Of the many things I love about travelling solo, by far the best is that unless you really can’t get enough of your own company, you are pretty much guaranteed to meet new people every day. When the only conversation that you’ve had all day is saying good morning to the hostel receptionist or ordering a monosyllabic breakfast, you tend to make a much greater effort to strike up a conversation with a random stranger than you otherwise would.
Sometimes you might get little more than a grunt in return, while other times you might have a friendly chat over dinner and not much else. Occasionally, however, you meet some great people that you end up spending a lot longer with than you anticipated, sharing crazy times and amazing experiences along the way.
Last week in Nha Trang, shortly after playing lost and found with my passport, I was quietly lying on the beach working on my sunburn when I got to chatting to an Irish guy that pulled up the lounger beside me. His mate turned up shortly afterwards and we swapped stories about our travels over a couple of beers while admiring the views walking past, before retiring to a pub for a few more drinks with two other lads that they’d met recently.
Little did I know that this would be merely a taste of the liver destroying antics that were to follow over the next week. Mind you, when I made a last minute decision to postpone my overnight bus in favour of an all-you-can-drink booze cruise in the bay (well, wouldn’t you?) I probably should have had a fair idea about what was to come. As an aside, The Question Game has to be one of the funniest drinking games that I’ve ever played in my life – and I’ve played a few.
After sorting out the next day’s inevitable screaming hangover with a couple more drinks, it was time to finally take the miserable sleeper bus to Hoi An. Blessed with the worst seat at the back of the vehicle and with somebody apparently in the early stages of tuberculosis coughing up their lungs six inches from my face, it may not have been the most enjoyable 12 hours of my life. Although at least this time I didn’t decorate the floor with my passport as I left.
Wandering back to my hotel the next morning after a suit fitting, I was vaguely planning the rest of the day’s activities when I was startled from my thoughts by the sound of revving scooters (hardly unusual) and somebody shouting ‘Dave!’ at me (which was somewhat more unexpected in the middle of a Vietnamese road). Yes indeed, it was the guys I’d met in Nha Trang, riding like demons through the crowded streets. ‘We’re off to Hue today – want to come?’. Yes. Yes I did.
Hue is around 150 km from Hoi An, mostly on the main highway. In other parts of the world, this might take around a couple of hours to ride on scooters. When I asked the bike rental guy for his prediction, I was far from surprised to hear an estimate of over double that. Given the state of the roads in Vietnam and of the vehicles that use them, a 30 km/h average speed is pretty close to the mark. Despite getting up to 90 on very odd occasions (ideal in t-shirt and shorts), high speeds really weren’t an option for most of the time.
When you have a truck bearing down on you in your lane flashing its lights and blasting the horn, and your only option is a split second decision to mix it up with the people, chickens and bicycles in the dust at the side of the road (this only happened every couple of minutes or less), you quickly realise that slower is better. Sometimes, at least – we still seemed to be passing most things on the road regardless.
The road out of Hoi An was relatively quiet and scenic in parts, giving us a little while to come to grips with our high performance machines before the mayhem really began as we drew closer to Danang. It wasn’t hard to tell that it is the major industrial city and port for the area – the lumbering trucks and cacophony of horns weren’t especially subtle – and the increased traffic made for some entertaining riding. It honestly felt more like playing a video game than real life, weaving in and out of traffic on both sides of the road while trying not to get wiped out. Unfortunately, however, you can’t restart the game if you make a mistake.
After a minor wrong turn and discussion with the local port authority, and stopping only for refuelling (ie, beers) at a swanky resort that was undoubtedly not aimed at stinky backpackers like us, we eventually got through the city and headed up into the Hai Van pass. Various guidebooks and other travellers have suggested that this is part of the country that shouldn’t be missed, and it’s not hard to see why. Whether you have your own transport or come through here on the back of an Easy Rider tour, car or bus, if you’re in the area make sure you include this drive on your itinerary.
It’s simply stunning, not to mention that since the new tunnel through the mountains was constructed all of the heavy traffic uses that instead and you get a very welcome respite from the madness for a while. Flying down a mountain pass on a motorbike with a few new mates, gorgeous views on all sides, the sun beating down and the wind keeping me cool, all while listening to my favourite tunes with my earphones firmly wedged in my ears. It really doesn’t get any better than that.
The rest of the ride to Hue was no less eventful, although somewhat less enjoyable. All the traffic that we’d left at the tunnel rejoined us in time for the next set of hills, with a renewed sense of insanity. Trying to find a spot on the road between the buses and trucks became increasingly difficult, eventually culminating in a swerving car forcing me into the ditch at the side of the road halfway up a mountain. Thankfully I managed to stay upright, but it was a nerve racking moment.
The light started to fade as we entered the outskirts of Hue, just in time for us to lose touch with one of the group and an increasingly frantic rescue mission being undertaken to try to track him down in the encroaching gloom. After an hour or more we finally found him – in the pub. Hmmmm. Apparently he’d ridden straight past us and found his way to a likely looking backpacker bar. No great surprises there, I guess – we all needed a beer at the end of that day.
For most visitors to Hue, the highlight would be the Imperial City, or perhaps a visit to the various tombs and pagodas nearby. For me, however, it was a drunken game of 5 on 5 street football in the middle of the backpacker district somewhere after midnight. Vietnam beat the Rest Of The World Selection 2-1 in a close, hard fought and incredibly sweaty affair, which ended only due to the attentions of the local constabulary. Apparently he just didn’t understand the significance of the match. During the World Cup and all.
The return to Hoi An a couple of days later was a much more enjoyable ride with a lot less traffic and even better views in the other direction over the mountains. After exploring the old town the following day, we decided to have a sensible, quiet night as we all had things to be doing the next morning. That was before the jagermeisters came out.
And so I bid farewell to my newfound friends – they were heading north to Hanoi, while I was off to Saigon. We’re going to try to meet up again in Laos in a few weeks to do it all again. Even if we don’t, however, it was an brilliant week with the boys, all due to a chance encounter on a beach and the ability to change the few plans I had to fit in with some much more appealing alternatives. Solo, flexible, long term travel. It’s a hell of a great way to do it.