Vietnam: The Long Unknown – Update 5

This blog covers our trip from the middle of nowhere onto Dong Hoi, my first breakdown, repair troubles and a hotel shuffle. Police checks avoided; 3. Distance covered 222km.

Total distance: 1002km.


After checking out of the Hotel Of Dreams (aka, an asylum), we headed along to the cafe where we’d eaten dinner with the owners the night before. We’d promised Bee that we would see him before we moved on, and to his word we were invited back in for coffee. I love coffee, and their stuff is great. It comes like a miniature coffee machine, with a thimble of coffee in a metal cup and the hot water brews through it and drips into a glass below. But it comes out like syrup and is quite sweet. I also had an inch of milk, though it’s more like yoghurt. The dripping coffee doesn’t mix with it and it needs a good whisk together.

Bee looked a little tired, possibly from a heavy session the night before. Since we had quite a trek still ahead we exchanged details and shook hands before getting back on the bikes. And just like our little adventure started at this cafe with the father giving us a wave in, from the back of the cafe, wearing the same clothes and with the same nod and smile, he raised his hand as a sign of farewell. A curious human interaction that will stay with me forever.

Hitting the road was harder than usual. This would be the longest stretch we’d done so far. 220km of main roads, road works, dozens of small towns and police checks all awaited us. Just getting out the town was tricky ( the towns name we can’t find on google maps, hence its being called “middle of nowhere”). We ended up on an empty road along the coast but quickly found ourselves behind a military truck. Obviously the headline of “Britons Arrested in Vietnam” is something we are avoiding, so we took it slow (although they themselves were tanking it). I tried to keep central on the road so as not to be constantly visible in their mirrors. Eventually on a hilly part we snuck past them, only to find a convoy of another 5 truck another km up ahead. They definitely clocked us, but they had other plans as they synchronised their indicators and pulled off onto a different main road.

These roads started off so well. Now there are ruts in the road from heavy vehicles and never ending streams of motorbikes. The roads can control your steering when you’re in these troughs, pushing you one way then the other. Kind of like a skateboard in a half pipe. Roadworks became a very regular thing too. Seems they don’t concentrate on completing one section all at the same time, but rather rip up one lane for kilometres at a time (forcing both lanes of unstoppable long haul trucks and both single biker lanes onto a single road). We’d get back onto regular roads but then less than a mile down the road we’d be forced onto the other lane for more roadworks. This went on for hours.

Sometimes bikers nip into the freshly laid lanes and shoot out the other side ahead of the trucks. The workers saw this as normal, so we started doing it too. But not all of the sectioned areas were complete. Some of them were full of pebbles and pot holes. One of them was thick sludge which ended up covering us and redecorating the bikes. We looked like we’d been off-roading. The motocross helmet Clarence wears doesn’t help keep us inconspicuous either. It’s an attraction wherever we go.

This was also the first day we got caught in the rain. Seeing locals coming the other direction with ponchos on, it seemed a good idea to stop and pull out the waterproof covers for the rucksacks. Sure enough, with seconds to spare, the rain started. Hot drizzle soaked us for a half hour, and I rode with a face like thunder. Streaks of mud washed across the roads, and those roadworks turned into quicksand.

The rain doesn’t slow down the psycho truckers either. They seemed to increase their bullying by forcing bikers off the roads altogether. This is where my bike took a battering from pot holes as I tried to avoid the death drivers. My gear box started shifting by itself and eventually the chain would come off. Clarence took a peek and spotted the bolt was also missing off the gear change lever, so I had to ride with my ankle holding it on. If I lost that, I’d probably be stuck in a high gear till we found a garage. With the chain on (and now covered waist to boot in clay, mud and oil) we attempted to carry on. But the chain kept skipping out. Luckily there was a small garage right where I broke down, and they put on a brand new gear lever for 100’000VND (£6). It mostly helped, but there was still something severely wrong with it.

Somehow we got to the next hotel before my bike gave up. The chain was coming off every few minutes and my patience levels were at breaking point too. At 4.30pm it was too late to find a mechanic that was open, which meant we couldn’t book any tourist events for the next day. All of them started at 7 or 8am and returned after 6pm. Our plans of a 2-day stay went out the window. After breakfast the next day we pushed it to a place around the corner. For 200’000VND the guy tightened up the chain, lubricated every moving part and changed the oil in the motor. Clarence had a new front tyre put on. I took it for a test drive and it felt (and sounded) fine. But about 2km into a little sightseeing jaunt up the coast my chain hopped off again. So back we went, but the mechanic had shut up shop. Seeing this, the hostel next door helped us out and drove us to another mechanic where their guy gave it a proper look. Although, after two repair attempts, the chain was still jumping off. I really needed a new gear box. And that was going to be costly, and take a long time.

We were going to be stuck in Dong Hoi for 5 days, instead of two. But the next day we sat having coffee at the Buffalo hostel when one of their guys came over and said “grab your helmet. Your bike is ready”. He carted me across town on the back of his bike, translated and asked for the cost then drove off. Incredibly helpful, for no reason other than being helpful. Less than 24hrs later the bike was like new. New gasket, gears, chain, washed and lubricated. Cost me less than £20.

So we plan to leave Monday morning instead of Tuesday or Wednesday. It does mean we get the chance on Sunday to do one of the tourist things, and bike it up to the cave trails (which is kinda the reason we chose this town over others). Bu Monday we should be on our way, and on a different route. An American guy working in the hostel told us to take the Ho Chi Minh Trail for its roads which are not only great to ride but have virtually no traffic.

Sounds good to me.

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