Bikes and bombs
Bikes and bombs
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Bends within the bends
Bends within the bends
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Have pipe, will travel
Have pipe, will travel
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Rocky path
Rocky path
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Newley Purnell from USA

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Minsks, Zeal, and Smiling Faces: 

Four Glorious Days Motorbiking Through Vietnam


Where do I start? How can I begin to articulate the experience of our trip? How can I possibly describe the indescribable things we saw and tasted and heard and felt while motorbiking through Vietnam? It was an incredible trip, and my words, I fear, can't possibly suffice. But I'll try.

Following is a list of my six most vivid recollections:

Highlight number one: Chris and I met Thomas, and Christina, and were introduced to the mystical powers of zeal. 

Our guide asked us to meet him the night before our ride to go over some trip logistics. So my friend Chris and I, along with Thomas and Christina, a Swiss couple who were to ride with us, convened at Highway Four, an excellent Hanoi bar. There, we decided on the route we'd take and tried on our helmets, jackets, and rain gear-and were introduced to zeal, a house specialty.

Zeal's a traditional Vietnamese rice whiskey-often marinated with animals in its bottles so as to suffuse the drink with the creatures' spirits. We soon discovered the much-heralded powers of the drink; we sampled crow zeal, bear zeal, mealworm zeal, and, perhaps most shockingly, goat testicle zeal. Our budding anticipation of the trip at hand, along with endless shots of zeal until the early morning hours, created a dizzying prelude to our journey.

Highlight number two: we procured our Minsks, saddled up, and hit the road. 

Early the next day, our heads still reeling from zeal hangovers, we were introduced to our trusty mechanical steeds: our Minsks, the rugged, two-stroke, 125-cc Belarusian dynamos. 

I mounted my bike, kick-started her, listened to her engine's throaty growl, sounded her squawking horn, and realized that I was falling in love, for the first time in my life, with a machine. We packed up our saddlebags and eased our way into the thronging downtown traffic. Our sojourn into the Vietnamese countryside had begun. But first we had to get out of Hanoi.

Highlight number three: I tore through a teeming Hanoi intersection while doing an unintentional wheelie. 

Less than three minutes into our ride, I became separated from the pack, stopped short by a teeming Hanoi intersection. 

Multiple streams of careening bike traffic-each headed in a different direction-

intermingled in front of me. I waited for my chance to plow through unimpeded. When I finally saw an opening in the mass of motorcycles, I revved my Minsk's engine hard and began to ease out the clutch. Unfortunately, my left hand's grasp failed, the clutch released completely, and I shot out into the intersection in a monstrous wheelie, the bike's front tire so high in front of me that it partially obscured my sight. Stunned and scared, I rose up off the saddle and tried to lean forward, so as not to flip over onto my back. I somehow succeeded in staying atop my bike, and cleared the intersection with something approaching unintended grace. 

Highlight number four: I performed a juggling routine for a group of Vietnamese children. 

The second day into our ride, as we cruised along a majestic mountainous road, we decided to stop for a brief break. After a few minutes, we noticed that, on a cliff above us, a group of Vietnamese children had gathered to watch the curious strangers before them. We weren't doing anything special-simply milling about, drinking water, and posing for photos. 

I decided to give our young observers a special treat. I ambled over to them and clumsily began an impromptu juggling routine. I picked up some rocks and heaved them about; the children regarded me, their own Western circus clown, with amusement-especially when one of the rocks I was juggling got away from my reach. I lunged to catch it, tripped over my own feet, and fell headlong into a ditch. The children squealed with laughter; I was too pleased with their reaction to be embarrassed by my tumble.

Highlight number five: we took turns dangling above a deep gorge in the "basket of death."

On our third day, we came across an amazing contraption: a small basket hung from a wire stretched across a deep canyon. Some farmers had built it to traverse a gorge between two high ridges. It looked, we all agreed, rather dangerous. And, thus, rather irresistible. We proclaimed it the "basket of death" and vowed to conquer it.

Since I was the biggest among us, I was, despite my vigorous protestations, elected to be the test participant. So I quashed my considerable anxiety and climbed into the cramped basket. I realized, nervously, that I was very likely the heaviest person ever to sit in it. 

Thomas wheeled me out into the gaping maw of the canyon; I didn't go far-just far enough so that Chris could take some photos that made it seem like I might've gone all the way across-and then demanded to be reeled back to safety. Thomas, Chris, and Christina all took turns in the basket, each one venturing much further out than my nerves had allowed me to go. But I didn't care: at least I'd tested the waters for them.

Highlight number six: a synaesthetic mélange of sensations, some of which are connected, and some of which aren't. 

The taste of chewing betelnut; the thrill of singing a horribly off-key rendition of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" for another group of children; the refreshing feel of white fungus energy drink on my parched esophagus; inhaling deeply from a masterfully-lit thuoc lao tobacco pipe; the moist, fatty texture of roasted boar; taking a ferry across a river, disembarking for a picnic lunch on the bank, seeing the accidentally unfettered boat drift swiftly downstream, and laughing as the boat's captain coolly disrobed, jumped in the river, swam after his vessel, and steered it back to shore.

 

Newley Purnell from USA
March, 2002

 

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