Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hanoi Scooter Rally-2010

2010 is an incredibly audacious year for Hanoi. It marks the 1,000 years anniversary of the city’s founding. So, there has been great buzz and excitement as various groups and organizations plan and promote their respected events.

New roads are being built and old parks are getting renovated with swatches of flowerpots spelling out “1000 Years”.

I’ll snap some pics to show this in the future. Actually, I’d need to do it soon because the big date will be October 10th.  Get it? 10.10.10

Anyway, one of these Hanoian groups staged their event recently and I was fortunate enough to attend. is a website dedicated to all motorbike fans with all kinds of motorbikes, whether they be vintage or new. But it mostly focuses on, as the name says, Italian Vespas.

They called out to scooters from all corners of Vietnam to gather and commemorate Hanoi’s historic year.  So I wasn’t surprised to see scooters from as far south as Saigon here. I was surprised though when they told me that they had driven up the coast on their scooters to be here!

One thing you should know about anything old, and I’m sure many of you understand this already, is that they tend to break down frequently. If your old Vespa, Lambretta, Minsk, Ural or Honda breaks down in one of the big towns, it may take you at the most a couple of hours to get it fixed and it wouldn’t ruin your day completely. On the other hand breaking down some place outside of city center about 20 klicks and you’re out of luck.

Needless to say but the folks from the south-Saigon, Nha Trang, Da Nang and Thanh Hoa, traveled in large groups of at least a dozen bikes with, you guessed it, at least one mechanic.

So when my recently rebuilt and repainted 1966 Vespa Super needed a little fine tuning, there were plenty of capable tool smiths on hand.

This is Quang and Long, new mates of mine that I met at a local shop when I went to get my headlight fixed. In fact it was Quang who alerted me that I had miscalculated the day of the event and hurried me to meet up with them this day. Here they are tinkering with my carburation so the bike wouldn’t stall so easily. “You have to clean the jets regularly because the gas in Vietnam is low in quality.” Said Quang.

Where I had to hurry to was a bia hoi place, literally “air beer”, for lunch. The Saigon group and the folks from just south of the city-the Thanh Hoa club, were having lunch before the first rendezvous.

Here was what I saw upon first entering the scene. It was a feast for the eyes!

There must have been at least 60 bikes of all vintages, models and makes. And just inside, within the raucous and open-air restaurant, were its owners.

Normally I’m very taken a back by this kind of scene-men, mostly, getting drunk and rowdy. Except these folks weren’t getting too inebriated. They had to drive soon after all. They were just happy to see each other. There were cries of “happy to meet you” and “glad you made the long journey” along with the clinking of beer mugs.

Even I joined in for a couple of gulps before heading out onto the first meeting spot then to the event center, an amusement park west of the city.

As you can see from this video, the number of vintage bikes just got bigger and bigger until the lot of us, about 300 got to the grounds of the park. It was quite impressive and if my eyes weren’t crying from the 2-stroke smoke billowing all around me from the motorbikes, they would’ve been crying just for the beauty of the gathering.

Hanoi Scooter Rally- 2010 from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

That evening there was a pageantry and pomp pertaining to the old bikes. Local singers and dancers entertained from a stage they had to share with about 15 bikes for auction.  And as the evening turned into night, makeshift beds were strewn throughout the grounds of the amusement park. Apparently the organizers thought these accommodations were fine for everybody, including those who traveled from the other end of the country. 

Nevertheless from what the veterans of the scene were saying this was one of the first and largest gathering in a long while. For me this rally was a great way to get in to the mood for Hanoi’s millennium celebration. 

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Unexpected Adventure

Just as quickly as I ascended the Marina Bay Sands resort, I shortly thereafter hit rock bottom. I had contracted a virus somewhere along the way and had a fever that would not go away.

Now, living in the third world one gets exposed to all kinds of….well, let’s say foreign entities. I was fortunate enough to have been born here so I’ve retained some immunity, I think, from the older pathogens. Except that these days there are new, more potent, varieties like SARS, the bird flue and dengue fever.

If you remember there was an outbreak of SARS here in the early 2000’s where Vietnam, especially Hanoi, gained worldwide acclaim for its early detection and containment of this potentially global disaster. So, it should be no surprise to you that Hanoi has some of the most well prepared facilities to treat these ailments.  

And it was at one of these facilities that I experienced my greatest adventure so far in Vietnam. Think of sweaty palms before a long climb, sleepless night before a grueling marathon or butterflies in the stomach before a big presentation. I had all these as I walked pass the “National Center for Infectious Tropical Diseases” wing of Hanoi’s Bach Mai Hospital on my way to my hospital room.

I was thinking, “You’ve done some tough things in the past and you’ll get through this too.” And, “How bad can it be compared to the things that I’ve seen in my travels?”

This last question though got me even more anxious. For what is an adventure without an unknown element or two? I had no idea how it was going to be. The doctor who had examined me said they’d need to keep me here for a couple days at least and asked if didn’t mind sharing my hospital bed with 3 or maybe 4 other patients.

“?????” I thought!

Maybe I misunderstood her because that happens quite frequently here for me. But then I remembered what the doctor said at the French Hospital-next door and infinitely more expensive. “If you can persevere at Bach Mai, they have just as good if not better treatment for such sickness.”

Having to share your hospital bed with 3 or 4 other people is perseverance, even to a Vietnamese, who is accustomed to personal contact. Imagine sitting, half lying there with an IV sticking out of your forearm and your bedfellow’s feet jabbing into your ribs every so often because he too is uncomfortable and incoherent.

Here you can count 8 people with four beds. But in actuality there are 10 patients assigned to this room. The other two are hanging out in the hallway-like me.

Maybe at this point I should try to answer the question, “why?” Why would hospital administrators allow for such crowded conditions?

Well, the answer is quite simple if you think about it. You have a throng of sick people waiting and the longer it takes for these folks to get admitted the worst their conditions will become. At least if they’re in a hospital room where doctors can take blood to ascertain the root of the illness, give what is called supportive care like IV’s and pain relievers and basically watch over them, they’d have a better chance of healing than not being allowed in to begin with.  

I for one felt better instantly after taking in two bags of fluids. It had been 4 days since the onset of the fever and I was apparently really dehydrated. I also felt better because the other part of the unknown was going be revealed to me shortly-what the heck did I contract?

That morning my blood was being tested. I got a chest x-ray and an ultrasound of my abdomen later in the afternoon. And by the late afternoon, Dr. Thuy, the only doctor on duty that Saturday, revealed to me the results.

She asked if I had been recently exposed to mice or rat feces.

“!!!!!” I thought. 

Surely it wasn’t at the 5 star accommodations of Singapore…..Nor the damp environment of Ha Long Bay…...It must have been my climbing equipment!

Often I leave food in my climbing pack and forget about it until the next time I go climbing when I repack. I recalled that when preparing for the Marina Bays Sands climb there were some rodent poop in my big climbing equipment bag, but I never gave it a second thought as I pulled out the essentials. Until then.

I believe what I got was the Hanta virus, although I couldn’t get a perfect translation from the Vietnamese word. And luckily it was cured with antibiotics and lots of intravenous fluid, which by the way is my new favorite way to hydrate.

But this wasn’t the only new discovery on this adventure. I learned how a group of people, of diverse backgrounds, could rally together and help one another heal.

Along side me were a well to do family from the central region tending to a daughter, next to them a friendly, always smiling couple from a farm up north near China looking after their father and a well dressed Hanoian mother seemingly idling her time with her well groomed, and equally well dressed son.

I was the only one without a family member nearby helping. Mandy was down in Saigon working and I couldn’t bring it upon myself to ask any of my friends for help. One, I didn’t need it like the others here. I still had plenty of strength. And two, I didn’t want to expose any of my friends to what was flying around in the air in this ward. Still, everyone who knew I was alone took turns to make sure I was ok.

When it came time for meals, mine was brought up and delivered by one of these family members. They’d make room for me when I needed “space” on one of the beds to get my IV. And as night fell, they told to me get permission from the doctor to have a cot to sleep on. I’d have to buy it myself and bring it up but I’d need the doctor’s permission to get pass the security guards. But a cot alone was probably way more comfortable than a shared hospital bed.

And this was the view from that cot the first night as I laid outside the hallway looking for fresh, cool air. Being in the hospital in Vietnam is being in a big slumber party.

The second day I found out that the reason that the well dressed son and mother looked the way they looked was because they lived nearby and only stayed during the day to get treatments. At first they stayed overnight just because he was weak but now that he’s better they could return to the comforts of their own bed at night. So, I did the same that Sunday night because the hospital is a mere ten-minute taxi ride to my home.

Monday morning when I returned to the hospital, the ward was greeted by a full staff of nurses and doctors who after surmising that I no longer had a fever and that I was feeling fine released me.

And when it came time to leave I gave my cot to the girl of the well to do family from the central region. She too has been trying to share her bed with two other ladies and she has been here for over 20 days.

It’s not that they couldn’t get one of the rooms where there was only one person to a bed with ac and a TV. It was more that there were none available, or at least none of us knew the right person to bribe. And this would’ve gotten us let’s say at least 2 star accommodations, but I for one learned a great deal more from what we expats here call Vietnamese level accommodations.

I got a better sense of the Vietnamese culture of community/family, the one that will accept outsiders as one of theirs. And I learned that under dire circumstances I could withstand more discomfort than ever before. 

Monday, June 28, 2010

And Now For Something Completely Different

When I first got the invite to come down to Singapore to participate in the grand opening of a new hotel/resort, I thought, “Sure, why not?” I would need to do a visa run within 30 days time anyway and this trip out of Vietnam wouldn’t cost me anything.

Initially I was asked to help with logistics of safety for the climbers and be the go-between for riggers of ropes and helpers on the ground. But, as the days ticked down to my flight I got the message that they would need me to step in and climb for the Canadian team. Apparently Will Gadd, a very famous Canadian extreme sports athlete and an old friend, had a conflict and would not be able to attend.

Here I am with Will's medal!

OK. I now get to climb. Great! But I’d have to also compete in a speed climbing contest? Yikes!

Those of you who know my climbing style would never describe me as being fast going up anything. Methodical and calculating yes but not fast.

So there I was at about 4:30 pm local Singapore time last Monday, hanging out on the west side of the brand new Marina Bay Sands Resort in Singapore cursing my climbing past-the one that got me here because at one time I was somewhat known and the more recent one that did not allow me proper fitness for such an endeavor because Hanoi has been so stinking hot. 300 feet off the ground laybacking against slick glass and pulling myself up on steel fins, I was dead. The tropical heat and sun reflecting off the glass building was killing me. “How the heck am I going to be competitive in this physical state?” I was thinking as sweat poured from my nose and chin while I looked down hundreds of feet to the ground.  It took me over 40 minutes to climb the 600 foot route. I was slow and I felt dejected at the top.

This was my first practice though. And as the competition neared I got stronger because the heat began to lower.

All the while, all of us climbers were being housed within this 5 star resort. My room had a 50” TV, a big beautiful bathtub and view southeast to the bay. The meals were completely paid for and we were granted full use of the facilities from the spa to the fitness rooms. We were treated like kings and queens.

We, if I can back up a little, are a group of 21 climbers-some famous and a few not as famous, from all over the world. China, Taiwan, Thailand, Canada, The US, England, Spain, Poland, Bulgaria, New Zealand, Australia and of course Singapore were all represented. It was a mix mash of nationalities placed on regional teams- Team Commonwealth, Team China, Team Singapore, Team Asia, Team Europe, Team Canada and Team USA.

Each team had three members and each member would climb one of the towers. A “tag” relay would provide the dynamic element to showcase the three towers. Also ending the event in the pool up at the Sands Skypark represented the climax.  You can see this as a great big ship sitting on top of the three towers.

We climbers provided the opening act to the entire ceremony. And as the first place Team Singapore rang the finishing bell a squadron of sky divers descended over the Skypark down to the waters of the Marina west and below the hotel. Only then was it official that the celebration could begin.

And celebrate is what we climbers did.

You see this was no easy task. From the fittest to the weakest. From the new hot shots to the old veterans. We were all really nervous for a few days. The climb was long. The conditions went from stiflingly hot to soaking rain to blasting wind. Every few hours leading up the live climb would pose a new challenge from new equipment requirements to new timing on the ques.

It was a great relief when our first and only trial run as a coordinated group turned out well without any glitches. This was on Tuesday afternoon. But, four hours before the live broadcast the next day the Singapore skies darkened and blasted the area with rain.

“I told the hotel that climbers are perfectly capable of performing in the rain.” Said Matt Robertson, the climbing event organizer hired by the resort and our personal contact to hotel management. I vividly remembered asking him, “We can? Wouldn’t that be really slick with the glass and the wet railings?” He didn’t know. Nobody knew. It hadn’t rained on anyone yet during all the practice runs.

Eventually we all found out what it was like to climb these features wet. An hour before the live start we had to get ourselves in place, get up to just above midway, and the bottom third was wet enough to make moving up at least 50% harder. But luckily the higher we climbed the dryer it became for the top of the wall overhangs beyond vertical.

We started up midway because we had to get high enough to finish as a team under 15 minutes, the time allotted by ESPN. From the video of the live footage you can see us just hanging out.

Be it adrenaline, the cameras or just rising up to the occasion, but we all pretty much smoked the climb. Doing it all without a hitch.  I felt the best I had felt all week and was glad to join in the festivities at the top in the pool.

But this over the top adventure didn’t end here. Shortly after our climb I had an appointment with the Vietnamese news media, flown in, like almost every other country in the world, to cover the event.

Then there was a big gala dinner thrown. It was originally a black tie affair but the management was gracious enough to make an exception for us climbers.  There we were sitting along side famous gamblers-the resort of course has a casino, brand managers of all the boutique stores from the hotel’s mall and famous celebrities. The dinner was great-decorative dishes that tasted international. But the entertainment was over the top.

During appetizers a live orchestra serenaded us with classical music. Just before our main dish arrived several singers from the musical Jersey Boys sang Frankie Vally songs from their hit Broadway show. And when we finished our main course Dianna Ross came out on the stage and wowed us with her still great voice and energy. None of us thought that our day would end thusly, dancing along with the rich and famous to old Motown hits.

I guess we deserved all this pampering after such a stressful week, a week completely different than my normal ones in Hanoi.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day Nine, The Last Day

We slept in this morning knowing that the time back to Hanoi would only be five hours on the road. We ate a lazy breakfast and began packing when a big group of Hanoian students converged on our little guesthouse of serenity. They had booked to have lunch here.

There is nothing worse than a group of Vietnamese in any form to scare me away. (I’ll tell you more about this at another time.) So before we knew it we were on our bikes riding out of Mai Châu valley, back onto highway 6 towards Hanoi.

It was another sunny and warm day. The road wound its way down south out of the mountains before heading east. And just as it began to head east I noticed familiar roads. I had ridden these very same roads, in reverse direction, last fall when going down to Cúc Phương National Park. And just as I remembered it the scenery was again beautiful-nice country roads void of cars, twisting and turning over streams and thru rice fields.

Another crop grown in these parts is sugar cane. This variety is dark brown in color with bright green headdresses for tops. Of course when we stopped to get something to drink and the shop owner said the he didn’t have any “nước mía đá”, iced sugar cane juice, we moved on. He was nice enough though to tell us that there were a few places up the road that sells these…..

….the best ever nước mía đá!

I think we each had two glasses. I’m sure the sugar cane came from the backyard or the neighbor’s yard. I wished that all sugar cane juice was this good.

As it so often happens in Vietnam, the young girl who greeted us stumbled with the cane press and called for help. Then from across the street came scampering an older woman ready to take charge.

This woman also told us we were right in asking for lime and that she would be right back with some, for she had forgotten to get them earlier at the local market. “Don’t you think this is the best mía đá?” She said, as she trotted away again.

So, there we were about 60 km’s from Hanoi enjoying refreshing drinks and savoring our last little bit of the tour.

This was the very last day of the trip. We were looking forward to getting back to our home in Hanoi but knew that after some time we’d be wishing for the road again. Such is the case with traveling, whether it be by plane, train, automobile or in this case motorbikes.

Another thing that travel conjures up are these scenes of indescribable beauty.

On my computer screen are a small handful of pictures that I couldn’t find places for within the prior postings. And it is because they are each so unique as to require their own stories or so unique as to leave a lasting impression.

Have a look.

“Oh my God. Here’s that pig with the largest balls!” Cried Kay when we drove off from Ph Rang to Lào Cai. “I have to take a picture of it.”

“Honey. I think we have to dispose of your melon.” I said when fruit flies began gathering around our unofficial mascot in our hotel room in Sa Pa. Mandy had purchased this somewhere near Ba Bể                                         . And in its travels all the way here, it survived rain, fog and a very scary skirmish with the pavement while riding along with Kay. Like Kay it too suffered a few scrapes and bruises.

This is another picture of our mascot, here complicit with Charlies’ H’Mong Angels.

“Uh, Luke. Can you give me shove?” Need I say more?

If I had a MyFace account, this would be my profile picture. This was taken by Daria a person who would seem-from other pictures she has taken of me, to be my personal photographer.

Another great photographer on this trip is Kristi. Riding on the back of Luke…..ah hum…she was free to snap away and was able to capture some great images. This one is a gem.

See what I mean by indescribable?

Just like this trip has been indescribable, although I’ve worked hard at expressing as much as I can remember. Still, there was just too much to recount and ideas and concepts that were to hard to put down into words.

To get a real sense of Northern Vietnam-your own real sense of Northern Vietnam, you’ll have to take the tour yourselves. Feel the road underneath your wheels. Eat the local food. And chat with the local people. 

*Photographs courtesy of Kay Okamoto, Daria Hagemann and Kristi Cruz.

Monday, May 31, 2010

The Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day Eight

By now we’re feeling very seasoned with this motor biking thing. Looking out the window of the hotel we saw the sun shinning brightly signaling another hot day.

Some of us decided to wear shorts but also lathered on a thick dose of sun-block for good measure. Others decided to wet their hair and clothing to induce some conduction cooling.

The roads from Sơn La south and east was wide and well paved. I poured it on as much as I could muster keeping in mind the overheating issue. The others too were keeping an eye on me always ready to give assistance.

The heat wasn’t oven hot, but you could feel the strength of the sub-tropical sun. Whatever hair or skin exposed would almost crinkle a bit. Or at least it felt like it was. Luckily we were constantly moving. Whenever we did stop though that warm air would envelope us.

Yên Châu was where we took our first break. All along the roads here you could buy fresh pressed sugar cane juice. And unlike the city where they have to spike their sugar cane juice with sugar, these are so fresh that they only needed to add lime wedges to the rollers giving the drink another hint of spark to what is already a thirst quenching delight.

I also took the opportunity to get the Minsk washed and cooled down, and while walking over to where the ladies were enjoying their drink, a little girl not yet three years old said in perfect English, “Hello! How are you?”  I was floored. Her caretaker said that her mother had lived overseas. Here in the middle of nowhere a Việt Kièu, someone much like me, had taken or retaken her residence.

Maybe not right next to this highway but up there at the base of those green hills amongst those few remaining tall trees, I could probably hideaway for some time. I thought. Thoughts that frequently visited me during this trip whenever there was a meandering river exiting a thicket of trees and bisecting rice fields.  Or when there were craggy limestone walls set back behind a lake where water buffaloes were cooling.

Maybe this happens to you too when you travel. 

Anyway, after a little while longer on the road we took a break to have lunch. Instead of the normal rice meal we opted for Bún Chả, a dish of rice noodles and fresh herbs dipped into a stew of a fish sauce induce papaya broth and bbq meats.

Then more dousing with cool water ensued and we were off again. But only for a little bit until we decided that it was time to visit-with-the-locals to learn about the regions specialty and to fix another flat tire on the Minsk.

One new inner tube, a bag of green tea, some milk candy and many laughs later we were back on the highway heading for Mai Châu, with plenty of time before sundown.

Mai Châu is in a little valley 5 Km’s south of Highway 6. Even before getting to the junction to turn the landscape was already beginning to change. The hills were steeper, the air cooler and the road more winding. Then as we turned off the highway we climbed up a short section of big sweeping turns to find an expansive green valley.

This is an Hanoian weekend retreat. Throughout the valley are guest-houses and home stays. When it’s sweltering in the city the temps here are more tolerable being about 3,000 feet higher. To top it off, the whole valley is a big rice field, which means that the whole valley for most of the year is covered by five inches of water underneath the vibrant green stalks, contributing to the lowering of the heat.

We pulled into town just as the sun began to duck underneath the western hills. Before getting here we were told about a couple of guest-houses to stay at so we stopped to ask for directions.

While parked and while I was listening to directions from a man at a shop selling drinks across from a shop doing metal work, we all heard a loud explosion. But I didn’t flinch, neither did the man giving me direction. In fact, as I looked across the street to the guys welding I noticed that they had halted from what they were doing. Then they gave me a big smile and pointed back down the road a few houses to a repair shop. The flat tire that I had been getting fixed the last couple of days blew once again. 

The only people unsympathetic were Mandy and Kay. With hardly a few words they were off down the road. All I remember was something like, “You get your bike fixed and we’ll find a place to stay.” There may have been some parenthetical remarks like, “What a piece of junk! We’re out of here.” But I don’t remember.

Luckily the mechanic that made the repairs this time was the most cheerful of the bunch. He was young and complained that he was a little tired from playing soccer the day prior, a year since he had played last time. He said that if he wasn't sore then getting the tire back on the rim would be a great deal easier. And he said all this with a smile.  You can see him here in this picture bouncing all his weight onto the tire.

I kept looking at the sky as he was doing this. It’s not yet dark and for sure our resting place was nearby. Would I have to turn on my headlights to get there this day?

Half an hour later, I found the ladies at this nice and tranquil little lodge out within the rice paddies. It was a Thai village of stilt houses and our room was this one.

So from there we watched the sun set reveling at the fact that we had done it, finally making it to our destination before nightfall.

Great Tour-Day Eight from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

*Photos courtesy of Kay Okamoto.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

the Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day Seven

After waking up in Mương Lay and seeing what a pit of town it was, we were a little depressed but also we were thinking that things couldn’t be any worse than it was last night. At least if there were more construction on the roads ahead we’d be able to meet it in the light of day.

For Mandy this day started pretty much the same as last nights end. After our late lunch/early dinner the previous evening Mandy downed a half bottle of warm water, not wanting to waste any precious liquid and simultaneously sealed her stomach from any normal functions. Consequently, she spent most the night next to the toilet and woke up extremely dehydrated.

Kay and I exercised our best first aid techniques to get her back on the motorbike and back on the road.
And eventually we climbed east out of the river valley onto national highway 6 and onto a ridge, a ridge that would lead us into amazing terrain punctuated by stilt house villages, green rice terraces and lovely locals.

Pictured here are a group kids swimming in a lake, cooling from the midday heat when Kay came up upon them with her camera. They saw her and ran screaming. The third boy back was beaming with joy until he noticed that he was completely naked, and naked to a foreign woman at that. His face changed instantly to a look of total embarrassment.

This waving and screaming of, “Hello!” or,” Good bye!” will forever be in our memories of Vietnam’s countryside-a lovely thought.

Further on we stopped for drinks for the heat was again hitting us hard, especially Mandy. She had to lay down and take a nap inside a shop selling snacks and drinks on one side and fixing motorbikes on the other. True to paramedic form, Kay and I purchase green tea lemonade and loaded them with salt to help Mandy with her dehydration, while we listened to the lady of the house converse simultaneously in Vietnamese and the local H'mong tongue with her three daughters. They too tried to help by offering to get a mat for Mandy to lay upon.

Anyway, these roads were beautiful for riding. For the first 90 km’s from Mương Lay to Tuần Giảo, we couldn’t drive too fast for it wounded its way above a wonderful valley. The road was slow going but the views also slowed us further. Then after Tuần Giảo it opened up wide allowing us to open up our throttles.

To everyone else-I’m sure, this was fantastic. And for me it was as well, but only for a short while.

Climbing out of Tuần Giảo I got a little over confident. The Minsk was running like a dream. We were ascending at about 45 km’s an hour and I was able to keep up with the ladies just fine. Then, again, at the top of the grade I lost all power.

Before we set off that morning we all had the goal of making the next destination before nightfall. This first "stop to visit with locals,” which I’m going to call my fix-the-broken-Minsk-pitstops from now on, would challenge that goal.

So, I got towed by a guy, with his inner tube sections, up to the next grade, from which I could coast down to the next little town. Mind you, having to stare at a big flexible rubber band attached to your bike and the bike in front of you is a little daunting, especially when he slows down and then speeds up. Every stop and go I saw the potential kinetic energy build and flinched every time the band stretched. Remember having rubber band fights as a kid? Imagine….snap! You’d get that inner tube shot straight back at you, at point blank and it would hurt more than just a little sting.

Luckily it didn’t break and I was able to make it down to the bottom of the grade only to be stuck again when the road flattened out. By now the ladies had sensed my doom and turned around. This time I would have Mandy tow me with the static line, one of my climbing ropes that I brought along for exactly this purpose. This essential item isn’t on the’s list of things to bring-like a flat tire repair kit and spark plug puller, but it should be.

Anyway, the mechanic at this little town ended up being a total motorbike junkie making it a pleasure for me to pick his brain. He had a fleet of Wins and a couple ’67 Honda Cubs. And, I nearly traded him for one of these if it were not for the fact that Minsk has no papers. (Here’s Mandy on one of those ‘67’s. This by the way is her dream machine.)

Instead the mechanic rebuilt the entire generator with new coils and a new magnet, suggesting that I take along with me two more sets of coils for future breakdowns. Of course I would fork out the 10 dollars for this extra insurance. And we headed on with a little more confidence that the Minsk is fixed but also a little more reservation that something else could go wrong. Don’t push it too much was what I was thinking.

So, instead of full throttle I was maybe three-quarters when I slowly felt some wobbliness. Danm, not again! This time it was a flat. And with Sơn La in sight down in the valley below us, 4 km’s away!

Again Mandy towed me to a nearby way station for the weary Minsk driver. This one was run by a Thai family. And, while they nursed back my rear wheel told us about why they have long, tall hair dos and offered us these little plums. 

These little plums are not too different from the ones we have in California during the summer. They’re just smaller and greenish red as opposed to mostly red on the other side of the Pacific. And like the ones in the US, if picked early these too would have that sweet and sour taste, which I love. But fearing that eating too many of these would also relegate me to praying next to the porcelain god all night, I stopped after eating only three. As for the hair do, women who are married are not allowed to cut their hair. It’s a sign that they are not available to other men.

Cultural lesson finished, local produce consumed and rear flat repaired, we eventually rolled into Sơn La….with our headlights on, in the dark.

Over room service at a three-star, Vietnamese run hotel we expressed how we nearly made our goal, if it weren’t for the “stops to visit with the locals”.

But, boy! Those people were beautiful and those roads were great!

Great Tour- Day Seven from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

*Photos courtesy of Kay Okamoto.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

the Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day Six

The worse day ever!

Things went wrong right from start. As the remainder of our party was leaving Sa Pa, the Minsk began to act up again. It was a short section of hills on the outskirts of the city but the old beast lacked any power. Kay, on her Dream, and Mandy, on her Wave, left me in the dust. I pulled over to the first available mechanic out of building frustration.

He though doesn’t work on Minsks. What? Could the people be wrong? Actually he can work on them but has no parts. Ah! So, he directed me back to town to a mechanic who does and after taking the tailpipe apart, and cleaning it the Minsk was back on the road again.

Here’s where the nightmare really began. Granted we heard that the roads were going to be bad but while descending down a mountain pass road with Mount Fan Si Pan over our left shoulder, we rode on roads in various states of repair while dodging big construction rigs. Half of one lane would be torn up and filled with mud or dirt while the other half was maybe finished but still filled with mud and dirt from the other side. Then there were sections of just mud or just gravel filled pavement. Going was really slow. We were even delayed for half an hour at one section from a road crew. 

Then the Minsk completely dies as we entered the next little town. Off again I went to a local mechanic while the others sat for cold drinks. (I failed earlier to mention that the day had dawned sunny making it now verging on being uncomfortably warm.) Anyway, he had one set of generator coils left and that did the trick. He did mention however that Minsk parts are hard to come by now, now that Minsks in the countryside are rare.  He was right. I saw more Minsks being driven by westerners than locals on this trip.

But I will admit though that the beast is perfectly designed for these rough roads. While the others gingerly picked their way through the mud, the gravel and the disjointed asphalt, the Minsk just plowed along, floating on top of everything.

Our next big city was Lai Châu below Sa Pa in a large expansive valley, or that was what the signs read. 

“Lai Châu? Wow! We made good time.” I said. And Mandy replied with, “Yes! And such a weird place.”

She was right. Everything was brand spanking new. The big government buildings, the roads and even the subdivision homes were newly built. But where were all the people? It was like an abandoned ghost town but it was obviously of recent construction.

What followed were hours of map deception and more nasty roads, as we wound our way down hill on the side of a steep canyon next to a raging river. 

Great Tour-Day Six from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

That city that was called Lai Châu back there wasn’t Lai Châu on the map. Lai Châu on the map wouldn’t be for another 90 km’s. So when I was asking for direction to the next big town south called Tuần Giảo, I was getting odd looks and replies like, “Tuần Giảo? You’re still 200 km’s from there!”  But the map said that the distance from Lai Châu to Tuần Giảo is only 90 km’s.

We were tired. We were hot. We were hungry. And as the sun was setting behind the western hills of the valley, we sat for a late lunch and realized that the map is completely wrong. Lai Châu on the map is old Lai Châu and the Lai Châu on the road is new Lai Châu. Lai Châu is also a province and not just a city. And what the authorities have done is move the provincial capital north 90 km’s recently enough for Vietnamese cartographers and Google to miss the update.

We were still 50 km’s from Lai Châu on the map, which is now known as Mương Lay. But the nightmare still hadn’t ended. Just before dark Kay’s motorbike got a front flat. Then as it went dark the road got worse. A lot worse!

For many km’s there were no pavement to speak of, just mud and/or dirt. At sections it went up and at others it went down.  Going up would lead to a dead end but going down got muddier. Either direction saw heavy equipment vehicles belching nasty smoke. It was stop and go slowly. Stop and go slowly.

It was only maybe 25 km’s but it took an eternity. I remember coming up to a stopped Kay and Mandy, with Mandy shouting something. Later Kay recounted that Mandy was so mad that she was screaming, “When is this f*@!#*% going to stop?”

And as the scenery became brighter from all the construction lights things began to reveal themselves. Old Lai Châu or new Mương Lay, whatever you want to call it, is a massive construction zone. They are simultaneously building Vietnam’s biggest damn and several new roads on both sides of this river.

I found out after returning from the trip that a massive flood, years earlier nearly wiped out the entire city of Lai Châu. Government officials hence decided to move the provincial capital north, rebuild the roads and harness the might of the Na river all at the same time. On this day we saw this take shape before our eyes and under our wheels.

Eventually at about 9:30pm we found the only guesthouse in this dilapidated city. It was made up of several stilted buildings each teetering on its foundation. Pretty much like all other houses in this town minus the post office, the only brick and concrete building still standing.

Kay said that she was hoping to see the real Vietnam on this trip and determined that the reality of “real Vietnam” was truly bleak, after arriving in Mương Lay and after living this very long day.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day Five

Like every Giro, Vuelta or Tour, our journey thru Northern Vietnam also needed a rest. So on this 5th day, we stayed put in Sa Pa, a hilly tourist town just south from the border of China’s Yunnan region.

Sa Pa was established by the French back in their colonial days to escape the heat of Hanoi and it has since turned in to one of the Northern region’s main travel destinations. Nearby is Vietnam’s highest peak, Fan Si Pan. There are numerous minority villages to visit here as well as waterfalls and rice terraces to see. Also being a major tourist attraction there are numerous western restaurants to appease a weary traveler.

We got here the night before and began resting instantly. We met up with the others at an Indian restaurant to have dinner and recounted our day. Kay, feeling embarrassed from getting lost earlier, kept apologizing. Mandy told the others about the epic ride up from Lào Cai. I was just too tired and hungry, impatient for my meal.

The others listened and said, “Don’t worry. Wait until you see the view in the morning. Your hard work has paid off!”

And they were so right. Kristi chose this great hotel over looking the valley, the mountains and part of the town. We all sat on the balcony over breakfast enjoying the incredible view, as clouds drifted in an out.

Great Tour-Day five from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

The hotel is built into this hillside with several terraces and balconies to lounge around on. They had outside as well as inside spaces. And in one of these inside spaces just as I got out of the elevator going to my room, I noticed something amiss. Not that I was paying great attention the night before upon arrival but definitely this morning there was something not right.

In this lobby hung three mannequins dressed up in local indigenous outfits. Yet sitting on the sofa below them was a belt. I was thinking, ”Heck, couldn’t the staff put the clothing back on properly after cleaning?”

A while later, Kristi with a sinister smile showed us pictures of their escapades from the night before. Mandy and I missed this because we came straight back to our rooms after dinner. The others though went out, had some drinks and decided to have a dress-up party. They were the ones that messed-up the displays.

You have noticed that I still haven’t yet mentioned the hotel’s name, didn’t you? This is done to protect the guilty. However, these pictures are for sure incriminating, if you know the location of the crime.
We will miss Luke, Kristi, Daria and Manu. The rest of the tour will be just Mandy, Kay and myself while they return to Hanoi on the overnight train.

So after an Italian lunch-we were by then tired of Vietnamese food, and a massage we said our farewells and they wished us luck for the rest of our journey. They knew we needed it!

*Photographs courtesy of Kay Okamoto, Daria Hagemann and Kristi Cruz.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day Four

The rains that fell last night found us again this morning when we woke up in Hà Giang, causing us to think twice about rolling out right away. Yet, by the time we were ready it abated to a sprinkle.  We would grab a quick bite and hit the road.

At breakfast we saw the same crew of Vietnamese that were at lunch in Mèo Vc. They were going south back to Hanoi. This being Monday was the last day of the long holiday weekend. But out on the wide boulevards of Hà Giang a few westerners were practice driving their Minks. We were not the only fortunate ones that were still out on the road playing.

From what the map said this would be the longest mileage day so far.  We wanted to go all the way to Sa Pa on faster roads with a more direct path. Zig-zagging up north near the border of China would be more scenic but Manu got word from friends who were there a few days prior that 25km’s of those roads are really muddy. Muddy, slow and long was not what we wanted. So we drove south then straight west, as opposed to south then north then south then north then finally south.

At least that was what most of us were thinking.

Up this point whenever we’d come to a three-way intersection without a positive idea as to which way to turn, we would wait for the others to arrive, consult the map, ask for directions and finally pick a road. 
So when Kay never showed up at the intersection of Highway 279 and National Highway 2-where we needed to head west, we got a little concerned. She didn’t go north back there into the zig-zagging route did she? You don’t think she crashed behind us, do you?

No, she hadn’t. Kristi remembered that Kay was in front and instead of stopping kept going….south. South is the direction of Hanoi.

Maybe she would figure this out shortly and come back. This is what we thought would happen so instead all of us waiting, just Mandy and I would stay and the others would go on.

40 minutes later she called and said that she’s 50Km south and would immediately come back. Whew! At least she was safe. Relieved I took the chance to have the Minsk looked at. Getting to this point on the fourth day, the Belarussian beast was really sluggish and of course I was still being pushed-started.
It took the mechanics about 20 minutes to surmise that the transformer that I replaced back in Hanoi was a junker Chinese made model. A few more minutes of ripping the old and installing the new and “wa-la”, it fired on the fist kick! A great promise for the rest of the day.

Meanwhile, Mandy was getting to know a local family who had lived for a few years in Germany.  The man of the house spoke German and from what I can tell was glad to be practicing that language again.

This getting to know the locals became a regular occurrence hereafter and it took on this form: Motorbike breaks down. We push or pull bike to the nearest repair shop. Locals would gather around to see the foreigners, offer advice and/or just practice English. In return, we get our bikes fixed, learn about the local produce, learn about the roads ahead and learn about a couple of the local customs or sayings.

Like the one that goes something like, “In a perfect world a man gets to have Chinese food regularly prepared by a Japanese wife all the while living in a house of German design.” We can understand the Chinese food remark because this area is near southern China, which is known for its food. When asked about why a Japanese wife, the answers came back with a look as if to say,” Don’t you know that Japanese women have manners and that they respect their husbands?” Kay, being Japanese may have thought, “No!” but never said so. As for a German house, maybe any house from the west is better than a Vietnamese house. 

We heard this for the first time from the German Việt Kièu man while waiting for Kay and shortly thereafter from another man who owns a repair shop about 40km’s away. We had stopped off there to let our motorbikes cool and get them washed. His sons were more than obliging. They were down right hospitable. They didn’t have fresh coffee but brought out hot water when I told him I was carrying some instant 3 and 1 VinaCafe. Then they washed our bikes and replaced Kay’s basket that broke off from her asphalt skirmish the day before.

The eldest son works for an insurance company. The middle one goes to law school in Lào Cai, 40km’s ahead. And the youngest is not yet done with high school.

Some time ago I read that with an emerging middle-class society there needs to be a sense of hope, hope of prosperity. Here, between Phố Ràng and Lào Cai, while waiting for our bikes to dry, sipping coffee and laughing with this family, I too got this sense of hope.

You may be wondering though why we needed to cool our bikes off. So let’s back up a little bit.
After Kay returned and after the Minsk got fixed we came across a long section of muddy roads slowing our progress tremendously. Then we stopped to have lunch in Phố Ràng, a junction from where we would turn north-west.

What we found next though was what the guys on Top Gear would call “a ribbon of perfection”, a 30km section of banking twists and turns along a river that allowed full throttle acceleration.  If I had audio of this drive it would sound something like this:

“Wheeeeeeeee-into corner.Kut, kut.-out of corner. Whee.Kut. Wheeeee.Kut.Wheeeeeeee!”

At last I felt like a motorbike driver for the Minsk was running in tip-top condition.  And the stop to let the bikes cool was just as much to stop for us to catch our breaths. It was that fun!

Getting to Lào Cai after this brief rest with the three sons continued to be fast and furious for the roads continued to be wide and well paved. And since the very first day of our journey we haven’t arrived at our destination until after dark. Today would be no different.

The stretch from Lào Cai to Sa Pa twists and turns up a steep hillside enveloped by clouds and torn apart in sections by road construction. Mandy expressed how this section of driving caused her the most stress. Visibility was terrible already as we came upon a particularly sketchy section of rough road. Here we had a choice of going up right or down to the left, both looking equally steep. To make matters worse there was a motorbike driver and his passenger, a local woman, screaming at each other. I went up and right in the panic with the idea that if I kept moving I wouldn't stall. But I did stall in the deep gravel of a dead end. You know how in the US on steep roads there are run-out sections full of deep sand or gravel to help trucks make emergency stops? This pit was just like that with a visibility of maybe 10-15 feet.

Slowly I coasted back down, maneuvered left around the quarreling couple and slowly descended into the nebulous second choice. I again had to employee my left-handed, high/low beam technique, for the next bit while Kay and Mandy rode nearby offering extra illumination.

After a long period of extra careful driving we entered the town elated to have escaped injury this evening and happy that during the light of day to have interacted with some folks along the way.

Great Tour-Day Four from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

On the website, subtitled “everything you need to know about the Minsk in Vietnam”, there is an essay called “The Deal” that elucidates some of the truths of traveling in the countryside like:

Helmets are law and enforcement of wearing them is getting stricter. Make sure you carry rain weather gear….300 Kilometers is a long, long day.

We agree with all of these but the following rang very true on this fourth day of our motorbike tour:

There are Minks mechanics in all population centers. People in the countryside are very honest and helpful. Wave, smile and be friendly.

*Photographs courtesy of Daria Hagemann, Kristi Cruz and Kay Okamoto.
**Another note worth mentioning here. Unfortunately because the mileage for this day was so long, we didn't have much of a chance to take pictures or video. That is why this post is lacking visually. Granted the scenery wasn't as spectacular as the previous day but it still was beautiful.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day Three

We all awoke relatively early this morning anticipating an early start to the long day but eventually we rode out around 9:30am.

For breakfast in Bo Lc we discovered a phở shop worthy of mention. The proprietor is a third generation phở shop owner and originally hails from Nam Dịnh, a town attributed with the invention of the national dish. His broth was tasty yet clean and clear. The meats seemed fresh. And his meticulous preparation of each bowl bordered on artistry. We were impressed.

Asked why he chose to live in Bo Lc, he replied, “ The air and water is clean. There is much greenery around, as you can see.  And the beef here is raised on grass. Everything I need for a proper bowl of phở.”

Fueled by this, we headed out of town and north to Mèo Vạc. It was going to be a long journey so Manu decided to go ahead to Hà Giang.

The provincial law states that if you are a foreigner traveling here you must acquire a permit. Whether that permit is required to be in Hà Giang or sleep in a hotel/homestay, we weren’t sure. Manu would get to the provincial capital first to sort things out, because that is the only place he knew of where to obtain this permit. If for any reason we couldn’t make it to the City of Hà Giang, he would back track to us with the permits. Besides, he drives much faster than we do, or at least much faster than my Mink's capabilities.

Highway 34 leaving Bo Lc goes all the way west to Hà Giang City. We would follow this though for only 8 kilometers before turning right onto a new bridge and up, and up and up on winding mountain roads above a steep river valley. At the top of this grade is the town of Mèo Vạc. And from there we intended on taking the lower of two scenic routes for the map showed that it was 20km shorter and not as winding.

The sky was cloudy and the air was cool, getting cooler also as we climbed up into the clouds. Then as the clouds turned into rain we again donned our rain ponchos.

Mandy stopped to help a group of locals-four to a motorbike lumbering up the steep grades, by taking one of the four. Kristi wanted to stop off and say “hi!” to fellow Hanoians also on a motorbike trip.
All the while the local indigenous folks began to appear on the roads, walking along it or farming the steep hillsides. The topography became much sharper. The mountains tops seemed almost pyramidal. I remember looking up a v-shaped canyon with about four or five hillsides descending down into it at a 60 degree angle. I think I was also looking in to China at this point.

Then the road leveled out for a bit as we crested a pass above the town of Mèo Vạc. Jagged limestone boulders and shorts cliffs were everywhere as well as more colorfully clad locals.

Soggy and a little bit chilled we drove down into town to grab coffee and lunch, to refuel. We saw a group of Vietnamese with trash bags covering luggage that were strapped to the backs of their motorbikes, obviously Hanoian, or city folks, out touring the countryside. We noticed also that the town was a little grubby which is no matter really because it did not feel touristy at all. Something we found very refreshing. Up here near the border of China in a corner of the country reached only by two days of bus riding or motorbike driving, we found a traveler’s paradise.

Consequently, It took us 2 hours to drive the next 25 km, for around every corner was a new vista and new locals to chat up. Daria heard that the locals here are very poor so she purchased notebooks and pens to giveaway. At one of these pull outs we met a group of kids and sometime afterwards we discovered that we were on the upper loop road, the further section. Still it was stunning. I’ll let these images speak for themselves.

Great Tour-Day Three from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

For a while there everything was going smoothly, even with an increase in road traffic. I was still behind everyone but keeping my pace nicely, not falling too far back. Then horror struck.

I drove up to a corner to find, Kristi and Luke parked off the side the road next to a fallen Honda Dream and a fallen Kay Okamoto. Minutes earlier trying to avoid a speeding motorbike coming uphill at her, Kay veered right and hit some gravel. She slid out into a ditch with the bike landing on top of her left side. Let’s just say we were very relieved when she stood up and walked off the road for medical treatment administered by Luke and Daria. What happened to her could’ve happened to any of us. Luckily Kay is a tough cookie.

Our scare and her cuts and bruises made us all a great deal more careful for the rest of that day. And would you believe it if I told you that not one other corner after that had as much gravel as the one she slid out in? Yes, I looked!

Anyway, Kristi took over for Kay for the rest of the drive towards Hà Giang, which was no easy task. Clouds began to shroud the ridge tops, where the road wound, and then soon afterwards the light began to fade. Visibility got really poor, slowing our progress on the twisting and turning roads, up and down the small passes.  

The Minsk, as you may have already guessed wasn’t in perfect condition, it does have a headlight but no high and low beams. It only has one beam that only got brighter upon high engine rev, making my entrances into blind corners with clutch engaged and throttle on high so I could see clearly. During the straights when free of fog, I would reach forward to adjust the beam up onto the road ahead. When it was foggy, I would tilt the headlight down. This was my version of high/low beams-my left hand and a loose headlamp.

I think we arrived in Hà Giang around 8:30 pm. Manu was waiting at the hotel having had arrived a couple hours earlier. Again we were all tired but managed to meet up for a dinner of hotpot with mushrooms and noodles, over which we recounted about a day filled with incredible landscapes, tough riding conditions and a little bit of a fright. 

*Photographs courtesy of Daria Hagemann, Kristi Cruz and Kay Okamoto.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Great Northern Vietnam Motorbike Tour-Day Two

This second day happened to be a bit more epic.

In the planning stages, I had consulted with my friend Dutch about logistical connections from town to town and determined that a boat ride on Ba Be Lake then a boat ride down river before hitting a road going north to Ha Giang province should be the route for the day. So this was our aim.

The boat ride on the lake was spectacular. The scenery felt alpine with precipitous hillsides but the vegetation was definitely rain forest. The air was cool and the water mostly clean. Some of us even hung our still wet laundry out to dry, for the night before thundershowers tore through the valley. This night-time rain would later haunt us.

At the end of the first boat ride, we landed at the top of a waterfall from where we rode down to a damn at the bottom of the fall to catch another boat to go further down river. But there were no boats running this bottom section, at least no boat big and safe enough on this day. What happened was that the water level was too low. Two days prior the bigger boats were making transports here but the damn hadn’t let out enough water since. Folks that were running the ferries today were using small boats and didn’t deem it safe to transport even one motorbike through the shallow and narrow bends. We were seven people with six motorbikes.

It’s fair to say that this day was the most unpredictable day of our journey. Manu hadn’t been on the roads we were planning and definitely not the river journey we were on.

So with our tails between our legs we boarded another boat to go back up river to take another road north.  They say though that every misfortune creates opportunity.

This misstep allowed us to head straight north to the most scenic, not my words by the way, roads in all of Vietnam. (You will all have to wait for the next posting for those pics and video.)

But before going directly north we were lost along these roads above Ba Be Lake. The map showed that they were paved but anyone traveling these northern roads knows that Vietnam maps are of the future this country, a promise made by the government or whomever to show infrastructure development, not the present.

It was slow going on these gravel mountain roads and construction zones. Manu even went down in an especially muddy section. Then a wrong turn brought us back to within 4 km of the guesthouse where we stayed the night before. The time was 2:30pm and we hadn’t even eaten lunch!

Over our meal, we decided that we would push on north to Mèo Vc or stop off at Bảo Lc if it got too late. We would have to surmount Mount Pia Oắc and then descend down to Bảo Lc. The distance to be covered after our meal was 100 km, with only 2 hours of daylight and an average speed of 20-25km per hour due to the steep grades and poor conditioned roads.  Going up was slow and going down was even slower for the rains began to fall just as the sun was setting into the blackness of night. The last 2.5-3 hours were glacially slow and treacherously slippery.

Great Tour-Day Two from Linh Nguyen on Vimeo.

My Minsk motorbike at this time began to show its failings. I couldn’t kick start it any longer and had to plan my stops at the top of grades so that I could coast down and bump start. At a flat section I stalled after a section of big potholes to wait for others and couldn’t restart. Mandy had to push me a few times before I was able to resume, a precursor to the remainder of the trip. Bless her heart!

Needless to say I missed the beautiful sunset earlier at the top of the mountain where the roads were flat. Also, being the slowest of the motorbikes in terms of performance, I didn’t want the others to have to wait for me anymore than they already were so I kept driving whenever I could. I was the tortoise that slowly inched along while the others were rabbits continually passing me and then stopping for directions.

We rolled into to Bảo Lc around 9:30pm knackered and wet. Mandy complained about bed bugs. Luke and Kristi just passed out after showering. And the others got hungry and found some porridge, even though Manu hates porridge.

I was hoping that this was going to be the worse day of the trip but we’ll see.

*Photographs courtesy of Daria Hagemann, Kristi Cruz and Kay Okamoto.