GETTING A GRIP, MOTORBIKE TOUR ARTICLE OF VIETNAM
Getting A Grip by Michael Slone
Original source (Michael’s blog): http://blogs.bootsnall.com/mbsloney/
Returned in one shiny happy piece from my 5-day motorbike tour of northwest Vietnam. The initial outlook was not auspicious – getting out of Hanoi proved to be the trickiest part of the entire journey, and Offroad Vietnam’s manager Anh Wu rode alongside me for a few kilometers to ensure that 1) I didn’t end up pancaked between neighboring bikes on Hanoi’s crazy streets, and 2) I didn’t damage his motorbike – not necessarily in that particular order. But once I got the hang of the bike, a solid Honda 160cc model, I zigzagged in Hanoi’s traffic like a pro – I am, after all, a born and bred Boston driver.
Our gang consisted of guide Chi, an upbeat 29-year-old, two Kiwis – Andrew and Brian, and myself. And it proved to be a very good little ensemble – if I had gone by myself, things might’ve gotten a little dull, and conversely, a group of 10 riders might have been messy. Someone’s bike would very likely have required service, or someone might have been a weak rider, etc. With just 4 of us, we kept things simultaneously tight and loose.
Day 1 saw us riding a hell of a long way – from Hanoi to the town of Nghia Lo. Chi gave us the option of stopping earlier and staying in a town en route, but it was only 3 p.m., and given that it was our first day, we felt pretty strong. Andrew and Brian are both long-time riders and are accomplished off-roaders and dirt bikers etc. whereas I’m more of a pavement sort. But we found roads that suited all our desires and all felt challenged from time to time.
Hanoi to Nghia Lo was almost 300 km. A full day of riding, starting with Hanoi’s choked streets, moving on to the industrial suburbs of the capital – still quite a challenge, and finally too far more relaxed roadways considerably to the northwest. I can recall a couple of bizarre sights from the day:
1. A broken-down Honda sitting upon a wooden cart, being drawn by an ox. Talk about the modern giving way to the ancient…
2. Driving along some ways behind a fellow driving a white motorbike, I heard high-pitched noises and noticed something squirming around on the back of his bike. Turned out to be 3 large pigs strapped to the bike – one on either side, upside down (one of these two pigs was squealing something awful), the third right up against the rear guard. I’ve seen lots of weird items being carried by bike in Asia, but never 3 large piggies. And the driver looked at us white boys like we were the oddest sights on that road…
Also had a couple of close calls that day. The first was on the outskirts of Hanoi when another rider blew a red light and drove right across my path – I missed him (or was it the other way round) by a foot or two. The second was when I approach a sandy patch, and I braked at precisely the wrong time, sending my bike into a slight skid from which I was able to recover. Humbling, but nothing more than that.
Got into Nghia Lo – and Chi took good care of us, booking us into the best guesthouse in town. Nice place, rooms were clean and sizeable, and I used a ton of hot water to clean myself off. Met Brian and Andrew for a few beers before dinner, then we met Chi, and off we went. Dinner was in a government hotel/restaurant, and the food was pretty good, as it was to be the entire trip. Lots of meat – Vietnamese are real carnivores. I think I gained a couple of kilos during the trip.
While we were waiting for our food, Chi had us down a few cups of xeo, potent Vietnamese rice wine. But we took it pretty easy – it had been a hard day’s ride. Chi showed us our route, past and upcoming.
The hotel beds turned out to be pretty hard, and I tossed and turned all night. Kept dreaming that I was riding and a truck was coming toward me. Hmm. And then any hope of sleep vanished – in many Vietnamese towns there’s a 5 a.m. broadcast of the news emanating from a set of loudspeakers around town – you can hear the broadcast (in Vietnamese, natch) from every single spot in town. I actually think it kicked off at 4:30 a.m, and ran until 7. Talk about industrious people – the entire town was bustling before 7 a.m., and we pretty much were expected to be out of our rooms before 8. The Philippines may be the world’s loudest country, but you can generally lay the blame on roosters and other animals. In Vietnam, most of the noise is man-made – insane news broadcasts, noisy bikes, trucks with air-horns, etc. A good place to bring earplugs and sleeping pills…
The second day’s ride was also good. Much less distance, only about 100 km or so. The towns starting getting more ethnic – Dzao, Thai, and Hmong comprised most of the non-Vietnamese we saw. Very colorful people – amazing to see that they’ve kept their dress and customs into the 21st century. Of course, so have lots of people in the Middle East…and I’m not too sure that’s a good thing.
Saw some white faces by the side of the road. They were with another riding company and were on Minsk bikes. These are cult models – built in Belorussia (hence, Minsk) and some riders love ’em – they’re the moto equivalent of mules, they can do a huge amount of work but require massive maintenance and TLC. I was happy to be on a Honda, but I think that Andrew and Brian are keen to give Minsk a go next time around.
Stopped for lunch in a small town. While we ate the local kids came around and inspected our bikes. While they’re not large by global standards – mine was only 160cc – they are large by local standards and many people found them fascinating. Nothing special where we come from…but they are more than powerful enough to take on the Vietnamese roads.
Rode into the town on Than Uyen in the early afternoon. Checked into our hotel – another good place – then walked downstairs to take a walk and get a bit of exercise. My legs and rear were sore from all the riding. As I walked down the stairs, I noticed that there were provocative posters on the walls – each floor had one, and they were fairly racy for an Asian Communist country.
I laughed at the first of these, and a cleaning girl popped her head out of a room to see what was up. Immediately, I pointed at the poster, and we both had a laugh. I made a mental note to look her up later on, after having a few shots of xeo.
While walking around outside, I think I upset the entire balance of the town. I swear many of the townspeople hadn’t seen a white person before or hadn’t in years. People rode past me on their bikes and nearly crashed while they craned their heads back at me. Tables of unemployed youths stopped their drinking and bragging and stared at me as I strolled by. Nobody even tried to sell me anything – an unprecedented state of affairs in Vietnam.
Saw Brian and Andrew just outside the hotel, and we decided to get some beer. Found a little hole in the wall and sat down. We were right across from the town market and Dzao and Hmong girls got a real kick out of our white faces. I was wearing a white t-shirt and shades, which were sitting atop my head. Andrew said it was only a matter of time before the entire town did away with its ethnic outfits and switched over to what I was wearing. In a few years, they’d all look like me, and I’d have been responsible for the demise of entire cultures. I had to give it to Andrew – for a ranking official in the New Zealand Air Force, he had a brilliant, dry sense of humor. Perhaps being in the NZ Air Force helped nurture his odd sense of wit…
The town seemed to have an electricity problem…and it was hot as hell. Walked around with Brian and Andrew until the night was falling and we saw some lights around town. Got back to the hotel – no juice yet, but they were starting up a generator. And soon we had fans and air-con. That was unfortunately intermittent throughout the night, but we made do.
Sat down in the lobby to relax for a bit. A few locals were gathering to watch the Vietnam-Qatar Asia Cup soccer match. One fellow sat next to me and started to compare our body parts. Stay with me here. He pointed to his gut – then to mine. Similar. I flexed a bicep – he did the same. Fairly similar. I then pointed to my groin and held my hands about a foot apart. He fell to the floor laughing. And I just sat there…wondering where the cleaning girl was hiding.
Went to dinner nearby with Chi. More good local food – this time, a bit of goat. But the star of the show was the xeo, the rice wine. This time we were joined, impromptu, by a Communist Party official who insisted on toasting us with xeo. I volunteered – I couldn’t let a Communist out drink us, and Brian and Andrew were looking a bit nickered. We did a few shots, to the tune of ‘tram phan tram,’ or ‘100%.’ The shots were small and it wasn’t too hard. My drinking skills haven’t deteriorated one bit, methinks.
The official finally left us alone, an-useful Chi taught us some Vietnamese words. Probably the best was ‘mui to,’ or ‘big nose,’ what many locals call foreigners. And it was pertinent – my Jewish schnozz is sizeable, and Andrew has a bit of a break too. Chi taught us to say ‘hello, my name is the big nose – hello, small nose.’ Very mature.
Got back to the hotel. It was Saturday night, but that didn’t mean that the town was hopping. Nowhere to go, really. The only place that had seemed interesting was the hotel’s own karaoke room – but there was only intermittent electricity and that was out. Chi had wondered aloud whether this karaoke room was ‘black door’ or ‘boom-boom’ karaoke, i.e…well, you know what I mean. But we never even had a peek, given the lack of power. We watched a bit of the soccer match, it was 1-1. It went into extra time…the lobby where we were sitting was like a sauna…we had enough and headed upstairs. It was 11 p.m. or so, and the morning radio broadcast was looming large. Ugh.
Turned on the TV to see what this town was watching. Only two channels, one was a game show, the other some sort of singing competition. TV, off. Noticed that the TV still had its original sticker on the screen – it was an LG product, from Korea. Under the LG logo, it read ‘Life’s Good.’ LG used to be Lucky Goldstar, a very Asian, clunky company name that the company has successfully pared down, re-branded, and turned into a fairly cool outfit. I found it funny how well English lends itself to acronyms and to the expansion of acronyms into phrases like ‘Life’s Good.’
The broadcast got going at 5 a.m., but I believe I slept another half hour. Still, because the power had gone on and off during the night, I slept fitfully and was again pretty tired when I got up. Still – better than going to the office. I was reasonably sure I could stay awake and my hands and feet could operate the bike. We rode to Sapa that day, another 100 km or so. Some stretches were very muddy and slippery – Andrew and Brian had bikes outfitted for that sort of terrain, while mine wasn’t – so I had some hilarious unbalanced moments as I tried to slog through the muck. Didn’t dump the bike, but there were 2-3 near-misses.
The mountain pass (called Tram Ton, I think) leading to Sapa is superb – you get views of Mt. Fansipan, the largest mountain in Southeast Asia at approximately 3,100 meters. The road twists and turns and is steep in places. We stopped for a view and ran into a tour group that was riding scooters out of Sapa. A cute Israeli girl was with this group, and we chatted for a while. She was intrigued by our motorbike tour and the way we were seeing the North. I made a note to try to find her in Sapa that night. Usually, Israelis travel in groups and aren’t that easy to befriend – often they’re just out of the army and are looking to lose their heads for a while, not make new buddies. She seemed a bit different.
Sapa is a major tourist town in the North. Heaps of tours run out of Hanoi up here, and the town has adapted quickly – many hotels, restaurants, and, annoyingly but understandably, ethnic women pestering you to buy their handicrafts. As soon as we reached our hotel and hopped off (well, slid off) our bikes, the saleswomen were after us. Nice enough, but 4 guys getting off muddy motorbikes just aren’t about to buy table coverings and handbags. Sorry, girls. We were after beer, lunch, and a nap, that was about it.
Only took us an hour or so to suss out the town. Small place, quite nice – like being in a Vietnamese version of the Alps, or even a much smaller version of the Indian Himalaya.
Sapa is known for crazy weather and it’s often foggy and rainy. The French built the town and they’re to blame…
Rained like mad that night. Thankfully had my umbrella with me. We had dinner at Mimosa, up the hill – ordered a pizza, was a bit tired of local food although we had been eating very well throughout. Chi had some pork that was a local specialty – the pigs are fed a special diet and it’s night and day between their meat and that from the usual slop-fed creatures.
Brian and I had the last beer at Tau Pub, near our hotel. No Israeli girl there – so walked over to the Red Dragon pub, but it was closing and I was out of luck. Drat. Was in the mood for some female company – and not Hmong saleswomen, some of whom can be seen here.
In my hotel room, I listened to the rain coming down – it got worse and the thunder was really booming. I thought about the next day’s ride – apparently, we’d be going on some smaller, dirt roadways and I thought about the muddy ride to Sapa. Put the thought out of my mind and picked up my latest book, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Had found it in my Hanoi hotel and decided to give it a go. Had never read anything by Rushdie, but this book sounded very good – Booker Prize winner, etc. I usually don’t bother with books that are lying around – I have my own to-read list and a backlog of books sitting in Boston. But I recognize that I don’t allow myself enough chance in my reading – I’m still too much of a control freak and need to put away my list and read what I come across.
That was three days of riding. The next day, our fourth, we had a fairly long journey to the village of Vu Linh. We probably did 230 km that day. Chi has a friend in Vu Linh who does homestays for tourists. Chi assured us that this fellow, Boi, and his family would take good care of us. They are Dzao people and are well-known for their excellent hospitality. I was expecting a fairly boisterous evening of feasting and toasting – but first, had to do some serious riding.
En route, we encountered serious rain – had to break out the ponchos and ride carefully. Rode past a truck that had gone off the road…past lots of kids shouting ‘hello!’ to us…and meandering bulls and dumb dogs who occasionally wandered into our path and made the riding white-knuckled at times. My hands and ass were both bothering me – the former was getting weaker, the latter very sore. But we were nearing the end and I was sure I’d survive.
Stopped in the city of Lao Cai to take a peek at China, right across the river. Lao Cai is a pretty large city now – when the Chinese invaded in 1979 they razed the place, but given the commercial importance of China it’s helpful for Vietnam to have a sizeable presence on its side of the frontier.
Stopped before Vu Linh to rest at a small store. Brian was running low on petrol, yet again – Andrew and I teased him constantly about this, the irony is that Brian was the most experienced rider (and mechanic) amongst us. Brian mentioned something about ‘dodging a duck,’ which Andrew and I immediately turned into a taunt aimed back at him. ‘Dodging the duck’ became an all-purpose jab we could use when Brian was getting cocky.
Before we left the store to drive on to Vu Linh, Brian asked the store owner for small scissors. That was weird – Chi had to translate for him, and the woman found a pair. Andrew asked him what he was up to, and Brian said that he needed the scissors to cut a hangnail that was nagging him. Right…that was attractive and sanitary. Yet another taunt that we used for the balance of the trip.
Got to Vu Linh. Boi has a nice big house next to ride paddies and a small man-made lake. He and his family fish from it every day – and we did a bit of fishing ourselves and caught a few medium-sized fish that we ate that very night.
We sat outside and had a couple of beers. I think we all felt pretty good about the trip – we had seen a good bit of the North and had enjoyed doing it on the back of a motorbike. And we had gotten along well – no squabbling at all, despite having varying levels of riding experience and desired terrain. The day’s rains had precluded our taking a small dirt route that Andrew and Brian wanted to see – but they were relaxed about the change of plans and I was happy they displayed such equanimity. I’m not sure I would have – I can be a real brat when I don’t get what I want. In this case, I was thrilled – driving through the mud would have lowered my spirits quickly.
Things got out of hand soon after. Dinner was served upstairs in the house. Preceded, of course, by as much rice wine as we could stomach. And Boi was the host of hosts…he poured rounds of xeo and led us in Vietnamese and Dzao language toasts. I can’t recall all the terms, but ‘thank you’ in Dzao sounds something like ‘homey-do’ and ‘cheers’ in Vietnamese is ‘chuk-chuk kway’ or thereabouts. And, of course, the infamous ‘tram van tram’ or ‘100%’ call to swallow the entire amount. I thought back to a night spent many, many years ago at the Brickskeller Bar in Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C. This place has beers from all around the world, and a book in which ‘cheers’ from pretty much all nations are recorded. I remembered reading that the term in Zulu, I believe, is ‘oogy wawa.’ And tonight I introduced ‘oogy wawa’ to the Dzao people of Vu Linh. Yet another way my very presence here is eroding the local culture. But we were drunk and therefore faultless.
Boi spoke just a few words of English. He primarily knew the expression ‘a little bit.’ He also knew some French, like ‘beaucoup’…a dangerous combination. Eventually, when people started opting out of the xeo drinking, he implored them to have just ‘a little bit…very much.’ He’d then pour them a full shot. His wife, in full Dzao regalia, had a shot as well. It was getting pretty funny. Guide Chi was shifting in and out of the picture – Boi accused him of under-performing and focusing mainly on eating multiple bowls of rice. Later on his colleague Anh Wu back in Hanoi added light to this accusation, saying that Chi often raised his glass, made sure no one was looking and threw the booze over his shoulder. But we don’t have it on film so can’t say for sure…
What was for sure is that all 3 of the ‘mui to’ (big noses) were good and drunk before long. The food was excellent, and we ate all of it, save a few morsels (if you eat everything, it means that the host didn’t serve enough – quite an insult). Boi broke out a huge plastic container of xeo – we had quickly polished off what he usually served tourists, a 1-liter bottle. I believe we worked our way through most of the auxiliary ‘drum’ before calling it quits. Some images from that night…
Before going to bed, Andrew got everyone into a game that consisted of placing a shot glass on the floor, kneeling down, folding your arms behind your back, and trying to tip over the glass with your nose. No one could do it, except for Boi’s daughter. Apparently, only females can do it – men have too much weight in the upper body and stomach, whereas women’s weight is more concentrated in the ass. And here’s where I refrain from making jokes about former girlfriends…
I tried this game and promptly keeled right over. But I chalked it up to physiology, not the 13 shots of rice wine I’d had…
Got up the next day with a decent hangover. The xeo was clean, though – Boi makes it himself, without preservatives or any other crap. So a couple of bottles of water later, I was fine. Then it was time to ride back to Hanoi, this being day 5.
Rode past a crew of convicts walking down the road, with a couple of guards. One convict smiled and said hello to us – quite cheerful given his situation. As we got closer to Hanoi, the traffic really picked up, and things got hairier. I had to pass a diesel truck, and barely made it – if I was any further to the left, I’d have dumped the bike into the mud. Lots of heinous trucks spewing filth into our faces – now I understood why Chi rode around with a bandanna around his face. But we made it back to Hanoi, and to Offroad Vietnam’s shop, without incident. Having done the motorcycle licensing course in the US in July had been helpful, and I had learned skills that were used daily on this tour. I felt like a king riding home after the wars when I entered the little alley that was home to the shop.
Anh Wu was waiting there for us. We got our grotty gear off, then went upstairs to chat with him. We also filled out feedback forms and gave him our memory sticks with photos for his website. Offroad Vietnam has an excellent site with loads of customer feedback and I was happy to lend a hand – the trip had been fantastic and I wanted the guys to succeed. If you visit Vietnam/Hanoi and like to ride or are thinking about it, check ’em out.
My ass was sore…my hands were so useless that I was unable to clip my nails or even properly wipe my ass for the next couple days. Must be similar to arthritis, but without much pain.
I reflected on the riding we’d done and the folks we’d met. I was struck, as before, by the toughness of the Vietnamese people. Nothing seems to faze them…Chi was always dealing with things during our trip and never seemed to need much sleep. And while the country and people are changing rapidly – Chi was performing a job unknown 10 years ago, and was busy building a new house for his family – Vietnamese also seem to have a certain timelessness. It wasn’t that hard to imagine it is 1973, and a young man like Chi wearing North Vietnamese Army garb, fighting someone like my own father. Not a point I wanted to dwell on, but instructive in a sense.
Spent that night in Hanoi, back at the Spring Hotel. Checked email…had a beer…took a long nap. Went out that night for a burger, then to the Funky Monkey bar for a few pops before sliding back into bed. It was my final night in Hanoi, and I was looking forward to heading south. Two weeks in the north had been just right – a good mix of city (Hanoi), water (Halong Bay), and mountains (bike tour/Sapa).
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