- Ho Chi Minh City – Vung Tau – Mui Ne (297km)
HO CHI MINH CITY
For the first couple of days after buying my bike I lay awake at night wondering what the hell I had done. HCMC was belted with torrential rainstorms that turned the roads into turbid brown rivers, keeping tourists indoors and the taxi drivers in quick trade. I spent the time plotting routes, picking up last minute provisions and checking the long range forecasts with dismay. In truth, none of these things took very long, and a good amount of my time was spent holed up in a café watching the deluge continue. There was nothing else I could do.
Finally, the rain gave out. I waved goodbye to my very pleasant guesthouse hosts, delighted that my two nights of accommodation had turned into five, and I set out on the first leg of my road trip. Things were anything but smooth. The traffic on the city roads was intense, as though a population frustrated by a couple of lost days were simultaneously hell-bent on catching up with errands. My sense of direction failed me under the overcast skies, and confused, disoriented and beginning to panic, I was pushed through the frantic, turbulent heart of the city three times before I managed to escape its gravitational pull.
I had chosen to make my first stop Vung Tau. Being close to the city, it made sense to start things off with an easy, training wheels leg, where I could acquaint myself with the quirks of the bike, the roads and the other people on it. The trip itself was fairly uninspiring, the motorways, with their bizarre topiary hedge median strips, were clogged with traffic. It was dirty, dusty and very hot, and there seemed to be no reprieve from the ugly commercial development and light industrial parks which lined the roads all of the way to the coast. I reached Vung Tau three hours later than I had expected to. Ominous black storm clouds were being pushed in by a wind that threatened to turn my eyelids inside out. I checked into the first nha nghi that I came across, and fogged up the glass staring out as the heavens opened. Again, I wondered what the hell I had done, even considering to take on Vietnam’s roads in the wet season. Although billed as a favoured weekend getaway for Saigoneers, I found Vung Tau soulless. When I stepped out on the hunt for food, the streets were patrolled by unfriendly packs of seedy looking, middle-aged Western men. The sleazy bars, bright lights and off-duty oil rig workers gave me flashbacks of labuan, and I decided that an overnight stay would be plenty.
The trip from Vung Tau to Mui Ne was relatively straight forward. As both are coastal towns, so long as I kept the ocean on my right I really couldn’t really stray from the path. Mui Ne is a windsurfing Mecca that becomes a ghost town in the off season. It is heavily geared to capturing the Russian tourist market, and the volume of signs with reversed N’s and R’s made it clear why this area is referred to as Little Russia. I liked it, and spent a few hours exploring its sand dunes, Cham temples and grubby, though potentially spectacular beach. Aside from it’s wind, the red dunes are one of it’s main tourism drawcards, and make for a striking and unexpected landscape.
Heading ‘home’, just on dark, I had my first experience with Vietnam’s famed police corruption. I was waved down at a very well planned road block, and immediately surrounded by about eight serious looking, khaki-uniformed officers. The senior among them requested my papers, and after looking them over declared that the charges against me were speeding and driving without an effective Vietnamese driver’s license. I disputed the speeding charge as any number of locals had gone whistling past me for the past two days. But ready for this, they parked me on the back of a young officer’s scooter to ride back and view the speed camera. On my return, the senior officer took me to a plastic table and chairs that had been set up on the roadside, for ‘processing’. He told me that he was empowered to confiscate my bike and passport, and hold them for seven days until the matter could be heard in court. After a pause to let that sink in, he gave me a slippery smile and said that if I paid a nominal fine immediately, I could be back on my way. I managed to barter the bribe down from 2,500,000VND to 500,000 (equiv AUD$30), a small price to pay compared to Australian standards, but painful none-the-less. While I was being taken through the motions, maybe half a dozen other Westerners on bikes were pulled over while the locals continued to speed straight through. It was obviously a well rehearsed routine, and more lucrative than an honest day’s work. Despite being in the wrong on both counts, it was my first ever intersection with corrupt police and left a nasty stain on the first stage of my roadtrip.