When a tourist or expat tells you they took a motorbike trip up or down Vietnam, 99% of the time they’re talking about taking Highway 1 (sometimes referred to as AH1) along the coast. It’s the only major thruway connecting all the large cities, so it makes sense. But taking AH1 also means you’ll just be packaged like a sardine, staring at the glorious view you have of a semi’s backend the entire time.
There are backroads that meander all the way along the length of Vietnam too, and they’re way more precarious, deserted, challenging, and worthwhile. Trade that generic experience for ancient bridges made out of fallen logs, “toll booths” manned by seven-person villages, and muddy, dusty orange footpaths masquerading as “roads” on your atlas that even give your 1967 Honda a run for its money.
Because you will. The back roads of Vietnam often wind serenely and severely along cliff faces and miles of farmed, hilly terraces, splitting into forks Rand McNally never thought would come in handy. You won’t realize you’re lost for a few hours, and by then it’ll be nightfall. But that’s okay — you’ll have just spent the afternoon driving through jungle, gazing upon untouched multi-million dollar views Rupert Murdoch would kill to own, and only passing the occasional monk in burnt orange robes.
Though getting lost was definitely worth it, you’ll eventually have to face nightfall and the fact that you’re in the middle of nowhere. You’ll also have to end up settling for the next “town” you come to and stopping every single person that’s out at night for directions. When you ask them, “Khách sạn ở đâu?” (Where is a hotel?), they’ll inevitably tell you there isn’t one anywhere nearby, but you’re more than welcome to sleep on their floor. Don’t be surprised when they spend minutes perfecting your pile of blankets, plastering you with hot tea, or when they wake you up in the morning with the scent of fresh hủ tiếu. If you leave in the morning without getting their phone number (unprompted, of course) and giving them your autograph, something went wrong.
If you’ve done basic research on Vietnam or even just scrolled through images on Google, you’re probably familiar with the scene: hoards of tourists, expats, and locals on red plastic, playset-like stools lining the edge of the road, throwing back beer after beer after beer. These are called bia hơis, and the beer served is cold, weak, and super cheap (just cents on the dollar).
You can get more recognizable beer, too, if you’d like. But whether you’re drinking Saigon Đỏ, ba-ba-ba, or the local water, consider yourself hazed. Let the young girls come around to ice your glass as the sweat drips from your forehead, and take bets on the cockroaches running around on your feet. Hint: always bet on the fattest one. Bonus points if you don’t jump as it wiggles across your toes.
And remember to cheer with at least one group of inebriated locals, “Một, hai, ba, yo!”
One of the first questions you’ll inevitably be asked when you’re in Vietnam is what nationality you are. If your answer is American, sometimes things will get a little weird. If a man with one eye smiles at your response, points at his non-eye, mock fires a gun with his hands, and says, “America!” know that you won’t be the first one this has happened to. It’ll be weird until he tops it off with “America, number one!” and then it’ll get weirder.
Take a moment to think about what this generation went through, what they saw, and the progress they’ve made since then. As you wander the hills, the tunnels, and the beaches, you may begin understanding why your parents freaked out when you said you were going here. But you know better now, and you know a different country.
Sure, some of us 20-somethings are mega-millionaire entrepreneurs that sip champagne at weekly galas and dine with bigwigs in high rises on feasts of caviar and Lobster Thermidore, but the rest of us aren’t. If you hold down a job, do your own dishes, and buy your clothes from stores, know that a better world exists out there and it’s called Vietnam. Stay long enough to acquire an address, hire a maid for $50-100 a month, and get all your clothes made by a local tailor.
In the big cities, you’re going to be bombarded with new money and capitalism, capitalism, capitalism. Vietnam is growing like a 12-year-old boy out of his Nikes, at least in urban areas. To get the whole picture, be sure to visit the outskirts of small delta towns like Sóc Trăng for a glimpse into the true hardships of the past.
You’ll be regaled with stories that will remind you of your grandfather’s — remember how he joked about walking nine miles in two feet of snow to school every day? Things like that are true in the Delta, but this time it’s nine miles in two feet of water. Some places have only had the privilege of electricity for months now, and modern technology is only just starting to rear its ugly-but-useful head. You’ll be in awe of those who grew up there, and it just may make you look at your bottle of water and air-conditioned bus a little differently.
Nope, that’s not a Vietnamese guy or girl’s tongue in your mouth. That’s the name for the resulting mark on your shin when you lean up against the scalding hot exhaust pipe of a motorbike. And with enough time, inevitably you’ll get one. It’ll be round and bluish-purple, and you’ll carry it around for years. All the cool kids do it. When your future children point to your leg and ask “What’s that funny mark on your leg?,” you’ll get to tell them, “Well, that one time back in ‘Nam…”
This is just step one of the hazing process. You’ll be fine in a day or so.
Vietnam cuisine is a mouthwatering fusion of French and Asian foods, but it’s also a great opportunity to knock back plenty of Fear Factor-esque foods from your to-eat list. Duck egg fetuses, fresh fish having the life fried out of them in front of your eyes, crickets, and dog meat are just four of the culinary options at your feet. How deep of an experience do you want?
A decade or so ago the country was overrun with bicycles and mom-and-pop phở stands, but that way of life is slowly getting replaced by cars and KFC. Starbucks and McDonald’s are now on the scene too, and bia hơis are losing out to showy beer clubs that come complete with bathrooms that double as vomitoriums. While vestiges of the culture will always remain and smaller towns are clinging tight, the experience you have pictured in your head is slowly becoming the stuff of a generation ago. If this country is on your bucket list, book those tickets as soon as you can. You’ll be glad you did.