Header image: Giang Long's Tomb, Huế
I called my last post ‘part one‘, which kind of trapped me into writing at least one more part. These two posts relate together in a flimsy way: they both happened during the Vietnamese New Year celebrations of Tết. However, this post doesn’t really contain anything about Tết.
The last few days have been difficult for us. I’ll get to all the juicy bad stuff eventually, but first you will have to endure a couple of nice stories. Ha.
Leaving the town of A Lưới on the Ho Chi Minh Road, we took a 60 kilometre detour to Huế, the imperial capital of Vietnam until 1945. Huế is another very popular spot on the tourist path, but the city didn’t seem to be quite as packed with foreigners as Hội An had been. We enjoyed our short time in Huế, zipping around on the motorbike trying to see as many of the ancient sites as possible, eating the famous soup of the same name (Bún bò Huế – beef noodles), and staying at the friendliest hotel on the planet – the Valentine
* a food note here: the neighboring alleyway north of the Valentine Hotel sells a Bún bò that contains, as well as the usual delicious stuff, an entire pork steak. It just floats in there, soaking up the flavour, laughing at you as you try to consume it with chopsticks and a spoon. Cost = $1.70
A highlight of our little trip was visiting, on a whim, the tomb of Nguyễn Phúc Chu, a warlord who loved nothing more than dealing with Champa rebellions and waging wars in Cambodia. The tomb is one of many in the region, but it isn’t listed in any guides. We followed a battered steel sign to the site as a detour from a different tomb we visited.
As we walked up to the locked door of the tomb we noticed a table of nuns watching us from house next door. Caroline waved hello and they returned the gesture with the Vietnamese signal to ‘come over’: a palm down, closed finger thrusting claw – like a cat batting a mouse or a t-rex trying to smack its own belly. When I first saw somebody doing this signal in Vietnam I though they were telling us to get lost, but it is common and very much friendly. We strolled over to the nuns and they invited us to sit and share some Tết treats. Tết treats can be found in many homes for guests to snack on. Usually they are candy, nuts, and seeds, and sometimes this extends to fruit. We ate our Tết treats, drank hot tea, and were invited to stay for a lunch of Bánh bột lọc, clear, chewy tapioca dumplings wrapped in banana leaf.
As the food was being prepared, the oldest nun led us around and had us postulate in front of five different statues. She then took us to a fish pond and excitedly pointed out the big fish for us to see. The whole time she spoke to us in a gossipy whisper, being careful that nobody else could hear; we were clearly party to some very privileged information. Unfortunately, that information was all in Vietnamese.
After lunch another nun said she would unlock the gates of the tomb so we could look inside. As we stared at the warlord’s grave the nun whipped out her giant phone and asked us to take some photos with her. She then removed a brass bracelet from her wrist and gave it to Caroline. Then she gave us a huge, 3 kilogram log of Bánh tét and sent us on our way.
Back on the Ho Chi Minh Road
We drove from Huế back to A Lưới along the same highway to rejoin the Ho Chi Minh Road. This 60km was varied and interesting, changing from small farming communities to a hilly pine forest to an almost claustrophobic jungle. One particularly enjoyable stretch was 15km of perfectly sealed road, flat and gently winding, following a steep valley and crossing over several towering bridges. It is the sort of area where nobody in their right mind follows the paltry speed limit of 40 kph. Traffic was strictly motorbikes – all Vietnamese riders – traveling between villages for Tết engagements.
In stark contrast to this blissful patch of perfect highway, there were enough potholes on other sections to rattle off half of the bike’s front mud guard. At another point during the drive I checked my left-hand rear view mirror only to discover it was no longer there.
We reached A Lưới, had a coffee, then pushed north on the Ho Chi Minh Road for another 100km to Khe Sanh, scene of one of the most famous conflicts in the Vietnam War (or American War, as they call it here). There is a wealth of information about the battle of Khe Sanh available, so I’m not going to delve into that here. I will say, however, that the museum slightly north of the town was morbidly entertaining, especially when it came to some of the one-sided captions on the photos. For example:
“US Marines shutting themselves in bunkers for fear of their own shadows”
“US Marines panicky withdrawal”
“(Vietnamese) troops taking advantage of captured bunkers to make the enemy suffer”
Two people tried to sell us the medals, bullets, and badges of dead soldiers by displaying them on wooden trays and practically begging us to buy. We finally gave one of them some money but didn’t take anything in return. After that we were free to explore the grounds and airstrip. Nobody else showed up at the museum until we were leaving.
Khe Sanh to Xuân Sơn – bad times
The Ho Chi Minh Road reveals its most spectacular side on this long stretch, and there is barely anything else on the 240km highway other than stunning scenery. We took the advice of the Vietnam Coracle website and filled up a couple of plastic bottles with extra petrol. We made sure the oil was fresh and the bike felt was running smoothly. We always carry some rudimentary tools (spanner, screwdriver, pliers) that have been very useful, and now we have a reasonable knowledge of how to adjust things on the bike after watching scores of mechanics fiddle with it. The most disastrous thing would be to get a puncture, as we don’t carry tyre removal tools or a pump.
But you already know we get a puncture, because it’s the title of this post. So let’s have some nice photos, then jump straight into that nightmare.
After taking this last photo in that gorgeous setting, Caroline said, “We should keep moving,” and I said, “Do we have to?” Then we drove five metres and I ran over a tiny shard of glass. It pierced the tyre and punctured the tube. The road was quiet. We’d seen hardly anybody all day. The closest thing to a town was 25 kilometers away. So we started pushing.
Riding on a flat tyre is somewhat possible, but not with the amount of weight we had. The bike wobbled furiously when we tried, and I wasn’t about to leave Caroline with the gear and wobble to the nearest town – miles away and with no promise of a mechanic. So we took turns pushing the bike and carrying the bag, hoping somebody might throw us a bone. A few people drove past us. Some looked concerned, but drove off. Some yelled “Hello!” and sped past. We waved a couple down but they simply told us how far we had to go (15 kilomeet. 25 kilomeet. 3 kilomeet – wide variations). We passed somebody with a truck who was heading the same direction. They told us how far we had to go. On we pushed. On and on.
Finally, two guys stopped and told us to push the bike a bit further to a park ranger’s shack. When we arrived they used a satellite phone (there was no cell reception) and made a call. They said something that Caroline translated to, “Wait here and somebody will come to help in an hour,” so we did, accepting water gratefully. But after an hour the ranger said something that Caroline translated to, “You should go now before it gets dark.” Surprised, but with no other option, we began to push again. We were still 10 or 15 kilometres from town, and night was approaching. I had strapped my helmet to the handlebars but, unknown to me, the strap was slowly loosening.
We passed through a small village, but nobody there seemed to be able to help. Lots of kids ran about calling, ‘Hello! Hello!” Other villagers smiled and greeted us. As I pushed, the strap on my helmet loosened completely and it tumbled beneath the wheels, cracking the front and exploding the visor. After that I was in a foul mood, and every time somebody drove past and screamed, “Hello!” I wanted scream something a little less cheerful at them.
We pushed for a total of three hours before finally passing through a village where somebody helped us. A man offered to take me to the nearest town so I could buy an inner tube. He would then – for a price – change our tyre. I rode on the back of his bike to town, and Caroline waited with a lovely old lady who ran a snack shop. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast and now it was dark, so Caroline bought a bottle of green tea for the much-needed sugar kick.
In town, I waited while our saviour mechanic ran around finding tools. As I stood there, voices became raised in the house opposite me. It was a male and a female, and the raised voices became yelling which turned into screaming interspersed with slapping sounds. I don’t know who was hitting whom, but half the town ran towards the house and several guys entered to try and ease the situation – including our mechanic. What followed was more yelling for several minutes, then our mechanic returned, shaking his head and muttering in Vietnamese. We drove back to Caroline and the crippled bike.
By the time our mechanic began to change our tyre, a sizable crowd of villagers had gathered to observe. The mechanic struggled for a while to get the wheel off while the villagers laughed at him and loudly offered advice. At one point his wife phoned and their conversation brought with it more fits of mocking laughter from the gathered crowd. After he hung up he said, “Very difficult,” but it was unclear whether he was talking about our bike or his wife. A couple of Hanoi bikers drove past and stopped. Luckily they had more tools and seemed to have a better understanding of how to change a tyre than our mechanic, so they stayed to help as well. After an hour the job was done. We paid up and drove in a convoy to the town with our new friends.
There is only one hotel on the entire 240km stretch of highway, and it happens to be in the very town we were in. Our room was warm and comforting after our long day, but the owner and his friends were up getting drunk, yelling and slamming down Chinese chess pieces until long after midnight. The bangs echoed through the hotel as we fell asleep. In the morning we woke to sounds of vomiting and found the owner passed out on one of the rooms. We woke him to pay, but didn’t have exact change. He phoned his (presumably long-suffering) wife and she arrived on a motorbike to give us our change. When she asked him how much to give us he barked something at her from his new position – face down on the bed. She smiled at us tiredly.
Last day of Tết: all the way to Xuân Sơn
We were mildly terrified of getting another puncture on the remaining barren highway, but the drive went perfectly. We started in a dense mist, but the sun began to burst though and offer wonderful views of limestone crags over paddy fields.
The town of Xuân Sơn seems to have been built for the primary focus of tourism. Recently, the largest cave system in the world was discovered in the area and that, mixed with the natural beauty of the surrounding limestone mountains, is a tempting attraction. There are many guesthouses, hotels, hostels, and western-oriented restaurants in the town, all offering tour packages through the caves. The big one – Hang Sơn Đoòng – is well out of the price range for most backpackers: $3000 US dollars for a tour which includes camping inside the cave. I kind of like that idea. At least there won’t be leagues of filthy travelers traipsing through leaving rubbish and demanding wooden walkways, carving their initials into million-year-old stalactites and bitching about the guide’s flimsy grasp of spoken English on Trip Advisor. “OMG thier was SPIDERS in the cave!!!!1”
Lunch was interesting. We found the one small area that didn’t seem to cater to westerners, and sat down for phở, Vietnam’s most recognised dish. A group of Vietnamese tourists told us to connect our table to theirs and slammed beer down for us to drink. They had bought their own seafood with them and told us to help ourselves to mantis shrimps, crabs, and sea snails. Naturally there were photos and handshakes, and then they all took off, leaving the owners of the restaurant to clean up their seafood remains.
We walked back to our bike to find our helmets missing. Then an old lady came up an started pleading for money. Begging is still a confusing thing for us, but in general we won’t give money in this sort of situation. The woman was very persistent, pleading and saying things to us in a very frustrated tone. We looked around for our missing helmets and then another woman appeared and told us to follow her into a restaurant. There, we discovered she was holding our helmets for ransom. We paid 20,000 dong for ‘parking’ and she released our helmets. During all this, the old lady was following us pleading for money and getting more annoyed that we weren’t giving her anything. She stood in front of the bike as we tried to leave, and I had to weave around her as she gesticulated angrily at us.
Dinner was quite different from lunch. We went to a western-orientated place and, in a rare turn of events, Caroline became the token Asian instead of me being the token farang. We still ordered Vietnamese food, but the portions were notably larger. After everybody (including Vietnamese people) constantly telling me that I’m too skinny, the large portion was very welcome indeed.
It was February 14th, Valentine’s day and the last day of Tết.
Happy Year of the Monkey, everybody!
Dave and Caroline