Thursday, 15 November 2012

Hue to Hoi An: The Motor Cycle Diaries

Sitting like sardines in trains, busses, boats and (scamming) taxis is an essential 'traveling' experience but we quickly realised that the only way to have a bit of personal space was to take your own solo transport. So the obvious choice was to hire some motorbikes, book a guide and motorcycle our way down to Hoi An. As we are now experienced (ahem) bikers we were (sort of) confident that we could do it but not stupid enough to think we could do it alone. I mean we know nothing about bikes or, as we've learned from our 'nam journey so far, map reading or indeed any of the language.

Of all the places in 'nam (man) Hue (hway!) didn't really appeal and we chose it as an easy starting point for our journey, but we really liked it. It was much quieter than Hanoi and had a much nicer vibe.

We met up with our guide, Mark, in the evening to sort everything out for the next couple of days. He was the keenest, most enthusiastic and most Australian person I have ever met. He talked us through where we'd be going and said he wanted to watch us ride before he took us out. Great! Our experience was limited to almost empty island roads, not the hectic roads of a 'nam city. 'Look', Mark 'has been ridin' all his life' and he 'guaranteed' us many times that 'our safety was his number one priority' and also that 'yous going to be within the first 100 white people that have ever been in the villages' - this was 'guaranteed' too. He was extremely nice but goodness me what a talker.

Picking up the 'Scoots'
So the next morning after a buffet hotel breakfast (so good it's worth a mention) we met Mark to offload our big backpacks (thank god) which were going to go down in a bus and pick up our 'scoots'. They were beauties. After double checking we weren't a danger to ourselves we set about leaving Hue (hway!) for the back roads of 'nam, man. It was a baptism of fire. It was no where near as bad as Hanoi but there were a lot of other motor vehicles, push bikes and pedestrians to avoid and to say I was a little terrified would sum it up. But soon we were off the beaten track and onto a well beaten up track, bumping and splashing our way into the mountains. One of Mark's rules was that he wouldn't take us out without long sleeves (all limbs) and closed toed shoes - joyous news given my only long bottoms were leggings and I had to encase my toes (apparently minor nail discomfort is better than no toes). Our safety was his number 1 priority you know. Well my shoes were wet and muddy after I hit my first pot hole so that was lovely. After about 20km we reached a nice, surfaced road and had a break for a drink (being watched intently by a small child all the while) - we were now on the Ho Chi Minh Highway. Driving along on Blue Steel (my scoot) with the wind in your face, cardigan billowing behind you like a superhero cape, school children excitedly waving at you, sun shining and beautiful jungle mountains all around we all experienced moments of pure joy. Until I realised that the my billowing top had billowed down to reveal my entire right breast (covered, but out of my top nonetheless). This was kindly pointed out by a school boy. Not embarrassing at all. By the time we stopped for lunch we had covered a fair amount of ground, visited the Laos border (as close as we could get without annoying the fierce man with an AK 47), narrowly avoided several dogs (they all have udders and a death wish over here), nearly crashed into a truck or two, been through and awesome tunnel and turned my face into a bug graveyard (only two but still horrific experience). We climbed on top of the tunnel (primarily for a wee but also for a photo op) and spotted a monkey. On telling Mark our wildlife spot he said it was a really rare monkey and we were probably some of the first people to see it...until we looked again and realised it was tied to the small building and was 'just a macaque'. So we didn't see a rare monkey.

On we went winding round and up and down the mountains, stopping for interesting titbits and generally feeling quite amazed at the jungle mountains surrounding us. When it started to rain we were given our 'wet weather ponchos' which are some of the most ridiculous items of clothing I've ever had to put on. Ridiculous but very practical and we stayed dry as a bone. We passed some of the original Ho Chi Minh trail but westerners are still not allowed on it so we admired from the edge.

We took a detour into a small village which was the highlight of my trip so far. We must have looked like fools pulling up in the ponchos as it was no longer raining so they were promptly removed. The children were super cute and everyone was so pleased to see us, they were so happy and friendly and interested and all our faces were starting to hurt from smiling so much. It was a bit odd as we were a massive novelty to them but the situation was a novelty to us. A couple of the younger children were a bit afraid and the grandmother wouldn't go too close to 6'4 Mark - especially after he revealed his tongue bar! They loved looking at photos of themselves and their reaction to an iPod was hilarious. It sounds a bit 'gap yah' but even though we were only standing around and smiling we could easily have stayed there all day. It was a really lovely village too, the houses were made of beautiful timber and everything looked clean and ordered (nothing like the smelly, gloomy Bali house I visited). This was another opportunity for Mark to tell us we were some of the very first white faces they'd ever seen. They didn't expect anything but we were a bit sad we hadn't bought any little gifts for them. By this point we'd been in the sun a bit and (Lauren in particular) had picked up a bit of a bikers tan (think skiing goggles and a the middle few inches of forearms). The three of us are all fairly pale with freckles and curly hair (quite the trio!) and they were particularly intrigued by Bryony's red hair and the burn lines on Lauren's arms - one woman looked quite upset by it! There was only so long we could stand around grinning so we hopped back on our bikes and waved goodbye.

There had been a landslide just down the road and plenty of large diggers were there fixing things. It was, however, still extremely muddy thanks to the recent downpour so navigating through proved to be highly entertaining - enhanced by locals returning home in the opposite direction. Now we've had our fair share of locals laughing at us on this trip but these guys were laughing in a very friendly way - I mean we must have looked comical as we waddled and slipped our way through the mud on our trusty steeds. I am pleased to report that even though I thought I'd be getting a mud bath, I made it through to the other side. Bryony on the other hand, whilst laughing at my progress, slipped and fell herself (we are allowed to laugh as she was unharmed). The laughing locals were very quick to help her up and she waddled her way over to us with a rather muddy leg.

One blind corner ridden mountain later we arrived at a government town in the middle of nowhere. We were checked into the only guesthouse there and taken to a very Vietnamese restaurant - the sort of restaurant where there is no menu, they just bring out plates of food and you keep your fingers crossed it's not pooch a la chilli sauce. (I should also point out that the tables and chairs are actually child sized - I felt like I was eating at Liss and Rory's table).

The second day started about 3 hours earlier than planned as the propaganda speakers start from just after 4.30am and people start busying themselves (including an unholy amount of hocking and grunting). We set off on day two of our biking adventure but after about 3 minutes things came to a halt. A couple of uddered dogs ran into the gravelly stretch of road, Lauren braked, skidded and tumbled off her bike (at the only stretch of road we'd seen with people on it). They ran to her immediately and were kind and helpful. Thankfully it was nothing too serious but enough to mean that anymore riding was not an option. Hands and head were spared any injuries thanks to the sensible helmets an gloves we were given but she gravel-grazed her elbow, hip, knee and sliced the top of her foot open. Ow. Many helpful comments were made such as 'you're the first white person to fall on this part if the Ho Chi Minh trail' and 'today was going to be really specky, it sucks we can't do it' (specky is apparently aussie slang for spectacular). Thankfully, being a government town there was a very well equipped hospital but minutes away. Being a Vietnamese town, however, they did not allow us to use a car for any transporting, despite a number of shiny medical 4x4s sitting around doing nothing. After the initial shock and faint/sick feelings subsided she was winched onto the back of Sal's (our mechanic) bike and whizzed round the corner for medical care. At this point Sal, small, Vietnamese Sal, carried her across the hospital threshold Officer and a Gentleman style (which was brilliant!). While she was being cleaned up and stitched (2 stitches in the foot gash) Bryony set about finding a toilet (standard). Zero English was spoken at the hospital so when 'toilet' drew blank stares from the receptionist she charaded it out which led me and ALL of the locals in the reception to laugh a lot!
We were quite the tourist attraction and whilst some paper work was filled in a lady (who actually spoke a bit of English) started taking photos of us. Then newly bandaged Lauren was asked to lie in the bed while she took photos of the doctor taking her pulse and posing with a stethoscope...apparently the first westerner through the doors of the hospital was a most excellent PR opportunity! A couple of X-rays were needed to check for any breaks (again, more photo ops). As she was being returned to the treatment room the doctor rolled the wheelchair OVER BOTH MY BIG TOES. Bryony attempted to help/offer helpful words but couldn't stand up straight due to her laughter. I was momentarily paralysed by the hideous feeling of a hot bruising feeling in the still-nailed toe and the sensation of the slither left on the other foot now pressing into the stump. I think it was karma for just thinking that someone else had taken my foot-bad-luck. I did my best not to make a scene.

Mark had organised a car to take us to Hoi An - 4 seats between 3 of us! Luxury! Short lived luxury mind you as the windy mountain roads that were a pleasure on Blue Steel were quite simply horrendous in a car. 4 long hours later we arrived. We booked into a non backpacker hotel so our wounded soldier could recover somewhere other than a dorm. We met up with Mark and His wife Leanne that evening and they took us for an authentic Vietnamese BBQ which was very tasty. We proceeded to numb Lauren's pain with beer and rice wine which the locals joined us in (again on the child chairs).

 Everyone says you need to motorbike off the traveller trail to 'see real vietnam' and I've always thought they sounded really cliched and gap yah but I take it all back. Even though we were on a fairly guided tour, you really don't see any other tourists and you really do get to see what the country is really like. It has completely changed my opinion on both 'nam and the 'nam people - real, non city dwelling Vietnamese are some of the nicest people I've come across on my travels so far. The country itself is amazing, too - I am now loving 'nam, man. Now if someone could just turn the rain off and stop the incessant beeping...

another wee adventure
biker tan!

The Ponchos - Stylin'

All clean and bandaged!

Another photo op for the hospital

Blue Steel

Rice Wine and Beers

This was after it got a bit chilly and we look good
The amazing local children

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