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30 June, 2010
Son Trach, Vietnam

What was it I said last update?

It’s only fifty k’s, but I still trust my Minsk to fuck it up somehow.

My God. My God.

We left Dong Hoi around ten or eleven o’clock, bound for Phong Nha National Park, which – as I mentioned – was a simple fifty kilometres away. The road out of Dong Hoi took us along the coast through some enormous sand dunes. This was literally a few hundred metres out of town, but already my bike had shat the bed. The bolt in the clutch lever had fallen off, meaning my clutch lever was dangling loose. Meaning I had no clutch. Meaning I couldn’t change gear.

HAIL THE MINSK!

Fortunately I was in fourth rather than first, which was good, because there was nothing around us but sand dunes. I caught up with Chris and explained the problem, and he told me to pull over, but I replied in the negative – if I had to push the bike, I didn’t want it to be there.

We drove on quite a while and eventually hit the 1A, then pulled into a petrol station. I found that my clutch wasn’t actually damaged, just not affixed properly. If I kept my fingers on it I could keep it in the bracket. Since that wasn’t really practical, we hunted for a mechanic after we filled up – during which I noticed that my carburettor was still leaking fuel a bit. Since it was brand new and cost $50, that pissed me off just a little.

HAIL THE MINSK!

Anyway, we found a mechanic further up the highway, who took about ten or fifteen minutes to hunt through his workshop and find a new bolt to secure my clutch lever. I gave him 5000 dong and we went to ride off.

I couldn’t. My throttle handle was spinning loosely on its axis.

HAIL THE MINSK!

Rather than taking a wrench from the mechanic and caving my skull in, I called Chris back and he and the mechanic started looking over it and trying to fix it. The accelerator cable had snapped, and although we had a spare, we had to go through the long and painful process of explaining things to the mechanic. The two of them fiddled around with cables and handles for quite a long time, with Chris becoming frustrated because he knew he could do the job himself in ten minutes with the right tools. It took about two or three hours before we eventually got it fixed and were on our way again.

Just to sum up: that’s three mechanical problems, one of which made it impossible to drive the bike and one of which made it extremely difficult to drive the bike, in less than 50 kilometres.

HAIL THE MINSK!

This is a phrase, by the way, that comes out of the Minsk Repair Manual – a document available online that gives you an outline on how the bike works and how to repair it. It was written by some stupid idiot named Digby Greenhalgh. Here’s one of the gems he regularly comes up with throughout the manual:

If you are all alone in the wild then as a last resort take off the number plate and remove the strip of metal bracing it against the mudguard. This piece can sometimes be used to wrap around a broken lever in such a way as to keep the broken cable from falling out. If you were driving an expensive Yamaha then this would not be possible. That’s why Minsks are best.

Yes, Digby. I too would prefer a bike that breaks down every day and which can self-cannibalise to fix itself, rather than a bike that actually works.

At this stage I’m not really enjoying the riding anymore. It’s a hassle every single day. When we got to Saigon, and found out that it was quite easy to buy bikes, that many backpackers travel like this… I’d had a sense of challenge about this trip, but that evaporated when I found out that people did it all the time. That didn’t bother me. I figured we’d just have an enjoyable motorcycle ride up the country.

Now – on this bike – that challenge aspect has returned full force. I no longer want to be riding. I’m over it. I just want to get the bike into Hanoi so that I can say I’ve done it. Upon arrival I may very well be holding it together with one free hand. Or wheeling it. Whatever. Just get me into fucking Hanoi so I can sell you, bike.

We arrived in the village of Son Trach without any further problems. It lies inside the national park, nestled amongst a series of huge limestone formations that jut up from the rice paddies, which – even to my feverishly furious mind – was quite beautiful.

The big draw in this park, and the reason I wanted to stop here in the first place, is Phong Nha Cave. I didn’t know anything about it except that it’s a river grotto, quite large, and Lonely Planet says it’s the only thing of any interest whatsoever in all of north-central Vietnam. So after getting up today we headed down to the river to get a boat too take us to the cave.

 

It cost 200,000 dong to rent a boat, regardless of how many people were in it. Normally we’d approach other Westeners and see if they wanted to split costs, but there were none – just domestic tourists. 200,000 dong is only about thirteen dollars, so we went ahead and just chartered our own boat, piloted by a Vietnamese man and a younger kid with a baseball cap who reminded me of Indiana Jones’ sidekick in Temple of Doom. As we headed downriver towards the cave we passed a lot of other boats making the return trip, crammed to the gills with Vietnamese tourists, which made us feel very rich and Western.

 

The cave itself was pretty cool. The river flows right into it, and they cut the engine and started using paddles as soon as we were inside. There was no sound except the splashing of water and the coughing of our pilot.

Chris left his camera at the hotel in Dong Hoi, so unfortunately we’re stuck with my useless Nikon to take photos. It’s absolutely hopeless in the dark and the amount of moisture in the cave made the flash useless as well, but Chris still managed to get a couple of passable photos.

 

After a few hundred metres of silently drifting past illuminated stalagtites, we arrived at an underground beach swarming with tourists. The boat docked here for a while, so we could venture up and explore the dry parts off the cave.

 

We didn’t get very far – round one corner and you come across a fenced-off area, with two crack guards who were dozing away on plastic chairs. After wandering about for a bit and taking a thousand blurry photos, we jumped on the boat and headed back outside.

 

Before going back upriver we climbed some stairs up the side of the karst to visit another cave at the top. It was… steep. And hot. And tiring.

 

Every hundred stairs or so we would come across a small rest area and have to run the gauntlet of Vietnamese children saying “You buy Coca! Postcard! Coca!”

There were some nice views from the top, though. I’ll reiterate what I said back in Hue: Vietnam is a lovely, beautiful country, compromised by the people who inhabit it.

 

Even then it’s still stinking hot.

I’m glad we visited the caves, though. They weren’t mind-blowing or anything, but it was a nice experience, even apart from the fact that it gave us a day off the bikes. I also feel like we were ahead of the curve for once – we didn’t see a single Western tourist there, aside from a Kiwi we met in town last night (who also told us a morbidly fascinating story about coming off his motorcycle and going under the wheels of a truck).

Tomorrow we have a very long ride ahead of us, either to Vinh or a town near Vinh on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We actually have three days of riding planned, all very long, to get us to Ninh Binh, which sounds like a pleasant enough place to while away the last few days before the girls arrive in Hanoi. I’m praying that we can do it – hoping against hope that I can get on my motorbike and have it start, let alone make it two hundred and fifty k’s to Vinh.

Bit fed up, really.

28 June, 2010
Dong Hoi, Vietnam

Today, the 28th of June, marks two anniversaries. Firstly, it’s now been two months since Chris and I started travelling – two months since that awful day when we wandered around Singapore on zero sleep, fled to Kuala Lumpur, and realised that backpacking wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

More importantly, it marks one year since the beginning of my contract teaching English at a private school in South Korea – and therefore it’s the day that, had I stuck to the contract, I would have been returning home.

Now, had I stuck to that contract I would have been a mindless gibbering wreck at this point, driven mad by the daily stress overload that comes from “teaching” five-year olds while shrilly demanding Asian overseers cracked a whip against my back. More likely I would have hurled myself off the roof of the school buildiing into the traffic below. And so while I’d like to say that today was a fantastic day, it was one of the most horrendous and difficult days yet – while, ironically, in my alternate life it would have been great because I would have been finally leaving Korea.

Okay, so obviously the previous 288 days would have been much worse than my actual 288 days, but still. I was hoping for better juxtaposition.

We were intending to get up around 8 am – at least, that’s when I set the alarm for, I’m not sure if Chris was keen on it – but I turned it off immediately and slept till 9, when the maid walked into our room to see if we wanted it cleaned. I then went downstairs to the Worst Restaurant Ever for breakfast. Normally I never would have set foot in that terrible place again, but breakfast was included in the room price. It went about as well as I expected.

“Omelette?”
“No.”
“Coffee?”
“No.”

I settled on noodles with beef, even though I hate Asian food first thing in the morning, because the unobtainable omelette was the only Western thing on the menu. I splashed some of the noodle soup in my eye – which was quite painful, because it had chili or pepper or something in it – then went back upstairs to find Chris packing.

“I have never wanted to get on my bike and ride away more than I do right now,” I said. “Get me the fuck out of Khe Sanh.”

After filling up and figuring out which road out of town to take, we ended up leaving at about 11. We were rolling north along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, with mist-shrouded mountains marking the Laos border just to our left. It was a better ride than the previous day’s had been. My ass wasn’t as sore, the road was almost deserted, I was listening to the Rapture on my iPod. All was well.

At about two o’clock, we were on some stretch of the trail so deserted that instead of passing Vietnamese roadside towns, we were passing hill tribe villages with thatched roofs and waving children. The roads, as usual, weren’t signposted well, and our maps were in conflict as to where we should be turning. We’d just resolved to go back and try a different fork when my gears started fucking up. Again.

Earlier that morning, I’d been thinking about how well my bike had been running since I got the new carburettor. I’d been thinking that the only other problem I’d really had with it was thhe bad gears, which hadn’t been bothering me since Qhuy Non, and which Chris had said I just needed to be gentle with and work through calmly. “Don’t get angry with it,” he’d said. “Just stop, start again, find what gear you’re in.”

There was no mistaking which gear I was in. First. Definitely first. It made the ride into Mui Ne stuck in second seem like a wonderful dream. Chris had already taken off, so I rode about seven or eight k’s back to the fork, where he was filling up his bike with petrol out of a bottle in somebody’s shack.

“Just chill,” he said. “We’ll fix it.”

He did spend quite some time trying to, while I seethed and brooded and fantasised about dismantling the bike and mailing every piece to a different country. I should probably take a moment to point out that Chris’ skills and knowledge are the backbone of this trip. Without him I probably wouldn’t have made it further than Dalat.

Unfortunately, a gearbox is a complex piece of machinery, and Chris had neither the expertise nor the tools to fix it. But, as is usually the case, a random Vietnamese passer-by wanted to help us, and we followed him a kilometre back down the road to a mechanic’s.

I think this is probably a universal thing – Western or Eastern, first-world or third-world – but people in the countryside tend to be friendlier (and, in Vietnam, more competent) than people in cities. This mechanic took a long time to fix my bike, but fix it he did, after carefully disassembling the entire gearbox. The culprit was a tiny spring, which was supposed to be performing some vital function I still don’t understand despite repeated explanations from Chris.

“He’s fittting a new spring now,” Chris said. “This is what yours looked like. Boing!”

Incidentally, I finally figured out how to check the manufacture date, with the following piece of advice from the website of the Minsk Motorcycle Club in Hanoi:

The serial number stamped onto the steering column of the left hand side of the bike has a code to say how old the bike is. The eighth last character – its a letter – denotes the year of manufacture as follows. ‘L’ is 1990, ‘M’ is 1991, ‘N’ is 1992, ‘P’ is 1993, ‘R’ is 1994, ‘S’ is 1995, ‘T’ is 1996, ‘V’ is 1997, ‘W’ is 1998, ‘X’ is 1999 and ‘Y’ is 2000. The engine is easier to date as the last two characters inscribed on it on the left hand side are numbers like ‘94’ or ‘96’.

We knew Chris’ was a ’96 model, and I’m pretty sure it was appropriately stamped with a T. I’m sure as fuck not going down to the garage now to double-check. Max’s was X, which would be 1999.

Mine is B. Working backwards, that places its manufacture circa 1980. Not a Belarussian bike, but a Soviet bike. It’s thirty fucking years old, and it’s had to put up with sixteen more years of Vietnamese mechanics than Chris’ has. No wonder it breaks down constantly.

“I know I tell you to be calm with the bike and not get stressed out,” Chris said, “but if it was me I would have burned it long ago.”

Eventually the mechanic got the gears working again. Then Chris decided we needed to fix my loose throttle, which didn’t go so well – it has all the same problems but is now much stiffer (once you get past the loose point) and it also sticks, which is dangerous. Then the bike wouldn’t start, and I had to unstrap all my bags so Chris could lift the seat up and get at the electrical box.

By the time my worthless piece of communist junk was actually running again, it was about six o’clock and we were still in the middle of absolutely nowhere. There was nothing we could do except try to cover as much of the distance Dong Hoi as possible in the little time we had left until sunset. We ended up going down a road through the jungle which more closely resembled a very steep dry creekbed, covered in stones. My suspension enjoyed that. Near the bottom we paused to ask a guy going in the other direction if we were on the right road for Dong Hoi, but he was more pre-occupied with the fact that he was trying to ride a Honda Dream on an awful off-road trail with a huge box strapped to the back of it, so he ignored us.

It turned out we were on the right road – it turned back into something that was semi-sealed and driveable, with signposts showing us the way to the Eastern Ho Chi Minh. It was still constantly twisting and turning, though. “Get me out of the fucking mountains,” I said. “Just give me a long, flat road on the plains.”

That was what we got. The Eastern Ho Chi Minh stretches north on a lower plain than its mountainous western brother, and we were soon flying north with about thirty k’s to Dong Hoi. At this point the sun had completely set and we were driving down a highway with no streetlights. The Minsk headlight shows the ground ahead of you for perhaps five metres, which will give you about a quarter of a second to react if a pothole shows up. Or a cow, which is precisely what happened – if a truck with high beams hadn’t been coming towards us in the other lane, illuminating a sudden strange obstruction in my lane, I probably would have hit it. As it was I barely braked in time. Cows wandering about on the highways are quite common in this stupid country, but for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me that they would still be out and about after sunset. What the fuck was it doing there? Who owns that cow? They chain monkeys up. Why the fuck can’t they chain up their livestock?

We miraculously arrived in Dong Hoi without hitting something and cartwheeling over the handlebars, and by a stroke of luck we randomly pulled up to check the guidebook directly outside QB Teen, the only Western restaurant in town. Coke never tasted so good. After eating dinner, we rode on up the riverside to find a hotel. We ended up springing for a slightly more decent one than usual, for about nine or ten AUD each, but it was either that or share a double bed. Of course, as usual, neither the wifi nor the air-conditioning works. That’s pretty much par for the course in Vietnam. “Just once I’d like to walk into a hotel room and have things work,” Chris said. “Just once I’d like to be able to drop my bags and then not have to stand on a chair to fix the air-con because it’s leaking everywhere, or go up and down the stairs fiddling with the routers to get the Internet working.”

This is the 30th hotel we’ve stayed in, incidentally. Or the 29th, since we stayed in the Angkor Bright in Cambodia twice. I’ve been taking photos of every bed I’ve slept in. They all look pretty much the same.

I think I’ll go to bed now. We’re riding to a national park tomorrow with the biggest cave in Vietnam in it, which is about the only thing in this part of the country worth seeing. It’s only fifty k’s, but I still trust my Minsk to fuck it up somehow. I really am just focused on getting to Hanoi now so we can say we’ve done this. Chris said he thought today was the closest I’d come to giving up. That actually would have been Hoi An, when I was honestly considering wheeling the fucking thing ten kilometres to the beach and throwing it in the ocean, but giving up is never really on the table for a person as stubborn as I am. I finished the Riverworld series, and by God I’ll finish this trip.

27 June, 2010
Khe Sanh, Vietnam

We left Hue about 8 am today, riding alone, since Max and Jess are northbound on the train. It was a pretty unremarkable ride. The first stretch was gross, on a badly potholed road, but once we hit the Ho Chi Minh Trail it was nice again – just two lanes of blacktop in very good condition, with barely another vehicle on the road. We were going through mountains and river valleys again, which certainly beats the plains, but… they’re sort of starting to wash over me now. I’ve seen a lot of them.

We made much better time without Max and Jess (although I would gladly sacrifice that for their company!) but this also meant long periods of riding, since I no longer “had” to pull over and wait for them to catch up every half hour or so (I liked doing that, because it gave my ass a break). We rolled into our intended destination of Khe Sanh well ahead of schedule, about two o’clock.

Khe Sanh is a tiny little nowhere town near the Lao border. It was the site of a major, extended military campaign during the war, in which the Americans wasted much time and energy defending a tiny town of dubious strategic importance. Today it’s a dusty little coffee plantation with not a lot going on; it took us quite a few tries to find a decent hotel.

We ate at the worst restaurant yet here, a completely empty dining hall attached to our hotel, which was stunningly atrocious in terms of food, service, price, everything. Lunch went okay, but when we returned for dinner we picked the wild pig. “No,” the waitress said.

Okay, fair enough. We picked some other things, and then Chris said, “Can we have a large bowl of rice, too?”

“No.”

“…Rice?”

“Um, no.”

“You don’t have rice?”

“No.”

“Rice?!”

This is South-East Asia. Rice is the staple crop. Like rats in New York City, you are never further than seven feet from a grain of rice. How the fuck could a restaurant not have rice? We prodded her for quite a while to ensure that this was in fact the case, rather than her simply not understanding. Nope. No rice. “I can’t believe this,” Chris said. “This is outrageous.”

Half an hour later we were walking through the streets carrying plastic bags full of cooked rice, which we purchased from another ‘restaurant’ which had no tables or chairs and may have just been somebody’s personal kitchen. “We’re at the point now where it’s so bad it can only get better,” Chris said. “We just walked a k’ for rice.”

“Maybe tomorrow we’ll walk two k’s,” I said.

We got back to the restaurant and placed orders again. Our waitress was sniffing. “She better be upset and not sick,” I said.

“She’s sick, dude.” In the background, the waitress sneezed.

We then waited fifty minutes for them to cook a handful of diced pork, serve it up to us with an entire cucumber sliced on the side of the plate, and pay $3.50 US for the privilege. It was during that fifty-minute wait (with literally nobody else in the restaurant; fuck, I’d actually wager that we were their first patrons in weeks) that our bleary-eyed frustration with Vietnam’s customer service reached its zenith, like a blazing hot signal flare rising into the night sky. Hopefully it will now begin to descend, sputter and wink out – that part of the analogy representing our murder-suicide pact.

Earlier in the day, shortly after we’d arrived, I went and visited the former American military base, which is now a modest museum. There were some old helicopters and tanks and stuff rusting away out the front:

Chinooks are fucking huge. And it’s weird when you get up close to a helicopter and realise that it’s really just a whole bunch of metal sheets riveted together.

As always, though, the best things about Vietnamese museums is the propaganda. These were just some of the photo captions inside the building:

“The American soldiers’ panic shows on their faces at Khe Sanh front in 1968.”

“The American and South Vietnamese soldiers rushing to get on the helicopters to run away from the “Khe Sanh hell” in 1968.”

“American troops praying to God for escape from “Khe Sanh hell.”

That last one was quite relatable.

I also found the guestbook interesting, since it was filled with the usual claptrap by left-wing hippies about the evil invaders and the brave North Vietnamese, and rather more sensible comments by returning Vietnam vets. It’s amazing how experience can change your perceptions. I also used to take a kneejerk reaction to the Vietnam War, assuming it was just yet another part of the grand tapestry of American Imperialism. But aside from earlier comments about how South Vietnam, y’know, wanted the Americans here – and, indeed, fell to the North after they left, sparking one of the biggest waves of refugees in history – it really boggles my mind to watch people swallow propaganda whole. Simply because the Americans committed atrocities does not entail that the North Vietnamese were flawess angels. Indeed, throwing your full support behind the considerably more barbarous government of Ho Chi Minh is… stupid. No other word for it. (The same applies to America vs. Islamic fundamentalism today, with the caveat that it is not a proper war, and therefore America should be expected to act far better than it does.)

Likewise, I used to have a very open mind about other cultures and other people. I used to be all about multiculturalism. I wholly agreed with a sentiment that I read about time and time again, expressed by travellers returning home: Travelling opens your mind. It makes you realise that all humans are pretty much the same. We’re all good people. Our similarities are greater than our differences.

Fuck that. Every day in this country I have to restrain myself from visualising the Vietnamese as some kind of subhuman race, incapable of accomplishing the simplest of tasks, staring at easily fixable problems like the apes transfixed by the monolith in Space Odyssey: 2001. A while back, when I couldn’t find any ATMs that would accept my card, I tried to get a cash advance from no less than four Western Unions. In every single one of them theclerk would stare at my Mastercard with expressions ranging from fascination to wary hostility, holding it at arm’s length like it was some kind of bizarre radioactive moon rock. They didn’t understand “cash advance” even when I used the Vietnamese phrase for it – writing it, not just trying to pronounce it. What the fuck else does Western Union do? And I still get headaches thinking about all the wasted time trying to get a guy holding a welding torch to weld my clutch bracket back onto the bike after the crash.

Incidentally, this was the guestbook comment left by the stupidest person. Who can tell why?

Here’s some more fun. I returned from the museum to find Chris and the hotel manager shifting our things to another room down the hall. “We’re moving,” Chris said.

“Because of the air-conditioner? I noticed.” It had been rattling and clanking earlier, loud enough that we wouldn’t have been able to sleep.

Chris paused with his bags in one hand, looking me in the eye with a cold stare. “You have… no idea… how hard it was to get this accomplished,” he said. “Literally the entire time you were gone I was trying to explain it to him.”

He related the tale to me further after we’d shifted and the manager had left. “He took me down here, and there’s these fucking soccer players, being all loud and gross and shit.”

The other rooms are indeed all occupied with boisterous, disagreeable Vietnamese soccer players; I walked past an open door to see one just standing there naked spraying deodourant or something around, wearing a shirt but no pants. He was dressed just like Vietnamese children, who like to keep their lower halves unobstructed so they can piss and shit everywhere.

“…So I asked if we could have a room on one of the other levels. Like fifteen minutes of ‘up?’ and ‘down?’ and ‘five? three?’ And then he finally clicks and takes me down to the next floor and I ask if we can have a room here and he goes, ‘Oh, no, full.’ What the fuck. Cheers, thanks for the tour, before this I thought it was just air holding this level up.”

Later on, as we were sitting in our new room, the air-conditioner suddenly started to rattle and clank. We both stared at it for a moment. Chris took a piece of notebook paper, wrote “I vow never to return to this forsaken place,” and signed it. I turned it off and back on again, which seemed to stop the noise. For now. “We could always ask him to move again if it keeps fucking up,” I said.

Chris put on a cheerful Vietnamese accent. “Oh, yes, you move back to 205!” And in his own voice, with frightening clarity and conviction: “I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you. I’ve killed better hotel managers than you.”

I feel sorry for Chris. I’m sort of at the level where everything here is still hilarious, because of the shocking new depths of appalling service it reaches every single day. Chris is just plain fed up with it. Of course he’s usually a forecaster of my own moods, so I’m sure I’ll be there in a day or two.

I hear that the current line of thinking amongst Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam-Laos Banana Pancake backpackers is that Vietnam is the lowlight. It doesn’t surprise me. Personally I think I hated Thailand more than anything else, but if you removed Max and Jess and the motorcycles, and placed them five hundred k’s to the west, I think the scale would probably tip in Thailand’s favour.

We have quite a few days of riding ahead of us. We’re planning to reach Ninh Binh around the 2nd or 3rd of July, stay a few days there, and then arrive in Hanoi a day before the girls do, on the 6th. Barring any major mechanical failures, we should have quite a few days of easy riding with the occasional long endurance stretch thrown in there. Tomorrow we’re heading to Dong Hoi, which is slightly larger and meant to be fairly nice. Unlike Khe Sanh it’s actually listed in the guidebook and has a few places to stay and some proper restaurants, so WAIT FUCK IT’S ON THE COAST THERE’LL BE NO ELECTRICITY FUUUUUCK

You know in Apocalypse Now how Kurtz whispers: “The horror… the horror…?” That. That over and over again. That is the phrase with which to describe Vietnam.

26 June, 2010
Hue, Vietnam

Hue and Hoi An are the two biggest tourist draws in central Vietnam, so I was sort of subconsciously expecting Hue to be like Hoi An: a pleasant little town, quiet and unhurried, brimming with old buildings and history and beauty. This was further enhanced by looking at the Lonely Planet map of Hue, which shows most of the city enclosed by the thick walls of an ancient citadel. I imagined that citadel to be quite… dominant.

It’s not. Hue is largely indistinguishable from any other South-East Asian city. Walk for a little while and you do eventually find the citadel walls, surrounded by moats.


On the other side of the walls is just more Vietnamese city. Walk through it long enough and you come across an inner citadel, called the Imperial City. We reached the edge of these thick stone walls, set on a shadeless green plain of dry grass, and started walking around it to look for an entrance.

The circumference of the city walls span ten kilometres. This was in 37 degree heat and about 80% humidity. We ended up walking around nearly the entire city, before finding the entrance was not far from where we’d started. At this point we were sweaty, dehydrated wrecks and not in the mood for anything. This is what I looked like:

Of course, we didn’t come all that way for nothing, so we shelled out 50,000 dong to go inside and look at all the stupid history and shit.

I feel obligated to visit these places when we come across them – which is always, in Asia – but I don’t like them. I prefer it when the history is unsullied by admission fees and velvet ropes and information plaques and hordes of other tourists. I like places like Hoi An or Kyoto, where nobody is making a big fuss about it: it’s just there, part of the city, still being lived in.

We wandered about for a bit, snapped some photos, sat in the shade and bought overpriced coffee. For the reasons I explained above, I didn’t find it particularly appealing, and was rapidly recalculating the amount of time I wanted to spend in Hue. Chris was already keen to leave tomorrow, and I’m with him – particularly given that this city seems to shit itself when it comes to electricity even more than any other coastal Vietnamese town. I went out drinking with Max and Jess last night, so I slept relatively soundly through this morning’s fuck-ups, but I’ll let Chris explain them:

The power went off yesterday. I asked them when we got to this hotel if it was going to go off and, reluctantly, they said yes it was going to go off at 6 am. They failed to mention that it was going to go off today as well. We have been paying $13 US a night for this room and the power has been off as long as it has been on. So at 6 am I woke up because it was fucking hot and went downstairs.

“Why is the power off again? It was off yesterday, why is it off again today?”
The hotelier just smiled at me, not understanding my fury. “It off yesterday and off today too.”
“Yes, I know that now. Why is it off today? I am not paying you money to have no power and not sleep.”
“Sorry, I don’t know.”
“Why didn’t you tell us that it would be off again today?”
“Umm, sorry.”

By this stage I had only had two hours of sleep. I fell under at 4 am and the power went off at 6 am. I stormed back up the stairs to our room and prepared myself for another sweltering morning of half-sleep. Just as I put my head down on the pillow the hammers started, or at least what I thought were hammers. After about ten minutes of relentless banging I couldn’t take it any more. I went downstairs again and followed the echoes and the vibrations of each impact of whatever it was being struck. Turns out it was the cook smashing her meat cleaver over some chives. Seething with rage, I approached the hotelier again.

“Why is she doing that now? It is 6 am.”
“She is cooking,” he said with that same innocent smile.
“Again, it is 6 am, could she not do that at any other time?”
“Ummm, sorry.”

I swear I would have killed him had reality not taken hold of me. I wanted to slam his head into the reception desk until he died.

I visited the cook.

“Could you please stop that noise for now please?”
“Oh sorry, I finish now. Sorry.” Same smile as her co-worker.
“It’s ok… it’s fine”

Stinking hot, ears pounding, I climbed the stairs once again to our decrepit cell. Two minutes after she told me she was done, BANG FUCKING BANG!

I have never, ever felt anger and frustration as I did this morning. I did not fall back asleep until the power was, for some reason, turned back on at 11am.

Fuck this city, and fuck this country and its people and its inability to handle itself.

I was thinking about Vietnam yesterday while crossing the bridge over the river, and decided that it’s a beautiful country tainted by the nation-state that occupies it. If every Vietnamese person vanished it would be a lovely place. In the mountains, at least. When it’s not pouring with rain.

The electricity issues are immensely frustrating. Dealing with the Vietnamese – with their scams and their hustles and their lies, or, one step below, their ineptitude and their hopelessness – is even more frustrating. Customer service here is nonexistent. Simple things like paying a bill or receiving change are hassles every single time. This applies to South-East Asia in general, but Vietnam in particular. Here are some choice moments:

1. At a restaurant in Hoi An, which did great food but had surly staff, Max ordered a cheeseburger which arrived without any cheese. He informed a waiter, who returned ten minutes later, said “Here is you cheese, sir,” and handed him a slice of Kraft cheese in its plastic slip. (This made me laugh for days and days and days).

2. At the same restaurant, and many others, getting change takes about ten minutes. They take your note, disappear out the back of the restaurant, and eventually re-emerge with your change. For fuck’s sake, keep the cash register at front of house. It’s called front of house for a reason.

3. At a restaurant in Kon Tum, Chris ordered noodles as a side dish. When his main came out, he asked “Do I have some noodles coming?” The reply was, “Maybe.”

You can chalk all this up as spoilt Western whining if you want, but I challenge anyone to travel cheaply in Vietnam for a month and not come across at least one moment where they want to slam their head in frustration against the wall. I love riding a bike through this country, but I am growing very tired of the country itself, and I’ll be glad to be shot of it.

Unfortunately (with regards to that growing disdain, at least) Kristie and Elisha are flying up to Hanoi on the 7th of July to visit us for two weeks. So we’re here until at least the 21st of July. Whether we keep the bikes or not is something of an issue. I tried riding Max’s bike the other day while his and Jess’ packs were still strapped to it, and it was a nightmare. Wobbled all over the place and I nearly dropped it. I don’t know how he manages to ride just with those packs, let alone Jess. There’s also the fact that while I may be willing to risk my life and limbs in the boiling cauldron that is Vietnamese traffic, I’m not sure I’m willing to risk Kristie’s.

Oh well. I suppose we’ll decide in Hanoi. We have until the 7th to get there, which gives us more time than road, so we’ll have to find a more pleasant place than Hue to spend a few days. The area around Ninh Binh is supposed to be quite nice.

We’re also going to be riding alone from now on, since Max and Jess are on a tighter schedule than us and are taking their bike up to Hanoi on the train. We’ve been travelling with them for nearly a full month now, and we connected with them so well it feels like we’ve known them a lot longer. We may briefly meet up with them in Hanoi around the 8th or 9th, but otherwise it’s a grand farewell until we meet again in England… because that’s where we’re bound, now.

I’ve forgotten to mention how that’s been going. The improvement of the trip is something of an illusion, directly related to the people we’re travelling with and the fact that we’re on motorcycles. Take those things away and it will be Thailand territory again. Well, actually, hopefully a lot better than that, but still not something Chris is keen on. We’re both still doing China and Mongolia, but the Africa leg has been discarded and the Americas will now be done on motorcycles, at some hazy point in the future. In the meantime I’m headed for Europe, since my citizenship means I can work there; Chris is also becoming more keen on the idea of Europe over Canada for living/working, so we’ll probably do the Trans-Siberian leg as well.

As for the American motorcycle trip, the plan is to ride from north to south. We were originally intending to ride from Murchison Promontory (the absolute northern tip of North America) to Cape Froward (the absolute southern tip of South America). This has since been discarded as impractical, since Murchison Promontory is at the arse-end of the world; a freezing Arctic peninsula with literally thousands of kilometres of tundra and forest between it and the nearest road. It might be theoretically possible in the next ten or twenty years, when they actually build some roads in Nunavut, but even then you’d need an expensive support team with helicopters and fuel drops and that sort of thing, which is just a mite out of our price range. So we’ve instead set our sights on Alaska; maybe the edge of the peninsula there, or Prudhoe Bay, which actually has roads leading to it. Or a road. A mine-haul road. I’ve read about a guy doing it on a cruiser, so it’s certainly possible, which is more than can be said for Murchison.

It’s a long way away. We’ll need expensive bikes and a hell of a lot more riding experience. Chris is more gung-ho about it than me, already looking up the kinds of bikes he wants to buy, which I don’t really care about. I enjoy riding a motorcycle, but I enjoy going places and seeing things more. The bike itself is a means to an end, albeit a very fun means to an end. Chris would be quite happy to ride every single day, both here and in America. I prefer to have days off, even if there’s nothing around to see or do, just to give my spine and my ass a break.

I’m also more focused on the here and now; not just riding bikes in Vietnam, or even just the rest of this trip, but living and working in Europe for a while. I definitely do want to ride across the Americas, but it is in the future, and there’s other things I want to do as well. I’ve been saving up for this trip for a very long time, and I am still committed to it, and when I eventually do reach Europe I would like to once again have disposable income and stop carefully squirelling away every penny, so I can actually enjoy my static life, at least for a little while. My vision of life involves travelling across the rest of Eurasia, then living (and owning a motorbike) for a while in the U.K. or Ireland, and then riding across the Americas. Timeframes are purely theoretical. Ideally I’ll land a job that actually makes use of my degree, so I can earn a decent amount of money, and both enjoy life while also saving.

All this writing about Europe is making me think about how wonderful it will be to return to a first-world country with a chilly climate. Where people know how to fucking get things done.

Anyway, enough about that. Before I go off to buy an icecream, I want to note that I’m rapidly approaching the upload limit for my free Flickr account. A pro account costs $25 a year. If somebody can reccommend a good alternative, I’d like to hear it. I tried Picasa but it’s needlessly complex and is one of those bitchy pieces of software that moves into your computer and declares itself the new king, setting itself as the default program for virtually everything. In the end I’ll probably suck up and pay the money to Flickr anyway, since I’ve already tinkered with Greasemonkey to make it show HTML scripts so I can post photos on the blog. If all you enraptured readers want to chip in a dollar to buy me a Pro account we’ll be up and running in no time!

24 June, 2010
Hue, Vietnam

We left Hoi An today, pushing on up the country towards Hue. I would have been happier to stay there longer; it was really nice, and it’s a shame I had to spend part of every single day there at a mechanic’s. My bike is working again, finally, to a given definition of the word “working;” it’s become impossible to start it without the choke, and difficult even then. Also the $50 US I paid for a new carburettor still smarts. Does anyone know if a new carburettor commonly makes a bike difficult to start for a while?

The most direct route between Hue and Hoi An is Highway 1A, the awful road that runs all the way from Saigon to Hanoi. We previously rode along the 1A while travelling from Nha Trang to Qhuy Non, and found it to be a vile and loathsome torrent of trucks and buses; a three-to-four hour near-death experience. Chris dubbed it the “bloodroad.” Unfortunately, Vietnam is so narrow at this point that there weren’t really any alternatives, and it was only about 110 k’s, so decided to grit our teeth and push through it.

And it’s a good thing we did, because that stretch of the highway leads over the Truong Son mountain range, which juts out into the South China sea just north of Da Nang. This results in an amazing road twisting and winding its way through the Hai Van Pass, with spectacular views of the ocean on both sides. (This is the road which, in the Top Gear Vietnam Special, Clarkson described as “one of the best coast roads… IN THE WORLD.”)

It just clings to the edge of the mountainside. Beautiful.

I heard Da Nang was an ugly city, but it looked quite nice from above. Lots of white stretches of beach, like Miami. of course my camera is rubbish so you can’t really make it out.

Max, Jess and I stopped at one point and got badgered by a woman to buy something. We took off further up the road and stopped again where Chris had, only to have the woman chase after us on a motorbike and try to sell Chris something. Ah, Vietnam! I don’t see how communism was ever expected to work with such relentlessly avaricious people.

At the highest point of the pass, where the road descends into another wide bay, we found the ruins of an old French fort.

Judging from the bullet holes (not visible here, GRRR NIKON), it also saw some service during the war.

I climbed up into the highest section of one of the buildings, by shuffling up some bamboo poles somebody had left there.

Bit dicey, but I made it, and got some nice views.

Actually, you can see some bullet scarring there, on the smaller building to the right.

Max made the climb later on, and got a lovely photo of me and Chris.

We took a bunch of group shots that I’ll upload later. During that I smashed my knee quite badly and opened up one of the cuts sustained during the crash. And my elbow is still ruined forever, goddamnit.

Pressing on, we descended the long and steep switchbacks on the other side of the pass, which was no less beautiful. It was something I didn’t expect from the 1A, which I used to hate unconditionally, and it was definitely one of the best roads we’ve been on in the entire trip. Certainly rivalled only by the Dalat-Nha Trang mountain road; maybe even surpassing it.

You haven’t lived until you’ve ridden a rickety Soviety motorcycle down this mountain road while listening to “Search & Destroy” by the Stooges.

Then, of course, the mountains levelled off and dumped us back onto the flatlands. On the 1A. With a thousand trucks and buses. Here’s Chris with some trucks:

It was a really gross ride from then on. That was the day, really: an awful ride on an awful road, an AMAZING RIDE ON AN AMAZING ROAD, and an evven more awful ride on another awful road. The second half was also extremely busy, which always sucks. The Vietnamese have absolutely no road sense whatsoever. They’re never happy unless they’re overtaking, pedestrians and bicycles constantly clog up the designated motorbike lanes, people pull out right in front of you… look, they’e Asian drivers. It’s an entire country full of Asian drivers. There, I said it.

To make matters worse, we were riding towards the setting sun, which is no more fun on a bike than in a car. Even with sunglasses we were constantly taking our left hands off the bars to shield our eyes. Chris said this afternoon was probably the most dangerous riding we’ve yet done, and I agree with him.

But we made it safely into Hue, and found a hotel, and had a mediocre dinner. It was a good day. My bike was running well and the awesome stretch of the 1A more than made up for the crappy stretches. Aha, and, I found out early in the morning that Australia suddenly and unexpectedly has its first female prime minister. That’s what Rudd gets for drifting so far to the right that he crossed the oncoming lane, mounted the curb and killed a pedestrian. I always liked Gillard more than Rudd, even with that unbearable accent, and now this election will at least be something other than a battle between two religious, conservative wankers. I vote Green anyway, but Labor is always the lesser of two inevitable evils.

Speaking of Australia, it’s tax return time soon, which means I’ll have a delicious $1000+ coming my way after filling out a return at the embassy in Hanoi. I need a group certificate from that supid newsagency as well as Coles, though. If they don’t mail it, Dad, you’ll have to go and confront them.

23 June, 2010
Hoi An, Vietnam

Maybe Hiep the Minsk mechanic sees quite a few Westerners come through, because he charged each of us more than 300, 000 dong for our bikes. I paid 400,000, which is a bit less than $28 AUD. Considering that all he did was fiddle with my suspension and replace some stuff in my gearbox – he didn’t even fit a new mirror, which I sorely need – I thought this was a bit steep. We paid him, went and packed our bags, fueled up, had lunch and rolled out of town around 2.45. We felt safe leaving it that late, since we estimated the ride into Hoi An to be about two hours. Boy was that wrong.

I’d decided to try what Chris had been doing the previous day: listening to my iPod while riding. On the face of it this doesn’t seem particularly safe, but really, the two-stroke is so loud that I can never hear anything approaching from behind anyway. Unless they honk. Which they almost always do.

After some shoving my fingers inside my helmet to readjust the earbuds, I managed to get it going properly. And goddamn was it cool. Riding through the mountains of Vietnam is great enough, but riding through the mountains of Vietnam listening to the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors is fucking awesome. After a while I got tired of the American GI mood, and switched to LCD Soundsystem and Bloc Party. No less awesome.

At one point a storm rolled through the mountains ahead of us, and I had to turn the iPod off, in case it got wet. So I went from listening to music and driving through beautiful weather, to no music and driving in the rain. That was a rather unpleasant 180. We stopped and sheltered in a young man’s rudimentary roadside shack until the rain let up, then took off again. That is to say, Max and Jess took off again, while my bike wouldn’t start. Chris removed the sparkplug and cleaned it, and then it started. Cheers, Hiep.

We weren’t going so great for time. Our maps listed completely different towns from the ones we were riding through, so we weren’t sure if we were on the right road or not, which meant a lot of stopping and asking. “Hoi An?” we’d call out to passers-by, pointing down the road in the direction we were going. “Hoi An?” We’d be met with blank stares and a complete lack of understanding. “Fucking hell,” Chris said. “You named it.”

By the time we came down out of the mountains, Max and Jess were running low on fuel and we had to stop to fill up. Chris and I asked one of the attendents if we were on the right road, and it tuned out we were, but we still had 70 k’s left to Hoi An and less than an hour of daylight. Although we did see a breathtaking sunset cloud formation, which pictures really don’t do justice:

After Max and Jess took off, my bike again failed to start, which I found immensely frustrating. Chris stayed behind, and we again removed the sparkplug, which had become grimy and black again in less than an hour. Chris thought maybe it was because I had too much oil in the tank. “Just don’t turn your engine off until we get to Hoi An,” he said.

The rest of the road in was down a flat highway through rice paddies, until we reached a built-up area lined with buildings on both sides. The road became a thin little ribbon with no striped line, and the number of other bikes on the road increased sharply. I hated it. We’d gone from riding through beautiful mountains with the road pretty much to ourselves, to riding along some filthy boring little street, forced to weave in and out of scooters and pedestrians and students on bicycles riding three abreast (my pet peeve), with trucks and vans coming towards us every thirty seconds, and our speed dramatically reduced just when we needed to be going fast.

The sun set, and I had to take my sunglasses off and tuck them into my shirt. Then, because of the dust and the bugs, I had to take my goggles off the back of my helmet and affix them to my eyes. Then, because my goggles are worthless junk that make every oncoming headlight flare up into a blinding supernova, I had to take them off again. I did all this with one hand without stopping, which was difficult but rewarding.

When night had well and truly fallen, and I’d just passed the marker reading “Hoi An: 3 KM,” my bike’s engine started to splutter and die. “No!” I shouted. “No, goddamn it! Just work, you useless thing!”

I realised very quickly that the petrol tank was empty. This was odd, since I’d left Kham Duc with nearly a full tank. I’d left it idling a lot whenever we stopped, because I was having sparkplug issues, but that couldn’t quite account for it. In any case, I pushed it a few hundred metres to a roadside petrol stand, filled up, and took off again.

It was very, very rewarding to finally roll into Hoi An. We’d only been off the beaten trail for three or four days, but it was still quite odd to come across Vietnamese people speaking good English, and to see Westerners walking down every street. It was also fantastic to be able to order Western food again; I had a lovely, gorgeous cheesburger.

The flipside is that this place is full of touts and hawkers. For some reason Hoi An’s specialty is tailoring, and every street corner has a guy trying to sell you a suit. I’m about to travel through rural China, Mongolia and across Russia, and I have no fixed end-point to my travels. I can’t think of a time I’d want a suit less.

It is, however, a lovely city – especially by Vietnamese standards. The old quarter around the river is very pretty, and by night it’s absolutely beautiful. If it weren’t for the hawkers, souvenier stores, tailors, and the fact that it’s still in Vietnam, it might rival Kyoto. As it stands it’s easily the nicest place we’ve yet been to in Vietnam. Unfortunately in some places they’re resurfacing the road, which is quite unpleasant.

Particularly when they let the spare tar just pool there.

I am, of course, spending yet more time at mechanics – at least one mechanic per day. Yesterday I became more frustrated then I ever had with the bike and was quite literally tempted to wheel it down to the beach, find a pier, and push it off the edge. (“It would be much cooler to ride it off,” Max said. “I CAN’T START THE BIKE, MAX,” I replied. “THAT’S THE PROBLEM.”) I feel like the constant mechanical hassles are boring you all at this point, so until some more particularly amusing things happen I’ll shut up about them. Suffice to say that at this point I’ve spent a painfully large amount of money to replace my carburettor, and also realised that Chris is a better mechanic than about half the “real” mechanics in this fucking useless country.

Other than that we haven”t been doing much here, really. It’s a lovely town to just walk around in, although it’s been appallingly hot lately. We stayed out until 3 am drinking one night, and went swimming in the ocean amidst bioluminescent plankton. Jeess and Max said it was really weak and they’d seen much better swarms in Cambodia, but I thought it was awesome. We ended up getting into bed at 4 am, and then, this being a Vietnamese beach town, woke up at 9 am when the power (and therefore air-con) cut out. Hoi An put a special spin on things: within minutes of the power going off, the generators for the ritzier hotels across the road fired up. So even trying to sleep int he heat was impossible, because of the constant banging and droning of the generators. The irony is that the ritzy hotels have properly soundproofed rooms, so they would have been sleeping like lambs in their quiet, air-conditioned rooms, whereas we were both sweating and deafened. Not to mention the banging of hammers that rings up and down the street every fucking morning, in every Vietnamese town. “I’ve figured out why they’re always doing that,” said Chris, with bleary eyes. “Because everything’s fucking broken.”

We also visited the My Son ruins, which were somewhat lame after seeing Angkor Wat. They were pretty and all, but probably not worth the hour-long car-ride in a Kia with a new-car smell that made me feel slightly carsick and pushed Chris almost to the vomit threshhold. If you’re wondering why we didn’t ride, it’s because we read about a scam where local cons will sabotage your bike while you’re in the ruins and then offer to fix it when you emerge. Of all the low-down, dishonest, flat-out asshole cons I’ve come across in my time on this wretched continent, that’s probably the worst of them. You don’t touch a man’s ride. Even if that ride happens to the worst motorcycle in Vietnam, and therefore the worst motorcycle on the planet. God, I think about offloading this thing in Hanoi and it makes me so happy.

My elbow still really hurts whenever I lean on it after that spill at the waterpark… what, ten days ago? It feels like there’s a gap or a chip there when compared to my other elbow. I googled the medical symptoms, always a fun activity, but couldn’t come up with any answer as to whether an elbow chip will eventually stop hurting, or if there’s anything I can do about it. And it’s not enough of a bother to pay the $100 excess on my travel insurance if I go see a doctor. Anyone with medical experience is welcome to give their opinion. Rhona.

18 June, 2010
Kham Duc, Vietnam

Yesterday morning, we took my bike in to a mechanic recommended to us by an elderly English-speaking waiter at the best restaurant we could find in Pleiku – a filthy short order diner that did about five different dishes (which were actually quite good). We came and went throughout the day, but I think we probably spent a cumulative total of five or six hours sitting around trying to explain things to him, or watching him weld, or just waiting for him to go find parts.

We found out Chris’ rear suspension was close to buckling, which is potentially fatal, so it’s a good thing we caught that in time. As for my bike, the mechanic – who seemed to be a bit more savvy than most we’ve come across – managed to bend my gearstick back into shape, re-attach my headlamp, replace my clutch (I think I’ve now gone through about three) and replace my accelerator cable. If anyone stumbles across this on Google and is looking for a good mechanic in Pleiku, stand outside the My Tam restaurant (listed in Lonely Planet) and look to your right – along the row of shops there you should see a sign that says “Sai Gon.” That’s it.

I went and got my bike washed, to get rid of the ten metric tonnes of mud that had become stuck to it the previous day. I found a proper car wash place that did a really thorough clean, with air-hoses and soaps and oil-removing chemical and everything, for which they charged a modest 20,000 dong ($1.33 AUD). The mechanic only charged 50,000 dong ($3.33) for all the parts he used and a significant amount of his day. It’s become very clear that the further away you move from the tourist trail (we were definitely the only Westerners in the entire city), the cheaper everything is.

As I said, I was impressed with that mechanic, but the previous night – before we’d known he existed – I’d emailed the Minsk Club in Hanoi asking if they had a list of reputable mechanics, ideally those around Pleiku, Kon Tum or Hoi An. They said they didn’t, but directed me to a Western motorcycle tour guide based out of Hoi An. This guy sent me an email telling me about a town called Kham Duc, somewhere along the trail between Pleiku and Hoi An, where Minsks were supposedly very common and the mechanics were accordingly more knowledgeable.

We’d actually heard about this place earlier, from a grizzled American retiree at the Kiwi Cafe in Qui Nhon, who described it as a “Minsk town” but couldn’t give us any concrete directions. The place was now developing in my mind as a legendary mechanical El Dorado, a highland sanctuary for the dying race of the Minsks, holding out against the fruity scooters that infest the plains and cities below. I pictured a town where the throaty yammering filled the air, where clouds of two-stroke smoke wafted into the summer sky, where petrol station attendants knew exactly what to do with your oil and where mechanics could fix small problems without welding the suspension shut or replacing rubber with cardboard. A wonderful, semi-mythical place, known only to a select few, but possible to find if one was determined and resourceful enough – like the Beach, or the Land Before Time.

Actually, it was shown on our maps as the junction for the road to Hoi An, so it looked like we were heading there regardless. But still. I forwarded the email to Max and Jess, and said they should try to get a head-start and we’d meet up with them on the road.

We woke up at 6 am and started getting ready and packing. At about 6.45 am a loud bass throbbing filled the upper floors of the hotel, along with the sound of kids running around and screaming. I followed the noise upstairs to find a family with about five or six kids packing their things up, with incredibly loud techno music pumping out of their laptop. I stuck my head through their doorframe, gave them a look that said “I literally can’t believe this,” and left.

“Pretty sure that sign on the wall says ‘Please be quiet’,” Chris said. ‘”Not ‘Feel free to play discotheque at seven in the morning’.”

People in this part of the world I don’t mean to be racist, but Asians seem pretty inconsiderate sometimes. There’s always the slamming of doors, too. I’ve never had this problem elsewhere in the world, but every morning and night in a hotel in South-East Asia is a symphony of doors slamming shut. They can never just close them. Not to mention the cacophony of wails, shouts and chaos that sweeps through any given hotel when the power goes out, as scheduled, every second morning.

Anyways. We set off at about 7.30, under menacing grey clouds for the fifty kilometre ride into Kon Tum. This was a fairly boring stretch of straight road, which we had to share with the usual trucks and buses, plus we were both hungry. We found a decent restaurant in Kon Tum, one that actually did a Western breakfast, albeit poorly. After leaving, however, Chris had trouble starting his bike. While he went to a mechanic, I set about looking for an ATM that would accept my Mastercard, since I was down to about 50,000 dong and was hoping to get quite a bit of work done in Kham Duc. That was fruitless, but I found a bank that said they could do cash advance, which meant I had to unstrap my bag, open it, dig my passport out, and restrap it to the bike (about twenty minutes of annoying work). And then the cash advance failed. The bank staff did their best, swiping the card over and over, but it was, of course, Bankwest’s fault. One of the first fucking things I’m going to do when I get back to Australia is shut down my account there and open a new one with ANZ or Westpac or NAB or fucking anyone else.

I finally got around to taking a photo of one of the many lingering signs of communism that hangs around the country:

With all those kerfuffles, we eventually rolled out of town about eleven o’clock. After a few hours of hard riding – apparently less hard than Chris would have liked, since I was still spooked from the accident and was taking blind corners much more slowly, even though the other day he was urging me to drive more carefully, MAKE UP YOUR MIND CHRIS – we arrived at a town called Dak Glei, the halfway point between Kon Tum and Kham Duc. We stopped to have lunch here, having a difficult time communicating with the restaurant proprietor, but fortunately Max had left his phrasebook with us after the crash. He must have been having a hard time without it, though.

We sat around for a bit after lunch, hoping that the day would just rain and get it over with, but it sprinkled and a bit and did nothing else. The clouds were a bit lighter, and I didn’t think it was going to rain heavily, so we set off north again, with only 70 kilometres until the fabled Shangri-la of Minsks.

This was a really nice road. It was all curvy mountainsides, and led us into very thick temperate rainforest. The farms and villages lining the edges of the road were very, shall we say, “rural,” and despite the good quality of the road it certainly felt more wild and remote than anywhere else we’d taken the bikes. Cows, dogs, buffalo, pigs and chickens were constantly straying out onto the road; at one point a cow had even laid its fat ass down right in the middle of a lane. And there were, of course, the ubiquitous children’s shouts of “hello!” and furious waving that you come across in any remote area. Even the adults were waving.

It was also geographically spectacular. We came across one mountain rise where the valley before us was wreathed in fog, strands of it clinging to the green mountain peaks and moving across the landscape like clouds. We encountered one or two amazing waterfalls, and much of the time the road was running along the edge of a verdant river valley. It wasn’t quite as good as the road between Dalat and Nha Trang. But it was close.

And then, before we knew it, we were in Kham Duc. We pulled over to a petrol station to consult the directions I’d written down, and followed a narrow alleyway five hundred metres to find a guesthouse. The guy in Hoi An had just used this guesthouse as a landmark, but we needed somewhere to stay, so we pulled in and unloaded our bikes.

In this tiny backwater town, I’d been expecting very basic accomadation. Not exactly a wooden shack, but certainly something a bit shabby and gross. Nope. One of the nicest and cheapest rooms we’ve stayed in. Good to see that Vietnam’s gradual march into the first world is starting to extend to rural areas, too.

We parked our bikes in a shed out the back that had about four or five really nice Hondas inside it. “Yeah,” I said. “Minskville.” Ours were the only ones we’d seen; I was starting to have my doubts.

I checked my email to find that Jess had sent a very basic message saying:

We are here. In the first guest house called phuoc son hotel come find us

Not particularly helpful. “Here,” could mean anything, and a room number is generally useful. I asked the hotel receptionist where Phuoc Song Hotel was, and she seemed confused and pointed around us – as in, our hotel. After some pressing, because I knew they weren’t staying here, she pointed at the hotel over the road.

Chris and I went over there, but it was called the Kham Duc Hotel. We asked the receptionist if we could see the guests’ passports – again, she didn’t speak English, so it was a rigmarole – but there were only three, and the single British passport wasn’t theirs. We walked up the road a bit. I’d written PHUOC SONG HOTEL on my hand, and asked a teenage kid where it was. He pointed around us, and at the ground, the universal symbol for “here.” Since we were in some kind of marketplace at the time, that seemed unlikely.

We kept walking. Eventually I spotted PHUOC SONG amongst some other words on a sign on a building and walked through an empty courtyard towards it. “This isn’t a hotel,” I said. “I think it’s a school.”

“Wait a minute,” Chris said. “Phuoc Song is the name of the fucking town.”

And so it was. It’s not just Saigon that underwent a name change; after the war, the North went nuts renaming almost every little thing. Kham Duc is the old name. Or the new name. I’m not sure. A lot of places south of the DMZ effectively have two different names, but this was the first time it had bitten us in the ass. Fucking communists.

We decided to go back to our hotel, send them an email – a proper one, with more detail – and then go find that Minsk mechanic. Daylight was fading rapidly, but we hopped on our ailing Minsks and set off to follow the Hoi An dude’s vague directions.

We ended up “talking” to an old Vietnamese guy in an alley, who had several beat-up Minsks outside his house. We showed him the phrase that read “I need a mechanic,” pointed at our bikes, and he nodded. Then he jumped onto mine and motioned for me to get on the back. I could have driven him there, but whatever. He drove us out of the alleyway, a short way down the street, and into a mechanic’s workshop with several other Minsks sitting around in various stages of disassembly. Here’s a picture of one inside the shop; you’ll note that this Minsk is quite technologically advanced, since it has a speedometer.

As we started the long and painful process of communicating what we wanted with the mechanic, I began to notice the huge number of Minsks around. People were driving up and down the street with them. They were probably about 1:1 with Honda scooters, which is a damn fine ratio. You could hear the throbbing two-stroke engines echoing off the walls before they went past. For some reason, somebody had left one on idle outside a store down the road, and is stayed there, roaring away, the entire time we were there. This place really did deserve the name Minskville.



Communicating with the mechanic proved quite difficult, but as we’d walked into the hotel one of the staff had greeted us with good English, so we decided to go back, find him, and get him to ring the mechanic. I asked for his found number and found out that he was, by coincidence, the specific mechanic our Hoi An advisor had sent us to, a guy called Hiep. Maybe he’s the only one in town.

Upon arriving back at the hotel, we couldn’t find the English-speaker we were looking for, but we did find one random man in the lobby who was just as good. He patiently wrote out our long list of mechanical problems in Vietnamese, then said: “I have question for you – why you buy these bikes? Minsks are bad!”

Turns out he was an Easy Rider, a motorcycle tour guide. We’ve seen a few other Westerners around this town, all of whom are on these motorcycle tours, since there’s no reason anyone else would come through Kham Duc. Basically, you sit behind them on their bike and they ride you across the highlands for a few days. An Australian guy we were talking to said they charge $75 a day, which boggles my mind. Five days of that costs more than my bike did. Granted, they pay for petrol and accomodation and their bike probably doesn’t break down every three hundred metres, but fuck sitting behind another guy and letting him ride you around. The Aussie also said you share a twin room with your guide, which I think would be… weird.

We went back to the mechanic’s with our slip of paper, and he read it all and nodded profusely. While we’d been gone he’d taken apart my gearbox, revealing how loose the chain was and how worn down my clutch pads were. I know I ride the clutch a lot, with both a car and a bike, but some of the damage can probably also be atrributed to the estimated 30 previous owners. An educated guess at how old my bike is would certainly place it’s manufacture in the Soviet Union, rather than in Belarus.

Hopefully we’re also solving my suspension problem once and for all. I don’t think he has new forks, but he does have new parts for the forks, which is a start.

As a nice conclusion to a long day, we randomly ran into Max and Jess on the road back to the hotel, and gave them big joyous hugs because we hadn’t seen them in two days. Then we went and got dinner, and I had some beers and the Vietnamese coffee I’d been craving, and then we went back to the hotel room and I finally got to take off the fucking boots I’d been wearing since 6 am.

Hoi An is about two hours’ ride from here, so ideally we’ll get the bikes fixed in the morning, take off in the early afternoon, and arrive before sunset. I’m looking forward to having a Western meal again, and lying on the beach, and being in a place I want to be rather than a place circumstances have forced me into.

On a parting note, here are some selections from our guesthouse restaurant’s menu, which is by far the most hilarious example of poor translation we’ve ever seen:

Eels Um Banana
Grilled Squid Are Contingent
Grilled Eel Technology
Shaking Beef At
Tribal Scene
Chicken Potential Medicine
Fried Chili Beef Discharge
Fish Stream Storage Technology
Stores Should Be
Ostrich Oscillate
Hamlet Ran Crocodile
Um Crocodile Ribs Cement
Shrimp Roasted Me
Grilled Shrimp Skewer Land

I think my favourites are “Tribal Scene” and “Ostrich Oscillate,” because they combine nonsensical phrases you’d expect from an Internet sign-in captcha with the lack of any clues whatsoever as to what you’re ordering. I’m pretty sure there aren’t any ostrich farms in rural Vietnam.

16 June, 2010
Pleiku, Vietnam

She comes flying around the corner towards me. Or maybe I’m flying towards her. Or maybe both. We’re both in the centre of the road, if you can call a dusty red mountain track gouged by rainwater run-off a road. I swerve. She swerves. We’ve made it worse – we’re heading towards each other – fuck, it’s really going to happen – a brief glimpse of her eyes above one of those germ masks screaming at me – KRUMP – we hit each other with a glancing blow and we both go down.

I’m lying on the ground. I turn my head and see that she’s a few metres down the track, also on her side. I reach out and flick the kill switch, so my engine turns off. I turn and look at her again, yelling “Sorry! Sorry! Sin loi!” (A flashback to Japan, when I nearly hit a guy while snowboarding, and yelled out “gomenasai!’ as I carried on down the run.) She’s yelling something in Vietnamese. I try to move but I can’t. My leg is pinned under the bike. She’s pulled herself to her feet and is picking up the flowers and fruit she was carrying in one hand while she drove. I pull and tug and eventually manage to yank my leg out. I limp over to her and check that she’s okay. “You ok?” I ask, patting her on the shoulder. “Sin loi. Okay?” I pull her scooter up, knock the kickstand down and check her bike to see if I’ve damaged anything. To my jittery mind it looks as though I’d knocked a lot of things off, but then I realise scooters are smaller and have a more minimal design. It seems fine.

I go back to my bike, pull it up, put the kickstand down and take off my helmet, visor and scarf. The wing mirror has shattered, leaving shards of broken glass where the bike fell, but I go back to her without checking for any other damage. “You sure you okay?” I ask. “Not hurt?” She seems okay – she’s stopped yelling and is actually smiling a little. Maybe I’m dashingly handsome and took her breath away when I removed my helmet.

One of the side panels on her scooter fell off when we hit. I check to see if it just popped out and I can maybe fit it back in, but one of the plastic screws has snapped. “Sorry,” I say. “No good. Cheap fix.” I fix it to the little bracket that Honda Cubs have where the fuel tank should be. “Ok?” She says something in Vietnamese. “Sorry. I don’t understand.” After a moment she gets on her bike and rolls off down the hill with the engine off, holding her fruit and flowers in one hand again. “Bye, I guess,” I say.

I turn back to my bike to properly inspect it for damage. Apart from the wing mirror, the first thing I notice is that the gearstick has bent inwards. Then I realise that the clutch has snapped clean off and is dangling by its own cable. Then it dawns on me that the handlebars have been bent backwards.

“Fuck.”

It was the second of three consecutive days of riding, which would ideally get us from Nha Trang to the ancient capital of Hoi An, which – along with Danang and Hue – marks the rough halfway point of our journey. Max and Jess have a stricter time limit than we do, and there isn’t much to see between Nha Trang and Hoi An, so we all agreed to a marathon ride rather than what we’d previously been doing, which was ride for one day then laze around for three or four.

The first day didn’t go so great. The plan was to make it to the unpronounceable town of Qui Nhon, but we were divided as to how early or late we should leave. Due to the erratic power supply and our broken air-conditioner, Chris and I hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep since Dalat, and were keen to leave later rather than earlier. Max and Jess travel on one bike and thus more slowly than we do, so we suggested they ride ahead earlier and we’d catch up – since we also needed to get a few quick fixes at a mechanic’s in the morning. They ended up oversleeping, or changing their minds the next morning. Chris also overslept because I didn’t wake him up (because I assumed he wouldn’t want me to), and so we ended up rolling out of town at noon, all of us mildly annoyed with each other.

We were travelling on Highway 1A, Vietnam’s main road, a foul and disgusting artery of trucks and buses. Nothing ruins a ride like having trucks honking and bellowing at you all the time, and swerving into your lane, forcing you into the side of the road. I wouldn’t have been enjoying it much anyway, since my body was still sore from visiting Vinpearl Waterpark the previous day. Chris said as we walked in, “It would be hilarious if one of broke our arm in the first five minutes.” In the first five minutes, while running, I managed to slip on the wet pavement and badly smash my elbow and hip. I can no longer lean on counters or other flat surfaces. You’d be surprised how often you do that.

Other than that it was a pretty cool day. There were some awesome waterslides, and theme park rides that were hilarious to go on with Max, who screamed his head off, and a huge arcade filled with old machines from the 80’s and 90’s. I love arcades. I was born in ’88, so they’re well before my time, but they still make me nostalgic.

Anyway. Back to Highway 1A. It continued to be fairly shit, particularly as we drove past the scene of an accident. A bus was stopped at the edge of the road, and I could see a mangled Honda Cub through the crowds of people. A few cops were directing traffic, and as we passed we could see bamboo sheet laid over something that was almost certainly a corpse. Not a pleasant thing to witness, and it didn’t do much to lift my opinion of that highway.

Then, as the day wore on, my gears fucked up and started to do what they did back in Mui Ne – I was trapped in second gear, with fifty k’s to go till Qui Nhon. After some coaxing I got it all the way up into fourth, and then fanged it down the highway, desparate to cover as much ground as possible before it broke again.

I was in a bad mood now and the buses were making it worse. At one point, on a flat stretch of highway with no bends or turns, I came across two of them heading towards me in the wrong lane. They were directly in front of and behind each other, so they weren’t overtaking. Just roaring merrily along down the wrong side of the road for the sheer joy of it. And of course they still had the gall to flash their headlights and honk their horns at me for being so rude as to drive in the correct lane. I fucking hate buses.

Chris had rode far ahead of us earlier in the afternoon, but as I passed a sign reading “WELCOME TO QUI NHON CITY” (which must have been a good 15 kilometres before the actual urban fringe, way to go guys) he suddenly appeared behind me. “Pull over!’ he motioned.

“No!” I yelled. “My bike is fucked! Stuck in fourth!”

So we kept riding, with Max and Jess far behind us. I don’t like leaving them too far behind, but I wanted to get my bike into town before it fucked up. As we were overtaking a bus (between it and the shoulder of the road, as you often have to do) I just barely missed a huge rock lying there, leaning my weight to the left and twisting around it at the last second. Chris wasn’t as lucky; I heard him drive right over it, and when I looked back he was rapidly decelerating. I went back towards him and parked my bike on the other side of the road. He’d possibly buckled a tyre. We decided to wait around for Max and Jess before dragging our cripppled, wounded bikes into Qui Nhon.

 

When they caught up and we took off again, my gears worked once more. I found that somehow more annoying. Either break or don’t. Let me know whether I need to fix you or not. Don’t act all shy and coy when we have a 200 kilometre mountain drive ahead of us the next day.

We managed to find a hotel, although Qui Nhon is a Vietnamese tourist town where there’s nary a word of English to be heard. Chris took my bike for a ride and said my gears were okay, but my clutch needed tightening. “It’s almost as though you don’t have one,” he said. “Also, your bike is a piece of shit.”

This has indeed become apparent. Of the three Minsks, mine is easily the oldest and most dilapidated. In addition to bad suspension, bad brakes and bad gearbox, the steering column is also loose, making the bike wobble when I brake. The whole thing generally shakes and rattles and feels like it could just fall apart at any time. There’s not much I can do about it, either, since Vietnamese mechanics have proven themselves to be ignorant troglodytes who invariably worsen the problems we employ them to solve. Or create entirely new problems. Hence my new rule of not going to a mechanic for anything non-essential. Unfortunately, Chris tells me that a wobbly front column is extremely dangerous, and I figured I might as well get my gears fixed too. We managed to communicate to our hotel secretary that we needed a mechanic, she made a phone call, and within ten minutes a young guy rode up on a custom Honda and took my bike for a test ride. He ended up taking it back to his workshop while we went off to get dinner. I’m still not sure whether he was a real mechanic, or just a friend of hers who knew a bit about bikes.

But he eased the problem with my steering column, and seemed to have tightened the clutch, so the next day – after waking up constantly throughout the night whenever the power turned off or back on – we hit the road again.

That day started out much nicer. We were off the 1A, instead taking an inland route to the city of Pleiku. It would have been much quicker to go up the 1A to Hoi An, but Chris and I preferred to ride through mountains rather than along that appalling vehicular free-for-all, and Max and Jess wanted to stick with us. Ideally we wanted to hit Pleiku or Kon Tum, then get up at 5 am the next day and ride all the way to Hoi An.

Chris realised he had water in his transmission fluid quite early in the ride, so we let Max and Jess cover some ground while we pulled into a family’s shop/front yard/house and asked them if they could do an oil change. You can always tell how far off the beaten track you are by how excited and interested the Vietnamese are in you. Places like Mui Ne or Vung Tau and they don’t give you a second glance; here, the entire family was crowded around to look at us. And it was a big family.

 

One of the men took me into his shop to point at his FIFA World Cup poster and thus determine which country I was from (how is Australia doing, by the way?) Anothered offered me what I think was vodka, which I politely declined. Some kids pumped up my back tyre with an air compressor while we waited for Chris’ oil to drain out. After some time, with the oil replaced and Chris unsuccessfully trying to buy the mechanic’s ratchet so he could do it himself next time, we set out once more. They were such friendly people. Not to gush about local charm, or whatever. More often than not, they’ll give you a dirty look or a blank stare. But these guys were nice.

 

I went over a bumpy set of potholes at the base of the mountains and my headlamp fell clean off, held on only by the electrical wires. I had to tie it back in place with an occy strap. That’s Classic Minsk Moment #3. #1 was driving 20 k’s in second gear into Mui Ne; #2 was in Dalat, when Chris went to kick his stand up and it just fell off, dropping onto the pavement with a patink and a loose screw rolling away. I hope to accumulate at least five of these moments before the trip is over.

As we went higher into the mountains, reuniting with Max and Jess, we eventually came to a sign that directed us to either Pleiku or Kon Tum. We’d actually wanted to get to Kon Tum, but we thought we had to go through Pleiku first. This was apparently a new road that cut out the middleman and shaved 40 k’s off our journey, so we decided to take it.

It was a new road, all right. After a few kilometres the asphalt ran out, to be replaced with hard-packed sand populated by steamrollers and construction crews. Not far beyond that it was a very basic, unpaved road, made of red dust and clay, often scarred by water run-off trenches.

 

Although my suspension is bad, I didn’t hate that road nearly as much as I thought I would. With a really bad road it’s just constant jarring, but with water run-off you can sort of guide your bike around it all, plotting a course, trying to find the smoothest route. It’s fun.

I ended up quite ahead of the others, and stopped to wait for them. When I did Chris had words for me. “Dude. You’re going too fast. Slow down.”

“I’m alright.”

“You’re going faster than me. It’s like when you used to push the quad to shit because you didn’t know any better. I feel like you’re doing the same, because this bike is shit. Don’t. Please slow down.”

He was right, and when we took off again I didn’t just brush it off. I did drive more carefully. You have to, when there are cows on the road!

 

After that photo op they ended up in front of me for a while. I wanted to catch up, so I pushed it a little harder than I should have. I could see two-stroke smoke disappearing round the corner, so I knew I wasn’t too far off. That was when the crash happened.

I’m not sure who was at fault. We were both in the middle of the road and both probably going too fast. I suspect what might have happened was that, as an Australian, I instinctively swerved to the left (they drive on the right in Vietnam, so that was a bad move). I may even have realised that was a mistake and tried to swerve back to the right, when I should have either followed through or not done it in the first place.

That’s just speculation, though. It’s a cliche, but it really did happen so fast. From the moment I saw her come around the corner to the moment I flicked the kill-switch while pinned under the bike was certainly less than four seconds. Possibly three. Adrenaline, a swerve, her face screaming at me as it swooped past, a hand out to break my fall, lying on the ground. That’s it.

After she left, and I’d assessed the damage on my bike, I decided to at least see if it would start. I clicked it into neutral – that was good, the gear lever was bent but at least it still worked – and pulled it over the edge of the road. It started on the first try, which was a good sign. But I couldn’t exactly drive it in neutral. I fiddled with the clutch cable a bit, wondering if I could maybe yank it as I drove, before dismissing that as a daft idea.

I remembered something my Dad had said, less than a week before I’d left, when it had become almost impossible for me to change gears in my car without the transmission making a noise like a robot vomiting. “You can just about get away without a clutch,” he’d said, revving the engine high and then dropping the throttle right before changing gears.

As it turned out my car just needed new transmission fluid. (Because it’s a totally fantastic, reliable little car, Geoff and Wendy. Jesse should definitely buy it.) But Dad was right. If you really need to – like, say, if you no longer have one – you can just about get away with a clutch.

I pulled my helmet back on, started the engine, and dropped it into first gear. The bike reacted as though it was a cheerful drunk that had suddenly been punched in the face, honestly shocked and with hurt feelings, but I gave it some revs and it staggered off up the road, eventually declaring that it was ready to progress to second. I let the throttle die off, and while the revs were still high I clicked up a gear again. That one went more smoothly, but I didn’t want to risk another, so I drove the rest of the way in second gear. It’s not like I’m not used to that.

After passing what looked like some authentic hill tribe huts, which probably would have been very interesting to stop and take photos of if I wasn’t still in a state of delayed shock, I reached the point where the others were waiting. “What the hell has happened to your front end?” Chris said.

“I had a pretty nasty crash,” I said.

“You came off?”

“No, I hit someone…’

“You hit someone?!”

“…or she hit me. I’m not sure…”

“Are you okay?”

“…I’m not sure. I mean, yes. I’m not sure who hit who.”

“Who cares whose fault it was? As long as you’re alright.”

“Yeah. She’s ok too. My bike is fucked though.”

We looked over my newfound problems. We’d had the good fortune to stop on a stretch of country road that seemed to have a few miscellaneous workshops lining the sides of it. “We just need to weld it,” Chris. “It’s the bracket, that’s all. If we can find a welder…”

We split up and checked some different shops, as I wheeled my bike down the road. We actually found a workshop where some men were welding – right there in front of us – and tried to communicate what we wanted, but they sent us down to the next shop instead. The men there were obnoxiously drunk and of absolutely no help, so after wasting some time on them we went back to the first place. In fact, a good number of the Vietnamese men gathering around to inspect us were either drunk or idiots, something which I normally would have found amusing, but which in the aftermath of a crash was simply tiresome.

After some time we managed to communicate what we wanted, and one young Vietnamese guy who had his head screwed on properly helped us disassemble the stuff on my left handlebar, and then rode off on his scooter to get a new part. We decided that Max and Jess should ride on to Kon Tum, and we’d catch up once the work was done. After they left, we asked the guy who seemed to speak some English how long it would be till the part came back.

“Tomorrow.”

“What? No… tomorrow? The part? When part come back?” Chris tapped at his watch. “We need today. What time?”

“Tomorrow!” the man shouted gleefully.

“It can’t be fucking tomorrow,” I called out from my bike. “It’s not Mongolia.”

“Do you…” the man asked, “do you speak VIETNAMESE?”

“No.”

“I do! I speak… Vietnam AND England!”

He was drunk too. It seems to me that a good percentage of Vietnamese men laze around in the middle of the day doing nothing. Look, I’m as left-wing as they come, and I’ve read Guns, Germs & Steel. But still. You come to these places, and you have to wonder.

It wasn’t tomorrow. The younger guy returned with a new clutch bracket a few minutes later, and we stood out on the edge of the road fitting it. The drunk one kept stumbling up to us and asking annoying questions. “Do you speak… English?”

“Yes,” Chris said, with barely suppressed irritation. “I’m speaking it right now.”

This entire time, a storm was gathering on the horizon. To call it that is a weak and watery term. It was a gargantuan, swelling, monstrous force that was blocking out the distant mountains and stabbing lighting down at the earth. It was frightening. “We need to get moving,” I said.

“Maybe we should wait here,” Chris said, nodding at a shed. “Move the bikes under.”

We discussed it a while longer, before deciding to push on. They finished fitting the new clutch bracket, and I paid the mechanic 10,000 dong – about 66 cents. It was all he asked for, and when I tried to give him more he wouldn’t take it. We put our helmets on and took off down the road towards Kon Tum.

Twenty minutes later it was lashing down with rain, nearly impossible to drive in at the best of times, but worse on a slippery unpaved road rapidly turning to mud. We pulled off to the side, and then into someone’s front yard, underneath their carport. Chris helped the kids that lived there pull their washing down from the line, while I tried to get my bike into neutral and wheel it under cover properly. We were going to stay in the carport but ended up retreating to their front porch; the winds was so strong, rain was powering through it sideways. “This is fucking intense,” Chris said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” We were both utterly soaked; the homeowner asked us to come inside, but we declined because our boots were caked in mud.

We waited maybe an hour for the storm to blow over. When it was only raining lightly, we thanked the residents and then drove back out onto the main road. This was my first experience with bad conditions and I actually managed to get my bike bogged halfway up the embankment, and we had to pull it out. Up on the road it wasn’t much better. There was a thick slick of mud, which made driving quite dangerous. The wheels were caked with it in seconds, along with out boots, and we couldn’t go much faster than 5 k’s an hour. Even then we were wobbling uncontrollably “Don’t go too fast,” Chris called out. “Stay in first gear. Keep you foot down. Don’t use your front brake!”

Despite all his advice, I did fuck up at one point, because for some (obviously crash-related) reason my bike was revving high in first even with my hand off the throttle, and it distracted me and made me spin out. I came off the bike again, down in the mud, and although it was a much more gentle tumble than the last crash I somehow managed to gash my left leg on the bike. Chris helped me pull it back up and we headed off again.

We’d decided to turn back to the main road to Pleiku and stay there that night. The road to Kon Tum would take forever in those conditions, and we needed to put an end to the day. Unfortunately that put us about fifty kilometres away from where we wanted to be. After following a lot of backroads – including on that was near-vertical and more closely resembled a stony creekbed – we finally, beautifully, wonderfully made it into Pleiku.

After some fumbling with the Lonely Planet, we found a hotel. It’s nice and cheap. We checked our email to find that Max and Jess are safe and sound, albeit it in Kon Tum, so we’re separated for now. Our things are laying out to dry. We went and ate dinner at a Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall. I cracked out my first aid kit and patched up the cuts on my legs.

We made it. Today tested us and we fucking beat it. We had some bad luck and made some bad decisions (like swerving left, or getting drunken buffoons to fix my clutch, or carrying on when a storm of Biblical proportions was above our heads), but we got through it. And it took me forever to type this up and it’s one in the morning but I did that too. BECAUSE I CAN DO ANYTHING. I CAN SHIT THUNDER AND BREATHE LIGHTNING.

Actually, having that crash made me a whole lot less confident on the bike, which is probably good. I was overconfident. I needed something to make me realise how easy it is to crash. And it wasn’t a bad crash, on the whole. I scraped a knee and bruised my hands but it could have been far, far worse. And at least the bike still runs, for the most part. I think I definitely got off lightly.

Nha Trang, Vietnam
13 June, 2010

After getting up at 5.15 in Dalat, we were pretty keen for a sleep-in on our first day in Nha Trang. Our hotel’s architect had different ideas, designing our room with wall-to-wall French windows that faced east. I woke up at 6 am, groggy and exhuasted, with the rising sun easily blazing through the thin curtains and raising the temperature in our room by ten degrees. I shut the door Chris had left open overnight, which did virtually nothing to reduce the traffic noise, and then lay back down. Sleep was obviously impossible but I simply did not have the energy to get up and do anything.

At about eight o’clock I was driven by hunger to go find breakfast, eating at some cheap backpacker cafe that was the only place that was open. I tried a few other restaurants, who seemed olivious to the fact that people in Vietnam are up and about at dawn and might like some food. One waitress who was sweeping up actually jumped and shrieked when I walked in and said “Sin loi?” while her back was turned. They often seemed genuinely perplexed that I would come in and order food at eight am, even though they have a breakfast menu. Customer service is a bizarre enigma here.

Oh, and Nha Trang is another city that suffers from rolling blackouts. Get it together, Vietnam. Apparently it’s something to do with hydroelectric plants not having enough water at the end of the dry season, so they have to ration it. Jimmy was telling us that this is also done in Los Angeles, which boggles my mind. It’s frustrating enough in Vietnam; if it happened to me in a first-world country, I’d be rattling the gates of the fucking mayor’s house at the head of a furious mob.

I came back from breakfast to find Max in an angry mood because the hotel proprietor had dropped his bike while shifting it in the night, snapping the right foot peg clean off and breaking the brake lever. Chris had slept as poorly as I had. Overall, definitely the worst place I’ve yet stayed (although for $5 US, you get what you pay for).

We packed our shit, got our passports back and prepared to move to a better hotel just down the road, while Max argued with the proprietor about paying for the room. Eventually he got her to agree that it had been the hotel’s fault, and to cover the costs, he wouldn’t be paying for the room. The proprietor at our new hotel took him to a mechanic where he had the peg and brake lever welded back on for $3, so overall he actually made a profit of two dollars! For about two hours of effort.

The place we’re at now is nicer – it’s a windowless room, which means we’re insulated from the early morning traffic orchestra, and it has aircon, not to mention a much better bathroom. This is actually an amazingly innovative bathroom. They’ve come up with the simple yet effective concept of surrounding the shower with a plastic curtain, so that when you use it you don’t also soak the toilet, towel rack, basin and rest of the bathroom. This is, in my opinion, sheer genius, and I’m sure it will sweep through the rest of the world OH WAIT WE FIGURED THAT OUT A HUNDRED FUCKING YEARS AGO.

Anyway, for the last few days we’ve been lazing around in Nha Trang, which is very much a touristy Western beach town. We went to the mud baths and mineral spas; I was wary of the idea of paying money to sit in mud, but it actually did wonders for my skin. After six weeks living like a hobo in the tropical heat, I was starting to get a bit haggard.

 

We paid 100,000 dong ($6.66 AUD) to go on a snorkelling tour. We didn’t have particularly high hopes for this, since we hate being herded around onto tourist cattle boats and Thailand proved conclusively that the snorkelling in South-East Asia is rubbish. As we shuffled onto a minivan and then onto the boat, I was having very strong Thailand flashbacks. It was a bit sloppy, though. Thailand may be a monstrous tourist-processing machine, but at least it’s a well-oiled machine. Vietnam’s still learning the ropes.

Before we went snorkelling they took us to a thoroughly depressing aquarium. Huge amounts of marine life were crammed into tanks far too small for them, and the water was murky and disgusting. “There’s thirty turtles in that tank,” Chris said. “Take twenty-eight out.” One of the turtles was actually dead, decaying to a white colour and lying in the corner. The fact that they hadn’t bothered to fish it out says something about about how much they care.

 

The vast majority of tourists were Vietnamese, with a spattering of Chinese, Koreans and Japanese. I’m not the first person to make this observation, but Asian tourists don’t seem to care what they’re doing or seeing as long as they can take photos of each other. The ideal Japanese package tour would involve a trip to a professional photography studio. What bothered me was that most of them were taking photos of the kitschy fake mushrooms and stalactites and King Neptune’s throne, rather than the marine life. If you’re going to mistreat animals, at least utilise them.

 

Look at the desparation in this leopard shark’s eyes.

After the aquarium we were treated to some relatively nice coral snorkelling off the coast of an island, where Chris scratched his stomach on some coral and then slipped on rocks and smashed his head. I’ll keep you posted on whether he develops brain damage or not. Returning to the boat, we anchored off another island, where we ate lunch and then spent a few hours jumping off the boat and swimming around. This was actually the best part of the day – it was a two-storey boat, so it was about the same height as the jumping cliff back at Collie, and jumping into the water from a moderate height is always a simple, endless pleasure. At one point the crew cracked out an electric guitar and drums, and were playing music while we dove. Then they launched the floating bar, and our tour guide enthusiastically doled out free Dalat mulberry wine. “Fuckin’ minging!” he yelled out. “Free cheap shit vinegar piss wine!”

 

After that it was off to spend an hour lazing around on another beach, where I swam out to a floating platform with speedboats tied to it and inquired how much for us to have some fun on their banana boat (too much, as it turned out). After an hour there we headed back to the mainland, cutting across waves that regularly sprayed the bow of the boat. To avoid this, I clambered up onto the roof, and was quite happy there for about 5 minutes before the crew freaked out and stopped the boat and told me to get down. For a country that doesn’t seem to care about safety most of the time, I thought it odd that they’d get riled up about that.

 

Overall it was a pretty good day. Very touristy, but this is a tourist town. It also gave us something to do for the entire day while the power was off. The air-con in our room turned out to be completely useless, just putting out regular-temperature air, which wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t in a windowless box with no fan. So that marked three nights of not enough sleep.

We went out drinking that night, first playing pool at the Guava Bar, where we also chatted with a very friendly Ghanaian soccer player. Then we headed for the Red Apple Club, which I loathed since it was a club. It reminded me of the Queens Tavern back in Perth: it’s obviously not a club, since it doesn’t have a dance floor, yet it still plays shit music so loud that you can barely hear anyone talk. What the fuck is the point in that? You’re either a pub or a club. Make up your mind.

I realised I was very drunk at this point, because I hadn’t entirely sobered up from the afternoon’s free wine, and I’d had a few beers with dinner, and Abbey had given us each a Jaeger shot that messed up my calculation of how drunk I was getting. So I just kept buying big bottles of water from the street stalls. I think I downed about four litres before eventually going back to the hotel at one. We’d planned to watch England play Australia at that time, but we were all too tired, and in any case it turned out we weren’t playing each other at all; England was up against the USA and I think we’re playing Germany soon.

Soccer is a pretty boring sport, and I’m not the most patriotic person around, but for some reason I really sat up and paid attention during the last World Cup. I can’t stand watching a game of some local team versus another local team, but when it’s my nation-state versus another nation-state, somehow that makes me care a lot more and I can happily sit through the whole tedious ninety minutes.

I’m writing this at 11.00 at night and the power has just gone off, six hours ahead of schedule. It better fucking come back on. If we are stuck in this windowless concrete room with neither fan nor air conditioning, the gift of sleep will not come. We may very well die of sweat dehydration before sunrise. What is the point in having electricity at all if it turns off every second day? Sometimes more? Fucking hell.

10 June, 2010
Nha Trang, Vietnam

We were woken up at 5.15 in the morning by Max banging on our window. He was on the balcony outside that runs along the exterior of the hotel, and was the only way to access the room he and Jess were in.

“Guys, can you open the window?”

I did so, bleary and confused, and he climbed into the room. “They’ve locked that door to the balcony,” he explained. “Good for fires!”

After Max exited via our door, we set about rousing ourselves and doing the last of our packing. Our departure time was 6.00 am, which in my opinion shows considerable commitment. We wanted to be well out of the mountains before the afternoon rains arrived around one or two o’clock.

As I’ve mentioned before, my travelling set-up involves two improvised saddlebags (satchels strapped to the racks on the side of my bike) with my big backpack in its red raincover lying cross-length on the seat behind me. Everybody else has a similar set-up, although Max and Jess manage to fit both their rucksacks and themselves onto their bike. It takes about twenty minutes to strap the bags on, winding occy straps and cables all through the framework, ensuring the bags are secure so you don’t suddenly lose all your luggage down a mountain ravine. All six of my occy straps are beginning to split; I bought another one, a flat green one like all the others are using, and I’ll probably have to buy more.

While I’m boring you with more technical details, let’s take a snapshot of how we pack and dress (or at least how I pack and dress) for these rides. From top to bottom:
– Yohe helmet I bought for $38 US in Phonm Penh, which has full face protection and is probably among the hundred best motorcycle helmets currently in Vietnam, since they all use useless bicycle helmets or GI helmets that will result in them losing their jawbone in an accident;
– Sunglasses. I also bought a visor in Phnom Penh, but since it’s not tinted it’s not really useful for riding under the baleful glaring eye of the tropical sun;
– an Egyptian scarf I borrowed from Max, partly for dust, partly to protect my neck and nose from sunburn;
– Long-sleeved button-down shirt, because a t-shirt doesn’t cover my arms as much – although I still roll the sleeves up to my elbow out of some primal fashion urge;
– My Orient watch, which I should stop wearing, because it’s giving me a watch tan;
– Leatherman, on my belt, so that if my bike breaks or something I can pretend to try to fix it;
– Jeans, the left leg of which is now thoroughly stained with the grease and oil my bike spits out as the engine runs;
– Knock-off US Army boots, the soles of which crinkled up and became very uncomfortable as soon as they got wet, but which protect my feet more than Converse sneakers would.

All my luggage goes in the pack and saddlebags and is effectively inaccessible during the ride, unless I feel like unstrapping and re-strapping everything. My bottle of two-stroke oil gets strapped on separately at the back, wrapped in two separate plastic bags to stop it from leaking all over my bag (I fucking hate oil). Anything I really need – water bottle, snacks, map, guidebook, Minsk repair manual, camera, wallet – goes in my pockets or my day-pack. And that’s how things are when we set off on a voyage!

It sounds like we’re becoming old hands at this, but we’ve actually only had four days of riding since leaving Saigon on the 30th of May, and eight days of lazing around on beaches or in hotel rooms. (Or sitting at a mechanic’s, wishing we had a .45 to spray our brains out across the wall.) And somehow every time I strap my bags on it’s less elegant and efficient than the time before.

After a quick breakfast we headed off into Dalat about 6.30 am, well after sunrise, with merchants and hawkers already riding their stupid bikes up the street with their stupid loudspeakers blaring in Vietnamese. We made a quick stop at a petrol station which turned into a long stop when Max overestimated the space left in his petrol tank and ended up with a very wrong and complex oil ratio mix – some in the tank, some still in the container, some mixed with petrol in the funnel, etc. We ended up having to siphon some out and re-calculate the ratios. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful,” Chris said, “to just show up at a petrol station, fill the tank up, and drive off?”

Pictured in the background here you can see the opposite of a motorcycle, a “bus.” This is a smaller type, called a “minibus,” which is equally as loathsome as its larger counterparts, which fill the streets of Dalat like so many plague-ridden rats, catering to the Asian tourist’s desire to travel in herds. Buses really are detestable on every level. Even when you’re outside them, sitting on a motorcycle, they will still block your passage until you can safely overtake, or thunder towards you on the wrong side of the road, bellowing their horns at you for having the audacity to be on the road at all. Fuck buses.

After we got Max’s fuel kerfuffle sorted out, we rolled out of Dalat at about 7.30. It was still nice and cool in the morning; almost chilly, riding a bike. The road took us along high ridges studded with pine trees, overlooking vegetable farms covered in mist and fog, with glimpses of flat green grasslands between the forests on the higher slopes. It looked more like New Zealand or Switzerland than Vietnam, although I’ve never been to either of those countries, so like most of my judgements that’s ill-informed. Regardless, the Central Highlands are a beautiful place, one of the best in South-East Asia.

Shame I had to poo so bad. (How’s that for a vulgar transition?) I was actually getting stomach cramps. After a while I couldn’t take it anymore, and when we pulled over at a particularly scenic vista to take photographs, I took my emergency stash of toilet paper from my backpack and headed up the mountain through the pines for a good old-fashioned bush bog. There was no undergrowth, though, and I wanted some privacy, so I ended up trekking quite high to a few small bushes. You’d be amazed how difficult it is for your thigh muscles to maintain a squatting position after you’ve just climbed a hundred metres up a mountain. I think “excruciating” would be the right word.

I came back down the mountain feeling much better, and we took off again. I don’t relish shitting in the wilderness like a common ape, but I’m glad I did, because it meant I was able to enjoy what came next: one of the most spectacular roads I’ve seen in my entire life.

The mountains were impressive. But when the mountains ended, and we could see the plains and valleys stretched out before us… that was indescribable.

Photos don’t do it justice either. Suffice to say that, as I was riding along, I was saying aloud inside my helmet: “Oh my God. Oh my God.”

 

There were waterfalls all over the place, cascading down the slanted granite cliffs, some big and some tiny, some hundreds of metres in height. Pools gathered in the rocks by the side of the road, fringed with Buddhist shrines and busloads of Korean and Chinese tourists posing for photos.

It was fantastic. Easily the best ride we’ve had so far (and each one has improved upon the last). It washed away the last three days of mechanical hassles like antispetic washing away bacteria. This is why I’m here. This is why I’m so glad to be where I am in my life right now, doing what I want, exploring the world. I am so, so grateful for the privileges I’ve been granted.

As we were descending into the lowlands, the heat rolled over us again, and wearing a jumper in Dalat soon felt like a bizarre and fading dream. We also reached the construction point on the road, which gave us half an hour of gravel and dust and detours, followed by a long strip of potholed roads all the way to Nha Trang.

My suspension seemed to have been fixed by the mechanic in Nha Trang, but after about ten minutes on those roads it gave out again. You don’t buy repairs in Vietnam – you rent them. Usually for a very short amount of time. I’m not going to a mechanic again unless it’s absolutely vital.

I’m completely sold on motorcycles as a form of travel. They’re wonderful. But doubt I will ever again ride a third-world bike in a third-world country. Riding a Belarussian motorcycle built in the 1980s that is literally held together with a hundred jury-rigged parts sounds very amusing, but when you’re spending all your spare time in mechanics’ workshops or riding it twenty kilometres stuck in second gear, it is most assuredly unamusing.

Nha Trang is pretty gross. I liked Mui Ne, but this place is bigger and louder and has a lot more people. We’re also staying in one of the worst rooms so far. The toilet is the size of a thimble and the showerhead puts out a weak trickle of water that could easily be beaten by rainwater run-off from a corrugated tin roof. I suppose that’s what you get for US $5 a night.

The ocean here is colder, though. We’re definitely inching our way further north…

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