There were five of us. Our guide, Thuan, is a Viet-Kieu, or a returned Vietnamese exile. His family left what was South Vietnam in 1975 and emigrated to France via the U.S. He returned in 1994 and has been living here in Hanoi with his English wife and two small boys ever since. Aside from knowing the countryside well, he’s a great rider/mechanic/drinker/person, and we got along like old friends right from the start.
Mathias and Chantal are a 30-something couple from Switzerland. Mathias is something of a Swiss Bubba, a big, likable oaf. Chantal is a travel agent and has a travel agent’s no-nonsense approach to getting ducks lined up. But she was pleasant enough to be around. And fearing she wasn’t up to the chaos on the roads here, she rode on the back of Mathias’s bike.
Then there was Juergen, a forty year-old heavy equipment mechanic from Germany. I had high hopes that since our group was so small, we might escape the every-group-has-an-asshole rule. But from the first time I met Juergen in the Explore Indochina office the night before we set off, my asshole meter started twitching. And it turned out during the course of the tour that my initial readings weren’t too far off the mark. Though perhaps humorless prig is the more accurate epithet.
At our first breakfast together before we had even mounted up, Chantal asked if she could smoke. Trying to be accommodating, and knowing that many Europeans haven’t yet been able to make the connection between smoking and an early death, I said yeah, sure. Juergen however launched into the first of many niggling harangues. “Today” he announced, “iss a goot day to shtop shmoking.” We would hear that and many similar proclamations whenever something seemed to irk Juergen. And the list of things that irked Juergen was a long one. Fortunately for us, however, he only seemed to be irked when he was awake.
Ah well, at least I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to end up being the asshole in this group.
Lordy, what a piece of crap is a Minsk. First, it has no acceleration. None. Any incline steeper and longer than your average driveway and you’re shifting down into first and making the engine scream like a banshee. So you learn quickly that the idea of flooring it to get yourself out of trouble is hopeless. It has laughable compression, so rolling off the throttle doesn’t slow you down one iota. The tiny piston leaks so much that when it backfires, and it backfires just about any time you decelerate, instead of a nice big pow or pop-pop, all you get is a miserable pfffft. It has no speedometer, odometer, or gas gauge. It’s a two-stroke engine, so it burns oil and gas together, and thus it belches great clouds of blue smoke. To say that it’s noisy is like saying that the ocean is damp. The brakes are decent, but the front shocks are so soft that any time you pull hard on the front brake you dive so low that you’re practically catapulted over the handlebars. And the back brake locks up the rear wheel on any surface more slippery than sandpaper. It’s coated with oil and dirt and soot, which for all I know are the structural components holding it all together. In short, it’s a mechanical catastrophe.
But it’s one hell of a lot of fun to ride. Go figure.
First, I should say something about the traffic here in Vietnam:
No really, everything I had read and heard didn’t prepare me in the least for the free-for-all chaos on the roads in this country. Explore Indochina provided me with a four-page description of the “rules of the road” (Hah!) and the best strategies for staying alive. I had committed them to memory and had read all the warnings in the Lonely Planet guidebook and on traveler’s web sites. Their information was very complete and accurate, but the chasm between theory and practice is immense.
The only rule is that there are no rules. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. There is one rule: size matters.
99 percent of the vehicles on the road here are motorcycles. And the government won’t license anything with an engine size over 125cc, so they’re all pretty much the same. There are a few cars and some trucks and buses. But it’s pretty much all motorcycles all of the time. The trucks and buses, however, rule. Anywhere they want to go, they go. If that means moving into your lane and coming at you head on, then you are obliged (unless you’re suicidal) to move onto the shoulder. If you come around a blind turn on a country road and have the temerity to be in the middle of “your” lane, you may soon be dead meat on a truck’s bumper. So planting yourself waaay over to the right side of your lane is the strategy there. Of course, the right side of the road is where all the children and dogs and ducks and pigs and chickens and buffaloes and drying corn and rocks and bamboo poles and carts and market stalls, etc. are, so you’re basically screwed no matter what you do.
Traffic out in the countryside is disorder, but Hanoi traffic is pandemonium. There is no discernible order. You launch yourself into it and your only chance of survival is to act like a red corpuscle in the bloodstream, tumbling along with all the other corpuscles. You try to avoid hitting anything or anyone, of course. And your head is on a constant swivel as you react to other vehicles coming at you from all directions. At intersections you slow a bit as you swerve to avoid cross traffic and head-on collisions. But if you stop, you’re dead. Chaos then becomes mayhem. So you keep moving at all costs.
Your horn is used to notify those around you of your presence. You honk as you come up behind another vehicle. You honk to alert pedestrians ahead that you’re about to take them out. You honk as you wedge yourself in between other motorcycles to let them know you’re claiming those twelve inches. And you honk for the hell of it. It’s just white noise after a day or two.
Strangely, traffic flows. Go figure.
Anyway, enough background. We met for a big breakfast in a modern high rise built adjacent to the old prison known as the Hanoi Hilton during the war years, when Senator McCain was one of the guests there. Afterwards we assembled in the back parking lot and got our first glimpse of our Minsks. I was too excited to be underwhelmed by my bike’s unprepossessing appearance as I listened to Thuan’s instructions on how to start it and what the drill was going to be once we got on the road.
It’s been a while since I’ve used a kick starter, but with a little choke action and a few pumps I got the beast rattling to life. We took off into the sea of traffic, which Thuan assured us was unusually light because of Tet. Sure didn’t seem light to me.
We made it out of Hanoi and onto the main highway heading west. Made it all of 8 km before our first breakdown.
Well, it wasn’t really a breakdown. Mathias’s Minsk suddenly lost power and he drifted off to the right. Juergen and I were behind him, so we pulled off as well, but Thuan didn’t notice us and he disappeared into the distance.
We had been told that this might happen from time to time, and we were to just sit tight until he returned. In the mean time Juergen got to work diagnosing the problem, inspecting the spark plug, and checking the carburetor.
Thuan came back to rejoin us after a few minutes and took over the work. He got the bike up and running again, but since it was still underpowered, it was decided that Mathias and Chantal, being heavier, would switch bikes with Juergen. This did the trick, and the general consensus was that it was probably just a batch of bad gas.
Soon we turned southwest and rode past rice paddies and craggy limestone karsts, stopping for breaks every few hours at roadside cafes.
Our destination was Cuc Phuong, Vietnam’s first national park. Ho Chi Minh himself dedicated the park in 1963, and we got to spend the night in some bungalows right in the center of the 222 sq. km park, surrounded by tropical rain forest and vociferous nocturnal wildlife.
I got to share my bungalow with Juergen, who of course groused about my snoring the next morning and lectured me on various natural cures.
We rose early the next day to find ourselves enveloped in a thick mist, and the 20 km ride back out of the park was eerily beautiful, in spite of the Minsk’s shattering racket.
From the park entrance we swung northwest and into the mountains. Our destination was Mai Chau, a village inhabited by one of the many non-Vietnamese ethnic groups, in this case White Thai. The ride up was breathtakingly beautiful, with the flat paddies of the Red River delta region giving way to terraced rice fields being plowed by buffalo in preparation for planting.
That night we stayed in a traditional Thai stilt house, owned by a Mr. Duc, who along with his wife (a former sharp shooter in the “American War”), ran the place.
We slept on mats in the big room upstairs and ate our meals under the house, where the livestock used to live. The village is fairly touristy these days, so they even had a cold shower for us. And the livestock reside elsewhere. But just beyond the houses rural life goes on pretty much as it has for centuries.
At dinner we were introduced to the local rice liquor, a high-octane rocket fuel which looks and tastes pretty much like rubbing alcohol. Mr. Duc came down to wish us a happy new year with the traditional “Chuc Mung Nam Moi!” whereupon we knocked back slugs of the white lightning. Then his wife came and did the same, and various uncles, aunts, and cousins followed at decent intervals to toast us and wish us well. We were all pretty well blasted by the time we tumbled upstairs to sleep it off. But a good time was had by all.
The plan for the next day was fairly adventurous. After a little stretch on tarmac, we were going to veer off onto the “Old French Road,” the only remaining part of the highway from Hanoi to Dien Bien Phu, where the colonial French army made its infamous last stand in 1954. When the Vietnamese built a major hydroelectric plant nearby, most of the road disappeared under a reservoir, and what’s still above water hasn’t been maintained for about 50 years. So it’s pretty much a nasty dirt road.
It only got nastier when rain began to fall by mid-morning. Our thin street tires slid around on the mud like melting butter on a hot skillet, and we crept uphill at a snail’s pace. At one point Juergen did a complete 180, his back tire swinging around until he was facing directly at me, and it took all of my skill to stop and remain upright.
Still, the rain was fairly light. So the mud never really got too thick and gooey, just a thin layer of mucous-like slime on top of hard clay. It was a hard, but fun ride.
The sun came back out just as we reached the summit and we stopped for a picnic lunch high above the terraced rice paddies below. Then we thrashed our way down on dry, bumpy dirt to rejoin the main highway and ride down to the reservoir, where a ferry took us across to the other side for the final sprint into Phu Tho, where we spent the night in a hotel.
Before dinner I sat out in the hotel’s garden with my maps, plotting my route south to Ho Chi Minh City. Thuan joined me after a while, and over a few bottles of Tiger beer I showed him my planned itinerary.
He thought what I have in mind is doable, and he gave me a few pointers on where to stay and what roads to avoid. Primarily he advised me to stay off the main Highway 1, which follows the coast. This suits me just fine, as I really want to try to stay inland in the cooler highlands and avoid the heat and truck traffic as much as possible.
The next morning dawned clear, but the rain soon came back heavier than before. We stopped to grab some lunch and to dry off in the big provincial town of Yen Bai. The plan for the day was to leave the bikes in the nearby town of Yen Binh and take a boat out to the tiny Dao settlement of Da Dung to spend the night.
Thuan told us that the place was very primitive, with no modern facilities to speak of, and urged us to consider a Plan B, which would have us spending the night at a hotel in Yen Bai, and then ride back to Hanoi on the next, our last day. Then he left us alone for a few minutes so that we could discuss it.
I was pretty cold and wet by then, and the thought of a nice hot shower was tempting. But Chantal was eager to go to see the village, and Mathias and Juergen were non-committal, so I bowed to the inevitable and went along with Chantal.
I think Thuan was a little surprised, but didn’t try to make us reconsider. So we rode out to the lake and changed into dry clothes before boarding a small motor launch for the two-hour ride up the lake.
Thuan wasn’t kidding about the primitive part. The village has stilt houses like in Mai Chau. But here the livestock still live down below, and running water is part of a distant future. There’s electricity, but little else in the way of modern conveniences. Not even a pit toilet. You just walk outside the house and let it fly like the animals.
Mr. Nang, the village chief greeted us at the shore and ushered us up into the house for some green tea served in filthy porcelain cups.
After a brief chat between Mr. Nang and Thuan we left the house and wandered up the hill a ways to view a small waterfall accompanied by all of the village’s children.
We were certainly the main attraction that afternoon. They swarmed around us, clutching at our clothes and laughing and shouting. One little girl in a green dress “claimed” me, pushing away the other kids and pulling me around by the hand.
Eventually they led us back down to the village where we settled in for dinner. And drinks. The dinner was pretty nasty, pieces of chopped meat of various unknown origins, served on dirty plates with rice and cabbage in a soupy broth. My stomach had been acting up a little since the day before, and I wasn’t eager to make things worse. So I mostly just picked at the offerings.
But then the rocket fuel came out. One toast after another followed. At first I cheated by just taking a sip instead of downing the whole shot each time the glasses were refilled. But after about 6 or 8 shots Mr. Nang got wise to me and made it clear that I wasn’t following protocol. Thuan said it was OK for me to refuse, but Mr. Nang was having none of that. It seemed a point of honor to him, so I bowed to the inevitable for the second time that day and knocked back a slug. This seemed to mollify him greatly, as he clasped my head with both of his hands pulled our foreheads together.
The toasting continued for hours as each male family member came over to our group to toast us, and then the females, and then neighbors came over and kept the party going. I have no idea how many shots I downed that night, but I was pretty incoherent by about 9 o’clock.
So I just propped myself against one of the 36 thick mahogany pillars that held up the roof and tried the keep the room from swimming.
The kids had gathered around again after dinner and attempted to teach me their names and how to count to ten in Vietnamese. I was a very enthusiastic student, but I don’t remember the lesson. Go figure.
Eventually the party died down and we collapsed on our thin mats to sleep it off. You might have thought that I’d be pretty anesthetized by the rice hooch, but that hard wooden floor kept me up most of the night.
We had to board the boat back to Yen Binh at first light. So we were up at six, gathering our things and staggering down to the boat. Mathias and Chantal slept all the way back while I sat at the bow letting the cold air clear my head. Considering how much poison we had downed, we didn’t really suffer all that much.
Breakfast was waiting for us back in Yen Binh, and that helped. Getting back into our still wet clothes and setting off again into the light mist which had descended by then didn’t.
But it didn’t last long. By noon were within about 70 km of Hanoi, and by five o’clock we had survived the scrum of end-of-Tet traffic to make it back to Cuong’s Motorcycle Adventures, where I’ll be renting a bike for the trip south.
In spite of the weather and other, um, hazards, I had a blast. The scenery was stunning. The people we met everywhere couldn’t possibly have been friendlier or happier to see us. The riding was great, and the Minsk was a revelation. Even Juergen’s passive-aggressive kvetching couldn’t spoil the fun. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.