Shawn Edmonson, CEO of IRIS Connect, shares his experience riding from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City - including an encounter with the Vietnamese military.
The sounds of the jungle -- chirping, barbling, screeching -- contrasted with the typing from the laptop. I leaned closer to the screen to get a better view. The Vietnamese military officer pecked individual sentences into Google Translate, turning the laptop toward us each time, checking for our understanding. We nodded, eyebrows raised, eyes widening. It slowly became clear why we had been detained and escorted back to our dingy hotel for this interrogation.
You have violated Vietnamese law.
You have entered a restricted area.
You do not have permission to be here.
It is very dangerous for you here.
You are 1 km from the Laos border.
We will take your passports and your visas.
You will stay here in this hotel and you will not leave.
We have questions for you to answer now
Ok, sure, this all sounded fairly bad. But was it “apologize profusely and pay a small bribe bad”, or was it “start crafting a bamboo shiv bad”? A barrage of questions followed, translated painstakingly, one sentence at a time. Who do you work for? Why are you in Vietnam? Why did you come to the Laos border? Where did you get these motorcycles? What work are you doing here? How did you hear about this country? Who do you know in Vietnam? What is your job? We kept our answers brief and accurate, but tried to avoid responses that might be problematic. What were the wrong answers to give to military officers in a communist country who have detained you for entering a restricted area?
How did I know about Vietnam?
Well, my father did two tours here as a Special Forces Army Ranger fighting the North Vietnamese in 1968-1969. That was almost 50 years ago, but I assumed this was still a wrong answer. Instead, I cheerily typed “I read about traveling to Vietnam on the Internet!”
Why have we come to Vietnam?
Oh, we’re recording everything we see with several tiny, head-mounted spy cameras and filming interviews with Vietnamese citizens. This also seemed like a wrong answer. Instead, I typed a less incriminating but still truthful variation: “We’re just tourists, here to visit your beautiful country!” For some reason exclamation points felt helpful; enthusiastic innocence!
You look anxious
Don’t be so anxious.
Seriously? It was now dark and it was clear we weren’t going to be getting dinner. As the interrogation continued and my stomach grumbled, I thought back to the events that lead up to this moment. How the hell did we get here? Why did I have to watch Papillon on the airplane?
My riding partners Dan Galliher, Kevin Bleything, and I left Hanoi a two days earlier. Our plan was to ride our rented Honda XR150 dirt bikes more than 2,500 km to Ho Chi Minh city in less than two weeks. An ambitious pace, but this wasn’t our first rodeo. Over the past several years, we’d completed motorcycle adventures from Seattle to the Canadian Arctic Circle, explored the Icelandic Highlands, and ridden from New Delhi, India over the highest passes in the Himalayas into the Ladakh region near the Chinese border.
During each of these trips we filmed our ride, our experiences, and also interviews with the locals to learn about their country, culture, history, and perspectives. The result are three motorcycle adventure travel documentary films; our crude attempt to share our experiences while paying homage to the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Michael Palin, Warren Miller, and Werner Herzog.
So we travel with a lot of gear: tripods, cameras, microphones, batteries, cables, tools, and everything else you need to travel light and fast on tiny motorcycles across Vietnam. We needed to access our camera gear quickly and efficiently while protecting it from heavy jungle downpours, bumps and scrapes, and the incessant grime of the road. We were riding 8-10 hours a day through challenging and diverse conditions, so backpacks would have to be very comfortable and specifically designed for riding motorcycles.
To meet these needs we turned to Velomacchi. We selected an assortment of their backpacks, duffels, pouches, and storage cases to keep our gear organized, protected, and accessible:
- 40L Speedway Backpacks
- Speedway Impact Laptop Sleeve
- Speedway Tool/Medic Pouches
- Speedway Impact Storage Cases
- Speedway Tool Roll
- 50L Speedway Hybrid Duffel Travel Backpack
Dan and Kevin chose to use the tie down straps to secure their 40L Speedway Backpacks atop their duffel bags on the back of their bikes. Because I needed quick access to my camera gear, I wore my 40L Speedway for the entire ride, with the 50L Speedway Duffel strapped to my rack.
Nothing gives you a feel for equipment like living out of it for two weeks on the road. In that time, my Velomacchi gear became part of me, my routine, and my riding experience. The 3-point rotating harness system and magnetic sternum coupler on the 40L Speedway Backpack is nothing short of genius. The harness kept the load stable, comfortable, and easy to quickly remove.
Deceptively simple, the Storage Cases and Tool Pouches are elegantly designed. They’re sized to stack neatly within the backpack and duffel. Their tough material and easy-to-grab handles enables them to slide easily in and out of these bags. Quickly getting to the bottom of my pack was an organized, clean operation, that kept my gear safe. This came in handy whether I was looking for a battery on the shoulder of a busy highway outside Da Nang or quickly dumping the contents for airport security in Dubai.
With all of our gear securely stowed away, we headed south from the bustling traffic of Hanoi. We decided to head west into the mountainous jungle, following a small, twisty road that ran south along the Laos border. We got lost near dusk and rolled into a very small rural village looking for a place to stay and a hot meal. The people here looked and dressed differently than those we had met so far. These were the indigenous people of the highlands known locally as người Thượng (Highlanders). They were extremely interested in us: our gear, our bikes, our backpacks, and our cameras all drew curious stares and warm smiles. We were having a great time, exploring the local market, shaking hands, and making friends.
That is, until we were approached by two men in military uniforms that wanted to see our passports. They spoke no English but it was clear they wanted to escort us back to our hotel, to see our passports, and to ask us a few questions.
After a sleepless night under house-arrest, filled with disconcerting snippets from Papillion playing in my head, we woke with the roosters. We secured our Velomacchi gear to the backs of our little Hondas, hopefully waiting for the return of our passports, and prepping for a quick exit from this remote village. After an agonizing wait, and just as I was calling the US Embassy in Hanoi, the officers returned with the laptop:
As you know, you have violated Vietnamese Law.
However, because you did not know, you will not be sanctioned.
We will return your passports and you will go back the way you came.
May we take some pictures of you?
A wave of relief washed over us and I finally stopped imagining what a Vietnamese prison might be like. I assumed they wanted our photos for some official purpose, maybe to hang on the office wall next to the mugshots of other suspicious potential foreign agents. No, they wanted selfies. Lots of them, with each of their phones. After handshakes, hugs, and highfives, we rode back through the dusty remote village, down the mountain, to continue towards our final destination: Ho Chi Minh city. We had a long way to go and our adventure in Vietnam had just begun.
What an amazing and exciting story!!…thank God everything went well!!..have still a nice and safe ride!!
Hugs from Brazil!