I tend to travel the same way, wherever I go, and have developed well-worn travel patterns. Walking through cities, catching the vibe; museums and parks; street food. Most of this happens at an observational level: I watch, rather than do. So this time, I decided to jump into something more fully engaging: a 6-day motorcycle trip through northwest Vietnam.
It would just be just myself, and a guide. All travel logistics taken care of by him: package-tour convenience within a full, individual and personalized experience. There’s one big catch for me, though.
I’ve never ridden a motorcycle.
Day One: Trial By Fire, First Mountains, and Indigenous Music
I’ve ridden motor scooters before, but that was about it. Not a real bike, with gears and some power behind it (some: my bike was 125cc, an older brother to a scooter). And certainly not through rough or mountainous terrain.
I asked for a lesson first, and for whatever reason, that never happened. My first lesson took place on the busy streets of the capital city of Hanoi. In the pouring rain.
Trial by fire.
Traffic in Vietnam is both scary and beautiful. There isn’t much by way of rules, apart from “small always gives way to big.” People drive with their horns: not out of anger, but just to let you know they’re coming up behind you. But most of all, there’s this amazing natural sense of flow. There is no “after you…” mentality, but unlike somewhere like India or China, with it’s screw-you-I’m-getting-there-first attitude, everyone just pays attention to each other, and yields when necessary. Crossing the road as a pedestrian seems scary at first until you plug into this sense of collective flow. Then, you walk slowly and deliberately, and gently let the traffic move around you. It’s chaotic on one level, but somehow ordered and peaceful on another.
It’s safe to say that I developed a new relationship with fear on this first ride. I’m not generally a fearful person; I’m not anxious or worried, and I don’t usually sweat the small stuff. But like most people, fears – irrational or not – tend to hold me back from experiencing larger and deeper things. So, this trip was, in part, an exercise in trying something new, and in overcoming fear.
The thing is, when faced with a life-or-death situation, fear takes a backseat, and the survival instinct takes over. And that instinct produces a pure focus unlike any other. The mind is calm and flowing, everything feels smooth, unhindered, and aligned. Without that level of focus, you’d be a spot of gore on the road.
I finally understood why thrill-seekers and daredevils do what they do. First, that pure focus and flow is a pretty special place. I’ve felt it on occasion: deep in practice, sometimes onstage, and other, um, personal moments. You’re absolutely nowhere else than in the present moment. It’s powerful. Second, once you get through the life-risking stuff, there’s a rush at being alive. Everything is brighter and you feel grateful for every moment. Again, like the post-performance afterglow (of whatever kind you imagine). This focus is something I wish I could distill and bottle, and have available on command, for it is indeed powerful. I think I’ll pursue meditation a little more actively as a way to find this.
After about an hour, we’ve cleared the city. We stop for a coffee, and it’s the best coffee I feel I’ve ever had. “Survival coffee!” I begin to feel like, if I could make it though that ordeal, I’ll make it through the trip.
It is still raining, and this makes riding feel a little like work. It’s slow-going, and visibility is hampered by the dark visor need to keep the needle-like rain out of the eyes. But it is still new to me, and exciting. The flat drabness of suburban Hanoi gives way to beautiful mini-mountains, with little villages tucked in between them.
We stop for lunch, and while I’m hungry, I’m eager to get back on the bike. I’m getting hooked on riding.
My guide is Thaitinh Nguyen, the owner and operator of Gobamboo Travels. He has been doing trips like this for 14 years, since he was 19. He is the same age as my younger brother. Over lunch, we share life stories. His was a tough one. He is from the Tay minority people, from a small village. He ran away from home at age 7 to escape his father, and found himself a street urchin in Hanoi, living on his own, making a living shining shoes. Eventually, when he was old enough to take on his father if necessary, he went back to the village. He now lives in Hanoi with his wife and ten-year-old son, and his business prospers.
Slowly, the scenery changes and the mountains get bigger. At around 5pm, after nearly 8 hours on the road, we stop at Lai Cau, a tiny village of “White Thai” minority people (not from Thailand, but ethnically related. The “white” and “black” Thai are so named for the colours of their traditional clothing). We stay in a traditional homestay: a stilt-house. Though nowhere near water, stilt houses were the way to go: tradition has it that the stilts raised the building above any jungle predators that might attack villagers at night. We each retire to our room for a while, clean up, and meet for dinner.
Thaitinh says that there is a show available for me to see, of indigenous music and dance. The catch is that we’re the only people staying in the homestay, so the cost of the dance, normally $5-10 per person, depending on the number of guests, will have to be borne by me: $75. I don’t feel like saying “no thank you”, so I oblige. He also tells me that he offers a trip to Halong Bay, and is somewhat insistent that I consider it after this trip. I begin to worry if I’m going to be continually up-sold on this trip.
The dancers and musicians set up in Thaitinh’s room (each “room” is an open space, as big as the lower floor of my house in Toronto). They put on a show of about an hour: not exceptional, but enjoyable. It concludes with an invitation to drink rice wine out of a bamboo straw. Touristy, but fun.
Before the show starts, a couple of people from the neighbouring homestay come by to join. They are a Danish couple, probably in their early 60s. They ask about our cycling route, and are curious to know how we made such distance over the day. It turns out that they are bicycling though a part of northwest Vietnam. Now that’s hardcore.
Day 2: A Roadside Accident (not mine), a Pharmacy, and an Offroad “Adventure”
We’re up early, around 7am, and have breakfast. Thaitinh takes me for a walk around the village. It’s beautiful and picturesque, and now entirely built around the arts and crafts/tourist trade. I feel a little like I’m taken around for the purpose of buying, and I’m just not in the mood. No-one pushes, though. TT tells me a little bit about the people as we walk through town. Around 9:30, we are off again.
Now I understand why those who ride motorcycles love it so much. There’s a real sense of freedom as you travel, and a deeper engagement with the land you’re travelling through. In a car, you watch the scenery from inside, through glass: it’s a little like watching a movie. On a bike, there’s nothing between you and the outside: you’re in the movie. Like taking a long walk, riding is a peaceful place where you can let your mind wander at a reasonable pace. There’s just enough keeping your body occupied in riding the bike that your chattering-monkey-mind is occupied just enough, and you can really think. Or not. The mind doesn’t spin: it just thinks at its own pace, and quietly processes information as it needs to. It’s amazingly meditative.
The morning starts out nice, but within an hour we are back to rain. We’re concerned that this trip would be almost all rain, which would still be enjoyable for me, as it’s all new, but might wear me down after a while. But, the rain eventually disappears. On the way we stop by this accident.
… but it clearly isn’t recent: some workers have built a shelter around it and are hanging out on top of one of the trucks. We stop at a little spot known for its milk, and drank hot sweet milk, reminiscent of what I drank as a kid during my years in China.
We stop for lunch at a wide spot in the road. Lunch is good: several kinds of grilled meat, including a small bird with the head still attached. This makes it difficult to swallow.
The other subtext to this trip has been, well, my feet.
I have athlete’s foot which appears now and again, and in Taipei where I was working before my side-trip to Viet Nam, it came on strong, annoying enough to keep me awake at night. I managed to find some medicine in the Hong Kong airport, but it ran out before the itch did. And riding in damp, tropical weather isn’t helping at all. So, I explain the situation to TT, and we find a pharmacy. Of sorts.
The pharmacist sits us down, make us tea… almost like a social visit. Then she hands me a mittful of horsepills, a couple of different creams, and some stuff to soak my feet in. Then I put the cream on my feet, which she wraps in plastic bags before I put my shoes on. Quite an interesting experience.
We keep riding, and TT stops at a spot and asks if I want to go on a little “adventure.” I had decided recently that I’ll always say “yes” to such things, so I do. He takes me off-roading, through some heavy mud paths: at one point, I drop the bike, though I don’t fall. He then takes me across this bridge:
… where again I focus on surviving. This little offroad adventure lasts a half-hour at most, but proves to be good training for the days ahead.
More riding as the mountains continue to give us beautiful scenery…
… and eventually we end up in Son La, a decent-sized city.
Our hotel room is, by Western standards, modest. Vietnamese bathrooms are all-tile, with no tub or shower stall: the whole room is fair game. This is unfortunate for a guy who is trying to keep his feet dry and fungus-free. I did my soaking and eventually we go out for dinner, hang out in the room, chat with some friends online (I expected to be off the grid on this trip: turns out that wifi is pretty much ubiquitous, at least in the cities) and head to bed early.
Day 3: Vietnamese History Lesson, Another Accident, and a Momentary Connection
We wake around 7, have pho for breakfast nearby, and go to search for a camera battery. Unfortunately, my camera died the morning of Day 2: while I have my iphone camera, It’s disappointing as, if there was anytime I’d want a proper camera, this would be it. No-one has what we need: it is suggested that we wait till Hanoi, at the end of the trip. Perfect.
We visit Son La Prison and Museum. The Museum has some exhibits about prehistoric cultures and early civilization in the area, including some of the bronze “drums” (more like gongs) used to record historical events.
Beside the museum is the prison, built by the French when this was “French Indochina.” It housed mostly Vietnamese prisoners, anyone who was likely to cause trouble for the French. Conditions were clearly inhumane. As the French retreated they bombed the prison, in the familiar pattern of aggressors covering up their crimes after the fact.
TT knows his history. In the museum he tells me how the Vietnamese flavour of Buddhism works, with its notions of karma, and its burial rituals (bury the body deep for 2 years, then dig it up, clean the bones, and place them in a box). As we go through the prison, TT’s voice is proud when he explains how the Vietnamese “kicked out the French” at Dien Bien Phu (our resting place at the end of the day). As he tells me the stories, I reflect on Vietnamese history, as he tells it to me, and as I read about it in my own books.
Vietnamese history is an endless story of occupation, resistance, and independence. The Chinese for a thousand years, the Japanese, and the French might invade and occupy (and let’s not forget the US), but eventually they’d be beaten, no matter how long it took. This explains the feisty, patriotic nature of the Vietnamese, at least as I see it in TT. It has been suggested that, if the US had taken a closer look at history, they would have realized at the outset that they could never win.
At the prison, a few giggling university girls want a picture with me. This happens later in the day with a group of teenage boys, and reminds me that we’re still in a part of the world relatively untouched by tourism, and foreign faces are a novelty. Kids constantly shout “hellooooo!” as I ride by, and they’re adorable.
We start riding, quickly finding ourselves high in the mountains. Not too far along, at a bend in the road, we see an accident with a runaway truck.
It looks pretty bad, and pretty recent, as a tow truck is now on the scene, trying to right the truck, occasionally nearly dropping it and, on one occasion, nearly taking itself down in the process. It’s hard to believe, but the word was that the driver made it out alive. It’s a chilling reminder that, while the roads are good so far, there’s no messing around on these high, winding mountain roads.
All this time, my feet are driving me crazy – more so off the bike than on. After soaking this morning, lots of skin peeled off my soles. Delightful. But now it is pretty sensitive, like each foot is one itchy, irritable mosquito bite.
We go through about 30 minutes of rain, but otherwise, the riding is good. Finally riding a whole day with no raingear or visor feels so free, and I’m happy as a clam winding our way up, down and around mountains, not too fast (we rarely crack 50 km/hr on the entire trip), thinking my thoughts, allowing them to become not background noise, but more like a gentle and unobtrusive soundtrack to the riding.
We stop for lunch, and as we’re about to leave, a woman comes up who recalls meeting TT a few years back when he stopped in the same town. She is pretty, with eyes that you could just get lost in. She turns them on me and gives me an energy I haven’t felt from someone new in a long time, and rather than looking away, I fully engage. We’re staring into each other. And through TT, she starts to flirt, asking my age, telling me that I’m handsome and look young for my age. I respond in kind and hold her gaze. She asks if I am married, and I tell her I am. It was a beautiful moment of pure energy exchange, and though it lasted all of five minutes, and though I never got her name, and even though my poor mind’s eye can’t really remember her face, I won’t forget those eyes, and I won’t forget her.
On we ride, through more breathtaking scenery. It is always changing, subtly, and it is continually picture-perfect. In a way, it reminds me of Venice, where every turn of a corner presents another beautiful view, and if you stopped to capture them all, you’d never get anywhere.
Close to Dien Bien Phu, we stop at a market. I notice, here and throughout the trip that the “minority people”, as TT calls them, often wear their traditional clothes. Back at the first village, I assumed it was for show: out here at a local market, it’s clear that many of them still wear these clothes everyday.
We arrive in Dien Bien Phu at around 5:30 and check in. I decide to go for a walk by myself. I knew that six days travelling with a stranger would be a tremendous challenge for my introverted self, one that I took on deliberately. Part of the challenge has to do with my high demand for alone-time. Most of the time we’re riding, and therefore not speaking to each other, so it’s hardly difficult. It’s alone, but not really alone, as I’m always connected to him, following him. We are staying in the same hotel room, which means no chance to retire off on one’s own (I had my own room at the homestay). But mostly, it’s my concern that I may not follow social cues properly and come across as standoffish or rude, when I just need a little time to myself. I’m pretty sure I make more of a deal of it that I need to, and that there’s a lot less “supposed to” that I think. TT is a naturally gregarious guy, but doesn’t seem to need to fill space. Sometimes he’s conversational, sometimes he’s not. Rather than enjoy the silence, though, I wonder if he’s somehow unhappy with me, or that I’m not interesting company, when really I’m just as happy to not try to make conversation. It’s silly, really. Human interaction can be natural, so just go with what feels OK. Including needing time to yourself.
But this walk is just what I need to be on my own, even for an hour and a bit. I don’t go far, but walk up the big memorial, where I watch people exercise, oblige in the picture with the teenage boys, and take a pic of the city below.
The fields past the edge of town were once a no-man’s land, riddled with land mines.
Fully-recharged, we have dinner. TT takes me back to the base of the monument where the nightlife has kicked in. We sit around with the locals, enjoying fresh-squeezed sugar-cane juice, squeezed out of the cane with this rattling claptrap of a machine.
We enjoy some amiable conversation, largely about history, and eventually head back to the hotel room. We have an early start tomorrow: it’s the big riding day, so we head to bed early.
Day 4: The Big Day
I don’t know it yet, but this will be the most intense, dangerous, and exciting day of the trip.
We start with some pho which TT declares uninspiring: he was right. Onwards to coffee, and then to the Dien Bien Phu museums. Each is a small piece of the story of the Vietnamese victory over the French in 1954, which marked the end of French colonial rule (but not yet independence: that was to come some time later). Even though the story was highly sanitized and one-sided, it’s still an amazing feat.
The Vietnamese are clearly a determined people. When Ho Chi Minh founded the Viet Minh, it took eight years of mountain guerilla warfare before they finally won. At DBP, the French had numerous defenses: the VM, over 50-odd days, built tunnels which allowed them to bypass the barbed wire and electrical fences, and after 27 days (I think) of fighting and massive casualties, they eventually took the town, and ended French rule. After the museum, we went to Hill A1, a main strategic spot in the war, and now a memorial park, with a gigantic crater when the French had dropped a bomb. Onwards to the French headquarters bunker. All these stories of Vietnamese resistance and perseverance made me think of TT and his life story. The Vietnamese are a tough people, it seems.
My feet are driving me crazy, and it makes it hard to focus on and enjoy what I’m seeing and where I am. It’s clouding the trip a little. Fortunately, it’s less bothersome while riding.
TT warned me that the roads would be more difficult here, requiring more care. So far, the going is good, the roads and weather are clear, and the scenery, once again, amazing.
Around 3pm, we hit the first rough roads. Around here, there have been several landslides, due in part to the recent rains, and the road is closed for repairs, opening every hour for a brief window to let people through. We have to wait in the hot sun, for about 40 minutes before the road opens. The roads here are rocky, muddy, and tough going. I feel like I’m in a motocross race, and need that full-focus again to navigate the bike through it.
I start thinking about the concept of “safety”. In Canada, no-one would be allowed on these roads. Simply too dangerous. We are a highly-regulated society, with everything super-safe. Overall that’s a good thing, but all that mollycoddling can make one soft, or more correctly, uncautious. Everything is be assumed to be safe, and we trust that a road or sidewalk won’t probably hurt us: after all, if it was dangerous, someone would put up a sign. Out here you can’t make any assumptions, which also makes you a little more streetwise, more alert.
So the first roadblock, while rough going, wasn’t too bad. All it would take was a slip of the handlebars to go ass over teakettle in the mud, or over the side of the mountain. But, it’s also slow-going, so it’s not likely that one would careen out of control.
Things are a little different at the second roadblock. The roads are a little worse, but, more importantly, it starts to rain heavily as we wait. We can already see the roads flooding, dirt turning to mud flats, puddles and mini-sinkholes a foot or more deep. And, traffic is piling up behind us: about 15 bikes, and several large trucks. It’s about to get interesting.
The roadblock opens up, and all of us head out en masse, trying frantically to navigate both the roads and each other, with the big trucks bringing up the rear and rapidly gaining on us. Then, we look to our right, and see trickles of dirt coming down the mountain.
The beginning of a landslide.
TT is at the head of the pack and yells to everyone to hurry through before it gets too bad. A truck coming the opposite way is blocking our path, and TT yells at him to back up so that the bikes can get through, before the landslide gets worse. Working through the mud and water, way make it through.
[No pictures: we were in survival mode]
It’s heavy-going for another solid hour, during which we probably make no more than a couple of kilometers. We pass by a rockslide, which we are told happened a mere ten minutes before we got there.
Yet another hour of slightly-less-rough road, and it’s getting dark. Dusk arrives and the headlights come on: the road is still rough, but getting smoother, and by the time it is fully dark we’re back on solid pavement. Another half hour and we hit our “contingency village” where we plan to stop if we don’t make it all the way to Lai Cau.
TT finds us a place to stay, and this time I take my own room: I figure I’ve earned it.
An hour later, we’ve changed out of out wet and mud-spattered clothes, and we have dinner. We excitedly go over the afternoon’s ride, and TT tells me of some other near-misses he’s experienced on that road. I realize that this was truly dangerous, and am a little high from the adrenaline. Or perhaps it was this:
Relax, folks: just tobacco. Some guy in the restaurant offered me a hit.
We head back to the hotel, and I ask to get a beer to take back to the room. The owner, a soft-spoken former Army man in his early 50s, joins us, and offers tea. He and TT talk a fair bit. Then, he pulls out a bottle of homemade corn liquor, and pours a couple of shots for him and myself. TT doesn’t join: he doesn’t drink, and I suspect that his father may be the reason for that. More talking, and the owner keeps pouring shots, adding the occasional remark about how alcohol can make friends.
Eventually it comes out that his daughter is a singer, and when TT tells him I’m a musician, he points to the keyboard in the courtyard and asks for a song. I give him a rendition of “Your Song” by Elton John. We talk some more, and eventually retire. With no internet, I decide to go “old school” and write the day’s events in my journal. I fall asleep around 12:30, after one of the more memorable days of my life.
Day 5: Easy Going
We give ourselves a late start: up at 8, out around 9:30. Breakfast at a nearby place, where it turns out that the owner comes from the same small village as TT. They chat about that at length. Onwards to coffee by a small lake, where TT enjoys playing Chinese chess with some soldiers. He beats them, twice.
I’ve noticed over the past couple of days that TT, rather than making conversation with me, has been talking to people in the restaurant or wherever we are, without bothering to include me. At first, I wonder if I should feel slighted: I watch him carefully to see if he dislikes me or something. But the truth is, I’m just as happy to think my own thoughts while he talks with others, and in retrospect I see nothing wrong with it. Just me and my concerns about social cues, again.
Today’s ride is easy, and shorter, and the weather is beautiful. As we pass by more amazing scenery, I find myself becoming almost accustomed to it: it’s that point in the trip where I realize I’m not taking it all in as much as I was: I’m afraid that I might be taking this beauty for granted.
I think about other bike trips I’d like to take. I may seriously look into getting a bike license. I’d love to do the Cabot trail, or a solo trip through the American Southwest. Or both.
We stop for a little snack at a roadside stand high in the mountains. Some grilled stuff, including another one of those birds with the head still on. I have to call myself out as a hypocrite here: like many meat-eaters, I like my meat to not look like the thing that was killed in order to make it.
Onwards another hour or two, to Sa Pa. Sa Pa was a former French outpost, a pretty little town in the mountains. Unlike the rest of the trip, this place is decked out for tourists: more English signage (haven’t seen, well, any, since Hanoi), more touts selling their wares, more white faces (haven’t seen, well, any, since Hanoi). We have some excellent grilled fish, and I walk around the town for an hour or so while TT stays at the restaurant.
Off we go, to the final 7km to our homestay in a nearby village. We arrive about ½ hour before it gets dark. It’s a beautiful place, run by an Australian named Andrew and his Vietnamese wife. We have a beer and chat a while, then retire to our rooms. I shower and chat with people online.
We have a late dinner, a little chat, then back to our rooms. More online chatting, and in bed by midnight.
Day 6: The Final Day
A relaxed start today, as well. I start my morning with this view outside my bedroom:
… and while Andrew, his recently-arrived friend from near Da Nang, and TT all spend time on Andrew’s computer, teaching our compu-illiterate host how to use it, I bliss out in front of this view.
We have a simple but excellent breakfast of coffee and pho, and I take off for a while to explore the town. It is a “heritage town” of sorts, preserved for its traditional minority-people outlay and customs (minus the usual knick-knack selling, of course). Kids play in the school’s playground, people tend to the rice paddies, and all seems peaceful.
Around 11am, we head back to Sa Pa. We’re taking our time… not much to do before we head to Lao Cai to take an overnight train. Yes, that’s right. The highway back to Ha Noi is 400 km of big, crowded and ugly: think Hwy 401. So, instead of the drudgery, we get to pack our bikes on a freight car, and sleep though the night as the train rocks us gently home.
I spend time looking around Sa Pa again, though there’s not much more to see. As is my wont, I find myself drawn to what looks like open space and find a nice man-made lake to walk around. That and another coffee (seriously, I’m addicted to Vietnamese coffee. They know what they’re doing), and back to meet TT for lunch. We’re at the same place we went to yesterday, and this time we have grilled chicken. Also delicious: TT knows the places to go, it seems.
We ride through more mountains for about an hour, and find ourselves in Lao Cai, a town bordering China. As we pass through, TT points out the border with China: I see written characters and buildings similar to what I once knew while living in China as a child. We make our way to the train station, stop at a nearby restaurant and drop off our bags, and find a place to wash the bikes, still caked with red mud from the zany adventures of Day Four. Once my bike is washed, TT invites me to drop off the bike at the restaurant – the folks there will take care of loading onto the train – and for the first time since the trip started, I have several hours of free time. My legs – underused from days of riding, and my inner introvert – crying out for some real alone time – rejoice.
There’s not much to see in Lao Cai. It’s not a tourist town, nor a town with particular beauty. But, I find one of my favourite things to do: walking a long the tracks and watching the trains. At home, fences (and trespassing fines) would make this more difficult. But here, everyone minds their own business, and I’m left alone to enjoy. I spend a few hours watching kids walk along the tracks, going home for dinner, railroad cars being shunted. Some of them look pretty interesting.
I find a nice park, and then head back for a quick dinner, and the train.
I love overnight trains: so civilized, and old-school. We’re sharing the cabin with a Dutch couple. The great thing about the Dutch is that they feel no need for smalltalk, and after the requisite pleasantries are exchanged, everyone goes off into their own mental space. Vietnamese trains are not only old (ours was the “Orient Express” car, and I’m pretty sure it was of 1960s vintage), they also run on a narrow-gauge system. The combination of these makes the car especially creaky and sway-y. But it’s a lullabye to me, and after an hour of being mesmerized by the dark countryside, farms and lakes lit only by the moon, I drift off to sleep. This trip has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life.