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.

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