Day 2: A Dramatic Reassessment

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It’s 4:30am again. These are just my hours here, I guess. Joe is still asleep, god bless him. Yesterday was… interesting.

We started the day with breakfast at the hotel. Everything was delicious. We ordered two Vietnamese drip coffees which were strong and came with condensed milk on the side. Condensed milk tastes good but it has the consistency of honey. It’s off-putting. We ate everything. Dim Sum for breakfast? Absolutely.

After breakfast we  packed up our stuff and checked out of the hotel. We’d paid for a three night stay but it wasn’t that expensive and we needed to get on the road if we were going to keep to our timetables. I wore my jacket out of the hotel and realized in about five minutes that it was going to be way too hot. Anything touching your skin is immediately sweaty. We walked the six blocks to the bike garage. I was kind of hoping to see the same guys from Saturday but it was a new kid. He got our two Yamaha NVX 155’s ready for us and showed us how to push all the buttons. Then he bungied our bags to the luggage racks for us. We took a ton of pictures of the bikes, as instructed. HE took a bunch of pictures of the bikes so I think we’re covered.

Side Note: I did have a dream last night that I was riding the bike on the 10 in LA and I got stopped by a construction site. They were replacing the wooden planks on the bottom of the freeway and one of them came loose and the bike fell through the road and smashed on the ground below. I bust into tears, screaming at the construction workers and Shane Black, who was there, that it was going to cost me $2500 to replace, so there may be some lingering subconscious anxiety..

After that there was nothing left but to hit the road. We jumped out into the white water rapids that are the Hanoi streets. As I mentioned yesterday, it’s really not that bad once you’re in it. Just take for granted that people are going to do what they want. Only about half the bikes pay attention to stop lights at all and everyone leaves early. People indicate where they want to go, by going there, and you just have to go around them. It’s actually pretty civil. As an American you’re conditioned to hearing horns as an indication that you’re doing something wrong, but that’s almost never what it means here. They’re just saying, “Hey guy! I’m here! I’m here! I’m HEEEEERE!”

We were navigating by memory but we didn’t have that much to do, we just needed to get on this one road heading south. We stopped when we needed to double check but I think we only stopped once between the hotel and the highway. Once we got on the highway it was awesome. These bikes have easy speed and I was very happy to open it up and see what it could do.

“I wonder why no one else is doing this?” I wondered, noticing the fact that we were the only bikes on the road all of a sudden. It’s probably because they’re local traffic and we’re heading out of town? I hope?

About ten seconds later Joe caught up to me and started screaming at me.

“No scooters allowed out here!” he scolded. “There was a sign! AND we’re the only ones out here!”

“Why!? We’re just as fast as they are!” I countered. As if this was as argument. I didn’t see no sign.

“We have to get off!” Joe said.

Ugh. Fine Joe and society. We’ll get off. I started looking for an exit but there weren’t any. I mean nothing. There was no way off this freeway. I took what I thought was going to be an exit but it was just a ramp for another highway. So we rode on THAT highway for another ten minutes, me fuming at Joe the entire time. Us going god knows where. We finally got to a toll booth and any doubt I had about Joe’s assessment of the situation were immediately put to rest. The tollbooth workers came boiling out of there little huts, blocking our progress with their bodies and forced us off the road. There was a tiny gap in the side wall that we rode through. One of them came over to talk to us. At this point I could tell Joe wanted to just jam. He apologized to the guy and started to ride away, a good instinct, but the guy wanted us to stop and I wasn’t sure if he was a cop or not. We both stopped. He indicated that I should take out my phone, so I did. I showed him where we wanted to go on the map, a sea side town a little south of Hanoi called Sam Son. The guy smiled a weird little smile and made a swimming motion with his arms.

“Yeah.” I said nervously, “We want to swim.”

The guy threw his keys to another one of the toll booth workers and the guy took off around the corner.

Where we were standing was next to a highway but completely rural in either direction. There wasn’t much around us. We were pretty isolated. I tried to use google translate to tell the guy that we didn’t know which way to go. He smiled and made a swimming motion with his arms. Yes, I smiled through gritted teeth, we want to swim. We stood there. Nothing happened. I tried google translate again.

“Is he going to show us?” I typed. I had him read the translation. He smiled and made a swimming motion with his arms, content to fall back on the one line of communication we’d been able to establish.

After what seemed like a very long time, the second guy came back riding a scooter. He stopped it near our little group and went back to his toll booth. Our guy got on and waved to us to follow him. So we followed him. What choice did we have? We had no idea where we were and the alternative was running and who knows what the result of that would have been. We followed him down some narrow streets and alleys, past a group of guys welding a fence and a little girl playing with a bubble gun.

This was all pretty scary. We had no idea what this guy was up to. No idea where he was taking us and absolutely no idea where we were. At one point during this ride, I got separated from the guy and Joe by a big truck and I couldn’t get around it. Nor could I really see around it and I felt like that could have been it. I’d finally get around the truck, and Joe and the guy would be gone and I’d have no way of finding either of them ever again.

At one point the guy stopped and offered Joe a cigarette, like you do to a guy about to be shot by a firing squad. Joe declined. The guy lit up one for himself. Then he rubbed his thumb and forefinger together and we established a second place of mutual understanding. I got out my wallet and the guy held up one finger then shook his head and held up two fingers. I peeled off two 100K dong notes and handed them to him. He held up one finger. I gave him another one. He held up one finger. I closed my wallet.

“That’s enough.” I said. He seemed to accept this. And we got back on our way. We rode for another 15 minutes until we got to a road with a ton of scooters on it. He waved us on and left. Nice guy, really. He shook us down for about 15 bucks but I gladly would have paid twice that for good directions and to not be killed.

We still didn’t know where we were but we rode a little way on the road he showed us just to put a little distance between us and that whole situation. It started to rain. Not enough to soak us but enough to be depressing. We pulled over and bought ponchos and covered our gear in trash bags.

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Us in our high visibility ponchos. Joe wearing his DOT approved debris-face helmet. Neither of us thrilled about the situation.

We made sure we were going in the right direction and got back on the road. I could see Joe’s orange poncho trailing behind him in the wind like a cape. He looked like Batman if Batman’s only job was to make sure you crossed the street safely. We rode and rode and rode. We moved beyond the limits of Hanoi and into Vietnam’s beautiful countryside. Rocks push up high out of the ground and get completely grown over by vegetation. There are cows, shops, horses, shops, and ducks. Lots of ducks. There are pools full of what look like lilies but the lily-pad is suspended on the stalk about a foot above the water. We passed a bunch of mausoleums that look like the ones in New Orleans but asian style with red, tiered roofs and curled eaves. We kept passing a sign that looked like the outline of buildings with a red line through it that seemed to be saying, “No cities!”

It was long, slow ride. We stopped from time to time to check in, the enormity of the task ahead beginning to dawn on both of us.

“What do you think?” I asked Joe.

“Let’s just get to the hotel and take a look at it.”

We clicked off the kilometers to Thanh Hoa. At one point we passed two consecutive distance markers. The first one said 25k to Thanh Hoa, the second one said 26k. Even the signs were against us.

Finally we arrived in the province of Thanh Hoa and made our way to the city of Sam Son. Our hotel is called the Van Chai resort and it is a beautiful, red brick hotel made up of bungalows and dragonflies.

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We flopped down in our room. All told we covered about 180 kilometers in five and a half hours. It was time to do some cold math. We looked at how much distance we had left and how much time we had. If we continued on the way we planned, we were going to have to ride between 5 and 10 hours everyday for 11 straight days. And if we got rained out, even for one day, we were fucked.

Could it be done? Yes. Was this how we wanted to spend our one vacation this year? Probably not.

This was the kind of thing you did if you had a month. We had less than two weeks. We weren’t going to be able to see or do anything, just ride. It was time to make some adjustments. There may be some of you out there who thought this was doomed from the start, that we hadn’t thoroughly thought this through, that we’re not very good planners. You might be right. But what we ARE good at is adapting. So that’s what we’re going to do.

The NEW plan, as it stand right now, is to ride BACK to Hanoi, spend the third night of our original booking in our original hotel. Turn in the scooters. Then fly to Da Nang, spend two days there and probably do a 50 km scooter ride from Da Nang to Hoi An. Possibly take a train from Da Nang to Nha Trang for a night and then fly to HCMC and spend the remainder of our time there. All the highlights of Vietnam without the face full of road dirt.

We’re both feeling pretty good about this choice, we just have to get back to Hanoi. It’s another sore ass ride but at least it’s the last one.

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