Tag Archives: Vietnam

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.

Asia in Retrospect – Final Post (Beijing, China)

And now, it is my last day in Beijing; I am finally ready to leave China, finally ready to go to Mongolia, to Siberia to Moscow on Trans-Siberian Railroad.  I have my tickets in my hand, my visas in my passport, and my plane tickets back to the US are already booked.  My journey across Asia is finished.  I cannot believe the words that flow from my fingers – journey and finished in the same sentence.  How can this be?

I guess it’s been over a half year, hasn’t it?  I left the United States on the very day that Obama was inaugurated, two Americans on two different paths, with two different sets of obstacles but sharing the same Hope and Optimism, the belief that we can salvage something from this crazy world and build something good from the chaos.

I have discovered many things on my journey, too many to write at the moment.  I had many pleasant surprises, but more often I was shocked by reality and forced to re-evaluate the world as I thought I knew.  My worldview has been destroyed and reborn almost every week, and each time it has been recast with a different perspective, each time slightly closer to the wisdom I seek.

The world I lived in before in California was quite a comfortable one.  It was easy to remain ignorant of many of the world’s ills, simply because so much of our world appeared to revolve around the America – Hollywood made all the movies on my television, CNN always talked about the issues that effected me and my people, and my President’s decisions appeared to influence the way the world worked, the way it was.

But I have been in South, South East, and East Asia for the better part of the last 14 months, and I don’t think I can return to that same way of thinking.  I have spoken with people from dozens of countries on countless issues and I have seen how some of the world’s poorest people survive. As a good friend of mine told me, life just isn’t the same once you’ve seen the moon from the other side of the world.

As I look back at the first months of my adventure, I laugh at my vain attempt to label the dates of each post – I lost track of time in the time-warp that is Burma.  Now, as I look back on all the places I have visited I can see phases emerging from within my Odyssey.

I started in Singapore, clean-shaven, energetic and ready to go.  I skipped through Malaysia quickly because I had yet to learn the value of traveling slowly.  In Thailand, Jay and I let loose and lost ourselves on the beaches amongst the seemingly endless number of beautiful people.

In Burma, I needed something different – I needed the anti-Thailand.  I got it.  I also got my first taste of what it is like to live without freedom, and I witnessed political oppression for the first time.

After Burma, I headed to Laos and saw the scars from the Vietnam War for the first time.  But Laos is a beautiful country with wonderful people, and I enjoyed my time sipping coffee and lounging around lazily like the Laotians do.  And of course, I will never forget how the locals included me in their celebration of the Buddhist New Year…then forced me to eat a boiled duck embryo.

Cambodia was a humanitarian nightmare.  In Angkor Wat I saw the potential greatness of the human race, and in the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh, I saw mankind at its most cruel.  Cooperation erected the temples at Angkor, hatred dug the mass graves of the Khmer Rouge.  Cambodia tested my faith in humanity, but I emerged from the wreckage of genocide with a determination to do what I can to make the world a better place, a world free from Killing Fields and mass executions.

Vietnam was incredible, definitely my favorite overall country.  Stunning beaches, virgin jungles, excellent food, and hospitable people – but tough bargainers.  And of course, there was The Minsk.  Riding The Minsk across Vietnam has forever endeared me to travel by motorbike and inspired in my mind countless other motorbike journeys.

And then I came to China.  At first I didn’t know what to make of China at first because it was so large, so ancient, and changing so fast.  I initially disliked China simply because of how different it was from the South East Asian backpacking circuit.  And in Tibet I realized just how much you can disagree with someone’s government while still loving their people.  Many people I have met have expressed their contempt for George Bush while telling me that they love Americans.  It would be a pity if each country’s citizens were equated with their worst politicians.  China has grown on me, and as I leave I regret not having more time to explore this mighty civilization.

Have I shaken myself of all of my biases?  No, certainly not.  Many of them remain within this blog, but I am hesitant to correct them because I would rather preserve the way I thought at that moment, for ignorance is a step in the direction of knowledge.  A sanitized blog would be boring.

Instead, I have laid my naked thoughts before you and displayed my imperfect self for all to see.  Though my primary subject has been my host countries, I suppose you have learned more about me than you have about the places I have visited.  Maybe you feel you know me better, or maybe you think I have changed.  Though now I may seem to you a different person, if you trace my thoughts through my writings you shall discover the mind that rests within my current self.

At the onset of my journey I assumed I would cross into Russia as an enlightened traveler, as if my journey would inevitably elicit a series of spiritual revelations and magically endow me with wisdom of the world.  Seven months later, I summarize all I have learned with a quote from Socrates: “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.”   With every revelation came more questions, with each taste of wisdom came greater appreciation for the complexity of our existence.  Traveling has humbled me and encouraged me to continue my exploration of the cultures, histories and languages of the world.

Now I conclude what has been, up to now, the best period of my young life.  It was a half year of experimental living during which I ignored the societal pressure to start a career, and instead followed my heart’s desires – to hitchhike, to wander, to ride motorbikes, to search for terra incognita and to test the words and theories of my favorite authors.  I had to know if it was possible to wander aimlessly like Dean Moriarty, if it was possible to chart one’s own path like Thoreau.  My journey was, in this sense, quite a quixotic quest, a product of reading too many beatnik books and listening to too much Bob Dylan.  But, like Don Quixote, I discovered that by imitating the stories I so admired in books, I soon became embroiled in the same dramas as my favorite works of fiction.  The lines between the fictional and the possible blurred and soon I had my own stories to tell.

As I read my first post, Castles in the Sky, I can’t help but smile at my words – the excitement, the energy, the wide-eyed wonder that first drove me to Singapore with nothing more than a few t-shirts and pen and paper.  I chased my dreams across all of Asia only to watch them materialize in new, unexpected forms.  I spent more time in Asia than I expected, and almost none in Europe; I intended to hitchhike across Europe this summer, but instead I am moving to Spain for an entire year.  The same dream, but in a different form.

Now my trans-Asian journey is finished.  I will be in California for two weeks before moving to a small village in rural Spain, where I spent one year studying Spanish and teaching English.  As one adventure ends, another begins.

So off I go, to Mongolia, to Siberia, to Moscow, riding on the train of my dreams, wandering in search of The Truth, stumbling blindly down the path of life, using ideas as my maps, and guided by the one thing that has remained constant as the world has shifted around me – the stars.  This is the beauty of Celestial Navigation.

I hope you have enjoyed my stories, and if you buy me a few beers when I get home I’ll tell you some more!  Now throw away your maps, look to the starts for guidance and start wandering!  I gotta go; I’ve got a train to catch!

– Marko

Beijing, China, 26 July 2009

The End!

Hanoi Hustlin’ (Hanoi, Vietnam)

The backpacker district in Hanoi was situated in the Old Quarter, a maze of narrow streets, alleys and boulevards centered around a peaceful green lake.  In the evening young Vietnamese couples sat on benches along the water’s edge and watched the sun set over the peaceful water.  On the north end of the lake, a red bridge led to a temple constructed on a small island.  It was an oasis of tranquility amidst an endless cacophony of horns, sales pitches, and motorcycles.

I stood on the red bridge and looked out over the water.  I had a lot on my mind.  I had just lost my bike, and the whole experience had been more costly than I had budgeted.  But more than that, I had just checked my email and read some bad news – getting a student visa into Spain would be more difficult than I had imagined.  A lot more difficult.

I thought I could just swing through the Spanish embassy and process the application within a few days, but now I read that the process would take two to three months!  Additionally, I needed to apply from my home country!

Ahh, what to do?  I didn’t want to come home just to process a visa.  It seemed like a tragic way to end my journey, with the young adventurous wanderer cut down at his peak by a Spanish bureaucrat.  I knew there was a way around this obstacle, because if there’s a will, there’s a way.

But was there a will?  I was completely exhausted from riding the Minsk across Vietnam.  The prospect of coming home sounded so enticing: summer on the beach in La Jolla, drinking Arrogant Bastard Ale at a Padres game, cruising down Sunset Boulevard with my friends…oh, and of course, California Burritos!   Ah, I could taste the Santana’s burrito all the way from Hanoi!

I snapped out of it.  No, Mark, you cannot give up now.  It’s just another roadblock, just something you must overcome. So forget burritos – coming home might sound nice, but once you get on the plane to California you will wish you were back in Asia.  Words of truth.  I stood up from the park bench, and tried to think of some ideas.

I wandered through the Old Quarter for hours.  Cheap food vendors were every five feet, hawking everything from noodles, to baguettes, mangoes, rice and sweets.  Every shop was either a travel agent or a knock-off shoe store.

There were also an odd number pet shops with giant pictures of cute poodles in the windows…wait, why are people eating dinner at these pet shops?  Wait a second, that’s not a pet shop – it’s a dog-meat restaurant!  Though I wanted to travel my taste buds as much as possible, “Poodle Noodles” was a questionable dish to sample.  I searched Zagat for recommended restaurants, but I was told it was a bad time of year for dog.   Apparently, it was too hot for dog.  That was enough of an excuse to dissuade me.

Sidewalk coffee shops were sprawled along the streets, with old men sipping thick, black coffee, and men smoking tobacco from big bamboo bongs.  They offered me a hit, and I took it.  Never again.  The nicotine went right to my head, and I stood up and almost got smacked by a truck as I stumbled down the street.

I went to the Temple of Literature, an ancient institution of higher learning.  Like many of the old Vietnamese buildings, it was highly influenced by Chinese architecture.  The influence did not stop there; inside the temple was a large statue of Confucius, the Chinese scholar from 500 BC.  The Confucian values of respect for elders and an emphasis on education are readily felt as one travels through Vietnam.  China… I was heading there next, but I’d been so preoccupied with my bike journey that I hadn’t even given China any thought at all.  One thing at a time.

I continued on to the Hanoi Hilton, the prison known to most Americans as a place where American POWs were tortured during the war (it is where John McCain was held, and it is why he cannot fully raise his arms).  The museum focused largely on the horrific French treatment of Vietnamese, only briefly mentioning the treatment American POWs.  It showed pictures of them laughing, playing basketball, and cooking Christmas dinner.   Oh, how much I will miss Vietnamese propaganda.

Lastly, I went to visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.  I don’t remember if I mentioned this before, but the Vietnamese love Ho Chi Minh.  He is even more popular than Obama on inauguration day, maybe like George Washington on his inauguration day. They refer to him as Bac Ho, or “Uncle Ho.”  Most Vietnamese are confident that he actually is their uncle, especially in the strongly Communistic north.

The Vietnamese love him so much that they completely disregarded his dying wish for a simple cremation, and instead they preserved his body in a glass case, like Mao or Lenin.  I had heard that his skin was like rice paper, so I was imaging Uncle Ho to look like a giant spring roll.  He really just looked like a wax statue.  It was creepy.  He was guarded by the most serious Vietnamese soldiers I have ever seen – after all, they were the righteous guardians of 85 million people’s uncle.  They admit tourists for a quick walk through, lasting no more than one minute.  It is totally silent as you enter the room, circumambulate his body and the sickle and hammer flag, then exit.  No cameras, no talking, no smiling.  Just pure respect for Uncle Ho.

I checked that one off my “Embalmed Communist Leaders of the World To-Do List,” set down my day bag, freshened up, and explored Hanoi by night.  It was excellent.  Everywhere there are bia hoi bars on the street corners, and I was staying right next to the greatest concentration of all of them in the city.  The bia hoi is made fresh daily, packaged in kegs, and distributed around the city for instant consumption (it has no preservatives).  One dollar buys you 70 beers – a backpacker’s paradise.

I spent a few days typing up the blogs for this website and trying to figure out a way around this massive roadblock in my journey – how to get my visa into Spain while still fulfilling my dream of riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  I visited the American and Spanish Embassies, did research on the web, and spent hours on the phones with bureaucrats from Hanoi to Madrid to Los Angeles.  Finally, I found a solution.

It was complicated, but it would buy me two months of travel time.  But coming back to California for two weeks before going to Spain was unavoidable.  I will not bore you with the details, but let’s just say that I found a loophole in the law, drafted a couple legal documents, got a few official stamps from the relevant embassies, and mailed all the documents around the world.  Like they say in India, sab kuch milega – everything is possible.

So now I had roughly two more months of traveling left, just enough time to cruise through China and catch the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Beijing to Moscow and fly home from Russia.  The days of carefree wandering were limited, and I had to maximize my time.  I could not afford to be ensnared in the web of bureaucracy anymore.  I had to step carefully.  I would have to assiduously research the finer details of this complicated trans-continental train journey, everything from departure times, reservations, prices, and (most importantly) my visa into Russia.

Getting a visa into Russia is notoriously complicated.  Technically, you must have reservations for every night you are staying in Russia and you must present a copy of these reservations to the embassy when you apply for your visa.  You are also supposed to apply from your home country.  Obviously, I could not do either.

I researched this one through and through, and finally I found a loophole – sab kuch milega.  Apparently I could hire a Russian travel agency to make a number of fake reservations for me, then cancel the reservations for a total of $30.  Also, the Russian Consulate in Hong Kong was notoriously lenient on applications.  I had my solution.

So my plans changed, yet again.  I originally intended to travel to the Yunan Province in China, just north-west of Vietnam, but now I knew I must go to Hong Kong.  I had to get that visa into Russia, or else I was not going on the Trans-Siberian.

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.

Back to Civilization (Hoi An, Da Nang & Hue, Vietnam)

I have only a few hours before I leave Vietnam and enter China, where the internet is heavily restricted and censored.  Therefore I must type as much as possible before I change countries, drop out of the blogosphere and embark on new adventures

I intended to do all this writing at a leisurely pace while I relaxed in Hanoi, but my here has been surprisingly stressful as I have had to deal with visas, permits, red tape, small print, immovable bureaucracy, banks, insurance agents, travel agents…in short, I got backhanded by Reality once again.

But not to worry, I have dealt with Reality.  Once again, Reality tried to invade my realm – the realm of dreams, hopes and imagination – but I pulled out my Red Tape Cutting Scissors and put that faceless messenger of pessimism back in his place.  Take THAT!

I am free to wander once again, at least temporarily.  But let me delve back into my story, back to those days of Pure Freedom On The Road.   Yes, reminiscing about those days will bring peace to my troubled mind.  But where was I?

Oh yes, yes, yes… I had just followed the Ho Chi Minh trail to Nham Duc.  Well, thankfully it was a rather eventless hop, skip and a jump from there to the seaside trading town of Hoi An.  I descended from the cool air of Central Highlands once and for all, back down to the ocean and back down to the Humid Heat of the Tropics.  I had forgotten how hot it was in this country.

By the time I rolled into Hoi An, the Vietnamese were staring at me with a mixture of surprise and disgust.  My clothes were in tatters and my shirt, jeans, and shoes were muddied from five days of riding through the rain and stained black from motor oil stains.  The sole of my right shoe had torn off from too many failed attempts at starting the Minsk.  I looked like a bum and I smelt like a yeti.  The Vietnamese pointed this out repeatedly, shouting Yo’ pants ripped!  Yo’ shoe broken!  Yes, yes, I know…

Thankfully Hoi An was a town famous for its surfeit of tailoring shops.  There must have been 500 tailors within a one mile radius.  I threw away my ruined clothes and summoned the nearest tailor.  I had a new wardrobe made to measure and shipped it all home.  Button down shirts ($10), pants ($12), suits ($30-$120), silk ties ($5), winter coats ($40), custom shoes ($15-$30) – everything was available, and it was all tempting.  I felt so haggard and the allure of fresh, sharp clothes was difficult to resist.  I got by without spending too much money, and I spent 4 days in Hoi An, relaxing and soaking up the comforts of civilization I had been missing up in the Central Highlands.

The town was quite charming; every building in the old town was painted mustard yellow and topped with orange-brown ceramic roof tiles.  The architecture was heavily Chinese-influenced, often adorned with ancient Vietnamese writing (which is written in Chinese characters), and at night Hoi An’s denizens hung multicolored Chinese laterns in front of their stores and homes.  Hoi An was an important trading town in the 17th and 19th centuries (much like the Portuguese colonies of Melacca in Malaysia and Macau in China), and the influence of European, East and South East Asian cultures could be readily felt.

I befriended Jamie, a fellow Minsk-rider from England, his brother, Richie, and Carina and Maria from Denmark and Canada, respectively.  The five of us wandered the ancient streets together, exploring the nearby ruins of the ancient Champa civilization (some of the oldest in SE Asia) and sipping on 20 cent beers at night.  Ahh, those were good nights with good friends and a welcome respite from riding The Minsk all day.

But after four days it was time to move on.  Jamie and I rode our bikes through the important seaport of Da Nang (where the first US troops landed in 1965) and continued to the former imperial capital of Hue.  The drive was incredible – jungle-covered promontories jutting out into the sea, the road gently tracing their contours and winding up a steep mountain pass with each successive switchback delivering increasingly staggering views.  It was hard to concentrate on the road.

We made it to Hue, located the rest of our posse (who had taken the bus) and set up camp for a few more days.  We toured the Hue Citadel, the former imperial palace of Vietnam under the Nguyen Dynasty.  Opulent palaces and serene pagodas sat within the protection of massive stone walls.  I was impressed.  Then I went to the Thien Mu Pagoda, one of the most famous pagodas in Vietnam.  I was impressed again.  Hue, I have concluded, is impressive.

I spent the afternoon wandering the tranquil gardens of the pagoda and observing the novice monks in their training.  I sat outside the pagoda and observed the child monks as they chanted Buddhist scriptures while tourists stared at them, took a picture, then turned around and jumped back on their tourist bus.

More and more tourists came, snapped, and went.  The monks chanted faster, louder, more resolutely, with each chiming of the pagoda’s gong.  Gongggggg! Louder.  Faster.  Gongggggg!  Louder. Faster.  I found the tourists’ behavior more intriguing than the monks’, because when I looked at these monks I saw their imperfections, their fallibilities, their human qualities.  I realized that they are not semi-divine beings; they are humans just like us.

Then I realized that these monks were just blocking us out of their minds, ignoring the tourists, the cameras, the materialism we represent, the itch on their feet, the heat in the room, the sweat dripping down their cheeks.  Buddhism is simply a healthy practice of ignoring the ugly aspects of human nature, of trying to find peace and meaning in a world that deprives us of both more often than we would like.

We take pictures of monks because we want to be like them, maybe because we think that we can never be like them.  We feel like their peace of mind is unattainable in the West because we must give up too many things to achieve it, so we just take pictures.  But I am beginning to see that we can find mental peace everywhere: in the flowers in our garden, in the silence of the early morning, in the orange hues of a brilliant sunset.  But our downtown apartments have no gardens and no flower, we often sleep through the morning, and we spend many sunsets stuck in rush-hour traffic.  This is easy enough for me to say while I am traveling; I just pray that I can find this peace again once I lay down my backpack and settle myself at home.

Hue was a glorious city, and I really wish I had more time to spend there.  But, alas, my visa would expire soon and I still had half of Vietnam to traverse, so I had to cut my cultural and historical lessons short and hop back on The Minsk.  After two nights I packed up my bags, said goodbye to my new friends and prepared to travel from Hue through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and north to Hanoi.

Everything went downhill from there.

 

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.

I Ponder Zen & Motorbikes (Central Highlands, Vietnam)

Zen.

What is Zen?  We use the word constantly in an abstract manner, but do we even know what it is?  We define it more by what it is not, than by what it is – we think Zen is anything that is not stressful.  We name trendy coffee shops Zen This, ambient chill-out music Zen That, Volume CCCCXX, and, most relevant to my situation, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.   But what is it?  I still cannot define Zen, but on Day Four on the Road, I came a little closer.

I found traces of Zen everywhere on Day Four.  Oddly enough, I found Zen amongst the most frustrating circumstances, in the midst of rain, mud, and motor oil.  I found it within the folds of my own mind, using only a few simple alterations of perspective.  It is easy enough to find peace of mind while sipping Singapore Slings on a beach in southern Thailand, but this is simply escapism.

No, the most rewarding tranquility comes when everything around you is going wrong, when your clothes are soaking wet, your bike won’t start, your back hurts, you are stuck in the middle of nowhere in a foreign country and no one speaks enough English to understand your bitching.

It was here, in this situation, that I found Zen.  With no one to complain to, no one to rely upon, and no one to help me, I scrunched up my fists, bit my lip, took a deep breath and then slowly exhaaaaaaalled… Ahhh… everything will be alright.  Deep breaths.

It rained all day.  I woke up early, determined to complete my journey before the afternoon rains started.  But the afternoon rains from the previous day had not yet abated.  I sipped my coffee in silence and looked out into the early morning rain.  Remember the first tenant of Buddhism, I thought, life is suffering; accept your suffering and do not complain about it.  Yes, it would rain all day.

Everything I owned would probably be soaked.  I could not alter my situation, only how I reacted to it.  I wrapped my valuables in a plastic bag, saddled up the bike, and pushed off into the rain.

I pulled out of Dalat and headed to my destination at Dak Lak, 150 km north on Highway 20.  I was wearing a pancho, but it was entirely useless – the rain dampened my shirt, irritated my eyes, soaked my jeans, and ran down my legs and pooled in my shoes and socks.  Within one hour of leaving Dalat,
I was a mess.  And I still had hours to go.

I was uncomfortable, but how could I let that distract me when I was traveling through such a beautiful land, and by motorbike no less???  Dalat had been crowded with tour buses and honeymooning Vietnamese, but only twenty kilometers beyond the city limits and I was alone in the forest.

And then, just as I crested a hill and plunged into a beautiful valley of pine trees and clouds, the rain stopped and the sun warmed my face, dried my hands, and as for my jeans and shoes…well, it didn’t really do anything for them – they were soaked beyond help.  But, oh, how I welcomed the brief hiatus from the miserable rain!  A break in my suffering!

I slipped the bike into neutral, turned off the engine, let go of the handle bars and drifted downhill with my arms raised to my side.  It was completely silent.  I floated through the pine trees, through the wisps of clouds that hung motionless in the folds of the valley, down, down, down, to the streams below.  I felt like I was flying.  I had found the first traces of Zen.

It was a relatively trouble-free day; my entire exhaust pipe detached from the engine and fell onto the highway, but I managed to rejoin it to the bike using only a screwdriver and a wrench.  I thought of that 16-year old boy who knew my bike inside-out, and I smiled at my modest accomplishment.  I still had far to go, but I was learning something about motorcycle maintenance.

The scenery was so beautiful.  I pulled over many times to take photos, and each time my bike stalled and would not restart (so please appreciate the attached photos!).  Normally I would be frustrated by this, fuming about the damn worthless bike, and worrying about being late to my destination.   But I was in no rush, and I enjoyed the opportunity to take in the sights.  The motor was silent and I gazed over the valleys and listened to the sounds of the forest, the hum of the crickets, the gurgling of the mountain streams, and the sound of the wind whispering through the trees.  I breathed the fresh mountain air deep into my lungs, and smiled in appreciation of it all.  It was magical.

The climate had changed again.  The Mekong Delta was the land of rice paddies, the southern Central Highlands around Dalat were covered in lumber farms, and now I was surrounded by coffee farms.  Hill upon hill, from the valley bottoms to the ridgelines above, were blanketed in coffee bushes.   I passed through small villages, honking and waving at villagers and children.  They waved back and smiled at me, the novelty that I was, and I felt more welcome then than I have throughout my time in Asia.

The rain lasted all day, and I had to take shelter from the storm numerous times.  I sipped a warm coffee, fresh from the nearby hills, hopped back on the bike and continued on my journey.
As the sun came down over the mountains to the west, I finally approached the town of Dak Lak.  My clothes were totally soaked, and my jeans were weakened by the rain and had begun to tear at the thighs.  I was a mess, and the villagers all took turns laughing at me.

The village consisted entirely of traditional longhouses where extended families life together under one roof.  Some people started renting out space to tourists, but most of the villagers continue their traditional lives as fishermen and paid little attention to me as I passed through.  But in my opinion, staying in a longhouse is just an expensive way to sleep in a wooden dorm room!

At night I ate dinner at the only restaurant in town, managed by a motherly older woman.  She took one look at me in my soaked clothes, took pity on me, hugged me, showed me to a hot shower, and fed me until I could eat no more.  Then they pulled out a plastic bottle of brown rice whiskey.  Whew!  I had trouble finding my way back home, considering that every single longhouse was identical to the next.  It took me about an hour, but I finally found my spot, curled up in a ball and fell asleep.
The morals of the story?  First, the beauty of life can be found everywhere and at any time, you just have to know where to look.  And secondly, never drink rice whiskey in a village of longhouses – you may never find your way home!

Over the Hills and Far Away (Nha Trang -> Dalat, Vietnam)

Day Three on the Road marked my departure from the tourist track. Most tourists travel through Vietnam on “Open Tour Bus Tickets”, allowing them to travel to the coastal cities on a pre-purchased ticket along a pre-determined route. But I had sampled the tourists track in Nha Trang, and I had no desire to drive along Highway 1 any longer. No, I wanted to leave that all behind, to fully exercise the freedom of my motorcycle and to journey high up to Dalat and into the Central Highlands along the border with Laos.
I loaded up the bike, waved goodbye to the South China Sea, and pointed my machine west, away from the waves and into the distant mountains. I was going to Dalat, the primary hill station of southern Vietnam.
The city fell behind me and I zipped through green rice paddies where women bent over the flooded fields, tending to their crops in the same way they have for thousands of years. The fields gave way to small villages where all the houses were painted the mustard yellow of French Vietnam. Grey Catholic Churches in the Gothic style contrasted beautifully with the green fields and the yellow villages. The French colonialists might not have known how to govern decently, but they sure how to color coordinate!
It was a brilliant scene. Then my chain snapped as I was going around a turn and I almost skidded off the road. Instantly a man appeared from nowhere and helped me untangle the chain from my spokes. Then he folded down my passenger footrests, started up his bike, put his food on my footrest and pushed my bike in this manner for three kilometers to the nearest mechanic.
Twenty minutes later I was back on the road again with a repaired chain. Twenty minutes after that, my chain broke again – this time it broke so violently that it almost took my leg off with it. It wound itself around the spokes and shredded the chain guard beyond repair.
Then a 16 year old boy popped out of the bushes and began assaulting my chain with a screwdriver and a wrench! He started tearing out bits of metal and jabbering away in Vietnamese while I jumped around screaming, What the hell are you doing?!?! You are destroying my bike! He ignored my protests, and within twenty minutes he had my bike back in perfect working order. I shut my mouth.
I felt like such a worthless city-slicker. I realized how far we have fallen from this boy’s level of technical knowledge, the essential knowledge of how things work. We spend our whole lives in cities, with our eyes on the television and our noses in books, assuming we know so much about the world. Truth be told, we don’t even understand the automobiles that transport us to our offices, how to grow the food we eat, or how to tie any knots besides our shoelaces.
And yet this boy knew more about The Minsk than I did, even though he had never owned a Minsk in his life. I desire this boy’s practical knowledge almost more than the knowledge of mathematical derivatives and abstract political theories. We have grown too ignorant of the foundations of our civilization’s knowledge.
I paid the boy his due and hopped back on my bike, humbled but ready to move on into the mountains ahead. The mountains appeared as suddenly as a monsoon rain, massive eruptions of granite protruding from the wide valley below. The road’s gradual incline and gentle curves were intensified into sharp switchbacks that cut up the face of the mountainside. Waterfalls poured pure water down the cliffs and motorists frequently pulled to the side to refresh themselves in the water, even to fill their water bottles. After two hours I crested the top of the mountain and entered a new world.
Where was I? The temperature dropped abruptly and a furious wind screamed over the ridge line from Laos. No more humid sweat – I was freezing cold. I had departed from the tropics and entered into a forested mountain area, similar in climate to Oregon or Washington State. It started raining cats and dogs, so I cranked up the accelerator and zipped past lumber fields, villages, and farms. There was no one on the road – the only traffic jams were caused by errant cows.
The last 50 km took forever in the rain, but finally I spied Christian crosses on the hill beyond – a French cemetery! I must be nearing the French hill station of Dalat. I arrived soon thereafter and found a hotel. I was too exhausted to do anything but eat and sleep.
Day Three on the Road had taken me from the sub-tropical heat of Nha Trang to the sub-zero temperatures of the Central Highlands. It did not stop raining all night, and I thought of how miserable it would be to drive in this weather. I lied in bed awake at night, listening to the rain and wondering if driving through the Central Highlands was a bad idea. I estimated that it would take at least four entire days of riding to cross the Central Highlands. It was too late to turn back now, so I determined to drive forward, rain or shine. Hanoi or bust!

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.