After picking up our bikes and taking them on a quick spin around Hanoi we were ready (as we'd ever be) to leave the chaos of the city behind and hitthe open road.
A couple of hours later it was apparent that our guide had something wrong with his bike, so we headed off down a dirt track to find a mechanic.It didn't take us long to find a garage but whether the guy who workedthere was actually a mechanic remains to be seen. He basically fixed thebike himself while the so call mechanic just stood there and huffed andpuffed in a way that only a mechanic can.
We paid the mechanic (although I'm not sure why) and rejoined the Highway. The lorries and cars soon thinned out until we were almost on our own. In fact, I was completely on my own. I'd managed to lose the guide and my girlfriend(Julie) already. We'd been on the road for little more than four hours andI'd lost them.
What happens now? Will I never be found? Will I be on the news as 'missingboy in Vietnam'? Fortunately, I wasn't lost, they had just brokendown again and were taking a while to catch up.
Once again we set off for a brief spell and, once again the guide's bike brokedown. He assured us that this sort of thing didn't usually happen. After acouple of minutes of tampering with the engine the bike was ready to carryon.
The engine was now fine. It was the stand that would be the next thing togo wrong. As they pulled away the stand fell down causing the biketo swerve sharply and crash to the ground, spraying sparks all over theroad. Julie fell to the left of the bike and banged her knee. He fell tothe right and crushed his foot. I pulled over and ran over to see if theywere OK. I could see what appeared to blood all over the road. But taking acloser look I realised it was wine. The guide had packed a bottle of red wine forus drink on our first night and it was now all over the road.
By now a small crowd had gathered. Our spectators included a buffalo, agang of about ten children and a couple of old blokes with no teeth. Juliecould hardly bend her knee and he could barely walk. Things were notlooking good. However, all was not lost, instead of taking our plannedroute we took a detour to Lang Son which was just up the road. Here, wecould find somewhere to stay, have something to eat and get the injurieslooked at.
After a delicious meal we quickly stopped off at the guesthouse to find outwhere the local hospital was. The receptionist told us there was two butthe military one would be our bet.
I dread to think what the other one was like. The Dr seemed intent oncausing him as much pain as possible (much to the amusement of the peoplewho'd gathered to watch us). And the x-ray machine looked like it had beenaround since the war (as a piece of torture equipment).
The Doctor spent some time looking at the x-rays and then concluded that they hadn't broken anything. He translated the prescription he'dgiven them. It simply read 'No walking and Codeine'. We then went back tohotel and polished off a bottle of "Ruou" (rice wine) and called it a day.
Next day I woke up to find the guide hobbling around downstairs trying to rustleup some breakfast. We ate and discussed our options. After a while they decided that they were OK to carry on, so we packed our stuff up and headed off up Highway 4.
It had obviously rained heavily a few days before because the roads(tracks) were thick with mud. We couldn't really go over about 5mph forfear of falling over. Mind you, it gave us plenty of time to admire themost stunning views I have ever seen.
About four hours later we turned round the side of the mountain to find ahuge lorry had slid off the road. Another one had come to the rescue to tryand drag it up the mountainside. The problem with this was the towrope wascompletely blocking the road. This meant we had to lift the towrope andslide the bikes underneath through the mud, which is easier said than done.
However, we were soon back on the road and heading off to our next port ofcall.
We arrived in Cao Bang at about six. We were tired, wet, caked mud andlooking forward to getting into some dry clothes and having something toeat. We were supposed to have dinner at one of the guide's friends' houses but wehad arrived late so we rearranged it for the next day and went out to findsomething to eat and drink. A few bottles of Ruou later we were ready forbed.
The next day we got up early to go to a local market. The market wasamazing, it sold everything you can possibly imagine. It was also home tothe happiest man on earth. We walked past and smiled at him, he smiled back. So we nodded and he smiled more. I glanced back at him and was still grinning from ear to ear. Either he'd just won the lottery or he was completely insane.
We spent a couple more hours wandering around buying hats, lucky flags and other things that gave us a chance to chat with the locals. Then, we hadsomething to eat and drove off through mountains, over rivers and past thehoards of young minority children who constantly wave and try to give youhigh fives as you pass. These are the happiest children I've ever seen.
Next stop would be Thang Hen Lake. Before we went down to the lake westopped off for some tea and a chat with a local family who'd built theirhut next to lake. Dan gave the woman (I can't remember her name) a smallSanta key ring, a hat, and some boots for her baby. She loved the boots andthe hat but was bemused by the key ring. Dan tried explaining about Xmasand Santa but she looked at him as if he was crazy.
We thanked her for the tea and walked down towards lake to get on a bamboo raft to go and see what we could find in a cave the other side of the lake. Julie froze as soon as she saw the raft. Dan reassured her that it was alot stronger than it looked and we were soon paddling out towards the cave.We went in as far as we dared until the raft got stuck. We thought we couldsee some tribal markings at the back of the cave, although we couldn't besure because we couldn't get in any further. And besides we didn't fancygetting stuck in a cave all night.
After having a minor scuffle with group of local ducks who seemed intent onstealing our lunch we went back to shore. Julie now seemed totally at homeon the raft and all fears of it sinking had passed. Until about 10 metresfrom the shore when Dan put his foot through the middle of it and floodedit.
We tied up the raft, had a glass of Ruou with a local who begged us to stayand drink with him but I think he'd already had more than his fair share.We made our excuses and headed off back to Cao Bang to wash and change before went round to Mr Chuong's for dinner and no doubt more drink.
We ate and drank 'til the early hours. Dan and Julie sang Karaoke, I showedMr Chuong how to break dance and he did some one arm press-ups (?). After we left we decided it would be a good idea to have a quick night-cap before heading back to our rooms and falling into a coma.
Feeling a little jaded we woke up the next morning and went down forbreakfast. What I really fancied was a fry up. Buffalo steak with gingerwas the closest thing they had. Oh well, when in Rome...
I'm not sure where we were supposed to be going today but whatever happened I was sure it would be eventful. I wasn't disappointed.
We drove through more stunning countryside (avoiding buffaloes, pigs,children and anything else that decided to throw itself in front of thebike) before arriving at a small picturesque village. To the right was ahigh mountain path. To the left was small a stream which had a group ofvillage women doing there washing. It wasn't long before the usualwelcoming group of children had arrived. They were also accompanied by adrunk policeman who insisted the children play paper, scissors, stone, withus.
In Vietnam they must have different rules because their version included'pencil' which I found most odd. But even stranger was the fact that pencilseemed unbeatable.
After losing several games we decided it would be a good time to continueour journey. We said our goodbyes and attempted to drive up the mountainpath.
An hour later we'd only managed to get about 200m up the hill. We couldn'tget any grip at all because the mud was too slippery. We tried pushing thebikes, dragging them, but we were getting nowhere fast. So we decided tocall it a day and head back to village for lunch. Our failure to get up thehill was cause for much amusement amongst the villagers who could haveprobably carried the bikes up the hill in their flip-flops without evenbreaking into a sweat. I guess some things are best left to the Vietnamese.
We ate our lunch by the river. One of the village elders had decided tostand and watch us, which would have been fine had he not decided to spend the entire time clearing his throat and coughing up I don't know what.
We arrived back at Cao Bang and decided that after a hard days driving wedeserved a massage. Dan knew just the place. Sauna, followed by hot shower followed by the best massage I've ever had. The masseur managed to click and crack every bone in my body, including my ears and forehead.
The next day we got up and I felt terrible. The late nights, Ruou and earlymornings where taking their toll. I needed some pain-killers. Dan took meto the place over the road from where we were staying and after closerinspection discovered that it was in fact a vet's. And they could only helpme if I was suffering from foot and mouth or sore trotters. Eventually, alittle further down the road, we found some medicine and I started to feel a bit better.
Just as we were about to leave we bumped into Mr Chuong's wife who insisted that we stay for a goodbye lunch. What she didn't tell us was that Mr Choung had just got his hands on some deer's blood liquor from a friend.After a few glasses and some food I started to feel much better. We thankedMr Chuong and his wife and headed off to our next port of call, Ba BeLake.
We got to the lake under the cover of darkness. We couldn't see a thing butluckily Mr Dang's son was there to greet us, help us load the bikes on to aboat and take us across the lake to their stilt house.
It was getting pretty cold now (for us soft westerners anyway). But younever stay cold for long when there's rice wine around. After proudlyshowing us his new fridge (which was empty) Mr Dang cracked open two orthree bottles of Ruou. Some time later we staggered up stairs to bed. Thecold now well and truly locked out with a blanket of liquor to keep uswarm.
We woke at about 7 in the morning to have breakfast on Mr Dang's balcony.The view soon took away the hangover and tiredness. And besides we were off down the river to meet Ong Perat for lunch and look at the waterfall. So there was no time for a lie in.
We loaded the bikes back on to the boat and headed down river. About twohours later we arrived at Ong Perat's place. This guy looked like a Vietnamese Crocodile Dundee. He asked us what we'd like to eat so while we were at the waterfall he could catch or kill whatever took our fancy. Weplumped for the fish and wandered off to see the waterfall. On the way wesaw some Vietnamese tourists poking and laughing at a local villager whowas carrying her washing on her head. And I thought it was British touriststhat were supposed to be ignorant?
Anyway, we got back to Ong's to eat the fresh fish he'd caught and heinvited us to a drink (it was only ten to eleven).This bloke looked like hecould drink an elephant under the table. It was going to be a long day.After a few rounds of Chup suc khoe (cheers) and Cham van Cham (drink it in one) the tourist from earlier arrived. We decided to teach him a lesson.We'd invite him for a drink, give him liquor, while we drank water. Not tolose face he drank every time we invited him. By the time we left him hehad a bright red face and was having trouble sitting up straight.
Soon it was time for us to make a move again and go right back down theriver, through the cave and get back on the road. Apart from the boatgetting stuck in shallow water and us having to drag it down the river, thejourney was just what the doctor ordered. A chance to sit back, relax andtake in the view.
The boat pulled in and we unloaded the bikes. We had a quick game offootball with a gang of local lads and then continued on our journey. Dan hada new route he wanted try so we motored off through deserted villagesavoiding more pigs chickens and SHIT THERE'S A DOG ASLEEP IN THE ROAD. It was too late to stop, the bike skidded, I fell off and the bike fell on the dog. In a panic I quickly got back on the bike and caught Dan and Julie up. I don't know what happened to the dog but imagine it was laid to rest on a bed of rice with some chilli dipping sauce.
After my accident I'd managed to get a stone caught under my tyre. So wehad to go and find another mechanic. Dan knew of a bloke we could go andsee. But before we got there he warned us that this bloke liked to drink(are there any Vietnamese who don't?).
It didn't take us long to get there, I parked the bike out the front of themechanic's but before he would look at it he insisted we have a drink withhim. He produced this muddy looking plastic container with a dead bird init. He proudly explained that this was a new jar of crow liquor and he'd bevery pleased if we would share a glass (or ten) with him. Considering whatit looked like it tasted OK. I don't think it will ever appear inSainsbury's but it was drinkable.
As we sat drinking and talking we noticed there were a lot of villagerswalking passed all dressed to the nines. The mechanic explained that therewas a house warming party up the road and if we liked we could accompanyhim. We hadn't planned to stay but that's part of the beauty of the way thetrip's organised. There's no set itinerary
Anyway, we found somewhere to stay, got changed, met the mechanic andheaded of to the party. We'd obviously got there late because by the timewe arrived the party was in full swing. We met the bloke whose house it wasand we had a drink him. We had we a drink with his friend. And his friends'brother and his son...
This is how the night continued. We must have shared a drink with everyonein the house (it had three floors). This is where things start to becomehazy. I can remember a bloke playing a flute (or was it a guitar). I canvaguely remember Tuan, a Vietnamese student who'd learnt English so wellfrom his American teacher he'd developed the accent. But everything else isa bit patchy.
By the time we left we hardly walk. Me, Dan and the Mechanic decided tohave a few more at reception, while Julie made the sensible choice and wentto bed. We stayed up 'til the early hours amusing ourselves by fighting andplaying mercy.
The next morning I felt terrible. I was so thirsty when I woke I drank allsix bottles of water in the fridge, all the hot water in flask that thelady at reception had given us. Then I moved on to the oranges we hadbought the day before but I was still thirsty. Dan and Julie were in asimilar state.
We set off at about 6.30, This would be a long journey home. We drove forwhat seemed like eternity. The first couple hours we rode through thickmist, it was freezing. However, the mist cleared and once again the viewsof distant villages and stepped rice paddies were visible. About sevenhours later we arrived at a small placed Bac Can where we stopped forsomething to eat.
Dan needed to get his bike looked again so he went in search of the localmechanic while I went in search of more water. We had a lengthy chat withsome old bloke who spoke French. He was obsessed with a muddy old tramp who was sat over the road who he was convinced was a crazy South African. (The tramp wasn't the only one who was crazy).
The last part of the journey home was down the main motorway back intoHanoi. A long, dirty, polluted ride, which wasn't made any easier by thefact that Vietnam seems to have little or no rules for driving. Except thatthe bigger your vehicle the more priority you have. We weaved our way inand out of trucks, vans and other bikes carrying anything from baskets oflive pigs to three piece suites.
Eventually we arrived back at the hotel tired, dirty, smelly and need of ahot shower. I can without doubt say that it's the best thing I've everdone. We couldn't have asked for better guide than Dan. He speaks fluentVietnamese (including the many village languages) so you can actually meet and talk to all the locals you meet. By the end of trip we felt like we'dknown him years.
Diccon Driver and Julie Mann from England