Just a Girl and her Bike
Located in the Gulf of Thailand, I had read that Phú Quốc was known as the pearl of Vietnam. Its white sand beaches, palm-lined coast and seaside resorts came highly recommended and it was pinned as a definite must-see for any of those lucky to make their way to this delightful utopia.
I had booked four days of Phú Quốc sunshine paradise, and visions of a tropical climate, lush surroundings, lazy walks along the beach, sunset cocktails and dips in and out of the pool filled my island holiday expectations. So far, everything seemed moderately idyllic... despite the fact that my hotel was not as sea-side as the words, sea and side might otherwise illustrate. It was also eerily empty and, as bizarre as it might seem, I was the only one there.
My day began with breakfast and the dining atmosphere seemed somewhat hollow without the usual backpacker banter and the swapping of travel tales with fellow adventurers. Instead of the great buffet options they had originally boasted in their booking site, I was handed a plate that carried four tiny pancakes and a slice of dragon fruit.
I sat down alone, to enjoy my feast.
I had booked this location on the premise that it was not only centrally located, but also it was apparently a fabulous place to meet other travellers. As a solo traveller, I tend to become exceedingly reliant on meeting other people. ‘Go solo, yet never alone’ didn’t exactly apply under these conditions.
Without anyone to potentially latch myself onto, nor anyone’s advice to heed or suggestions to follow, after my meal, I blindly headed out on my day’s adventure. I had not done a lot of research into what touristic options were open to me, but I was fairly content to walk the beach and explore the town. In other words, I was open to pretty much anything.
I had only just left the hotel and walked about 20 metres towards the beach, and there it was. Right in front of me. My day’s adventure was calling out to me in the form of an old blue moped rental. It seemed like a fun and convenient, and slightly terrifying way to explore the island for the day. I followed the arrows of the decrepit, handwritten rental sign and they led me into a small convenience shop on the side of Đường Trần Hưng Đạo, the main drag.
It was a steal of a deal, at only 150,000 dong for the entire day, which worked out to be about $9.00 Canadian. How could I possibly turn down such an enticing and reasonable invitation?
The elderly lady behind the counter seemed flustered and irritated with my moped curiosity and she made it clear that she was not properly equipped to help me with my rental inquiry. She fluttered around the shop, in a state of indisputable panic and exasperation, all the while muttering under her breath. Finally she picked up the phone and called someone who, I hoped, might be of more assistance. In her defence, it wasn't really a moped rental shop, but in my defence, it was their marketing that had lured me in.
Approximately ten minutes later, some random young man sporting a dirty, ripped shirt and a scattering of missing teeth, pulled up. He dismounted, walked directly behind the counter, grabbed the moped keys and tossed them to me. I clumsily grabbed them, smiled awkwardly and nodded my gratitude.
I then, in turn, made an attempt to hand over my passport and my credit card. I don’t normally like to part with my passport, but I figured it would be a prerequisite in such a transaction. He ignored my offerings and seemed more concerned with getting himself a cold beverage out of the nearby cooler. With an obviously perplexed expression on my face, I tried again. I was completely out of my element and wasn’t exactly sure what to think. Each of my attempts were met with aloof disregard.
He could not have cared less about my passport or any means of financial security. He wanted the full dong up front, and he wanted my drivers license, yet solely for collateral purposes. I found this odd, as I would have thought it more logical for him to hold my passport as collateral, and let me keep my permit, in case I got pulled over or, God forbid, anything should happen.
Who was I to argue?
If I were ME, dealing with ME and lending ME a motorized scooter, I would want at least three gold credit cards, a pre authorization on each one of them, a significant cash deposit, my passport, my mother’s phone number and address, the keys to my house and my name signed in blood. Maybe my luggage, as well.
They had obviously never heard of me, someone inordinately blunderous and highly prone to accidents.
There were no legally binding documents to sign. No rental agreement or insurance contract. No training or moped manual. No list of rules to comply with. No safety and skills discussion. It was all very peculiar, almost to the point of blatant neglect and incompetence. I was caught up in a textbook session of paradoxical responsibility and professionalism.
He was not the slightest bit interested in any of my concerns, nor was he remotely prepared to spend more than the minimal amount of time required with me. With a shrug of his shoulders and a flitter of his wrist, I was cast aside.
Nope. No way.
I was not having it. I flat out refused to be dismissed so quickly. There was no chance that I was comfortable driving off on a motorized contraption that I was so incredibly unfamiliar with. Unfortunately, I was going to need a little bit more information. As a moped virgin, I had some serious questions.
How does one put the kickstand up?
How does one turn the ignition key?
Where are the lights?
Might there be a complimentary map of the various routes?
Where is the gas tank?”
He ignored the first four questions, but pointed at the almost empty gas gauge at the front of the bike and said “You. Go. Road. Gas."
I was flabbergasted.
No. No. No.
I was supposed to have a FULL tank to begin with and then ensure it was full again, upon return. That’s how it was supposed to be. This was how I had been programmed as to how the world worked. I was not prepared for these glitches in my fully established and immutable perception.
My stress was evident.
He did not care and my invasive roadside inquisition was obviously not going to turn him around. I had no other choice but to accept my 24-hour purchase, and kick start my day.
Like it or not, without a proper test drive, I entered the wonderful world of two-wheel transportation. As I awkwardly pulled into the chaotic traffic, I felt fully prepared to plummet to my death. The end was near.
I could feel it.
I could hear it.
I could see it.
Besides being flooded with street jitters and moped dread, I was now saddled with the burden of having to find petrol. I wobbled along, randomly accelerating at a painfully slow rate. I managed to find a petrol station within a few minutes, my feet paddling along the road and pushing me into position. Thank goodness for full service and friendly customer service. The attendant could very well have charged me double, as I was completely oblivious to the price per gallon, and I was not familiar with the fuel valve at all.
Once I was back out on the highway, and had a little more practice under my belt, my skill increased and I kind of started to catch on. I got a teeny tiny bit faster and my ability to go straight increased significantly.
I was on the verge of bellowing out Born to be Wild, but I figured it would be wildly inappropriate, considering I had managed to get lost on more than one occasion. Although it was primarily the fault of the complimentary map I had previously been denied, it also might be appropriate to admit that I was more than a little hesitant to go around corners.
Turning scared me.
If there was a go-straight option, I took it. I finally had to pull over, turn on my cell phone data and figure out how to properly get to where I thought I might want to go. Unfortunately that north-bound route required a fair amount of turning, both left and right. I was not proficient in turning either of those directions, yet on the plus side, I was beginning to master speed bumps and potholes. Now don't get me wrong, there was a running commentary in my head and coming out of my mouth the entire time I was on the bike. Onlookers must have thought I was crazy. At one point, I even broke into The Leader of the Pack.
As petrified as I was on the road, cruising along amongst the massive hoards of confident, yet careless operators, I must admit that I felt a little bit bad-ass. I was rolling along at my slow poke and steady pace, with the thunder between my legs, clutching on to the handlebars for dear life. I was a very diligent driver, very much concentrated on absolutely everything that surrounded me. I discovered, very quickly, the attention I had to devote to the road, because at any given moment, someone could decide to change their driving direction or completely blindside me. Every single moment was a potential head-on collision waiting to happen.
I learned fairly quickly, an essential requirement of the road, was being properly qualified in the ability to erratically honk the horn.
The horn was used for everything, all the time. No exceptions. The horn was the most important part of the bike.
Coming up behind. Beep!
Pulling over. Beep!
Passing on the left. Beep!
Passing on the right. Beep! Beep!
Turning here. Beep! Beep!
Turning there. Beep! Beep! Beep!
Frontwards, backwards, red light, green light, left, right, road, path, sidewalk… no one cared. No one. Every time was go time. The only real rule of the road was the Beep!
Blind spot? Beep!
Shoulder check? Meh… Beep!
As tough as I felt, beeping my way through town on my little blue hog, the ingrained rules and regulations of Young Drivers of Canada still resonated and unfortunately, I felt compelled to follow these rules to a certain extent. So while everyone raced through the optional red lights, I sat there on my cute blue scooter, ever diligent. I was the road nerd, patiently waiting for the green signal to indicate that it was safe for me to drive on.
Truth be told, safe is not an appropriate adjective to toss around when discussing the traffic of Vietnam.
The town that began my moped journey was befittingly named Dương Đông... very similar to me, the ding dong that kept getting lost and finding herself on dead end dirt roads. It was a busy, yet cute little fishing town and I pulled over a couple times to take photos of the colourful boats in the harbour.
The one thing that deterred me from pulling over too often or for too long, was the parking situation.
Was I allowed to park wherever I wanted? It appeared that everyone else did.
Should I ask someone? No one seemed to care.
Should I tip if I park in front of shops? Some people were so bold as to park directly in front of shop entrances. So much so that it made it near impossible to even enter through the front doors.
Is it alright to leave my helmet with the bike?
These were all tips of the motorized bicycle trade that my rental man should have given me. I finally just became one with the bike and never left my wild ride alone long enough for anyone to tow it or steal from it.
It took more time than it naturally should have, but I eventually found the north-bound highway I was supposed to be on. I also conquered the art of turning left and right. Within a mere few minutes, I had left Dương Đông and I was headed into the lush jungle mountainous area of Phú Quốc’s National Park.
At first, I was a little uneasy to be so removed from the overbearing bustle of city civilization, and considering the route was so deserted, I couldn’t help but envision someone running out of the dense jungle, with a machete. “Keep going,” I told myself on a number of occasions. “Head forward. Eyes on the road!”
What about wildlife? I hadn’t thought of wildlife.
Flat tires had also not crossed my mind.
Men with machetes? Yes.
Wildlife and flat tires? No.
Deciding to leave my nonsensical fears behind me, I became one with my hog. Just a girl and her bike. I wondered if there was a little moped biker bar anywhere up ahead. Somewhere where I could just mosey in for a drink and talk about how many clicks I'd done in a day. I would tell everyone how I just learned to use the horn, and then I'd put my feet up and announce that there's nothing I love more than the open road.
I probably wouldn't have a drink though, because I was operating a motor vehicle, didn’t want a scuffle with the Vietnamese po-po, and, as far as I knew, neither myself nor the rental man had appropriate insurance or customary wiggle room for any moped misgivings.
Rolling along on my steel horse, not a care in the world, feeling like the Fonz of Phú Quốc, firing all of my guns at once and exploding into space. I was trying to radiate the facade of being super-chill, but mostly I was just concentrating on not swallowing a butterfly. There were an abnormal amount of butterflies fluttering about.
Then reality set in. Very quickly.
The Vietnamese sun was burning me to a crisp and I didn't have one ounce of sunscreen on me. Not only did I not apply any sunscreen earlier, I didn't have it in my backpack at all. I had been advised on a multitude of travel sites to bring it, but I had disregarded the recommendations because I figured I would just buy some when I arrived. How difficult could it be?
Turns out it was more than just a little bit difficult.
Every single place that I stopped along the way did NOT have sunscreen.
Not. One. Single. Shop.
One gentleman tried to sell me diaper rash cream.
“No, thank you.”
I was fairly confident that diaper rash cream would not provide the adequate protection I needed from the UV rays. With each disappointing shake of the head, came more blistering, more red, more pain and a lot more worry. I made an oath to always adhere to all health advisories, from that day onwards. I figured I would have to wait until I was back at the resort and then start making my way around to all the big, rich hotels, because surely they would have to cater to the dumb white tourists like me.
I desperately wanted to just get out of the sun and maybe even jump into the ocean to cool off, but for the life of me, I could not find a path to the beach off the main jungle highway. A lady I came across must have taken pity on me, as she led me down a long, narrow path. It was more of a walking trail than a road, and difficult to manoeuvre with a scooter. When I finally reached the shoreline, there was such an inexcusable amount of seaside debris and litter, I didn't stay long. I got my motor runnin' again.
I finally took refuge in a quiet and clean beach side resort. I sat there in the shade, taking a bunch of shameful selfies, obviously showcasing the hardship of both sunburn and traveling without sunscreen. The burning was getting to be too much and with nothing to cover myself up, I knew I had to get back before it became dangerous enough to warrant medical attention. After a guava cocktail and some salad rolls, I began to calculate the distance and time required back to the hotel. At a small engine speed of pushing 50km per hour, I figured my estimated time of arrival within a couple of hours.
The remainder of the journey home was much like being in a dirt bike race. It was as if roadwork had begun, but then they changed their minds and walked away mid-construction. Surface conditions were hardly ideal and there were a few sketchy moments that I struggled to keep the rubber side down. There were rollercoaster hills filled with mud bogs, clay cliffs, deep potholes and colossal rocks. My speed decreased, making my hotel seem that much further away. More than ever, I was regretting my decision to dress for the ride, as opposed to the slide. Diaper rash cream was looking better and better.
I finally made it back into civilization and during my final 5k, I figured out where the indicator signal was.
That evening, lathered up with excessive amounts of aloe vera, I was mindlessly scrolling through social media, when I was interrupted by an article recently written about the hazards of renting mopeds in Southeast Asia. It basically outlined a common scam of mopeds being easy to rent, yet not so easy to return. It told tales of innocent travellers that had been met with outrageous financial demands, when owners suddenly cited repairs required on previously unidentified problems. It was full of fraud and deceit.
The article recommended taking photos of each bike prior to rental, in order to document any previous damage. I hadn’t done this. My anxiety kicked into full-blown attack mode, and it was near impossible for me to gather my panicked thoughts in a calm, collected manner.
This invasion of alarm was short lived though.
One moment, I was beside myself with worry. The next, I was perfectly fine, and slept through the night without another concern.
Nothing had happened to the bike.
The rental outlet only had my driver’s license. Nothing else.
No credit card.
Had anyone attempted to scam me with moped rental fraud, they would have only a little plastic card to try and strip me of my non-existent wealth.
I returned a clean and fully fuelled moped first thing in the following morning.
The little old woman, once again, was annoyed that I had returned to disrupt her sluggish routine of sitting behind the counter, selling candy bars and soda, but she diligently got on the phone to find someone to assist me.
Ten minutes later, my old friend pulled up. He took one quick look at the bike, nodded in approval, traded me my BC Driver’s license for the bike key…
... and then dismissed me once again.