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Riding a Motorbike to North Vietnam

I could have been anywhere in the world then, ridden past a thousand mysteries, and it didn’t matter. In the unchanging dark and the unchanging road I rode seemingly motionless.

Only after returning to Hanoi could I make sense of my journey through the Northern Mountains of Vietnam. Such travel always takes significance as a story rather than a series of events, the next stop, the next meal, the next mountain.

In Hanoi is a city of marriages. The intense throngs of bike and motor cycles interweave and separate and cross again. They do so with no rules or procedure or regularity. Yet they move on deliberate French colonial roads on a grid from French planning. The effect is the creation of today’s Hanoi, a product of the foreign and familiar, making everything askew and surreal.

I had landed in this dream land by cargo bus and had tried to get my bearings for several days. This meant drinking enough where everything would seem askew regardless of my surroundings. I sampled the local combinations, cobra and whiskey, lizard and whiskey, herbs and whiskey and had settled on rice whiskey when I was unsettled by the clean wealthy looking western couple taste testing similar whiskeys across the bar.

It felt unfair, the couple who intruded upon my fantasy land. I had labored traveling to Hanoi, and showed it. I smelled with dirty clothes with little money left, and I liked it. I liked it until I saw the wealthy intruders. I was another, albeit small, act in their show. They had paid the price of admission in the form of airfare, stayed presumably at the nearby Hilton and outed here and there to see the acts of Hanoi. They were not travelers, I was sure. That would entail hardships of actual travel beyond delayed flights and lost luggage. They were voyeurs of a surreal land yet they had as much access to my marriage of lizard and whiskey as me. I felt betrayed by the presumed foreignness of Hanoi. The story has always been the journey. The facts are always the place. It is the difference between a travel story and the travel section of the newspaper. It made my story pointless if one could jump so easily into the surreal. My story would be as exciting as a car trip to L.A. from Kansas. After suffering from a speeding ticket, a flat tire and bad traffic the reader would ask, “Why didn’t he fly?” My perils of travel to Hanoi were made unnecessary hardships rather than small victories by the couple sipping cobra whiskey across from me. So began, instead, my travel story, with the intention to disappear into the tribal mountain villages where the journey could be the point.

The planned route would circle the north western portion of Vietnam’s mountainous region. Starting in Hanoi I would head northwest towards Laos move north east until the border of China and then circle down back to Hanoi.

I instantly felt less resolute after making my intentions known to the guesthouse employs. “You’re a nice boy. They will not be so nice. Very dangerous,” said the woman. “At least get a bigger motorbike,” said her husband. I had naively planned to make the journey on my rented 150cc Honda Wave but was soon led to a garage to upgrade.

A man pulled back the tarp and my machine was unveiled. A protruding front wheel stuck way in front of the body. Deep grooves in the tires ran to a rusted rim. The body was wide and painted black over an equally black engine. It was a soviet made Minsk, made at least thirty years prior to my departure. The Minsk resembled a dirt bike but bulkier and more menacing. After nervously explaining the workings of a motorcycle clutch the mechanic let me leave with the Minsk. It was going to be my only companion.

I sat, a part of a large throng of motorcycles, waiting to cross a main road’s intersection. It was the last left turn before riding out of Hanoi. It hid just beyond the steady stream of motorcycles crossing the intersection. The dust and exhaust billowing out beneath our throng’s tail pipes condensed on my wet skin. Instantly and intuitively my group of motorcyclers converged on the crossing stream on traffic. It looked like an attacking raid on a very fast caravan. “Shit” I yelled and kicked my gear into first to join the resulting mêlée. The Minsk sputtered, moved a meter, and stalled. Sensing another such assault would take long to again muster I furiously scrambled kicking at the starter which kicked back with equal tenacity. I pushed the Minsk to the side of the road and the crossing stream had started again.

With a policeman, a mechanic, and a new part’s help I was aimed straight ahead to the mountains. The road quickly left the surreal and winded its way into the completely foreign. The Minsk and I weaved through Hershey Kiss shaped mountains covered in thick jungle forest. I quickly appreciated the power of the Minsk as we labored up the sides of such mountains and trickled down the other sides. Everywhere the Vietnamese were hard at work on the road. Constant road crews were reconstructing, widening, and paving portions of the mountain road. It made a patchy obstacle course for drivers avoiding missing road sections, piles of gravel and the workers themselves.

I had only five days to complete my journey and was told with heavy riding I could only make it in seven. I figured I could make up for at least one of those days if I drove through most the night to Son La. I had no means for measuring distance beyond a small drawing in a travel guide. I had no watch, no gauge to measure miles, not even a gas meter to see how much gas I used but I started in the morning and arrived well after dark.

That night was my transition into the unknown. I could only see the ten feet of road the Minsk’s headlight illuminated and the thousands of bugs swarming in between. Squinting until I could hardly see screened the bugs from my eyes. There, I was completely alone, never passing a single person. I rode in the complete dark except for the V from my headlight. I could have been anywhere in the world then, ridden past a thousand mysteries, and it didn’t matter. In the unchanging dark and the unchanging road I rode seemingly motionless.

I made it to Son La, the last large town for some days.

The morning’s road became increasingly difficult. I appreciated the Minsk’s power and the large wheels’ traction the farther down the road I went. I also started to become a novelty among the Vietnamese. The people that lived in this region were comprised of many different tribes and cultures that shared little with their southern countrymen in Hanoi. Very few westerners traveled through their villages, and even fewer as accessible as one on a motorcycle. In many small villages I would stop for breath and a small crowd would gather. Children would pull on my arm hair and the brasher teenagers would laugh and point. Women wore clothing as they had for centuries, bright and intricate. As I went on the villages became smaller and I would grow more novel. Many villages were no more than a small grouping of bamboo houses rose high on stilts. Farm animals lay carelessly under houses to escape the sun. There was no electricity and no influence from the rest of the world except my passing road. I thought of the road crews behind me.

The road became no more than a dirt path at points. Climbing mountain slopes I would press tightly against the groaning Minsk and climaxing we would release winding down the cutbacks with the mountain valleys for scenery. Only the rice had barriers in the mountains. The valley floors were terraced in ancient platforms of rice crop. The green terraced valley floors would stretch for miles and often in the center were a group of colorful women. The endless terraces were a testament to their history and my road ran through it.

Near evening every day I would come to a town large enough for a guesthouse. Early in the mornings I would rise and continue up the road. I was surprised by the journey’s achievements, not that the travel was easy but that I could do it at all. A little too comfortable in my abilities for travel I sped around a mountain bends.

A fallen boulder had landed in my path. With a second to react I wasted it in frozen horror. Swerving, the Minsk plunged into the cliff face. The twist of the bike sent me reeling off. I skidded across the road to its opposing edge. There was a moment of stillness. All my senses took a deep breath…and then panic.

My hands were both bleeding and my left leg hurt. Largely, I had escaped injury. I looked to see if the Minsk had done the same. I saw it upside down pouring out gas. I leapt to it, heaving it right side up, praying I still had fuel. It was early afternoon and I guessed I was still several hundred kilometers away from any town selling gas. I didn’t check how much fuel was left. It didn’t matter. If it ran out I would be spending the night in the jungle. My bloody hands gripped the gas soaked handlebars, my pant legs clung to the wetness of the engine and the Minsk started to my relief.

As I rode, praying, children playing on a hill saw my figure weaving below. They ran down yelling and cheering as I drove below. My gas held until I reached town.

On the fifth day, near the Chinese border I knew I had already passed my journey’s destinations. The road had become paved and smooth. I rode hard and fast. I passed a town on the border that was connected to Hanoi by train. The town was selling trinkets to tourists arriving by the same train. Women worked as waitresses in bright costumes to impress tourists by their foreignness. I looked for the wealthy couple that inspired my own journey. I had made the loop from the surreal into the unknown and back again.

I rode on a finished paved road all the way back to Hanoi that day and night following the taillights of speeding semi trucks. I arrived with a blackened face caked with bugs and dust. I had scabs on my hands and eventual scars on my leg. And I arrived proud with a travel story.

Alex Loeb

Alex was a Road Junky intern for a while and then disappeared into the Alaskan fishery scene never to be heard from again.