To my relief, the road, which was just a dirt path, inclined for a few meters and before I knew it, was sloping downwards once again. The hill wasn’t as steep as the others, which was a good sign. There was a turn coming up, but the tall grass was blocking my view from seeing around the corner. The turn was steeper than I thought and I was beginning to lose control. My motorbike slipped sideways into the middle of the narrow dirt path. I lay sideways with my bike beneath half of body, my right side outwards and my left elbow and leg still struggling to wiggle out. In that moment, relieved to be alive and not in a ditch somewhere on the side of the road, I looked up to see the silver front bumper of a large truck a millimeter from my nose.
The truck had seen me just in time and slammed on its breaks. Hearing the ruckus, a grandmother and several small children emerged from a home on the hills. The driver hurried out of his truck as I attempted to lift the bike off of me. Without any effort and without saying a word, he lifted the bike and put it on the side of the path. In a few seconds, even before I could say cảm ơn, thank you, he hopped back into his truck and was already driving away. The grandmother and children looked on as I, a stupid foreigner, pulled myself together and checked to make sure the bike was okay. I felt lucky that the side mirror was the only smashed part. I looked down at myself, grateful for the few scrapes, bit of bleeding, and a few holes in my shirt and leggings. I made sure my backpack was strapped on tight and smiled embarrassingly at my onlookers as I rode away.
I was beginning to count my blessings. This wasn’t the first time I was literally face to face with danger. Had it been any other mountain, I could have plummeted down several thousand feet. There were no guard rails and, in most cases, the dirt roads were so narrow that I had to huddle against the side with my bike. The roads were frequented by large trucks transporting heavy items. I was amazed at how effortlessly they navigated the narrow paths. Not once did I see an accident.
I had been on the road for about six weeks at the time and, at certain points, still asked myself why I decided to do this. For the first few weeks I was with a close friend from home. Within 24 hours of busing our way into Vietnam, my friend convinced me it would be a good idea to motorbike our way through Vietnam. “What better way is there to see a country?” she matter-of-factly asked me. It didn’t take much convincing although I knew my parents would have a heart attack if they ever found out. I’d left the U.S. six months prior and they could barely keep up with which country, let alone town or city, I was in week to week.
Although my friend had to convince me, I was the one who ended up renewing my visa for another month while she hopped on a plane to Indonesia. I had fallen into what I thought was love with a fellow traveler, a boy from California. It wasn’t the boy though, it was Vietnam that I had really fallen in love with. It was the hospitality and kindness of the people, the mountain ranges that made me feel so small, and the rivers that were a blue unlike any blue I’d seen in my life. More than anything, it was the freedom. It was the sheer joy of waking up each day and taking that motorbike to any nook and cranny I chose. It was the feeling of truly being alive, of realizing that yes, this is what life is about.
I had just turned 22 years old and was a recent college graduate hell bent on seeing the world. I’d landed the best internships during college and what my peers would have called a dream job at a large bank. Although I didn’t tell anyone, the moment I walked out the door and jumped on the plane to my first destination, South Korea, none of it mattered. I had already decided I didn’t want any of it.
Now I was alone and was traveling into the northern mountains on the border of China and Vietnam. Those days in the mountains, I barely saw or spoke to anyone. I once again asked myself, “What was I doing there? What was I looking for?” However, the easier question was, “What had gotten me to that point?”
Luck? Yes. Stupidity? Probably. Naiveté? Without a doubt.
As the sun was beginning to set, I knew I was behind schedule. The small signs leading to the next town were barely noticeable in daylight and would soon become invisible in the darkness. If I hurried, I could reach the next town by nightfall. I was also running out of gas and prayed to God I’d find a small shop to fill up. Despite my lack of gas and the pending nightfall, I was in no rush at all. Life or death didn’t seem to be on the horizon, at least for now.
I descended the mountain and came across one of the most beautiful sights I’d seen yet. A pristine, aqua blue river crashed in between a towering mountain range that seemed to never end. Overcome with emotion, I parked my bike and sat on the edge of the mountain for what seemed like eternity. Everything before that moment seemed insignificant. This is the feeling I’d been looking for and I’d found it. In that moment, I knew it was finally time to go.