We arrived in Hanoi after a hasty exit out of India. Once again we assembled the bikes in the airport and rode out into a glorious sunshine and new traffic pattern. The horns are now being used as they were intended and although we have not slept in a day our energy levels are high enough to get us to the city center and to a hostel where we could sleep off the chaos we just experienced the past month. We stumbled into Flipside hostel, a place run by kiwis in the center of old town Hanoi.
That night and still without sleep from India, Jason and I piled into a cab with the managers of the hostel, then were corralled into a strange flashy and loud club. Behind the bar were two silver tanks and above them a box of large multi colored balloons. A sign outside the bar said “happy balloon 25k”. Such a stark contrast from India, here I am in a bar with EDM thumping my eardrums, the bar top is lined with westerners shooting brown liquor and the vietnamese cocktail waitresses are handing out nitrous oxide balloons as if they are dirty martinis. Damn, it was nice to be out of the conservative Indian culture, but this was just a bit too much.
Jason and I found ourselves getting quite drunk and after blending the cheap alcohol with our lack of sleep we soon were arguing loudly in the street about something. We had so much pent up energy which needed to be slept off, but instead decided to let 6 months of steam off on each other in the dark early morning streets of Hanoi. We did sleep at some point and upon waking up, still upset from the previous night, I felt as if I should go off alone. I had organized my things and had yet to consider what continuing along alone would have really meant for me. Jason woke up in the top bunk, rolled over and had the most horrifying hungover look on his face. We decided we better have some coffee and chat a bit. We worked things out quite quickly once we got some caffeine and burgers in our bodies (it was the first time seeing beef on a plate in quite some time).
I felt for the first time on this trip that I really needed a change of pace but had no idea in what way to go about it. I sat on the roof of our hostel and typed up the India blog post and once again sipped on a few beers. It was nice to be in a place where acquiring alcohol no longer felt like going to find crack cocaine. The afternoon turned into evening and the rooftop became a bit more crowded. Someone put on some music and announced it was now happy hour. I was then joined by four Americans from California who had just arrived in Hanoi from Saigon via motorbike. We talked about the differences of touring on a bicycle rather than a motorbike. They were spending the rest of the week here in an effort to hustle their bikes to some backpackers before they all flew home. We walked around with them drinking rum in the street as they approached every pack of attractive girls with the question, “Hey do yall wanna buy a motorbike?” The strategy was not entirely successful, but as we walked along with them I had a moment where I thought a quick motorbike trip could be just the temporary change of pace that I need. I turned to Jason and said,
“Hey, why don’t we buy two of those things and run up north for a few weeks?”
He was instantly sold on the idea and the next morning we made a trip to the ATM to withdraw a few million Dong to pay them for the bikes. The hostel we were at agreed to watch our bicycles and spare gear while we were gone. After a quick 1 am lesson on how to handle a manual motorbike we headed off to bed with plans to leave first thing the next day.
We had a vague route but knew that it included a loop hugging the chinese border and had been told by many people that we would be shocked by the scenery of the northern mountain range.
I brought along a stripped down version of my cycle touring kit, one large pannier and one small, a few tools, the tent, my now rotten smelling sleeping bag, a pair of levis I had yet to wear and my rain gear. Upon entering the thick traffic of the old quarter I was worried I was quite unprepared for what lay ahead. The flow of vietnamese traffic requires an entire reprogramming of everything you have ever learned about driving in the west. Over taking a bus on the sidewalk with a pack of forty other motorbikes is simply routine. Getting caught waiting for a break in traffic is a clear sign you are green to asian traffic patterns. If you need to cross an intersection you simply drive into the oncoming traffic and wait for it to mold around you like a wave in the ocean, no one will run into you but it is a good idea to use other scooters as a barrier between yourself and the incoming herd of motorbikes, buses and rickshaws.
Once 30 or so kilometers outside of the city the traffic loosened up and we got our first glimpse at the mountains in the hazy distance. The motorbike provided a feeling of liberation, I could now travel at several times the speed of a bicycle with simply the flick of a wrist and downshift with the foot. These bikes are not fast, they are 110cc Chinese knockoff Honda Winns, so we were not traveling at a speed where we would miss anything. On that first day I began to think that this might be the proper pace for a trip through asia. Even though we now had engines, we still found ourselves covering the same amount of distance we would typically cover on the bicycles. It is just too easy to take a long break at a bia hoi or sit in a hammock and enjoy some morning coffee for a few hours when you know that you can now rely on the power of fossil fuels instead of leg power. We still applied our cycle touring strategies to the motorbikes. We camped on the side of the road when it got dark and warmed up the bikes as the sun rose. It was a bit more challenging getting the motorbikes hidden in camp but as it turns out vietnam is the same as Europe in the sense that no one seems to care if someone has decided to pitch a few tents on the side of the road or in the jungle for the night.
We were disturbed on our second night when we found ourselves in the dark struggling to find a spot. After pulling the bikes off to scope several bad sites we decided to settle on camping on the edge of a rice field. We had a few beers to sip on and I spent some time killing mosquitos who had found their way in through the holes of my tent. Shortly after dozing off a man approached our camp and seemed to have a lot of questions for us. There was no way to communicate except for google translate so I broke out the phone and began asking him if it was OK if we stayed the night where we were. He was very insistent that we come to his house and stay with him instead, of course pleased with his hospitality we were still very tired and the idea of packing up camp was just not an option. After another few minutes of google translate we were able to say goodnight to our friend and get some sleep. All I can think of is that had this situation happened in the states we would not have been dealing with an overly friendly farmer but instead a heavily armed police officer.
The next day we carried along and spotted from what I can recall our first sighting of westerners since leaving Hanoi. It was a trio which in my first observation was a vietnamese guide leading a couple through the landscape. The man in the back was wearing a short sleeve shirt and had several tattoos down alongside his arms and the girl was a tall pretty looking brunette. Jason and I sped past them in a strange show of dominance and honked our horns to say hello. They passed us not long afterward and had pulled off to the side of the road to take a few pictures. I again sped past but Jason decided to stop and have a chat. I waited for him at the upcoming turn for a few minutes before deciding to turn around and also say hello. When I pulled up I realized the leader was not a guide but another girl with short curly red hair. We talked for a few minutes and then said goodbye. I watched them move along and around the corner of the mountain up ahead. They seemed like a nice bunch and at the moment I had no idea that meeting them had just altered the course of this entire trip for me.
A few kilometers down the path we saw their bikes pulled off at a small restaurant. We decided to join them and talk some more. We sat down at a table which was covered with different plates of food,
“eat!” they said.
“They keep bringing us more food that we didn’t order!”
A man walked over with another bowl of rice and at this point they were pleading with him to stop bombarding them with the stuff.
“We’re pretty sure that brown meat there is dog…” one of them said.
I helped myself to it in an attempt to be polite and eat the unwanted food. I wasn’t fully convinced it was dog, it did taste different, very similar to mutton. I thought, yeah, this is just mutton. But then I tried to recall the last time I had seen sheep. It was a long time ago, the last time I saw those fluffy delicious animals was definitely in europe.
One of the girls was reading a description of the specific flavor and texture of dog meat as I chewed.
“Hmm, it says here it is a pungent meat, very similar to mutton but with a flowery aftertaste.”
I slowed my chewing when I realized that the description she just read was exactly what was happening in my mouth. I would like to tell you I spit it out and felt disgusted with myself. But instead I finished the plate, after all it was quite tasty and I figured I couldn’t let the poor puppies’ life go to waste by not consuming the rest of him.
We left the restaurant at the same time and rode together as we were all more or less heading in the same direction. I became separated from the group and somehow missed them at the next spot in which they had pulled off. I rode for several more hours over a mountain pass and up into some cool foggy weather. I sped around tight corners and narrowly dodged several trucks on the skinny roads. I began to get a bit worried about them but as it got dark decided that there was no way I was behind them. I was forced to cowboy camp behind a pile of gravel down by a river. The night was clear and cool and I was up late drinking rice wine and reading under my headlamp.
The next day I found wifi at a small cafe and had several messages from Jason with images of their location. They had stayed at a homestay together and were now 80 km behind me. I was due to be in Sa Pa in the early afternoon so we arranged to all meet at a homestay a few kilometers out of town in Ta Van.
I could continue to write in detail about the next several weeks but it would take me maybe a hundred pages to get everything out and I do intend on detailing these weeks in a different manner, but as for this post and for the sake of brevity I will fast forward a bit.
Our friends names are Mark, Lucy and Freya. We have now teamed up and decided to do this trip together. There is an awesome level of confidence that comes with rolling into towns with a gang of motorcycles and cute girls. At this point Freya and I have developed a sort of romance and have made a habit out of making the rest of the group quite uncomfortable with our affection for each other. The dynamic of our group is fantastic, we have had several conversations about the rarity of spontaneously teaming up with such compatible personalities. We all stay up late together drinking rice wine and talking about movies and I speak for all of us when I say that for a brief moment in time we all forgot about everything wrong in the world or with ourselves and developed a supreme level of comfort together in an otherwise difficult physical environment.
I expect to be scolded by my new friends after they read this for leaving out certain stories but here is one moment that I tried to capture in detail.
We were somewhere southwest of Ha Giang province and after losing Jason and Lucy early in the day I found myself alone with Freya. We had gone down a road which was not on either of our maps and after gesturing to a man for several minutes we decided to turn back and look for the proper road. In the process we tracked down Lucy who after not sleeping much the night before seemed to be in a rough sort of shape. We rode for several kilometers following Lucy and into a small village where the road dead ended into the courtyard of a small school where children were doing there afternoon exercises. The gps was telling us to continue along around the school and up a steep dirt road into the thick jungle. We carried on up the incline and over slippery rocks until we concluded that there was no way this was the right direction. We hobbled back down into the village and a man who could tell we were very lost led us to a road behind a shack and pointed. But this was no road, it was a partially paved path smaller than most city sidewalks. We continued along as the path slowly evolved into a dirt trail which resembled some of the more challenging terrain you might expect to find on the Sierra section of the PCT. All of us knew the moment we were pushing our bikes through a rushing creek and struggling to keep our distance from the massive ox waving his horns at us that we were very much lost. We had accepted our fate. There was a moment when I spilled my bike after splashing through a creek and immediately up a bouldered incline. My body slipped off the side of the trail and my bike was lying over leaking gas into the warm dirt. The girls pulled me back up and as I was wiping the gas from around the edge of my tank I began to wonder when it was I last filled up at the station. This process was repeated, taking turns pushing each others bikes up and around the jagged corners then paying close attention not to over rev the poor chinese made engines. The hike would have been difficult with a small backpack but here we are with 3 loaded down motorbikes, two of which are automatic scooters specifically constructed for light city commuting and really giving them hell. A breakdown out here would mean camping in the bush then hiking out the next day. Which at this point wasn’t really an option, with maybe 2 liters of water between us, a leaky water filter and a 1 man tent we were pretty much going to either have to make it to a road very soon or risk a very uncomfortable night in the middle of the north vietnamese jungle. At a certain point we stopped to talk about our situation, Freya had decided that turning back was not an option. It was getting too late and we had already committed to this damned path we were on. There was only one direction to go. If there ever were a time to die on this trip it would have been here. There is no one coming to rescue you out here if you slip off the side of the cliff and sever an artery or crack your skull on a rock. You would just have to find peace with dying very slowly in a hopeless yet beautiful situation. This is the thought that dominated my mind as I watched the girls balancing their scooters over rocks ahead of me and doing their best to stay on the 3 foot wide bumpy muddy track. On the left side of the path is a rock face and just to the right, maybe 2 feet, is a drop off at least 100 feet into a slope of rough rocks eventually ending in a swampy rice paddy. As dangerous as this was it remains as my happiest moment on this entire trip. I Watched Freya overly excited with the prospect of more certain danger as she ran up a hill to see if it was possible to get the bikes over while i sat with lucy who was crouched smoking a cigarette in the minimal shade cast from her motorbike. At the top of this next hill was an extremely old lady with a hunched back trimming some plants, she had one dark hazy eye and when Freya said “Ha Giang?” shrugging and pointing, the old woman smiled and pointed along down the trail. She jumped and frolicked back down the hill to tell lucy about the woman, our oracle or now savior figure, who with any luck actually understood what we were asking for. With our water now empty and bikes overheating we pushed along up and through the middle of this desolate yet breathtaking and silent area. This is the kind of situation where I really find my stride, the uncertainty and unpredictability of where you will be when the sun falls is when i can find the most focus. It’s the simplification of everything in an otherwise stressful environment. Part of me wishes I could sit here and tell you that we were forced to stay the night out there filtering water through motor oil soaked bandanas and chugging rice wine under the stars in an effort to forget about the swarms of mosquitos destined to transfer a nice dose of dengue fever. But, we made it, we found a small paved road which led us towards Ha Giang where Mark and Jason awaited us drinking beers underneath a poster they designed for Freya’s birthday.
Perhaps I will do a series on our misadventures through the North and I will have plenty of time to do it because I am now based in Hanoi. For the past several weeks I have been working as an English teacher and I now have my own room in a house for the first time in almost two years. Jason is leading motorbike tours through the same mountains we just explored together and for now my panniers are stashed on top of a wardrobe somewhere in the center of Hanoi.