Vietnam – the end

Like this telephone pole, my mind is a mess.

Like this telephone pole, my mind is a mess.

Not much happened during those two days that I had to kill in Ha Noi before my flight. My hostel, shitty; the city, visited for the most part; the weather, rainy and my overall motivation level, low. I did check out the museum of fine arts, the Temple of Literature and the botanical garden but otherwise, my days were spend wandering aimlessly around the city and working in front of my computer. My thoughts were occupied with the coming med school interviews and planning for a life that would potentially change drastically in the near future. It seemed all the accumulated fatigue of the last couple of months had now all came down on my body and mind, this trip was over.

I had a few interesting encounters but not of them led to friendships that would endure past an hour or two. One of those was at a nearby bar, where for the better part of the night I conversed with a Vietnamese barmaid with the aim of improving her English. Another one was with Antoine, the French motorcycle enthusiast I met back in Sa Pa, but sadly, we only had a few minutes to catch up, he was on his way to the bus. Turns out he did not go to the north, the day after he had left, the seemingly unending flow of trucks got the best of him and he turned around.

Monday night I arrived at the airport quite early to find it already overcrowded with hordes of travelers but I managed to find a quiet spot to sit down and read in the arrivals area. A flight to Tokyo, a couple of hours spent waiting at the airport; across the Pacific to New York, more waiting and then I landed in Burlington, Vermont, where a friend picked me up with my car to drive me to Montreal. It was a long journey, but thankfully I was flying with Japan Airlines and got the exemplary service that is to be expected of anything Japanese plus a pretty nice in-flight entertainment system aboard a recently refurbished plane.

Thoughts on Vietnam

I have not seen all of South-East Asia, but so far I can confidently say that Vietnam is my favorite place of them all, You buy something?, motorbike?, traveling around can a serious pain in the butt on occasions, but everywhere in between, you come across genuinely nice encounters. Then again, you have to realize where the Vietnamese come from as a nation and instantly you become more tolerant towards the constant harassment. Landscapes are sort of the same story, the cities and the countryside can be downright ugly, Vietnam remains a poorer Asian country, but not far out lies absolutely spectacular sights of rice paddies surrounded by mountains and ethnic villages of wooden houses and water buffaloes herds. The still omnipresent communist architecture and propaganda get an honorable mention as well and so does the cultural variety of its people.

It’s exhausting to visit, but it’s well worth the effort, but be quick if you want to go, Vietnam has embraced modernity with both arms and like its neighbors, it’s increasingly capitalizing on tourism of the more destructive type a great deal to boost its economy. For that matter, the country’s principal tourism circuit, already quite limited, is starting to feel bland and denatured. There is still plenty to see and do not very far outside of it, get your own set of wheels and adventure will await around the corner. However, I suspect its only a question of time before the hordes of resort goers get there too.

Motorbike Motorbike in Northern Vietnam – Conclusion

Safe and sound in Ha Noi, its time to reflect back on this exhilarating experience. To put it in short terms, it’s now the benchmark by which I will judge my future travels. I had done other motorcycle adventures in past, but through this one, it has really dawned on me that this is where I get my adrenaline (and though diving too of course) and truly is one of the best ways to enjoy a country and see it more for what it really is. There will surely be more backpacking in the future for me, but I’ve realized that I’m thoroughly tired of public transportation and hoping from hostel to hostel so I’ll definitely attempt to make my future visits to foreign countries more adventure motorcycling oriented. I never came across any close calls. Yes, I brushed on oncoming vehicles countless times and had to swerve to avoid all sorts of animals and obstacles, but that is what driving is like in Vietnam. Otherwise, I was in control of my machine to whole time. It was not for the inexperienced driver and got quite painful and tiring on occasions, but I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. Especially in the Ha Giang province, which presented me some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen in my entire life.

The route that I took

The route that I took

The Honda Win 100

Really a 107cc, but that does not matter very much because with compression issues, it had trouble moving its own weight on steep hills so I’ll avoid commenting on power. Otherwise, to make things more simple and visual, here is a breakdown of my appreciation of the bike:

Plusses

  • light
  • easy on gas
  • easy to fix
  • inexpensive
  • handles well (when the frame is straight)
  • fun to drive

Minuses

  • very unreliable (the chinese versions at least)
  • vibrates like crazy at high speeds
  • treacherous in emergency breaking
  • parts not that widely available
  • very uncomfortable

This being said, if I ever need another ride in Vietnam, I will stay away from the Honda Wins. The vast majority of those that are on the market around hostels are tourist bikes. They have been up and down the country countless times, were treated badly by their owners and have for sure crashed in their past, at least mine had. 99 % of the people I’ve met while traveling have had breakdowns. There is always a garage nearby, but it remains that the bill adds up to quite a bit over time. Plus, the Vietnamese rarely do a good job at fixing things, they’ll simply mend it so it will run fine for a couple more hundred kilometers and will break again but by this time, you’ll be too far to come back to complain about a repair poorly done. While the Vietnamese themselves used to rely on them a lot and still do so up north, they are moving away towards semi-automatic Honda Dreams, which are much much more reliable, perform better and are more comfortable. They might not be as fun to drive, but they are the workhorses of this country and can take quite a severe beating. Parts will also be readily available even at the smallest most remote garage out there. So if I do come back in this region to bike through Laos and Cambodia, I’ll get a Honda Dream.

Motorbike Motorbike in Northern Vietnam Day 9 – Mộc Châu to Hà Nội

Weather: Cloudy then Overcast
Departure: 11h00
Arrival: 18h30
Date: 19/04/14


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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.

The view not long after Moc Chau

The view not long after Moc Chau

Fixing my motorcycle

Fixing my motorcycle

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.

Highway to Ha Noi

Highway to Ha Noi

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…

Motorbike Motorbike in Northern Vietnam Day 8 – Điện Biên Phủ to Mộc Châu

Weather: Sunny
Departure: 11h00
Arrival: 18h30
Date: 18/04/14

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.

Road to Moc Chau

Road to Moc Chau

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.

About to go

About to go

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.

Motorbike Motorbike in Northern Vietnam Day 7 – Điện Biên Phủ

View of Dien Bien Phu

View of Dien Bien Phu

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.

The Vietnamese war cemetery

The Vietnamese war cemetery

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.

A monument to the battle

A monument to the battle

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.

Colonel de Castries' bunker being visited by veterans

Colonel de Castries’ bunker being visited by veterans

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.