Once across the border into Vietnam I very quickly changed my mind and my plan. For some reason I’d planned to go North, back toward Hue and Hoi An where me and Charlee had visited 2 months before. They were nice places and I wanted to see them again. I sat watching the mechanics change Deirdre’s oil, chomping on a stale cake and filled in my mental calendar and realised it would take an extra 4 days. I’m already running a lot later than I’d hoped for getting back to India, and figured that wasn’t worth it, I changed plans and headed off South, much more sure of myself, it’s a shame to miss places but I can’t travel forever.
I met up with 2 other guys travelling on bikes that night, we arrived in the hotel in Pleiku at the same time and ended up heading out for some food. On the way back we stopped for “just one beer” on the tiny plastic chairs on the side of the road, which turned into “just one crate” which is how it’s often served to groups here. A guy with a huge speaker strapped to the back of his moped was serenading us with annoying signing wandering up and down the kerbside “restaurant”. We had a great evening chatting and watching a fight break out between some Vietnamese guys who owned the street stall. There was some fisticuffs, some pots and pans thrown and then it broke up for a while. Lots of phone calls made and reinforcements arriving but we never did find out what the hell was happening.
A very long ride the following day with a few surprise off road sections and a splash of rain to break up the 9 hours. In the evening there was a string of pretty dire small towns, the kind with 2 intersecting roads and a collection of buildings around them. I failed to even find a hotel in most of them. I decided to just make some ground so it was getting dark by the time I pulled into a bigger town. The roads were weirdly dead, the bars and cafes all had mopeds piled up outside (literally at one place). The Vietnamese under 21 football team had made it to the Finals of the world cup and everyone was watching. Everyone except one suicidal cyclist anyway. I came within millimeters of killing him, he shot out straight into the road in front of me, somehow my fudge breaks slowed me enough and I swerved around him at the last second. I’m not sure how much English he knew, but he left knowing a lot more foul words. There’s close calls everyday on the roads here, but that was one of the closest, if I’d reacted a moment later it would have been a mess.
Poor Deirdre had been making some funny noises, I just figured the valves needed adjusting again. She was sometimes refusing to start and it was back to kick-starting her. I got up a little earlier in the morning and headed out, found a mechanic and started the hand signal dance to describe the problem and got him to listen to the engine. He spoke no English so getting across the problem takes some careful pointing, agreeing and narrowing down. Repeating steps a few times makes sure we’re both on the same page before we go too far into disassembling things, sometimes I have to physically stop him removing things if he’s got the wrong end of the stick.
He adjusted the valves but it wasn’t much better. He suggested the head needed to come off the engine. I was very reluctant to get so deep into a fix I thought would be quick. I also wasn’t getting a great feeling of this guys ability, you can always tell when someone is guessing. I gave in to his insistence and watched him disassemble the engine. It was simpler than I’d thought and watching him, I figured I’d be able to get it back together myself if he messed it up. He pulled one of the valves out and showed me the chip missing from the side of it. Well that explains it, he seemed to know what he was doing from there so I went to grab some breakfast while he replaced the valve and put it back together again. “it’s 500,000 dong” “Hahahaha bugger off, 100,000” “ahhhh you not stupid. OK 200,000” “here’s 100,000, more than enough you cheeky sod”, he just laughed and waved me off.
I was a happy chappy heading back to the hotel, a successful morning I thought, until I tried to open the throttle wide and got no response. Bugger. She coughed and struggled her way back to the mechanic, but he wasn’t there, his neighbour said he’d gone for lunch, maybe for 3 hours. “What the CHUFF!?”. This isn’t completely uncommon here, but with a broken bike and disappearing mechanic I couldn’t help but feel I’d been scammed, though I couldn’t see why, he’d worked for about an hour for a normal amount of money.
There was barely any other mechanics in town and Deirdre was somewhat running still, just not above a certain throttle level. I decided to just screw it and push on. This was probably a stupid idea, because 30 minutes later her maximum speed was dropping and the engine was not running well. I spotted a mechanic near a petrol station and pulled in. He was one of the best mechanics I’ve worked with. He spoke no English but together we started testing, adjusting and narrowing down what the problem could be. He was very good at it too, diagnosis is one of the hardest things to pair up on, let alone without a shared language. He did eventually decide that the head a serious problem, though I couldn’t translate exactly what. He said it would take him a day to fix because he was busy with some other bikes. I didn’t want to hang around in the middle of nowhere for a day, and after our adjustments trying to narrow it down Deirdre was feeling a little better, so I decided to try and make it another 30 minutes to another garage that could fix it.
After an hour and seeing no other decent mechanics I’d reached the turn off for the highway up into the mountains to Da Lat that I was intending to take. Again probably a bad idea, head into the mountains on a route with no towns on a bike I was sure was going to break down. Deirdre had been stubborn and kept working for the past hour though; I was equally stubborn and sure I could deal with whatever the road threw at us. She did struggle a lot, max speed of 20kph (15mph) at some points but she made it to Da Lat. I spent the whole time just worrying and listening to the engine waiting for it to die or explode entirely. The road was pretty stunning, it was everything that was promised from the famous Da Lat mountains, winding constantly and giving some huge views of waterfalls and valleys, despite fog covering some of it, and sitting at roadworks for 40 minutes while they cleared rocks and destroyed a cliff face for widening the road.
I dropped Deirdre off in the morning at a big mechanic down the road, they seemed to only deal with tourists bikes which is a good thing as long as you know how not to get ripped off. They know the common issues and can work on them fast, knowing that tourists generally want a fast fix rather than a good one. So when I started explaining the problem I don’t think they really believe I knew what I was talking about. I started to take off the head off the engine and they joined in and checked it, they all nodded in understanding. They told me to come back in 4 hours and it would be done; they would replace it, or fix it, I couldn’t tell, but it was in their hands now.
I spent the afternoon chatting to the hotel owner and her son, I’d stumbled on their place by accident after struggling to find a nice area riding through the town. It was beautiful, brand new and right near the mechanic, so I was sold. They had only been open for 40 days or so, which explained the amazing room I got so cheap. They were absolutely lovely people and it’s obvious they love what they do, she was so proud of her shiny new hotel. Her son was translating and we chatted in very simple English about my travels, Da Lat and their family hotel venture. I helped them add themselves to Google Maps and gave them some tips for attracting the tourist bikers that follow the popular route that leads through Da Lat. They gave me a bunch of advice for things to see in the area and some free local coffee.
I got back to the mechanic just as they were returning with a brand new head, so I helped them fit it all, glad that I did because they nearly forgot to re-align the timing so it wouldn’t just seize up. I’ve no idea how to do that, but knew it needed doing. As he was bolting covers back on I stopped him and pointed at the cam chain with a confused expression and he suddenly realised he’d forgotten it. She fired up first try and ran sweet as ever, very happy bunny. I could shoot off the next day and keep making progress. Taking a slightly longer route since there’s so many waterfalls to see in the area. They are stunning, they had been monetized (as has everything around here) but mostly unchanged and still required a lot of climbing around to get to them. It’s not simple either, in my bike boots I had more than a couple of slips on the wet rocks. They were worth it though, the first had an area where you could get almost behind the falls. The noise and force coming through the gaps in the rocks was astonishing, gale force winds coming through just powered by the falling water made it hard to even get close to them. The second falls were huge, at least 100ft wide and I had the place to myself, it’s further out and less travelled by the rented moped crowd. The only people there were 4 teenagers giggling to themselves at the weird gigantic foreigner who just pulled up.
After a night in the coastal city I decided to just head straight for Ho Chi Minh, no more hanging around and detours. I’d planned to spend maybe 30 or 40 days in Vietnam. It’s now been over 70. It was within a days ride now and I didn’t want to mess around anymore. I had my flight booked for in 6 days time; I need to get there, clean and fix the bike and try to sell it. I jumped on with single-mindedness to get there, no intention to see anymore sights or chat for an hour to a random guy at a tea stall. I didn’t stop all day except for fuel, which was like F1 pit stops, roll up, open the cap still astride the bike, attendant starts filling while I get the cash ready, screw the cap back on and start up and out again. After a few chapters listening to my book and around 600 litres of sweat I was back where I started the Vietnam trip, even in the same hostel.
I posted some pictures of Deirdre on a Facebook group for backpackers buying and selling bikes. About 30 minutes later I got a message while I was eating my lunch asking if she was still available, I finished up and the guy met me at the hostel. He liked the look of it and wanted a test ride, but the traffic of central Ho Chi Minh isn’t the most inviting place for an inexperienced rider to get a feel for a bike. So he jumped on the back and I rode us out to an industrial area where he could wiz around. He took a liking Deirdre and a her charming ways and by the time we got back to the hostel he offered me asking price for her. It was about 90 minutes from listing the ad to the sale, I hadn’t even cleaned her!
Before I came to Vietnam I never though I’d be sad to see the bike go, but I was. I had expected to be riding a little 120cc, mechanically retarded, limp wheeled, tiny framed spine breaker. That was what I got, but it was way more fun and rewarding than I’d bargained for. It was a challenge in itself just getting Deirdre to the end, we were both in it together, her plodding along fighting to drag my fat ass up the steep hills. I’m going to miss riding a bike that can be totally fixed with a handful of spanners. It’s so simple and so happy to go anywhere, because there’s no weight holding it back, nothing huge bouncing around to snap off and cause issues. Just two wheels either side of a rev happy engine.
Now I had 5 days to kill, I’d expected a lot to be taken up with bike work, but now she was gone it was just India prep to do. I had to fix or find a new helmet camera after mine had been drowned. I toyed with the idea of just not buying one, they’re so expensive and I’m cheap, but it had really got to me not being able to record anything at all while in Laos so I knew it wasn’t an option. I found myself a nice GoPro and winced handing over the cash.
Killing 5 days is pretty easy for me in a super touristy place like District 1 of Ho Chi Minh, it’s like a holiday. Easy internet, any kind of food I like, comfortable bed and nothing to worry about, nowhere I need to be, the responsibility of travelling and “making the most of it” lifted. I got my Indian E-Visa easily and headed for the airport for a night flight back to Kolkata.
I really loved Vietnam, It has a really strange mix of not caring about the little things, resilience, curiosity and traditionalism. Older folks would stare straight at you, figuring you out, without a care what you thought of them, but would enquire happily about where you’re from and what you were doing there. They’ve seen the worst happen to their country and come out the other side into relative stability. The younger generations are all designer clothes, riding nice mopeds with their friends and sitting in coffee shops. They would assail you with selfies and questions about your home and how you travel and what you thought of their country, and if you’d like some codeine.
26/01/18 – 04/02/18