Eventually I had to admit to myself that I would never truly be happy if I didn’t at least try my best to make it happen—I had to take a stab at it. It wasn’t an epiphany, just an honest realization that if you’re not living you’re dying. Wes Nations
I’m not an avid reader of travel blogs. But for Wes Nations, I’m happy to make an exception. In 2010, Wes left his job to realize a life-long dream: a year of round-the-world, over-land travel.
The chronicle of this adventure—JohnnyVagabond.com—is one of the finest and most entertaining travel blogs you’re likely to find. His photography is masterful. His stories are funny, gripping and skillfully told. Plus he offers plenty of no-nonsense, practical advice and how-to for the aspiring round-the-world adventurer.
On top of which—and my real motivation for this interview—Wes has lived out one of my personal dreams: to ride a motorcycle across Vietnam.
How could I resist getting the low-down?
Around the world, low and slow. That’s a big dream that a lot of people would like to realize. What held you back all these years and what was it that finally got you to take the plunge?
Traveling the world had been a dream of mine for twenty years or more but I just never managed to do it. There was always an excuse: I had a job that was too good to leave, or I knew I’d just never be able to afford it, or I didn’t want to be from my family for that long, etc. As I reached my forties, I found myself getting depressed and couldn’t quite figure out why I was so unmotivated and unhappy. Eventually I had to admit to myself that I would never truly be happy if I didn’t at least try my best to make it happen—I had to take a stab at it. It wasn’t an epiphany, just an honest realization that if you’re not living you’re dying. A year and a half later, I was on a plane to Bangkok.
Most of the time we’re always working to some schedule or deadline or objective. We’re busying ourselves with work and responding to the events of our lives. It’s hard to imagine an entire year with nothing to do but follow your bliss and wander from place to place. Such a radical shift in lifestyle must change ones perspective markedly. What has it meant for world view and what have you discovered about yourself?
Wow, that’s a tough one. I think the main thing I’ve noticed about myself is how much time I waste actively distracting myself from doing anything meaningful. Video games, television, web surfing, reading trashy novels, and such are all habits I’ve developed over my life to keep me distracted and (I thought) happy.
On the road I don’t have access to much of that—thought I do enjoy a good book on a 12-hour bus ride—and I find that I watch the world with more interest. I learn more. I’ve traveled mostly in the developing world and you don’t see people engaged in such things—they’re too busy trying to make a living. They stay busy and work their asses off and I have to say that most are some of the happiest people I’ve ever met in my life.
Can solo travel be a lonely experience?
Certainly! I’m bit of a lone-wolf by nature, so it doesn’t affect me as much as some but there are definitely low spots where you wish a friend or lover was sharing the moment with you. But finding a conversation is generally pretty easy—just go to a tourist or expat bar and you’ll have your fill of friendly banter in no time. It’s pretty easy to meet people on the road and I sometimes end up traveling with them for awhile. I met an Australian in Laos and we became good friends—we ended up traveling together for 6 weeks and some of our adventures were real highlights of the trip.
Is traveling this way dangerous? Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you were in genuine danger or afraid for your life?
I don’t think it’s any more dangerous than traveling across your home town. Anything can happen, of course, but then I could slip in the tub tomorrow and brain myself—no sense worrying about it. I’ve only been really scared a couple of times, both in Vietnam. The first was my own fault, getting involved in a poker scam in Saigon (and I knew it was a scam but I wanted the story). I managed to get out of it before it got really ugly, but it put the fear of God in me. A couple of close calls on the motorcycle while making my way to Hanoi got my heart pounding but it goes with the territory there. A little common sense and being aware of your surroundings is really all you need out here.
In all you’ve seen on your travels, what experience has shocked you, challenged you or changed you the most?
I’ve never mentioned this but the one moment that truly drove home the fact that I was in a very different world occurred on my first visit to Varanasi, India. The city sits on the sacred Ganges and many people are cremated on the ghats by the shore, so that their ashes may be released into the Ganges, freeing them from the circle of rebirth. I was walking along the ghats with my girlfriend that first morning when we saw something lying on the steps by the river.
I knew instinctively what it was but didn’t want to admit it, and tried to lead us away from the scene, saying “it’s probably a monkey”. But she insisted and as we drew closer we saw that it was a dead baby, probably 6 months old and had been in the water for a very long time. Cremations are very expensive here and children who die are usually buried in the river—a rope is tied to a rock and around the body, then they’re are dropped in the river from a boat. Eventually, the ropes break. It’s an image that I’ll never get out of my head, no matter how hard I wish I could.
Favorite country / experience so far?
Laos, easily. There was no one thing I did that was life-changing, but there is something about the pace and peace of that beautiful land. Friendly people, good food, and sitting by the Mekong while sipping a cold Beer Lao all make for a relaxing, almost meditative experience. Their tourism slogan is “Stay Another Day” and it is a perfect fit.
Sounds like you live pretty moment to moment. How far do you plan ahead with travel and accommodation? Ever found yourself stuck or stranded by the elements?
I’m the world’s worst planner. After almost a year and a half, I have made a grand total of one advance reservation and that was for my first night in Bangkok. I tend to visit places in the off-season, so housing usually isn’t a problem. This attitude catches me sometimes: I had to spend an extra day in Nong Kwai, Laos because I didn’t book a boat ticket soon enough. It was a lovely town on a river and I was staying in a $4-per-night bungalow, so I didn’t really mind. Ironically, it also was home to the best Indian food that I’ve ever had, despite my having spent at least eight months in India so far.
I’m planning to ride a motorcycle from Hanoi to Saigon (and well beyond). Having done the journey yourself (albeit in reverse) what are your absolute must sees? And what areas are to be avoided? What was the most dangerous stretch?
Oh man, I’m envious—I’d ride that route again in a heartbeat. Be sure to get up in the mountains—Dalat is delightful and makes for a nice break from the heat of the plains. I think my favorite stretch was from Kon Tum in the Central Highlands east to Hoi Ann. The road is in better shape than most routes and it’s 200 kilometers of curves, mountains, coffee plantations and terraced rice fields. Lovely.
The worst was probably the run from Dalat to Kon Tum. Expect a couple of long hard days dodging potholes and wiping dust from your eyes. Also the run from Hue to Ninh Binh is a 500 kilometer, 2-day grudge ride. Vinh is roughly midway and a good place to stay the night.
Sounds like your bike was falling apart every five minutes. How much should a biker know about motorcycle maintenance before attempting to get from one end of the country to the other?
Yeah, in my case it was almost comical. I had a header bolt that kept falling out and getting lost. I got to know the repair shops pretty well and eventually had to pull over every thirty minutes and tighten the bolt. That gets old fast on a 2,000 kilometer trip. I’d recommend checking to see if the bolts have lock washers—mine didn’t and with the rough roads, everything vibrated apart. My very first day, the kickstand fell off, the exhaust came loose twice and the horn vibrated off—all in four hours of riding. Tighten everything you can reach each morning.
Reading your Fighting the Fear post gave me pause for thought. Was that intensity typical of your experience riding in Vietnam? How much experience should someone have before attempting to ride there? Did you work out any strategies for negotiating the chaotic traffic?
That day was a bit of an anomaly, as I really enjoyed the ride most of the time. Which is not to say it should be taken lightly—traffic here is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It makes India seem tame. I’ve ridden bikes full-time for almost twenty years and I was just dumbfounded by the experience. People drive every which direction at anytime and having someone pull into traffic while texting on his phone is a regular occurrence. It’s definitely not the place to learn to ride. Ride defensively, go with the flow and keep to the right and you should be okay. Never ride at night and whatever you do, watch for the buses—they are aggressive and yield for no one.
International driving permits are not recognized in Vietnam. Did you take a local driving test or did you just take your chances?
No, I just rented the bike and went for it, which is what most seem to do. I never had a problem.
I’ve read several reports from bikers in Vietnam saying that the Vietnamese Police love making trouble for foreigners and the best policy is to avoid them at all costs. Did you ever have any trouble with the authorities?
Not once. I was never pulled over but I suspect that if you are a ten dollar tip will get you free. The only time I was hassled on a bike was in Cambodia – a cop was standing under a shade tree and waved me over for a friendly shakedown. I just waved back and kept riding because he was on foot.
What were the biggest challenges or frustrations you encountered on the road? Was there ever a time when things got royally screwed up?
Things always get screwed up—it’s the way the world works. I prefer independent travel but had to break down and join a two-day tour to see Halong Bay. It was a disaster, with us not getting the night on the boat we’d been promised or any of the kayaking side trips or… well… anything really.
In Cambodia, they over-sold the bus for a 3 hour trip and told us they were upgrading us to a taxi. The only problem was that they packed nine people into a Toyota Corolla—I’ve never been so uncomfortable in my life. The driver actually had someone riding between him and the door—to this day I’m not sure who was working the pedals. But it happens and you roll with it. Usually a lousy situation at least gives you a good story that you can tell for the rest of your life.
Obviously you have to be very selective about what you carry around with you. Beyond clothing, what are the absolute essentials that you could not be without?
Well, since I’m a travel blogger and designer I just couldn’t do what I do without my Mac laptop and my DSLR camera. They’re heavy and I worry about theft all of the time, but it’s the price I have to pay. My iPhone has been the real surprise of the trip: I buy a local SIM wherever I am and use it for email, Facebook, reading, social media, tracking my site’s stats, listening to music, and—occasionally—as a phone. Also: bring earplugs. Lots of them.
Blogging takes a lot of energy at the best of times and it can’t be any easier from the road. Judging by the standard of your content I would guess you put a lot of energy into it. Any practices or tech-tips you use to make it easier?
It’s a full-time job or more, honestly. I put in 50-60 hours a week on the site but I love what I’m doing, so I’m not complaining. For tech tips, I’d recommend using old posts as templates—copy the html from the last one and change the text/links in a text editor. It’s a lot faster than using the WordPress interface which has to upload and update all the time. For writing, keep notes of anecdotes and observations—they can sometimes be the seed of a new story or be added to flesh out something you’re struggling with. And be prepared to spend a lot of time promoting it via social media—I spend more time using Twitter and Facebook than I do writing.
How easy is it to get online? Is there good mobile internet coverage across vietnam?
Vitenam is wired. Bless their hearts. I had full 3G coverage in some of the most out-of-the-way places and being able to use the Map function in my iPhone to find where I was saved me hours of frustration. I sat at a cafe in Mui Ne and downloaded a 600MB OS update via their wifi while I ate dinner—their ‘net coverage is better than the US, in my opinion.
I’ve been debating whether to take my $4.5k MacBook Pro along with me or get some disposable equivalent just for the trip. I’m a little nervous about what it might be subjected to. Any tips on caring for valuable gadgets on the road?
Buy a good laptop sleeve. I use the ones from Booq and it’s saved my Mac from spills at least twice. You just have to be prepared to carry it with you everywhere unless you’re really sure it’s safe to leave in the room. Having things pilfered from your room is much more likely than being robbed on the street. I carry a large duffel that I put my valuables in and lock when I want to go out at night. Someone can still cut into it, of course, but then it’s obvious what happened. They’d rather sneak a few bucks out of your wallet and hope you don’t notice.
After all these incredible experiences, do you think you’ll ever go back to your old life? Is continual travel a sustainable lifestyle option? What does the future hold?
No, I’m ruined for the old life. Put me in a cubical and I’ll be smoking a shotgun within a month. I’m committed to making this a career—so much so that I’m selling my beloved motorcycle when I return home this summer. It’s my Rubicon—I’m not coming back. This is a sustainable lifestyle and there are dozens of ways to do it.
All of them are a lot of work and offer little security, so it’s not for everyone but it is doable. I’m not self-sufficient yet but I’m getting closer every month. I’ve got a couple of other projects that I’m working on, an ebook and a second site, that I hope will supplement my income well. The key seems to be creating multiple streams of income—a little here and there can add up to a livable wage.
Future plans are to spend a month of two in my home town, Austin, catching up with friends and family and hopefully making a little quick cash. Next is Mexico and Central America. I’ll get around to planning that portion of the trip one of these days.