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July 23rd, 2010
Train to Lao Cai, Vietnam

I’m writing this on the sleeper train bound for Lao Cai, on the Chinese border. I was hoping we’d take a sleeper bus before a sleeper train, so the train would be better in comparison, but it didn’t work out. This thing rocks and sways and arrives at 5 am, but we’ll be spending tomorrow night on a 12-hour sleeper bus to Kunming, and I expect this to be Nirvana in comparison.

We shelled out a whopping US $40 each for these tickets, because the train office was booked out and we had no option but to go through a travel agency. (Or take a hard seat, or a bus, but fuck that.) Travel agencies tend to buy them up in advance and sell them at inflated prices to idiot tourists like us who leave it until the last minute. It’s our own fault. We really should have remembered KL, and booked as soon as we got here, but we’re used to just jumping on our motorbikes and going whenever and wherever we want.

Speaking of the bikes, we finally sold them, to a very nice Belgian couple who are planning to ride across Laos and into Thailand. We actually spent a while talking to them, because they’re both keen bikers, planning to ride the Americas at some stage. The girl owns a BMW GS Adventure, the mere mention of which makes Chris perk up. I was honest with them about my bike’s mechanical difficulties – gearbox, carburettor, steering etc. – and warned them that it will break down a lot. I may have left out things like “I fucking hate this motorcycle,” but I’m pretty sure that was implied. The guy was quite amused at how excessively negative we were about Minsks, but hey, that’s Minsks for you. They said we could swing by and stay with them in Belgium when we’re travelling across Europe later in the year, and if they open the door and punch me in the face, well, fair’s fair.

The final price was $350 US for both bikes and all the gear, which Chris and I split $250 and $100. I don’t think my bike’s worth anything more than that. The day before we met the Belgians, a Vietnamese guy offered me $50 for both the bike and the helmet and I was seriously considering it. I’m glad to be rid of it, and I hope they manage it better than I did.

We saw Kristie and Elisha off at the airport this morning, getting up at 5.30 am, the first of three nights where we’ll get barely enough sleep. It went a little easier than last time, yet gave us a strange sense of deja vu: saying goodbye to the girls at an airport, travelling by night, and beginning a new leg of the journey. The next leg takes us through China, Mongolia and Russia, considerably further off the beaten track.

South-East Asia is the beaten track. Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos have essentially become one enormous pub crawl for British and Australian twenty-somethings enroute to each other’s countries. That’s not all they are, obviously; countries are big things, and it’s entirely possible to break away from the tourist trail in all of them, and do something more than the typical Full Moon Party Vang Vieng Tubing Booze Cruise Hill Tribe Homestay “experience” that so many people come here for. And it’s not like these countries don’t serve any other purpose, either. But overall it wasn’t the best place for us to start. We’re not here for things like that. The only other places I’ve been are Japan and South Korea, but I highly doubt South-East Asia will ever be one of my favourite regions of the world. About the only things it has going for it are the low prices and (for some people) the climate. Personally, I can’t stand humid weather and I’m aching to get up into the Himalayas and not be dripping with sweat all the time.

Nonetheless, we had good times here. I absolutely loved climbing all over deserted jungle ruins at Angkor Wat. The day we spent biking around the back-country of Cambodia with Kristian and Nicole was a blast. And – although my thoughts on Vietnam are a matter of public record – we had one of the best experiences of our lives riding motorcycles from Saigon to Hanoi, with Max and Jess and Jimmy. Riding down the spectacular road out of the Central Highlands, exploring a ruined French hill fort, slipping out on a muddy road after an epic thunderstorm… I’ll be remembering these moments for the rest of my life. A brilliant experience. I highly doubt I’ll ever come back to Vietnam, but I think we made pretty good use of our two months here.

Our rough route for the next leg will take us up through Yunnan and Sichuan, two western provinces that hug the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau and are renowned for their natural beauty. I’d like to see Tibet, but access is highly controlled by the Chinese government, and it looks like a hassle. If we can go there, we might; if not, we won’t. After that we’re bound for Beijing on a route that I sure hope will favour trains over buses. In Beijing we’ll apply for Mongolian visas, and then travel by rail to Ulaan Baator, where we plan to buy horses and spend a few weeks riding around the steppe while a shady tour company back in the capital obtains Russian visas for us. Returning to UB, we’ll hop aboard the Trans-Siberian Express and watch Russia go by out the window of a train until we arrive in Moscow, which will be the end of the second leg and the beginning of the third.

I wonder if I’ll sleep on this train. There’s no doubt that Chris won’t; he’s utterly hopeless with sleep. I blame Elisha for it, since I don’t recall him ever being this bad at it before. He’ll stay up until 2 in the morning watching movies on his laptop even if he knows we have an early start the next day. He has a hard enough time sleeping in Asian beds, let alone on moving vehicles. back in Australia I constantly urged to go to a doctor and get his melatonin levels checked, but he refused. None of this would be any of my business, except that we’re together day in day out and, like all people, he gets cranky if he doesn’t sleep.

Anyway. I guess I may as well try.

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July 19th, 2010
Hanoi, Vietnam

Recently a Western expat living in Vietnam discovered my blog, was mortified by my honest opinions, and ran off to show his friends on Facebook and Twitter and rally a crusade against me. The result was a grilling by people who didn’t bother to read most of my blog and who have never met me, which I find quite hilarious. Go ahead and check out the 50 comments on the last entry, they’re a riot.

I responded to these comments largely because it was amusing and I have nothing better to do at the moment, not because I harboured any notion of convincing these people I was right. That’s not how Internet arguments work. They are not places where civil discussion and enlightenment takes place. But I found it quite surprising how personally upset these people were and how much time they devoted to attacking one of thousands of tourists who come to Vietnam each year and leaves with a sour taste of the place.

My favourite arguments were that if I didn’t like Vietnam I should just go home (because apparently there are only two countries in the world), that I was ignorant (pretty sure I did just spend more than fifty days travelling all over Vietnam), and that I was racist. I may make a lot of obvious jokes and exaggerations, but anyone who knows me – or, in fact, anyone who bothers to actually read what I write – knows that I regularly go out of my way to rail against the disturbing undercurrent of racism in Australian society. Of course, that’s what happens when you start haranguing complete strangers on the Internet.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve been reading travel blogs long enough to know that if you criticise a place – even slightly – the locals will burst out of the woodwork, screeching with indignation. I guess some people just can’t handle freedom of speech. Maybe that’s why they love Vietnam.

But while we’re on the subject, I want to address this silly prevailing notion that a foreign culture is immune to criticism by Westerners; the idea that we should accept flaws simply because “that’s just how things are here” and “we can’t expect to understand their ways.” That is romantic exoticism and it is bullshit. Criticism does not equal misunderstanding. I understand perfectly well that the Vietnamese dislike outsiders, and that Koreans don’t think there’s anything wrong with racial discrimination, and that many African tribes mutilate their daughters’ genitalia, and that Australians treat refugees with appalling vitriol. I know exactly how and why these things are the case (a history of foreign intrusion, racial homogeneity, misguided medical and religious reasons, and government propaganda, respectively). That doesn’t mean I approve of any of those things, and I’m going to say so. Unpleasant people, places, practices and beliefs do not get a free pass merely by virtue of being foreign.

I think there’s a definite line drawn between travellers who treat everywhere they go as though it lives up to its guidebook image, gushing about local charm and exotic adventures, and travellers who dispose with preconceptions and say what they really think about countries, cities and people. It’s not about optimism and pessimism, it’s about honesty. There are plenty of friendly people I met in Vietnam, and plenty of places (notably Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Hoi An, Mui Ne, Dalat and the Central Highlands) that I really liked. None of these places and none of these people outweighed their far more unpleasant and numerous counterparts. I didn’t like Vietnam and I won’t be coming back here, largely because the people are so unfriendly. That’s not racism. That’s honesty. I’m on this trip to see the world, and I’m going to write about what I see. It’s not always going to be rosy.

But don’t take my word for it. Elisha regularly warned us that Vietnam was a country best avoided, and we regularly laughed at her for thinking that we would cross a country off our list based solely on one person’s opinion. By all means come and see Vietnam for yourself. Just be honest about what you think of it, like you should be with all countries, and in fact all things in life.

(Credit Nedroid)

Hanoi, Vietnam
July 15th, 2010

Visiting Ha Long Bay is something you simply Have To Do in Vietnam, since it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and stunningly beautiful and blah blah blah. If it was up to me and Chris we’d be on a train for the Chinese border already, yelling “Faster, driver! Faster!” but the girls are here for two weeks and so we thought we may as well go visit Vietnam’s biggest tourist draw.

Elisha came to Vietnam in February already, by the way, after two months of working in an orphanage in Cambodia. She hated it, largely because of the rude and hostile populace. See? It’s not just us.

Anyway, we were booked into a package tour for the trip ($98 US for three days and two nights), since Ha Long Bay isn’t exactly a place you can wander about in by yourself. As I mentioned earlier, Chris and I both disliked package tours for various reasons despite never having been on one, and I’ll warn you now that this blog post will largely be comprised of reasons why our prejudices were correct.

We got up at 7 so the tour bus could pick us up at 8 – which was actually 8.35, because of course there were dozens of other tourists to pick up from their hotels, and we weren’t first. For the first time since we’d arrived in Hanoi, a thunderstorm was hanging above the city, treating it to an absolutely torrential downpour of rain. From the windows of the bus we could see entire flooded streets and intersections, with people on scooters in water up to their knees. The fact that a tropical city doesn’t have a system in place to deal with monsoonal rain is another example of the Vietnamese inability to accomplish anything. I mean, shit, we have storm-water drains in Perth, and we’re practically in the desert.

It was a fairly uneventful three hour bus ride, with a brief shopping stopover. Oh, sorry, “rest” stopover. I was quite pleased to be back on a bus, looking out the window at other people struggling through heavy rain and bad roads and insane traffic on their motorbikes. I’m done with motorbikes for a while.

We arrived at the coast shortly after noon, with the distant islands of the bay visible on the horizon, and were told to sit and wait by our idiot tour guide Dingus. (That’s not his real name, but none of us learned it, so we had to come up with a nickname and that’s the one that stuck.) There were plenty of other tour groups similarly sitting around and waiting, while their guides wandered off somewhere into the hustle and bustle of the quayside. There were dozens of boats lining the wharf, and hundreds more visible anchored in the deeper water beyond them. I was at a loss as to why we were sitting there waiting, and after about forty minutes Chris and I went off to find out why.

We found Dingus in an office that was marked, in Vietnamese and broken Engrish, as a “boat rental service.” Inside, Dingus and dozens of other tour guides were clamouring at a desk in order to secure a vessel.

We walked back to the girls. “Guess what,” I said. “He’s only just now hiring our boat. And that’s not just our guy’s method, that’s everybody’s method. You don’t think, maybe, you should arrange that in advance? Instead of bussing people three hours out of Hanoi and then just hoping that you can get a boat?”

Chris put on his Vietnamese accent: “Oh, that is really good idea… you should be in charge!”

Eventually Dingus returned with the news that we had a boat, and we grabbed our bags and followed him down to the wharf. Chris mentioned that he heard another guide returning to his group in failure, and spinning some bullshit story about how they hadn’t been able to get a police clearance. And the tourists were just sitting there and taking it.

We got herded onto a tender, which took us out to one of the boats anchored in the harbour, a stately three-level boat run by a company called Christina Cruise. Our tour company was called AST. This is all irrelevant, since package tours in Vietnam are often (correctly) described as a “minefield,” flooded with shonky operators and imitators, lies and deception and charlatanry, all wrapped up behind an inscrutable Oriental curtain. Any trip to Ha Long Bay is apparently a crap shoot, because the operators are all in cahoots and will bump you off onto their partners whenever they feel like it. We knew none of this beforehand, and simply booked a tour straight from our hotel’s reception desk. I couldn’t be bothered putting in any more effort than that; in fact, Chris booked it while I was in bed with a migraine. So I didn’t really have high expectations for the trip itself, but – since this is the first time we’ve slept anywhere more exotic than a hotel room – I was apprehensive about the cabins.

“They can’t build houses, which stay still,” Chris said, as we shuffled down the port side with our bags. “I can’t wait to see how they fuck this up.”

I suppose it wasn’t too bad, as cabins go, except that it was incredibly cramped and in no way resembled the spacious suite we’d seen in the brochure. (Actually, since Dingus booked the boat at the last second, I’m not sure how they justify having a brochure at all.) The bathroom was a typical mess, with another of those toilet cisterns you have to take apart and fill up yourself if you want to flush – not to mention a seat that wasn’t bolted on or attached at all, so if you shift your weight even slightly it slips out and practically flips you right off the toilet. Haven’t had one of those since Cambodia!

Kristie was puzzled when I said I was going to have a shower. “We have a shower? Where?”

I pointed at the hose and nozzle attached to the wall. “There.”

“What?”

“That’s the shower.”

“But… where do you stand?”

“There. In the middle of the bathroom. And you wash yourself, and it goes down this drain on the floor here.”

“But that’s retarded!” she wailed. “Why are they so retarded?”

“Welcome to Asia.”

After dumping our bags in the room, we were ordered to report back to the restaurant deck for lunch. This became a recurring theme that we despised: constantly being told what to do and when to do it, as though you’re back in school on a camp or excursion. Except your teacher has been replaced with a nineteen-year old Vietnamese dork. The icing on the cake was his constant use of the word “enjoy,” just like in the huge tour advertisements that plaster the walls of every cafe and hotel in this country: “Now we go to enjoy lunch… if you do not enjoy seafood you can enjoy vegetarian meal… at one o’clock we will anchor and enjoy swimming…”

After lunch the boat started cruising towards a cluster of islets, and I sat at the prow with my legs dangling off the edge, watching them approach. Like much of Vietnam and southern China, the landscape in Ha Long Bay consists of huge limestone pillars thrusting up out of the ground, resulting in sheer cliff faces and lots of dangling green foliage. Ha Long Bay is different in that it’s in the ocean, resulting in thousands of little islands.

There are also thousands of little tourist boats.

It’s beautiful and dramatic and all that – Kristie, who came straight from Perth and hasn’t seen anything like it before, was certainly impressed – but after seeing this kind of thing all the way up the country I’m fairly jaded. No matter how beautiful something is, if you see it often enough you get bored of it. Just like Chris’ chest!

We arrived in a sheltered harbour inside the islet cluster, and Dingus came out to tell me to stop sitting at the front of the boat with my legs off the edge, because “if police see, they will give us trouble, and fine.” I later learned that either Dingus lives in constant fear of the police, or they’re his catch-all excuse when he doesn’t want a tourist doing something.

We got off the boat and were hustled through a cave with approximately a hundred other tourists. You may recognise the cliche Ha Long Bay view from the top:

After that it was back on the boat, travelling a short distance and then docking at an Authentic Sea Gypsy Village to Enjoy Kayaking. The village had been thoroughly annexed by the tourism authorities; several of the homes were apparently sponsored by Sacombank.

We shuffled out onto the planks and dutifully lined up while Dingus made everyone put on enormous, misshapen life jackets that would be about as useful to a drowning man as a towel.

“Excuse me sir, but you are needing to put on a life vest,” Dingus chirped as we tried to get into a kayak without them.

“I don’t need one. I’m Australian. I know how to swim.”

“Aha, yes, I see, but if the police is see you without a life jacket, then the police, they come to tour guide and make me pay money. You see? So I am not wanting to pay money to the police.”

“Fine,” I said. “But I highly doubt this is a registered vessel.”

We put the stupid, itchy life jackets on and paddled off past the village, with the girls in a kayak behind us. “This water is disgusting,” Chris said, watching all the junk bob past in the brown, murky water we were paddling through. “I don’t even know what that is.”

“You know they just pump the sewerage straight in. They must. Not just the villages, but all the tour boats too.”

Chris put on his Vietnamese accent and spelled out a tourist slogan: “HA LONG BAY: Where do you think it goes?”

We paddled on through the bay, dotted with other kayakers, and eventually ended up drifting near a karst wall. The girls had already headed back to the village. “This is shit,” Chris said. “This is so shit.”

“Maybe if we had our own kayaks and a proper day to explore,” I said. “Instead of just getting booted off the boat into this gross bay for half an hour. If we were on our own it would be better.”

“I hate that man,” Chris said. “I really do. I can’t explain why. It’s like all the hatred I’ve built up for the last two months has just…”

“Coalesced?”

“…into this one man.”

“‘Now you go here… now you do this… now you enjoy…'” I said. “It’s just organised tours. They’re shit. I don’t like being told what to do. And you know what blows my mind? There’s people that do this for everything. Just for stuff like cities. Or even whole countries.”

“And just this,” Chris said. “Kayaking around… I don’t know, like, all the other tourists and stuff are on holiday so they’ve got to make every day count and make the most of things. But… this is our life now. And if it’s crap, it’s crap.”

“Max and Jess liked this,” I said. “Maybe they were on a better tour than us. Although… I don’t know, Max did say Thailand was his favourite country. And Laos.” I’d been looking at photos of tubing in Laos a few days ago, and it repulsed me. You can see gap-year travellers everywhere wearing shirts and singlets with “Tubing In The Vang Vieng Laos” or “Beer Lao” written on them. Like Thailand, it seems to be a country that serves no other purpose than a piss-up for British and Australian twenty-somethings.

“Maybe that’s… you know, they are British tourists,” Chris said. We’d both often teased Max and Jess for saying that things were “AMAZING” or “the best thing I’ve done on my gap hya.” Since then we’ve developed a theory that the British in general have a very low threshhold for wonder and awe, since they hail from cold and gloomy Knifecrime Island. Naturally, as Australians, we assess the world by a more robust standard.

Since the UK is our ultimate destination this is making Chris a little anxious. I, on the other hand, refuse to believe that the UK (and Europe in general) will be anything other than a glorious utopia of cleanliness, low humidity and working infrastructure. How marvellous it must be, to have the electricity on every day, and to walk into a hotel room and not have to fix half the things inside it!

I miss the first world, not Australia. I miss my friends and family, not Australia. Even when I do miss Australia, I miss the beach and Lancelin and Collie and WA’s south-west. Not Perth. When I stop and really think about Perth: about the suburbs, about working at Coles, about the isolation and the stagnation… I don’t want to go home, I just want to leave South-East Asia. The day we cross the Chinese border and get off the Banana Pancake Trail will be a sweet day indeed. I’m nowhere near ready to go home. Which is good, because I’ve now been away from home longer than ever before in my life, since I only racked up 77 days in Korea before saying “fuck this” and bailing.

We paddled back to the sea gypsy village, dumped the kayak and life jackets and hung around for a while waiting for everybody else to finish and return to the boat. “I think I’ve stepped on at least four or five planks where, if I put my full weight on them, my foot would go right through,” I said.

“They can’t build on land,” Chris said. “What made them think they could take on the sea?”

We chatted to an American couple while sitting around waiting. They said they liked Vietnam a lot better than Cambodia, because in Cambodia everybody was trying to rip them off; the girl had particularly hated it, and related a string of anecdotes about paying people ten US dollars because they told her it was the fair price, or paying thirty dollars to a bunch of demanding orphans, etc. “No wonder she didn’t like Cambodia,” Chris muttered. “She’s an idiot.”

After half an hour or so, all the tourists had returned to the boat and we were ready to leave. This was one of the highlights of the trip, as the dumbass captain tried to take off without untying the boat first. Ah, Vietnam!

We anchored in a neighbouring bay (just as chock-a-block full of other tour boats as the last one) to do some swimming. As with Nha Trang, this was ironically the highlight of the trip. There’s not much you can do to mess up the fun of jumping off things into the water.

This boat was a lot higher than the one in Nha Trang, though, and it took me quite a while to build up the guts to jump off the third level. Only after Chris stood there verbally haranguing me, and a bunch of Irish girls did it first, was I able to work up enough confidence (well, shame) to throw myself in. I did it twice and, no matter what, at the last second I always took my hand away from my nose and tried to spread my arms to break my fall instead. Daft, since the whole problem I have with jumping from a height in the first place is getting water up my nose. I’m not sure how high it was. I recall the really high cliff at Stockton (the once Lindsay was trying to convince us was dangerous) as being slightly higher, yet I had no problems with that.

At this point the sun had set, and after showering and changing clothes for the evening it was time to Enjoy Dinner. Food was included in the tour price, but the catch was that you had to pay for your own drinks, at inflated prices. $2 US for a beer may seem cheap to those back home, but it’s two or three times what you’d pay on the mainland. We soon went up onto the top deck to look at the stars, and I noticed on the way out that the boat crew had cracked out the souveneirs and were trying to sell them to the tourists who were still eating.

There wasn’t a whole lot to do after dark. We lay on the deckchairs for a while, listened to our iPods and the shouts and yells emanating from the thirty other tourist boats crammed into our bay, and then went to bed. Lonely Planet ranks Ha Long Bay quite high, and claimes you will be “lulled to sleep by the swaying boat.” In actual fact you will be kept awake by the vibrations of the diesel generator right below your cabin, but hey, let’s not split hairs!

The cheapskates turned the air-conditioning off at about 5.30 in the morning, so we were already awake and dripping with sweat when Dingus hammered on our door at 7.30 to inform us that it was time to Enjoy Breakfast. Breakfast was unenjoyable stale bread, eggs and bad coffee. We went up onto deck for a while, but were soon ushered back down by Dingus to pack and “check out.” He then hammered on our cabin doors again five minutes later.

“Excuse me sir, is time to pack and check out so…”

“Yes. I know. That’s what I’m doing in here. You already told us.”

The next Fun Activity To Enjoy on our itinerary was trekking on Cat Ba Island. The consent amongst the four of us was unanimous: there was no way in hell we were spending two hours trudging through a sweaty Vietnamese forest after getting barely any sleep the previous night. If we were going through Kakadu or the Amazon, then maybe, but as Chris put it: “There is nothing I’m going to see that’s going to wow me.” We made this known to Dingus, and he said he’d see what could be done.

After getting off the boat, waiting around on the pier for about half an hour while Dingus secured a bus, and driving through some winding jungle roads, we arrived out the front of the national park. The four of us, plus one British girl who couldn’t be fucked with a death march either, remained on the bus while everyone else shuffled off. It was only then that Dingus stuck his face in and said, “Hello, I am sorry, but bus driver says is no good, cannot take you…” And so on in that fashion.

“Where is the bus driver?” Chris said. “Let me talk to him.”

“How much do we have to pay him?” Elisha asked.

$2 each, as it turned out. I suppose it was a huge inconvenience for him, to take us to where he was driving anyway. Oh, no, wait – it’s because every last person in this fucking country is a money-sucking vampire.

We spent the rest of the afternoon lazing around in the hotel. Kristie and I were considering looking for a beach, but I lost all enthusiasm for it after about fifty metres, and – judging from the the harbour out front of our hotel – I doubt Cat Ba boasts any decent beaches anyway. “I hate this,” Chris said. “I hate being stuck here. I had more freedom at work.”

I’ve been reading up on some of the horror stories about shonky Ha Long Bay tour operators, and I think we got off fairly well – even if we did probably pay too much. The problem was ours, not theirs. Chris and I do not enjoy package tours. We do not appreciate being spoonfed, being told precisely what to do on a fixed itinerary. It was especially insufferable given that we just finished riding our own motorcycles from Saigon to Hanoi – something very few people do, and something which gave us absolute freedom and independence. To then be squashed onto an organised tour boat, part of a horde of tens of thousands of Westerners who visit every year, was to go straight from one extreme to the other, and it was a nasty backhand across the face.

My new rule is that no matter how Unmissable or Amazing or Must See something is, I’m not joining a tour group to do it. If it’s a choice between missing the thing, and going on a tour, I’ll cut my losses and move on. This experience made me realise just how much I value my freedom while travelling.

Not only that, but even as a tour experience, it made me realise just how many things Vietnam lets slide, things that would be inconceivable on an organised tour in the West. Turning the air-conditioning off two hours before we were due to get up, and trying to hawk necklaces over dinner, and – most inexcusably of all – not organising a boat until we actually got to the quay… all of these things just wouldn’t cut it in Australia or America or Europe. But they’re par for the course in South-East Asia.

I looked up our hotel, the Holiday View, in Lonely Planet. Outside of a tour, the prices are a staggering US $45 – $70. I cannot fathom how they justify charging that much for a room that was indistinguishable from virtually every other place we’ve stayed. In fact, I’ve paid a hell of a lot less for a hell of a lot more. It wasn’t even particularly new, clean or competent – it had the same fuck-ups as every other hotel room in this region, including an air-con that dripped water onto the bed, so that we had to sleep with our heads at the other end.

We got up at 7.30 to Enjoy Breakfast and were then hustled out onto a tour bus that took us to the pier, where we again sat around waiting for an hour while Dingus secured a boat to take us back to the mainland. Once there, we waited around some more, before eventually being led to a cramped “VIP dining room” at the back of a restaurant, fed some more mediocre crap, and then getting on another bus to return to Hanoi.

Even after clocking up more than two thousand kilometres riding from Saigon to Hanoi, the road between Ha Long and Hanoi was the most reckless, dangerous, insane road we’d yet encountered. I felt unsafe on the bus, let alone on a motorbike. Our driver was constantly overtaking everything in front of us, even with huge trucks swooping towards us flashing their headlights, and only just managing to squeeze back into the right lane with a finger’s width of distance and a gut-churning whoosh as the truck would fly past us. This happened over and over again.

Then, when we arrived in Hanoi, Dingus had the gall to stand up and suggest, in his reedy voice and irritating accent, that we should all give the driver one or two dollars each because he’d done such a great job getting us back to Hanoi. “Hmmm,” I said. “Do I want to tip the man who gambled with our lives?”

My thoughts on tipping aside, there is no way in hell I was giving any money to a Vietnamese bus driver. After a month riding a motorcycle up this country, there is no kind of man I loathe more than the reckless, impatient, ruthless Vietnamese bus driver. He is the scum of the earth; the lowest of the low. We got off the bus without tipping him and without giving Dingus a second glance. Chris was particularly incensed by his customary tour guide end-of-trip refrain: “I hope you have good time with us and will see us again when you come back to Vietnam.”

“When I come back?” Chris said later. “When I come back will be when I’m conscripted to fight you idiots. Actually, no – I’ll volunteer.”

So that was Ha Long Bay. It was an unendingly execrable trip and I will never go on a package tour again. Now we’re going to go out, have dinner and get drunk to celebrate the fact that we’re back in Hanoi, free men once more.

Hanoi, Vietnam
July 12th, 2010

I haven’t been blogging much lately because we haven’t been doing much lately. We’re sitting around in Hanoi trying to sell the bikes, which is proving more difficult than expected. In Saigon we met plenty of people who were planning to ride upcountry, and plenty of people selling Minsks, but in Hanoi supply and demand is flipped the other way around.

“Kristie said you talked to some French guys about the bikes last night,” I said this morning.

“One of them, yeah. He’s not interested in buying it, but he said he’d tell people and see if anyone was interested. So, yeah, it’s as good as nothing.”

 

We did go and get them serviced by a mechanic at Flamingo Travel, which set us back about half a million dong each. I’m not sure if I should have bothered, since it looks like I’m probably going to be selling it to a dealer for less than $200 US anyway. Chris is still holding out for $400. His bike is worth that much… just not here.

Our hotel is going to hold on to them for us while we go to Ha Long Bay over the next few days. We signed up for an organised tour. Normally we hate organised tours with a burning passion and avoid them wherever possible, but Ha Long Bay is not a place you can easily travel independently through, and we have the girls with us, and neither of us are really up for the hassles and difficulties of independent travel in Vietnam at this point. I may be beating a dead horse at this point, but Vietnam is truly a frustrating and unappealing country. And we’re not the only people who think that.

On the plus side, Hanoi is much nicer than Saigon. On the way up we met a lot of people who hated it, but none of them had been to Saigon yet. Hanoi boasts the Old Quarter, a compact cluster of old French colonial buildings with winding alleyways and narrow streets and lots of overhanging trees. It’s no Hoi An, but it’s a hell of a lot more pleasant that Saigon. Even in spite of the oppressive heat, it’s an interesting place to just walk around in.

 

This photo is somewhat unusual in that it has a car in it. Fuck ever driving a car in this city – let alone a truck or a bus. I think every four-wheeled driver in Hanoi only has a limited amount of time before he snaps and goes on a Grand Theft Auto rampage through the city, mowing down thousands of scooters.

We haven’t gone to see any sights or anything – we were going to go check out Ho Chi Minh’s pickled corpse, but it’s only open for three hours in the morning, and we’ve all slipped into a routine of sleeping very late. Actually, come too think of it, Kristie and I did go see the Temple of Literature on our second day here. It was a very unremarkable collection of buildings that rivalled Kyoto’s Golden Pavilion for a Things To See vs. Huge Swarms Of Tourists ratio.

Apart from that, our days here have consisted of going out to get lunch, coming back and lolling about in the air-con, going out to get dinner, and coming back to watch some god-awful movie on Cinemax or HBO. That suits me just fine. It beats spending an average of six hours a day at a mechanic’s.

 

And you know what, I’m going to get the jump on this before either Elisha or Kristie go “SCREEECH oh my god I look terrible in this photo delete it!!!” This is one of those common, ordinary things that happens all the time and which I’ve only just abruptly gotten sick of: women complaining about photos of themselves and thinking they look terrible. This happens literally 99% of the time, all over the world, whenever anyone takes a photo of a woman. You look fine. Sheesh.

We’re going to the cinema tonight to see Eclipse, since Elisha likes Twilight and the rest of us also like it but for completely different reasons. New Moon was the best comedy of 2009. I challenge anyone to watch that movie and see Edward Cullen get out of his car with a fan blowing his hair and shirt back, and awesome music playing, and not collapse onto the floor in huge heaving sobs of laughter. Then when we get back I have to pack all my stuff into my backpack for the first time in more than a month… which will be difficult.

“I’m really not looking forward to getting on a bus for three hours tomorrow,” Chris said over lunch today.

“I am,” I replied. After forty days with that wretched motorcycle, I really truly am looking forward to travelling by bus and boat and train again. Oh my, yes!

Oh, and one last unrelated note: I seem to have built up a reputation, more on Facebook than here, for being a complainer. This comes from people who clearly don’t understand what is interesting and what is not. Nobody wants to hear claptrap about somebody having a fantastic time on holiday – about going on an elephant ride that was SO AMAZING or seeing a waterfall that was SO BEAUTIFUL or about how the local culture is SO PURE COMPARED TO OUR COMMERCIAL CONSUMERISM. They want problems and hassles and hilarious misadventures. They want schadenfreude. One of the first rules about writing is that a story without conflict isn’t just a bad story – it’s not a story at all. Anybody who knows me knows that, despite my bitching and moaning, I’m not actually a pessimist. I’m usually complaining simply because I find it amusing and funny. (The same goes for Chris). So unless you want me to start posting dull status updates and writing boring blog entries about only the good things in my day, stop complaining about me complaining.

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…

July 7th, 2010
Hanoi, Vietnam

 

WE FUCKING DID IT! IN YOUR FUCKING FACE YOU STUPID USELESS MADDENING UNRELIABLE RUSTY DISINTEGRATING GOOD-FOR-NOTHING CRUMBLING FOUL FRUSTRATING FALLING-APART SOVIET PIECE OF SHIT!

July 6th, 2010
Ninh Binh, Vietnam

We want to arrive in Hanoi the same day the girls do, so that there’ll be somebody around to appreciate what we’ve just accomplished. That means sitting around for four full days in Ninh Binh, just 90 k’s south of the capital.

The staff at our guesthouse have been extremely rude, unhelpful and downright hostile, even by Vietnamese standards. We’re staying at the Than Thuy Hotel, Lonely Planet’s pick, which describes the place as “well-run and friendly.” I – along with most of the reviewers on TripAdvisor – beg to differ. They treat as us though we’re mangy old dogs that have slunk into their house and which they only barely tolerate.

I was talking to an Irish guy who lives in Saigon the other night and realised that I’ve been giving Vietnam a bad rap. His take was that the people in the south are quite friendly, whereas the people in the north are irredeemable fuckheads who won’t give a Westerner the time of day. And come to think of it, we did have some great staff in the places we stayed in Dalat, Nha Trang and Hoi An.

I can’t think of any reason to explain this other than the obvious war divide, but I can’t think of why that would have this effect. All of Vietnam has been socially and politically North Vietnam for the past thirty-five years, and the north sees just as many tourists as the south (if not more, because of Ha Long bay). It’s a puzzler.

Either way, I’m keen to be shot of this country, and if the girls weren’t coming up I’d be on the first train to Lao Cai. Just totally, completely over it. At least after tomorrow I’ll never have to ride that bike again.

Speaking of which, rather than sit in the hotel room downloading vast amounts of movies and TV shows off Bittorrent, we decided to actually venture out yesterday to go visit Tam Coc. This is Ninh Binh’s biggest draw, described as “Ha Long Bay on land,” and I wanted to check it out. It’s about ten k’s to the south of town, so we decided to ride our bikes there. I’m sure you can imagine how we ended up spending the afternoon instead.

 

The most depressing part is that I wasn’t even surprised. My gears broke less than fifty metres from the hotel, and we pulled over, and I said in a conversational tone, “My bike’s broken.” It was exactly what I had expected to happen. I literally cannot ride this bike without having to visit a mechanic in between my departure point and destination, and I’m completely resigned to that fact.

“This hasn’t turned you off the America trip, has it?” Chris asked over dinner the other night.

“Actually, it’s turned me off everything mechanical,” I said. “Bikes, cars, computers, everything. I can’t stop thinking about how no matter what man creates, it will always degrade and break down. I’m having nightmares about it and I just want to walk everywhere.”

Chris stared at me.

“Like you said. This bike has driven me mad.”

I’m at the point now where I don’t care what I get for it in Hanoi. I would be quite content with wheeling it into the Red River and walking away.

Anyway, that put paid to our plans yesterday, so we went to Tam Coc today instead. I rode on the back of Chris’ bike, not because I thought mine would break down again (although it probably would) but because I’m not feeling too crash hot. Just traveller’s diarrhea; I think I ate something bad. I woke up at about 4 am this morning and couldn’t get back to sleep even after multiple trips to the toilet. So I was exhausted all day too.

I’m really sick of getting TD. It inevitably happens every two or three weeks and it sucks. God, I miss the first world. Just look at it on a map. Those wonderful strongholds of health and efficiency and cleanliness… Australia and Europe and Japan and Canada and the USA… so beautiful…

Tam Coc was nice. You pay 60,000 dong each to sit in a rowboat with a woman who paddles you all the way up the river, which is lined on all sides by huge limestone karsts and runs through several caves.

 

Here’s me and Chris wearing the stylish lilypad hats our rower plucked out of the water for us.

 

I would have enjoyed it a lot more if we’d been on our own kayak, but it was still quite pleasant, and the first beautiful landscape we’ve seen since Phong Nha National Park.

 

Now I need to go pack, since we’re leaving – finally – for Hanoi tomorrow morning. We’re just going to take the 1A, since the Ho Chi Minh is out of the way and probably won’t be much better than the 1A in this part of the country. I’m really looking forward to getting into the city, getting some decent Western food and seeing Kristie again – not to mention accomplishing our goal, which comes with the added benefit of not being on this fucking motorcycle anymore – but I’m not looking forward to the actual ride itself. Neither the 1A nor the busy streets of Hanoi will be nice to ride in. In fact, they’ll be very unenjoyable and sometimes dangerous. A shame to end the trip that way, but I’m over it anyway.

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.

“Why?”

“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.

July 1st, 2010
Thai Hoa, Vietnam

We covered a lot of ground today and made our longest ride yet: 315 kilometres, between Phong Nha National Park and this mid-sized town called Thai Hoa, from about 8 in the morning to 6.30 in the evening.

We were able to do this partly because Mitch’s Daily Minsk Fuck-Up was one that didn’t prevent me from riding the bike, or even from riding it fast. Shortly after we left town (as always) my engine started to splutter and die as though it was running out of fuel… except it didn’t completely die, and I had half a tank. We pulled over at a mechanic and spent several hours taking apart the air filter and fiddling with the accelarator cable again. It still didn’t work when we took off but I thought “fuck it, it still goes” and so we kept riding.

We were still inside the national park at this point, and while the road was flat and straight, the landscape around us was one of stunning beauty – huge limestone karsts jutting up from the rice paddies, with green foliage cascading down the sides. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it, had I been on any other motorcycle in the world.

 

The problem was annoying, but it certainly beat having the bike not start or being stuck in first gear. At least we were still covering a lot of ground. Once the bike started to splutter and die I just had to reduce the throttle; if it was really bad I’d slow down, gear all the way down to first, and then work my way back up to fourth, which would buy me a kilometre or two before the problem happened again. We weren’t losing any more time than we would have if we were on steep, winding mountain roads.

It really says something about the last month – and about Minsks – that I find it relatively acceptable for my bike to do this.

We were aiming for the city of Vinh but since we were actually making good time for once we decided to keep on going, powering on over the Ca River and heading north for the town of Thai Hoa, which would shave a day off our estimated travel time to Ninh Binh. After fuelling up, I noticed that my bike had stopped doing the whole “stop reacting to throttle at high speed” thing, which, while I certainly wasn’t going to complain, was rather strange.

Then, a couple of hours later, it started happening again. My bike is fickle and unpredictable and I don’t understand it at all. It’s like a woman.

When we were about twenty or thirty k’s south of Thai Hoa, as the sun was starting to set, a guy came alongside me on a Honda trying to catch my eye and pointing backwards over his shoulder. I glanced back and saw the road behind me was deserted – Chris had disappeared. He’d wanted me to stay in front because of my erratic engine, and since I still haven’t had my bike’s mirror replaced since the crash, I hadn’t been regularly checking behind me to make sure he was there.

I turned around and headed back up the highway, topping the next rise to see Chris pushing his bike along the shoulder of the road. There was a XE MAY (mechanic) sign just ahead, so I pulled in there and then walked back to help him with the bike.

Apropos of nothing, his rear tyre had burst while he was driving along, resulting in some helter-skelter swerving that he managed to keep under control and come to a safe stop. We had a spare inner tube, but we had to unload his pack and saddlebags from the back of the bike to replace it.

Twenty or thirty minutes later we were underway again – only to have my bike throw up its favourite old chestnut, the broken gearbox. I was stuck in first again. Chris tried to drive it and managed to get it into fourth; I started it up again followed him along the highway. I could only make third, but with less than fifteen k’s into town, that was good enough.

 

After we found a hotel, I tried to track down a mechanic, but at this point it was about seven o’clock and they were all closed. I’ll try again tomorrow morning. We certainly can’t go anywhere until my gearbox is fixed. I don’t give a shit about the power loss at this point, but depending how the gearbox goes I’ll get him to check the carburettor as well.

I forget to mention, but the first night we got to Phong Nha, I went to a mechanic to have him try to put a seal on the carburettor, since it was leaking. The Kiwi guy we met was with an Easy Rider who told me the Vietnamese word for “seal,” which I repeated a few times while pointing at the carburettor. The mechanic pointed at my watch to show me that I should come back in two hours’ time, and since I’d already racked up my quota of hours spent sitting around at a mechanic’s, I elected to go back to the hotel rather than watch what he did to the bike.

When I picked the bike up, and gave him the 50,000 dong he wanted, the carburettor was still leaking sometimes and my handlebars had been severely lowered – Chris had to loosen the bolts and pull them back up. God only knows what the fuck he thought I wanted him to do, and what he actually did. Chris strongly suspects he’s fucked up the carburettor somehow and is responsible for the power loss troubles today. I guess I’ll see tomorrow.

This was a pretty boring diary-style update, since I’m tired and not in the mood for writing at the moment, but I felt like I needed to get it down. We’ve come so far, and we’re so close. I can feel it now. Hanoi draws near. We’ve been on the road in a fairly remote part of the country for four days now, which is a lot longer than it seems when you’re in a place like this. I’ve seen two Westeners since Hue, and apart from a hamburger and some bacon and eggs at QB Teen in Dong Hoi, that was also the last place I had anything to eat other than noodles, rice and unidentified meat fragments. Ninh Binh apparently isn’t very Westernised either, but at least we’ll be able to sleep in for a few days and get some laundry done. I’ve been wearing the same shirt for four days, streaked with sweat and dirt, my jeans are filthy and covered in the oil and grease the engine spits, and I just had to wash my underwear and socks in the basin – which certainly wins the award for worst-designed basin ever.

 

The whole bathroom is awful, in fact, even by Asian standards. The showerhead sprays directly at the toilet, and the toilet itself won’t flush properly unless you use the ass-hose to fill up the cistern. Chris has removed the top of it to make the toilet more efficient.

“I’m sick of fixing everything, everywhere I go,” he said, rubbing aloe vera into his sunburnt arms. The Vietnamese don’t use sunscreen, and since we’re off the tourist-trail there’s nowhere to buy it, so we ran out today. “Motorbikes, air-conditioners, toilets, routers… if you want to know where I’ve been, If you want to follow my trail across Vietnam, just stay at the hotels where things work.”

We’re filthy, sunburnt, sweaty, frustrated wrecks with bruised and broken asses. My bike won’t give us a fucking break, not even for one day. The backroads hotels we’re staying in are the typical mixture of Vietnamese incompetence and stupidity. Our stomachs are regularly assailed with awful Asian food. The noise and the faulty air-conditioning means we rarely get much sleep.

I’m salivating at the thought of Hanoi. A golden city on the road ahead, the light shining into the sky from beyond the horizon. A place where I can have a Western meal, sleep in a decent hotel, buy as many packets of M & M’s as I want, see Kristie again – and wash my hands of this fucking motorcycle.

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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