July 3rd, 2010
Ninh Binh, Vietnam
We’re in Ninh Binh. We made it. It wasn’t easy, but we fucking got here.
I woke up at 7 am yesterday morning, back in Thai Hoa, and left Chris snoozing away while I got on my bike and puttered around in first gear looking for a mechanic. I tried three or four, all of them turning their noses up at the Minsk and shooing me away (I don’t blame them), and was beginning to lose heart when one mechanic told me to sit and wait while he made a phone call. About twenty minutes later a young guy showed up on a scooter and I proceeded to mime what was wrong with the gears.
He set about “fixing” it, though I knew in my heart that I’d be doing this all over again in the next town down the track. I’m so tired of renting repairs. It took him about an hour, but he got it working again, and I also managed to communicate that there was a problem with my carburettor. He took the pin out and shaped it on a drill press for a while before replacing it. I gave him 100,000 dong and then headed back to the hotel to start packing and wake up Chris.
We needed to eat before starting a long ride, but in remote towns like this there’s very little that’s appealing to the Western tongue. You have a choice between noodles, beef, and if you’re lucky, rice. I got my hopes up when I saw a fruit stand, but the only recognisable things there were bananas. Green bananas at that, which were so thick and tough they were unpeelable, and I had to use my Leathermen to slice one open. That should have been my first tip-off, but I tried eating it anyway. It was like biting into celery.
Noodles it was.
Shortly before eating this “breakfast,” Chris had tightened my clutch, because the mechanic had loosened it while working on the gearbox. When I went to ride off again, my bike wasn’t revving high enough – fourth was like second. He loosened the clutch again and the bike worked again. Apparently I’m no longer allowed to have a good clutch. Whatever.
We left town at around eleven o’clock, heading up the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I wasn’t listening to my iPod, partly because I wanted to keep an ear on how the engine was running and partly because I superstitiously feel it invites mechanical difficulties, but I sang myself an improvised ditty about how every kilometre was a kilometre closer to Hanoi, where I would sell the bike to a German backpacker who’d be as much of a sucker as I was.
We estimated the journey to take about four hours, so – throwing in a break for lunch – expected to arrive in Ninh Binh around four o’clock. As usual, this was way off the mark. Try to guess by how much!
I was enjoying riding the bike even less than over the last few days. Every time I straddle it I’m racked with anxiety about what the next problem will be, when it will happen, and where it will leave me stranded. Every visit to a mechanic buys you some more kilometres, and every revolution of the wheels brings that number ticking down towards zero.
About a hundred kilometres later, as we approached our turn-off point to head towards the coast, my gears started sticking again. Chris managed to get them up without any difficulty, and when I tried again I found that I could too. Sometimes they get sulky and you just have to stop the bike for a few minutes to make them work. Nonetheless, we figured it was a good idea to top up my transmission fluid, so we pulled into a roadside mechanic. I’ve realised why there are mechanics virtually every hundred metres in this country: because nothing works, and that’s how often people break down. Vietnamese people don’t take care of things, and when they inevitably break, they don’t fix things properly.
It was also on this road that we observed even more utterly stupid behaviour than usual. You’d think that in a country with no road rules, people might develop some road sense, but no. The previous day, a pair of teenagers on a scooter pulled out from a side road right in front of me, and I had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting them. I gave them a hand gesture that said “What the fuck are you doing you stupid apes?” and their response was to laugh. “It’s not funny, you fuckwits,” I yelled inside my helmet. “You would have died too! For fuck’s sake!” Chris experienced the exact same thing yesterday, only much closer, locking his tyres up – and again the guy on the bike who so recklessly pulled out in front of him just laughed it up. This proceeded to happen, with various different vehicles, about seven or eight times between us on the simple fifty kilometre ride from the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the coast. They just don’t look. They pull out right in front of you and don’t seem to give a fuck if anyone, including themselves, gets smeared all over the asphalt. At one point Chris even saw a pillion passenger laughing as he held a t-shirt over the driver’s eyes, obscuring his view, as though it were the pinnacle of comedy.
Vietnamese people are stupid fucking retards and this country can burn to the ground for all I care. Apparently they wouldn’t care either. If I were to pull out a gun, go downstairs and point it at the hotel manager, I would almost expect him to say “Oh, haha, you got me!” and laugh as I blew his brains out all over the wall. They just don’t seem to place any value on human lives whatsoever.
We reached the coastal city of Than Hoa, which turned out to be much larger than we thought, and found a Western-looking cafe that completely failed to cook Western food for us. Munching down hideous chips and staring at our map with the eyes of men who have driven through Hell, we plotted our next course. We could either book it up the 1A to Ninh Binh, or take the less busy (and therefore less clearly-marked) coastal route.
We opted for the coastal route, and travelled a short way up the 1A before waiting at a railway crossing and then branching off towards the sea. The road started out as a fairly major artery, the usual cataclysmic clash of trucks and buses, but gradually the traffic began to melt away. A few bad turns later, and we were riding down tiny strips of bitumen lined with ponds and rice paddies and villages that looked almost medieval, with dogs barking at us as we passed and children screaming and waving.
We reached a beach, where fishing boats were rocking on the turgid waves, and had somebody point us back the way we’d come.
We drove around down the narrow roads again, which often degenerated into sand and rocks, everybody turning to look at us as we droned past in clouds of two-stroke smoke. We reached a wharf at a river mouth, which had no discernable roads leading to it other than the track that came out of the village.
Again we were forced to turn around, back into the confusing labyrinth of village roads. The sun was dropping towards the horizon, tensions were wearing thin, and we were facing the prospect of another night-drive.
At this point a police officer had noticed us, and followed us on his scooter, motioning for us to pull over when he caught up with us on a dead-end road in the rice paddies. Chris showed him the map, and he looked at it for a moment, then showed us his ID and made it clear that he wanted to see our licenses and registration.
This set my heart racing. We have rego papers for the bikes, but I don’t know if that actually means anything – if it’s legal for foreigners to own bikes here. And I do know that it’s certainly not legal to drive them. I don’t have a motorbike license at all, and neither of us have international driver’s licenses. Even if we did, it wouldn’t matter, because Vietnam doesn’t recognise them. The only thing you can legally drive with is a Vienamese license, which we obviously don’t have.
We showed him our Australian licenses anyway, and he pointed at them, and pointed at his own ID card. Whether it was a police ID or his Vietnamese driver’s license I couldn’t tell. “Photo? Yeah?” Chris said, and took his helmet off so the cop could see his face. “Ox-tray-li-a,” the cop said, and we nodded. “Yeah. Australia.”
Chris showed him the map again, asking how we could get back to the main road, and if the cop could show us the way. “You drive? We follow?” The cop nodded, and before hopping back on his scooter he noted down our license plate numbers.
“Is he showing us the way, or arresting us?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Chris said.
There wasn’t a lot we could do about it. We couldn’t exactly give him the slip, since we were completely lost and it was his turf. We cruised along behind him at low speed, back through the byzantine village roads, and I was already imagining how things were going to play out: police station, English-speaking lieutenant demanding a ludicrously huge bribe, phone call to the Australian embassy, bikes confiscated. After coming so far, through thunderstorms and break-downs and crashes and bad roads and suicidal traffic – after making it 95% of the way to Hanoi – it could all come to a sudden halt, victory snatched from our hands, by some little twerp with a scooter and a stupid pith helmet.
He led us out of the village, and pointed us in the direction of the main road. “Gam un!” we said. “Thank you!” For not arresting us!
Having retreated from the mess of roads along the coast, we eventually came to an intersection. We could either continue on the original coastal route – the real one, via Phat Diem – or scamper back to the 1A and go straight to Ninh Binh.
Even though the sun was setting, neither of us were keen on the truck-swamped atrocity that is the 1A, so we persevered on Route 10, which wasn’t clearly marked, and meant we often had to stop and ask directions. I was running low on fuel, so we pulled into a petrol station to fill up. Unfortunately they didn’t have any two-stroke oil, and our own reserves were dry, so I couldn’t.
No big deal; there are petrol stations every 20 k’s in Vietnam, and it’s far more common for them to have two-stroke oil than not. We could push on to the next one and buy some there. I ran out of fuel on the way there, but again that was no big deal – we just siphoned some out of Chris’ tank so that I could go the distance.
But when we arrived, again, no two-stroke oil. We checked all the local mechanics and auto stores, and none of them had any either. We even went up the road with an English-speaking local who said there was a shop that should have some, but they didn’t.
This had never ever been a problem before. Everywhere we’d been in Vietnam, with the occasional exception, petrol stations always sold two-stroke oil. Now all of a sudden we’d stumbled into some kind of two-stroke black hole where people didn’t even understand the concept, and we had sixty k’s to Ninh Binh, the sun was setting, and there wasn’t enough fuel in Chris’ tank to get both of us there.
We went back to the 1A, operating on the theory that a major highway would be bound to stock it. Nope. We checked again and again, driving further and further up, and at every single petrol station people just shook their heads and said “No… no.” You hear that word a lot here.
We stopped again to siphon another litre out of Chris’ fuel tank. I didn’t think we were going to find any, but was so determined to reach Ninh Binh that I was mentally preparing myself to push the bike all the way there and arrive at dawn.
The sun had well and truly disappeared now, and we were doing one of the things we hated most: driving at night. I’ve mentioned why this is so bad before, but let’s go over it again:
1. Third-world roads are not in good condition. They degenerate into gravel or sand without warning, potholes are frequent, livestock wanders free, and people live at the very edge of the road, which means a lot of human activity right where motorbikes are forced to drive by the larger vehicles.
2. Speaking of larger vehicles: they’re assholes. No motorcyclist anywhere in the world enjoys being surrounded by trucks, but in a country with no road rules this is worse. Driving on the 1A is bad enough during the day, let alone in the dark.
3. Minsk headlights are worthless, and give absolutely no illumination beyond a few metres. This kills your speed; even driving at the high end of third gear is too fast, unless there’s a lot of other vehicles with headlights around, or (tell him he’s dreaming) streetlights.
4. Eye protection. Normally I wear sunglasses, which obviously isn’t an option at night. This leaves my cheap, shitty, falling-apart visor, which fogs up easily and transforms oncoming headlights into blinding spotlights. The alternative is to wear nothing at all and squint through the dust and grit and insects.
Add to this the complication that I didn’t have enough fuel to reach Ninh Binh, and I’m sure you can imagine how much fun we were having. Eventually, at a roadside petrol station where workmen were jackhammering the concrete and huge pulses of lightning were flickering in the clouds on the horizon, we gave in, and put four-stroke oil in the bike.
I’d had no idea this was possible; Chris said you could do it, but it was really bad for the bike’s health, and my bike is already the mechanical equivalent of the English Patient. I would have felt less uneasy about it if it was four-stroke oil from a proper bottle, but it was four-stroke oil scooped out of a rusty ten-gallon drum by an old Vietnamese man, who then measured the correct ratio using a 207 mil Pepsi bottle. We mixed it with four litres of petrol, funnelled it into the bike, and I set off up the 1A praying that my engine wasn’t about to explode.
Praise be to Saint Christopher, it worked. The bike ran perfectly well, or as well as it ever does (which is to say, a hair’s breadth from catastrophe). We gritted our teeth and kept riding.
The roads around Ninh Binh were under heavy construction. That meant lots and lots of gravel, which meant lots and lots of dust, swirling up into the cones of headlights and half-blinding us. It also wasn’t much fun for steering; my column is now loose even by my standards, and I could feel the bike slipping and wobbling as we went through the gravel. “We’re idiots,” I said as we stopped at a set of traffic lights.
“For doing this.”
It was probably the most dangerous riding we’ve done. Even then I found my attention drifting, looking at the pineapple sellers on the side of the road who were waving flashlights around to attract the attention of drivers, and had some inner authority snapping at me: Pay fucking attention! 100% of your focus on the road. This corner is sandy, use your back brake. Watch out for that stupid bitch. And for God’s sake tuck your shirt in!
It took us a long time, but we fucking made it. We reached Ninh Binh at about 8.30, nine and a half hours after leaving Thai Hoa. By nine o’clock we’d found a guesthouse, swarming with the first Westerners we’d seen in ages. We got a room, unpacked the bikes, coerced the cook into cooking some dinner even though “is finished,” and showered our stinking, bedraggled bodies (Chris actually had a bath, and left a grey watermark). I had three beers, which I felt quite heavily since I’d had barely anything to eat all day, and then I gratefully fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.
So now we’re kicking around in Ninh Binh for a few days until the girls arrive on the 7th of July, when we’ll make our final victory ride into Hanoi. (Unless my bike vanishes in a flash of light.) We need to find some two-stroke oil here, and I want to ride my bike a bit to see if it throws up any more unexpected issues. My fucking carburettor is still fucking leaking.
This hotel seems like a decent place to while away the time, though – it has one of the only restaurants in town, and the rooms are nice and spacious. They have an inner courtyard where they keep motorcycles; I’m sure it’s fairly easy to wheel scooters through the hallways and living rooms of the outer building, but it was a bit of a squeeze on the Minsks.
The wifi doesn’t quite reach the third floor, though, so I asked if we could change down to the second floor. Of course, “is not possible,” because they’re supposedly all booked up. If they’re still empty this evening I’ll raise a ruckus. They also said they can’t do laundry until tonight, for some reason, even though the sun is shining right now and that’s how our clothes will be drying. Vietnam is definitely the country of “no.” Actually, I’ve noticed that the people who are always eager to help are the strangers and the passers-by, whereas the people whose job it is to help you, like hotel staff, couldn’t care less. Wrong way round, Vietnam.