The people living in the mountains of northwest Vietnam are so used to their motorcycles breaking down, they carry spark plugs in their pockets. This was a habit my mate Mark quickly picks up as we ride the 1100km loop into the remote region on Soviet-made two-strokes.
We plan to ride 170km on our first day, but quickly learn that a distance you can cover in two hours on Aussie roads can take you a day in Vietnam, when water buffaloes, kids on bicycles, runaway Russian trucks and chickens crossing the road all conspire to slow you down.
Then your bike dies. Mark chooses a perfect spot for his first breakdown: a petrol station.
Thankfully, a bunch of old war vets soon crowd around the bike, showing off their shrapnel wounds as well as their skills with a spark plug remover. We watch the sunset from a bridge over a wide, green river, as teenagers wash on its banks. An old woman shoos us down a muddy road, just as the rain begins to fall.
By the time it’s dark, we were still about 30km from our destination. Lost, hungry and muddy, we pulled in at a guesthouse, then set off in search of beer and tucker.
The cook in a grotty food stop opens an ancient fridge to reveal a few cuts of buffalo and some tired vegies. Mark points to some massive skewers of meat, but the cook looks concerned. “Thit cho,” he says. Dog meat. I relay the news to Mark, a cow cocky from Guyra. “It’s alright, mate,” he says. “Just fry up the buffalo, would ya.”
Two days and 360km later we arrive in Lai Chau, where water buffaloes graze on the main street. The whole valley around the town is due to disappear when they build the country’s biggest hydroelectric dam in a few years. But it won’t be the first time the place has gone under water – it was flooded in ’90, ’91, ’96 and ’97. At one point, the local theatre was destroyed. Its concrete shell still stands in the rice paddies, but nobody has bothered to rebuild it – or the rest of the town. Still, it’s a nice enough place to stay.
The Red Devil
The next day we set off for Muong Te, a tribal village roughly halfway between the borders with China and Laos. We fly up the narrow gravel road, past a stone carving left by a 15th-Century emperor after he sent some Chinese invaders packing. I lead the way uphill, narrowly avoiding a black, pot-bellied sow. One of her piglets runs out after her and goes under Mark’s wheels. It’s a bad omen. A few minutes later the Red Devil, as the motorcycle has become known, grinds to a halt. This time, no amount of kick-starting and swearing can get it going again.
We’re standing out in the scorching heat, on one of the remotest stretches of road in the country when we discover our water bottles had bounced out of the panniers. A couple of local lads show up and began playing with the bike. Some people never seem to get tired of removing a spark plug, cleaning it, sticking it back in and kick-starting. You meet folks like that all over Vietnam’s north-west.
Eventually a more experienced mechanic appears, wheels the Red Devil down to the nearest house and strips it. Every time he thinks he’s identified the problem, he scoots off to find the right spare. If that spare doesn’t work, he disappears for another half an hour or just rips one off his own bike. He eventually notices an extra transformer had been installed in one of the side panels, tears all of the wires out of it, bypasses it and starts the bastard. Lift-off.
The next day it’s on to Dien Bien Phu, where the Vietminh sent the French packing in 1954. Our hotel is also home to 12 caged black bears.
Smart travellers always keep an eye out for “cat toc” signs when they’re on the back roads. After a long day driving through roadworks, there’s no better way to get the dust – and stress – out of your head than an hour-long shampoo and face massage. Mark tried out the head massage in Lai Chau, and the cat toc girls liked him so much, they offered to take him out the back to shake the dust out of his jeans. Even if that doesn’t happen to you, it’s still good.
Nicknamed “the old buffalo” by the locals, Minsks are everywhere in Vietnam’s north. The design has barely changed since WWII, and they have been imported into the region as farm machinery (not as motorcycles) ever since. They’re named after the city in Belarus where they’re made and can be seen carrying flocks of geese, pig carcasses, several goats, dozens of dogs, fridges, live cows and even several fat foreign tourists. But not always at once.
All over northern Vietnam, road workers and policemen alike can be seen pulling cones from big bamboo bongs. But don’t get too excited, it’s only pale, stringy tobacco. Smoking “thuoc lao” is a good way to make friends in the countryside, especially when you pack them a cone of good-quality Hanoi tobacco. The extra nicotine was too much for some officials who passed through Lai Chau. They went a bit green and staggered back to their jeeps, holding their heads.
Vietnam is one big construction site, and so is 250km of Highway 6. Instead of rebuilding small patches of road to keep things moving, almost all the highway has been torn up so workers can start all over again. In some places, the highway is thick with bulldust, and in others you have to dodge rough chunks of loose rock. Expect to be held up, and keep your helmet on at roadblocks. When the mountain in front of you is blown up, you never know where the debris will fall.
Some two-wheel tourers swear you’re better off drinking the local draft beer than the bottled water when you’re out on the road in Vietnam. It’s cheaper, for a start. Known as “bia hoi”, it’s weaker and paler than Budweiser, and it’s available just about everywhere in the north. You know you’re in a remote area when the bia hoi comes in an old plastic Coke bottle and they pass you a bit of inner tube to wrestle the cap off with. Expect to pay as little as 15c a cup, or about 80c a bottle.
Vietnam Airlines flies from Australia to Hanoi, via Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), several times a week for about $800 one-way. Check out www.vietnamairlines.com. Self-ride Minsks can be hired in Hanoi for about $10 a day, and the experienced guides at Explore Indochina know mountains and Minsks well. Direct your computer to www.exploreindochina.com for more information.