28 June, 2010
Dong Hoi, Vietnam

Today, the 28th of June, marks two anniversaries. Firstly, it’s now been two months since Chris and I started travelling – two months since that awful day when we wandered around Singapore on zero sleep, fled to Kuala Lumpur, and realised that backpacking wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

More importantly, it marks one year since the beginning of my contract teaching English at a private school in South Korea – and therefore it’s the day that, had I stuck to the contract, I would have been returning home.

Now, had I stuck to that contract I would have been a mindless gibbering wreck at this point, driven mad by the daily stress overload that comes from “teaching” five-year olds while shrilly demanding Asian overseers cracked a whip against my back. More likely I would have hurled myself off the roof of the school buildiing into the traffic below. And so while I’d like to say that today was a fantastic day, it was one of the most horrendous and difficult days yet – while, ironically, in my alternate life it would have been great because I would have been finally leaving Korea.

Okay, so obviously the previous 288 days would have been much worse than my actual 288 days, but still. I was hoping for better juxtaposition.

We were intending to get up around 8 am – at least, that’s when I set the alarm for, I’m not sure if Chris was keen on it – but I turned it off immediately and slept till 9, when the maid walked into our room to see if we wanted it cleaned. I then went downstairs to the Worst Restaurant Ever for breakfast. Normally I never would have set foot in that terrible place again, but breakfast was included in the room price. It went about as well as I expected.


I settled on noodles with beef, even though I hate Asian food first thing in the morning, because the unobtainable omelette was the only Western thing on the menu. I splashed some of the noodle soup in my eye – which was quite painful, because it had chili or pepper or something in it – then went back upstairs to find Chris packing.

“I have never wanted to get on my bike and ride away more than I do right now,” I said. “Get me the fuck out of Khe Sanh.”

After filling up and figuring out which road out of town to take, we ended up leaving at about 11. We were rolling north along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, with mist-shrouded mountains marking the Laos border just to our left. It was a better ride than the previous day’s had been. My ass wasn’t as sore, the road was almost deserted, I was listening to the Rapture on my iPod. All was well.

At about two o’clock, we were on some stretch of the trail so deserted that instead of passing Vietnamese roadside towns, we were passing hill tribe villages with thatched roofs and waving children. The roads, as usual, weren’t signposted well, and our maps were in conflict as to where we should be turning. We’d just resolved to go back and try a different fork when my gears started fucking up. Again.

Earlier that morning, I’d been thinking about how well my bike had been running since I got the new carburettor. I’d been thinking that the only other problem I’d really had with it was thhe bad gears, which hadn’t been bothering me since Qhuy Non, and which Chris had said I just needed to be gentle with and work through calmly. “Don’t get angry with it,” he’d said. “Just stop, start again, find what gear you’re in.”

There was no mistaking which gear I was in. First. Definitely first. It made the ride into Mui Ne stuck in second seem like a wonderful dream. Chris had already taken off, so I rode about seven or eight k’s back to the fork, where he was filling up his bike with petrol out of a bottle in somebody’s shack.

“Just chill,” he said. “We’ll fix it.”

He did spend quite some time trying to, while I seethed and brooded and fantasised about dismantling the bike and mailing every piece to a different country. I should probably take a moment to point out that Chris’ skills and knowledge are the backbone of this trip. Without him I probably wouldn’t have made it further than Dalat.

Unfortunately, a gearbox is a complex piece of machinery, and Chris had neither the expertise nor the tools to fix it. But, as is usually the case, a random Vietnamese passer-by wanted to help us, and we followed him a kilometre back down the road to a mechanic’s.

I think this is probably a universal thing – Western or Eastern, first-world or third-world – but people in the countryside tend to be friendlier (and, in Vietnam, more competent) than people in cities. This mechanic took a long time to fix my bike, but fix it he did, after carefully disassembling the entire gearbox. The culprit was a tiny spring, which was supposed to be performing some vital function I still don’t understand despite repeated explanations from Chris.

“He’s fittting a new spring now,” Chris said. “This is what yours looked like. Boing!”

Incidentally, I finally figured out how to check the manufacture date, with the following piece of advice from the website of the Minsk Motorcycle Club in Hanoi:

The serial number stamped onto the steering column of the left hand side of the bike has a code to say how old the bike is. The eighth last character – its a letter – denotes the year of manufacture as follows. ‘L’ is 1990, ‘M’ is 1991, ‘N’ is 1992, ‘P’ is 1993, ‘R’ is 1994, ‘S’ is 1995, ‘T’ is 1996, ‘V’ is 1997, ‘W’ is 1998, ‘X’ is 1999 and ‘Y’ is 2000. The engine is easier to date as the last two characters inscribed on it on the left hand side are numbers like ‘94’ or ‘96’.

We knew Chris’ was a ’96 model, and I’m pretty sure it was appropriately stamped with a T. I’m sure as fuck not going down to the garage now to double-check. Max’s was X, which would be 1999.

Mine is B. Working backwards, that places its manufacture circa 1980. Not a Belarussian bike, but a Soviet bike. It’s thirty fucking years old, and it’s had to put up with sixteen more years of Vietnamese mechanics than Chris’ has. No wonder it breaks down constantly.

“I know I tell you to be calm with the bike and not get stressed out,” Chris said, “but if it was me I would have burned it long ago.”

Eventually the mechanic got the gears working again. Then Chris decided we needed to fix my loose throttle, which didn’t go so well – it has all the same problems but is now much stiffer (once you get past the loose point) and it also sticks, which is dangerous. Then the bike wouldn’t start, and I had to unstrap all my bags so Chris could lift the seat up and get at the electrical box.

By the time my worthless piece of communist junk was actually running again, it was about six o’clock and we were still in the middle of absolutely nowhere. There was nothing we could do except try to cover as much of the distance Dong Hoi as possible in the little time we had left until sunset. We ended up going down a road through the jungle which more closely resembled a very steep dry creekbed, covered in stones. My suspension enjoyed that. Near the bottom we paused to ask a guy going in the other direction if we were on the right road for Dong Hoi, but he was more pre-occupied with the fact that he was trying to ride a Honda Dream on an awful off-road trail with a huge box strapped to the back of it, so he ignored us.

It turned out we were on the right road – it turned back into something that was semi-sealed and driveable, with signposts showing us the way to the Eastern Ho Chi Minh. It was still constantly twisting and turning, though. “Get me out of the fucking mountains,” I said. “Just give me a long, flat road on the plains.”

That was what we got. The Eastern Ho Chi Minh stretches north on a lower plain than its mountainous western brother, and we were soon flying north with about thirty k’s to Dong Hoi. At this point the sun had completely set and we were driving down a highway with no streetlights. The Minsk headlight shows the ground ahead of you for perhaps five metres, which will give you about a quarter of a second to react if a pothole shows up. Or a cow, which is precisely what happened – if a truck with high beams hadn’t been coming towards us in the other lane, illuminating a sudden strange obstruction in my lane, I probably would have hit it. As it was I barely braked in time. Cows wandering about on the highways are quite common in this stupid country, but for some reason it hadn’t occurred to me that they would still be out and about after sunset. What the fuck was it doing there? Who owns that cow? They chain monkeys up. Why the fuck can’t they chain up their livestock?

We miraculously arrived in Dong Hoi without hitting something and cartwheeling over the handlebars, and by a stroke of luck we randomly pulled up to check the guidebook directly outside QB Teen, the only Western restaurant in town. Coke never tasted so good. After eating dinner, we rode on up the riverside to find a hotel. We ended up springing for a slightly more decent one than usual, for about nine or ten AUD each, but it was either that or share a double bed. Of course, as usual, neither the wifi nor the air-conditioning works. That’s pretty much par for the course in Vietnam. “Just once I’d like to walk into a hotel room and have things work,” Chris said. “Just once I’d like to be able to drop my bags and then not have to stand on a chair to fix the air-con because it’s leaking everywhere, or go up and down the stairs fiddling with the routers to get the Internet working.”

This is the 30th hotel we’ve stayed in, incidentally. Or the 29th, since we stayed in the Angkor Bright in Cambodia twice. I’ve been taking photos of every bed I’ve slept in. They all look pretty much the same.

I think I’ll go to bed now. We’re riding to a national park tomorrow with the biggest cave in Vietnam in it, which is about the only thing in this part of the country worth seeing. It’s only fifty k’s, but I still trust my Minsk to fuck it up somehow. I really am just focused on getting to Hanoi now so we can say we’ve done this. Chris said he thought today was the closest I’d come to giving up. That actually would have been Hoi An, when I was honestly considering wheeling the fucking thing ten kilometres to the beach and throwing it in the ocean, but giving up is never really on the table for a person as stubborn as I am. I finished the Riverworld series, and by God I’ll finish this trip.