30 June, 2010
Son Trach, Vietnam

What was it I said last update?

It’s only fifty k’s, but I still trust my Minsk to fuck it up somehow.

My God. My God.

We left Dong Hoi around ten or eleven o’clock, bound for Phong Nha National Park, which – as I mentioned – was a simple fifty kilometres away. The road out of Dong Hoi took us along the coast through some enormous sand dunes. This was literally a few hundred metres out of town, but already my bike had shat the bed. The bolt in the clutch lever had fallen off, meaning my clutch lever was dangling loose. Meaning I had no clutch. Meaning I couldn’t change gear.

HAIL THE MINSK!

Fortunately I was in fourth rather than first, which was good, because there was nothing around us but sand dunes. I caught up with Chris and explained the problem, and he told me to pull over, but I replied in the negative – if I had to push the bike, I didn’t want it to be there.

We drove on quite a while and eventually hit the 1A, then pulled into a petrol station. I found that my clutch wasn’t actually damaged, just not affixed properly. If I kept my fingers on it I could keep it in the bracket. Since that wasn’t really practical, we hunted for a mechanic after we filled up – during which I noticed that my carburettor was still leaking fuel a bit. Since it was brand new and cost $50, that pissed me off just a little.

HAIL THE MINSK!

Anyway, we found a mechanic further up the highway, who took about ten or fifteen minutes to hunt through his workshop and find a new bolt to secure my clutch lever. I gave him 5000 dong and we went to ride off.

I couldn’t. My throttle handle was spinning loosely on its axis.

HAIL THE MINSK!

Rather than taking a wrench from the mechanic and caving my skull in, I called Chris back and he and the mechanic started looking over it and trying to fix it. The accelerator cable had snapped, and although we had a spare, we had to go through the long and painful process of explaining things to the mechanic. The two of them fiddled around with cables and handles for quite a long time, with Chris becoming frustrated because he knew he could do the job himself in ten minutes with the right tools. It took about two or three hours before we eventually got it fixed and were on our way again.

Just to sum up: that’s three mechanical problems, one of which made it impossible to drive the bike and one of which made it extremely difficult to drive the bike, in less than 50 kilometres.

HAIL THE MINSK!

This is a phrase, by the way, that comes out of the Minsk Repair Manual – a document available online that gives you an outline on how the bike works and how to repair it. It was written by some stupid idiot named Digby Greenhalgh. Here’s one of the gems he regularly comes up with throughout the manual:

If you are all alone in the wild then as a last resort take off the number plate and remove the strip of metal bracing it against the mudguard. This piece can sometimes be used to wrap around a broken lever in such a way as to keep the broken cable from falling out. If you were driving an expensive Yamaha then this would not be possible. That’s why Minsks are best.

Yes, Digby. I too would prefer a bike that breaks down every day and which can self-cannibalise to fix itself, rather than a bike that actually works.

At this stage I’m not really enjoying the riding anymore. It’s a hassle every single day. When we got to Saigon, and found out that it was quite easy to buy bikes, that many backpackers travel like this… I’d had a sense of challenge about this trip, but that evaporated when I found out that people did it all the time. That didn’t bother me. I figured we’d just have an enjoyable motorcycle ride up the country.

Now – on this bike – that challenge aspect has returned full force. I no longer want to be riding. I’m over it. I just want to get the bike into Hanoi so that I can say I’ve done it. Upon arrival I may very well be holding it together with one free hand. Or wheeling it. Whatever. Just get me into fucking Hanoi so I can sell you, bike.

We arrived in the village of Son Trach without any further problems. It lies inside the national park, nestled amongst a series of huge limestone formations that jut up from the rice paddies, which – even to my feverishly furious mind – was quite beautiful.

The big draw in this park, and the reason I wanted to stop here in the first place, is Phong Nha Cave. I didn’t know anything about it except that it’s a river grotto, quite large, and Lonely Planet says it’s the only thing of any interest whatsoever in all of north-central Vietnam. So after getting up today we headed down to the river to get a boat too take us to the cave.

 

It cost 200,000 dong to rent a boat, regardless of how many people were in it. Normally we’d approach other Westeners and see if they wanted to split costs, but there were none – just domestic tourists. 200,000 dong is only about thirteen dollars, so we went ahead and just chartered our own boat, piloted by a Vietnamese man and a younger kid with a baseball cap who reminded me of Indiana Jones’ sidekick in Temple of Doom. As we headed downriver towards the cave we passed a lot of other boats making the return trip, crammed to the gills with Vietnamese tourists, which made us feel very rich and Western.

 

The cave itself was pretty cool. The river flows right into it, and they cut the engine and started using paddles as soon as we were inside. There was no sound except the splashing of water and the coughing of our pilot.

Chris left his camera at the hotel in Dong Hoi, so unfortunately we’re stuck with my useless Nikon to take photos. It’s absolutely hopeless in the dark and the amount of moisture in the cave made the flash useless as well, but Chris still managed to get a couple of passable photos.

 

After a few hundred metres of silently drifting past illuminated stalagtites, we arrived at an underground beach swarming with tourists. The boat docked here for a while, so we could venture up and explore the dry parts off the cave.

 

We didn’t get very far – round one corner and you come across a fenced-off area, with two crack guards who were dozing away on plastic chairs. After wandering about for a bit and taking a thousand blurry photos, we jumped on the boat and headed back outside.

 

Before going back upriver we climbed some stairs up the side of the karst to visit another cave at the top. It was… steep. And hot. And tiring.

 

Every hundred stairs or so we would come across a small rest area and have to run the gauntlet of Vietnamese children saying “You buy Coca! Postcard! Coca!”

There were some nice views from the top, though. I’ll reiterate what I said back in Hue: Vietnam is a lovely, beautiful country, compromised by the people who inhabit it.

 

Even then it’s still stinking hot.

I’m glad we visited the caves, though. They weren’t mind-blowing or anything, but it was a nice experience, even apart from the fact that it gave us a day off the bikes. I also feel like we were ahead of the curve for once – we didn’t see a single Western tourist there, aside from a Kiwi we met in town last night (who also told us a morbidly fascinating story about coming off his motorcycle and going under the wheels of a truck).

Tomorrow we have a very long ride ahead of us, either to Vinh or a town near Vinh on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. We actually have three days of riding planned, all very long, to get us to Ninh Binh, which sounds like a pleasant enough place to while away the last few days before the girls arrive in Hanoi. I’m praying that we can do it – hoping against hope that I can get on my motorbike and have it start, let alone make it two hundred and fifty k’s to Vinh.

Bit fed up, really.

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