“Your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
If today was your last day on this planet, what would you do?
“Sam, we’re going on a 3000km motorbike adventure across Vietnam.” He laughed it off and told me to go easy on the Rum. Fast forward 2 weeks - I arrive in Ho Chi Minh City and quietly reconsider. 90 million people (26 million children) and 75 million motorbikes. As I stand at a hectic junction scratching my head, I think to myself “how on earth does the chicken cross the road here?” Chaos is an understatement. Forget traffic lights, road rules or even etiquette, anything goes. Vehicles weaving in and out, crossing paths, left, right and centre - thank god for peripheral vision.
I knew fine well that I was pushing my luck with Mr. Comfort Zone this time. But I had an urge and temptation kept knocking. I had two options: A) – let unknown people (notice the plural) drive me to the top of Vietnam… or B) – I ride myself. Given that I’m a very sensible person (when sober), what option is less dangerous? B of course, I trust myself. B also entails adventure, flexibility and freedom. I’d convinced myself and there was no going back – sorry Mum. After relentless haggling, I now owned a 15-year-old 110CC Honda Win costing just $200USD. They even chucked in a Vietnamese Policeman’s helmet. The next morning, we decided to hit the road at 5AM to avoid the chaotic morning rush. Little did we know, the main motorway leaving HCM didn’t open until 6AM, meaning we hit rush hour – plan gone bad and no going back. On edge, we battled through 2 hours of pure madness, witnessing our lives flash before our eyes on several occasions. Fortunately our Vietnamese friends were there to bring us back to reality with a friendly beep of the horn (I think it was friendly).
Phew, we we’re out of the madness and suddenly hit beautiful tranquility. All the fear vanished just like that. All that was left was the composed purring sound of our motorbikes as we twisted up an unbelievably picturesque mountain road. Confidence came with corners - I started thinking I was Valentino Rossi as I pushed my luck, leaning in a little further each time. But I was too distracted to focus on my riding skills. I was more concerned with how much beauty there was to take in from the surreal surroundings. The wind was blowing in my face, there was stunning green rolling hills in every direction, not to mention the peculiar nature of the Vietnamese culture – life was good.
I quickly learnt a valuable lesson on my motorbike that held true for the rest of the trip. It forced me to be utterly present. When you think about it, how much of our day do we spend dwelling on the past or events in the future that haven’t yet materialised? If you can’t relate to this, get in touch, I want to learn from you! But driving the motorbike was different. It acted as a medium that brought me into this infrequent meditative state. It was like having 8 hours of constant ‘flow’ each day – you know, that rare feeling you get when nothing else in the world matters. You’re completely absorbed in that moment that time passes by so quickly. It was only the inevitable sore butt cheek that forced me to drift out of the trance as I rhythmically slid left to right, right to left, as I climbed the mountain roads.
We met up with some friends to create The Honda Win Club – a backpacker equivalent to a Harley Davidson biker crew. There was 6 of us. 5 lads and 1 lass – an unfortunate ratio. But yes, that 1 girl is my good friend Katie Robjent. She didn’t get her lady boy status for nothing - she had bigger nuts than all of us put together. Early on in the trip, I was following Katie as we were struggling along a terrible pothole ridden country road. A school bus in front suddenly braked, causing Katie to panic and fall off her bike. She was seconds away from being crushed by the bus. As she fell, the motorbike landed on top of her squashing her legs. We quickly jumped off our bikes, pulled her out from underneath hers and brought her to the side of the road. She was clearly in a lot of pain. As I sat there in shock, it pierced through me what we could’ve been facing if that incident had turned out differently. It seems silly saying this, but Katie falling off was a blessing in disguise for each and everyone of us. We’d all been showing off and competing with each other like giddy little kids. This gave us all the reality check that we shouldn’t have needed. I thought that was the end of motorbikes for Katie, but no, she wanted to give it another shot. Don’t you just LOVE that. That’s the spirit of resilience right there, which I admire more than anything else. Despite that one incident, we had an amazing time on the road together. One day in particular that stands out for me was riding the Hai Van pass (road made famous by Top Gear) in fancy dress. Of course they dressed me up as a baby – a pink silky baby with armbands, a dummy and a bottle to be precise. The Vietnamese women loved the outfit, especially when they pointed out a hole that had emerged in my small child sized silk trousers (not deliberate, I promise).
The Vietnamese culture is a strange one. They like to tuck their t-shirts up and expose their bellies. They make revolting noises in public; “hacking up a golly” as an Aussie would put it. They also have an unhealthy obsession for a real life game of Buckaroo. Throughout the trip, I saw chickens, dogs, vegetables, six people, a washing machine, a mobile convenience store (take note entrepreneurs) and alive pigs crammed on a single motorbike.
During the moto trip I must’ve made at least 15 trips to the mechanics – my clutch, indicators and brakes were all temperamental. My exhaust fell off, my spark plug broke 5 times and my speedo was dead from the start. Nonetheless, through the use of speed = distance/time (Mr. Sansby, I was listening), road markers, and 1 caterpillar, 2, caterpillar, I could work out how fast I was going – 90kmh top speed with my big head down for the sake of aerodynamics. But you know what, I LOVED breaking down. It gave me a chance to meet a new Vietnamese family each time. Before visiting Vietnam, everyone I met commented on how nasty the people were?!?! Apart from getting my phone, wallet and flip-flops robbed (passed out drunk on a park bench), I didn’t meet one nasty person.
For the final leg of the journey it was just me and Sam riding. We we’re on the home straight but why we’re we competing again? Couldn’t we just drop our egos? I had an awful last day driving. Not only did I come off my bike around a corner (that was minor), but I also came within seconds of death. I was trying to keep up with Sam and badly misjudged an overtaking opportunity. I was head on with an enormous lorry. The car beside me wasn’t letting me merge back into the lane so I had no option but to veer off the road into a garden. Luckily I managed to keep my balance and slowed the bike down to a halt. Shaken, I got going again. 10 minutes down the road there had been a bad accident. I thought to myself, “please don’t be Sam,” as I passed officers chalking around motorbike debris scattered across the road. I looked ahead and I could see Sam in the distance – a sigh of relief swept through me. We stopped for the day and we were both silent as we lay on our beds at the hotel. We’d just heard some bad news about a friend’s health at home and we were driving about Vietnam like imbeciles. The realisation of the sheer magnitude of what we’d seen back there on the road definitely hit home. I don’t wanna imagine what impact that would’ve had on our close relatives and friends if it was us that was caught up in that accident instead.
Although this is a story of adventure, the underlying message here is the paradoxical nature of fear. Apart from our stupidity in the situations described, the entire trip of 3000km was conducted in a safe manner. I recall reading somewhere that 85% of what we worry about never actually materialises. With the benefit of hindsight, does this hold for you too? If we all shift our perspectives to what could go right, instead of what could go wrong, we’d be more inclined to embrace these so called “fearful” events rather than run away from them. Our time on this planet is diminishing day by day. We need to make the most of this scarce resource by expressing ourselves as much as possible. Never ever let fear postpone you from taking action. Put yourself out there. Throw yourself in. Say yes to the unknown. After all, you don’t want to wait till your last day on Earth to do that truly absurd thing.
It’s over to you.
Daniel Beaumont, on behalf of Team Podstel, 1st Dec 2013.