Red Rocket, a journey through Vietnam and Cambodia on a tiny red scooter. – Motorcycle in Vietnam

October 30, 2014

You think I would have learned my lesson by now… Long days, Sore ass’s, well Sore everything actually, masses of traffic, large trucks, busses, and dirt roads. Why… Why after riding last summer for two months across the United States for “Finding Main Street” did I think it was a good idea to do it for another month in a completely different country on an even worse, much smaller motorcycle, and in even worse conditions. I’m beginning to think I might be a masochist…

In Vietnam money can go a long way. For instance, .75 cents gets you a full meal, $2.00 gets you 10 cups of beer, and for $14.00 you can get a really nice hotel room. It’s a traveler’s paradise if you’re on a tight budget, which we are. The most expensive part during our trip has been the transit cost. Buses, Trains, Motorbike rides, Tuk Tuk’s & Taxi’s will add up really quick for two people. Natalie and I with much thought (about 2 min of talking outside the guy’s house) decided to buy a 1990 Honda Dream 100cc for a total of $280. We are planning on riding this little red monster all the way from Hoi An, Vietnam to as close to Singapore as we can get before it dies or before we do…

This thing was a piece of work let me tell you what. No tail light, No blinkers, No speedometer, no gas gauge, an oil leak, 1 mirror, no horn (which is a drivers entire form communication in Vietnam), no battery, kick start only, loud and clanky as hell, smashed seat cushion from years of riding, and every screw or bolt has been replaced with some random one of some random size that happened to fit the hole when the original had rattled out. I test drove it around the block, testing the gears, the handling, and the shocks. It starts, and it moves but that’s about it… Well of course we’ll take it! With no second thought on the matter we are now the proud owners of a rattle case Vietnamese scooter known as “Red Rocket”!

Day 1 & 2 –

Probably the worse experience on a two wheeled vehicle I’ve ever had. First of all we barley fit on the bike. Having our two bags strapped to the back left us little to no room to sit. The seat was as hard as a rock and the roads in Vietnam aren’t any more forgiving. It started with miles and miles of construction, Lines of semi-trucks spewing black tar smoke, scooters jetting from right to left, herds of water buffalo and cows, children playing in the street, tarps of drying corn and rice in the road, dogs, chickens, ducks… you name it & we probably dodged it…


The evening before I had installed a new battery on the bike and made sure the headlight wasn’t flickering with the rpm’s of the engine, and also re-wired the horn so at least we had that as a fail-safe. The chain probably hadn’t been tightened since the bike was bought back in the 90’s so every time we let off the gas you could hear a crazy rattle from it banging around inside the metal protective casing. The day was a short ride from Hoi and to My Khe beach but with only 100cc of engine below us it was a pretty grueling trip. The next day we set off to Quy Nhon a large beach town known for its local Vietnamese party scene and lack of tourism. This ride was no easier than the day before, more trucks, more construction and more scooters. We definitely had some maintenance and modifications to do if we were going to survive riding a scooter thousands of miles through Vietnam. First were the bags. We had an old rack that clipped on to the back of our bike which made it seem easier to strap down the bags. If we clipped it on where it was supposed to go then Natalie pretty much had to sit on metal poles the entire ride, but if we put it to far back then the rack barley stayed on and would slip off over every bump. So after two days of fighting with this rack we decided to ditch it. We bought a basket for the front where we put the day pack, combined both our clothes and gear into Natalie’s backpack and strapped my empty bag on top. We put the day pack with my camera, our glasses, money, and water up front in the basket giving us a lot more room on the seat and a comfortable place to lean against. Next was the seat, what were we going to do about this horrible seat… We had seen some scooters driving around with a thick plastic mesh wrap over their seats and decided to hunt one down. We went into the market and found the scooter accessories vendor. We tested the mesh seat cover out around town and it gave us a little bit more padding than before but it still wasn’t enough. As we were riding around trying to find a shop that sold foam or padding Natalie pointed out a shop that had children’s life vests. For $2.50 we bought two life vests and wrapped them under our new mesh seat cover. It was a perfect mixture of padding and safety. It’s like traveling on an airplane, it could be more comfortable and there could be more leg room, but if we crash land in the water our seat cushion doubles as a safety vest.

Red Rocket actually gets pretty good gas millage; we only need to fill up once every 120 km – about 75 miles. The gas tank only holds 1 gallon of gas so we’re getting roughly 75 miles to the gallon making our transit costs almost nothing compared to trains and buses. It also allows us a large amount of freedom to stop when we want and go when we want. Experiencing the world on a motorcycle is different than anything else, the wind, the smells, the people and road all become such a big part of your journey. There are no chances to close your eyes or pull the window shades shut. Its all there in your face the entire time. As grueling as the ride was the first two days it was shaping up to be a pretty amazing decision and a great experience. We have high hopes for the days to come.

Day 3 –

The trip from Quy Nhon to Da Lat was an amazing ride. It started off on a small highway that followed the coastline for a good 50km’s. Fishing boats, islands, bays, beaches, and small towns scattered the coastline and created some beautiful picturesque scenes of rural Vietnam. The winding roads of the beautiful coast reminded me of riding up Highway 1 when Brant, Wyatt, and I departed from San Francisco for our Finding Main Street adventure. After a few hours of riding on the coast we headed inland through the Vietnam highlands. Thick jungle and lush green forest scattered the hillsides, rivers and waterfalls flowed down the mountain heading towards the ocean we just came from. Rice fields and open valleys would surprise us at every turn, full of farmers and water buffalo. Small villages were scattered along the hillsides full of children playing and laughing together. Almost no traffic accompanied for the first few ours as we rode towards Da Lat. As we were riding down the highway our navigation all of a sudden told us to take a sharp turn down a very small road. Ok, well if it’s the way we go then why not let’s do it. The road continued to get smaller and smaller with more and more pot holes popping up out of nowhere. From pavement, to concrete, to dirt, to mud we went. Our navigation apparently decided that we needed to see some of the very small and rural Vietnam along this trip. Neither of us were opposed to putting up with some dirt road for a little bit of a short cut and a more off the beaten path experience.

We decided to stop at one of the small dirt road intersections for some lunch. A few small tables were set up with tiny red stools and about 12 older Vietnamese ladies cooking and serving bowls of Pho and Bread. I don’t think anybody in this town had ever seen a tourist before in their life. I can’t imagine what they thought when we pulled up on old Red Rocket took off our helmets, dirty and dazed, to get some lunch. With no hesitation to stare, giggle and point we became the focus of this small town community for a good half hour while we ate. We tried our best with communication, sparked a few laughs and smiles between the ladies, hopped back on the scooter and road off with a few honks of the horn.

The miles of dirt road finally ended and we were back to paved road, dodging pot holes and buffalo. Winding up through the mountains watching the sun dip farther and farther behind the clouds and the mountains we began to worry that the trip was going to end in pure darkness. We stopped for gas one last time about 95km’s away from Da Lat with a huge mountain pass between us and the sun setting fast. As we ascended the mountain it became apparent that Red Rocket was much better on flat land than he was at climbing mountains. None the less we had to get there at some point so we pushed on. Putting up the hill shifting back and forth from first to second, second to third we climbed. The sun sank behind the hills and the sunglasses (our only eye protection) finally had to come off. Small bugs, light rain and heavy mist nearly blinded us for the last 60km’s of the ride. Our small headlight was almost completely blocked by the basket and when switched to high beams the light would completely shut off. The mist at times was so thick we had less than 9 feet of visibility in almost pitch black. It was as if we were in a horror movie, looking back down the mountain into complete darkness was terrifying. We hadn’t passed a house in over 30km’s and only one truck had driven past. It probably wasn’t the best situation to be in with a scooter that barley ran and no knowledge of language or direction. All we could do is hold down the throttle and trust that our little loyal scooter would pull through and get us where we needed to go. Old Red… The little, I mean really really little, engine that could. We went from an elevation of 200 feet to 5400 feet in a matter of about 14 miles… It just kept going and kept pushing until we finally made it over that mountain pass. I can’t begin to explain the relief when we started our decent to the town of Da Lat.


Day 4:

Well that was pure hell. We left De Lat heading towards Mui Ne at Noon Wednesday October 1st. While heading down the hill out of town I started to notice the back of the bike acting funny. We pulled over and noticed the rear tire was low on air, a minute later it was completely flat. We started pushing the bike down the hill hoping there was a scooter repair garage at the small town bellow. As we were pushing the bike down the rest of the 5km hill it started to rain, then it started to downpour. We threw plastic bags on our gear and put on our rain ponchos. When we got to the bottom we saw a mechanic garage next to a small convince store, aka a tin shack in somebody’s front yard. We asked him to replace the tube and he asked us to get a beer from his families shop while we wait. The rain stopped, our beers were empty, the tube was replaced and we’re on our way. The back tube replacement was only $5.00 and the beers were only $0.50 each. Off we went. Heading around the first corner the bike started to sputter pretty bad until about 500 meters later it completely died. I looked around trying to figure out what could be the problem and noticed the spark plug adapter was broken slightly allowing water to get in and short out the connection. I confirmed my observation when I reached down to wiggle the connection as I pressed the bike started leading to a nice shock jolting through my arm. Anyways, No spark plug means no engine power, no engine power means no moving, and not moving means sitting in the rain. I was not a happy camper. We were once again pushing the bike in the pouring rain. After another 500 meters and we pulled up to another covered house. We bought some cookies and rice cakes to snack on while we waited for the rain to die down and the spark plug to dry off. The rain lightened up and we got our chance to leave. We hop back on and off we go. The road slowly turned from asphalt into water. I mean like a good 200 meter long 6 inch deep brown muddy river on the road. Of course the bike dies right in the middle of it from water shorting out the spark plug again. We push the bike the rest of the way through the newly created river. Our shoes were already soaked so it didn’t even matter that we had to walk in the calf deep water. Other motorbikes would ride past creating huge waves of water that would splash us but that didn’t matter either, we had our trusty 50 cent ponchos on. On the other side of this huge puddle we waited for the bike to dry off one more time. I stood over it kick starting it over and over to heat it up while my poncho protected the spark plug connection. The rain lightens up once again and the engine dried off. We hop back on and off we go.

For the next 30 minutes it was easy riding, clear skies and good roads. We thought the day was about to get a whole lot better, we were wrong. Monsoon season in Vietnam means the weather goes from sunny and warm to a thick downpour in about 15 seconds. We got hit again by the rain and were forced to pull off under a covered porch and family convenient store once more. We bought some chips and another beer to wait out the rain. About an hour goes past and the rain stops. We hop on the bike and off went…. wait.. Another flat back tire! No way… Again, we’re pushing the bike through puddles and mud to the closest repair shop. Luckily there is one every few hundred meters in every town. We pull up and our new mechanic starts working on the flat tire. We quickly learned he was deaf, which actually made communication easier than trying to speak our broken Vietnamese and understand their broken English. He put the tube through water to find the hole which was on the inside of the tube not the outside. I squatted down next to him to check out the inside of our rim and see what caused the puncture. The spokes were all rusted through with a million ways to pop a tire. I grabbed our roll of electrical tape and we taped the inside of our old rim to protect the tube from future punctures. I made some hand gestures to ask how much the fix cost, he holds up all 10 fingers. Ok 100,000 Vietnam Dong I think to myself, or roughly $5.00. I get the money and hand it to him; he shakes his head and points to the 10,000 bill Natalie is holding. Ladies and Gentlemen, 10,000 Vietnam Dong converts into less than 50 cents. I think, No way, 50 cents for a flat tire repair. I couldn’t believe it let alone accept it, so we made him take a 50,000 bill instead (about $2.50). Even though he was deaf the smile on his face said more than any words could have. With a smile back we were on our way once again.

Clear skies and lush green jungle lay ahead of us. We rode for another 30 minutes with clear skies until BAM, a 15 second change of weather and we were in a flood again. This time we were 20km’s in either direction from any town. We rode another 4 or 5 KM’s up the hill till we hit a huge puddle with god knows how many pot holes in it. We went bouncing through the puddle almost flying off the seat until about half way when the bike died. Are you kidding me…. I can’t believe what is happening at this point… It seemed like something out of a 60’s comedy where the audience is amused by the misery and unassuming attitude of the actor. Some three Stooge’s shit…. We hop off and push the bike another few hundred meters to a covered spot in somebodies front yard. They were serving coffee and instant noodles. We were pretty much in the middle of nowhere far up a mountain with daylight running out quick. We each got a quick coffee to warm up and see if the rain would let up. Instead the rain worsened and the little bit of light that was left disappeared. Oh, also thunder and lightning started. I mean like intense thunder and lighting, every second or two the entire mountain would light up and the sound would rattle the world. We asked the family where the closest hotel was, they said 25km’s back the way we came or 40km’s in the direction we were heading. Well with no options left, it was back the way we came. We hopped on the bike and off we went, this time in complete darkness, down a muddy, pot hole ridden road with a rush of thick water flowing under us. The headlight on the bike flickered every time I would let off the gas not to mention the thing was pretty much pointing towards the ground 4 feet in front of us. Giving us no fair notice of bumps or pot holes… Not like it would have mattered because I could barely open my eyes from due to the stinging of raindrops. We slowly made our way back towards the town, now about half way there, when all of a sudden the sputtering of the spark plug started up again, no puddles, just such hard rain the connection got wet. A few hundred meters later the bike died. At this point we were in the thickest downpour yet. It was sheets of water falling from the sky. I wrapped the hot engine in a plastic bag trying to protect the spark plug connection from the water. Once again we started pushing the bike. With no light to guide us our only guidance was now the absurd amount of lightning that would give us a millisecond view of the entire road. 1km passes and we try to start the bike again. I must have kick started the bike a good 50 plus times before it finally turned over. We hopped on and headed down the hill with a sputtering and spitting engine noise the entire way. I was forced to use 1st or 2nd gear to keep the RPM’s high enough for the headlight to stay on. I had to keep my foot on the engine to hold the bag on the spark plug so I only had a front break and the engine to slow me down. The rain worsened but the Kilometers slowly ticked away until we finally hit civilization again. Our faces felt like we got stuck inside of a bee hive, our shoes squirted water out of every seam, our hands cramped from the cold, but as we stepped into the hotel lobby we had a feeling come over us like we were the kid who unwrapped Willy Wonka’s last golden ticket…

Farewell sweet prince:

After all of those fun adventures Red Rocket decided to put us through we started to think about how we could part ways with the old guy. With much effort he got us to from Hoi An all the way to Saigon and then across the border into Kep, Cambodia and all the way to Phnom Penh. Coming into Phnom Penh we rode on some of the worst roads we have ever seen, crowded with trucks, dirt, potholes, food vendors, and people on cycles. Anything and everything came at us that last hour and a half entering Phnom Penh. We were riding centimeters away from hundreds of other bikes and trucks. These roads were so bad they actually cracked Dylan’s computer screen which was carefully wrapped in our bag just from all the bumps and potholes (hence the delay in any posts lately). It was at this moment we knew we had enough. We were beginning to feel as if we wanted to just leave him in a ditch somewhere, but even after the second degree burns he had given our legs, the moment he had stalled in one of the largest intersections in Saigon, the time he got two flat tires in the middle of a monsoon on top of a mountain, we knew we had to give him a proper farewell. Even though there were really hard times this little scooter offered us the opportunity to have some of the greatest moments of our trip so far, snaking roads along beautiful aqua coastlines, small rural towns full of laughing children and hard working families, long stretches of rice fields being worked by farmers, beautiful limestone mountains covered in lush jungle and amazing wildlife, and most of all a culture of wonderful, warm hearted people willing to offer help at a moment’s notice. We fell in love with a country far away from our own while on the back of this little red scooter. So, after a few days in Phnom Penh and still a few hours before our much awaited bus ride to the next city we knew we needed to do something special with this bike. After riding around for a while we saw a teenage boy pushing a coconut cart and we just knew. As we rode past he stared at us as we stared back, his clothes were slightly torn and dirty, his cart wobbled as he pushed it along, and right then we knew he was the one who we would give the scooter to. We pulled up next to his cart and tried to explain to him that we wanted him to have this bike as a gift. I had used a translator before we left the hostel to convert a sentence into Cambodian.

“We rode this bike all the way from Vietnam, but now we are leaving for Siem Reap and would like to give it to you as a gift. Hopefully it helps you as much as it has helped us.”

He didn’t understand at first and with him being the kind kid he was he started trying to give us directions to Siem Reap. We took the keys out of the ignition and handed them to him. A look of complete surprise and happiness came over his face and we said “For you, a gift, no money.” Soon a few people came out of their stalls to find out what was going on. One lady could somewhat translate but they still did not believe what they were hearing. After many hand signals they finally understood what we were trying to do. When the lady realized her first reaction was her yelling to him, “Go get them free coconut drink!!” And that was it, we walked away sipping our two coconuts with warmth in our hearts knowing how this bike could help this young boy in his life. As we walked away he stood behind us keys in hand waving with a smile so big it made every rough moment with this bike worth it.

You Might Also Like

  • kathy cox November 3, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    Farwell Red Rocket!!

    What wonderful and rich, although at times incredibly challenging, experiences you have had on your little red bike. What a perfect way to say good bye to her. I am sure Red Rocket will carry on for many more miles.