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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