Day 212: Riding Vietnam solo -- again
The day started with Callum, but today our roads were to take us different places. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
BEFORE I leave Vietnam, Donkey needs to be fixed. Whatever she's doing is not good. She's settled down some, but she's not healthy and is still leaking oil at frightening rate. Nobody likes to watch their baby bleed out, especially when they know she deserves someone better; someone who could have taken care of her properly.
The first mechanic I bring Donkey to gives her an uninterested glance before wandering off. After waiting about five minutes, it's abundantly clear that he isn't interested in my money. The second mechanic, however, understands the problem and is less adverse to having some of my money.
An o-ring needs to be changed, he explains, confirming my suspicion.
The mechanic, a= young man with gold necklace, runs a busy shop with several workers, hands creasy as they fix various scooters. One mechanic is slamming the center stand of a Honda Click with a sludge hammer.
Inside my pocket, there's the hard plastic rectangle that's attached to the room key.
Fuck, I locked Callum out and then wandered off.
“Dude, here's the key,” I say, after walking back to the hostel. “Sorry about that.”
“I'm glad you remembered. I was going to pissed if you didn't come back because my computer is in there and there's nothing else I could do but sit around and waste time.”
“Me too. Anyway, sorry.”
On the way back to the shop, I pass a blond girl from the UK.
“I've got to hitchhike back to my bike and then drive to...” she says. It's not that she fails to finish her sentence, it's the name of some Vietnamese town or village and my mind doesn't recognize the sounds as they tickle my eardrum.
“Wait, why are you hitch hiking?”
It's a long story.
As she tells me the mini-epic, I notice thick bandages of white gauze wrapped around her right hand.
Like so many tourists doing the northern loop, it's her first time on a two-wheeled motor vehicle. Also like many solo travelers, she met up with a group of people at a hostel and they all set off together.
“It was dark, but they wanted to push on. They were driving too fast for me to keep up and I'd already crashed once,” she says. “They just left me.”
“That's so shitty.”
Unwilling to drive alone any farther, she found a place to leave her scooter, then found a Vietnamese man who gave her a ride to Dong Van.
“Listen, you said you needed to go to the Flag Pole after picking up your bike, right? So that's where we were yesterday. I think we're headed the same direction. Let me give you a ride back to the scooter,” I say. “I can't take you immediately, but as soon as the mechanic is done with my bike, I'll give you a lift.”
With my laptop open, I sit next to the young woman, waiting for a mechanic to pay Donkey attention. It takes awhile, but eventually the younger brother of the head mechanic, a fit lad with a silver chain around his neck, replaces one of the o-rings in the engine.
It takes a bit of work, but we manage to get my bags and the woman's bags strapped to Donkey.
Callum, who's been ready to go for ages, is a bit skeptical of the extra passenger, but nothing to be done about it at this point.
Donkey struggles up the switchbacks south of Dong Van. She lurches as I down shift. The Brit is not the smallest of women by a long shot.
“You said the town was about 20km away, right?” I ask as we get to the top of the switchbacks.
“Yes, it's called...”
Again, the name might as well have been lost in the wind for all the understanding.
“Okay, lets double check that we're going the right way.”
Given the fact that she needed to go get her bike and then see the northern flag pole, I assumed she drove up from the southeast, where Callum and I are headed on our last day of driving together. If I was a smart man, and I know I'm not, I would have insisted we plugged the location in before setting off. But, I didn't. What I did do was have enough confidence to stop anyone else from considering the need to check.
They are beautiful roads way up here in Vietnam. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“Oh, no. This isn't the right way,” she says.
We're about 20k out of town at this point, where her scooter would be, if we'd been heading the right direction.
“Shit, sorry,” I say. “Listen, I can take you back to town, but I don't think I can really get you all the way to the bike. We're already running late today.”
“It's fine. It really is.”
Callum has stopped a few feet ahead of us.
“Dude, we're going the wrong way to get the bike,” I say. “I'm going back to town and I'll just catch up with you in the next town for lunch.”
Feeling like a real piece of shit for having wasted this poor girls time and not taking her all the way to her bike, I turn Donkey around.
We pull back onto the wide streets of Dong Van.
“Okay, so I'll take you to the other side of town, where it should be easy to find a ride to the bike.” I say. “I really am sorry.”
We pull off at the arch marking the furthest point of the northwest side of town. Despite me being a complete failure, the girl gives me a hug and sincerely thanks me. One might assume that since I'm American, I might be missing some subtle British sarcasm in the thank you. But I'm not – at least I don't think I am.
“From here, any trucker headed out of town is headed your way. I'm sure you'll have no problem catching a ride,” I say. I had considered rolling the die about taking her all the way back to the bike, but then realized I'd be fucking Callum over, which wasn't an option.
Significantly less loaded, Donkey and I race through town, up the switch backs and long stunning mountain passes. The narrow two lanes of road hug the high mountains like a child holding onto his favorite teddy bear after a bad dream.
Take an aerial trip with us along the windy roads of Northerner Vietnam. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
As usual, Callum and I under estimated the size of where we are to meet up. The town is a fairly large place with plenty of streets, not some single-street village.
I roll in circles for a few minutes, searching for the kind of cafe that Callum might hunker down in to wait for me.
Also as usual, the man appears on his scooter out of nowhere.
A bowl of soup ad two cups of coffee later, Callum and I order a third round of coffee. It's been nice to have travel buddy who has so much clarity and interest in life. The man seems like he's on the fast track to the success he's chasing.
“Okay, so you want to give my bike a try?”
Though Callum learned to drive his scooter only a couple days ago, he's a competent guy. I have no problem handing him the keys to Donkey.
“Okay, so I always hold onto the front break when I start it. Make sure it's in neutral,” I say. “Hold on, it can take a moment to find neutral. That's it.”
Donkey comes to life when Callum kicks starts her.
“Pull the clutch in; that's basically the same as putting it in neutral,” I say. “The key is to play with slowly letting up on the clutch as you give it gas. It's about finding a balance of where the engine starts to engage and it has enough gas, but doesn't jump out from under you.”
After a killing it a couple times, I Callum wobbles forward in first gear.
“That's it. Give it a little more gas. Then, pull the clutch and shift into second,” I say, running alongside my faithful steed.
For a moment, I feel like I'm back in Phuket teaching one of several of my friends to drive.
Callum makes it to the end of the mostly empty road, killing the bike as he attempts to turn it around. A few moments later, he's driving past me again. This time, there's less wobble.
I crouch down on the sidewalk outside of the dark mouth of the restaurant, taking advantage of some shade.
Callum pulls up and puts down the kickstand, his long white-blond hair shaking out of his helmet.
“I think if I had a couple of days, I could get a hang of it,” he says, pulling up next to me.
“Yeah, it's a shame we don't have more time on the road together. We'll have to meet up in the US and maybe do a cross-country trip.”
I'm back on the road alone.
For someone whose policy is to never drive at night, I spend a lot of time driving at night.
A deep darkness has settled over the narrow, paved road, as I push farther and farther into the countryside. I was supposed to reach Bao Lac today in order to do a quick day trip to see the extraordinary Dam Thuy Waterfall, which runs the border of Vietnam and China. The low, wide waterfall looks majestic in pictures I've seen. If I reach Bao Lac tonight, I'm confident I'll be able to make the waterfall for sunrise in the morning and then start the 315-kilometer journey back to Hanoi.
Normally, I wouldn't be pushing so hard – I'm not much of a let's-catch-it-at-sunrise sort of person. However, my time in Vietnam is running out fast. Very fast. I have about four days left before boarding a plane for Africa.
The florescent lights, haphazardly hung up in rugged wooden shacks are welcoming, pulling me in like a moth after so many hours of being enveloped by the dark country landscape.
I've been on the road for hours since parting ways with Callum. As usual, I underestimated the time it would take to reach Bao Luc.
In front of one well-lit cement building is a glass case full of the small baguettes used for banh mi sandwiches. I park Donkey, then wander up the steps to where a couple tables are spread out in a room that appears to also double as someone's living room.
A young man quickly helps me find a place to plug in my phone in a power strip tangled with cords from a sound system from the 90s and big television.
I woof down the egg and meat sandwich. A young boy, perhaps four years old, bursts out in tears after I look at him and smile on my way out.
After two sandwiches, I'm still hungry.
A little farther into the village, I find a place serving Pho. I slurp down a big bowl of the rice noodle soup.
Only one other table in the shack is occupied by customers. The two men at the table are sharing a hot pot bubbling with chunks of meat and veggies.
“Come,” one of them says, waving me over. “My name is Alfred.”
We shake hands.
“Here,” he hands me a shot of Vietnamese vodka. After one drink together and tasting a succulent piece of meat the man pulls from the hot pot for me, I'm back on the road.
The darkness of the night and countryside return. Bao Luc is supposedly a one hotel town.
I'm not going to make it there tonight. It's getting too late. I'm too cold. It's time to find a place to hunker down and get a few hours of sleep.
The road splits in front of me. A steep ramp on either side of a small hill leads up to the beige Khach San Song Neo Hotel. The place looks like it's a converted police barracks or maybe was once a mental institute. A square cement frame looms over the driveway.
There are a couple Honda Win motorcycles parked out front, clearly the property of other backpackers on bikes.
There is nobody at the dusty reception counter when I walk in, though someone does eventually appear from one of the nearby bedrooms on the ground floor of the three-storey building.
The drowsy receptionist is able to dig up a bottle of water and a packet of biscuits for me for dinner, as it appears the rest of town is shuttered for the night.