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.