“One of the advantages of being disorganized is that one is always having surprising discoveries.” (A.A. Milne)
I was purposely unprepared when I undertook a four-day motorbike trip from Ha Giang into the mountains in the northern provinces of Vietnam. I didn’t research anything beforehand — no photos, blog posts, or books. I had never heard of the place I was going and didn’t even know how to pronounce it. All I knew was to be at a certain place at a certain time, prepared to ride for a few hundred kilometers motorbikes with some friends.
At the time, I’d been thinking a lot about how to find an honest sense of adventure again. It’s a fairly difficult task to seek mystery on well-traveled paths. Guide books, social media, online reviews, and tour guides take an unknown experience and make it accessible. Hundreds and thousands have done it before you — and they’ll tell you how to do it in the exact same way. Each time the advice becomes more diluted, regurgitated again and again until it loses all meaning and nothing is unexpected.
It was raining on the first day of our trip, as we headed south on our rented 110cc motorbikes — a one-night detour away from the high karst plateaus into the tea field highlands where, for centuries, the tea tree has grown naturally throughout the mountains and valleys. I was wearing a rain jacket that diverted all water it collected to my clothes underneath as we traveled slowly down highways, trucks hurtling past at unimaginable speeds on such small roads. We rode up muddy streets and through endless roadworks, rain slanting wickedly into our eyes as thunderstorms rolled over the mountaintops. It was a bleak start that set the expectations for the rest of the trip at an all-time low, but there was no turning back.
When discussing his film “The Revenant,” director Alejandro Iñárritu said, “We don’t have adventures anymore. Now people say, ‘I went to India … it’s an adventure.’ No: We have GPS, a phone, nobody gets lost.”
That quote, the lament for a sense of adventure that has been lost to modern culture, has stuck with me as I’ve reflected on my own journeys. People often say that “it’s the journey, not the destination that matters.” But does that still hold true in today’s oversaturated travel market? Today’s adventures are so guided — it is possible to prepare so thoroughly that no possibility of experiencing disappointment or surprise exists.
Luckily, the sun came out the next day, so we packed our rain jackets in our bags and made our way north. The ride took most of the day, and the slow pace of the little motorbikes allowed us to take in the remote vistas over the valley floor — endless karst peaks disappearing into the mist. While up in the mountains, our stopover towns were normally dictated by how sore we were from riding for hours over bumps and potholes. These towns were, from an outsider’s perspective, all very similar, but the landscapes between were strikingly different. Starting low and hugging the river, we began the long, slow scale up endless switchbacks and continued high on cliff-edged roads between the enormous limestone karst-filled landscape.
If you arrive at the right time and on the right day, there are markets full of strange-looking foods, where nomadic highland women trudge from far away villages selling whatever they can carry on their backs. I wondered where they had come from and was left wondering 20km outside town when I continued to see them on the side of the road, marching on the backbreaking, laborious walk back to their homes. It’s in these markets that you test the fortitude of your stomach, hoping to find the next weird and wonderful hard-to-pronounce meal to add to the collection of divine sustenance.
I look back to some of the places I’ve been in the last few years — Tanzania, Jordan, the road trips through the US National Park system. I flip through the memory Rolodex, hoping to catch meaningful sights and feelings. What do I remember from these journeys? The beautiful beaches, sure, but I’ve sat in the sand through a hundred sunsets. It’s the moments in between that shape how I remember my experience: getting lost, the missteps, the flat tires, the disasters that seem comical now. It’s the failures that bring meaning to the successes. A pretty picture, some well-reviewed restaurants, and a comfortable bed may make me feel good, but without the struggle I find they lack a certain weight; the moment becomes fleeting rather than enduring. If I follow travel blogs, I’m simply living through someone else’s journey and wondering if that’s as good as it gets. Where is the mystery?
If you want to escape the mega crowds of Sapa and Ha Long Bay, head to Ha Giang before everyone takes the charm from your adventure. Even though I sometimes ate average meals, drank warm beers, slept in traditional rock-hard beds, hit some dodgy potholes, had a flat tire, and chased mosquitoes all night long, it was worth it. It was these calamitous moments that made me appreciate the beauty when I came across some of the most incredible scenery I’ve ever seen. I was probably standing in the same spots as many travelers before me, but I wouldn’t know.
It was my adventure, so I won’t tell you where you should eat and where you should sleep. That’s for you to discover.