Think you’re a real motorbike rider? Then Walter Person challenges you to tackle the Red Road of Death and everything that comes with it.

So you now have your automatic step-through motorbike with trendy matching helmet and jacket. Or you’ve picked up a nice little Honda Cub — the workhorse of the nation — or a reconditioned Minsk. You’re slipping through the traffic as a pretty cool motorbike rider in Vietnam.

Ha! City slickers! If you want to be a real bike rider you have to tackle the Red Road Of Death. Even Vietnamese fear the Red Road Of Death — the roads in the red laterite soil country that run from around Phan Thiet to Cambodia.

In the rains, the road becomes slimy, slippery and greasy. Immediately after a downpour, the surface is soggy. It catches in your tyre tread, and you lose traction. If you keep the power on you might be able to go forward. You can’t brake. That means a spill, or at least the bike will slip from under you and you will have one foot deep in the red glue, hanging onto the handlebars with the other foot still on the footrest. If you have to go uphill, forget it. Ah well, at least the wet season ends eventually.

But then, the mud turns to dust. At first it is bearable, but as bikes go back and forth the particles turn into what we Australians call bull dust — superfine red talc. On the surface, smooth, but underneath bearing breaking potholes or corrugations that shake you and your bike apart. Because it is the dry season, there’s very little breeze and this fine dust hangs in the air. One trip into town and you and your bike are covered in a red powder and your nose is blocked. That, among other things, is why we cover up.

On longer trips I wear the usual — jacket, long pants, a balaclava-style headcover, gloves, solid shoes. Apart from the dust, there are plenty of other things I need protection from. Stock trucks, especially pig trucks. Pig urine. Buckets of it. I much prefer to be covered up than covered in urine.

Talking of livestock, there’s another hazard. Goats and cattle under control are pretty good. They are used to bikes and saunter. Calves can be a problem when separated from their mother, and ducks just get in the way. They are moved in flocks by a man with a stick with cotton on the end. You have to wait for them all to get across the road.

Chickens are impossible to hit. I have tried really hard, but they run fast. How can an animal with such a little brain — I know, I’ve eaten chicken heads — be so smart, when a dog with a big brain is so dumb? Dogs see you coming and they don’t know whether to run out and wag their tail at you, or be helpful and get out of your way.

Night-time driving on narrow rutted bush roads can be fun and adventurous. There are no street lamps outside town and very few inside. Cattle going home late unfortunately don’t have tail-lights. It is easy to run up on them in the dark, as their brown hides do not really stand out. No matter how many times one flashes the high beams, cows persist. So the only answer is to slow down to a crawl until they pass and the road becomes visible again.

Everyone knows about drivers with no headlights — switched off supposedly to save fuel. But what about headlamps? Many drivers in the countryside use them to work at night and often go out on the family’s worst bike with no lights of its own, using their headlamp to show the way. In the dark you cannot see anything but a single tiny beam shifting all over the place coming towards you like an extraterrestrial in search of a probe victim. Quite creepy the first time.

So the challenge is out. Prove yourself a proper bike rider by defeating the Red Road Of Death in the rain.


Read more from This Country Life