Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Motorcycle Chronicles - Northwest Vietnam - Days 1-3

Jacob and I started our 800 km epic motorcycle journey through the northwestern part of Vietnam on a 5 day loop through the rugged mountains and countryside.  What started out as one of the greatest experiences of my life turned into a nightmarish hell, but in retrospect as I'm writing this, it's definitely an experience I'll never forget.  We planned to visit an old French hill station high in the mountains in a town called Sapa which lies near the Chinese border as well as several other interesting towns along the way.  Jake was a little short on time before his departure flight back home so we decided to put our bikes on an overnight train to Sapa, which proved to be a trying, but interesting experience.

We found out you can load the bike on the train yourself, but since we spoke less than 2 words of Vietnamese, we paid some Vietnamese guys that worked for the moto rental company (where Jake rented a dirt bike) to help us.  We reluctantly handed them our keys and trusted that we'd see our bikes on the other side of the 10 hour train ride.  When we got to the train station, we picked up our tickets and crossed through the gate.  Standing there were our 2 bikes...not on the train....."hmmm, not good," we thought.  We were running a bit late and the train was about to leave so we started to panic.  We asked the train station attendant why our bikes weren't on the train, but she didn't speak any english, nor did she pretend to care.  Another guy that appeared to work for the station approached us and told us in very broken english that our bikes would not go on the train and that we should not leave or we'll never see the bikes again.   We were pretty freaked out and not sure of what to do since I'd paid $400 for my bike and Jake had a $3,000 deposit down on his.  We called the moto company and they told us everything was ok and that our bikes would go on the next train after ours.  "Okkk," we thought.  With only a few minutes to decide, we took a leap of faith and trusted the company that everything would be fine.  We literally sprinted for the train as it was leaving and got on while it started to leave the station.  That would never be allowed at home.  Man I love Vietnam.  Rules and regulations if they even exist are completely flexible, which can make things nice or it can work against you.

That night, we shared a sleeper cabin with a Spanish couple and swapped stories while practicing our Spanish.  It was tough getting to sleep knowing that I might not see my bike on the other side, but as luck would have it, the bikes came on the next train about an hour after our arrival.  We were also smart by outwitting the Vietnamese that tried to drain our fuel tanks...usually they drain the tanks for safety reasons on the train, but you don't get the gas back...or they charge you 3 times as much to buy gas near the station.  We drained the fuel from our tanks into some plastic bottles to carry with us before putting the bikes on the train. Muhahahaaaa.

The train stopped in a small town called Lao Cai where we completed the remainder of the trip to Sapa by bike.  It's always satisfying to have your own wheels especially when there are 20 eager touts (taxi drivers) hounding you to take their taxi.  Most of the touts nod at you with an impressed look that you're able to figure things out on your own since most of the other tourists seem to be on the "spoon fed" tour -- the kind where everything is pre-arranged for you  Most of the time, we enjoy the challenge of doing it on our.

It took an hour to get to Sapa from the train station and it was an amazing drive.  We explored Sapa by bike for awhile and I found a mechanic to take a look over my bike to make sure it was running ok.  It appeared to be burning some oil as black smoke seemed to be coming from the exhaust.  "No problem," he said.  I checked the oil, which appeared to be fine, but I kept having a bad feeling about what was to come.

We ended up picking a place high up on a hill (with an awesome balcony) overlooking the cartoon-like emerald green valley.  $10 a night between the two of us for a ridiculous view, free internet, and clean sheets -- what more can one ask!  Many of the people around Sapa are Hmong, which is an ethnic minority that I believe originated in Mongolia, but over time were pushed further and further south into Vietnam, Laos, China, and Thailand.   The town really has an out of this world feeling.  The Hmong men wear navy blue French pettycoats with popped collars and silver bands around their necks.  Women wear traditional clothing which they make themselves from hemp and dye with local indigo.  They are a truly 'ethnic' looking people and those involved in tourism speak excellent english.

We hired a tour guide to take us on a trek through the local Hmong villages and the countryside.  The views were almost beyond what I can describe.  It was the kind of thing that sent chills down your spine.  The entire mountain was a network of terraced rice fields framed by impossibly steep peaks .  Again, I don't think I can even put into words how beautiful the scenery is and I am convinced there is no other place like this in the world. It's as if the scenery was digitally enhanced by some computer nerd and you're sitting in a movie theatre with 3D glasses just soaking it in.   Words really can't describe the place or the feeling, but see the pictures for yourself and just know that pictures can't even do the place justice.

During our time in Sapa, we met a lot of the Hmong women as they were selling handmade hemp clothes, bags, etc. They would all come up and with broken English say "You buy from me?!". It was funny because it was all ages (from 4yrs to 85yrs old), and they would say the same thing. I assume that tourism must be their main source of income, aside from the old days of opium cultivation.  I've actually heard about tourists being propositiong to buy opium from 65 year old women.

Later that night, as Jake was in town grabbing a bite to eat, I returned to our guesthouse to find 5 Vietnamese men gathered on the floor eating and taking shots of rice wine.  I was invited to join, and by invited I mean amicably forced.  I tried explaining that my friend was waiting for me, but they would have none of it.  They offered me full coffee-sized cups of rice wine and proceeded to get me drunk.  I didn't want to be rude and decline, but I also didn't want to get obliterated like I was beginning to see was the case for these men.  And I didn't want these men to think that Americans are squares so I took 4 or 5 big glasses of the "happy water" as they called it, which eventually gave way to several manly grunts of satisfaction.  One old man (the drunkest of the bunch) grabbed my hand and shook it for what felt like a solid 10 minutes.  "Gam Uhhnn," I repeatedly grunted back, which means "thank you" and eventually, I slipped out to meet back up with Jake.

The next day Jake and I spent time exploring the town and checking out the local markets, which had some interesting hand made souvenirs we bought.  Realizing that we needed to get on with our trip, we left early the next morning for what turned out to be a 10 hour test of endurance.  We drove through every type of terrain imaginable: mud, gravel, potholes, washed out sections due to small rivers crossing the road or because of rock slides, dusty back roads, you name it.  The weather varied nearly as much as the terrain: rain, cold, and fog turned to radiating heat and humidity.   We were literally in the middle of nowhere and due to some major construction on a new highway, we were forced to take all the back roads through small and remote villages. 

The hard work was completely worth it though because the scenery was even more impressive than Thailand and Laos with continuous views of the mountains and rice terraces that constantly gave us goose pimples. The elements and construction work slowed us down a lot, and although we tried to make good time we didn't make it to our stop in Dien Bien Phu (the famous site where the Vietnamese won a decisive battle that ousted the French) until 8:30pm. When we arrived we were both covered from head to toe with mud and backcountry Vietnamese dust. To say the least we slept good that night!

That next morning we got on the road early in anticipation for another long-haul day.  The views again were absolutely stunning. 

I am probably a good 2 weeks behind on the blog, but will do my best to catch up...for some reason I can't access the blog site.  Stay tuned.

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