5 June, 2010
Dalat, Vietnam

Having lazed around in Mui Ne long enough, we set off this morning for the next stop on our journey, the mountain town of Dalat. Once again Chris and I butted heads with the others, who were convinced that we had an eternal voyage ahead of us and had to get up at the crack of dawn. We eventually settled on 8.30 as a reasonable leaving time, and rolled out of Mui Ne not too far past 9. Jess and Max were totally eating breakfast until 9 anyway.

After fuelling up at the edge of town, we had to plunge back into the streets of Phan Thiet. It wasn’t so bad this time, with four gears at my disposal. We got lost for a bit before asking a few people and figuring out where the right highway was.

While we were still in the city, I was at the back of the group, and while passing through an intersection I had my first traffic accident. A woman pulled out in front of me when I had right of way… I think. At least, I was honking my horn, which certainly seems to grant right of way in Vietnam. Anyway, my bike’s brakes are shit, so I couldn’t stop in time (not for lack of trying) and I t-boned her rear tyre. She shrieked out and hit her brakes, then looked back and gave me a dirty, shocked look.

The one thing we’ve been told countless times is that you should always flee the scene of an accident in Vietnam, because as a foreigner you will always be held accountable no matter what. So I yelled “sorry!” and took off. We were both fine anyway. It was a light collision that didn’t leave a scratch on either bike.

I caught up with the others at the next traffic lights; Chris and Jimmy were ahead a little in front of some other bikes, but I pulled up next to Max. “I just fucking hit someone,” I said.

“You’re joking.”

“No. I didn’t hurt her, just clipped her bike a bit.”

“Shit. You okay?”

“I’m fine. But let’s get a wriggle-on, yeah?”

No police were dispatched. Or at least they didn’t catch us. You can’t catch a wild stallion. He’s too free, too fast… too wild.

I suppose I should get the brakes looked at. Along with the gearbox. And the front shocks. Jess insists we name all the bikes, and I’ve called mine Trotsky. Obviously because it’s Soviet, but also because it tries really hard and means well, yet inevitably fucks up.

 

The landscape outside Phan Thiet was more of what we’d already seen: plains, rice paddies, a few low hills in the distance. Until all of a sudden it wasn’t that. All of a sudden, with barely a transitionary foothill, we were climbing up steep mountain switchbacks: beautiful winding roads, with huge jungle foliage hanging above us, cutting along the edge of river valleys and steep cliffs.

It was absolutely gorgeous, and a lot of fun to drive up, even if Trotsky doesn’t like the constant gear-shifting required. (Either I’m low on transmission fluid or that Vietnamese mechanic, shock horror, did a bad job on the gearbox – now it’s difficult to shift down gears.) Before we knew it we were at the top of the mountain, with a foggy and distant vista laid out before us. We stopped to take a bunch of photos. It’s a shame I didn’t get any photos of the parts of the drive that were really beautiful, but I was too wrapped up in them to stop.

 

Max dropped his bike and snapped his clutch lever in half. About time something happened to his; it’s been running flawlessly since Saigon, which is very suspicious for a Minsk. I’ve got my aforementioned problems, and Chris has discovered a hole in his engine that causes it to leak transmission fluid unless you balance the bike vertically by putting a brick under the kickstand. We need to find a mechanic in Dalat. A real mechanic; we emailed the Minsk Club in Hanoi asking about some, and they described any mechanic who doesn’t specialise in Minsks as “a butcher.” Which sounds about right.

 

After driving along some more spectacular mountain roads, we arrived in the town of Di Linh for lunch. There were a whole lot of ominous storm clouds growing above our heads, and we werehoping to kill two birds with one stone by eating and waiting out the afternoon thunderstorm in one go. We pulled up outside a fairly large restaurant where a wedding reception was in progress, bridge and groom being photographed on the front steps and drunken Vietnamese men coming up to us, shaking our hands and yelling at us in broken English. We ended up eating down the street instead, at a tiny place that served meatballs wrapped in rice bread with a crapload of vegetables. We’ve been staying in fairly Westernised places and therefore eating Western food almost exclusively, so it was a bit of a change. I make no apologies for that, by the way. I’ll eat foreign food if it’s all that’s available, but I’m a Westerner and I prefer my own society’s cuisine. I’m not on this trip for a cultural experience.

The heavens opened up while we were eating, and we scrambled to get the bikes undercover, because all our stuff was strapped to them and our homemade waterproofing was fairly shoddy. This involved driving them up a very steep slope into a garage, which resulted in some of us getting more drenched than others.

 

We thought this might be a good time to test out the rain ponchos we bought for 5000 dong (33 cents). I think we look quite stylish.

 

It stopped raining while we finished eating anyway, so I stuffed the stupid thing back into one of my saddlebags and we took off on the road once again. After the amazing ride we had in the morning, the next route was quite disappointing. The landscape was far less impressive, and while the first road had been nearly deserted, we had to share this one with a thousand other bikes and trucks and buses.

It was pretty much as bad as in Cambodia. The large vehicles are incredibly impatient. They’ll swoop right out into the middle of the road for an overtake rather than wait a few more seconds for the bikes to clear. If you have to swerve onto the gravel shoulder at high speed to avoid getting creamed, that’s your problem. And they flash their lights at you to show you what they’re doing. Buddy, you’re a twenty-tonne truck hurtling towards me in the wrong lane. Don’t worry, I can see you.

As we grew closer to Dalat, the rain clouds began to gather again, and I felt some big thick drops start to splash down. We pulled over below the awning of a shop as a very brief and light shower began. “What’ve we stopped for?” Max called over the sound of his engine.

“Its gonna piss down,” I said.

“I don’t mind driving in rain, I’d rather keep going.”

“Well, you guys can go ahead, we’ll catch up.”

It didn’t piss down at all, which was annoying. We stayed there for twenty minutes or so as Chris dug his jacket out of his bag – we were above a thousand metres now, which, combined with the windchill and the rainclouds, made it quite chilly. I didn’t bother with anything. I had my Curtin hoody at the bottom of the one of my saddlebags, but if we did get rained on and it got wet I’d be colder than with nothing, and in any event I couldn’t be bothered digging it out.

Here’s a photo of the cute little kid that came up to us:

 

Setting off again, we came to the last thirty kilometres into Dalat, a long stretch of highway lined with flower bushes and lamposts, with separate lanes devoted to motorbikes. It began to splatter down a bit, and thunder briefly drowned out the scream of my two-stroke. Please don’t rain, I thought. Pleeeease don’t rain.

It rained. Not the torrential downpour I expected, but it lashed down hard enough for about five minutes to hurt, and more gently for a while after that, enough to leave me very damp. My bike was also flinging enough moisture up from the puddles on the road to saturate everything below the knee, and fill my boots with water. I roared down the highway as fast as the Minsk could go, freezing and dripping and shivering, desparate to find a hotel and have a hot shower.

High-altitude Dalat is renowned for being nice and cool all year round. This was part of the reason it appealed to me; aftermore than a month in the hot and humid lowlands, where you can’t walk down the street without becoming soaked in sweat, I wanted to be cold. That was something of a Faustian bargain, since I ended up cold and wet as well. I suppose what I really want is to be in a cold environment, but rugged up nice and warm. Chris keeps telling me to get over it because it’s the wet season. Fair enough; if I can tell him he shouldn’t expect these bikes to run well, he can tell me I shouldn’t expect to stay dry in Vietnam in June.

In the last five kilometres or so the highway turned into another winding two-lane switchback, meandering through a pine forest with trucks and buses going hysterical with their horns. Finally, beautifully, we rolled into Dalat.

 

We reunited with Max, Jess and Jimmy more or less by chance – Saint Christopher smiles upon us yet again – and immediately set out to find a place to stay. Unfortunately, not only is it Saturday, but it’s also a Vietnamese holiday, and Dalat is pretty much packed to the brim with tourists. We tried every hotel along the mains trip and not a single one had a vacancy. We drove further out to a less central part of town, and only managed to find two hotels with rooms. So Chris, Jimmy and myself are staying in a triple room in a musty-smelling basement with a window that opens onto some kind of sealed-in underground urban cavity, while Max and Jess are staying at another hotel up the road.

I didn’t bother to properly waterproof any of my things; I just tossed a few plastic bags around some of the more valuable stuff. As it turns out the rain-cover on my backpack is excellent, and nothing in my main bag is wet, but all the stuff in my saddlebags is at least somewhat damp. This includes my sleeping bag, hoody, and both pairs of sneakers. Needless to say, the jeans and boots I was wearing were drenched.

We left Mui Ne at about nine in the morning and arrived in Dalat around six, going from a sunny beach town to foggy, rain-drenched mountains. That’s nine hours of riding across about 190 kilometres. I have blisters on my ass, my back is sore, and I’m exhausted. I feel like we accomplished something today.

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