Sunday, 11 December 2016

Heading South

It’s interesting, despite my initial feelings about Vietnam being mostly indifferent, the longer I spend here the more I find myself falling under the country's spell. It's like Cuba Lite. Socialism but with a lot less weirdness.

At first utter chaos, you soon realise that absolutely everything here has a flow. Each person, animal, vehicle, even leaf falling from a tree, has its place in the big picture, all silently moving around each other, rarely interacting other than to slow down or speed up to maintain a safe distance. People live in their own little bubbles, oblivious to everything around them until they need to communicate for some reason, which they do briefly and efficiently. People are friendly and happy to talk, but they’re also fairly reserved. It’s an interesting thing to observe. Most of the time though they float around be it on their bike, their phone, often both, moving from A to B without so much as a glance at anyone or anything else in between.

Upon leaving Dong Van we made our way up to Lung Cu, Vietnam’s ‘North Pole’. Unfortunately the weather had drawn in, as it seems to do so quickly here, and visibility was down to only a few feet in places as we rode up the rocky mountain roads avoiding the thundering aggregate trucks coming the opposite way. The villages in the north are mostly occupied by minorities, communities of people who we found to be either incredibly friendly and treated us like VIP’s or shy, but quietly curious about why we were there. Children, as is probably no surprise, waved and shouted 'ello repeatedly as we rode by. Upon reaching Lung Cu, with its tower offering views over the border into China, visibility was at the lowest it had been all day. Despite climbing the steps and then the tower itself, all we were met with was dense, grey fog.

Over the following couple of days we made our way back down through the mountains to Ha Giang and then onwards towards Lao Cai. The weather cleared a little and we found ourselves on rocky, red clay roads, slick from days of rain. Muddy, wet and on these little bikes, great fun. Riding these things is the adult equivalent of being allowed to go and jump in muddy puddles without your rain suit and wellies on. For the most part it’s not cold, so although we’ve spent a lot of time soaked to the skin, it has rarely managed to wipe the smiles from our faces. These bikes just stick to the road no matter what you throw at them. They take ankle deep, sticky mud in their stride. Rocks? Gravel? Water crossings? No problem! In the evening, after getting my 'ancient marbles' changed (thanks Google!) we bucked the trend by walking around the night market as opposed to riding around which seems to be the norm. I don't think many people here ever get off their bikes!

We had intended to ride a very short day from Lao Cai to Sa Pa, somewhere that we’d heard people talk of as if it were a mythical place accessible only through a magic portal, Vietnam’s piece de resistance. In reality the second we stopped there we were mobbed by touts virtually grappling with each other to drag us off to their ‘homestay’ in the hills and trying to sell us everything from trekking trips to trinkets for wildly inflated prices. Prepared to give the place the benefit of the doubt we shook them off and found some cheap Pho Bo in a run down cafe. We were joined at our table by an elderly Bulgarian man, clearly mad as a hatter, who insisted on showing us 856 photos of a very grey and dreary looking Ha Long Bay on his laptop whilst imploring us to go there immediately. While he was embroiled in some confusion with the cafe owner over why he couldn’t pay with Euro’s, we made our escape and wandered round a small section of the town.

Sa Pa reminds me of an Austrian alpine town, Salzburg perhaps, but far less interesting. It has mountain vistas and is pretty enough but is quite possibly the most touristy spot in Vietnam. Luckily both Evan and I felt the same way about the place and we quickly returned to our bikes and continued down the road. There was nothing for us there. Later that afternoon, after stopping along the way take in the stunning views that were all more impressive than the town itself and sample glutinous black rice cake (once was enough) we rolled into Son La and made it our home for the night. We visited the former prison in the town and drank Milk Tea, a strange concoction involving apples (I think), milk, tea, froth and weird lumps of frogspawn like jelly, all drunk through a wide straw. Whilst the texture turned my stomach a little it was actually much nicer than it sounds.

At this point our trip took a little side step. There had been a couple of things Evan and I hadn’t been seeing eye to eye on and this resulted in us deciding to spend a little time doing our own thing, each making our own way. I won’t pretend it was an entirely mutual decision to do so, but that’s what happened and shortly after leaving the chai tea growing town of Mai Chau one morning and finding a mechanic who replaced my countershaft seal for just a dollar to solve an oil leak that had been concerning me, I rode away down the road alone headed south.

Up until the moment that I rode away I didn’t really have any idea where I was going to go. I briefly considered heading back to Hanoi, but decided this was a backwards move. South felt like the right way to go so that’s where I headed. It felt strange at first to be riding off completely alone with no idea where I was going to end up. As I rode I thought about whether I wanted to continue the trip by bike, or whether I actually wanted to sell it and jump on a train or a bus or even a plane to somewhere else altogether. A few hours and a couple of hundred kilometres later I still hadn’t figured out what I was going to do when my bike made several large jumps as I was climbing a hill, spluttered a bit and ground to a halt by the side of the road. Luckily I was on the edge of Yen Cat, a small dirt road town very much under construction and so I limped with the little power my bike could muster to the nearest mechanic. It was at this point that I discovered that it’s not so easy to get my point across with no common language, especially as a lone female.

The first mechanic, after initially appearing disinterested in helping me, insisted my oil was the problem, so with much doubt I allowed him to change it. He assured me my bike was now fine and watched me limp off down the road to find another opinion. The second mechanic I spoke to insisted on changing my oil for a second time despite my protests. It was now late in the day so feeling a little dejected I found a place to stay and figure out what to do next.

Yen Cat is an interesting town and I was clearly the only tourist there. I wandered through the main street scoping out possible other mechanics, stopping to ‘chat’ every hundred yards with various local people. I bought pears from an elderly woman sitting by the roadside and had to smile as she meticulously weighed them out to try and make them arrive at exactly 20,000 dong worth. I didn’t even really want any pears, I just enjoyed the interaction. A little further down the road a young woman came over to me and handed me her 5 week old baby, chatting away in a language I can’t understand, but with clear inference that she was welcoming me and not asking me for anything. As I passed a small food stand two young lads invited me to join them to eat potato fritters and drink red bull, which I did much to the stallholders amusement. Later in the evening I joined the family of another stallholder to drink tea and eat a sandwich, the contents of which I have no clue, but it was very tasty. Vietnamese society is interesting to observe. Parenting of children is shared equally, as is wage earning. People work hard here. Lots of the hard, manual labour here is done by women - concrete mixing, construction, road building. There are no groups of teenagers hanging around causing trouble, no homeless people begging on the street. It really is the poster child country if you wanted to sell socialism.

It’s funny, even though I hadn’t entirely chosen to be in the situation I was in, either travelling alone or with a broken bike, somehow things always work out. I had forgotten to an extent how different it is to travel alone and how different interactions with people are when you have no choice but to face them on your own. Much as I love travelling with Evan and missed him during the time we spent apart, I have to admit I do thrive on these kinds of situations, the ones that challenge me and make me figure things out for myself.

The following morning, I awoke to an initial sinking feeling as I opened my eyes and remembered I had some figuring out to do if I wanted to get out of town that day. With some considerable effort I got my bike running and rolled down to the road to a mechanic I had seen the night before. This time it was third time lucky and with some help from Trang, the mechanic from whom we originally bought the bikes, I soon had tea in hand and someone looking at my carburetor. A quick clean and a new spark plug later and my bike was purring like a kitten again.

I should pause here to say a little more about Trang. When we bought our bikes from him he was friendly, professional and most importantly he gave us his phone number and told us to call him if ever we had any problems with the bikes. On the few occasions we have needed his assistance Trang has always been there to help, speaking to mechanics to translate the problem and ensuring we aren’t ripped off. This kind of assistance has been priceless and I’d highly recommend anyone thinking of buying a bike in Hanoi to look him up -

With a little trepidation I set off out of town, but my fears were unfounded, my bike was fine and after another long day of riding I arrived in Huong Khe, another sprawl of a town, another set of slightly random interactions with local people. 

By this point Evan had started to head south too after first heading back to Hanoi. We’d spoken a fair bit over the past days and agreed that we both missed the added element that sharing experiences brings and we’d agreed to both head for Hoi An where we’d rendezvous in a few days. As it happened the following day was wet and cold and I ended up taking the decision to stop early in Phong NHA rather than riding the next long stretch of 230km through the mountains, a section of the Ho Chi Minh Highway with no gas stations or hotels until I reached Khe Sahn. It was much too late in the day to have any hope of arriving there before dark so I found a nice room in possibly the second most touristy town in Vietnam, but one eminently more likeable. Here I met a Dutch couple with whom I jumped on a dragon boat to visit the rather beautiful Phong Nha caves for the afternoon. A little touristy, but nicely done and not expensive, it was a pleasant enough way to pass an afternoon. I arrived back in town almost exactly the same time as Evan arrived. With laundry long overdue, we gave our clothes to the hotel to wash and headed out to find some food.

The following morning there was some confusion and panic when we enquired as to whether our clothes were ready and after a little detective work Evan found the hotel owner frantically trying to dry our things on the rooftop terrace with an array of fans and hairdryers. Needless to say this didn’t really work, but we paid our money all the same, smiled and headed off around midday, decidedly damp. In hindsight we probably shouldn’t have as it was far too late to make it all the way through the mountains before dark. 

After an overpriced dinner of fried chicken and rice cooked for us by an opportunistic local in the middle of nowhere, we spent a couple of hours crawling through dense fog in the pitch black in torrential rain, eventually arriving several hours later at a newly built hotel 30km before Khe Sahn. Luckily it was cheap, but to be honest we’d have paid whatever it cost at that point to be warm and dry again. We fell asleep to the sound of awful karaoke on one of the hardest beds we’ve had the misfortune of sleeping on yet.

It occurred to me as we rode that night, stopping on some random mountain top in the dark to refuel from our plastic bottle in the pouring rain, that I only ever seem to find myself in these situations when I’m with Evan. I remember smiling as I thought how following Evan’s tail light for mile after mile was just like playing Super Hang-On on the old SEGA master system. Luckily, despite the fog and pitch black there was no-one and nothing on the road that night. In fact on this whole trip, despite there being a constant need for obstacle avoidance I’ve only hit a couple of things - a dog (or more likely a pig) that ran into my front wheel one night in the dark but ran off quite ok and two small chickens that sadly didn’t fair so well.

From this point onwards Evan wasn’t keen on continuing through the mountains and whilst I probably would have done if left to my own devices, I had to agree that riding in the rain for hours on end every day wasn’t appealing. We made our way out to the coast just past Dong Ha and down to Hue and then on to Hoi An. In hindsight I’m glad we did because life out there on the outer banks is very different to everywhere else we’ve been in Vietnam. For a start it’s mostly under water, miles and miles of road through flooded farmland. Water as far as the eye can see, punctuated with small towns and hundreds of beautiful, intricately crafted and brilliantly painted temples, many inaccessible on foot, cut off by the tide.

For miles we rode through duck farms and past water buffalo wading along the narrow raised paths between the fields. In some places the roads too were flooded and we had to ride through 8 inch deep water, hoping that a truck wouldn’t come the other way and flood our engines. I stopped along the way to try and take photos between the rain showers but unfortunately succeeded only in soaking my phone which later decided it didn’t want to charge any longer. Later in town a rice merchant kindly gave me a bag of rice for free - much to the amusement of her neighbour who laughed and pointed at us and shouted ‘ahhh cell phone wet!’

It has been a trying few days though. It’s frustrating to be riding through such beautiful places, knowing there are stunning views all around you but never being able to see more than a few feet ahead. We rode through the Hai Van pass to Da Nang but didn’t see anything at all, although from what I did see I think it’s overrated. It’s also wearing to constantly be wet. We ended one day soaked through and with no way to dry our clothes or boots we decided to go native and rode in our sandals the following day. Finally my boots fell apart altogether and I consigned them to the bin so for now I have some rather fetching leather effect crocs, much to Evan's amusement.

Finally we arrived in Hoi An, the place we’d been aiming for and the point after which we had no real plans. It’s an interesting enough town, a good example of what happens when Unesco designation is given and tourism takes hold, ironically destroying what it was that the place had to start with. That’s probably a bit unfair, it hasn’t really destroyed the place, but it does have a feel of Antigua, Guatemala about it. 

Hoi An is all about custom made leather products and tailored clothing. 90% of the shops in the town sell one or the other. To be fair, the shopkeepers aren’t as pushy as they could be but they’re learning and in a few years the place will no doubt be unbearable. You have to pay a fee to enter the old town (unless you just tell the officious woman at the entrance that you have a ticket already, in which case they never check) and whilst interesting for a quick spin, the three days we ended up spending there had me climbing the walls wanting to get out. We shopped, window shopped, ate the best garlic bread I’ve ever had in a little vegetarian restaurant (which we later discovered had rats living on the bookshelves), had dinner with some new German friends, got my phone fixed and walked a lot.

Our extended stay was down to two things - rain and indecision about what to do next. The forecast was pretty horrific for the couple of days following our arrival and prior to arrival we had decided that we’d probably sell our bikes there and catch a train to Saigon before flying to Malaysia. We posted our bikes on a facebook group and waited for the enquiries to flood in. Of course they didn’t, because the reality is that whilst touristy, Hoi An isn’t a place where backpackers suddenly decide they want to buy a bike. Reluctant to just give the bikes away, we considered asking a dealer what they’d pay for them, but somehow this didn’t sit right either. On my part I think my problem subconsciously is that I really, really like my little bike and I’m not ready to let it go just yet. During one of our evening strolls around town I suggested to Evan that it wasn’t the worst idea in the world to continue to ride south and maybe even cross into Cambodia with our bikes for the next leg of the journey. To my surprise he agreed and so we packed up our bags once again and set off down the road.

And that's pretty much where we are now. For the last few days we've ridden south along the Cambodian border to the west. Long days of riding followed by nights in forgettable hotels in unmemorable towns. I don't mean that in a particularly negative way, just that places here are largely the same. Yesterday was a little more interesting as we rode for about 100km through Bu Gia Map National Park. First hard packed dirt roads which led on to washboard that shook our poor little bikes to within an inch of their lives, followed by deeply gouged forest trails with steep rocky sections and finally across a province line into dense bamboo forest with nicely raked, hard packed dirt again. We stayed the night in the town of Phuroc Long, a place where we clearly raised some eyebrows. A long way from the tourist path and our last night in Vietnam. Today we crossed into Cambodia...but that's a story for another day.

PS More photos to come just as soon as I manage to track down a cable for my hdd which unfortunately I have managed to lose somewhere along the way!

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