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Going Off-Road in Vietnam: From Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi

“The worst thing you can do is look – you hesitate, you die,” says National Moto Champion Roland Sands

Off-Road in Vietnam Roland Sands, Andy Bell, and Jamie Bestwick

I came back thinking that, if this is communism, it's not all that bad," Roland Sands says of Vietnam.

Eric Hendrikx

In post-war era Vietnam, life has seemingly transcended into that of a flourishing nation of bustling urban enclaves and burgeoning farmlands. The seismic clashes of skewed ideologies and atrocities have since receded – faded nightmares hopefully to never return – and a Buddhist-driven unanimity of tolerance and forgiveness has abetted to propel Vietnam’s focus toward the future. While scars of contention do remain, the emerging metropolitan landscapes radiate a spirit of community and free enterprise. Communism prevails, yet it is a capitalist dogma that diffuses entrepreneurial energies toward charming private businesses, modern industrialization and an array of new social activities. One such activity – off-road adventuring – has drawn particular attention from far reaches.

Enter Roland Sands, Andy Bell and Jamie Bestwick – an uber-competitive cast of characters keenly familiar with off-roading – each behind the wheel of a Toyota TRD Pro truck and challenged with seeking out and overcoming the gnarliest of nature’s hindrances over the thousand-kilometer stretch from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi –  a fitting journey that ties in resoundingly with Toyota’s catchphrase Let’s Go Places. “We charged some gnarly, super muddy hills – really steep stuff,” says Sands. “We also did some serious rock crawling through rivers and pushed these trucks to the limits that the landscape provided.”

Sands, a National Moto Champion turned award-winning custom motorcycle designer, found comfort in the air of freedom permeating the communist nation. “In Vietnam, you can go as big as you want – and fuck up as bad as you want – without too many rules to follow,” says Sands. “That’s a cool feeling. It’s like riding a motorcycle – same thing.” Rolling Stone sat down with Sands to discuss his affinity for motorsports, offer up hilarious behind-the-scenes stories and share some perspective-altering accounts of a profound culture embracing a new future.

Is it true that you broke thirty-two bones in your body before transitioning from racing motorcycles to custom bike building?
Yeah, well, I’ve broken more since. The worst was at Sears Point. I crashed into a guy named Randy Renfrow – later my teammate. He got it wrong going into the esses, jumped the throttle, and I ran right into the back of him. It was shitty, because it looked like it was my fault. I had a bunch of broken ribs, bruised lungs, and cracked my liver in half. He broke like twenty bones – it was bad. It felt like a scene from Days of Thunder in the hospital. We had rooms next to each other and I would walk in and look at him hooked up to all this shit, thinking he was gonna die.

You traveled extensively through Vietnam’s major cities and rural villages. How did the country differ from any preconceived notions you may have had?
I thought there would be a bit of a hangover from the Vietnam War, but that wasn’t relevant at all. And even with such a dense population, they have really held onto their humanity and remained a nation that treasures its culture, families and their relationships with each other. They base everything on the principal of “Family-Family-Family” – the immediate family, the extended family and friends, and then the community – their entire living strategy is based on that concept. The way that families make money – they bring everything they earn into the pot and use that to support the entire family. When their neighbors need help, they help them.

What was your impression of the presence of communism in Vietnam and the cultural implications of their rising free enterprise spirit?
I came back thinking that, if this is communism, it’s not all that bad. Vietnam is a beautiful country. But I also came back with a bit of concern for the environment there. I’m looking at this nation that’s becoming really industrialized and is making this rise from where they were ten years ago. There are so many companies growing so rapidly and there are some infrastructures in the cities, but not enough to deal with heavy consequences of industrialization – the smog and trash.

An example of this is that the children were used to eating food from banana papers, so they grew accustomed to just throwing their biodegradable garbage on the ground – a behavior that doesn’t translate after they’ve been introduced to prepackaged goods. There aren’t trashcans all over Vietnam. So now we’re seeing this beautiful landscape and there’s trash all over. I don’t want to say it’s disheartening, but it was a little bit of a disappointment and definitely not to any fault of the people, more the fault of consumerism that is driving their country – there needs to be some kind of controls that preserve Vietnam’s natural beauty.

What were the specifics of your mission for the latest TRD Pro Challenge and what kinds of obstacles did you guys have to overcome?
Our mission was to go rip across Vietnam in the TRD Pros – we definitely did that. We got to shred and cross the country from Saigon to Hanoi and really push these trucks and feel how they worked in a lot of different environments – sand dunes, deep water crossings, mud, steep stuff, rock crawling. We had to take our time – there’s no safety net, no ambulances, and there are animals and children in the roads. It’s kind of crazy, because you’re not going to go for some high-speed thing – if you do, you’re going to die.

You guys harp on each other pretty hard in the video. What’s the comradery like between you and Bell and Bestwick?
We basically just talk shit the entire time about each other. If you’re not firing on someone, you’re probably getting fired on—offense is the best defense sort of thing. It’s all in good fun and if someone’s not talking shit on you, it’s probably because they don’t like you. Our entire trip was full of bagging on each other out of love. On one side, I had this crazy BMX guy with his twisted British humor; on the other, I had Andy Bell, who just talks about dicks the entire time – and I’m caught in the crossfire of it all [laughs].

The landscapes you guys charged through seemed surreal. What was most unforgettable for you?
The juxtaposition of it all – we would drive through the center of metropolis and then hit some serious stuff in the countryside. Ninh Binh was insane – full of crazy sheer cliffs. That’s where we rolled up on the spot where they were filming the new King Kong movie. And then getting into the traffic in the cities, like in Saigon, just being in the middle of all that insanity. Walking across the street was probably the gnarliest thing I’ve ever done – trusting that I wasn’t going to be killed. There are some forty million scooters in Vietnam zipping in every direction. You literally just walk through complete chaos without looking. The worst thing you can do is look – you hesitate, you die.

What do you feel was predominantly unique to Vietnam?
I dig the freedom. There aren’t too many places you can go in the world where you’re kind of on your own program and your own responsibility. In Vietnam, you can go big and still be in control of your own destiny without a bunch of guidelines. It’s like riding a motorcycle – same thing. Put the two together and you have to watch your shit. The fact that I didn’t run anybody over or hit anybody – I didn’t have one incident while I was there – felt like a big accomplishment because there’s a lot of shit happening all at once and, well, I usually hit something. [Laughs]

While I was there, I was stoked on trying so many interesting delicacies like goat, water buffalo, duck tongue and frog. What was the most exotic for you?
 I ate a duck fetus – I think I’m still paying for that. It’s like an egg where the duck started growing. So you eat the egg with some preformed bird in there. It’s weird because it still tastes like an egg, but there’s pieces in it where the bird started to form – it’s like ‘Fuck, one more week man, and that’s a wing.’ It was gnarly – and I ate one. It was some fucking stupid thing that Andy and Jamie set up, where I was the only one who hadn’t won a Baja race. I haven’t even raced Baja yet, so how could I have won one? That was the mentality over there.

I see the logic.
The logic was, “Let’s make Roland do something fucking dumb.” But I’m a gamer – I’m always down. 

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