It’s many moons since I owned a full set of motorcycle leathers and my own crash helmet. It’s several decades since I rode pillion through north Norfolk lanes thick with the smell of strawberries. I was more than a little apprehensive when Ian booked a full day trip on motorbikes on the Hai Van (aka Top Gear ) Pass from Hoi An to Hue in Central Vietnam. However, one of my father’s favourite sayings is: ‘there is nothing worth doing that does not contain an element of risk’ and so this rang in my ears as I was compelled to accept the challenge.
A week before our trip Ian sat me down to watch Clarkson, Hammond and May jibe, mock and banter their way over the rolling, winding and treacherous road dressed in outrageous Hoi An-tailored suits and carrying ludicrous souvenirs strapped to the back of their motorcycles. Richard Hammond had a wooden galleon in full sail. May, a plaster statue. I watched in horror as rocks shifted and they almost slipped down the cliffside when forced to pull over by the approach of an oncoming truck. Hence my apprehension.
Mr Thong, owner of a company called EasyRider based in Hoi An, met us at La Residencia hotel at 7 am. He would lead the excursion, with his smiley young assistant his pillion. Tin was chief helmet putter-onner and taker-offer and minder of the bikes and bags while we headed off on mini-tours.
Our Mr Thong was a breath of fresh air: friendly; careful; helpful; fun. He’d leap up the steps to a site he must visit several times a week as if thrilled to be there again. Our trip would take us several hours and cover over 100 km. Each time there was an opportunity for a bit of a history lecture or a photograph, he’d stop, merrily take expert photographs of us and wait patiently while we explored.
Mounting a motorbike is a bit like mounting a horse. One foot on the stirrup and throw the other leg over. Gliding past beaches backdropped by royal blue skies spotted with white and silver clouds it took minutes for me to let go my grip on Ian’s midriff, grip gently with my thighs and relax. Watching the scene shift gently from shores peppered with round bamboo basket boats and larger mango boats, to fishermen hauling in white nets, roadside shacks, papaya, palm and acacia trees, padi fields, stalls selling pho noodle soup, durian, mangosteen and honey, lulled me into a deep state of relaxation and reverie. Thus soothed, my mind looped and swirled into a meditative state I had only otherwise enjoyed when sailing. As our beautiful world, crammed with the miracles of nature slid past, a delicious dreamlike state descended. I felt inspired, found myself able to contemplate things that felt unattainable in normal life.
Our first stop was the Marble Mountain, outside Da Nang. Here, surrounded by views stretching out to sea, lake and river, the tropical flora, stone pagodas and doorways, caves lit by dimmed lights were home to Buddhas they have created an area of unimaginable calm.
“I can’t remember when I felt so relaxed,” I said.
“Zen and the art…” said Ian appositely.
It was an amazing day, despite the growing heat. I had not realised that being on a bike is actually the coolest (and the coolest) I have ever been outdoors in this part of the world. Who knew? And as I leaned into the bends I found myself considering actually owning a moped one day. Mad fool that I am I even suggested it to Ian!
The Hai Van Pass did not disappoint, with views down past the palms and papayas to the azure sea. I was also delighted to see that since that hairy Top Gear show they had installed a crash barrier and widened the road.
A seafood lunch beside a lake was followed by a detour past a fishing village and views that stunned me with the clarity of the light later when looking at the photos I’d snapped on my phone, this time without sunglasses.
Now, if Ian had told me in advance that I’d spend the best part of 10 hours in the saddle I’d probably have been less enthusiastic about the trip, but Mr Thong ensured we had plenty of stops and detours along the way so that it wasn’t until the sun began to set around five and we visited the beautiful citadel at Hue that I realised I was shattered. I could not walk another step, so, I found a bench under a tree and had 40-winks, something I have never done before in my life. Was it all that fresh air? Or was it the exhaustion of clinging on with my thighs or the fact that my phone told me I’d actually walked more than 10 miles on those detours?
As darkness fell and Mr Thong presented us with half moons of fresh pomelo and yet another bottle of necessary water the thought of riding all that way back in the dark was less than attractive. Fortunately for our jolly Mr Thong no adjustment to the plan is too much trouble. He had organised us a minivan all to ourselves in which to travel the three hours home to Hoi An with the indulgence of the full length of a row of seats each. Mr Thong and Tin would ride the bikes home and at seven the next morning they would do the trip all over again with another set of guests.
But Mr Thong told us that he feels very lucky indeed to have this job. He also told us that he spent his childhood in a concentration camp.