We geared up and were on the road by 8. Today we ride the Hai Van pass, a striking mountain road between Da Nang and Hue immortalized in this episode of top gear from 2008.
We decided to dust off our still unused motorcycle jackets and bring them with us. Not wear them, mind you, just give them some air.
It was a little tricky getting out of town but once we were on the main road it was easy to find. Take a right up the mountains. The pass itself is only about 25 kilometers long but it flies by. It’s curvy and fast and there are breathtaking views around every hairpin turn.
We stopped at a lookout to take a couple of pics, and because I’d been stung by a Vietnamese bee. It was a lot like being stung by an American bee. It stings. We got back at it and I started to ignore the scenery and focus on the road. We were here to ride it after all, not gawk at it. We zipped up to the top. There’s a Buddhist temple up there and a bunch of people trying to sell you things because of course there is. You’re also high enough that the top of the mountain is shrouded in mist or cloud or magic or whatever that is. You can watch it flow up the cliff sides like it’s being shown in reverse.
On the way down we were stopped by a bike race. We think it might have been the same one we passed back near Hanoi. It makes sense, it’s the same road. Those guys were powering up that hill and their police escort rode big red motorcycles with yellow stars on the tanks.
It took a long time for the entire procession to pass, but there are worse places to be stuck.
We descended the hill and got down to the business of getting to Hue. We took back roads with no one in sight. We flew. We passed some more seemingly abandoned construction including what looked like an entire resort ghost town.
We hooked back up with the AH1/QL1A and rode into Hue. About 11 kilometers out I felt something fall into my shoe. I was pretty sure it wasn’t a rock because it was changing positions quicker than a rock typically would. I kicked my foot around wildly and when it got near my toes, I mashed my foot down on it, but I didn’t really feel it mash so for 11 kilometers I just kept my toes pressed into the front of my shoe.
We didn’t really have a destination so we rode to the tallest building in Hue and parked. As soon as I dismounted I took off my shoe and dumped whatever it was out. It was an insect, it was large, and it was decidedly un-mashed. I don’t know it it was aggressive or not but it did have an angry orange face which is never a good sign. It looked at me, said, “Thanks for the ride,” and flew away. I was stunned. It spoke english.
We saw on the map that we were pretty close to the imperial palace so we decided to walk there. The last emperor of Vietnam was Bao Dai and he ruled from 1926 to 1945. That’s from wikipedia, I didn’t take any notes at the palace or anything. The buildings were ornate and august. The throne room was a time machine. There was no photography allowed in there, but there was a huge miniature of the entire compound, which you know I was into.
It started to rain, gently at first, a warm summer sprinkle. It felt great on the hot day and I was all about it. Some of my fellow tourists were cowering under the eaves of the throne room building. All I could do was shake my head. It’s just a little water, guys, come on. Joe and I braved it.
They had enlarged and printed imperial edicts and posted them along a wall. That was mundane and fascinating. The emperor lowering taxes in 1820 because of a draught. Decrees regarding what the women in the emperor’s court were allowed to wear. Nothing changes.
The rain started to come down harder and we started to get worried. We decided to cut Hue short and head back to Da Nang. It was fully raining at this point, and after a couple of dead ends and backtracks, we were pretty wet. We sought refuge at the Imperial Palace 3D Experience which looked like something out of Universal Studios. I’d love to know how the IP3DE stacks up against Jurrasic Park but the ride part was closed. The gift shop was open though and we were able to procure two waters and plastic bags to protect Joe’s camera and our phones.
We finally escaped to the street and got a taxi back to our scooters. Even the half mile to the scooters made a difference – where we parked them it wasn’t raining as hard. We put on our jackets anyway. I mean we had them, plus it was still sprinkling a little. We headed south out of Hue and before long, we were out of the rain completely. We stopped to get gas and were on our way back to Da Nang with plenty of time.
I didn’t really see it at first, it was pretty far off in the distance. Or maybe I saw it, but didn’t realize exactly what I was looking at. Maybe I didn’t want to see it. Out in front of us, where the countryside should have been, someone had taken a dirty pencil eraser and rubbed away the picture. All that was left was a great grey smudge, and it was getting closer by the minute. I was still coming to terms with what was happening when the first drops hit me. Then we rode right into the teeth of a monster storm.
Day turned into night. Jagged bolts of lighting scorched the sky above us. One even grounded in a field no more than 100 yards off to our right. Every flash followed by terrible thunder. This was not low rumbling thunder. This was brittle thunder. This was the thunder of snapping tree trunks and exploding window panes, and it was right over our heads. Joe and I confessed to each other later that we were both scared that the thunderclaps would startle us and we’d wreck our bikes. Every single article of clothing was saturated. I could actually feel water running inside my clothes. Joe LaMonica:
“There’s an aquifer running from my asshole to my ankles.”
Visibility was zero. The wind continued to blast our little motorbikes. Through the haze I managed to make out the words on a road sign. Da Nang: 77 km. “Great” I though, “only 77 kilometers of this.” I thought about pulling over, believe me, but what then? We hide out in a fuel station? For how long? It could be hours before this lets up. So we did what any red-blooded Vietnamese person would do in that situation, we pressed on. My hands latched to the handlebars, body frozen in position, eyes glued to the tiny strip of road in front of me.
We went on like this for another half hour. Then, 1500 meters out, hope. A little strip of lighter grey. Could it be? I thought, could this be the end of Zeus’s Chariot? It was indeed. We rode out of the maelstrom and pumped our fists in triumph. Joe rode up next to me and we both screamed. Happy to be alive and, while not dry, beginning the process of getting dry. The sun even peeked its head out. It was glorious.
Side Note: When Joe showed me his jacket for the first time, he said it was, “high viz” for obvious reasons.
So this entire ride, in my head, I kept referring to him as High Viz. “Is High Viz back there? Where’s High Viz?” True to his name, he was easy to spot.
In another 20 kilometers, it hit us again.
This rain was less dramatic but no less oppressive. This was painful rain. This was the kind of rain that beats the shit out of you just because it knows it can, and is kind of bored while it does it. No need to make a big show, just punch you in the face a bunch of times and it’s over. We rode through this rain for another 20 minutes. We finally went through a tunnel and when we came out the other side, the rain was gone, and we were riding next to a still grey lake with reeds bristling the shoreline.
By the time we got back to the Hai Van pass, I was over the ride. I was ready to cut around the mountain and take the direct route but I think we had to take the pass so we took the exit. Over the mountain there was a looming dark cloud.
“Fuck it! We’ll do it in the rain!”
It actually didn’t rain on the pass, and we had another swell, if damp, time riding those turns back to Da Nang. We parked the bikes at the hotel and sloshed our way upstairs. We laid all our clothes out on the balcony and CHILLLLLLED. Well earned if you ask me.
We dropped the scooters off at Da Nang Bikes who were fantastic. Big thanks to them.
Then we walked to a bbq joint called Dirty Fingers and saw the Johnny Kongo Trio.
We also met this Australian guy, Bretton, who told us that he was on a promotional tour with his son, but his son was inebriated and had to go to bed.
“I told his muthah, the cunt’s like you, no haaht!”
He also told us that he lived on a house boat and that he had several “Sheilas” living there. We had to look that one up. To aussies Sheila is just another word for woman. I’m not even sure it’s supposed to be capitalized.
After Dirty Fingers we went to Jammin, a darts bar we discovered in Da Nang.
We were obviously pretty excited about this and we played a bunch of games of darts even though there were people rapping. Again.
I actually think it was the same two dudes from the other night, and I came around on them a little. Their music is good and I don’t think they’re freestyling, which helps.
While we were playing darts, a woman who was sitting by herself handed Joe a set of house darts and asked if she could take a picture of him. She did and recommended he use the set of darts she’d handed him. He proceeded to throw a 13 dart 501 game. I know that doesn’t mean a lot to most of you but it’s fucking incredible. For reference, the minimum number of darts you need to throw to win 501 is 9. When the pros do this it’s insane. It happens MAYBE a few times a season in pro darts. Maybe not at all. Joe did it in 13. The woman, who loaned him the darts, had her hand over her mouth in awe while he was doing it. I also think that she may have been the devil and taken Joe’s soul in exchange for those darts so I’m going to keep a close eye on him during the next few days.
That was enough for me. We went home and fell asleep, but not before looking to see if there is a Jammin in Saigon.