I have a coin I carry with me around the world. It’s a souvenir from a past job and it’s called “the coin of destiny.” On occasion I’ll flip this coin (and only this coin) to make major decisions. It hasn’t failed me yet…but more on that later. On the back of the coin is written the phrase “give me insecurity and disquietude, give me turmoil and brawl.” The excerpt is from the paratrooper’s prayer, in which, the young officer who wrote asks God to bring on the worst, for the sake of adventure, but he admits that he can only ask this once because he may never have the courage to ask for such again. The belief behind the poem is that within the worst situations (and adventures) you can find and hone your true self. I can appreciate that. At times, I crave real, calamitous adventure. Other times, I just want a damn froo froo coffee from a hipster coffee shop. A few days ago, I asked God to bring on the adventure. Today, that dude brought it…and Mark took the brunt of it. Now, on to today’s story…
After my heavy ride the day before for about 7 hours, a result of going to pick up my beloved sandals, I was looking forward to a short ride today. As Google Maps had it, today’s route looked to be around 80 kilometers and should have taken 2 hours and 30 minutes. With overcast and a light mist, too light to make for dangerous roads I thought, today should be a good day. An easy day. I should have knocked on wood.
The first two hours of our ride were spectacular. As we left Nghia Lo I realized just how far off the beaten track we were. The town of 20,000 people didn’t stretch very far and the lightly winding road gradually gave way to progressively larger hills. The mist came down more thickly as we pulled into the refueling station. Like everywhere else in the province thus far, the gas station attendant didn’t speak English so as I slowed to a stop in front of the fuel pump and unlocked the cap to my gas tank. I pointed upward to indicate “fill up please.” The attendant nodded and smiled at my simple sign language and proceeded to fill Delilah up. Mark and I chatted as the pump ran agreeing we’d throw on our rain jackets for good measure. As we buttoned up the attendant smiled and waved us on…22,000 Dong (~$1) for a half gallon fill up. Not bad. I think to myself “this drizzle isn’t that bad. I think this is going to be a nice easy day.” Haha. Hindsight is 20/20 and I shouldn’t have counted my chickens before they hatched.
Mark and I cruised out of the small town of Nghia Lo on the road which wound more as we road further and the hills grew taller. As I imagined, the drizzle stopped and the clouds thinned to a beautiful point that just barely let the sun through but kept the air cool as it brushed past my face. Most parts of Vietnam are green, but somehow the landscapes here seemed greener…emerald even. As the hills grew to mountains, endless terraces crawled upwards, home to rice paddies and plantation workers bearing the signature conical, straw hats. The towns became smaller and the feel more rural. This is why I travel. This is why I ride motorcycles into desolate places in foreign countries. Where we were going (for a period) wasn’t in the Lonely Planet guide. Where we were, tours and guides don’t go. No Wikipedia articles covering the culture and history. The only way we had to absorb the culture was to observe. At times we could interact, but the interactions were basic and mostly limited to exaggerated facial expressions, gestures, and high fives to show we came in peace and loved the experience. From the standpoint of sheer beauty and raw cultural experience, this was quite possibly one of the most beautiful places I’ve traveled to. The beauty in landscapes that I’d seen in Patagonia, and the “untouched” feeling that I had only encountered in the Middle East. Nearly every 10 kilometers that I rode revealed some new amazing view or some view into the local experience that I had to stop.
At one point, Delilah and I came full speed out of a blind curve that wrapped around a mountain. As I crossed to the opposite side of the mountain I expected to see another endless view into emerald green valleys with turquoise rivers creeping through. Instead, I saw something more spectacular. Water buffalos. Water buffalos, moseying freely single file up a mountain. The most interesting part of the experience was seeing two local girls riding the last two buffalo. No saddle. No reins. No stick or whip to control. As I cruised closely and slowed to fully capture the experience, the only two buffalo that looked up towards me were the ones being ridden by the girls, and the gestures they made felt like oddly protective. That moment made me rethink how I saw the livestock lined across the road Vietnam…they appeared protective of the two girls and had no problem with the girls riding them. Of course, sooner or later these buffalo would be dinner but for the meantime they lived lives comfortable enough to be protective of their “owners” and required no direction or reins. Coming from a country where we are so far removed from the food we eat that most people in it can’t even stomach eating an animal species that they’ve had a relationship with and endless labels (organic, cage free, free range) have been created to indicate animals haven’t been treated in a cruel fashion — this “developing nation” of Vietnam has a common practice of fostering real relationships with the animals they will eat sooner or later. I find that fascinating.
You might wonder if that was an isolated incident. Absolutely not. I observed a man pouring buckets of cold water on his water buffalo and petting him (or her) while the buffalo made gestures that he (or she) was enjoying it. At a hostel, the chickens (which would later become my meal) frequently followed the hostel owner so that they could be petted. I even joined in at one point. I couldn’t resist pulling Delilah to the side of the road next to a herd of goats and bucking heads with one of the baby goats. I was always good with kids, as long as we were playing outside.
On the Nghia Lo to Mu Cai Chang cultural I observed plenty of other cultural experiences. As I sat on the side of a rice paddy field attempting to get the perfect picture, a young boy came up to me and yelled “HELLO!!!” and held his hand up for a high five. How could I refuse that? I did charge him a picture in return.
Later on the ride, I saw a kid’s toy that looked more like a stack of wood than something a child would play with in the US. I stared from my motorcycle, trying to get the perfect picture and at that moment the owner (probably 5 years old) and his buddy show up and challenge me to the race. The race lasted about 50 meters but naturally the little guy won. Those Vietnamese kids are quick!
After miles and miles of waves, smiles, observing rice paddy field workers, and exchanging greetings with fellow motorcycle riders, Delilah and I were back in the mountains…and the views were more extravagant than before. Bigger mountains. Exotically white clouds hiding the crests of ridges. Deeper valleys. Mountain roads that twisted and hugged the mountainside even more. I thought to myself “this day can’t get any better.” I was right. Enter…Google Maps
Google maps is an odd beast here in Vietnam. It guides us into the desolate “outback” of Vietnam and takes us to beautiful places…BUT…on occasion, it screws us completely by leading us to places that no man should go. Especially if there is a perfectly reliable road to the same destination. The following is a story of being screwed by Google Maps in Vietnam…
Layla Plays in the Mud and Delilah Follows…
Mark and I had been leap frogging all day exchanging the lead as we cruised. I would cruise ahead, winding through turns at top speed and then stop to experience some vista or cultural experience for 10 minutes while he passed and within a few minutes he would do the same as I passed. The plan we established was that we would stop at any forks in the road to make sure we didn’t get too far apart as we cruised to Mu Cai Chang. I arrived at our next fork according to Google Maps but Mark wasn’t waiting for me, as I expected. After about 15 minutes of cooling my heels (and Delilah’s engine) I decided to cruise ahead and see if Mark was waiting for me elsewhere…and he was.
Me: “Hey bro, what’s up? The fork was back there.”
Mark: “Dude, you have to check out this view it’s amazing! And this bridge crossing the river…people keep wiping out as they try to cross it.”
That should have been my first warning. According to Google, we were supposed to cross that bridge
Mark: “Also, the sign says we should keep going that way 15 kilometers to Mu Cai Chang.”
Me: “Well Google says its only 5 kilometers if we go toward the bridge…but I’m game for whatever”
Mark: “It’s up to you”
Me: “Then let’s take the 5 kilometer route…I trust Google”
Sooooo…all that follows is my responsibility. I haven’t admitted this yet to Mark…but…it’s all my fault. But I’m not admitting that until the end of this trip. Unless he reads this. Don’t worry, I know he won’t. Anyways…
So, like to hobbits headed toward Mordor we turned our bikes around and made our way toward the bridge that Mark was watching (experienced) Vietnamese riders wipeout on. Mind you, these riders live in Vietnam and are very used to riding in the rain and crappy roads, with the entire family on one bike, and a cage with a goat in it on the back. These were the people wiping out on this bridge. And this wasn’t just any bridge.
The bridge we were supposed to cross was probably old enough to have been built by Ho Chi Minh himself from the leftover wood planks that Noah decided not to use on the Ark. Midway across the bridge, right in the middle, a few planks were missing. Underneath, a murky brown river was swollen from the recent rains. The funniest part: this was going to be the easiest, least sketchy part of our journey for the next few hours.
I cruised down the hill slowly but as I moved closer to the bridge I realized I wanted to spend as little time as possible on it, so halfway down the hill I gunned it and went top speed onto the bridge nearly putting my front tire in a hole where the missing planks should have been. Lucky enough, I missed the hole and bounced my bike the rest of the way to the other side of the river. Happy to be across, I checked my gear to make sure I didn’t lose anything then looked back (and prayed) as Mark came across. He made it over without a hitch but we both breathed a sigh of relief. It was at that point that we started questioning what we were getting ourselves into. The hill in front of us had a stream trickling down and appeared to be at a 30 degree angle, and paved around the time that Ho Chi Minh built the bridge that we barely made it across. This felt bad. But. Google is never wrong. Right?
We gunned it, Delilah and Layla both whining as we rev’ed the engines to make it up the hill and kept the momentum going so that we didn’t topple over. At the top of the first hill there was a tiny puppy sitting in the middle of the road in a pile of pine needles. It seemed to say, “What the hell are you doing here? People don’t come here. Especially western people. You’re screwed by the way, BUT, I’ll move so I can watch the disaster” as he hobbled out of the way of the motorcycles.
The road became progressively worse. After about 100 meters we came to a small landslide with a small waterfall running through it as the road narrowed from a one lane road to about 8 feet wide. We crossed the small creek and made our way across the rubble thinking that was the worst of it. We passed small huts on the side of the road with confused looking locals as the road grew steeper and narrower, steeper and narrower. The final straw came when I turned the motorcycle full throttle trying to get up a slippery, 3 foot wide road made of cement blocks and my bike started to slide backwards. I was able to catch her, turn the bike off, click in gear to lock her in place, and hop off without dropping Delilah. I was stoked. Very relieved. Almost excited, until I realized that I barely made it through that, and Mark isn’t nearly as experienced…and then I looked behind me. I glanced just in time to see Layla toppling to the ground and Mark rolling to the ground in unison. I immediately ran down the hill to help lift Layla up and felt like crap because I led us on this little jaunt. Mark popped up, unfazed, and took control of Layla. She was fine for the most part. No scratches. Still running. Nothing bent. It was still a good day.
We backed our bikes down to flat ground expecting to ride them back to the real road to Mu Cai Chang on the road that Mark originally point out. At that moment, Google Maps pops up again saying “turn left here.” Somehow, Google Maps found an alternate route that wasn’t the stairway to heaven we both failed on but still wasn’t the normal road 15 minutes back. I deferred to Mark on this one as he paid the price for my last call. His thoughts: Google can’t be wrong twice in a row, let’s go that route. Damn. The saga continues.
Google’s new route wound down the mountain in a reassuring way at first. At first. The first obstacle we came across was a river running down the mountain, crossing the road at a depth of a foot and a half, and then falling off a sheer cliff. We crossed it with nothing more than wet shoes thinking that was the worst. Next, we came to a landslide that didn’t take out the road but filled it with mud and debris. Other riders had come through before so there was a one foot wide path to ride through, BUT, outside of that foot was a pile of mud that anyone would slip on. I cruised through with no issues, made it to (somewhat) dry pavement and sped up looking for our next obstacle. At that moment I heard the high whine of a motorcycle engine that only happens after the wheels have left the ground. I looked back to see Mark toppled over in a pile of mud and trying to pull his bike out of the embankment. He popped up pretty quickly which is impressive for his second time going down. I have to hand it to him…this guy is a trooper. We take a second to catch our breath and regain our senses as Mark walks his bike to a dry spot in the road. We don’t say much, we just make eye contact with that expression that says “f&^*…let’s get moving.” At that moment Mark looks down and sees that the foot peg on his bike is bent upwards so much that it prevents him from shifting out of first gear. This is no good for getting off the mountain in one piece.
Mind you, this entire incident happen in front of a Vietnamese cabin with four people sitting on the porch…laughing at both of us the entire time. At this moment, while Mark and I are just staring at his bike, a Vietnamese kid runs off the porch yelling something while holding a huge rock over his head. I was thinking “what the hell is going on?!?!” I think Mark was thinking the exact same thing, but in that same moment the kid drops the huge rock onto the foot peg for Mark’s bike, and straightens it out perfectly. I can’t remember a time when I’ve ever been more confused and astonished. The kid just stood there with a huge smile on his face. That moment was kind of awesome.
So Mark and I had a decision to make. We could either hedge our bets and turn back or continue to believe that the worst was behind us and continue. Something about being veterans that is interesting is in situations like this is we’re used to things just being completely horrible. So used to it that we don’t know when to say, “Yeah, I think we’ve had enough.” This was one of those times.
With a look of agreement, Mark and I continue up the mountain. The road got steeper and narrower. I was doubting our decision until the road opened up nice and wide into a normal paved road, large enough for a car to drive through. I nearly yelled out of happiness. It was at that moment that we came to a full landslide. This landslide was at least 30 feet wide and took out the entire road in a way that we couldn’t cross without ATV’s. We had to turn back. Annoyed and demoralized we retraced our steps. Back past the mud pile Mark took a dive at. Back across the creek running over the cliff. And back across the bridge. We finally made it back to the road. The worst had to be behind us right? Wrong. Little did we know it had been raining a lot more the week before and landslides left mud all along our road to Mu Cai Chang.
The main road to Mu Cai Chang Was littered with rock slides, but they were being cleared out by tractors very quickly. The parts that weren’t being cleared out were huge mud patches. Vietnamese mud is interesting. It’s magical. I’m guessing it was invented by a council of unicorns or something. It comes out of nowhere. Its sticks everywhere that it shouldn’t. Most importantly (and unfortunately) Vietnamese mud is as slippery as ice. Mark found this one out the hard way. Back to the ride…
I was cruising behind Mark admiring how badass he looked with all of that mud on the side of his pants and gear and I thought to myself “I should get a picture.” I figured it would make decent Facebook material. Like a good buddy, I pulled out my camera and snapped a pick of him…badass and riding Layla like a boss. A mud covered boss.
At that moment I see a slight wobble and think “oh sh!t”. The small wobble turns into a bigger wobble, and then an uncontrollable wobble. Seeing my buddy about to go down again was the worst, gut wrenching feeling ever. With my phone in hand I did the only thing I could think to do. I snapped pics of it happening. Please see below for evidence
As soon as I slowed to a stop I hopped off Delilah and scurried to help Mark lift Layla up. We got Layla started and he cruised out of the danger zone. Layla was kind of screwed. Her handlebars were twisted, pointing in a different direction than her wheel and the foot peg was bent, again, to the point that we couldn’t shift out of first gear, again. I felt bad. I’ve gone down before and I know it can be demoralizing, but like I said, Mark is a trooper. For this one though, I decided to ride Layla until we could get to a mechanic’s shop. I felt so bad. The entire time I was riding Layla with her twisted handlebars I kept picturing her as a very attractive girl that was slightly cross eyed and muddy. I was also praying that Mark didn’t have any more wipeouts while he was riding Delilah. We cruised for a good 20 minutes until we found a mechanic shop with a gaggle of guys standing out front. To this day, I still don’t know if any of them was an actual mechanic. Mark and I used sign language to explain that the bike was dropped, the handle bars were pointing in the wrong direction, and the foot peg was screwed. After some chatter between them the short one ran inside and came out with a pipe that he handed to me, and a wrench. He twisted the handlebars straight and tightened some bolts, then stole the pipe from me, put it on the foot peg and then motioned for me to pull it back in place, which I did. And with that, Layla was brand new. Covered in mud, but not a scratch on her. Mark hopped on for a test ride, saw that Layla was fine, and I could see that his spirits were lifted. With that, we high fived the mechanic…I think. We actually high fived everybody. We then hopped on our bikes and rode off to finish our 20 minute ride toward Mu Cai Chang. Who knew so much could go wrong 20 minutes from the finish?
Mu Cai Chang was a smaller city, even more desolate than our previous city (Nghia Lo). We stopped at the first Nghia Nha (hotel/homestay) that we could find and called it quits.
As we checked in and walked upstairs I realized that everything was exactly how it started before today’s adventure. Our bikes were fine, no scratches. We had no injuries. We had all of our gear. We were a little muddy, but dirt don’t hurt. Despite all of the calamity, today was another good day. Just another adventure. A light adventure, but definitely an adventure. I’m curious to see what tomorrow has in store.
“I’m asking You God, to give me what You have left.
Give me those things which others never ask of You.
I don’t ask You for rest, or tranquility.
Not that of the spirit, the body, or the mind.
I don’t ask You for wealth, or success, or even health.
All those things are asked of You so much Lord,
that you can’t have any left to give.
Give me instead Lord what You have left.
Give me what others don’t want.
Give me insecurity and disquietude
Give me turmoil and brawl
And I ask that You give them to me now and forever Lord,
so I can be sure to always have them,
because I won’t always have the strength to ask again.
But give me also the courage, the energy,
and the spirit to face them.
I ask You these things Lord,
because I can’t ask them of myself.
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