Tag Archives: Minsk

How to Ride a Motorcycle Across SE Asia

Originally Posted on OffTrackPlanet.com

When it comes to Southeast Asia, everyone has the same guidebook and the same itinerary. Chances are you’ve island hopped through Thailand, trekked through Laos, hit a tranny bar here and there and you still haven’t left the crowd behind.

You’re stuck on the Banana Pancake Trail. It’s time to get off…

You need to do something unique; something everyone else is too scared to do. How about buying a Soviet-made motorbike for $300 and riding it from Saigon to Hanoi? Sound crazy? It is – but you can do it and OTP is well-prepared to guide you through one of the wildest adventures to be had in Southeast Asia.

Step 1:

Learn How to Ride

Vietnam is NOT the place to learn how to ride a motorbike. It’s dangerous and you must know at least the basics of riding. If you are still stateside, go to the DMV and take a basic safety course for about $250. Warm up to riding in Asia by renting smaller motorbikes in Thailand.

Step 2:

Make Some Rough Plans (Pick Your Starting Point)

It makes more sense to start in Hanoi if you are coming from China or northern Laos; Ho Chi Minh City if you are coming from Cambodia. Although Hanoi is an easier place to find a bike, either city will work. Buy the bike in one city, ride it to the other and sell it. Simple.

The north-south journey takes a month. If you are short on time, stick to the north and make the beautiful Hanoi-Dien Bien Phu-Sapa loop. Alternatively, you can seek out the EasyRiders, a local Vietnamese crew, that offers short and long-term tours on the back of their choppers.

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Step 3:

Pick Your Highway

You don’t want to make too many plans in advance. Relax and give yourself the freedom to make up your exact route as you go along. You can choose to follow the coast for the beaches, swing into the misty mountains or carve along jungle valleys, beside waterfalls and through thatched hill-tribe villages. While most of the rides offer a great mix of scenery, there’s a fork in the road between Hoi An and Nha Trang.

Take the rural route through Dalat and up into the Central Highlands instead of coastal Highway 1. While Highway 1 connects all the coastal cities in one endless chain of life-threatening traffic, rural roads are usually secluded, peaceful, and incredibly scenic. The great north-south rural highway is called the Ho Chi Minh Highway – follow it across almost the entire country. Although there are far less services available along the rural route, the Vietnamese are incredibly warm people and will usually help you however they can. Besides, learning how to get out of such jams puts hair on your chest, don’t it?

tipsicon1 100x46 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East AsiaWhen planning your route, remember that rain in the mountains, means sun on the beach and vice versa. Also, even when you need to travel along the coast, you can easily hop off Highway 1 and putz along smaller side roads. A great way to learn about the sights along the way is by asking the Easy Rider crew for tips.

P5300024 How to Ride a Motorcycle Across South East AsiaStep 4:

Find a Bike…and Make it a Minsk

Once you arrive, the first step is to find a bike that won’t break the bank. This will require a few days, a bit of tenacity and some bargaining skills.

OTP likes the Soviet-made Minsk. It’s reliable, simple, durable, can handle all the dirt roads you will inevitably encounter and will carry all your crap through rain and shine. They’re also easy to find in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

Since you’re too broke for a new Minsk (at $700), a used one can be nabbed for $200-$400, depending on how well you bargain.

Search for For Sale flyers in hostels, restaurants, internet cafes and on the street. If you are in Hanoi, swing past the Minsk Club to look for leads. Some people have been lucky and found bikes on the Internet before they even arrived.

Once you find a bike or two, its time to…

Step 5:

…Bargain Your Ass Off!

You’ll likely buy your Minsk from another backpacker – one who has a month’s less money and a month’s more experience bargaining like the Vietnamese. You’ll need to sit at the bargaining table with some tricks up your sleeve.

Find out the strengths and weaknesses of both you and the seller. His strength lies in the limited supply of bikes – so the more sellers you can play off each other, the better. His weakness is time and an immediate need for funds to continue traveling. To knock the price down you must find the weaknesses in the bike: point out what’s broken, how old it is – anything you can find.

Dance with a few sellers for a bit, then seal the deal over a few pitchers of bia hoi. Play your cards right and he’ll buy you all the spare parts you’ll need to sweeten the deal. Don’t fork over the cash until everything is to your satisfaction.

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You get what you pay for. You may not need a brand-new bike, but you don’t necessarily want the cheapest bike you can find. Bargain for a good deal, but make sure the bike you buy will actually make it all the way to Hanoi.

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Step 6:

Learn The Minsk

Now that you’ve got your Minsk, lift up her skirt up and see how she works. Tool around the Minsk Club Vietnam website then fine-tune your knowledge by reading our guide below.

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Each Minsk has her own personality, complete with unique quirks. Have the seller explain how to start her when she won’t, fix her when she’s broke, and maintain her along the way. As with everything in nature, the older the bike, the more quirks she’ll likely to have.

Step 7:

Get Some Supplies

You’ll need to prepare yourself for this journey. Every rider should carry the tools and supplies he needs to make roadside repairs. Your bike should come with tools. Some extras you will need: spark plugs, chains, spare lights and brake cables.

As for the belongings you already have in your backpack – shed the junk, keep the basics. You’ll have to carry everything on the back of the bike, so keep it lightweight. Check our Packing 101 Guide for assistance.

Step 8:

Tune Her Up

Wheel her to a mechanic for a full rub-down. Make sure the less obvious components are working as well: namely, the horn, brakes and lights. Spy on how the mechanic systematically checks each part of the Minsk and use what you learn as a guide to fixing her up on your own later.

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Once she is fully tuned, you will have to keep her in good condition. Learn about daily maintenance and you will save yourself a lot of breakdowns.

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Step 9:

Rules of the Road

You’re almost ready to take off. The streets of Hanoi might seem like a massive clusterfuck, but don’t stress – there’s a method to the madness. Here’ s the breakdown:

Might is right. Big-ass trucks and tourist buses dominate the center of the road, normal trucks and cars are in the middle and motorcyclists are on the shoulder. Passing is the norm in Vietnam and even the semi-trailers will swing into the opposite lane to pass someone. Stay alert. Typically you drive your bike until you approach another driver from the rear, then honk twice as a friendly signal and pass them on the left side. Repeat all day.

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Getting out of the cities can be the hardest bit. Warm up by hiring a motorcycle taxi and riding around the city to get a feel for the flow of traffic. Repeat until you feel comfortable enough to take off. There is no shame in paying a motorcycle taxi driver $5 to guide you to the outskirts of the city on your first day.

Step 10:

Take Off and Let Go

You now have freedom from itineraries, fixed bus schedules and group tours; you can go anywhere and stop as long as you like.. Just you, the Minsk and the road.

Step 11:

Harness your Chi and Focus Your Zen

There’s something spiritual about embarking on an adventure like this. Here’s a few tips on how to get your Zen on.

  • Slow down. As you plan out each leg of the journey, reign in your ambitions. Remember that you are no longer traveling by bus – driving a motorbike is physically exhausting. You feel every last mile and you are always at the mercy of the weather. The roads are windy, slow and not always paved.
  • Bring yourself into the moment. The constant fear that death lurks around each corner strips away all your distant concerns and brings you to the here and now. You may never do something like this again, so make sure your mind is fully appreciating it and not off in the clouds.
  • Accept setbacks and delays with a smile. When breakdowns happen on the road – and they will – learn to embrace them as a chance to slow down and pause in a part of Vietnam you normally would have sped past. Take five minutes to admire the view of the jungle before getting down to work. Remember, delays don’t exist. You have nowhere to be but here, in the moment. Smile.
  • Open yourself to the endless possibilities of the road. Take as many detours as you like. Check out the small villages, take the road that isn’t on your map and accept the offers to have tea with local families. Vietnamese visas typically last one month, but you are free to extend yours and stay another month or two. And, rumor has it, if you carry enough US dollars, you might be able to use some baksheesh to illegally sneak your bike into Cambodia or Laos.
  • Stick it to Mass Tourism. By taking this bike ride on your own, you have circumvented the middleman between you and your host country. As you journey farther into the misty mountains and away from the tourist trail, you will transcend mass tourism and encounter a more fundamental human relationship with your host country. Differences in nationality, beliefs, age, and income will disappear. While other backpackers are paying $20 a night for “authentic homestays,” your entire journey will transform into one enormous authentic experience.

As you pull away from Saigon, you’ll taste true freedom. As you chase the sunset along Vietnam’s golden coastline, you’ll arrive in the present moment. As you slip into top gear and rip alongside endless fields of rice paddies, you’ll discover what it feels like to be young and alive. That is, of course, how we should feel all the time. But sometimes it takes a bit of old-fashioned adventure to remind us.

The Minsk Dies (Lost in Central Vietnam)

The bike died three days later.  Actually, it died three times within three days, but each day I refused to give up on The Minsk.  I did all I could to bring her back to life, but my efforts were in vain.  I was putting band-aids on a corpse.

I’m no doctor, but I knew something major was wrong with The Minsk.  For some reason the electrical coils in the engine were melting and subsequently the engine died from lack of power.  I rolled her to the nearest farmer’s house, and we sipped tea and gave The Minsk a good look-over.  Yep, we concluded, she is a piece of shit.

The same problem occurred three days in a row.  On the first two days I had to push my bike through the jungle to the nearest mechanic, then wait all day while he drove for two hours to the nearest city to buy the parts, two hours back, two hours to fix it…then, as the clock struck 11 PM, he handed me a bill that was approaching the value of the bike itself.

So for two consecutive nights, I slept in small villages with local families while I waited for my bike to be repaired.  These priceless “homestay” experiences are something most travelers pay for (myself included, see Tomfoolery in the Mekong Delta).  But with The Minsk, I had no alternative.  I transcended the realm of mass-tourism and experienced a form of hospitality that has not existed in the West since the days of horse travel.  Lost, weary, and alone in the darkness, they took me in their homes without question, fed me a warm meal, made me a bed on the floor next to the rest of the family, and sent me on my way the next morning without speaking a word of the same language.

On the third day, The Minsk died about 50 km from civilization, deep in the heart of a remote valley near the Laos border.  I stood at the foot of a towering grey cliff surrounded by tall, skinny palm trees, short stocky ferns, broad leafed bushes, and screams of a thousand jungle animals.  The nearest town was too far away – I would have to wait for a semi-truck to pick me up.

I waited for two hours and not a single truck passed by.  Finally, a big lorry swung around the bend and stopped next to my bike.  We lashed the Minsk to the back of the truck and the drivers took me to the nearest town, cruising in low gear up the mountain passes and jammin’ a playlist ranging from Dancing Queen to Vietnamese techno songs.

We arrived at the next town two hours later, and the drivers helped me take my bike off of the trailer, then wished me good luck and took off down the road.  I tracked down the local mechanic, but he said he was too drunk to fix my bike that night.  Another kind family took me into their home and the mechanic fed me glass after glass of rice whiskey with the other locals.

As much as was I cherishing these experiences, I had to face the facts: the mechanical problems were becoming increasingly expensive and time consuming, I had less than a week on my visa and still 500 km of winding roads to Hanoi.  I had to make a cost/benefit analysis of my situation.  I pulled out a pen and paper and did some calculations – if the bike broke down again, I would have to pay a truck driver to drive me and the bike over 500 km to Hanoi, then pay a mechanic to fix this major problem, then extend my visa just to have enough time to sell the bike.  It was an expensive prospect.  I decided that if it broke down one more time, I would have to abandon the bike and hitchhike to Hanoi.

The next morning I woke up in the morning to hear the mechanic zipping past my host’s home on my motorbike.  Thank God, I thought, maybe this time he fixed it for good.  He was laughing gleefully, and he pulled up to the front door, dismounted, wrote something in the sand, and beckoned me to take a look.

$200 – the cost of repair.  The bike was not worth more than $125.  So he wanted to play hardball, eh?

Ok, amigo, let’s tango.

I low-balled him an offer of 100,000 Dong, or about $6 (which was the ‘local price’ for the basic repair).  He was furious!  He slashed his price to $50.  Quite a discount, but it was still highway robbery.  I offered him 100,000 Dong again.  He sparked a cigarette and stomped around in anger, insisting that I pay $50.  Again, I offered him 100,000 Dong.  He started screaming at everyone in Vietnamese then stared at me deep in the eyes.  I thought he was going to punch me in the face.  I pushed out the 100,000 Dong note again.

Then something strange occurred.  He grabbed the money, and instantly the anger disappeared from his face.  He pulled me by the arm to the nearest restaurant, ordered a full chicken for breakfast and about 8 beers.  It was 8 AM.  The cook of the restaurant grabbed a massive pair of scissors and chopped up an entire chicken (head and all) then slammed the poor mutilated bird down before us.  The mechanic forced beer and chicken down my throat until I finally had to escape the table before he got me too drunk to drive.  I thanked everyone for their hospitality, kick-started the bike, and rode off towards Hanoi.

Or so I thought.  The bike died 20 km later.  I was riding through an intensely beautiful jungle valley, when a loud BANG- BANG- BANG!!! exploded from the tailpipe, the throttle went slack, and the bike slowly rolled to the side of the rode and stopped.  Just the silence of the empty road and the singing of the crickets.  I had progressed only 130 km in 3 days.  It was time to say goodbye to The Minsk.

“Minsky,” I said, “why are you doing this to me?  Why won’t you just work?  Please, please, please, just get me to Hanoi, nothing more!”  I was nearly insane with frustration at this point and talking to a motorcycle seemed perfectly sensible.  The Minsk said nothing.  I screamed at the jungle and karate kicked The Minsk.  “Ah, you bloody Russian-made-fifth-grade-science-project-third-place-piece-of-crap-lawnmower-of-a-motorbike!  I’m through with you!”

The Minsk stared back at me with her bleary headlights, coughed a cloud of blue smoke from the exhaust, and spoke to me in a fading breath.

Mark, don’t be angry with me.  I can go no further.  I am old, I am weary from the road, and it is time for me to rest my bones.  Oh, how many years I have done this journey, from Hanoi to Saigon, Saigon to Hanoi and back again!  It’s always the same – some foolish tourist tries to cram a  five-week journey into the three weeks left on his visa, red-lining the engine, making only enough repairs to get them to Hanoi, then dumping me on another wide-eyed kid looking for adventure…now look at me.  I’m a mess, kaput, finito!

“Ah, Misnky, you are right.   You were not designed for the tropic heat, and you need major repairs, but it’s more than I can afford at this time.  So tell me, what should I do?”

Leave me here, in the farmland, with the people.  This is where I belong, with my fellow comrades.  I want to spend my last days near the rice paddies carrying rice to the market, not flying down Highway 1 with a new neophyte driver every month.  I need someone to love me, to wash me each week, to tighten my bolts and polish my headlight.  Leave me here, and travel onwards, young vagabond. 

It was difficult to say goodbye, but I swallowed my tears, duck taped the key to the gas tank, and left old Minsky on the side of the road for whichever farmer found her first.  For some poor farmer, the bike would be a tremendously valuable asset – to me, just another week’s worth of travel money.  I waved goodbye to my “dependably unreliable” Minsk, and walked down the road.

I hitchhiked off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, back to Vinh on Highway 1 and caught a local bus north.  Instantly, I felt the loss of my freedom – once again I had to pay for taxis and buses.  My actions were limited by Prices and Schedules.  Furthermore, I had lost my special status in the eyes of the Vietnamese: I was no longer the Intrepid Traveler on a Minsk, now I was Just Another Tourist, same as the rest.

I rode the bus to Hanoi and looked out the window, holding my now useless helmet in my hands, reluctant to let go of my adventure.  I knew my decision was rational, but still I felt as though I had abandoned a dream on the roadside, as if Time and Money had overwhelmed my mind and blinded me to the true nature of my journey.  I felt as though I had given up on myself.

But deep down inside, I knew that I was only confusing the true source of regret – that my motorcycle adventure had finally come to an end.  I knew I had chased my dream as far as I could go, that I had given up on nothing.  All good things must come to an end, and the journey simply ended when it did.

It had been quixotic and chaotic, a beautifully romantic journey chock full of youthful bliss, folly and pure adventure.  My frustration vanished and a smile swept across my face.  My adventure was over, but for the first time in my life I had tasted the sweet elixir of genuine freedom.  Freedom had slipped through my fingers this time, but I promised myself to find again and never let it go.  I realized just how much freedom ‘normal life’ lacks – shouldn’t we always be as free as a 23-year old kid on a motorcycle?  Probably.  I will let you know once I’ve figured out the secret to Endless, Boundless, Freedom.

I stared out the window for hours, and soon the lights and traffic of the big city rose over the horizon.  A few hours later, I was standing in a beautiful park in the cultural heart of Vietnam – the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

MIA in the DMZ (Lost in Central Vietnam)

It was getting dark.  I stared at my map, trying to find out where the hell I was.  I had not passed a proper town for hours, the highway I was driving down was not even on the map and I was rapidly running out of energy.  I needed to find shelter fast, or else I would have to camp on the side of the highway.

How the hell did I get here?  I only had myself to blame and I knew it.  I had ignored the locals, followed my ‘instincts’ and subsequently lost myself in the jungle.

It all started when I left Hue.  I intended to fly up Highway 1, see a few former US military bases in the DMZ, then continue north to Phong Nha for the night.  I zipped up to Dong Ha, the seaside town smack in the middle of the DMZ.  The road forked and gave me two options: to continue north along Highway 1 to the Viet Cong’s tunnels, or to follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail west along Highway 9 to visit Khe Sanh, the sight of a former US military base and one of the bloodiest battles in all of the war.  My instincts told me to get off Highway 1 and to follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail west towards Laos, then north through the backroads to Phong Nha.

Everything went wrong from this point on.  As soon as I turned my west, the winds picked up and storm clouds flew across the border from Lao, adding to the innately eerie feeling of driving through the sickly lands of the DMZ – farmland lay fallow, the hills were brown, the villagers stared at me unsmilingly and I passed signs warning locals not to walk off the paths in the hills, lest they step on unexploded bombs and lose their legs or their life.

I passed strategic hills I had read about in history books – Hamburger Hill, The Rockpile, and Hill 881 before finally reaching Khe Sanh.  Instantly felt bad vibes as I approached the museum, as if the ghosts were watching me from behind the trees.  A lady came outside and told me to go away, the base was closed, she said.  It started raining.  A Vietnamese man appeared from nowhere and tried to sell me rusty medals from fallen US soldiers.  I told him to go away, and I turned back to the highway.

The highway was labled DHCM, which I assumed referred to Duong Ho Chi Minh, or Ho Chi Minh Highway, and I asked the locals if it lead to Phong Nha.  They shook their heads and repeatedly said, Laos!  Laos!  I ignored them, listened to my instincts and headed north on the highway.

It was beautiful.  I passed wooden villages nestled in small jungle clearings and centered around muddy water holes full of submerged water buffalo.  I didn’t pass a single person for hours.  Seriously.

Then I swung around a corner and almost fell into a huge open pit.  I realized why there was no traffic – the highway was still under construction. I stopped the bike, then shifted into first and tried to go over the steep muddy road, but the bike stalled and fell over and the scalding exhaust pipe burned my leg through my jeans.  I was frustrated, but I pushed on.

Four hours later it was getting dark and I was lost.  I was stuck in the Bermuda Triangle of Vietnam and after hours of driving I was totally lost and still hundreds of kilometers away from civilization.  It was still 120 km to Phong Nha, or four hours by bike.  I pulled out my Vietnamese phrasebook and asked a lady where I could find a guesthouse.  Dong Hoi, she said, 80 km east, 2.5 hrs by bike along an unfinished road.

I had no option.  As darkness consumed the land I pushed my bike into gear and headed up the nearly vertical dirt road, away from the paved highway and into the unknown. The road was so steep and slippery that I had to dismount and run alongside the bike as I revved the engine in first gear.

After about twenty minutes I realized I was low on petrol.  I thought I would be stuck in the worse of all situations.  Then I saw a team of road workers packing up their shovels and picks, and I asked them if they had any spare petrol.  I only needed a liter or two, just enough to be safe.  They smiled, and poured in liter after liter of petrol despite my protest, then charged me usurious rates.  It was quite literally highway robbery.

I pushed on.  It was frustrated, hungry and tired.  The highway was not completed, so there were no restaurants or petrol stations yet, just darkness.  I progressed at a snail’s pace, but finally I caught up with other traffic – massive lorries transporting rocks and tar for building the road.  They kicked up so much dust into the night sky that I could barely keep my eyes open.

The road alternated from smooth sand to dangerously loose rocks.  My eyes were full of dust and it was becoming increasingly difficult to see where I was going.  I came around a corner too fast, and when the road suddenly switched to loose rocks I lost control of my bike.

The Minsk skidded out, crashed into the ground and threw me face-first onto the rocky ground.  For a few moments I lied with my face on the ground.  My whole body hurt.  I just wanted to quit.  I sat up and looked around.  The only light was my headlight, buried beneath the rocks and pointing into the ground.  The only sound was my engine revving loudly in the dark.

I felt so alone, so unprepared, nervous, so tired, so hungry, so naïve.  I wanted to cry.  I jumped up, clenched my fists, closed my eyes, looked into the heavens and screamed a thousand frustrations into the night sky.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I don’t want this bullshit!  I want to be in bed right now, not lost in the middle of the DMZ!!!!!!!

I opened my eyes, and stared at the bright stars above, at the North Star.  I might have been lost, but at least I had the stars to guide me.  Wasn’t this what I wanted?  Celestial navigation, pure adventure, terra incognita?  Well, I had found it, but it tasted bitterer than I had expected.

No, I could not give up now, I must push on.  I brushed the dirt off my clothes, picked up the bike, and continued on down the road, searching for a restaurant, a snack shop, anything. 

Finally I found a small store, but they didn’t have food to sell.  They offered me a cigarette.  I took two.  They offered me a cup of tea.  I drank two pots.  I smoked away my hunger and my fatigue, sipped away my frustration, thanked them and got back on my bike.  I pushed on.

Just when I felt like I could go no further, I saw a light far away in the distance – paved roads, civilization!  Eureka!  I dismounted and stumbled into the only restaurant in town and asked for rice.

I walked into the biggest piss-up I have ever encountered in of Asia.  Fifty Vietnamese truck drivers were swilling beer, eating food, smoking cigarettes, taking their shirts off and yelling at each other in Vietnamese.  My eyes stared at large pots of steaming rice, plates of chicken, pork, and vegetables.  It was a feast.  When they noticed me, all conversation stopped and it was silent.  Then they grabbed me by the shirt, sat me down, poured me a beer, and loaded me up plate after plate of rice and pork.

I was in heaven.  I gobbled down about 10 helpings, and instantly I could feel my energy returning.  It was difficult to convince them that I had to leave, but eventually they drew me a map to Dong Hoi and sent me on my way, refusing to let me pay for anything.  All 50 of them gathered around my Minsk and smiled at me as I started the bike and revved the engine.

They waved at me as I took off into the dark and I thought about the lesson of the night.  Though I wanted to quit, I sucked it up and pushed onwards and I was rewarded for my perseverance.  I thought of the character from Into The Wild, and how he died only a few kilometers from a road that would have lead him to civilization and safety.  I thought of one quote I had recently read by Rainer Maria Rilke,

“We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us.  Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them…How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.”

As lame as it sounds, my ‘dragons’ had turned into ‘princesses,’ and I made it back to civilization in one piece.  After a day of being MIA in the DMZ, I had made very little progress towards Hanoi.  I knew I would have to make double time in the next few days, but once I checked into my hotel all my cares floated away.  I plopped onto the bed and fell asleep in all of my clothes.

A Mad Dash Across Vietnam (Dak Lak – Kon Tum, Vietnam)

Thank God that rice whiskey leaves no hangover, else I may not have completed the journey from Dak Lak to Kom Tum.  It was a beast of a ride, the longest leg of my journey by far.  300 kilometers of straight freeway, just a high-speed burn up the Ho Chi Minh Highway through Buon Ma Thuot, Ea Drang, and Playku to the small town of Kon Tum.

This ride would push The Minsk to the limits of her capacity into regions unimagined the Soviet engineers who designed her way back in the 1940s.  I imagined traveling back in time to ante-bellum Moscow, pulling out a map of Vietnam and showing them just how far I planned to push their creation through the Vietnamese jungle.  What would they do?  Would they just stare at me in disbelief?  No, they would probably yell at me in Russian, throw blueprints across the room and attempt to explain that this bike was designed for the snows of Siberia, not the thick, humid heat of the tropics.  Ah, but I was pressed for time and I would do it nonetheless.

The skies had dumped oceans of rain down upon my head for three consecutive days now.  Everything I owned was completely soaked.  My jeans were weakened by the rain and even the smallest holes had ripped and torn themselves into gigantic gashes that exposed the naked, white flesh of my thighs.  My shoes weighed ten pounds from all the rainwater.  My only two pairs of socks were soaking wet and brown with mud.  If I didn’t dry out my socks, I was going to get trenchfoot!

I needed clear skies, just for one day.  The gods on Mt. Olympus must have taken pity on my soul, for they blew the clouds clear out to sea and delivered me a brilliantly sunny day.  I tied my socks and underwear to the back of my bike to dry out and set off at the crack of dawn, north to Kon Tum.

The sun warmed the lands and beckoned hundreds of butterflies out of the roadside bushes into the early morning air.  Hundreds, then thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions and billions of them took to the skies, flying across the road, oblivious to the traffic whizzing down the highway.  They formed a veritable wall of butterflies twenty feet high, fifty feet wide, and four miles deep.  I had no choice but to plow right through the thick of it, completely covering myself in butterfly guts.  They were splattered across my Ray Bans, lodged in my beard, sprayed across my helmet, stuck between my teeth and flayed by my flapping scarf.  It was a massacre.

But I was on a mission; I had to move on, and there would be only one stop today – the Central Highlands’ biggest town, Buon Ma Thuot.  I will not lie about my intentions; I was here to pick up drugs, as much as I could carry.  In two weeks I had become helplessly addicted to Vietnamese Brown, and Buon Ma Thuot, or BMT to those of us in the know, was the best place to land the cheapest, purest powder on the market.  I pulled into town, found a shady alley, and found an old lady willing to make a deal.  I sampled the goods – potent, yet delicious.  I bought two kilos of her best stuff and tucked them deep into my bag intent to smuggle into the US and distribute to family and friends.

Wait…what drug did you think I was talking about?  No, no, no…not heroin, just Vietnamese Coffee!  Oh, man, I can’t get enough of the stuff!  The Vietnamese serve you coffee in a small glass no larger than 6 ounces, with a dollop of sweet condensed milk at the bottom.  Then they place the coffee grinds and hot water in a small filter that sits atop the cup and slowly drops the thickest, most potent coffee imaginable into your cup.  Delicious.  Call me when I get back, we will have a cup together and you will see what I mean.

With the good safely stashed  in my pack, I jumped back on the bike and continued north.  I was not the only one carrying goods on my bike that day.  In fact, my tiny backpack was a small load for a motorcycle to be carrying in Vietnam.  The average family may own only one or two motorcycles, if that.  Most do not own cars or trucks.  The motorcycle serves both purposes – it can carry a family of five or lug your produce to market.  I have seen bikes carrying the most ridiculous cargoes imaginable: 100 pound bags of rice, flat screen televisions, twenty foot-long metal poles, shoulder-high ceramic urns, three squealing pigs, and fifty half-dead chickens hanging off the sides of the bike by their feet.  Mark my words, if a Vietnamese person ever bought a car, they would probably drive it home from the dealership on the back of their bike.

The coffee farms gave way to massive rubber plantations that stretched for miles in every direction.  I flew along the roads at top speed, pushing that Russian bike faster than she had ever gone before.  Towns zipped by, mountains came and went, and the sun moved through the sky from east to west.  There was no time for pictures, and not really anything worthy of a picture.  But soon enough, I saw a sign approaching in the distance: Kun Tom.  Eureka!  I made it, and with no problems!  I was starting to get very tired from riding The Minsk day after day.  I think the constant vibrations were rattling my brain.  I needed to get to civilization, to take a nice warm shower and to rest for a few days.  But not yet.  I fell asleep early and prepared for another long day with The Minsk, during which I would travel along the border with Laos, deeper into the jungle to the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Motorcycle Diaries, Day One (HCHM -> Mui Ne, Vietnam)

Three Challenges – Challenge One – Challenge Two – Challenge Three

I know what you are thinking.  Motorcycle Diaries? You mean like Che Guevara?  Haha, yes, cliché isn’t it?  Or should I say, cli-Ché?  (This cheesy joke is hereby patented by Mark Ayling).

Well, if Che Guevara had ridden across South America on this Russian-made piece of crap, he probably would have switched sides in the Cold War and swapped the Minsk for a Harley Davidson.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  I knew it was going to be a difficult first day, and I saw three sizable challenges ahead of me:

  • Challenge Number One – Get The Minsk started
  • Challenge Number Two – Successfully Leave Saigon and Get to Highway 1
  • Challenge Number Three – Avoid death and rain and drive down Highway 1 to Mui Ne beach. 

It would not be easy but I was determined to make it.  I packed up my bag, strapped it on the janky luggage rack, put on a helmet, sunglasses, and riding scarf, cracked my knuckles, and confronted my first challenge of the day.

Challenge Number One – Get The Minsk Started

Starting The Minsk required a special touch, a knowledge of which buttons to push, which levers to adjust, which pedals to pressure at which times and to what degree.  I lacked this touch.

The hot Saigon sun crept steadily in the sky, and as it reached its zenith I had yet to successfully start The Minsk.  I was sweating, I was tired, I was frustrated, and I was sure I had been duped by that slippery Limey.  It was reaching an ungodly temperature, and I knew I had to reach Mui Ne before the late afternoon, for the monsoon had begun in earnest and each afternoon the sky poured down an ocean of water upon the fields of southern Vietnam.  If I did not get the bike started soon, I would either die of heatstroke in Saigon or slide off the road and die in a tropical storm on Highway one, thereby failing Challenges 2 and 3.

I called over a motorcycle taxi driver and asked him to start it.  He got it first try.

Challenge Number 1: Completed!

Challenge Number 2: Successfully Leave Saigon and Get to Highway One

Emboldened by my successful completion of Challenge Number One, I charged onward to Challenge Number 2…Excuse me, Mr. Motorcycle Taxi Driver, would you please escort me from here to Highway One?

You might laugh, but I tell you this was the biggest Challenge of the day, even with the guide!

Saigon is a crowded city and it sprawls outward for miles in each direction.  The people drove like madmen.  Attempting to avoid collisions and simultaneously navigate was impossible.

Every intersection was a free-for-all, and I had about thirty intersections to cross before I got to the highway.  At a four-way stop, the light would turn green and then all four sides would go at once.  Everyone would approach the center at the same speed, all would arrive at once, and then the bold drivers would begin weaving their way through the mess.  Somehow, no one completely stopped, no one put their foot down and no one crashed.  I just plowed right through the center of it all, barely able to co-ordinate my clutch, accelerator, and brake, let alone avoid hitting anyone.  I almost crashed four times in the span of five minutes.

The chaos did not stop there.  Rules were being broken everywhere.  It was a mockery of Western Law and Order, a physical repudiation of the French’s intended purpose of Saigon’s grand boulevards.  As I idled at the traffic light, a motorcycle would zip around the corner to my right against traffic, then continue along the curb for another fifty meters or so before cutting right across the street and back into his proper lane.  And this was only at the four-way intersections; the round-abouts were another matter entirely.

Somehow I managed to follow the moto driver through this mess and after 45 minutes I was on the outskirts of Saigon.  I jumped off my bike in excitement and went over to pay the driver his due…and accidentally allowed the bike to stall.  Back to Challenge Number 1 again.

Challenge Number Three – Avoid Death and Rain and Drive Down Highway 1 to Mui Ne Beach

The highway looked only marginally easier to navigate than the roads of Saigon.  As trucks, cars, motorcycles and tour buses zoomed past me, I stood on the side of the road and decided to sacrifice a large goat in Zeus’ honor.  Oh mighty Zeus, high on Mt. Olympus, please spare me for one day.  Do not bring the storm cloud upon my head, do not put obstacles in my path.  Just make my first day on The Minsk somewhat easy.  I finished the sacrifice, wiped the blood from my hands, restarted the bike (after twenty tries), and delved into the swirling traffic on Highway 1.

Highway 1 is much like Highway 1 in California; it traces the coast along the South China Sea and connects all the beach cities from Saigon to Hanoi.  It supposedly held incredible scenery and life-threatening traffic.  As I stared out over smoggy suburban Saigon, I could only see the latter.

There appeared to be a system on the highway, unlike the roads in Saigon.  All the motorbikes were keeping to the right shoulder, so I followed the other bikes and moved with the flow.  Cars whipped past us, minivans rocketed by, massive lorries stumbled and chugged along, and enormous double-decker VIP Tourist buses whizzed by at Mach 1, honking their horns and overtaking dozens of bikers at once.

The bus drivers were crazy – they were driving their machines like they were Subaru WRXs in a rally-car race.  Often, a tour bus traveling in the opposite direction would pass a slower bus, swinging into our lane, squeezing the cars into the bike lane, the bikes onto the roadside, and the roadside vendors into the rice paddies!  And the only warning you received was a deafening HOOOONNNNNKKKKK!!!!!!

Ah, the horns.  In Vietnam, a vehicle’s horn varies in pitch according to the vehicle’s size and its ability to end your life abruptly.  While my bike squeaks a high-pitched Beeeep! Beeep!, the massive lorries belch a frighteningly deep growl, and for a moment you believe that, by some work of the gods, you are about to be passed by the Titanic! 

On top of this all, the roads are pocked with patches of gravel, dirt, and water, around which you must navigate while fending off hundred of Evil Canevil wannabes and dozens of ocean liners.  And once you think you’ve mastered that, then a Vietnamese bus passenger will chuck the remainder of his noodles out the window of his bus and right onto your head!

But despite all the hazards, my first day on the bike was one of the best experiences so far.  Once I left the city behind, the traffic dissipated and I sped past rice paddies and mountains strewn with boulders, then over rivers and canals to the fishing villages along the coast.  I passed through Phan Thiet, a charming seaside village with aging buildings which looked over the brightly colored fishing boats anchored in the water below.

As the sun set over the mountains to the west, I traced gorgeous beaches to my right.  The South China Sea appeared in the late afternoon light, windblown but inviting nonetheless.  The beaches were lined with palm trees for miles, and to my left marvelous sand dunes fell down to the side of the road.

But above all, I enjoyed my liberation.  Freedom from pre-planned itineraries, freedom from bargaining bus drivers, freedom from tuk tuk drivers, and freedom from my fellow travelers.  After months of complaining about being stuck on the tourist track, I had finally done something about it.

For the first time in my four and a half months of traveling, perhaps for the first time in my life, I felt truly free.

Free, yes, but also tired.  I had knocked out all three challenges with no problems and I was in need of some relaxation.  Mui Ne fit the bill nicely.  It was an 11 kilometer beach that curved in a large crescent, completely covered in coconut trees, fishing boats and luxury resorts.  I found one of the few budget places on the beach and spent a day swinging in a hammock, reading Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad (highly recommended summer reading), and trying to avoid death by falling coconut.

I took advantage of The Minsk and explored the nearby fishing villages.  Without The Minsk, I would have stayed within walking distance of my guesthouse, but instead I went into local neighborhoods and sampled local seafood on the street.  Of course, I still lacked “the touch” for getting my bike started, so after spending two hours trying to start it in three different places, I decided to save the bike riding for longer distances.

After two nights, I packed up my bags and hit the road again.  Next stop, up the coast to the beach town of Nha Trang.

The Minsk (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)

I bought the bike within minutes of seeing it.  It was a piece of junk, and it suited my purposes perfectly.

It was an old Russian Minsk, a simple 125cc bike that has not changed in design since before World War Two.  Minsks are tough; they can drive over any terrain, from muddy mountain roads to the open highway.  Minsks are notorious for breaking down constantly, but their simple design make them easy to fix with no more than a screwdriver, a wrench and some scrap metal.  Plus they are cheap.

The seller was a British chap, about 22 years old with a childlike face and long brown hair pulled back into a pony tail.  He smoked a cigarette nervously while I looked over the bike.  He wanted $450 for it.  I offered him $300, and we went to the local bia hoi stand to discuss business over a few rounds of dirt-cheap Vietnamese beer.

His reasoning was simple – the bike might be a bit old and clunky, but she will hold up if you take care of her and she will take you all the way to Hanoi with no problems…well, not that many problems.  Besides, he added, she had made the journey between Hanoi and Saigon dozens of times.

His last claim was indisputable; it was obvious the bike had been back and forth between Hanoi and Saigon many times.  The question was whether she could make the trip one more time.

I looked at the bike more closely.  The headlight worked, the left turn signal didn’t, and horn worked when it was in the mood.  She had a new paint job – blue paint with a black leather seat.  The British guy had fastened an improvised luggage rack on the back using only the legs of a metal stool and a bungee cord.  It was a kick start, as there is no battery or starter switch – just a raw combination of gasoline, fire, and air.  She had no speedometer, and no odometer, just kilo-meters.

I asked start her up.  He smiled nervously, scratched his head and cast his eyes to the ground.  Ahh, how did he describe the bike?   She’s a bit temperamental, she is… But he got her started easily enough, and it seemed like you had to get your ‘touch’ just right.

The engine sputtered to life and coughed blue smoke out of the exhaust.  He revved the engine and she rattled violently, shaking all of her screws half-loose in the process.  He said it was a two-stroke, one lung engine.  I had no idea what “one lung” meant, but from the looks of how much it was smoking and coughing, I guessed it lost the other one to lung cancer.

We settled on a price – $300 – and he assured me I would easily find another buyer in Hanoi.  I handed him the cash, and he handed me the key and a plastic bag containing two wrenches, one screwdriver, two spare spark plugs, one spare headlight, two spare brake cables, one spare clutch cable, a couple of spare clutch plates, and an old greasy rag – but no owner’s manual!   He smiled, patted me on the back, promised me I would learn a lot about motorcycle mechanics, and gave me the papers for the bike, which were registered in some Vietnamese guy’s name.  Apparently it is illegal for foreigners to own motorcycles.

By the time I looked up from the papers that slippery Limey was off with my cash!  I had just made a sizable investment, for better or for worse, and my plans had changed drastically.  No more “open bus ticket,” no more tourist trail, and no more Lonely Planet guidebook.  Just me, the Minsk, and a beaten-up road map of Vietnam.

This was going to be quite an adventure.