Stiff and sore, I woke up and replaced my bandages before packing and heading down to the bikes. Because the guy at the rental place in Hanoi had suggested we change the oil at least once on our journey, and because we were next door to a Honda bike and scooter dealership and repair shop, we paid for oil changes and sat at a concrete table on the sidewalk outside our guest house, breakfasting on a baguette and lychee fruit as we waited. Although the interior of the hotel was spacious, the lobby lined with ornate wooden chairs bedecked with flowery flourishes, the inn-keepers were an unpleasant lot – for example, they claimed the night before (through their young daughter who spoke English moderately well) that, despite no one else staying in the place, the only room available was the most expensive chamber with three beds; after dinner and showers, when James moseyed downstairs for the wifi connection needed to make a phone call back home, he was yelled at repeatedly, told to go back up to the room, and eventually had the modem disconnected on him – and they predictably refused to allow us back inside once we’d paid.
Out on the sunny cement, we discussed our plan for moving forward. Rather than abandon the quest or pay to have my electronics repaired, I would kick-start the rest of the way to Ho Chi Minh City, or as long as the bike kept obeying. If it got me there and to the rental office, I’d simply place myself at their mercy and discretion regarding my $500 deposit on the bike. So once the old oil was out and the new in, we tightened our chains with the wrench that came with the saddle bags, secured our packs, and rolled out, roaring closer to our destination, only a week away.
My bike was running fine as we swung into a handful of mountain turns and sped through a military checkpoint. The wiring was unsurprisingly still non-functional, so I learned to become more in-tuned with and pay more attention to things like speed and gear setting. But other than the ignition slot constantly falling into the dash, the back of which was smeared across the Ho Chi Minh Trail somewhere around the spot of my wipeout, the beast made a quick recovery.
My person, conversely, would take time to mend. With some initial difficulty, I managed to get my throttle hand to close enough around the handle bar to facilitate acceleration and front braking; my right knee exploded in pain if kept bent for too long – an unavoidable position on the Winns that our bodies were too large for, but temporarily remedied by stretching the leg for a few moments while mobile. And my helmet visor was loose on one side, the original plastic bolt having been torn away in my tumble, and smacked fiercely against my helmet as we rode.
We were still relatively on-schedule and hoped to make it to the coastal city of Hội An before calling it a day, and so, from AH16, at long last, we joined the infamous AH1 for the most direct route south and east. Fields of elephant grass and bamboo walls of forest gave way to shops and diners lining the busy highway we’d been warned about. Sure enough, large semi-trucks hauling goods and even larger construction vehicles peppered the pavement, and active expansion and repair projects brought traffic jams and delays. But it was nothing the Kings couldn’t handle, and our creative driving, lane-splitting, and liberal use of the shoulder found us making decent time in spite of the madness of the main highway.
Near the outskirts of Huế, we kept pace with a passenger train, one that we could have very well been sitting on had my spill been any worse. Not long after the locomotive veered away on it own course, the highway was flanked by large ornate tombs – many bearing giant etched Chinese characters, many in the shape of stone pagodas, most sporting flashy swastikas.
Another deadhead sporting a flashy swastika.
We stopped in Phú Lộc for a lunch of rice, boiled greens, and shrimp, the latter being a new addition to our culinary experiences thus far in Vietnam, a sign that the coast was indeed near. An elderly gentleman and his grandson took their time serving us, and I seized the opportunity to stretch out my knee and relax my stiff and swollen hand. Perhaps our next stop should have been a hospital, but the waste of precious hours closed any medical discussions for me before they began. Instead, we saddled up again and kept on down highway 1.
Like the day before, today’s afternoon riding brought its share of close calls. Both of us skirted catastrophe a number of times, sandwiched as we constantly were between massive vehicles. At one point, I witnessed a bus directly ahead of James suddenly swerve off to stop on the right shoulder, forcing him to swing even further right and momentarily into a parking lot to avoid becoming road-kill. In another particularly harrowing instance, electrical crews fumbled with a replacement cable that ran above the width of the highway. As it slipped from their grasp, it dangled dangerously low, and I saw James duck to evade it. I was a few paces behind, and the wire had fallen even lower by the time I reached the spot; so I responded in a split-second, pressing my chest as far down into the frame of my bike as possible and jerking my head to the side, narrowly missing the lethal limbo bar.
Not far beyond Huế, AH1 lunges even closer to the coast, offering a view of the armada of long, flat, canopied fishing boats that daily cut through the sheets of jade and azure in Lam Co Bay. And then, a little further on, the road diverges at a gateway, leading to either the Hải Vân Tunnel through the mountains or else the Hải Vân Pass over them. Bikes and oil trucks aren’t allowed in the Tunnel, so we zoomed through the gate leading to the Pass before the guards could be bothered to delay us. We’d heard the Hải Vân (or “Sea Cloud”) Pass offers spectacular vistas, and we were happy to be made to take the route, even though our beasts groaned against the steep gradient. While it was a bright summer day and we weren’t treated to any sea clouds to roll through among the sharp turns and switchbacks, we did find ourselves flying through a thicket of slow Westerners on scooters, likely rented from Huế or Đà Nẵng for a day trip up the Pass.
When we reached the top, we parked on the flattened peak to stretch our legs and enjoy sugar cane sweetened Coca Colas, dodging the persistent trinket hawkers we’d been warned about in the guidebook. On one side of the mountain top, Lam Co stretches out in a circular curl; on the other, the high-rises of Đà Nẵng are etched into the horizon. An old brick fortress, used in turn by the French, South Vietnamese, and American militaries, looms on a hill at the pinnacle, providing the perfect vantage on the Pass that splits the country in two.
The Pass roughly marks the midway point of the nation and marked the midway point of our journey, and we were encouraged by our progress despite the challenges we’d met along the way. Though Ho Chi Minh City was still days ahead of us, Hanoi was days behind us. We’d covered a lot of ground as we descended from the North, and we two Louisianians were eager to see what lie before us as we raced down the other side of the Pass and into the South.
It wasn’t until moving through the Demilitarized Zone yesterday somewhere amid the deadly turns of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, seeing swaths of mountainside consumed by Agent Orange forty years ago and still today nothing more than barren yellow soil dotted with the charred shells of plant death, sleeping near the jagged and broken streets of fabled Khe Sanh, witnessing the former American base on the Pass, and now edging closer to the South, that the history of my fellow countrymen’s involvement in Vietnam really hit home. While the Vietnamese of the North may have had cause to dislike Americans as being kin of the enemy in what they call “the American War,” I wondered if the Vietnamese of the South, the region whose people had opposed the communist Viet Cong and had been America’s native allies in the War – and who had lost everything and many of whom bore a black mark on their family name that prevented them from acquiring an education or stable employment to this day – might consider Americans unfaithful deserters or scoundrels. Whatever the case, we were even prouder imposter British Columbians than ever as we raced southward.
On the other side of the Pass, we got on QL1 until we entered Đà Nẵng, where we hopped on a road called Điện Biên Phủ, which turned into another called Lê Duẩn, which we then followed across the Hàn River to join a third street named Lê Văn Hiến, headed down a peninsula jutting out into the East Vietnam Sea. Hold on, I need to catch my breath.
Ok. A large fleet of small fishing boats, all the same shade of blue, rocked back and forth, filling the Hàn marina and presumably the pockets of whomever sold that paint. We were on the edges of the city, faced with heavy traffic and numerous roundabouts that were intersections of circular madness, the only method being “get in where you fit in,” but somehow a flowing wonder of accident-free orchestrated chaos. Somewhere in all the madness, James’ gear shifter broke off, leaving a luckily still-functional stump in its place.
The Sea glistened in the afternoon sunlight to our left as we bobbed around scooters, a loose helmet from a rider ahead, and a fish truck trailing a smelly stream of fish water. For the first time since leaving Hanoi, save the ex-pat run Easy Tiger, we saw a handful of signs in English, including one prominently advertising an American university. Perhaps the U.S. was no longer the villain I assumed it was here.
Lê Văn Hiến turned into Nguyễn Tất Thành, which we followed as it narrowed and narrowed and narrowed to a mostly dirt road with no clear division of lanes. Before we knew it, we found ourselves in a neighborhood, being funneled into Hội An. Traffic thickened as the road grew smaller and the city grew nearer. A woman on a scooter spotted James and me with our larger bikes towing travelers’ packs and approached James while mobile, telling him about her friend’s guest house. Taking a chance, he decided to follow her lead, and she guided us to the pleasant and cozy Nhat Huy Hoang hotel, only a few blocks from the Thu Bồn River and the city center.
We checked in, stowed out bags in our second-story room, showered off the road, and hit the streets on foot. With just enough daylight left, we took in the sights of odd Hội An, a melting pot of colonial French and ancient Chinese and Japanese architecture and influence. The old sea-side city has been stamped with approval by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its excellent preservation of a traditional South-East Asian trading port of the 1400s to 1800s. Tourists, therefore, are aplenty, and Hội An’s vibe caters to the crowd and their dongs – probably literally depending on which dark alley massage parlor you stumble into.
As a port city, Hội An’s hub of activity is the placid Thu Bồn River, which runs gently through it, so we hoofed it in that direction. We took in the ancient quarter of town and its centuries-old structures and the newer colonial parts, passing through the famed Japanese covered bridge, the only of its kind in Vietnam and the only of its kind to feature a Buddhist temple within its walls. We marveled at the sturdy and intricate workmanship; Vietnamese tourist marveled at the fact that James could touch the ceiling.
Nearing the River, the promenades were lined with stalls offering various tchotchkes and local handicrafts, and many displayed vast collections of handmade paper lanters, glowing fiercly against the dusk.
Travelers weaved on rented bicycles through pedestrian throngs of fellow travelers and aggressive hometown salespeople pushing their wares on any within hearing. In this sense it was like other major large South-East Asian cities I’ve been to; in the sense that crowds can walk the streets without fear of imminent injury from a cloud of motorists, Hội An was a pleasantly surprising anomaly.
We crossed the River on the main footbridge spanning it, a walkway lined with illuminated columns and signs bearing stylistic koi fish designs.
Finding a table that afforded a view of the water and the tour boats bustling up and down it, we ate fresh fish and washed it down with cold Biere Larue.
As we sipped our beer and relaxed, a teenage girl approached us, toting a basket of trinkets and charms. She certainly had experience with Westerners, for her English was impeccable, and when we declined her offers of mood rings and slingshots, she fired back with a “Come on, man!” or a “What’s up, dude? Why not?” In a last ditch effort, she produced her collection of necklaces, each bearing a different animal of the Chinese zodiac. Like all her other items, she assured us that the necklaces brought good luck, but when we actually appeared interested in them and rebutted that every souvenir in Vietnam was advertised as bringing good luck, she further certified that her necklaces were extra lucky. Her giggle gave her away and let us know that she knew that we knew that she knew it was all a gimmick to sell knick-knacks; and she enjoyed that we were in on the game. I returned her smirk after she informed us that, true to her word, the necklaces brought luck, and it just so happened to be “happy hour.” We each got a necklace for the price of one, and I hoped the rabbit pendant on mine would keep me from any further literal brushes with disaster.
The charm certainly did not work for me during the pool game we later played at Tam Tam – an eatery and bar that featured an expansive, clean, and chic interior with a massive professional 8-ball table – although James’ seemed to function as advertised, bringing him two wins against me. I fared well enough, however, for someone with a hand that wouldn’t completely close.
By the time we finished our beers and games at Tam Tam, it was nearing closing time, and, even though we’d decided to take a day off from the road and regroup, we were exhausted and decided to turn back to the hotel. On the way back, we passed an alley where a local gentleman stretched back in a plastic chair while another he’d hired plumbed the depths of his ears with a large q-tip (probably more effective than a thumbnail), turned a corner and nearly collided with a man whose freshly shaved and scarred cranium gave the impression of a lobotomy patient, caught snippets of tourist talk about late night clubs, and had to maneuver around several old townies wandering around in pajamas. Bright lights and a cool coastal breeze led us back to the hotel, where we rested in our twins beds and our laurels, having completed the first half of our journey. We’d faced adversity and faced it down, and we slept soundly, sans cares, sans troubles, sans early morning alarms.