Its the smoke that first assaults the senses when stepping out of the airport in Hanoi. That, or the countless Samsung advertisements that seemingly stretch to the periphery of the eyeballs. In the van on the way to our hotel, crooners belt local love-ballads on the radio. The lamps illuminating the highway are a little different than the ones back home, everything adding up to solve some puzzle. During the ride we make small talk, this newly formed assemblage, people about to embark on an adventure together, that establishing-of-the-familiar thing that humans do when grouped together in new places. Were here to traverse Vietnam in stylea veritable convoy of Toyota TRD Pro trucks, kitted and capable, serve as our chariots, taking us from the capital city of Hanoi, through the jungle-intertwined towns of Central Vietnam, before making our way to the bustle of Ho Chi Minh City.
In the elapsed time of a dozen days well all have a bond and affinity that you cant really quantify; Its not just the highlights that one shares, but its those mundane moments toothe hungover stirring of a coffee on three hours of sleep, lazing in the passenger seat one morning, watching a foreign world sail by on the picture windows, this shared processing. Its the quiet early mornings as much as the late nights, and everything between.
We pull up to the hotel, our first of many, and the balminess hits. We meet a couple of our guides: Aussie expats that have knowledge and answer our every question over Bia H Ni lagers. We get insight on customs, local culture, and some of the places well see on our epic journey.
Our first day is spent getting acquainted with Vietnams capital, Hanoi. Simple tasks like crossing the street prove to be complex. We evaluate and study the local approach, which tends to vary. Some people seem to exercise a puny amount of caution, glancing at traffic and hesitating before going for it. Others just sort of dive in, harnessing an invisible power to control the surrounding chaos of mopeds and minivans and cars. A complete tourist, it takes me two minutes to find an opening. I was taking photos and the group is already 50 feet up the road. When I find my window I scurry across the street. Looking to see if the wise men on stoops give me a nod of approval on my technique, I see them stare blankly ahead.
We take a pedaled cyclo tour through town. The city is a full assault on the senses: the horns are incessant; makeshift stool cafes on random parts of the sidewalk; bikes, mopeds, cars, and pedestrians all intertwining somehow. Trees are everywhere, a reminder that jungle is not far away. A woman grills corn on the street, an older man takes a deep drag of a cigarette sitting on a blue plastic stool. A family of four careens past us on a single moped, the driver cradling a toddler up front. The air is perfumed with pollution and spices.
After a couple of jolting Vietnamese coffees, we pack our things onto the trucks, the journey begins. While we have Toyota support vehicles like the Fortuner which well also drivemanual transmission, diesel, absolute forbidden fruit candy in Americathe stars of the show are the Toyota Tacoma TRD PRO, magnificent in Super White against a lush green countryside, and a Tundra TRD PRO, also in Super White. The Tacoma touts a 3.5-liter V6, and its six-speed automatic transmission dishes 278 horsepower, and boasts some pleasing aesthetic touches, too.
The hood scoop, big “Toyota” block lettering on the grille, and slightly offset 16-inch black wheels all work to give the truck a beefy, badass countenance. The Tundra TRD PRO however, is another story altogether. That truck cranks up the power, size, and muscle. Motivated by a commanding 5.7-liter V8, its also wide and long, and on these Vietnamese roads, its a veritable yacht surrounded by wave-runners. Together, our formidable four-truck convoy must look like the mafia has come to townbut on closer inspection it’s a bunch of smiling wide-eyed writers with long lenses.
Volunteering to be one of the first drivers, Im excited to get behind the wheel and get into the thick of it. Im tossed the keys to the Tacoma TRD PRO. Hopping in and getting adjusted, the leather seats are comfy andconsidering the miles we plan to log as we traverse the countrythats important. We survey the trucks occupants to see who will hold the lofty title of DJ. One of the guys claims worthiness, and we pair his phone to the Entune infotainment system, and with the Rolling Stones on deck, we get going.
Scooters are everywhere and fearlessly weave around us. We all learn quickly that the horn is essentialit seems to offer a little breathing room, a couple of seconds before new scooters scoop back in. The separation in traffic, from one wheeled vehicle to another, is measured in inches. Theres an inconceivable flow and horn-honking harmony to it all. Ive put the Tacoma in manual shift mode, and upshifting and downshifting through the first three gears offers more control and less braking in this jumbled chaos. But interestingly, you start to get a feel for it, and very quickly become more aggressiveit’s a case of its foot on the gas or be passed.
Once we make it to the highway, were mostly in the clear. Traffic thins and the cars become few. The music is up, windows are down, breeze flying in. We pass rivers, small towns, jungle. Throughout the trip, there is an unshakeable spirit, energy, and determination exhibited by the Vietnamese people. Theres a definite feeling of a country on the rise.
Our convoy arrives in Ninh Bnh, and weve built a good appetite. Lunch is a feast, like most every meal well have, a multi-course affair of fresh and vibrant cuisine that will vary by region. Today we start with chicken corn soup, spring rolls with fish sauce, sauted chicken, and of course theres Morning Glorya type of water spinach. Theres fried beef (beef is what we suspect it is), steamed rice, beer, Vietnamese coffee, and a tiny but insanely flavorful banana for dessert.
We take boat tours, two of us up front in each boat, a woman in straw hat serves as the motor for each, using her feet to turn the oars. Our rower chatting nonstop with another one of the rowers from across the water. I wonder what her life is like aside from the rowing. Where does she live? Whats a good day look like for her? Doesnt she get blisters? Is the surreal beauty of this place lost on her as its her job, a 9-to-5?
Steep limestone cliffs shoot abruptly into the sky, they somehow make life pause. Theres a breeze whipping off of the water. At one point from afar it looks like were heading straight toward one of the cliffs, but its a cave. After a minute or so, while underneath, its near blackout and we have to duck to miss the stalactites. If this was the USA, there would be yellow and red signs everywhere for fear of a lawsuit and waivers from the boat company. None of that nonsense here.
Theres a concessions boat loaded with snacks and soft drinks and beers. The rowers ask us to get them sodas and candy bars, and we get cold beers. We float in and out of caves, past cliffs, while the water laps and we sip beer in the breeze. Afterwards we sit on a terrace and, as the suns setting, the sky is flamingo pink, making our surroundings take on a surreal hue. Dinner is another al fresco feast, and we take our Vietnamese guide up on the pitchers of happy water, a clear local spirit. (We never quite get a clear answer on what its made of, or where its made.)
Later in a thatched-roof bar with street dogs running in and out, we try another local concoction: something sitting in a plastic tub, pinkish-red in color, with some kind of fruit pickled within. For research purposes I sample the liquid. Hours roll by, soon were back in the hotel. After a cool shower, its 3AM. Somehow 22 hours earlier I was just waking up in Hanoi to start our journey. It feels like a week earlier. A decade from now, I’m convinced Ill still think back on this day. Things go dark. End of official day one.
First three images by Matthew Askari, hero and all others by Fred Wissink