Day 209: Courting death on road to Ha Giang


I was looking and smelling worse for wear as Donkey and I plowed into the night. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

THE shutter of the mechanic's shop is drawn and locked down with a fat padlock. This is where Donkey's engine was ripped open. This is where the mechanic, who, in my professional opinion, did a shit job at putting poor Donkey back together. This is where I am. But not where he is.

This morning, lingering in bed, a morose feeling, which started incubating last night, has hatched. I'm not sleepy, but I don't want to confront the day. I want to hide from the world; rather, I want to avoid it. I've been in Sapa too long and I've seen too little. I've failed to take the hike down to Cat Ca or even pay the 600,000 Dong for the lazy man's cable car ride up to the summit of Fansipan, the tallest peak in Indo-China.

Time in Vietnam is quickly slipping away.

I leave for Kenya in a week.

In one week, I'm waving goodbye to Asia.

I groan loudly as the young cleaners, who've been loudly chatting outside the open dorm room door, carry their conversation inside – unaware or indifferent to men, the sleeping guest.

It's 9:37am. Yet, they're going about their business happily screaming at each other with smiles.

My groan silences the young woman making one of the three abandoned beds. Their conversation is brought to a murmur. I refuse to get out of bed. It's warm.

Unlocking my phone, I continuing compulsively flirting on Tinder, SnapChat, What's App and Facebook Messenger.

I don't roll for anything because I'm afraid I won't have the will power to follow through. Maybe I should be staying in Sapa one more day to get drone footage and explore Cat Ca. Maybe that should be an option, but I'm running out of time and I'm tired of Sapa. I'm tired of the food. I'm tired of traveling. I have no right to be tired of traveling. I'm in a privileged position, but I am tired of traveling.

It's a feeling. What can I do?

I peek out the window, a haze covers the mountains outside. It might not be worth getting the drone out.

At the end of a long Skype call with my sister and her boyfriend, who I've yet to meet in person, she touches on her real concern: how I represent women in the blog, noting that I objectify them with my descriptions. Though I know no way to describe a person man or woman without starting with my first impressions – which are visual. It's good to receive the feedback, even in my current mood.

There are serious conversations occurring in the United States, especially due to the Pussy Grabber President Elect. They are tough conversations, but important ones.

My sister's been drinking, which is what gave her the courage to speak up about her concerns. I'm her eldest brother.

“I idealized you – I still do, but it makes it hard to read the blog sometimes,” she says.

As a big brother, there are aspects of me that were not in play in our sibling relationship, which is, of course, to be expected.

Feeling no better and no worse for the conversation, though pleased to have gotten to catch up with the lovely couple, I pack my bags, shower and wander out for breakfast: a Banh Minh on the street

The woman I've ordered breakfast from for the last four days hasn't opened her shop. The chairs under the yawing above the sidewalk that she works are stacked up. Everything is packed away. There is a second street vendor who also sells the egg and sausage sandwiches several meters down the road.

Song, one of the H'mong women I didn't take a tour with yesterday, spots me.

Meet Song. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

“How was the trek?” she asks.

“It was okay.”

“Only okay?”

“Yes, but that's fine.”

“You shop me now?”

“No, I really don't need anything. I've got lots of traveling to do before I go home.”

Song, with a friendly persistence that characterizes Sapa, talks with me as I wait for breakfast.

“Okay, how much for the bracelets?” I finally ask.

Little girls in village I trekked through yesterday were selling the thin cloth bracelets, which seem like lovely gifts that I could put in an envelope with a letter. I'd considered buying a couple from the little girls, but I didn't want to support their sales tactic: sullen, non-engaging persistence.

Song wants 20,000 for the bracelet, which is absurd, as the girls were charging 2,000, I think, or three for 5,000.

“No thanks.”

“How much?”

“No thanks. I don't like bargaining.”

That said, the die ends up buying three of them for 10,000 Dong, which is overpriced, but reasonable, I guess.

With food in my stomach, I head back to Green Valley Hotel, keenly aware of the lack of green in Sapa. The entire town is anything but quaint. There are stacks of bricks, mounds of sand and piles of cement ready to be mixed. The air is heavy with fine dust particles from the constant construction of new hotels. The droning from industrial tools and construction provides a backdrop for motorbikes and lorries blasting their horns as they navigate the narrow roads.

Though I've missed Sapa, the elements of Sapa that people travel from all across the world for, I have had a couple of productive work days. I try to take solace in the thought, though the guilt of failing to get drone videos and properly photograph the city and the people remains.

“Seems that you are not so excited about Ha Giang,” writes Leh, my Vietnamese friend.

“I'm just not excited. Nothing about HG. So, do they have similar rice paddies to Sapa?”

“Hahah, then just stay in Sapa.”

“I'm not excited about Sapa. I'm just in a lull, that's all.”

“Do you think it's a bit late to go there now? Better not riding your bike in the darkness. The roads to HG are kinda tricky.

“Yeah, I'm headed out now though. Need to stop at mechanic... def will end up driving at night.”

“It's very dangerous to drive at night. No lights. The roads Zig Zag.”

“I might stop on the way there,” I say, conceding the point.

The ride to Lao Cai, at the base of the mountain road leading up to Sapa, is more beautiful during the day than at night. However, I don't see it. I know it's beautiful, the groves of pine trees; the steep mountain slopes diving down into the Ngoi Duoi River far below; the panoramic views of step rice paddies.

A stiff-legged goat skewered on a log juts into the air along the shoulder of the road. Its entire body is stiff: either a sign for those wanting smoked goat meat or the remains of an animist ceremony. Meters past the goat, other bits of the animal hang from sticks in the shade of the pines. Two men stand next to a table covered with pieces of chopped, smoked goat.

Though I had teetered on the edge of throwing the dice for what to do today, I knew I wouldn't feel right about not trying to get Donkey fixed up before selling her next week. So, the die stayed in the case. It would be so easy to get back to the mechanic's shop if I could use the Expressway, but fuck me because motorbike aren't allowed on the Expressway. I don't even know the name of the town in which the mechanic is located. All I have is the general direction and a photo.

As part of the note-taking process the other day, I'd snapped a photo of the address of a shop nearby the mechanic, thinking it might have the name of the town in it. It probably does, but I can't tell what's the street name, what's the town name and what's the province name when I look at the picture.

Heading the right general direction, I'm forced to stop for direction at a gas station that only sells diesel. The woman takes the phone in her gloved hand, looks at the picture and points back to from where I've come. Headed down the road there is an up ramp toward the Expressway. I stop to buy a Bahn Mihn not because I'm hungry, but because I need directions again and feel obligated to buy something.

The woman recognizes the place in the picture immediately. This is a good sign.

Sitting on a blue plastic chair on the sidewalk I eat my sandwich. The woman is trying to tell me something. No matter how slowly or loudly she says whatever she's saying, I can't understand her.

She's pointing to the shop behind me, a hair salon, where a woman is getting dark red dye put into her black hair. Perhaps the sandwich lady thinks I need a haircut. Blond hair, which is supposed to swoop across my forehead, is hanging, long and haphazardly, everywhere from neglect. She's right: I do need a hair cut.

She's right: I do need a hair cut. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli

Ten minutes later, Donkey and I arrive at the mechanic shop. The gate is pulled.

“Can you do me a big favor?” I ask Leh on Facebook Messenger – thank God the die let me have a SIM card in Vietnam.

“Call me Princess.”

“See if the mechanic will be back today or what he suggests we do. Pretty please Princess.”

“Your tongue is so sweet when you need help.”

“It's always sweet. Probably because I always need help.”

I give Leh all the details about what issues the bike is having. I'd hoped the problems had work themselves out, but Donkey slipped from fourth gear to third gear a few times in the final stretch to the shop today.

The mechanic isn't around. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli

I send her a picture of the sign board for the mechanic, which includes his phone number.

The internet cuts out. While in search of a cafe, Leh calls me on Facebook.

The connection is bad.

Pulled over on the side of the road, I try to piece together what she's saying over the occasional blast of a horn and the more frequent lag in the internet connection.

“The mechanic says your bike is very broken and bad.”

It turns out that the mechanic is in his home town for several days – lucky him.

“So he refuses to take any responsibility,” I say, doing my best to keep a smoldering anger from flaring up and lashing out at the messenger. “I paid him 2.5mn Dong to fix the bike. He took the whole thing apart and now he says other thing were broken?”

The phone cuts out again.

I can't get all the details, which I want, though the gist of it is clear: he's not going to do shit.

“I'm going to just start driving. Can talk tonight.”

“Okay. Drive carefully.”

“Thank you for calling and talking to him for me.”

“Sorry it didn't help much.”

“It did. It clarified the situation.”

The detour to the mechanic has ensured that I'll be driving at least a couple hours after the sun has set.

Not far up the road, Donkey comes to a stop outside another mechanic's shop. I need a bottle of oil to ensure I can top poor Donkey up and don't blow the engine again.

The mechanic rolls a plastic ball toward Donkey and vacuums out all the fresh oil. I saw it coming, but didn't have the will to stop him. This is the fourth time in a week that Donkey's gotten new oil put into her engine.

I'm plagued by a lingering feeling of guilt as Donkey chugs to life, her engine humming along, but not what it use to be. She's fixed, but will never have the strong heart she one had because of my neglect. It's not hard to draw parallels between poor Donkey and a number of women I've loved. Even when we fix things, we're never able to recapture the magic. Magic is the fist thing to be destroyed by neglect, the magic in a magician's performance, the magic in childhood and the magic in love.

With Roman Mar's voice from the podcast 99 % Invisible explaining the breakthroughs in architecture with regards to the way rooms sound, my heart skips a beat. Adrenaline levels spike.

I'm going too fast and reacting too slow to make the turn in the dark.

With my mind adrift and Donkey's dim headlight providing a candlelight mood to the road as we race along a river and pine groves, I failed to realize the road was taking sharp right-hand turn at a bridge over the Song Lo River.

Stepping on the brakes, I forgo making a heroic, sliding turn. Instead I bump off the main road onto a dirt road that continues straight.

Shaking my head, it's hard to believe Donkey and I were so lucky as to have a place to run off the extra speed, rather than crashing into a tree, tumbling down a cliff or diving into the river below.

Farther up the mountain, the main road gives out, turning into a treacherous, rocky slash in the landscape.

Giving Donkey gas, it takes all my focus to swerve around deep ditches, unseemly humps and loose rocks. Donkey and I are bouncing up and down like two infants on a trampoline full of six year olds.

A sharp, jarring clang comes from the front fork of the bike when the suspension hits bottom from Donkey's front tire slamming one of hundreds of large rocks littering the road.

The Donkey's headlight brightens when the engine revs, revealing dark shadows cast by lumps and troughs in the road. The closer we get and the longer the shadow remains, the more severe the obstruction.

While working the clutch in and out, hovering at stages of gear engagement to keep traction, lights and speed, my right foot drags on the back brake for stability.

We're going far too fast. Too fast for the road. Too fast for the night. Too fast for the quality of driver.

It's been awhile since I've felt reckless and truly in danger. A smile from my soul lights up my eyes and keeps a grin on my face as Donkey and I pick up the pace.

Passing vehicle on the road, not that there is much traffic, I'm glad I don't have Kayla with me. Given the jarring results of miscalculations when reading the road and that even I think we're going too fast, it's not hard to imagine Dr Rhodes opinion on the matter would be.

Though there is hardly enough room to pass the line of four cars ahead me, I find a spot and give Donkey a bit more gas. I bounce past them, looking like a Red-tailed Fox pouncing on mice due to the ears stuck to the top of my helmet.

Clunk, clunk, clunk, says Donkey.

There goes the chain.

With the light of the moon and a nearby florescent light from some out-of-place gravel warehouse, I'm able to work the chain back onto the sprockets. We're off again; passing all four cars, again.

It's about 9pm when QL2, the road we've been on, spills us out into Ha Giang. According to Hostel World, the place to stay is Bong Hostel. Though I'd normally give the die some option, guests raved about the place online. They were especially enthusiastic about how helpful the staff can be with regards to onward travel.

Taking Minh Khai road across the main bridge in town, I find myself outside of Bong Hostel. The manager, Dung Vu, a young enthusiastic woman with thick rimed glasses, opens the sliding glass door with a warm smile. A strange tree stands in the middle of the lobby area, where there is plenty of seating. In front are several Honda Win motorcycles and a couple scooters.

Despite the time, Dung is talking a couple groups of people through the Far North loop, using a highlighter to mark what roads they should be taking, what they should check out and where they should stay, depending on how many days they have to do the loop.

With an unfathomable amount of patience, she produces a map for me and walks me through much of what she finished explain to the other groups.

“Immigration opens at 7:30am, so you can go there and get your permit first, then come back for free breakfast,” Dung explains to everyone.

After a quick dinner of Pho outside in the cold, I'm happy to curl up under a big soft comforter on the custom bunk beds in the dorm and call it a night. Nothing like a bit of danger, a hot shower, a good place to sleep and something to be excited about tomorrow: UNESCO Dong Van Karst Plateau Global Geopark and four days of exploring the Vietnamese Frontier Area.

#DailyUpdate #Vietnam #Featured #featured

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