We woke up later than we hoped but were on the road for 10. Skipping breakfast, we got dressed and hauled our bags down to the bikes, a morning ritual which, in the coming days, would become as familiar as yawning and peeing first thing out of bed.
We’d each brought ropes from home – because a rope can be just as important as a towel to a traveler of the galaxy – and had been given various old bungees by the motorcycle rental company. Securing our backpacks in the rain-covers we’d both purchased in our last pass through Bangkok, we strapped our respective luggage to the backs of our bikes. James’ uke sat regally tied atop his sack, while mine was wedged securely in a saddle bag – canvas military packs snug inside metal bars that draped over both sides of my real wheel.
Knowing the possibility of taking a tumble to be very real, we both donned the one pair of long-pants we’d each packed for our trip to South-East Asia in the summer as well as our full-face helmets and steel-toed hiking shoes. We also wore coverings over our faces for the dust and grime of the road, since visibility was cloudy with the helmet’s visor down – James had a mouth and nose wrap used for hunting or skiing, and I simply strung on a scarf I’d acquired in a trip to Turkey that I pulled up over my nose – and, besides, wearing one was customary in the region, whether biking, riding in a car, or just standing on the street. When in ‘Nam. And because it was, again, summer in South-East Asia, we thought it smart to sport t-shirts. It wasn’t.
First and last day of short-sleeved riding.
Checking the straps once more, it was time to roll out. We kicked up the stands, held the clutch down as we manually reversed out onto the street, keyed in, and push-started the bikes to roaring life. Without much trouble at all, we rumbled off down our relatively quiet street and into the endless flow of motorists on Hanoi’s main thoroughfares.
We got a lot of smiles and waves from others on the road, nods and “Hello”s at stoplights. We were treated as spectacles by the locals, who clearly knew we weren’t from the neighborhood. With our masks on, I wondered if it was so obvious that we were outsiders. I’d come to learn in time that the hair on my arms and James’ 6’ 2” height were dead giveaways, as was the model of our bikes and even the sound their engines made: the frames were larger than the bikes ridden by natives (but were still apparently designed for people with smaller builds than the two of us), and the engines were more powerful and louder, making us the fastest things on the road, a detail that would come in handy time and again. Also a huge clue was probably the fact that, like travelers to a foreign land, we towed likewise huge backpacks behind us. This might be a problem to a pair illegally driving in a foreign land.
But, as if we did belong there, we took to the machines like naturals our first day out. Without a hitch, we’d gear-shifted to stop at lights, to stay with or leave behind traffic, to park and stretch. Before we knew it, we’d successfully survived Hanoi traffic and seen the city shrink in the rear-views. For the first time since arriving in Vietnam, the constant sound of blaring horns had disappeared.
We were driving through countryside, passing through towns that had all seemingly grown up around the one road, the highway that runs directly through them. “Highway” is a different concept in Vietnam than it is in the States; the road was a narrow path of turf carved out for vehicles, much of the time a barely two-lane strip of mostly pavement, peppered with patches of dirt. In towns, shops lined either side of this artery through the country, places that advertised no name or brand but simply the product or service on offer – beef, noodles, tires, hair cuts – all words we would learn to recognize, but not pronounce, along our journey.
Another word we’d learned to identify, before even setting out, was nhà nghi, denoting “guest house.” I’ve still no idea how to say it, but we knew that, if we could recognize it on a building, we’d be able to find somewhere to rest at night and shake off the road. But, we were far from needing to start looking for a nhà nghi. Instead, now a few hours from Hanoi, both our gas tanks and our bellies were running low.
Finding gas was no issue, but finding an eatery proved difficult. We were still unfamiliar with the words that signified food and as yet unaccustomed to the small plastic chair aesthetic of roadside eateries, so we probably zoomed past a number of missed gastro-opportunities as we roared through towns marked by red star gateways.
A gander at the map at a gas stop showed us we were on the right track, still on AH13, the highway we’d taken south out of Hanoi. We hoped to make it all the way to Yên Cát by a round-about route, avoiding the main motor conduit through the country, AH1, which we’d heard was lousy with construction and attendant gigantic vehicles, causing massive delays. At this point, we were making good time and expected to be in Yên Cát by late afternoon. The map showed us that we’d ride along a river at roughly the half-way point, and, sure enough, here was the Da River at our right as we continued south. We’d pass along the outskirts of the stilted villages of mountainous Mai Châu a couple hours farther and continue on down the map for another hour or two more before settling in for the night.
Spotting an open-air dining area consisting of thirty-some small plastic tables flanked by smaller plastic chairs, all shaded by a patchwork series of tarpaulins perched on the steep east bank of the Da, in view of the giant Hoa Binh hydro-electric dam, we slowed to a hopeful stop.
Seeing us park and dismount, an old man dropped out of a nearby hammock and moseyed over to a table on which sat several lengths of sugarcane and a grinding machine. Snagging two glass mugs, he ground ice and cane into sweet treats, not unlike a snowcone, giving us each a glass and muttering a sum. Upon payment, he returned to the hammock.
We were grateful for the opportunity to stretch and for the cold drink and shade on such a mercilessly hot day. The sun shimmered glaringly on the still waters pooled around the base of the dam, blinding diamonds dancing on the surface. But we couldn’t linger long in the refuge of tarp and cool cane sugar, because a snowcone, important as it is on a blazing summer day, is no meal. So we glanced at the map again before strapping our helmets back into place and rolling on, toward the dam.
In a matter of moments, however, we were stopped again, engines running as we held the clutch tight to prevent stalling. The road we were meant to follow, the continuation of AH13, which branched off farther to the east of the dam, was blocked by a closed and padlocked gate, a snoozing policeman stretched in a chair inside the gatekeeper’s booth. Knowing the illegality of our biking in Vietnam and seeing the impasse ahead anyway, we took the only other route available, hoping for a detour. And so we rode on into a tunnel built through the dam, traversing the Da River to the hamlet of Phường Tân Thịnh on its west bank. A complaint of teenagers (if that isn’t the collective noun, it should be) huddled in the center of the poorly-lit tunnel, giggling and smoking cigarettes
Again, before long, we were stopped. We’d followed the only main road through the small town, winding up and up to a dead-end near the damn that featured a larger-than-life statute of a stern-looking Ho Chi Minh. We were clearly off course, so we went back through the tunnel, back past the smoky teens, back across the Da. Fortunately, a young local on a scooter saw us looking all Western and confused and pulled alongside us, offering assistance in broken English. At his direction, indicating that there was no other way south, we simply rolled up to the locked gate, waved to the awakened guard, and slipped through an opening just big enough for a bike or scooter to fit in. Yelling a thanks to our momentary guide, we roared on before the rousing lawman had fully gathered his wits.
Still on the hunt for food, we continued down AH13 and stopped somewhere near Tân Lạc around noon, where we found another, smaller outside dining area under tarps. Here, a man with a large painting of Jesus near the door of his home/kitchen served us what we’d come to learn is called che – another sweet drink, this one more viscous and sprinkled throughout with an assortment of oddly floating ingredients: black-eyed peas, jellies, fruit, coconut, kidney beans, mung beans, tapioca balls and other nutty, beany, squishy, floaty things.
Backwash: the beverage.
And, again, this sugary drink was quite good, just not what our grumbling stomachs needed. Holding out hope that the relatively larger towns further south would placate our bellies, and seeing dark clouds broiling over the road ahead, we rode on.
Entering a mountain range, the dirt-covered pathways turned once more into asphalt, and we began to feel the first few large drops of rain breaking from the angry, overheated skies. Increased elevation presented us with another biking challenge for the novice, namely knowing when to down-shift to lower gears to climb and back up to higher gears when leveled out again: too much incline without shifting down can choke your engine and cause it to die suddenly in, for example, fourth gear, which is never good. After a number of respective stallings and restartings, we began to get the hang of it, feeling the strain on the bike when it need a lower gear, listening to it moaning for relief and responding gratefully when it got those low gears.
The road wound up the mountains, climbing ever higher toward the black clouds, which doused us intermittently. Once up to the pinnacle of the highway, a particularly heavy burst of rainwater forced us to pull over and retrieve our weather-resistant jackets from our packs. Once this deluge subsided, we both made water of our own on the shoulder of the highway, which offered a spectacular view of the misty valley below and its smatterings of stilted bamboo huts.
We came, we saw, we peed on the stunning vista.
Riding on, we started to become accustomed to certain Vietnamese road hazards – ubiquitous giant buses and construction vehicles, daredevil motorists who don’t look for traffic before darting onto the roadway, wandering water buffalo – and dodged around each obstacle artfully, like artful dodgers. But one thing we were not used to was riding in the midst of blinding curtains of torrential rain. And, as we neared the edges of Mai Châu, the heavens opened.
We kept rolling, hardly able to see, soaked everywhere that helmet and jacket were not, until we arrived at a cluster of buildings and spotted the words we hoped to find, nhà nghi, “guesthouse.” It seemed that, due to the sudden river flowing from the skies and down the mountains, we would be taking shelter sooner than planned.
A man stood in the opening of a garage that led to the front door of the guest house and beckoned us out of the downpour and into shelter. As we parked and unlatched our helmets, a woman and young boy appeared in the doorway, and, from her immediate taking charge of the situation, it was clear that she was the boss. None of the three spoke any English, apart from the boy, who could simply recite a handful of questions learned by rote. Pantomiming eating and sleeping and pointing at phrases in the guidebook that I quickly retrieved from the saddlebags, we were able to communicate our intention to stay there, and she smiled her assent, showing us the rooms upstairs. Although still early afternoon, the sky was black with storm clouds, and the house was even darker thanks to the weather’s causing a power outage; so we followed as she led by candlelight through a stately porcelain-tiled living room and up a similarly opulent staircase, bordered by a richly carved pair of wooden handrails.
As the only guests there, we got to choose the room, and we picked one that boasted two twin beds. Each claiming one, we changed out of our drenched clothes, hanging them on the ropes we’d brought from home that doubled as pack ties. Because the woman had asked for our passports to register us as guests, we carried identification when we rejoined her and the other two downstairs. Not wanting to blow our Canadian cover, however, we produced our Louisiana driver’s licenses instead of our American passports, and, though confused, she accepted them as we assured her we were from the birthplace of Bieber.
As she copied down information from our licenses, James and I stepped back out into the garage, still open and displaying the streams of heavy droplets smashing down to the ground, and grabbed our packs. Even when our multi-purpose ropes were still wound around them, both our bags were much looser in their various bindings and straps and further toward the back of the bikes than when we’d first tied them, mine unnervingly so, having been shaken by the road and our trial-and-error higher elevation riding. We vowed to be more conscientious with our knots in the morning as we lugged the packs upstairs and returned to the garage, where we rolled cigarettes to stave off the hunger. The boy and man followed, staring and giggling at us like we were dogs in business clothes. The man motioned that he wanted his own cigarette, which James prepared and handed to him, but, as he smoked through a snicker, he seemed expectant of something more narcotic than tobacco in the paper cylinder and, disappointed that it was only such, threw it out after a few puffs – a scene we’d see replay again and again in Vietnam. The boy repeated his gamut of questions: “What is your name?,” “How are you?,” “Where are you from?” (and then, the follow-up to our response of “Canada”: “Oh, big country.”), “How old are you?”
I’d toted the guidebook downstairs and attempted to use some of the printed Vietnamese phrases to communicate with the boy, the man, and, when she appeared in the garage to hand our licenses back, the woman. They understood none of what I said, and I can only postulate how absurd and wrong my pronunciation was. My guess: very. So I resorted again to simply pointing at words until the woman yanked the book from hands, and the trio pored over it, fascinated. From their reaction to the map of their nation included within the pages, pointing at the map and asking “Vietnam?” in baffled tones and expressions, I wondered if they’d seen a representation of their country before. I replied in the affirmative, to which they seemed pleased. They also seemed amused by the way I squatted, balancing on my toes – no doubt odd to people on a continent where the universal squat is a flat-footed, splayed-legged marvel of poise.
Returning the book, the woman pointed to Vietnamese words in the phraseology section, words whose English translation indicated that food was forth-coming, arriving from elsewhere. We thanked her in probably mispronounced Vietnamese, and I returned upstairs to fetch our ukes so that we might pass the time with music.
The trio was delighted by our playing and laughed and clapped along. The woman insisted on taking pictures of our ukes together in various places around the house, and so she borrowed them and arranged them around statues, on numerous furniture pieces, with portraits of family members. As she did this, James marveled the man and the boy with sleight-of-hand card magic. When the rain slowed to a drizzle, the man ran next door and came back with a bottle of home-brewed corn whiskey, which he, James, and I passed around liberally as we waited for (breakfast, lunch, and) dinner.
Another food that is breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Time marched on with the persistent patter of raindrops, and the food arrived at long last. Several plates and serving bowls were delivered by a neighbor and placed on the floor of the living room, around which we all huddled on the ground. No one had a chair nor a personal plate, but rather we all ate communally on the carpet under the glow of candles, taking from the serving dishes whenever we wanted a bite of something – bak choi, rice, chicken, fish, pickled chayote/merleton, pickled eggplant, fried pork rinds/cracklins, tea, and flowing corn hooch – and trying to teach each other the names for each item in our respective tongues. In a moment of unspoken communication early into the meal, the woman noticed my lack of chopstick prowess and handed me a fork.
After dinner, we played our ukes again and sipped warm beer, still sans electricity. Then, all lights and electronics crackled to life suddenly, the living room TV booming on. The screen displayed a live pageant taking place in a large auditorium, with scores of performers dressed in Vietnamese sailor garb and prancing about, enacting glorious naval battles. Interspersed with the drama were scenes from recent news footage of the Chinese navy’s sinking of a Vietnamese fishing vessel off the coast of Vietnam. It seemed the nation was set to retaliate, producing this musical number as a propaganda pep-rally piece. I couldn’t understand what was said, but there was no mistaking the message. And, as soon as the performance was concluded, all electricity promptly died as quickly as it had been briefly restored, and we were again in darkness.
Taking that as our cue, James and I thanked our hosts and retreated upstairs to our beds, both still feeling the cadence of the road even in the tranquility of the lightning-punctuated room, the mind’s pseudo-physical night remembrance of a day at the ocean or at an amusement park. To the sound of heavy rainfall and the ghostly ebb and flow of the bikes, we drifted to sleep, ready to do it all over in the morning. Though we’d lost a few hours because of the rains and would have to start even earlier tomorrow, we’d survived our first day on the road. Only 960 miles to go.