The worst time to get sick? On a motorcycle in the heart of Vietnam

April 20, 2012 in Places,Vietnam

I woke up before my alarm went off and rushed to the toilet. It was clear I’d been hit with my first bout of food poisoning/stomach flu/Bali belly–whatever you want to call it, it’s an awful mix of stomach cramps, diarrhea and nausea that makes you want to curl up on the couch with a mug of hot tea. Motorcycle trip through the Central Highlands, Vietnam

Instead, I was about to embark on three days on the back of a motorcycle through the Central Highlands of Vietnam: I was due to be packed up and in the hotel lobby in 45 minutes. My guide had been organized and my deposit had been paid: there was no backing out now.

I’ll spare you the gory details, but let me just remind you that Vietnam is a country that believes in squat toilets and no toilet paper. Our accommodation the first night was in a “traditional ethnic minority village.” Sounds quaint, eh? It was an elevated room with a row of mattresses and mosquito nets, and a community squat toilet that was a five-minute walk in the pitch black night. Exactly what you’re looking for after a day on the back of a motorcycle, in which you spent an entire eight hours pondering whether you’d be able to tell your guide in time if you needed to vomit or if you’d be able to just throw up into the downwind.

Broken down motorcycle in the Central Highlands, Vietnam

It’s also a country that prides itself on its good food and hospitality: I refused anything but Coca-Cola, green tea and white rice the entire first day to the mortification of my guide. The second night, spurred by the comfort of a hot shower in my own hotel room, I agreed to eat dinner with the group: roll-your-own-spring-rolls in a storefront with too-bright florescent lights and shiny silver chairs. I spent the next morning in the toilet, and asked my guide to forego any unnecessary stops: he saw the green of my face and agreed to rush toward my final destination. In true Murphy’s Law style, our motorcycle broke down and we watched the members of our group who had stopped at a coffee plantation, a rubber tree forest, a cocoa tree orchard speed by. Finally, someone stopped, and I watched as my guide and a friend pushed the bike–with ALL of my worldly belongings packed onto it–over my hill and out of my sight (ostensibly for gas or a part, but my guide’s English didn’t extend to mechanical terms I could understand).

Floating village at dusk in the Central Highlands, Vietnam

“The thing about Africa is that you cannot give up and take the easier way out because there is no easier way or other way,” said my ultimate travel writing inspiration Martha Gellhorn about traveling in Africa. I think the same thing goes from Southeast Asia. Once I got on the road, there was no turning back. Even when I was breaking out in a cold sweat, I was taken aback by the untainted beauty and simplicity of life that surrounded me. The stretch between Saigon and Hanoi can seem unbearably long, a “flyover” region to many pressed for time. But it’s where you can get witness Vietnamese life at the source: the farms where the coffee is grown, the entire villages that float, the simple fact that you can drive for three days and only encounter five stoplights.

Christine Amorose playing with a puppy in Central Highlands, Vietnam

Most of the time, however, I was a bit awful: longing for that cup of hot tea and an air-conditioned room to curl up in. That’s not to say there weren’t moments where I felt OK, or even better. I ate passionfruit after passionfruit straight off the tree, after my guide promised that it would help settle my stomach. I played with an adorable puppy. I went for a swim in a deserted spring after getting a “waterfall massage”, and then stretched out in the sunshine on the rocks.

This trip taught me the value of always traveling with a pocket pack of tissues (if not a whole roll of toilet paper), and of being willing to take a risk. Three days on the back of a motorcycle with a guy you just met, and watching him ride away with everything you own (passport, laptop, money–I mean everything) will teach you to trust in the good of people and hope for the best. And pray to never get food poisoning again.

Note: my guide was the nephew of the owner of the Viet Thanh Hotel and I was accosted pretty much as soon as I was shown my room. However, he had a logbook of glowing recommendations and a photo album, set a fair price and spoke good English. I was very happy with the quality of the tour, and would recommend anyone looking to get from Dalat to Nha Trang to stay at Viet Thanh (bonus: SUPER cheap for single rooms) and chat with the owner about what you’re looking for.

  • I cannot believe you did that while sick. I am such a pansy compared to you, I would have stayed in.

  • Briel79

    I’m impressed that you still went through with the three day trip even while sick! I know I wouldn’t have! 

  • I would have been so miserable – I don’t even like riding in cars if my stomach is upset! And yet you still make it sound like an overall great experience in the end… go you!

  • Been there, only on a motorcycle on Koh Chang in Thailand. It’s the pits. Luckily, my experience was just a few hours. I can’t imagine three days!!! 

  • Oh darling! This happened to me in Tibet, just awful. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger right???

  • Getting sick while traveling is the WORST! I got dengue fever on my honeymoon and didn’t stop throwing up for nine hours, my husband could barely convince me to leave the room to go to the doctor. You are incredibly brave to hop on the back of a motorcycle! It makes for a good story once you feel better though–glad you were okay!

  • HATE food poisoning.  I’ve had it a few times and it’s the worst sickness I’ve experienced.  Maybe it’s just the horrible feeling, chills, body aches, and stuff coming out of both ends at the same time (I hate throwing up).  However, I can’t understand how you could “curl up” with tea on the couch.  I am in the fetal position not wanting to move and begging for this to end as I never want to see food again.

    I have to admire you for even going on that.  I am not sure I could have (not with the food poisoning experiences that I’ve had).  You handled that trip much better than I would have.

  • camorose

    I had already paid the deposit and I had a pretty tight itinerary for the rest of my time in Vietnam–I guess I was just too cheap to back out!

  • camorose

    It was one of those things where as soon as I agreed to go I realized it was probably the wrong choice but it didn’t seem like I had many other options–I was suddenly out in the middle of rural Vietnam. Believe me, there weren’t many hotels or towns where I would have wanted to pull over!

  • camorose

    It was actually OK being on the motorcycle–the fresh air really helped. Whenever we stopped, I immediately had to find a bathroom–not ideal. Oh well, that’s travel for you!

  • camorose

    Yeah, it wasn’t ideal. It definitely ebbed and flowed, but I definitely would have LOVED the experience if I hadn’t been on the verge of vomiting all day. Ugh!

  • camorose

    Exactly! When you don’t have any other options, you kind of just have to keep on keeping on!

  • camorose

    Ahhh ON YOUR HONEYMOON? That would be so so so much worse! You poor thing :(

  • camorose

    Haha I pretty much curl up in the fetal position on the couch with some rom-coms playing in the background and don’t get up ALL DAY if possible :)

  • You’re a trooper! I’m glad there were some positive moments despite the illness. :)

  • camorose

    It wasn’t ideal timing, but it was hard not to enjoy–my guide was so helpful and the scenery was just beautiful!

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  • I’ve heard of Delhi belly.. but this is the first I’ve heard of Bali belly. Sounds just as awful. I would have probably backed out but good for you to make lemonades.. You’re making me miss VN. We’ll be there in one month though so I’m super excited to read about it for now through you! 😉

  • camorose

    Ahhhh can’t wait to hear about what you two get up to in Vietnam! It was honestly my favorite place so far, I’d love to go back :)

  • Ah! I can’t even imagine. I think it’s one of the things I dread the most to be in a similar situation, and I only hope that I can handle it with some class and appreciation like it seems that you have. I am one of the biggest babies when I’m sick!

  • That’s unbelievable, Christine – you really should have a red check mark and a gold star next to your name somewhere.  Thanks for sharing the story, but not the gory bits. 😉

  • camorose

    Haha I felt it was a story to be shared–but definitely not ALL the details!

  • Noooo! I just got back from Vietnam (returned to my home for this year: Thailand) and it turns out that Ho Chi Minh city gave me a little intestinal souvenir too! 

  • camorose

    Ahhhh no fun! Hopefully it didn’t hit you until you were “home”–or at least somewhere with a flushable toilet!

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