Driving without a headlight

It’s been an action-packed three days on Cat Ba Island. An 18-km hike through a national park was followed by a day of kayaking. The natural scenery is simply stunning; like the karst peaks of Guangxi, but surrounded by water instead of rice paddies. Naturally, the tourist hordes flock here, but I managed to avoid them for the most part. The jungle trek was great – the Quebec couple (Vincent and Audrey) and I had the trail to ourselves, aside from two other couples. The highlight was kayaking alone in a secluded area of a lagoon a two-hour boat ride north of Cat Ba Town. The tranquility, karst peaks, and cries of birds and monkeys (sadly, I didn’t catch a glimpse of the Gold Headed Langur – the rarest monkey in the world) made for a surreal experience. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a dinosaur had poked it’s head from the dense vegetation. The I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening moment occurred when we caught a boat back to town after our hike only to discover my headlight isn’t working, along with Vincent’s. The sight of two motorbikes driving with one flashlight would have terrified oncoming traffic in the West, but in SE Asia it’s a common occurrence.

Stranded between Hanoi and Cat Ba Island

It’s been raining all day so my plan to finish riding to Cat Ba Island has been put on hold. I’m sitting outside under an overhang of the entrance to my $5-per-night nha nghi (guest house), watching the tourist buses, trucks, and motorbikes pass by on a major 2-lane road connecting Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. I expected to reach my destination yesterday, but a late start, a slow countryside detour, and a problem with a travel companion’s bike forced the three of us to call it quits at dusk. Avoid traveling at night and in the rain at all costs. I dreaded spending the night at a cheap road-side inn, but it made for an unexpected experience. The owner welcomed us with open arms, treating us to dinner, followed by lunch (I ate dog for the first time!) today. TripAdvisor mentions no nearby attractions, which isn’t surprising as the tourist trail bypasses this area completely in favor of world-renowned sights. Nonetheless, I experienced two traditional Vietnamese meals with locals, while sitting on the floor without shoes according to custom. I was invited, not coerced by a tourist hawk, to enjoy a free, authentic moment. This is why I travel, and motoring on my own two wheels allowed it to happen.

Training wheels

I’m on a Hanoi-bound flight from Guangzhou, flying high and feeling high. The past year of teaching English in China has flown by! Ok, enough with the flying metaphors. I feel at ease, confident, and excited about what lies ahead in the coming three months. I haven’t traveled solo since I backpacked through Columbia in 2012; it feels good to be back in the saddle again. I’ll spend Christmas and welcome the new year in northern Vietnam. The big challenge, aside from the obvious language barrier, will be learning how to ride a motorcycle. Baby steps. First, rent a clutch-less scooter. Next, upgrade to a clutch. Finally, buy a used motorbike and conquer SE Asia! Throw caution to the wind! Translation: I will drive like a grannie and slowly travel from Point A to Point B, with a solid helmet.

Well, I ended up jumping in the deep end two days later. While enjoying a coffee at the Hanoi War Museum, I casually struck up a conversation with an ex-pat because I noticed her bike helmet. She bought her scooter from Minh’s Motorbikes, located outside of the tourist-saturated Old Quarter, where I was staying. I called the number, received a free scooter pickup, and was learning to drive a Honda Win 110cc up and down a back alley before I knew it. It took a good 30 minutes of rough acceleration and stalling before I felt comfortable entering the madness that is Hanoi traffic. I bought my very first vehicle for $260,  and received the necessary Vietnamese registration and a verbal guarantee from Mr. Minh that my bike could be serviced for free at his shop and affiliated shops in Hue and Ho Chi Minh City. As a bonus, I met a laid-back couple from Quebec that was headed my way so we decided to travel to Cat Ba Island together on Christmas. Strength in numbers, right?