As the road continued on its twisty way, we climbed up and out of the clouds that were shrouding Sapa. Up, up and away, we soon reached the highest mountain pass in Vietnam and stopped to take some pictures of the incredible scenery. Westbound, we were headed farther and farther off the tourist track, and into the backcountry of Vietnam. The roads got noticably rougher in some patches- think 10% grade with potholes that could swallow the bike whole, and add a couple inches of thick, sticky sludgy mud to the mix. Thankfully not all of the road was this poorly maintained and we were able to cruise some of the sections between the knarly spots. In the mountainous area, we managed to keep our average speed at about 30km/hour- thats right you math wizzes, 18.3 miles per hour.
At one point we came around a corner to some road reconstruction. There were exactly 3 guys there with shovels (and those appeared to be their only tools), digging away where a landslide had covered the road. As we slowed to let a truck pass by, one of the workers did a double- er, triple- take when he saw Barbara and I coming through. With his jaw hitting the floor, he literally dropped his shovel. We think that not many foreigners make it to this part of Vietnam!
Over the mountains, and down the valley, we made ok time to our lunch stop. It looked as though, if anything we would finish our day a bit early. Boy were we wrong!
After checking our map book, and consulting a few non English speaking locals, we headed off on a road towards the city of Son La. At first we had trouble finding the road we were looking for, and even the loals looked a bit confused when we pointed to the road we were trying to find. One of them finally directed us down a side street that led to the stretch of pavement we were looking for. Settling back into cruising speed, we passed rice fields that were being harvested. After about 8km the twisted road really started to roughen up a bit. We came around a bend and couldnt believe our eyes- the road went straight into a lake!
As we slowed, a few locals emerged from thier makeshift sun shelters on the side of the road. They were a little suprised to see us. One of them spoke a few words of english, and told us that he could put our bike on his boat and take us across the lake. We he could not communicate was where he would be dropping us off. He and I spent the better part of an hour pointing at the map, refering to our not entirely useful phrasebook, and playing sharades. The most curious thing to me, is that no where within a hundred mile radius could I find a lake of this size on my map. He kept telling me that he would take us 10 kilometers away. Hot, and not fully understanding where we might end up, Barbara and I decided that it would be best not to risk endiing up in the middle of nowhere after dark. So we mounted the bike and returned back to the town in which we had eaten lunch. The plan was to just cut our losses, and head back in the direction of Hanoi.
As we headed about 10 miles south of town, we came to a major junction in the road, with a sign that pointed to the right reading SON LA in big white letters. Making a quick on the bike decision, we decided to try again to get to Son La. The road curved around the mountain, and began to quickly deteriorate again. At this point we noticed a huge dam that it looked like was newly onstructed. The road changed to rough gravel and continued below the dam, and then up the hill on the other side. After a 20 minute, white knuckle session of technical driving we found ourselves at the top of the dam, driving once again on beautiful flat asphalt.
Then, all of the sudden it clicked.
The lake we had nearly driven into earlier was in fact a new resivoir. The guy was trying to tell me that we would ride a boat across the resivoir to where it reemerged from the water. It would be another 10 miles or so of driving on this new road until we would meet up with the old road. Then there were still another 100km (60 miles) of driving on roads of unknown condition to get to Son La. At this point, its just past 4 in the hot afternoon. The sun sets at about 6. Rather defeated and worn out, we decided to turn the bike back around and go back to the juntion that was just 10 miles from where we had left some 4 or 5 hours earlier. From there we would drive another 45 tough kilometers towards Hanoi to a little town in the middle of nowhere.
In the moment, this was a tough, tough day. When we pulled in, I felt at least a little defeated. Barbara was still not feeling all that great either. But looking back on it now, as I type, this was one of my favorite days. Having a bit of misfortune just adds some spice to the adventure.
The next day involved crossing at least three decent mountian passes, including one that was litterally in the cloud. As we rolled down the pass there we came into a small little ‘town’, if you could call it that. We slowed as we typically would, so as to not mow over any children. Good thing we did.
Just as a truck approached from the other direction, a momma pig and about 5 piglets decided to bolt, nose-to-tail, from the left side of the road to the right, directly in front of the bike. With the oncoming traffic, I had no option but to slam on the brakes, honk the horn, yell, and grip tighter.
We ran straight into one of the little piggies and the bike tipped over onto the left side, tossing Barbara and I onto our elbows and knees. Luckily my backpack lashed to the side of the bike stopped our legs from really getting crushed. My shoe somehow got completely torn off my foot and thrown into the ditch 15 feet away. Quickly pulling ourselves up, I checked to see that Barbara was ok. Seems we managed to escape without too much damage. I had a good tear in my jacket and shirt and a scraped elbow. Barbara landed a bit on her hip, and got some road rash there. It was a fairly low speed crash, but it was enough to really shake up both Barbara and me! The bike seemed ok except my left foot peg got bent up about an inch. I could shift down into first, but not up into second. Luckily a ‘xe may’ (moto mechanic) was just a block or two up the road and we paid exactly 12 cents to have them bend it back into place.
As for the piglet- she managed to scurry off without any issues.
Getting into an accident was my worst nightmare. Litterally the last thing I wanted to have happen on this trip. Easily it could have been much worse as we were at least a couple hours from quality healthcare. We were lucky.
After breathing a huge sigh of relief, and letting the nerves calm a bit, we set off again, a bit slower, and a bit more anxious to get to Ho Chi Minh.
Some highlights from the couple days that it took to get down to the coast:
One night we walked into a restaurant that had nothing we recognized on the menu, other than the word for chicken- Ga. We pointed to this and ordered one. 20 minutes and $12.50 later (which is a small fortune here for a meal), we were served and entire fried chicken. Beak, head, eyes, wings, breast the whole gamut. Noticabley missing was the guts, but those were soon served to us in soup. We left that on the table.
The next night we rolled into the village of Vinh Moc to visit some of the tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War (referred to as the American War here). We crouched over and wandered through this incredible, dark complex of tunnels that had been carved up to 50 feet below the surface. The ingenuity of the Vietnamese is something that we will not soon forget.
One day after a long days’ ride, we pulled into town absolutely famished. At this point we were still very much off the beaten track, and all the restraunts served only local food. This was expected, but Barbara and I were both really starting to crave some ‘normal’ food. As we approached one restraunt, a rather intoxicated 20-something yelled out at us for us to join him. As we sat down, we both instantly spotted what appeared to be plates of french fries at the end of the table. We quickly took a seat at the table as the guy chatted us up. He saw us eyeing the plate and asked his buddy to pass them down.
As the plate slid in front of me, I realized that these were not at what we had expected. Yet, I couldnt quite place the shape. The guy told us they were ‘butterfly babies’- yup thats right- catapillars. Once they are deep fried they look quite like a good crinkle cut french fry. Barbara would have none of it, but with enough persuasion from the guy who was kindly sharing his table, I decided to try one.
….kind of chewy…. not quite the crunch or the squish that I was expecting. One was certainly enough.
Last highlight was from a middle of nowhere town south of Hanoi by two days. We rolled into this town around 4 and quickly found a cheap (~$6) ‘hotel’ room. With plenty of daylight we decided to stretch the legs and take a lap around the city. We wondered down the main streets, and it was quickly apparent that not many foreigners make it into these city limits. We recieved waves, smiles, and hellos from nearly every person we saw. We nearly caused some bike accidents with all the rubbernecking that was going on.
At one point a group of 4 boys who we had passed about 10 minutes early rolled up on bikes. At first they just smiled, rolling slowly by us. Then one of them worked up the nerve, “Can we take a photo with you?” while holding up his camera. Of course we obliged. So for the next 5 minutes we were celebrities in some small part of the world in Vietnam as the boys crowded around and took turns getting their photos with the gringos who had seemed to roll in from nowhere. So much fun to make their day. If only they knew how much fun we were having!
Note: Not a huge amount of photos for the this post and the next few… I mistakenly formatted the memory card and lost a couple of incredible days worth of photos. Bummer….