The travel option of choice for adventurous road warriors and wannabes coming to Vietnam is to buy a motorbike and take a roadtrip up country from Saigon or down from Hanoi. The traffic is tough in the cities, but on a bike you can weave and cut people off, squeeze into narrow channels between heavy trucks and sidewalks, ride the highways and the dirt trails, and blast your horn at everyone in sight.
I haven't worked up the nerve to drive a bike, but I have hired people to do it for me. This is a less hard thing to do in Vietnam, where I rarely passed through an intersection without hearing the call of 'moto-bike Madam, moto-bike'. Mr Teo, my driver around the tombs in Hue, suggested taking to the open road for a day-long trip from Hue to Hoi An, rather than the less scenic 3hr bus ride through mountain tunnels. After some negotiations I decided a taste of a longish open road was worth the time, and we headed out on a day of driving that took me passed flat rice fields lying between green mountains that reminded me a bit of Sapa and blue sea, up and over mountains, through the modern city of Danang, and finally into the pretty town of Hoi An.
Our first stop was at a small fishing village area where I stood around awkwardly for a few minutes watching a couple of people fix their boats. The next stop at the Elephant Springs was no more thrilling – a crowded small water hole that didn't look particularly elephant-shaped. I saved my swimming time for the next spot, at a large resort restaurant with a beautiful expanse of empty beach and the clear South China Sea behind it. I left all of my belongings in the hands of Mr Teo as I floated, cooled off, and appreciated having a sea and a set of wheels at my disposal.
Driving passed village after village the evidence was clear that Vietnam is a developing country – in that almost every building and street-side looks like it's in the process of getting built. There are piles of bricks and construction materials everywhere, in between unfinished and ripped up bits of sidewalk, in front of hastily-thrown up buildings that look instantly aged and already ready for repair or tear down. There are no clear street fronts of businesses or residences – no unistone or charming gardens, instead motorbikes, stacks of metal tables and chairs, laundry and other debris of daily life flow in an uninterrupted stream from the front door to the road, giving the impression of a move-in that was abandoned partway through. The buildings are small and life spills over into the surrounds – construction, commerce, communal eating – a large part of it happens out next to or on the street in Vietnam.
We drove passed villages that smelled of eucalyptus – with small kilns along the roadsides, burning wood to extract medicinal oil, little glass bottles filled with clear green or yellow liquid lined up in rows for sale on stands next to them. We passed peasants planting rice in large green fields next to the highway, and later funky up-scale cafes in Danang.
Our last stop was up through the mountains at Hai Van Pass, where you can see the sea on either side, and the city of Danang further down the road ahead, from a bullet-scarred French fort that was used as a bunker by the South Vietnamese and US armies. It was windy and clear, perfect viewing conditions for one of the most scenic drives in the country.
We made it to Hoi An by late afternoon. Despite the lack of driving skill required, riding on the backseat is still hard work – the sloped seat turned my behind to bruised tenderloin, and the sun fried the rest of me. By the end of the day my butt felt like stiff leather and my burnt skin resembled it. I couldn't face the idea of sitting down again in the near future, unless it was on a puffy mountain of pillows. A one-day roadtrip was a good taste of cross country motoring, one that called for me to make the most of staying put and recovering in Hoi An.