American moves through Vietnam like a gentle breeze

By Heather Nguyen   June 17, 2023 | 12:35 am PT
American traveler Tyler Henthorn's journey from Ho Chi Minh City to the northernmost Ha Giang Province revealed the beauty of Vietnam and the warmth and kindness of its people.
American moves through Vietnam like a gentle breeze

Henthorn, an American who's been living in Ho Chi Minh City for about six years, embarked on a solo motorcycle trip from the southern metropolis to Vietnam’s remote border province in March. Throughout his journey, he documented his experiences in a diary of both words and photographs that captured glimpses of the essence of Vietnam along the way.

Equipped with a strong command of the Vietnamese language, Henthorn started the adventure on March 18, cruising from HCMC towards the town of Dong Xoai in Binh Phuoc Province, where he enjoyed interacting with locals.

"The local people I meet are far less guarded, and are more likely to be curious about what I am doing. Conversation is much easier this way," he wrote.

American moves through Vietnam like a gentle breeze

Henthorn's trusty companion was his off-road motorcycle. On the afternoon of March 19, just before leaving Buon Ma Thuot City, an outpost in the mountainous Central Highlands, he wrote: "The road included long stretches of emptiness. I had a potent feeling wash over me for a short moment. With nobody else on the road, I was more alone than I can remember having been in any circumstance in the past. I trusted my bike, but there was always the chance that something would break, and abandoning the bike was out of the question. I listened carefully to every noise the engine made."

American moves through Vietnam like a gentle breeze

A waterfall that Henthorn took on March 20, upon leaving Kon Tum in the Central Highlands.

Throughout his journey, he took pictures using a Leica camera that only had black and white functionality. He prefers black and white photos as he believed they conveyed emotions better. He usually took photographs in the morning before leaving a location. He acknowledged that capturing photos in the afternoon would be ideal, but he often rushed to find overnight accommodations, preferring not to arrive in the dark.

American moves through Vietnam like a gentle breeze

At each stop, Henthorn tried to learn about the local way of life. He enjoyed watching the animals, especially the buffalos.

On the morning of March 20, while preparing to leave Kon Tum Province in the Central Highlands, he wrote: "The cà phê sữa (coffee with condensed milk) in the countryside was consistently amazing. It was mixed to be as strong as it was sweet. It's almost like drinking chocolate. I think that in order to make a coffee like this, one must be a person who truly understands and enjoys coffee."

He also had a shocking experience that day. "I saw a dog being run over by a tour bus. The dog died very quickly, and the bus never stopped or looked back. I was in shock, and I stopped there for a long time in order to process what I had seen."

American moves through Vietnam like a gentle breeze

On the evening of March 20, Henthorn found himself in Dong Giang District, Quang Nam Province in central Vietnam. After checking into a motel, he washed and dried his clothes. He wore clothes made of synthetic fabrics as they were lightweight and quick-drying.

The next morning, upon leaving Dong Giang, he had coffee before breakfast. The town had several large, comfortable coffee and tea shops, and very few restaurants, he noted. "I supposed that people who live here like to eat at home with their families, and then spend time socializing in the cafes."

Henthorn noted his trouble making conversations with people in the region.

"Since traveling north of Kon Tum, I met more people who speak languages which I did not recognize. People had more trouble understanding my Vietnamese."

American moves through Vietnam like a gentle breeze

On the morning of March 22, Henthorn passed through Khe Sanh Town in Quang Tri Province. Prior to his departure, he noted: "I had coffee and listened to some farmers speaking another language. It was very ornate with lots of trills, quick consonants and long vowels. I sat for a while and listened, trying to memorize the sounds.

"I experienced a special emotion every morning, after packing the bike and leaving the hotel. I had everything with me, leaving nothing behind. I had a full container of water, a reserve of petrol, and an entire day of time to myself. It felt like freedom."

American moves through Vietnam like a gentle breeze

A road in Quang Tri Province, captured on March 22.

Describing a scene at a gas station there, Henthorn described the goats that scattered upon his arrival, and the silence they left in their wake. A gentle breeze swept across the neighboring farm, imbuing the place with an indescribable energy that bordered on the surreal.

His visit to a small coffee shop revealed to him that foreigners riding high displacement motorcycles often passed through, and many spoke Vietnamese as well. When asked about his solitary travels, Tyler said that he preferred being alone to listening to complaints. The coffee shop owner invited him to drink coffee for free.

American moves through Vietnam like a gentle breeze

Tyler stopped to watch a woman walking with her buffalos.

On the evening of March 22 in Quang Binh Province, Henthorn wrote: "When I was on the bike for two days, everything hurt. I was afraid that the pain would just increase on a longer journey like this. The reality is that after three or more days of riding, every pain eventually disappears, as though my body has given up on complaining and has accepted what is now normal. When I get on the bike again each morning, I am perfectly comfortable."

American moves through Vietnam like a gentle breeze

Through Henthorn's lens, he captured the scene of Quang Binh, taking the photo on March 23.

He documented an unforgettable experience in Phong Nha Town, where a gas station attendant accidentally squeezed the gas pump lever and sent a fire hose of gasoline directly into his chest.

"I panicked, stripped off my clothes and cleaned myself in the middle of this petrol station. I laughed to show that I was not angry, and I told the woman "khong co gi! khong sao!" (no problems), but she was deeply remorseful. I will never forget the way she looked at me and said "xin loi" (sorry) in such a deeply sincere and clearly understood tone."

American moves through Vietnam like a gentle breeze

Upon arriving in Hanoi, Tyler stayed over a week to photograph the Old Quarter. In his journal entry at 9 p.m. on March 24, he wrote about his encounter at a motorcycle repair shop.

"I asked a mechanic to change the oil in my bike. I showed him how to do it, but he is afraid that my instructions were not correct. He didn't understand why the oil would be poured into the frame, or why there would be two drain plugs, or how the bike could hold 2 liters of oil. A crowd of mechanics from other shops gathered around to watch and join the discussion. I assured him that he would not be held responsible, and offered to just buy the oil and borrow his pan. When the job was done, they said they would use my license plate number to gamble that night."

On April 3, Tyler visited Cat Ba Island to see some friends who worked there as tour guides.

American moves through Vietnam like a gentle breeze

A waterfall near Lang Son Province, a photo Henthorn took on April 6.

American moves through Vietnam like a gentle breeze

From April 7 onwards, Henthorn found himself in Ha Giang Province, passing through Meo Vac and Xin Man Districts. The winding roads that clung precariously to the mountains almost overwhelmed him. As he drove to one particular mountaintop, a dense fog enveloped his surroundings. The driving conditions posed a significant hurdle.

On the morning of April 8, as he prepared to depart Meo Vac, he realized that his motel owner was nowhere to be found. The displayed room prices allowed him to leave the appropriate cash and key on the table.

American moves through Vietnam like a gentle breeze

On April 12, in Xin Man District, Tyler noticed there were not many tourists around. When he stopped to eat at a shop, the owner's family welcomed him. Henthorn noted: "The owners treated me like family, helping me speak Vietnamese. A woman put her baby on my bike. People stopped to look at the bike constantly, men checking out the tires and the storage, women always checking out the seat cushion."

His adventure came to a close upon his return to Hanoi on April 21. Boarding the SE1 train bound for Ho Chi Minh City, he realized that while he had captured numerous photographs during his travels, he had none of himself. Reflecting on his time in Vietnam, he acknowledged that the landscapes and surroundings were far more captivating subjects than himself.

He planned to take another trans-Vietnam trip with a friend later this month, spending more time in Ha Giang to explore the mountains there.

Photos by Tyler Henthorn

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