Adventure: Ask and you shall receive
So today started out like any other…except it didn’t. I lazily woke up at 7:30am in prep for our ride from the sleeper stop of PHU Yen on to the beautiful mountainous city of Ca Chang.
The ride from Mai Chau was impressive…in an adventurous kind of way. The way I had been craving. A barely paved road the size of one (or less than one) lane in the US winded around a highland lake occasionally giving way to groups of houses too small to be called villages. Water buffalo and goats roamed freely along the cliffs, sides of the roads…and occasionally the middle of the road. And green covered peaks stacked in the distance as far as the eye could see, barely giving way to crisp white clouds and ice blue skies. As we wound past tiered rice paddies lining the hills we came to a fork in the road…Phu Yen…or Son La.
Son La is the capital of the province and was recommended by some backpackers that had scoured the area well. BUT…a Vietnamese fella who was a self-proclaimed motorcycle enthusiast and junkie suggested an alternate route, through Phu Yen. Supposedly this path meandered through the north Vietnamese bush with towns that remained fairly untouched and rarely trafficked by people that, well, look like me and Mark. We were on the fence as to whether to choose Son La or PHU Yen until we checked the weather report…there was a huge storming headed in the direction of Son La. Given that this would be Mark’s third day of riding and the weather threa meant it would be on slick, water covered, partially paved roads in the mountains of Vietnam, common sense prevailed and we headed towards PHU Yen.
fast forward back to this morning…
Mark: “It looks like rain is due around 1pm in Nghia Lo (our next destination on our new path)”
Carlos: “Well crap man. I’m comfortable riding in the rain even though I don’t like it. I’ll defer to you. What do you want to do?”
After a bit of discussion it’s decided. We’re not heading back to Hanoi. Mark’s nuts are screwed on tight so now we’re heading north, come hell or high water. So naturally, I begin to pack up my stuff so we can get in before the rain hits. Laptop. Cell phone. Passport. Sandals. Sandals. Sandals…? “Dammit!!” I think. I forgot my sandals in the hostel of our last city, Mai Chau. I love those sandals. I’ve worked out, run, hiked, snorkeled, and lived in those sandals for about 54 of the past 60 days. I start to feel a rush of frustration…more at myself than the situation. Adventures are simple. You figure out where to go next. You pack the necessary gear. You check your money. You check your map…and you go. The problem is lately I’d been focusing on more than that. I’d been worrying about the future and possibilities for the future. What continent I would be on next. What business opportunity to chase next. What adventure on my bucket list would I check off next after this trip? The result…did I get anything done? Nope. I just did a worse job of living in the present…and living my adventure. Rule #62 of adventures: if you’re not completely present in the adventure, then you’re going to mess some shit up in the present…which will make your current adventure a bigger adventure.
At that point I was faced with a question: should I forget about the minimalist sandals I’d grown to love over the past three months, running in them, abseiling in them, riding motorcycles in them, working out in them. Hell, I had only worn shoes 4 times in the last two months. OR…would I make the 4 hour ride back to Mai Chau to fetch the sandals. I did what any person that is able to admit an unhealthy level of attachment to an object would do…I started packing my things and said “Mark, I’ll catch you in Nghia Lo. I’m going back to Mai Chau for my sandals.” Mark reacted the way he always does whenever I give him some life changing information. He said “Ok…” and kept packing. That’s it. It’s kind of funny. Really. Never mind. I guess you had to be there.
I packed up all of my things, doing a double check this time so that I wouldn’t have to come back to Phu Yen for, say, a charger or something ridiculous. I loaded my pack onto my bike next to Mark, we grabbed some Vietnamese coffee at a street side tent and a bowl of Pho for breakfast (which is the standard here in Vientam), and parted ways. I felt free, riding solo through true riding terrain for the first time in months…years really. Despite the nonsensical waste of time that my neglect created, I was looking forward to a day of top speed cruising along trails surrounded by green peaks, mountains lined with ripe corn plantations, and endlessly terraced hills laden with rice paddies. I left the city limits of Phu Yen in top gear and at top speed looking forward to the twists and turns ahead.
As I left the city and moved into the hills I started on a winding trail that twisted and curved on a hillside that dropped abruptly into a lake. In my ear, my headphones blared “…I wanna dance by the water of Mexican sky…are you with me…are you with me…” The motorcycle wailed as I leaned more into turns and felt the cool mountain air sweeping past my face. I was in paradise.
I turned hard into a curve, feeling like I was surfing against a hill more than I was riding a motorcycle. At that moment I felt a slight sway in the back tire as it slid outward a foot or two. I dismissed it as a patch of wet leaves and continued to power through the turn, but then my rear tire wagged once again in the opposite direction but even further. That’s when it hit me. “Oh shit!” I thought. At this point I was already in a sharp curve on a road leaning against a mountainside, but with a 3 foot ditch on the side closest to me. I realized at that point that I had two choices. Choice number 1: Ditch Delilah. I could stand up on the bike and if she swayed and went to the ground I could catch my feet and run or tuck and roll, which would result in minimum damage to me…but Delilah (my bike) would be massacred as she would flop along the pavement until falling into the ditch. Option number 2: Stay with Delilah. The downside of option 2 was the low likelihood of success…and if Delilah hit the pavement while I was on her then we would both be damaged and would both be needing some special attention from our respective doctors…but, if Delilah didn’t make it through this then I wouldn’t be getting another motorcycle this trip and that would be the end of this adventure. Plus, most riders know if you have a close call, then that shakes you a bit but you can ride it off. When you go down, that shakes your nerves and you’re not riding the same for a while. I wasn’t going down. Not today. I decided to stay on the motorcycle and do everything I could to keep her upright.
I gripped the handlebars to stop them from flopping back and forth, released the brakes and pulled in the clutch to (hopefully) let the bike slow to a stop on its own before going into the hillside. I felt my heart in my throat as I felt the motorcycle flop hard to the left one last time as the rear tire slide right from underneath the bike…and the seat fell from beneath me as Delilah dove towards the pavement. At that moment I put my feet on the ground and pulled back on the handlebars as hard as I could. Just in time to keep the bike from hitting the pavement. Just in time to keep Delilah from sliding into the ditch. Just in time to get out of the way of the oncoming truck.
I stood the motorcycle up and turned off the ignition as I pushed her to the safety of the side of the road. I flipped down the kickstand, sat on the bike and just breathed for a whole minute thinking…fuck. Not a scratch on her. Damn that felt good.
Enter: The Chocolate Celebrity
As I sat there on the side of the trying to comprehend what happened and trying not to think about how bad the odds were of breaking myself (and my bike) a pair of scooters pull up with one Vietnamese fella on one and two on the other. At first I assumed they were either bystanders or good Samaritans as they looked on at my bike. Until one of them pulls out their phone and says “selfie?”
I was like “huh?” How did I just nearly break myself in a motorcycle accident and this guy is trying to get a selfie with me for some Vietnamese dating app? In any case. I’m an opportunist at times, especially when my adrenaline is still pumping from near death incidents so I played along. Of course the rare chocolate guy is going to give you a selfie. And immediately after, this chocolate celebrity is going to say “Xe May (mechanic)? Ride?” And hop on the back of his scooter. The guys laughed and obviously thought it was a fair exchange. To my surprise, there was a mechanic half a kilometer up the road which was very convenient. I hopped off the scooter and reached for my cell phone to open Google Translate (which has failed epically this trip, fyi) but the Vietnamese fellas immediately started rattling off info in Vietnamese for about 30 seconds. As I stood there confused about when to step in, the mechanic rushed around his shop, threw a handful of tools into what looked like a laundry basket, strapped it to his scooter, and the yelled something which I believe roughly translates to “get on! We’re going back…to the future! Or to fix your tire…whichever is more plausible.”
Once we arrive at my poor, flattened Delilah the mechanic takes a 15 second look, points at Delilah, then points at me, and then points into the direction of his shop, which clearly means I need to ride that bike to his shop even with a flat tire. Before I had time to protest, he stole my backpack from my bike to lighten the load, strapped it to his scooter, and sped ahead of me with “catch up, slow poke!” written all over his smile. Unfortunately, after about 50 meters of riding on a flat tire and my biking swaying across the road with the movement I would normally butter toast with, the mechanic yells something at me, then runs up and stops my bike. I immediately cut the ignition. I’m trying to figure out what’s going to happen next, so I hop off my bike and open my iPhone to try out Google translate. I fiddle with it for about 30 seconds but by the time I look up, the mechanic had my rear tire sitting on the back of his moped speeding off while a pile of guts from Delilah are strewn all over the pavement. As the mechanic shouts something at me I realize “this has to be what it feels like to be carjacked.” I was so confused and distracted that I didn’t even see the 6 roadside fruit stalls filled with cackling Vietnamese women. They must have seen the look of confusion on my face because they were laughing harder than I did at the laugh Dave Chappelle standup. I did what any self-respecting male would do to preserve his dignity…I turned my back and started playing with my iPhone until the carjacking mechanic returned with my damn wheel. About 5 minutes later (seriously…5 minutes!!!) the carjacking mechanic returns. In about 2 minutes, he straps on my new wheel and we settle up…100K Dong…that’s less than $5! I high five him, pass him the money, and laugh at how quickly this disaster jumped right back onto the tracks of an enjoyable adventure.
I breathed in the cool mountain air, confident that Delilah and I had endured the worst and that clear skies and clean (or clean enough) roads were left in our day. I road through two towns at top speed, carving through desolate Vietnamese mountain villages that appeared not to have been changed in decades. I was loving it! Until…I felt the power slip on my bike and released the gas. At that point I realized…dammit, another flat. What the F*&^??
I hopped off my bike, unhooked my day pack with my cash and passport and started walking. I walked about a quarter mile before I ran into the first person available and immediately said “Xe May (mechanic)” while pointing to a paper that read the same. I asked three different people how to get the mechanic “Tho sura xe may o dau?” and somehow they pointed me in three different directions…on a two lane road! Figure that one out.
So I decided to just keep walking until I came to mechanic shop. But at that moment some guy shows up on a scooter like a Vietnamese Tinkerbell carrying happy thoughts. I imagine he said something like “Hey bro, I manifested from your dreams and I’m here to make sure the day doesn’t get any crappier. Hop on! By the way, you probably shouldn’t trust me!” Because his argument was so convincing, I immediately hopped onto his scooter and took the ride back to my bike…I didn’t feel like walking anyways. Once we got to the bike he indicated that he would ride the motorcycle back to his shop and I would ride his scooter. Given that every Vietnamese scooter driver seems to have super powers, like carrying a family of 5 or an entire house worth of construction material on one scooter, I assumed this guy was skilled enough to move my motorcycle with a flat tire while not destroying my bike. But, you know what they say what happens when you assume things. Anyways…I ask this guy in Vietnamese “Mechanic? You?” He dismisses me, hops on my bike and rides off. I follow on his scooter. All the while, I can hear Delilah screaming in pain and fear not to let this guy take her. Yes, I’m a horrible fella for this one.
Fast forward a half mile…we pass a mechanic. I dismiss it and assume this guy’s shop is just around the corner. We pass one more mechanic after another half mile and my spider senses start going off as I wonder how hard I’m getting hosed. And then…I look down at the cup holders on his scooter. He has an empty beer can. A freakin’ beer can! Then it hit me…this guy isn’t the town mechanic, he’s the damn town drunk and he’s using my referral to buy more booze…but I have no clue how far we have to ride for him to punch his ticket! I speed up and cut him off so he has to stop and say “You? Mechanic?” in Vietnamese. The guy looks at me like he got caught masturbating in a public place and starts yelling in Vietnamese. At that point I tell him “Get the hell off Delilah, asshole! You’re not worth her!” Ok. I didn’t say that. But I did say “Dude! Get the hell off of my bike!” At that point he hops on his scooter and reaches into the side of my pack and steals the two steel mugs (that I appropriated fair and square earlier in my trip) I’ve been keeping in my bag for Moscow Mules…and speeds off.
So there I sit. A broken Delilah. Again. Tired. Sweaty. Smelly. And no mugs for my Moscow Mules. Dammit.
I start pushing Delilah back towards a mechanic I saw a couple hundred meters back. I stopped in front of a rugged café for a rest and an older lady pops out and spouts something off in Vietnamese. I’m too worn out to try translating anything so I just point at my car and shrug while I take a breath. At that point 4 boys, probably spread between 4 and 9 years old, pop out and say “Xe may (mechanic)?” I nod yes and they start beckoning me towards them like…Tinkerbell. Little, male, Vietnamese, pixies, laughing like hell and pushing my bike from behind while one guides the way. They stopped me right in front of the shop, ran inside and brought out a mechanic that couldn’t have been more than 14 years old. I pointed at the tire and asked the price holding out my phone so the mechanic could type in the price. 65,000 Dong. Less than $3 to fix. I nodded and he got to work. The little boys buzzed around him like birds do with the main characters in Disney movies. They handed him tools (usually the wrong ones) and tried their best to help him move the bike around. In between “assisting” they would come over and stare at me saying “hello.” It was a nice, refreshing moment after such a long day.
The mechanic finished my tire shortly after. I was so tired I couldn’t remember how much he said he would charge, so I handed him 100,000 Dong and he returned 40,000 Dong change. He seemed like a nice guy so I handed him back 5,000 Dong but he wouldn’t take it. I translated “didn’t you say 65,000 Dong?” His reply…”no, 60,000. Thank you.” Damn. That’s honesty. That’s awesome. As I hopped on my bike I could see the boys smiling, so I hopped off, walked over to the boys and drew a circle around them with my finger to indicate “all of you,” handed them the leftover 5,000 dong and said “Com on (thank you).” I laughed as they started smiling and laughing out of surprise. It was a good end to an interesting morning. It wasn’t even 11:00AM
As I hopped on my bike I cruised towards the best part of the ride. Expansive views with green mountains behind green mountains as far as the eye can see. The road crawled back down the mountain until it hugged the river shore, at the end of which I cruised Delilah onto a ferry that toted us to the other side, and my other road. Riding with a stern but clearly caring father and his equally badass son.
A road that crawled through valleys laden with rice paddies. It was beautiful, as was the time to think. I’m glad I didn’t ditch Delilah in the curve. It would have been safer not to, but you don’t win big or cheat fate without committing fully to risks. I wouldn’t be here without risks. And some of the worst mistakes I’ve made until now (in adventures and life as a whole) have been partially committing to a risk that requires full commitment. I’m glad I committed in that turn. I’d still be glad if I had gone down. — Another lesson: There are plenty of people out there. Average ones. Crappy Ones. Innocent ones. Amazing ones. I don’t have to open up to all of them, but I would miss out on a lifetime of experiences in an interconnected world. It’s not worth fearing everything (and everyone). Just open up and let life happen, and if it goes down a crappy road (because of crappy people) I (and you) can withdraw at any time. It’s not worth missing out on the awesome out of fear of the potentially horrible.
In the movie 180 South I love Yvon Chouinard’s quote “The word ‘adventure’ has just gotten overused. For me, adventure is when everything goes wrong. That’s when the adventure starts”
Today was an adventure. A bit pulse pounding. Very cultural. Filled with great views, wonderful people, and good lessons. I sense many more of these down the road.
The Vietnam Motorcycle Series
- Vietnam Motorcycle Diaries Part2: Delilah and the Drunk
- Vietnam Motorcycle Diaries Part 3: Layla Takes a Dive
- Vietnam Motorcycle Diaries Part 4: Rice Paddies, Trekking, and Cheating on Delilah
- Vietnam Motorcycle Diaries Part 5: Drinking with Locals in Bac Ha
- Vietnam Motorcycle Diaries Part 6: Sunny Skies and the Unexpected