The log of one man's quest for wind and sunshine


Back to Saigon

It seemed a little ironic, but the cheapest way for me to get from Phnom Penh to the Philippines was back through Saigon.  Vietnam would also be the easiest place to sell my beloved Minsk, as the market for a smokey two-stroke is limited in Phnom Penh…I had kind of a fun time cruising around  the city, getting some errands done and hanging out on the đường Bùi Viện or Bui Vien street — a backpacker street with lots of hustle and bustle to observe while sipping a cold Tiger beer.  Cold was key here because the heat in late February was no joke.

Besides selling the Minsk one of my top priorities was acquiring an authentic car horn for my future car project when back in the US.  There is a veritable plethora of horn sounds in Vietnam, but I had a specific one in mind that I particularly enjoy — it goes sort of: Bow-wow-wow-wow-wow-ow (fading in volume).  I found the perfect one after going to several stores and audio testing them — unthinkable in the US, but the sales person gladly hooks them up really quickly to blast the neighborhood.  I ended up spending a hefty 600,000 VND (negotiated down only 50,000 VND) or ~$30 for my Dasearon Magic Digital Horn, but I had buyer’s satisfaction for sure:

The other purchase I needed to make was a golf bag for all my kite gear.  The one I originally bought in the US had given up the ghost somewhere around Mui Ne, so I went on a quest with the Minsk.  I located some golf stores on the outskirts of town, but spending $150 on a golfbag in Vietnam (that’s 3 Million Dong!) seemed ludicrous.  On my horn hunt I noticed some vinyl awning shops, so with the help of Google Translate, a friendly Vietnamese girl who spoke some English, and my isometric drawing skills, I commissioned a bag to be made.  The lady of the house was very friendly, and thought it was cute I was trying to talk her down on the price, and she pinched my cheak and smiled as she agreed to 800,000 VND ($40) to make my bag (one day turn around time).  The end result was great, though I had designed the bag too large — it could have fit about three people’s worth of kite gear!  Oh well — my flight was leaving that night, and too big is better than too small…

I was able to sell the Minsk handily for $300 — $50 more than I had paid, but I did put new tires and overhauled the wheel bearings on it.  Not a bad deal — my little Minsk had served me well for 3000km of riding!

For the rest I got out fine.  My cab driver hit a couple on a moped on the way to the airport, and got a flat tire as we pulled up to the terminal, but, hey, that’s just a regular day in Saigon.

So Long Viet Nam — thank you for your unparalleled hospitality!

Here are some photos I took on a full moon night on Bui Vien

Musings on riding through Cambodia

Cambodia is mostly hot and flat.  Riding on my vintage, two-stroke, Soviet monster for hundreds of kilometers on end was less enjoyable than some of the other riding I had enjoyed in the region, and that is when Dylan proposed we go back to Phnom Penh via pickup I readily agreed.  No shenanigans though, that was my only requirement.  “Let’s pay a premium, so we get a truck all to ourselves”, I said.  We agreed and found a guy who worked at our hotel (or at least hung out at our hotel) to arrange a truck.  The very beat-up toyota showed about two hours late and a gang of Cambodians proceeded to lash our bikes on the bed.  The truck was pretty cramped, but what the heck — we’d make it for the 300 km drive that would hopefully take around 4 hours.  Our main aim was to be in Phnom Penh before sunset mostly for safety concerns brought on by some stories Dylan had heard in Thailand…something to the effect of “lots of AK 47’s still floating around”…

That didn’t end up working out.  We proceeded to cruise around Siem Reap for the remainder of the day loading more stuff onto the pickup truck including enough lumber to build a house, various pieces of  heavy machinery, an ice cream merchant’s cart (he was evidently seeking better opportunities in the capital), and a young Cambodian mother with a few of her kids. Initially I had grabbed the passenger front seat, and Dylan had the bench seat –well the seat was actually missing, but that general area at least.  Alas, this was not to last.  The driver explained in his best English that normally he gets three to four Cambodians in the backseat alone, and we hadn’t paid that much, so both of us needed to fit in the bench seat (general area).  We grudginly cooperated.  I tried to raise a stink, but that was going nowhere, and our bikes were firmly committed and underneath a metric ton of junk.  Oh well — here we go.  Two more guys squeezed in the front seat bringing the total number of passengers to about ten, and right at dusk we set of for Phnom Penh.

The ride went smoothly enough except for early on a near collision with a pedestrian. I had visions of the young mother and her offspring seated on top of the pile of junk to come flying over the front of the car during the resulting swerve at 80 km/hr.  During our first food break, the driver explained he only drove at night to avoid the police.  I guess there was after all something illegal about his rig, and there are less bribes to pay after dark.  We did make several stops in seemingly random places just to hand some cash to a police “officer” standing by the side of the road.  Our final bribe we paid as we rolled into Phnom Penh around 3 am collected by a young boy working for the police officer standing by the side of the road.  I learned during the trip that about half of what we paid to travel had actually been commission to our truck broker, and between the gasoline and the bribes, I guess the truck guy runs his business on a tight margin.

It was kinda neat rambling along the Cambodian countryside at night in slight physical discomfort, paying off cops, glimpsing into the Cambodian households lit up by the family’s solitary CFL bulb, and eating the truckstop food.  Both Dylan and I were a little apprehensive the whole time about being robbed by our friendly transporter, but in the end we got to sigh in relief when we got back on our familiar bikes near the Psar Thmey Market.

Mũi Né

Mui Ne is a small fishing town located in the Vietnam province of Phan Tiet, not too far from Saigon.  The word means sheltered cape in Vietnamese and the bay behind this very windy part of the world is where the town is located.  Windy, is of course the reason that this guy arrived here.  The kite is on in the northern hemisphere winter, and after spending time sitting on my gas hog, I was ready to get back into shape and enjoy the ocean.  I don’t have many photos of our kiting (because I was kiting, duh), but overall, Mui Ne ended up being a wonderful spot.  I stayed at a kiter hangout hostel, with a high quality ping pong table (great warm up before getting on the water), and cool people.

My favorite kiting on Mui Ne was doing the down-winder to Phan Tiet.  Dodging multiple lines of fishing nets while cruising through overhead shore break on Malibu beach wasn’t very relaxing for me, so I usually stuck to the main Mui Ne bay, partly as well out of sheer laziness.

Here’s a map from buddy Enzo’s website

Hoi An

Riding into Hoi An after two weeks in the Vietnamese hinterland was quite the shock. There were westerners everywhere!  Having not seen one of those other than my team mates I found  I was now staring at westerners.  They really look quite different from Asian people, and for the first hour I couldn’t take my eyes off of them .  There was also loads of western foods available — the first time I indulged since arriving in Vietnam, really.  In one place, I ordered a brownie with vanilla ice cream, and found I couldn’t finish it.  It was so rich and sweet compared to what my body had become accustomed to that I had to ask for help from the person sitting next to me.

Hoi An is quite touristy — Unesco added it to the world heritage centre list because it is “an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique heritage site.” (from the Unesco website).  It’s simply gorgeous and a great place to sit and have a coffee and catch up on some reading.  That’s exactly what I did.

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Минск 2

Once back in Hanoi, and feeling a little more worn for the ride, I started considering my options.  Rain was moving into Hanoi, and the temperature had dropped to a not so balmy 12ºC.  The prospect of a warm, tropical beach and a smooth, 18-knot afternoon breeze sounded like a heaven too hard to resist.  Screw this motorcycle thing — I’m going kiting! Enter Lori and Kalen, a mother taking her son for a motorcycle adventure.  This wasn’t their first trip.  A few years ago, Lori rode down Central America from their home in New Mexico with a fourteen-year-old Kalen on the back of their KLR, but this was to be Kalen’s first trip riding on his own.   Anyway, we met at the shop where I bought Минск 1 (aka Larisa) and Lori convinced me to go riding a little more with them.  I invited a Canadian named Dylan whom I had met the day before to come along, and, thus, we had a gang. We left Hanoi before dawn, to try to avoid the deadly traffic and road dust of Highway 6.  Our early departure gave us a glimpse of what goes on in the city before it wakes.  We passed one man making a delivery of four freshly slaughtered pigs all stacked on his scooter — one of the many memorable moment when a camera was not handy. En route to Mai Chau, our first stop, my bike was still acting up even after having it repaired once more.  Lori let me ride her Minsk, and it put in perspective the gravity of the piecofshitosity of my bike  The rear end was vibrating to death, the motor was running rough, and it didn’t seem like it was going to get me very far.  When we got to Mai Chau I was feeling pretty gloomy about the future of my bike, when Lori rode up on a different Minsk for sale in town by a local mechanic shop and in very good shape.  After some negotiations, I got the Hanoi shop to take Larisa back, and I bought the brand new used Minsk — it was even the same color!  With my new wheels, I decided to continue on with the group, and we headed south to seek warmth and evade the rain. Our route took us through amazing landscapes of rice paddy fields dotted with Karst mountains.  It really looks like time has stood still in these places — Vietnamese farmers till the land with wooden plows pulled by water buffalo.  They wear their typical straw hats and wade through the rich mud barefoot.  These farmers harvest the rice three to four times a year in Vietnam, much more than in surrounding Cambodia and Laos.

On one of the legs of our trip, we decided to take a shortcut, climbing over a hill, as opposed to following the Song Ma river, and cutting off 20 km or so of riding.  We looked at the map and had a group consensus on which road to take.  That all would have worked out fine had we actually taken that route, but instead we turned off the pavement at a road that took us on a longcut.  The scenery was gorgeous, but as the gravel turned to red clay mud, the adventure turned a little more serious than we had bargained for.  Everyone in the group except for Kalen ended up laying their bike down in the mud, and pretty much the only way to navigate through the muck was to put your feet out like outriggers and work the throttle gingerly (no touching the brakes).  We managed to get of the mountain before dark but barely.  A nice family took us in, killed a chicken for us, and cooked a big meal.  We tried our best to strike up a conversation using our phrasebooks, but didn’t get much beyond age, family relation, and such.  They wouldn’t let us pay to spend the night, but we did pitch in on the chicken.

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The Chop Stick Factory

We were riding along the banks of the Song Ma river on the second Minsk expedition when we happened on this industrious scene.  Over a distance of about ten yards, bamboo morphed from raw material into delivery-ready chopsticks.

This video gives an idea of the jingle-jangle production line:

Минск 1

(translation: Minsk 1) — this post accounts my first Minsk motorcycle outing riding solo in the mountains west of Hanoi — yes, there is a part two.

First a little about the bike — the beloved Belarusian Minsk is a rugged soviet-era workhorse that has served Vietnam backpacker and Taliban fighter alike.  It does well in the mountains, and its simple mechanics lend itself well the to Vietnamese method of improvised and free-style mechanical repair.  What I mean is that you can fix a Minsk with a hammer and chisel which incidentally it appears are the favored tools of the Vietnamese sua xe (mechanics).  For the most part you are better of not letting them touch your bike, and doing the work yourself, but anyways, I digress.  The engine is a 125 cc two-stroke motor with a glorious 10 horses to lug you up the mountain, leaving a global-warming-defeating trail of blue smoke behind.  In general, the urban Vietnamese don’t think too highly of the Minsk and see only its outer appearance of antiquated, smokey, noisy two-wheeler, but you do get a lot of thumbs up and smiles as well when you roll into town with this classic.

It took me about a week to get the bike dialed in: letting the shop I bought it from look it over, and  customizing the seat to be taller and have a little more back support.  The modifications and further preparations to the bike gave me a chance to ride around Hanoi’s bustling streets — a unique experience you can only have by doing.  When 100 or so scooters waiting at a traffic light accelerate at the timer’s five-second mark before green (the traffic lights count down in Vietnam, and why wait for green?) the rumble is impressive.

My initial plan for my first Minsk excursion was to do a clockwise loop around the mountains North of Hanoi and looping back to the city after about  14 days or so.  I set out direction Dien Bien Phu, but events would not allow me to stick to my original plan.  The map below shows my path, and as you can see I had to limp back to Hanoi prematurely.  I melted a spark plug, and had a severe decrease in power leading me to think my engine was seizing.  As it turned out, it was the rear-end of the bike that was seizing.  The shop I had bought it from at a premium price was run by some expats who assured the bike was looked over carefully justifying the higher price.  But this turned out to be baloney, as supported by my rear brake pedal nearly falling off on the way back to Hanoi.

My itinerary went like this:

  1. Hanoi to Moc Chau
  2. Moc Chau to Song Ma
  3. Song Ma to Thuan Chau
  4. Thuan Chau to Son La
  5. Son La to Hanoi

Click on the high resolution image below to see the itinerary detail.

The trip, short-lived as it was, turned out  amazing.  The landscape started off as beautiful karst formations set in rice paddies, and slowly got more mountainous as I passed Hoa Binh.  As I rose through the altitudes the bamboo forest yielded to misty pine trees, and the temperatures dropped.

When staying in small towns like Song Ma the people are exceedingly  friendly.  If you eat at a restaurant alone, you will be offered shots of alcohol — be it vodka or no-label rice wine.  This can be a dangerous proposition, as pretty soon every one in the place wants to do a shot with the giant foreigner who just rolled into town.  When you are lost, people want to help even if communication is strained or they have never seen a map.  I remember getting a little anxious when some tribesmen tried showing off their reading prowess pointing out Hanoi and other cities 200 km away, as daylight was fading.

Like a good friend, the communist party is never far away either, as the centrally-located loudspeakers blaring out local news and announcements at about 5:30 am or so remind you.  One time, I overheard militaristic exercise sounds coming from the local school yard at a way too early time of the morning, and could only think of George Orwell’s 1984 where big brother required fitness of all party members.

Not reading, speaking, or hearing a language I understood for five days was new for me.  Even though the people I met were friendly, I found myself really wanting to talk to someone after a little while.  In the end, I was happy to return to Hanoi, and ended up meeting my future travel mates for Минск 2 (to be continued…)