Day 203: Wrong way to motorcycle to Sapa (Part I)
Don't ride at night they say. Don't get lost they say. Don't take a motorcycle from Hanoi to Sapa they say. Oh, they say so many reasonable things. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonell
SAPA is one of the most popular tourist destinations in northern Vietnam due to its iconic stepping rice paddies carved into the Hoang Lien Mountains, situated at the end of the Himalayan chain. Given its popularity, I didn't put much thought in how to get there by motorcycle, as motorcycle travel is a popular way for young travelers to putt about the beautiful countryside of the communist nation. The extent of the research that went into the plan from getting to Sapa from Hanoi was plugging the locations into Google Maps to see how long it was going to take to get there.
Now, after five hours on the road. Kayla, also known as Dr Rhodes, and I are only about an hour and half from Hanoi and still more than five hours from Sapa.
Dr Rhodes wanted to get an early start this morning. However, having traveled with myself before, I knew an early start was unlikely at best. In order to make room for my traveling companion – Kayla was riding pillion up to Sapa – I needed to re-pack my bags, see if it was possible to leave the majority of my earthly belongings at Massive Hostel for a couple of weeks, re-pack my brand new drone and write a letter to Eva, which I'd been wanting to pen for the last week or so.
I also wanted to tighten the chain on the bike, put air in the tires and top up the oil, which has been steadily leaking from the engine since I bought Donkey a few weeks ago. I'd been meaning to take care of these mechanical issues for the last week, but kept getting distracted. To make things worse, the cap for the oil is screwed down so tightly that I can't check the oil level by unscrewing it with my fingers. An easy obstacle to overcome, but an obstacle nonetheless. So, instead, I take care of none of it.
To top it off, we'd all gone out last night after the bouldering competition at VietClimb and I'd ended up doing shots of tequila in the streets with a sloppy Banh Mi sandwich in the other hand.
“Can I leave my bag here?” I ask an incredibly helpful receptionist at Massive Hostel.
That was simple.
After tucking my bag into a pile of backpacks next to the stairs leading up to the rooms of the hostel, I start reconsidering the situation. I probably should be a bit more explicit about how long I want to leave my bag here. I can't imagine they'll throw them out or go through them, but leaving them there for two weeks when they probably assume I need a place to store them for a day could go terribly wrong.
“Is it okay if I leave the bag here for several days,” I ask, fudging reality in my favor.
“Yes. That's fine.”
Everything I am bringing with me, including my ridding gear, is strewn over three stools and part of the long, narrow table at the back of the hostel lobby.
“You missed breakfast,” Eva says from behind her Mac laptop.
“Yeah, I thought that might be the case.”
Sitting down next to her, my tank bag on the table between us, I begin to covertly write my letter to her: thanking her for her hospitality, friendship and being, well, her. I reiterate a lot of what I said when we were drunk on the roof. I know that my words might not mean much, but I want her to know that we all have confidence issues and I want to give her kind, sincere words to bolster her fortifications against all the small voices that try to tear at that confidence. I want her to know that I'll always love her for her weaknesses, as well as her strengths. [Though, I probably should have made it clear that I'm not talking about romantic love at this point – Ed]
Given how she crushed it at the bouldering comp, not only making the finals, but taking home a silver medal and a Petzel climbing harness, I'm not sure her confidence needs any further boosting at the moment. That said, one always hopes that sentimental letters will be stashed away and brought out at a time they are most needed.
“I probably should get going. The guys are waiting for me at their hostel,” she says. I slide my wallet over the top of the letter, obscuring her name, though I've a sneaking suspicion that she might suspect that I'm writing her a letter – I did tell her I would.
“Okay. Hey, seriously, great job at the comp. I'm so proud of you. You're a god damn champion.”
Eva's maintaining eye contact as we talk, something that has only happened in flashes since I arrived in Cat Ba. Her eyes are so dark, deeply stained walnut doors leading to a very complicated place.
We hug. Say something. Hug again.
She's lingering, not quite ready to say goodbye. I'm ready to return to my letter.
“I guess I'll see you in the US, right?” she asks.
“Of course, there's always that motorbike-climbing tour I was talking about.”
About six short hugs later, Eva heads for the door. I return to my letter.
Kayla wants to know if I can pick her up at her hotel. She's running about 10 minutes late.
“555. I'm not ready yet. I can come at 11:30,” I reply.
And that's how a slow start gets slower. Thankfully, Sapa is only five or so hours away.
I can't find my traditional wax seal that I use for letters. I must have sent it back to the US with my last package, so I use a Dice Travels sticker to seal the letter to Eva and then tuck it into her carry-on luggage, setting it on her bed to be read immediately is a bit much.
Kayla, getting antsy waiting on me to arrive, decides that she'll hike over from her place. I get the message a minute before I'm ready to mount the Donkey and head her way. Instead, I wander down the backpacker alley in search of a Bahn Mi.
I spot Kayla with her gorgeous red hair, aviator sunglasses, black jacket and blue leggings headed my way. She's not the least bit fussed to find me face deep in a sandwich.
“So I think we go against the die,” Kayla says. The die dictated that we pre-book a room in Sapa for tonight, which is something I rarely do, given how bad I am at planning. Kayla was in charge of booking a place, while I found a way to strap her backpack, the drone and my 10-liter dry bag onto the back of the poor little 110cc Honda Win.
“That's not an option Rhodes.”
“Okay, what about the Volunteer Sapa Homestay?”
“I don't think we'll be able to do much volunteering between now and our hike up Fancy Pants tomorrow morning.”
“True. There is a dorm room with eight people.”
We bounce around between our options like a die on a craps table. Kayla nearly books one room right before I do a 180 degree turn on the idea of one of the homestays that's about eight kilometers out of town.
It's a few minutes past noon by the time Kayla pulls on her brand new black motorcycle helmet.
With climbing shoes, flip flops and my ragged bright green running shoes hanging off the back, we mount Donkey and head out of town.
“You're in charge of navigation,” I tell Kayla, handing her my phone with Google Maps pulled up.
“That's not a good idea. I'm terrible at navigation.”
Chu Nhat Tan Bridge never fails to inspire. Photo: Kayla
“It's beautiful isn't it?” I ask Kayla as we cross the Red River on Chu Nhat Tan Bridge. The stunning arches that inspired me when I left for Cat Ba a week or so ago are an impressive deep red against the slate gray sky.
We're making descent time, but the speed makes Kayla edgy. She's tense on the bike, wavering between the idea that I'm trying to kill her and that I've got no sense. We slow down a little.
“Yeah, so if it's too fast just give my hips two squeezes with your legs and I'll slow down,” I tell her.
On our way through one of the medium sized towns not far from Hanoi, we decided to stop for lunch.
“If you see any place that looks good,” Kayla says.
Minutes later, I pull over, popping the bike onto the sidewalk.
The place is serving Bun Cha, which is one of my favorite dishes. However, it looks half closed with the shutters of an adjacent storefront pulled closed. There are a pair of dirty plastic chairs next to a tea set. A glass display case at the front is so dirty that it's nearly impossible to see how empty it is. This is the kind of place that I learned to spot and appreciate after living for a week with a Leh in Hanoi.
An old man hobbles down from what appears to be his living room-cum-dining area to where we've sat on squat plastic stools.
“Bun Cha,” I say, holding up two fingers.
Kayla is giving me a look that is beyond skeptical. It's more of a what-the-fuck-is-this-place-your-dragging-me-into-to-get-food-poisioning sort of look. It's probably the same look I'd get if I even joked about taking her to White Castle on Valentine's Day.
Drive slow and never hesitate to go to the dirtiest of restaurants. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“What? You want some yuppy backpacker oriented place?” I tease.
The man plops down a basket of crisp herbs, mostly a couple types of mint. From inside a small cooler on a table top, he pulls out the grilled meats and cuts them up with scissors. They go into the warm broth, which is served with a pile of sticky white rice noodles on the side.
With a pair of chopsticks, we pull free a lump of noodles, gently dunk them into the meat broth, where they quickly go limp, then slip them between our lips. There is a lovely cool, warm sensation as some of the noodles take the heat of the soup, while others, not in the broth long enough, are still cool. I toss a pile herbs into my soup, then pluck out a pieces of grilled meat, devouring it all.
“This is the best meal I've had in Vietnam,” Kayla admits.
“Your welcome,” I snarkily reply.
“Oh, your lip is bleeding.”
I dab at the blood with a napkin.
The bleeding stops.
“The cold and dry air in Cat Ba was hard on me,” I admit.
“It's bleeding again; mouth herpes,” Kayla says with a smile.
“Yep, all day, every day.”
I get the bleeding to stop. We finish our meal and pay.
The old man stands over Kayla, then bends down to pick up her chopsticks.
He grips them close to the tips, where Kayla had been using them, shaking his head. He moves his hands farther back along the heavily worn, splintering sticks; he nods. Vietnamese music with an American rock beat is playing on a large device that looks as is it was a state-of-the-art player in the early 1960s. He again shows Kayla how to properly use chopsticks.
Laughing at Kayla as we climb back on the bike, I start Donkey up and we're off
“We can't turn that way,” I tell Kayla. A large sign at the on ramp to the Expressway lists all the prohibited vehicles, including, but not limited to: ox and carts, bicycles, tuk-tuks, tractors and motorcycles.
Without a better idea, I concede.
“Okay, we can give it a try.”
I did manage to get on an Expressway late at night when I was coming into Hanoi, so I'm hopeful we'll be able to make this work. However, 100 meters ahead is a toll booth.
A plump official waves us down.
“No, moto,” he says with a smile. “Sapa?”
We're not the first to attempt to sneak onto the Expressway in search of Sapa.
“Six kilometers. Take right. Take right,” he says in broken, but practiced English.
“How nice is he?” Kayla asks as we drive off.
Following the man's directions, it feels like Sapa is well within reach, even if we can't take the Expressway. How much longer could it take?
After a couple of rights, we're headed for AH14, which should take us toward Sapa.
The road narrows, becoming a village lane. One section of a small town is dedicated to painting and staining furniture. The smell of fresh paint is heavy in the air as men spray elegant, ornate dining tables in front of their shops. More than a dozen shops on either side of the road are dedicated to this part of the table making process. If one of the tables was placed by itself in a shop or home, it would be a stunning center piece to a room. However, the multitude makes all of them look cheap.
I ask Kayla my standard question: “Right or left?”
“Straight, I think.”
I have this policy of going, going, going – Dory from Finding Nemo would approve.
We're cutting through fields of low-growing soy beans. Dotting the landscape are Christian grave stones, some limestone others tiled. They are scattered in the fields with no clear pattern. Occasionally, three or four of them will be clustered together. Otherwise, they stand seemingly unaware of their nearby kin.
The phone dies. There goes Google Maps.
“Let's find a cafe to charge it,” I suggest.
Thirty minutes later, Kayla suggests we call off the hunt for a cafe and find anywhere to charge it.
Outside of being a bit skittish and trying her hand at back-seat driving, Dr Rhodes is being a good sport about us being completely lost in the fairly bland landscape outside of Hanoi.
We do a U-turn before pulling into a karaoke/cafe. The empty, disheveled front room leads to what appears to be a large converted garage area, open to the outside on one side.
Though nobody is here, I search of a electrical plug – someone will show up eventually.
And eventually a middle-aged man does.
We order two coffees, managing to mime the need for sweetened condensed milk for Kayla's coffee.
“Maybe they'll have Oreos across the street,” Kayla suggests.
Feeling guilty about having dragged her out on such a misadventure, I jump at the chance to be useful. I even begin reigning in my constant teasing.
The place across the street doesn't have Oreos. Walking up the dusty street, I pop into another shop. Coco-cakes, which are basically off-brand Little Debbie cakes, are the closes thing they have. I buy the entire box of twelve.
“Two?” the shop keeper asks. Vietnamese have a gut instinct for up selling. In Vietnam, I could be buying one pig for the spigot and end up walking out of the shop with half a cow and a couple chickens in addition to a pig if I wasn't careful.
“One,” I say. I didn't even need a whole box. I only need a few of them.
I pay. Outside the shop, the woman waves me back.
She drags me toward a pile of freshly-made, steaming sausages. The thick white ridge of the stuffed, gray small intestines runs the length of a chain of large sausages. Each link is tied off with lemon grass. Careful not to burn her hands, the woman starts piling sausages into a bag on a scale, preparing to sell me an even kilogram of the steaming pieces of innards.
I wave her off, but with little success. She slices off the tip of one for me to try.
It's mostly filled with congealed blood, like blood pudding, with pieces of wilted green herbs here and there.
I pop the piece of sausage into my mouth. It's lovely. Maybe not what I'd want every breakfast, but not a bad change of pace once a week.
“Okay, one,” I tell the lady.
With a bit of negotiating, I manage to get her to give me only one long link of sausage (and a bit more), which she slices up and puts into a bag.
Hiking back to the cafe, I'm wandering how much Kayla is going to hate me when I show up with my Choco cakes and blood sausages.
“Dr Rhodes, don't act like you don't love me,” I say plopping down on the couch next to her. She shoots me a death stare to which I've become accustomed. Her piercing eyes, colored with flecks of varying shades of blue, let me know she likes me and tolerates me and I shouldn't push my luck – but I probably can.
The Vietnamese woman, the wife of the man who brought us our coffee is yelling at me. She didn't start by yelling, but she is now. It's as if the louder and more aggressively she says something the more likely I am to understand Vietnamese rather than become petrified from fear.
In this particular case, it works. She wants to plate up the sausages.
She takes them away, then returns with them on a plate with soy sauce and chopsticks.
I invite the couple to join us, but they decline. Our man stuffs a dab of loose tobacco into a bamboo bong that's resting in a five-gallon bucket and takes a deep hit.
Kayla is deep into her phone as the couple try to explain something to me in Vietnamese. They have two children who are in Tokyo or perhaps they met in Tokyo. Clearly, it's something about them and Tokyo.
“We're going to have to turn back for a bit,” Kayla informs me.
“If you say so Kayla.”
“That's Doctor to you,” Kayla says with a faux-seriousness.
The change from the coffees and a Red Bull, which Kayla paid for, falls out of my pocket as I run back into the a cafe for something.
When I return, a local woman with a babe strapped to her chest and two children at her feet is holding the fistful of Dong – perhaps 80,000, only a couple dollars.
The woman teases me a bit before returning the money. In return, I give all of them a Choco Cake, which the kids immediately dig into.
“It's my money and she refused to give it back to me,” Kayla says. “She was waiting for you.”
The sun is beginning its descent as Kayla guides me back toward AH14. We pass down a narrow alley, where she gives a yip, fearful of an oncoming truck.
Kayla isn't so sure about my motorcycle skills. Photo: Kayla
Though it's not classic Vitamin, we're passing through real Vietnam. We are surrounded by vignettes of Vietnamese life. There is a neighborhood of scrap metal, a local market, kids playing football on a dusty pitch in the fading light. There is a beauty to the locals' battle against chaos; a beauty in what we can see of their lives as Donkey putts on by them.
Night is upon us.
With the darkness comes a cutting cold. We take a coffee break at an unattractive little place on the side of the road. I get out my hoodie for Kayla, doing my best to help keep her warm. Two coffees later, we're back on the road.
Lions, tigers and bears, oh my. Photo: Kayla
Shortly after, we pass through Yen Bai.
“There are so many cute places here,” Kayla says. It's a nice town. At the center, in a small park decorated with lights and topiary shrubs – some slightly taller than the ones next to them, much to the approval of the Knights Who Say Ni.
A man is standing on the corner selling balloons in the cold yellow light of a street lamp.
We cross over Red River, then come to a stop so Kayla can check the map.
We've missed our turn onto AH14. However, it looks like the road that runs along the river will eventually end up following the Expressway to Sapa.
It's past 9pm at this point. We thought we'd be in Sapa by 7pm.
Part of me is glad that the die forced us to book our room ahead of time, as it is pushing us to get there tonight, rather than losing another day on the drive.
Outside of Yen Bai, we follow the river, winding our way north and west. The roads are dark, the buildings of the small towns we pass through are equally dark.
“How you holding up back there? If you need my jacket, let me know.”
The night wears on as we are worn down. We are hours from Sapa.
Kayla has taken to singing on the back of the bike. I catch a word here and there.
The cold intensifies, digging deeper.
We agree to call it a night at the next hotel, not that there are many prospects. We drive on in the dark with little hope of finding a place.
“That looked like a hotel,” I say, pulling the bike over.
“Want to stay there.”
We pull through the gate to the darkened entrance of a tall French-style hotel. Out of the dark appears an old man in a gray blazer with an ashing cigarette dangling from between his lips.
He leads us to a room at the side of the building, signaling that I should drive the bike around back.
Donkey chokes and sputters and then comes to life with a racket. Kayla cringes at the excessively loud sound of the bike starting.
Inside our room, the man collects my passport and shows us where the switches to the lights are. The room is nothing special. It has two twin beds, a TV with no remote and a hot shower.
We have no idea how much it costs.
“I don't usually shower at night. I'm a morning person,” Kayla tells me after I offer to let her hop in first.
The hot water from the shower rains down on me. I'm momentarily in heaven, unwilling to leave the heat, like a baby eight months into its gestation period.
When I get out, Kayla is curled up in her bed, scrolling through her phone now that she has a connection to the internet.
In no time, we're both soundly asleep.