I Drove a Crotch Rocket Way too Fast in Thailand

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We drank Chang and played pool in Bangkok the night before we went to Koh Samui. At five the next morning we boarded a bus, switched from that to a ferry, and fourteen hours later, just as the sun was setting, we arrived in Koh Samui, Thailand. The seas were choppy, dozens of people had thrown up, and the inside of the ferry smelled like a theme park. 

 Phalarn Inn Koh SamuiDespite inaccurate directions from Google Maps, we managed to find our hostel and toss off our heavy bags. Phalarn Inn was a great place to stay, one of my favorite hostels in Southeast Asia. There was a large pool, an outdoor restaurant, and the whole place was tucked into the jungle. Every morning we woke up to the sound of hundreds of birds demanding attention.

Even though the hostel turned out to be unexpectedly amazing, there was something else that held my interest hostage. In the course of my research I discovered that you could rent a motorcycle on Koh Samui for nearly half of the price of other areas in Thailand. By this point I had rented several dirt bikes and a small, 250cc motorcycle, but I had never gotten the chance to take out a bike with a proper engine. This time, Thai Moto was going to be my accomplice in crime. The bikes were affordable, I was dying to drive something fast, and we had a reason to rent one. Driving around the island was the perfect excuse to justify the rental.

Fuckups and Misdemeanors

SongthaewAll over Thailand there are unique taxis that I’ve not seen anywhere else. They;re pickup trucks (usually red) with elevated roofs covering the beds. Not quite high enough to stand up comfortably, you have to crouch to reach your seat. There is no gate on the back of the truck, and you simply hop on after flagging him down. The Songthaew (as they’re called) follows a fixed route and is usually about a quarter of the price of a regular taxi.

Several days after arriving in Koh Samui, after I had drank too much gin and made an ass of myself in front of the other guests, we flagged down a Songthaew and rode into town. I held onto the bars on the back, perilously close to the road. In Southeast Asia there may be safety regulations in law somewhere, but the day they’re actually enforced will be the day that wealthy musicians stop doing Bolivian cocaine.

Downtown, we pounded on the roof, paid 100 Baht, and started walking towards the rental place. In this moment, I can pinpoint the precise second where I fucked up with Joanna. There were about a dozen such fuckups in the course of our five month relationship, and this was one of them.

After getting off the taxi, I hadn’t checked how long it would take to walk to the rental place. Even at 9:30 in the morning it was already approaching 90 degrees, and we were walking on the side of the road. No sidewalk, no shade.

“How much further is it?” Joanna asked me.

Zooming in and out on Google maps, taking a terrible guess, I told her twenty minutes. The problem was that I had been so caught up in my own selfish thinking, I had failed to think about what Joanna might be feeling. I have no aversion to so called death marches in the heat. Hot and sweaty, being uncomfortable, nearly getting run over by traffic multiple times, these things don’t bother me. But more sane people (like Joanna) don’t have the same reaction.

With all traces of a smile gone, she flagged down a real taxi and he drove us to the rental place. A walk which wouldn’t have taken 20 minutes, but closer to 45. We arrived, and I said thank you to the taxi driver.

“Thank you Joanna” she said to me, as she paid for the taxi. It was one of the very few times that I ever felt Joanna was truly angry with me. Like any relationship there were times we’d get upset with each other, or have disagreements, but I felt ice in her voice. If I was a hermit crab I would have retreated into my shell. To make things worse, the fucking rental place was closed. I felt like Steve Jobs when he was fired from Apple, the company that he founded. Ashamed, embarrassed, and distraught. At this point, I would have welcomed getting run over by an insane Thai driver.

Instead of being crushed, I ended up standing there lamely, like a kid who’s too scared to ask out a girl to the prom.

“I’m getting a drink” Joanna said, and went into the cafe across the street.

Before I had a chance to make a wild dash into traffic, I was surprised to see our taxi driver standing in front of the rental place and waving to me. I walked across the street to him.

“Open soon, you see. 10 they open, I know this place. You see.”

“Alright fine” I said, stress creeping into my voice, avoiding eye contact with him.

He was right though. A few minutes later a man pulled in on a bike and began to unlock the doors. Without glancing at us, he began to move the dirt bikes out in front of the building. Ignoring me, it turned out that our taxi driver was just as interested to look at the bikes as I was.

If the Bike Fits, Rent It

Ninja 650I already had a good idea of which bike I wanted. Unlike other rental agencies, Thai Moto actually had a comprehensive website which I had already spent nearly an hour browsing. I immediately gravitated towards the far corner of the shop, and there she was. A Ninja 650, black on black. 649ccs of race tuned power. Zero to sixty in under three seconds. Top speed: faster than 95% of the other shit on the road. I gingerly sat down on it, balancing it with my legs, kicking up the stand and getting a feel for the weight.

Glancing to the left I saw another bike, just as sexy, just as black. I was a kid in the candy store. The problem is that as a kid, you can pick out a couple of your favorite candies. As a semi-responsible, sort of adult, with a beautiful girlfriend who’s going to be riding on back, you only get the chance to pick out a single bike.

Finally making contact with the owner of the shop, I asked him how much the Ninja was.

“1,000 Baht” he said with a Russian accent.

“Ты говоришь по-русски? You speak Russian?” I asked him.

“Да, конечно. Я из России. Yeah, of course. I’m from Russia.”

“Круто! Я преподавал английский язык в москве восемь месяцев. Cool! I taught English in Moscow for eight months.”

A transformation came over his face. When I had first entered the shop he looked like his wife had left him. Now he was smiling and ignoring the taxi driver, who was asking stupid questions about motorcycle tires. Sensing that most two year old’s with down’s syndrome speak better Russian than me, he switched to English and showed me around.

“So you like the Ninja. It’s a good bike. This one is nice too” he says, starting up the other sexy monster that was parked on the opposite side of the shop. “It’s got a custom exhaust kit on it and when you rev it up..” He pulled the throttle back and I thought it sounded like god speaking the ten commandments to Moses. I was tempted, but not persuaded. I had an aversion to loud motorcycles, and me and Joanna had made fun of dozens of them so far in our trip.

“It sounds great!” I said to him after he shut it off. “I like it, but I don’t think my girlfriend will. She doesn’t like loud motorcycles.”

“So you want the Ninja then?” He asks.

I look at it the way parents look at a newborn baby, and say: “Yeah, I want the Ninja.” I handed over my passport as collateral (illegal, but common practice in all of Southeast Asia), give him a thousand Baht, and carefully selected the least smelly helmet from the large rack of loaners. Mr. Russian parked the bike on the street, turned the keys over to me, and it was time to go to the cafe and make it up with Joanna.

Two and a Half Times the Fun

“Sam I’m going to kill you!” Joanna screamed into my ear, as we squeezed through a three foot gap, between a pair of dump trucks, going 85 mph. I understood how she felt. Riding on the back of a motorcycle is one of the most powerless feelings in the world. You sit back there, your entire existence at the mercy of the driver. In a car there are seat belts and airbags to cushion the crash. If there’s an accident on a motorcycle, the first thing you run into is a dense piece of asphalt which is going to rip the side of your face off.

There’s a great paradox here though. The driver of a motorcycle feels just as confident in his or her abilities, as the passenger feels powerless. Tearing a narrow gap between forty thousand pounds of metal going close to 90 felt as safe as taking a sip of room temperature coffee to me. No matter that I would have been just as dead as Joanna should something have gone wrong, my experience of that second in time was totally different than hers.

The Ninja ended up being the fastest thing that I’ve ever driven in my life, and that record may stand unbroken for a long, long time. Perhaps you’re familiar with the feeling of driving an average car. You jam your foot onto the gas pedal, what happens? It feels like pressing into a wet sponge. Even though you may have the pedal fully depressed, there seems to be a lag. It takes a moment for the engine to catch up and give you the speed that you’re looking for. Unless you drive a M4, that’s the type of throttle response most people are used to.

Now imagine this. As you push down on the pedal, the engine matches your wish. If you push hard, you take off. Push it all the way down, and you’re going 100 mph before your brain can process what’s happening. That’s what it was like to drive the Ninja. Turn the throttle and you explode forward like a bottle rocket. If you keep the throttle held down, the next thing you know you’re doing 110 and you become very aware of how mortal you are. I never took it that fast, but it would have gladly performed should I have asked.

All Good Things Come to an End

We circled the island twice and Joanna said she was going to kill me exactly three times. That’s once every two hours. Not bad considering I was having more fun than a kid in high school getting laid for the first time.

The second time around Koh Samui we stopped at one of the more pristine beaches that I’ve found in Thailand. Palm trees, tropical breeze, and a white sandbar stretching well out into the ocean. I parked the bike in the shade. We stripped down, waded out into the ocean, and lay in two inch water, with barely perceptible waves lapping up against us. Joanna’s head was resting on my stomach, and we listened as Russian tourists walked by.

Sunrise at Grandfather rock at Koh SamuiThen it was time to go. We dressed, donned our helmets, and got back onto the rocket ship. Two hours later we were back at the hostel, the bike safely parked for the night. The next morning we would drive across the island to see the sunrise at Grandfather Rock, and then I would return it to the Russian.

Faster than Superman on meth, that bike was the most exciting thing I’ve ever driven in my life. I’m a die hard motorcycle addict, and feeling the power of that engine did nothing to cure my sickness. For me, driving a motorcycle is one of the most exhilarating feelings in the world. Combine that with a stunning tropical island, an awesome girlfriend to keep me in check, and we had a hell of time. Back in the states I’ll drive my own significantly slower bike and enjoy every second of it. But as I feel the sponge throttle, there will always be the memory of letting the Ninja loose. Tearing between the dump trucks, and my amazing motorcycle candy Joanna threatening to kill me, if I didn’t do it first.

Dinner With Friends in Pai

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To reach Pai from Bangkok you have to take a thirteen hour train ride through the oscillating countryside of Thailand. You disembark in Chiang Mai, take a taxi to the bus station, and then take a four hour bus ride up through the mountains.A bus ride to Pai Thailand If you’re lucky your driver won’t be a homicidal maniac. However, most people are unlucky, and they spend most of their ride clutching the seat in front of them, as the bus barrels through hair pins turns at 40 miles an hour.

Despite the hardships, the journey is worth it. Pai is a small town tucked up in the mountains of north Thailand. It’s easy to imagine it twenty years ago as an underdeveloped village with cows and people riding bicycles. Tourism has changed that. The main road that runs through the center of Pai is a quagmire of inexperienced tourists driving scooters, and people selling fruit smoothies along the side of the road.

In our five months of travelling together, this small village held me and Joanna’s attention longer than anywhere else. We had planned to spend a week there, and wee ended up staying for three times as long. In one sense, it’s funny that we would choose to spend so long in a small mountain village, while actively hating the bustling Bangkok. The pieces fall together once you know Pai, and it’s easy to understand how you can become trapped.

Switching Hostels

Darling Hostel in Pai ThailandWe started our journey in Pai three strong. Me, Joanna, and her friend Asger from Denmark. For a week we stayed at Darling Hostel, where we had an incredible balcony that gave us a beautiful view of the entire town. Every night the expansive deck became a bar, and after five days we had filled a thirty gallon wicker basket with empty bottles of Chang.

Apart from drinking a liver busting amount of beer, the most fun we had was our two days playing with the bikes. In Thailand it’s easy to rent a dirt bike or motorcycle. This was especially true in Pai, as multiple shops had shiny new bikes sitting in front. Asger had driven a bike twice in his life before, and he was confident he could do it again. So I rented my first crotch rocket, albeit a small one, and Asger opted for the dirt bike. We drove them for hours through the mountains surrounding Pai. A better time was never had.

Asger riding a dirt bike in Pai ThailandUnfortunately, unlike me and Joanna, Asger had limited vacation time. After just five short days he flew back to Denmark, leaving me and Joanna to continue the adventure in the tiny town. While staying at Darling, we had been hearing music waft over from another hostel about a quarter mile away. One day a particularly loud drum caught Joanna’s attention and she went to check it out. She came back two hours later.

“Guess what?” She said to me with a grin.

“What’s up?”

“I booked us a room at Circus.”

“Damn, so it’s cool huh. When are we going over there?”

“Tomorrow. Do you remember Eddy from Koh Rong? He’s over there right now. We can go over later and jam with them. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it’s really freaking cool!”

So it went. That afternoon we went over to Circus and we met Eddy, who we had seen for the first time in Koh Rong, 1,400 km away. Even though the odds of this happening seem low, it’s simply not so. There are only so many popular tourist destinations in Asia, and when you potentially meet dozens of people at every hostel, you’re bound to run into some of them again.

Living at the Circus

At Circus, the bungalows are made out of bamboo with no insulation. High up in the mountains, we nearly froze to death our first night. Three blankets did little to dissuade the frigid air. I remember being close to Joanna under the blankets, hugging her like I would drift out into space if I let go. Poor sleep became a theme at Circus. Loud music, an uncomfortable bed, too little beer. None of it helped. None of it mattered. Circus was a great experiment in happiness.

In our five months of travel we had few lasting rituals, as we changed cities to quickly to allow for them. However, at Circus, we developed the great habit of a nightly dinner. Circus is located fifteen minutes outside of Pai and we rented a scooter to get around. $2.50 a day gets you a ride that turns on and violently protests if you try to go over 20 mph.

Sunset at Pai ThailandEvery night around sunset I would take our wheezing scooter into town for dinner. As the sun disappeared behind the mountains, food stalls began to populate the streets. Pad Thai, meat on a stick, sushi, and various other dishes were available. With just $5 it was possible to get a belly busting amount of food, and my favorite part of the night was picking it out. Parking the scooter, I would walk up and down the street, passing dozens of stalls, filling my bag with food. Once it reached breaking point I would coax the scooter to life, ease it through the crowd of people, and zoom back up to Circus.

Spreading a towel on our bed, me and Joanna would dig into the food. She preferred sushi, and my main dish was usually something Asian with a list of unidentifiable ingredients. After the main course, we would both finish dinner with meat on a stick. If you’ve ever been to Southeast Asia, or presumably other places, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Business card sized pieces of meat, skewered on a piece of bamboo, doused in sauce and grilled to perfection.

I enjoyed our nightly ritual and I believe Joanna did as well. Every night dinner was different, and it was always exciting to unpack the bag and see the pile of food laid out. Inevitably after dinner we would go out for a beer and a game of pool. The days and nights passed quickly, and before we knew it we had been at Circus for two weeks.

Back to Bangkok, the Saga Continues

After nearly three and a half weeks in Pai we were ready to call it quits. It’s a testament to beauty of that place that a town as small as Pai was able to hold us for so long. In the coming weeks and months I would talk to other people who had been there, and the conversations usually went like this.

Me. “You were in Thailand, did you go to Pai?”

Random person at the hostel “Oh yeah we went there. We we’re going to stay for four days, but then we ended up staying for two weeks. It’s so crazy, we loved it!”

“Yeah the same thing happened to us. Did you stay at Circus?”

“No we didn’t but our friend did. We went there for a day though it seemed so cool.”

The Mountains in Pai ThailandThis conversation repeated itself as we made our way through southern Thailand, and across borders. The above conversation (word for word) happened in Singapore, 2,636 km away from that legendary town up in the mountains.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back to Pai. The memories I have of the town are so closely tied to Joanna that it may be more painful for me than enjoyable. Walking through the town, going rafting on the river, drinking beer and playing pool, eating lunch at the same place every day. Dinners on the bed, in a bungalow that was hot in the day and cold at night. Even though Pai may be off my radar for the rest of my life, I look forward to finding other places like it, and creating new lasting memories. When in doubt, take the road less traveled.

The Jameson Diaries of Koh Rong

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Joanna was the first person to tell me about Koh Rong. We were sitting together on my bed in Dalat, and she was pointing out the best places to visit in Cambodia.

“Siem Reap is ok” she told me “but I didn’t really like Angkor Wat. Everything was old and falling apart, and it was all the same color. I liked Phnom Penh, but the best place in Cambodia is definitely Koh Rong.”

“What’s that?” I asked, curious what the attractive, blonde Dutch girl sitting next to me would say.

“It’s an island just down here. You see it?” Pointing to a small speck on Google Maps, she tried to zoom in on it, giving up several seconds later. “Your laptop sucks” she said without laughing. 

“No, it’s the best laptop in the entire universe, you just don’t know how to use it” I said, defending my $200 investment from an entirely justified comment.

“Here’s Koh Rong, you have to go there. There aren’t any cars, no scooters, nothing. There isn’t even a road.”

Sold, I asked her how to get there.

“You take a ferry from Sihanoukville. You don’t have to book a hostel in advance, you can just show up and find something. When I went there I met a girl on the ferry and she told me about Ty Ty’s hostel. You should go there it’s awesome!”

After knowing Joanna for just an hour or two, I couldn’t have known that three weeks later we would go to Koh Rong together. We began travelling together in Saigon, and it wasn’t long after that we ended up in Sihanoukville. We bought our tickets in the evening, and the next day we boarded the ferry an hour before noon. Beers in hand, ready to leave the mainland behind. Before the breakfast beer dulled the attic, I counted my blessings that I was going to a tropical paradise with a girl who I was wildly attracted to. Sometimes things work out like that, and it’s beautiful when they do.

Stepping Onto the Beach

The beach is the road at Koh Rong. It emerges from the ocean and goes directly up to the steps of every hostel, bungalow, restaurant, and bar on the island. In some places the front door of a building is a mere ten to fifteen feet from the ocean. In other places it’s sixty feet. Nowhere is it farther than Tom Brady can toss a football.

We got off the ferry and stepped onto the dock, ignoring a man loudly bellowing advice about how to survive on the island.

“We don’t need him” Joanna said to me, briskly stepping past the shirtless alcoholic. “I’ve been here before, I know where to go.” So I followed Joanna. I’ve never met anyone in my life who walks as fast as her, and I may not ever meet someone again who does. She turned a three minute walk into a ninety second one, and we quickly arrived at Ty Ty’s. They had a room and we booked it for a week. After dropping our stuff off and stepping back out into the tropical heat, I looked around and shrugged.

“Well, let’s get a beer.”

Joanna smiled “let’s do it” she said.

With that the tempo was set. When in the tropics, drink like a fish. Given the Scrooge pleasing prices of alcohol in Cambodia, this was easy to accomplish. We grabbed a few cans and sat up on the balcony of Ty Ty’s, looking out at the ocean and watching drunk tourists walk below us on the beach. Despite having been in Asia for more than a month, this was only the second time that I felt like I was somewhere truly special. An island with no roads and no police. Cheap alcohol, sand whiter than a Swede at Christmas, the ocean clear as the screen on a brand new phone, and the company of a girl who I loved.

Embracing the Lifestyle

Everything that I learned in college had prepared me for Koh Rong. I knew how to drink, how to make friends, and how to blow off all responsibilities. Most days began with breakfast prepared by the wonderful staff at Ty Ty’s. After that we would lounge around till ten or eleven. By then the boredom would set in and we would start drinking. Sometimes at the hostel, most of the time on the beach.

I had left my laptop charger in the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, and I had no way to get any work done. All I had was my cellphone and a weak internet connection. That was enough to send out messages to my clients though, most of which went something like this.

“Sorry, I can’t do any work for the next week or two. I’m in a tropical island in Cambodia and I can’t charge my laptop. As soon as I get back I’ll be available again!”

Luckily they were just as agreeable to this arrangement as I was, and I didn’t lose any work during my tropical vacation from reality.

A picture of three people playing guitar on Koh RongWhat’s interesting about Koh Rong is the effect that it has on people. The locals who live there year round only make up a small percentage of the total population. The rest of the people on the island are tourists. There for a week, two if they’re lucky, and then back to the grind. Even though me and Joanna were by definition tourists, after a few days we had thrown off this label and we began to see ourselves as locals. We made jokes about the obnoxious, drunken behavior of the twenty-something travelers, even though we regularly made fools of ourselves.

Koh Rong has the potential to convince you that you’re special, a world apart from the other riff raff. It’s a unique feeling that I never fully experienced again. I don’t know if it was because I was with Joanna who already knew the island well, or if it was because of our hostel, which blended into the island like a chameleon. Whatever the reason, we carried ourselves with a certain amount of pride, even as we accomplished nothing.

Elevating Our Game

Five days into our tropical escape I made an exciting discovery. Not only is beer cheap, but you could get a liter of Jameson (my favorite liver-buster) for just $18. After convincing myself that this wasn’t some form of fraud, much the way you can buy a Rolex for $50 from the night market, I paid for a bottle in cash and walked out onto the beach.

Jameson Sam

Posting this picture on the internet will probably haunt me one day, but fuck it. It’s so blurry I can at least deny this is me at 10:30 in the morning

The best way to imagine my situation is to picture Jack Sparrow, marooned on that stunning tropical island with the beautiful Elizabeth Swann. Nothing in his hand but a bottle of rum. I walked up and down the beach with my Jameson, the way more sensible people were carrying bottles of water. I’m not particularly proud of the person that I became with that Irish whiskey, but nor would it be right to hide it. I took the bottle with me everywhere, from the beach, into the sparkling ocean, and back to the beach.

The culmination of all my efforts came to me shortly after noon one day. I had been drawing on the Jameson for the better part of two hours, while we sat with a few other guys. One of whom we would meet a month later, 1,400 km away in Pai. Joanna was playing her ukulele, and Eddy was on the guitar. Baked from the sun, I pushed myself to standing position to go for a swim with the Jameson. Standing shakily, I found myself completely unable to walk forward. Instead I ended up staggering ten feet to the left, before collapsing in the sand. Jameson in hand, sand on my cheeks, dignity lost.

After that day I didn’t buy any more liquor. Me and Joanna worked on the beer and enjoyed the water. Right up to the end Koh Rong maintained its magic. I would have been happy there for a month, but my liver and wallet couldn’t stand it any longer. We bought our ferry tickets, paid the last tab at the hostel, and departed the next day. I left with mixed feelings. It saddened me to leave behind an island where I had so much fun, and made such an ass of myself without consequence.

On the other hand, I was ready to see what was next. When you travel a lot you begin to develop an inquisitive spirit. Even though the conditions you’re in may be ideal, you still think about why the next place is going to be awesome. The ferry ride out of Koh Rong was sad, but then again, we had our travel beers to lighten the mood.

Joining the Real World

Back in Sihanoukville me and Joanna visited half a dozen computer shops looking for a charger so that I could restore life to my dead laptop. At the time I had no idea that a hostel in Phnom Penh was holding onto it for me, and I thought my only salvation lay in buying a new one.Joanna on a dirt bike in Cambodia For better or worse, that never came to pass.

All we managed to find was a dirt bike, which brought me just as much joy as any charger could. We rode through the Cambodian countryside, discovering the most pristine beach I’ve ever seen in my life. We stripped down to our underwear and dove into the exotic blue water. All thoughts of Koh Rong and Jameson were washed away, to be tucked away into my long term memory until next time. Someday I hope to go back to that hedonistic island, and resume the suspension of reality.

My First time in Hanoi Was a Revelation

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I touched down in Hanoi sometime around 11, and it took half an hour to clear customs. After being waved through the gate I found a taxi waiting for me, and I took the half hour ride to downtown Hanoi. I was surprised to arrive at the hostel because the area seemed so quiet. The hostel description said I would be staying downtown in the heat of it all, but the roads were empty.

Grabbing my three day old backpack, I headed inside. The cramped common room was stuffed with scooters and boxes, and I felt like I had made a mistake in coming. I did my best to reserve judgments, handing over my passport in exchange for a room key. Unlike the paltry common area, my room turned out to be large, and decorated with an inviting purple color scheme. I had a king sized bed, air conditioning, a bathroom, and a flat screen TV that mostly showed fuzzy Vietnamese soap operas.

The whole process, from airport to hostel, turned out to be less eventful than I had expected. Dubai, with it’s 90 degree heat, had prepared me for the weather. Coming off the flight and finding a taxi waiting for me had made the journey to a brand new city easier, and the deserted streets had lowered my expectations.

The City Explodes to Life

Riding a Scooter Like a BossThe next morning I woke up to the sounds of horns. I didn’t know what to make of it, last I knew I was in the suburbs where city noises didn’t exist. Nothing could have been farther from the truth, as I discovered when I pulled open the frosted glass pane covering my only window. Outside I saw a stream of scooters flowing past, going around the distant roundabout, the way water goes around a bend in the river.

I quickly dressed, stuffed my wallet into the back pocket of my shorts, and came down the steep narrow staircase. Giving a brief nod to the woman sitting behind the counter, I went onto the street and stood transfixed. I had never seen anything in my life that could prepare me for this. Dozens of rainbow colored scooters driving past every minute. Loud ones, quiet ones, new ones, ancient ones. Some scooters drove past with a single driver, some had four people on them.

It took me a minute to overcome the initial culture shock, and it took me longer than a minute to walk to the end of the block and wait for the crosswalk indicator to turn green. On my first day in Hanoi I still had a lot to learn about crossing the road in Asia. Walking down a street vertical to the one I had just crossed, I soon found out the real meaning of traffic. Where on the other street there had been dozens of scooters zipping past every minute, here there were hundreds. Nor were there any breaks in traffic. I saw the popular Hanoi lake across this seemingly insurmountable street, and I knew that I needed to get across.

How though?

Scooter Traffic on the Streets of HanoiThere were no crosswalks, nor any breaks in the traffic. The scooters came in merciless onslaughts, leaving no room for pedestrians to run across even if they wanted to. I leaned against a tree, equal parts frustrated and amazed, before I began to sense the solution. I started seeing local people wade fearlessly into the river of scooters without batting an eye. When they did this, instead of getting gored by plastic fenders and brake levers, the scooters moved around them the way water in a fast river moves around a large rock.

I needed to see a few people try this before I worked up the courage to do it myself. I’ve been conditioned my whole life to wait for a break in traffic before I ran across the street, and it was terribly difficult to overcome a lifetime of training.

After making a series of half-assed attempts, I decided to take Tyler Durden’s advice, gave up on everything, and pushed my way out into the fray. The scooters parted ways, and with an exhilarating feeling I made it across the street. The experience was burned into my memory, and it’s something that I think I’ll tell my kids about one day. Later on I recorded a video of me crossing that same street at night, and you can watch it here.

Although I now had the skills I needed to cross the street, I was still alone in a foreign country, and I didn’t know anyone on the entire continent. At first this was exciting, and I reveled in the new experience of being completely alone. After a few days I had had enough of the slow days and boring nights, and I knew it was time to make a change.

What’s the Right Decision?

I had been walking around in the crowded nightlife of Hanoi for nearly and hour, and there was only one place left in the city that I still wanted to visit. It was a modern looking club with loud house music leaking onto the street, and I had just walked thirty feet past it.581869_10151545596094131_2135034605_n The rest of the night had held little excitement. After the initial wonder of the crowded streets and jammed bars wore off, I’d decided that tonight wasn’t meant to be and I’d started walking home. The problem I now faced was an intense inner battle between the side of me that loves adventure and new things, and my lethargic brain that wants to sit in an air conditioned room and watch Netflix.

Standing thirty feet past the club I felt lost in turmoil. I knew that if I went back to my room I would regret it almost instantly, but in the moment my feet felt rooted to the ground and I wasn’t prepared to turn around and dive back into the lights and crescendoing music. I took out my phone and looked at it lamely, then put it back into my pocket when it didn’t provide any relief. If something is scary, is that a reason not to do it? I pondered this a moment, thought about the words of Tyler, and then decided that I had little choice. Back to the music, back to the lights, walk back towards the laughter and the singing. If you feel self conscious, that’s nothing a beer can’t take care of.

Going to the Club

The first thing I did was order a beer. A Tiger, the national beer of Vietnam for all I’m concerned. I drank a third of it down before I looked around. The club was conspicuously trendy. It had recently been renovated, and there was a live DJ who looked like he was young enough to still grounded. The lights were flashing the types of colors you tend to see on acid. Walking the length of the bar, selling liquor, were the two most beautiful Vietnamese girls I’ve ever seen. Dragging my eyes off of them, I turned to my left and introduced myself to the only other non-Vietnamese person in the bar. That’s how I met Joe.

He was several inches shorter than my six feet, and had the first traces of wrinkles on his forehead, and around his mouth. On top was a forest of dirty blonde hair that went well with his Aussie accent. Joe gave me a firm handshake and I liked him immediately.

“So what are you doing in Vietnam?” I asked.

“I work in a bank in Saigon and I’m in Hanoi for a week to chill out. Sort of a vacation.”

“That’s cool. How do you know about this club, is it your first time here?”

Joe took a pull of his Marlboro Light before answering with a smile. “Nah it’s not my first time here, I know about this place because I own it.”

“No shit.” I said with a grin. “Cheers!”

Thanks to Joe’s easy generosity, my first drink was the last night drink that I paid for. The night progressed, the rum and cokes went down easy, and my tongue got looser. An hour later if you had stumbled into this bar you would have seen me and Joe, smoking hookah at a table with the two gorgeous girls, surrounded by a sea of young Vietnamese party goers. At the height of relaxation and enjoyment I could do little but thank myself for making the right decision, turning around, and going back into the trenches.

It wasn’t an easy decision in the moment, but it turned out to be the one that set the tune for the entire five month trip to come. When in doubt, don’t let the fear take over. Go back and do what’s right. I thought about this as I schmoozed out of the club, lazily walking the two blocks back to my hostel.

Paying for My Sins

The next two days I spent in bed, my health shattered like a wine glass on tile. The night before was the first time I had drank in two and a half months. My body quickly rebelled, and I had plenty of time to think about Joe’s bar as I lay in my air conditioned room. I certainly didn’t regret the evening, but I did learn that if I’m going to go sober for a while, I should ease back into the hedonism.

A Beautiful Shot of the Ho Chi Minh Temple in VietnamAfter three days I was better, and I felt good enough to get out of the hostel and explore Hanoi. I saw Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the oldest Buddhist temple in Vietnam, and the Vietnam War museum, decorated with all sorts of relics left behind by my countryman.

Hanoi turned out to be a beautiful city and I enjoyed my two weeks there. Later on it would be my tendency to embrace the unknown, and fight against my natural inclination to stay in that would give me some of my best memories from my months in Asia.