23 June, 2010
Hoi An, Vietnam

Maybe Hiep the Minsk mechanic sees quite a few Westerners come through, because he charged each of us more than 300, 000 dong for our bikes. I paid 400,000, which is a bit less than $28 AUD. Considering that all he did was fiddle with my suspension and replace some stuff in my gearbox – he didn’t even fit a new mirror, which I sorely need – I thought this was a bit steep. We paid him, went and packed our bags, fueled up, had lunch and rolled out of town around 2.45. We felt safe leaving it that late, since we estimated the ride into Hoi An to be about two hours. Boy was that wrong.

I’d decided to try what Chris had been doing the previous day: listening to my iPod while riding. On the face of it this doesn’t seem particularly safe, but really, the two-stroke is so loud that I can never hear anything approaching from behind anyway. Unless they honk. Which they almost always do.

After some shoving my fingers inside my helmet to readjust the earbuds, I managed to get it going properly. And goddamn was it cool. Riding through the mountains of Vietnam is great enough, but riding through the mountains of Vietnam listening to the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors is fucking awesome. After a while I got tired of the American GI mood, and switched to LCD Soundsystem and Bloc Party. No less awesome.

At one point a storm rolled through the mountains ahead of us, and I had to turn the iPod off, in case it got wet. So I went from listening to music and driving through beautiful weather, to no music and driving in the rain. That was a rather unpleasant 180. We stopped and sheltered in a young man’s rudimentary roadside shack until the rain let up, then took off again. That is to say, Max and Jess took off again, while my bike wouldn’t start. Chris removed the sparkplug and cleaned it, and then it started. Cheers, Hiep.

We weren’t going so great for time. Our maps listed completely different towns from the ones we were riding through, so we weren’t sure if we were on the right road or not, which meant a lot of stopping and asking. “Hoi An?” we’d call out to passers-by, pointing down the road in the direction we were going. “Hoi An?” We’d be met with blank stares and a complete lack of understanding. “Fucking hell,” Chris said. “You named it.”

By the time we came down out of the mountains, Max and Jess were running low on fuel and we had to stop to fill up. Chris and I asked one of the attendents if we were on the right road, and it tuned out we were, but we still had 70 k’s left to Hoi An and less than an hour of daylight. Although we did see a breathtaking sunset cloud formation, which pictures really don’t do justice:

After Max and Jess took off, my bike again failed to start, which I found immensely frustrating. Chris stayed behind, and we again removed the sparkplug, which had become grimy and black again in less than an hour. Chris thought maybe it was because I had too much oil in the tank. “Just don’t turn your engine off until we get to Hoi An,” he said.

The rest of the road in was down a flat highway through rice paddies, until we reached a built-up area lined with buildings on both sides. The road became a thin little ribbon with no striped line, and the number of other bikes on the road increased sharply. I hated it. We’d gone from riding through beautiful mountains with the road pretty much to ourselves, to riding along some filthy boring little street, forced to weave in and out of scooters and pedestrians and students on bicycles riding three abreast (my pet peeve), with trucks and vans coming towards us every thirty seconds, and our speed dramatically reduced just when we needed to be going fast.

The sun set, and I had to take my sunglasses off and tuck them into my shirt. Then, because of the dust and the bugs, I had to take my goggles off the back of my helmet and affix them to my eyes. Then, because my goggles are worthless junk that make every oncoming headlight flare up into a blinding supernova, I had to take them off again. I did all this with one hand without stopping, which was difficult but rewarding.

When night had well and truly fallen, and I’d just passed the marker reading “Hoi An: 3 KM,” my bike’s engine started to splutter and die. “No!” I shouted. “No, goddamn it! Just work, you useless thing!”

I realised very quickly that the petrol tank was empty. This was odd, since I’d left Kham Duc with nearly a full tank. I’d left it idling a lot whenever we stopped, because I was having sparkplug issues, but that couldn’t quite account for it. In any case, I pushed it a few hundred metres to a roadside petrol stand, filled up, and took off again.

It was very, very rewarding to finally roll into Hoi An. We’d only been off the beaten trail for three or four days, but it was still quite odd to come across Vietnamese people speaking good English, and to see Westerners walking down every street. It was also fantastic to be able to order Western food again; I had a lovely, gorgeous cheesburger.

The flipside is that this place is full of touts and hawkers. For some reason Hoi An’s specialty is tailoring, and every street corner has a guy trying to sell you a suit. I’m about to travel through rural China, Mongolia and across Russia, and I have no fixed end-point to my travels. I can’t think of a time I’d want a suit less.

It is, however, a lovely city – especially by Vietnamese standards. The old quarter around the river is very pretty, and by night it’s absolutely beautiful. If it weren’t for the hawkers, souvenier stores, tailors, and the fact that it’s still in Vietnam, it might rival Kyoto. As it stands it’s easily the nicest place we’ve yet been to in Vietnam. Unfortunately in some places they’re resurfacing the road, which is quite unpleasant.

Particularly when they let the spare tar just pool there.

I am, of course, spending yet more time at mechanics – at least one mechanic per day. Yesterday I became more frustrated then I ever had with the bike and was quite literally tempted to wheel it down to the beach, find a pier, and push it off the edge. (“It would be much cooler to ride it off,” Max said. “I CAN’T START THE BIKE, MAX,” I replied. “THAT’S THE PROBLEM.”) I feel like the constant mechanical hassles are boring you all at this point, so until some more particularly amusing things happen I’ll shut up about them. Suffice to say that at this point I’ve spent a painfully large amount of money to replace my carburettor, and also realised that Chris is a better mechanic than about half the “real” mechanics in this fucking useless country.

Other than that we haven”t been doing much here, really. It’s a lovely town to just walk around in, although it’s been appallingly hot lately. We stayed out until 3 am drinking one night, and went swimming in the ocean amidst bioluminescent plankton. Jeess and Max said it was really weak and they’d seen much better swarms in Cambodia, but I thought it was awesome. We ended up getting into bed at 4 am, and then, this being a Vietnamese beach town, woke up at 9 am when the power (and therefore air-con) cut out. Hoi An put a special spin on things: within minutes of the power going off, the generators for the ritzier hotels across the road fired up. So even trying to sleep int he heat was impossible, because of the constant banging and droning of the generators. The irony is that the ritzy hotels have properly soundproofed rooms, so they would have been sleeping like lambs in their quiet, air-conditioned rooms, whereas we were both sweating and deafened. Not to mention the banging of hammers that rings up and down the street every fucking morning, in every Vietnamese town. “I’ve figured out why they’re always doing that,” said Chris, with bleary eyes. “Because everything’s fucking broken.”

We also visited the My Son ruins, which were somewhat lame after seeing Angkor Wat. They were pretty and all, but probably not worth the hour-long car-ride in a Kia with a new-car smell that made me feel slightly carsick and pushed Chris almost to the vomit threshhold. If you’re wondering why we didn’t ride, it’s because we read about a scam where local cons will sabotage your bike while you’re in the ruins and then offer to fix it when you emerge. Of all the low-down, dishonest, flat-out asshole cons I’ve come across in my time on this wretched continent, that’s probably the worst of them. You don’t touch a man’s ride. Even if that ride happens to the worst motorcycle in Vietnam, and therefore the worst motorcycle on the planet. God, I think about offloading this thing in Hanoi and it makes me so happy.

My elbow still really hurts whenever I lean on it after that spill at the waterpark… what, ten days ago? It feels like there’s a gap or a chip there when compared to my other elbow. I googled the medical symptoms, always a fun activity, but couldn’t come up with any answer as to whether an elbow chip will eventually stop hurting, or if there’s anything I can do about it. And it’s not enough of a bother to pay the $100 excess on my travel insurance if I go see a doctor. Anyone with medical experience is welcome to give their opinion. Rhona.