July 8th, 2010
Hanoi, Vietnam

We left Ninh Binh with only 90 k’s to travel up the 1A to Hanoi. A quick, easy ride that shouldn’t take more than two hours. “I think we’ll get a break today,” Chris said, as we fired up the bikes.

I don’t, I thought.


I take no pleasure in being right about that.

It was the gears again, of course. This mechanic was a Honda specialist and didn’t seem to know all that much about manual bikes. He and Chris carefully took the gearbox apart, communicating with each other by drawing diagrams, inspecting the intricate workings of the inside of my wretched bike. I sat there on a plastic stool staring miserably at the horizon, Hanoi so close and yet so far, feeling sick and tired and hot.

“It’s this spring,” Chris said after a while. “The other one hasn’t broken once because it’s stronger. It’s two springs coiled together… where’s that pen?”

Yes, Chris fixed my gearbox by taking a spring from a pen and putting it inside some kind of locking mechanism I have no hope of understanding. It was a bit dicey when they were trying to put the gearbox back together, but they got it in the end, and the bike worked again. Even if the gears break after another fifty k’s, he still did just as good a job as any other Vietnamese mechanic.

We powered on up the 1A for the last time, a long bland stretch of highway running through rice paddies populated with billboards. Eventually we reached stretches under construction, and overpasses, and soon there were buildings and detours and railways and suddenly we were driving in the busy, crowded streets of Hanoi, part of a flood of thousands of other motorbikes.

We hadn’t been looking forward to this traffic, but it was no better or worse than Saigon’s. At least until I paused at an intersection, glanced down at my gears as I went into first, and then looked back up just in time to see Chris get ploughed into from the side by a wall of bikes, tumbling off his own, leg pinned underneath it and immediately drowning in the same river of traffic that had hit him. The specific cluster of scooters that had blindsided him, and which were now impeded by him, reacted exactly as I expected them to: nobody stopping to help, just pushing and looking over each other’s shoulders and trying to get around, like sheep, a great big dumb cloud of HEY WHAT’S GOING ON HEY HONK MOVE IT HEY COME ON WHAT HAPPENED HEY GET OUT OF THE WAY HEY MOVE IT!

I kicked my stand down, turned the engine off, jumped off my bike, took my helmet off and ran across the intersection to help him. At this stage he’d wriggled out from under the bike and a security guard had also come out and picked it up. “You okay?”

“Yeah. Fuck.”

The security guard and I pushed the bike to the edge of the road and Chris inspected the damage. His right foot peg had snapped clean off and most of the front brake was gone, but otherwise it was in driveable condition. A traffic cop had come out into the intersection to see what was going on, but left when he saw that Chris was OK and the bike was off the road. We pushed on.

The hotel the girls were staying at was in the Old Quarter, which is very colonial and charming and all that, but absolute hell to drive through on a motorbike. It has the same volume of traffic as an ordinary Hanoi street, but crammed into a much smaller space, and a proliferation of one-way streets makes navigation a nightmare. We constantly had to stop to check the map and ask directions – tired, thirsty, and fed up. Or I was anyway. But finally – after nearly forty days of driving through Vietnam, through insane traffic and bad roads and sweltering heat and apocalyptic thunderstorms and losing our way and run-ins with the police and accidents and breakdowns – we pulled up out the front of Mike’s Hotel in the Old Quarter of Vietnam, joyously hugged each other, shouted exaltations, and went inside to the hero’s welcome we deserved.

Except the hotel had been full, and the girls had moved to another, so we had to get back on the bikes and drive there.

Because of my breakdown, we’d arrived later than expected, and the girls were asleep in one of the rooms rather than waiting out the front to meet us. Running into the room all sweaty and stinking and jumping on the bed to wake them up was fun, though.

After showering, we went out for our victory dinner… which was okay. At this point I’m pretty much used to bad food in Vietnam. Max and Jess have gone to Laos, LIKE THE SELFISH BASTARDS THEY ARE, so it was just the four of us.

I’m very happy to be here. Hanoi seems nicer than Saigon, from what I’ve seen of it – I’ve spent most of my time here so far chained to the toilet while some strain of bacteria wreaks havoc on my digestive system. We’ll probably be here for about a week, since we need to get the bikes sorted. I’m still split on whether I should get mine serviced and then try to sell it to another backpacker, or just hand it as it is now (on the brink of collapse) to a dealer for $100. I’m annoyed that I still have to deal with it. I just want to wash my hands of it. At least I don’t have to ride it anymore.

This bike did not get me to Hanoi. My own stubborn determination, Chris’ patient repair skills, and more than a dozen mechanics all over the country got me to Hanoi.

Overall, though, this was a fantastic experience. The first half was without question the best, because South Vietnam is better than North Vietnam, and because we were with Max and Jess and Jimmy, and because my bike was still working most of the time. The second half was… a chore. From Khe Sanh onwards we weren’t enjoying it, because my bike was breaking down literally every single day, which tends to put a dampener on things. After a while I actually developed an anxiety about it and couldn’t even enjoy riding the bike when it did work – because I knew it was a matter of hours before it broke down again, and every gear change was fraught with apprehension.

But that’s OK. It was a challenge. I will never again ride a third-world bike, and I highly doubt I will ever come back to Vietnam, but this was a great experience and one of the most awesome things I’ve ever done. There are things I’d do differently if I could go back in time, however, which I now offer as advice to anyone thinking about riding through Vietnam:

1. Don’t do it on a fucking Minsk.
2. If you insist on doing it on a Minsk, buy it off a dealer, not another backpacker. Dealers are out to make a profit, but they generally keep their bikes in good nick. Backpacker bikes have been beaten to hell and back.
3. If buying a Minsk, check how old it is by looking at the serial code on the support column below the fuel tank. Count roughly eight digits backwards to find a single letter. Minsks use an alpha-numeric code, with B being circa 1980, S being circa 1996, X being circa 1999 and so on. Anything less than M? Keep shopping.

In general I think you just need to stamp down your eagerness and be very choosy about what you buy. I got burned in Korea because I was so keen to go that I picked a franchise with a bad reputation instead of shopping around; I got burned in Vietnam because I didn’t look at enough different motorcycles before buying one.

Lessons learned for horse shopping in Mongolia…