Absolutely the way to go here: typically 125cc, and that’s enough. Two things are needed. One, you must know how to control the bike. (If unsure, find a way of practicing at home first.) Two, forget all you know about rules of the road, especially the quaint western notion of ‘right of way’. It’s nonexistent here unless you count the fact might is right, with four wheels (quite rare) trumping two and sixteen (rarer still) doing the same in quadruplicate.
But get those two things under your belt and for three quid a day – five if they do twenty-four hour hire – with a tank of petrol another three, you’re free as a bird. Everything opens up.
Some highlights from yesterday …
A wide beach – aquamarine choppy, racing white horses and golden sand – just three miles from town but totally untouristed on account of its fishing boat bobbing sea.
(The Viet fishing boats are gorgeous, though the best I’ve seen aren’t here but on the Southern Island of Phu Quoc. To stumble on them at sundown, berthed up for the night on some out of the way and west facing estuary – their reds, blues and turquoises gently burnished by the dying rays – is one of the most divine sights I’ve been privileged to witness. That’s when you know the bike would be cheap at twenty times the price.)
From a high hill the Lord Buddha, all forty white marbled metres of him, looks out across the South China Sea. As fishermen pole their tiny circular boats, essentially the same design and construction as the ancient Welsh coracle, across the shallows to the big boats four hundred metres out, his must be a reassuring presence. With his vigilant eye on things, what could go wrong?
Though it’s mid day, a recent high tide means the women on the shore are sorting the catch. Wicker baskets a metre deep and the same across are piled high with fish, though few are more than six inches. (Bet your life on it they curse the Chinese factory ships hoovering the ocean floor.) Beside them on the sand, sea snakes writhe out what remains of their lives in the full glare of the sun. Some are barely a foot long, others more than a metre.
Aged twenty I once walked the length of a deserted Colva Beach in Goa, at night and stoned out of my mind, toe-nudging dying sea snakes back into the water. Had the fishermen seen me I don’t know whether they’d have been amused, pissed off or worried on my behalf. Sea snakes are all highly venomous for the very good reason their prey must die instantly else be lost in the depths. The task of separating them from the catch was given to boys with the fastest reflexes. It helps that sea snakes, for all their lethal potential, are among the least irritable of beasts.
The difference here being that these snakes won’t be left to rot – everything but the (table) leg – though their slow agonising death on the sand will make gutting alive seem merciful.
I ask a woman if I can take pictures. She flashes her lovely smile. Viets are more reserved than Thais as a rule. The latter hand it to you on a plate. Here you have to engage to get it and it’s all the more appreciated for that.
An hour later, on Monkey Mountain, I turn down a tiny path to a wooden shack next to an open shelter – conical thatched roof supported by three wooden poles – where bamboo chairs offer sweeping views across the bay. I order a beer. She brings two: the second time in twenty-four hours this has happened, and the second time someone has read my appetites better than I had. Slowly downing them, one after the other, serenely scanning the ocean below like the Buddha himself, I know the meaning of full, unconditional contentment. As he told, truly enough, desire is the root of all suffering in this world of maya – illusion.
That night I take the bike deep into the city, easily the size of Manchester. I’m now very OK with the traffic. The trick is to regard every other biker – ninety-eight percent of it – as you would pedestrians on Oxford Street, Xmas Eve. With no such thing as priority you have to be aware of everything around you. That’s not as hard as it sounds though you must have full control of the bike. It helps if there’s poke in the throttle. A judicious tweak of the right grip, and deft nudging of handlebars, are the equivalents of the hop-step you do to avoid collisions in crowded malls.
City speeds are twenty mph tops, which is what they would be in the UK if the road lobby wasn’t so powerful. That’s not to romanticise things here. I’m sure road deaths are far more common in Vietnam but the system kind of works once you get the hang of it. Oh, nearly forgot. Lights after dark are optional.
Mid evening I’m threading my way down a narrow curving street of the kind the farang in town for just a few days hasn’t a hope in hell of seeing otherwise. All of life is out on the street and my nostrils are tormented by one ambrosial scent after another. It hits me that my total intake this past twenty-four hours amounts to several glasses of thick strong coffee, a smal bottle of water and those two beers.
I stop by a roadside cafe, idling the engine. Zero chance of English being spoken here but it’s amazing what hunger and sign language can pull off. I suss the woman running things and shout xin xiao! I point to the low chairs and stools, then to my mouth and tum, finally to the bike. She even grasps the meaning of that last gesture; smart woman. At her command a youth comes over to park my bike in an acceptable spot while I stand over the stoves like a kid in a sweet shop. I’ll have that. And that. And – oh yes! – that …
It’s all delicious of course. This is Vietnam. Sorry dog lovers (and I’ve become one myself of late) but the chances of my having chewed the canine are, well, rather high.
At the hotel I step into the shower, but not before I’ve checked my face in the mirror. Fuck. My nose is bright red. I always do this. My arms are the same colour. Better make it three rules for motorbiking in Asia. That deliciously enveloping rush of cool air you’re constantly bathed in is hiding the sinister truth that what you’re actually doing is akin to stretching out like a starfish on some sun-fried beach, and should act accordingly.
Factor fifty. It’s the way to go man.