30 May, 2010
Vung Tau, Vietnam

My laptop alarm woke me up at 8 o’clock in the morning and I immediately had a bunch of things to get sorted before we met up at ten: have breakfast, withdraw cash, go to the mechanic to get my money back, come back from the mechanic empy-handed, pack my bags, strap my bags onto the bike, and try riding it with the bags attached. Those last few things I probably should have sorted last night.

After one last free breakfast of underripe bananas and bad jam baguette at out hotel, I retrieved my bike from the parking lot and rode to the “mechanic.” I showed him that my front shocks were still bad and he nodded profusely. Before I could ask for my money back he went into his shop, came out with an assortment of tools and started unscrewing the cap on my right suspension rod. Oh, Christ, he’s gonna make it worse and I do not have time for this, I thought. He spent about fifteen minutes unscrewing it, filling it with oil, balancing a nut on top of the spring and then screwing the cap back on. Then he did the same with the other. It was 9.30 by the time he was finished, but – to my surprise – he actually seemed to have accomplished something. The fork no longer made a horrible crashing noise whenever I compressed it.

I thanked him and drove back to our neighbourhood, quite pleased that my suspension seemed to be fixed – until I took it up the curb to park it outside the hotel, and that small bump knocked everything loose and made it as bad as before. Vietnamese mechanics! Unrivalled quality annd professionalism!

Resigned to my fate, I went back up to the hotel room to start packing. Chris had gone off somewhere to get his bike washed, but I stuffed my improvised saddlebags full of the bulkier stuff from my backpack – sleeping bag, hoody, shoes, plus the tools and maps that came with the bike – and then went to settle the bill. When Chris came back we rode our bikes over to the concrete lot to wait for the others to show up, so we could leave the bikes with them and bring our stuff over.

Jimmy (whom I was calling Johnny until about noon today, EMBARASSING) showed up within about ten minutes, and I managed to carry two backpacks, two saddlebags, two bike helmets and a heavy bike lock over to the lot in a single trip. Because I’m a man, and you can always do it in a single trip. Now, with about five occy straps, I had to get all that attached to the bike with the weight equally distributed.

 

That’s not my bike, by the way, that’s Jimmy’s. If you think that’s a bad pack you’re right, because it fell off about five minutes into the ride and he had to restrap it all.

My own bag strapped down quite well, and it was very satisfying to do. There’s something beautiful about a motorcycle with saddlebags or panniers attached, a journeyman bike, ready to undertake a long voyage. It took each of us more than an hour to get ourselves all set up, though, between 10.00 and 11.30, under a midday tropical sun in an empty concrete lot. By the time we were done we’d each lost about a litre of sweat and were more than ready to say goodbye to Saigon.

Escaping the city wasn’t nearly as hard as I thought it would be – I’ve grown used to riding in Vietnamese traffic, and it didn’t take very long at all before we were riding across the river on an enormous supension bridge that looked like something from Japan or Korea rather than Vietnam. I was seriously impressed.

 

After crossing another river on a ferry, we went down some muddy red backroads, with quite a few potholes that had me swearing at that idiot mechanic with every jarring impact. But soon we pulled out onto a long and busy highway, lined with petrol stations and construction sites and billboards in Vietnamese. They use our alphabet, but with a swarm of little marks hovering around every word, like with Polish or Turkish. There comes a point where you should really make your own alphabet.

 

Max and Jessica were on a single bike, with two heavy packs weighing them down, so they went fairly slowly. Jimmy’s a fairly cautious rider, so he hung around them quite a bit. Chris was roaring on ahead and eventually slowing down to wait for them to catch up, before roaring on ahead again. To my surprise I found myself much closer to Chris on the spectrum, pushing way ahead, testing the bike and seeing how fast it could go. (Not very – imagine my surprise the first time I went to change into fifth gear and discovered it doesn’t exist on a Minsk.) The city is one thing, but on a straight highway – even a busy one – I don’t feel anxious or worried at all. I hope I never have an accident, because then I’d lose that confidence born of ignorance. I was only wearing a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and one point had a vision of what would happen to my forearms if I came off, let alone the rest of my body. I pushed that thought from my head pretty quickly. What’s the point in being afraid, brothah?

 

There was also a moment when it occurred to me what I was doing – riding a motorcycle from Saigon to Hanoi – and how awesome that is. There’s a number of reasons I wasn’t really feeling it before. Even being in Vietnam is “amazing” to some people – not exactly a culture shock, but a culture buzz I lost long ago while working in Korea. When you’re around a lot of people who are doing the same thing as you it loses its adventurous exoticism. After only a month in South-East Asia, seeing someone strap a three-metre wide glass cabinet on the back of their scooter and drive down the highway taking up an entire lane seems like the most ordinary thing in the world. And for the past few days, not only have we been around a lot of backpackers, we’ve been around people dealing with motorcycles, people who’ve done the exact same trip and know a lot of people who have. I made fun of Chris for expressing that thought a while back, saying he was like an indie hipster who thinks something isn’t cool anymore if a lot of people get into it. But I see what he means. While it’s still awesome, it does lose some of its unique and exciting lustre when you know so many other people have done it.

 

Of course, that’s just the people we’re around right now. The number of people who ride motorcycles through Vietnam is still miniscule, and it will still be a great story to tell. The Vietnamese certainly sit up and pay attention when we ride past. I had a Honda Dream ride alongside me for a while as we were going down the highway at 70 k’s, and the pillion passenger kept trying to shake my hand. That wasn’t really practical so I put my fist out for a bump, but he didn’t understand that, so they drove ahead a bit to try Jimmy. I should have gone with a high-five. Everyone understands that. Did you know the second-most widely recognised word in the world is “coke?” (The most widely-recognised is “okay.”)

Anyway, it’s a fantastic way to travel. Even on a shitty inland highway with nothing to look at and roadworks regularly forcing us into the oncoming lanes of traffic, it was great fun. Riding a bike is great fun. It beats sitting in a minivan any day.

 

We arrived in Vung Tau at sunset, without any of the Minsks disintegrating beneath us. On the whole I’m fairly pleased with mine. Yes, the front shocks are abysmal. Yes, it’s so old it keeps slipping into half-gears. Yes, the right peg is loose so that the weight of my foot makes it press down on the brake lever. Yes, the engine sounds like it’s full of rocks and sand. Yes, it has no fuel gauge and no speedo and only one mirror.

But it runs. It responds to throttle. The brakes and the clutch work. It gets me to where I need to be. Saint Christopher willing, it will get me to to Hanoi.

 

It is, however dripping a shocking amount of two separate fluids onto the floor of our hotel’s laundry, where the owners are letting us keep the bikes. I drew it to the attention of one of the employees, thinking we could put some newspaper down or put the bike outside, but she responded by taking a pair of jeans from one of the laundry hampers and putting it under the drip. I hope those jeans don’t belong to anybody.

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