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.

No comments:

Post a Comment