THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES IN VIETNAM

Day 1
Let’s ride!!!
by Adam Browne

(Sing this, you know how it goes)
I’m a mother “£$% on a motor cycle (repeat)
Pete’s a mother “£$% on a motor cycle (repeat)
Steve’s a mother “£$% on a motor cycle (repeat)
I’m a mother “£$% on a motor cycle (repeat)

Well we made it ladies and gents, 7days through treacherous roads, pouring rain, crack brain drivers and copious breakdowns, the lads have returned to tell the tale. This tale will be told by us all. I will take days 1 and 4, Pete 2 and 5 with Steve finishing in a frenzy with days 3 and 6. Weren’t counting on a seventh day but as you’ll read later it couldn’t be avoided so it’ll probably be a group effort.

Those of you that don’t know, Steve, Pete and I have been riding around on the North of Vietnam on Russian Minsks, about 30 years old and these things have been put through their paces over the years. Being that our legs were gonna be wrapped around these ladies for the period of our journey we thought it was the proper thing to call them by name. I was looking much like and 80’s cowboy with my red biker jacket, so I went with “OL Faithful” trying to sound confident that my faithful steed wouldn’t let me done. Pete went for “Daisy”, he’s says it’s the first thing that come to his head, I think it’s a girl he has wild fantasies about haha. Steve went for “BIG BALLOO” being his bike stood the tallest and was blue!! Yeah I know, real original on all our parts.

We packed our “saddle bags” and ventured off around 9:00am from Vietnam Voyager, this being Pete and mines first time driving at all let alone through the busy streets of Hanoi, one could say were quite tense while trying to stay with the tour guide, Huong. I’ll give you abit of perspective, imagine one 10 min lesson on a empty parking lot, then thrown into more traffic you’ve ever seen, heard and smelt with all these experienced and crazy drivers 30cm away on each side tooting their horns. When they see you’re a westerner they like to try and stir you up abit or race along side you for a while, great stuff aswell as a little nerve racking.

But we got onto the open road ok and decided to open the old girls up a wee bit, sometimes just sitting along side each other pointing out massive green rice fields, massive mountains, crazy billboards or other scooter drivers with their entire families also on board.

This is when we realized that our tour guide was no longer with us……. We all stopped and Steve went back to have a look if all was ok, but it was not!!! Huong’s bike had a hissy fit and didn’t want to go on, lucky for us a fellow passing biker decided to give him the old “foot push” while he drove us to the next town for repairs. One hour in and we were already getting challenges thrown our way.

But it was a pleasant surprise, we rolled into this town where it seemed they had not seen white boys on bikes for sometime and really made us feel at home, with cold drinks and some pipe smoked tobacco, we gave this lady a smoke and she blessed it in full Buddha fashion on a stick letting it burn all the way down. But we were now back on the road after fixing Huong’s carby, a little while later just stopping for lunch, the first of many good feeds for the tour.

Just up the road Pete’s clutch starts having a wee bit of travel and we’re starting to feel the money we spent on this was gonna be put to good use as Huong was really good with the bikes.

About 3pm we started hitting really good scenery, large mountains covered in lush green, winding roads of small villages where children ran outside to greet you as you passed. Then tragedy struck when we stopped for a quick moment, I had rode over a nail somewhere and my tyre was now flat, enter Huong and his expertise, but then there was trouble with the pump breaking in half and the tube not inflating enough, we all pitched in with little stuff like Steve’s coffee while we worked, me directing traffic on the small road with a torch and Pete standing around looking pretty.

Well we got there to the guest house eventually about 7pm, had a deserved and needed shower. Ate some dinner which we found a hole chicken head (check Steve’s blog for pics) but it was all good we could of eaten the leg off a chair at that point. Before some sleep, we all just sat awake and talked about how good today was and what was in store for tomorrow over another of Steve’s gas stove coffee Brews in the room.

LIVING THE DREAM!!

Day 2
“Testing the Skills”
by Peter Dunn

I awoke with renewed energy after a long first day on the open road and excited about what today has install for us amateur motorcyclists (however my confidence was certainly growing). We had some breakfast and coffee, which soon became religious over the 6 days, and were on our way by 9:30am. Today’s journey took us deeper into the mountain range through winding contorted, mountainous roads, our destination, a family home stay which we were to call home for the next 2 days.

The ride was great fun today as we moved out of the long open highway into the mountains; the skills were tested. Up and down left and right, hair pinned turns and random potholes. There were limestone walls on your right and a shear cliff drop off to the left (and the Vietnamese don’t appear to believe in crash barriers) “so whatever you do Pete DO NOT slide out”. I did start to get a little cocky dropping between 2nd and 3rd gear through the winding path. It felt like I was in Rally Australia. I was tailing Adam most of the way but swapping positions occasionally as one of us misses a gear or takes the corner too wide. However, before I knew it the smooth paved road changed to a construction site. The road was being resurfaced so for about 20-30km the racing track looked like the surface of the moon. Potholes craters and erosional gullies were the obstacles and the cliff drop-off continued to remain as a worthy adversary.

Trailing Adam I caught a glimpse of an opening in the road to make an ambitious pass on the ugly divoted surface. As I slammed down the throttle on old Daisy the Minsk the cavernous road took me by surprise. The first gully caused my legs to lift into the air and arse to come slamming onto the seat, the second gully (ouch), the third gully (oh shit!). The cliff was fast approaching and I wasn’t slowing down. It was like I was riding a run away brumby by the way I was saddle bouncing with legs flailing, it must have looked hilarious! All I needed was the scene to be in black and white with some backup Benny Hill music and it would have been perfect. I managed to slow the bike down with the aid of brakes and huge hole just enough the basically jump from the bike and have it do a slight ghosty before coming to a dirty halt (not my greatest dismount but it’ll do). Don’t worry Mum, no injuries, not even a scratch, old Daisy was a little crooked but she still ran. After that incident I took things a little more slowly.

The off-road mayhem brought us to a large river crossing. I was covered from head to toes in dirt and dust and old Daisy was feeling it, coughing and splattering all over the place. The river crossing was conducted via bamboo raft; we drove our bike onto a precarious floating vessel which is propelled by Vietnamese guys pulling on suspended ropes. The ride was surprisingly smooth, and once on the other side we burned off those bamboo rafts like sugarcane stubble.

We finally made it to our destination at about 1pm where we were greeted with friendly smiles of an old Vietnamese couple Mr Kieu and Madam Ching where we were to stay for the next 2 nights. Within 30mins and after a quick shower, Madam Ching had whipped up a stunning lunchtime feast for us ravenous lads. I tell you what; we have been severely misled if we thought city food was real Vietnamese cuisine……..this was absolute gold. “Xin Non” was a phase quickly adopted by us westerners which means “delicious food” in Vietnamese. I don’t thing Madam Ching needed reminding, she knew she was a great cook.

After lunch we had a brief kip and then by about 4pm we were back on the bikes and ready for a quick scoot to a nearby village, the location of Mr Kieu’s parents. Part of the journey was like 4WDriving up some steep rocky inclines, it reminded me of the Burrup jump-up but for motobikes! We made it to the village during sunset and the place was stunning. 360 degrees of mountains in a valley of rice and corn fields, with a quiet stream winding through the middle, ducks cackling on the banks. I didn’t realise that these types of places truly existed except for in movies or postcards. There was no digital enhancements going on here, it was totally candid. We stopped to capture the moment, and within minutes a crowd of local village people formed to check out the big strange white boys on motorbikes. One young guy was bold enough to come and speak to us; I think he wanted to try out his english. His name was Seven (or at least that’s how it sounded) and was insistent that we come back to his parents place for tea. We politely accepted (it would have been rude not to) and thus biked to his place whilst stopping for photos with the locals along the way.

Seven lived with his parents in an old wooden, stilted house with pigs and chickens sniffling around underneath. Conversation was trying, but fortunately Huong was there to interpret. Seven turned out to be only 1 month older than me, which he was excited about, and was studying economics in Hanoi, which is an excellent effort having come from a small isolated farming community. The Seven family were very sweet and we insisted on having a photo shot with the whole family, even the great uncle came outside for some piccies. It was a great spontaneous moment and there were a lot of smiles, hugs and handshakes as we left. The sun quickly fell behind the mountains which made biking a little difficult especially over rugged terrain. Seven was kind enough to show us the way to the main road so we could get back to Mr Kieu’s. Oh by the way, at this point on only our 2nd day, we are driving Minsk’s in the dark off-road, through corn fields near the Chinese border, I have been riding a bike for one and a half days!!!!

We made it back to headquarters at about 7pm, and it was time to relax after a long day of riding. Its very hard work this biking caper and energy is absent by the end of the day and appetites are at an all time high! Enter Madam Ching and her culinary delights. If I had to order my very last meal I would ask to be helicoptered to Cao Bang Province and make sure they phone ahead so Madam Ching could start preparations. Fresh pork, spinach with garlic, spring rolls, chicken, rice, and soup, it sounds pretty basic, but all I can say is…GOLD! Almost every mouthful of food ended with a shot of corn wine/whisky (harsh stuff about 40% alcohol), homebrewed by Mr Kieu who didn’t hesitate to give you a top up. “Chuoc Xe Kwai” (pronounced, chook-sek-way) which means “to your health”, is what we all chanted as we raised our glasses to salute a beautiful meal and a happy day.

My head hit the pillow with a thud, bed never felt so good……….

Day 3
“Dancing in China”
by Steve Hart

We woke up in our airy loft bathed in our airy loft in a soft straw like glow. I pop open the bamboo window shutter, look out across the rice paddies to the Karst peak jutting out of the flat plane looking like the remnants of a volcanoes insides… the air is moist and cool.

Coffee… Banana Pancakes… the ‘Requiem For A Dream’ sequence… our pupils dilate…

Hung is yet again covered in grease and big Ba-loo, Daisy and Ol’ Faithful are adorned with flash looking (rusty steel) cow bells, a little joke for Hung but probably appropriate with our (lack of) ability to drive through crowds of the streets and markets. The sound of “MOOOOOOO!” accompanied our introduction to the people on the streets for the rest of the journey, accompanied by a laugh from most of the locals.

Today we head to Bang Gioc falls, the falls shown on most of those tacky pictures you see hanging on the walls of “Things” with a light behind which makes the water look like it is falling. We stopped off at a set of markets on our way of the falls. We bought some ‘genuine’ fake Casio digital watches (fake Casio!…WHY?????) Ads busted out some quality miming to some local tunes while I managed to find some musical gold “Sexuat Disco 2005” (not a spelling error by me). We finished off the shopping with the purchase of over a kilo of tobacco for our host Mr Kiel which cost about 50 cents. We also got a drink that looked like congealed blood swimming in jellied pig’s fat. It was a drink made from heaps of sugar, barley and some lima like beans…weird.

The drive to the falls took us through some steep winding mountain passes, small villages and along many valleys, all lined with terraced corn and rice fields. As we neared the falls and the Chinese border we started to see water wheels and border centaury posts. We parked the bikes up at the Vietnamese border guard barracks and headed on foot down to the falls.

First order of business Chinese beers floating next to our bamboo raft at the base of the falls.

Lunch: Rolls, amazing pork paddies, condensed milk for mayo.

The falls mark the northern border of Vietnam and the southern border of China.

Pedro and I swam armed with Mickey Mouse floaty rings, pure class. We explored the caves behind the pounding falls and found Chinese and Viet graffiti dating back to the early 1900’s. Pedro and I climbed up through little upper openings before deciding to swim the width of the river….china or bust.

Hung and Ads mimed Chinese border guards picking us off with sniper rifles as we swam to China. We stepped out of the river onto the dry banks of the Northern side of the river. Pedro busted a few funky moves and we headed back to Vietnam. The trip back to Kiel’s was pretty uneventful a few near miss collisions with close encounters of two trucks overtaking each other on blind corners as we came the other way….Aghhhhhhhhh (and Pedro did not fall off AGAIN after locking up the front wheel). Back to Madame Chinh burbling away in Vietnamese and us understanding 1 in 1000 words.

Smells for the day: Rain, 2-stroke, wet cow crap on the road…smells like NZ, tasty pork.

The night finished in the usual way, lots of amazing food, potent rice/corn wine and Hung extracting a TOTALLY DESTROYED clutch from Ads’ bike and us falling into bed, a little red eyed.

Day 4
“Blame it on the rain”
By Adam Browne

We woke up to our breakfast of banana pancakes and instant coffee, which we were all starting to get a taste for now. Though I had some pus eye thing which was shitting me to tears, pardon the pun so Huong, now playing doctor, took me down to the local morning markets.

After getting it cleared up at the pharmacy we just took a look around the markets, these I thought were the best we saw, bought some rubber boots for the ride today then went and got the boys for a second break of pork and noodle soup, you would’ve to it was such good looking food, we just had to eat again.

We bid Mr. Kiel and Madam Ching farewell; it was going to be wet, rough road riding today up steep hills with lots of slippery bits.

We road up the windy roads into the clouds we had to fang it in first gear most of the time, it was the first taste of really giving the bike a good work out as were we. We were all getting pretty cocky with speed and tight corners, there was one time where I thought I’d met my doom into a little house as I came flying through a real muddy patch which gripped my front tire in. I had pretty much accepted I was cactus, but all of a sudden the bike just straightened up and all was fine and dandy. I let off a fist in the air and a “woohoo” that I wasn’t laying in someone’s house with my bike.

When we reached the bottom of the hill and were heading into Ba Be town for a guest house, we were all so amped and our legs were stiff from the constant jarring trying to keep hold of our bikes. We were all flying the fastest we had all been the hole ride, it was great an unspoken about race, know one wanted to be passed but there were the occasional miss gear changes or wide corner.

That was pretty much it for the day, we all wanted to visit the sandman after a big day and a nice dinner, so we did the usual talk about the day and what was in store for tomorrow. This tour wasn’t slowing down by the looks of things.

Day 5
“Babe Chillout”
by Peter Dunn

We are at Mr Dung’s Place adjacent to Babe Lake (pronounced Bar-Bay). Today is a day of relaxation. Mr Dung’s has a beautiful view of rice fields with massive mountain faces on the opposite side of the valley. We arrive, drop our things and take off straight for the Markets for breakfast. We are yet again a novelty for the people, especially the kids. I was showing the kids my camera and the photos on it. They especially loved having there photo taken and seeing themselves on the screen. There was one cute little boy that was calling out to me saying repeatedly, “hello, good bye, thank you, hello, good bye, thank you” that was the extent of his english and I’m sure he didn’t know what he was actually saying.
After lunch we took Mr Dungs fishing boat out on Babe Lake. We tried our hand at fishing which consisted of a stick and piece of line on the end and a hook. We were unsuccessful, but extremely successful to still manage to tangle the lines! We cruised around the lake until sunset, a very pleasant boat ride.

Back home for dinner (another feast, my god we ate like kings) lots of rice and corn wine and beers…considering it was our last night we proceeded to get quite drunk with Huong (our guide). We spoke politics and economics with Huong and about living and working in Vietnam. We all got a little emotional telling Huong that we have appreciated his efforts and patience on this trip and that he is now a very good friend. Huong as been the kindest friendliest person we have met on this trip. He wont be forgotten…….we were seriously considering pooling money together to invite Huong to Western Australia so that we could show him our country just as he showed us the splendor of his homeland….we still may consider it once we are all back home.

Adam and Steve passed out, and Huong and I spoke a little longer. Huong then snuck photos of Steve and Adam passed out on there beds, very funny, they had a good laugh in the morning.

Day 6
“Oldman River The Mudfest”
by Steve Hart

1am, my dreams are filled with thunder and lightning…

2am, ewwwww who crawled into my mouth and died…shake my rice whiskey-ed head and stumble through the rain outside onto the verandah under a gushing gutter. I lean over the precarious bamboo balcony and skull a few litres from the gutter’s torrent. It’s raining hard, typhoon off the coast it’s really raining hard

6am, up coffee food…Requium sequence.

6:30am Departure…but Big Ba-loo finally stumbles, water in the fuel tank and carby.

9:00am We leave, weaving our way along the vertical cliff banks of Babe Lake, dressed like the Marshmallow man in our wet weather, safety gear and Welly boots. We head to the markets up the muddy slopes (roads). The next two to three hours are epic. We wind our way through a valley along the edge of a river that has seriously burst its banks. Rice and Corn fields are flooded their crops either underwater or flattened. Landslides cover the road everywhere, the road is cover in up to a foot of mud and two of water. We drive through the lot, water flies out like roster tails from the backs of our bikes. River crossing come over our legs trying to sweep us off our bikes. Yeeeha! We finally meet our match when we hit a river twenty metres wide with massive logs floating down it…bugger. Coffee at a local’s roadside house with local kids crawling all over us.

Hmmm plan B, we turn around and drive back through it all again making sure we hit every bit of water and mud we can find, we are loving it. Tropical typhoons, mudslides, flooded rivers, “Coity craves not these things” ; )
We have to take an alternative route home.
The rest of the day was highways trucks and rain we struggle to see past the end of our noses. We hit Thai Nguyen.
Thai Nguyen: We weave through heavy traffic cars bikes trucks everywhere it reminds me of Ha Noi traffic. I can’t believe my eyes, we come to a ‘puddle’, I squint through the rain and can not see the end. The three of us jaws must have dropped. We drive through it! The wake of passing trucks goes over our knees, this is nuts! We hit a bit more puddle action and another and another. We pass two crashed bikes in the centre of the road that look as if they are in a romantic embrace, everyone swerves around them, we look at each other with dread on our face, any confidence we had managed to get together over the last few days is gone… cautiously we keep battling the lakes on the road.

9pm and we are over two hours from Ha Noi still, two of the bikes are broken and Hung has them in bits on the flooded sidewalk… I go in search of beer. 15 minutes later we are randomly invited into a dude’s house that has the crocodile hunter playing on TV, he saw our amused faces and invited three dripping wet Aussies into his plush living room for tea and of course rice wine. We decided to crash fro the night in a hotel and ended up having breakfast with the dude too, random. I love these people. Ads and I had a moment where we looked at each other on this guys couch, covered in mud, with him fussing over us and communicating how happy he was that we were in his country with his three words of English, we realised that we will actively engage any traveler we see in Aus when we get home and make sure they see some real Australia in what ever way we can… Golden Moment.

Next day we finally got home and were sad to say farewell to an amazing host, tour guide and friend hung, and also a little pained in parting with Ba-loo, Daisy and Ol’Faithful. What a week.

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