Day 204: The wrong way to motorcycle to Sapa (Part II)
Who likes pushing motorcycles? I do, I do... wait I don't... I really don't. Photo: Kayla
THE thick, viscous black blood of Donkey drips out of her heart as the mechanic continues to pull apart the engine. It's 2pm. We thought we'd be in Sapa by now. Actually, we thought we'd be in Sapa yesterday.
Despite Kayla's claims of being a morning person, she lingered in her bed this morning, sleeping in.
“Do you mind if I put on some of my music? Kayla asks once she's moving. “You might not like it.”
Tailor Swift comes on loud and clear.
“I like your music Dr Rhodes. I like bad music.”
“You're calling my music bad?”
“Come on. Do you think it's good music?”
“I like it. So, I think it's good.”
She heads for a hot shower, while I curl back up under my blanket.
“Rhodes, I thought you were a morning person.”
“It's hard to wash your hair with only one good hand,” she says with this lovely, soft Alabama accent.
“Rhodes, you're killing me.”
Kayla said she was ready to go, but we first need to re-tape her broken finger with clean medical tape, which is packed at the bottom of my dry bag.
Carefully, I help her remove the old tape, keeping her finger aligned with the brace that runs down past the palm of her right hand.
“Well, I didn't mean I was ready to go when I said I was ready to go,” Kayla says with a smile.
“Do you think they'll give us the special rate,” Kayla asks, given that we left ourselves wide open to being scammed by not asking how much the room was last night.
“I don't think they'll be giving us a discount because we got in late,” I say.
“You know what I mean.”
A middle-aged woman is behind the counter in the lobby when I go in to pay. She's got on bright red lipstick and her hair freshly permed.
It's 250,000 Dong for the night, which is a fairly standard price.
“Visa, visa,” she says, once she realizes I'm trying to get my passport back. “In Vietnam we call Visa.”
Taking me by the hand, the woman leads me out front and then around to the room, chatting away.
Though I don't understand a single word she's saying while she's watching Kayla finishing packing, I know what she's saying.
“Yes, she is beautiful,” I say. “No accounting for tastes though, right Dr Rhodes? Show her your ring.”
Kayla lifts up her left hand where a simple ring with a blue stone, the ring that was pulled from her broken finger, is placed. The implication, of course, is that I've managed to marry such a beautiful woman, which only plausible in the mind of a middle-aged Vietnamese woman's head.
After a bit of fussing around with how we're going to tie down the bags, we're ready to go. Kayla doesn't fully approve of the way things are strapped down, but feels that it's at least a bit better if we tuck all my shoes under the bungee cord, rather than letting them bounce free, yanking the bags off the back.
“What if you use the drone straps to hold it down, so there is a firmer base?” Kayla asks.
I just want to get on the road. However, I take everything off and try it her way.
“Much better Dr Rhodes.”
We're trundling alongside the river on a reasonable road that keeps splitting in front of us like fire wood being prepared for a long winter. Though it's day light, I'm still don't understand what's going on as we pass through yet another village covered with the thinnest of boards. Everywhere along the roadside, in people's yards and even on a soccer pitch, are paper thin rectangular pieces of wood that seem to have been set out to dry. Neither Kayla nor I can figure out what the boards could be used for – they seem too thin to have any utility. Nonetheless, they are being produced in a great number. We'd noticed the boards last night while driving through several small towns, and now we're finding even more towns taking part in the boarding process.
Do you know what this is all about? Photos: Kayla
“Stop for breakfast?”
We pause out front of a little cafe, but I bail as soon as I see that they also make pizza, as well as other foreign dishes. Instead, we pull up at a local place where tubes of pre-cooked dishes are spread out on a table on the sidewalk.
“Do you realize you've chosen every place we've stopped since we started? Then, when I really get excited about a place you leave,” Kayla says.
“I didn't realize you were excited. Sorry.”
“I didn't have time to say so.”
After I go through pointing at various items, Kayla does the same. The man opens a tub of tofu for her, which she says she doesn't want. He asks again, and she agrees to have it. Bemused, I watch the ordering process, only finding out later that its family-style meal with rice and side dishes and he's completely ignored everything I ordered.
We end up with five different dishes and a bucket of soft rice for 100,000 Dong.
It was a big breakfast. Photo: Kayla
I drive back to the little cafe, but Kayla's too full at this point to even have a coffee. We get back on the road.
An hour later, after several stops to reorganize our bags, the road we're has become a dirt path. The Expressway, a beacon of modern transportation, cuts through the landscape, while we, mere insects in its presence, are reduced to carving our way along the dirt track below. The road is mostly dirt, sprinkled with jarring stones, deep rivets, humps and bumps. We're basically riding on a dirt bike trail, which is occasionally upgraded to gravel or a short stretch of cement.
Bouncing along at speed, I'm enjoying myself: this kind of driving is fully engaging.
We pass through a small village, past a mechanic.
Donkey lets out dreadful “clunk clunk”.
I don't have to look down to know that the chain has slipped off.
“Rhodes, you're going to have to get off.”
With one gloved finger, I roll the chain back onto the back sprocket and push the bike back to the mechanic.
Kayla is ushered into a plastic chair under a thatch roof and given a small cup of hot tea, which she cradles between her hands.
This fix was on Vietnam, but the next one was going to hit me hard. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The mechanic quickly tightens the chain – I left all my tools in Hanoi – and adds some air to the tires. I know there was one other thing I wanted to take care of with the bike, but can't remember it.
“How much?” I ask.
He waves all the costs. This fix is on Vietnam, he seems to say.
We strike another large rock with a heart stopping thunk. The suspicion slams up into the frame.
“How we holding up back there Rhodes?”
Kayla's been a ridiculously good sport up to now, but she reached her limit. I can hear it in the tone of her voice.
“Between your crazy driving and these bumps. I'm pounding my ass on the metal back here.”
Now is not the time to defend my driving.
“Okay, let me scoot up some more,” I say, sliding up to straddle more of Donkey's tank. I slow down.
Kayla braces herself for a water crossing as the road dips into a small stream before jogging below the Expressway. A chain linked fence runs alongside the Expressway on both sides to prevent anyone from illegally slipping onto the toll road.
“That wasn't as bad as I expected,” Kayla says on the other side of the creek.
“Maybe we should look for a way to get onto the Expressway.”
“I was thinking the same thing. I've seen a couple possibilities. We'll try the next one.”
The next one doesn't work out for us.
I try again.
“I don't know,” Kayla says as we take a steep rocky slope at speed. Bouncing up, we find that a section of fence has been torn down. A narrow path, the width of a motorbike tire is worn over a couple very steep bumps leading onto the road. We bounce over them and into the Expressway.
A pickup truck is barreling down on us, Kayla is trying not to scream and I'm pushing the bike forward with a foot on each side. We're nowhere close to being killed, though Kayla disagrees.
I kick Donkey back to life. Her engine fires up.
The thing about exressways is that there aren't a lot of chances to get off for food, coffee or a mechanic. It's their nature to get you from point A to point B with as few distractions as possible.
Cruising at full speed in fourth gear – Donkey's top gear – we're finally making good time. However, we're both hungry and ready for a coffee. We've been on the road for nearly four hours and we're still a good couple hours from Sapa.
The road spreads out in front of us like the smooth belly of a dragon, cutting through mountainsides with ease. On the far side of the lovely asphalt a police car is parked.
As we approach at full speed, the officer steps out from the vehicle and starts to walk into the road, waving his baton at us.
I slow to a stop.
I remove my helmet, put on a smile and clear my mind of all knowledge of why we shouldn't be where we are doing what we're doing.
The officer behind us blows his whistle. He's waving us on. Apparently, he was stopping the pig truck behind us.
We drive off.
Kayla gives me a fist pump as we continue to fly toward Sapa – finally.
Donkey silently chugs, I can feel it in the throttle. Something is giving out. It's a the same feeling as running out of fuel: the power fades and then comes back in a gasp, then fades. However, we recently filled up.
“What are you doing?” Kayla asks, as I veer across the road to where a couple lorries are parked on a wide, dirt shoulder.
“Something is wrong with the bike.”
I lift the gas cap. There's plenty of fuel. That's not a good sign.
“I don't know what's wrong. We need to get off the Expressway so I can get it to a mechanic.”
We spent hours bouncing past mechanics and coffee shops. Now, as soon as we're on the Expressway, we need both.
The electric start won't get the engine running. I kick start Donkey. What do they say about beating a dead horse? She chokes to life with an awful clank and then falls silent. I kick life into her again. Several attempts later, we're back on the road. She's dying between my legs. Not quiet a stillbirth, but not far from it.
I pull over again, this time past a bridge that leads to town. A handful of locals waiting for a bus on the shoulder of the Expressway approach us. The men, bundled up in dirty coats, look at the bike.
No, it's not out of gas. I point at the oil cap.
One of the men starts pulling out bills.
I match the amount he's pulled out, 200,000 Dong, and give it to him. Presumably, he's going to go get a bottle of oil for us. Not wanting to leave Kayla up here with a broken bike and a huddle of men, I suggest she take the trail down the steep embankment, slip under the fence and get us some snacks, maybe a sandwich.
A man with a stocking cap and a thick jacket who ran off to get oil returns.
As suspected, there isn't a drop of oil left in Donkey. She laps up the whole bottle of oil.
I wait a few minutes, then try the electric start. The men have crowded around us at this point. They signal me to kick start it.
Donkey comes to life, but has a chest rattling cough. The man who fetched the oil gives me a big thumbs up. Another man standing near the bike is shaking his head. I turn the bike off to wait for Kayla. She arrives with a bunch of bananas and some crisps, but no sandwiches.
“You really are a good sport.”
“I don't know. You asked for a sandwich and I failed to get a sandwich.”
I laugh, devour about six tiny bananas and then turn my attention back to Donkey.
I try to kick start her, but she's being difficult. I can feel the Vietnamese men's eyes on me as I wrestle to get Donkey running. She heaves and rattles, but runs. Kayla hops on, and we're away.
Was Donkey always this loud? Was she this loud ten minutes ago?
Donkey is clattering along so loudly I can't hear a word Kayla says.
About 500 meters down the road, she dies. There is a heart wrench clank and then all 110cc of power disappears.
She's given up the ghost.
“Rhodes, you got to get off. She's dead,” I say, as Donkey comes to a stop on the uphill slope along the Expressway.
Though the air is cool, the sun is hot enough for me to start sweating as I push Donkey up the hill. At the top, Kayla gets back on and we roll down together.
“Careful!” Kayla cries out as we get close to the white line painted between the asphalt shoulder on which we're riding and the roadway.
At the bottom of the hill. Kayla gets off the bike and I return to pushing it. Donkey's not nearly has hard to push as Rocinante, the CB500X on which I started the trip. Nonetheless, pushing a motorcycle is not the best form of transportation.
“Do you think we could get a taxi that we could put the bike in?” Kayla asks.
At the top of another hill, Kayla climbs back Donkey and we start coasting down.
At the bottom there is a large sign: there is an Expressway exit ramp four kilometers ahead.
Could be worse.
Halfway up another hill, a road construction team assembling a sheet metal wall on the far side of the road spots us. The man in charge, wearing a light blue uniform that looks as if he's prepared to handle nuclear material in the late 60s, waves us over with his baton.
We push the bike across the road and into the grass next to him.
A man in a blazer comes over as I point to the bike engine trying to explain that it's broken. It takes a bit for me to get Google Translate to work; everything keeps coming up in Thai script and I don't know what the word for English is in Thai.
At last, it's decided that they'll put the bike into the back of a truck and they'll give us a ride to a mechanic for 70,000 Dong or maybe 700,000 Dong. At least, I think that's what's decided.
It takes five of us lift poor Donkey into the back of the vehicle, where she's tied against one of the walls of the truck bed. Kayla and I climb in behind her.
And away we go. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Careful not to get smashed by a large metal tank rolling around in the back of the truck with us, Kayla and I huddle together as the truck takes us down the Expressway and onto the exit ramp.
On the near side of the toll booth, the truck comes to a stop. The men signal for Kayla and I to get out. We do. Donkey is unloaded.
They are pointing toward town somewhere on the other side of the toll booth.
Haphazardly caring our bags, we amble past the booth, pushing Donkey along.
More pushing Donkey. Photos: Kayla
“No, they're not coming. We're on our own again,” I tell Kayla, who thought that maybe they'd be picking us back up on this side.
At least we didn't have to pay anything for the ride.
“Want to hop on?” I ask. There's a long downhill into town.
“I'm a strong, independent woman I'll be fine,” Kayla says.
“Why do women keep telling me this?”
“It's not just you.”
While Kayla's hiking into town, Donkey and roll in, taking a right at the base of the hill and then walking a dozen meters to one of the cleanest mechanic shops I've seen in Southeast Asia.
A woman is power washing the cement floor as an elderly man leads me to the shop.
The woman, chubby with post-pregnancy weight or perhaps pregnant again, calls her husband in from a back room, where their youngest is sleeping in a hammock.
Kayla heads out to grab us some drinks, while the mechanic begins to pull apart Donkey's engine. Donkey's bleeding black as the bolts start coming loose, falling to the ground before being transferred to a metal tray.
None of this looks good. Photos: Kayla / Isaac
I sit on the ground with the young-looking man in a yellow shirt. I might as well try to learn something since I'm paying to have the engine rebuilt.
He hands me the top part of the piston head, which has been sheered away from the rest of the piston.
He then dips his finger in oil and writes 700,000 on the cement floor.
I nod. That's fine. I expected it to cost about that much. Further along in the process, as more and more pieces of Donkey's heart are removed, he finds the connecting rod, conrod, is rattling. It's also needs to be replaced.
The price jumps to 2mn Dong.
I nod; seems reasonable.
Carefully, the mechanic removes the entire engine from the motorcycle frame, basically ripping poor Donkey's heart out. He places the engine on a some nearby boards. Donkey's innards are everywhere at this point, and more pieces are coming free as he goes.
I'm starting to worry that he'll have no idea how to put it all back together. It's not hard to imagine seeing one or two pieces laying around once he's done; pieces that Donkey is going to need to run smoothly.
Kayla's breathing deepens as she closer her eyes. I watch her gently falling asleep in a plastic chair.
“What? Was I falling asleep?”
“Rhodes, you were asleep. Why don't you head out to a cafe and explore the town? I want to watch what he's doing.”
Shortly after Kayla leaves, the mechanic stands up and, without a word, climbs into his minivan and drives away.
I go for a wander, jumping in on a pool game down the road, where a young guy gives me a free 7-Up while we shoot.
Back at the garage, Kayla arrives moments after the mechanic returns with one of the parts he needs.
He's found another broken piece and keeps handing me shards of metal from who knows what.
“I'm going to need a couple drinks when we finally get to Sapa,” I say.
“Try 17 drinks.”
“Do you think there is enough alcohol in Vietnam for us Rhodes?”
“Probably not. Do you think we'll make it to Sapa tonight?”
It takes longer to put the bike together than I expect, so I wander out to buy us a couple of beers, which we share.
At the end of the second beer, the mechanic is kick starting Donkey. Nothing happens.
He tweaks something and gets nothing. He pulls a few bits back off and puts them back on. Donkey fires up.
He leaves her idling, while he adjusts the throttle and fixes the headlight, which stopped working.
We through our luggage on the bike, while the mechanic pours bucket after bucket of water on the engine, bursts of steam rise off Donkey each time he does so.
The total comes to 2.5mn Dong.
I settle the bill, borrowing 800,000 Dong from Kayla.
It's nearly 8pm; no time for a test drive.
“We should get back on the Expressway,” Kayla suggests.
“Okay, lets give it a try.”
The men at the toll booth try to wave us off at first, but quickly concede, letting us through.
Not wanting to push the new parts in the engine too hard, I'm easy on the throttle as we cut through the night toward Sapa.
We thought we were going to be in Sapa 27 hours ago.
Something in Donkey slips and the engine revs. Nervous and focused on the tiniest sound and the slightest amount of feedback from Donkey, we continue on in a hushed silence.
This far north the cold of the night is biting.
“That's the exit,” Kayla says.
We pull off the Expressway.
“How much farther?”
“We've got more than an hour still.”
The narrow road to Sapa snakes into the mountain range in complete darkness. We're gaining altitude, with Donkey's engine slipping every so often and the cold deepening, digging into our bones.
We slow behind a huge lorry, one of dozens and dozens going both directions on the narrow road. It's hot exhaust blows against our bodies, the comforting warmth of a mother's hug. Desperate for the warmth, we plod along behind the lorry until I can't take the pace any more and pass. Farther up, on one of the hairpin turns, a juggernaut of a lorry comes barreling down the road, covering two-thirds of our lane and blinding me with his lights.
The road disappears from view.
All I can do is imagine where the road most likely is and strike a balance between that narrow strip of safety and the overpowered headlights consuming my vision.
The truck passes.
To make matters worse, each time a truck passes, I'm unable to release Donkey's throttle, because doing so causes my headlight to disappear completely. The best I can do is pull the clutch in a little bit to slow us down and keep the engine speed up to power the lights in hope that the truck driver doesn't run us over. I decided that it's best not to let Kayla in on this particular, reoccurring vision problem.
Another blast of exhaust from a truck warms us as I lean into the other lane to look for a pass.
“Truck,” Kayla yells, unable to help herself.
“I know. I see it.”
I safely return to our lane.
Their are fresh blood stains on the road. Traffic has slowed in front of us as dozens of people stop to take pictures with their phones. On the far edge of a hairpin turn lies a dead, pink Water Buffalo. I don't want to think what happened to the driver of the vehicle that was involved in the bovicide.
Past the blood, back in the darkness, Donkey revs and then dies. I put my feet down to stop her from rolling backwards.
“Get of Kayla,” I say, urgency in my voice.
I try to kick start Donkey in the darkness. There's the sound of lorry rumbling up behind me. I can feel Kayla wanting me to get me farther off the road, to safety, but there's nothing I can do, but hope the driver sees me instead of hitting me.
Donkey comes back to life. We're back on the road. The engine slips again, but this time it clicks in my head. She's slipping from fourth gear to third gear; that's it. Not the end of the world. Relaxing a little, we continue up into the mountains. Sapa seems forever out of reach, yet tantalizingly close. I'd say tangibly close, but for the numbness from the cold.
On the outskirts of town, we spot a couple tall hotels with bright lights. We jump the bike over the curb into the parking area outside of Sapa Backpacker Hotel.
“Go ahead in and book the room. I'll grab our stuff,” I tell Kayla.
The rooms 250,000 Dong a night. At the counter, we grab two cold beers, a packet of Oreos and a sleeve of Pringles.
The room has one big bed with an electrical mattress to warm the bed. Kayla dives under the covers, taking her boots off but forgetting about her helmet, which is still strapped to hear head.
“You want to take the first hot shower?”
“I don't think I'll shower.”
“But hot showers are the best thing in the world when you're cold.”
“I think they aren't.”
“Like I said, non-debatable.”
Feeling a great deal better, after a long hot shower washed away the numbness, I'm keen for dinner.
Transformers: Age of Extinction is playing on the the flat screen television on the far wall of the room.
I give the covers a pull to get Kayla going after convincing her that dinner is necessary.
“Don't do that. I go crazy when people pull covers off me,” she says with a bemusing seriousness that makes it all the more tempting to pull the covers.
However, I resist temptation. Once she's done staring me down about the cover pulling, she gets up and we head back out into the cold.
Still on the outskirts of town we pop into the first place that is open. It's a large roomed place, that feels like an Alaskan lodge. Vietnamese men are eating at one of the tables. We grab a table close to a blazing wood fire, warming our hands.
There are large plastic jugs of local booze with all sorts of spices floating in them. What we need is a mead or wine. However, whatever the die ordered ends up being a harsh, purple colored hard liquor that Kayla won't touch. So much for drinking Vietnam dry tonight.
Bowls of Pho finished, we pay our bill of 80,000 Dong.
“They didn't charge you for the bottle of medicinal alcohol,” a Vietnamese couple sitting nearby informs us as we settle our bill – we, as in I, had only taken a few sips of it and had no interest in bringing what was left of the plastic bottle back to the hotel.
Kayla's shot remains on the table.
“Please finish it for me,” she asks.
Begrudgingly, I do so.
Back in the hotel, Kayla gets on her phone. Then, we start a game of 500 Rummy. At some point, she drifts off while I'm lost watching Transformers. She's winning at this point in the game, but not by a lot.
“So I guess that means I win,” she says after I wake her and put the cards away.
“You fell asleep. That hardly counts.”
Kayla warns me that she has a reputation for being verbally abuse and violent in bed without realizing it.
“But only if I'm provoked,” she adds.
“Yeah like if someone accidentally bumps into me or something.”
“We're not in middle school. I don't think people are like: Oops, sorry I didn't realize you were there,” I I say stretching my foot over and bumping it into hers.
Exhausted, it doesn't take too long for sleep to overcome us.