Friday, September 10, 2010

Motorcycle Chronicles - Days 4-5

Day 4

The next day we woke up early and continued on our journey. This was the longest leg of our trip (300km on dirt/semi-paved roads), and we were told it would take between 6 and 8 hours. We ended up making it in around 10 hours because of the back roads we took due to construction.  We drove for about 1 hr in the dark, which is exactly what we didn't want to do. It was raining when we left and didn't clear up for over an hour, so that probably slowed us down a bit as well.  Luckily, we picked the perfect time to motorcycle Vietnam...and by perfect, I mean worst.  Late August through September is Vietnam's monsoon season so everyday there is usually a torrential downpour.  Overall though, I think we were lucky an escaped the majority of the storms. 

Northwest Vietnam

However long and uncomfortable our ride was, it was also amazing. We went through a very rural part of Vietnam (near the boarder of China). The paved roads at the beginning were small and windy with one side being rock where the road was blasted through the mountain side, and the other a small guard rail (if that) with sheer vertical drops.  I kept half expecting a massive dump truck to come flying around the corner while blindly passing another massive car and us going flying over the edge.  Luckily the traffic wasn't bad that day.

The positive side of the monsoon season meant the mountainside contained every shade of green imaginable.  I think National Geographic could do an incredible special on this area with their high definition cameras. About 2 hours into the trip, the roads started to have small sections that had been washed out and were filled over with dirt and gravel, which eventually gave way to complete sections of mud.  The towns were spread out pretty far apart and we wouldn't see any signs of civilization for a good hour at a time. There was a lot of road construction going on and it looked as if a couple of the towns were built especially to house the construction workers. Again, I think we went through every element possible: rain, sun, mud, dust, small streams, etc. When we arrived we were again both completely caked with dried mud and dust.  After our long day, I gave Jake a congratulatory pat and watched the dust rise from his back like a book from Moses' personal library. 

Small village in a valley

Day 5

We decided to stay in a town (Son La) that was about 200 km away in hopes that we could have an shorter ride.  The morning was crisp, and the ride started out beautiful. More majestic mountain views, and the roads continued to get better... back to mostly paved with only a few washed out sections. We would pass through towns, and the Vietnamese children whom were going to school or playing near the road would do a double take (probably since our bikes were much bigger than the norm), wave, and yell "Helloooo". We would do our best to return the wave, honk, or rev the engines.  They loved it as much as we did.

About  two hours into the trip, after we had just passed though a small town and were starting to pick up a steady pace, my nightmare began.  Eileen (my Chinese Honda) broke down and by broke down I mean the engine melted and she became a worthless piece of scrap metal -- well not really, but it was bad enough that after 6 hours and 3 mechanics later no one was able to revive her. Thankfully Jake was there to tow me back to a nearby town or it would have been a nice fun sweaty workout pushing the bike back.  What I later found out ended up happening was that a seal or gasket was broken which caused the engine to burn oil constantly (even though I checked it multiple times, dad) and thus overheated Eileen.  Understandable given the fact that Eileen was old in her age -- 112 in dog years and we were driving +300 km's per day up steep hills and on rough terrain.
Working with the mechanic

Since no mechanic had the parts to fix Eileen, they told me I had to put her on a bus and head back to Hanoi -- a mere 10 hours away.  Great, I thought.  Only 10 hours on an overnight bus with me being the only foreigner and a broken down motorcycle.  This should be fun -- and man, let me tell you, it wasn't.  Jake decided that he would finish the ride alone and that we'd meet back up in Hanoi.  "Good luck," I told him.  And he would need it.  

My overnight ride back to Hanoi included an amazing stop for some delicious Vietnamese cuisine.  At around 3 a.m., we stopped for pho which is basically noodle soup containing some bits of meat.  The ultimate pleasure in this stop came when I found out the only meat being served was Rin Tin Tin (a.k.a. dog meat for those born after 1985).  I declined the offers for the meat and claimed to be a vegetarian, which practically shattered my manhood.  Generally, I eat at least 3 huge steaks a day at home, but eating dog was just too much.  As several men proclaimed "dog" to be #1 in Vietnam, I faked a smile and sipped on my vegetarian pho.

Eventually, the bus dropped me off somewhere on the outskirts of Hanoi at 4 a.m.  When they put the bike under the bus, they had to partially take it apart in order for it to fit.  I imagined arriving in Hanoi and them dropping me off with the bike in multiple pieces so I refused to pay the whole bus fare until someone put my bike back together in Hanoi.  Once the bike was put back together, it started raining.  As I stood there exhausted from the lack of sleep and still covered in mud and sweat from the day before, I pulled out a map and tried to get someone to show me where I was. Unfortunately no one spoke English and I could not pinpoint my location on any of the maps I had.  I was tired, hungry, only slightly irritated, and smelled worse than 3 day old opossum road kill.

From Northern Vietnam

Eventually after a fun game of charades, I managed to hire a pick-up truck driver to take me around with my bike in the back in search of a mechanic.  Since it was still dark, raining, and I had no idea where I was, both the driver and I knew I didn't have many options.  I knew I'd eventually end up being ripped off.  The young driver must have been no more than 18 years old, but he knew today was his lucky day.  I was a stranded foreigner -- a walking dollar sign. 

I later found that my driver did speak some broken English when he said that none of the mechanics would be open until 9 a.m., which meant I got to kill some time at his father's cafe drinking coffee.  While we were there, he sat and tried to teach me some Vietnamese.  The Vietnamese language has 5 or 6 tones, which means you can say the same word in 5 different pitches and it can have 5 different meanings.  My 5 hours of Vietnamese lessons ended up being excruciating since I was still exhausted from the lack of sleep.  The guy would get 2 inches away from my face and almost scream out the pronunciations coercing me into saying the words correctly.  Then he'd pull on both my cheeks to help me say the word again and later he insisted on nearly choking me to death by sticking a chopstick in my mouth to use as a tongue depressor.

We continued the lessons and drinking coffee, which I should add, is some of the best coffee I've ever tasted.  So strong it would probably be illegal in the U.S., each cup is individually brewed with about the same amount of coffee that we would use for just 1 pot.  It comes out blacker than oil, thicker than tar, and is so strong that you can only drink it in the smallest sips.  A splash of sweetened milk can be added to lighten the taste.

To make a long story short, I spent the better part of the day watching the mechanics disassemble the engine and put new pieces in.  Watching Vietnamese mechanics at work is interesting to say the least.  They all have a different opinion about what should be done and each one wants to show off his mechanical prowess.  Their skills are pretty rudimentary.  Often just banging on parts with a hammer on pieces that at home would normally be precisely tuned within a very small tolerance.  Tolerances -- these guys don't care a thing about them.  Bang on it a few times until it's in place and hope she fires up on the next crank.   Ahhh....Vietnam.

Later that day, I met up with Jacob after he'd spend nearly 8 hours driving all day in the rain and around the city trying to find our rendezvous  point -- The Backpackers Guesthouse.  We both had that worn down look our faces and later we swapped war stories about our equally adventurous journeys back to Hanoi.  "I almost got run over by a dump truck," Jake said.  "Well, I almost had to eat dog noodle soup and then got dropped off in the middle of nowhere at 4 a.m.," I retorted.

While it was somewhat of a hellacious experience for both of us, it was well worth it looking back at it now.  Would I have done anything differently I ask myself?  Of course.  I would've pushed Eileen over the edge of a mountain if I had the chance again.

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