On a solo motorcycle ride there is plenty of time to think.
In between steering the bike away from death, and observing the magnificence of the mountains, rice paddies and rolling hills, there are pockets of space to pontificate. Riding a semi automatic motorcycle along The Ha Giang loop in Northern Vietnam had some lessons to teach me about riding, but about feminism too.
After three months learning to ride in Hanoi – one of the worlds busiest cities, I set my sights on a 350km solo ride, along one of the worlds most dangerous roads, despite a lifetime of society steering me elsewhere.
My sunscreen laden hands sweatily gripped the handlebars; my right forefinger unnaturally hovering above the brake. Until now, I had only driven an automatic and my left hand was well accustomed to this position. It now sat lazily, useless on these mountainous roads. I was beginning to think that maybe I should have taken the advice of the motorcycle rental man and gone for an automatic after all.
I had been driving for a couple of hours now. The initial seed of doubt planted by the motorcycle rental man was beginning to wear off. I was keeping a steady pace, weaving my way around the gravel-ridden roads and beginning my ascent through the jagged edged, slate coloured mountain range.
I slowed the pace as I scanned the sea of upcoming signs for my first stop off; a roadside hike to a lookout with 360-degree views of the rice covered plains of the countryside. I pulled over to an audience of around twenty-five men all over the age of forty-five and clad in matching leather jackets.
With my bulky denim jacket, oversized aviators, dust protection mask and plait tucked into my helmet, my gender was unidentifiable. They all stood around unaware or disinterested by my presence.
I debated whether or not to wait until they dispersed to de-bike and make my way to the lookout. With my gender unlabelled they automatically assumed that as a solo rider, I was a male, and in this assumption I was safe from the vulnerabilities that came otherwise.
Rape culture does nothing for building confidence on the road as a solo female traveller. This felt like the 3am walk home alone in the dark where you incessantly check over your right shoulder, or the times you feel the need to covertly switch the ring from your index finger to your left forefinger just to feel a little more safe. I felt vulnerable being seen as a woman in this situation because the world was not short on horror stories about women alone in strange places. And being a woman alone on a motorcycle in remote Vietnam surrounded by a biker group of men definitely counted as a strange place.
Unfortunately my key jammed in the ignition and my pause caught their attention. One man came over to offer assistance, most of the others still stared off into the distance at the lush greenery, and others remained in uncomplicated conversations of the road.
As the man offered help he asked me where I was from and out of habitual politeness, I removed my dust mask and sunglasses and told him I was from Australia. The pitch in my voice against the softness of my jawline and plumpness of my cheeks gave it away. I was a woman, and not just a woman, but a woman alone on the road. Twenty-five sets of previously occupied eyes all turned to me then, wide with disbelief and desire for a double take.
In learning to ride a motorbike I became aware of the subtle and not so subtle ways that women are still led in to pacification and avoidance of risk taking.
It had been ingrained in me that motorcycles were innately masculine objects. Learning to ride one had been in direct opposition with my social instinct. Sitting on the back felt safe, with the responsibility of manoeuvring the bike out of my hands, I was free to relax and enjoy the scenery.
It wasn’t until I began riding a motorcycle myself, that I realised by taking the responsibility of manoeuvring the bike out of my hands I also put my life in somebody else’s hands. In my passivity, I actively gave up control of my own destiny.
In learning to ride a motorbike I decided I no longer wanted to put my fate in someone else’s hands. Despite a lifetime of being told motorcycles were men’s business and I was not suited and probably not fit to operate one, I was determined to learn. I knew that this distrust in myself was learned and not innate. I would learn, however scary it seemed.
The motorcycle gang had scattered now, they were a group of middle-aged Kiwi and Australian men on an organised tour through Northern Vietnam. They asked where my companions were and I told them that I was doing the loop alone.
As they departed, I couldn’t quite shake their feelings of doubt in me. Although they no longer scared me their doubt in me did. It was a palpable substance muddying the crisp mountain air. I began the hike to the lookout to walk off their scepticism of my solo pursuit. I was filled with a mixture of relief, annoyance and maybe even some misplaced pride in their surprise.
When you learn to ride everyone doubts you, and when everyone doubts you it is next to impossible not to doubt yourself. Sometimes you just have to shut out the noise and power on. This is how I learned to ride a motorbike and I think how many women break free from the glass ceilings that exist all around us in the form of limiting beliefs.
Learning to ride was a test of my will, my bravery, my analysis, my stupidity and my luck every single day. Regardless of gender, the test is the same; the difference is men are taught that this is a test they should undertake without hesitation. Women are advised against taking the risk and taught to question their own ability.
As I rode back into Ha Giang after riding the loop in (what I would later find out was an impressive) two and a half days, I felt a sense of accomplishment. I had successfully completed the loop as a woman alone on the road. I had overcome riding through rain, a fall in the mud, treacherous unpaved stretches of road and bone chilling wind.
To the surprise of the men I met along the way and the social expectations I had let shape me until now, I had proved assumptions wrong and redefined what a woman on the road could look like. I had driven a motorcycle through the mountains of Northern Vietnam alone, taking the agency of my life back into my own hands… because after all, the road is not a place to be passive.
Hannah Brissenden is an Australian writer, poet and zine maker currently travelling the world. She is in the process of writing a book based on her travels. Follow her travels and daily pondering on Instagram @theindigoadventure