That’s a picture of the route from Mai Châu to Yên Cát above, from the number 1 in the top left to the checkered flag in the bottom right. If you were to trace our path on this day of the journey, however, you’d need a lot more space, a lot more numbers, and a lot more ink, drawing circles and damn near treading inside the borders of another country. We needed to make up for lost time from the rains the day before, and day two of the motorcycle excursion would certainly not end up being the day we would do so.
We started off alright. By 7:30, we’d paid our hosts, packed our bags, and were set to roll out of the guest house driveway. The woman and boy waved madly as we left, the boy clutching the deck of cards James bequeathed to him before hopping on his sled. Both of our single pairs of long pants and our shoes were still damp from yesterday’s deluge, but sunny skies and the gusts of the road promised they’d soon be dry. Riding in short sleeves the day before taught us a hard lesson – though moving all the while, we’d been sitting on our bikes exposed to the sun for hours, and we were both feeling the burn on our arms when we woke up this morning – so we decided that riding with our rain jackets on (the only long-sleeved gear we’d packed) was a wise way to take shelter from the heat. Not content with the job I’d done on my pack, James insisted on retying it once we were dressed and ready to ride, so I triple-checked the map as he did so. Before long, we were on our way, headed in the right direction and turning left onto QL15.
Winding down from the mountains, the landscape became much more lush, with thick jungles bordering the simple paved road on both sides, mercifully shading us under a canopy of foliage.
Bamboo abodes with tin roofs and surrounded by bamboo fences were tucked into pockets of land reclaimed from the pervasive greenery. Farmers led cattle to grazing grounds while field workers carted baskets of bamboo and other harvest bounties up and down the roadway. We were witnessing a slice of daily life for many in the nation far removed from the hustle of Hanoi.
Told you so.
About an hour and a half into the ride, we rolled into a small town, where we stopped for gas. The village’s lively market, like all such small towns in Vietnam, was situated right on the highway, announcing its wares vividly to our empty bellies, so, as I filled up the bikes and kept watch over the packs, James went off in search of breakfast for us.
A gang of elementary and middle school aged boys gradually shuffled over to me from the other end of the gas station lot, shyly whispering, giggling, and nudging one another ever closer. It was a funny scene, particularly the whispering, since I would have no idea what was being said if dire Vietnamese insults were shouted in my face. When they arrived, they took turns practicing the little English they knew – “Hello,” “I love you,” “Bye Bye” – and laughing hysterically when I replied in kind.
James returned with a baguette, a bag of prickly red lychee fruit, and two giant water bottles, which we jammed in the saddle bags before starting off again to a cloud of smiling and waving locals. Continuing on, we rode along a steadily moving muddy river, the Mã, and stopped for breakfast in the shade of a row of palm trees along its northern bank.
All that chocolate rain had to go somewhere, Tay Zonday.
Breaking bread and un-shelling the precious lychee fruit from its rough casing, we pored over the map again, trying mostly unsuccessfully to commit the route to memory. No matter how many times we went over names of towns and numbers of roadways, they’d all inevitably bleed together in recollection. It’s one thing to try to remember, for example, “I-10 west to exit 100, make a left onto Bertrand, a slight right onto Ambassador, and then another right on Johnston.” It’s another to recall, for instance, “QL15 to the towns of Thiet Trà/ Làng Cha, where it becomes QL217, then left at Quyêt Thãng, where it rebecomes QL15.” The highway numbers were easy enough, but trying to keep three, four, or five towns, with names that all look similar to the untrained eye, in the right order in our heads was next to impossible. But we did our best and saddled up again once we were full.
Unfortunately, when QL15 morphed suddenly into QL217 at Thiet Trà/ Làng Cha, we took a left too early and, unbeknownst to us at the time, roared off west instead of east, i.e. in the exact opposite direction of where we needed to go. Not far down the wrong road, I think we both knew in our guts that something was amiss. The fairly consistently paved highway we should have been on was gone, replaced with an uneven, bumpy, mostly dirt trail up and into the Annamite mountain range. This road was unkempt and, at times, peppered with large jagged rocks just waiting to slice a worn tire or bang up a chain. Active construction was on-going, with workers carving out mountainsides for future roadways and creating obstacles for us with their massive machinery. Still hoping to make up lost time and thinking we were plodding on on-course, we zoomed over the broken ground, far faster than prudent. We ducked under swinging cranes, squeezed between bulldozers and rock walls, zipped around herds of hulking water buffaloes, and generally drove like madmen. At one particularly pot-hole ridden patch, James’ back-end came down hard, and his plastic chain-guard ripped free from its bolts, a gift to the gods of the road.
At several intervals, we stopped to ask pedestrians, homeowners, whoever we could find, where we were and how to get where we needed to go. We knew we needed to go towards the town of Ngọc Lặc; if we were headed that way, we were headed in the correct direction. But, as with all words in Vietnamese, we had no idea how to properly vocalize the few syllables needed. We pulled over alongside and questioned a group of teenagers spotted walking down the road, none of whom could agree on how to get to Yên Cát or Ngọc Lặc (if they even understood our query), and all pointed in different directions like a bad vaudeville routine.
“Ngọc, ngọc, ngọc.”
Unsure of which kid we should trust, we kept going down the road we were on, stopping again miles later to ask a man standing outside his home. He beckoned us inside and introduced his wife and children, presumably, who all seemed joyously baffled by our presence in their tiny hamlet. The young ones took turns jumping up behind James, who towered above all present but me, squealing with delight as they tried to touch the top of his head. The couple seemed little interested in attempting to figure out what we were asking and instead flipped through the pages of the map we showed them with rapt attention, like our hosts from the night before, wondering aloud whether the graphics depicted Vietnam. Again, uncertain, we kept to the road we were on.
We stopped to refuel near a stone mile marker that announced the border of Laos to be uncomfortably close, for we were meant to be moving further and further away from it and toward the coast. After filling our thirsty tanks with gas bought in glass bottles, we fortunately ran across a young guy, who spoke a little English, in a nearby shop. Though he couldn’t understand the place names we rattled off, he was able to tell us that Laos was only another thirty-odd minutes away and also, by looking at where we pointed on the map, what the best route to our destination was. We’d gone a couple of hours off-course (partially, it seemed, because our inquiries about Ngọc Lặc had been misinterpreted as our needing directions to Na Lộc, our current location) and would need to retrace our path all the way back to our first wrong turn. After thanking him profusely, we rode on, finally in the right direction, discouraged but resolved to make back the time and stick to the schedule; and with our time constraints on this journey, we couldn’t linger and sulk or stop early a second day in a row, regardless.
We flew back up the same road, passing the same houses and construction crews, the same river bends and grazing spots, the same rocky patches and potholes. An hour or so back on the right track, I could feel my pack slipping behind me and tried to correct it with one hand while mobile. This temporary solution worked, well, temporarily, but within a matter of miles, my bags were dragging on the ground before dropping off completely. I tried to signal to James in the lead, but he was too far ahead to hear me. So I stopped and collected and quickly retied everything – none the worse for wear besides a few small rips in the rain-cover – before setting off again, with James nowhere in sight. I’d learn later that another biker with a headlight on had falsely assured him that I was behind him all the while, but for now, we were separated and hopefully both moving toward our destination.
The road seemed to level and straighten out progressively the further it ran from the Laos border, so gunning the engine was safer here than it had been on the rougher roads to the west and behind us. Roaring through a bend in the road, I noticed a police checkpoint ahead, consisting of a half dozen uniformed officers with bamboo batons waiving speedsters over. For the first time since leaving Hanoi, I spotted a fellow Westerner who wasn’t James, a short bearded fellow, pulled over at the traffic stop, and policemen were rummaging through his bags. Recalling the advice received in Backpacker’s Hostel, I waved back at the heat and yanked the throttle back to accelerate. If any officers gave chase, their scooters were no match for my Winn, and the whole scene vanished from view in moments. Some ten minutes later, I finally caught sight of James in the distance and picked up the pace ever more to fall back in formation.
In the early afternoon, we reached Ngọc Lặc at long last, where we had a late lunch at a humble noodle house and iced coffee at a posh, eerily empty café. We examined our burned skin, and James, quite lighter-complexioned than me, tore off a patch of maroon hide from the back of his hand, leaving a swath of bright pink dermis beneath. Though we’d covered our arms today, our hands were still exposed to the scorching heat, and we searched for a solution while our bikes rested. The best we could find in town was in a sports shop that sold soccer keeper gloves, so we each bought a pair, cutting out the fingers roughly with our hunting knives before slipping them on. Never having been much of a Football Club Barcelona fan before, I became a fanatic once my gloves bearing the franchise’s name became a soothing buffer between sun and skin. Suitably suited up, we jumped backed on QL15, which soon thereafter merged into Đường Trường Sơn, the old Ho Chi Minh Trail.
The former wartime supply route has been converted into one of the few main highways that span the nation, and, apart from some twists and turns, is relatively flat and straight for most of the ride from Ngọc Lặc to Yên Cát. In a mad bid to stick to the schedule and arrive in town before dark, we really opened up the bikes, pushing them to the max. Though we had to swerve around erratic motorist and drying crops laid out on the road most of the way, we’d started to get used to swooping in and out of lanes and around unforeseen obstacles, and nothing stood in our way for the rest of the ride.
We bought back precious lost hours and arrived in Yên Cát with a dollop of daylight to spare. Seeing the holy grail of nhà nghi, we rode into the carport of a four-story French colonial home and set our helmets down in the lavish interior. As with the last guest house, this one featured ornate tiling and carved wood flourishes throughout. Fat porcelain Buddhas smiled contentedly from tables and shelves up and down the halls. And, also like the previous night’s guest house, we were the only patrons.
But unlike the owners of the last guest house, the proprietors here, an older no-nonsense couple, wouldn’t accept our Louisiana driver’s licenses, instead demanding our passports before allowing us to check in; and they didn’t attempt to hide their frowns and sideways glances upon learning that we were Americans. They were, however, happy to accept our money all the same. (Oh, and Vietnamese money is called “dong.” How have I not made a joke about that yet? You can bet it’s coming.)
Even stoic Ho Chi Minh can barely hide a chuckle.
P.S. It was not without some trepidation that I googled “Vietnamese dong.”
We untied our backpacks and lugged them up two flights of stairs to the room we’d share, each again claiming a twin bed. Though the beds were simple, the room was spacious and decorated with masterfully-crafted antique dressers and nightstands. As the sun went down, we took turns washing off the dust and grime of our nearly eight hours on the road before hitting the town in search of dinner. For a brief moment, I thought the bathroom sink was broken, until I realized that the water flowing out from the base and onto the floor was designed to do so and collected in a drain set in the ground – a common Vietnamese bathroom scenario, as we’d see.
The town was small, although larger than any we’d come across today, consisting of a few short streets. Following lights in the gathering darkness, we found a shop with the now-familiar sight of plastic chairs and tables signifying a place that offered food. It was empty save the cook/server/host, so, when we sat down and brought our hands to our mouths and made chewing motions, she got to work right away on preparing our dinner. As would be common in our travels outside of metropolises, when we ordered food via made-up sign language, we wouldn’t have a clue what we’d actually get until we got it.
Fortunately, this meal was delicious, a many-dish smorgasbord similar to the meal we shared with our hosts the night before, featuring nearly all of the same foods. As we ate, a group of a six young men filtered in, two at a time, laughing and joking. They sat at the other end of the eatery, nearer the kitchen than our table by the entrance, and they seemed to be close with the cook and her young son and teenage daughter, the latter of which delivered cases of room-temperature beer to their table. They carried on, drinking and guffawing, in a way that made the boisterousness endearing rather than annoying, while we ate and smirked at their outbursts. Once we’d eaten, they shouted greetings and motioned for us to join them, eyes twinkling in bleary merriment.
And we joined them with verve. They gave us each a tall glass mug, chipped large chunks of ice from a slab sitting in a bowl and dumped them in the glasses, then filled the mugs with Heineken (the only imported beer I consistently saw throughout the country, maybe because its trademark is a red star?), again and again and again.
“Open your world to a Heineken, comrade, and you eyes to the exploitation of the proletariat.”
From what we’d gathered by observing from afar and now from experiencing up close, Vietnamese men don’t sip beers; they down them. You pick a drinking partner, shout cheers – or what sounded like “yo!” – and then it’s down the hatch, neither of you stopping until the full mug of beer is nothing but an empty glass with a block of ice in it. Then someone refills the two beer-less glasses, and you repeat the process as long as you are conscious. And we hung with them for round after round, much to their great delight.
They couldn’t communicate much with us beyond simple introductions and the soon-to-be-standard barrage 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?” – a line of interrogation that I just copied and pasted from the conversation with the boy at the last guest house, because the questions were exactly the same. But still, we spoke in the slurred, even if unspoken, language of alcoholic companionship. One of the group knew a little more English than the others, and, through him, we learned that three of our companions were traffic cops, otherwise known as the demographic we wanted least to be aware that we were illegally biking in their country. But if the trio knew we’d gotten to their town unlawfully, they didn’t seem to care, instead laughing along with their fellows as empty mugs were replenished.
After five rounds, I quit counting, but we sat and drank with them for over an hour, finding ways to speak without words, drunkenly flailing about in attempts to enact what we were trying to express. While we could still stumble back to the guest house, we bid them adieu and stumbled back to the guest house.
Once in our room, we climbed out of a window and onto the French balcony attached to our quarters, the door to which was broken. We breathed deeply as we smoked digestif cigarettes and reflected on our second day of biking. While we had been forced off the bikes earlier than hoped the day before and had wasted time and energy meandering around aimlessly toward Laos on this day, we were still, somehow, relatively on track and could make up whatever time we needed to by rising early again in the morning. Flicking the filter-less butts up against the winking of the unfamiliar constellations of the Eastern hemisphere, we tumbled back inside and called it a wrap on day two.