The Infamous Vietnam Motorbike Crash
Photo by Patrick Sofen (@psofen)
Written by Elliott Pak
[I’d been traveling for over two months, having gone through parts of Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Cambodia, and was half-way through Vietnam – currently in the beautiful city of Hoi An – the city of colorful lanterns, old-style buildings, and ridiculously good food (best in Vietnam imo).]
Pt. 1 – Eager, Stupid, Naïve (Me)
My eyes popped open quick. Today was finally the day.
I quietly and carefully moved my left leg off the bed. I was in a 6 person dorm, and was the first one awake.
I looked down – good. My cuts hadn’t bled through the massive amount of bandaging on my leg.
A few days earlier, I had gotten in a bicycle accident.
No, not a motorbike accident.
How? Well, on my first day in Hoi An, I rented a (janky) bicycle to ride around and check out the old town. Anyway, I was maybe riding my bike a little too aggressively, the chain snapped, I ate shit. Nothing serious, but I got nice big chunk of road rash down the left side of my calf.
Now, travelers having tons of bandaging is quite common, especially in this part of Vietnam. Everyone’s getting in accidents. So just having the bandages wasn’t that embarrassing – but people asking me how it happened and me having to explain it kinda was.
I know how to ride a bicycle guys it wasn’t my fault.
Whatever, I know how to laugh at myself.
So the good news was I woke up, and it wasn’t bleeding through anymore. This was my last day in Hoi An, and I rented a motorbike to get to the next city – Hue.
A little bit of background, for those who don’t know, Vietnam is roughly shaped like a long, vertical sliver. Because of this, the travel path is quite straight-forward for backpackers – you either travel from north to south, or vice versa. I was traveling south to north. Now it’s also quite common for people to rent or purchase motorbikes and make the entire trip themselves, as opposed to the convenient “sleeper busses” that most others take.
Before I got to Vietnam, of course I thought I would be one of those adventurous ones that bought a motorbike in Saigon and made the entire 1,600 km trip to Hanoi, solo dolo.
But of course, things always get in the way of plans. Long story short, I entered the country with a series of complications, including but not limited to: eye infections, visa problems, money issues, me being lazy as shit, etc.
On top of that, by chance, I ran into some old friends I had met in Cambodia, and decided to take the route with them for at least a while (they had their whole sleeper bus schedule planned out, as opposed to me not even knowing what cities were in Vietnam).
“I’ll get a motorbike in the next city,” I said.
I said that in four different fucking cities.
So, finally, by the time I got to Hoi An (which is just about halfway through ‘Nam), I decided enough was enough. I’M DOING THIS NOW NO MATTER WHAT.
The Hoi-An-to-Hue path just so happened to be notoriously beautiful, maybe the best part of the ride through Vietnam in general. It’s called the Hai Van Pass. Look it up.
Ah, so back to the morning of. I excitedly pack my bags, go downstairs for breakfast, and mentally prepare for the trip ahead. At breakfast, I ran into some friends I had made the other night, and they happened to be taking the same route as me that morning.
I was stoked for a minute, but the stoked-edness wore off as breakfast came to an end.
I realized the reason why I was so excited for today in the first place was that I’d be making the trip solo – get some much needed alone time. Just me, my bike, and the music blasting in my ears. I ended up making some excuse that I had to stick around for a while before I left, and they could go ahead.
“You sure man?” the kind British guys asked. “It’s a good idea to go with others, JUST IN CASE ANYTHING HAPPENS.”
“NAH, I’M COOL,” I replied.
WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG, the moron (who had just gotten in a bicycle accident) confidently asked himself.
Pt. 2 – The Ridiculously Beautiful Hai Van Pass and the Ridiculously Stupid Crash
I finish my delicious pancake breakfast, say goodbye to all of my friends – many of whom I had been traveling with for quite a while (this was where we were all splitting up) – and pack my bags onto the bike.
As much as I love traveling and meeting people, I really love my alone time. I was excited. I plugged in my headphones, turned my music up way too loud, strapped on my helmet, and skidded out of Hoi An without looking back.
And it was amazing.
Vietnam, despite its relatively small size, has an amazingly diverse scenery. I didn’t see all of these on this particular bike trip, but the country is full of thick forests, far-reaching sand dunes, beautiful beaches, crazy mountains, etc. The list goes on and on.
So I’m riding, big ass smile on my face, music blasting, clouds clearing. It was spectacular. As I exited the Hoi An area, I rode through small villages, rice paddies, and out towards the coastline. I even passed some nice suburbs, the first of its kind I had seen in SE Asia. I stopped first at Marble Mountain, an amazing Buddhist temple set high on a cliff, with a beautiful view of the surrounding area.
I drove on through the peninsula city of Da Nang. It was beautiful, but seemed almost deserted. Which was weird, cause there were many beautiful beachside resorts. I stopped to take some pictures, chill in the sand. But this place was oddly quiet, which creeped me out and made me feel lonely. Fuck let’s get out of here.
I finally drive out onto this impressive bridge leading out of the city.
Ahhhhh here comes the good stuff. The Hai Van Pass. In the distance, the monstrous, green, tree-filled mountains were coming up. I was already awe-struck and I hadn’t even begun the climb. I had never seen something so green in my life.
As I went up and down and through the curvy (and dangerous) mountain roads, I couldn’t help but stop to take it all in numerous times. Imagine you’re in this insanely beautiful, tree-filled mountain that overlooks a glimmering sea, with clouds coming in and out. It was ridiculously beautiful.
I climbed up into the clouds, plateau’d, and finally began the descent. There wasn’t another soul on the road. There was something so peaceful, exhilarating, and creepy about being the only person on the mountain.
By now, the clouds were so thick you could only see about 20 feet in front of you. It was nice and cold too (a rare occurrence in SE A). Every couple miles, a shiny gold box would appear in the distance – they were small Buddhist shrines. Amazing.
Before long, I made it down the mountain and into the clear once again. Off the mountain, the road had become straight once again, and it looked like I was in about the last hour of my journey. It had been about 3 hours so far.
I was already tired as hell. (Such a pussy, how would I have made it through 1,600 km?)
My eyes were dry, nose runny, legs stiff, palms sweaty. (vomit on my sweater already, mom’s spaghetti.)
The street was slowly filling with more and more motorbikes, and before long, it was packed. Not the slow kind of packed – the Vietnam-motorbike kind of packed, where everyone is still going fast as hell, swerving in and out of other bikers.
I suddenly realized I had no idea if I was still going the right way. I slowly started moving to the right side of the road to pull over and check my maps.
Just as I was doing this, a Vietnamese man pulled over, cut me off and stopped really quickly. I pulled my back brake as hard as I could, but seeing as how it was a shitty rental with over 200,000 km on it, that didn’t do much.
I had to pull my front brake real hard (oh no) – as I was gliding over a ton of loose gravel (no no no) – and my front tire slides out (ahhhhhh nooooooo), and I eat shit real hard.
Both mirrors break off my bike, front left of the bike is crushed. My left leg that had finally healed over was bleeding everywhere, both arms were bleeding everywhere.
I don’t know if you guys know what it’s like, I realize not everyone has been in accidents like this, I guess I’m prone to it (totaling of a Porche, flying off skateboards, smashing bikes into people) – but every time, those first few seconds where you’re lying on the ground goes in slow motion. It’s oddly peaceful and disconcerting and chaotic at the same time.
It’s like “WHERE THE FUCK AM I- oh yeah here I am- OH FUCK AM I DEAD- no I’m definitely ali- AH SHI- oh.”
I came to my senses, slowly got up, and wiped off my cut up leg with my already cut up hand. I checked my head. Head’s fine, good ol’ helmet. Bleeding a lot, but all the cuts look shallow. Nothing serious nothing serious.
I go down to pick up the bike, but immediately drop it again. I realized my wrists were numb. I smashed both of my wrists. They were kind of floppy. I think the adrenaline was keeping me from experiencing the full extent of the pain. I wasn’t feeling it yet but I could tell it was not a good sign.
I had that distinct feeling of impending doom. You know that feeling when you wake up still drunk from the night before, and you’re kind of numb and happy, until you realize the hangover is going to punch you in the mouth 10x harder than usual in a few hours?
I looked around. First thing I noticed – the guy who had caused me to crash didn’t give a fuck. He didn’t even turn his head around. I saw him look at me in his mirror, and then he drove off. Sick thanks.
Second thing I noticed – NO ONE ELSE gave a fuck either. This is Vietnam, homie, learn how to drive properly. Stupid tourist.
Maybe I should call someone?
Oh wait haha I don’t have data.
Oh I’ll just tell the British guys to help me out.
Oh wait haha I told them to go ahead without me.
Looked back down the way I came from. Nothing there.
Looked forward down the road. Nothing.
Well. Not many options other than picking myself up and brushing myself off.
I painfully pulled up my bike off the ground and collected all the parts I could.
[Pro Travel Tip: if you want to know what feeling really pathetic is like, pick up the mirrors of your motorbike after you fall off of it while hundreds of Vietnamese on-lookers drive by you]
I climb back on. Check my maps.
Oh, I was going the right way. Cool.
No internal problems with the bike, and I drive for another long, painful 45 minutes into the city.
Slowly, more and more buildings, more stoplights, and much, much more traffic gradually appeared.
Welcome to Hue.
Yes the pain was painful, but what was more painful than the pain, was every local staring at me at every stoplight. There’s something so much more intimate about stoplights when you’re not sitting in a car, but on a motorbike next to 20 other motorbikes, close enough to smell what the person next to you had eaten for breakfast.
Some of them would mutter something at me, thinking I was Vietnamese, thinking I could understand. (If you don’t know what I look like, I’m Korean, easy mix-up I guess).
Others would mutter to each other and point.
Others would shamelessly stare at me.
It’s okay that I can’t speak Vietnamese, my self-conscious mind would translate for them – “that guy is a MORON and probably a STUPID tourist.”
Fair enough. Can’t really argue with that.
Whatever, I was still pretty numb, maybe I’m not in as bad of a condition as I thought. Let’s just find the hostel.
Pt. 3 – Oh Yeah No Actually This Sucks A Lot Oh Shit
After navigating my half broken motorbike down the back streets of Hue, I finally arrive at the hostel (after asking four people on the street where it was).
Now the hostel I was staying at was basically the back part of a coffee shop.
So picture my stupid ass, rolling into this coffee shop alley, bleeding from multiple cuts, fucked up motorbike – it was pretty obvious I was struggling a bit. As I parked my bike, a local guy from the coffee shop runs out, and immediately asks me if I’m okay.
Me being a moron and worrying more about the rented motorbike I had wrecked, that’s the first thing I tell him. He walked around the bike, looks for a minute, and just says “give me keys. I have guy that will fix.” Kind of stunned and half-conscious, I hand him the keys, and he dips out around the corner real quick.
Fucking great. Now I just got my bike jacked. Fucking fantastic.
Just kidding. Five minutes later, he comes roaring around the corner, and all the pieces that had come off, all back on. The fucked up front left of the bike looked slightly less fucked up. Still noticeable – but better. He hands me back the keys and I ask him, how much. He says, “no no, its okay, I did it for you.” And he leads me into the hostel.
Me being a tired, wary backpacker, thinking everyone wants something for something, was confused (but only half conscious). I just went with it.
[side-story: Later, I bring the motorbike back to the rental company (they have stations in every city, so you just drive your bike to the next shop). I walk in, super nervous, trying to hide all my bandages. The guy takes the keys, takes one walk around it, looks at it, then is just like “okay you’re good. Bye.” like wtf I thought for sure they were going to break my thumbs]
Anyway, I check into the hostel, all fantastically kind Vietnamese staff, all looking at me with a mix of pity and amusement – made me wonder how many injured morons they saw on the daily. They lead me to the hostel room in the back. She mumbled something about me being the first person, which I didn’t understand at first, until I got to the room.
It was like a 20 person dorm, but no one in it. Just me.
A lot of times, it’s kind of nice when that happens. It’s almost like getting a free upgrade to a private room.
It did not feel nice this time.
I was secretly looking forward to being around a bunch of people after that long solo journey. Other empathetic travelers who had maybe gone through a similar injury. Maybe had a first aid kit. Maybe someone who was a nurse back home. (straight up the best people to travel with or meet at hostels. It’s actually straight comedy how the traveling nurses all get bombarded at hostels. WHAT KIND OF BUG BITE IS THIS?? CAN YOU CHECK THIS RASH ON MY ASS??).
Shit, I didn’t even need all that. All I needed was someone to go “ah that sucks man. Sorry.”
Nope. Just me.
Aaaaaand there goes my independence, slowly folding into loneliness.
By the way, that adrenaline I was talking about – long gone. Long fucking gone. Both my wrists felt absolutely destroyed. I could barely lift my backpack. I could barely dress myself. Even taking a piss was hard work. Restful sleep was out of the question.
People ask me if I ever got homesick. I tell them almost never, except for the few times I was sick or injured. This was by far the worst I had. This was the closest I got to giving up and finding a flight home. The very thought depressed the fuck out of me – but the helplessness topped with loneliness I felt was pretty miserable.
It was a pretty dark part of my trip.
Pt. 4 – How This Accident Turned Into One of the Best, Most Memorable Parts of My Trip
After a nice, shitty nap, I head to the front coffee shop, and order some food.
Now I mentioned earlier that the hostel had no travelers – but it was well-staffed with some of the nicest people ever. They brought me some Band-aids and stuff. Did what they could. Visual representation of what it felt like:
Anyways, I order some food, and seriously can’t even use the eating utensils. I can’t stress how stupid I looked. Two fucked wrists. I’m actually laughing out loud right now imagining what I must’ve looked like to these people.
Anyway, the bartender of the establishment next door was walking by and saw me obviously struggling. He walked over, and asked me about my injuries. Asked if I had been to the hospital yet.
“No, yeah, I’ll probably go later today.”
Me, dumb, forgot hospitals were a thing.
“No, do not go, it will be very expensive. My father is ex-doctor, I take you to see him.”
I’m sitting there straight dumbfounded. So much appreciation already.
“Like tonight? Or tomorrow?”
“Now. I will tell my work I take my break now.” and he walked away.
He literally went to ask his work to take a break AT THAT MOMENT to take me to get my wrists checked. I was so taken aback by this local’s kindness. Dumbfounded. Confused. Straight up, I really couldn’t fathom what was happening.
[sidenote – each country I went to had a very defining “personality” that ran amongst the people, which I found super interesting. For example, the Cambodian people were some of the nicest, smiliest I had ever met, even the small children were very confident and talkative. Thailand was full of very nice people. Malaysia was a bit more withdrawn. Balinese were super nice. But in Vietnam, in general, I ran into a lot ruder of people. I felt like people wanted nothing to do with me, or they were trying to hustle me. I was probably about 2-3 weeks into Vietnam, so I’m just giving you the type of mindset I was in. Maybe cause I’m American? Who knows. PLEASE NOTE this is all my opinion. I could be way off.]
Anyways, this unexpected and very forward kindness definitely caught me off guard.
He comes jogging back, says let’s go. My brain is working at a very low capacity at this point, logical thinking was basically out the window.
Fuck it. I might get kidnapped and murdered, but my wrists hurt, so okay yeah let’s go.
He pulls out his motorbike, and I hop on the back.
We take off (a bit too quickly for a guy who was just in an accident).
We speed through the crowded city, over bridges, through beautiful buildings and awesome alleys no tourist would ever think to go down. At this point I hadn’t seen any of the city of Hue, and now I was getting the full local experience.
I want to point out that I was dying of pain but I couldn’t help but laugh as we rode by this amazing canal running through a non-touristy part of the city. It was so surreal what was happening. This city was fucking magnificent.
Who the fuck is this guy? Is he going to kill me? Why the fuck would anyone help my dumb ass right now?
Anyway, after what felt like I had just ridden through a well-shot travel video of Vietnam, we finally pull into this local neighborhood.
Young Vietnamese kids were running through the alley kicking a soccer ball around. A sweaty man was power drilling through some wood. An older lady was cooking some delicious-smelling broth in a large pot outside. A big dog was lazily chilling nearby in the shine of the hot sunny day.
Straight authentic. (I laugh as I write that. What a touristy nerd thinking to myself, “oh my, how authentic this is!”)
On the ride over, I learned that he was married, with a new baby child. His family lived with his parents along with his brother, so there were six of them in this house he had grown up in himself.
We slow down, and hop off the bike in front of a small, teal blue house.
I take off my shoes, and walk into this beautiful, humble abode. He told me to take a seat in the living room. He left the room.
I remember very clearly a big grandfather clock’s tick tock was the only thing I could hear. I looked around the room – some Buddhist artwork – big fish tank with exotic fish – a Hulk action figure laying on the ground.
Whilst looking around with my mouth gaped open like an idiot, in walked his mom (the grandmother) carrying the baby son. I immediately stand up, bow my head a bit, use the small amount of Vietnamese that I knew to say hello and thanks so much for allowing me into their home.
She didn’t know much English, but she understood and smiled at me. The baby was wary of me. All babies are wary of me.
Anyway, she leaves the room, and my buddy walks back in.
He told me that his father was not there at the moment, but we could wait there for a while. I said of course that I was fine with waiting (what the fuck else would I be doing, crying in my bunk at the hostel?).
He left the room hastily, I think he had a lot of business to get done while he was home as well.
After a few minutes, in walked the grandmother, with the baby, water, and snacks.
Let’s first get past the point where this is the nicest woman in the world just feeding some stupid injured American kid, but I was starving. Idk what you’ve heard but backpackers don’t exactly eat like royalty. One of the greatest treats one could give a backpacker – local, home-made, free food.
One of the best gestures, ever.
My bud walked in, and we start talking about his family, Vietnam, my travels, history, man just about everything. He roughly translated for the grandmother as well. At this point the baby trusts me enough to give a little high five. We play Hulk Smash for a bit.
About 40 minutes later, the grandfather walked in. I was nervous on many levels. Nervous about the diagnosis, nervous cause it fucking hurt a lot, nervous cause he walked in like one of those badass old Asian men who probably did gnarly crazy stuff in his life in the Vietnamese mafia…I don’t know I was delirious and my mind was wandering. He looked like the real deal.
(to be honest if you research the tragic history of Hue, he probably had seen some shit.)
He walked over, without a word, and immediately started checking my wrists.
Roughly. No warning. That shit hurt.
You know that feeling when something hurts so much that you laugh?
No? Just me?
Well I was trying unsuccessfully to hold my laughter in as he squeezed my wrists, he must’ve thought I was a psycho.
He applied this amazing-smelling ginger stuff all over, massaged them, and carefully wrapped them in home-made casts. He explained to his son who translated to me that they were pretty badly sprained, but not broken.
Whew. I was relieved.
And just as quickly as he came, he left. I don’t think I was even able to say goodbye.
The homie had to get back to work, so I thanked the grandmother as much as I could, and shook the little baby’s hand one more time before I left.
We took off on the bike through tiny alleys, back across the river, through the city, and onto the bridge. The sun was setting just over the bridge as we crossed it. The dragon boats lined the harbor. Surreal.
Just less than a day earlier, I was sitting in my bunk, purely fucking miserable, thinking my trip was about to end, feeling alone and helpless. Now I was sitting in the coffee shop, casts on my wrists, wildly explaining my story to the Vietnamese staff of the hostel as well as another backpacker or two that had finally checked in.
Instead of thinking my trip was about to end, I was looking into the next sleeper bus and planning out all the crazy shit that was about to go down in Hanoi. (another story for another day)
Need closure on my wrists?
Me looking dumb af for the next month was basically the extent of it. Sure there was probably a lot of pain but who cares. I kind of look back at it fondly now. I didn’t really remember any of the shitty, desperate loneliness I felt those couple days until I wrote this.
I did easily remember laughing about it with new friends. Over exaggerating stories to old acquaintances. Random locals helping me carry my backpack. Speeding through cities and rivers on bikes and boats and barely being able to hold on. Hurting myself petting a dog but knowing the pain was totally worth it.
Sometimes you need the pain to help generate the best memories.
Funny how that works.
Just how everyone has distinct personalities, everyone has their favorite aspects of travel.
For example: I’m not a huge hiker. If I’m going on a gnarly long hike – it better be to see the face of God or the King of Thailand or something. I’d rather be searching for weird local shit to eat. I’m not much for extreme sports. Unless it involves drinking. I’m not much of a lay-on-the-beach guy when I travel. I’m more of a walk-through-the-city kind of a guy.
You get my point.
When people ask me for travel tips – I’d usually say just go with what you like, and don’t take people’s word for what’s good and bad, cause everyone’s different, don’t over-plan, travel is subjective, yada yada yada.
The best universal aspect of travel in my opinion, is something I think almost everyone would agree on once they really get to experience it – is getting a taste of what that local culture is really like.
I’m not talking about temples or history or whatever.
I’m talking about being surrounded and interacting with the actual people who live there – who speak a different language – who (you would think) live completely differently.
To see with your own eyes that people everywhere are just that – people. People who have dreams and fears and aspirations.
Little kids who think the Hulk could beat Captain America, no problem.
Teenagers who sing along and dance to Taylor Swift or can’t wait for the new Killers’ album to come out.
20-somethings who aspire to travel the world and see if the “West” is anything like they see on TV.
Husbands who make dumbass immature jokes and wives who look at them like “what the fuck is wrong with you?”
Grandmothers that feel the need to feed everyone, no matter who they are.
Yeah, abstractly, we all know that all people are people.
But it’s a whole other thing when you see it face to face. When you sit down at their table, in their home, humbled down to a “foreigner,” despite whatever title you had back home.
It’s fucking enriching and eye-opening.
I’ll always remember this beautiful Vietnamese family who literally did not have to do a single thing for my stupid, foreign ass. I didn’t even have the balls to go out of my way to ask for help – he came to me. And asked to get work off for me. And took me all the way to his house. And fed me. Allowed me to play with their child. Fixed me.
These people literally JUST met me. The language barrier was huge. But still they helped me, and not to get emotional, but I was at one of my lowest points of the trip.
Talk about helpless and alone.
I’ll never forget that house, with the teal blue walls and the Hulk action figure and the smell of ginger.
I’ll never forget or stop believing in the kindness of strangers.
If I could go back to the loose gravel, I’d slide and crash every time.