Vernon, B.C.’s James Leigh is no stranger to danger.
Leading a successful career as a U.S. security consultant, he was part of the U.S. Justice Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service unit who executed a successful undercover operation in China. He’s also worked in several war zones including Afghanistan, partook in a house-to-house clearing in Bagdad, jumped from a plane in Kuwait but missed his landing zone and was stranded alone in the desert for two days. Oh, and he was also sent to Mount Everest four times looking for North Korean Scud missiles being shipped over the Himalayas. If that weren’t enough, he was even imprisoned in North Korea last year.
But last month, Leigh took on a new challenge — another dangerous task. He decided to drive through Vietnam and China on a motorcycle.
Anyone who has been to either country and has witnessed how traffic operates in that part of the world would likely think Leigh has a death wish. He may not disagree.
“I’m not really scared of death,” said Leigh in response. “To me, it was an adventure but it was no different than some of the places in the middle east or Nepal. But, Saigon was probably one of the worst traffic I’ve ever experienced in my life.”
Leigh said he bought a Royal Enfield 500 classic motorcycle on impulse. He explained that though this wasn’t the first time he had purchased a bike when visiting a new place, this time was different.
Seeking a new thrill, he strapped on a replica Second World War flying helmet and vintage goggles and decided to start by driving around Ho Chi Minh City — the city formerly known as Saigon. After a few hours of city driving — in one of the world’s most dangerous traffic streams — Leigh decided to try his luck on the highway.
He began making his way two hours east to the beach of Vung Tau. He described the danger involved in such a journey — especially when you don’t know the roads — like a high-stakes video game.
“I realized really quickly that trucks and buses don’t care. When they want to pass, they pass and anything coming up gets out of the way — cars, scooters — you get out of the way regardless of if there’s potholes or dogs or cows or anything on the size of the road, you get out of the way,” he said.
Forced to use his emergency brake several times, he eventually arrived on the beach. Locals and tourists were amazed by his bravery and asked him where he was headed next.
“When I got to [the beach], everyone was just amazed and that sort of got my ego going,” Leigh chuckled. “I saw it as a challenge and I figured, if I survived that trip, I could ride to Da Nang.”
Da Nang is about halfway up the eastern coast of Vietnam, a longer trip, but Leigh said he was determined. Each time he stopped, locals welcomed him with open arms, asking where he was off to next. Though he had booked six weeks in the country, he had no plan. Rather, he took each day as it came.
“People kept telling me I couldn’t do this or that or that it’s impossible’,” he recalled.
He said that this is what kept him motivated to keep riding. Challenging himself every step of the way, he eventually made his way from the southern part of Vietnam all the way up the eastern side of the country and eventually into China.
“I got used to the ‘video game’ as I call it,” Leigh said. “It’s kind of like a game of Pac-Man where things are falling and you have to get out of the way — especially when you’re alone on a motorcycle and you don’t know what’s coming around the corner.”
Though he said the fun was in challenging himself, it was the people he met along the way made the trip worth it.
“There’s a magic about people. It’s a funny thing but I can sit in a room with people without tossing a word and have them all laughing. Sometimes, we couldn’t say anything to each other but I was continually adopted along the way,” he said, smiling. “That was the good part about it — the really nice people in the country who had absolutely nothing but if you wanted something, it was yours. They were really welcoming. Even the people who experienced the brutality of the war were still super nice people.”
Leigh spent six weeks travelling through Vietnam and China and, somewhat miraculously, lived to tell the tale. With a house in Da Nang where he left the bike, he plans to return at the end of August to spend eight more weeks travelling through to Tibet and southern China. He said he can’t wait to play his “video game” again soon.
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