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.

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