Khoa in New Zealand. Credit: Tran Dang Dang Khoa.
Around the World (Almost) in 1110 DaysBy Sam Roth - Jul 14, 2021
On the morning of June 1st, 2017, Tran Dang Dang Khoa rode west from Saigon beneath the blistering Vietnamese sun toward Cambodia. He had roughly US $1,300 to his name, some 10,000 Facebook followers, no stream of income and the ambition to make it to Europe within a few months atop his 97cc Honda Wave, which he had bought used, eight years earlier.
He arrived in Hanoi three years later. In that time, he’d traversed 65 countries, explored all 7 continents, crisscrossed 80,000 kilometers or twice the distance around the equator, and amassed some 350,000 Facebook followers. In doing so, he’d become arguably Vietnam’s most notable travel influencer and a spokesman for more than 50 brands.
I met Khoa in Saigon’s District 1, at a quiet second-floor café, hidden down a narrow alleyway just beyond the incessant buzz of Vietnam’s motorbike-mad economic powerhouse. Although I chose the spot, I missed it twice and didn’t find it until I recognized a sparkling new black and tan e-bike, which I’d seen promoted on Khoa’s Facebook page, propped up next to a concrete wall.
Smiling and instantly likable, he met me by the door and we made our way out of the stifling Saigon heat. For the next 90 minutes, he walked me through twisting mountain passes, endless expanses of open desert, and brushes with his own demise. His odyssey turned him into a household name among the social-media savvy, intrepid younger Vietnamese generation and into a source of inspiration for countless others fantasizing of ditching the office for adventure.
Khoa had long dreamt of leaving it all behind and riding out along the road not taken. He grew up reading Jules Verne and Jack Kerouac. He loved Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East and Giorgio Bettinelli’s Vespa Travel from Rome to Saigon.
In his twenties, he traveled extensively and amassed a small, yet passionate fan base by posting his adventures from around the region on Facebook.
“In 2015, when I first took the ride from Saigon to Singapore and back, I told myself why not go farther, out of Southeast Asia, Asia, or even other continents,” he said.
The gears of adventure started turning and tarmac-based dreams worked their way to reality. Khoa decided that he would become one of the first Vietnamese to ride a motorbike from Asia to Europe.
“It is just a dream of traveling the world without knowing when I will return, just like some famous novel or the travelers in the history, guys in Europe and America. Why can’t a Vietnamese do it?” said Khoa.
With small savings and big plans, Khoa spent the next two years preparing for his greatest journey yet. He applied for visas and discovered that visiting third world countries would create the biggest headaches. To save money, he worked a mundane office job in Saigon. He purchased a Carnet De Passage, a passport of sorts for his bike.
“If I didn’t go, they’d laugh at me.”
With his modest Facebook following, Khoa assumed he could support himself as a travel influencer, growing a lucrative social media presence like so many others had already done. He contacted local brands and publications to pitch his writing, his photos, and a hypothetical yet plausibly viral story that would captivate a young Vietnamese audience more connected to a world beyond Southeast Asia by the day.
And he heard nothing.
Although he would have enjoyed support from the onset of his voyage, the underwhelming response didn’t demoralize him. Perhaps it could be attributed to youthful wanderlust or maybe stubborn optimism; either way, he remained steadfast in his belief that it would all work out.
“I will have more followers as the trip is one of a kind in Vietnam, I expect to earn more money from it,” he predicted.
Eventually, Khoa proved himself right: his organically grown, self-made brand would allow him to keep trekking farther into the great unknown. However, it certainly didn’t materialize overnight.
By mid-May of 2017, two weeks before departure, anxiety, and fear crept in. Solo travel can be daunting for anyone. Luckily for Khoa, all his friends and family already knew the plan.
“If I didn’t go, they’d laugh at me.”
Over the next few weeks, he attended a series of small parties and get-togethers in his honor, and on June 1st, 2017, he set out heading west from the endless concrete sprawl of Saigon with his sights set on Europe.
After an eight-hour ride, Khoa ended up near the muddy banks of the Tonle Sap River in Kampong Chhnang, just north of Phnom Penh.
He was terrified.
Yet, if everyone would have laughed if he gave up before he started, they’d surely laugh after a measly eight-hour ride too. So, he kept going.
“By day three, I loved it.”
He posted photos of the Black Buddha in Battambang and the thousand-year-old Baset Temple.
He crossed into Thailand, twisted through overgrown dirt paths, and sat idly in Bangkok traffic. By mid-July, he’d stopped off at the gleaming Taj Mahal. In Nepal, he attended a traditional Hindu wedding and wandered through Kathmandu’s 17th-century Patan Durbar Square.
Slowly, but steadily he began to gain an online following.
In the drifting sand of the Balochistan desert, the Pakistani army stopped him. He hadn’t done anything wrong, but the Taliban had been kidnapping foreigners so it was in everyone’s best interest if he hopped in the government-backed, rifle-laden taxi.
“They are nice guys and supportive,” he laughed.
Squeezed into a rusted, white truck, beaten and bruised by years of wind-blown sand, with his Wave strapped down behind him, Khoa met the gaze of a soldier, who asked if he had held a gun before. He had, so his camo-clad protector passed him an AK 47 and Khoa too kept his eyes peeled for the Taliban.
He took a ride-on-ferry across the Black Sea, bundled up in the snow-capped Swiss Alps, and camped in the rolling hills of Tuscany.
In October, after riding for more than four months through 23 countries, Khoa arrived in Paris. He’d completed the trip of a lifetime. Although he hadn’t made any money as he’d hoped, he’d grown his Facebook following to 40,000 individuals and had become, as far as he knew, the only Vietnamese to cross from Asia to Europe on a motorbike.
And then everything changed.
Khoa, with his long hair now falling across his face, smiling as always, posted a photo of himself with his unstoppable little blue Wave parked in front of the Eiffel Tower. And in one night he gained 100,000 Facebook followers.
Call it hometown pride, awe, envy, it didn’t matter. The very next day agencies started messaging and Tran Dang Dang Khoa’s life changed forever.
“I did not do anything, just go. People know me thanks to the viral shares of other people on Facebook, news, and TV. When you do something nobody did before, you will have a great chance of being popular,” he said
Travel, hospitality, personal care. In an instant, everyone in every industry in Vietnam wanted to work with Khoa, the local boy who made good.
“In the first year, everything worked out well. But then I started to worry, how about the second and third year? But as I always kept moving, going to new places, having different stories to tell, the traffic kept growing constantly.”
He began charging advertisers per Facebook post, usually a picture of him holding or wearing a particular product. As his following grew, so too did his rates. With a steady stream of Facebook revenue coming in, why stop the adventure now?
By January 2018, the Wave had found a spot in a shipping container destined for Chile. Khoa flew there to meet it and went straight to work exploring his third continent. He climbed the towering, serpentine roots of centuries-old Kapok trees in the Amazon, withstood a blinding sand storm in the Atacama, was robbed for the first time at gunpoint, and nearly crushed by a landslide in Colombia, where the girls were the most beautiful.
His following kept growing and soon he was able to charge US $1,000 for a single post. He signed year-long contracts with major brands and sent money back to his family in Vietnam.
“In the first year, everything worked out well. But then I started to worry, how about the second and third year? But as I always kept moving, going to new places, having different stories to tell, the traffic kept growing constantly,” Khoa said.
He tried branching out to other social networks, yet the Facebook-obsessed Vietnamese didn’t follow. It didn’t matter. On Facebook, his brand grew so successfully that he could pick and choose which clients to accept. Eventually, he figured out that posting once a week worked best and, in a bid to keep it all authentic, he never allowed anyone else to create content for his account.
“I really don’t know much, just reply to the comments or messages on Facebook, but don’t save much time for it.”
Ironically, even as his fame soared, Khoa admitted his professional duties remained limited in scope. The brand began to build itself.
“I really don’t know much, just reply to the comments or messages on Facebook, but don’t save much time for it. Just keep going, sharing new photos and stories. It is more successful than I expected before, and lasting longer than I imagined, too.”
To bypass the Darien Gap, the lush, sparsely inhabited 100-kilometer chasm between Colombia and Panama in the Pan-American Highway’s tarmac, Khoa sent his bike to the States aboard another cargo ship and then spent 6-months riding across America.
When pulled over by the police and asked why he strayed so far from America’s lofty speed limits, he replied “70 kilometers per hour is maximum speed.” In round-the-world motorbike forums, there’s often a debate over giant touring BMWs or tiny Hondas like Khoa’s. He summed up the reasoning for his best:
“I trust this bike, the first and only bike I had, more economical, friendly bike to Vietnamese audience and other countries, easy to fix, easy to recover if falling down somewhere, and also no money to upgrade to bigger bike as well. It is also a “spirit” matter in Oriental philosophy, like you trust it and it will not disappoint you.”
From the Americas, Khoa packed the Wave into a shipping container destined for the Land Down Under and then bounced back and forth between Australia and New Zealand, navigating winding coastal switchbacks and soaring mountain scenery. It took a few months to conquer Oceania before the resilient Honda, with eyes for Africa, hit the high seas once more.
Meanwhile, Khoa headed south, briefly trekking through a frigid and barren Antarctic landscape. Eventually, he met up with his old reliable friend in Tanzania. By this time, his following had grown immensely and he could sometimes charge up to US $2,000 per post.
However, before Vietnam’s Facebook-backed Magellan could cross the last of the seven continents, disaster struck. The pandemic swept across the globe, international travel came to a sudden standstill and any thoughts of completing a true circumnavigation became truly unimportant.
All good things, it turns out, had to come to an end. Africa would be the end of the line.
“I was lost and sad somehow. I tried so much to keep going but never thought that the trip will be ended by a pandemic. On the other hand, I felt that is enough, and thanks to the pandemic, I can come back in one piece. Who knows what will happen if I keep going? Like I said, every coin has two sides.”
After taking a bus from Mozambique to Johannesburg, Khoa boarded a flight for Hanoi, landing at Noi Bai International airport on Tuesday, June 16th, 2020, almost exactly 13 months ago.
He was certainly not the first to take on such an adventure. Books have been written on round-the-world motorbike travel. Internet forums exist solely to debate best routes, gear and bikes. Ewan McGregor even starred in a tv show, The Long Way Round, which documented his ride with a friend.
Yet Khoa’s journey stands out in an increasingly well-traveled world. He did what no Vietnamese had done before, he did it all on his minuscule Honda Wave, and most notably, above all else, he built a brand from his travels.
Countless twenty-somethings set off to Asia, Europe, or South America with grand dreams of financing an endless summer as a travel influencer. A very select few actually pull it off. Khoa was one of them.
In the end, it all came back to the platform he thought would work in the first place.
Before I got up to head back out into the sweltering Saigon sun and make my much less impressive journey two kilometers home, it dawned on me that Khoa’s brand-building ride would have been impossible even ten years ago, and an off the cuff statement he made earlier began to resonate with me much more.
“Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg.”
Today, Khoa maintains an active Facebook following and continues to travel domestically, with hopes to do so internationally again once borders reopen. He serves as an ambassador for Operation Smile and does a great deal of other charitable work.
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