Today was the big day to start our trip on the motorbikes, so we woke up early, packed up, and enjoyed our last free breakfast at Serenity Hotel. We were still determined to see Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum before we left, so we rode out there on the bike, with me on the back using Google Maps to navigate the maze of streets. However, our second attempt to see the mausoleum was ruined because it just so happens it is closed on Mondays. At least we still arrived just as the changing of the guards was occurring.
After packing our bags, we carried them down six flights of steep stairs and hoisted them onto the motorcycles. Luckily, Duc (the bell boy) was there to help us secure the packs and catch my bike as it almost tipped over with all the weight. I had a wobbly start as I pulled into the traffic, unaccustomed to the backpack throwing off my balance.
Byron drove in front, using my iPhone armband to check the directions to get us out of the city and onto the highway. Our first goal was to find a gas station, yet there were no signs and the locals had contradictory ideas on where it was. We went back and forth on the congested highway–cutting across lanes of traffic, stalling a few times in the left lane, and staying in a constant state of panic that I was gonna get hit, or I was going to hit something, or my gas tank would run dry. I started singing and chanting positive words to myself to stay calm and just try to keep my eyes on Byron and all the impending dangerous objects coming at me. I sincerely urge you to youtube an example of Vietnamese traffic just to understand the ridiculousness.
Thankfully we found the gas station, paid $5 each to fill up our tanks, and pulled off to the side to regain confidence. Soon we took off into the nerve-wracking streets again and crossed over a bridge past many rice fields, banana trees, and ladies with straw cone hats on. Aside from getting whacked by the branches of an orange tree teetering off the back of a passing scooter, I was starting to like the drive. Once we were out of the city, I was much more comfortable with navigating the streets, shifting gears, using my mirrors, and not freaking out whenever a giant bus blared its horn and squeezed past me.
The highway took us past countless small villages with little more than a few small concrete homes, some fields, a temple, and an equal number of roaming ox as there were people. These villages were easy to cruise through, and we could easily get up into fourth gear and enjoy the ability to have open space on the road. However, the large towns were crowded with vehicles, traffic lights (which people only stopped at if they felt like it), buses overtaking each other by coming ALL the way into our lane and running us off the road, scooters zipping out in front of us, and little old ladies crossing the street with wheelbarrows or yokes carrying goods for sale. My bike stalled out several times in these towns while stopping quickly, and I had to accept the embarrassment that came with my struggle to start the bike and when I accidentally plunged my foot into a muddy drainage gutter.
Needless to say, I was relieved when we passed the sign welcoming us to Halong City after a full day of driving. The ride through town was gorgeous, with the limestone formations of Halong Bay off in the distance, palm trees lining the street, and huge hotels jutting up every few hundred meters.
We rolled up to the Viet Nhat Hotel and were checked in by an adorable eight-year-old boy translating for his Vietnamese grandmother. For $9 a night, we enjoyed a room with a balcony, ample hot water, and free breakfast. I was just thankful for being able to rest and not drive for a few hours.
We thought we deserved a nice Western meal after an exhausting day on the road, so we joined all the other tourists staying in the town at the Italian Restaurant. I had my doubts when we ordered pizza and lasagna, but it was a much more enjoyable interpretation of Italian food than I had expected. Amongst the tourists dining at the restaurant were the only two white people we saw on the road the entire day. We chatted about our bikes, compared travel itineraries, and planned to see each other again tomorrow since we had the same plans.
With delicious food in my tummy, and my stiff body relieved by a hot shower, I had no trouble falling asleep.