Day 27: Ho Chi Minh City
I sleep in til 7am (it’s appalling what passes for a sleep-in these days), but I’m still tired. Flo is up too.
After eggs and iced coffee we look at the notice board by the front door of the hostel, which is pinned with advertisements of bikes for sale. ‘Jan’ is selling a couple Honda Wins for just over two hundred and fifty dollars each – price negotiable. Flo emails him and a few other bike posters and we go upstairs to get ready. We’re in the market for motorcycles, man.
The backpacker area around downtown Saigon is full of the usual tourist crap – overpriced restaurants, colourful clothing stores and sketchy motorbike shops. We check out some of these bike joints. The Honda Win appears to be the flagship bike of every tourist travelling on two wheels. There are a million of them in every colour, each stamped with the Vietnam gold star on the gas tank. Almost all have their parts repainted in black to cover mismatched bits or old engines or scratched exhaust pipes.
Flo and I, collectively, know this much about motorcycles: we like them and want to buy two of them. Plus whatever he learned riding one around Goa for a few days. It’s tough to know what to look for in a bike when shopping with mere shreds of knowledge.
We take a lunch break from the overwhelming array of motorbikes to ponder our options. We’re gonna have to go with our guts on this one, it seems.
Flo test rides a few after lunch. We haggle with one shop over a couple polished bikes, but the price is steep and so we follow our guts away from that place. People have said buying from a local shop is a gamble as they often tinker with the bikes to give the mechanics around town some extra work. Wink wink.
A couple dented Honda Wins sit parked on the sidewalk, taped with flyers. One; army green with a yellow star; and one all black, like a gas-powered ninja. They’re the bikes ‘Jan’ is selling who we’d emailed earlier. We crouch down to inspect the engine, as if we know what we’re doing. A tall young guy approaches us from across the street.
“Are you guys looking for a bike?”
It’s Jan. Him and his other Swiss buddy are selling the bikes they rode from northern Vietnam to Saigon. An incredible adventure, Jan tells us. Flo takes the green Win for a test ride.
“It feels good,” he says.
Jan’s friend is still sleeping and has the key to the other bike, so we agree to meet up later to give the ninja Win a whirl.
We plod back to the hostel and collapse on our beds in a cloud of two-wheeler confusion. Jan’s bikes are definitely ‘well-loved’, but he’s a kind dude and seems trustworthy. He’s given us a rundown of what the bikes have been through mechanically and any issues they had with them. From what we’ve heard, it’s a good idea to buy from other travellers. Plus, the price is in our buying range. (And if we have to haggle with one more shop owner or look at another cryptic ‘for sale’ poster, we might just flag down the next bus.)
Twenty minutes later, Jan messages. His friend is awake, so we go back to talk business. Well, at least Flo does. He charms them down to $400 for the pair. Our bike package includes one helmet, two ponchos and a pair of rain trousers, bike racks, and the promise of adventure unknown.
We shake hands. We exchange cash for keys and in a celebratory move of emotion, the sky opens up and surges tears of happiness all over the Swiss guys and Flo and I and our new motorbikes and the sweet city of Saigon. We take a few steps off the street and into the cover of a restaurant. The four of us sit down to a round of beer and our bike gurus share their motorcycle exploits of Vietnam. Their excitement for us to continue the Honda’s adventure is catching, although we aren’t lacking in terms of enthusiasm. They show us pictures of magical places they explored and give tips like how often to change the oil and what to do when something goes wrong, because over the course of 1600+km, something will go a little awry. But it’s always something small, they promise.
The send off of their now former bikes is a class act from the Swiss gentlemen. Our new Honda Wins may be a higher form of scrap metal, but their confidence in them gives us confidence. I couldn’t be more proud of my little olive beater.
Now, the rev-able baton has been passed. Thankyou and grand travels, Swiss Columbi. There are new bikers in town.
I plant my butt on the leather seat and wrap my fingers around the handles. Flo explains how a clutch works. And how to change gears. It’s my first time riding a motorcycle. And my first time driving standard.
I stall it once, twice, three times, shooting forward a foot with each one until I’m blocking the alley on my right.
“You got this!” Flo yells from behind.
A high pitched honk screams, and from the right a motorcycle zooms towards me, aiming to come out of the alley.
I guess I had better get out of the goddamn way. I rev the gas, slowly release the clutch, and the bike obeys! Wobbling forward, I scream in excitement and motor to the end of the street as Flo cheers, following on his black baby. Around the corner we pull into the hostel and park. BAM. (No, that’s not me crashing into the wall, that’s just the sound of success.)
Back in the dorm room, Flo gets ready to hit the gym. I decide to join him this time, and the bikes are going with us. I jam my helmet on and we rev onto the velvet streets, the sky drizzling over evening rush hour. In five minutes the drizzle proves to be a tease and grows to a full-on downpour; perfect learning grounds for a beginner on a Honda.
We get a little lost and pull over to check the map under an awning. I sizzle my leg on the steaming exhaust pipe when I dismount. F$@#!
Flo escorts me back to the hostel so I can ice it.
At a nearby coffee shop I try to communicate my issue via hand signals to the Vietnamese speaking girl. Her eyes widen and she brings over a bag of ice, then goes and comes back with a tube of toothpaste. She sits with my leg in her lap, smothering the affected area in minty freshness. Obscure Asian remedies? Why not.
A German girl at the next table watches.
“Ah,” she says. “You got the Vietnam tattoo.”
Flo comes back and we realize we haven’t eaten since noon. But it’s 1130pm and everything is closed, so our options are noodle soup and noodle soup. We eat noodle soup from the sidewalk vendor, go home and fall asleep full on pho.