1 June, 2010
Mui Ne, Vietnam

Vung Tau would probably be an acceptable little beach resort, if not for the fact that it’s situated on the edge of what appears to be one of Vietnam’s largest shipping lanes. Chris and I long ago grew disillusioned with South-East Asian beaches, but this was gross even by our new low standards. You’re floating around in water the colour and consistency of the Swan River, with sludge tankers hooting on the horizon and fishing trawlers chugging past only a hundred metres from the beach.

Vung Tau also suffers from rolling blackouts. Hotel management neglected to tell us this before we booked in, so we woke up at six o’clock in the morning lying in pools of sweat because the air-conditioner and fan were off. Opening the windows to let in the breeze exposed us not only to the fiery tropical sun but also to the maelstrom of noise outside, our hotel being located on the main road that runs alongside the harbour. So we were treated to a wonderful rainbow of annoying sounds, ranging from motorbikes honking to ferries belching their foghorns to some random asshole out on the seawall just banging at a sheet of metal with a hammer.

Imagine our joy when we discovered the power wasn’t scheduled to return – for the entire town – until about six or seven in the evening. Imagine how our joy escalated to glorious new heights when we discovered that the water pumps in Vung Tau rely on electricity, so our room had no running water either.

I’m more than willing to rough it in places like western China or Mongolia. But when I pay 175,000 dong ($11 AUD) per night for a hotel room, in a resort town a few hours south of Saigon, I expect – at the very least – to have lights, a fan, a shower, and a toilet that flushes.

Aside from that the room was actually amazing: a big, spacious room on the very top floor with windows on three sides and a balcony overlooking the main bay. Ironically, when the power went out, it was the coolest place in town, because we were high enough to open all the windows and let the breeze flow through. But I’d still rather be staying in a crummy ground-floor room with water and power.

We spent most of the day lazing around in deck-chairs on the beach or floating around in that gross ocean, getting thoroughly sunburnt. In the late hours of the afternoon, when the power still wasn’t back on and we badly wanted to have showers to wash all the sand off, we killed a few hours playing pool in an Aussie pub with messages from Vietam vets written all over the walls. Then we got dinner in another Aussie pub called Ned Kelly’s. (The largest Australian military base in the war was not far from Vung Tau, so I assume this was their R & R town.) We’d eaten there the previous night and it seemed quite nice, except the waitresses all dressed like hookers. On this night, however, other patrons started to show up – male patrons, aged between 35 and 60 – we realised what kind of a bar it was.

It must really suck to be a both a waitress and a prostitute. The two worst jobs a woman can have.

As you can see, Vung Tau wasn’t appealing in the slightest, so we all decided to leave the next day for Mui Ne, another beach town further up the coast that’s supposed to be nicer. We had some dispute with Max and Jess about what a good leaving time was. We’d wanted to leave Saigon at 11, but the bargained us down to 10, and then didn’t show up until 10.45. Today we wanted to leave at 9, but they bargained us down to 8.

I ended up setting an alarm for 7, so I could get breakfast and try to fix my saddlebags so I can actually access them while they’re on the bike. Yesterday I had them set up so they were tied to the racks with occy straps running vertically; today I ran the occy straps around horizontally, but realised that was almost as useless. They hug the bags tight, so you have to really tug whatever you want to get out, and then it’s nearly impossible to get back in. I wish we had some steel ammo boxes.

Before we set all the bags up, we went to get fuel across the road, where Jimmy translated some Vietnamese for us coming from the stationowner. Apparently he was telling us that we should put oil in our engines at a 1/25 ratio. Which is way off; it’s 1/20. I’ve noticed that while Vietnamese people are often eager to help, they rarely know what they’re doing.

We also stopped for KFC, after getting our bags strapped to the bikes and parking them. “Man,” Max said, glancing back at the bikes as we strode across the carpark with our helmets and our boots and our scarves, “we’re cool! Aren’t we? We’re really cool!”

“Don’t jinx it!” I said. “The first time in my life I’ve been cool and you had to go and ruin it by saying it.”

We sat around on our fat asses eating KFC until about 10.30, when I said “We’re not making very good time,” and we all realised that and scrambled to our feet to get out of there. I had my doubts it was that urgent anyway; Max and Jess seemed convinced it was a nine-hour drive, but looking at the map Chris and I didn’t see how there was any way it could be that long.

What we hadn’t taken into account was getting lost. We drove around backroads east of Vung Tau for nigh-on two hours, trying to find Highway 55 and constantly getting lost, approaching random strangers with Jimmy asking directions. The strangers would point us in the right direction and we’d follow it and get lost and have to ask directions all over again. It was a hoot.

There were a couple of nice roads in there. I had no idea gum trees were so common; there were a few places where there were no other cars or bikes around it felt like I was driving around outside Bunbury or Capel. I’m adding Australia’s south-west to the list of places I want to ride around on a motorcycle.

Eventually we found the right road, and for a few hours in the early afternoon we had a great time. We found the beach road, and there was a fantastic hilly drive up and down the coast, past bizarrely colourful sand dunes and stands of pine trees. It was beautiful. Then the problems started.

We’d seen hints of them earlier. Chris had discovered that his bike guzzles fuel at least twice as fast as the rest of ours, either because there’s a problem with it or because it’s a sport model. It was also backfiring and jerking a lot. Meanwhile I’d been having trouble shifting up gears; the stick would, well, stick, and be very obstinate about going up past second unless I stopped the bike and jiggled it with my hand for a while.

When we reached the city of Phan Thiet, only 20 k’s down the coast from our destination of Mui Ne, the developing problems burst from their cocoons and emerged as gigantic, monstrous insects. First – in streets that were as busy and hectic as any in Saigon – my gearstick completely gave up the ghost. I had a hard time getting it into second; Chris managed to coax it into third, but he had to rev it insanely high to get there, and in that traffic you couldn’t stay in third very long.

Chris said he’d stay with me as I crawled up the coast, and the others could go ahead and leave their bikes out somewhere obvious along the main strip in Mui Ne so we’d recognise them. What actually ended up happening was that I went quite fast through the traffic, trying to get the revs up enough to trick the bike into third gear, and ended up in front. Max and Jess were just behind me; Jimmy and Chris, we assumed, not so far back. I wasn’t focused on it, since I had my own problems to deal with. We actually ended up leaving the city and travelling a fair way down the coast before it became clear they weren’t coming.

We stopped and discussed it; I stayed on my bike with my hand on the clutch, keeping the revs up, not willing to risk letting the engine die after having fought so hard just to get it into second gear. Max said he and Jess would stay there and wait for them to catch up. I said I’d go ahead and try to cover as much ground as I could in second gear in the hour or so of daylight that we had left, confident that they’d catch up to me before we reached Mui Ne.

The mistake I made was that assuming Mui Ne the official town was the same as Mui Ne the tourist strip, and ignoring the resorts and hotels around me in favour of the signs that said “MUI NE: 3 KM.” Mui Ne is technically a fishing village at the far end of the cape; what people mean when they say Mui Ne is the long strip of resorts and hotels to the west of it. The strip we were in.

So I roared on down this road in second gear, wishing I was in fourth. I’d noticed my bike was dripping a lot of fluid over the last few days, and Jimmy had suggested that maybe it was transmission fluid. I hoped that was true, because it was an easily fixable problem. In fact, when I saw what looked like a garage – with a few Vietnamese men tinkering with a scooter engine – I pulled over to the side of the road and dug my Minsk repair manual out of the saddlebags to see if there was a word in its Vietnamese-English glossary for for “transmission fluid.”

There wasn’t, but I found the word for “gears” and “gearbox” and mimed pouring something. They said they didn’t have any, but then asked me to bring my bike in so they could look at it. I mimed to them that I could start and rev the bike, that first gear was fine, second gear was OK, but third gear was “no” (crossed forearms in Korea, and I presume all of Asia). The mechanic had two twelve-year old assistants, and one of them spoke a few words of English and said “okay, yes, yes.” Then before I knew it the mechanic was prying the cover of my gearbox off with a screwdriver and then yanking cogs and gears out and tossing them into an icecream container.

If we’re going to ride from Saigon to Hanoi, I’ll have to get used to random men poking around with my engine. But it didn’t sit well at all. Particularly when he dropped my bike onto another bike, or when he scraped away the remnants of the gearbox’s rubber gasket and replaced it with a piece of cardboard that he carefully traced and cut-out from an old box.

After about an hour of work, which I spent fruitlessly glancing at the road for Max and Jess, and during which the sun went down so one of his kids had to hold a lantern up, the mechanic looked at me with a sad face and said “No.” He hadn’t been able to fix it. I was pissed off and more ready than ever to toss the piece of Soviet junk off a bridge.

But then he did some more tinkering and, praise be to Saint Christopher, he did fix it… for now. I’ve mentioned before that the Vietnamese prefer quick fixes rather than proper solutions, so have my doubts about how long it will last. With some pressing, I paid him 150,000 dong (10 AUD) and rode off down the road.

At this point it was completely dark and my gameplan had chnaged considerably. I had no idea where Max and Jess were, let alone Jimmy and Chris. I decided to try to find a restaurant or cafe with wifi, so I could send them an email, or hopefully they would have already sent me one.

But I still thought Mui Ne proper was to the east. So I followed the road, which did indeed to take me into Mui Ne proper – a tiny fishing village with no street lights, where the narrow roads were covered in dificult-to-ride-in sand, where people gave me dirty looks and where dogs barked at me viciously. If I was ever going to get robbed, it was there. I realised I’d made a mistake and when I reached a dead end I turned the bike around and rode back down the main strip – where, in an incredible stroke of luck, I nearly drove into Max and Jess and a French girl they’d known from earlier in their trip. I got a room at the guesthouse they were staying at – a double that Chris could stay in too if he showed up – and then followed them to a restaurant with wifi so I could send him an email. The wifi was frustratingly slow, so I could see Chris’ email on my iGoogle page – enough to read the subject line and learn that he and Jimmy were in Mui Ne and that his bike had broken down – but not actually open it. After fifteen minutes of trying, I used Jess’ iPhone instead, and learned that he and Jimmy were at Smokey’s – a restaurant which was, the French girl told me, a ten second walk down the road. Which it was. And there they were.

Chris had broken down somewhere between Phan Thiet and Mui Ne. The spare parts he’d needed were in my saddlebags. They’d left their bikes at some random man’s house with a promise they’d return the next morning, taken the bus to Mui Ne, and then taken a taxi up and down the strip looking for us, with a four kilometre walk in there somewhere too. We took their bags back to the guesthouse and then went back to the restaurant to drown our sorrows.

Chris seems more pissed off about the whole ordeal than me. I know it’s annoying. Both our bikes broke down. But you have to be willing to accept that when you’re riding a Soviet bike through Vietnam there are going to be problems. I may have been screaming profanities at it as it turtled down a main street in Phan Thiet at 30 k’s an hour, but you should leave the anger behind when you turn the engine off. If you’re going to let it ruin your whole day, what’s the point in doing it at all?

On the whole it could have been a lot worse. I’ll reserve my judgement on whether this whole adventure was worth it or not once we make it to Hanoi, depending on how well or badly the bikes treat us. But they only crapped themselves once we were very close to Mui Ne. If it had happened way back along the trail, I’d be furious. But we got the bikes in, we got ourselves in, and we managed to regroup despite having been split up three ways. And I managed to get my bike “fixed.”

Which was a very odd feeling. For some reason, standing in a Vietnamese mechanic with all my bags strapped to this motorcycle, holding a helmet and with a scarf around my neck, talking through a language barrier to this mechanic so he can then squat down and mess around with my filthy engine, for which I pay him handsomely… I felt very rich. Very Western. I’ve been travelling for over a month now, flashing my cash around, avoiding the gaze of beggars, acutely aware of how privileged I am but not really caring, but it never once hit me like it did that evening. I think it was partly because the kids asked me how much the bike cost, and I said 360 US, a massive sum of money for them; and partly because I was alone. With no other Westerners around you lose your baseline, and suddenly feel very aware of who and what and where you are.

It wasn’t a huge epiphany or anything. I didn’t go running down the streets screaming or decide on the spot to give all my money to charity. Just a very strong realisation that I thought was worth noting down.

I’m quite glad I managed to get it fixed, anyway. Like Saigon street traffic, communicating with a foreign mechanic wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Nonetheless I actually feel vaguely proud of myself, because I’ve been conditioned to believe that I’m not a person who can do such things. Which is something that grinds my gears. Chris had been defending me lately against the Hills and the Gullottis of the world who believe that I’m the same useless 13-year old idiot I was so many years ago; the people who think it’s utterly amazing that ME, MITCH, is riding a motorcycle through Vietnam; the people who insist on continuing to stuff me into the pigeonhole they built for me long ago. He was discussing it with Mike, who apparently brought up the example of Georgie, saying she was still the same timid person she was ten years ago. He couldn’t have picked a worse example. Georgie has grown and changed even more than I have.

Of course, Chris doesn’t realise that he contributes to this image a lot himself, calling me an idiot literally 10 or 20 times a day, rolling his eyes whenever I do something “wrong,” insisting that his way is best or right (and doing it all very loudly). If somebody says something about you often enough, you start to believe it yourself.

I’m 21 years old. I am not the same 14-year old boy who refused to waterski at Collie or eat ethnic food in Bali. I’m different. I’m sorry if that means you all have to update your mental maps. Deal with it. You know I love you all, but this really irritates me. I don’t know why I chewed out Chris just then, who, as I said, does it unintentionally, and genuinely tries to defend me.

Or maybe you don’t do it intentionally either. I don’t know. Either way, knock it off. Years pass. Time goes by. People change. I’m tired of being the whipping boy and the brunt of jokes and the go-to guy for all things related to failure and idiocy and uselessness. I”ve graduated university. I’ve fled South Korea in the middle of the night with $3000 cash in my pocket. I’ve wheeled my broken motorcycle into a Vietnamese mechanic, told him what was wrong by miming, gotten it fixed and rode back to successfully locate my friends. I’m capable. Stop being so condescendingly astonished all the time.

Having said all that, I did accidentally lock Chris in his room tonight. My bad.

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