptop.) Now, any normal family traveling through Vietnam with a ten-year-old girl who the parents claim to love and cherish would obviously hire a taxi to take them to and from the ruins. It would cost no more than $20-30, round trip.

But those parents are called “pussies,” so Pam and I decided to rent motorcycles instead.

There are obviously many, many things wrong with this scenario.

Topping the list is the fact that I’d never ridden a motorcycle in my life. I don’t even like riding bicycles, though I at least know how to do it. Secondly, Pam had never ridden a motorcycle in her life either. Another minor problem was that it’s actually illegal to ride a motorcycle in Vietnam unless you have a Vietnamese motorcycle license, which believe it or not, neither one of us remembered to pick up at the airport gift shop. (But honestly, how could a Vietnamese cop possibly know whether or not we’re from Vietnam just by looking at us?) And lastly, the warranty on Rae expired years ago.

Pam and I actually do share some small concern for Rae’s well being, so we also hired a guide to go with us. Rae would ride on the back of his motorcycle, since he would presumably know how to operate one.

Our guide was a cheerful man named “Mr. Tuong.” It’s pronounced “tong,” like the kitchen utensil you use to flip chicken on the grill, or what the Vietnamese EMTs were most likely going to use to pick my vital organs off the highway later in the day.

Tuong showed up at our hotel with two bikes. His was a Honda 125cc, manual five-speed. It looked like an actual motorcycle, like something The Fonz would ride. Rae climbed on with him. Pam and I climbed on the other bike. It was a semi-automatic, four-speed chick bike. You had to shift gears with a foot pedal, but there was no clutch. It was really more of a glorified scooter, but that was fine with me. We threw on our helmets and headed back to his place so we could pick up the third bike for Pam.

I managed to follow Tuong and my daughter with no problem. Traffic is relatively light in Hoi An, at least compared to schizophrenic shit-fest of cars and motos in Saigon. And the bike I was on was very simple to operate. I figured I had a chance of surviving the trip to My Son after all. But when we got to Tuong’s place, he hopped off his bike and handed me the keys.

“You take my bike now,” he said smiling.

I held the keys with two fingers as if he had just given me a dead rat.

“I was actually pretty happy with the bike I just rode.”

“That bike for girls.”

“And your point?”

“You try my bike here,” Tuong said. He was pointing at the street his office was located on.

I hopped on, and Tuong gave me a quick run down of how the motorcycle worked. I forgot all of it immediately but headed down the street any way. I went about 100 yards without killing anyone and figured that was enough of a test drive.

I made an awkward U-turn and started to head back when I realized that Tuong’s office was on a one-way street. In keeping with Vietnamese driving tradition, I said “fuck it” and started heading directly into oncoming traffic.

“I can make this work,” I told Tuong.

After Pam survived her test drive on her chick scooter, we started out towards My Son.

I’d like to say that I was excited about visiting the 4th century Hindu temple ruins that the Champa kings built to worship the god Shiva. It’s an area rich with culture and history, and judging from the photos in our guidebook, the structures themselves are quite awe-inspiring.

But as many of you who know me can probably guess, I was far more excited about acting like a total redneck on the motorcycle. We could have been visiting a 20th century trash dump rich with empty beer bottles and worn out truck tires, for all I cared. I just wanted to open up the throttle on the way there and do my best Evel Nguyen-nievel impersonation.

We started out riding through some fairly empty residential streets. Tuong and Rae were in front, Pam was in the middle, and I pulled up the rear. After navigating a few sharp turns and intersections, we got on the main highway.

Highways in Vietnam are not like highways in the U.S. For starters, they’re only two lanes wide. And honestly, there aren’t really lanes. There is a stripe painted down the middle of the road, but it is strictly decorative. Trucks and buses routinely drive down the road side by side directly into oncoming traffic. Smaller vehicles just dart onto the shoulder, and pedestrians on the shoulder just dive into the bushes, rice paddies or whatever else looks softer than the grill of the box truck coming straight at them.

For some odd reason, this flow of traffic actually seems to work. We had been in Vietnam for about two weeks before we took this ride, and I was somewhat used to the ground rules. But I will say the following in all seriousness for anyone who stumbles across this blog and is thinking about renting their own bike: If you have just arrived in Vietnam and are not used to how the traffic flows, do not ride a scooter or a motorcycle on the roads. I’m not kidding. The best case scenario is you shit your pants in the first 20 feet. (Maybe that’s why there are so many tailors in Hoi An!) Worst case scenario is that you shit your pants then get run over by a bus.

I say this not to brag, as if only I can master the roads here. I just offer this warning because traffic laws as Westerners know them do not exist here, and until you get a little bit used to how things work you’ll just gum up the works and probably cause a giant wreck.

And then a tourbus will T-bone your ambulance.

The main highway, such as it is, took us through a few small towns. The towns are really just a collection of people on either side of the road sitting the dirt and selling pho, sodas and beer, and maybe some automotive supplies. The towns are a little beat-up and grimy, but not totally uninteresting.

I was feeling pretty confident on my bike by now. I had it wound up in fifth gear and was screaming along doing 60. But then I noticed it was taking me two minutes to pass some old coot pedaling a rickshaw. And then I noticed the “km/h” next to the 60. If this was a man’s bike, it didn’t speak very highly of you average Vietnamese dude. I was practically red-lining it and only going about 35mph. I typically go faster than that at a Taco Bell drive-thru.

But I enjoyed it nonetheless. I can totally see how people get hooked on motorcycles. Riding a motorcycle always seemed like a pain in the ass to me before, but it’s very exciting and liberating. I read a quote whose author I can’t remember and whose name I’m too lazy to Google, but it went something like, “Driving a car is like watching the movie. Riding a motorcycle is like reading the book.” That seems accurate to me.

Tuong turned off the highway onto a single-lane paved road barely wider than a sidewalk that snaked its way through some rice paddies and gentle forests. It was like whole other world once we got off the main road.

There were little neighborhoods of small but neat homes tucked into the trees on either side of the road. Each home’s cement patio was covered with either peanuts or red chili peppers that the locals were drying in the sun.

We drove for a kilometer or two then pulled over at what constitutes the local grocery store. It was basically a vegetable stand set up in someone’s driveway. A dozen or so folks were milling around sharing the daily gossip. When we arrived, the topic of discussion changed to “who’re the honkies, and how come the Papa Honky can’t figure out how to work the kickstand on his lame bike?”

We poked around the vegetables while Tuong explained what each one was. The locals poked around us, and Tuong explained who each one was. The farmers don’t see a ton of tourists where they live, so newcomers are always a welcome change of pace. They were incredibly friendly and talked to us constantly, but only in Vietnamese.

That’s actually been a fairly common occurrence for me in Vietnam. I’ve had several lengthy conversations with Vietnamese people where the only thing I ever say is “I don’t know…what the hell…you are saying.” But they just smile and keep on yammering. They’re always very polite and smiley while they do it.

At least now I know how my dog feels when I talk to him.

In fact, the next time some Vietnamese guy on the street who wants to sell me a coconut starts in on me in Vietnamese, I’m just going to turn the tables by scratching him under the chin and shouting in English, “Who’s a good boy? I said who’s a GOOD BOY? That’s right! YOU’RE a good boy!”

After our stop at the grocery store, we continued along the narrow road. I wasn’t really able to pop a wheelie in such narrow confines, but I was able to almost run over two small children and a chicken.

We eventually pulled out onto the main road again and continued working our way to My Son. Tuong pulled over occasionally to show us some of the local culture. We stopped at a mom ‘n’ pop peanut oil factory. It was basically three guys stuffing peanuts into a 12-foot-long hydraulic press and squeezing with all their might to extract a teaspoon of oil.

Next we visited three women working on a peanut farm. They were working under a tarp in order to get out of the sun. Tuong showed us how they used to get the peanuts off the plant in the olden days.

“They used to have to pull them off by hand, like this.”

Tuong pulled the peanuts off the plant by hand.

“Now they do it this way.”

Tuong took a handful of peanut plants and whipped them repeatedly against a weather-beaten plank until the peanuts fell off into a net below.

“Much faster!” Tuong grinned.

Paging Eli Whitney. Eli Whitney to the peanut farm, please.

Next up was a chili pepper farm. Tuong explained how the Head Commies give the farmers a chunk of land and then bestow on them all the freedom to choose between growing peanuts, chili peppers or bitter melons.

Our last stop before My Son was when we almost crashed a local wedding. (For the record, we almost crashed the wedding. We did not almost crash INTO the wedding.)

We had stopped in a tiny village to take a break in the shade of a few trees. (The temperature was in the high 90s. Just brutal.) Two local kids were getting hitched, so we strolled over just to take a glimpse. The mother of the bride came out and said hello to us. (Or maybe she asked who was a good boy. Who the hell knows?) Tuong told us that she was inviting us to the wedding.

Pam got ready to march in and take a front row seat, but Tuong stopped her.

“We cannot stay. At Vietnamese wedding, there are many toasts. You get drunk. We cannot ride bikes drunk.”

My first thought was, “Oh yeah? Says who?”

But remembering the two boys and the chicken I almost killed while I was sober, I saw Tuong’s point. Pam was disappointed that we couldn’t stay, and I admit it would have been fun.

We had run into this same sobriety problem six years ago when we were hiking through the countryside in the middle of nowhere. We walked into a wedding that was in full swing. The bride and groom invited us in and spent five minutes taking pictures with us. Our guide said us the same thing as Tuong.

“We cannot stay. We will have to get drunk, and we can’t do that.”

(“Says who?!”)

I swear, the next time I go traipsing around Vietnam, I’m bringing the phone number for the local cab company. I’d love to hit one of these weddings and get lit up with the locals.

Back on our bikes, we finally moved on to My Son.

I hate to be anticlimactic, but the temples really weren’t worth the drive. I suppose they’re interesting if you’ve never seen temple ruins before,  but I read every historical plaque, walked through every musty building, and gaped at all the mounds of rubble in less than 30 minutes. The plaques were plaque-y, the must was musty and the rubble was rubble-y.

I did read one interesting plaque and was about to start railing on the French because it turns out they looted all the statues that used to be in the place, but then Tuong pointed out all the B-52 bomb craters that were scattered all over. Better to back off and live to bitch another day…

We grabbed a bite to eat then headed back to Hoi An.

Because I felt that my three-and-a-half hours on a motorcycle qualified me as an expert, I put Rae on the back of my bike for the ride home. It added a new level of excitement knowing that I was now responsible for not killing one more person.

The ride home was similar to the ride up. We stopped at a few local farms, took two ferries across rivers, and ran into some rush hour traffic. It was during this rush hour traffic that I got nervous about killing me and Rae. I thought Rae might get nervous, too, but she busied herself by constantly yelling at me to “stop calling all these people assholes!”

When she wasn’t admonishing me about my language, Rae spent most of the time singing shitty pop songs by Bruno Mars and Rhianna in my ear. I responded with actual good songs of my own. Together we made quite a pair. It was a memorable father/daughter bonding experience that was a nice finale to a day that was the highlight of my trip so far.

I hope Rae enjoyed it, too. She might not remember the My Son temples years from now, but there is no way she’ll forget the way those tiny Vietnamese women dived for cover when I pulled into an intersection going 25mph, belting out Robert Plant’s opening wail from “The Immigrant Song” with an expression on my face that quite clearly said, “I don’t know which one of these things is the clutch and which one is the brake, so you’d better move your ass, granny.”

7 Responses to “The Hoi An Death Race 500”

  1. Nick

    Hi Ashley. Enjoyed Vietnam. Now waiting to get the heck out of Seoul.

    Hi Kim. Thanks for swinging by. Hope you have a great weekend and can relax a bit. I’ll see you in a few days.

  2. Kim Mitchell

    It has been a tough week for me here in Ouray, and it was nice to laugh out loud-thanks Nick!

  3. Ashley

    Great to hear from your foul mouth again. Enjoy Vietnam, bastard!

  4. Khris

    I laughed, I cried….I am a changed man. Thank you Nick Sustana

  5. Janet

    Classic! Your posts never disappoint but I think this one is now my new favorite….until I read the next one, of course.


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