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Twenty Minutes of Panic–Leaving Saigon by Motorbike

When Anthony and I initially discussed doing the typical backpacker thing and buying motorbikes in Vietnam, I was dead set on us getting one bike so that I would never have to drive it myself.  Well flashfoward a few months to our first day in Saigon where we ended up the proud new owners of TWO semi-automatic Honda Waves instead of just one.  After doing a fair bit of reading online it was clear with the two of us plus our two bags piled onto one bike it would really be safer and more efficient to have two.  With so much weight on one bike, Anthony would have no time to get out of the way or stop quickly if need be, so I decided to get my own.  I was still very apprehensive, but the fact is I knew this was something I wanted to do, and I reminded myself that it would be worth the sweaty palms and racing heart if for no other reason than to say I took myself completely out of my comfort zone…like pretty much as far away from my comfort zone as humanly possible.  I know the fact that I’m an inexperienced motorbike driver makes this whole endeavor sound pretty insane, but now that I’ve ridden on both a motorbike and a bus in Vietnam, I’m pretty sure the buses aren’t much safer.  They might have size on their side, but at least when I’m driving the bike I’m in control of my speed and can be as careful as I want.  Bus drivers in Vietnam have absolutely no chill, but more on that later.


Once we bought the bikes we went about buying ponchos and maps, while researching every possible route from Saigon to Hanoi.  Luckily we had about two months to make a trip that most people do in a few weeks, which meant we could afford to go a little slower and stay off the beaten path as much as we wanted.  This came in very handy when we decided to take the back way out of Saigon to Vung Tau.  We found this route via Vietnam Coracle, and if you’re planning on doing this trek yourself, make sure you check him out.  He has every possible motorbike route written in detail including beaches to check out, places to eat, and his favorite hotels.  Bookmark him in your phone and download maps.me and you’ll be good to go in terms of navigation.

Getting out of Saigon was by far the most panic inducing 20 minutes of my life.  Mom, if you’re reading this you might want to skip ahead.  Initially our bikes wouldn’t even start so I had plenty of time for my anxiety to set in while we got them both running again, but when it came time to finally get on the bike I was just about ready to puke and would have given anything to be pacing back and forth waiting for the mechanic.  This feeling lasted about thirty seconds until I actually started driving.  Suddenly I realized I could do this.  The wind was whipping my face and I cruised along at the adrenaline pumping speed of about 10 kilometers per hour.  There were literally old ladies on bicycles passing me, but I didn’t care!  I was driving a motorbike in Saigon, and I hadn’t fallen over or peed my pants.


After making it around a rotary, Anthony pulled over and asked how I was doing.  I told him I was fine, and meant it, until he reminded me we were about to make a left hand turn.  A left hand turn against traffic.  A left hand turn against traffic in the most hectic city I’d ever been to.  My heart felt like it was going to pound out of my chest, but I took a deep breath and told him that we were NOT going to stay another night in Saigon, and that I could do this!  We eased up to the light, and I spent the fifteen seconds until the light changed praying for a green arrow.  I (obviously) had no such luck, and made my way out into the sea of bikes just hoping someone would take pity on me and let me through.  No one did, and about halfway through the turn I was screaming that we had to stay another night and that I was never leaving Saigon.

In spite of this moment of panic (that felt like an eternity), I managed to make it safely through my first left hand turn on a motorbike without crashing into anyone or falling off my bike.  For about two seconds I seriously considered just staying planted in the middle of the turn until the Vietnamese people finally got fed up enough with me to call a police escort to remove the crazy American lady from the road, but I decided that wasn’t the way I wanted to make my debut on international news and somehow finished the turn.  By the time we were out of the city I decided I officially liked motorbiking and that I was happy with my decision.  I still very much am.  There have been times I’ve been nervous or had to slow down to a crawl, but town by town we’re making our way North…if at the pace of a turtle.

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