… on Hue and motorbiking the Hai Van Pass
Location: Somewhere between Da Nang and Hue, Vietnam
Music: Ratatat – Loud Pipes
It all unfolded in a split second. The beaming smile was instantly wiped from my face as the rear wheel of my 175cc motorbike locked up on me. My brain recognized what was happening and self-preservation kicked in. I was going down and my leg, self-confidence, and bravado were being crushed underneath. I can still picture the Vietnamese woman who cut me off, and I can see her face as I lay on the ground, looking up at my tormentor, her surgical mask — so she doesn’t inhale smog — concealing most of her facial features. “Stupid tourists,” she must have been thinking as she accelerated away from the accident scene and me, a stupid tourist. Another Vietnamese gentleman pulled the broken bike off me and walked me to the side of the road. I stood there stunned, too many thoughts rushing through my brain to pick one out and act upon it.
“I’m going to pay for this. I’m fucked.”
“What was I thinking? Why did I rent this?”
“It’s not too late to just stay here in Da Nang.”
“Where the hell is Vu?”
Vu, also known as Ron, is my Vietnamese friend who was preparing to travel to America for an education and wanted to practice his English. I wanted to travel the famous and historically beautiful Hai Van Pass on a motorbike. A symbiotic relationship, or so it would seem, and he was down with being my tour guide for this leg of my journey. He’s a bright kid and a trustworthy one, so I did not doubt for a bit that he had left me — well, okay, maybe for a few seconds. Our relationship had began only nights before when we challenged him to pool at a sketchy tourist bar, and I still was not sure what I had gotten myself into. To be fair, I wouldn’t want to be affiliated with me at that moment, either; but I had no idea where he was, and for the first time in recent memory, I was on the verge of tears.
You see, minutes before, I had said goodbye to my best good friend Asa, whom I had traveled with for almost a month and would not see again for the remainder of my time in Southeast Asia. After traveling with a friend for so long, it was difficult to be willingly lonely again and venture outside of my comfort zone — again — to seize an opportunity I felt I had to take. Ever since I had seen the Top Gear Vietnam special, a dream seed had been planted in my tiny brain that I need to experience that for myself. There were many failed attempts in procuring a suitable bike to travel the whole distance from Hanoi to Saigon, so I settled on just the best section: The Hai Van Pass. Besides, my introduction to two-wheeled transport was only a month earlier in Thailand, and as this clip and the rest of this episode displays, there’s nothing like Vietnamese motorbike traffic in the world.
“I know where Asa is staying. I should just quit and go find him, spend a few more days in lovely Da Nang,” was my last thought before Vu came speeding up. He bombarded me with questions, and I told him I’m okay but my bike’s not. Shortly after I was walking with my bike, trying to follow him up the road to a proper mechanic, constant thoughts of self-doubt and quitting attacking what little confidence remained. My overall mood had not improved as I got berated while the mechanic inspected my bike. A few Vietnamese gentlemen across the road must have seen the characteristic elements of an ignorant tourist taunting danger on a motorbike, and they were well armed with remarks. When I asked Vu to translate, he just shook his head. I persisted and he relented: “They said you should take a taxi,” among other things, I’m sure. My confused smiles towards them turned to a vicious stare-down that was only interrupted by my rent-a-bike starting. “It works,” said Vu.
With a few more pointers from Vu and me nervously easing into traffic, we were off again. Twenty minutes previous, before my accident, the traffic was a challenge, but I had felt like video games had prepared me well for that moment. I was weaving in and out, hitting passing lanes and leaning into every turn. Now my mood was somber, and my driving reflected it. I hugged the curb and was afraid to pass. My open wounds burned in the oppressive sunlight. My freshly-ripped pants could no longer deflect the wind, and they inflated like a parachute. My depressed mood was reflected in my expression, and if it weren’t for my obligations to my new friend Vu and the promise of the stunning beauty of the Hai Van Pass, I would have gladly checked into a nice hotel and slept off my misadventure. Boy, was I glad I didn’t…
As soon as the cold mountain air graced my face and soothed my abrasions, I knew I had made the right decision to continue. The views were jaw-dropping, and I had not even ascended to the top yet. With the introduction of a tunnel that cut through and shaved hours off the journey to Hue, the Hai Van Pass had become almost solely a tourist destination. Its emptiness inspired thoughts that this breathtaking stretch of road was all for me, and my confidence returned in the form of surges of dopamine. My beaming smile was back and there to stay. The burning sensation on my knees, arm, and shoulder was replaced with pure, unadulterated happiness and full acceptance of the present moment. As Jeremy Clarkson so eloquently put it in the Top Gear clip, “I had an epiphany.” I knew freedom in its deepest meaning, and it’s a moment I’ll never forget.
After making it to the end of the pass, we scooped Vu’s friend at the train station and they took me to a restaurant they knew of on the way to Hue. It overlooked the road we had just traveled and was situated perfectly in the calmest part of a protected cove. They introduced me to family-style dining, or they just lied to eat my food, but the three of us shared a great meal of clams, chicken, rice, and of course, beer.
We were still about two hours from Hue, and they both insisted we visit a secluded river they knew of that’s perfect for a mid-afternoon swim. One of the greatest joys of travel is to be escorted by locals to a local-only spot or event, so I could not say no. After paying our meager bill, we were on our way through dirt roads and beaten paths to a true locals-only retreat. My pasty white skin beamed as I took my shirt off to swim, and I could feel the stares of the few Vietnamese who were still hanging out late in the day. The open wounds gracing my left side gave me pause, but I decided it was worth the risk and dove in. It was chilly but incredibly refreshing. Night was falling and I was getting nervous about finding my hotel in the dark, so we went back to the “valet” lot where our bikes were stored. A small family of three was sitting and playing on mine, but I chalked it up to the family-style nature of Vietnam as I double-checked that all my personal belongings remained. Everything was there, and we were off on the final stretch of road to Hue as the Sun slowly set behind us.
Arriving in Hue, my anxiety levels began to rise as I realized I was once again entering the insane traffic that resulted in my earlier spill in Da Nang. My senses were on high alert as I tried to follow Vu and his friend without being killed in the process. There are very few traffic lights in Vietnam, and most traffic runs as the-person-with-the-largest-vehicle-or-proclivity-for-vehicular-homicide proceeds uninhibited. In most intersections you simply wait your turn — but it’s not that easy. With traffic being held up by very few lights, it is extremely difficult to find a long enough interruption in the near constant motorbike stream. Instead, you just go. You tuck your nuts and hit that accelerator and hope people have the decency to swerve around you. At least that’s what I did.
When I travel I book most of my accommodations blind, and Hue was no exception. Hue would be the first time I was on my own again after a month of traveling within a group, and I splurged for the higher end of the spectrum, roughly $30 a night. I luckily ended up at the Moonlight Hotel Hue, a diamond in the rough of run-down hostels and overpriced shanties. They realized I was far past my estimated arrival time, and I recounted my tragic spill and heroic journey there to everyone in the lobby. After seeing my torn shirt and pants, one of the bellboys prepared some hydrogen peroxide to clean my wounds, and then the manager showed me to my room. I was ecstatic when I opened the door to one of the nicest hotel rooms I have ever stayed in, period.
What followed was a full assault on the minibar and a soak in the pristine jacuzzi with a window that overlooked the picturesque Hue skyline. I had survived the treacherous journey one way, and my bike was sitting safely in the garage underneath the hotel. In the warm, soothing water of the bathtub, it was easy to ignore the fact that a few days later, with cuts as fresh as the memories, I would have to ride that beast back to its owner in Da Nang.
The next day me and my two new Vietnamese friends set out to tour the Old Citadel in Hue. Thinking I was about to embark upon a serious Vietnam War (or “American War” in Vietnam) history tour, I was excited to learn more about a subject I am admittedly ignorant about. Before actually landing in Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam, my knowledge of the war consisted of a couple popular movies and a high school class that I only took because I wanted to hear the stories of my teacher who was a veteran of the war; however, as I write this, I still do not know if the Citadel we visited was where the battle occurred and was rebuilt, or the actual battle occurred outside the city. As it stands now, the “Old Citadel” was largely devoid of information, and I could never get an answer to my history questions. Besides, it’s a sure sign you wasted your money when one of the main attractions is a “Royal Garden and Koi Pond.”
Determined to learn more about the war while I was “in-country,” I booked a local tour that visited three historic sites: a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a tunnel complex used by the Vietnamese, and Khe Sanh Combat Base. The tour lasted all day, but on a crowded bus full of sweaty tourists, it was not the most pleasant experience. The Ho Chi Minh Trail is now the Ho Chi Minh Highway, and its famous history has been paved over since the highway’s construction after the war ended. The tunnels were interesting, but I felt claustrophobia-induced panic creeping up as I followed a long line of tourists through the pitch black tunnels. The heat was palpable in the confinement and, even after only fifteen minutes in the tunnels, fresh air never felt so sweet. Many children were born there underground, yet I could not imagine enduring more than a day in the stuffy confines so many called home. Finally, we arrived at Khe Sanh Combat Base, the most interesting aspect of the tour for me.
It’s hard to describe the thoughts and emotions of visiting the site of a battle like Khe Sanh. I had experienced it before while standing on the beaches of Normandy, but for some reason, whether it was the peddler selling Marine dog tags or the rusting tank carcasses and artillery shells, Khe Sanh was far more visceral. I could almost feel the anguish of the soldiers that perished there, and as an American, I felt it was hallowed ground. This feeling was accentuated when I was continuously hounded by a Vietnamese man trying to get me to buy dead Marines’ dog tags that he had found and attached a significant price to. At first I was outraged, but I could not express that to him because my Vietnamese was pretty limited. Then I thought of possibly purchasing them and returning them to their living relatives, but the more I thought about it, it seemed like a ridiculous proposition. Finally I just shook my head and walked away, only to be hounded another three times by the same individual. I walked back to the bus in silence, my mood depressed, and oddly bothered by the laughter emanating from a group of younger Aussies. Taking my seat back on the bus, I wondered if I was overreacting, or if proper respect was lacking for a place where so many young lives were needlessly lost.
Growing up in America, the Vietnam War seems to be carelessly glossed over by a generation more interested in iPhones and Instagram. Many veterans fell through the gaps in society as they came back to a country carrying the mental wounds of war and without the proper nourishment for their damaged souls. Schools still fail to adequately teach students about the war, unless its a course centered solely on the subject, and an entire generation’s only exposure is through movies like Platoon and Apocalypse Now. As Edmund Burke famously stated, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” I can’t help but wonder if there’s any better proof of this statement than our 13 years in Afghanistan.