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Almost Somewhere

Almost Somewhere

 

By Anton Swanepoel

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2017 Anton Swanepoel

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.

Published at Shakespir by Anton Swanepoel

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Introduction

 

A dream is a living thing. The more thought you give it, the stronger it gets, until it becomes an obsession. For a long time, I have dreamed of riding a motorcycle from the bottom of USA near Miami on route 56 and go all the way up as far as I can. However, funding kept that dream a bit at bay for now. Being in Cambodia, I decided I would do the next-best thing, motorcycle from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) to Hanoi. For added effect, I decided to cross over to Laos near Hanoi, and then come down through Laos back into Cambodia. That was the plan, but plans do not always work out, as we want them to.

Follow me as I make my way from Siem Reap in Cambodia to Saigon in Vietnam, and then all the way up to Hanoi and back to Cambodia. Share in the laughs, scares and adventures I encountered, and marvel at the landscape with included pictures and links to videos I took along the way.

 

Disclaimer

 

The conversations I include within the text are as close as my memory goes to the words the people used at the time. Although they may not have said every word exactly as I write it, it remains true to the spirit of the conversation and as best, I can remember. Note that in the text, I use motorcycle, but in conversations, I use motorbike as it is the term used mostly by the people I encountered on my travels, as to the term I use myself.

 

 

A Note on Spelling and Grammar

Not many Asians can speak fluent English, and when conversations are quoted, I have left their broken English as is to give a more authentic feel. Additionally, as this is a travel book reflecting my experiences, I have opted for a South African English tone and grammar as is standard for me rather than changing my words to an American or UK English. I feel it brings my character more out and enhances the experiences I had, as well as allowing you the reader to more connect with the adventure and story. For the grammar faint of heart readers, I apologize, and hope the stunning pictures in the book make up for it.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

Leaning back in my chair, I clench my jaw for a moment, and then take a deep relaxing breath. Two weeks of searching the Internet for information on motorcycling through Vietnam has resulted in almost no usable information. Most of what I have found is very vague on the routes to take, as well as what motorcycle to purchase and where. Many of the websites or blog posts also conflict with each other, as well as every person and his grandmother want to give advice on motorcycling through Vietnam, while few have done a trip from Saigon to Hanoi, and some have never even been to Vietnam.

Coffee aroma reminds me of my cup of delight on the table. I take another sip while glancing thought the large glass wall to my right. Luck café on the second floor in Lucky mall, Siem Reap, is one of my favorite places to write. Below me, tourists rush down Sivatha Boulevard towards Angkor Wat Temple, Cambodia’s best-known temple.

Returning my attention to my computer, I glance over the notes that I have taken. I found a few web pages for motorcycle shops in Vietnam. Some give tidbits of useable information, and then promise to give you all the information you need to do a tour from Saigon to Hanoi on the Ho Chi Minh road, if you buy a motorcycle from them, at a premium price.

Downing the last bit of coffee, I make my mind up that I have had enough. I have backpacked through Cambodia for months now, winging it all the way. I am going to take a bus to Saigon, and then purchase a motorcycle there. Then, I am going to get on the famous Ho Chi Minh road and head towards Hanoi. Whatever happens along the way, I will deal with it as it comes. Nothing is going to stop me from exploring Vietnam on a motorcycle. I just have to find out what motorcycle to buy, and were.

The Honda Win 100 and 110cc motorcycle are popular amongst backpackers touring Vietnam. This single piston air-cooled motorcycle is rugged and reliable, with parts readily available. However, having owned both of those motorcycles, I will not buy another one. Honda stopped making these models years ago. Those sold today are mostly fake Chinese copies of inferior quality, or beat-up old models. Real Honda Wins in good condition are hard to find and expensive.

The fake models are very unreliable with constant electrical problems, engine breakdowns, poor brakes and crap suspensions. The hassle you get is just not worth the few bucks you save by getting a fake one. The newer models from Honda have a larger engine, but are too expensive. One of the motorcycle shops in Vietnam listed a Honda Bonus 125cc for sale. Although the price tag of $600 is a bit more than the $400, I was hoping to spend, I love the motorcycle. For a full nano second, I ponder if I should go for it. My fingers race over my laptop’s keyboard as I email the shop, asking them if they can hold the motorcycle for me until I get to Vietnam in a few days. With the email sent, I start to work on the other details of my trip, my Vietnam visa and bus ticket.

My heart races as I pull up the online reservations for Giant Ibis bus tours. Two voices compete for dominance in my head while the cursor hovers above the buy button. Once says go for it, the other urges me to find out more about what I am getting myself into. Adrenaline rushes through my body as I click the buy button; there is no turning back now. My bus leaves tomorrow morning for Saigon, via Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.

I take a deep breath and try to calm myself. Next on the list is a visa. For Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, you can get a visa on arrival, and with Cambodia and Vietnam, you can get an E-Visa, or electronic visa. My fingers race over the keyboard as I bring up Vietnam’s government web page that I found two days before and saved on my favorites list.

My eyes scan over the heading again. Visa on arrival guaranteed, good for all land crossings, approved within 24 hours. I swallow, and my heart starts to race again. $80 is a lot for a one-month tourist visa in Asia. My finger hovers over the mouse button while a voice urges me not to go for it. A few days ago, I read a blog post that mentioned that visa on arrival for Vietnam is only valid for international airports, and not land border crossings. My finger twitches over the mouse button while I scan the web page. All looks legit. This is the Vietnam immigration website, and it states that the visa is valid for land border crossings. I am sure the blog post I read is out dated or just wrong.

Taking a deep breath, I click on the contact us button and send an email off, asking if the visa is, in fact, valid for land border crossings. I quickly shut my laptop down and then pack it into my backpack. My head spins as I make my way downstairs and out of the mall. This is going to be an awesome adventure. As I walk the 3km back to my flat, I dream of motorcycling through Vietnam, then cross over to Laos near Vientiane, and come all the way down to Siem Reap, Cambodia, with the same motorcycle.

The midday sun beats down on me as I make my way past Pub Street. At night, this road becomes the busiest road in Siem Reap and makes the daytime traffic look like a ghost road. Eventually, I make it to friends of mine that own a small convenience store in Sok San road, possibly the second busiest road in Siem Reap. The road is lined with guesthouses, backpacker hostels, Khmer restaurants, and more importantly, late-night bars. On a few occasions, I have waited for a bus at 5am, while backpackers got their last round from the all-night bars. After purchasing snacks for my 12-hour bus ride to Saigon, I head to the taxi stand on the corner and locate one of the tuk tuk drivers I use regularly. I arrange for him to pick me up at a corner close to my home tomorrow morning, and then head home to pack.

Just as I reach my flat, an email from the motorcycle shop with the Honda Bonus motorcycle arrives. The owner is going on holiday in two days and wants to sell the motorcycle before he goes; it is first come, first serve. I contemplate offering him a deposit. However, since I have never seen the motorcycle, and have never met the owner, I decide against it.

For the next three hours, I pack and unpack, then do it over again. I try to pack as light as possible, but also take things I think I will need on such a long ride. At first, I contemplate on taking only my 90L backpack, but eventually decide to take my 55L backpack to carry my clothes on the back of the motorcycle while my electronics and documents will go in my 25L day backpack that I will carry on my back. On an over 2400km ride, having a backpack on your back is uncomfortable. However, due to last month’s nine-day, 1200 km trip around Cambodia, where I lost my main backpack when the bungee cords snapped on rough roads, I will tuff it out.

I had stopped for gas and checked all was okay. Due to heavy rains and bad gravel roads, I only noticed the backpack was gone about 5km further on. Although I raced back to search the road all the way to the gas station, locals already picked up a nice early Christmas gift. Luckily, I had my laptop, iPad and wallet in the backpack on my back. Normally, I packed my laptop and iPad into the main backpack on the motorcycle, but transferred them to the smaller backpack on my back as it was raining and the small backpack is more water resistant. That was one lucky day. I did, however, lose my Leatherman TTI Charge knife, UV water purifier, Black Diamond Icon headlamp, and all my clothes except what I had on, including all my motorcycle tools. With the packing done, I head over to the landlord’s son who lives in the flat next to mine and inform him, that I will be gone for a month. To ease his fears of me not coming back, I pay the rent a month in advance. With my room rental secured, I lie down on my bed and try to relax while I wait for a response from the Vietnam immigration.

By 6pm, I get a bit worried with no email from the Vietnam Visa approval department. Not wanting to bother with starting up my laptop, I pull out my iPad and decide to go for it and purchase the online visa using my iPad. As I do not have the web page bookmarked on my iPad, I do an Internet search for Vietnam visa on arrival. As before, a number of results come up with the Vietnam government’s website near the top.

Just as I am about to click on the link, something catches my eye. A number of search results down, is another result that looks almost identical. Both say official Vietnam online visa application. Then my eyes catch it, and my heart sinks to the floor. How can I have been so stupid?

The second search result’s link ends in gov, the first website I looked at does not. Immediately I click on the second link. Icy nails claw down my spine as my eyes race over the web page. This is the actual Vietnam government web page. The other one is a fake website. Cold sweat runs down my face as I read a warning about other websites that impersonate the government’s page and steal people’s money.

The slight joy I feel for not having clicked on the buy button and be conned out of $80, is overshadowed by what I read next. Dread hugs my heart tightly, and my throat closes off. The room walls close in on me. Visa on arrival is not valid for any land borders, and no visas are available at any land border crossing. Worst, Visa approval for Vietnam takes about three days, and you have to visit a Vietnam embassy.

I bite my lip and lie down on my bed. Was I too fast to go for the trip? Should I have found out more about motorcycling in Vietnam before booking a bus ticket? Maybe it is not so easy to motorcycle through Vietnam as I thought. The ceiling fan races as fast as my thoughts while being as effective against the heat as anything I can do now. I shake my head and sigh. Dumbass, I have bought a bus ticket to Vietnam and cannot enter it. Is the trip doomed before it even started?

A metallic sound rips me out of my thoughts when a fan blade hits a small beetle that managed to get into the flat. The beetle is thrown hard against the tile floor and skids over it until it crashes against the wall. Undeterred, the beetle rights itself, and then flies off again and out the window. As Rocky Balboa said, … [_it ain’t about how hard you’re hit, it is about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much can you take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done! _]Thanks Rocky.

My fingers run an Olympic sprint race over the digital keyboard as I search for options. Siem Reap has no Vietnam consulate, but Phnom Penh does. To my surprise, World Tour in Siem Reap, a tour operator I used a few times before, lists on their website that they can get a Vietnam Visa. However, it takes three days, as they have to send your passport to Phnom Penh. As my Vietnam bus ticket goes via Phnom Penh, I might as well get off there, and go to the Vietnam consulate myself. While I wait for my visa, I will do a bit of sightseeing in Phnom Penh. This way, I only lose the bus fare part from Phnom Penh to Saigon.

With a renewed spirit, I start up my laptop, and then email all the notes and blog posts, I have found about motorcycling in Vietnam, to my iPad. For this long trip, it is better that I leave my laptop at home. Motorcycle travel is not good for laptops. The bedside clock proudly states 3am when I shut down my laptop and secure it with a lock cable in my clothes closet. I have three hours left before I am to meet my tuk tuk driver, just enough time to dream about my trip. I hope that I do not oversleep.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Crickets chirp as I make my way through the moonless night. Where I live near the edge of town, there are no streetlights, or paved side roads. Half-way down a narrow dirt path leading to the main road, I stop. A shiver runs down my spine. From behind scrubs alongside the path, growling makes the hair at the back of my neck stand up. Slowly, I reach down and touch the knife secured to my pants’ belt. The growling gets louder as I slip my hand into my pants pocket and take out my first line of defense against wild dogs. Branches break as deadly canine teeth open, seeking my flesh. I swallow as I push the button, this better work. Blinding light burst through the darkness in rapid flashes as the powerful strobe on the headlamp activates. Teeth glisten one meter from me where to dog stops. Growling at me, the dog makes to lunge forward, but then backs off a step. Its resolve to rip me apart is wavering in the onslaught of light that confuses it. For a moment, it looks away, and then shakes its head. I keep the light focused on his eyes until he gives in and returns to his ambush position. He lets me pass and then waits for a lesser pray.

With all the dogs nearby alerted to my presence, there is no use in walking in the dark. I activate the flood mode of my headlamp until I reach the main road. Orange sunrays slowly push the darkness away, and I switch my headlamp off. I stop for a moment to take in the breathtaking scenery as the sun, lights up the Cambodian countryside and rice fields. Resuming my walk, I head down the road towards town.

A few minutes later, a tuk tuk driver waves at me from the bridge 200 meters ahead of me, where I am to meet up with my friend. Narrowing my eyes, I stop and study the tuk tuk. My heart misses a beat. That is not my friend’s tuk tuk. Where is he? Nervously I look around in search of my ride to the bus station. The tuk tuk driver starts his motorcycle and comes on over. Should I take his offer for a ride? What if I do and my friend shows up and waits for me. However, what if my friend does not show up and I decline this tuk tuk, then I will miss my bus. With a big smile, the tuk tuk driver pulls up next to me. He gives me a once over look, and then says.

“Morning, you go bus, my brother sick. He sent me.”

I am so glad I want to hug the guy.

“Morning, thanks for taking his place. Do you know where the bus station is?”

“Yes, yes, no problem.”

I hop in the tuk tuk and lie back in the seat. It is going to be a long day. Eight hours to Phnom Penh on one of the most dangerous roads in Cambodia. It would have been around four hours additional to Saigon, but that I will need to do on another day. The tuk tuk bounces and shakes my intestines as we race the 7km to the bus station. It is 6:20am when we pull into the bus station, 10 minutes early. Nervously, I scan the station. My bus is not there. My heart starts to race. Are we at the wrong place? Sometimes the buses do not depart from the bus station, but their office. I rattle my brain as I try to remember if the website said the bus station or their office.

“Does the Giant Ibis bus leave from here?” I ask the tuk tuk driver as I climb out and hand him his fare.

“Yes, yes, no problem, soon come.” The driver replies and then speeds off. I watch the driver disappear around the corner.

I have great respect for tuk tuk drivers, especially those in Cambodia. People often think they have an easy life, but most do not. Since I rent a room from a Cambodian family that has a reasonable piece of land, I see the behind the scene life of these drivers. In front of my flat is a 30 meter (100-foot) dirt section, which is lined with trees. At night, about eight tuk tuk drivers park their tuk tuks in line there, and then sleep inside their tuk tuks. Their tuk tuks are their home, what is stored in the secure box behind the tuk tuk and in front, is all they own. Many do not even own the motorcycle and tuk tuk carriage; they rent it month by month.

I turn my attention back to the bus station and go over the 10 buses preparing to take passengers. I hope that my bus will arrive soon. Bus companies like to switch locations, especially the drop-off location. This way, they ensure that only the tuk tuk drivers they have deals with, know where to meet the bus. You have the option to either walk to town or use their service, and you can be sure the bus stops around five or more kilometers from town.

The smell of fried eggs makes my feet walk by themselves, and before I know it, I am ordering two bread rolls with cheese from a nearby Khmer mobile food cart. The bread rolls hit the right spot, but cannot compensate for the worry that gnaws at my nerves. Where is my bus? By 6:45am, I restlessly pace the large bus station. None of the buses that have pulled in recently is mine, and there is no sign indicating where Giant Ibis buses should park. The sound of a diesel engine behind me spins me around, and my heart skips a beat of joy. A Giant Ibis bus pulls into the bus station. Curious eyes stare out from a few windows inside the bus. Now I know why the bus is late. The driver picked people up from their hotels with the bus. Normally, they send a minivan. Two employees appear out of thin air and set a table up while the bus driver reverses the bus into its bay. I wait until they are set up, and then walk over.

“Ticket please.” One of the staff says.

“I booked online, here is my confirmation email.” I say and show them the email receipt on my iPhone. The staff member reads the booking number and then scans a list on a clipboard. Finding my booking, he reaches down and picks up my ticket. He rips off a small stub the size of half a business card and hands it over to me. I slip the stub in my pocket, and then head for the restroom. Unlike many other places in Cambodia, here you have to pay to use the restroom. Caught off-guard, I fish in my pocket for the change I received when I bought the bread rolls earlier. For security, I keep my wallet in a hidden pocket in my backpack.

After losing some weight in the restroom, I roam around the bus station. 15 minutes later, the conductor calls everyone to get on the bus. At the door, the same staff member who handed my ticket to me earlier, checks everyone’s tickets. I reach into my pocket and my heart stops. My ticket is gone.

“Ticket please.” The man says.

“I lost the ticket you gave me.” I manage as my face goes white. Frantically I search my pockets, to no avail. Did I lose it when I paid for the toilet?

“No ticket, no ride.” The man replies and helps someone else.

“But you just gave me my ticket a few minutes ago. You must remember me, and you have the other part of the ticket.” I reply.

“No ticket, no ride, you lose your problem.” The man answers. I stand back for a moment as I search every pocket, but to no avail, my ticket is gone. Where I lost it, I have no idea. I go back to the toilet and look around, but cannot find my ticket. Now what? I return to the bus and take out my iPhone. I bring the email with the ticket number up, and then step forward.

“Here is my ticket.” I say as I hold the phone out to the man. He looks at the phone and then glances at the driver; both are not sure what to do. The driver goes over to the table, searches through the ticket stubs and finds the other half of my ticket that the conductor kept.

“Please no lose, take seat.” The driver says as he hands me the ticket.

“Thank you.” I reply as I take the ticket, and make for the door.

“Ticket please.” The man who gave me the original ticket says just before I get on the bus. Confused I look at him and hand over the stub I just got.

“Thank you. Take seat please.” He says, as he takes the ticket the driver just gave me. I shake my head and get on the bus. Only in Cambodia mate. On the bus, I make myself comfortable, and then start searching online for places to stay in Phnom Penh. My iPad mini takes a cellphone Sim card and allows me to have mobile internet. For $5 a month, I get unlimited data at a reasonable speed. On bookings.com, I find a guesthouse whose name catches my eye, Okay Guesthouse sounds okay to me. The pictures of the place look nice, soI book accommodation for two days. With my accommodation taken care off, I lean back and let the road and time pass by. At times, I write a bit and at times, I take power naps. The eight-hour bus ride crawls agonizingly slowly by. The sun is fast heading for dinnertime when we eventually pull into the bus stop at Phnom Penh for a short break.

“I am getting off here.” I inform the driver as I climb out of the bus.

“You are not going to Vietnam?” He gasps.

“No I have no visa.”

“Then why did you book a ticket to Vietnam?” He asks as his eyebrows narrow. There is no time to try to explain so I just say.

“Mistake.”

“You strange tourist.” He replies and shakes his head at me.

I head over to the side of the bus where the conductor is removing other passenger’s baggage.

“That backpack is mine; can you pull it out please?” I ask the conductor.

“You not going to Vietnam?” He frowns as he looks at the tag on my backpack.

“No, I do not have a visa for Vietnam.”

“Why you waste money and book bus to Vietnam?” He asks as he eyes me up and down. I bite my lip and then reply.

“I did not know you cannot get a visa at the border.”

“You not very smart tourist.” He grins as he retrieves my backpack. I clench my jaw as I take my backpack and try to disappear before anyone else asks me if I am not going to Vietnam. As soon as the nearby tuk tuk drivers see me walking away from the bus with my luggage, they surround me and eagerly offer me their services. I pick the driver who wears the oldest clothes. His face shows his gratitude for being picked, and he almost carries me to his tuk tuk. My hotel is close to the river promenade, and around 10 minutes from the bus stop. I have been to Phnom Penh before, and have seen almost all there is to see in Phnom Penh that interests me. This, however, does not deter my driver from trying to arrange to pick me up tomorrow morning to take me to one of the temples.

“No thanks, I need to get to the Vietnam consulate for a visa. Do you know where it is?” I ask as I get out of the tuk tuk when he stops in front of my hotel.

“Yes, yes, $10.” He eagerly answers.

“Forget that, I will help you.” A voice calls from the reception counter inside the hotel. A woman appears in the entrance of the hotel and motions me to follow her. The tuk tuk driver’s face drops as I pay him his fee and follow the woman into the hotel.

“You need a Vietnam Visa?” The woman asks as I stop by the reception desk.

“Yes, how long does it take; I have a booking for two nights here.”

“If you give your passport now, tomorrow 5pm it is done.”

“Awesome, how much?” I eagerly ask.

“$55.”

“Okay.” I reply as I remove my passport while trying to hide my excitement. I hand over my passport and show her my online hotel booking confirmation on my iPad.

Soon, my wallet is a few notes lighter, and I am following a guy who insists on carrying my backpack, up winding stairs to my room. Four floors up, we go down a small corridor, and stop at my room. It is just a bed and a small bathroom with a toilet and shower. The heat in the room hits me, and I switch the air conditioner on. It gives a few death row noises as it rattles to live. I feel the air coming out of the vents. It is the same temperature as the room.

“The air conditioner is not working.” I inform the porter as he is about to leave the room.

“Give an hour or so, good good.” He replies and before I can respond, he leaves the room and closes the door. 20 minutes later, after having unpacked, the air conditioner has not changed in temperature. A note on the wall reads that any problems have to be reported immediately as it will not be rectified later. I decide to go down to the reception and complain. They respond by sending the same person that showed me the room, with me back to the room.

“Feel the air, it is not cold.” I inform the guy as he enters the room.

“Give a few hours, will be good.” He replies and turns around.

“No, it is not working. I am not taking this room.” I reply with my fists on my hips. The guy eyes me up and down a few times, and the replies.

“Okay, I get you other room.”

I pack my stuff up as he leaves to get the key for my new room. After a few minutes, he returns and signals for me to follow him up to the next floor. This time, the air conditioner gets cold almost immediately, and I have a better view. As the guy leaves, I quickly unpack my stuff, and then head downstairs for dinner at the onsite restaurant.

With darkness softly enveloping Phnom Penh, I order a Cambodian pizza. I rarely have pizza, as it is expensive, but tonight is a treat for me. Using my iPad, I send I quick email to the motorcycle shop that has the Honda Bonus for sale, and inform them that due to visa problems, I will not arrive tonight in Saigon, but in two days. I also inform them that I still want the Honda Bonus. I work on my travel blog until my pizza arrives.

I have to smile as the waiter places my pizza on the table. It turns out to be a baguette, opened up, and layered with cheese and toppings. Although it is very tasty, it is not a pizza. Welcome to Cambodia, where what the menu says, means very little.

Leaning back in my chair, I lift my coffee cup to my lips while my thoughts turn to the adventure to come. The strong aroma tickles my nose and evokes feelings of excitement. This is going to be an epic adventure. How epic an adventure, as well as testing, I had no idea.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

Cool Vietnam mountain air plays with my hair while my motorcycle surges forward as I twist the throttle. Another sharp bend comes up and I lean hard into the corner, almost scraping my knee. A smile flashes over my lips; this is living life. A shockwave goes through me as a loud bang echoes in my ears. Did the motor blow? The second bang rips me from my dream, and I sit wide-awake in my bed. Annoyed I stare with narrowed eyes at my room door while noisy backpackers pass by outside and bump against the wall and my door.

Excitement and the promise of adventure to come see me roll around until 3am this morning. Lazily I pull my iPad closer and check the time. With a sigh, I fall back into my pillows. It is 6am. I try to get some more sleep, but it is useless. I may as well get up. Pulling my iPad closer again, I start to scan through my emails.

My heart races as I spot a reply email from the shop that has the Honda Bonus for sale. I swallow, and then eagerly open the email. My heart sinks to my toes with every word I read. The shop owner’s vacation plans are set, and he cannot wait for me. Just then, something in the email attracts my attention. His vacation is only a few days long. I will only be arriving in two days in Saigon, and planned to explore the city for a few days in any case. Maybe I can buy the motorcycle when he returns from his holiday. I send a reply with my intentions to the owner, and then make ready for the day.

After a quick shower, I head down for breakfast and then head over to the reception desk to book a bus to Saigon.

“Hi, I want to book a bus to Saigon.” I say to the owner, who booked me in last night and arranged my visa.

“For when?”

“Are you sure my passport will be back today?”

“Yes, no problem.”

“Is there a bus going tomorrow morning?”

“Yes, leaves 7am.” I take a deep breath. If she is wrong and my visa is not ready today, I will lose my bus fare. Well, let’s roll the dice.

“Okay, I will take it.”

With my bus booked, I head out and explore the area close to the guesthouse. I have visited many of the places before, and head to one of my favorite temples, Wat Phnom.

What Phnom sits on a 27-meter-high mount (the only one in town), on a 231m in diameter, roundabout. According to legend, a woman named Daun Penh, collected water, and found four statues of Buddha, and one of Vishnu, in a Koki tree that floated in the river. She built a Wat to house the statues that was seen as a divine blessing, so the capital was moved from Angkor to here. To me, what is more impressive is the massive garden clock in front of the Wat.

 

 

For lunch, I locate a nice coffee shop that sells sandwiches, and make myself home. They have air conditioning (a rarity in Siem Reap), as well as Wi-Fi. I start writing my book about motorbiking Vietnam, as much to help me remember what I have already learned, as well as to be of help to others. That book would end up to be Motorbiking Cambodia & Vietnam. I also write a blog about my adventures, just for my friends. Those posts would end up forming the basis for this book.

The coffee shop is close to the river promenade, as well as my guesthouse, thus I let writing mode take over without the worry of catching a tuk tuk back. Soon the sun makes ready to warm the people on the other side of earth, and I decide to stop writing for the day. On the way back to my guesthouse, I take a gentle stroll along Sisowath Quay that runs parallel to the river.

 

 

With the last rays of the sun caressing my face, I reach my guesthouse. The reception is busy checking people in, so I order dinner from the restaurant that forms part of the reception. As I wait for dinner, the reception clears, and I head over to collect my passport. The owner is not there, so I take out my receipt as I reach the reception counter.

“Hi, just collecting my passport.” I inform a young woman behind the counter.

“Sorry, no passports, delivery not come yet.” My heart stops at the reply.

“When will it be here?”

The woman just shrugs her shoulders.

“But I have a bus ticket for tomorrow morning to Vietnam.”

“No worry, plenty of bus to Vietnam, we get you another one.” The woman replies with a smile.

Before I can respond, someone taps me on the elbow. As I turn around, the waiter points to my dinner at a nearby table. Reluctantly, I go and eat, while uncertainty crawls down my spine. I have heard of passports being “lost” from other tourists. Stolen passports are a big market in Asia. Have I become another victim?

Halfway through dinner, a young Cambodian guy comes in and hands an envelope to the woman at the reception. Not waiting for an invitation, I quickly make my way over. As I reach the desk, the woman opens the envelope. There is one thing about being a South African in Asia; your passport stands out against the loads of French, British and American passports. Man I am so glad to see my passport, with a month-long Vietnam visa in it.

My heart jumps of joy as I write a quick email to the motorcycle shop and inform them that I have a visa and a bus ticket, and will be in Saigon tomorrow. Ecstatic, I order another coffee to lift my mood even more. Soon, I am floating on cloud nine, with enough energy to run around earth. My eyes eagerly glance over the information as I scan possible routes along Vietnam on Google maps. A ping alerts me that I have received an email; it is from the motorcycle shop.

Slowly, I lean back in the chair, my mind unable to grasp the news. The earth opens under me and my heart drops to the depths of a bottomless black put. They have sold the Honda Bonus. My dreams are shattered. For days, I have imagined myself blasting through Vietnam on that motorcycle. At $500, the 125cc Honda was $200 more than a Fake Honda 100cc Win motorcycle, and a rare find. I take a deep breath, order another coffee, and then get to work on scanning Craig’s list, Facebook posts, as well as Travel Swap an online place where travelers swap items. After about two hours, the only other Honda Bonus I can find is for $700, and it is in Hanoi, not an option, so I decide to stop for the day.

Even though the Honda is sold, excitement again keeps me up until the wee hours of the morning. However, this time, it will be the ring of the alarm on my iPad that wakes me, hopefully.

 

 

Chapter 4

 

Excitement fills my body as I wait for my bus to Vietnam. Opening presents on a birthday does not even come close to the high I am riding. Exotic Vietnam, stunning beaches and famous mountain passes that featured on BBC’s Top Gear, are all waiting for me to explore them. I almost forget my manners when the pickup minivan arrives, and have to contain myself to allow the women to get in first. Unlike the Giant Ibis bus I took to Phnom Penh, this bus from another company is in need of repair, including that the advertised Wi-Fi does not work, as normal on many buses in Cambodia.

“You have internet?” A woman asks in the bench behind me as, I post pictures on Facebook.

“Yes. My iPad has internet.” Her face sags and she bites her lip for a moment. The urgent need to check her email and social media messages is written all over her face and melts my heart like puppy eyes.

“I can create a hotspot for you if you would like to go online.”

“Really? Thank you so much.” She gasps. I activate the hotspot feature on my iPad and give her the password. Soon two more travelers ask me for an Internet connection, and we make our own little Internet café at the back of the bus. I strike up a conversation with the guy who is sitting next to me on the bus. He is Vietnamese and on his way to Saigon to visit his family. As the pay is better in Phnom Penh, he works and stays there, and only visits his family on weekends. I start to write a bit, and time flies by.

“20 minutes.” The driver says as he brings the bus to a stop, pulling me from my writing. I glance at the time, two hours since we left Phnom Penh. In Cambodia, the first thing you do when you get off the bus is to run for the restroom. Normally, there are only a few, and they get busy very fast.

With pressing matters taken care off, I stroll over to the nearby restaurant for something to eat. Khmer dishes of chicken and rice with vegetables as well as noodles and beef wave at me, yet fail to interest me. I have had enough of it. The only thing that interests me is a cup of yogurt. Standing outside the restaurant, I take in the splendid Cambodian countryside as I pull the lid half off the yogurt, and take a spoon full. My face pulls skew from the bitter taste while I wrestle with the decision swallow or spit. Reluctantly, I swallow and almost gag on the taste.

Lifting the aluminum foil lid more, horror stares back at me. Green mold and wires cover the other half of the yogurt and lid. On closer inspection, I note that the one side of the lid is already open a fraction. That caused the yogurt to go off. Disgusted I go over to the cashier.

“Excuse me sir, but can I please exchange this.” I ask as I hold out the yogurt with the lid up.

“Why?”

“It is off.”

“What?”

“It is off, look at the mold in it.”

“So?”

“I am not going to eat this. I want an exchange.”

The cashier’s gaze rests on me for a moment, and then drifts to someone next to me. Turning, I stare into the chest of the restaurant’s door guard. Judging from his size, he is no Cambodian. Not backing down, I hold out the yogurt to him and say loud enough for the restaurant to hear.

“How do you expect me to eat rotten food?”

The guy accepts my stare challenge for a second, and then looks around at the nearby tourists who have taken an interest in the incident. Deliberately slowly, he reaches over, takes the yogurt from me, and then goes and gets me another one from the fridge. As I take the replacement cup, I notice it is a different flavor. Clenching my jaw, I hold my tongue and nod my head in thanks, and then make for the bus.

Next to the bus, are a few Khmer stalls selling traditional food. My stomach turns as my eyes flow over the local delicacies. Cockroaches, ants, crickets, worms, snails, and spiders all nicely prepared. I pass and make for the safety of my seat on the bus.

 

Just as I sit down, I notice the Cambodian man across the aisle from me, happily eating some of the local delicacies sold next to the bus. He bites into a fat cockroach and as the juice flows over his lips, I almost throw up. He then lazily opens his mouth and wiggles a leg out that is stuck between his teeth. Just as I think I am safe, he takes a handful of worms and throws it into his mouth as if it is peanuts.

A cold chill runs down my spine as he looks over to me and holds out a bag full of cockroaches and worms. I decline his kind offer. His face sags from sadness, but then lights up as he grabs another bag and holds it out to me. Fried crickets and ants stare me in the face. Again, I badly insult the man as I decline his offer. My heart sinks as he sadly looks over to a small bag on his lap. Then I notice what is in the bag. My eyes form saucers, and I gasp as he picks up a giant tarantula. O no, please don’t let him offer that to me. My heart races as he brings the hairy thing up. I don’t’ know if I should be relieved or throw up as he takes a bite and rips a leg off the spider. Clenching my jaw, I sit back in my seat and stare out the window. When I was around nine or so, we went camping and all slept in a caravan. I woke up and complained that my sister’s long hair was in my face. She was in the bunk bed above me. My dad told me to go back to sleep. However, a few minutes later, I felt the soft hair on my face again and told my sister to get her hair out of my face. It was then that my dad put the lights on.

On top of my face sat a giant black tarantula. I managed to slide out from under that spider and out the caravan before anyone knew what happened. Swallowing hard, I open my yogurt and start to eat it while trying not to think of spiders and cockroaches.

The Vietnamese traveler who sits next to me soon returns. He eyes me up and down while shaking his head at me. In Cambodia, people do their best to try to avoid an argument or a scene, and will often let something slide or even lie to save face. Not me, I like my yogurt fresh. Staring out the window, the countryside goes by as slowly as the time.

“20 minutes.” Is the only comment the driver makes as he pulls the bus into a small rest stop. I quickly pull my iPad out and check our location using ForeverMap. My heart starts to race. We are just before the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. One of the passengers buys shrimp and other local delicacies. I keep it boring and go for biscuits.

Being the last town I will get cell signal from the Cambodian network, I quickly check my email. Excitement rushes through me, and my pulse starts to race. A motorcycle shop I emailed a few days before has replied. They specialize in backpacker motorcycles, and promises that they can build me a custom motorcycle for $500. On an attachment is a short list of the motorcycles they have available. My eyes light up. They list a Honda Bonus with a new engine, for $600 as an option. I almost drool as I type a reply that I am about to cross the border into Vietnam and will be staying in Saigon, and can they please send direction to their shop. As I close the email application, the bus pulls away. A quick check on the map shows we are heading for a large bridge across the Mekong River.

Someone, however, forgot to inform Cambodia about the bridge, as a few minutes later we arrive at a ferry service. This is the first time that I use a ferry and excitement fills me. The driver slowly pulls the bus onto the ferry next to another bus, and then opens the door without a word.

“You can get off if you want.” The Vietnamese guy next to me says.

“Thank you. How long is the ride across?”

“About 15 minutes or so.”

Nodding, I get up and make my way off the bus. As soon as I climb off, I am surrounded by hawkers. Each competes for my attention as they try to sell me snacks.

“Mister, water.” A soft voice says next to me while someone tugs on my shirt. I look down to find a girl of about seven standing next to me, holding out a small bottle of water.

“How much?”

“2000 Riel.” (About 50c).

Cold droplets of water run over her hand and drip down into a small icebox. The sight gets to me. I pull out my wallet and go through the Cambodian money I have left. Crap. I only have 1200 Riel in Cambodian money. The smallest US money I have is $5, about 20 000 Riel.

“I only have 1200 Riel.” I say and hold out the money.

“Okay.” The girl’s brother says next to her and grabs the money, and then nudges his sister with his shoulder for her to give me the water. Thanking them, I go upstairs to the captain, say hi, and then watch as we slowly cross the river. Far in the distance, is a large bridge, years from completion.

 

 

All too soon, the ride is over, and I make my way back to the bus.

“How much did you pay?” The Vietnamese guy asks as he looks at my small water bottle.

“1200, they wanted 2000.”

“It goes for 100 Riel.” He laughs. Somehow, my water does not taste the same anymore. Thanks dude. The border is only a few minutes ride from the river, and soon we park in front of the Cambodian exit point.

“Everyone off, take everything with you, leave nothing on the bus.” The driver says as he opens the bus door.

“Passport please.” The conductor says as he passes through the bus collecting passports. Reluctantly, I hand mine over.

“Don’t worry, it is standard.” My Vietnamese partner assures me and gets off the bus.

“You left your shrimp and fish.” I inform another guy as he starts to leave the bus.

“Shhh. You cannot take it through customs. I will get it on the other side.”

“But don’t they search the bus?”

“Maybe, maybe not. If they do, they may take a piece or two, and leave the rest.” The guy smiles. I shake my head, Asia.

Customs is less of a pain than I thought it would be. At the Cambodian side on exit, we are all huddled in a group while the conductor takes our passports to one of the desks, effectively reserving the desk for us. One by one, we are called forward as the customs clerk picks a passport from the pile. After stamping out, we pass by a security checkpoint and bag scanner, and then out to the other side. For Vietnam, we have to go by ourselves with our passports.

On exiting the Vietnam entry point, the conductor directs us to where the bus is waiting for us. Onboard the bus, I find the shrimp guy smiling proudly. His stuff is still there, untouched. As soon as we clear the border, things change. You can see that Vietnam has more money than Cambodia. The roads are in better condition, and the houses along the way as we make it to Saigon are of a better standard. I am surprised that we are only going at 60km/h on perfect roads, where in Cambodia buses go at 80km/h or more on roads that would scare off-road rally drivers.

“Why are we going so slowly?” I ask the Vietnamese guy.

“Very strict rules in Vietnam. Big fines for speeding. Once I was caught doing 50km/h on my motorcycle, and got fined $100.”

“$100 for doing 50! Was it in town?” I gasp.

“No. Just out of town. Speed limit for bike is 40 all over except for major highways where it is 50.”

My heart drops to my shoes. With my bubble of blasting it through the mountain passes burst, I stare out the window as we enter the outskirts of Saigon. My mind wonders as traffic increases and I start daydreaming of mountain passes and golden beaches. Death noises from the engine snaps me out of my daydreaming while the bus jerks to a standstill. Confused and scared eyes look around the bus. All ask the same question. What is going on? Outside, it gently starts to drizzle. The bus driver and conductor quickly have a discussion, and then the driver pulls out his cellphone.

“All okay, bus broke down.” The conductor announces. I wonder how it can all be okay if we are stuck in the rain with night approaching. As if to answer my question, the conductor continues.

“New bus soon come.”

15 minutes later, the conductor and bus driver have another discussion that results in the bus driver making another phone call.

“Okay, everyone off. Take everything with.” The conductor says. I glance outside as the rain starts to come down heavier. Outside, we huddle around the bus and on the sidewalk to keep from being run over by the rush-hour traffic.

“Okay, no worry, no bus come.” The conductor says. I wonder if he realizes what he is actually saying. Words start to fly between some local passengers and the bus driver. He makes two more frantic calls as things start to heat up. The drizzle turns into proper rain, and things start to escalate. When several locals angrily have words with the driver, he flags down a local taxi. After a few words with the taxi driver, the bus driver informs some of the passengers to get into the taxi. Mostly the angry ones.

“They are sending more taxis. No charge.” The driver says as he flags down another taxi of the same company as the first. One by one, taxies show up, and people almost argue to get a spot just to get out of the rain. I manage to get a spot in an SUV taxi and off we go. After a 20-minute ride, we are dropped off at a luxury hotel. Go figure, they must get a cut. I pull up my map application on my iPhone, and it shows no cheap places around on the downloaded map. The places that I looked at earlier online, does not show on the map. I did, however, save a picture of the front of one place that sounded interesting. With the rain coming down more, I decide to use a taxi rather than aimlessly walk around in the rain looking for a hostel or cheap hotel.

“How much?” I ask a taxi driver as I show him the photo of the backpacker hotel on my iPhone.”

“$5.”

I rub my chin. $5 sounds a lot. However, I have no idea where the place is.

“You take US$?”

“No problem. You want to go?”

“Yes.” I say as I open the back door and get in. The guy drives to the corner of the road, turns, then turns again at the next road. We stop one road up from where we started.

“$5.” The driver says and holds out his hand.

“Where is the place?” I ask as I look around, seeing only take away places and restaurants.

“Down there.” The driver says as he points down a narrow and dirty looking alley. I bite my lip. Crap, what if it is a dump?

“$5. Or you want to go back to good hotel?” The driver asks.

“It’s okay, thank you.” I hand over the money and get out. Warily, I negotiate the ally that is so narrow, I can easily touch both sides. Beeping behind me startles me and a swing around just in time to see a guy on a scooter bearing down on me. Flattening myself against the wall, I suck my stomach in as the guy scrapes past. Shaking my head, I continue down the darkened alley, while looking into small shops and family homes as I go. About 100 meters or so down, I come to a reception area with loads of sandals and flip flops piled by the door. This must be it. Looking up, I notice the sign is different, so I move on. Two doors down, I spot a bunch of sandals again. I smile as I see the sign for the hotel, this is it. The hotel lobby is deserted except for one guy at reception and a lady I guess in her 50s, sitting at a computer terminal a short distance away.

“Do you have rooms?” I ask as I put my gear down.

“Dorm or private?”

“Private.”

“Yes, $15 a night.”

“The booking online said $12 a night.” I reply.

“Do you have a booking?”

“No, but…”

“$15.” The guy answers back.

“Okay, then I will make a booking right now.” I reply as I pull my iPad out of my backpack, knowing the place will get even less money if I book online.

“Okay, $12 a night, just do not tell anyone.” The guy replies, then holds out his hand as he continues. “Passport please.”

It takes a lot of effort not to smile as I hand over my passport. He flicks through the pages and notes my visa and entry stamp. I jerk as I hear a whistle blow outside, followed by shouting. Carefully I poke my head out of the door and snap it back in.

“There are soldiers and police raiding the hotel a few meters down the road.” I gasp.

“No worry, we legal.” The cashier says just as two police officers enter the hotel. Without a word, the cashier hands over the guest book. He then opens a drawer and pulls out a stack of passports, which he hands with my passport over to the police. They flick through the passports, nod and then give everything back. Without a word, they leave.

“What is that about?” I ask.

“In Vietnam, you cannot house foreigners without a permit. Each night we have to report who stays here to the local police. If we do not report someone, or if we let a foreigner sleep in our place without a license, it is big fines.”

“Wow.” Is all I can manage. Later, I would learn that even renting a place in Vietnam can be a problem for foreigners. There are designated areas set aside for foreigners to live in. Renting a place amongst local Vietnamese is not easy, and living with a local family is even less common. The guy hands me my room key, and motions to stairs nearby. Normally, I would inspect the room first, but as I had not paid, I take the key. Five flights of stairs later, I arrive at my room, a corner unit. The place is small but clean, with a low double bed and a small bathroom that has a toilet and shower.

I set my stuff down, grab my small backpack with my essential items, and then make my way back down to reception.

“Where can I get a local SIM card?” I ask the guy at the reception.

“Follow me.” He answers as he stands up. I follow him to a shop four doors down. He speaks to a guy there in Vietnamese, and then says. “100 000 VND.” I calculate it to be $5, so I nod yes. The second guy holds out a used SIM. I take it and pull out my iPad just as the guy says something in Vietnamese to the receptionist.

“He wants his money.” The receptionist translates.

“I am testing it first.” I reply as I slide the SIM in. The iPad responds with invalid SIM card.

“This SIM is no use.” I say as I pull it out and hold it out to the guy. He looks at me, and then shoots of a string of Vietnamese to the receptionist.

“He does not want it. He wants his money.” The receptionist translates.

“I will not pay. It does not work.” I say as I hand the SIM card to the receptionist who unsurely takes it. The receptionist and the guy exchange a few words, and eventually the guy takes his SIM card and glares at me and then storms back into his place. I stand speechless for a moment. Is this Vietnamese hospitality? I start to wonder if maybe my iPad does not accept the local cards and that the SIM may be actually working, and I should apologize. However, that time has passed, as the door to the shop is slammed shut.

“Where can I get a new SIM card?” I ask the receptionist, just as he turns to walk away.

“Two blocks up the road.” He replies and points down to the exit of the alley, and then walks away.

“Thanks.” I say over my shoulder and walk to the end of the alley. The alley ends into a small road, almost at the corner where the small roads ends into a large busy road. Scanning to the right down the smaller road, all I can see is restaurants and take away places. I go left and then follow the larger road. Two blocks down, I find a large cell phone shop. Within 10 minutes, I have an SIM card for both my iPhone and iPad, and they even set the Internet up for me. The used SIM card the guy wanted to sell me was a dud, no apology needed.

Happy to have an Internet connection, I return to the hotel. The smell of freshly baked bread rolls stops me, just as I am about to enter the alley. Right next to the start of the alley is a sandwich shop. I get myself a bread roll with veggies and chicken for $1. Bread rolls are sold all over Vietnam from mobile food carts, and would soon become my staple food while I am in Vietnam. As the place is packed, I decide to enjoy my dinner in my room.

Back in my room, I munch on my bread roll as I scan through my email messages. A smile forms on my lips as I click on an email from the motorcycle shop that specializes in backpacker motorcycles. My heart leaps from joy. They already have a Honda Bonus ready. I can come in tomorrow and pick it up. Wow, in two days I will be exploring Vietnam on a motorcycle.

I scan the email for their address. My eyes narrow and my eyebrows dip. I blink my eyes twice and read the directions again. My shoulders sag as I let out a sigh of disappointment. They are in Hanoi, my end destination. What part of I am in Saigon, did they not understand?

I can now see why there is so little useable information on the Internet about motorcycling Vietnam by yourself. Back to square one in looking for a motorcycle to buy. Amazingly, ForeverMap on my iPad lists Saigon Minks, a motorcycle shop, as a point of interest for shops. They are just one street away from me. They specialize in Minks motorcycle. Although the Minks are good motorcycles, they do not interest me. I email Saigon Minks and ask if they have any motorcycles for sale other than a minks, and then I let my head kiss the pillow and let the sandman do his thing on me.

 

 

Chapter 5

 

The noise of early-morning traffic awakens me. Lazily I stretch out, and then get up to take a shower. Most of the rooms in hotels in Cambodia and Vietnam are fitted with a small water heater that warms the water as you use it. I love my showers and the energizing feeling as water massages your body all over. I close my eyes as the hot needles work the kinks out of my shoulder muscles.

I jump as the sound of electricity arcing fills the bathroom. My heart races as I look up at the water unit near the ceiling. Is the unit shorting out, am I going to be electrocuted? My heart stops as blue flashes appear against the wall above the heater unit while the sound of electricity arcing fills my ears. My muscles explode into action as I rush out of the bathroom. “Shit.” Slips over my lips as I lose my footing and crash down onto my bed. Behind me, arching continues in the bathroom. Jumping up, I rush to the wall and switch the water unit off at its main switch. Silence fills the room.

My heart pounds against my chest as I step back into the bathroom to get a towel. Looking up at the water unit, I notice its power wires running against the wall and disappearing into the back of the unit. Mmm, probably a shoddy connection at the back of the unit with exposed connections. I stand on my toes to try to see over the unit.

My heart stops as the sound of electricity arching fills my ears. Reeling back from the unit, I crash into the bathroom door and slip. My sexy naked ass hits the wet tiled floor hard while blue flashes reflect off the wall as the arching sound continues. By the time I manage to get up, silence fills the room again. My breathing matches my racing heart. Confused I inspect the master power switch. Yes, it is off. A different sound fills the room. I listen intently. Can it be? Yes, there it is again. I know that sound. A familiar chipping sound I have heard so many times when I helped my dad on the farm and when I had built my own roadside shop.

I fling the bedroom window open, and there he is, a guy welding outside. The tinted glass vents in the bathroom window are open at the perfect angle to reflect the welding flashes outside, onto the wall just above the water heater unit.

Relieved, I switch the power to the water heater on again, and finish my shower. Done, I open Internet up on my iPad as I dress and check the latest listing on the websites I monitor for new motorcycles for sale. I have my eye on a few motorcycles advertised online, especially a Yamaha Nouvo 2 for $350. It is an 115cc scooter. I have always been a Yamaha fan, but first, I want to see what is for sales from fellow backpackers close to me.

An email from Simon at Saigon Minks attracts my attention. He has a few models for sale, and invites me to come over and check them out. I quickly get dressed, and then head downstairs for my breakfast that is included with the room rental. I bite my lip as I come down the last steps. About 20 backpackers are sitting at the long breakfast table, squeezed in like sardines. There is no place for me. Reluctantly, I forgo my free breakfast of scrambled eggs and a bread roll and go back to the sandwich shop for a nice $1 breakfast roll.

With my rumbling tummy filled, I walk the block to Saigon Minks. Along the way, I notice four fake Honda Wins for sale outside backpacker places, listed from $300 to $350. I just chuckle to myself. Those motorcycles are only worth around $100, as a new SYM that is a copy of the Honda, sell for around $700, and is a good motorcycle.

Saigon Minks turns out to be a small shop across a Mexican restaurant, where Simon, a British Expat does most of his business. Simon has paired up with the owner of Saigon Minks. Simon does the deals with foreigners, and the owner fixes the motorcycles. He has a few fake Honda Wins for sale, as well as a Yamaha Nouvo 1, but I am not interested in them. The only one that interests me is a Nouvo 2. However, it is in a bad state, and will take two days to fix. I pepper Simon with as many questions as I can, and get very helpful information for my book and my trip to Hanoi.

“Simon. I see some of the shops advertise that if you buy a motorcycle from them; they will tell you the secret roads on the Ho Chi Minh road.”

“That is nonsense.” Simon laughs and then continues. “There are two main roads to Hanoi from Saigon, the Ho Chi Minh road that runs along the Vietnamese border and through the mountains, or the AH1 highway that runs mostly near the coast.”

“Which one is the best, Simon?”

“There are certain sections of each that are better than the other, but beauty is what you make of it. It all depends on if you want mountain passes or coastal roads. You can mix it up a bit by riding on one, then cross over, and ride on the other road, as you go up. This will give you something of both. That is what I suggest.”

The day flies by as I chat with Simon and take notes. Soon, it is time to head back to bed. I have gained a wealth of information from talking to Simon, and some of the backpackers who have come to sell their motorcycles after doing their trip. Not all backpackers start in Saigon or Hanoi and then ride all the way. Many start half way in Hoi An or Da Lat. Others only plan to ride from either Saigon or Hanoi to Da Lat or Hoi An. Looking at my map application, it is just over 2400km from Saigon to Hanoi if you follow the Ho Chi Minh road up and stop at a few towns. Over 2400km on a scooter in Vietnam, I am bound to run into adventure. However, even with all the knowledge I now have, I am still no closer in finding a good motorcycle myself.

 

 

Chapter 6

 

The morning traffic noise rises unhindered up to my bedroom window, while I turn around and snuggle up in my blanket, trying to ignore the noise. Defeated, I get up and take a quick shower, then take a fresh set of clothes from my backpack. As I pull my right boot on, it tears at the seam, situated half-way up to the boot. The tear goes almost all the way to the laces, rendering the boot useless. My shoulders sag. I love these boots. I bought them in Cayman Islands. They were not expensive at around $15, but they were comfortable. Well, on the bright side, I will start my Vietnam riding adventure in new shoes.

After quickly patching the boot with duct tape, I rush down for breakfast where to my delight; I find the lobby almost empty. Excited to take to the road, I gulp my coffee down. Today I am motorcycle hunting. Two motorcycles advertised online, interest me. They are a bit of a walk from my hotel, but I am up for it. Just as I take another bite from my bread roll, movement outside attracts my attention. My jaw drops as I watch a guy park a Yamaha Nouvo 2 outside, and then bring the keys in. After handing the keys over to the reception, he hands over a few dollars.

“Do you rent those scooters out?” I ask the guy at reception.

“Yes, $5 a day.”

“Cool, I will take one.” I say and smile. This will save me having to hire taxis or walk for kilometers as I go and inspect the motorcycles from the online ads. With the model just returned being a Yamaha Nouvo 2, exactly the model I am thinking of buying, I can test ride that type of motorcycle before I buy it. Then another thought pushes past my brain and over my lips.

“Do you want to sell that motorbike?”

“$380.” The guy answers without missing a beat. My heart starts to race, and I almost jump up from excitement. With effort, I maintain my composure.

“I would like to take it for a test drive.”

“No problem. $5 a day rental, you can test it all you want.”

“Agreed.” I smile.

A few minutes later, I am tearing up the roads of Saigon. The motorcycle’s brakes and shocks feel okay to me. However, the power is a huge disappointment. I thought that an 115cc engine could pull harder, even though it is a fully automatic. It could be that the motorcycle needs a service, so I head over to Saigon Minks to ask Simon for his advice about the scooter. As normal, Simon is at his table at the Mexican restaurant across the street. He smiles as I park the motorcycle on the sidewalk, and walk over to him. My heart starts to race a bit; Simon seems impressed with what he sees.

“Morning. I am looking at buying this motorcycle. Do you mind having a look and giving me a quote on a service, and any repairs needed?”

“No problem.” Simon replies and heads over to the motorcycle and starts testing it. He inspects the lights, brakes, and suspension, and then takes it for a test drive up and down the road. On return, Simon has a short conversation in Vietnamese with his partner, who then also tests the motorcycle.

“How much are they asking?” Simon asks as his partner returns with the motorcycle.

“$380.”

“Nah, offer them $320 or less. The front shocks are done. The brakes are short. The drive belt needs replacing. It needs a service, and it does not pull right as something is wrong with the engine.” My heart sinks to the ground. Man, I love this motorcycle already, and the feering and covers are in good condition. The last thing I need is a long list of repairs and hefty bill.

“Okay, how much to have a full service and fix all the problems.” I sigh, dreading the answer.

Simon scratches his head a bit, and then talks to his partner who will need to do the work.

“$30 for all.” Simon goes. I am stunned.

“$30. That’s a deal, let me inform the hotel, that I will take the bike. How long will it take to do the work?”

“If you bring it back in the next half-hour or so, we can be done by tonight.” Simon laughs.

My heart jumps up and down from joy. The day is getting better and better.

“See you in a few minutes.” I shout to Simon over my shoulder as I jump on the motorcycle and speed away. Within minutes, I am back at the hotel and flag down the receptionist. With effort, I act very disappointed.

“I had the motorcycle at Saigon Minks. They say it needs a lot of work and is not worth more than $300. However, I like it, and will give you $320.”

“No deal.” The guy laughs. I scratch my head and then my chin. Acting is if I am in a heavy debate with myself. The original price was $380 that I was prepared to pay, and it needs $30 repairs to be fixed.

“Okay, $350, final offer.” I chance. The guy eyes me up and down for a moment, then laughs as he comments.

“Deal.”

Within five minutes, my wallet is $350 lighter, and I have the blue ownership card for the motorcycle and rush back to Simon.

“So how much did you pay?” Simon asks as I park the motorcycle.

“$350.”

“Too much.” Is all Simon comments, and then starts to work on the motorcycle. With my motorcycle hunting over, I head to the shops in search of new shoes, luggage straps, rain gear, as well as backpack rain covers.

 

Saigon Minks from across the road at a restaurant, my motorcycle in front closest to the camera.

 

Walking around Saigon doing window-shopping when you live in Siem Reap, is torture. There are so many items for sale that you cannot get in Cambodia. For a few minutes, I drool over helmets and am tempted to buy a better helmet. However, at the speeds I am riding at, it is not worth the money. All over while shopping, I spot fake Honda Win motorcycles for sale. At days, Simon will buy over 15 in a day. Having had the pleasure of owning two of these models already, I know the Yamaha I just bought is by far a better buy, as well as more comfortable.

 

Fake Honda Wins ready for the road.

It takes me an hour to get all the items I need, so I explore downtown Saigon until late afternoon before I head back to Simon.

“How are you going to navigate?” Simon asks as I take a seat next to him at the restaurant. My motorcycle is parked across the road, all fixed up.

“I have a digital map on my cellphone with a dedicated GPS receiver that connects via Bluetooth.” I proudly state.

“Nha, head over to the book shop across the road and get yourself a paper map.”

“Well, can’t hurt to have one.” I say dryly as I get up and cross the road. In the end, I would never use the map on the entire trip. The bookshop is next to Saigon Minks, and as I come out of the bookshop, a rooster crows inside Saigon minks. My jaw drops as the owner calmly gets up from where he is working on a motorcycle, goes into the shop, and then comes out with a rooster and a small wire mesh pen. The rooster is quite content in being carried across the road, and then placed onto a dirt path under the pen. Later, I would learn it is normal in Vietnam to keep roosters in small pens.

With the motorcycle serviced, I get directions from Simon to a gas station to fill the fuel tank up.

“All the best for the trip. Send me updates as you go along” Simon says as I climb into the saddle.

“I will.”

Excitement pulses through my body as I pull away from Saigon Minks. The motorcycle pulls away twice as fast as before, and just wants to keep going. It is going to be an awesome trip. I aim to be out of Saigon by 7am. I have no idea where I will sleep tomorrow night. All I know is, I am just going to ride along the Ho Chi Minh road until dark and then stop at the first hotel I see.

Before turning in, I quickly scan my email and smile as I open one from John at Tigit motorbikes, the original shop that had the first Honda Bonus for sale. John invites me to come over tomorrow before I head out. My dreams are filled with twisty mountain passes and rice paddies with stunning scenery. If I knew what was to come and how my resolve to ride to Hanoi would be tested, I would have had nightmare after nightmare.

 

 

Chapter 7

 

At 5am, I am up before my alarm and excitedly jump out of bed. Adrenalin filled blood, rushes through my body as I shower. Smelling like roses, I head downstairs for breakfast, and to pay my bill.

“I would like to check out.” I say to a new guy at the reception desk.

“Room number?”

“502.”

“$30.” My eyebrows narrow.

“My room is $12 a night that is $24.” I counter.

“$30 or no passport.” He calmly says and then starts checking Facebook posts on his cellphone. I am dumbfounded. I clench my jaw as I pull my wallet out, and then stop and smile.

“$12 a night.” I say as I point to the writing next to my room number, written by the guy that checked me in. The new guy stares at the writing for a moment, then shrugs his shoulders as he says.

“$12 a night then, $24 total.” I hand him the money, and for a moment, he glances at it, and then retrieves my passport from a drawer. I quickly have a bread roll and a banana, and then head out to meet up with John. I have met a number of British expats that run motorcycle shops in Saigon, mostly fly by night. John turns out to be a very nice person that runs a decent business. He lives with his Vietnamese girlfriend and runs his business out of his apartment. He uses a large space in the garage for the apartments he stays in, to house the motorcycles he sells and buys. (He has now expanded to include a shop.)

John did the trip to Hanoi with his parents, and gives me a printout of Google Maps of the route he took. The road is very much the same as what I discussed with Simon, and just keeps to the Ho Chi Minh road all the way, except for a side trip to Hoi An. However, John’s schedule calls for nine hours riding each day, with no stops in between. If you just want to get to Hanoi, that is fine, but I plan to explore Vietnam a bit. My plan is simple. Get up no earlier than 6am, have breakfast, be on the road by 8am, and stop at around 4pm to 5pm when I see a place I like. I will keep to the Ho Chi Minh road, and stop for an extra day or so when a place interests me.

John gives me verbal directions on how to get out of Saigon the fastest by bypassing the ferry. Thanking John, I point the Yamaha towards Hanoi and go for it. Behind me, ominous dark clouds chase me. I laugh at them, knowing I have a full rain suit.

As I leave the high skyscrapers and busy city, I cannot help but wonder what awaits me. All I know about Vietnam is from Vietnam War movies showing it to be a dense jungle filled booby-trapped place. How will the locals treat me in the remote villages I intend on passing through? Will they be aggressive towards me because of the color of my skin? Only time will tell. I hope that if I am captured and held in a bamboo cage in some remote village, someone will come to rescue me.

John’s directions are easy to follow, up to the point where I run into road works and am redirected several times. Each time I try to get back on the road I want to be on, I run into more road works. 20 minutes later, I am utterly lost. Admitting defeat, I turn to technology. I have a BadElf GPS receiver that connects via Bluetooth to my iPhone to enhance accuracy. Coupled with offline map applications such as ForEverMap, I am good to go. I let the application calculate a route from my current location to the main highway going to Hanoi (AH1). Later, I will join up with the Ho Chi Minh road where it forks out from the AH1 a distance from Hanoi.

Deep in though, I slam on the brakes when a gate jumps up in the road in front of me. A partition divides the road, with cars passing on the left and motorcycle on the right. Having no idea if I am lost, I pull out my iPhone and manage to bring the smooth line of motorcycles to a grinding halt as people try to pass around me. I smile as the digital map shows a bridge up ahead. From my experience in Cambodia with bridges that are supposed to cross a river, this is most probably a ferry service. However, I have no idea how much it costs to cross, and if you need a permit or even where you get a ticket for the ferry.

At the split in the road is a small snack shop, so I push my motorcycle back to it, to ask for directions. A friendly elderly woman runs the shop, and I buy two 500ml bottles of ice tea from her.

“Do I need a pass to cross?” I ask the woman, as she is about to hand me my change.

“dkqhdqldhlwqhkwq” She replies in Vietnamese. I bite my lip as she counts my change. Getting another idea, I point to my motorcycle and then point at the gate where other motorcyclists are going through on motorcycles. She shakes her head yes and hands me my change. Okay, that did not exactly work as planned. I hold up the change, and then point to the gate. A smile forms on her face, and she takes the change and then splits it into two piles. One she holds up and points to the gate, and then gives both piles back to me. Thanking her with a nod, I pocket the money I do not need and join the mad rush to get through. The ticket office turns out to be a fair distance along the path, and almost everyone has the exact amount ready. I laugh to myself as the ferry comes into view. After trying to follow John’s direction to avoid the ferry, I eventually end up at it in any case.

 

Entrance from the roadside shop.

 

Motorcycles have to wait until cars, trucks and buses have boarded the ferry, then they are allowed to take whatever space is left. We are crammed in like sardines. I look over to my side and smile as I see a guy that brought spare tires, in case he gets a flat.

 

 

 

The ferry ride is fun, and I am glad that I was lost and eventually ended up taking that route. After the ferry ride, it is mostly open road with little traffic. I pass a speed sign showing a picture of a small city scooter with 50 next to it, as well as a picture of what looks like my scooter with 60 next to it. Cool, I can do 60 km/h. Not five minutes after passing the sign, a traffic officer jumps out and tries to flag me down for speeding.

Two things happen at the same time. The officer realizes I am a backpacker without a Vietnamese girlfriend (huge problems if you have one on the back), so I am not worth stopping. The second thing that happens is that my instincts from years of riding 200 miles/h motorcycles, kicks in, and I open the throttle. Honestly, I did not mean to. It was a reflex action, but I am committed now. I hold the speed at 80km/h for a short distance. Nervously I glance over my shoulder. Relieve fills my body, no one is chasing me.

Just as I start to slow down my heart stops as I blast past a startled traffic officer next to a police truck they use to haul motorcycles away that they are going to impound, crap. Now I am really in trouble. Do I slow down or go for it? I go for it, natural instinct. Luckily, no one gives chase and a few minutes down the road, I bring the speed down to 50 km/h. John told me that when he was once pulled over for speeding. He had loads of problems because his Vietnamese girlfriend was with him. If I had a Vietnamese girl on the back, they would have given chase for they know I will pay up as I probably live in Vietnam.

Later, I found out that the smaller picture of the motorcycle is not actually meant to resemble any motorcycle, but the license you have. People that have a special permit to ride bigger and faster motorcycles are allowed to go faster. Foreigners doing that speed are just warned to slow down, another reason I was not given chase. In my defense, I have a full motorcycle license in both Cayman Islands and South Africa, not that the Vietnamese cops would care about it.

Around 10 minutes later, the dark clouds catch up with me and start washing my motorcycle with me on it. I pull over under a small roof of the first shop I can find, and take out my brand-new rain gear. The motorcycle has a rainproof luggage space under the seat, so I store my passport and electronic stuff in there. The only problem is that to get to the gas tank and the luggage space, you have to lift the seat. This means unstrapping my main backpack from the back of the motorcycle each time you fill up with gas or want to get to the luggage space. In the end, I could unstrap my backpack in under a minute.

As I get ready to roll out again, I glance up at the dark clouds and smile. Proud and very impressed with myself; I ride along dry, while the rain comes down in buckets. It pays to get good gear. Around 20 minutes later, it is as if I drive through an unseen door as the rain suddenly stops and the sun comes out. Within a minute, I am sweating inside the rain gear. I am almost as wet as if I rode in the rain with no rain gear on. Most of the road at this point is either industrial buildings or houses, with little traffic. I stop next to a rubber plantation to remove the rain gear, and then blast away. Not expecting traffic police outside the city limits, I increase my speed to 60 km/h on a smooth, four-lane road.

A short distance later, I pass a tollgate. To my surprise, motorcycles do not pay. Motorcycles just bypass the tollbooths on the side, unlike South Africa where motorcyclists have to pay the same price as cars. Did you hear that South Africa, motorcycles do not pay toll fees!

69 km out of town, I reach the famous 69 strip where roadside stalls sell dumplings and other local dishes. Not one for dumplings, I pass without stopping. A few minutes later, I spot a guy and girl on a motorcycle with about 40, 5L plastic cans. I pull up next to them, and motion that I want to buy one. They give me strange looks, but eventually pull over. I buy a can for 10 000 VND with the intention of using it as a spare gasoline can when I do the desolate mountain stretches.

John told me to do a side route to Vung Tau, a fishing town near Saigon and possibly overnight there if I want to experience a Vietnam fishing town. However, the town ends up being unimpressive for what I saw, and I press on after filling up with gasoline. Behind me, darkness is fast gaining on me. I have wasted a lot of time chatting with John, as well as getting lost and taking the ferry. I will need to stop soon for the night. 10 km past Vung Tau, I stop and contemplate my options. I can go back to Vung Tau, or try to make the next town, La Gi, before the rain gets me. Adventure awaits, so I press on.

I manage to get to La Gi just as it starts to drizzle lightly. ForeverMap, expedia.com and bookings.com show no accommodation in the town. I shake my head. This cannot be, there must be some place in this small town I can overnight at. I cannot go back to Vung Tau now with the storm approaching.

I drive around for 15 minutes up and down roads, doing grid searches for anything that resembles a place to sleep. John gave me the Vietnamese word for hotel, but that paper is now under the seat of the motorcycle with my passport. As I ride along, I try to match the strange characters on the signs in front of buildings to what I remember of the scribbled note, no such luck. It looks like I may need to press on to the next town in the dark. I idle slowly down a main road, and my head snaps to the side. Can it be? Yes, the building actually has hotel written on it.

The moment I stop and look at the hotel, a porter comes out to greet me. I bite my lip; this is going to be an expensive hotel. I reluctantly follow the porter to the reception desk.

“Good day sir.” A nice Vietnamese woman says.

“Hello. Do you have a room available?”

“Yes sir, we have a VIP room available.” I swallow. VIP means money.

“Do you have any other rooms available?”

“No sir.”

I bite my lip, and then glance outside. Dark clouds envelope the fading sun.

“How much?”

“360 000 VND” (Around $17.). I swallow; it seems tonight I am a VIP. Reluctantly, I accept. The room has a double and a single bed, and a bath, where most places have a double bed and a shower. I have not had a bath in months, and am ecstatic to get the opportunity to soak. My room is a corner unit, and has a balcony that goes all around the front and right side of the room. After stowing my gear down, I head downstairs and across the road for dinner.

As I sit down, a woman comes up to me and points to a large freestanding billboard outside that has pictures of different dishes on it. This kind of menu style is common in Cambodia as well, making it easy for tourists. I order a bowl of chicken soup, I think. Well, everything tastes like chicken, so it is okay. Just as the woman serves my food, a cloud bursts above us. For two hours, I sit in the cold and watch buckets of water, pour down, while my hotel and a warm bath are less than 100 meters away. When the rain finally lets up, I dash across the road with my iPad tucked under my shirt.

In my room, relaxing music from my iPod next to the bath fills the room while I sink into warm water. A single bed lamp battles the darkness while an hour passes by in blissful relaxation. After my spa session, I lie down with Kindle open on my iPad to read a book, however, the bed is so soft; I fall asleep before my head properly touches the pillow.

 

 

Chapter 8

 

The sun is happily warming earth outside when I awake. Getting up at 5am to be on the road by 6am is not my idea of fun on a long ride, so I lazily get my butt out of bed just after 7am. Music fills the room as I slip into 30 minutes of relaxation in a warm bath. Thunder starts to rumble as my stomach demands food, and I reluctantly get dressed and head out in search of breakfast.

Last night’s soup was great, and my mouth already waters just thinking about it. Energetically a skip down the steps of the hotel, then freeze. No, it cannot be. My shoulders sag. The place across the road is closed. My stomach growls in disgust. The shop next door to the places only sells coffee, so I continue walking along the road in search of food. A restaurant that was closed last night is now open, so I pop in to have a look. Four guys who are enjoying drinks and watching TV, give me a sideways glance as I enter.

As I sit down a woman immediately puts a glass on the table that can be either beer, or urine. She proceeds to give each person in the place a glass. Unsurely I watch the other guys. Most ignore the glass or take only a sip of it. As the woman comes around again, I decline the glass and ask for water. She nods yes, as she leaves, and then returns with iced coffee. My shoulders sag as I decline the coffee by waving no with my hand. With a frown, the woman takes the iced coffee away and then return with a can of Coca Cola. I shake my head no and indicate that I want food. The woman’s face drops, as she shakes her head no.

“No eat.” One of the four guys comments across from me, while clutching his drink and not taking his eyes of the TV. Reluctantly, I leave the sports bar and walk up and down the road. Disappointedly, all I can find is coffee and beer shops.

With my stomach complaining, I return to the hotel to fetch my motorcycle and then head to the gas station down the road, which happens to be next to a gym. I guess you can pump it all up here. :-) With the motorcycle’s fuel tank filled up, I head back to the hotel, collect my stuff and pay my room. This time I have no problems with the room price. As I climb onto my motorcycle to leave, the hotel receptionist and the porter walk to the door and wish me good luck for my trip. Thanking them, I take to the road with the intention on stopping at the first place selling food, and have breakfast. A few minutes later, I cross a bridge and pass a fleet of fishing boats. This is the first time that I have seen Vietnam fishing boats, and I have to pull over and take some pictures. Amazed by the fishing boats, I take to the road again, but stop just as I pass the next bridge. All I can do is shake my head at the round fishing boats at anchor, some with engines. These have to be the strangest boats I have ever seen. (Pictured later in the book)

 

 

The road runs close to the coast. However, for the most part, I only get a glimpse now and again of it. My head snaps to the side, and I slam on the brakes as I pass a medieval Europe style castle. It has a large square, an ancient dome, and four watchtowers. No way, a castle out here?

“Hi. What is this place?” I ask the security guard at the entrance.

“This is Rang Dong Vang Winery.” He replies.

“Can I go inside with my motorcycle?”

“No, must leave outside.”

The guard’s answer causes my shoulders to drop. I am not sure if my backpack will be secure on the back of the motorcycle, so I continue. A few minutes later, I come to a fork in the road. Undecided I stop and contemplate my options. The GPS says I must go left to get to the highway, but that will take me away from the coast. Staying close to the ocean on the back roads is more scenic; however, it will cost me time. Well, I am not here to do a race, so I head along the scenic route.

The road runs next to the ocean, and I marvel at the amazing scenery. My stomach, however, is not impressed, as it is already 11am, and I have not had anything to eat since last night.

 

 

Distracted by my hunger, I fail to see an attack from an ancient dragon. It spits fire and almost scares me. I pull my sword and stare it down. Just as I am about to lunge at the dragon, it speaks in a Sean Connery voice. “My dear fellow, I mean you no harm.” Realizing it is not an evil dragon, I let it live.

 

 

I leave the dragon behind and race down the coastal road with the wind in my hair. This is awesome. Spotting a roadside restaurant on the beach, I pull over for a breakfast and lunch in one. Surprisingly, the menu is in English, and I order a beef salad. To my relief, the meat is cooked. I once ordered a beef salad in Cambodia, and the meat was raw. The Cambodian chef was very upset when I asked him to cook the meat, as to him, a salad must be raw.

With the dragon in my stomach satisfied, I take to the road again. The next town is Mui Ne, the first overnight stop John suggested. I stop just outside the city limits and admire the scenery while contemplating if I should stop for the day.

 

 

With plenty of daylight still left, I leave Mui Ne behind and head for the unknown. 32 km past Mui Ne, I stop to gas up the motorcycle. The gas attendant looks the motorcycle up and down as he fills the tank, and then comments.

“Motorbike problem.”

“No, no problems. She runs good.” I reply proudly.

“Motorbike problem.” He says again and points to the rear wheel. My heart stops as I follow his finger. The entire rear casing of the automatic gearbox is covered in oil. Frantically I call Simon.

“Hi Simon. I have a problem. The entire rear of the gearbox is covered in oil.”

“That’s okay. It’s probably just the filler hose that came off inside. Pull the cover off and look inside.”

Somehow, Simon’s reassurance does not help to chase the dreaded feeling in my stomach away. I have a few tools with me, but to get the cover off; I have to remove the swing arm. To do that, requires a bigger toolbox than what I have. It looks like I will be overnighting in Mui Ne after all. Not knowing how much oil is left in the gearbox, I drive back at 15 km/h. 20 km into my boring but scenic drive, I round a corner and slam on the brakes as I spot a roadside mechanic. I am saved.

“Hi. Do you speak English.” I ask the mechanic.

“kldnvlkjnsdlnlskd.” He replies in Vietnamese. I bite my lip for a moment, and then get an idea. Pointing to the oil on the gearbox, I indicate it is broken, by placing my fists next to each other and making as if I am breaking a stick. He gives me a thumb up, and pulls his toolbox closer.

“How long will it take?” I ask as I tap on my wrist and then point at his watch. The guy thinks for a moment, and then pulls a chair up for me. O boy. Reluctantly, I sit down and watch him go to work. Screws and panels fly in all directions, until eventually he has the back of the drive system open. We both look at each over in surprise. The seals and oil pipe are intact.

The mechanic scratches his chin for a moment, and then starts to smile as he pulls a plastic bowl closer. Removing the drain plug, he drains the gearbox oil. The more the oil flows out, the more he smiles. As the last droplets of oil feel the free air, he puts the plug back in, and then stands up and gets a small tube of oil. He shows me the small gearbox oil tube, and then points to the oil in the bowel. Yip, I get it. The gearbox was overfull and the excess blew out. The guys at Saigon Minks never drained the gearbox before they put more oil in, shame on you. I phone Simon, and we are both upset. For safety, I have the engine oil changed, and then buy a spare tube of gearbox oil. All in, it costs me $10. However, the two hours I lost are worth more.

I am now 12km from Mui Ne, and it is way past 2pm. It takes me all of half a second to decide to just keep going forward and see what I can make with the available daytime I have left. About 50 km further on, the road pulls away from the ocean and Vietnam countryside fills the scenery.

 

 

With the road open and smooth, I keep the speed around 80km/h. About 30 km on, the road turns back to the ocean, and rewards me with amazing sceneries. Just outside of Ca Na, as the sun starts to bow to the moon, I spot a gas station, with a restaurant and hotel across the road from it. Perfect, almost everything I need (they lack a good braai). The hotel and restaurant are right on the beach, and I have a stunning ocean view from both my hotel window and the restaurant. My GPS says I have done 418 km in two days.

This far from Saigon, the menus are not in English, and the server does not know any English either. Using my iPhone, I translate beef, rice, vegetables, and water into Vietnamese and show it to the server. Amazingly, she understands and I get an awesome beef and rice meal with vegetables, with a bottle of ice-cold water. After dinner, I check into the hotel next door.

“Motorbike inside.” The reception woman says, as I want to head to my room. I glance over at the five steps that lead into the hotel.

“How?” I ask as I point to the steps.

“Come come.” She says as she walks around the reception desk and calls the security guard. After a few words in Vietnamese, he walks off, and then returns a short while later with a narrow wooden plank almost as wide as the motorcycle’s tires. After placing the plank over the steps, the security guard helps me push the motorcycle into the reception area. For added security, I chain the back wheel up, and draw a frown from the security guard. Offended, he walks away shaking his head while muttering something in Vietnamese.

In my room, after a long shower, I look at my options for towns for tomorrow. In the end, I decide to go for one of the towns John suggested, Da Lat. It is a French styled town in the mountains, a 165 km drive. To get there, I will leave the ocean and the AH1 highway, and head to the mountains and follow the famous Ho Chi Minh road. Ho Chi Minh built this road during the Vietnam War to link the North and South Vietnam. It runs through the mountains close to the Cambodia-Vietnam and later Laos-Vietnam border, and was used to bring troops and supplies down from North Vietnam to South Vietnam. As it runs through mountain areas that are largely untouched, this road is an amazing one to ride. I almost can’t wait to go to sleep so I can dream about the mountain passes I will face tomorrow.

 

 

Chapter 9

 

A rumbling shakes me awake at 7:30 am. Opening the curtains, I breathe in the cool ocean air as my eyes appreciate the splendor of the scenery. Again, a rumble sounds as my stomach reminds me off who is boss. Okay, I love food.

I head out to the restaurant next door and sit down to order breakfast. On the table is a small plate of chilies. For a moment, I contemplate going for one, but then chicken out. I used to be able to eat hot food when I lived in Durban, South Africa, but not anymore. I also have a problem ordering milk, as each time I ask for milk for my coffee, they bring me condensed milk. Nice for the coffee, but useless for a hot chili.

To my disappointment, all they have for breakfast is omelet with a baguette. I miss bacon and toast. After breakfast, I go to check out and find the reception empty. Walking around, I eventually find the security guard, and he points me to a small roadside shop next to the hotel. During the day, the receptionist also runs the small shop.

“Morning. I would like to check out and get my passport.”

“210 000.” She replies. My eyes shoot open as she pulls my passport out of her pants pocket. What happened to keeping it safe in a locked drawer? Without formality or paperwork, I pay her for the room in the parking area, and then go to get my motorcycle out of the lobby. The security guard puts the plank down over the steps, and I carefully free wheel out.

“Can I leave my backpack here? I want to fuel up the motorcycle.” I ask the security guard, who just gives me a puzzled look. Placing my backpack in the corner of the reception, I point to myself and then across the road to the gas station. Then I point to the backpack and show a thumb up. His face lights up and he moves closer to the backpack and folds his arms. Happy that he will be looking after my backpack for me, I dart across the road to fill the motorcycle’s gas tank up. With the motorcycle ready to go, I return to strapping my backpack down on the back.

The security guard comes over, and motions that he wants cigarettes. I guess it is for payment of him guarding my motorcycle during the night and my backpack while I fueled up my motorcycle. I indicate that I do not smoke. Without missing a beat, he points to my wallet and then to the shop close by and indicates I must give him money for cigarettes. With a sigh, I give in. I hate smoking. Having no idea what cigarettes cost, I give him 10K VND. The guard looks at the money in disgust, and then holds out his hand demanding more while mumbling something in Vietnamese. Crap, I probably insulted him.

Reluctantly, I give him another 10K VND (21K VND is US$1). Suddenly, I am his best friend, and he grabs and shakes my hand, and gives me a hug. Funny and strange dude, I am glad I did not give him more money; he may have kissed me and proposed to me. With pats on my back from the security guard, and what I assume is wishes of good luck said in Vietnamese, the guard sees me off. I point the motorcycle in the direction of the next town, and go for it.

Last night, a few raindrops kissed the ground, but the sky is clear today. It is going to be a glorious day. I take a deep breath and draw in the coastal morning air. Birds sing praise to me while the trees along the road make an honor guard for me. I am in heaven. My heart stops when a noise comes from behind the instrument cluster. It sounds as if a rattlesnake is trapped in there, and I pull my legs away and sit back on the seat. My eyebrows dip when the speedo meter stops working. Ah, man, the speedo cable probably broke. The rest of the day, I judge my road speed from the sound of the engine. Being air cooled, the engine has a fan bolted directly to the crankshaft and as the engine speeds up, the fan generates a high-pitched noise similar to a turbo spinning up. Determined to enjoy my ride, I take another deep breath of morning sea air, and then ignore the broken speedo.

A distance later, a police officer pulls out of a side road on his motorcycle. I move in behind him and match his speed. He gives a glance back at me, smiles, and then increases speed. The race is on. We make good time and have fun zipping through traffic. I feel like royalty with my own police escort. Suddenly, he slams on the brakes and slows down. I do the same and match his speed as I move to his left side.

Our speed is still above the other motorcycle riders as we pass a speed trap, however, no one gives chase. The police officer looks behind him, sees me still there, nods his head, and then increases the pace again. We ride together for about 50km before he waves goodbye and takes a side road. Up ahead I spot a bus, and move in behind it and match its pace.

Although the bus is going slower than the police officer’s pace, we make good time as just about everything gets out of the way for a bus. A distance later, we round a sharp bend, and suddenly smoke pours out from the bus’s back wheels. As I start reading the engine number of the bus, I decide I should probably slam on the brakes as well. The bus comes to a screeching halt with its hooter honking. I try to see what is going on, but the bus is blocking my view of the road ahead. A car passes the bus slowly in the oncoming lane and as the car passes me, the bus pulls away and crosses over into the oncoming lane.

My eyes are transfixed at what is in the road in front of me. No, this must be a joke. I look around for candid cameras but find none. A bicycle is parked on its side stand, in the middle of my lane. The owner of said bicycle is sitting across the road at a small cafe, having breakfast, laughing at the consternation he is causing. It takes all kinds. Shaking my head, I catch up to the bus and follow it for the next 20km before it pulls off. Once again, I judge my speed by the turbo sound of the cooling fan of the engine. The main road turns into a smaller back road, and traffic dies down to where at times I do not see another motorcycle for kilometers on end. In the distance, the mountains call to me.

 

 

As I am now far from any towns with speed traps, I let the engine sing at full voice and blow the spider webs out of the exhaust. The road changes to a main road again with wide-open countryside next to the road. Just before I take on the mountains, I cross a large bridge and have to stop to do the tourist thing and take pictures of the river. In the distance, is a train bridge. Even though I am not in the mountain passes, I am delighted about motorcycling through Vietnam and for what I have seen so far.

 

 

A short distance after the bridge, the road starts to go uphill, and snakes a bit. With every turn, the smile on my face grows larger. Ecstasy floods my body and I am riding on cloud nine when I hit the mountain passes. The road surface is in excellent condition, and I have a blast.

 

 

The motorcycle performs very well and has loads of power for the uphill. The speed limit through turns is between 20 and 30 km/h, depending on the section of the road. Judging from the sound of the engine, I do about 40. Although the engine has ample power to go faster, it will be stupid to do so as you can encounter slow moving trucks and the odd oxcart at any turn. With my experience of doing +300km/h rides, I go one hand up the mountain while I film a short video. See a short 5-minute video I recorded here.

When I hit the ridgeline of the mountains, the road starts to run flat and gives spectacular views of the mountaintops around me. Am I in heaven? Something attracts my attention to my right just as I enter a small town, and I stop and turn around. It turns out to be a Catholic church that has a very nice garden. I take a bit of a rest stop and then continue the fun.

With the motorcycle (okay scooter for purists) having no gears, taking pictures while riding is a breeze. The road starts to climb again, and the fun gets even more exciting. Half-way up, I pass a Pagoda. The entrance has a pole with a small dragon twisting around it.

“Hi. You have shrunk a bit, did you get wet?” I ask the dragon. Silence fills the air. Clearly, this is not the same dragon I met a few days ago. As I start my motorcycle again, I notice a monk a short distance away. Wide eyed he stares at me as I wave goodbye to the dragon. As I drive away, I glance in my side mirrors and smiles as the monk moves over to the dragon. The road is reasonably flat as it runs on the mountaintop. I pass a number of small towns.

 

I stop at one when I spot a small market, and shake my head as American pop music blasts out over a speaker. Looking around, I check that I did not pass through a porthole, but no, I am still in Vietnam in the mountains.

I shake my head as an Elvis song comes on. Laughing, I stand up on the motorcycle as I pull away and shake my sexy ass to Hound dog as I continue onwards. I sing what I can remember of Blue Suede Shoes as I continue to dance on the motorcycle. About 10km further on, I spot a gas station and stop to fill up the motorcycle. My eyes narrow and my nose twitches, as I smell something funny. Looking around, I find the cause of the smell, a guy with a cabbage cart, with only one-horse power to pull it. I am sure the horse is munching on those cabbages and is letting it rip.

 

 

Just as I pull away from the gas station, rumbling fills my ears. I look up to the sky but fail to see any storm clouds. Shaking my head, I continue. As rumbling sounds again, I look down and sigh. Yes, my stomach is growling. In its defense, it is almost 1pm, and I only had an omelet and a bread roll for breakfast. Just as I take on another hill, my eyes light up. Alongside the road is something that any hungry person will appreciate. Tour buses parked next to shops. Wherever there are loads of people that have fancy cameras hanging from their necks, is food.

I park the motorcycle and go into the first shop.

“Hi. Do you sell any food?” I ask the girl behind the counter.

“So sorry, only candy.” She replies in such a sweet voice that I forgive her for not selling food. My stomach, however, is not impressed.

“Do any of the other shops sell food?”

“So sorry, no food.” My shoulders sag as I scan the shelves full of candy.

“You want some candy?” Her voice melts my heart, and I buy an ice tea and a packet of candy.

“Do you have Wi-Fi?” I ask as I take my change from her. Her face lights up and proudly she says yes, as she hands me a note with the password for the Wi-Fi. Thanking her, I sit down outside the shop and catch up on my writing. My fingers race across the keyboard, and I get into writing mode. Nothing can break my concentration now. Then the wind shifts and my body freezes. Every sense in my body is at high alert. The gentle breeze tickles my nose and carries a whisper of a promise of food somewhere close by. South Africans can smell sausage roasting on a fire kilometers away.

My hunting skills take over, and I tract the smell to a tourist attraction a short distance away. Busloads of tourists, loaded down with cameras pour into the place. I have no idea what the place is, but I can smell food and tourists go in, so I pay the entry fee and go inside.

Inside, Prenn Waterfall Park has my jaw hanging at the stunning scenery hidden away next to a deserted road. A number of restaurants are situated along a small mountain stream. Near the entrance, I find the source of the food smell. A woman is roasting sausages on an open fire at a mobile food cart. My mouth waters as I scan the readymade sausage bread rolls. Underestimating my hunger, I buy only one. With the first bite, my hunger takes over, and I wolf the rest of the roll down. The taste is amazing. The woman gives me a big smile of satisfaction when I buy another roll.

With my stomach content, I explore the park and marvel at its scenery. They have river rides, a cable car, elephant rides, and a cool swing bridge over the river. To get to the swing bridge you climb into a large tree and follow a spiral staircase up inside the tee. Prenn Waterfall is just after the swing bridge, and has a small path that allows you to walk through underneath the waterfall.

 

 

 

 

When I exit the park, the sausage woman smiles again as I get myself another roll. Hey, I am a big guy, wink wink. Full of excitement I take to the road again. A short distance later, I come to a fork in the road. Both roads lead to Da Lat, on opposite sides of the town. My GPS indicates to go left, but the road to the right looks more inviting and interesting. It snakes up the mountain, and I cannot resist and take it. Since I have no hotel reservations, it does not really matter what part of the city I end up in. My choice turns out to be an awesome decision as the mountain throws its best curves and twisties at me, while the road is lined with trees.

 

 

Too soon the fun is over, and I enter Da Lat. Immediately I fall in love with this French Alp style town. So this is why so many tourists come here. The town is something to experience. With the cooler mountain air, the spectacular mountain scenery, amazing waterfalls around the town and a cool lake in the middle of the town, I can see myself moving here.

However, this is a tourist town. My wallet cannot afford more than a few days here. Expedia waves that fact in my face as I look at the hotels it lists. I swallow as I look at the prices for one night; it is central Manhattan, New York prices. Bookings.com comes to my rescue and lists a number of hostels and cheaper hotels. I find one for US$10 a night with warm water, Wi-Fi, and breakfast. My price range.

With the clock standing on 3pm, I head out to explore Da Lat. I come across two backpacker hostels that to my surprise buy and sell backpacker motorcycles. One of the hostel owners informs me that Da Lat, and Hue An further up north, are two major towns for backpackers to start and finish. Apparently, many backpackers underestimate what it takes to do a 2400 km odd trip on a motorcycle and give up half way. I have done a number of longer trips on 1000cc superbikes, but this is my longest trip on a small engine motorcycle. I am determined not to become one of those that gave up half way. Do or die, I will reach Hanoi.

After a late lunch at a small restaurant, I return to the hotel for a short nap and then a bit of creative writing. By 6pm, I decide to head to the downstairs restaurant in the hotel.

“Hi. I would like to order dinner.” I inform the reception woman as I pass her on my way to one of the restaurant tables.

“Sorry, we only serve breakfast.”

“What breakfast do you serve?”

“Baguette and eggs.”

“Okay, I will have that.” I say with a smile. The receptionist’s eyes widen for a moment, and then a smile forms on her face.

“We only serve breakfast in the morning.” She laughs.

“Tomorrow then.” I wink and cause the woman to blush.

Wanting to spoil myself, I head to the lake to find a restaurant on the shore. There, I am like a moth to a flame and cannot resist the pretty lights of a fancy restaurant. For $10, I get a plate of steak and fries with salad, followed with coffee, less than I expected, but still expensive. The place has Wi-Fi, allowing me to update my blog while overlooking the lake.

 

 

By 8pm, I feel the need for a soft pillow and resist the pretty lights around the lake and leave. The security guard gives me a big smile as I tip him for looking after my motorcycle. There are no lights in the parking area, and I bite my lip as I climb onto the motorcycle. Cold water seeps through my pants. I should have known the seat would be wet from dew this high up in the mountains. Great, now I have a wet and cold bum. I just hope the reception woman does not see my wet pants, for it looks like I could not hold myself. The thought of a warm shower brings a smile to my face.

I turn the ignition key and press the starter button. Click. My heart stops. I press the starter button again. Click, click. Oh come on, give me a break. The starter does not want to turn. As the headlights only come on when you start the motorcycle, I pull the back brake lever and check the back light. The light is bright. It is not the battery. It may be the solenoid or the starter.

Putting the motorcycle on its center stand, I try the kick-starter. After a few minutes of kicking with no success, I try the starter again. On the fourth attempt, the starter engages, but the engine still refuses to start. I keep trying. After the fifth attempt, I breathe a sigh of relief when the engine sputters to life. After letting the engine warm up, I switch on the lights. I clench my jaw, no headlights, only the dash light comes on. Ah no man.

My high spirit from the mountain ride and nice meal on the lake is crushed. What was that about do or die, I will reach Hanoi? Using the streetlights, I ride back to the hotel with no headlights. With a heavy heart, I park the motorcycle at the hotel’s door and switch the engine off. For kicks, I try the starter. It immediately engages, and the engine fires up on the first turn, weird. I switch the engine off again and then retry to start the motorcycle again, click, click, no starter. I decide to go and play video games on my iPad where I can shoot something and blow stuff up. Modern Combat fits the bill.

 

 

Chapter 10

 

Today is day four on the road and day 10 of the trip. Dark clouds hang over me as I order breakfast; my spirit is at a low. Mechanical problems is a risk when taking a trip this long on such a small motorcycle. However, when so many things go wrong at the same time, coupled with the inability to identify and correct major issues, the trip is going sideways down a mountain.

My eyes slowly scan the two options for breakfast on the menu, fish soup, or eggs and bread roll. I go with eggs and bread roll. A few minutes later, I clench my jaw as the server places my breakfast in front of me. My stomach makes a turn as the raw yolk wobbles in the plate, I hate sunny-side up.

“Excuse me, can you please cook the eggs more, like turn it over.” I ask the server.

“Yes, yes, no turn over eggs.” The server replies.

“No, turn the eggs over, cook them more.”

“Yes, yes, no turn over eggs.”

“Please just cook the eggs more.” I sigh.

“Yes, yes.” The server replies and takes the plate away. A minute or so later the server returns with my food. They scorched the top, but the yolk is still running all over the plate when you cut it. I take a deep breath, and force the food down while fighting the urge not to vomit.

The crappy breakfast adds to my downed mood. The speedo stopped working. The motorcycle failed to start last night with the kick starter. The starter motor struggled to kick in, and when it eventually did, it took a lot of cranking to get the engine to start, and finally the headlights stopped working. What’s next? An email announces itself on my iPad. I had to ask. I bite my lip as I read the email. My heart sinks low down into the lowest gutter, deeper even than crab crap.

My plan was to go up to Hanoi, and then cross over to Laos. After crossing into Laos, I planned to come all the way down to Siem Reap through Laos. However, I have been in contact with a number of people, and they all say the same, it is very difficult to cross over from Vietnam to Laos, and the border post between Laos and Siem Reap is a nightmare with lots of scams.

A popular scam is to let you through on the Vietnam side, and then stop you on the Laos side and refuse for you to take the motorcycle in. You cannot go back as you used your one entry visa for Vietnam and cannot get a new visa for Vietnam on the border, so you end up selling the motorcycle to them for $50 or less and having to take a bus to get to a city in Laos.

To top things, Vietnam is far more expensive than I planned from information I got from blog posts and my experience in Cambodia. The motorcycle is also almost twice as heavy on fuel as it should be and is eating into my fuel budget. I sip my coffee and ponder my options. I am two days hard riding from Saigon. I can scratch everything and go home, but then I will be giving up on my dream. Actually, this ride is a compromise to my dream of riding Route 66 in America. That is too expensive, so I settled for Vietnam.

I scroll through the pictures I have taken after leaving Cayman Islands. The pictures remind me with a bold statement how far I have come. Not just in places as in making it to Cambodia and Vietnam with no plans, but in trusting myself. I am a Taurus Sign, and I like to have things planned out years in advance, with a guarantee stamped on it. Now, I am in a strange country, that I do not speak the language and communicate with sign language and a lot of guessing. I have no idea where I will sleep or even eat tomorrow. I am living on my savings and income from the books I have already written. However, the income from my books does not cover my expenses so each month I eat into my savings. I do not know how long my savings will last as each month’s sales of my books is different. I realize how much I have learned, not just about people, but also about life and myself.

The only stability one really has is that somehow, life will go on. And that the best way to move through life, is not being prepared for every problem on the road, and having everything planned out, but actually, a kind smile, humiliation, the willingness to make it work, and being friendly to others.

Having served in the South African army, I learned; do not make rash decisions on an empty stomach. Right, so the first thing on the agenda is to find a place to have a real breakfast. Here is a picture of me in my browns, sexy ha ha ha. No, the gun is not loaded, but I did put a lot of rounds though it.

 

 

Outside the hotel, I try to start the motorcycle, but all I get is click click click. The starter just does not engage.

“What is wrong?” The hotel owner asks as she comes to stand in the door.

“The starter does not want to engage, and the engine is hard to start.” Noting that she has a few similar models for rent, I ask.

“Do you know a good mechanic?”

“Yes. Down the road is a motorcycle shop, you cannot miss it.”

With the hotel being on a steep hill, I freewheel the motorcycle down. Halfway down, just for kicks I hit the starter button. The engine starts first time, silly ass bike. As I go down, I note the speedo needle jumping a few times while noise of something slipping comes from behind the speedo meter. I bet the speedo cable pulled out.

The motorcycle shop turns out to be a large Yamaha dealership, but they have no service area and directs me to another place 1 km away. This turns out to be Yamaha’s main service center in Da Lat.

“Hi. Do you have an English-speaking mechanic?” I ask the reception woman at the second shop.

“Follow me.” She replies and then walks over to a phone and makes a call. After a few sentences in Vietnamese, she hands me the phone.

“Hi. Can you help me to translate to a mechanic here with what is wrong with my motorcycle?” I ask.

“I am sending someone over.” A man answers and cuts the call.

Five minutes later, the head mechanic that helped me at the previous dealerships is there to translate. The head mechanic takes the motorcycle for a drive and then hands it to another mechanic to test. They inform me that the air filter needs replacing, and the carburetor adjusted for mountain altitude. In addition to that, the back shocks need replacing.

“The shocks need replacing?” I ask shocked. The head mechanic bounces the back of the motorcycle and says.

“No good, no good.” For added effect, he bounces another motorcycle’s back and shows me the difference.

“How much for new shocks?” I ask. The head mechanic looks confused at me, and then turns and walks to a woman close by. After a short conversation in Vietnamese with her, she goes off to check her computer. As she checks her computer, a mechanic starts to work on my motorcycle. A few minutes later, the woman returns. After a short conversation in Vietnamese with the woman, the head mechanic turns to me and goes.

“US$120.”

“What?” I ask shocked, thinking that I only paid $350 for the motorcycle. I will ride it as is, I made it this far. I turn around and gasp. The mechanic is already busy working on the back shock.

“No no stop stop.” I say and hold my hands up to stop the mechanic. Confused he looks at me and then at the head mechanic, who bursts out laughing. I am now at a total loss.

“No charge no charge.” The head mechanic says.

Disbelievingly I stand back. Surely, they are not going to replace $120 worth of shocks free of charge. After a while, I realize that the mechanic is loosening the adjustment nut that pre compresses the spring. Only then do I realize what they meant with, no good. The back shock was set up for two or maybe three people and was set too hard for one rider. Thanks guys, so now I know why it felt like a go-cart. They replace the air filter, adjust the carburetor, and 150 000 VND later, all is sorted. Although the damn solenoid did not once give any problems.

“Can you fix the speedo?” I ask the head mechanic.

“Very expensive, maybe broken at wheel and no parts,” he replies.

I decide that it is going to be a long conversation trying to explain to them that I think the cable only pulled out of the speedo unit, so leave it at that. The lights I will try to fix myself as the dash lights do come on. I suspect a loose wire. If not, I will just ride the bike as is. Unlike many other counties, In Vietnam and Cambodia, motorcycles do not ride with their headlights on during the day. Having your headlights on during the day is reserved for important government officials and is illegal to do so for other people. Most traffic officers let foreigners be, but some do get a bit hot under the collar if you ride with your lights on during the day.

“Do you have a carrier for my motorcycle, so I can fasten stuff under the steering.” I ask the head mechanic.

“Follow me.” He replies and jumps on the motorcycle he arrived on. The guy zips through traffic like a hot knife through butter; it seems as if he just melts into the flow of things. Even with my experience of riding in Asia, I still have to up my game to keep up. Here is a short video of the traffic circle to give you an idea of the traffic in the town. We end up at the original dealership, and he goes inside to check for a carrier for me. A short while later he comes out with a carrier. Unfortunately, it does not fit my motorcycle.

With the motorcycle running nicely (starter did not blink once, we will see tomorrow in the cold if it starts), I go and find a place to eat brunch as it is about 11am now. The town is a tourist attraction trap. Even small shops and restaurants are expensive. Wanting to update my blog post, I look for a place that has Wi-Fi, and ends up on a different restaurant on the lake.

In Asia, you quickly learn that ordering food can be an adventure in itself, for even when you think you know what you are ordering; you never know what you are going to get. A word that means a certain way of cooking in one country means something very different in another.

This is part of the fun. I order beef and vegetable from the menu, expecting the normal beef with rice and vegetable, and get soup with a baguette. With the lion in my stomach satisfied, I explore Da Lat. With the city built in the mountains, the roads go up and down hills, perfect for some fun on a motorcycle. Near the central market, I spot a shop selling gloves. As I lost mine on another trip in Cambodia when I lost my main backpack, I get myself a new pair of gloves. Gloves are more for the relentless sun burning your hands than for protection when you fall off. Gloves also help for the rocks thrown up by passing buses and trucks, and the occasional bee that kamikaze ass first into your hand. One even managed to nail me in the leg, right through denim pants.

By midday, I head over to the lake for lunch and a bit of writing. An hour later, I get a reply email from a tour bike company I asked about border crossings to Laos from Vietnam. My heart starts to race as I read their reply. They inform me that crossing over the border is difficult, with the exception for one border post that they use regularly. They give me details on who to contact and how to cross the border when I get there. Wicked, maybe I can still be able to do a Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia trip in one.

Pulling up my sales reports for my book sales and my online banking for my savings, I work out my budget. Things are a bit tight. I glance over the lake as I contemplate if I should continue. The trip has cost me more than I bargained for, and I still have a long ride ahead of me. Although I still have some savings left, it is getting lower than I want to as the book sales are not what I was hoping for. Well, I will just have to eat rice and onions for a few months when I return, I am moving forward.

With my mind made up, I head back to the hotel to see if I can fix the motorcycle’s headlights. At the hotel, I first pay my bill and inform them that I will leave early tomorrow morning. I then tackle the motorcycle. To get to the wiring for the headlights, you have to remove the front feering, which is held on with only like 1000 screws.

The owner of the hotel and the receptionist look on in wonder as I pull the motorcycle apart. As I pull the front feering off, a smile forms on my face. I was right, a loose wire. To work on the front forks, you have to remove the feering and unplug the headlights. However, someone decided to rather cut the wires than unplug them. On fitting the feering again, the wires were just twisted together without any electrical tape. I also find the problem why the speedometer is not working. As I suspected, the cable pulled out. I guess that when Saigon Minks repaired the front forks, they detached the speedo cable and must not have tightened the locking nut properly, allowing the nut to rattle loose and the cable to pull out.

From the damage to the wires, it looks like the loose speedo cable pulled against the headlight wires and pulled the shoddy connection apart. Luckily, nothing shorted out. I do not have large pliers, and tighten the speedo cable, locking nut as best I can with my hand, and then reattach the headlight wires and cover them with electrical tape. After fitting the feering again and testing that the lights work, I contact Simon. He informs me that he had a chat with his partner. He tells me that normally, his partner does excellent work. However, sometimes he hurries things and makes mistakes.

Tomorrow’s end target is Boun Ma Thuot, 210 km of mountain passes. I calculate it to take around eight hours of riding, and decide to get up early tomorrow, like around 6:30 am. With the headlights, speedo and engine working right, I am full of energy for the rest of the trip. With the possibility of crossing over to Laos if the book sales improve, I struggle to fall asleep, as I just want to take to the road. As I finally fall asleep, I have no idea how radically my life would change in a very short space of time.

 

 

Chapter 11

 

An annoying beep wakes me from a wonderful dream. I briefly contemplate if I should change the tone of the alarm clock on my iPad but decide not to. After missing two buses, I know that I sleep through a soft or nice alarm tone. After a quick shower, I head downstairs for breakfast. I smile as I sit down at a table in the restaurant. Today, I am going to beat the chef.

“What would you like for breakfast, the eggs, or fish soup?” The server asks.

“Eggs please, scrambled.” The server nods and then disappears. I push my chest out. Take that, no running yolk for me today. Pulling my iPad out, I write a quick blog post. Just as I finish with the blog post, the server brings my breakfast, an omelet. I bite my lip to stop myself from bursting out in laughter. Well, at least the egg yolk is not running.

Using my iPad, I plan my route for the day. Getting to Da Lat, took me off the Ho Chi Minh road. To get back on it, I can either backtrack 50km to it and then go around Da Lat, as suggested by John, or follow a back road for 30km that joins up to the Ho Chi Minh road, as suggested by the map application. However, I have no idea if the 30km back road is a dirt road or even exists, as I have run into places in Cambodia where the map shows a finished road (or a bridge, for that matter), and it was never completed. The choice is easy. Forward, with a touch of adventure and spiced with the unknown, sounds more exciting than going backwards to something you have already done.

For the first 10 minutes, the road is smooth but boring with just houses. Then, the road turns into a pothole-ridden nightmare. To add insult to injury, it is almost dead straight. What happened to the twists and turns I dreamed about? Just as I am about to contemplate turning around, my dreams come to realizations with a smooth surface and many turns. Bring it on.

 

 

I hammer the motorcycle and throw it left and right as I take turn after turn. Just as I am beginning to enjoy myself, I find roadworks after roadworks. In amazement, I watch as workers dig massive boulders up with jackhammers, and then drive steel pegs into the boulders until they split into smaller rocks. They continue the manual process to break the rocks up until they are basketball-sized rocks, and then load them onto trucks. As most of the road is loose sand, I have to work to keep my balance. Thankfully, it starts to lightly rain, making the loose sand easier to negotiate.

Spotting two backpackers having a smoke break next to their motorcycles up ahead, I slow down to stop, but then decide to keep going. I give then a nod as I pass them. From riding around Cambodia, I have learned that when it starts to rain, get off the dirt roads before they turn to mud. I also am not keen on smoking.

 

Just as I think this mountain pass is going to be a duzy, the roadwork ends. Village after village wiz past as I have fun in the mountains. In one village, a pig starts to cross the road but then stops when it sees me. I brake and stop a distance from it. The pig looks at me, oinks, and then lazily makes its way to the other side. I am sure it had to finish farting before crossing, so I hang back for a moment and let the air clear.

 

 

Just a bit further on, I encounter a large funeral line with cars and bikes riding in line coming from the opposite direction. Pulling off the road, I respectfully let them pass. As the coffin passes me, I cannot help but think of the cycle of life. Somewhere, a baby was just born. Taking to the road again, I have a blast on the back road until it links up with the Ho Chi Minh road. Sadly, the main road disappoints by being mostly flat with town after town and not much countryside. With the road flat, I let the engine run almost flat out and make good time, only stopping for a quick bread roll with cucumbers snack at a roadside vendor.

One thing about Asia that I hate is that the gas stations have no public toilets, and soon I am shifting uneasily in the saddle. With the pressure mounting, I look for a suitable spot to pull off the road. However, the road is too busy and the shrubs to scares to provide enough cover to unseen let things hang around.

I sigh with relieve when I spot three backpacker motorcycles parked outside a small wooden hut, I am saved. Where there are backpackers, there is food and hopefully toilets. Outside on the porch I find two girls and their local guide, who invites me to join them for a drink. Delighted to have a chat with fellow bikers, I get myself an ice tea and sit down, all the while my eyes search for any sign of a toilet. However, I fail to see any as I sip on my ice tea. With effort, I smile and answer their questions, while trying not to pee in my pants. Who said men can’t do two things at once, ha. As the pressure in my pants becomes unbearable, I lose focus on trying to do two things at once, and I concentrate on not wetting my pants. My mouth follows its own path without my brain, and I blabber away.

“You girls ready to go?” The guide asks, and I almost hug him for allowing me to move on without seeming unfriendly.

“Good luck with your trip.” I blurt out as I jump up and rush to my motorcycle. The girls shake their heads at me as I speed away at full throttle, kicking up dust as the rear tire loses traction on the gravel sidewalk before biting on the tarmac. The girls must think I am trying to impress them, but honestly, I am now in Code red, well past danger zone. About a minute down the road, I see a suitable spot next to the river and slam on the brakes. I manage to get my fly open while still dismounting my motorcycle. Relieve and ecstasy fill my body as a calm descends over me while I lose some weight. Downriver, a small village suddenly experiences an unexpected flash flood. Did I drink all of that?

With the emergency taken care off, I take to the road again and am delighted when I reach the next mountain range. Going up one mountain pass, I shoot a video of the amazing scenery. At the top of the mountain, the view is spectacular, and I stop to take a picture. Expertly I line up the perfect picture and press the button. ‘Memory full’ appears on the iPod’s screen. What? 32GB done already, wow. Clenching my jaw, I delete some of the games on the device, snif snif, sorry Need for Speed. Deleting the games only gives me 2GB of free space, so I move on to deleting old videos.

After selecting a large video, I press the delete button, but nothing happens. In a hurry to get going, I press the delete button twice more (yes, as an ex-IT person, I should know better). My heart stops when the iPod finally responds and takes all my pressing commands and executes them, and deletes three videos, including the one I just took coming up the mountain, aarrrhhhh. After counting to 10, I take a deep breath, and then look back down the mountain. I contemplate going back down and filming the ride up again, but let it go. The ride up was awesome; so the ride down should be the same, I will film that. Unfortunately, the ride down does not nearly compare to the ride up, and I want to kick myself, but now I am too far to go back to do the run again. Here is a 3-minute video of the run down.

 

 

 

With green countryside all around and mountain views, it is something to experience. I am glad I did not turn around at Da Lat. The motorcycle runs fine, and I have loads of fun. Later, I come to a side road that according to the GPS links up to the main road again. Well, adventure is why I am here, so I go for it.

 

 

The road at first turns out to be, well, not much of a road. However, I have fun dodging plants growing into the road. See a short video here. At places, large potholes filled with water cover the road, and you have to pass on the sides while the back wheel throws up mud. The road leads up a mountain and then dips down into a valley. I stop and push my jaw up and close my mouth and then wipe the drool from my face. I am awestruck, what a stunning place.

 

In the valley, a water pipe goes over the road and is held in the air with tree branches, I don’t think this road is made for buses. After snaking through the valley, the road goes up a small hill and then links up to the main road again. I smile to myself. Taking the side road was well worth it. After linking back up to the main road, it runs mostly flat with rice paddies on either side. A local rice paddy tractor passes me, and we wave at each other. These things are amazing and can go in deep mud and water logged areas.

 

 

 

Then, a guy pulling a trailer with goods on pass me and as I take a picture, he stops to pose for me. These open engine-driven vehicles are very popular amongst Asians, especially in Cambodia. You see them constantly on the road pulling just about anything. Many times they will have a trailer hooked to the back and serve as a cheap albeit slow taxi. They are also used as tractors, but in most cases just to pull stuff cheaply.

 

 

I wave goodbye to the guy and head along. Soon I pass over a bridge. Wanting to be like a tourist and take a picture, I cross the bridge and then pull to the side off the road on the grass. My heart stops as the motorcycle slides down the slope as the grass gives in. It is not grass and bushes it is only vines.

My heart races as I desperately hang onto the motorcycle while standing on only my left leg. It takes all my power to hold the motorcycle from sliding more down as I swing my right leg over the seat. The back slides over the edge and breaks through the vines. My heart stops as the motorcycle pulls me forward, and I almost lose my balance. For a moment, things are on a knife’s edge. A chill runs down my spine as I clench my jaw and pull with all my might. Slowly, I manage to pull the motorcycle up onto firm ground again.

 

Motorcycle back on solid ground. The flowers in front and on the right are nothing more than stems and vines.

I continue along after scaring myself and spot a guy who is totally bananas. Honestly, the guy is a banana.

 

I hope there are no spiders and cockroaches in those bananas, never mind snakes and rats.

 

Having made good time on the flat sections, I reach the outskirts of Boun Ma Thuoy by 3pm. By now, I am ravished as I only had an omelet and bread roll for breakfast and a bread roll as a snack for lunch. Shame poor me. Suddenly the bike’s brakes lock up, and at first, I am baffled as to why. Then I spot what the bike saw and why it is stopping on its own. I am in heaven, KFC; they speak English, and have Wi-Fi.

I order two pieces of chicken with a drink and then go online to search for a place to stay. Within minutes, I find one for $12 a night that lists it has a restaurant on site, accepts Visa and Master Card, has warm water, and air conditioning with Wi-Fi. I make a booking just as my food arrives, and I dig in, for about one second. My eyes shoot wide open as flames engulf my mouth and tears stream down my cheeks. The chicken is spicy as hell, actually hell might be ice cold compared to this chicken. With every bite, I need a sip of soda. By the end of the first piece, my mouth is numb and my head is spinning. In desperation, I roll an ice cube around my mouth.

Drool runs over my numb lips. Wow, if I ever need to go to the dentists again, I am getting some spicy KFC, no need for needles and injections to numb your mouth. The second chicken piece goes down easier as I cannot feel a thing. I am sure I am going to regret it when the chicken wants to come out. I do hope the hotel room has a bar fridge so that I can put the toilet paper in it just in case. If not, I may need to do handstands in the shower later. I try saying goodbye to the KFC staff, but my tongue just aimlessly flaps around in my mouth while drool runs over my lip. On the way out, I grab a napkin from the counter and dry my eyes and nose. The staff must think I am having an emotional moment. Sadly, none of the cute staff comes to give me a hug.

My hotel is clean, a bit neglected. Outside is what was once a swimming pool and now serves as a half-full fishpond. Large trees right in front of the balconies totally block the views from the rooms. I guess the pictures online was taken years back. This is something you get used to in Asia. The restaurant has a glass floor that has fish underneath in an amazing underfloor pond that runs out of the restaurant to a waterfall outside. However, sadly the restaurant is no longer operational.

After checking in, I head to my room and lie down for an hour, and then head out to fill the motorcycle’s gas tank and get dinner. On the way out, I switch the lights off, but keep the air conditioner on its lowest power setting. After filling the motorcycle’s gas tank up, I stop at the first roadside restaurant I find and order a bread roll, filled with vegetables, and an ice tea. To save money, the restaurant does not serve the bread roll in a paper towel, but the plastic labels of soft drinks. I hope they washed the label before giving it to me.

The server gives me a glass of ice, and I pour most of the ice tea from the bottle into the glass, and then sit back and review the day’s pictures. Movement in the corner of my right eye attracts my attention, and I shift my focus without turning my head. Slowly, a boy of about six sneaks up on me. Kid, I am from South Africa; you do not sneak up that easily on me. Interested in what he is going to do, I ignore him for the time being. In Asia, people are very interested and fascinated with foreigners. In addition, if you pull out an iPad and review picture, it as a massive magnet.

The boy comes to stand close to me, but still partly out of full view as he acts as if he is looking at the pictures with me. I smile as his hand slowly inches towards the ice tea bottle on the table. Just as he lifts it up, I turn and look at him. Unfazed he puts it down as if nothing is wrong and then leans over and acts as if he is fascinated with the pictures again. Just as he thinks my attention is absorbed by the iPad, he slowly reaches out and takes the ice tea bottle. There is about ¼ left in it so I leave him this time to see what he will do. Still standing next to me, he downs the ice tea, and then very carefully places the bottle back on the table and just kind of slides away, sneaky bugger. I ignore the incident and finish my bread roll, and then head back to my hotel.

At the hotel, I park the motorcycle in the spot that the owner showed me to park the first time I entered the grounds. The place has two gates that they close and lock, but I still run a chain through the back wheel before I go to my room.

Still smiling about the kid, I open my hotel room door. The smile drops from my face. Something is wrong; someone has been in my room. The air conditioner had been turned off at the breaker, and my main backpack had been taken from the bed and placed on the ground. I clench my jaw as my blood heats up two notches. Call me old fashioned, but I like to think people do not go snooping around your stuff when you are out. I am glad I took my small backpack with all my valuables with me, leaving only clothes in my main backpack. It is not looking good for a five-star review for this hotel. A quick shower relaxes my muscles and mood, and I start planning my trip for tomorrow. Eventually, I choose Pleiku as my next stop, a 195km ride. With my route selected, I crawl into bed and fall asleep within minutes.

Stabbing pain rips me out of my dreams and a clutch my stomach and clench my teeth. Sweet streams down my face and my body is soaking wet even though the air conditioner is on. In agony, I glance at the time, 1:30am. An alien screams in my stomach and I storm to the toilet. All my energy leaves me as everything erupts at once. Shaking, I sit on the toilet while cold sweat runs down my body. Red-hot knifes plunge into my stomach and I bite my lip as another wave leaves me. My head starts to spin and I rest a bit. Glad that it is over and out, I reach for the toilet roll. There is only enough for two uses. Mentally I deduct another star from the hotel’s review. With shaking legs, I return to my bed and drop exhausted down.

Five minutes later my eyes shoot open as my brain realizes it is toilet time again. I use the last of the room’s toilet paper. On the next round, I thank myself for remembering to pack a spare toilet roll. For the next 1 ½ hours I become very close friends with the toilet, just kill me now. Eventually by 3am, the pain subsides enough that I can fall asleep, but it is not looking good for me taking on the road tomorrow.

 

 

Chapter 12

 

At 7:30am, I wake up. My body aches all over. Looking around, I search for the train that rode over me last night. Not in the mood to get up, I pull the fleece blanket tightly around me and snuggle up. For 10 minutes, I wrestle with deciding on staying for an extra day or taking on the road and seeing how things go. As I still have toilet paper left should I need an emergency stop along the road, I decide to chance it and go for the next town. My body yearns for a warm shower, and the thought of it gets me out of bed.

Goosebumps ripple over my skin and I clench my jaw as arctic cold water runs over my body. There is no hot water. How many stars is it off again now? Annoyed, I finish my cold awakening and get dressed, then go downstairs to ask for breakfast before I check out. Booking.com listed the hotel as having a restaurant, and although she said it was closed last night, I hope that they serve at least scramble eggs or something.

“Hi. I would like to order breakfast.” I say to the hotel owner as I reach the reception desk.

“No food, not enough customer.” I take a deep breath, and let it be.

“Your water heater is not working.” I mention, thinking that maybe it is broken.

“No, I switched it off.”

“Why? I paid for warm water.”

“It is warm outside; you do not need warm water.” She answers matter of fact. My blood starts to boil.

“For the room.” I go as I hand over my debit card.

“260 K VDN, cash only.” She replies.

“But the internet ad said you accept debit cards, and it is 250 K VND.”

“My rate is 260 K VND, cash.”

“My booking is for 250 K VND, here is my receipt.” I go as I show her the email receipt on my iPad. She looks at me for a moment as I place 250 K VND on the counter, and then says.

“You owe me for the ice tea from last night.”

“I know.” I say as I place 10 K VND on the counter, the price charged all over.

“20 K VND.” She smiles.

“What?”

“20 K VND, my price.” She says.

I bite my lip as I reluctantly place another 10 K VND note on the counter. She just got her 10 K VND from the room by overcharging me for the tea. One star review it is.

I go outside and the arteries on my face bulge out. Someone moved my motorcycle, or tried to. The chain is pulled right into the swing arm and wedged against the tire. A black mark is on the ground as they dragged the motorcycle. I cannot say why, as it was parked where the owners wanted it. Both gates were also locked all night and are eight feet high, so it would not be as easy as just pushing the motorcycle out of the yard if someone wanted to steel it.

As I start strapping my bags to the back of the motorcycle, a small dog storms out of the reception area and starts snapping at my heels. I glance over to the owner at the reception desk but she ignores the dog. I stomp my foot down and the dog runs yelping away. It takes me 10 minutes of struggling to free the chain from between the swing arm and tire. When I finally get the chain free, cold sweat is running down my face and my head spins while my stomach turns. Closing my eyes, I hold onto the motorcycle for a few minutes until the nausea subsides, then slowly get in the saddle and idle out onto the road. With the owner’s hospitality, there is no way I am staying another day here.

With every bump in the road, my stomach turns. I am thankful that the motorcycle is fully automatic and all I have to do is twist the throttle. As I have a long road ahead, I pull up at the first mobile food stand I find and order two cucumber and egg rolls to save for later. My stomach reels when the woman proceeds to fill the rolls with chilly and all kinds of unrecognizable stuff.

“No no no.” I yell as I jump forward while waiving my arms and shaking my head. The woman gives me a strange look, and then continues to stuff the roll with everything she has. Again, I go no no no, shaking my head and waving my arms. This time, she looks at me for a moment, smiles, points at the bread rolls, and then points at another customer sitting behind her at a table, who is hosing himself for my consternation. I bite my lip as I silently make my way back to my motorcycle while I am in desperate need of an ice bucket to put my glowing face in. I am sure tomorrow, I will laugh about it, but now I feel too ill to laugh.

A minute or so later, the woman calls me over as she starts to make my rolls, exactly as I ordered it. With only cucumber and egg on, I devour one on the spot, and pack the second one away. Apart from a few painful cramps, my stomach seems content with the bread roll, so I take to the road again, although slowly. In Asia, it is not a question of if you will get sick, but when and how badly. This is my fifth time I have gotten sick. My first saw me in bed for eight days. On the second time, I slept in the door of the bathroom, as I was too sick to run to the toilet when in need.

I head out of town and start my day of what turns out to be 200 km of utter boredom, frustration and annoyance. At times, the pain in my stomach is so much that I have to stop alongside the road and just clench my jaw as jolts of pain surge through me. All the while riding, I am fighting nausea as well. Three times, I almost throw up in my helmet. However, I hold on and keep going. Even though the blazing sun is beating down on me, cold sweat runs down my back.

The road is mostly kilometer after kilometer of road works, or so pothole ridden that it rattles my bones. Even at 20km/h, I hit potholes that bottom the suspension out and I can hear the piston rods in the front suspension slam against the stoppers. I clench my jaw as another truck bears down on me from behind while blowing its horn. Reluctantly, I move over and go through two potholes while the truck narrowly misses me. As in Cambodia, they feel nothing for motorcycle riders.

Frustrated, I watch hours tick by as I crawl along. At this rate, it will take me about 11 hours to reach the next town. My body relaxes when it gets a slight reprieve as I hit a smooth section, just as I enter another small town. A sign shows the speed limit to be 50km/h, and I open the throttle to match the sign.

My heart stops as a traffic officer jumps out from behind a tree. Crap, I am so tired and sick I even missed the truck parked alongside the road that they use to haul motorcycles away. The officer motions for me to pull over and ride up onto the curb to where four more officers are. My jaw hangs, these guys are like ninjas how they appear out of nowhere. Having learned in Cambodia, once you are on the curb, things go downhill very fast, so I park on the road next to the sidewalk, and keep the engine running. From experience, I know that, the first thing Asian traffic police do is go for is the ignition key, and once they have that your negotiation powers just go downhill to zero. However, as with most scooters, the ignition key on this model is by my right knee, so I press my knee against the key and block access to it.

An officer standing on the sidewalk walks over to me, and smiles. Slowly I open my tinted visor, wiping the smile from his face. He shoots the officer who pulled me over a nasty look, probably because he has to now deal with the tourist. I give the officer a big friendly smile. Surely, this far from tourists towns he will not be able to understand English.

“You have been doing 50 in a 40 zone.” He says as he comes to stand next to me. I swallow hard. Crap. What now?

“Jinne boet ek het jou nie eers gesien agter daai bossie nie so mooi kruip jy weg.” I reply in Afrikaans. It takes the cop by total surprise. I think it is the first time in his life he hears Afrikaans. He takes a step back and sums me up.

“Slow down. The speed limit is 40.” He says in a stern voice while the other officers start to follow the scene. At this point, I still did not know the difference between the speed sign of the two different motorcycles.

“So dis nie 50 nie.” I reply in Afrikaans. For a moment, he looks at me deep in thought and then replies.

“50 if for special permit holders, you can only do 40.” Shocked that he actually caught the just of what I said in Afrikaans, I just keep my mouth shut. This is also where I realize what the difference in speed signs means, oops, my bad. However, I have a full motorcycle license in South Africa, I think silently, not that he would care. The cop scratches his head, unsure as to how to respond; he shows with his hands to slow down and then holds up four fingers while saying 40.

“So dis nie 50 nie?” I ask in Afrikaans, not going to switch to English at this point. The cop taps on the speedo of the motorcycle at the 40 km/h mark as he says, “40, 40 km/h.” He looks down at the ignition key that is blocked by my knee. The motorcycle is still idling. As I am not sure if he is going to pull me off the motorcycle or let me go, I decide it best to continue in Afrikaans and act as if I do not understand him.

“Jinne skuus swaar maar is jy seker dis nie 50 nie?” I ask.

The guy turns a bit red and then wave his arms as he says.

“Just go.”

I am tempted to reply in English but decided to leave it at that. With that, I get out of there. I would later find out that doing 50km/h is normally a $10 spot fine, or sometimes a warning. Having no papers for the motorcycle will result in them confiscating the motorcycle, but since I have the blue card of the motorcycle, I am not worried about that. Exceeding the speed limit by more than 10km/h is when things get sticky for foreigners. However, soon down the road, the road surface gets so bad that I can barely do 20km/h so it does not even matter to have speed traps up. Since I have no mountain passes or countryside to admire, I amuse myself as to the other riders on the road. I find a guy with a splinter in his bum. Moreover, for kicks, this is the kind of road you are only allowed to do 40km/h on.

 

Later, I find three mobile shops.

 

 

Not long after I spot a vase guy.

 

 

I take the picture shown before, and then decide to get a little closer. Just as I am about to take another picture, the guy slams on the brakes for no reason. I almost rear end him and actually take another close up picture as I swerve past him. As I ride away, I check back and he just stands in the middle of the road, wondering aloud.

Eventually, I arrive at the outskirts of Pleiku, my end destination for the day, and pull into the first roadside restaurant that has a sign up indicating that they have Wi-Fi. The owner is very friendly (as about 99.9% of the Vietnamese I encountered are), and we have a short conversation as much as his English allows. He shakes his head at me when he learns I have come all the way from Saigon and plan to ride to Hanoi.

“Good luck.” He says as he puts my bottle of ice tea down. Using his internet and my iPad, I quickly look for a decent hotel. I cringe when the cheapest I find is $14.50 for the night. Biting my lip, I book the hotel, and then let the GPS plot a route to it. Five minutes later, I park next to a restaurant and scratch my head as I look at the GPS. This is the spot. However, where is my hotel? I scan the road up and down, nothing but small shops.

“Hi. Do you know where this hotel is?” I ask a local as he walks past me, while showing him the picture of the front of the hotel on my iPad. The guy smiles, nods, and then points across the road, to a large building that is visible in the next road.

“Thank you.” I say as I pull away and head to my hotel. Most Vietnamese are very friendly and helpful, but as I would learn later, disputing online booking amounts is not just isolated to the one incident I had before. In their defense, most earn a meager salary, and the $1 they get extra is a lot for them. They often reason that since many travelers blow lots of cash on drinks and good food, why can they not afford to pay $1 extra for the room?

As I park the motorcycle in the road at the entrance, I look up at the massive hotel towering over me. Wow, I am going to sleep like a VIP tonight. This place is like seven stars.

“Hi. I have a booking for tonight.” I say to a young Vietnamese girl at the reception desk. She just smiles at me and shakes her head. I laugh inside at the irony of the situation. How is it that a traffic officer in a small remote town can speak English and a receptionist in a large town and expensive hotel cannot? I have been trying to learn Vietnamese, but I suck at learning a new language. Having been through this situation before, I calmly pull out my iPad. Her face lights up when I show her the booking confirmation e-mail.

“SMglkdsg.asngl;ndsjlkg” She shoots off a string of Vietnamese while her arms point in all directions. Her smile fades as she stops mid-sentence as she realizes I have no idea what she is saying. Slowly, she lowers her arms, and a silence descends upon us as we blankly stare at each other.

“This is the right hotel.” I ask and tap on the hotel name on the e-mail and then point at the hotel name on the wall behind her. Slowly, she shakes her head and points one finger out the door and down the street. Just then, an idea pushes its way to my consciousness, and I pull up the map application and lay the iPad down on the reception desk. The girl stares at the IPad for a moment and then almost jumps up and down as she recognizes the Vietnamese writing showing the street names. A blue dot on the map shows our position. Carefully she points at the spot on the map that I need to go to.

“Thank you.” I greet her with a bow and receive a bow and a wide smile in return. Five minutes later, I pull up to a hotel with the same name as the first, with a 2 behind it. I glance over the hotel that is now in the winter of its years. The place must have been a grand hotel in its hay days, but now it is in need of a bit of love. However, it is still fancy and upmarket compared to some of the other places I have stayed at before. The double glass doors lead into a massive lobby, with an equally large restaurant next door that is filled with beautiful wooden chairs and tables.

“Good day. May I be of service?” A lovely young woman asks as I reach the reception desk.

“Yes. I have a booking for a room.” I show her the e-mail confirmation, and she nods her head. As she searches for my booking on the computer system, I glance over to the restaurant next door and ask.

“Do you serve food in the restaurant?”

“No, only coffee.” She smiles.

Hah, go figure, a massive restaurant only for coffee. Remembering my run-in with the previous hotel on trying to pay my bill with a debit card, I pull out my debit card and ask.

“Can I pay with this?”

“Yes, no problem. Here is your room key. It is on the fifth floor. You can take the elevator over there or the stairs in the corner.”

I am about to ask for the room number, when I notice the faded number on the tag with the keys.

“Thank you.” I nod to the woman and head for the stairs, not trusting the elevator.

My room has a wonderful light colored wood atmosphere with a dresser, double bed and closet. The bathroom is almost as big as the room, even though it has a shower and no bath, aahh. The room also has a small bar fridge, and basket with sweets. However, I fear as to what the price of the items would be, so I leave them alone. After unpacking what I need, I head out in search of food and am delighted to find a nice open restaurant across the road from the hotel. As soon as I sit down, it starts to rain.

With no English on the menu or an English-speaking waiter, I enter the words from the menu into Google and have to laugh at some of the translations. Eventually, I select a translation that says chicken wings. The meal turns out to be rice with chicken wings and vegetables, and very tasty. As I eat, the water starts to seep through the roof, and I have to shift on the bench to stay dry.

Two benches from me in the next row to my right, a group of eight men are having a party. They are amazed at me writing on my iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard. Eventually, one guy comes over and inspects the keyboard closer. He shakes his head as I type while looking for a wire between the keyboard and iPad. He calls over the server and talks in Vietnamese while pointing at the keyboard. The server replies in Vietnamese and points to the iPad and keyboard. I presume he is explaining how it works, as the guy scratches his chin as he listens to the server, then gives me a thumbs up, and goes back to his party.

The server brings each table, including mine, a plastic bucket filled with ice cubes. Not sure what to do with the bucket of ice, so I watch the guys having the party. To my horror, they refill the ice cubes in their drinks by hand from the ice bucket. I clench my jaw as they reach down, grab a few ice cubes, and then throw them in their drinks, no worry as to where anyone’s hands have been.

I look down into my bucket and a shiver runs down my spine when I note a few hairs and other crap. Slowly, I push the glass of ice water the server brought me to the side. My stomach has just started to settle down, and I am not going to chance it with hairy water.

Feeling the need for a soft pillow, I pay my bill and head back to my room. After an hour’s rest, I start to work on my blog again. On average, it takes about three hours to write one blog post, and I still have a chapter I want to finish about motorbiking Vietnam, so there are a few hours of work still to do for me. While working, a text message ad from the local phone serves comes though. I laugh as I think about booking hotel rooms online. They require a phone number before you can make a booking, and as I do not know my Vietnamese phone number, I on each case just enter Simon’s from Saigon Minks.

I figure that Simon will give them my number if they did actually call. Unless he thinks, it is the cops and denies my total existence. My iPad allows me to write a blog post offline. When finished, I try uploading the post, and bite my lip. As normal on high floors in Asia, there is no Wi-Fi signal. Reluctantly, I head down the stairs until I find a signal, between floor three and four. For about 30 minutes, I sit on the stairs trying to upload my blog post. However, the signal is so bad it keeps on dropping the connection. Frustrated, I head down to the lobby where the Wi-Fi router is and continue working there.

The words flow, and I lose tract of time. Movement next to me snaps me out of my trance. 45 minutes has elapsed since I sat down. The receptionist smiles as she places a cup of Vietnamese tea on the table next to me. I thank her and drink the welcome tea. My fingers flow over the keyboard again, just to be stopped by another cup of tea 10 minutes later. Again, I thank the receptionist and down the tea. I think I have downed the tea too fast, as within five minutes she brings me another cup of tea. Thanking her for the tea, I tell her it is enough, no more.

I continue writing and it is nearly 11pm before I head to my room. In the time I wrote at the reception, I have probably been asked 30 times if I want more tea, and have given in three more times. Very nice people.

In my room, I plan my route for tomorrow and select Kham Duc, a mountain town 222km away. The town seems small on the map, and neither bookings.com or Expedia nor hostelhero have any listing of hotels to stay there. However, as John suggested the town as a possible overnight spot, I know I must be able to find something once there. I still do not actually know what caused me to become sick, and recon it is either the spicy KFC or something in the roll that I ate the night before. As sandman throws dust in my eyes, its starts to rain heavy outside and lulls me to sleep.

 

 

Chapter 13

 

Clear skies greet me as I get up. I was afraid last night that I would be riding in the rain today, not something I was looking forward to doing. After a nice warm shower, I head down in search of breakfast. Off course, they serve no breakfast in the hotel, and the restaurant is only for coffee. I am starting to think Vietnamese live on coffee, okay, so do Americans with Starbucks, but at least Starbucks sell sandwiches and muffins to go with the coffee. Reluctantly, I return to my hotel. Another morning of hitting the road with no breakfast. I get my stuff, and head downstairs to check out. A different receptionist is at the reception desk than the one that checked me in. I hand her my room key and my debit card. She turns the card around in her hand, and then shakes her head and says.

“Vietnam dollar only, no cards.”

“But yesterday when I checked in I was told my card is good to pay for the room.”

“Yes, card is good; you can draw money at the bank.” She replies. I just shrug my shoulders and take my card back. Reluctantly, I count the Vietnamese cash I have while another receptionist joins us. I double-check my booking confirmation on my iPhone, and then use it to calculate the conversion rate from $US to $VND and place the money on the counter. One of the girls looks at the money, frowns, and then shakes her head.

“$20 for the room.” She goes.

“My booking is for $14.50.” I reply and show her the email receipt stating the booking. The two girls argue in Vietnamese a bit, and then the girl that initially refused my payment takes a calculator and works out a price. She shows me the amount, and I laugh. From her conversion rate, she gave me 15 000 VND to $1, where the street rate is 20 000 VND and banks are even more. I refuse and use my IPhone to work out the price and show her. She shakes her head no. The second receptionist takes the calculator, works out an amount, looks at the money I gave them, and gives me the thumbs up and says.

“All good.”

A string of Vietnamese erupts between the two as they argue over the price and take turns in using the calculator. I feel like I should get myself some popcorn and sit back to watch the show. A girl on girl fight in a movie is always epic. The second receptionist however, takes the money from the counter, places it in a drawer, and then removes my passport from the same drawer and hands it to me.

“Thank you. Is everything good and the money correct?” I ask the receptionist who handed my passport to me.

“Yes, money good.”

“No, money short.” The second receptionist counters, causing the two to go at each other again in rapid-fire Vietnamese.

“No worry, all good.” The second receptionist eventually says and then throws a glance to the first receptionist who clenches her jaw for a moment, but then gives in. She gets a stamp and stamps my bill paid, then hands it over to me and says with a big smile.

“Thank you. Have a nice day.”

I smile as I take the paper, knowing her smile is as fake as the Due North boots I am wearing. I decide to head out before someone else comes and joins the spectacle.

The hotel entrance is higher than the road, with five steps giving access to the hotel. Halfway down the steps I freeze. My jaw clenches as my blood starts to boil. Someone has moved my motorcycle about three meters, leaving a black mark on the pavement from the back tire, and causing the chain to go between the tire and swing arm of the back wheel. Silently cursing, I struggle for five minutes before I get the chain free, while getting mud and grease on my hands. Using toilet paper from my backpack, I clean my hands as best I can, and then strap my bags in a hurry down. I give one last look at the hotel. If the security wants my bike on another spot, why not just come and ask me to move it? My stomach growls as I take to the streets while my eyes hawk like search for anything resembling food.

Soon I spot a familiar mobile food stands with the bread rolls and pull up to it. The lady has no eggs, so I move on. A few minutes later, I spot another food stand. This one has eggs. I am saved. As I climb off my motorcycle, my blood hits boiling point. Only now do I notice the deep scratch marks in the fairings of the motorcycle as whoever moved it damaged it somehow. I drop down next to the motorcycle and inspect things closer. My eyes go black. The fairing is cracked, and two securing clips are broken off. The tail section is also damaged, and the foot pegs and throttle end has scratch marks on it. I put the pieces together. The person that moved my motorcycle lost control of it and dropped the motorcycle on its side.

Knowing there is nothing I can do; I take a few deep breaths and try to forget about the damage. I give the motorcycle a soft pat, say I am sorry, and then head over to the mobile food stand. Indicating at a bread roll, I hold two fingers up and then point to eggs before waving my hands over the other stuff while shaking my head and saying no no no.

The lady nods and then pulls out a clean frying pan, and starts cooking my eggs. She points to a table nearby for me to have a seat. My stomach claps hands in anticipation of breakfast while my mouth starts to water at the smell of the eggs in the pan. Would be nice if she had bacon. Just as I sit down, she starts to throw all kinds of stuff in the pan with the eggs. My stomach reels at the sight. Desperate to stop her, I jump up and rush forward. Clang. Stars float before my eyes, and I almost fall over backwards as I run headlong into the low roof of her mobile stand. My head spins, and my legs wobble as I try to get my footing. What a great start to the day.

 

Lady cooking my food. Almost knocked my lights out against the low roof of the mobile stand.

 

The lady rushes over and holds my hand for a moment, how nice. My vision returns and I move to the frying pan and go no no no while I wave my hands over the stuff and I shake my head. Disappointment fills her eyes and her shoulders sag. I feel like an ass. Reluctantly, she removes most off the stuff. I return to my table and sit down, fearing I am going to pass out at any moment. The ground starts to spin under my feet while the lady continues to cook my eggs. Moments later, she brings my breakfast. My eyes widen and my stomach makes whoola hoops around my butt. I almost throw up as I stare at the plate. Raw yolk wobbles like jelly while the white is not even stalled but still raw as well.

“Cook more.” I say as I show her I want the eggs turned over. She shakes her head, pull a face, but then reluctantly returns to her fire. I sigh as she grabs a spatula and violently scramble the eggs. Oh well, at least it is cooked.

Her child brings me a cup of hot tea and puts it on my table. I take a sip, and then stand up and go and stand behind the lady without her knowing. She mumbles something in Vietnamese and then proceeds to throw all the stuff I had her take out earlier, back in into the frying pan and then mixes everything together. Shaking my head, I give up and return to my table as she puts everything in a bread roll. How bad can it be? I already survived the flaming KFC. Memories from a painful night next to a toilet fills my mind. I decide I will take the rolls, pay her, and then donate the food somewhere while getting something else to eat.

The lady comes over to my table, places the bread roll on the table, and then pulls a chair closer for her. I stand up to try to pay and leave, but she shakes her head, pushes me down on the shoulder, and indicates for me to sit down and eat my bread roll. I glance over my shoulder. About 20 onlookers are staring in silence at me, waiting for my next move. Some have their hands with food hovering in front of their mouths. Am I going to dare defy her? I decide to go for the safest option. Sit down, and eat the thing. Sighs of relief come from the people as I take the first bite. The woman’s eyes beams with delight. I swallow hard but it just does not want to go down, the bread roll tastes like crap. I grab the tea and force the piece of roll down with tea.

The lady looks at my half full glass of warm tea and then takes it away. Confused I look at her walking away. I hope that she is going to refill it. With what I am not sure. Looking at the leftover roll, my shoulders sag, I will need a jug of tea to get this roll down. Proudly the lady returns and places my glass of tea in front of me. I look at the ice cubes she put in the tea, and clench my jaw as I remember the hair and dirt that I found in ice cubes at other stalls.

My stomach turns as I swallow another piece of bread roll. Clenching my jaw, I close my eyes and then just go for it. There are worse ways to die than motorcycling through Vietnam I decide. As I chew on the last piece of bread roll, I get up, quickly pay the lady and then rush to my bike. Hastily I take to the road before I throw up in her place. Whatever she put in the roll, left a nasty aftertaste that ½ liter of ice tea (sold in bottles) cannot take away.

30 minutes later, I make an emergency stop while clenching my jaw. Cold sweat runs down my face while ice crystals form around my spine. This is it. Looking up at the sky, I frown. There is no white light coming for me. Crap, I knew I should not have lied about eating that extra piece of cake when I was 10. I close my eyes and desperately hold back from throwing up. Five minutes pass while my stomach makes weird sounds. Flashes of the movie Alien go through my mind. It feels like the bread roll is alive in my stomach and wants out. I take a careful breath when things calm down a bit and continue to ride slowly on. 10 minutes later, I almost crash the motorcycle as stabbing pain goes through my stomach and I hastily pull to the side of the road. I lie across the handlebars; my stomach is turning and about boiling. Cold sweat freely runs down my body that at this point has no energy left. It feels as if my stomach is going to explode and at this point, crapping in my pants does not even bother me, just kill me please. Unable to move, I stay hunched over the handlebars. Time comes to a standstill as I wait for the pain to subside. When it eventually does, I continue slowly on. I am so glad the motorcycle has an automatic gearbox.

The first 100 km is mostly road works, with gravel or dirt roads and occasionally sections that are tarred. However, the road in general is in better condition than yesterday. By now, I am far away from large cities, with countryside and rice paddies between small villages.

 

 

This far out from the main towns, there is only one speed limit posted, 60. However, with no cops around I at times push 80 km/h on desolated sections where I can see far ahead. The pain in my stomach has subsided to a dull manageable ache. On one long section far out of town, I let the bike run flat out for the first time while rice paddies fly past. The speedo stands at 115 as I grin from ear to ear, caught in the moment. Bam. I jerk as the engine backfires and dies. With the automatic gearbox still engaged, the motorcycle immediately bogs down and loses speed. Arctic nails run down my back. Did I fry the engine? Reluctantly, I stop next to the road. The tik tik of the engine cooling down is the only sound around me. Lush green rice fields and mountains wave at me in the distance. If I had a girl with me, this would be a romantic stop. I smile as I remember how many times I unnoticed reached down to turn the petcock off on a motorcycle and let it run out of gas by “accident” when lifting a girl. However, this time it is not by accident.

I switch the ignition off, and then on again. Click click is all that greets me as I push the starter button. Ah, man. I switch the ignition off and on again, and then push the starter button again. The starter engaging is music to my ears; however, the engine does not start. I try a second time, and hold the starter engaged for 15 seconds. The engine sputters a bit and then comes to life and runs smoothly. Not knowing why the engine died but suspecting a blocked fuel filter, I keep the speed under 80 Km/h.

Town after town passes by, and I experiment with a theory I have, proving it right three times in a row. I hold the motorcycle at exactly 45 km/h as indicated on my GPS. Each time, the traffic officers do not even bother with me and let me pass. Wicked, seems that 5 km over the speed limit is not a problem.

A new pagoda attracts my attention, and I make a short rest stop. The pagoda has a large prayer hall and is flanked by two, round tower structures. What is more impressive, is the path to the pagoda. All along the sides, are scrolls depicting ancient legends and epics. Pictured next is my favorite one.

 

With the circulation restored to my butt, I take to the road again. However, a few kilometers down the road, I spot something atop a hill as I round a right hand bend. Curiosity gets me to take the turnoff and follow a narrow, steep dirt road that leads to the top, where a smaller pagoda greets me. A few confused monks stare at me from the safety of the Pagoda while the sun relentlessly scorches the earth. As none of the monks come out to greet me, I take it this is not a tourist places. I laugh as the monks stare and point at me, while talking between themselves. With nothing of interest to see except confused monks, I take to the road again. Although the towns I pass become a bit larger, they still look mostly the same to me, so I amuse myself as to the other road users I pass. In one town, I spot a guy who put the pot totally miss.

 

 

Passing through Dak Ha, I stop when I pass by Dak Ha Victory Monument. The monument has two tanks, and a memorial.

 

 

 

The Dak Ha Victory Monument is close to Dak To, where the Dak To battle occurred. The Battle of Dak To, was a series of major engagements between November 3 to 22, 1967. During the shelling at night on the Dak To base, a mortar round landed on two steel containers of C-4 plastic explosive and both detonated simultaneously. The resulting explosion left two craters 40 feet deep, and is said to be the largest explosion in the Vietnam War, and knocked men off their feet over a mile away.

Dark ominous clouds start to encircle the sun, and a light drizzle breaks the day’s heat. With 110 km behind me for the day, I fill the gas tank up, while, in the distance, mountains promise me excitement and adventure to come. My spirit soars high as the road surface becomes perfect at the base of the mountains. Adrenalin floods my body as my right hand gives an extra turn on the throttle. Who says you cannot slide a scooter through a turn? Deciding to share my experience, I ride with one hand while filming with the other.

At one point, I am stuck behind a minivan. Lead, follow, or get out of the way mate. Wide eyes and open mouths stare from inside the minivan at me as I pass it, while riding with one hand and filming. Check the video out here. In my defense, going through a turn at 50 or 60km/h on a scooter is not like going through a turn at over 280km/h on a 1000cc race bike. Eventually, my arm gets too tired to hold up the iPod, and I concentrate on getting the spiders out of the scooter’s exhaust. My heart skips a beat as something flashes past me, and I slam on the brakes and make a U-turn.

My heart beats wildly against my chest as I swallow hard. Cold sweat runs down my back as I stare at the sight in front of me. Should I or should I not? I hold my pants and tell myself it is not me shaking, it is the wind blowing my pants around. Heights have never been an attraction for me. I would rather do over 300km/h on a motorcycle going between traffic, than skydiving. However, I also like to push myself. I overcame my fear of drowning, by becoming a full tri-mix scuba diving instructor and diving to 125 meters.

Goosebumps form on my skin and the hair at the back of my neck stand up as I climb off the motorcycle. Slowly, I inch towards the bridge with planks resemble an old 1800s sailor’s teeth, mostly missing. Right, let’s do this, or die trying. I swallow hard as I take the first step. The narrow wooden sway bridge accepts my challenge and begins to sway. Water rushes underneath me as loud as my heartbeat in my ears. My heart stops and I hold my breath as a plank cracks and starts to give in under my weight. Crap, if I fall through, I am going to break a leg, or worse, get my IPod wet. Carefully, I transfer my weight to the next plank, and keep going. By the time I reach the middle of the bridge, the wind tugs at me, and the bridge dangerously sways to and throw. My knuckles are white as I grip the steel support cable. Every footstep causes the bridge to sway more, forcing me to stop every few steps to let it settle a bit.

Ice crystals form along my spine when I miss a step and my right foot slides off the plank and goes through. Desperately I hang on the steel cable, and slowly pull myself up. Reluctantly, I look over my shoulder while cold sweat runs down my face. No, I am almost on the other side; I will not give up now. Definitely, I keep going. Reaching the other side, I almost drop down and kiss the ground. I give myself a few minutes to get my heart down from light speed to near heart attack pace, and then take on Death Valley again. The going back is easier, and I manage to film a short part near the end. Check out the video here.

 

 

Back on firm ground, I wait until my pants stop shaking, and then take to the road again. A short distance later, I pass a truck rest stop and a small restaurant. The rusting remains of a burned out buss alongside the road is a grim reminder of the dangers mountain passes hold. Although still overcast, the rain has stopped, and I open the throttle up. My heart races as I blast through the mountains, while the motorcycle and I become one. Another sweeping bend lay ahead, and I go hard in, and blast out at full throttle. My heart stops as my mind struggles to take in the scenery in front of me. My body reacts on instinct, and I slam on the brakes, locking up the back wheel.

With screeching tires I come to a halt and shake my head. Blocking my entire lane is a guy washing his truck. My tire-dragging stop did not even warrant him looking in my direction. Granted, I doubt if I would have even scratched the paint on his truck had I collided with it. I thought this guy must be a lunatic, until later I passed tour buses being washed in the road.

 

 

As the sun starts to set, the rain returns, forcing me to ride at a slow and boring pace. A stranded backpacker holding a palm leaf over his head for protection makes me stop.

“Hi. Do you need any help?” I ask.

“No thanks, the farmers are helping me.”

I look at two Vietnamese replacing the chain on the guy’s motorcycle, a fake Honda Win.

“Did the chain come off?” I ask.

“Yes, third time on this trip.”

“It happens when the chain is too loose; you should adjust it every few 100 km.”

“I have no tools.” The guy’s answer causes my eyebrows to narrow. Who takes on an over 2000 km ride, in a foreign country in the mountains without some basic tools? I look the guy up and down as he stands shivering in shorts and a T-shirt.

“Do you have any rain gear or warm clothes?” I ask. The guy just shakes his head.

“Where are you heading?” I ask.

“Hoi An.”

“Hoi An? Bro, we are 30km from Kham Duc. Hoi An is another 130 km or so after that. That is four hours hard drive with these mountain passes, possibly five hours in this rain.”

“Yeh.”

“It is 2pm already and those fake Honda Win motorcycles have crap lights, a candle blown out puts out more light than those bikes’ lights.”

“I’ll be okay.” He replies.

“Tell you what. I will wait until the farmers have repaired your motorcycle and ride with you to the next town. I am overnighting there. When we get there, you can decide if you want to keep going.”

“Nah it is okay. My buddy is somewhere up ahead.”

“Your buddy left you behind?” I gasp then continue. “If my riding partner did that, I would kick him in the nuts.”

“Yeh, but it is okay. I’ll be okay on my own.” I shake my head and then start my motorcycle.

“Okay then. Good luck.” I reply and move on. One encounters all types of people attempting the Ho Chi Minh hi-way, from the risk takers just winging it, to the ones that would not dare fart without their guides holding their hands. About 5 kilometers later, deep in thought, I jerk as a distraught backpacker races past me. Protected by only a bandana as a helmet, his eyes frantically scan the side of the road. I shake my head at the rider, knowing that although his search may be frantic, he has no hope of seeing his friend had he slid off the road into the bushes.

The rain comes down harder, and I swallow as I look up at the dark clouds chasing me. My right wrist twists a little, and the motorcycle immediately responds to my input and lunches forward. Wet, lush green forest races past me as the motorcycle devours the road. Out of the mountain mist, Kham Duc appears so suddenly that I almost pass it. The town is so small; they have no chickens to cross the road. However, what it lacks in size, it makes up in charm and stunning mountain scenery, which urges you to sit back and relax. Spotting a guesthouse right alongside the main road, I pull in. $7 for a room with warm water, and Wi-Fi, my price range. In my room, I quickly stash my gear in the shower as not to wet the floor, and then return to the reception where chairs and tables make up most of the decoration.

“Is this a restaurant?” I ask the receptionist.

“Yes.” She replies with a smile.

“Can I order food?”

“No. We only serve coffee.” She replies still smiling.

“Where can I get food?”

“Down the road.” I clench my jaw as she points out the door into the rain towards a side road. With my iPad safe in a waterproof cover, I jog out into the rain. Four shops down, I come across a restaurant that looks descent and pop in.

“Hi. Do you serve food?” I ask the friendly lady who already pushes me down into a chair.

“Jhfajkfafjsah;fm” She smilingly replies in Vietnamese.

“Do you have a menu?” My question draws a blank expression. We stare at each other for a moment. Resorting to tried and trusted tactics, I open my iPad and use an English to Vietnamese translation application to translate beef. The lady shakes her head and waves her finger over the strange wiggly words, indicating she cannot read. Slowly, her smile fades. Coming to her rescue, I press the play button next to the word, causing a recording of the Vietnamese word for beef to be played. This confuses the poor lady even more, to the point I fear she might burst out crying. Quickly, I try cow, and a consternation erupts as the lady jumps up and down, hugs me and then storms into her kitchen.

About 10 minutes later, she comes out with a massive bowl of beef soup, which has more onions in it than a rice paddy can hold rice. Looking at the bowl, and then up to the kind smiling face, I brave myself, smile back and then dig in. The soup is wonderful, but just too much to finish.

“Thank you, that was wonderful. How much do I owe you?” I ask as I pull out my wallet. The lady responds with a distraught look at the half-full bowl of soup. Crap, now I have offended her. She must think I think poorly of her soup. My heart melts and I pull my stomach in, and make space for the rest of the soup. A radiant smile fills the lady’s face as I start eating again. I force a number of spoonful’s down, and then try to leave again, but the lady shakes her head and points to the bowl. Three times, she has to scorn me with a finger not to waste food before the bowl is empty. As I swallow the last bit, the lady claps her hands together and then rushes back into the kitchen.

I take a deep breath. Wow, so this is how it feels to be in one of those eating competitions. My heart stops when the lady returns with a pot and starts to refill my bowl.

“No, no, too much.” I say and wave my hands, causing her to stop while a horrid expression fills her face.

“No-no good.” She manages in broken English.

“Good good.” I reply, hoping to cheer her up.

A smile bursts across her lips, and she manages to full my bowl with two more scoops of soup before I can block my bowl. Reluctantly, I start on the bowl. Trying my best, I force a few spoonful’s down, and then give up. The lady looks in remorse at the half-finished bowl as I get up and take out my wallet. Gloomily, she takes the money, and then fishes in her apron pocket for change.

“No need.” I reply and wave my hands together, and then give her a bow and head for the door. Fearing she might push me back in my chair or take off her shoe and give me a hiding for wasting food, I get out of the shops as fast as I can. With a few hours remaining before nightfall, I head back to my room for a bit of a rest. Two fake Honda Win motorcycles attracts my attention as I walk through the reception to my room.

“Hi. Are those foreign backpackers’ motorcycles?” I ask the receptionist.

“Yes. They checked in about half an hour ago. They are two rooms from you.”

“Thank you.” Nodding to the lady, I head over to the backpackers’ room and knock on the door. Two Frenchmen tiredly emerge from the room. After initial introductions, I get strait to business.

“I noticed your motorcycles in the parking area. Where are you guys heading?”

“We are going to Saigon.”

“Did you guys come all the way from Hanoi?”

“Jip. And you.”

“I am heading up, coming from Saigon. What towns are you guys planning on staying at. Maybe I can give you some advice on travel times and distances.”

One of the guys fishes around in his pocket, and then produces a crumbled up piece of paper. I stare at the names of a few towns scribbled on the paper as the guy holds it to me.

“The guy who sold us the motorcycles said to ride each day until we get to the next town.”

“That’s it? No distances, places to sleep, routes to follow or things to see?” I gasp.

“No.”

“How do you know what roads to follow then?” I ask.

“Well, when in a town, we just ask how to get to the next town, and along the way we just keep asking directions.”

“Well, I guess it can work.” I laugh, and then continue. Tell you what, if you guys want to join me for dinner later, I will be more than happy to give you tips on the roads to follow to Saigon and what to possibly see along the way that interested me.”

“That would be awesome mate.”

“By the way. I noticed on of your motorcycle’s back wheels are bent.”

“What?” One guy gasps.

“You did not know?” I frown.

“No. Please show me.” I take them over to the motorcycle in question and have them stand behind the motorcycle. Their eyes narrow as they stare at the badly bend rim.

“Is it dangerous riding like that?” One finally asks.

“Yes. Especially on corners and especially if the road is wet. You also have some loose wires by the handle bars.”

“Is that a problem?”

“Well, provided the motorcycle still starts, it is not the ignition wires, so what can happen is that your indicators and lights may not work.”

“Ah, that explains the lights.” One comments. I scratch my head and then reply. Well, I am going to take a bit of a nap. Let me know when you guys are ready for dinner, and I will join you.”

“Will do.” We shake hands and head for our rooms. Inside my room, the fluffy white pillow barely caressed my head, and sandman had me in wonderland. Dreams come and go, some filled with wonder, others filled with worry about mechanical problems I might encounter along the way, as well as my dwindling bank balance. The problems I may face crossing over to Laos and ride down to Cambodia also sits at the back of my mind, but I push them down, how hard can it be?

Pressing matters force me awake by 6pm, and I head for the bathroom as the about two liters of soup I ate, made it through my system and wants out. Feeling much lighter (I wish it was this easy to lose weight), I head outside where I find one of the backpackers sitting on the steps by his room door.

“I am heading out for dinner. I saw a nice place down the road if you guys want to join me.”

“My friend is just taking a shower. We will see you shortly.”

Satisfied, I head down the road. Two streets down I stop dead while my stomach growls. I cannot believe my eyes. Here, in the mountains of Vietnam, is a lady barbecuing meat sausages on a braai on the side of the road, and it smells like South African boerewors quality. Memories from sitting around campfires, dance in my mind. Reluctantly, I walk past. I did promise the guys tips on their road ahead while sharing dinner. For safety, I decided to give the soup restaurant a pass, I had my full of soup for the day. A few shops down, I notice a restaurant that looks like a good place to eat, and head inside.

“Jbsgskjgb” A lady greats me with a smile in Vietnamese.

“Hi. Do you serve food?” The lady’s smile drops at my response. Pulling her shoulders up, she indicates she does not speak English. I am starting to regret not taking the ability to learn languages quickly when they dished it out. Pulling my iPad from my backpack, I type beef and rice, and then translate it to Vietnamese and show the words to the lady. Her smile brightens the world, and she dashes off to the kitchen. Proud of myself for managing without speaking Vietnamese, I sit down, and then worry hits me right in the cut. What is she actually going to prepare? What if it is rat or dog meat? I glance at the exit. The soup may be too much, but at least I know what is in it. I take a deep breath and stay put. I never had rat before, how bad can it be?

Soon the lady returns with my food, that to my relieve, is chunks of beef on rice with steamed vegetables. Her kid comes over with the selection of drinks available, beer or lemon water, with salt. Not an alcohol drinker, I go for the salty lemon drink. I think if you took a bucket of seawater, pour a kilogram of salt in it, then sprinkle some lemon juice drops in the bucket, you would get the same drink. However, no worries, I am tough, so tough I manage two sips, without spitting it out. :-)

While eating, I write a bit, and time slips past. Before I realize it, the sun has long gone set. Disappointed that the other guys never showed, I head back to the hotel. Just as I reach my room, the two exit theirs.

“Hi. What happened? I thought you guys were going to join me hours ago.”

“Uh, we kind of fell asleep. We are knackered from riding.” One sheepishly answers.

“Jup, it hammers you doing long rides each day. You guys should think about staying for a day or so in a town to rest and shorten your daily riding distance.”

“No can do, we do not have the time to stay longer.”

“Fair enough.” I reply and then wish them good night before entering my room. Inside, I cannot help but silently laugh as I think how they are going to look in five days if one long day dropped them out cold. With good intentions, I try to update my blog post, but the internet is slower than molasses in January, in Siberia. Finally giving up, I start planning my trip for tomorrow. I can go to the ancient town Hoi An, that was once the biggest port in Vietnam, or Da Nang, that is a short distance away and took over as the sea port from Hoi An along the coastline. Although Da Nang is bigger, a few backpackers told me not to bother with it, as Hoi An is far more stunning, thus Hoi An it is. The ride looks easy enough, 140km of going mostly down from the mountains to the coast. Even finding accommodation online is a breeze, as to booking a room for tomorrow night. Tomorrow is going to be an awesome day of spectacular mountain roads.

 

 

Chapter 14

 

Something wakes me early the next morning. Holding my breath, I listen for movement outside my room door. The hotel’s parking area forms a courtyard with the rooms situated around it. My motorcycle is parked right in front of my room door. With the curtains drawn, it is pitch dark in the room. Still listening for any indication that someone is tampering with my motorcycle lock trying to steal the motorcycle; I locate my cellphone and activate the screen. 5am, wonderful.

Clenching my jaw, I brave the morning mountain air and get out of bed to check on my motorcycle. White dragon’s breath greets me as I open the door. After a quick inspection, I am satisfied that the motorcycle is fine, and then go back inside. For a moment, I contemplate getting back in bed, but the thought of the adventures awaiting me gets me in the shower. By 6am, I am ready to take on the road. The sun is slowly melting the dragon’s breath. However, the chilly mountain air still cuts to the bone.

Knowing that it will be warm in an hour, and not wanting to unstrap my bags later, I leave my fleece jacket in my bag and brave the cold. Having paid for the room in advance, I give one last look at the other backpacker’s room where snoring can be heard, and then start my motorcycle. The smell of freshly baked bread rolls guides me down the road to a corner restaurant. Unsurely I bring the motorcycle to a standstill at the restaurant. Around 20 soldiers stare at me where they are enjoying a morning coffee at the restaurant.

I have had my fair share of military road blocks in Asia, and have even watched an action movie with about 15 soldiers at Pre Vihear temple in Cambodia, but this is the first time I am to have breakfast with so many soldiers. After smiling politely, and strategically turning slowly around to show I have no weapons, I choose an outside table near my motorcycle. Why there would be so many soldiers in this small town, let alone in a restaurant, I have no idea. And I have no wish to find out as well.

“Morning. Can I help?” I almost fall off my chair as a nice Vietnamese lady speaks behind me.

“Morning. Can I have two rolls with egg please?”

“No eggs, only cheese.” I should have guessed she has no eggs. I had not seen a chicken since I came into the town.

“Cheese is fine, thank you.”

“Would you like some coffee?”

“Yes please.” With a nod, the lady disappears inside. A short while later she comes back with a strong mountain brew cup of coffee that will make any farmer proud. The wonderful coffee aroma mixed with the mountain air works hard on me, urging me to stay another day. Sadly, I decline the offer; I have a long distance still to go. Next time. In amazement, I watch as the lady takes two rolls, and then places them on a small coal grill, toasting them. When she is satisfied they are nicely toasted, she spreads cheese wedges on them. In the cold morning air, the two warm toasted cheese rolls are divine. While wolfing down my breakfast, around six backpackers take to the road and pass me. With the urge to see the coast spurring me on, I do not lollygag at the restaurant, and soon I am on the road. Just a road down from the restaurant, I find out why there is a platoon of soldiers in the restaurant. The town is built around an army base.

Yellow flags with red stars are far more common the more North you go, as well as the Russian communist star, hammer and sickle flags. If this were the 1960s, I would have been in deep trouble and in the thick of it. On this remote section of road, this little town is an amazing gem, and deserves a revisit.

The stars must have been naughty last night, as they got a spanking and start to cry softly. Their tears together with the refreshing morning mountain air, makes me wish I dressed warmer. The beautiful scenery and peaceful atmosphere, however, makes up for enduring a teeth chattering ride wile I wait for the sun to burn the mist away. Just as I round a bend on the outskirts of town, something atop the hill next to me attracts my attention, forcing me to go and have a closer look.

 

 

At the top of the hill, I find a war memorial, dedicated to a major battle that occurred at the Kham Duc airbase during the Vietnam War. At the time, the base was manned by USA troops. The PAVN 2nd Division, under leadership of North Vietnamese General Chu Huy Man failed to capture Da Nang, and disengaged from the battle in order to have the 2nd Division rest in the mountains. General Chu Huy Man decided to attack the small airstrip at Kham Duc in order to cut off USA air support.

The North Vietnamese 2nd Division surrounded Kham Duc on the morning of 11 May, and launched a devastating attack against the United States-led forces. After several outposts were over run, General Westmoreland ordered Kham Duc to be evacuated. During heavy shelling and small-arms fire, the 834th Air Division extracted both military and civilian people in Kham Duc.

The extraction cost the US nine military aircraft, and was a major defeat for the U.S. military. Accurate numbers were not recorded. However, the combined services reported the highest number of missing personnel in any battle in Vietnam (31). Three were rescued during the following week. One was captured and held as a POW until March 1973, and 15 were later listed as KIA (nine recovered bodies, six not).

As I stand on top of the hill, admiring the countryside, I reflect on yesterday when I almost pressed on to Hoi An. I am glad I listened to my gut in stopping here, and not follow the plan the stranded backpacker I met yesterday had. After paying my respects to the fallen soldiers from both sides, I take to the road again. The scenery is breathtaking, with the river running next to the road on the right, with lush green forest on the left. With water running over rocks and birds greeting the new day with joyful songs, I take on the day.

 

 

Some backpackers head for the off roads, wanting to experience riding Vietnam on an off-road motorcycle in the mud. For me, the road I have taken is riding, and experiencing the country and culture. However, regardless of your likes and dislikes, Vietnam seems to wrap you up in its charm, making you not want to leave.

 

 

A short distance out of town, a massive dam wall attracts my attention, and I stop on a bend where a large grass and scrub area affords one an excellent view of the dam and surrounding mountains. Excitedly I jump off my motorcycle and iPhone in hand head over to the edge of the clearing. Looking at the LCD display, I inch closer to the edge to get the perfect shot, and trip a landmine. I clench my jaw as the revolting smell of freshly disturbed human feces attacks my nose. My stomach turns as I glance down; human landmines cover the area.

A chill runs down my spine as I pull my shoe through the grass, trying to clear it. However, the person must have had peanut butter to eat, is the stuff sticks and refuses to come off. In desperation, I hop on one leg over to a water pool that remained of last night’s heavy rain. 10 minutes of grinding my shoe in the mud and water, finally clears all evidence off my shoe. What a crap experience so early in the morning.

Having left town a bit later than I wanted, I open the throttle wide open and let the motorcycle run at full song. Man, this is riding. My heart bounces joyfully in my chest. Rounding a nice bend in the road flat out, my heart stops when a roadblock comes into view. Lucky the little Yamaha has amazing disc brakes, and I stop effortlessly. I wait for the goats to gross the road, and as they do, one, steps out from the bunch and moves a few steps closer to me. Standing in the middle of the road, he scratches himself behind his ear and then looks at me. With a Men in Black, Tommy Lee Jones look, he stares me down.

“You lose something over here Hondo?” Tommy Lee Jones’ voice sounds in my.

“No sir.” I mentally reply.

“Ride slower.”

“Yes sir.”

The goat jerks his head up, and then joins the rest of the goats. I sigh with relieve. Luckily, he did not ask me to look into the small red light. Uh, what was I going to say again?

 

 

For safety, I decide to keep my speed at 50 km/h. A few kilometers further on, I pass a large metal bridge. Buildings that look like hotels beckon from the other side. Curiosity overwhelms me and I just have to go and have a look. About six small hotels, and two roadside restaurants greet me on the other side. Together, they form an amazing mountain retreat, overlooking the river.

My heart jumps from joy as I spot a signpost outside a restaurant depicting coffee and a Sunday ice cream. I can barely park my motorcycle fast enough, Yippy, ice cream. Five locals have taken up position around a table, playing a board game. I take a spot one table from them.

“Hi. I would like to order ice cream.” I inform a server as he nears my table.

“Sorry. No ice cream.”

“But you have a sign outside showing ice cream.”

“Ah, I bought that years ago because it looks nice, no ice cream. We have coffee.” I sigh; you can always count on them to have coffee.

“Yes, coffee will be nice, thank you.”

“You want a cone with coffee?” The server asks.

“Cone?” I reply and frown, causing the man to walk to a nearby fridge and pull out an ice-cream cone, similar to a cornetto.

“Yes please.” I smile. So, if it has a cone around and is not on a stick, it is not ice-cream I chuckle to myself.

 

Roadside restaurant

 

While munching on my fake cornetto, I pull out my iPad and open up my map application.

“nzsgnslnlgd” One of the locals says and points to the iPad.

“I am sorry. I do not understand.” I reply, drawing a blank from the guy. He looks at me for a moment, and then gets up and walks over to me. After glancing at the iPad for a few seconds, he shoots off a string of Vietnamese, causing the other four guys to get up and come over as well. Nervously I glance around as five locals going off in Vietnamese and pointing to my iPad are surrounding me. I swallow hard and measure the distance to my motorcycle, crap, why did I have to take a table so far from it?

“Is that a map of Vietnam?” Someone asks next to me, almost causing me to fall off my chair. Turning my attention to the voice, a kid of about eight years-old smiles at me.

“Yes, want to see?” I reply and zoom the map in enough that our position and a few of the nearby towns become visible.

This causes a consternation amongst the men as they point to the town names and then in different directions I assume must be the direction of some of the towns.

“They have never seen an iPad, only heard of it, and have never seen a digital map.” The kid explains.

I give them a treat by panning the map a bit, fascinating them. A truck arrives and breaks up the party. The men talk amongst themselves, and then one speaks to the kid.

“They say thank you for teaching them something new.” The kid translates. I nod my head and smile at the men, who return my gesture and then head off to catch their ride to work. A short while later my coffee arrives. For a moment, I reflect on what just transpired. How interesting life is. Sometimes we take things for granted. What is part of our daily life, others have never even seen, let alone experienced. Coffee aroma pulls me back to reality.

Looking down, I swallow hard. A manual metal peculator with coffee as thick as tar laughs at me. The coffee is on a filter, in a metal cup, over a glass cup. Almost no coffee is in the cup, as it drips through the filter slower than molasses in arctic winter. Trying to speed things up, I pour more hot water into the cup while moving the ground coffee around. Failing to increase the speed of the coffee passing the filter, I push down on the ground coffee with a spoon.

Thick brown muddy water drips into the glass. As the coffee in the glass starts to go solid, I contemplate pouring water directly into the glass to dilute it. However, Frank Hopkins in the movie Hidalgo said that if you can throw a horseshoe in the pot and it stands up straight, the coffee is ready. I swallow hard; this coffee can dissolve a horseshoe. My stomach contests me drinking it. However, I am not afraid, I tell myself as I stare at the monster I have created. I used to drink three triple expressos in a row when I was in IT. Although, that was a long time ago.

 

Coffee or mud? I am not sure.

I go for it. The first sip shocks my brain to the back of my skull. By the third sip, the hairs on my chest are standing up straight. Halfway though and my body transforms into the Hulk, without the green but with all the strength. By the end of the cup, I am Yoda the Jedi master as I float over the ground. Feeling indestructible, I decide to take on the road, all the way to Hanoi. What is this sissy business of sleeping? Who needs sleep? 1000 km in a day, ha that is nothing.

“When you come down from this high, you are going to crash right though earth to the other side.” A tiny voice whispers into my ear. I drown the voice out by giving the motorcycle more throttle, causing me to approach a bend too quickly, forcing me to close the throttle and brake hard. Adrenaline pulses through my body as I exit the turn. A monster of an uphill stares down at me, however, superman has nothing on me now. I smile as I yank the throttle wide open to blast over this meager anthill.

Shock and dread rush through my body and wash the caffeine instantly away. The motorcycle has no power. I hold the throttle wide open but only manage 45 km/h where I should easily get 70. I shake my head. Is the coffee affecting my judgment? Is the hill steeper than my eyes can judge? Only one way to find out, wait for the downhill. Seconds become minutes as I crawl up the hill. Finally, the nose of the motorcycle points down. I jerk when the engine backfires. A second backfire causes me to back half way off the throttle.

Slowly, the speed increases to 60 km/h. I chance opening the throttle. An icy chill runs down my spine as the engine backfires again. Cold sweat and goosebumps cover my body. Did I blow the engine? Distracted, I miss a turn off as I pass through a small village. Unsure if this is, in fact, my turn off, I slow down and double-check the route using my iPhone. Realizing I need to turn around and take the turn off, I stop alongside the road and wait for a motorcycle to pass. An uneasy feeling comes over me, and I scan the hill next to me. My eyes widen. What I had earlier thought was houses, are in fact shrines, this is a massive graveyard.

A chill ripple through my body as the engine sputters and dies. An eerie silence descent over the place. Quickly, I jump off the motorcycle, and push it to the other side of the road, facing back to the turn off. I take a deep breath, and hit the starter button. The engine lazily turns over, but refuses to start. Closing my eyes, I turn the ignition off, while shooting a quick prayer up. My second attempt in starting the engine is rewarded with a few coughs from the engine.

Taking a deep breath, I open the throttle a bit, and then try again. My heart jumps from joy as the engine sputters to life. Although it misses, coughs and backfires, I manage to get the engine speed high enough to pull away. By the time I negotiate the turnoff, the engine has settled, but has no power. Up to ¼ throttle, the engine responds, but opening the throttle more has no effect at all.

As the road slowly passes under me, I try to distract myself from worrying about being stranded in the mountains with a broken scooter, by amusing myself as to other road users. Two guys on a motorcycle do a good job at distracting my mind for a few seconds.

 

 

With a background in mechanics due to having rebuilt earthmoving machines and modifying cars with my dad since I could walk, I start to run through the possible problems the engine could have.

Although the engine feels weak, I manage to get 60 km/h on level areas and keeping the throttle fully open does not result in the engine running out of fuel. That rules out a fuel starvation problem. With a fixed ignition with no timing advance, it rules out an electric or timing issue. This leaves just one possibility, the carburetor itself, possibly blocked jets or fuel passages in the carburetor. As to confirm my suspicion, I watch in horror as the fuel gauge drop drastically faster than normal.

With the tools and knowledge to strip and clean the carburetor alongside the road, I contemplate stopping for repairs as I pass a few small villages. Failing to spot any shop that remotely would have parts should something be broken, I press on. As long as the motorcycle is still running, I am making progress. Every kilometer I do, is a kilometer closer to Hoi An and Da Nang, both large towns that should have Yamaha dealers. If I do break down, I will pay a local to town me to Ho An. Towing is actually common in Asia. Normally, the two riders hold each other’s hands, or the rider with the good motorcycle puts his right foot on the footrest of the broken scooter and pushes against it as he handles his scooter.

Strangely, the engine does not miss or backfire again; it just does not have any power. Hours later, I arrive at the outskirts of Hoi An. Passing a ship that was converted into a floating restaurant; I make a mental note to have a meal there when I get the motorcycle sorted out.

Having made an online hotel booking the night before, I ride up and down town looking for the road that my hotel is on. For some reason, the hotel’s road does not appear on my offline maps. Frustrated, I pull over and activate the 3G function on my phone and then try the online map application. I clench my jaw; I have no data left to go online.

“Are you lost honey?” I jerk and almost fall off my motorcycle as someone speaks behind me. Turning my head, a woman smiles sweetly at me. I automatically give her an up and down glance. My cheeks redden, and I turn red hot as she bats her eyelids. She is dressed to kill in a red evening dress that shows every curve of a slender figure.

With her looks and approach, I am immediately on red alert. Is she a working girl? And if so, am I going to be busted for talking to her? Prostitution is legal in Bangkok, but not here. I scan the perimeter for cops. I have heard horror stories of guys being busted for being with underage girls and prostitutes.

I have nothing against prostitutes it is their lives. I do, however, object to spending time in an Asian prison.

“What is the hotel’s name you are looking for?” She asks and comes up right against me. Sweet perfume tingles my nose. Her naked thigh is warm against my right hand.

“I have no hotel, but am looking for this road.” I respond and only show her a note of the street name I made on my iPhone. I am reluctant to give her my hotel name.

“That road is wrong, the road you are looking for has been renamed and is two roads from here. Head back and turn right at the light and then two roads up you will find your road.” She says.

“Thank you.”

“After you checked into your hotel, come and see me, and I will take care of you.” She smiles and hands me her business card while pushing out her chest, giving me a good view of her cleavage and well-formed breasts. I shift uneasily in the seat as things start to stir in my pants.

“I am alright, thank you.” I manage.

“You sure, my shop makes the best custom suits and wedding dresses in Ha Noi.” Her answer wipes all expression from my face. I stare at her blankly, and then give her a nod before riding off. Custom suits and wedding dresses, out here in Vietnam? I shake my head. I am sure I will find more than suits if I go to the address on the card. What shop would make custom suits and wedding dresses out here?

My jaw drops as I pass a line of tailor shops with mannequins dressed in expensive suits and wedding dresses. Pulling up to one shops, I inspect the inside, all looks legit.

“Do you need a suit?” A man asks as he comes out of the shop.

“Not right now. However, can you please tell me why there are so many tailors in town?”

“Do you not know? Hoi An is famous all over Vietnam for their suits and dresses?”

“No, I did not. Thank you.” I reply and then continue to my hotel. I have to admit, their customer recruiting methods are as strange as the city’s history, not that I mind too much.

Hoi An, is a World Heritage Site due to the well-preserved Ancient Town with buildings dating back to the 15th century. Originally called Lam Ap Pho (Champa City), in the 1st century, it had the largest harbor in Southeast Asia. When the Nguyen rule collapsed and was replaced by Emperor Gia Long at the end of the 18th century, Da Nang replaced Hoi An as the main port of trade. For over 200 years, Hoi An remained almost untouched.

A little annoyed, I ride up and down the road my hotel should be on. The numbers are not in numerical order. On passing a gas station for the second time, I pull in and ask a local for directions. My hotel turns out to be a short distance up the road from the gas station, nestled between other hotels, and hard to find without directions.

The hotel is nice and clean, with my room on the third floor. I have a balcony with a view of the road and a bit of the city. What is even more important is that the room has a large bath. A restaurant is situated right across from the hotel, and my stomach pleads for me to top it up, but I have more urgent matters, a mechanic to fix the motorcycle, and having my clothes washed. I quickly bundle my washing into a plastic bag and head to the reception desk. Almost all hotels in Asia have washing facilities; a signpost at the reception desk proves me right.

“Hi, can I get these back tonight?” I ask the lady at reception as I hand my clothes in. In Cambodia, they have one-hour express services all over.

“No 24 hours.”

“I will pay extra.” Also an option in Cambodia if you are in a hurry.

“Only 24 hour service.” She replies again. I start to worry as I only booked for one evening. Will I get my clothes back in time for when I need to check out tomorrow morning?

“So when can I get my clothes?”

“Tomorrow this time.” I look at the time. It is almost 4pm. I have no clean clothes, and the city looks interesting, maybe I should stay another day.

“I planned on leaving tomorrow morning. If I can only get my clothes tomorrow evening, I will need to stay another day.”

“Your room is available for another day, would you like to reserve it?” The lady asks without missing a beat.

“Might as well.” I give in, and then continue. “Do you know where I can find a mechanic for my motorcycle?”

“Down the road on the right.” The lady answers and points to the left.

“Thank you.” I give her a fake smile and leave. I know they can get the washing done in an hour. Few travelers check in early in the morning, thus with no express service, you will have to stay another day in order to get your clothes washed. I let it be and go in search of a mechanic, that turns out to be easy to find, just look for broken motorcycles outside in the road next to a shop.

“Hi, I have a problem with my motorcycle, can you have a look?” I ask the mechanic as he comes out of the shop when I park my motorcycle. He gives me a blank stare, turns around and walks into a small restaurant next door. Undecided whether to follow him into the restaurant or leave, I wait. Moments later, he returns with a lady.

“What is the problem?” She asks.

“The engine has no power; I think there is something wrong with the carburetor.” The lady translates, and then listens to his reply.

“He will have a look.” With that, she turns around and heads back into the restaurant. The mechanic motions for me to hand him the keys, and then proceeds to take the motorcycle for a test drive. On return, he parks the motorcycle and then heads straight for the restaurant. Moments later, the same lady comes over to me.

“He says there is a big problem, you must leave the motorcycle overnight, and he will see what he can find.”

I shake my head. From multiple experiences in Cambodia, I have learned that few mechanics actually know more than the simple mechanical workings of a motorcycle and just keep on replacing parts until the problem stops, at your expense. Once I had to pay for a new battery, new ignition, new stator coil, and new voltage regulator, when the fault turned out to be a broken electrical wire. Every part they put on, even just to test, you are charged for.

An equally annoying habit of mechanics is to randomly cut electrical wires and short them out against the chassis to see if there is power. This is due to few of them owning a voltage tester. In the end, you end up with a bunch of cut wires that are hastily twisted together, and bound to giving problems later.

“I only want the carburetor stripped, and the fuel filter replaced.” I inform the server that is ready to leave. Nodding, she translates for me, and then leaves when the mechanic gives me the thumbs up. I pull a broken chair closer and am just about to sit down, when the mechanic starts to take the air filter box apart.

“No no.” I say and wave my arms. Confused the mechanic looks up at me, pulls his shoulders up and then continues.

Slightly annoyed, I go next door and find the lady that translated for me earlier. Reluctantly, she follows me back to the mechanic.

“Please tell him that the air cleaner is not the problem, it was replaced 200 km ago at Yamaha in Da Lat. I want him to clean the carburetor.” She translates for me, and he responds with a string of Vietnamese.

“He says he will find the problem but needs time.” She translates, annoyance dripping from her voice. I am sure he said a lot more. All the while, the mechanic is still taking the box apart. With a huge grin, he rips the cover off, surely expecting to find a clogged up air filter. His face drops, as he pulls out the brand new genuine Yamaha air cleaner. I can barely contain my laughter at his expression. His next move wipes the smile from my face. With the air cleaner off, and the engine not running, he starts adjusting the carburetor settings. I almost explode.

I have been down this road before. Almost every roadside mechanic wants to tune the carburetor, and when they mess it up and the motorcycle does not want to start, they proclaim it is broken and needs replacing. I had one detune my motorcycle when I took it in for a blown taillight bulb. By now, the lady has returned to her restaurant, and I head over to call her back. By the time we return, he has adjusted the carburetor so far out, the engine refuses to start. His answer to that is to pull the spark plug out. Confused, he scratches his head as he turns the brand-new spark plug around in his hand.

To my horror, he walks over to an Amaryl wheel with a wire brush (a fixed bench grinder with a wire brush wheel at one end), and starts to polish the spark plug. I explode and have the lady stop him.

“The steel wires going at high speed over the plug electrode magnetically charge it, causing the spark plug not to work correctly.” I say to the server, who gives me a blank stare. “Putting the spark plug on that machine breaks it.” I try again, and she translates.

“He says you can pay for a new one.” She replies. My jaw drops. With a sigh, I nod yes to paying for a new spark plug. While he installs a new spark plug, the lady sneaks off, I do not blame her. With the new spark plug installed, the mechanic tries to start the engine. His shoulders hang as he distraught looks at the engine. Just as I am about to go fetch the lady again, he attacks the carburetor with a screwdriver and adjusts the settings while cranking the engine. Eventually, the engine sputters to life. With the engine barely running, he takes it out for a test ride. On his return, he goes to get the lady next door.

“He says the problem is fixed.” She says and walks away. By now, my patience has been tested to the limit. For no, nothing has been fixed. I suspect that there may be dirt in the fuel line or carburetor. It is possible that with the standing, the dirt in the line or carburetor could have run back, opening the blockage. This means that a few kilometers down the road, my problems will return.

In desperate, I call Simon from Saigon minks and explain the problem to him, and ask him to translate to the mechanic that I want the carburetor stripped and the fuel filter replaced. Simon translates to his Vietnamese mechanic partner, who then translates to the mechanic I am with. Proud that things will finally get moving in the right direction, I sit down on a chair. To my horror, the mechanic hands me my phone back, and then proceeds to put all the covers back on my motorcycle. I clench my jaw and contemplate calling the lady over again. Just as I am about to jump up and fetch the lady, something on the ground in a corner catches my eyes. A smile fills my face.

I pick a half assembled carburetor up, and pull the lid off, then grab a paintbrush he uses to clean parts, and brush the inside of the carburetor, as if cleaning it. The mechanic looks me up and down for a second, then nods his head, turns around, climb on his motorcycle, and drives away. Speechless I just watch him ride off, not knowing where he is going. I hope that he is bringing someone who knows more about carburetors than him. It is clear he knows very little, but as normal in Asia, they keep face and will seldom admit they do not know something. If you push them more, they start to get nervous and smile and joke a lot. This guy can be a standup comedian by the amount of smiles he gives and jokes in Vietnamese he tells me. Ten minutes later, he returns, and heads directly to the restaurant to fetch the lady.

“They have no new carburetors in stock.” The lady translates, and then walks away. I shake my head. I had enough of this bull. The mechanic gasps as I grab some of his tools, and strip the motorcycle myself and remove the carburetor. With jaw hanging, he watches in amazement that I actually know what I am doing. With the carburetor off, I disassemble it, and then show it to the mechanic. His face lights up upon seeing dirt and sand in the bottom of the float bowl. Excitedly he grabs the carburetor and proceeds to blow it out with a compressor. While he is busy with the bottom part of the carburetor, I inspect the top part. The carburetor is different from the ones normally found on small motorcycle engines.

Although it has a piston with a needle attached to the bottom like many small engine motorcycles, the piston is not controlled by the throttle cable like normal. In this case, the throttle cable has no direct contact with the piston, but controls a vacuum opening. The piston’s up and down movement is controlled by vacuum. I test each diaphragm, but they all check out, as do the vacuum passages. I now know that the problem lies in that the piston is not moving all the way, causing the throttle not to open, but as to why it does not move as it should, I have no idea yet. It is possible that dirt may have blocked a vacuum channel and fell out without me noticing it. With the carburetor cleaned, the mechanic installs it and fires up the engine.

My heart sings joyfully as the engine revs smoothly and settles into a smooth idle. Excitement fills my body. Awesome, I am ready to take on Vietnam again. I feel like hugging the mechanic. With a smile on his face, the mechanic replaces the engine panels. As the mechanic puts the last fairing panel back, I for fun try to start the engine again. The mechanics face drops as the engine turns over, but fails to start. He almost topples the motorcycle as he jumps up and grabs the controls from me. His eyes widen with each failed attempt on starting the engine.

After a few attempts, he gives the motorcycle a once over look, and then tries to start the engine again. Click, click, now the starter does not even engage. With a horrid look on his face, the mechanic keeps on trying to get the starter to engage. Click, click is all he gets. By the time he gives up, he looks ready to drop down on the ground crying. To my surprise, he holds out and walks over to his toolbox. I shake my head. His solution to the starter not engaging, is trying to tune the carburetor. I stop him, knowing that the carburetor setting is correct and in any case has nothing to do with the starter not engaging. However, he insists it is the carburetor, so I let him be, but count the number of turns he adjusts the settings.

My jaw drops as the engine turns when the mechanic tries it again after working on the carburetor. He shoots me a victory smile. I just shake my head; there is no way that should work. The mechanic to my surprise pulls out the spark plug and tests for a spark, a smart move. Finding no spark, he replaces the spark plug and then proceeds to remove the back fairing panel to get access to the electronics. For fun, I try the engine. We both look in surprise at each other when the engine turns over and catches immediately. The mechanic gives me a suspicious look, and I can almost read his mind, am I fooling with him. I shrug my shoulders, causing the mechanic to stare at the electrical wires with a baffled look on his face. The spark plug wire has rubbed against the frame, but the spot was repaired with electrical tape. The mechanic replaces it just to make sure.

With the engine still running, he proceeds to pull on the wires. The guy almost kisses me when the engine dies immediately when he pulls on the wires. Letting it go, he starts the engine again, and then pulls on the wires again, immediately the engine dies. Not having seen any voltage tester, I fear he will cut each wire in search of the broken one. The mechanic surprises me by zip tying the wires together against the chassis, and then wrapping electrical tape over it all. After replacing the back panel again, he tests the engine. With the engine running, he goes over to get the lady to translate.

“$8. He is closing now.” The lady translates and leaves.

I bite my lip. The engine idles almost at half throttle. I let it be, knowing I can adjust it myself later. The fact that the electrics was not properly fixed worries me a bit, but at least I know where to look for the problem. The power loss problem is the one more worrying me, but for now, I let it be. As I ride away, I contemplate on my options. Clearly, the motorcycle has multiple issues that are now all getting worse with the long and hard ride. Is it wise to continue, or should I sell the motorcycle here while it is still running smoothly? I have done some awesome mountain rides and had loads of fun, is it really worth going on?

After a short test ride, I return to my hotel, where I find a number of backpackers outside. I strike up a conversation and learn that Hoi An is actually a favorite place for backpackers to both start and stop their trip. Some ride down from Hanoi to Hoi An, while others ride up from Saigon, or start at Hoi An and go either way. This adds to my thought of selling the motorcycle. With so many backpackers around, I will have no problem selling it. Having paid $350 for it and seeing the scrap motorcycles being sold for $400, mine would be a bargain at $300, even with the issues.

“Your washing is ready.” The receptionist informs me as I enter the hotel.

“But I thought you have no speed service.” I am a bit annoyed as I already booked an extra night.

“Oh no, we made extra fast, you said you will pay extra.” The receptionist smiles, knowing she conned me. I thank her, take my clothes and head to my room, where I change into fresh clothes. As I paid for another night, I may as well give my clothes that I have on, in to have it washed as well. I quickly head downstairs and hand my clothes in, and then return to my room for a nice bath. As the bath is filling, I stand on the balcony and watch four backpackers unstrapping their backpacks from their motorcycles, having just arrived. With the bath filled, I slip into a muscle relaxing bliss. Tomorrow, I will ride around doing sightseeing and decide after giving the motorcycle a full test run if I will continue with the trip. Soft music from my iPad fills the air as I close my eyes.

Half an hour later, my iPad beeps with a message. It is from an online game that I have been playing off and on for months. You build a team and then join a league and fight other leagues. I have made friends with the other team members in the league and have enjoyed the banter and jokes. However, as the game is geared towards making money, you either have to spend a lot of money buying stuff to fight and upgrade your team, or you have to play long hours to earn those things. Being competitive and not wanting to let my league down, I have started to spend too much time online, and I feel it is starting to interfere with my writing.

A heavy decision presses down on me. As I am not spending any money on the game, I cannot just now and again join a league fight. I either have to keep investing a lot of time or quit playing the game totally. However, that means no more jokes and banter with my friends. As each league can only hold a certain amount of members, they cannot afford to have one sitting idly by, I will have to leave the league. A number of members have dropped over time and new ones joined, so I am one of the older members.

I bite my lip. Dedicate all my time to writing books or chat with friends online and play games. The decision is clear. With a heavy heart, I write my intention in a message to the team that I will help them with this one last fight, and then leave the team. To my surprise, the team leader comes back that he and his wife who started the team are leaving as well, and actually want to make me team leader. I thank him, but decline. I have to prioritize my time. Two other old team members say well if we are leaving, then they are leaving as well.

Then something strange happens that I did not expect. Some of the younger members start to call us names and blame us for deserting the team and dropping them. I cannot believe the reactions from these new members. They are taking the game personally, as if their lives depended on it. The way they respond sounds like we are traitors. I try to reason with them, but soon realize there is no reasoning with them. With sadness at how it ended, I get the email addresses from the friends whom I want to keep in contact with, and then delete the account and game entirely. This trip has already brought more changes in my life than I have ever expected.

I slip back into the water, but feel so utterly alone. My heart is in my throat, and tears threaten to join the bath water. Not being a drinker or party person, I have only made one friend in Siem Reap and see him very little as he is busy building a house. Although I have more friends online, I was in contact with these guys in the team every day. In addition, we shared a team spirit together as we fought battle after battle online while messaging tactics to each other during the battles. Now that is gone. For a game junky and computer person, it is torture, made worse in the way it ended. With my spirit totally crushed, doing another 1000 odd kilometers on a mechanically suspect motorcycle is not something I feel like doing.

 

 

Chapter 15

 

Lazily I awake at about 8am. As I am going to stay in town for the day, there is no reason to get up early. With a yawn, I reach over and check my email. My heart drops to the floor. Hate mail and threats fill my inbox. When I wrote the first message last night that I will be leaving the team, I gave my email for those that want to stay in contact. Four have responded with their emails, being the friends from the original team. However, now I got hate mail and threats from some of the rest of the team for leaving. One is from a person that had just joined the team; we do not even know each other. I shake my head at how disillusioned people can be, delete the emails, and then block the accounts.

After a nice warm bath, I get dressed and then walk out onto the balcony. In front of me is Hoi An, and old port city from the 18th century. In the 18th century, Hoi An was considered by Chinese and Japanese merchants to be the best destination for trading in all of Southeast Asia, even Asia. Japanese believed the heart of all of Asia (the dragon) lies beneath the earth of Hoi An. With such a busy port, Hoi An rose to prominence as a powerful and exclusive trade conduit between Europe, China, India, and Japan, especially for the ceramic industry. Shipwrecks discovered in modern times showed that Vietnamese and Asian ceramics were transported from Hoi An to as far as Sinai, Egypt. That however, changed when Hoi An fell out of favor when Da Nang a few miles away was chosen as the new port city. Hoi An was almost forgotten overnight, and for over 200 years, little in the city changed. Today it is popular for its ancient old quarters and French like buildings, with stunning beaches close by.

I head downstairs and across the road for breakfast. The place has descent food at a reasonable price for my small budget, as well as blazing fast internet. Somehow, every hotel I stay in, I have either no or crap internet in my room, while the rest of the place is fine. After catching up with my writing a bit, I go and explore the town.

The town is not that big, and eventually I make my way to the old part of town, and a small port where the ferries pick passengers up, and take them across. The ferries are much smaller than the ones I have been on before and are basically just a fishing boat.

“How much for a ride across?” I ask the boat captain of one ferry.

“30 000 VND one-way.” I smile; this is going to be easy. I have months of experience haggling over prices in Cambodia. After five minutes, I get the price down to, 30 000 VND one-way. For some reason, I confuse the conversion with Cambodian Riel, and divide 30 000 by 4000, and not 20 000. Thus, the price for a short ride I wrongly calculate to be almost $8, and not $1.5. Feeling $8 to be too much for a short ferry ride, one-way, I leave the captain and head over to a nearby restaurant on the water’s edge. To my surprise, I recognize a lady having a meal. I first met her in Saigon in the first hotel I stayed in, two weeks ago.

“Hi. How are you doing? Do you remember me? We met in Saigon; you were working on the hotel’s computer when I checked in.” I greet her.

“Yes. Hello.”

“How did you get here, rode up by motorcycle?” I ask.

“By bus, one town after another.”

“What are the odds of us meeting again after all this time?” I laugh.

“10 000 VND.” A server says behind me as she brings my iced tea I ordered when I arrived. I frown as I take the money out.

“10 000 VND is 50c right?” I half ask the lady from Saigon.

“Yes.” She hesitantly replies.

“So 30 000 VND for the ferry ride is actually $1.5?”

“Yes.” She laughs.

I shake my head at my own stupidity, say goodbye and head back to the ferry dock.

Ego stops me from going back to the same captain. I wait until his boat is full and casts off, and then head to the next boat that pulls up to dock. Without argument, I accept the 30 000 VND price, and watch as the captain loads my motorcycle on the bow (front) of the boat. Within a few minutes, the boat is full, and we cast off. In Vietnamese, the captain orders everyone to sit down and with hand signals directs me to do the same. Like nice obedient people, everyone but me sits down in the benches. I get a stern look from the captain and angry looks from the other passengers as I stand on the railing of the port side and take pictures, while hanging half way out over the water. Hey, I practically lived on a boat in Cayman Islands for seven years, in rougher waters.

The captain’s eyes narrow as I move past the other passengers, over to him. Without thinking, I start filming him as he operates the large diesel engine with a hand throttle that consists of pulling on a rope, while steering the boat with a hand-operated rudder. Immediately the captain smiles as I film him, and then proudly allows me to go anywhere on the boat I please. Any other passenger who dares look at me funny, gets a stern look from the captain. My heart leaps from joy as we cross the river, even though it slowly dawns on me, I have no idea where this ferry is heading, or how and when I am going to get back.

A tap on my shoulders rips me from my daydreaming. Next to me, is the conductor, collecting payments. From the size of the river, I judge us to be about half way across. I guess if you do not pay up, they may threaten you with throwing you overboard. It is a long swim back, so we all pay up. I frown as I watch locals only paying 1 000 VND, 1/30th of what I paid. Hey, I can afford it, they not, so I happily pay my fare. As soon as the ferry docks, locals start to drive their motorcycles over the side of the ferry and onto the dock. No one waits for a plank to be put down to make it safer. With the boat moving to a fro, you have to time it right to drive off when the gap between the dock and boat is small enough to attempt the stunt.

 

 

Immediately as I drive off, the island screams at me, tourist trap. A few ramshackle shops beg me to spend some money, but I ignore them and drive down a small road to go and explore the surroundings. The start of the island close to the ferry has some vegetation and trees; however, the rest turns out to be one massive rice farm, with multiple small roads cutting through the rice paddies.

 

With nothing to see, I drive around the island, determined to find a way off the island other than the ferry. Partially lost, I give in and take out my iPhone. I have no hope that any of the cement paths that snake through the rice paddies will be on a map; however, I can use the GPS to find my way back to the ferry. Astonishingly, the map shows the small cement roads, and more interestingly for me, it shows one that links up to the main road. There is just one catch, the map indicates a bridge, and me and map bridges, are not good friends. Although I am sure the bridge will turn out to be another ferry service, I follow the directions to it.

With open roads, I gun the motorcycle, knowing that there are no ninja traffic cops around. A local sleeping in the fields next to the road slowly lifts his head as I approach. He gives me a quick glance as I zoom past him. Deciding that I am boring, he goes back to sleep. A short distance later, I meet a girl walking around with no water and hat.

“Hi, are you lost.” I ask her.

“No, I am just sightseeing.” I look around at the dry rice paddies. We are about 2km from all the shops with a network of roads to follow in getting back to it.

“Do you want a lift back to the ferry and shops?”

“No, I am fine.”

“You sure?”

“Yes, I am just sightseeing.”

“Okay then, have a nice day.” I shake my head and look up at the blazing sun. At least, there are a few locals around should she need help later. The hot cement zips past under my tires as I blast to the phantom bridge, aka ferry. My jaw drops as I near the spot. No way, this is cool. In front of me is one long bridge going over two rivers. The bridge is just wide enough for two motorcycles to pass each other, and at places, blocks have fallen though, but it is a bridge. I watch as two locals pass me, both only riding on one of the main support beams, about the size of a white line on normal roads. With so many tiles already missing, I guess they are afraid one will fall in if they ride over it, possibly causing them to fall off the bridge. I decide to follow their tactics.

I feel like Indiana Jones as I negotiate the crossing. In some places, most of the tiles are still in place, and in others, there is hardly a tile to be seen, and it is only the two main support beams. Movement ahead makes me squint. As I get closer, I realize it is a local girl approaching me from the other side on her scooter. As we near each other, she looks up from concentrating on the road and realizes I am not Vietnamese.

 

 

Her face goes white and nervously she looks at the water. I am touched by her confidence in my motorcycle riding ability. Her face changes from “we are going to crash” to “I am going to die” the closer I get to her. I disappoint her and zoom past without clipping her. Behind me, she takes the first breath in probably a minute. Up ahead, another girl is about to go through the same ordeal. After scaring and passing the second girl, I go over a small island, and then hit the main crossing. The bridge is the same all the way, and I reason that in the wet months, the small island is probably under water.

Half way across the longer section, my heart stops as a gust of wind sudden hits me. The motorcycle veers to the left, and I almost lose control off it and go over the edge. Just my immense riding experience and superman speed saves me as I stop an inch from the edge. (Actually, probable what saved me was the fact that I was going slowly and the Yamaha has awesome brakes.) With the wind blowing hard from the right, and the motorcycle skew in the road, I put my left foot down for stability. I gasp as the tile gives under my foot and I almost go over the side. My foot goes into the hole and I come down hard on my knee on the edge of the hole where the tile was. Silently cursing, I slide off the seat, then painfully push the motorcycle upright again, and then continue. Up ahead, there must be more locals to scare to take my mind of the pain. I find only an old lady on a bicycle, and respectfully pull to the side and stop to allow her to pass unhindered.

All too soon, I cross the bridge and find myself in more dried rice fields, which eventually links up with the main road leading to Hoi An. As I pass an interesting looking restaurant, I decide to treat myself, and head in for a meal. The place turns out to be an awesome restaurant, culture village, and museum, all in one, and not as expensive as I thought it would be. The theme is that of an old Vietnamese village, complete with a pond and mock water buffalo. Some of the buildings are actual Vietnamese homes, bought and relocated all the way from the countryside to here.

 

 

A server greets me at the road entrance and leads me to the main dining area a fair distance in the complex. We pass a number of private dining areas, as pictured above. Noodles and beef attract my fancy, and I go for it. Using the local Wi-Fi, I update my blog while eating. I am no expert in using chopsticks, but pride myself in that after a few months in Cambodia, I can now even pick up small amounts of rice. I push my chest out as I eat rice with chopsticks, in an upmarket Vietnamese restaurant, like a Vietnamese. About half way through my meal, a female server comes over to my table.

“Excuse me sir, but do you know how to use chopsticks?” She asks as she comes up next to me.

“I thought I did. Here you go, please show me.” I reply, then take a new set of chopsticks off the table, and hand it to the girl. Catching her totally by surprise, she blushes and takes a step back. I think she thinks that I expect her to share my meal, something very intimate for Vietnamese. Oops, but hey she started it. She quickly recovers and makes a cup in front of her mouth with her left hand then acts as if she is dipping the cup and scooping the food into her mouth with the chopsticks, almost like drinking soup. I thought that if I manage to clean my plate without using my hands, I am super cool. I look around and see no one else eating like that.

“No thanks. I think I will just eat it slowly piece by piece.” I reply. Very disappointed the girl walks away. I think I may have offended her. Unsure as to how she perceived my reaction, I decide to let it be and continue my writing and piece by piece eating. After finishing my food, I continue writing for about 20 minutes, then call the male server over that initially helped me. I ask for the bill, and then start to pack up. He returns a short while later with the bill.

“Can I see the museum?” I ask as I hand the server the bill and payment.

“Apology sir. The museum is closed.”

“The sign at the entrance says there is a museum, and it is open.”

“No sir, we have no museum open.”

“Okay thanks.” I shake my head and start to walk away.

“Would you like to see the museum sir?” A female voice asks behind me. Confused I turn around and notice one of the female staff I saw earlier. Her nametag indicates that she is a manager.

“The waiter said the museum is closed.”

“Yes. It is closed for renovations. However, I have been watching you for some time writing. If you want to see the museum, I can arrange a private tour.” She replies. I am taken aback by her reply. She probably assumes I am a newsperson or something. I decide to post pictures of the place on my blog, and agree to a tour. The manageress calls a female server and informs her to give me a tour of the place. Cool. I always knew I was special and one of a kind ha ha ha.

The museum is made up of houses from villages that they have brought and assembled in the museum. Some of the houses are over 170 years old. Being made of wood, that is significant. There are samples of simple village houses, right up to high status lords. The place makes their own noodles, and I am shown how the noodles I just ate was made.

 

Villager’s house inside.

 

The village houses are complete, but most of the upper class houses are empty save for a few chairs and tables. The display cases are in place, but many preparations are still under way. In one of the houses, a couple of workers are putting up a statue of a person.

“Who is that?” I ask my guide. Shocked she spins around and stares at me with an open mouth. Oh dear, what have I done now?

“You do not know who that is?” She asks when she recovers from her shock. I glance over her shoulder to see if I have been an idiot. Nope, there is no nametag.

“Uhm, no.”

“That is mister Ho Chi Minh. He was our President.” She says proudly. Crap, I am an idiot, who else would it be? Okay, I am not a history buff, but I should have seen that one coming, I am riding on his famous road.

 

Bust of mister Ho Chi Minh.

The place looks like a movie set with its old buildings.

 

The upper class houses are single story buildings as seen above. Inside, the roof is held up by multiple polished wood pillars. Some of the buildings have 72 pillars holding the roof up. Sleepwalking can be a hazard in these buildings. The sides of the house close with a series of doors while the entire building is open space inside.

After my private tour, I head back to the hotel and pass the floating boat restaurant. Since prices are far cheaper here than I thought, I decide to return later to have dinner in the boat restaurant. In my room, I kick back on my bed, and then contemplate on my options while thinking back on the trip so far. It has been an adventure, and I have had some fun. However, is it time to stop?

The motorcycle issues worry me. Tomorrow’s leg is all the way to Khe San, a 327 km trip, leading me away from the coast and back into the remote mountains along the Laos-Vietnam border on the Ho Chi Minh road. That is a long ride for a day, given that your average speed is around 40 km/h, made worse with the fact that most of the road will be hard climbs through mountain passes, especially for a fully automatic motorcycle designed primarily for city travel (scooter).

The road along that section I was told is desolate, especially after Khe San. Although there are small villages, there are no major towns until I get to Hanoi, 1163 km away. I have three main problems, the carburetor, the starter, and the ignition electronics, all, able to cripple the motorcycle. Should I break down, it may prove impossible to find parts and impractical to have the motorcycle shipped to a different town. I may be forced to dump the motorcycle or sell it to a local for the price of a bus ride to the Hanoi. Taking a deep breath, I get up and make ready to return to the ship restaurant. Never make rash decisions on an empty stomach.

“Hi, are you open.” I ask a young girl at reception when I walk into the restaurant. The entire lower floor is empty.

“Yes, but only the upper deck is available.” Her answer lightens my mood. I had hoped to sit outside and enjoy the view.

“Can I go up?”

“Yes, follow the stairs over there, I will send someone to take your order.” She smiles.

The stairs spiral up, taking me right to the top floor. I walk all the way through to the bow of the ship, and select the table right at the tip of the bow. The view is amazing, lifting my mood even more. I was planning on writing, but decide to just relax and enjoy the view. A lady brings me a menu and cutlery, and then waits for my order.

 

My table, very nice view.

 

Immediately my eyes stop when I read, steak and fries. No need to read the rest of the menu.

“Steak and fries with coffee please.” The lady nods, and then makes to leave.

“Do you have internet connection here?” I quickly ask.

“Yes, but only downstairs.” I really do like the view, but I also need to check up on my emails.

“Can I sit downstairs?”

“Sorry sir, no tables are ready.” I look around me. No other table is ‘ready’ as well. My table did not even have cutlery. I see no reason why only the bow tables are available, except for the view. As the lady walks away, I sniff my shirt just to make sure I do not smell. Nope, all pure sexy smell, so that cannot be the reason they placed me outside. Shrugging my shoulders, I enjoy the view for all but two minutes, then give in and start working on my next book.

A short while later, my food arrives. I look down at the potato wedges, and pieces of beef mixed with vegetables and sauce, a stew. It looks delicious, but is not really steak and fries, something I was looking forward to.

“This is steak and fries?” I ask the server unsurely.

“Yes sir, is something wrong?”

“No, no, it looks delicious, thank you.” Well, as you learn on travels, never expect to get what the menu says. Technically, as it has beef and fries in, it is steak and fries. The meal turns out to be awesome. I am not sure what sauce they used, but it was delicious. The vegetables in the dish complimented the potato wedges that were crisp on the outside and soft on the inside, just as I like it. Although it is, the most expensive meal I had in Hoi An, it was cheaper than most meals I had in Da Lat or Saigon, and worth the price. With no internet connection, I cannot upload pictures to my blog, nor read my emails. Since the internet connection in my room is crap, I will have to enjoy a coffee at the restaurant across from my hotel.

As I descend the staircase to the first floor, an interesting scene presents itself to me. Two girls at the reception desk are sitting with their chairs turned around, their backs against the reception desk, and their feet against the wall. Their attention is consumed by the games they are playing on their cellphones. So naturally, I do the right thing, sneak up behind them, and go.

“You guys are really busy hey?” Both fall off their chairs, and as they try to get themselves up from the floor as dignified as they can, I crack myself up for them. They give in, and join the laughter. I compliment them on the restaurant and meal, and then say goodbye. Giggling, and with adrenaline pulsing in their veins, they wave me goodbye.

The sun is making its last stand against the night as I make my way back to my hotel. Along the way, I spot a girl with a girly helmet. The back of her half helmet has a slid in, to allow her ponytail to unhindered wave in the wind as she rides along. Well, at least she is wearing a helmet; many Asians do not, especially in Cambodia. What is more alarming to me is the truck with sudden death on it I find a short distance later. The truck is filled with steel rebar for construction. Deadly rebar hang off the back of the truck at chest and head height with no red flags or anything to warn against the danger. With the sun already low, it will be so easy for a motorcyclist not to see the rebar and ride right into it. Especially if the truck stops suddenly in the congested streets where motorcyclists follow with only inches to spare.

I park my motorcycle at the hotel, and then walk across the road to the restaurant to write. With a nice cup of coffee in my one hand, I upload my blog pictures and finish my blog post for the day, and then inspect the digital map. I have three options. Go for it and hope for the best, turn around and go back, or sell the motorcycle in town and then take a train back.

According to John’s schedule, I have a 13-hour ride ahead of me if I go for it. Being half way to Hanoi already, the fuel, and accommodation would be about the same going back to Saigon as going onwards to Hanoi. Thus, it is either go for it, or sell the motorcycle and give up. 13-hour ride; does not sound that bad, I have done worse. So what will it be?

Well, I came this far, let’s do it. I make a mental note to pack additional water and snacks, in case the motorcycle breaks down. Will not be the first time I sleep alongside the road on a motorcycle. If the motorcycle breaks down and is not fixable and needs to be abandoned, I will lose my $350 investment, but it is a risk I am willing to take for the adventure of the ride. Either case, it will be worth a story of telling. With my mind made up, I return to my hotel.

“Your washing is ready.” The lady at reception says as I walk in.

“Thank you. I would like to pay for my room now. I am checking out early tomorrow morning.”

“Sorry sir, your bill is not ready yet.” I frown at her answer.

“I am planning on leaving at 5am tomorrow morning.”

“No worry sir, there will be someone here to help you.”

I shrug my shoulders and head for my room. I hope there is someone, and that my bill is correctly calculated. By 7pm, I am all packed and jump in bed, just as a live band starts playing music at the restaurant across the road. Energetic music pumps though the Saturday night and reverberate in my skull and chest as I press the pillow against the sides of my head. The pillow is defenseless in blocking out the dance music. I toss and turn until 11pm when the music finally goes out. Tomorrow is going to be a long day.

 

 

Chapter 16

 

A deadly silence is shattered at 4am by a loud beeping of my alarm clock. Lazily I get up and take a quick bath, then dress and get ready to leave. By 5am, I drag my lazy bones down to the reception desk to check out. My aim is to blast through the cool morning air by 5:15am and have breakfast later on the road. With 13 hours riding to go, that means I will be in the next town just before dark. I, however, suspect John falls asleep along the way, as I have consistently beaten his schedule by up to two hours. I am confident that I can do the 327 km to Khe San in 10 hours or less. However, still a bit sleepy, I fail to see Murphy laughing at me where he sits on my shoulder.

At the reception desk, things start to go sideways very fast. None of the English-speaking girls who are normally on duty are in yet. An elderly man who speaks no English operates the reception. He puts a bill in front of me, and I frown as I look at the price. Again, my room rate is not that of the online booking price.

“The price is not correct.” I say as I show him my booking on my iPad. He shakes his head and taps on the bill on the counter. My eyes widen as I study the bill in more detail. At all other hotels, I was charged 30 000 VND for my washing, now I am charged 140 000 VND for each bundle. As it is the same clothes, the weight is the same as I handed in at the other hotels. I know I said I will pay extra for speed washing for the first bundle, but almost five times the price is out of line, and the second bundle was not speed service. Speed service is normally double the standard price.

“I am not paying these prices.” My answer draws a blank from the old man. His facial expressions reflects his mind racing for an answer, eventually he replies, “Soon come.” I take it that the women normally at reception will be here soon. At a standoff, I am forced to wait until one of the English-speaking girls turns up for work an hour later.

By now, I have already worked out from the bill that they have used a conversion rate of 21666 VND to US$1. The normal street rate is 20 000 VND to $1. However, they are free to use any rate they want, so I have to accept it. However, the room rate and the fee for the washing is way wrong.

“Hi. Can I help?” A woman asks after speaking to the old man in Vietnamese.

“Yes, your bill is incorrect. I have paid a deposit already, and it was not deducted.”

“We do not get the deposit; I cannot deduct it from the price.”

“Your arrangement with booking.com is not my issue. I have paid a deposit.” The woman eyes me up and down, and then shrugs her shoulder and takes the bill. Her fingers rapid fire over the calculator, and after amending the bill, she hands it back to me. I almost burst out laughing. She deducted the deposit, but then changed the room rate for the second day, charging me double.

“I am not paying double the price for the second day.” I say as I hand her the bill back.

“That is my price.” She firmly answers.

“I paid a price for the first day, and was told the second day is the same.” I counter.

“Not by me.” She counters.

“Fine. Let’s call the police and see what they say.” Her eyes widen at my reply. For a moment, she stands undecided. For added effect, I flip my wallet open, showing the Captain’s firefighting badge that looks like a police badge.

“Okay. You pay same price.” She quickly replies, takes the bill back, and corrects the amount.

“You are charging me 140 000 VND for each bundle of washing.” I say as she tries to hand me the bill. She looks at it for a moment, then replies. “You wanted speed service.”

“For the first bundle, not the second and 140 000 is overcharging.”

“You should have said you did not want speed service for the second bundle.” She counters.

“Fine.” I reply. By this point, I just want to get on the road. I pull out some $US.

“Vietnam dollars only.” The girl quickly says, and then proceeds to convert my bill to Vietnam dollar on the calculator. All the other places in town I paid with $US, and was hoping to save my VND for in the mountains. However, something on the calculations does not look right, and I divide the amount on the calculator with the $US amount on my bill.

“You used a conversion rate of 22 0000. The original bill was done with a conversion rate of 21 000.” I frown and hand the bill back.

“If you wanted that conversion rate, you should have accepted the original bill.” She smiles.

I take a deep breath, let it go and pay my bill. If this was an isolated case, I would say it is a bad hotel; however, this is the third hotel that refused to honor the online price or the deposit. When I eventually take to the road, 1 ½ hour is lost. As I ride out of town, I contemplate if the few dollars was worth losing 1 ½ hours. Considering the long ride that I have ahead of me, no, but standing up for your rights, yes.

My stomach growls, reminding me that I neglected it. I stop at the first mobile food stand I find, that is operated by a very friendly couple. With hand signals, I order two bread rolls with egg on. As his wife starts to prepare my food, the husband indicates for me to sit down at a nearby table. As I sit down, he comes over and pours me Vietnamese green tea from a 2L Coca Cola bottle. I thank him with a nod, and then wait for my food.

A short while later, the wife comes over with two freshly made rolls, nicely packed for the road. I eat one right away. While I eat, the husband inspects my leather jacket with its Kevlar inserts and appears fascinated by the weight of the jacket. Having finished my first roll, I pack the second one in my backpack.

“Wait.” The husband says as I make to leave.

I watch in amazement as he pours a small amount of condense milk in a plastic bag, and then fill it with milk before inserting a straw. Homemade milkshake I smile to myself.

“Gift. For the road.” He smiles.

“Thank you.” I reply, and then take to the road.

John’s route calls for backtracking around 20 kilometers to get back on the main road. In my wisdom, at the last minute, I decided to use a shortcut road that goes directly to the main road. The road turns out to be in rough condition, but I still manage 50 to 60 km/h on most sections. Along the way, I enjoy a wonderful homemade milkshake. Due to the road being a back road, it cuts through the countryside, and rewards me with amazing scenery.

Eventually, I join up to the famous Ho Chi Minh highway again, and have some fun. The road surface changes between asphalt and cement, but is in excellent condition. Here and there, I pass by abandoned buildings that must have been expensive villas once. At times, the road runs along the river, giving about the same view as I had when leaving Cham Duck.

 

Pictured above, looking back at the road up the mountain.

 

The engine pulls strongly, but the idling is sky high. Being a fully automatic, it means that whenever I stop, I have to hold the brakes in or switch the engine off, a bit annoying. A fork in the road up ahead makes me frown. I do not remember there being a split on the map. A bit confused, I stop and take out my iPad. The digital map shows the road continuing directly on. However, in reality, the road splits in two, one going directly through a small town, and the second one around it, neither in the direction I want to go. Staying with the safest option, I go through town, passing a small Yamaha dealer. At the other edge of town (about 400 meters further on), the road intersects with a main road.

Now what, left or right? I go with the compass reading that indicates left will take me closer to the border while going right takes me back to the coast. About 3 kilometers on, I stop and turn back. According to my digital map, I am heading further and further away from the Ho Chi Minh road. A feminine moment overcomes me, and I decide to stop at the Yamaha shop and ask for directions, as well as have the idling adjusted.

“Hi. Do you speak English?” I ask the mechanic as I stop at the Yamaha shop. His blank stare is the only answer I get. Well, he may not understand English, but he will understand mechanics I decide and start the motorcycle. Shrugging my shoulders, I point to the motorcycle that is jumping forward each time I let go of the brakes. The mechanic’s eyes light up and he gives me the thumbs up. While he is adjusting the idling speed, I pull out my iPad, and show his wife the digital map on my iPad. I point to the Ho Chi Minh road that I want to be on, and then shrug. Her answer is to point out the door, indicating I must turn right at the T-junction. This makes no sense, but I decide to try it. 10 000 VND (around 50c) later, the engine is idling smoothly, and I am back on the road, taking the right turn at the intersection.

About 1 km further on, three backpacker motorcycles outside a restaurant attracts my attention. Whenever you spot a motorcycle in the middle of nowhere, loaded down with gear and bags, you know they are not out for a Sunday drive around town. I stop at the restaurant and find two tourists and their guide. The guide immediately comes over.

“Hi.” He greets me.

“Hi. I am heading to Khe Sanh. Am I going in the right direction?”

“Yes. A few kilometers on, the road turns back inland towards the mountains. Just keep following it until you come to a large bridge, then turn left. Khe Sanh is a short distance from the bridge.”

“How far is the bridge from here?”

“Not sure, but don’t worry, you cannot miss the bridge. Are you sure, you want to head all the way to Khe Sanh? It is a long drive”

“I’ll be okay. I have done longer stretches.” I try to sound confident. Yes, I have done longer, on 1000cc superbikes in good working order on modern highways. However, the Yamaha has lights; I will ride in the dark if need be, I mentally encourage myself. Back on the road, a small voice nags at me that maybe I am biting off a longer ride than the engine can handle. I know I can take it, but decide not to stress the engine and keep my speed below 70 km/h, knowing it is going to lengthen my day considerably.

True to the guide’s words, I am soon back on the Ho Chi Minh road and in harmony with my digital map. Now I just need to find that bridge. I marvel at the amazing scenery, and with each kilometer that the engine runs smoothly, I relax a bit. A small roadside gas station attracts my attention as I pass it. Quickly, I check my GPS. I have done 100 kilometers. I have around 30 or so kilometers left before my normal gas range stops.

Tilting my head a bit, I listen intently. A whisper in the wind informs me to turn around and stop for gas, as well as fill the 5L jug up with gas that I intended to use on the most desolate section; tomorrows drive according to John where there are no gas stations for over 200 kilometers. Who am I to argue with my inner voice? I turn around and do as commanded.

The small town looks so peaceful. Across the road from the gas station are a number of houses and small shops, some, covered in vegetation. With mountains in the backdrop, it is an amazing place.

 

 

While refueling my motorcycle, a hooter attracts my attention. A bus is approaching the intersection a short distance from me, while blowing his horn. A dust cloud surrounds the bus as it comes to a halt. The bus has barely come to a standstill when two passengers hop off the bus. The bus driver gives one final toot, looks around for five seconds, and then speeds away. I guess that if you are not on time, too bad, see you next week.

With my fuel situation taken care of, I take to the road again. The scenery is amazing, with the road snaking through the mountains, at times close to the river, and at times high on a mountain ridge. Distracted by the scenery, I jerk as I round a bend and a bridge jumps out of nowhere. Confused I search for the left turn. All I find is the side of a mountain, with a stunning waterfall running down it. Two motorcyclists are sitting on the pavement, near the base of the waterfall. I decide to ask if they know where this elusive bridge is that I need to turn left.

The two turn out to be Patric, an Australian, and his local guide Vuon. They inform me that they are just taking a break, but are also heading to Keh Sanh, where they plan to overnight, and then head back to Hoi An. I was hoping to join up with other backpackers on the road to Hanoi, but that has not happened. As they intend to rest a bit more, we agree to meet up in the next town for lunch, where we will ride together. Although I am delighted to have company, I want to cover as much ground while the motorcycle is running right.

With a wave to the two, I take on the mountain roads. The engine sings as I negotiated the corners and twisties. My heart races as adrenaline floods my body. I am on cloud nine. Birds cheer me on as I zoom through Vietnam in the mountains. All around me are mountains, covered in lush green that ends far below in a jeweled blue artery of earth. Rocks hold secret meetings in the river, where cool mountain water promises to drive the heat away. I negotiate another sharp bend and then twist the throttle fully open as I take on yet another hill. The engine roars to life, sputters, bogs down, and dies.

My heart stops as the exhaust falls silent and the motorcycle comes to a halt. I swallow as I hit the starter button. The engine turns over but refuses to start. I hold the started engaged for 10 seconds, and then back off. After a 20-second delay to let the starter cool off, I keep it engaged for 10 seconds again. The engine sputters to life. I breathe a sigh of relieve as I rev the engine. Just then, Patric and Vuon pass me. They slow down, but I show them all is okay. We are 45 km from the town we are supposed to have lunch, and the gas gauge reads ¼.

Slowly, I pull onto the road and open the throttle. The engine responds smoothly. I am at a loss as to why it died. Maybe the fuel is too low, and the carburetor ran dry on the last steep uphill. The road goes downhill, and I let the motorcycle run at max. I easily catch up to Patric and Vuon. I follow them for a short distance, and then overtake them as they are going too slow for me. I hit another long uphill, and my heart sinks to the river far below when the engine bogs down and dies again. Reluctantly, I pull off to the side of the road and remove my luggage, then peer into the gas tank. I call out, but no gas answers back, dry as a bone in there. It seems the gas gauge is a bit off, as it still shows ¼ tank.

I thank who ever told me to fill the 5L jug up with fuel. Just as I start to refuel the motorcycle’s gas tank, Vuon and Patric pass me. They shake their heads at me with my mobile gas station. Being road bikes, their tanks hold almost three times, the gas mine does. The gas tank takes the entire 5L of spare fuel. With the fuel tank filled, I rush after Vuon and Patric. The engine gives an initial sputter, as some of the air is cleared from the fuel line, and then it is game on. Although Patric and Vuon are on 125cc cruiser motorcycles, far faster and larger motorcycles than mine, Vuon is leading a reasonable easy pace in the mountains, I should easily catch up to them, or so I think.

I go as fast as I dare in the mountains, and as soon as I reach flatland, I hold the throttle at max, recording around 100km/h on the speedo. However, I reach the next town without any sight of Vuon or Patric. Discouraged that I should have stayed with them, and now I lost my only friends on the road, I pull over at a restaurant when I spot three backpacker, green Minks motorcycles and one cruiser motorcycle. Six motorcyclists are having lunch outside. From the looks of it, one foreigner guide and a local mechanic are guiding two couples.

I take myself as a real biker, as in come rain or shine, I ride my motorcycle, and no matter what you ride, if it has two wheels, I give you respect. Unfortunately, not everyone who rides a motorcycle does this. It sometimes pisses me off if I see a fellow biker on the road, and I nod my head to them in greeting, and they do not return the greeting. Wannabee bikers.

“Hi. Is the food good here?” I ask the group.

“Yes.” The guide replies. The rest of the group does not care much about me. From their facial expressions, I can see that the four tourists are very unhappy about something. Deciding not to push things more, I head inside to take up a seat. Just as I sit down, the owner (and guide) of the tour company enters the restaurant and casually speaks with the family in Vietnamese, who are all sitting at a table having lunch. It is clear he knows them well and must be bringing all his customers here for lunch. One of the family members comes over from the table.

“Would you like lunch?” I contemplate giving her a witty reply, but let it go.

“How much for a meal?”

“15 000.” The price seems a bit low, but we are in the countryside where things are cheaper, so I go with it.

“Yes please.”

I watch as the woman returns to the family table, picks a plate from the table and fills it with food from their table, then brings it over to me. Okay, so now I am eating with the family. I am making progress.

The tour guide passes me on his way out, and I nod my head in greeting. He gives me a nod back and wishes me luck and good riding for my trip. I start to dig in, and then all hell breaks loose in my mouth. Someone must have put a volcano in the food. As I am trying to breathe, tears roll down my cheeks and my nose starts to water. While I am dying, the group outside starts to leave. Luckily, no one looks inside, for they may have thought I am crying for them leaving me behind alone.

Each couple has a Minks motorcycle, with the guy steering and his girlfriend riding pillion. The guide also has a Minks, while the mechanic has a modern road bike. A Minks is an old Russian military two stoke motorcycle, that is noisy and dirty. They are unreliable these days as most parts are cheap Chinese knock off, especially the electrics. People like using them because they are cheap to buy, but there are far better choices on the market today. One of the customers struggles to start his motorcycle and immediately it becomes apparent that it is not the first time. To my surprise, the mechanic blames him for not following the proper procedure for starting the motorcycle.

From the expression on the customer’s face and the look his girlfriend gave the mechanic, I have a feeling that they are not enjoying this trip. The Minks is not only noisy and dirty with its two-stroke oil engine; it is also not a very comfortable motorcycle to do long rides on. I pity the girls on the back as they eventually pull away.

Interestingly, the company charges about 50% more for their service than Vuon charges for his, and he has new 125cc cruiser motorcycles. I decide that I am not going to be able to continue with my food, as I can already see my intestines from the hole in my stomach. The numbness in my lips and tongue lessens, and allows me to ask for the bill.

“50 K VND.” The lady says.

“I thought it is 15 K VND.”

“No. 50.” I give the lady the benefit of the doubt that I must have heard wrong, and pay up. Sadly, I look at the still full plate of food, having managed about two spoons of rice and a bite or so of meat. What a waste of food. I shake my head. I missed an opportunity to ride with others, and now lunch, what is next?

About 100 meters from the restaurant, I spot a gas station and pull in to fill the motorcycle and the 5 L can up. Deep in thought, I jerk as a motorcycle pulls in right next to me. My mood lifts as I glance over and see Vuon smiling at me.

“I came looking for you. We are having lunch just a bit down the road. Come and join us.” He says.

“I will be right over.” I say, trying to hide my excitement. Vuon gives me a nod and rides off. I finish filling up with fuel, and then go in search of Vuon and Patric. Spotting the restaurant they are at is easy, as their motorcycles are parked right outside, about 200 meters from the gas station. The restaurant is stunning, with good food. I want to kick myself. Had I just gone a bit further on, I would have had a nice lunch with new friends.

As I enter the restaurant, I find Vuon talking on the phone, with Patric sitting at a table nearby. Patric and I immediately get along, possibly because I am a Saffer and he is an Aussy. We talk bikes, road trips, with girls in between bike and road trip discussions. You know, you have to have your priorities right.

“All the hotels in Keh Sanh are full. You can share a 3-bed hostel room with me for $7.5 if you want.” Vuon says as he joins us. I had already looked at all my applications, and failed to find any hotels listed for the town.

“I will take it.” I smile.

“Good, let’s go.” Vuon says and gets up.

“I saw a group of Minks riders at another restaurant earlier.” I inform Vuon as we head out.

“They are my competition.” Vuon laughs.

Within minutes, three motorcycles are tearing up the road to Keh Sanh. The scenery is some of the best I have seen so far, with smooth asphalt and a road that snakes at times along the river and at times over mountains, just spectacular. Vuon leads at a relaxed pace, allowing me to take some video and pictures along the way. Check out a video here and here. About half an hour later, we pass the Minks crew alongside the road. From the looks of it, they seem to have some mechanical trouble. Taking that they left about an hour before we left town, it is not a good sign that we catch up to them. For a moment, I pity the tourists. Their dream holiday is not turning out as they expected.

Now, any biker will know what happens when you have a bunch of guys together on a run. Somehow, the motorcycles just increase speed by themselves. I keep my distance behind Patrick as we blast through the mountains. An exhaust note next to me on an uphill draws my attention. As I look to my side, another backpacker with a fake Honda Win passes me. From my experience of owning two 100cc models, I know this model is an 110cc by the ease that he passes me. I let him go by, but then he cuts me off and pushes in between Patrick and me, just as we enter a bend. Even though Vuon is leading a reasonable pace, he is a good tour guide and does not push things too hard. However, this pace proves even too much for the newcomer, and I pass him in the turn to keep up with Patrick.

Having a scooter pass the guy in a turn seems to infuriate him, and he blasts past me and then Patrick and Vuon on the next straight. On the next two corners, we all pass the dude, who by now must be fuming as he passes us again on the next straight. I hate people that just cannot get the message.

Although my motorcycle is an automatic scooter, it was developed with some long-distance road use in mind, and has an excellent suspension. Even though it only has an 115cc motor, its constant changing gearbox that has no fixed gears, means the engine is always at optimum revs. The road throws a number of bends and turns at as, and Vuon and Patric pass the newcomer who struggles to keep his motorcycle on the road. I decide to put salt in his mental wounds, and wait for a tight bend I know the guy will struggle with. Right in the bend, I pass the guy with one hand on the handle bars while waving at him with my left. The guy finally gets the message and drops back and does not try to pass us again on the next straight. Pictured below, Patric in front of me.

 

 

Just as we round another bend, a mountain appears right in the middle of the road. Fearless, Vuon blasts ahead and tunnels right through the mountain, creating an opening for Patrick and me, saving our lives.

 

 

A short while later, we encounter a second mountain that jumps up in front of us. Again, Vuon saves our lives by blasting a tunnel though the mountain. This time, I get the bright idea to film us going though. With my iPod touch in my left hand, I blast into the tunnel after Patrick, and then things go dark. Oh, crap. With my left hand occupied, I am unable to switch the motorcycle’s headlights on. Having been in snow and rain so bad you can almost not see two cars in front of you, I do what I have done before and just focus on the tail light in front of me. I just hope Patrick does not crash; or else, it will be a wreck on top of a wreck. Luckily, he does not, and we safely make it to the other side and stop for a quick rest. Check out the video here.

Soon, we are back on the road to Keh Sanh. Along the way, we make a few rest stops, as well as a mandatory photo shoot session. Man, machine, nature, just had to get it on film, it is a guy thing.

 

My precious.

 

Eventually, we come to large bridge, and I am like, ah, now I understand what the guide meant when he said I cannot miss the bridge.

 

 

We turn left just after the bridge, and a short while later we enter Keh Sanh. Vuon takes us to our hotel, where we get out of the heat and get some sodas to wash the dirt down while we pat ourselves on the back for the awesome ride we had, life is perfect. About an half an hour later, the Minks team arrives. The guide’s face goes a bit white when he sees me there, and then his jaw locks when he spots Vuon. Clearly, there is no love lost between the two. When Patric joins me and Vuon, the guide realizes I joined up with Vuon and his eyes throw fire. I let it be. I can ride with whom I want, and Vuon and Patrick are super cool dudes.

Vuon arranges dinner over the phone for later, and then we head out to fill the motorcycles’ gas tanks. To my shock, I have only managed to get about 110km on a full tank. My next stop is Phnong Nha, 252km away. Although I have ridden the motorcycle hard today, I have not done much more than normal. John told me I would only need about one to two liters extra gas, but I fear my motorcycle is far heavier on gas than it should be. I will have to get at least 130 km or more on a tank to make it, as I am told the next section is the most desolated part of the route, and there are no gas stations for the entire trip until you get to Phnong Nha.

We retire to our rooms where Vuon and I chat a bit until dinner time. For dinner, Vuon takes us to a family restaurant, and we share a table with a number of locals. As normal in Asia, food is placed in the middle of the table, and you help yourself to what you want. Having not had a proper lunch, I make good use of the help yourself thing. After a nice dinner, we head back to the hotel. Vuon and I share a three bed hostel room, and we start talking. Vuon informs me that he gives a unique service, in that he will meet you at almost any major town along the Ho Chi Minh road, and you can ride to a number of cities without needing to ride back. I think about this for a moment, then ask.

“How do you get the motorcycles moved around?”

“I put them on a bus.”

“What? You can put them on a bus?”

“Yes. Not all buses, but on many, you can put them in the cargo hold.” I am shocked at his answer. I never knew you could do that. It means that if I break down, all I need to do is get to a bus station in a local town and arrange to have the motorcycle transported to the next big city. I know the road is desolated from Keh Sanh to Phnong Nha, and that Phnong Nha is a small town. However, with the stunning Phong Nha caves there, it is a popular tourist attraction. If I can make it to Phnong Nha, I can have the motorcycle shipped back to Hoi An to have it repaired or even sell it. Just then, the Vietnamese version of American idol comes on the television. We listen to a few people sing, and then Vuon comments.

“That girl singing is from my home town.”

“Really, way cool. Where is your home town?”

“The town you are now in.” He smiles. I feel like an idiot.

“I have been on TV and sang in the competition.” Vuon continues.

“No way!” I go, then continue. “Did you win?”

“I came in the top 100.” As to answer my curiosity, he sings a bit for me, way cool.

“I sang in a number of competitions and at places to earn money. I saved the money, and now I have started my own tour company four months ago.” Vuon informs me proudly.

I have even more respect for him. I know tourism is a difficult market, especially for local Asian people that do not always have the financial backing as foreigners, nor the computer skills to create a strong online presence. It puts them at a disadvantage when competing against foreigners who open businesses and have contacts overseas.

“I want to go and see the helicopter museum tomorrow. Do you know where it is?” I ask Vuon.

“Yes, it is on the Ho Chi Minh road that you need to take. I am showing Patrick the museum tomorrow, then we will go back to Hoi An via Hue.”

I know this will be hard on Patric. We have talked earlier about my trip, and when Patrick learned about the caves at Phnong Nha, he wanted to continue onwards. However, Vuon already has another tour booking and cannot spare the motorcycle Patrick is on. Maybe another day. I sleep a bit easier knowing I can put the motorcycle on a bus if it breaks down. I just do not know how long I may be stranded alongside the road before I get to a town where I can get a bus. In addition, will I have enough fuel for the trip? Little do I know, that tomorrow will be a hard day, with tough decisions, blind trust, calculated risks, and misinformation. Nor, that the day will end in a life-altering experience.

 

 

Chapter 17

 

In no hurry, we lazily get up at 6am. My first thought is to go and check on the motorcycles. We parked them in an ally next to the hotel last night. To my surprise, the Minks crew as well as two Honda Win motorcycle riders have already left. 6am and they are on the road. I can now understand why the tourists are unhappy. A crappy motorcycle that gives trouble, hard riding, and long hours, I would be grumpy aswell even if I did not pay for the service. It is such a stark contrast to how Vuon runs his tour. His riding speed is as relaxed and easy going as he is. I head up to the fifth floor and join Vuon and Patrick for breakfast. The eating area spans the entire floor. With windows all around, you have a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside.

 

A young waiter comes over to get our order. We have two choices, eggs with rolls, or meat and noodles. Patrick just cannot decide. I eventually look over, and see how much the waiter has aged.

 

 

“Can you do a breakfast with eggs, meat, and rolls?” I try, hoping to save the waiter’s life.

“Yes, we can.” He answers with relieve and rushes off before Patric changes his mind. While we wait for breakfast, Patrick and I talk about the important things in life, as in bikes, awesome rides, girls, and more bikes. At one point, the work subject slips in, but we quickly slap ourselves and forget about that subject. Breakfast finally arrives. Patric and I look at the metal pan with our food still cooking in it, and then at each other.

The meal rather resembles a stew. They put two eggs in the pan, threw mince, vegetables, spices, and sauce over the eggs, and fried it all together, not very appetizing. Patric has his doubts about eating it, but I go for it. Carefully Patrick monitors me in case the breakfast contains jaw dropping hot spices, but I continue to breathe normally. It turns out to be amazing, and we love it, whatever it is. With our tummies full, we go downstairs and start getting the motorcycles ready. At one point Patric pulls me away.

“I do not know how Vuon makes money. He charges $100 a day, and it is all included. You know the other guys charge $150 or more.” Patrick says.

“Well, the other guys are either rip-offs, or they have very expensive motorcycles and stay in more luxurious hotels.” I reply.

“Yes but I think Vuon is charging too little.”

“Well, you know how to fix that, just give him a nice tip at the end of the trip.”

“Will do.”

“Ready to go?” Vuon asks from his motorcycle.

Patrick and I nod, then mount up, and ride out after Vuon, forming our own posse. Hey ha, giddy up.

As we head out, a black cloud hangs over Patrick; his heart is pulling hard to continue with me. I feel for Patric, as I myself would like to ride with them to Hue, and then continue my trip. However, it seems this is a trip I need to do alone. On the way to the military museum, I stop to take a picture of a statue situated in the middle of a traffic circle. Vuon and Patrick continue while I act like a tourist. Satisfied with my award-winning pictures, I pull away. My heart drops to the ground and a cold chill runs down my spine while dread hugs my heart. The engine has no power. I race after Vuon and Patrick at a staggering 40 km/h on the slight uphill to the helicopter museum. No, please no, all was going so well. With a heavy heart, I pull into the old USA military air base. Patrick has already bought tickets to the museum.

I try my best not to dampen Patrick’s spirits as I inform him that I have engine troubles. We discuss the possible causes of the problem. Vuon has wandered off, and we decide to ask him if there is a mechanic close by, after seeing the museum.

Khe San military base was a major USA air base during the Vietnam War and was commanded by Colonel, David E. Lownds. Colonel Lownds had approx. 6,000 men under his command. On 21 January 1968, a NVA force estimated to be between 20 000 and 30 000 strong, attacked the area. The battle lasted until 8 April 1968. At this point, a number of outlying posts had been overrun, and the survivors fled to Khe San air base. At the end of the battle, an estimated casualty stood at 703 US led forced killed with 2,642 wounded and 7 missing. On the NVA side, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers were dead or wounded.

The grounds have a CH-47 (Chinook) and transport helicopter, three tanks, a C-130 airplane, some bunkers, a museum building, and numerous shells and other wreckages on display. I walk over to the C-130, and spot a warning at one of the engine’s exhaust vents. ‘Danger, hot exhaust’ I know a few people that should have that sign around their necks.

While Patrick and I tour the place, we go through what can be wrong with the motorcycle. I try to stay upbeat for Patrick’s sake, but it is hard. At one point, a local approaches us and zeroes in on Patrick. He has a number of ‘war items’ such as dog tags, shell casings, zippo lighters, and other stuff that may or may not have been discarded by marines. We refuse to buy anything, and start to leave the museum. The guy turns out to be persistent and follows Patrick like a lap dog while ignoring me. Not saying Patrick is old, but I guess the local figured I am a bit too wet behind the ears to remember the war.

 

 

 

“Did you like the museum?” Vuon asks as we exit the museum from where he is waiting by the motorcycles.

“Very interesting.” We reply.

“Vuon, do you know of a mechanic close by? My motorcycle is giving troubles.”

“Yes. What is wrong?”

“The engine has no power. It started on the way to Hoi An. I had a mechanic look at it and hoped it was fixed.”

“Let me see.” Vuon replies and then takes the keys from me. He proceeds to ride up and down the short parking area.

“I am not sure what is wrong, but there is a Yamaha dealer in town. I will translate for you.” Vuon says as he hands my keys back. My spirit lifts a bit. Maybe they can fix the problem.

“Thanks Vuon.”

With a lump in my throat, I follow Vuon to the dealership. Patrick and I have already discussed my options. If the dealership cannot fix the motorcycle or if the repair cost is too much, I can sell it in town to friends of Vuon and take a bus home, or limp behind Patrick and Vuon to Hoi An, and then sell the motorcycle there and take a train to Saigon. Another option, that I did not mention to Patric, is to just keep going and hope the engine holds until I get to Hanoi, a 836 km ride, with half of that in the mountains with little support.

The rest of this trip depends now on whether the dealership can fix the problem, and how much risk I am willing to take of being stuck in no man’s land. At the dealership, Vuon translates to the mechanic my problems and my theory of the carburetor not opening fully. I watch in amazement as the mechanic revs the engine a few times and to my relief, does not start tuning the carburetor.

“He thinks he knows what the problem is, but it will take a day to fix.” Vuon translates. My heart shatters. A day for repairs, which means a huge bill I cannot afford.

“What is wrong?” I ask Vuon.

“They say they will have to open the engine to see what is wrong.”

I shake my head as dread hugs me. They have no idea what is wrong, and is going to go for the standard replace random parts until the problem goes away approach. I lose total confidence in them. Patric. However, remains optimistic.

“Vuon, tell them it is not the engine. The problem comes and goes, so it cannot be burnt rings or valves and not wrong timing. It is the carburetor not opening fully.” I say to Vuon, who translates to the mechanic.

The mechanic thinks for a moment, and then revs the engine a few times more. A smile forms on his face, and he shoots a few words off to Vuon in Vietnamese and then starts to take the panels off around the engine.

“He says it will take an hour and is possibly the carburetor.” Vuon translates. Well, what do you know, I think someone said that earlier, oh wait, it was me.

As noted earlier, most small motorcycles have a needle jet carburetor. When you open the throttle, a piston moves up and pulls a needle out of a jet. As the needle is pulled out, more gasoline can pass through the jet. On most models, the throttle cable is directly linked to the piston. However, on this model, the piston is vacuum controlled. As you open the throttle, it activates an intricate vacuum system that pulls the piston up depending on engine load and revs. As the mechanic opens the top of the carburetor and pulls out the piston, he nods his head and shows me the piston. Scuffmarks are on the side of the piston. From years of use in a city where the throttle is repeatedly opened and closed, the piston and side of the carburetor barrel made grooves in each other.

“The piston is getting stuck; you need to replace the carburetor.” Vuon translates. I hold my tongue. I already knew that. However, I thought that the vacuum in the carburetor would be strong enough to overcome the resistance from the scuffmarks, seems I was wrong.

“Do they have a new carburetor?” I ask Vuon.

“No.” His reply pulls my spirit even lower.

“Can he temporally fix it?” I ask, and Vuon translates. The mechanic thinks for a moment and then heads off to a shelf. He returns with sanding paper and then proceeds to polish the side of the piston and the barrel. I have my doubts about if it will work, for it seems more like the piston is so worn that it gets stuck by going skew than from scuffmarks. In addition, on a downhill, the motorcycle does pick up speed and the engine revs high enough that the vacuum would pull the piston free, if a sticking piston was the problem. I more suspect something is wrong inside the intricate vacuum control system of the carburetor that is sealed. At this point, I decide that I have held Patrick and Vuon up too long.

“Patrick, you guys should be going. I have wasted enough of your time.”

“It is okay. We will stay until your motorcycle is fixed.” Patric counters. What a good friend he is. However, he needs to enjoy his ride, and Vuon needs the motorcycles back by tonight in Hoi An. In technical diving that I am an instructor, you know that when it comes to it, it is better to have one diver dead, than two. Patric needs to leave me behind.

“Thanks Patric, but there is nothing more you guys can do. Go and enjoy your ride, I will sms Vuon on his phone with updates.“ With shoulders hanging, Patric bids me farewell, and reluctantly leaves to continue his trip. I would do a ride anytime anywhere with Patric if opportunity arrives.

While the mechanic is fixing the carburetor, I have them change the engine and gearbox oil. The mechanic laughs at me when I pull my own genuine Yamaha gearbox oil tube from below the seat and hand it to him. I wonder if he thinks I am under the impression he was going to sell me fake oil. About an hour later, the mechanic is done, and starts the engine. Both our faces light up when he revs the engine and it runs as smooth as silk. From the air intake, you can hear the carburetor open fully as air is sucked in at speed. I almost hug and kiss the mechanic. Joy fills my heart as the engine purrs like a kitten waiting for milk.

“How much?” I ask, drawing a blank from the mechanic. Automatically I take out my wallet and take out a few notes and shrug my shoulders. The mechanic laughs at my sign language and then types the amount on a calculator for me. 140 000 VND. Wow, my washing was double that, it just shows how badly I was cheated on my washing. With a high spirit, I say goodbye to the friendly Yamaha staff in Khe San, and take to the road. At this point, the road has a few twisties and runs on top of a mountain ridge. The engine pulls strong, but I am yet to use full power.

About 15 kilometers from town, a long uphill greets me and I throw the afterburners on. A cold chill rushes down my spine, nothing, no power. I crawl up the hill at a staggering 30km/h. What is left of my heart crumbles to dust. I clench my jaw as disappointment and dread run icy nails along my back. At the top, I switch the ignition off and on, but it has no effect. Next, I rapidly open and close the throttle, still no effect. Reluctantly, I stop with my heart dragging behind in the road. I turn the engine off and pull over to the side of the road. A truck passes me and runs over my heart. Hopeful, I try to start the engine again. Click click, is all I get as the starter fails to engage. In the distance, the mountains laugh at me. I will not be taking them on today, they say to me.

 

 

I close my eyes and hang my head. In the distance, lies adventure and excitement, so close, but so far. Taking a deep breath, I go through my options.

 

Although the Yamaha dealership can get a new carburetor, it will take too long and be too expensive to fix at about $50 for a new one. That means, if I go back, the trip is done. Although the motorcycle has a kickstart, it is hard to get it going with it, and I am not 100% sure it is the piston sticking. If it is, it means I just have less power and will be riding slower, but I will get there. If it is not the piston, the engine may fail entirely. Then there is also the electrical problem on the ignition that causes there to be no spark. Where that problem lies I am not sure and if it will give problems again I am even less certain of.

Time to decide. A few miles behind me, I can get help. In front of me, is over 250 km of nothing but mountain passes. I am told that there are no towns, gas stations, mechanics, and no help. Just a desolated but stunning road. Very few people travel on this desolated stretch of road, so if something happens, I will be stuck in the blazing sun for hours, and may have to sleep alongside the road. I look at my watch, 10:30am. From John’s schedule with a good working motorcycle, it is a 10-hour ride to Phnong Nha, and I will only be able to get about 20 km/h on the uphills, if I am lucky. Well? Turn around and can the trip or go forward at a huge risk?

I take a deep breath, and make my choice. I would really have liked to race through this section of Vietnam. Gunning the motorcycle flat out through the turns while having a blast, but that is a forgotten dream now. With a small tear in my eye, I get the engine going with the kickstart, and then check for traffic that might take me out as I pull into the road. Definitely, I head onwards. The mountains gasp at my resolve to take them on. 20 to 30 km/h mountain passes it is then. Even if I have to finish this section in the dark, or sleep next to the road, I will not back down. You can slow me down, but not stop me. The view does not disappoint and partially makes up for the lack of speed.

 

 

The road surface changes to cement with large gaps between the cement blocks. This causes the bike to bounce a bit, spoiling the ride a bit. I manage between 20 and 30 km/h on uphills and around 50 to 70km/h on downhills. The lush green covered mountains around me, and the fact that I am going into the unknown, helps me accept what I cannot change, and deal with what I have. Due to the slow speed, I am able to appreciate the land even more. So this is how it will be like when doing the trip on a bicycle. The road is as I have been told, desolate. The only life I encounter is a few farm village houses scattered along the road. The kilometers go by in slow motion (literary), while the sun mercilessly beats down on me. At one point, I hear music in the distance. Am I hallucinating? Even though the road is flat for around 1 kilometer, I slow down to about 20 km/h as I enter a small village of around 12 wooden houses. My mouth hangs open as I pass a wedding in progress. Even out here, life as normal goes on.

I contemplate taking a picture, but decide not to. In Cambodia, people are sometimes very superstitious of pictures. Being in the middle of a group, is seen as unlucky if the group is unevenly numbered, and the placing of people in the lineup is important. I have no idea if Vietnamese believe the same, so I move on. I few turns later, I crawl up a steep hill. Just as I reach the top, the shit hits me, literally. There is cow dung all over the road. The front wheel skits on cow dung, and I almost drop the motorcycle in the shit. Slowly, I negotiate the minefield, while shooting a glance to my right. A farmhouse situated a short distance from the road confirms my suspicion. The food bales for the cows are on the left, and they must be letting it go on the road when they go back to their stalls after eating.

With the smell of cow dung gone, I take a deep breath and look around at the spectacular views while birds chirp me on. My heart stops as sudden as the motorcycle. Confused, I look down and find a pebble in front of the wheel. Looking ahead, I find more pebbles in the road; I guess I will have to go around then.

 

 

A short distance after the rockslide, a small town far below in the valley attracts my attention. Undoubtedly, they would have gasoline. However, the town nor any roads to it are on my maps. As I pass an archway with a small gravel road leading into the forest, I stop. A sign in Vietnamese hangs from the archway, but I am unable to see where the small road leads to. I have followed out of interest a few gravel roads leading into the forest before, and almost all came to a stop at a logging place. For a moment, I ponder if I should chance it, but then let the idea go. If this turns out to be another logging field, I will waste precious fuel.

Reluctantly, I move on. It seems as a huge storm went through the mountains, as several times I come across tree branches blocking most of the road. On a motorcycle, I am able to drive around, but cars and buses will be stuck until the obstructions are cleared. With the road so narrow in most places, turning around will be a problem. I hope they know how to reverse.

The more desolate the road gets, the more I notice large deforestation. Legal and illegal logging is a big problem in Asia. People have disappeared while trying to report on illegal logging. I was given stern warnings not to be seen taking any pictures of logging operations, and not to show any interest when I do pass it. I quickly glance around, and seeing no one, snap a few pictures without stopping.

With all the long hours in the saddle, my butt is starting to go numb. To save my cheeks, I shift in my seat to sit on one cheek at a time, giving the other one a chance to rest. This works for a while, but eventually I decide to stand up in the seat while riding to give my ass a rest. A frown forms on my face as a boom and military checkpoint up ahead comes into view. Next to the road is a large barracks. Military checkpoints are all over Asia, especially when you enter or exit remote villages. I have been through my fair share of roadblocks and random searches.

Still standing in my seat, I slowly approach the boom. I jerk as shouting comes from my left. Glancing over, three men dressed in a military uniform are standing on the veranda of the barracks. One is shouting at me in Vietnamese and indicates with his hands for me to sit down and not look around. I wonder what he does not want me to see. In front of me, the boom bars the road. I decide not to wait for them to come and raise it, and duck down, hugging the handle bar and slip underneath the boom. As soon as I am though, I give the motorcycle all she has and speed away at a blistering 25 km/h. Nervously, I glance over my shoulder. I sigh with relieve when no one bothers to chase me.

A few kilometers from the checkpoint, I pass an area where a mass amount of tree logs are stacked alongside the road, ready for pickup. Large sections of the forest have been deforested. I decide to rather not stop but keep on going.

A short distance from the deforestation area, I pass through a small village, much like the one where the wedding was. I scan each of the small wooden buildings, looking for a gas station, but find none, not even the stands with 1 and 2L bottles of gas that are popular alongside the roads in Cambodia. A few farmers look in amazement on as I pass them by. An old bus stands idling next to a small wooden building, while a few passengers gets on. My legs, back and butt complain and beg me for a rest. Just out of town, I give in and pull over for a quick rest and snack.

Just as I take a sip of tea, I jerk as an engine roars behind me. Crap, I just made a mistake. Desperately I pack my iPad away, but it is too late. The bus passes me with a roaring engine and creaking old parts as it takes on the uphill. With my stuff packed away, I give chase. A short distance later, I catch up to the bus as it crawls up the mountain at 20 km/h. I can do 25 if I have a run-up, but have no power to overtake the bus. This is going to slow me down. My mood sinks even lower as the bus only speeds up to 40km/h on downhills and slows down to negotiate turns at around 20 to 25km/h. The bus leans heavily in turns, indicating its suspension is shot. With the speed it is going downhill, and the amount the driver uses the engine to keep the bus’s speed down, I recon he does not have much brakes left as well.

10 minutes behind the bus, with nothing else to do, I decide to continue refreshing myself. The motorcycle fearing has a slot on either side of the motorcycle where your knees go. I have a 500ml bottle of green tea in each pocket. By now, I have mastered the art of opening a bottle with one hand and drinking with my helmet on. Just as I take a nice sip, the bus slams on his brakes and I almost rear-end the bus. My teeth clatter as I hit a large pothole, and I almost lose control of the bike. Quickly, I stash the bottle of tea and then gun the motorcycle through the potholes.

The suspension bottoms out, and my teeth rattle as the shocks hit the stoppers on full compression. I feel sorry for the motorcycle and hope I do not burst a tire as I bounce through the potholes. Both my bottles of green tea fly out of their holders, but I cannot stop to pick them up now. After a bone jarring section, I finally pass the bus and slowly pull ahead of it. At least, being in front of the bus, if I break down, I can possibly get a ride to the next town. It would, however, mean leaving the motorcycle behind, with no hope of finding it where I left it when I return with help. With the two bottles of tea gone, I have only one bottle of 500ml of water in my backpack left. I look up to the blazing sun smiling down on me. My throat turns dry as I think of the over 150 slow kilometers I still have to do.

With the slow riding speed and cheap helmet with no airflow, my head is slowly roasting inside the helmet. I have been nursing a headache for a while now, but it is starting to become unbearable. I know it must be from the heat and dehydration, but there is not much I can do about it. The air is so hot; it feels thick, almost like I am breathing water. I wipe the sweat from my eyes and lick my dry cracked lips. I allow myself a few sips of the now luke warm water from my backpack, and then soldier on. The kilometers slowly go by as the sun mercilessly beats down on me. I have such a headache, that I can barely keep my eyes open. It feels as if someone is pocking them with hot irons.

In slow motion, I stare as I pass a few locals dining under a tree next to a small shop. Wow, that soda would go down nicely now, echoes in my head. It takes me all of about 10 seconds to process the scene, slam on the brakes and rush back. I almost storm into the roadside shop, selling snacks and drinks.

“Water.” I say in a cracked voice. A lady behind a counter looks me up and down, then opens a small fridge next to the counter. Five bottles of green tea smile at me. I take them all. I drink two on the spot, and then pack the rest away.

“Gasoline?” I ask the lady.

“No Gasoline.” I bite my lip at her reply.

With time against me, I allow myself only a five-minute break and then take to the road again. A short while later, my headache subsides a bit, and I drink another bottle of tea while the motorcycle crawls up a hill at a blistering 10 km/h. Just before I reach the top, the engine sputters. I clench my jaw as icy shivers run down my spine. I hold my breath as the motorcycle jerks and sputters the last few meters to the top of the hill, mostly going by momentum. The engine gives a few more coughs and dies. I let the motorcycle freewheel to the bottom of the hill and stop where there is a bit of shade. The gas gauge is just under ¼ tank. I unpack the gear and lift the seat, and then twist the filler cap of the gasoline tank. Dry as a bone in the desert. I have run out of fuel.

Carefully I throw the 5L spare fuel out of the jug into the motorcycle’s gasoline tank. I curse myself as I spill two drops, then laugh at myself for thinking that two drops will make a difference. Concerned I look through the filler hole. The 5L jug has failed to fill the motorcycle’s tank. The distance meter on the motorcycle does not work, thus I have to use my iPad to measure distance. As I unpack my backpack, I admire the stunning scenery. A distance marker a few meters behind me attracts my attention. My heart sinks to the hot tarmac. The marker reads, Khe San, 123km. I have managed 123km on a full tank, and the jug has not even come close to filling the tank up again.

My hand shakes lightly as I plan a route to the turnoff to Phong Nha. I swallow hard, 135km. The map does not show an actual road to the town, but from the scale of the map, I reason it to be another 10 to 15km. 150km to go, with around 100km of fuel in the tank. I did see a gas station 15km outside Keh Sanh, that means my surest gas station is 108km behind me, with a possible 8km walk. However, in front is a possible 50km walk. With a heavy heart, I sit down. I can go back to Keh Sanh, buy extra fuel jugs and try again tomorrow, or just go back and sell the motorcycle. If I am to continue, I am sure to run out of gasoline, and will need to abandon the motorcycle.

 

123 km to the town, I came from.

 

After a few minutes of contemplation, I decide that I have done enough; if I go back, I am ending the trip. My mood is low and my headache comes back with a vengeance, to the point that I want to throw up. Only then do I realize I have not eaten anything since breakfast. I allow myself a chocolate bar, and then make up my mind.

Forward is uncertainty and hours of pushing a motorcycle; behind me are a nice warm meal and a soft bed that I know I can reach. Although I am adventures at times, I like to think that I am not stupid, well hopefully at least 10% of the time. Thus I make sure there is no traffic coming as I activate my indicator and pull onto the road. Uneasily I move in my seat, bracing myself for a possible 50km motorcycle push as I continue to Phong Nha.

Being a Taurus, I can be stubborn at times. I believe the information I was given is wrong. Just because other people have not seen any gas stations, does not mean there are none. I have seen a few locals fly past me, and none carried extra fuel jugs. Therefore, there must be some gas somewhere. I know the Honda Dream 125cc that the locals love has a longer fuel range than mine, but somewhere there must be gasoline. Life is life, and I cannot believe no one has not taken the opportunity of opening a gasoline station on this road, nor that not one motorcycle or car breaks down in over 200 km. There must be a mechanic and gasoline station somewhere and there must be some kind of restaurant somewhere, I mean, we all get hungry, have to use the loo, and any car or motorcycle can break down at any time. If I have to, I will pay a local to push me with his motorcycle or buy his gasoline out of his tank. Giving up is never an option, as so too is doing nothing.

A short while later I spot a motorcycle with a trailer behind him, approaching me. My heart sinks as he passes me. On the trailer is four 20L cans, filled with gasoline. I try to flag him down, but he keeps going. With the speed he is going at, I have no hope of catching him, so I keep going. The guy who passed me was a delivery guy, that means locals probably keep gasoline at their houses. Well, it seems there may, in fact, be no gasoline station. Therefore, I will just have to stop the next delivery guy, or knock on someone’s house and ask to buy gasoline if I run out.

Around 15 km after refueling my gasoline tank from the emergency fuel jug, something strange in the corner of my eye catches my attention. I turn my head and stare at the wooden structure standing all alone alongside the road as I pass it. I want to keep going, but a whisper in the wind tells me to go back. Carefully I turn around and head back to the building. As I stop in front of it, a little kid comes out to greet me. I stand in astonishment and look at what is in front of me. The thing looks nothing like what I have ever seen before. The kid says something in Vietnamese and then starts operating the device, confirming my thoughts. It is a manual gasoline pump. The thing looks like a giant butane gas bottle with a gas lamp on top.

 

 

Proud and relieved that I now know where the only gasoline pump on this road is, I indicate to the kid that I want to fill the 5L gas can up. I reason I can take almost 1L of gasoline in the motorcycle, but am not sure. As they sell gasoline by the liter, I decide not to try to fill the motorcycle up; the 5L in the jug will be enough to get me to Phnong Nha. While I am busy getting fuel, a local women selling drinks from her motorcycle pulls up. She has three baskets attached to her motorcycle, one in front, and two at the back. Each basket is full of drinks and snacks. I indicate I want two ice tea bottles and turn to get my wallet inside my jacket that is by my motorcycle. Just as I take a step, the women starts to pull away, and I have to run after her to stop her. She gives me a confused look as I indicate for her to stay where she is. I think she thought I do not want the drinks when I turned to go back to my motorcycle the first time. I sprint over to my jacket, get my road wallet (that contains only about $10), and then runs back to the women who is at the point of pulling away again. I buy two of my favorite ice tea drinks and down one on the spot.

When I return to my motorcycle, the kid has filled the glass tube with five liters of gasoline. He taps on the side of the glass where a line with ‘5’ on it is level with the gasoline in the tube, and I nod my head in acceptance. Expertly the kid fills the jug up and relieves me of my cash. The price is about four times that of gasoline in town, but I care little at this point. As I ride away, I contemplate on how close I would have come, had I turned around. I think many times in life, we give up too early. Although one should not continue with a hopeless case, sometimes, pushing yourself a bit and trusting in yourself, can see amazing rewards.

With my fuel situation sorted, I move on more confidently. I am not sure where I am going, but I know I will get there, maybe just a bit slower than I wished for, but I will eventually get there. At the start of each hill is a sign that indicates the steepness of the hill. They vary between 7.5% and 10% incline. I manage 25km/h on the 7.5% inclines and around 15 to 20km/h on the 10% inclines depending on the run-up I have. A sign indicates 10% for the next hill. I give the motorcycle a stroke as we crawl up the hill. Even though the motorcycle has been giving troubles, it has not once left me stranded alongside the road, but kept going. I have managed to form a bond and trust with the motorcycle. Like me, the little motorcycle keeps on going no matter how tough it gets. Follow your dreams to the last breath.

About another 6km on, I come to a small village. Either it is because I am desperate, or have good eyes (I have been told that ), or because I am crawling through the town, but I manage to spot 6 more gas stations, two mechanic shops, two restaurants, and what looks like a small guest house. As I pass, a few locals relaxing in hammocks alongside the road wave to me. I energetically wave back, thankful for their smiles lifting my mood. It is amazing what just a smile can do to a person’s mood.

As I pass a restaurant, the owner waves me in and holds up a menu. My stomach pleads with me to go in, I am starving. However, the road ahead is too uncertain and there is still too much ground to cover, so I decline lunch. About 20 or 30 km later, I come across more tree logs alongside the road. I stop and carefully look around. Seeing no one, I quickly snap a picture, and then get out of there. A short while later, I find anentire area alongside the road that has been cleared of trees. Before, the trees were felled deep in the forest and pulled to the road, but this time it is right next to the road. I take a chance and snap a picture at the bottom of the road, then make myself scares before someone sees me taking pictures. Even in Cambodia, this is a tender subject.

As I make my way through the mountains, I pass a few abandoned houses. They must have been the pride of very rich people at one point, for they are right on the edge of the mountain, with stunning views.

With the gas gauge standing below ¼ again, I stop and pour the entire jug into the tank. So, this is around where I would have run out of fuel. A quick glance at the map on my iPhone indicates I have about 30km before where I think the turnoff to Phnong Nha should be. Add to that, an additional 10 to 15km. A long push. Without wasting time, I am back on the road. A short distance later, on a long downhill, the engine sputters, and then suddenly there is power. My head snaps back as the motorcycle lunges forward.

I ride as fast as I can, reaching 100 km/h on the speedo at times. In some of the corners, I slide the little scooter through the turn as I did my Yamaha R1 back in South Africa. I am amazed at how much the two motorcycles resemble each other in handling. Oh, how I miss having the feeling of 1000cc of raw power between my legs. A crossing up ahead pulls my attention and I slow down. I have no idea where to go. A faded signboard says that the Ho Chi Minh road and Paradise cave is onwards, while ‘town’ is to the right. However, there is no name for the town anywhere. John had told me to go and see Paradise cave at the end of the trip just before you go to town. Since it is already late, I decide to give the cave a miss and turn right to the unknown town. If one only needs a short visit after a long day’s ride, the cave is probably not very interesting.

The road is small and bumpy with loads of potholes. A quick look at my map shows no roads except the main road I turned off, and Phnong Nha a distance away. Where the road I am on is taking me, I have no idea, except to some town. A distance later, I come to an archway made of rock in the road. A partially dropped security boom hangs over the road. I reason it to be just another military checkpoint. I duck down and blast past the checkpoint. Just as I pass the boom, I look back. Oh crap, it is a ticket office for a national park I am entering. The guards at the booth are playing a board game and do not even care about me, so I continue.

The road gets even worse, and I am forced to slow down to around 15 to 20km/h. So much for the engine pulling better. I catch up to a tourist minivan and ride behind it for a short distance. Suddenly, I start reading the engine number of the minivan. This would be a good time to stop. As I come to a stop behind the minivan, it pulls to the right and partially off the road. Amazingly, we hit a traffic jam. It must be peak traffic if two vehicles find each other on this desolated road.

Slowly, a truck passes us. I follow behind the slow moving minivan until it pulls over to allow the tourists to be tourists by taking pictures of trees and scrubs. Waving to the tourists, I pass the minivan and then try to make up for lost time. Sections of the road are good, but the rest are in ruin. About 16km into my ride, a ruined road connecting to the one I am on and attracts my attention. Now only a gravel road, it looks like it once was a four-lane road with an island and streetlights. In the distance, I can make out a few buildings. Up ahead, a man is walking in my direction. Not sure where either roads lead to, I decide to go and ask for directions. As I near the guy, I get the feeling that maybe it would not be wise to ask him for directions. Dressed in full military gear with a machete in his hand, he gives me a watch it look.

“jkfnsfnls” He says in Vietnamese before I can say anything.

I shake my head and reply. “Do you know where Phong Nha is?” He just glares at me. Slowly, I get off my motorcycle, pull my iPad out, and bring up the map. The guy frowns, looks at the device in wonder, and then lowers the machete. I take a careful step forward and show him the map. Carefully I tap on the name Phong Nha on the map. The guy eyes me up and down for a moment, shrugs his shoulders and then walks away. Well, I guess he did not accept my invitation for dinner then. Only one way to find out where the side road leads, take it. As I get back on my motorcycle, it starts to rain. I gun the motorcycle towards the buildings. The closer I get, the harder it rains.

The first building turns out to be a Vietnam hotel, commonly known as a guesthouse in other parts of the world. By the time I pull in under the roof at the front of the hotel, it is pouring down with rain. The owner comes out and looks me up and down for a moment.

“Do you want a room?” He asks. I am tempted to reply, Nha dude I was thinking of sleeping on your porch.

“How much for a room?”

“$15.” He answers without missing a beat. I draw my breath. $15 a night for a small hotel of this kind is expensive even in Saigon.

“Do you have Wi-Fi?”

“No.” I almost laugh at his answer. $15 a night with no Wi-Fi. Then a thought hits me. There are probably not many options around, so he can ask what he wants. I decide to go and see what the other buildings are.

“Thank you but it is too expensive.”

“Okay, $10.” The guy replies. I think for a moment and then accept. The guy takes another pull from his cigarette, then hops on his motorcycle and indicates for me to follow. Even though it is still raining, we head out. Smoke puffs rise in the air from the guy as he smokes while riding in the rain. He has one hand over the cigarette so it does not get wet and no helmet so that he can smoke; well, that is prioritizing for you. Two minutes later, we reach a main road and then turn right. The road is split by an island, and on both sides are small restaurants and hotels. We stop at one and the guy motions for me to follow him in.

Inside, the guy starts to argue with a lady that I guess is the owner. After a minute or so, she gives in and turns to me.

“Okay, $10.” I just laugh inside at what just happened. The place is nice, and has Wi-Fi. Two backpackers are sitting in the lobby so I quickly ask then how the food is. They say it is okay, so I turn back to the owner.

“Okay, I will take it, but I want to see the room first.”

“No problem, follow me.” She says and turns around. I follow her to the second floor where she opens a room that is not the worst I have seen, but comes close.

“You must be out by 8am tomorrow morning.” She says.

“Why so early?” I ask. I was hoping to find a mechanic in town to look over the motorcycle for me.

“I am closing the place tomorrow to go to a wedding.”

“If I want to stay another day will it be okay.”

“No, you have to be out by 8 am tomorrow. I am closing up.”

“That is not going to work.”

“Try across the road.” The woman says and pulls the door to the room closed and walks away. I follow her downstairs, thank her for her trouble, and then head across the road. The place is a hostel, run by an English expat.

“Hi. Do you have a room?”

“Yes. $8 a night for a bunk bed.”

“Do you have private rooms?”

“No, we only have bunk beds.”

I look over the crowd that I may need to bunk with. Yeh this is not going to work out for me. I do not drink, and hate smoking.

“No thanks. Any idea where I can find a private room?”

“Try down the road.” The guy says and indicates to a hotel a short distance away. Although the hostel looks very nice and the food smells nice, the current crowd there just gives me an uneasy feeling. The owner himself also seems nice, and at a different time, I may have stayed there. I head down the road and stop at the hotel the guy indicated. The place has a restaurant on the premises, and I notice tour packages advertised as I enter. On the back of the wall behind the reception are five clocks, each showing a different time for a place around the world. A good sign I hope.

“Hi. Do you have any rooms available?” I ask the receptionist.

“Yes. $15 a night, breakfast included.”

“Do you have Wi-Fi in the rooms?”

“Yes.”

“Do you accept debit cards?”

“Yes.”

“You sure? I have had problems before.”

The girl gives me a sideways glance and then picks her credit card machine up from the counter and holds it up for me to see.

“Can I see the room?”

“Yes, follow me.”

The girl leads me up to the second floor and then to a room down the hall. The room has two double beds and is very nice, so I take the room. I follow her back downstairs to do the paperwork. When I am done, I push my motorcycle into the garage and give it a tender stroke. We actually made it. The little Yamaha has done well, but needs a doctor. I go back to the reception.

“Do you know of a good mechanic nearby?”

“Close enough?” She smiles as she points out the door to the shop next door. Well of course, it has to be next door, for if it was a mile away I would have seen it, but next door, who would notice it?

A map against the wall attracts my attention, and I smile at myself. Well, at least I am in the right town. I turn to the girl at the reception and in a moment of weakness, I do the dumb tourist thing.

“So what is there to do in town?” The moment the words slip over my lips, I regret saying them. In front of me, a row of brochures jumps up in hopes of getting my attention. Calmly the girl reaches over, pulls a few brochures from the piles, and hands them to me. Silently I thank her for not embarrassing me anymore by commenting on my stupid question. I have been a diving instructor in Cayman Islands for seven years, and know exactly what she is thinking.

As I glance over the brochures, I come to realize that Phnong Nha is a national park, and world renowned for its caves. The park has some of the biggest and largest caves in the world. Oh, maybe that paradise cave is worth seeing after all. I am tempted to ask the receptionist, but fear I may embarrass myself even more. One brochure is about guided cave exploration, from one to six days in the caves, ranging from $40 to over $100. As a cave diver, I would so love to go and do a six-day tour and sleep in the caves, but it is a bit steep for me.

“Can one see the caves unguided?”

“Yes. $6 entrance fee, first section only.” My heart races at her answer. Tomorrow I will nurse the motorcycle to the caves and then have it repaired the following day while I stay at the hotel and catch up with my writing.

“I would like to stay two more days.” I inform the girl.

“Okay, but that room is booked tomorrow. You need to move to another room, same price.”

“That is fine.”

After dumping my stuff in my room, I get my iPad and head downstairs for dinner and a bit of writing. However, the restaurant is empty, with no servers in sight.

“We only open later.” The girl says from the reception. My stomach complains.

“Where can I get something to eat?”

“Across the road.” I almost laugh. Everything seems to be across the road.

A short distance down the road and across the road from me I spot a restaurant and head over to it. They have no internet, so I forget the idea of writing there and only have dinner. The owners are very friendly, and we talk awhile. Coffee follows dinner as the sun slowly sets. Although the scenery is nice, I have to go to work. I laugh at myself. After what I have been through today, I still think of work. Not feeling like sitting in my room alone, I make myself comfortable in my hotel’s restaurant and start writing.

Over two hours after having arrived in Phnong Nha, engine noise pulls my attention away from my writing. Two Honda Win motorcycle pass by on their way to the backpacker hostel. The same riders were in the hotel where I stayed in Khe San. I shake my head. They left Khe San before 6am where I left it after 10am eventually, and they were not at the helicopter museum. Even so, I have managed to beat them with a broken motorcycle by more than two hours. I have to admit. I did not stop for lunch or any rest stops of note, and my body is alerting me to the fact. I decide to make it an early night, and only work until just before 1am. As I turn in for the night, I still have no idea how the day changed my life. That I will only realize when I see the caves tomorrow.

 

 

Chapter 18

 

Lazily I open my eyes and make to get up, but the soft and warm duvet hugs me tightly and keeps me in bed. My eyes scan the room, somehow, it seems different from yesterday. I stretch myself out, reach up, and then open the curtains. My jaw drops at the beauty of the place. Did I miss that yesterday? It is as if I am awaking in a different world. Slowly, it dawns on me. I changed. My mind is clearer and calmer, and I am more relaxed and confident in myself.

 

 

Reaching over, I pull my iPad from the bed stand, and do a quick research on the paradise around me. Phnong Nha is situated in a valley on the banks of the Phnong Nha River, with stunning mountains for a backdrop. The park is world renowned for some of the best caves in the world.

Like most small remote towns, time ticks by unnoticed while life just goes on. Slowly, I scan through the pictures on my iPad, I took of the trip so far. I never imagined that I would go through so much on this ride. Up to now, 1933 km on a scooter. I still have just over 530km to do to get to Hanoi, which according to John is possible in a day. If you are prepared to spend 13 hours in the saddle. However, that is another day’s worry. As for Laos, that is for another trip, I did what I came to do. Going on to Laos now, will just push the motorcycle and my budget beyond their limits.

The thought of exploring a cave gets me out of bed. After a quick shower, I head downstairs for a standard Asian hotel breakfast, eggs with a bread roll. The owner asked me last night to move to a new room after breakfast, and I quickly move my stuff over to the room she showed me before going over to the reception desk to get directions to the cave. Yesterday the owner promised to give me a map of the park so that I do not need to pay a guide to show me where the caves are. I bite my lip when I find the reception area empty. Shrugging my shoulders, I take a picture of the crude map on the wall that resembles a snake and ladder game with multiple caves indicated on it, but a maze of roads leading to them.

Having an estimate of where the caves are, I head out in search of ‘Paradise Cave’. The crisp morning air fills my lungs as the little Yamaha races past rice fields and lazy cows that do not even bother to look in my direction. Passing a roadside restaurant, I stop to get myself refreshments for the road.

“Do you want to see Paradise Cave?” A local asks the moment I come out of the restaurant.

“How much?”

“$10 I show you.”

“$10 for a guided tour?” I ask and then take a sip of my green tea I just bought.

“No. $10 and I show you where it is. Guiding is extra.” I almost spit my green tea out from laughter.

“No thanks.” I reply when I finally catch my breath and check to see if I somehow woke up with a Rolex gold watch and a diamond-studded gold chain, but find nothing. Shaking my head, I continue my search for ‘Paradise Cave’. That local must be loco thinking I will pay him $10 just to show me where a cave is. A smile partially forms on my lips, and then disappears. Crap, if he charges $10 just to take you to the cave, how easy is it to find this cave? Biting my lip, I slow down. Should I go back? I am not in the mood spending the whole day searching for a cave that turns out to be boring, but $10 is two nice restaurant meals or 10 roadside meals. Determined to find the cave myself, I twist the throttle to max and let the engine sing at full volume. My heart stops when the engine backfires three times, loses power and dies.

I back off the throttle as the motorcycle slows down fast due to the automatic gearbox still being engaged. Five seconds later, the engine takes again, and I carefully open the throttle. I sigh with relief when the engine runs right. Okay, so this is problem number four now. However, this problem may be a blocked fuel filter and the engine starving of fuel at full throttle. I test my theory and open the throttle to maximum. A few seconds later, the engine backfires a few times while losing power and then dies. As before, when I close the throttle, the engine takes after a few seconds and pulls normally. Oh well, no full throttle it is then until I have it fixed. Tomorrow I will take it to the mechanic.

A short while later, I pass a military checkpoint next to a small lighthouse building. From the map in the hotel, I know there are two caves on this road, Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. However, I have not passed either to my knowledge. Maybe I should have paid the $10. Reluctantly, I decide to ask the military guys for directions. Sometimes they are in a good mood and help you, and other times they feel like searching your motorcycle and doing a pat down on you.

“Morning. I am looking for Paradise Cave?” I greet the guy on duty.

“Down the road.” He answers as he points down the road. I nod my head as I look in the direction he points, seeing only a desolated road with the river running on one side and a mountain on the other side. Looking back at the guy, I notice a number of canoes behind him, next to a small building.

“What is this place?” I ask.

“River rafting, and swimming.”

“Thank you.” I nod, and then keep going in search of this elusive paradise cave, not feeling like doing any river rafting today. A short distance later, a side road with a log archway for an entrance attracts my attention. Next to the archway is a small wooden guard station, with no guard. The signboard hanging from the archway looks like a misspelling of Dark Cave, so I move on. A few kilometers further on, I stop and shake my head. In front of me is the four way crossing I was at yesterday when I turned off into the back road to the town. A signpost points to ‘Town’ left, and ‘Memorial’ right, 3 kilometers down a small side road.

Quickly, I take out my iPad and study the picture I took of the map in the hotel. The memorial is past the caves. The archway I saw must be for Dark Cave, where is Paradise cave, I have no idea. As I am close to the memorial, with no cave in sight, I decide to give it a go. The memorial turns out to be a newly constructed memorial, dedicated to the people that sacrificed themselves during the Vietnam War. Next to the memorial is an open plan structure with a fountain in front. The structure is used for functions and to watch films about the war. At the back of the building is a small display, with a number of photographs taken during the war. One picture in particular, catches my attention.

 

 

After half an hour at the memorial, I decide to head back to the wooden archway and see what it is. The road to the memorial is downhill, and as Murphy says, what can happen will happen, so on the way back up, the engine has no power. I clench my jaw for a few seconds, take a deep breath, and then relax as I crawl up the hill at 20 km/h. At the entrance, I find a guard that just came on duty.

“Hi. I am looking for Paradise Cave.” I say.

“This is it.” Slowly, I look around. A small road leads into the forest.

“Where do I park?”

“Follow the road.”

“Thank you.” I nod, and then follow the road as it runs all along the river.

A short distance later, I arrive at a checkpoint and a parking area. Several roadside restaurants and shops are situated at the water’s edge by the river.

I park under the shade, next to two sad looking backpacker motorcycles. Both engines are leaking oil from the head gasket, indicating both engines were ridden too hard and blew their head gaskets. Sadly, the backpacker circuit makes a large profit out of selling scrap motorcycles to unsuspecting backpackers who want to do the Ho Chi Minh road. At the end of the trip, they give the backpackers peanuts for the motorcycle, and then resell it at a nice profit to the next unsuspecting backpacker, after patching the bikes up with crap Chinese pirate parts. A few shops are honest and sell descent motorcycles, but many do not.

The ticket booth is just after an upmarket restaurant, called Paradise Restaurant. A sign reads that children under 1.1meter can enter the cave free. I smile as I squid down next to the pole with height markers, but the girl at the ticket booth just laughs and shakes her head. Well, it was worth a try.

“Do you want to walk up or take a cart?” She asks.

“I will walk up.” I push my chest out.

“It is a long way.”

“It is okay. I will manage.” The girl knowingly nods her head. I feel like I am back on a diving boat when I tell a customer something, and they just know better, just for them to in the end admit I was right. Well, how long of a walk can it be? Just after the ticket counter, is a checkpoint where the ticket you just bought, is checked again, wow, strict security here. At the checkpoint is a second counter selling tickets for a ride up to the top. For a moment, I contemplate getting a ticket, but the girl at the first ticket counter is watching me. Crap, I cannot back out now, so I walk past the counter. The path up is a 1-meter wide cement path that snakes thought the forest. A small road next to the path, but separated by scrubs, is used by small golf carts to ferry people to the top.

About 10 minutes into the walk, all the way uphill, I start to regret not buying a ride up. This cave had better be worth it. A number of people that are riding past me wave, and I energetically wave back as I fake a smile. I bet they go, sucker, as they wave to me. I feel like the people that decide to walk up to the Machu Picchu gate from the town below instead of taking a bus for a few dollars. After a 1 ½ hour hike they arrive at the gate, covered in sweat and dust, just to find out that the ruins itself is a hike as it is up and down climbing all over. At least there, I took the bus.

Eventually, the path ends in an open area with a gift shop in the corner. In the back of the open area, a concrete stairway leads up the mountain. A sign indicates 570m, the elevation the cave is above the open area. Ah man, I should have taken the golf cart. I take on the steps and cringe. As normal, the steps are at a steep angle and just sucks the energy out of your legs. At a small landing area a short while up, I find a few people that waved at me from their golf cart earlier.

“Wow, you made it.” A lady says out of breath as she stops for a rest.

“Of course.” I say, trying to not sound out of breath as I jog past her. As soon as I am out of her sight, I grab the railing and catch my breath. Crap, I am getting too old for this. Having been away from diving for a few months, has taken a bit of a toll on me. Lazy ass. Feeling refreshed, I zip past another bunch of people and then stop on the next landing. My legs are shaking and my lungs are burning.

“Are you not tired, I saw you walking up?” A lady asks.

“No, this is nothing.” I say, and try to smile. Damn, I have to keep going. Silently I curse myself for getting myself into this jam. Oh well. I need the exercise in any case. All along the path are speakers, and a Vietnamese lady sings her heart out. You can listen to a short video I recorded here. This pisses me off a bit, as it is blaring away, and one cannot hear the birds or other nature sounds. Why this is done, I have no idea. It is not a fairground, it is a nature trail.

After a good workout, I finally reach the top that consists of a small restaurant and a prayer area. Behind the prayer area is a small opening in the rock face. That must be the cave. Mmm, not really much of a cave I sigh as I go closer.

“No entry, no entry.” A guard shouts and stops me from going to the entrance. Ah, man, all this way for a restaurant and a small prayer area, not even a cave. Now this is a huge let down.

“But I paid to see the cave.” I counter.

“No entrance, sacred ground.” The guard says while he points to the opening, then continues. “Cave over there.” He turns and points to a staircase that goes down into the mountain a distance away. Duh, I totally missed that one. I think I left my mind at home. Mmm, so this is what it is like to be a dumb tourist. Two girls nearby giggle at me as I make my way to the actual cave entrance. This cave had better be more than just a 10-foot hole in the ground.

Cold mountain air blows over me as I stand at the entrance. A chill runs over my hot body while goosebumps jump up all over. Is there an ice-breathing dragon in there? I take a number of steps down the wooden stairs and then stop dead. Wow, this is so worth it. I take my finger and push my jaw up, closing my mouth. A second later, my jaw just falls open again. The place is amazing. Spotlights all over illuminate amazing formations of stalactites and stalagmites. The wooden staircase descents down a few stories where it links up with a path that disappears into the cave. My little cave diver heart leaps up and down as I wipe a tear from my eye. I look around if someone saw me; I promise, it is dust in my eyes.

 

 

I listen as a nearby guide explains to his customers that Paradise Cave is the longest cave in the world. The biggest cave is just a few miles away. Paradise Cave has been opened to tourists for viewing, and the first 1kilometer has steps and platforms to allow you to easily walk around and enjoy the cave. You can for about $40, do a three day guided hike in the cave, where you sleep in the cave at night, swim through underground rivers, and have some fun. Neither words, nor pictures do the cave justice in showing the beauty of the place. The amount of pictures I can put in this book is limited, but for those who want to see more pictures of the caves in the park, see my book, Phnong Nha National Park. As I descend the stairs, I pass by a large formation that at places, looks like heads have formed into the formation, and then, the full beauty of the cave hits me.

 

 

As a cave diver, I cannot help but wonder how stunning it must be to be able to dive this cave. I imagine how the people that discovered this cave must have felt, as they walked deeper and deeper into the cave. As I go deeper into the cave myself, I am taken back in time and explore the cave with them. The further back I go, the fewer people I encounter as not many are willing to walk so far into a cave. There are a number of rest areas in the cave. I find a deserted bench and sit down. As the cool earth air stroke my face, I close my eyes and listen to myself. (Caves are good for such things).

Seeing this cave, being here, I know that had I known yesterday what lies ahead, I would have pushed the motorcycle the 200 odd kilometers. That is how life is. We rarely know the rewards beforehand. However, in most cases, when you get the reward for things that really matter in live, you usually admit that you would have been prepared to work 10 times as hard to get it had you known what the reward was. I am talking of things that really matter in life. Not a new car or house, but things that actually have no price tag. Like for me, a biker and caver, doing a ride out to a cave like this. For another person maybe climbing Mount Everest. For another maybe sailing around the world. Those are things you cannot sell afterwards, nor would you want to, for they have no price.

I decide to work on a new philosophy to life and problems I encounter. When facing difficulty, I will say thank you that I do not need to work 10 times as hard to get my goal. And instead of worrying about what went wrong, I will rather ask, what do I have to do to make it right or overcome the problem, and then do it, whatever it takes.

If you have a dream, go for it. Sometimes it is hard because friends and family around you do not share your dreams and give no support. At times, they may even try to stop you. They may think your dreams are not worth it, or may be jealous that you are going for your dreams and they not. However, no matter what others say, follow your heart. Go for your dreams. In addition, no matter how enticing they say something else is, even yes those crystal ball people, follow your feelings and instincts. It is better to make your own mistakes, than someone else’s mistakes. Even if you make a mistake and it does not turn out as you wanted it to be, do not give up. You cannot fail if you do not give up. Remember, you only have to succeed once.

A feeling of peace flows over me. I look back over my life, and what I have done. Even though I have many dreams I wish to fulfill, if I were to die today, I know I have lived. Little did I know what the rest of Vietnam had in store for me. After my short rest, I continue deeper into the cave until I eventually come to another rest area and the end of the path. The area is deserted except for two Vietnamese girls, and an Expat. Just then, a guard arrives to take his station near the gate. One of the Vietnamese girls goes over to him and asks him if they can go a little deeper into the cave. It is allowed if you have a guide and have paid the necessary fees. As no one else is around but us, he agrees for them to go a few steps further. This means opening the gate and then stepping off the wooden path and onto the actual cave floor. The three are ecstatic to stand on the cave floor, and I take a picture for them. Caught in the spirit of the moment, I act like a tourist and happily pose for a picture as well.

Together, we walk back to the cave entrance and start to make small talk. I learn that the place where the military checkpoint and river rafting is, is in fact, Dark Cave.

“My stuff is gone.” One of the girls says when we reach the cave entrance.

“What stuff?” I ask, thinking she lost her camera or something.

“My bag of fruit. I left it just here when I went into the cave.” She replies. I bite my lip; at least, I am not the only one that has dumb tourist moments.

“It is okay. I will get you some more.” Her friend promises her.

“I am going to eat at Paradise Restaurant. You guys want to join me?” I ask.

“We are going to rest a while.” They reply.

“Well, if you want to join me, you know where I am. Are you still going to the Dark Cave after lunch?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. If I do not see you at the restaurant below, let’s meet up at the Dark Cave.” I suggest.

“Agreed.”

I leave them at the cave entrance and head to the restaurant, where I order rice and beef. Halfway through my meal, the three join me, and we start talking.

“Are you on holiday?” I ask.

“No, I am an English teacher in Da Nang. We rode all the way over from Da Nang yesterday, and stayed with friends in their hostel. After the Dark Cave, we are heading back to Da Nang.”

“Is that the hostel where most of the backpackers stay, operated by an English expat?” I ask.

“Yes.”

I laugh inside. I passed on the place last night. Had I stayed there last night, we would have probably met. Now what are the odds of that? We talk some more over lunch, and then head out to the cave. Along the way, we cross a bridge and have to do the mandatory tourist photo shoot before continuing. At the cave ticket office, we meet up with two French guys.

“Hi. You have to take a guide into the caves. A guide can take up to six people, do you guys want to join us and share a guide?” One asks. ?? and I look at each other, why not?

“Go in swimming trunks only. If you have none, you can rent a bathing costume from us.” Our guide informs me. I look over; the two French guys are standing only in their underwear.

“Why?” I ask.

“You are going to get wet and full of mud.” The guide replies.

“It is okay. I will go in my trousers.”

“Your clothes are going to get wet and full of mud.” The guide counters.

“It is a cave right, with possibly sharp rocks?” I ask.

“Yes.” The guide hesitates.

“Then I will rather get my trousers wet and full of mud than cut myself.”

“But you are going to get your clothes messed up and cut.”

I stare at him blankly. Am I suffering from heatstroke here or am I having another tourist moment? Is it not better to mess up my clothes than me?

“It’s fine. They are old clothes.” I reply. The guide just shrugs his shoulders. My new friends elect to rent swimming trunks. I lock all my stuff in my motorcycle except my iPhone. It is protected by a LifeProof case that is waterproof, or so I hope, soon we will find out.

To get to the cave, you need to take a canoe and row down the river. ?? and I share a canoe. The things are inflated rubber canoes. We work expertly together and make our way cross the river like a hippo trying to dance on an ice skate ring. With our unsynchronized strokes, we manage to spin the canoe 360 degrees a number of times while going forward, a magnificent feat. I bet we will win first place in the Olympics, for retard rowers, ha ha ha.

 

 

At the entrance of the cave, that is a short ways downriver and on the other side; we leave the canoes at a wooden jetty. A wooden pathway leads from the jetty to the cave entrance. Here, we find a rest area where two guards are sleeping in hammocks. One lifts his head, sees that we have a guide, and then goes back to important stuff, like sleeping. I look at the wooden walkway. This is not so bad, what is all the fuss about? For the crossing, we had to wear lifejackets. I start to take mine off in preparation for going into the cave.

“No, no, leave it on; you are going to need it.” Our guide says. I frown but do as he says and keep the jacket on. I look at the hard dry rocks next to the pathway, yeh, I am really going to need the life jacket. The next moment the ground disappears, and I drop knee-deep in water. The guide makes his way to the opposite side and onto the bank of the underground river, and then waits for us at a side passage.

“You can leave your life jackets here; we will get them when we come out.”

 

 

The sides of the passages are slippery as oil, and the well-worn out middle is knee-deep mud. At points, I can feel sharp rocks under my feet as well as now and again on the sides of the passage. A short distance in, pain fills my foot just as I put it down. Immediately I lift the weight off it, but lose my balance. I come down hard on my knees. Carefully I stand up and look at the cut in my pants where a sharp rock ripped it open. The rock made a slight cut on my leg, but my pants did its job. I am glad I kept my pants and shirt on. Slowly, we wade through the mud deeper and deeper into the cave.

“My eyes hurt, there is mud in them.” One of the girls complains.

“Hold on.” The guide says as he comes over with a bottle of water and helps her wash the mud from her eyes. Although the water helps, the mud is sticky, and she needs something to wipe it out with. Now who has the only dry shirt in the place, ha ha ha, me.

“Use my shirt sleeve.” I go.

“Thank you.” She replies as she wipes her eyes clean on my sleeve. We keep on going deeper and deeper, until we eventually come to a mud wall. Hollowed out steps in the side of the wall allow you to climb the top, where you slide down into a mud pool on the other side.

“Form a circle and sit down” The guide says when we all made it over the wall. He waits for us to sit down in the mud pool, and then continues. “Please switch off your lights. Darkness hugs us tightly. I love it. The guide proceeds to tell us a few stories, and then asks. “Who can sing?” No one volunteers, so he goes first and sings a song. The girls follow and sing a bit as well. Holy cow, I am starting to think that all Vietnamese can sing.

“How about you, you want to sing for us.” The guide asks me. I just laugh and decline. If I were to sing, at best, everyone will cut their wrists with their teeth, and at worse, the mountain will cave in. Pictured below, is one of the girls playing in the mud pool.

 

 

After practicing for the Vietnamese Idol singing competition, we head back. Half way back, we encounter a group of 12 tourists with their two guides. Well, put a bunch of silly tourists in a cave full of mud, and what do you get? A mud fight. No prisoners are taken, and no one is spared. I manage to keep the front of my shirt clean. As luck will have it, both girls take some mud in the eyes and need my shoulders to cry on to clean their eyes. Man, I should charge for this service, like a hug per clean eye.

“Wash yourself in the river, and then put your life jackets on.” Our guide says when we make it back to the entrance of the side passage. He waits for us to be ready, and then continues. “Okay, follow me; we are going for a 10 minute swim up the river into the mountains. Ah, now I know why we need the life jackets. In total darkness, we go upriver into the belly of the beast. This is fun. At the end of the swim, we take a rest, still in darkness. It reminds me of the deep night dives I have done. Nothing like hovering at 160 or so feet in total darkness.

Eventually, all good things come to an end, and we head back to the canoes. This time, we manage to kind of look as if we have done this sort of thing before, like once before as we expertly row back to the other side. As ?? and the girls need to head back. We exchange contact details, and then split up. My head is in cloud nine as I float back to my hotel. I have never done drugs and have never been drunk, but I recon this is how it must feel to be high. I really want to do the cave trek, but $100 is a bit much. I also need to get the three books I am currently working on finished. I hope that, in the future, I will have the funds to return to this stunning place and do the six-day cave trek. For the moment, I have spent a fair bit on this trip already, and it has eaten deep into my savings. I look back over my shoulder towards the direction of the cave as I pull away. One day, I will return to explore you again.

Back at the hotel, I get in the mood for ice cream.

“Do you have chocolate ice cream?” I ask the owner.

“Yes.” My eyes light up at her answer.

“Can I have some please?”

“Sure.” She says and then gets up and walks out of the building. She stops outside and then motions for me to follow her. A bit confused, I follow her five shops up the road to a small store.

“Ice cream.” She says and points to a fridge with Cornetto and other ice creams in, then walks back to the hotel. As I pull an ice cream out, I notice one of her young boys has followed us. I take him to be around 5 years old. The kid gives me well-practiced puppy eyes and melts my heart, so I get him an ice cream as well. Excited, he walks alongside me as I go back to the hotel. His mother looks up from the reception desk as we enter, gives the kid a frown, and then shakes her head. I guess she must have known it was going to happen.

With an ice cream in one hand and typing with the other, I lie on my bed and work on one of my next books. A smell I hate starts to tingle my nose. Annoyed, I get up and open the room door. My eyes widen. The hallway has turned into a convention center. Around 15 people are happily chatting away while smoking the place up. Just my luck. I close my room door, open the balcony door and switch the air conditioner to blow fresh air at full strength. An hour later, I cannot stand the noise and smoke, and head out for dinner. As I open my room door, thick smoke attacks my lungs. Downstairs I stop briefly to take in the scene. In the restaurant are 15 guys chain smoking while eating. The place looks like you locked a dragon up for 100 years.

I head up the road in the direction of a tourist center I saw earlier in the day and find a nice restaurant with wickedly fast Wi-Fi. While having dinner, I update my blog and work a bit on one of my books. By 9 pm, I decide to head back to my room. However, to my horror, the guys are again standing in the hallway, chain smoking and having a conference. With lots of work still to do, I reluctantly head downstairs to the restaurant and write until 1 am when they finally go to bed.

 

 

Chapter 19

 

Just after 6 am, I am out of bed and in the shower. Today I am going to get the motorcycle fixed, and take it easy and rest. Uh, who am I kidding, me take it easy, there is adventure out there. By 7 am, I am downstairs for breakfast. Last night, I had the thought of working on the motorcycle myself, but I have limited tools and no parts to rebuild a carburetor or engine.

“Can you help me translate to the mechanic what is wrong with the motorcycle?” I ask the owner as soon as I am done with my breakfast.

“Sure. Bring your motorcycle around the front.”

I quickly go and get my motorcycle, and push it over to the mechanic next door. The owner watches me go by the reception and comes on over.

“Can you please tell him that the motorcycle has no power, and when you run the engine flat out, it backfires and dies. There is a problem with the carburetor not opening fully. It has been worked on but was not fixed.” She nods, and then talks so fast she would put any auctioneer to shame. It sounds like she compressed 500 words into three words, pronounced within 20 seconds.

“Done.” She says and walks away.

My jaw hangs as I stand there, too stunned to move. The mechanic gives me a look as if to ask if I am going to help, so I let it be and move along. Last night, the owner told me of another cave worth seeing. According to her, you need to take a boat to the cave. The dock for boat hiring is at a tourist area about five minutes’ walk from the hotel. The tourist trap consists of a number of souvenir shops, two upmarket restaurants, and a ticket office, all situated around a small plaza next to the waterfront.

I bite my lip as I scan the price list stuck to the window of the ticket office. There are two caves listed, Phnong Nha cave, and Dong Tien Son cave. The owner never said which one I should see.

“Hi. How far are the two caves apart from each other?” I ask the lady behind the ticket counter.

“Not far.” She smiles. I take a deep breath and smile back, then continue.

“Can I see both caves on the same trip today?”

“If you want. However, you need to take a Dragon Boat.” She smiles. For a moment, I picture riding on the back of a dragon like Harry Potter, but then let the idea go. Dragons are too unpredictable to run a tour business on schedule.

“How many people does the boat take?”

“14.” She answers, and then quickly continues. “You can join up with those four gentlemen.” I glance in the direction she is pointing and sigh. The four are part of the loud mouth chain-smoking group I share a hotel with, plan B it is then.

“How much to see both caves and rent a boat.” The cashier’s eyes widen and for a moment, she freezes up, but then grabs a calculator and runs a few numbers on a calculator and then holds the calculator up, just under $20.

I take a deep breath, and then bite my lip. $20 is a lot of money just to spend on a cave that I know nothing about. I have already seen two wonderful caves. Will this one be better? Slowly a scan the parking area, but fail to see any other tourists that seem to be interested in hiring a boat. Well, I am here, now, tomorrow has its own problems.

“Okay, I will take it.”

The cashier looks me up and down, shrugs her shoulders, and then rings up the bill up. While pointing to the boats a short distance away, she hands me a stack of papers. Everything is in triplicate. Eagerly I walk over to find my dragon boat. An officer waves me over as I approach, and then takes the papers from me.

“Only you?” He asks as he frowns while looking behind me as if expecting someone to join us.

“Just me.” I smile.

“Number 248.” He says while shaking his head, then tears the top copy of my boat ticket off and keeps it.

“Thank you.” I nod and make my way to the boats behind him. Surprisingly, they are in numerical order. Quickly, I scan the ticket, but fail to find a number on it. I guess the boats work on a rotation schedule.

 

 

A skipper and one crew operate each boat. From what I can see, all boats seem to be family owned, with most of them being husband and wife. The front of the boat is decked out with plastic chairs, while at the back is a small cabin that houses a small living area and an engine bay. An elderly woman takes my papers from me, tears off the second copy of my boat ticket, and then hands the rest back to me while pointing for me to get on the boat. Her friendly smile is a stark contract to the stern face of her husband who dutifully starts the engine as I take my seat.

Just as we pull away from the shore, another boat races past behind us. My eyes light up. With only me on the boat, we are going to fly when the captain throws the afterburners on like in top gun the movie. Smiling from ear to ear, I brace myself for the pull away as the captain lines up the boat’s nose with the river. My smile drops to the bottom of the river as he opens the throttle to one notch above idling. We blast down the river at Mach 0.0001 without our hair on fire. See a short video as we putter along the Phnong Nha River, here.

Houses line the riverbanks, while, in the distance, mountains call to us. Movement on the left riverbank catches my attention, and my jaw drops open. In disbelieve, I stare as a herd of around 20 water buffalo skinny-dip, they have no shame. I gasp as one disappears underwater. I hold my breath as I count in my head. 75 seconds pass before the buffalo finally comes up for air. Shaking my head, I turn my attention to the other side of the boat as we slowly pass a number of people cleaning the river of freshwater weed that looks like long strands.

See a video of some of the people using poles, here, and of two kids, breath holding and using their hands, here. Still impressed by the kids, I gasp as we pass a boat with a family of three, dad, mom, and son. They use two poles like giant chopsticks and cross them to form an X before plunging them into the water. After bringing the poles together, they expertly lift the ends of the poles out that now has a blob of weed on it.

After around 30-minute river ride, we come to the entrance of the cave. The boat captain slows down and maneuvers the boat to pull onto the beach just before the entrance. Another boat reverses out, and my captain brings our boat to a stop. However, the other boat captain takes his time, pushing my boat captain past his patience. I gasp when my captain opens the throttle to maximum and rams the other boat, pushing it sideways. Planks snap as the other boat’s cabin gives in while my captain’s wife jumps onto the bow in order to try to push the two boats apart.

My boat captain gives in when his wife gives him a nasty look, and backs off the throttle, allowing his wife to push the other boat out of our way. This was the only time the captain smiled the entire trip.

 

 

On shore, other boat captains silently watch, not daring to say a word. Even the captain in the other boat keeps his comments to himself as he hits the planks of his cabin from the inside to try to get them a bit straight. I guess all know not to mess with my captain.

“Papers.” I jump as my captain’s wife talks next to me. Damn, how did she get next to me from the bow without me noticing? I am sure her kids are one of those ninja cops that appear out of thin air. Instinctively, I hand over all the papers I have, drawing a frown from the woman. Shaking her head, she jumps off the boat and makes her way to an officer in military uniform on the beach.

The officer looks over the papers for a second, and then looks past the captain’s wife at me. A frown forms on his face as he says something to the captain’s wife while holding up one finger. When she nods her answer, he looks at me for a moment, shakes his head, and then stamps the papers. I silently bite my lip. In Cambodia, people see it as sad when you eat alone, for if you had friends, they would join you. My neighbors constantly invited me for a meal, as they knew I lived alone. I wonder what they must think of me traveling through Vietnam alone.

With my papers verified, we head off into the belly of the beast, and a beast it is. Phnong Nha cave has the longest underwater river in the world, with 1.2km (0.75 miles) open to the public by boat. Just outside the cave entrance, the captain cuts the engine, and then slides the forward section of the roof back, allowing me an unspoiled view. He and his wife each take a paddle, and then start to row us into the cave just as another boat exits the cave.

 

 

 

The cave formations are spectacular, well worth the money. As I marvel at the natural beauty of the cave, we expertly pass a few boats exiting the cave. I am stunned by the skill of the crews, as at times, we scrape past each other with barely an inch to spare. I wonder if the captain is trying to make a point that it was not an accident when he rammed the other boat.

All too soon, we turn around at a floating yellow marker. I take a few more pictures, and then sit back and relax and smile at myself. I am on a boat, inside a cave, how cool is that.

“Off.” I jerk as the captain calls out to me, just as he beaches the boat onto the left shore, near the exit. Unsurely I get up as his wife jumps off the boat. Just as I jump off onto the sand, the captain’s wife silently pushes the boat back off the sand and jumps on. Biting my lip, I watch them row away.

Behind me, is a side passage that leads over a crest and deeper into the cave. Shrugging my shoulders, I turn around and go exploring, but stop dead when I reach the top of the crest. In front of me are magnificent cave formations. A guard stationed nearby comes over and offers to take a picture for me, and then directs me to the exit of the cave. Nodding my acceptance, I slowly make my way in the direction he pointed, while my eyes rest on another side passage. I quick glance in the guard’s direction confirms that he is not there for my safety, but to make sure I do not go exploring where is should not.

 

 

The path exits close by where we stopped to have my papers verified. I smile as a row of traditional Vietnamese restaurants and small souvenir shops line the path down to the dock. Tourist trap!

A sign pulls my attention near a steep set of cement stairs, and I head over to it. The Cave God’s Temple, the sign reads, with an arrow pointing up the steps. This must be the way to the second cave. In order to see this cave, I had to pay the entrance fee for the cave, as well as an additional fee to have the boat wait for me. Money makes the world funny. I wonder if the boat crew actually gets anything extra. A short climb up, I reach a split in the stairway with two paths heading up the mountain. As normal, I take the wrong path, and do not end up at the cave entrance, but a shrine. Anticipating lost tourists like me, the Vietnamese built a bridge from the shrine to the second set of stairs that leads to the cave entrance even higher up. On the other side of the bridge is a checkpoint with two female guards. From here, one has some stunning views.

 

 

The path up is almost vertical, and lined with rest points, made for lesser mortals. I sign saying, last section to fairyland, draws a smile from me. Energetically I sprint the section up, and then stop dead and gasp as I reach the top. In front of me, is fairyland. As Paradise Cave, words and pictures cannot tell it all.

 

 

This cave was once a hideout for Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War, however, I doubt if they had time to marvel at its beauty. A wooden staircase leads down into the cave, where it then splits in two at a large deck. The stairway then makes a loop around the cave, while hugging the sides of the cave. In front of me is a large group of slow moving people going anticlockwise around by following the right split, so I go left, clockwise around the cave. This cave is smaller than Paradise cave; however, the mineral formations are amazing and far exceed that of Paradise cave.

 

At the back of the cave is a large rest area with seating. Just as I sit down and close my eyes, the large group joins me. Vietnamese rock music shatters the silence as two guys start to play music on their cell phones. I clench my jaw and ball my fists. For a moment, I contemplate waiting until they leave, but let that idea pass when they take out snacks. Annoyed I get up and leave, going down the way they came.

A few people in the group give me funny looks, as if I stole ice cream from a baby. I wonder what their problem is; they are the ones playing music in the cave. A short distance later, I pass a second group. Here I get dirty looks as I pass the group. Okay, what have I done now? Quickly, I smell my armpit, nope, all still fresh there, so I keep going. All too soon, I reach the point where the two paths converge at the rest area. Just then, a guard angrily storms over to me. Coming to stand right in front of me, he points behind me while giving me a stern face. Crap, did I accidentally drop a chocolate wrapper or something?

I slowly turn around and then bite my lip. Oops, My bad. Right in front of me is a huge sign with an arrow pointing to the right. Well now, I guess I should have gone anti-clockwise around. I am about to go around the cave again just for the heck of it, but let it go. I am not sure how long my boat will wait for me. I give the guard a quick sorry and make for the exit.

Since my boat is numbered, I have no problem in finding it; however, the crew is missing. Slowly, I scan the shore, but fail to see the captain or his wife. Shrugging my shoulders, I hop onto the bow. Suddenly, the captain appears out of nowhere and jumps onto the bow next to me, another ninja. I wonder if he is a retired traffic officer. For a moment, I fear that he is going to pull a sword on me for not asking permission to get on his boat first, but he just strolls past me to the wheelhouse. Behind me, his wife climbs aboard and then pulls up the anchor.

By my reckoning, I did not lollygag in the caves, but the captain must have other thoughts. He throws the boat into full reverse, and I almost fall off the bow. Foam surrounds the boat as we blast out. In the process, a wooden walkway going all around our boat snags the walkway of the boat next to us, and we drag the boat along with us. The other boat’s anchor does not hold, and it is dragged off the shore into the water where it eventually catches. With the other boat securely anchored, the two boats rip apart, and we take a piece of the other boat’s walkway with us. Well, I think the other boat’s captain has a swim two do; he should have anchored his boat better.

On the ride back, the woman comes up to me and points to my backpack. Confused, I give her a blank stare.

“qwhwefjanjkasn” She says something in Vietnamese and again points to my backpack. I look down at the water bottle secured to the side of my backpack, and shrug. Unsurely, I unclip the water bottle and offer it to her, but she shakes her head and again points to my backpack while saying something in Vietnamese. With a frown, I shake my head. No you are not getting my backpack.

She gives up and sits down while looking very gloomy. With no data left to connect to the Internet, I cannot use my translation app. We stare at each other, not sure what the other wants or what to do.

At the docks, I pull out 200K VND (just under $10, hey, I am broke myself.), and hand it over as a tip. The woman’s face lights up and she is so happy it looks like she is going to hug and kiss me. Not that I mind, but I am sure her husband has a sword somewhere that can split hairs. So, that is what she wanted, a tip. Full of excitement I get off the boat, wave to the captain and his wife, and then head back to my hotel. This was a trip well worth it. Before heading up to my room, I stop by at the mechanic to year the news.

“Hi. Is she fixed?” I ask the mechanic. He gives me the thumbs up. “Can I take her for a test ride?” I continue while indicating I want to ride the motorcycle. All smiles, he hands over the key, and I take to the road. About two seconds into the ride, my mood drops. The engine does not have full power. I return to the mechanic and park it next to him while he smilingly gives me a thumbs up. His smile fades when I shake my head. Knowing I will need a translator, I head into the hotel and find the owner. She agrees to translate for me and follows me over to the mechanic.

“Can you please tell him that the motorcycle is not right, it does not have power?”

“The mechanic’s face goes morbid when the owner translates. He jumps on the motorcycle, rides about 100 meters and then turns around. On his return, he has a few words with the owner.

“He says there is nothing wrong.”

“Please tell him that the motorcycle does not have full power.”

The hotel owner translates and the mechanic is silent for a moment, then replies. The hotel owner is silent for a second, shrugs her shoulders, and then translates.

“He says ride slower.”

“Please tell him that the motorcycle only manages 20 km/h on uphills.” The owner translates, gets and answers, and shakes her head.

“He says ride slower.”

“Okay, please ask him what he fixed on the motorbike.”

“Nothing. He says he did nothing as there is nothing wrong with the motorbike.” My jaw drops. The mechanic quickly shoots off something and then walks away.

“He says no charge.” The owner translates and then walks away as well. Case closed.

Frustrated, I decide to return to the restaurant I ate last night and update my blog. It is over 530 km to Hanoi from Phnong Nha. According to John, it is around a 13-hour ride. With the motorcycle pulling right, I think I can do it in 11 hours or so, but as it is now, it will probably take me 15 hours, or more.

At the restaurant, I order spring rolls and rice, followed by coffee, and then I ponder my options. Hanoi is double the distance to Hoi An where I can easily sell the motorcycle and get a train to Saigon. So, over 530 kilometers of hard riding forward or an easy ride back. Honestly, easy sounds boring. I will just go for it tomorrow and see how long the engine lasts and how far I get before I need to stop for the night. With my mind made up, I head back to my hotel, where I find the chain-smoking gang having a party in the restaurant. Red beer soaked eyes look at me as I pass them through the thick cloud of dragon’s breath. In my room, I start to pack and get things ready for tomorrow. Half an hour later, the gang retires to their rooms, which they now think is in the hallway in front of my door. Pulling the pillow over my head is as effective as telling your dog to leave the jerky alone while you are out of the room. By 11 pm, they run out of energy and beer. However, I am overtired and it is midnight, before I finally fall asleep.

 

 

Chapter 20

 

Noise from the hallway outside my room pulls me from a wonderful dream. Lazily I pull the curtains open a faction, and then sigh. It is still dark outside. Annoyed I check the time on my iPhone, 5 am. With a moan, I drop my head into the pillow, and then wrap the edges over my ears. I clench my jaw as someone falls against my room door and a chorus of laughter erupts in the hallway. The chain-smoking bunch is still drunk.

Had I known how long the day would turn out, I would not have bothered to get up. However, hope, one of humankind’s greatest inspirations as well as failures, gets me out of bed. With blind hope, I ignore the mechanical issues on the motorcycle and tell myself I will make Hanoi today. In the process, I fail to see that overnight someone added a lot more hours to my day since I last looked.

By 6:35am, I am on the road and head to the outskirts of town where the only gas station is. While the petrol attendant fills my motorcycle up, I recheck my route on my iPad. From Phnong Nha, the Ho Chi Minh road runs close to the A1 highway until about 150 km before Hanoi, where it then splits away, taking a longer route to enter Hanoi. To save time, at some point I will need to cross over from the Ho Chi Minh road to the A1 highway. The earlier I cross over, the shorter the cross distance is, but then I miss the scenic route. My finger hovers over a number of possible roads that link the two highways up.

Movement a short distance away pulls my attention from my iPad. In wonder, I stare as an old woman pushes her motorcycle up to the garage. She proceeds to fill the gas tank with $1 worth of fuel, and my heart sinks. I bite my lip as she gives the Kickstarter a number of kicks. After several attempts, the engine sputters to life and the woman races off. When you think you have it rough; there are others worse off than you are. I clench my fists and want to kick myself for being so slow. I could have filled her motorcycle’s gas tank for her. With a sigh, I pay my gas bill and then decide to keep riding along the Ho Chi Minh road until the scenery is not worth it, then cross over to the A1 highway.

The start of the Ho Chi Minh from Phnong Nha is cement, and in excellent condition. Being still in mountain territory, the scenery is amazing, with a few up and down hills to play with.

 

 

The motorcycle does not have much power, and it is back to 20 to 30 km/h hill climbs. I smile as I round a bend and a long strait awaits me. Slowly, the motorcycle picks up speed, reaching a staggering 60 km/h. I may not know exactly where I am going, but I am making good time. I frown as a fork in the road becomes visible in the distance. With my iPhone already out, I double-check the digital map. The road is supposed to go left, with no fork. Left it is then.

Time slows down as I take the left split. In awe, I tip my head slightly as I stare at a guy a short distance down the road, loading rocks on an ox cart. My heart stops when my brain realizes that there is no road behind the ox cart, for the guy is loading it onto his cart. I am at the end of the world. So earth is flat after all, NASA, you lied, oh no, my mistake, it is just the end of the road, sorry NASA (you may still have lied :-)).

You know those stories of people following their GPS and driving over a cliff. I can so see that happening. Smoke pours from the tires as I make an emergency stop, managing to get the motorcycle to a standstill just in time. The guy loading the ox cart freezes with a rock above his head, looks me wide eyed up and down, then continues to load the ox cart. About a foot in front of my front tire is a 2-meter drop. Relieved, I drop my eyes to the ground, and then swallow hard. On the road are a number of tire marks, some going over the edge. So, I am not the only one that discovered the end of the world.

Icy chills shoot down my spine as the slab under me drops a centimeter. My heart pounds in my chest as I glance over the side next to me. The cement slab next to the one I am on has already fallen down as the ground under it was washed away. The slab I am on, is hanging in midair with no support. Good thing I had a light breakfast. Carefully, I backup, and then turn around and ride back to the split while searching for any warning signs I may have missed, nope, none, another reason not to drive after dark in Asia.

The guy with his ox cart decides he had enough rocks for the day, and leaves as I make my way back to the fork in the road. A short distance along the alternative path, I get a clear view of the road I was one minutes before. I take it the road washed away, and rather than repair it, a new section was built.

 

 

My heart jumps from joy as I open the throttle and the engine pulls strong again. I easily manage 80 km/h on straights without running full throttle. Slowly, I relax and enjoy the scenery. I may just reach Hanoi today. A long steep incline smiles at me, and I laugh in its face as I open the throttle. Take that, I yell as I blast up the hill. Half-way up, my heart stops as the engine stutters three times, backfires, and then dies. As the exhaust noise dies down, nature resumes. Birds court each other while sun beetles sing praise to the sun. I enjoy the sounds of nature for a full nano second, before trying to start the engine again.

Click, click is all I get. Great, now the starter has to pack up as well. I turn the ignition on and off a few times, and then try again. This time the starter engages, but the engine refuses to start.

After a few deep breaths, I climb off the motorcycle and unstrap all my gear. Suspecting the ignition wires under the right side panel that gave problems in Hoi An, I pull my toolkit from under the seat and go to work removing the panel. When done, I crank the engine while pulling on the wires, nada. I keep wiggling wires while hitting the starter button until I smell gasoline. Crap, that’s not good. I pat myself on the back. It seems 20 km is as far as I am going to go towards Hanoi today.

I feel like kicking the mechanic that worked on my motorcycle yesterday, for saying nothing is wrong with the motorcycle. However, I am not in the mood to push the motorcycle 20 km so decide to try the small village I passed 5 km earlier. I hope that there is a mechanic in the village. After replacing the right, side panel and my gear, I hop on the motorcycle and let it free wheel to the bottom of the hill where I get off and push it for around 300 m before I get another downhill. The road alternates between level sections and short downhills. About 2 km further on I reach a military checkpoint I passed earlier.

At the boom, a guard is lying in a hammock, reading a newspaper. He looks up at me pushing the motorcycle, continues reading his paper for a few seconds, and then looks up again to make sure I am real. Squinting his eyes, he studies me intently to make sure I am not a mirage or and after effect of last night’s drinking. Satisfied that I am real, he lazily gets up and walks over to me, just as I push the motorcycle past the boom to their main office. My eyes drool over their military truck parked under a tree nearby. Maybe they will give me a lift to town.

“Where you going, you lost?” The guards asks in broken English. I bite my lip. Yeah dude, the first thing I do when I am lost is I start to push my motorcycle so that I get lost slowly.

“Engine does not want to start.” I reply and draw a blank expression from the guard. Two more military personnel walk over to see what is happening. I crank the engine to get my point across. Luckily, the engine does not start. It would have been embarrassing if it did after pushing it over 2 km.

“No fuel.” One guy offers. I clench my jaw to hold back a comment as I point to the full 5L jug of fuel strapped to the motorcycle. Right, I will just push my motorcycle after running out of fuel, while I have 5L spare fuel.

“Plenty of fuel.” I manage with a straight face.

“You put fuel in tank?” The same guard asks as he reaches over and tries to start the engine. Before I can answer (actually, I had no answer), another guard tries to start the engine as well. As he fails, two more guards come over and try to start the engine. They say a fool does the same thing repeatedly and expects a different result. I take a deep breath to calm myself, and then sigh when the smell of gasoline fills my nose. Great. They flooded the engine.

“Gasoline.” One of the guards says. I nod my head. Yes, I can smell it. I am standing on the right side of the motorcycle and he on the left. I jerk as he takes me by the shoulder and leads me around the motorcycle to his side. Can military personnel arrest you in Vietnam, flash through my mind.

“Gasoline.” The guard says again and point to the ground near the back tire on the left side. He says something to another guard in Vietnamese, and then points to the left panel near the tail while another guard cranks the engine. I nod my head as I notice it. A small stream of gasoline runs from the bottom of the panel when the engine in turned over. I look up with puppy eyes to ask him I they will give me a ride in the truck.

“Town, 3 km.” The guard’s stern voice melts my puppy eyes. I give a quick glance to the truck, but the guard shakes his head. Thanks dude. Okay, maybe the truck is not there just for my personal use.

“Nice motorcycle.” I say and point to a Suzuki cruiser standing under another tree nearby.

“Town, 3 km.” The guard says again as he points down the road. I shrug my shoulders and to the guards’ surprise, unstrap my gear from my motorcycle. Amused, they watch me take some tools from under the seat and remove the left side panel.

The moment I pull the panel off, I have five guards breathing down my neck all wanting to help find the problem, which is easy to locate. The fuel line that attaches directly to the vacuum petcock came off. A mechanic earlier in the trip had run some electrical tape over the end to help keep it there, but with the heat, it stretched and came loose. This will explain the engine running out of fuel at max throttle as air bubbles will be pulled down the line; however, it is not the problem of the constant power loss.

I pull a short three-inch diving knife from the toolset and cut a one-inch section off the tip of the hose. As I place the knife down to push the hose back in place, one of the guards picks the knife up and inspects it. I cringe as he tests the sharpness of the blade by running his thumb over it. Luckily, I had not sharpened the blade in a while, and it is dull enough not to slice his finger open. With the fuel line replaced, I crank the engine. My heart leaps of joy as the engine sputters to life. Switching the engine off, I start to replace the side panel.

One by one, each of the five guards has to test the motorcycle by starting it up, revving the engine, and then switching it off again. Thanks guys for making sure it starts. With the panel replaced, I fill the motorcycle’s fuel tank up from the spare fuel jug, and then pack everything away. I glance up at the sun, and then check the time. I have lost an hour. There is no hope of me reaching Hanoi today.

After thanking the guards for their help, I take to the road. I will ride until 4pm, and then see what the closest town is, and overnight there. Well, that is my plan; we will have to see what Murphy has to say about that. I do get a bonus for my efforts as the engine pulls strongly again. With no fear of ninja, traffic cops this far in the mountains; I keep the throttle open to the max and make up for the lost time. At one point, I find a bull in the road and play chicken with him. At the last moment, he flinches and turns away, no bullshit I tell you.

 

 

A short distance later, I find two bulls in the road. I play chicken with one. However, he is more bull headed than the first one and stands fast. At the last second, we both give a foot, and I scrape past him. I call it a draw, and tip my helmet at the bull. In mutual respect, he tips his horns, and we move on. The kms fly by as the sun draws water. Running the engine hard, it sucks up fuel. 80 km into the trip, I pull into a gas station with an almost empty tank.

The gas station has a display with biscuits in, and my stomach begs me to get some. However, the biscuits have some green stuff in that makes me wonder if they are not “Natural Organic” biscuits, like in weed. Only one way to find out. They are tasty and I eat a few, but still feel the same. I take them to be rice biscuits with natural herbs. (I am sticking with that story officer.) While having lunch, three military personnel pull up. The first guy is on a scooter with a trailer. It sounds strange, but in Asia, you pull anything with a motorcycle (scooter for the purists). The trailer is not physically attached to the motorcycle, but has either a bar or rope between two poles. This bar or rope rests on the seat of the motorcycle, and is normally held in place by a passenger or the driver sitting on it, or the driver holding it down with one hand.

 

 

With the motorcycle’s fuel tanks and my tummy filled, I take on the road again. Although I am running on the Ho Chi Minh road near the border, this section is not as desolate as the road going to Phnong Nha. Every few kilometers I pass through a small village. In one small town, the road is partially covered by trees; forming a green tunnel. I blast around corners as the road snakes lazily through the town. Just as I round another corner at around 70km/h, my heart stops. 200 meters ahead in the middle of the road is a traffic officer. I slam on the brakes and zip into the first entrance I see. It looks like a house but actually turns out to be a small restaurant situated a distance from the road. Quickly, I park my motorcycle near the back, buy two green tea bottles and then sit down. I down one bottle and then open the next one and act as if I have been there for a while.

My heart races as I keep an eye on the entrance, but no officer comes for me. I wait another 10 minutes, and then stroll over to my motorcycle. As I am about to get into the saddle, I notice a cracked vacuum hose connected to a box near the exhaust. I pull the hose off to see what the effect is, and the motorcycle fails to start. When I push the hose back on the engine starts immediately. As the hose is cracked and will come off again, I tape it up with electrical tape, and then take to the road. The police officer is gone by the time I pull out of the restaurant. Not wanting to chance another traffic officer encounter, I keep my speed to around 60km/h while amusing myself with the other road user. One guy decided that if he is going to have a flat tire, he is fixing it on the spot.

 

 

A short while later, I pass a motorcycle with a number of mounted water buffalo heads, packed onto his motorcycle. The motorcycle is close to a roadside bar, and as I stop to take a picture, one of the guys jumps up and yells at me while waving his arms in the air. A second guy jumps up and rushes over towards me. I leave both guys in the dust as I spin the back tire while making myself scarce. I do not think the mountings are illegal, so why they got upset is a mystery. This boxy guy with perfect balance impressed me immensely.

 

 

A common way in Asia for locals to dry rice is to spread them out on the road, at times so thick that the roads become unusable for cars. Only a small path is left for motorcycles to ride though. It does not matter if it is a main road or not, it is used for rice drying. On a motorcycle, you have to be on constant alert when going around a corner, for if you hit the rice patches wrong, you are going to lose control of the motorcycle and crash.

By now, I am far from the mountains, and the road is mostly flat with only an occasional small hill. As I approach a hill, I come up behind a large truck. In the distance, another truck is approaching, but I have plenty of space, so I gun it. Just as I pass the truck, I hit a number of bumps in the road. My heart stops when on each bump, the engine cuts out. Ice crystals run down my spine as the oncoming truck flashes its headlights. I slam on the brakes to get back in behind the truck tried to overtake, but there is no space. Another truck has pulled up behind it and is tailgating it. Smoke pours out of the back wheel as I lock it. Seconds later, I release the brake. It is not going to work; the second truck has a double trailer. I gun the engine and pull up right to the side of the truck I tried to overtake. The oncoming truck moves over a foot just in time and scrapes past the two trucks with me in the middle.

With the road now clear, the last truck pulls out and wants to overtake, sitting on my back tire while honking its horn. I hammer the poor engine, but we are now going downhill, and the lead truck speeds up. The second truck refuses to back off and pushes me. I hold my breath as the speedo reaches 90km/h with the engine flat out while the second truck is less than a foot behind me still honking it horn. By now, I am neck and neck with the first truck that refuses to let us pass. At the bottom of the hill, the engine starts to backfire with the speedo at 95km/h. The lead truck loses a bit of speed as we start to go up the second hill, and I manage to pull a bike’s length past the lead truck. Just then, the engine backfires twice and cuts out. Desperately I swerve over to the left and off the road just in time. The lead truck almost clips my back tire as he races past, still in a deadlock with the second truck that is trying to overtake him.

I let my heart slow down a bit, and then turn the ignition. The engine fires up right away, but the new problem remains in that each time I go over a bump bigger than a matchstick, the engine wants to cut out. I guess one of the wires the mechanic in Hoi An taped up, came loose.

I bite my lip when a rattle starts from behind the instrument cluster, and the speedo stops working. Annoyed, I pull out my iPhone and use a GPS application to monitor my speed. The countryside is beautiful, with rice fields and tea plantations the norm, lifting my mood a bit. I frown as a single structure next to the road comes into view in the distance. I shake my head as I pass a small building with three white wedding dresses displayed next to the entrance. If you want a wedding dress, these people are the ones to talk to, because they are the only wedding dress shop this side of the mountain.

The engine keeps going at 80km/h on straights, as long as I do not hit any bumps. I give a quick glance at the map application, and it lifts my mood even more. At this rate, I may just reach Hanoi by 6 pm. Something alongside the road up ahead draws my attention and I slow down. It is a backpacker next to his fake Honda Win. I pull up beside him and glance over the beat-up motorcycle.

“Hi. What’s the problem?” I greet the guy.

“I ran out of fuel.”

I bite my lip. The motorcycle has a 10L gas tank, and on both models that I had, I could get over 300km on a tank. I have passed about 12 gas stations in the last 200 km. I just shake my head.

“I have about ½L of fuel still in my spare jug left.” I say to the guy. I had stopped a while back and transferred most of the fuel in the jug over to the motorcycle.

“Thanks how much?”

“Don’t worry about it.” I hand the jug to the guy, who nods his head in thanks and then pours the fuel into his motorcycle. The guy then unsuccessfully tries to kick-start the motorcycle.

“Give the fuel chance to fill the carburetor.” I offer as the guy goes mad on the kick starter. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he comments.

“It always takes a lot of effort to start her up.”

I shake my head; this is probably the sorriest fake motorcycle I have seen. Oil is streaming from the head gasket. From experience, I know the head gasket is blown.

“Damn it is hot.” The guy gasps as he sits back in the seat and wipes the sweat out of his eyes, still unsuccessful in starting the engine.

“Do you have any water or so?” I ask.

“Uh, no. I did not think I would need any.” The guy sheepishly replies. I clench my jaw and then gives him one of my spare green tea bottles.

“Wow, thanks dude.”

“How much did you pay for it?” I ask and point to his motorcycle.

“$275”

I almost fall of my motorcycle.

“Dude, you have been seriously ripped off.” I gasp.

The guy just shrugs his shoulders. The sun is eating him up. With only a T-shirt, shorts and flops, he has no protection from the sun or the road should he fall off his motorcycle. His helmet is a half helmet that has no chin guard or visor. The word idiot comes to mind.

“Are you riding alone?” I ask.

“No, my mate went to get some fuel.” The guy replies as renews his effort in trying to get the motorcycle going. I sit back in my seat and watch the spectacle. I should have brought popcorn. About two minutes later, his friend pulls up on a motorcycle in the same state as his friend’s. The thing barely runs and does not even want to idle but dies immediately as he stops.

“Hi.” I say as he pushes the side stand out and gets off his motorcycle.

“Hi.” He nods as he makes his way to his friend with a 1.5L plastic bottle, half-full of fuel.

“There is a gas station a few kilometers up the road, but I think I am running out of fuel as well.” The guy says as he hands the bottle to his friend. I close my eyes. Your friend ran out of fuel, yet you bring him a half-bottle of fuel, and then you, driving the same model of motorcycle do not fill your tank up while you are also running on fumes. I am speechless. Now I know why the military officers this morning asked me if I poured the gasoline from my spare jug into the motorcycle’s gas tank. The must have met people like these. Desperately they try to get the first motorcycle started while the minutes tick by.

“Where are you guys headed?” I ask.

“Ninh Binh.”

I pull out my iPad and plot a route to it. Ninh Binh is 193 km from where we are, with Hanoi just over 110km further. Numbers jump around in my head. At my current average speed, I can make Ninh Binh by 5 pm if I leave now.

“Well, all the best, see you guys on another day.” I greet them and start up my motorcycle. They give me a quick greeting as they continue to try to start their motorcycles. I twist the throttle to full open, and my heart drops, almost no power, crap. No good deed goes unpunished. Now I get 65km/h on long flats after a few minutes of building up speed, and around 40km/h on an uphill. Why did I stop again? Okay, I would have wanted someone to stop for me was it me standing alongside the road.

I am still on the Ho Chi Minh road that has stunning scenery, but it is a longer route. To save time, my best bet is to link up with the A1 highway. With a heavy heart, I take the next side road and end my Ho Chi Minh road adventure. The side road turns out to be a dirt road where the potholes have potholes. At points, I pass by small villages, where locals spray water over the road to keep the dust down. However, this turns everything into a mud pool that trucks decimate. Lovely. The scenery is not too bad though as most of the side is still rice fields, stay positive.

 

 

Eventually, I link up with the A1 highway, and find Murphy laughing at me. The section I am on is town after town, and at best, I get 40 km/h on open section, but most of the time I crawl at 20km/h or slower in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Great move, not only did I lose the Ho Chi Minh road scenery, but I am not making up lost time. I shrug my shoulders. Well, at least if the motorcycle breaks down, I can get help. And the traffic cannot get worse, I had to say that. Murphy taps me on the shoulder as disaster strikes, km upon km of road works and traffic jams.

“You are not going to make Ninh Binh today, never mind Hanoi.” Murphy laughs in my ear. I do some South African driving to save some time. Here is a short video of it. As the sun, finally gives up to darkness, I pull over in Ninh Binh next to a small hotel. I am around 111km from Hanoi, at least a two-hour ride. As soon as I stop, the hotel owner comes out with a smile. He knows he can charge me double for a room at this time of night.

“Murphy, tonight you will not win.” I mentally say as I shake my head at the hotel owner.

“Yeh right dude.” Murphy laughs.

“F… You Murphy. I will make Hanoi today.”

I have done hundreds of thousands of kms on motorcycles, many of those at night, at around 320 km/h flat out. I can do 60 km/h at night on a scooter. I double-check the map on the iPhone. A short distance ahead, the road splits in two and then runs parallel with each other. Both end up in Hanoi, but one passes through each small town and village while the other one bypass them all.

I decide to take the road skipping the towns and the pedestrians, while taking the risk of being stranded should the engine give up. Part of the reason is that in Asia, people often ride in your lane in the wrong direction, without lights. This is due to them reasoning it is safer to ride five or more kilometers on the wrong side of the road than cross a major road at night. I am not sure if that logic holds as I have had a lot of near head-on collisions at night in Cambodia.

As short distance later, I come to the split and take the off-ramp. The road loops back on itself before ending in the highway. Just as I round the turn, my heart stops as a roadblock alongside the road with around 12 traffic officers come into view. Their roadblock is a few meters before my onramp, so I zoom past them at full speed. One officer gives me a shocked look while another jumps forward to stop me but then gives up. For a moment, I hold my breath as I expect them to give chase, but they let me be.

The road has three lanes, and I keep to the right side (slow lane in Asia). A kilometer down the road I an uneasy feeling makes its way down my spine. Something is wrong. I am the only motorcycle rider on the road. In a country with millions of motorcycles, something is dead wrong if you are the only one on a major road. Is there a zombie apocalypse? I feel my side, yes; the three-inch blade knife is still there. Bring on the zombies. Just then, I pass a signboard and sigh. The minimum speed in the right lane is 60km/h, the minimum in the middle lane is 80 km/h, and the left lane is 100 km/h. That is why there are no motorcycles on the road, only people with special licenses are allowed to ride faster than 40km/h near city limits. Oops, my bad, well I am somewhat special. Nice, the only road I can actually run flat out, I only manage 65 km/h after a long run up.

Minutes drag past as the darkness boringly crawls past. About 10 kilometers from getting onto the highway, my heart stops dead. I swallow hard and then slow down while listening intently. My throat closes off. The engine has picked up a metallic pinging sound, as if the valve rockers are loose. Is the engine packing up? I speed up a bit, and the noise stays the same. There is no turning back now. It is all or nothing. The only thing I can do is slow down a bit, and hope the engine holds. The closer I get to Hanoi, the worse the metallic pinging sound gets, and the more I slow down. Each kilometer feels like an eternity, and my nerves are on end, for with the engine noise, each time I go over a bump in the road, the engine cuts out for a second.

Just after 8pm, I enter the outskirts of Hanoi, around 12 km from the city center. Eagerly I search for a hotel, but find none. 5 km from the city center, my heart leaps as I spot a hotel. Just as I am about to pull into the hotel, the motorcycle jerks to the side and pulls into a KFC parking area all by itself. The clock stands at 8:30 pm as I take a position in line to order food. Curious eyes look me up and down, while lips whisper in eager ears, as fingers are discreetly pointed at me. I am sure I stink and am covered in dirt, but that is their problem.

Taking an empty chair in the corner, I wolf down a chicken burger while using KFC’s Wi-Fi to go online and search for hotels. This time, Expedia comes through with a room for $10 a night. The advertisement states they can arrange tours and train tickets, sealing the deal. As I book a room, I smile to myself, having had plenty of experience with untruthful advertising in Asia. I hope they know what a train actually looks like. With the help of the GPS function on my iPhone, I plot a route to the hotel and take on the mad city traffic.

As a push my way through traffic, an idea starts to form in my head. John told me that he often makes deals with customers. He sells a motorcycle to them, and when they get to Hanoi, they ship the motorcycle down to him on the train, and he buys it back. I am going to ship my motorcycle down to Saigon and take a train down myself. From Hanoi, I may be able to cross the border to Cambodia. Half an hour later, I pull up at my hotel.

I smile as I note the going walk in rate as I enter the hotel, $15 a night. Booking online, I got a room for $10 a night. After a quick check in, I head upstairs to my room that is on the third floor according to the room key tag. However, this is Asia. The floors turn out to be numbered in half, as in 1 followed by 1 ½ then 2, followed by 2 ½. Thus my third-floor room turns out to be on the fifth floor, welcome to Asia. The room is clean, has a bath, hot water, air conditioner, Wi-Fi, and even a bar fridge stocked up with sodas, perfect.

I draw myself a warm bath and tiredly slip into muscle relaxing bliss. As the heat works the kinks out of my muscles, I close my eyes and reflect back on my trip. It has been an experience of a lifetime. I have seen so much and learned so much, not just about Vietnam and its amazing people, but about myself as well.

Lazily I pick my iPhone up and check the GPS log. I have been in the saddle constantly for 14 hours today and have done just over 530 km. In two weeks, I have done 2450 km. Not bad for a little automatic 115cc motorcycle (okay scooter for the purists). Although there have been some hiccups, the little Yamaha pushed on. Good on you Yamaha.

I write a quick email to both John and Simon to let them know I made Hanoi, and to ask them advice on how to put the motorcycle on the train. After a long bath, I crawl into bed.

“Hey Murthy. I told you I would make Hanoi tonight.” I laugh.

“Shut up.”

 

 

Chapter 21

 

The annoying sound of hooters beeping cuts through my room and rips me from my dreams. I take a deep breath and sigh as I stare at the time. 6:10 am. Outside, people are skillfully racing to work. You have not seen traffic jams until you have been in a big Asian city in rush hour. For the past two weeks, I was spoiled with small towns with almost no traffic. For a moment, I contemplate trying to go back to sleep, but then give up, take a quick bath, and get dressed.

Eagerly I scan through my emails, wishing for a glimmer of hope to take my motorcycle with to Cambodia. I have already given up on the dream to cross over to Laos. Having to part with the little Yamaha will be heartbreaking. My eyes light up, and my heart starts to pound. Both John and Simon have replied. My right hand shakes as I tap on the iPad and open the emails. I close my eyes as my heart plummets down to the ground floor and then rolls into a gutter.

In order to get my motorcycle onto the train, I have to personally book a ticket at the train station, and have to be able to communicate in Vietnamese or take a translator with. Neither John nor Simon can tell me what ticket to ask for, that, I have to work out at the train station. If I manage to get a ticket, I have to go in search of the loading platforms and find the right train to load my motorcycle on myself. Worse, they inform me that it takes about one week to ship a motorcycle from Hanoi to Saigon, and that some of their motorcycles have not shown up after three weeks.

I clench my jaw. Losing the motorcycle is out of the question, and waiting for it for a week will not work. Then there is the slight problem of me not speaking Vietnamese. The best option seems to sell in Hanoi. I swallow hard. I love that little Yamaha.

My heart stops as an idea flashes through my mind. Maybe, just maybe, there is plan C. Energetically I rush downstairs. With each step, my heart races faster. By the time I reach the travel agency next door, my heart is nearing light speed.

“Hi. I want to ship my motorcycle to Saigon by train. Do you sell tickets?” I blurt out as I stop in front of the travel agency’s desk.

“No. You have to go to the train station in person.” My legs almost give in and my shoulders drop. The travel agent looks me up and down for a second, and then continues.

“I can help you if you want.”

“You can?” I feel like jumping over the counter and hugging him.

“Yes, no problem. I will go with you.”

“How much does it cost?” I blurt out. Realizing my mistake, I compose myself and slowly sit down. The more eager you are, the more things cost in Asia.

“Hold on.” The guy says and makes a phone call. I watch every facial expression he makes, while trying to slow my heart down. My breath stops as he puts the phone down.

“750 K VND.”

I take a deep breath. That is just under $40 for shipping the motorcycle.

“Can you help me with a train ticket for myself?”

“Ah that is no problem. I sell them.” The guy smiles. We both see a deal coming.

“Okay, help me get the motorcycle on the train, and I will by a train ticket for me, from you.” I offer.

“Easy.” He laughs, and then continues. “They only take cash at the train station.”

“I will need to draw some money.”

“Around the corner.” He replies and then slowly stands up, before continuing. “I will get my motorcycle so long and get someone to cover the desk here. See you outside.”

With a nod, I jump up and then make my way to the corner of the street where I find two ATMs. Discreetly I draw the money and then hurry back to the hotel where the travel agent is waiting for me on his motorcycle.

“Follow me.” He says and zooms into traffic. I jump on my motorcycle and race after him. We glide through the morning traffic like a hot knife through butter. He constantly looks over his shoulder to see if I am still there, and a few times is surprised to see me right behind him. After a few minutes, we arrive at Hanoi train station.

“Wait here.” The travel agent says as he parks his motorcycle in a secure parking, which consists of an area cordoned off with string and a security guard.

“Okay, let’s go.” He says as he jumps on the back of my motorcycle.

“Uh, where to?” I wonder aloud.

“Over there.” He laughs, and then points to a loading dock at the far end of the train station. Slowly, I ride over.

“Stop here.” The travel agent says, and then jumps off. I swallow and watch the travel agent walk over to a table with a large guy sitting behind it. The guy looks like he stepped out of a mafia movie, complete with a cigarette that dangles from his lips and five bodyguards who hang like flies around him. If things go south here, and he does not like you, your motorcycle will never make Saigon.

I get off my motorcycle and walk over, but one of the flies stops me. I am not allowed to approach big boss. The travel agent says something in Vietnamese, and then big boss tips his head about one micron. The fly steps aside, and I move closer. Big boss looks me up and down and then says. “750 K VND. Cash.”

The loading dock goes silent. Everyone is frozen and you can hear a pin drop. Above me, dark thunderclouds swoop in and block the sun out. The promise of death hangs in the air. Someone farts loudly, and big boss gives him a nasty look.

I nod my head yes in my best Gibbs from NCIS impression. I have no idea if I am being ripped off, but am not going to argue over the price. The moment I accept, people start to breathe again, but give glances over their shoulders to see if I have the cash.

One of big boss’ flies hands me a form to fill out while another fly says something to me in Vietnamese and holds out his hand. I give him a blank stare, then shake my head; I am not giving you the cash dude.

“Your passport and 5000 VND. He needs to make a photocopy.” The travel agent quickly says.

Well, now that is Asia. I wonder what other extras are not included in the price. Reluctantly, I hand over my passport and the money, and then complete the form. Two flies jump to action and start to wrap my motorcycle up in cardboard to protect it while a third starts to drain the fuel tank. The more the fly drains, the more he smiles. There goes about four liters of gasoline.

Finally done with the form, I look up, right into big boss’ eyes. He gives me a, your money or your life look. Unintimidated, I hold his stare for a full two millions of a second, and then take the cash out. I hold the money out to him, but he just lowers his eyes to the desk. Following his command, I place the money on the table. Immediately a fly picks it up and counts it. Again, all goes silent. One of the guys wrapping my motorcycle up dares to pull cello tape from a roll. The sound cuts through the air and everyone turn their eyes to him. The guy swallows hard and lowers his head. No one dares to fart this time.

After checking the notes for fakes, and counting it twice, the fly nods to big boss that the money is right. Big boss leans back in his chair and rubs his tummy. I am sure he is imagining the nice meal he is going to have tonight from the profit he just made. Around me, the tension in the air disappears as the loading dock goes back to normal. Above me, the sky clears as the dark thunder clouds disappear like mist in the hot sun.

“How long will it take for the motorcycle to get to Saigon?” I ask the travel agent. He asks big boss directly, and then translates.

“Five days.” I nod my head and then thank big boss for helping me. The travel agent translates and big boss tips his head an inch. Wow a whole inch. I turn around and freeze. In front of me is a line of people with goods they want to get on the train, I just jumped the line. No one says a word, for big boss was paid.

As we make our way back on the travel agent’s motorcycle, I wrestle with a huge question. My motorcycle takes five days to make it down to Saigon, while it takes me two days. What am I going to do with the extra three days?

Back at the travel agency, the owner starts the paperwork for the train tickets. He does not actually sell the tickets, as you have to go to the train station in person. What he does is collects all the information, and then goes to the train station and buys the ticket, for a small fee.

“Do you want first or second class?” He asks as he looks up from the paperwork.

“What is the difference?”

“First class is a sleeper berth with soft or hard bunk where second class is a hard wooden bench.”

“What is the difference in price?”

I watch as fingers run over the keys of a worn-out calculator.

“Soft bunk is $91, $30 more than a bench seat.”

$30 is a lot of money, but 36 hours in an open carriage on a wooden bench where anyone may help themselves to your belongings when you fall asleep, is not worth it.

“I will take a soft bunk.”

“When do you want to leave?”

I ponder the question a bit, and then smile as I notice the ads on the wall behind the travel agent.

“What is your best three, one-day tours you have?”

The guy’s eyes light up and he spins around in his chair so fast he almost snaps his neck. Quickly, he pulls a binder off a cabinet from behind him and places it on the desk for me to go though. Most of the trips range from $28 to $35 each, all included, meaning an additional $100.

I look out the window where a group of men is helping to load a large wooden roll of electrical wire, on the back of a motorcycle. The wooden roll is one of those seen alongside the road when maintenance crew do the power lines and almost as big as the motorcycle. I wonder what the driver will have to go through to get where he needs to be to deliver that roll of wire. The driver reminds me of what it took me to be here, and that I will most likely never come back to Hanoi soon.

“If I take three tours can you give me a better deal?”

“Yes, no problem, depending on the tours. Where do you want to go?”

I look through the pictures and take the ones that jump out at me.

“This one, this one, and this one.” I say as I point at the different tours.

“You will enjoy it. Any order you like to do them in?”

“No, I will leave it up to you. Can you book a train ticket for the evening of the third day and make sure my last tour gets back in time?”

“No problem.”

“I will need to stay a few extra days; can I get the room I am in for the same rate?”

“How much are you paying?”

“$10 a night, I booked online.” I make sure to add that I booked online. I can just go ahead and book online again, and the hotel will get less than $10 a night.

“Okay, but pay me directly.” I nod in agreement.

The guy runs the total up and shows me the amount on his calculator. I hand him my debit card, and he runs it without a problem, and then hands me my receipt.

“I will come by later to pick up the tickets.” I say as I sign the slip and stand up.

“No need for tickets. Everything will be arranged for you.” He smiles, and then starts making phone calls. I leave him be, and head out to find a nice place to eat and write a bit. I am not sure about the no tickets needed thing; however, he did get my motorcycle on a train. On the other hand, is it? I guess I will find out in five days.

As I walk down the street, I smile at myself. I have no idea what I am going to see for the next three days. The pretty pictures sold me. I just hope the pretty pictures I saw, was actually for the places I booked.

 

 

Chapter 22

 

Adrenaline curses through my veins as I jump out of bed at 6 am. I am like a kid waiting to open birthday presents. The tour bus is scheduled to pick me up between 7:30 and 8 am; however, after working for seven years in the tourism industry as a diving instructor, I know things do not always go as planned. My idea is to be downstairs having breakfast by 7 am. Excitedly I turn the tap to run a bath. Frowning, I give the tap a few more turns, nothing. I bite my lip; there goes my nice warm bath. Strangely, the washbasin has both hot and cold water.

Using the washbasin, I quickly shave and then do a washbasin shower. Luckily, in Asia, most of the bathroom floors are tiled and have a floor drain. Many of the washbasins in hotels have no pipes, but let the water drain directly into the shower or floor. In fact, in my room, the bath has a hole in the side covering of the bath. When you drain the bath, the water runs out of the hole in the covering, over the tile floor and then into the floor drain. No need to worry about blocked pipes. I am glad the toilet is not rigged the same way.

By 6:45am, I am ready to dash down to get breakfast when the sound of air rushing through pipes comes from the bathroom. Curious, I go and test the bath taps. Of course, there is water. For a moment, I contemplate having a 10-minute bath, but then my stomach complains at me, and I give in. Breakfast it is.

Annoyed, I stand at the closed breakfast area. They only open at 7:15 am; I could have had a bath. Bored, I mill around the reception aria and drive the receptionist nuts.

“Would you like a seat?” She finally asks. I take it as more of a stop pacing and get your butt in a seat than a question, so I dutifully sit down.

Right on time, the owner arrives and opens the kitchen, and then starts my breakfast. As normal, I get an omelet with tea, and the day’s fruit. It turns out to be, Jip, watermelon slices, with more seeds in than sand on a beach. You know how long it takes to pick those seeds out. I do a record five-minute breakfast, and is done by 7:30. I rush to the reception area but only get half way. Crap, I need a toilet.

My room is five or six flights up. I have not counted. The reception says it is five, but it feels like there is an added floor every time I go up. This must be a Harry Potter building with secret floors. Now I feel like one of the many guests I have taken to the dive boat in the morning. I wonder what the driver must think if he arrives and finds me having gone to the toilet. I remember the countless times I counted every one of my guests, only to find out one is missing. When you ask where the person is, the answer is usually, toilet. At that point, when the other guests hear someone has gone to the toilet, half of them want to go to the toilet as well. Torture.

Luckily, the hotel has a toilet downstairs. Right behind the kitchen, I may add. I hope that no one drops a stink bomb while my food is being prepared tomorrow. I try to rush in, but an elderly lady is busy washing her hands. No offense, but it was like watching a slow motion movie. Somewhat funny, I may add. I imagine that one day I will be standing washing my hands, while someone else is in desperate need of the toilet.

When the lady passes me, I storm in, and slam the door closed and lock it. Half a nano second later someone else desperately tries to open the door. Sucker. However, I have no time to waste, and is out of there in a flash. I rush into the reception area and scan the outside. Finding no annoyed driver, I sit down and wait. This is like being in the army, hurry up and wait. With pickups, you seldom know if you are the first or last person to be picked up. You kind of hope you are first, so you have the pick of the seats available, but you also hope you are last, so you have more time to prepare. I get a bit worried and walk over to the reception area.

“Hi. Do you know what time my pickup is supposed to be here?” I ask a guy who has joined the lady at reception.

The guy gives me a sideways look, and then leaves the reception area. He returns about five minutes later, and takes his position behind the counter without saying a word. Odd. At 7:50 am, my heart leaps in the air when a small minivan pulls up in front of the hotel. I rush over to the driver.

“$:82)/&’wmanah!/$-?-(-)/$/&/$3$-92’anajakw.” He says something in Vietnamese. I have no ticket and no idea what he is saying. Two other tourists come up and hand their tickets to him. He nods his head to them, and they get into the minivan. Without a word to me, he turns around, gets in the minivan, and then drives off. Moments later, a second minivan arrives. I try to talk to the driver, but he does not understand English either.

“No no, bus come, bus come 8:15.” Someone says behind me. I turn around and stare at the reception guy I asked earlier if he knew when my bus is due. Nice of him to keep the information to himself. I can hear the bath calling me, like chocolate cookies and jerky calling you. Reluctantly, I buy two bottles of green tea from a street vendor, and then take a seat in the lobby.

This reminds me of when I first started working as a diving instructor. I had to pick up two groups at two different hotels. One group had four people and the other three. I picked the group of four up first, but got lost on my way to the second hotel. I did find it but was about five or so minutes late. When I pulled into the parking area, my three guests were waiting for me. I got out, called their last name, and the dad said yes. I opened the side door of the minivan that had a large logo of our company on the door, and the mom, dad, and son got in. About 2 km down the road, we discovered they were supposed to be on our opposition’s dive boat, oops. When I got back to the hotel, my real guests were patiently waiting for me next to the minivan of the other company. Hey, the numbers matched.

Seven more taxies and minivans pull up and I check out each one. None is not mine. Then a taxi comes to a screeching halt, and the driver jumps out and says.

“Come come, hurry late.” He waves to me and a lady in the reception area. I let her climb in and is about to climb in when she asks.

“Are you going to the airport as well?”

“No.” I reply shocked.

“Well, this taxi is going to the airport.” She smiles. I laugh and wish her well on her travels. By 8:20 am, a guy strolls into the hotel, walks past me to the reception area and then talks in Vietnamese to the clerk. After a few words, he comes over to me and asks.

“Are you going to Ha Long bay?”

“I don’t know. The tour company booked it all for me.” I reply, feeling like such an idiot. It is exciting not knowing where you are going on tour, but it does cause problems. The hotel clerk quickly runs next door to ask his dad what he booked for me today.

“Yes, your bus, go go.” The lad says as he returns. Finally, I am on my way.

Ha Long Bay, or the Bay of descending dragons, is considered the eight natural wonder of the world. It is 1600 square kilometers of coastline with 2000 karst islands in various shapes. Karst landscapes are formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks, mainly limestone, dolomite, and gypsum From the air, it looks like the body of a dragon, hence the name, descending dragon. Ha Long Bay is not just famous for the rock formations. Close by at the Dang River, the Battle of Bạch Dang River was fought in 938 where the Vietnamese forces, led by Ngo Quyen, defeated the invading forces of the Southern Han state of China and put an end to centuries of Chinese imperial domination in Vietnam. The tactic would be repeated by Tran Hung Dạo in a battle at the same river against the Mongols in 1288.

Up to 938, Vietnam had no king, and was ruled by China. Vietnam had no regular army, and all the farmers and villagers came together to fight. General Ngo Quyen led the army, and devised a brilliant plan. He waited until it was low tide, and then planted hundreds of stakes in the ground in the bay area. When the water level rose, the stakes were just below the water line.

He then attacked the Chinese fleet with small vessels, luring them to the trap, where he held them there with fierce fighting, until the tide went down. At low tide, the spikes punctured and sank the Chinese ships, and the Vietnamese won their independence.

We have around a four-hour bus ride to the docks where we will get a private boat to tour the bay while having lunch.

“Wow there is a lot of traffic here.” One of the guests says as Fung, our bus driver expertly zips through Hanoi’s morning traffic.

“Driving in Hanoi is very difficult.” Hai, our tour guide replies. His name means Ocean. Hai looks over the people in the bus, and then continues. “If you do not believe me, rent a scooter and ride around Hanoi a bit.”

Nervous laughter comes from some of the guests. I bite my lip. I am surrounded by people that flew into Hanoi, took a taxi from the airport to their hotel, and go almost nowhere without guides. Suddenly, I feel like a roughneck having done around 2500 km on a motorcycle to get here. Hai starts to call each person’s name out from a list he has, and then asks them where they are from and who they are. Is this how it feels on support group meetings?

“Anton Swanepoel.” I jump in my seat when Hai calls my name. Amazingly, he pronounces it correctly, scoring big in my books.

“That’s me.” I reply.

“You are from South Africa?” Hai asks, confirming his list.

“Yes, but I currently live in Cambodia.”

“Did you fly over from Cambodia to here?” One of the guests asks.

“Well, no. I took a bus from Siem Reap to Saigon, bought a motorcycle there, and did a two week, over 2500 km ride from Saigon to here.” I reply. Silence fills the bus. Everyone looks around unsurely waiting for me to say I am just joking.

“You really rode all the way from Saigon to Hanoi on a motorcycle?” Another guest asks.

“Actually a scooter, but yes. I got some nice photos on my iPad of the mountain rides if you want to see.” I reply.

“That’s amazing.” A lady says, but her face reads, are you crazy. Certifiably so mam. Then Hai had to ask.

“What do you do for a living then?” As much as I want to say I am a travelling author, my books’ sales do not fully support me, so I am more like a backpacker who writes books. I want to be funny and say I go around abducting fairies and sell them back to wonderland while smoking dope, but I am afraid they might just believe me.

“I am a travel writer.” I reply.

I get the, oh wow, from a few people, but it is more like, yeah bullshit. I just smile and ignore them. Why is it that people mostly think that you can only be a writer if you have millions in the bank? Not every actor is on the A list, so why should authors be any different? I keep to myself for most of the trip and write a bit on my iPad.

Halfway through our bus ride, we stop for a 30 minute break at a tourist trap. Where else? I get a roll with beef and onion on, and then stare at the goods for sale while I walk and eat. All the tables are already occupied by munching tourist. The shop has everything a tourist’s heart can desire. From books, CDs, key chains, hats and T-shirts, to statues and handmade furniture, all begging you to open your wallet. Too soon, our rest stop is over, and we are back on the road.

It is funny how things can change so drastically in minutes. For almost five months, I have been without time. I get up and go to bed when I want. I work when I want, be it 2 am in the morning. Being delayed by a day was not a big deal for me. Now, for the next five days (three days touring and then two days on the train), I am on a fixed schedule. Suddenly, a bus being 20 minutes late stresses me.

I open my financial application and enter the cost of the food I bought at the rest stop. I use Visual Budget to track my expenses and income from my books. It allows me to forecast to some degree how my savings are holding up. I have my initial savings and a small amount of money from my books each month. In the beginning of 2016, my small pension from working as a dive instructor will pay out. That is almost two years away. Somehow, I need to manage until then with the money I have.

Running the figures through the program while calculating how much it probably will cost me to get back to Siem Reap, my shoulders drop. I will need to make some cutbacks after this trip. That sounds easy, but when you are living on around $350 a month, there is not much to cut back on.

The stunning countryside passing by attracts my attention, and I stare out the window. My mind starts to drift. I shake my head slowly. I have to find a way to make this work, to realize my dream of being a full time travel writer. I smile, now there are two words that on their own are addictive, travel, and writing. Each, when they get inside your blood, changes you, and you cannot just go back to ‘normal’. With both now in my blood, I am hooked. I will not be happy, unless I am moving and seeing new places on a constant basis.

A warning to all would-be backpackers and world travelers, once you start backpacking and touring the world, it is hard to stop. When the urge to travel is fully awoken, it is as if a fire is burning in you that can never be put out. I take a deep breath, and a calm comes over me. I am who I am, and I am what I am. I am not a doctor or lawyer or bank manager, and that is okay. I am also no longer, what I was, an IT specialist and Technical Diving Instructor.

Although I still have the skills and qualifications, I am moving on to a new chapter of my life. Some think I am crazy to leave behind what they dream to become, but I have been there; it is time to move forward. I know where I want to be, I just have to figure out how to get there.

As I daydream, we pull up at the drop-off area for catching a boat to Ha Long Bay. Energetically, Hai ushers us off the bus and into the departure’s building, before heading off to buy tickets for us. Outside, large double decker wooden boats are moored up in line, eagerly waiting for tourists to rent them. The boats have a large cabin with bench seats and tables to dine at, with an open seating area on the top deck.

Hai returns with our tickets, and after handing them out, he leads us to our boat that is a short distance from the entrance.

“Take a seat inside, lunch will be served shortly.” Hai comments before going up to the top deck to inform the captain that we can cast off. I join a friendly Chinese family at their table and take a window seat. Through the windows, in the distance, the islands call to us. I feel like an explorer, setting off to unknown adventure. A shudder ripples through the wooden hull as the large diesel engine starts up. The noise attracts the attention of nearby sellers, which are waiting in their traditional wooden canoes. Frantically they row over to the sides of our boat and start pushing fruits and other stuff through the windows for us to inspect and buy. I briefly contemplate buying some fruit, but decide not too as lunch is included with the trip and judging from the seaworthiness of our boat, should be good.

I lean against the hull and stare at the islands in the distance, as we slowly start moving. Around me, the crew are getting the tables ready for lunch with cutlery expertly arranged. A strange smell pulls my attention from the beauty outside to the food platters on the table. My eyes widen. As is tradition in Asia, food is served on platters, and everyone helps himself or herself to what they want. My stomach starts turning and making strange noises. Snails, squid, some weird-looking fish I do not know and other stuff I do not want to know, mock me from the food platters. The Chines family around me is ecstatic about the food and eat to their heart’s content.

“Are you not eating?” A guy next to me asks as he slurps a squid tentacle up like spaghetti. The tentacle swings around, and the end catches him on the cheek and gets stuck. Unfazed, he sucks harder and slurps the tentacle up. My stomach gets a heart attack. The family has a feast. Everything stops when a server places a platter on the table. The Chinese family look from one member to the other, then to me. A few meager chicken pieces fill the platter. With my knife and fork in hand, I stare down the family; they back off and let me have the chicken pieces.

A large bowl of rice soon follows the chicken pieces, and I almost hug the server. The head of the family gives me a sideways look, chuckles as I pile heaps of rice on my plate, and then continues to feast on the seafood. None of the family take any rice or chicken pieces. I am not sure if it is because they have better delicacies like snails and squid than boring chicken, or if they feel sorry for me and decided to let me have the chicken and rice. Either way, I am grateful. 30 minutes later, we excitedly make our way to the top deck as the first of the islands come into view. Cameras flash and mouths hang open, while oohh and aaah float through the air. We take turns posing for a picture with the majestic islands in the background. In awe, we watch as we pass one of a few floating villages.

“This village has over 400 people living permanently on the water. The villagers have been in the bay for over 150 years.” Hai Comments.

“What do they eat? I see no shops around.” A lady asks. I take a deep breath and bite my lip.

“There is a large variety of fish in the water. All the villagers used to be fisherman and made a living from selling fish to people at the docks.” Hai smiles.

“Used to be?” Another tourist asks.

“With the tourist boom to the bay that started in the late 1950s, many villagers changed their living to cater to the more financial rewarding tourist business and now act as guides.” Hai comments.

 

 

“Hai. The captain is heading straight for that floating dock.” I comment with a hint of nervousness in my voice.

“Yes, we are going to dock there.” Hai smiles.

“Well, the captain is going in a bit too hot.”

“It is Vietnam. It is hot here.” Hai laughs.

“I mean the captain is coming in too fast to moor up next to the dock.” I contest, not finding Hai funny.

“Relax, he has done it before.” Hai smiles and leaves to make his way to the lower deck. In shock, I stare are we barrel down at the dock. At the last moment, the captain throws the boat in full reverse, but it is not enough. The bow of the boat climbs up onto the floating dock and pushes part of it underwater. I shake my head as Hai jumps off and helps two dock hands push the boat back enough to lift the dock out of the water, and then secures the mooring lines, while part of the bow still rests on the dock.

“See, no problem.” Hai says with a smile, as I jump off the bow and onto the dock.

“Those of you that pre-rented a canoe, they are over there. Two to a canoe, and please take a life vest.” Hai says as we assemble on the dock. Pointing to a number of small wooden skiffs, Hai continues. “The rest of you can either stay on the tour boat, or you can hire a local villager to take four of you around some of the karst formations.”

“How much and for how long?” I ask.

“130K VND a person, around half an hour trip.” Hai replies.

I bite my lip. This is a massive rippoff. The guy gets 520 K VND for rowing four people for 30 minutes. In Phnong Nha, a 16 seater diesel boat costs 240 K VND for a four-hour trip. I take a deep breath and relax. Nothing I can do about it, and since I am here, why not? I grab a life vest from the pile in the middle of the dock and then make my way to an empty skiff, where I take a seat on the front bench. If I am going to pay this much for a trip, I might as well have the best view.

A stale aroma drifts lazily in the air and tingles my nose. Snapping my head around, I glare at the skipper of the skiff.

“Can you please put the cigarette out?” I ask the skipper. He gives me an annoyed look, but decides a big tip is worth more than his enjoyment of smoking and puts the cigarette out. A smile graces my lips. Nah dude, for the price of the boat ride, you are not getting a tip from me.

Slowly, we make our way past karst formations that tower over us. It feels like being in one of the Lord of the Ring movies. Water has channeled through the side of one of the formations, creating a narrow passage to the hollowed out center. Expertly our skipper glides the skiff through the passage and into a majestic dream world. All around us, the walls of the limestone formation are covered in vegetation. Birds give us a welcome at full chirp, while the majestic beauty of the places takes our breath away.

 

After a few minutes of sitting in silence with our jaws hanging, the skipper glides the skiff through the passage again and then takes us back to the floating dock. On the way, a small powered boat attracts my attention as it passes us. As the boat passes trash floating in the water, a woman on the bow scoops it up with a net and then throws it in a trash can situated on the boat. Nice of the authorities to care about keeping the place clean. After our short tour around the formations, we are ushered back onto our tour boat.

“Okay, everyone, we are now going to see a cave.” Hai says as the captain reverses our boat off the floating dock. The dock bounces as the weight of our boat is taken off it, almost causing a few guests from another tour group to fall into the water.

“Cave?” I comment, and draw blank stares from the other members. Maybe I should have read the brochure in more detail.

“Yes. There are a number of caves in the area to see. Don Thien Cung Cave, that means Haven Grotto, and Dau Go Cave that means Hidden Wooden stake cave, are the more popular ones.” Hai replies, having had dumb tourists like me before.

“What cave are we going to?” Someone beats me to it.

“Don Thien Cung Cave.” Hai smiles. I take it that the cave is a favorite of his. We admire the surrounding area from the top deck as we make our way to a large concrete pier. This time the captain moors up alongside one of the bays at the pier. From the pier, a bridge takes us to a second pier where the boat will pick us up later, as well as the bottom of the stairs that leads to the cave entrance. Unlike the caves in Phnong Nha, this cave has colored lights to enhance the cave’s natural appeal to tourists. The cave is not as big as Paradise Cave in Phnong Nha, but can hold its own with its beauty.

 

 

Hai does an excellent job of pointing out figures in the cave formations, and keeps us thoroughly entertained. Just before we are to ascent stairs to get to the exit, Hai stops at a large round stalagmite Formation that resembles a well-endowed woman’s breast, complete with a nipple on top.

“That is the fertility rock. See how it resembles a woman’s breast.” Hai says as he points to the rock. After waiting for us to give him our undivided attention, he continues. “Couples wishing to have kids come from all over Vietnam and further to rub the rock.” I just smile, personally, I would rather rub the real thing. I think your chances are better of having kids that way. I smile as I watch a couple from another group go over to the rock, and then rub the rock together. On my way out, I make sure I do not touch the rock, you never know. Rock steps take us to the exit, from where we have an excellent view over the bay.

 

 

Sadly, the day is done, and we head back to our tour boat to take the trip back to the dock where our transport awaits us to take us back to Hanoi.

“Do you know that these islands are so important to Vietnamese, that they feature on some of our money?” Hai asks on the crossing back. None of us had any idea how important and sacred the place we just visited is to Vietnamese. Hai proudly holds up some local currency and shows us a rock formation on a note, then points into the distance as he comments. “Those formations there are the ones featured on this note. They are the most sacred ones around here.”

Back at the dock, we make a line behind Hai as he heads towards where our bus was is parked. Suddenly, the line stops dead as Hai comes to a stand in the middle of the parking area. His faces turns white as he fumbles in his pocket for his phone.

“Where is the bus?” One tourist asks.

“No worries. I call.” Hai says and quickly makes a call. With each unanswered ring, he goes a bit paler. Personally, I am not worried; I have been through missing tour busses and taxies a few times.

“No worries. I ask.” Hai says as he puts his phone away, and then heads to some of the other bus drivers. It is like an FBI investigation as he walks from group to group and describes to them what our driver and bus looks like. Energetically Hai rushes over to us and blurts out, “Follow me.” We follow him as he hastily makes his way to a restaurant across the road from us.

At the restaurant, the driver casually looks up from where he comfortably sits and listens to music. He is not at all surprised to see us there.

“I phoned you.” Hai says, trying not to sound annoyed.

“I left my phone in the bus.”

“Why?” Hai gasps.

“I do not need it. I was not going to call anyone.” The driver counters. A valid reason I would say. Hai just bites his lip and then indicates for us to get on the bus. The light fades as we make the four-hour drive back to Hanoi. Darkness announces the closing of another day in an amazing chapter of my life. I feel in a way privileged to be able to have experienced what I have today, and the past weeks. Even though I know it has cost me a lot to be here, it was worth it.

Back at the hotel, I am too tired to find a cheap restaurant and just get some street food on the go (rice and veggie fry). Tomorrow will be another adventure. This time, I have a 50/50 chance of knowing where I am going. I would say the odds are in my favor.

 

 

Chapter 23

 

At 6:45am, I lazily get up, and then test the bath water. My heart jumps up and down when warm water fills the bath. After a short soak in the bath, I head downstairs for breakfast, and to catch up with my writing. Words flow as my fingers dance across the keyboard. For mobility, I use an Anker Bluetooth keyboard and an Apple iPad Mini. Caught in the moment, it is 8:20am when I realize no one has come to pick me up. My heart stops and I rush over to the reception desk.

“Did I miss my bus?” I franticly ask the same kid who operated the reception desk yesterday.

He lazily looks up, stares at me for a moment, and then replies. “No.”

With a racing heart, I take a seat in the reception area. For five minutes, I play with my thumbs while I look from the door to the reception desk. A scooter stopping in front of the entrance attracts my attention, and I watch the rider casually strolling into the hotel and starting a conversation with the kid at the reception desk. As he is not a bus driver, and the conversation is in Vietnamese, I turn my attention back to the entrance.

“Your ride.” I jump as the kid speaks next to me.

“Where?” I blurt out and try to see a bus outside.

“The bus is too big to come down this road. He will take you to the bus.” The kid smiles as he points to the scooter rider. I watch as the scooter rider walks out, fits his helmet and jumps on his scooter. He smiles at me as he pats the back of the seat behind him. Failing to see a spare helmet for me, I turn to the kid and ask. “Is it far, should I get my helmet?”

“No, no, no need, no charge.” He replies and then walks back to the reception desk. Looking back at the scooter, the guy smiles at me again and pats the seat behind him. I am his bitch for this ride.

Reluctantly, I hop on the back of the motorcycle. The guy has one of those girly helmets on, that has a hole cut into the helmet at the back for a pony tail. It takes all the strength I have, not to tickle his head through the hole. The guy does his best to scare me as he zips through traffic, however, there is a difference between zipping through traffic at 30 km/h and zipping between two trucks at over 300 km/h. At one point in my life, I did some really stupid stuff. If there are guardian angels, then they possibly, all retired the day I sold my superbike. About six minutes later, we stop at a large, shiny new black-and-white tour bus. Next to the tour bus is a camera crew busy taking pictures of the bus and two Vietnamese girls acting as eye candy. Once the photo session is done, we take our seats on the bus, where I meet a family that was with me on the tour yesterday to Ha Long Bay. The bus turns out to be a luxury sleeper bus, and the owners are doing a photo op on this tour to promote their new line of tour buses. Being a new sleeper bus, I have to do my part for the owners and test out the reclining seats. Closing my eyes for a second, the sneaky driver hits the time warp button, for when I open my eyes again, we are at our half way rest stop.

Something in Asia that is markedly different from my home country, South Africa, is that gas stations do not have public toilets. Vietnam realized that foreigners taking tours do not like standing alongside the road behind a bush. Thus, they decided to capitalize on the need. They built a number of rest stops that include restaurants and souvenir shops for tourists. In many of the shops, the items sold are handmade, and most of the time by disabled people. The Vietnam government decided to use this as an opportunity to give disabled people work.

The restrooms are at the back of the building, and just as I round the corner, I stop dead and my body goes into fighting mode. The men’s restroom has a half sway door like those they have in old western movies. Rusty springs complain as I push the door open. The spurs on my boots jingle as they spin when I enter. Everyone inside stops and a deadly silence descends over the restroom. I adjust my gun, and walk past the danger while scanning the hostile area with Clint Eastwood eyes. Scared men look away from my intense stare, while they choke on fear. The flies fall off the wall…actually no one gives a damn about me, and someone just farted, killing 10 flies and causing everyone to hold their breath. I go and find a urinal in the corner.

After the Texas restroom session, I go and search for some food. The restaurant is packed, so I take a seat with a group from another tour company. A server rushes over, takes my order and then disappears in the sea of people.

“The tour says all included, I am not paying the bill.” A tourist shouts out, a table from me, pulling my attention to the commotion. A guide and a server are standing next to a table with a red-faced tourist.

“Sir. We provide lunch, that is included. What you buy on the road additionally you have to pay.” The tour guide politely says. I just shake my head, dumb guy. Who would think all included means you can take whatever you want from a roadside shop, and the tour company would pay for it?

“It is over $50.” The guy snaps. I almost fall from my chair. He paid like $20 or so for a tour, and then expects them to pay a $50 meal for him and his companion. Never mind not being the sharpest tool in the shed, he missed the shed.

“I am sorry sir, but you should have checked the price before you ordered.” The guide says and then walks away.

“I told you not to take that expensive wine and snacks.” The guy’s companion snarls. I silently chuckle, what an idiot. I mean, you may in some remote possibility mistake that you can order a meal in the restaurant, and that it is included. But to go and get an expensive bottle of wine and snack from the shop next door and expect it to be included, that is taking it a bit too far. From his size, he is probably one of those people that is banned from all you can eat buffets.

I turn my attention to my table when a server places my meal on the table, a sandwich and water, for $1.5. A few minutes later, our guide calls us back to our sleeping beds on the bus. Again, the sneaky driver hits the time warp button just as I close my eyes.

“Wow. That is stunning.” A voice rips me from my sleep. Opening one eye, I scan the surroundings. We have arrived in Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam during the 10th and 11th centuries. Hoa Lu formed the land for the first imperial dynasties. Our destination for today, should we accept, is where Dinh Bo Linh (Dinh Tien Hoang or the First Dinh Emperor), and Le Dai Hanh, the first and second king of Vietnam, is buried.

Each king has his own small temple, with the queen being in the second temple, facing the first king. She was married to Dinh Bo Linh when his son poisoned him. She married Le Dai Hanh and transferred power over to him. The two temples are about a 10-minute walk from each other, in a valley, that is surrounded by rice fields and mountains. With no artificial light, the insides of the temples are too dark to get proper pictures, and access to the shrines is forbidden, that is in near darkness. This is a bit of a letdown for me, but the beauty of the surroundings makes up for it. After viewing both temples, we head to a nearby restaurant for lunch.

“Do you know that dog meat is a delicacy in Vietnam?” Our guide asks on the ride to the restaurant.

“That is disgusting.” A woman responds.

“Why?” I ask, shocking the woman.

“They they they are pets.” She blurts out.

“I have friends who have chickens, cows and pigs as pets. Do you eat chicken, beef or pork?” I ask with a smile. The lady bites her lip and gives me an angry look.

“What is right and what is wrong depends a lot on how you were raised.” I comment.

“That’s right. In addition, the locals believe that dog meat makes them strong. However, do you know how it came to be that Vietnamese started eating dogs?” Our guide says. Everyone shakes his or her head.

“Centuries ago, when there was still war between the clans, a general wanted to invade a town. He was afraid that the dogs would give away the troops moving through the town, so they killed the dogs. Not wanting to waste the meat, they ate the dogs they killed.”

“That is even more disgusting.” The woman from earlier cuts in.

“Well, at our stop. You will have goat, beef and pork meat. Rest assured, there is no dog meat there.” Our guide continues. I just smile and wonder if it really is goat meat. I know some shady hunting resorts in Africa that take zebra meat and then spice it differently and tell tourists it is all kinds of exotic meat, just to charge them a fortune for a meal.

At the restaurant, we are treated to a buffet meal. I am sure Mr. all included, from earlier, will stuff himself until he is sick just to get his money’s worth. During lunch, I make friends with the camera crew that are documenting the trip.

“How did you guys end up getting the gig for taking pictures?” I ask the couple.

“We take photographs as we tour Asia, and were given a free tour in exchange for taking pictures of the trip.” The guy answers. I frown at his answer. Man, I can do that with my iPod. Glancing at his expensive gear, I bite my lip. Maybe not.

“Okay, everyone had lunch?” Our guide asks. As we nod and stand up, he makes for the exit of the restaurant. I take a deep breath and shrug my shoulders. This was a short trip.

Outside the restaurant, I frown as our guide walks past our bus to the start of a canal where a few skiffs are moored up.

“Right. We are going to head down to the river, and go for a short boat ride.” Our guide comments as we form a group by the water’s edge. I really should read the tour descriptions in more detail. As the boats are a bit small, they can only hold three people, two guests and a rower.

My jaw drops as I climb in the boat. The lady rowing the boat, uses her feet to row and steer the boat. Glancing around, I am amazed that all the rowers use the method. Check out a short video here. The river winds through limestone formations with lush green vegetation racing to the tops while water lilies deck the water. A few times, we pas under a low pedestrian bridge, and you have to duck, or you are knocked out.

 

 

“$1, only $1.” Shouting next to me draws my attention and I burst out laughing. A guy is rowing his skiff with his feet while taking pictures with a modern digital SLR camera.

“$1, only $1.” He shouts again as he takes another picture of me. Quickly, I snap a picture of him with my iPad and shout back. “$5, only $5.” He cracks up laughing, and then moves on to the next boat. About 30 minutes later, I sigh as a large mountain blocks our path a distance ahead. I frown as a boat way up ahead suddenly disappears. Cold sweat runs down my back, and I swallow hard as a second boat ahead disappears into thin air. Unfazed, our skipper dutifully rows us to the Vietnam Triangle where people and boats disappear. As we near the mountain, my heart slows down a bit. With the mountainside in the shade, the dark tunnel right through the mountain only reveals itself when we are right on top of it. The roof of the tunnel is so low; we have to duck down at places. With the tunnel being so long, we are thrown in pitch black darkness and all you can see is the light at the end of the tunnel.

Just as we exit the tunnel, another mountain beckons to us to go through its belly. In this passage, a number of sellers are floating around in their boats right at the entrance. They let us pass unhindered, and immediately I realize that the trap has been set. Just after passing through the second tunnel, the river ends in a large pool. As our boat turns around, the trap is spring. The sellers block the exit of the tunnel. The moment our boat nears the blockade, our skipper leans back in her chair and stops.

In the darkness of the passage, sellers push and pull on your while trying to sell you from fruits to the empire state building. With the passage being narrow and the roof low, the voices echo and bombard your brain. I am sure many tourists will by anything at any price just to get out of this setup.

“Go.” I say sternly to our skipper. She glances around unsurely at the sellers who tell her with their eyes not to go.

“Go now.” Me and the guy next to me say together. Reluctantly, our skipper rows us out of the blockade by pushing the other boats out of the way. I take a few deep breaths, and then enjoy the ride back to the dock.

As we near the dock, I get my stuff together to get off, but our skipper has other plans. She neatly stops the boat about three strides from the dock.

“Tip.” She says and holds out her hand. I look at her hand, and then at the gap. I wonder if I can jump that far from an unstable skiff.

“Tip.” She says again. My boat mate shakes his head, and the lady folds her arms and sits back in her chair. Clearly, we are not going anywhere unless we throw her off the boat and row ourselves, or give her a tip. I decide not to throw her off the boat, partially because I cannot row with my feet.

“Okay.” I give in and start to fiddle with my wallet. The woman’s face turns to a sneaky smile, and slowly she rows us the last bit to the dock. The moment we touch dry land, my boat mate takes off, leaving me alone to pay up. With the sudden unbalanced load, the boat tips dangerously and me and the lady have to hold on not to fall overboard.

As I watch the guy bolt, I hear a snicker, followed by, tip, behind me. I bite my lip. I only have a 50K VND note and a $1 note with me that I intended to buy dinner with. Reluctantly, I hand over the 50 K note that is worth around $2. My jaw drops when the lady looks at the money, holds her hand out again, and go. “Tip,” while pointing to the $1 note in my hand. At this point, I am ready to tell her where she can stuff her tip, but just turn around and walk away. A string of Vietnamese follows me as I walk away. I am so glad I do not understand what she is saying.

Unfortunately, many Asians think that tourists are loaded with cash. Moreover, those tourists who have it and throw it around as if it is water while bragging how cheap Asia is, do not help to improve the view Asians have of people from other nations.

“Buy photo buy photo.” A voice says next to me as I walk back to the restaurant. Turning around, the guy whom I took a picture off when he tried to sell me a photo on the river smiles at me. He has two pictures of me, already printed and laminated.

“Only 20K.” The guy goes, basically one dollar. Our guide told us earlier that the actual rate for a picture is 10 K. I hate being pressured like this, but I know this is the only picture of me in the boat on the river. Maybe years henceforth I will regret not getting it.

“$1 for both.” I reply. The guy thinks for a moment, looks around to see if someone else heard the offer, and then accepts. I hand him the $1 note, take my photos, and head for the restaurant. Just as I sit down in a chair with the restaurant’s air conditioner cooling me off, our guide enters.

“Those that want to go for an hour bicycle ride though the rice fields, please follow me.” I few people take him up on the offer and head out. I tilt my head, look outside at the scorching sun, and then laugh to myself. No way, you’re getting me on a bicycle in this heat. I rest my eyes until the bicycle group returns, all a bit redder, and then follow our guide to the bus. The reclining seat wins again, and soon I am in dreamland.

I jerk and almost slam my face into the side window as I wake up when the bus comes to a dead stop in Hanoi. Having had a nice rest, I energetically get off the bus and into one of a few minivans that will take us to our hotels. Minutes later, I am dropped off at my hotel, with new stories to tell, but hungry.

Having spent my allowance for the day on the tip and photos, I reluctantly dig into the next day’s allowance for dinner. A small pizzeria tucked away in an alley draws my attention with their cheap prices. My mind drifts of to, tomorrow, my longest day. The tour itself is the longest of all, and I will only get back after dark. Then, I have to wait for my train that leaves around 11pm. The train ride itself is 32 hours. I am glad I paid the extra $30 for a soft bed. With the moon high in the sky, and my tummy full, I head back to my hotel, take a quick bath, and then crawl into bed.

 

 

Chapter 24

 

Mixed emotions assault my heart as I get up. Today is my last day in Hanoi. Tonight, I will go back to my home, in Cambodia. I have had a wonderful trip, full of adventure and discovery, and do not want it to end. However, the next adventure awaits me. In the back of my mind, I am going over my options of what to do with my motorcycle one I get to Saigon. Getting the motorcycle across the border is like playing Russian and Rolette, with all the chambers full. You are either going to pay some tea money, or not going to get the motorcycle across. However, as to which border I can pay ‘tea money’ to get the motorcycle across, I do not know yet.

With no use worrying about something to come days away, I turn my thoughts to today’s tour. Today I am going to visit the famed Perfumed Pagoda. This tour is the one I looked forward to the most. Huong Pagoda (Perfume Pagoda) is not one temple, but a vast complex of Buddhist temples and shrines. The structures are scattered all over the Karst Huong Tich Mountains. Each year, thousands of pilgrims make their way to these temples, and they are seen as the Vietnamese Mecca. The most important of the temples, is the Perfume Temple, also known as Chua Trong (Inner Temple), and is located in Huong Tich Cave. The temple is rumored to be from the 15th century.

I cringe when there is again no hot bath water. I think someone is nursing a hangover and forgot to run the pumps. There have been parties all over Hanoi for a few days, with today being the big day, Ho Chi Min’s birthday. After a quick washbasin shower, I head downstairs for breakfast, then make myself comfortable in the reception area and wait for my bus. Time drags by as I watch tour bus after tour bus come and go. Eventually, I am the only tourist left in the lounge. For a moment, I almost feel lonely, but then decide it must be because I am special that I am last. At 8:40 am, a new 16-seat minivan pulls up.

“That is your bus.” The guy at reception says as the driver opens the side door of the minivan.

“Thank you.” I shout over my shoulder as I bolt for my ride, and find six other tourists in the minivan.

“Good morning all. Welcome to the Ancient City Tour.” The guide says. My heart stops dead. I am supposed to go to the Perfumed Pagoda. Am I on the wrong bus or is there a screw up on my booking? Dread hugs me. I am going to miss going to the Perfumed Pagoda as my train ticket is for tonight. People excitedly comment on how they are looking forward to seeing the Ancient City.

“Excuse me, my tour booking is supposed to be for the Perfumed Pagoda.” Silence fills the bus. Shocked expressions fill faces as they glance at me. No one wants to look directly at me. The tour guide’s jaw drops and his face goes white. He grabs his clipboard and runs through the names on it.

“You Anton Swanepoel?” He finally asks.

“Yes.”

Frantically he flips through a stack of papers and receipts. Finally, he pulls one from the stack, and then looks perplexed at the paper.

“Oh. Sorry. You not on this tour.” He says in broken English. I feel like commenting back, ‘no shit Sherlock’.

“You take other bus.” He continues. Mmm, you really think I should be on another bus dude? The guy reads some more notes on the paper then says.

“You only one for Perfume Pagoda. We stop half way, you get other bus you go other tour.” My heart starts to beat again, and everyone on the bus takes a breath. I start talking to some of the other guests and inform them that I did the trip yesterday that they are on. Suddenly, I become more important that the guide. I guess they figure I am more trustworthy as I am not out to make money out of them.

The kms fly by, and soon we pull into the same rest stop as yesterday. Just as I jump off to visit the Texas restroom, the driver calls me.

“No time, your bus ready to go.” He points to a clapped out minivan a short distance away. If you took the rust away, there would be no minivan left.

“One minute, I have to use the restroom.” I shout over my shoulder as I run to the restroom. I burst through the door and send it swinging into another guest, almost catching him where it counts. I get my gun out while apologizing. In a nano second I am done, including washing my hands, and rush to my lift, (men are so proficient when it comes to going to the toilet). With a shock, I stop at my new ride. It is empty, safe for the driver.

“Am I the only one?” I ask.

“No, others come soon.” The driver calmly replies. I ponder if I have the time to go and find a snack. I bite my lip as I look over at the restaurant; the line is almost out the door. Reluctantly, I take a seat in the back of the van and sit carefully down. This van looks like a rusty diving van, good thing I got my tetanus shot. Moments later, a lady jumps in the minivan and drops down in the seat next to me. Her attention is absorbed by her cell phone.

“Hi.” I say politely. The lady looks up, looks me up and down and then goes white.

“Hhhi.” She stutters and then looks around the minivan and at the driver to make sure she is in the right place. I guess no one told them another person would be joining their group. I grab the opportunity.

“Wow, you have been ignoring me the whole time. You have not even seen me here.”

The lady gives a nervous laugh and shifts further away from me. I feel like one of those ninja traffic cops. I just appear out of thin air. She starts to relax when the rest of the group returns one by one. Each gives me a surprised look as they get into the minivan and sees me at the back. I read their minds on their faces. Was he there the whole time?

When the last people are in the minivan, we pull away and head a short distance down the highway before we take a side exit. The road is crap and with the minivan’s suspension being non existent, we have a nice bone-rattling ride. At times, it feels as if my lungs are being ripped out of my chest. I glance over to my side at the well-endowed woman and smile as she struggles to keep things in check and not give herself a black eye. I contemplate offering to help her hold them down, but decide her nerves may not hold.

After an arduous journey, silent prayers of thanks go up as we stop under a corrugated roof structure, large enough for six minivans. Before the drive can get his door open, we are out of the minivan and almost have a race for the four toilets a short distance away. In front of the toilets, is a small counter where a woman sells snacks and sodas. It is hard to imagine that once a year, about 1 million people come here in the space of a week to get a boat to go and pray at the temple.

“Follow me please.” Our guide says and then leads the way to the dock a short distance away. Here, they use aluminum hull skiffs that can hold 10 people.

“She is going to row all of us?” I ask our guide as we approach the dock where and elderly woman is waiting for us in her boat.

“Have to. Originally, we used power boats, but the authorities decided the noise and oil pollution is not good for the environment.” Our guide replies. It makes sense to me. However, I do feel sorry for the old lady having to work this hard.

I clench my jaw as a female tourist from our group opens a water bottle, and then carelessly throws the plastic seal from the cap over her shoulder. She does not care that she is in someone else’s country. In Cambodia, some of the backpackers go so far as to be shamed on Facebook and deported out of the country. Can you say white trash? This is one reason I hate going in tour groups. Next to the woman, her chain-smoking hubby lights up another cigarette, take a few quick pulls on it, and then throws the butt on the ground and walks away. Two steps later, they walk past a trash can. I had earlier talked to the couple during our ride over, and initially liked them, but the more I see how little they care for other people, I ignore them. While we wait for our boat tickets to be sorted out, I get more and more agitated with the two. The chain-smoking guy keeps puffing away, not caring who is near him, while they create a rubbish dump at their feet. Empty water bottles, cigarette stubs, even ice cream sticks, find their way to the ground, while a trash can is only a few steps from them.

By the time we finally climb into our boat, I am ready to drown both. One by one, we take our seats in the boat. As it is a long skiff, we have to sit two on a bench, and not move much. Nervously I watch as the boat sinks deeper into the water, until only about four inches of the side is above the waterline. Carefully I inspect the seals of my iPhone and iPad’s waterproof casings. My jaw drops when our rower stands up in the boat and puts an umbrella up. Now that is balance. Having done this kind of thing before, I politely let everyone else climb in the boat before me, knowing I will get the last seat, on the bow, with the best view.

With everyone seated, we slowly make our way downriver. The scenery is much the same as yesterday, with limestone formations, covered in lush green vegetation lining much of the riverbank. I clench my jaw when the guide has to, for the 100th time, ask people to either stop moving about, or only move one person at a time. However, most of the boat seems to think they are on a disco dance floor, not a small skiff. Each time someone suddenly moves to take a picture, the weight in the boat goes off balance and the rim of the boat dips close to the waterline. Once the rim dips below the waterline, water will rush in with force. If not immediately stopped, that is it, we are going down.

I cringe as the self-absorbed couple again insists on hanging over the side of the boat to get a Pelzer prized pictures, with a happy snappy camera. As if being a foot closer to an object that is 200 feet away is going to make a difference.

“Get a picture of them.” Self-absorbed hubby says to his girlfriend as two women on a boat approaches us. They have a number of snacks and fruit for sale.

“I took a picture.” His girlfriend snaps back.

“Get another one.” The guy says, and before the girlfriend can respond, he continues. “Move over.” Before anyone can react, the guy gets up in the boat and tries to push past his girlfriend while grabbing her camera. The sudden shift in balance causes the boat to lean and the rim of the boat on the opposite side to me touches the water, causing water to rush into the boat. Dread hugs my heart and quickly I lean my body over my side and tip the boat back with such speed that the guy almost falls overboard. Crap, I should have tried harder. .

“Sit down.” Our skipper sternly says, causing the guy to groan as he sits down.

“Why are the graves in the water.” Someone asks behind me as we pass a few graves that are almost submerged.

“The river used to be smaller years ago. Now the graves that were dug along the shore is either in the water or washed away.” Our guide replies.

“Wow, the heat is unbearable.” One of the two Australian women complains for the umpteenth time.

“You sure you are from Australia?” I joke. It really is not that hot. She will die in Siem Reap I chuckle to myself.

“Yes, but I have an air-conditioner back home.” The woman laughs. Her friend pulls out her cell phone and glances at it. I wonder if she forgot her eyeglasses in her hotel, by the way she looks at it.

“There is no Wi-Fi.” The lady complains as she puts her cellphone away. Oh dear. We are in the middle of nowhere on a river surrounded by mountains, of course there will be no Wi-Fi. I close my eyes for a second and pray for her. Something on the left bank attracts my attention as we near the entry gate.

“That is a long dock.” I comment as we pass a dock about 400 meters (1200 feet) long. I image hundreds of small skiffs all tied up along the dock in busy season. With no numbers on the boats, I guess you just pick the first one to go back on your way out. Expertly our skipper moors up, and our guide helps us off the skiff. From the dock, we pass by a few Vietnamese shops, of which only two are open. I watch in amazement as a guy buys a handful of grabs, stored in a large plastic tub filled with water. Due to ego or trying to impress the women, he does not use the plastic scoop next to the tub, but bravely crabs a bunch of crabs with his hand and throws them in a plastic back. I burst our laughing as he shrieks loudly when a large crab gets a hold of one of his fingers with its pinchers. Jumping up and down the guy swings his hand furiously around, sending the crab flying through the air until it drops into the river.

The owner of the store jumps up from her chair and points to the river while shouting in Vietnamese, while the rest of the people around hose themselves at the guy’s misfortune.

“She says he has to pay for the crab that he threw away.” One of onlookers says next to me, having watched me enjoy the spectacle. We look at each other, then to the guy, before bursting out in laughter. Shortly after the crab spectacle, we pass through the entry gate, and then make our way up the side of the mountain by a set of steep cement steps. On both sides of the path up, is a row of shops. Only a few shops here and there are open in the slow season.

“I cannot go further. My legs are killing me.” One of the women says and almost collapses.

“We can rest here for a bit.” Our guide offers and ushers her into a large restaurant and under a roof fan. The guide quickly gets ice water for the woman, and then continues to assure her that everything will be okay. I get myself two bottles of green tea, and then inspect the goods to offer at a shop close by. All tourist memorabilia, nothing that interests me.

“Are you ready to go?” Our guide asks the woman.

“No, I will wait here, you guys go ahead.” She replies. My eyebrows dip. My jaw hangs as the group tells her to rest, and that we will be back shortly. No one cares that she came all this way and is not seeing the temple. Up the path, an ancient gate is just a short distance away from us, with what looks like a Buddha temple behind it, much like the one the two kings are buried in. As no one seems fazed that we are leaving the woman behind, I follow them. I guess she will hold the Ford while we take the Chevy :-). Pictured below, the ancient gate.

 

 

I catch up to the group where they stand beneath the shade of a small structure, while admiring the temple in front of them.

“I thought the Perfumed Pagoda is in a cave.” I say to the guide as the group starts to walk towards the temple. He bursts out laughing, and then slaps me on the shoulder before commenting.

“That is not the Perfumed Pagoda. That is Thien Tru Pagoda, or the outer pagoda. The gate you passed through is called the Gate of Thien Tru Pagoda. This structure we are standing at is Vien Cong Bao Stupa, where Chan Master, Vien Quang, who led the reconstruction of the pagoda, is buried.”

Slowly, a light goes on for me. This is why no one really cares to leave the women behind. She is not missing the main attraction. It might have helped if I was with them in the minivan this morning when he gave the briefing for the day. Laughing at myself, I follow the group up to the pagoda, and then through the garden that has a few small ponds and waterfalls. At one point, I pass a young monk playing on his smartphone. Da times are changing man.

After viewing the pagoda and garden, we follow a small path leading to behind the pagoda, where we find a number of shrines and prayers area. Most are built into niches in the rock face of the mountain. Here and there, large painted statues of animals, such as tigers and monkeys adorn the rock face.

“Hi.” I great a large dragon statue as I come to stand next to it. Disappointed I walk away when it does not great me back in a Sheen Connery voice like the one at the start of my Vietnam trip.

“This is a fertility prayer area.” The guide says behind me, as I come to stand by a shrine that has every nook and cranny filled with little baby dolls and statues.

“Does it really work?” I ask.

“Yes. Do you want children?”

“Not now, and you?” I reply.

“Same.”

“Let’s get out of here.” We both say and hurry back to the grave of Master Vien Quang and meet up with the rest of the group.

“We break for lunch.” Our guide says, and then leads the way back to the restaurant where we left the woman.

“Where are the restrooms?” I and another tourist ask at the same time.

“At the back there.” The guide answers and then leaves to order our food.

Walking through the huge restaurant of about 60 meters long and 40 meters wide, I come to a small pathway leading from the back door. As is normal in many restaurants in Asia, the restrooms are a distance from the restaurant. However, this one has gone a bit further. The around 70-meter path is lined with shops. I guess that in the busy season when thousands of people pass through the shop a day, there must be a massive line going to the restrooms. You can have your nails done, feet massaged, and even buy souvenirs while you wait in line.

On my return from the restrooms, lunch is ready. Rice, some kind of meat that I hope is pork, but could be goat or even dog, smiles at me from two large bowls. I bite my lip as people take bit for bit of food with their chopsticks from the same bowls. However, as chopstick eating is probably new to them, they constantly drop pieces of meat accidentally, just to select a different one.

I am not one for chopstick crossing with strangers, nor swapping spit, so I grab a bowl that you are supposed to put sauce in, and load it with rice and meat. Jaws drop as I eat from my own plate. I think I offended a number of people sitting around the table, but hey, it is dinner and a movie before we swap spit, I have my standards. After our lunch, we rest a bit while some of the other tourists decide they have to go powder their noses.

“There are no seats in the toilets. How are we supposed to use them?” One of the women complains on her return from the restrooms. (These are standard Asian toilets, which are just a hole in the ground and a bucket of water to wash your butt when you are done.)

“Squat down and let it go.” I offer. I draw a snicker from the guide and an angry look from the woman. I think this must be humiliating for her to use a toilet as if she is in the outdoors. Interestingly enough, it is healthier for you to squat down than sitting on a European toilet seat.

“There are two ways to the temple. We can take a two-hour hike up the mountain, or we can use a cable car that is about a 6-minute ride.” Our guide says.

“Is the cable car not included?” One asks.

“No, it is 140 K VND extra.”

“Cable car.” We all say almost at once.

Our guide collects our money and then goes to get our tickets. From the restaurant, we follow a smaller cement path up the mountain to the cable car stations. Along the way, we pass by a number of stalls selling from spices to modern plastic toys. Here and there, we pass kids selling small lizards, birds, and monkeys in nets and cages.

“Why are they selling the lizards?” I ask the guide, knowing you cannot take it back home on an airplane. I wonder whether they will fry it for you once you buy it.

“It is a scam. You have to pay to have them set the animals free. The birds are trained to come back, and they catch the lizards easily later.” He laughs. His answer sets my blood boiling.

“Okay, we wait here.” The guide says as we reach the cable car station that is almost deserted and not running at the moment.

“For what?” Someone asks. I want to chip in, for the operator to come back from lunch, but let it be.

“For more people. In low season, the car only operates when there are enough people at a time. Save electricity.” The guide answers. It makes perfect sense to me. I just hope we have enough people to warrant switching the system on when we come back. Two smaller tours join us, and soon we are heading up to the perfumed pagoda. The small structure seen in the picture below is the hallway point up the mountain. Man I am glad we did not decide to walk up.

 

 

“Okay, follow me.” Our guide says as soon as we are all on the top platform. He leads us up a steep set of cement steps about 200 meters long. Half-way up, he turns around and comments. “In the busy season, it can take more than two hours to pass only this short section, and climbing up the mountain is often faster than waiting for a cable car.”

The steps take us to a small platform, from where we decent into the cave by means of a second set of cement steps.

The cave has a bell outside as well as a large obelisk shaped rock. Inside the cave, almost every space is decorated with shrines and candles. If an object looks like something, it is worshiped for that, the same as the mineral formation in Ha Long Bay that looks like a woman’s breast. Any water that drips down from the ceiling is caught in brass bowls as it is considered sacred. This water is then used in bathing rites or drank, in the believe that it will grant health and wealth and anything the person desires.

 

 

Eventually, our guide calls us together, and we make our way back. At the cable car station, we once again have to wait until there are enough people.

“We are lucky we have enough people to warrant them switching the cable car on.” I laugh.

“Not really.” In low season, they only switch it on four times a day. Once up early in the morning, then down before lunch and up after lunch, and then down in the late afternoon. All the tour companies must schedule their tours to coincide with these times.” The guide replies. I decide to give the guide a heart attack and pose for a picture close to the edge while we wait for more people to join us.

 

 

Eventually, all the tours are at the top platform, and the cars start moving. We jump in any cars we can, and say goodbye to a very interesting and must see place. After the cable car ride, we take a short break at the restaurant we ate lunch, and then go in search of our boat for the river ride back. Dutifully, our boat waits for us by the dock, and soon we are lazily making our way back to our clapped out minivan.

In the minivan on your way back to our hotels, I sing, I am a survivor; in my head as the road rattles my bones. By now, the heat has taken its toll on us (no proper air conditioner in the van), and most off us just aimlessly stare out the windows as the sun sets. It feels as if I had a full round with Rocky Balboa when I am finally dropped off at my hotel. Having arranged for my bags to be stored in the reception area of the hotel, I do not bother going in, but head out for dinner. A small restaurant called Gecko draws my attention, especially since they serve pizza.

Inside, I stare at the menu in disbelieve. A cup of tea is priced at 15K VND where a pot is 20 K VND. Naturally, I order a pot of tea. My mouth waters as a server places my pizza in front of me, and then my jaw drops when she brings me my pot of tea. I have to hold back from bursting out in laughter. The teapot is as big as the ones they use for rice wine, as to the teacup. One sip and the teacup is empty. After refilling my teacup for the fourth time, I feel like I am playing make believe party with kinder gardens.

With good internet in the restaurant, I keep playing make believe drinking tea and to the amazement of the server, go through three teapots before I finally call it a night at 8pm. Back at the hotel, I fetch my bags from the reception.

“Can you order me a taxi to the train station please?” I ask the reception.

“A car taxi or a scooter taxi?”

“What is the difference in price?”

“About $1.”

“Car taxi.” I laugh, then go and make myself comfortable in a chair while I wait for my taxi. About 10 minutes later, my taxi arrives, and sadly, I climb in. Traffic is light, and within minutes, I am dropped off at a large, old building. The owner of the hotel gave me my train ticket this morning. Having no idea where to go, I study my ticket as I pull the taxi fare out of my pocket.

“Where is…” I ask as I hand the money over but stop when the taxi pulls away as soon as he gets his money. Perplexed I stare at the building in front of me. There are no signboards anywhere. I decide to head for the first door and ask around.

“Ticket please.” I jerk as someone talks next to me, just as I am about to pick up my bags. On reflex, I hand my ticket over. As I do so, my brain tries to stop my hand and screams, no; he is going to run away with your ticket. To my horror, he grabs my main backpack and runs for the building. My muscles explode, and I rip through the cool night air. My heart is set on giving the guy a taste of a proper South African rugby tackle. As I duck down just behind him to take him by the hips and throw him in the air, he glances back and shouts. “Come come we late.”

I partially manage to abandon the tackle but still shoulder him in the back. Shocked, he stares at me and comes to a stop.

“Sorry, I tripped.” I offer. He gives me an up and down look as I shrug my shoulders. Shaking his head, he dashes off again while shouting, “come come.” He has no idea how close he came to tasting dirt. I laugh to myself as I give chase. I follow him into the building and pass a row of people that are waiting to use a restroom that smells so bad I get sick as we push past it. With my stomach making summersaults, I decide that I will not visit the restroom, unless I risk peeing in my pants.

Eventually, we come to stop in a waiting area, around 30 × 30 meters. About 10 rows of steel chairs fill the floor, only a few are occupied. At the back against the wall is a large plasma screen, which struggles to keep the few people in the place from cutting their wrists due to the boring eggshell paint on the walls and lack of shops. A small counter is directly to me left, and sports a few snacks and sodas. My jaw drops, this is Vietnam’s train station for their capital? A pull on my arm stops my lolly gagging. My self-appointed guide pulls me to a chair under a large fan, and then sits me down by pushing me on the shoulder.

“Wait, 10:40.″ He says while showing me the palm of his hand. I feel like rolling over and have my belly scratched. As fast as he appeared, he is gone before I can tip him. I wonder if he works for the train station to find lost tourists. The few snacks on the counter calls to me. Just as I stand up to buy some snacks, a large group of locals enter the waiting area. Reluctantly, I sit down again. I am not prepared to lose my seat under the fan. My mind drifts to all the things that happened to me in the past few weeks. This has been one amazing trip.

“Ticket please.” I jerk, as someone talks right next to me, ripping me from my daydreaming. I frown as I fail to recognize the guy, having expected my self-appointed guide from earlier. I quickly look at the clock against the wall; it has only been 30 minutes since I sat down. Reluctantly, I hand my ticket over. The guy studies it for a moment, and then turns around as he comments. “Come.” Shaking my head, I pick my bags up and follow him a few rows forward, where he pushes me down into a chair. There goes my fan. Well, at least now, I can hear what they are saying on the TV screen, not that it actually matters as it is in Vietnamese. My new self-appointed guide hands me my ticket back, tells me to stay, and then heads off again. How weird.

Movement to my left attracts my attention. Self-appointed guide number one is ushering two other backpackers to their seats, two rows from me.

“Wait 10:40.” He gives them the same command and sit signal. As soon as they sit down, he makes to rush out of the building but stops dead when he sees me. Quickly, he comes over to me and holds his hand up, palm towards me, and says.

“Wait 10:40.” He pushes lightly on my right shoulder with his hand to emphasize his command. The urge to stick my tongue out and pant like a dog, screams in me. With effort, I contain myself and just smile at the dude.

Time slowly drags by, and by 10:15pm, I am at the point that I will risk using the toilet. As it is so close to my train’s departure time, I decide to stock up with snacks for the long trip. Slowly, I get up, and then throw my small backpack on my back. Just as I am about to pick up my large backpack, someone yells, “Come come,” behind me. Instinctively, I turn to look who it is, just as someone grabs my large backpack and makes off with it.

“Hey!” I shout as I give chase and follow the guy through the doors onto the train platform where he stops dead.

“Ticke….” The guy’s voice fails him as his eyes shoot open. In front of him, a South African is making ready to rugby tackle him for the second time. Luckily, I recognize my first self-appointed guide in time and stop dead inches from him. Calmly I hold out my ticket. Shakingly he takes it from me, shakes his head, looks at the ticket and then bolts off toward the second last carriage, no 11. I want to take pictures, but there is no time, what happened to 10:40? Even while carrying my large backpack, the guy easily outruns me, and I only catch a glimpse of him heading into the train while trying to catch up. By the time I make it onto the train, he has already found my bunk, stowed my bag under it, and is now dragging me to it.

In my berth, he hands me my ticket, and then points to the bunk bed number against the wall, and the corresponding number on the ticket, and then holds out his hand. Huh, oh, it is tip time. No formalities here, just to the point. I have no idea what to give him, and hand him a 50K VND note (about $2.5 or so). The guy’s face pulls into a frown as he studies the note in his hand.

“How much?” I ask.

“100 K.” He says. I have no smaller notes that 100 K left, so I hand one over to him as I say. “My change please.”

The guy gasps and then stares at me with his jaw hanging. I help him out by taking my 50 K note back, almost causing him to have a heart attack. Slowly, he closes his mouth, shakes his head at me, and then bolts off. I reason he has a few more lost tourists to get on the train.

Tired, I drop my aching body on my bed and stare at my jail cell for the next 32 hours. My bladder reminds me that I last wanted to use a toilet, and I get up just as three Vietnamese guys and a little kid of about five years old enters the carriage. The two single guys immediately make themselves home on the top bunks, while the father and son take the lower bunk opposite me.

“Hi.” I say to the kid, who ducks behind his dad and then peeks at me from behind his dad. I give him a smile, and the kid starts to laugh.

 

 

I desperately need the toilet, but do not want to take all my bags with me. I have read about people’s stuff being stolen on trains when they went to use the toilet. It is recommended to take all your stuff along on a bathroom break. Personally, I think that is over reacting. (Okay, it depends on who is in the cabin with you.) I take my wallet and passport only. The toilet is at the end of the carriage and looks like a jail toilet with a small metal washbasin and metal toilet. However, at least this one has an actual toilet and not just a hole in the train’s floor as the train in Thailand that I was on.

Back in my cabin and a few liters lighter, I make ready for the long trip. For safety, I stow my small backpack with my iPad, wallet and passport under my cushion. My main backpack I put by my feet and cover it with my leather-riding jacket. In the back of my mind, a small voice nags at me. I have no food or water for the entire 32-hour trip. Well, at least I will lose some weight I decide. Even though I am dead tired, I only manage to fall asleep by 1 am the next morning.

 

 

Chapter 25

 

I jerk as someone shakes me awake. It is the kid’s dad. Tiredly, I rub the sleep out of my eyes and then notice a man standing in the doorway. Assuming he wants to see my train ticket, I reach for my backpack.

“Breakfast?” The man asks and my heart jumps from joy. I am about to hug him.

“Okay.” I replay, trying not to sound desperate. Quickly, I check the time, just after 5 am.

“15 K VND.” The guy in the door says. Oh, not all included then, here you go. I hand him the 50 K note I have. He gives me my change and then leaves. Sadly, I watch him go, having expected him to have a trolley with food outside in the passage. I roll back in my bed and try to sleep, but cannot. Out of boredom, I pull my iPad out and note our position on the digital map.

Ninja like, the kid is next to me. He looks at the iPad for a moment, and then says something in Vietnamese. Blankly we stare at each other. I have no idea what he wants but fear he wants to play games on my iPad. Sorry kid, that is not going to happen.

“What game are you playing?” His dad comes to my rescue.

“Map.” I reply and draw a blank from the dad. Tipping the iPad over, I allow the dad to see the screen while I zoom in on the map until the names of towns in Vietnamese around our position are visible. He nods his head, and then translates to the kid, whose eyes light up. Wide eyed, he stares at the map as I slowly pan from Hanoi to Saigon, following the railway line. His lips silently count each time he recognizes a town on the map. As we reach Saigon on the map, he jumps onto his bed and hides behind his dad and then peeks around him while laughing at me. I smile back, and he ducks down, and then buries his head in the pillow while giggling. Amazing kid.

The dad takes out some sweets that looks like a Twinkie as well as two packets of caramel blocks. He hands the kid a Twinkie and a packet of caramel blocks, and then surprises me by handing me the second packet of caramel blocks.

“Thank you.” I blurt out, drawing a smile from the dad.

I pass the time until breakfast (7am sharply), by writing a bit and playing games on my iPad. Breakfast consists of a small cup of rice soup, with what looks like a few strips of dried chicken floating on top. Not very appealing, but tasty. However, not nearly enough, and having awoken the beast in my stomach, I almost regret having it.

About 20 minutes later, a guy comes down the hallway pushing a food trolley selling coffee and caramel popcorn. Immediately he becomes my new best friend and I a regular customer. He had no idea he would run out of caramel popcorn before the trip is over.

As the sun starts to make its way across the sky and the countryside lights up, I decide to venture out of the cabin. The countryside flashes by as I admire it from the windows in the hallway where I stand in front of my cabin. A box against the wall attracts my attention. On it is Dung Cu Thoat Hiem/ Tools For Emergency. Curious, I glance around, and seeing none, I quickly peek inside. A lonely small hammer smiles at me. I am not sure if the hammer is for escaping the train in case of a fire, or for if, you cannot sleep because your jail buddies snore too loudly.

Suddenly, the train comes to a quick stop, and I have to hold onto the emergency box with its small hammer to stop from landing on the floor. When it is safe to do so, I step back into my cabin and am about to sit down on my bed when the conductor storms into the cabin. Without a word, he drags the guy in the top bunk across from me off his bed while he is still asleep. Half asleep, the guy sits down at the end of the father and son’s bed while the conductor pulls his bed’s bedding off and throws it onto a trolley in the hallway outside. Slowly, the guy starts to put his socks and shoes on while the conductor grabs a fresh set of bedding and puts it folded down on the bed, and then leaves.

The poor guy, still half asleep, stumbles out of the cabin. Confused, I glance out the window but see only countryside. Curious as to what is going on, I get up and walk to the train exit. A smile fills my face as I poke my head outside the door. The guy who was awoken in my cabin is stumbling to a small train platform, a fair distance behind is. The train almost missed his stop. Well, at least they did not drop him off at the next stop. I wonder if I am going to be awaken like that in Saigon, and make a mental note to be ready long before my stop.

Time flies by in ultra-slow motion. Although the scenery is awesome, it cannot compare to actually being on the roads. When I told people in the beginning I was planning the trip, I was told that you could take the train, see the whole of Vietnam, and get better views as the railway line runs in more scenic areas than the road. This may be true if you take the A1 highway, as the railway line runs mostly parallel with the A1 highway, and at times in more scenic areas. However, the railway does not run through the mountains like the Ho Chi Minh road. Moreover, no train ride can compare to the feeling of being in the saddle and taking on mountain trails.

“Lunch?” The conductor asks from the door, almost causing me to fall out of my bed.

“Yes please.” I say a little too fast, drawing a snicker from the conductor. He must have talked to the coffee guy, as by now I have had three cups of coffee and two packets of glazed caramel popcorn.

“45 K VND” The conductor says and then turns toward the father and son. I choke a bit as I hand a 100 K note over and the father orders only one meal for the two of them. I am tempted to order them a second meal, but am not sure how they will take it so let it be. As the conductor leaves, I wonder what lunch will be. There is something exciting about ordering food without knowing what you will get, almost like blind dating.

“Extra?” A woman asks from the doorway, where she stands by a food trolley. The dad says something in Vietnamese, and the woman hands over a drumstick and three spring rolls. I shake my head; I reason the extra food is probably for the kid. A short while later, the conductor returns with the lunch trolley. Sadly, I stare at lunch. An anorexic chicken’s drumstick, a scoop of rice, a blob of what looks like spinach and a small packet of soup that is basically water with a few pieces of celery and onion in. I bite my lip. I should have taken an extra piece of chicken. Where is the caramel and coffee guy? Trains, airplanes, and jails, I think they have the same caterer.

About an hour later, the caramel guy comes around and saves my life. I get two packets of caramel popcorn and coffee, as well as some crisps. It is a pity they do not sell any fruit like bananas or apples, but I reason it is harder to store and keep fresh. After lunch, I pass the time by playing games on my iPad and writing a bit.

“Dinner?” I almost jump up from excitement when the conductor finally comes around. I was afraid of going to sleep and missing him. Eagerly I order dinner, then sit back, and wait for the ‘extra’ cart woman. She does not disappoint and is minutes behind the conductor.

“Extra?” I am up before she can finish the word, drawing a smile from her.

“One please.” I say as I point to an extra piece of chicken. She grabs a polystyrene plate, throws a chicken piece and two spring rolls on it, and then dumps some red source over it.

“40K.” She goes as she holds out the plate to me. My jaw drops, I did not even have time to bat an eyelid, now that is selling. Reluctantly, I pay up and then take the plate from her. In Asia, if it looks red, it is probably not ketchup. As I turn around, the father is grinning widely at me. He must have seen this sale coming.

Not waiting for the food trolley, I go for it on the two spring rolls with their red sauce. On the first bite, a bomb explodes in my mouth. On the second bite, I swallow the sun. Sweat pours from every pore I have. My nose starts to run, and my eyes start to water. My mouth goes numb, and my taste buds are scorched for life. I drool and do not even realize it until it runs over my chin. I start to struggle to breathe, and beg for the coffee guy to come around. By this time, I am not sure if it is sweat or tears running down my cheeks. I cannot feel my lips anymore. Somehow, I just managed to swallow a dragon, and it is breathing fire in my mouth.

Half an hour of torture later, the coffee guy finally makes his rounds. He sells green tea as well. I take two bottles of green tea, costing 10K each, and I give him a 100K note. The guy stares in amazement as I down a 500ml green tea bottle before he can hand me my change. As I take my change, I open the second bottle. The guy looks down at my food and upon seeing the red sauce bursts out laughing and then walks away. I think he sensed I was in need, for about 10 minutes later, he comes around again. This time, I get three bottles of green tea to go with my dinner that arrives shortly afterwards.

After drowning the dragon, (who needs a sword and shield), I try to get some sleep, but it is hard going. By now, I am bored with the games I have, and too tired to write. Trying to keep sane, I make frequent trips to the hallway and stare blankly at the countryside going by. Almost every time I venture out of my prison cell, I see a man a few cabins down the passage, dressed in a long grey trench coat. I wonder if he is an undercover spy.

As the sun finally gives over to the moon, we pull into another train station. I almost laugh as the conductor walks into the cabin and roughly shakes the guy in the bunk above me awake. As the guy sleepily sits upright in his bunk, the conductor pulls the blankets out from under him and forces the guy off the bed. Amazingly, no one is at all fazed by it. I guess this is normal.

Later the night, a young couple gets on the train. After storing their gear in the cabin next to mine, they decide to stand in front of my cabin’s door and discuss their journey.

“I hope Hoi An is nice.” I am tempted to go and tell them about Hoi An and the things I did when I was there, but decide I am too tired for a long chat.

“What time will we arrive in Hoi An?” One asks the conductor as he passes by them.

“12 hours.” The conductor says without stopping.

“Is that 12 o’clock tonight or 12 o’clock tomorrow?” One asks.

“I have no idea.” The other replies. I smile as I hear them talk. They made no effort to look at the arrival time on their tickets and cannot figure out it is the travel time still left. An hour later, they ask the conductor again what time we will stop in Hoi An. This time they get 11 hours, but still cannot figure out their arrival time. They also seem not to be aware that even though their tickets says Hoi An, the train actually does not stop there but in Da Nang, a one-hour bus ride away. Closing my eyes, I am in dreamland instantly.

Sometime during the night, I awake when we pull into a station. The father and son are fast asleep. Silently I drag myself out of bed, take my wallet and passport and then throw my jacket over my backpack that still contains my iPad, iPhone and iPod touch. Closing the cabin door behind me, I head for the toilet but poke my head out of the train exit next to the toilet to see what is outside. On the platform outside, are a number of small tent shops. I woman spots me and comes on over.

“Bread roll.” She yells as she holds up two bread rolls.

“No thanks.” I reply as I step back into the train, and then head for the toilet next door. By now, the toilet’s window is open to let the urine smell escape. I close my eyes as I hold things in check and let go of all the coffee and green tea.

“Bread roll.” I almost crap in my pants when the woman pushes the two bread rolls through the toilet window and waves them in my face.

“No!” I shout and push the rolls back and then slam the toilet window shut. Annoyed, I finish my business, wash my hands and then return to my cabin. Shock ripples through me as I walk down the hallway. My cabin door is open.

“Sun glasses.” A woman says as she holds fake Oakley’s in my face the moment I step inside the cabin. The father and son are gone. Ignoring her, I rip my jacket off my bags and check the content while ‘sunglasses’ is called several times behind me. Finding my stuff in order, I sling my small backpack over my shoulder, usher the women out of the cabin and close the door behind me. I walk behind the woman as she makes her way to the train exit; all the while, she keeps calling ‘sunglasses’.

Outside, I find the dad and his son next to the train, getting some fresh air. We stand around for a few minutes, until the conductor calls us in. I laugh as I watch the bread roll woman wave her bread rolls in the air as we pull out of the station. I try to sleep, but my mind is now in high gear. At the next stop, a couple climbs aboard the train and takes the two empty bunks in my cabin.

“Where are you heading?” I sleepily ask.

“Saigon.” The girl replies.

“Me too.”

They make no effort to respond any further, so I turn around and wait for sandman to come and take me. He however, takes a whole hour to show up.

 

 

Chapter 26

 

Just after 6am, I crack one eye open. Outside, the sun is slowly warming up the countryside. My body feels as if I fell through the floor last night, and the train ran over me. I want to go back to sleep, but duly wait for the conductor to take the breakfast order. By 7am when the coffee guy makes his rounds, I accept the fact that there is no breakfast, and buy the last packet of caramel popcorn and a cup of coffee.

When no one in the cabin is looking at me, I smell my shirt and almost pass out. I need a shower desperately. With fresh clothes under my arm, I head to the restroom. Although I practiced showering using a basin, doing it in a moving train, is very different. In the process of getting clean, I manage to smash my knee three times on the metal toilet, and bump my head twice against the wall. All washed up, I limp back to my cabin, but stop when I notice two motorcycles passing the train on a road next to us. From their outfits, both riders seem to be local guides, each with a female tourist on the back. As one girl looks up, I wave at her, and amazingly, she spots me in the train and waves back. She alerts the others, and we wave to each other. My heart pulls to join them. Reluctantly, I return to my cabin and wish the time away.

Around 10am, the conductor comes past and announces that we are nearing Da Nang. I chuckle to myself, knowing what comes next. Quickly, I move into the hallway as the conductor walks to the next cabin.

“20 minutes to Da Nang your stop.” The conductor announces.

“We are going to Hoi An.” A backpacker replies.

“You have to get off here.”

“What do you mean we have to get off?”

“This is your stop.” The conductor replies firmly.

“We paid to go to Hoi An.”

“The train does not stop there. This is your stop.”

“How are we supposed to get to Hoi An?”

“Get a bus or taxi at the train station. You have 20 minutes to get ready.” The conductor says and walks away. I shake my head as the couple starts to argue. Each blames the other one for not knowing the train does not stop in Hoi An. Instead of making an adventure out of it and bonding as a couple, they are spoiling their trip and creating a rift between them. It is not what happens to you in life, but how you react to it.

When the train stops in Da Nang, I take the opportunity to stretch my legs outside next to the train, and then return to my cabin to continue my nap. Just as I close my eyes, a commotion wakes me. Confused, I watch people stand que in the hallway. Glancing over, dad and son smile at me, both ready to go. Confused I look at the map application on my iPad. Where did the time go? We are 30 minutes from Saigon.

I glance at the people filling the hallway and smile. It is like when you land at an airport, and people jump up before the aircraft doors are open, only to stand in the isle for about 10 minutes. 15 minutes before our arrival, I pack my stuff up, and then sit back on my bed, and wait. Glancing up, I frown at the two backpackers who joined us during the night. They are still fast asleep. Reaching over, I gently shake the girl by her shoulder.

“We are 10 minutes from Saigon.” I say as she slowly opens her eyes.

“Thanks.” She says and then rolls over. I let her be. 5 minutes from the station, she decides to get up and wake her partner. They get their toothbrushes and leave to go and freshen up just as the train comes to a stop. I laugh as I head out of the cabin. They may find their stuff piled in the hallway when they come back from the restroom. Saigon train station is a stark contrast to Hanoi station. The place is modern with shops, restaurant and air conditioning. Having missed breakfast, I get myself two cheese sandwiches and then head to the hotel I stayed in when I first arrived in Saigon. Outside the train station, motorcycle taxies pester me the entire 3 km to the hotel. However, I have to walk the caramel popcorn off and disappoint them.

Amazingly, as soon as one taxi gives up and pulls away, another one immediately takes his place and tries to get me to use his service. I have to admit, they are persistent. Almost like a child who keeps nagging until a parent gives in. If you are not used to it, you may see them as pestering you, however, this is Asia.

“Hi. Do you have any rooms available?” I ask the reception as I walk into the hotel.

“Oh, you are back. How was the trip?” I am a bit taken back that the guy remembers me. Although I did buy the motorcycle, from him.

“Very nice.”

“And the motorcycle?”

“On the train, arrives today.” I smile.

“Good. You want the same room?”

“Same price as last?” The guy thinks for a moment, looks around, and then comments. “Okay.”

By now, it has been more than 52 hours since I had a proper shower. I quickly take the key from the reception and rush up the five floors to my room before anyone in the lobby realize it is me stinking the place up. In my room, I dump my gear on the floor and head for the shower. Annoyed, I stare at the soap holder in the shower, there are no toiletries. Luckily, I saved a few soap and hair shampoo packets from my stays in hotels on my trip. These are small plastic sashes, enough for one use. From experience, I know that they either leak in your suitcase, or are bombproof in opening. Mine turns out to be bombproof.

Struggle as I may, I just cannot get the package open. Having lost my knife (Leatherman TTI Charge) in Cambodia with my main backpack, I resort to biting the edged of the sashes and almost rip my tooth out before the packet finally gives in. The tiles in the shower almost crack as dirt and sweat rain down on them. Smelling like roses, I emerge a new person from the bathroom. I have no idea why sleeping on a bus, train or airplane can actually make you more tired, but the bed calls to me, and I answer it.

Four hours later, my stomach wakes me, and I head out to chat with Simon at Saigon Minks while having a meal at the Mexican restaurant. After sharing loads of road-trip stories, I decide to call it a day and head back to my hotel. On my way back, I stop dead when I notice a backpacker that just personifies the adventure spirit. She is loaded down with a large backpack on her back and a smaller one in the front.

“Wow can I take your photo?” I ask in the spur of the moment, intending to use her as a cover for my backpacking book.

“Okay.” She unsurely says and then continues just as I am about to take the picture. “Why, I am not that beautiful?” Before my mind has time to come up with a witty comment, my lips let rip.

“No. I am writing a book and how you are loaded down with backpacks is perfect for my book.” Immediately I want to kick myself. My approach was not meant as a pickup, but that is no excuse to drop the girl like that, who is in fact, stunning. I feel like banging my head against a wall.

“Here is my card if you want any free books.” I say as I give her my business card in hopes of recovering the moment.

“Thanks.” She says as she hesitantly takes the card. I walk away and then realize I never got her details, nor her permission to use her picture in a book, making the picture useless. For a second, I contemplate going back, but then keep going. I have embarrassed her and myself enough for today. This is one of those times where anything more you say, just makes the hole you are in deeper.

Back in my room, I use my paper map of Vietnam for the first time. From the map, I calculate only one viable options for crossing the border to Cambodia from Saigon. If I am denied taking the motorcycle over, I will have to sell it. That is if the motorcycle actually makes it down from Hanoi. Maybe big boss conned me out of 750 K, and his son is now happily riding my motorcycle. I guess I will find out tomorrow.

 

Chapter 27

 

Saigon’s city traffic wakes me at just after 6am. After a nice warm shower, I head down at 7am, for breakfast. Adrenalin rushes through my body. Today I get my motorcycle. Maybe Simon at Saigon Minks can repair the carburetor.

I jerk as my phone starts to ring. In the whole trip up and down to Hanoi, I had not one call. Who can it be?

“82hf4qhfq98f88ij49.” A lady says in Vietnamese as I answer. Jumping up, I rush over to the reception and ask.

“Can you take the call. It is in Vietnamese?” The guy looks at me for a second, and then unsurely take the phone.

“They hung up.” He says as he listens to the call and then gives the phone back.

“Can you call them back please?” I ask, hoping it was the train station. The guy gives me an annoyed look, but reluctantly holds out his hand. Just as I am about to pass the phone to him, it vibrates in my hand, announcing a new message. From excitement, I almost drop the phone. My heart races as I open the message.

“Come to the train station at 10 am to get your motorcycle. Bring a Vietnamese speaking person.”

My heart dances in my chest as I read the message. My motorcycle made it.

“Can you come to the train station with me to translate?” I ask, hoping he is as helpful as the hotel owner in Hanoi was.

“I am busy. Take a taxi and have them translate.” The guy barks and then continues to play games on his cell phone.

“Thanks.” I blurt out and then run the five flights of stairs up to my room to get my motorcycle helmet, only to realize it is 7:20am, when I out of breath open my door. I bite my lip. Downstairs, I am sure the housekeeper has already taken my half-finished cup of coffee away. If I had a kettle, I would watch it boil, but as I do not, I watch the seconds tick by on my iPhone.

By 9:30am, I rush downstairs and flag down the first English-speaking motorcycle taxi I can find.

“Train station.” I blurt out as I hop on the back of the motorcycle before the guy is even ready, almost causing us to topple over. Thinking I am late for a train, the guy tries to set a new land speed record, in peak traffic. I close my eyes and pray. Not because of our speed, but the guy’s bad driving.

“Goods collection.” I direct as we race into the train station, confusing the taxi driver.

“No train?” He asks.

“No, collecting my motorbike.” My answer elects a few mumbled words in Vietnamese, that I am sure I do not want to have translated. Slowly, he rides over to a large ramp next to a storeroom. As I get off the motorcycle, I dial the number back of the person that called me when I was at breakfast. Frustrated I listen as the call goes directly to voicemail.

“I have to go.” The taxi driver comments. Reluctantly, I nod my head and pay him. I was hoping he would translate for me. Nice, I am at the train station with no translator or any idea where to go. In desperation, I call the number of the person that messaged me. The text was in English, maybe they can help.

“Hi. I am at the train station. I get no answer from the original number I was given. Where do I need to go to collect my motorcycle?” I blurt out as the call connects, not even sure, the person will understand me.

“Your motorcycle is not at the station.” A girl replies. Ice crystals run up my spine. Where is my motorcycle then? Before I can ask, she continues.

“Your motorcycle has already been picked up; it is at a house close by.” Dread hugs my heart. How can they claim my motorcycle without my papers? Then it hits me. If my motorcycle is at someone’s house, it probably means I need to pay to get it back.

“How do I get to the house?” I sigh.

“Wait outside the train station, my dad will get you there.” She replies, and hangs up.

Some of the ice crystals on my spine melt, and death lets go of my throat. If her dad is coming to pick me up, maybe she is family of big boss and picking my motorcycle up from the train station is part of the deal when doing business with big boss. Eagerly I sprint the short distance to the station’s entry gate and wait. I wonder what her dad looks like. Well, no need to worry, I am the only white dude looking lost and standing near the entry gate.

“Bike bike.” A middle-aged Vietnamese guy calls from across the road. My jaw drops, wow, he is fast, another ninja; maybe he is a retired traffic officer. The guy walks over the road and repeats. “Bike bike.” Well yeah, I want my motorcycle so lead on dude.

“Yes.” I reply, and the guy spins around and walks to a motorcycle across from the road. I follow him and look at the Honda Dream scooter.

“Bike bike.” The guy goes again. My throat closes off.

“That is not my motorcycle.” I say and pull out the shipping papers from my pants pocket. I hand the guy the papers, and he carefully reads it, then shakes his head and hands me the paper back. Without a word, he sits down on his scooter and ignores me. Uh, hello, dude, what’s up?

“Bike, follow.” A voice calls from the right. As I glance right, another middle-aged Vietnamese guy is approaching me. Immediately the guy on the scooter jumps up and challenges the new guy. They have a few words in Vietnamese, and then the first guy sits back down on his scooter and ignores me and the second guy.

“Bike, follow.” The second guy says again. A light somewhere in the darkness of my mind goes on. The first guy is a mototaxi driver, and thought I wanted a bike ride to somewhere. He had no idea where I wanted to go when I handed him the shipping paper as it does not have a hotel name on. Laughing at myself, I sprint after the second guy and catch up to him, just as he heads down a narrow side alley. I swallow hard. The alley is even narrower than the one my hotel is in. Touching both sides of the alley, my arms are not even stretched out. With eyes darting around, I seek out hidden danger as if I am an operator in a Modern Combat game, while I make my way down the alley.

100 meters down, the alley makes a 90 degree bend. Just as I round the bend, I glimpse something in the corner of my eye and snap my head around. My heart jumps as the object comes into full view. Adrenalin rushes through my body, and my muscles explode. I lunge forward and hug my little motorcycle, all still wrapped up. I am so glad to see it. The guy frowns and gives me a funny look. Who is he to judge?

“Papers?” I jump as a kid speaks behind me. Looking over, he smiles and holds out his hand. About 15 meters behind him, the alley runs dead in a house. Outside is a small table, with a middle-aged Vietnamese woman sitting on a chair behind it. I take her to be the mother of the woman I spoke to on the phone. Looking past the table, I relax a bit. Behind the table, is a row of boxed up motorcycles, all waiting to be collected. I wonder if they are a motorcycle transport Mafia.

“30K VND.” The kid says as I hand him my papers. Ah, but of course there has to be an additional fee. I pay the money to mamma boss, and she nods to the kid. My eyes shoot open as he pulls out a knife. I am about to kick him in the guts and run for my life, when he calmly turns around and proceeds to gut the wrapping off my motorcycle. I wonder if I have not seen one too many action movies.

“Gas, end of street.” The kid says as he takes the last wrapping of the motorcycle.

“No gas here?” I ask, having been expecting them to do so.

“No.” The kid confirms and points down the road. I guess each family is only allowed to operate in their segment in this system. It seems no one is to have it all.

“Thank you.” I say as I push my motorcycle down the narrow alley to the end.

“Here.” A woman in the winter of her years says while holding up a 1L glass bottle of gasoline.

“How much?” I ask. The woman holds up her open palm showing five and one finger of her other hand. Now, in Asia, I have learned it can mean 15, 6, 60, or 150 as they see fit.

“15 K?” I ask her.

“Yes yes.” She eagerly answers back. 5L gasoline costs around 75K, so 1L for 15K is not too bad.

“Okay.” I agree and lift the motorcycle’s seat and open the gas cap. The woman pours the gasoline in and then holds out her hand. I close the gas cap and then hand her the money. She gives it a look and then shakes her head and holds up one open palm and one finger again.

“You said 15K.” I reply. The woman turns red and then fishes out a wad of money and angrily flashes it in front of my face. O crap, we have a problem. I guess I am not the first stupid tourist she had to deal with. Suddenly, she goes going off with a string of Vietnamese. Wow, what happened to docile and friendly? Behind her big boss’s twin steps out of her shop and comes over. I look at the money the woman is waving in my face, and swallow. It looks like 150K. I can get about 10L of gasoline for that. However, there is no turning back, as the gas is in the motorcycle. Reluctantly, I hand over a 200K note. (About $9). The woman looks at the note, and then turns around and walks away without a word. Wow hold on there granny, I just gave you 215K for 1L of gasoline.

I feel like running after her, but stop myself. She is like 120 years old, and besides, I am sure she knows some Kung Fu or something. I let it go. Big boss’s twin goes and sits down again as I try to start the motorcycle. Nothing. They must have removed the stop screw on the carburetor and drained the last drop of gasoline from her. 1L does not seem to be enough to fill the fuel lines again. For a nano second, I contemplate getting another liter of gasoline, but then slap myself and come to my senses. I bite my lip. 215K VND and I still need to push my motorcycle to a gas station.

Motion in the corner of my eye makes me turn my head. Granny is walking fast over to me, what now? She stops next to me and holds out a bunch of notes. I bite my lip. Is there a hole I can stick my head in? It seems a palm and one finger is 60K, and she had to get change for my 200K note. Good thing I did not run after her, I might have gotten my butt kicked for nothing by a 120-year-old granny. I look over at big boss’s twin. I am sure he is only there to stop granny from killing me, for she needs no protection.

“Thank you.” I say and start pushing my motorcycle. About two steps in, I realize my mistake. The woman had a 10K and a 50K note in her hand. However, the 10K and 100K notes look so much the same. I constantly get them mixed up. That is why I thought she wanted 150K and not 60K for the gasoline. For the second time today, I laugh at myself. Granny looks at me funny as I walk away laughing. Shaking her head, she says something in Vietnamese and then walks back to her house.

I cringe, as I take on a 300 meter uphill. At the top, the road intersects a main road. With sadness in my eyes, I look at the gas station across the main road while about 1000 scooters a second zoom past in front of me. If I manage to cross the main road while only causing 100 accidents, it would be a miracle. Reluctantly, I turn left and follow the main road for about 100 meters, stop, and then sit down on my motorcycle for a short rest. For kicks, I turn the ignition. I shake my head and laugh as the engine sputters to life.

The engine has like before no power, and the metallic pinging noise the engine picked up, on the last leg to Hanoi, is worse. I nurse to motorcycle over to Saigon Minks.

“Hi Simon. Can you have a look at my motorcycle?” I ask as I pull up next to Saigon Minks.

“Sorry mate, we are overfull.” I look at the about eight motorcycles waiting to be fixed, and nod my head. Reluctantly, I drive around town until I spot another shop with half-stripped motorcycles standing on the sidewalk.

“Hi. I have problems with my carburetor. Can you fix it?” I ask the mechanic as I pull onto the sidewalk.

“Yes, yes, no problem.” He smiles. The sun is relentless, and I move close to the shop in the shade. Curious, I watch as the mechanic starts the motorcycle, and revs it a few times. I bite my lip as he tries to tune the carburetor, but let him be, as it is easier to let him see it has no effect than try to explain it to him. I almost laugh as the mechanic pulls the new spark plug and air cleaner out and perplexed looks at them.

Just then, the mechanic’s mum brings him a 2L jug of ice tea full of ice cubes in. The sweat drips down my face as I watch him gulp the tea town. A tear forms in my eye, can I have some as well? No, it seems not. I walk over to a restaurant next door, get my own ice tea, and then come back. The mechanic has pulled a cracked vacuum hose off and comments as he sees me.

“Carburetor no fix.”

“How much for a new carburetor?”

“1 million VND.” I swallow hard. That is around US$43.

“Okay, replace it.” As I plan on doing a trip to Laos later in the year, I may as well have the parts replaced that I know is more expensive in Cambodia. There, this model of Yamaha is not that popular. The mechanic says something to an older man working on another motorcycle. The man nods, gets on a motorcycle standing in the street and then heads off.

“My dad go gets parts.” The mechanic says just as two backpackers pull up next to us.

“How much will you give us for the bikes?” One guy asks as they climb off the motorcycles. The mechanic looks over the two motorcycles and then comments while pointing to the frame near the engine.

“Oh no good. No frame number, motorcycle stolen. $50.” My eyebrows dip and I walk over to the motorcycles and check the frame by the steering, both have frame numbers clearly stamped in them. This mechanic is taking them for a ride. I pull one backpacker to the side and whisper.

“Mate, do you have the blue cards for the bikes?”

“Yes.”

“Then he is ripping you off. The frame numbers are by the steering. You can sell these bikes for around $250 to $300 to other backpackers or around $200 to Saigon Minks around the corner.”

“Thanks man.” The guy nods and then turns to his friend and comments.

“Come, this guy is ripping us off. We can sell them for $200 around the corner.” I bite my lip as the mechanic glares at me and walks away. I glance at the backpackers as they ride away. Thanks dude for stabbing me in the back. Just then, the mechanic returns and says.

“Carburetor, 2 million.”

“I will not pay it.” I laugh.

“My dad already bought the carburetor.” He counters, even though he has not been in contact with his dad who has not returned yet.

“You said 1 million, I will not pay 2 million, take it back to the shop.” The mechanic gives me a nasty look and then packs up his tools and leaves on a motorcycle. I look at my half-stripped motorcycle. Okay then, I will put it back together myself with my own tools. I clench my jaw as I kneel next to my motorcycle. On the ground is a vacuum and fuel pipe. Although both pipes had cracked ends, they were usable until the mechanic cut them off instead of removing the clamps and pulling them off. Both pipe’s clamps are still on the carburetor. I am sure the new pipes are double in price now as well.

Even if I want to put things together, I am not going anywhere without new hoses.

“Where did he go?” I ask the mechanics wife. She ignores me.

“When will he be back?” I try again.

“No English.” She replies. I frown, how interesting. I let it go and get another ice tea next door and then wait. 10 minutes later, the dad returns, throws a few vacuum hoses on the ground next to my motorcycle, and then starts to work on another motorcycle. Curious, I watch him fail to start the motorcycle with the kick-starter. Perplexed, the dad stares at the motorcycle for a moment and then jumps on his motorcycle and rides away. I make myself comfortable at the restaurant next door and start working on a book, using my iPad.

20 minutes later, the dad returns with a new spark plug, carburetor and spark plug wire. Casually, he fits the new parts, and then tries the kick-starter. The engine roars to life and then settles in a nice idle. I shake my head. He did not bother to open the old carburetor to see if it is blocked, and he has no idea if it even was the carburetor or possibly the spark plug or wire. My jaw drops. The dad is busy tuning the brand-new carburetor. He breaks the seal over the adjustment screws in order to adjust the carburetor. When he is finally done, it sounds the same as before he started tuning it. I keep writing, getting absorbed in my book. Three hours after leaving, the son finally comes back, but starts to work on another motorcycle.

“What about my motorcycle?” I ask the mechanic, but he ignores me. My blood starts to boil. Having done the work I wanted to on my book for the day, I decide to push my motorcycle to Saigon Minks and fix it there myself. Just as I get up from the restaurant, a commotion at the shop next door to the mechanic’s shop attracts my attention.

Six police officers are standing outside the shop, one, is engaged in an argument with the owner while he is writing the owner a fine. The police officers move over to the mechanic, but he just motions with his head to his wife, who gives him a nasty look. Within seconds, the wife is locked in an argument with the same police officer as the next-door shop owner. However, it helps her just as much, as the police officer starts to write her a fine as well. I glance at the mechanic as the police officers move around him and my motorcycle; quickly, he looks away, causing me to smile. I have a badge in my wallet that looks like a police badge, but is not. When I am in an area I think is not safe or when I think people want to rip me off, I flip the wallet open just briefly enough for people to see the badge, while I say nothing. They draw their own conclusions.

“A soda please.” I say to the restaurant owner and flip the wallet open in front of the mechanic in such a way that only he can see the badge. His eyes shoot open, and his face goes white. As I get my soda, I keep my wallet open and then turn to the nearest police officer.

“Good day officer.” I greet the police while having my back to the mechanic and my hand over the badge.

“Good day. Are you on holiday?”

“Yes. They are just fixing my motorcycle for me.” I reply while closing my wallet unnoticed.

“This yours?” The officer asks and points to my motorcycle.

“Yes.” I reply and nod.

“They are not allowed to do business on the sidewalk. They have been warned to keep it clean. Now, they are being fined.” I nod in agreement, then spin around and address the mechanic loud enough for all the police to hear.

“How long will my motorcycle still be?” The mechanic almost gets a heart attack as six police officers turn their eyes on him.

“Not long.” The mechanic manages. With a smile, I move back to my seat at the restaurant next door. As I sit down, I almost crack up laughing. Both the mechanic and his dad are working on my motorcycle. 10 minutes later, my motorcycle is assembled with new vacuum and fuel lines, for half the price he originally said it would be.

“You you police.” The mechanic asks as I pay. I give him a NCIS Gibbs stare, and then get on my motorcycle and drive off. Unfortunately, replacing the vacuum lines does not fix the power issue, and there is no time left to have the valve rockers looked at. It is 80km until the border, and then 480km to my home. I hope the engine holds until then. For security, I leave the motorcycle at my hotel, and then explore Saigon until the sun comes to its last hour of the day.

“Hi. Can I change my Vietnam money to US$?” I ask the reception when I get back to my hotel. I had exchanged US$ to local money a few times before with him.

“Sorry. No US$.” I sigh, and then head back out in search of an exchange place. However, having waited too late, I find all the exchange places closed. Finally, I decide to go and ask Simon if he can help me. On the way, I stop dead when I notice a sign in front of a hotel stating they have a 24-hour exchange desk.

“Hi, I would like to exchange Vietnam money to US money.” I say to the clerk behind the desk.

“How much?” The clerk asks, and I pile all the money I have on the counter. It comes to just over $45.

“I can exchange $40 for you. But you will have to wait 30 minutes.”

“Okay.” I nod, and then make myself comfortable on a chair nearby. The clerk makes a phone call, and then continues with her work. About 5 minutes later, a couple storms into the hotel.

“Can you exchange $50 worth of Vietnam money to US dollars?” the guy asks.

“Yes, but you have to wait four hours, US dollars scares.” The clerk replies. The guy’s face sags, and he shakes his head. Discouraged, the couple leaves the hotel. About 20 minutes later, a local guy on a scooter arrives with two $20 notes. I exchange VND for the notes, but I still have around $5 worth of VND left, so I head over to Simon. Try as I may, I cannot break the $20 notes into smaller nominations. Simon does not have smaller notes, and no one else is willing to part with their smaller notes. Eventually, I twist Simon’s arm in taking the VND I have left for a $5 note. I stay a while and chat with Simon, then say goodbye and head to my room to pack.

Tomorrow is going to be an interesting day. I hope that they do not pull the same scams at the border I am heading to, as they love to do at the Laos and Vietnam border. They let you through on the Vietnam side, and when you get to the Laos side, they say that you cannot take the motorcycle with you. As you just stamped out of Vietnam, your single entry visa is not valid anymore, so you cannot go back. You can also not go forward with the motorcycle. Thus, you are forced to sell it for the few dollars they offer you for the motorcycle. I guess I will find out tomorrow. Whatever happens, it is going to be an adventure.

 

 

Chapter 28

 

An annoying beep wakes me at 5am. For a moment, I contemplate hitting the snooze button, but then lazily I crawl out of bed. I know if I hit the snooze button now, I am never going to hear the alarm go off again. Hoping the fresh morning air will wake me up; I open the bedroom window and almost freeze to death. Outside, it is raining and the wind is howling. Not having expected rain, I repack my bags and take all my electronic items and papers out of them, and place them in a plastic shopping bag to be stored under the motorcycle’s seat, and then head downstairs to check out.

“Good luck.” The reception calls out as I start the motorcycle up outside.

“Thanks.” I reply and take to the road, dressed in full motorcycle rain gear. With my iPhone guiding me, I make my way through town. As I negotiate the city streets of Saigon, the traffic and rain increases by the minute. It takes me 45 minutes just to get out of downtown Saigon, and onto the highway, where I hit a major traffic jam. Buckets of water pour down on us as we crawl along, doing the next 3 kilometers as measured by the GPS, in a neck breaking one hour. Eventually, the rain changes into a dribble, but the traffic comes to a dead stop for the next half an hour, and then slowly starts to crawl again.

 

 

An hour later, I come to the cause of the holdup. I am not one for rubbernecking, bus as I pass directly by the scene I cannot help but notice. A rental minivan (same as the one in the picture) managed to lose control, burst through the protective barrier of concrete between cars and motorcycles, and went into the lane reserved only for motorcycles. The minivan took out three motorcycles before plowing into a ditch. How the minivan could burst through the concrete barrier and hit the ditch with such force to write the minivan off, when the speed limit is 60km/h, I am not sure. From the mangled up motorcycles it is clear the riders were seriously injured. I send a quick prayer up for them and myself.

About an hour later, the sun comes out, and warms my chilly bones, just as I leave the highway and head for the border post. The metallic ticking sound has slightly increased, and I pull over when I see a mobile food stand. After ordering two bread rolls with egg on, I check the engine and gearbox oil. Finding no metal pieces in the oil and the levels correct, I quickly eat one bread roll and then pack the other one in my small backpack, before continuing. 15km later, I arrive at the border and slowly pass a number of shops just before the Vietnam border gate. Two motorcycles, one with a passenger on, flank me.

“You cannot go through with the motorcycle.” A voice calls out next to me.

“We can help you, but you must pay custom tax.” The other rider comments. I know it is all a scam, as yes you can bring a motorcycle in. I own the motorcycle and have the paperwork. However, due to there not being an easy procedure in place that you can follow, crossing the border without paying tea money will possibly see you delayed for hours or even denied access.

“How much custom tax?” I ask.

“$30.” The first guy answers.

“Okay.” The moment I agree, thinks happened fast.

“Get off bike.” The second guy with the passenger says and stops. I stop and get off my motorcycle. The passenger hops off, takes my motorcycle, and speeds away towards the border with it while my main backpack is still secured on the back.

“Get on.” The first guy says. I hop behind him on his motorcycle, and we speed of towards the immigration office and stop outside it.

“Passport, $5.” A fourth guy says as he comes up to me. The guy who gave me a lift nods his head, and I hand over my passport and the $5 I got from Simon. The first guy pulls away and we stop a short distance later at a desk where two officials are sitting and join them. As soon as I sit down at the table, my passport arrives with an exit stamp for Vietnam.

“You have Cambodia Visa?” One of the officials asks as he checks that my passport is in order, and did not overstay my visa. I feel important, having my own personal immigration officer check me out of Vietnam.

“Yes.” I answer and show him my Cambodia visa in my passport. The official looks the visa over, finds it in order, and then fills in the entry form for Cambodia for me.

“Sign there.” He says and hands me my form and passport. As soon as I signed, the official nods and my driver jumps up.

“Come.” The driver shouts as he jumps onto his motorcycle. I get on, and we drive about 20 feet to a door.

“In there.” The driver says and points to the door. I get off the motorcycle and make for the door. Inside, I find the Cambodian immigration, with one immigration officer free. In the corner of the place, a busload of tourists are filling in forms. I dash for the free immigration officer before anyone can beat me to it. The immigration officer looks at the entry form and visa, and then stamps my passport.

“Goodbye.” I say as I dash for the exit, where I find my driver waiting for me. We drive up to the Cambodia border, where a customs officer stops us. My motorcycle and the guy who rode it are waiting next to him.

“Yours? The officer asks as he holds out his hand for my passport.

“Yes.” I say as I hand over the passport. The officer flicks though the passport and checks the stamps. Satisfied, he hands it back and nods for us to proceed. I hop on my taxi, and we speed out of there and into Cambodia. About 500 meters from the border, we stop. The guy riding my motorcycle stops next to us just as I get off, and hands me my keys. Suddenly, two more motorcycles stop, one with a pillion on, and I am surrounded by five guys.

Knowing I need to pay the $30 agreed feed, I hand over the only money I have, two US$20 notes.

“Not enough.” One of the guys says. Ah, welcome to Asia, and here I was expecting to get the $10 in change back.

“I have no more.” I say and flick my wallet open and let them see the badge.

“All good.” My driver blurts out. The group disappears faster than even the ninja cops in Vietnam can. I look at my watch and smile. All in, I cleared the border in less than five minutes, how is that for speed? I take on the road and stop 100 meters further on. In the open next to the road, is an ATM. I have no doubt that if I did not flash the badge, the guys would have taken me to the ATM to draw more money. I draw $100, and then get going again, but stop 3km down the road. The engine noise is getting worse. Going directly home is not an option. Reluctantly, I turn to Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital and around 160km from me. I keep the speed under 50 km/h, and only stop for five minutes to eat the second bread roll and fill the motorcycle’s fuel tank, no rest for the wicked.

The road is smooth but boring, and I start daydreaming. In awe, I stare as I pass a line of cars parked on an incline. That is odd. Just then, I reach the crest of the hill and almost crap my pants. Where did the road go? I lock the back wheel up as the road ends in a river. Behind me, an out of breath guard comes running up to me.

“Cars only. Motorbike there.” The guard says out of breath and points to a small building 60 feet away. Next to the building is a corrugated iron roof structure that has a metal gate in front. Behind the gate, are loads of motorcycles, all waiting to join the same road I am currently on. As I make my way over to the building, a ferry arrives and pulls up in front of the building. I quickly pay my ferry fee, and then join the other motorcycle riders. Patiently, I wait and watch as car after car drives onto the ferry.

“Money please.” A voice says next to me. Suddenly, four small Cambodian kids tug at me and beg me for money.

“No money.” I reply. Child labor is a big problem in Cambodia, and parents send their kids to collect money while they sit at home. Not only is the child out of school, but they are forced to work long and hard hours. Giving money to the children just supports this sad way of life. Other scams are worse. Women rent babies, walk the streets in town (especially Siem Reap), and ask people to buy them baby milk powder. You think it goes for a good use, but the woman just takes the baby milk powder back to the shop and gets half the sales price. We call it the baby milk powder scam. Other scams that are popular are fake monks, as well as people steeling passports by promising you that they can extend your visa for you and then run away with the money and the passports. At times, you will also find disabled babies or kids at the temples. The supposed mother actually rents the baby or kid to collect the money. As normal, you also get the beggars who act as if they are disabled, although these are not as bad as using kids. I watch the four kids walk away; I hope they do not fall into a life of crime.

I reach down to get a bottle of ice tea from the holders in my motorcycle’s feering. I bit my lip, as my hand finds nothing. Both my ice tea bottles are gone. I glance over at the kids and cringe. The kids are happily sharing my drinks a short distance away. One even waves at me. They managed to steel the drinks from under my nose. O well, such is life. Just then, the gate opens, and we are allowed onto the ferry. Every possible space on the ferry is taken up. I wonder if they know what the maximum load limit of the ferry is.

On the other side of the ferry, I replenish my refreshments, and then take to the road again. A short while later, I slow down to under 40 km/h as the engine noise starts to sound dire. Hours later, I pull into Phnom Penh and head for the same guesthouse I stayed in when I started my trip. I book for two nights, just in case the motorcycle needs and engine rebuild. This time, I get a VIP room with a king size bed, awesome. Using the local Wi-Fi, I quickly locate a Yamaha dealership and then head out to it.

“Hi. I have a problem with my motorcycle. Do you have a mechanic?” I ask a girl at reception when I get to the dealership.

“Sorry. This is a showroom only. You need to go to the main dealership.”

“How do I get there?”

The girl picks up a brochure of new motorcycles and hands it to me. Confused, I look at the lineup of new motorcycles in the brochure. Just as I am about to ask for directions again, the girls smiles, and turns the brochure around in my hands. I bite my lip and then burst out laughing. On the back of the brochure is a map to the main Yamaha dealership. The girl smiles at me, but I am sure it is taking all her strength not to laugh at me.

“Thank you.” I say and then head out. However, down the road I hit roadworks and am redirected. Armed with a printed map, and a digital map on my iPhone, I manage to get lost, an amazing feat. It takes me a full 10 minutes to get around the roadworks and back on the road that the dealership is in. Eventually, I pull up to the main branch of Yamaha in Phnom Penh.

“Can we help?” A mechanic asks as I walk in.

“Yes. Do you have a new carburetor for a Nouva 2?” The guy thinks a bit and then replies.

“Yes, around $100.” I swallow my tongue. You can forget that price. I decide to only fix the engine noise.

“The engine does not sound good, can you take a look?” The mechanic nods, and we walk over to the motorcycle. He starts it and then revs the engine a few times.

“Over $200.” The mechanic says. I almost pass out.

“What is wrong with it?” I ask, dreading the worse.

“Don’t know. We have to open the engine and see.” Ah, yes, of course. The standard replace everything until the problem goes away tactic.

“I paid $350 for the motorcycle.” I reply. The mechanic shrugs his shoulders.

“Can you change the engine and gearbox oil for me please?”

“Sure.”

The mechanic takes my motorcycle into the shop and within 15 minutes, the job is done for around $4. The carburetor and engine troubles I will have my mechanic in Siem Reap look at and then decide if it is worth fixing. However, I do have a slight problem. How am I going to get the motorcycle to Siem Reap, around 315km away? As I ride back to my hotel, I get an idea. Back at the hotel, I quickly locate the owner.

“Hi. Can you arrange to have my motorcycle put on a bus to Siem Reap?” The woman thinks for a moment, picks up the phone, and makes a call.

“Yes, we can do it, but they do not know if there is space, we have to call back after 5pm.” She replies as she puts the phone down.

“Thank you.” I reply. As it is just after 2pm, I take a seat in the restaurant a few steps from the reception desk and order lunch. Not wanting to be unavailable if she needs me, I stay put and work on my next book. An hour later, a wind comes up and dark clouds form in the sky. Within minutes, it starts to rain. As the storm pics up, the wind blows rain into the restaurant. The staff tries to secure the plastic side covers of the restaurant, but the wind rips them apart. Leaves and twigs join silverware on the tables. Undeterred, I move to a corner table away from the rain as some of the guests abandon the restaurant and head for their rooms. I quickly glance at the time, 4:20pm.

“Can I have coffee and a meat pizza please?” I say as a server passes me. The woman’s jaw drops, and she glances out into the storm. Shrugging her shoulders, she heads to the kitchen. I keep on writing. When I have ideas in my head for a book, I have to get it written down, and not even a storm is going to stop me. 20 minutes later, the power trips, plunging the few remaining guests in the restaurant in darkness. Scared faces are briefly illuminated by lighting flashed that is followed by cracking thunder and yelps of shock. As my iPad provides its own lights, and the small keyboard I use has backlit-illuminated keys, I keep going. On the dot 5pm, I rush over to the reception desk. As I approach, the owner shakes her head and comments. “No power, no phone.” I shrug my shoulders; I was hoping she would use a cellphone. Reluctantly, I return to my table. 15 minutes later, the lights flicker on and like lighting, I am at the reception desk. She tests the landline, and then makes a call.

“No answer, we try in 15 minutes.” She says as she puts the phone down. For the next 15 minutes, I play with my thumbs as I watch the seconds tick by. Exactly 15 minutes later, I head for the reception desk and smile as the owner picks up the phone on my way over. I try to catch the Khmer words I know from her conversations, but fail to make out what she is saying.

“Yes, they have space for the motorcycle. You want to go?” she asks.

“How much?”

“$6 for you and $12 for the motorbike. You pay the bus fare here and the motorbike fare at the bus.”

“Yes, I will take it.” My heart jumps, both from joy and from shock as thunder hits close by. The owner arranges the bus service and then hangs up the phone.

“I booked a room for two evenings. Can I get a refund for tomorrow evening?” I ask.

“No. Next time you can get a night free.” She replies. We both know that it is never going to happen. A small price to pay for the help she gave me. As she writes my receipt, I cannot help but wonder about my bus. A normal bus to Siem Reap is $8 and a VIP $14. What is the mechanical state of a $6 bus? I stare at the receipt as the owner hands it to me. It is a piece of paper from her food order sheets for the restaurant. All she wrote on it is, Paid, one seat, Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. That is it, no tour bus company name, no official ticket, nothing.

“They will make up a price for the motorbike when you get there.” She comments as I hand her $6.

“I thought you said it is $12.”

“Maybe, you will see tomorrow.”

“Where do I meet the bus?”

“When the other customers are picked up, just follow the taxi, or meet the bus at the bus station if you want.” She replies and walks away to take an order from another customer. Earlier in the day, I struggled to start the motorcycle, and had to let the engine idle until it is warm before I could touch the throttle without it stalling. I head to my room and call it an early night so I can be up early tomorrow and get the engine warmed up before the taxi arrives. At least, if worse comes to worse and I miss my ride, I have a free night’s stay in the hotel.

 

 

Chapter 29

 

A metallic beep fills the room as the alarm dutifully activates. Sleepily I turn it off and snuggle up in the soft duvet. Today is the last day of my Vietnam trip. I do not want it to end. It is amazing that one month of travel can have such a great impact on your life. I think that is what travel is all about, experience new things and ideas, and change your life. Eager to get home, I take a quick shower and head downstairs to start the motorcycle up. After storing my bags in the reception area and ordering breakfast, I head outside.

My heart stops and an arctic chill runs up my spine. Goosebumps form all over my body. Frantically, I look around but see nothing. My motorcycle is gone. My throat tightens up. Someone stole my motorcycle. After all we have been through, it had to end like this. I tear forms in my eye as I stare at the empty space next to the door where I parked it. Across the road, four people are sitting in a tuk tuk, heading for the bus station. I sigh, well, at least I have a bus ticket home. Just then, the tuk tuk pulls away, and I wipe the tears from my eyes. Behind the tuk tuk, is an abandoned tuk tuk carriage, and behind that, is my precious. Someone moved it last night to across the road, yes, with a chain through the back wheel. I rush over and stroke my precious, then try to start the engine. It takes a lot of cranking and gentle increase in the throttle to get the engine to start.

I have to keep the starter engaged even when she is running to keep the engine going until I get the revs up. If I open the throttle a fraction past idle speed, the engine dies. After two minutes, I am able to increase the throttle and bring the revs up a bit. Five minutes later, the engine idles without me needing to keep the throttle open. By now, my breakfast is cold, but it is a small price to pay. Satisfied that the engine is reasonably warm, I head back to the restaurant and take a seat close to the door.

Being a very popular hotel with backpackers, taxi after taxi pulls in to pick up guests. With every taxi that stops, I head over to the reception and ask the owner if it is my pickup. Eventually, the owner cannot handle it anymore and says.

“Sit down; I will call you when they are here.” Like a good doggy, I sit down, but cringe each time a taxi pulls up. The fear that the engine is cooling off too much, gets worse by the minute. I contemplate riding to the bus station and waiting for the bus there as the owner said I could. However, a whisper in the wind tells me to stay put, and I do so. 20 minutes later, a minivan pulls up and the owner motions for me that I can go. I rush over to my motorcycle, get the engine going, and then stuff my bags in the minivan. The driver’s jaw drops.

“No No No.” He yells while frantically waving his arms in the air.

“I have a ticket.” I comment as the driver wants to throw my bags out of the minivan while still shouting no. The hotel owner comes out to see what is wrong, and the driver shoots off a string of Khmer words at her.

“He says you cannot put the motorbike in his taxi.” The owner says. I shake my head, duh, of course not.

“I will follow him.” I say to her, and she translates to the driver. Suddenly, his world is full of sunshine and roses. I turn my attention to the motorcycle. I swallow hard. The engine is too cold. Each time I try to give it enough throttle to pull away, the engine dies. My heart races in my chest as I keep on trying to get the engine speed up to let the engine get warmer faster. Four times the engine dies before I manage to get the engine idling up a bit. The driver looks at me, and then pulls away. I try to follow, and open the throttle a bit. The motorcycle moves a foot forward and then dies. My heart stops as I watch the taxi driving off, with my gear in the back.

In desperation, I restart the engine and then run push the motorcycle while increasing the throttle. I go for about 20 meters and then suddenly the motorcycle lunges forward. Being fully automatic, the motorcycle just keeps on picking up speed and I am almost dragged behind it. Miraculously, I manage to jump on the saddle like a cowboy in the go and give chase just as the taxi turns at the traffic light up ahead. I manage to make the light just before it turns red, and catches up to the minivan by the next traffic light. The driver must be late, as he pulls away flat out when the light turns green and rips through peak morning traffic. Luckily, I am also mad, and have no problem keeping up. Now and again, I am forced to lock up the brakes as the driver suddenly realizes he needs to stop to pick someone up.

15 minutes later, we come to a stop outside a tour company’s head office. Confused, I watch as all the passengers get out of the minivan and wait next to it. Has the minivan broken down?

“Give your bags to the man there and take a seat on the bus.” The taxi driver says as he points to a buss across the road from us. I am glad I listened to the voice in the wind and did not go to the bus station. As is common in Asia, buses do not always leave from the bus station. The bus is the size of a double decker bus, with the bottom part used as storage with the upper part for passengers. From the state it is in, I reason it may have served in the First World War. I head over to the bus and look inside. In the cargo area, four other motorcycles are already loaded.

“My motorbike needs to go on the bus.” I say to one of the guys loading the bus. The guy looks at me, and then at my motorcycle.

“How much did you pay?” He asks.

“I paid for me but still need to pay for the motorcycle. They said $6.” I chance getting a discount. The guy just laughs at me and comments.

“Sorry, no space on bus.”

“I will pay more. $12” I quickly add.

“Okay, have space.” The guy replies. He points over to a desk at the tour company and says.

“Pay there.” I leave the motorcycle by the bus and run to a woman the guy pointed out. As I cross the road, I smile to myself. I love Cambodia; anything is possible, for the right price.

“Hi, I need to pay for my motorcycle.” I say to the woman, and I take out $12 as if it is the normal thing to do. The woman looks at me, then the money, then to a guy next to her. He nods, and she takes the money and signals to the guy at the bus that it is okay. No receipt, nothing. The guy who said yes, turns out to be the driver. So, three people, $12, that is $4 apiece, not bad. I do not care; I just want my motorcycle in Siem Reap. I help he driver at the bus to load my motorcycle, and then climb into the bus.

Since I only have a piece of paper saying I paid, I take the first seat that is open near the stairs leading into the bus. The conductor sees me and comes over.

“Ticket.” He says as he holds out his hand. I give him the note and his eyebrows dip. He looks at the piece of paper for almost a minute while his mind wanders, then he looks up and scans me for about 20 seconds.

“No.” He says as he shakes his head. My stomach turns. At this point, I am prepared to pay for the seat again.

“Sit there.” He says as he points to a seat directly behind me. I obey without question. I wonder how he worked out where I must sit, taking that the seats have no numbers. Being one of the first passengers on the bus, I watch as the rest of the travelers climb on. Everyone gets on, looks around and just takes the first seat they can find. Wow, I am the only one that has an assigned seat. I really am special.

The bus is in such a tip-top condition that; my seat is broken, the air conditioner does not work and only circulates the air; the air vents are broken, and you have to position them with straws; the emergency roof escape hatch has pieces missing that lets the sun and dust in, while it needs to be held in place with pieces of sting. So, this is what a $6 bus gets you. I smile and lean back as the bus pulls away. In about eight hours, I will be home.

Since a large part of the road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap at current is dirt, the whole bus fills up with dust and dirt through the emergency escape hatches. After an hour, we look like we did a few laps around a dirt track with go-carts. With the bus full of dust and the road in front of us looking like a dust storm from the bus before us, the driver is mostly keeping the bus on the road by luck. This does not bother our fearless driver as we fly at over 80 km/h (GPS verified) though potholes that almost rip your lungs out. Add to this mad dash that the road between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap is seen as a death road due to all the fatalities. This is due partly because people treat the road as a racetrack, regardless of the condition the road is in.

Two hours in, the four cups of coffee I had while waiting for the taxi driver this morning, needs to get out. Each time we crash through a pothole, I clench my jaw in pain. I briefly consider going up to the driver and asking him to stop for a minute, but dismiss the idea immediately. I will most likely be killed by being flung around as the bus flies through the air each time it goes over humps or through potholes. I also do not want to disturb the driver, as he is concentrating hard on driving, while juggling two cell phone calls at once. He is holding one phone against his ear with his right shoulder while he uses his left hand to hold the other phone. I am not sure if he is having a conference call, or if he does not care that, the two people he is talking to can hear what he is saying to the other one. Just as I think I cannot take it anymore, he slams on the brakes and pulls into a restaurant parking area. I am so glad I almost hug the driver. With tears in my eyes (from the dust I promise, not being glad of having feet on firm ground), I rush to the toilet, that consists of a wall in the open with three urinals. This is an upgrade from the tree I was shown on another bus tours.

Feeling much lighter, I get myself two water bottles to wash the dust down my throat, and then head back to the bus. Concerned, I move to the back when I see the engine hatch open. My eyes widen as I watch the conductor pour water into the radiator, which is leaking almost as fast as he pours water in.

“All good, no worry.” The conductor assures me. I move on, knowing they will send another bus if this one breaks down. Silently, I actually hope it does, and that the replacement has a working air conditioner and proper emergency hatch covers. I take my assigned seat, and then wait until the buss pulls away before closing my eyes to try to get some sleep.

30 minutes later, I jerk in my seat when a banshee starts screaming in the back. I bite my lip. It does not sound good. The engine may be overheating and seizing up. The bus labors on for a few more minutes and then comes to a grinding halt. Confused faces look at each other as the conductor jumps out. For five minutes, he hammers under the bus against something with a pipe, and then returns.

“All good.” He assures us when he climbs back onboard. The bus shudders as we pull away, and manages 500 meters before it grinds to a screeching halt. The driver keeps revving the engine, but about four banshees have joined the first one and scream together in the engine compartment. Thor joins in and releases lighting and thunder in the back, and then Odin finish things off with a loud bang. Silence fills the bus as the engine dies. Wide eyes glance around the bus, seeking comfort in numbers.

“No worry no worry, soon fix.” The driver says as he jumps out of the bus. Three minutes later the driver returns.

“All off the bus.” He goes. We do as we are told, and sit alongside the road on the grass in someone’s unfenced yard. The driver crawls under the bus and have a meeting there with Thor, while he hammers away at the bus. I head across the road to a local Khmer restaurant and sit down with a cold soda. The driver wrestles Thor’s hammer from him and kills the banshees with it, and then throws the carcasses out from under the bus. It looks like a large rubber coupling, about 30 centimeters in diameter.

The entire time the driver is busy under the bus, the conductor is topping up the radiator with water. To my amazement, they have a spare part. The problem however, seems to be in getting the new part to fit. The conductor joins the driver, and they use both Thor’s hammer and Odin’s staff. For about 12 minutes, they hammer and kick at things under the bus before the part is finally in place.

“Back on bus back on bus.” The conductor says and causes a stampede as we rush to our seats. With the last person accounted for, the driver pulls away, and we reach a staggering 60km/h. We are late, stink, and covered in dust and sweat, but no one complains, as we are just too glad to be on the road. The kms fly past in slow motion, and eventually we reach Siem Reap, four hours late.

Immediately as we climb off the bus, we are surrounded by tuk tuk’s that want to give us a ride into town. I decline, and a bunch of taxi drivers laugh at me for declining their service. I know what they are thinking. It is 5km to town from the bus station. I patiently wait for the conductor the offload the luggage, and then help him offload my motorcycle.

Jaws drop and the taxi drivers stare in disbelieve as I get on my scooter. Suck it up dudes, eat my dust. I breathe a sign of relieve as the engine starts, and I pull away. 15 minutes later, I stop at my flat. I am glad and sad to be back. Tiredly I make my way up to the second floor where my flat is, drop my bags, and then head for the fridge. A tall glass of ice water is just what I need to get the dust and sand out of my mouth. My stomach turns and I gag as I open the fridge. The smell of rotten food and eggs hang thick in the air. I glance at the breakers; the main one is switched off. The owners must have come into the place and switched the main breakers off. Why, I have no idea. I am not costing them money as water and electricity are separate from rent. Well, things have started with an adventure and unexpected surprises, it is only fitting that the trip ends that way.

I clean the fridge, open the windows, and then take a nice long shower. It takes me all of five minutes while in the shower before I start planning the next trip.

This trip was an adventure full of surprises, both pleasant and not. I went for it without knowing how I am going to do it, and just took each day as it came. That is how life is. There are good and bad that happens each day, and we rarely know how we are going to get through life. Some days we just have to take it day by day, or even second by second. Go for your dreams and things that make you happy, else, what is the point of living? Even if you are not exactly sure on how to do it, go for it and start, and figure it out on the way.

If you always wait until you are ready to do something, you will never do anything. Even if you go halfway and fail, you have accomplished more than doing nothing at all.

 

 

About the Author

 

Anton Swanepoel @ Pol Pot’s house on the mountains in Thailand, and on his way to Preah Vihear Temple.

 

For seven years, I worked as a technical diving instructor in the Cayman Islands. I am a Tri-Mix instructor in multiple agencies, and dove to over 400ft on open circuit. While on Grand Cayman, I started a passion that I always had, writing. For a number of years, I saved what I could, and in Jan 2014, I moved to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to focus full-time on my writing, while travelling. If you want to follow my adventures, see my blog www.antonswanepoelbooks.com/blog.

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More Books by Anton

 

www.antonswanepoelbooks.com

 

Novels

Laura and The Jaguar Prophecy (Book 1)

Laura and The God Code (Book 2)

Laura and the Spear of Destiny (Book 3)

 

Peru Travel

Machu Picchu: The Ultimate Guide to Machu Picchu

 

Travel Tips

Angkor Wat & Cambodia

Backpacking SouthEast Asia

100 International Travel tips

 

Motorbike Travel

Motorcycle: A Guide Book To Long Distance And Adventure Riding

Motorbiking Cambodia & Vietnam

Dangerous Loads

 

Cambodia Travel

Cambodia: 50 Facts You Should Know When Visiting Cambodia

Angkor Wat: 20 Must See Temples

Angkor Wat Temples

Angkor Wat Archaeological Park

Angkor Wat & Cambodia Temples

Kampot, Kep and Sihanoukville

Kampot: 20 Must See Attractions

Battambang: 20 Must See Attractions

Phnom Penh: 20 Must See Attractions

Siem Reap: 20 Must See Attractions

Sihanoukville: 20 must See Attractions

Kep: 10 Must See Attractions

 

South African Travel

South Africa: 50 Facts You Should Know When Visiting South Africa

Pretoria: 20 Must See Attractions

The Voortekker Monument Heritage Site

The Union Buildings

Freedom Park

The Cradle of Humankind Heritage Site

 

Vietnam Travel

Vietnam: 50 Facts You Should Know When Visiting Vietnam

Vietnam Caves

Ha Long Bay

The Perfumed Pagoda

Phong Nha Caves

 

Thailand

Thailand: 50 Facts You Should Know When Visiting Thailand

Bangkok: 20 Must See Attractions

Ayutthaya: 20 Must See Attractions

The Great Buddha

 

Laos

Vientiane: 20 Must See Attractions

 

Diving Books

Dive Computers

Gas Blender Program

Deep and Safety Stops, and Gradient Factors

Diving Below 130 Feet

The Art of Gas Blending

 

Writing Books

Supercharge Your Book Description (Grab Attention and Enhance Sales)

 

Self Help Books

Ear Pain

Sea and Motion Sickness

 


Almost Somewhere

A dream is a living thing. The more thought you give it, the stronger it gets, until it becomes an obsession. For a long time, I have dreamed of riding a motorcycle from the bottom of USA near Miami on route 56 and go all the way up as far as I can. However, funding kept that dream a bit at bay for now. Being in Cambodia, I decided I would do the next-best thing, motorcycle from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) to Hanoi. For added effect, I decided to cross over to Laos near Hanoi, and then come down through Laos back into Cambodia. That was the plan, but plans do not always work out, as we want them to.

  • ISBN: 9781370489527
  • Author: Anton Swanepoel
  • Published: 2017-01-05 16:35:24
  • Words: 110725
Almost Somewhere Almost Somewhere