Imagine you’re just about to land in Hanoi, Vietnam on your first solo trip as a 19-year-old.
Well, this was me just under 6 years ago and I was about to ride a motorbike from Hanoi to a waterfall on the Chinese border called Ban Goic Waterfall.
Now, looking at this on a map it doesn’t seem too far, and you’re right. So what’s so crazy about this story?
Well, not only had I never ridden a motorbike before, traveled solo, or taken on any travel photography jobs in the past (yes this was my first ever travel photography job) I was also about to embark on the trip with an ex-Vietnamese Mafia member.
This is a good one .
So I got off the plane, got my visa, and got a taxi to my hotel.
The next day I meet with the owner of the motorbike tour company and we go over the trip we had planned a few weeks back.
He tells me there and then that we won’t be making it on the trip and that I’ll be going with one of his employees. I said ok cool, he told me where his depot was and we met the next day.
Once I got to his depot they geared me up with all the riding gear and he told me if I could ride to the end of the street and back I’d be good to go on this trip. It was a quiet alleyway that went straight. I got a grip on how the gears worked, rode back and forth, and all of a sudden we were on our way to the Chinese border.
About 3 hours in, my guide and I stopped for lunch. This was the first time I’d been able to sit down and talk with him. We stayed there for about an hour and in that hour he told me that he was part of the Vietnamese Mafia and that people would try to break into his house, he had hits put on him, and that it was hard for him to go back to his village.
Brilliant. I am not deep in North Vietnam with an ex-mafia member.
3 days of riding and taking photos pass. The Northern region of Vietnam is stunning, to say the least. I’ve now been there twice and I can’t wait to get back at some stage next year.
We cut our trip a few days short as the weather hadn’t been good to us the entire trip. We were riding on mud roads in the pouring rain and I thought Vietnam was a warm country so I packed one, single lightweight hoodie.
As we are making our way back down to Hanoi to drop the bikes back off my guide tells me he is not too sure how to get home from here. Before I could pull my phone out and show him how Google Maps works he told me that his cousin lives here and he’ll be able to show us how to get back.
I thought no worries, let’s do it.
As we are waiting at a set of traffic lights a guy pulls up on a bike and starts talking with my guide. My guide tells me that this is his cousin and we are going to quickly go to his house, ok…
5 minutes of riding later we arrive at what I could only describe as a Vietnamese mansion with guard dogs, a huge gate, and glass cemented in on the top of the 10ft wall surrounding his property, ok…
20 minutes go by of my sitting on one of the most uncomfortable lounges in the world, the Vietnamese just make them out of wood for some reason and my guide asks me if we can go to lunch with his cousin and some friends. At this point, I had no idea what was going on but I wasn’t really in the best position to say no, so we went to lunch.
I was insisted countless times to leave my bag at the house before walking to lunch. Keep in mind this had all my camera gear, my passport, and any money I had on me and was now locked behind a huge gate.
We walked up the road to a car wash, got in a brand-new Ford Ranger, and drove to lunch.
15 minutes later we arrive at a huge restaurant with about 10 other Vietnamese guys waiting there. We sit down, order and for the next 3 hours, I understand nothing.
Little did I know at this point I was having lunch with the mafia of this area, in a mafia-owned restaurant sitting next to the highest ranking member of the mafia…
What felt like the longest 3 hours of my life finally starts to wrap up as we get the bill. A huge wad of cash is placed on the table from the inside of the leader's jacket and people start to get up and leave.
Just before we stood up, the first person to talk to me in 3 hours stood up and pointed out that I didn’t eat much at lunch and that next time I should eat more. For some reason, I have no idea what reason I stood up and pointed out that I have a flat stomach unlike him who was well and truly overweight and I didn’t want to be fat.
Now I said all of this with hand gestures and speaking basic English that I am still not sure they understood. However, what I had just done was make fun of one of the mafia members in front of all his friends calling him fat.
To my surprise, everyone at the table including the guy I just called fat burst out laughing and we left the restaurant.
We drove back to this mansion, I picked my gear up which was still there, thank god… And we then drove another 2 hours back to Hanoi to wrap the trip up.
This was my introduction to solo travel and I thank my lucky stars that it was (and that I didn’t get shot for taking the piss)
I couldn’t have signed up for this and it’s not a tour you can book but sometimes just saying yes to everything when you’re on the road is one of the best things you can do.
Just be careful who you make fun of
Alright, that’s it from me, thanks for your time as always, catch you in the next one, peace.