Motorbike Motorbike in Northern Vietnam Day 5 – Sa Pa

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.

At Zoom's restaurant
At Zoom’s restaurant

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.

Silver Waterfall
Silver Waterfall

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.

Fixing the bike
Fixing the bike

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.

Proud of our work!
Proud of our work!

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.

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