06 May 2011

Motorcycle Diaries

The plan was to ride from Hanoi to Saigon on classic Russian Minsk motorcycles. We didn't make it.

Day One

This is going to be one hell of a ride. Everything that could have gone wrong did. I arrived here in Ninh Binh filthy, soaking wet and exhausted. Today hurt, but it was an adventure and I am ready for more. Our original plan for today was to ride to Mai Chau a small village in the mountains off the Ho Chi Minh trail, but the mornings final preparations seeped into the afternoon so we decided to head due south to Ninh Binh. We left the bike shop at 2:30pm. We didn't get out of Hanoi until almost 4:00pm. Why? Because, we are stupid and impatient. The guy that sold us the bikes offered to guide us to the highway just as soon as he finished his lunch. But, we, in our infinite wisdom decided to wing it. How hard could it be to find the highway? Hard. Like really nightmarishly, chaotically, freakishly hard. First of all the Highway wasn't marked on the city map only on the full view Vietnam map. Second we followed the guidance of every non-English speaking person who pointed in a vague non-committal direction while trying not to laugh at us. And third the traffic in Hanoi is INSANE. There are no rules. None. It is pure chaos. But weirdly chaos based on trust. There is no stopping and starting at intersections in Hanoi. It is all go all the time. The key is to go at a calm and consistent pace. If you cruise the land-mines will narrowly avoid you. If you stutter, stop or speed up....BOOM CRASH BANG! Oh, and I should mention Shane had never ridden a bike with a clutch before. Imagine if you didn't know how to run and someone pushed you into the streets during the Running of the Bulls at Pamplona and said, "You're on your own kid." It was something like that for Shane. Eventually, hopelessly lost we paid a local man 100,000 Dong ($4) to do what the other guy offered to do for free, show us how to get to the damn highway.

We were on the road for about 10 minutes when it started pouring rain. We pulled over to buy rain gear. My bike wouldn't restart. The internet told us that Russian Minsk's are not fond of rain. The internet wasn't lying. Luckily there was a mechanic a couple of shops down and he got me fixed up. Back on the road the rain had turned the highway into a dirt bike track. I loved dirt bike riding as a kid. I loved highway dirt bike riding today. I rode through puddles and pot holes. I got splashed with walls of water from passing trucks. It felt like we were fleeing the city in a disaster movie. I smiled a muddy toothed smile the whole way.

We didn't arrive in Ninh Binh until after dark. We checked into a very nice hotel. A very nice hotel that costs $20 a night or $6 per person. You have to love South East Asia prices.


Day Two

Things can always be worse. I need to remember that. The day started off beautifully. The skies were cloudy but rain free. We wrapped our bags just to be safe and hit the road. The bikes ran fine at the start. We were having a great time, down shifting and accelerating through the small towns and openly running in the spaces between. Our goal was to make it to Vinh a large city near the coast. From there we would be able to venture out onto the mountain roads the following day. Then it started to rain. When it rains here massive puddles form instantly. Vietnam is something of a diva when it comes to weather, it has to be wearing the right costume. My bike is something of a diva. It looks and sounds tough but it absolutely wilts under the rain. I broke down again. Again there was a mechanic near by. Again we had to stop for 30 minutes while my bike was being fixed. We were behind schedule but still had hopes of making Vinh. We didn't. Shane ran of gas near the town of Thanh Hoa. We decided to stop there for the night.

Day Three

Neither my bike nor Shane's bike started this morning. We wasted an hour at a shop that couldn't fix them and another 15 minutes at a Suzuki dealership because Vietnamese kids who fix scooters clearly know how to fix a 40's era Russian motorcycles. The kid at the dealership directed us to an old man around the corner. The old man didn't speak a word of English but he spoke motorcycle beautifully. We called him the The Minsk whisperer. In all honesty what he did probably wasn't hard. There isn't much to a Minsk. They are somewhere between a janky motorcycle and a beefy lawnmower. But whatever he did we couldn't have and the bikes finally started behaving. By the time the whisperer was done whispering it was too late in the day to make any real progress so we did what you do in a town with nothing to do; we drank six 22-cent beers, ate yet another bowl of Pho and fell asleep at 9:30.

Day Four

The good times and the bad. We were aiming for a 9am start time. My bike fired up on the first kick and purred like a wheezy Russian kitten. Shane's bike started too. Blake tried to start his bike and the kick starter snapped off. Before the day had even begun we were back at the Minsk whisperer's garage. While Blake's bike was getting fixed I ate a bowl of Pho. It tasted like all the other Pho I had eaten. At 10:30 we hit the road. It was glorious. The sun was shining the road was open (openish) and the bikes were running well. Things were going so well that I started getting ahead of myself, thinking about the possibilities of the days ahead. Then Shane signaled that he needed to pull over. His bike wouldn't switch gears. I messed with the clutch pretending like I knew what I was doing. Giving me a broken bike is like giving a kid a wooden spoon and an empty bowl, all the stirring in the world isn't going to make a cake. Surprise surprise there was a mechanic 100 yards away. By mechanic I mean the guy locals run out and frantically point to because they know he can fix whatever minor problem three white boys on busted Russian motorcycles can't. White boys they know will gladly handover an ungodly amount of Dong to get back on the road. Some wingding thing in Shane's gearbox was stripped so the "mechanic" wrapped bailing wire around it, put everything back together and gave us the thumbs up to carry on. Bailing wire. And it worked. I was shocked. I am still shocked. The stretch of road ahead had its moments but was mostly a town-to-town drive. We ended up, finally, in the city of Vinh. Vinh is not a pretty place. It was decimated during the "American War" and rebuilt in Russian concrete bunker fashion. We ate a late afternoon rice dish that was...I'll spare you the details. Not wanting to take any risks we went to Big C for dinner (Asia's version of Walmart). Big C had a KFC. I hate KFC. Today I loved every greasy, mayonnaise soaked bite. It was good. So so not Pho good.

Day Five

Today was anticipation realized. This whole trip, Bangkok, Songkran, trekking, Luang Prabang, Hanoi, Halong Bay, all of it felt like build up to this one almost perfect day. Before we started traveling motorcycles were the thing. The road, the wind, the off-the-path places, the adventure, that is what we were looking forward to most. The motorcycle trip was the blood and breath of this trip and for one day, for one so damn close to perfect day we had it, everything we had hoped for.

We left Vinh at 9:30am cautiously hopeful. None of the four previous days had gone as planned. Each day thus far had been a jagged road of fits and starts...mostly fits. Shortly outside of Vinh the roads opened up and we found ourselves humming down the AH1 highway. AH1 is the main road connecting Hanoi and Saigon. It is not a highway in the modern American sense it is a highway in the American dream sense. Like 50's era highway systems of old it is a two lane road that dissects the shifting geography of the country and passes through true-to-the-culture towns and villages.

As we moved southward the scenery changed so often it seemed like it was actively trying to impress us. We saw rice fields of vibrant green, narrow winding mountain passes, sweeping ocean views and a black and blood orange sun setting over the palm lined horizon. Riding across this tapestry of Vietnam would have been all the things that great things are if today was just a day. But today was not just a day. Today was the fifth day of a mostly broken adventure. Today was our fifth chance at the dream. Today the tapestry of Vietnam unfolded beautifully covering up our failures and realizing our dreams.

Today was not perfect. It was almost perfect. It was so damn close to perfect. We stopped to get gas and a bite to eat about 50km shy of Don Hoi. In places like Don Hoi tourists are a sight unseen. Over the last five days every time we stopped in off-the-path towns we drew a crowd. Friends called friends who call their friends and pretty soon fifteen Vietnamese people would be gathered around watching us not be Vietnamese. At this particular stop we had a family of eight sitting at the table next to us talking about us while pretending not to. The mom of the family blushed when I caught her trying to sneak in a picture of us on her cell phone.

At this moment the perfectness of our perfect day was unblemished. Hue (our aimed for destination) was 200km away. We were making good time. We should have been there by dark. 75km outside of Hue, Shane's bike broke down, this time for good. We waited an hour and a half while a local mechanic did is best to revive the blue and red beast we had dubbed Captain America. The bike was easily fixable but needed a small part we didn't have time to wait for. The mechanic had a son named Hai. We decided to give him Captain America as a gift. Hai had a Beginners English book that he had used to learn a few words and phrases. In the book we found a picture of a present being given at a birthday party. We pointed to the present, pointed to Captain America, pointed to Hai. He understood. His face lit up like the 4th of July. We signed the gas tank, packed Shane's things onto Blake's bike, packed Shane onto my bike and made our way to Hue in the dark. I hope Hai gets to keep Captain America. I hope he sees our names chipping and fading away when he is big enough and old enought to ride it. But if not, if his Dad sells it to a dealer who sells it to a tourist, Captain America will bring that family $200, and in nowhere Vietnam that is no small thing.

Day Six

I am writing this final entry beneath the shade of a tree on the banks of the Perfume River in Hue, Vietnam. A pretty Vietnamese couple just stopped by so the man could take a picture of his pretty girlfriend sitting beside me. Blake and Shane are canvasing the town with fliers trying to sell the two remaining Minsk's. Our motorcycle adventure is over. We had moments both good and bad. We had a day that ranks near the top of all my days. It is a good time to move on.

Historical Note:
Osama Bin Laden was shot once in the head and once in heart. Today the world makes a little more sense.