Not sure if I wanted to go straight to Ha Noi or make another stop along the way, I still woke up pretty early to have breakfast and wish good bye to my buddies of yesterday night. Then, I went back to my room to pack my things, but tiredness got the best of me and I slept for another two hours. As soon as I got up though, I was on the road in no time and flying at a good pace through hilly terrain but on very uneven pavement.
On a break to buy a can of Coca-Cola, I realized the bumps had disjointed my breather tube from my carburetor again and on passing a ridge and noticing that the weather on the other side was a thick humid fog, I decided to stop for lunch and fix my air box on the same occasion. That sparked the interest of a bus load of Vietnamese tourists taking a break nearby and next thing I knew, I was surrounded by them. Quickly they were gone but soon replaced by another bus of high school teenagers on a field trip. There, some of them took the opportunity to practice English but myself not really being in the mood for that, I packed up quickly and went on my way.
Rapidly, the scenery turned from nice to boring as I was passing through village after village with frequent large patches of construction. Things had started to sound and vibrate pretty weird for my motorcycle for a while now and at the intersection to Ninh Bin, I opted to play it safe and go to Ha Noi instead. I had been pretty lucky so far with breakdowns and did not really want to push my chance much further. Once I hit highway one, I was making good progress again but on seeing karst peaks starting to become more numerous around me, I tried taking a detour to search for a road through them but without success. On the way back my chain – which I knew was very loose already – disengaged. It was an easy fix but fearful of potentially worst things were coming my way, I needed not to waste any more time.
From that point on, I was going as fast as I could to Ha Noi. As urban density increased, so did traffic and into the capital, I was greeted by thick rush hour circulation. Driving amid a sea of scooters and cars while it’s raining and at night is quite a sport and will put even the most season motorcyclist’s skill to the test. It’s like being an outcast in a school of fish or a flock of bird. Everyone moves in concert, in one self-organizing group, there really are no rules to bind you, but as a westerner accustomed to a very strict road code, it requires intense concentration and some extremely good defensive driving skills.
My rental bike returned, I came across my friends from the other night, who it so happens had also just arrived. Why so? That same Norwegian guy who had had his bike fixed yesterday had ran out of fuel and though the panic had lost his only key somewhere on the road and try as he might, he could not find it. Result: he had to get to a mechanic to wire start his bike. I checked in what is possibly the worst hostel I’ve been in so far on this trip and we all went for a burger.
That’s it. I came out alive. Traffic in Ha Noi is so insane I might still die in a motorcycle related accident, but I will not be the one driving…
Not unhappy to leave Dien Bien Phu, I woke up late anyway due to a couple hours spent awake in my bed with a mind that would not shut down. After a coffee and an apple, I set out on the road. The city lays in a heart shaped valley, but was surrounded by mountains and as soon as I hit them, I was back in motorcycle heaven with great views and windy roads. Bus and truck traffic was denser than before due to increasing proximity to Ha Noi but otherwise nothing really to complain about.
Around the middle of the afternoon, I hit a densely populated plain on which circulating no longer was fun so I pushed the handle down to get to my destination as fast as I could in spite of my motorcycle now having a definitive engine compression problem. At one point I passed a four foreigner pack taking a break at a road side stall and figuring they must have come from the capital, one kilometer further I decided to turn around and go ask them if they new a nice place to spend the night in the direction I was going in.
They were actually coming from Sa Pa and were going to Moc Chau, my intended stop for the night and were nice enough to let me join their crew formed of two Norwegians, a Spanish and a Dutch. Great, I had not really tried the convoy thing so far and had been alone riding since the beginning so I decided to tag along. With five though, the logistics become more complex, everyone wants to go at a different speed, not every bike is capable of the same performances ans worst, the chances of a breakdown are dramatically increased. Unsurprisingly one Norwegian was having issues with his engine and had to take it slow. His bike, a proper lemon, had had his transmission swapped two days ago and was still acting up. Not long afterwards, the Dutchman’s luggage rack broke and sent his backpack trailing behind him on the road.
Eventually, we arrived in Moc Chau and checked in a three star hotel one dude had scouted for us. We were all quite stunned by him picking such a fancy place, but the prices were okay, the breakfast included and we managed to negotiate a couple of free beers with the rooms. While the rest of the group was at the mechanic to get their bikes checked, me and Sjef, the Dutch shared a discussion around our well deserved brews. Afterwards, we linked up with the others and went out into town for supper at a proper Vietnamese restaurant, which provided us with a nice feast and many drinks – some courtesy of the District Director – at a very reasonable price.
Tomorrow, the Spanish and the Norwegians are heading to Ha Long bay while Sjef is leaving first thing in the morning for Ha Noi to have his bike serviced before his journey to the south of the country. As for myself, I’ve got one day to spare so I might take the long way to the capital or find another destination in between.
No festival really, but the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Dien Bien Phu battle the 7th of May, where the colonial French forces made their last stand against the Viet Minh and lost in a disastrous debacle. Vietnam still being “on paper” a communist regime, their existing propaganda apparatus relies heavily on these military feats and victories to foster a sense of unity within its citizens; one against the enemy. Reminds me of North Korea…
The so called festival not being for another three weeks, the city was nonetheless filled with busloads of old Vietnamese veterans making their way from monument to monument. The streets were being cleaned, a new war museum built, its adjoining cemetery was getting a face lift and propaganda posters were being installed everywhere; in short, the whole city was putting its best looks on for the upcoming celebrations.
I wanted to start my tour with the ColoneI de Castries’ bunker but tried as I did, I just could not find it. I proceeded inside the city to visit the cemetery and memorial and then went to A1 hill, where I got stuck dumbfounded in front of long stretch of fences with no obvious signs of an entrance. I was not alone in that situation, a French traveler by the name of Frank came up to me to ask for directions and together, we came to the conclusion that the small map provided in the Lonely Planet was completely off. We tried the war museum that was nearby but it was closed for renovations, so defeated, I went for lunch.
I decided to check again on A1 hill and through asking some people that were inside the compound, I finally was directed to the entrance. That visit done, I was determined to find the bunker, but I was over with walking around like a headless chicken in this scorching heat and decided it would be best to get back to the hostel and hop on my bike. I stopped at another memorial and after a cold shower to cool down, was on the motorcycle cruising around town. Eventually, I made it to the bunker, which having been entirely recreated in concrete was nothing really interesting, except for the large groups of Vietnamese veterans visiting it along with me.
All of them were giving me smiles and prolonged stares, as if they had met me in the past. In fact, they might have, but not my exact person, other young white guys which might have looked much like myself. The Vietnamese themselves were much much shorter of stature than I was and the discrepancy might have been similar 60 years ago. One even poked me in the leg with his cane while speaking to a nearby comrade. No clue as to what he was saying, but I bet it was something along the lines of him having driven his bayonet into a big man like me during combat.
It was too late to visit anything else so after a short ride around town, I came back to my hostel and retired for the evening to work and write. My computer has clearly suffered from the bumpy roads of the last coupe of days. The screen has pressure damage on a couple of areas and the keyboard disconnects itself intermittently.
That morning, I made sure I touched plenty of wood for the repair we did the day before to hold. Pretty late already, I gave my farewell to Karen and Antoine and still thanked him many more times for his help fixing my bike. I made a stop at the ATM to get some more money, which could come in handy if I break down again and left town on the road I took the day before to the waterfalls. This time however, the weather was clear and the visibility was great, so I got to enjoy a completely different view from the clouded landscape of yesterday. I passed a truck that had tipped over (serves you right Vietnamese drivers) of which I would have loved to take a close-up picture but for respect for the poor guys who had to unload it by hand and the dude that is going to loose his job, I did not. The scenery got even more gorgeous on the other side of the pass, with high towering mountains and narrow valleys. How I love riding around in mountains …
The motorcycle’s engine was hiccuping and hesitating, but it was going and got better as I was lowering in altitude. The road was great and I was making good progress in spite of a hilly ride. I was especially looking forward to the way down south to Dien Bien Phu, where the road was following a river. Road along rivers are nice for three reasons, first they are generally flat, second they are pretty and third they are fun and windy. Once I got there though, I was disappointed to find that the road under construction. All of it, for a good 50 kilometers. Dust, mud, bump, gravel, stuck behind a loader. Shit, the route did follow the river and was generally flat but, it was no fun was lacking very much in prettiness.
I was putting the repairs to my air box under serious stress and it held on. Eventually, construction ended and I was again speeding up and down curves and avoiding herds of cows and water buffaloes. When night finally hit, I was in a medium size town but still a solid 50 kilometers away from my objective. Realistically, I had not hoped to get there in one day as it was a long way and I had left really late, but feeling that the bike may fail again tomorrow, I pushed through the clouds of bugs that come out a dusk to see if the road past the city was safe to ride on in the dark with a shitty headlight. It was, but I still had to take it very slow. Buffaloes, cows, pigs, children, dogs and chickens had gone to bed, but potholes never sleep.
Two hours afterwards, I was in Dien Bien Phu. Finding a guesthouse provided to be somewhat of a challenge. They were all booked and overcharging their free rooms apparently because of some festival. We’ll see what that is about tomorrow. For now, I’m fighting sleep to write this post and as soon as I’m done, I will collapse into a well deserved rest.
Since Sa Pa had such a reputation for being a nice spot, I decided to stay for an extra day. Also a welcome break for my behind. I thought I would spend the day walking around the area and not ride, but early in the morning came in the room a German girl (Karen) and a French guy (Antoine) who had arrived in the town in night buses and were now checking in. Both of them travelling alone as well, we all decided to keep each other company for the day and go check out some waterfalls outside of town … on motorcycles.
So off we went but before making the very short climb to Sliver Waterfall, we stopped at a few restaurants along the road to inquire about their prices. Located near the falls, all of them were quite expensive, even more so those that served fresh fish from the nearby fishfarm (farming fish high up in the mountains, go figure). 25 $ a kilo for salmon, we were not quite ready to pay this price plus, I would not trust the Vietnamese for cooking salmon. Anyway, we had to track back in the direction of Sa Pa and a couple of kilometers further, settle for a small roadside restaurant. Zoom, the owner, was already drunk but nonetheless genuinely ecstatic of having foreigner customers. Not only did he gave us a decent meal at a decent price, but he also brought in some local freebies, forced on us many shots of bee’s wine (honeycombs in vodka it appeared) and ended the meal with a full bottle of Sa Pa apple cider. None of us were expecting so much hospitality, so with full bellies, a small buzz from the alcohol, we made it for the first waterfall, which was not really anything to write home about.
And neither was the second one, except that I was brave enough to take a swim in it. My companions had brought their swimsuits as well, but got discouraged by the temperature. Afterwards, I swapped motorcycle with Antoine and we went to the other side of the mountain pass, apparently Vietnam’s highest. On the way back down to Sa Pa, we got enveloped by extremely thick fog and as we entered town, Antoine pulled on my side to inform me that my bike was out of gas and had stopped running. Luckily, we were at about a hundred meters from the gas station, but certain it still had plenty of fuel to go, I opened up the tank’s cap and to my dismay, noted that indeed, there still was fuel in it.
So the motorcycle would not restart, but by chance, Antoine had been a bike mechanic in a previous life (I would later learn) and having completed some months ago a full tour (details on his blog) of South America on his Honda Transalp, he was also well versed in road-side repairs. He pulled the spark plug out and on pressing the starter button with the body of the plug pressed against the engine block for grounding, noted that the spark was flimsy and intermittent. So off I went to buy a new part to a nearby shop, but the mechanic there would not let me have the plug without me bringing the bike to him. No worries, it’s just a plug. However, even with the new plug in, the bike would not start. Dammit! Looks like I was overdue for a good breakdown. Damn you cheap Chinese crap.
The two mechanics at the shop told us it was the carburetor and pulled out a brand new one from their stock with they wanted to sell me for 50$. Strange, first my carburetor appeared to be in decent shape and second, you don’t swap out parts like this before actually pulling out the current one and giving it a good cleanup and a visual inspection. Of course, Antoine caught on that and told them to give us some tools so we could at least first try doing some basic maintenance and troubleshooting. The Vietnamese, though reluctant, eventually yielded, gave us the tools that we needed and squatted down with lit cigarettes and a grin on their face, looking forward to see a bunch of foreigners fail and humiliate themselves.
But fail we did not. Antoine went to work and pulled out the current carb, cleaned it and reinstalled it as I was carefully observing, always interested in some new knowledge. A couple of insistent push on the started button and the machine was running again, but not very well. According to my French friend, something was off with the air supply. Still, at this point, the Vietnamese had stopped their giggling and laughing and were showing very serious faces, visibly frustrated from having been thought a lesson by a white guy. Or maybe this is what they would have done if it was their own machine, but in this case, they were really expecting to make an easy 50 bucks. It was too early to claim victory though, the bike did not idle properly and had pretty serious hiccups when we pulled the gas handle down. Since I had been on some pretty dusty roads, I suggested that we clean the air filter and right as we were pulling out the air box, we realized that it was broken. There was the culprit according to Antoine.
The shop did not have the part in stock and that point had sort of stopped cooperating with us so out came the duct tape I keep for general repairs and skin blisters and 15 minutes later, everything was back in place. This time, the bike started and although it was still hiccuping, it idled fine and was perfectly drivable. A victory for us! Me and Antoine exchanged smiles and shook hands, but not without me promising him a couple beers for his help (and knowledge). The Vietnamese had sort of diverted their attention to Karen and were harassing her with clumsy attempts at winning her heart and just like us, she felt very relieved that we could now head back to the hostel. Not that we were far way, she could have walked there had she wanted to, but in spite of her self-avowed disinterest of mechanics, stuck around to watch the unraveling of the situation.
The repair held all the way to the hostel but Antoine suggested that I get a new airbox pretty soon. Later-on, we all went for a meal and closed-off the day with a couple drinks and some discussions about travels. Being on year-long adventure, Antoine had crossed the whole of South-America on a bike and was now on the second part of his journey, backpacking around South-East Asia. Truthfully though, he was not liking very much his time so far, as after five adrenaline filled months of exploring South-America’s back-country roads, bussing from hostel to hostel felt very bland.
That morning, I had showed him some pictures I took of Vietnam’s far north and had vaguely described my experience to the both of them and as we were driving around today, Antoine had decided that he should heed on my advice, skip the south and go to Meo Vac with a rental bike. Exactly like I did, but in the reverse direction. He was missing adventure badly and decided he should feed on my experience and take this opportunity to drop the backpack, saddle-up and go explore the road less traveled. So upon returning to the hotel, we went upstairs, pulled out the maps and I gave him a detailed briefing of the area and dispensed him with as much advice as I could.
Motorcycles are a binary thing. Either you don’t give a cra or you’re passionate about them. There is not in between and Antoine was obviously part of the latter category. Sharing knowledge and experience about something you’re absolutely in love with is always a thrilling and engaging activity as through sharing your stories with others, you revive them at the same time. Antoine has a very well kept blog where he writes about his year around the world and in due course, I will certainly pick his brains about his adventure riding experiences in South-America.