Sunday, 15 March 2015

Hanoi to Saigon with Lucie

Hello all,

due to the high demand and despite many other bloggers out there on the internet offering a plethora of information I decided to write a somewhat more detailed blog than my usual standard, about my drive from Hanoi to Saigon with Lucie, my Xingha Win (Chinese version of a Honda).

 Disclaimer: I think that the idea of riding a motorbike around Vietnam is that you are free of any constraints and can do whatever you want, when you want it, and that you can explore at your own leisure.
I will not give full details on where to sleep, what to eat, how much things cost, unless it was a must-see or a avoid-at-all-costs.
There will also be some advice, based on my personal experiences.
A better, updated driving guide is also in the works.
Most of the fun is discovering things for yourself, so go out there and get lost!

This is not to be a "guidebook", more like a "guideline".

It will also probably be updated from time to time, based on the questions I get most often on FB and in real life.

Here's the first part of the journey

Note: Google Maps and don't work well together,despite both of them being part of Google+, sorry for the inconvenience.

So! Open the link in a new window and use in tandem with this blog.

The start: preparations.

I bought my Xingha Win from Quang Minh Motors. I sent them a message on FB and the next morning a  very polite girl was picking me up at my hotel. The owner was very nice, there was a small street, not so busy, right next to the shop so I could practice riding the bike. Since I never drove manual before, it took me one hour to finally ride from one end to the other without stalling, learn to change gears and such. The owner was patient the whole time. Months later, I still stall occasionally. The clutch is the key to victory.

He wanted $250 for the bike but simply by asking once I got it down to $230, with a helmet and straps. I think if I haggled more I could have gotten it down to $200.

If possible, take a Vietnamese friend with you, or someone that knows motorbikes. It was very simple to buy the motorbike but I had been more patient or in less of a hurry I would have picked a different one because some things were easily noticeable (front mud guard was tied up with wire, for example). I ended up putting up to a $100 dollars more in repairs of the next 2 months - mind you, I got a lot of rain, which is very bad for the bike.

I also met maybe 10 people that bought bikes from him and most of them had to get repairs done the following day. One person bought a bike for $300 and had the bike bread down within one hour and contrary to their promises, the shop wouldn't fix it for free. The guy ended up selling them their own bike back on the same day for $250.

In retrospect I would buy a bike from another traveller leaving. Make sure you get the blue card with it (proof of ownership). Check out for some used bikes sold by travellers. I also hear that it's cheaper to buy in Hanoi than Saigon.

The shop gave me a map but since I didn't have a cellphone with data (which I strongly recommend, it helps a LOT) I went shopping for a road Atlas and it was the best decision I made.

I found it here:

This map is the area just north of the Ho Hoan Kiem lake in the old quarters in Hanoi, very easy to find. It was a small book store with many maps and school material.

In the Atlas you'll find smaller roads and dirt paths, national parks, waterfalls, lakes. I based a part of my journey on what I would find in there. A couple I was travelling with had a few pages photocopied and would pencil in the roads that they took - cool souvenir! I personally wrote on the foldable map, a crude outline of where I went and how much time it took me to get from point A to point B. I plan to one day do the journey in the opposite direction without any electronics to explore more of the Central Highlands and get lost more.

My preparations were done, I was ready to leave. Here's a few more tips though. 

Try to get a oil change every 200 km. The prices range from 40,000 to 90,000 Dongs.

Buy a full-face or 3/4 helmet. The roads are very dusty, trucks throw rocks, big bugs will collide with your face. I waited until I was in Hue to get mine (went to the local market) and was so happy with my purchase. I paid 350,000 Dongs for it. I now just had to pull down my visor for protection from hazards and the sun, instead of having to wear a baseball cap under my helmet, sunglasses, and a face mask.

Do not underestimate the sun. The first day I rode in tank top and shorts and was absolutely cooked. From then on I would wear my trekking shoes (first thing you fuck up when close to crashing is your toes), jeans and shirt with long sleeves on. I even wore a bandanna to cover my neck. Some people also wear gloves or a lot of sunscreen on their hands - I've seen a girl with her hands so burned they were all swollen and peeling.

For some reason I repeated my mistake during the second half of my journey, thinking I was tanned enough to support the sun's unforgiving rays. 2 weeks later and I'm just starting to peel on the thighs. 

If you can, ride away from the A1 highway. The A1 can be efficient, the closer you are to Hanoi and Saigon, but can also become hectic. Often in construction and favoured by big trucks and buses - the scariest things out there - and so I would recommend riding the Ho Chi Minh trail from North to Cental Vietnam to enjoy scenery, quietness and a bit of history (I think it was the road built by the Northern army to attack the South). 

We had also bought cheap ponchos, easily accessible, that we could throw on whenever we got rain (sometimes only lasting a few minutes, but very heavy drops). I would eventually buy an extra poncho to wrap my bag in, and a garbage bag to put my backpack in. Even if it's sunny I advise to do this as your stuff will get full of dust and sand.

I even spoiled myself with a fancy poncho (still not very expansive) that's thicker and longer to cover my legs and face. If you're riding a scooter, there's a plastic window and holes for your hands so you can even cover the front of your bike and be quite dry. For a motorbike however, the handles are too large so you arms will have to stick out from the sides.

Keep an eye out for EVERYTHING AT ALL TIMES. Dogs and cows are unpredictable. Goats stick together and usually stay in the grass. Watch out for sand and rocks and holes. And never, ever think that you know what that truck or bus is about to do - they like to swerve savagely to avoid potholes and don't look in their mirrors to see if you're passing them.

Finally, if you can avoid it, don't drive from 7am to 9am and from 4pm to 6pm, it's their rush hour and at least in the cities, intersections get chaotic. There's no room for mistakes.

 Absolutely avoid driving at night.

For the second part of the journey, Da Nang to Saigon, I had access to the internets so it made it easier for me to find a bed. I use hostelbooking, and Trip Advisor.

That being said, we can finally start talking about the road. Mind you, this is 4 months ago so my memory is not perfect (thank you, high usage of marijuana at a young age).

1-HANOI TO NINH BINH. The first day of the trip I simply went from Hanoi to Ninh Binh. I was travelling with a couple who were both on the same motorbike and so their max speed was very low. It was in November, so we got a lot of rain. It took us 4 hours, stopping a few times to relax. The road was okay - not so many potholes, big trucks flying by, a little bit of rain. It was a good introduction to the roads.

The couple already knew where they were staying so I just followed along. Ninh Binh was very nice and quiet and I preferred Tam Coc to Halong Bay, to be honest. I would eventually go back by bus with my father and got a nice shave on the street with one of them old-school blades.

2-NINH BINH TO SAM SON. We had seen on Google Image that this place looked very "touristy" (a term I would grow to hate. We backpackers are just poor tourists, never forget that) but we really wanted to enjoy the beach so we ended up driving there. We waited for the weather to clear up in Ninh Binh until early afternoon and then drove to Sam Son by small roads. It took us about 3 hours and it was very enjoyable. Sam Son was absolutely deserted so we had the beach to ourselves. It's mainly a boulevard lining the beach  with restaurants and hotels, and smaller roads and houses as you move away from the beach. 

3-SAM SON TO BEN EN NATIONAL PARK. Our first true exploration. We saw on the map that this was a pretty big national park with a huge lake in the middle and so we took a chance and made our way there. The drive again, was very nice. We moved further away from the A1, stopping here and there for Phö and coffee. The people were always very friendly. Remember to smile even if you're very tired! 

When we finally got to the lake, it was 400,000 Dongs per person to rent a boat to ride around the lake which we thought was too expensive. We wanted to stay in the vicinity for the night but there was only one hotel overtaken by giant wasps (they were everywhere inside) so we decided to go look for a room in the town nearby. Coming back from the lake, a truck used the entire road to take a curve at a ridiculous speed and so my friends had to swerve to avoid certain death. They ended up sliding in the gravel and crashing. The villagers came out and a man made a poultice out of chewed herbs and tissue that helped my friend's leg heal. We had to drive the broken bike about 1 km to the nearest bike shop and they fixed it in an hour for around $20 if I remember well. At first they didn't want to help us because it was around 4 pm and you could tell they wanted to go home, but a random policeman showed up and told them to help us. Afterwards we found a small hotel and spent the night there.

4-BEN EN NATIONAL PARK TO TAN KY. The next day we left that area, and if you look on my Google Map, we chose to ride north of the park. A small detour, but we were in no rush. Again, very quiet scenery populated by small villages, rice fields, water buffalo, cows (careful, they are unpredictable!) and dogs. Everything is so green! We didn't find anything to do in Tan Ky but there was a small market where they got their photocopies made and I got some sunscreen. I mainly stayed in my room in the evening, reading, but they went for a walk and got invited to drink rice wine with locals and enjoyed their night a lot.

5-TAN KY TO PU MAT NATIONAL PARK. At this point our group split. The couple didn't want to do the detour to Pu Mat without certainty of anything to do there (following the previous experience at the first national park, I can't blame them). I had seen pictures of a waterfall in that park and so I took my chances. They went further South while I took highway 7 towards Con Cuong. 

To their credit, contrary to Filipinos, Cambodians and Lao people, Vietnamese people know how to read maps and know exactly where they are. Every time I would bust out this bad boy (many times a day) they were very eager to look through it and tell me where we are and where they were born. I even got asked to sell them a few pages or if they could borrow it for a photocopy or to buy the book outright! I mostly spoke with people in their 50's and 60's, probably retired, as I suspect that young adults were all tackling their gruelling work week. From what I gather, most of them work 12 hour days with only 4 days off a month (but they don't seem to work that hard while they're at it).

I arrived in Con Cuong after 2 hours (I think), a small town with some small hotels and restaurants. I stopped for food and to ask if there was some trekking to do but no one seemed to know. Riding back towards Anh Son I noticed many small roads branching off the main highway (where hundreds of school children on bikes rode the side of the road, a pretty memorable sight). I stopped at a tiny store (a beer cooler and a table) to ask a man for directions. When he realised where I wanted to go he got very excited. He wanted to get there himself! Without a word he climbed on Lucie. We rode a small road through a little village (brown trail on the map near ban Pha if I remember correctly) until at one point we ended up in a valley cut in half by a tiny river, with on the horizon small mountains. I was amazed at the view and heavily regret not taking pictures, but the strain of our weights combined made Lucy creak in a way I have never heard before so I just wanted to get to point B. 

We ended up driving through these small mountains to another village where I dropped him off and I pushed on until Mon Son (marked on my map), where I eventually ended up in a restaurant built on a river near a dam (if you get there you'll see the river and on your right the dirt path that goes up rather steeply to some houses). It took another 2 hours to get there, driving very slowly because there were a lot of kids playing by the side of the road. The waterfall was a 3-hour boat ride away (1 million Dongs to rent the boat and I was by myself) and it was already 3pm so I didn't go, but I asked where to sleep. There are no hostels so I took a chance and asked if I could sleep in their house and they were very happy to host me! I ended up having an amazing meal (learned to suck river snails out of their shell) and got drunk with the men. I slept on the floor of the restaurant and the next day jumped off the dam. The place is absolutely beautiful. 

(I'm having issues with my GoPro at the moment, videos to come soon)

6-PU MAT NATIONAL PARK BACK TO TAN KY. I ended up spending most of the next day there, swimming and just enjoying myself. The family offered for me to stay a week for free if I taught them English but I only had a one-month visa so I respectfully declined their offer. I bought some home-brew rice wine from the son of the family which would kick my ass later. When I left, the mother of the family was seeing me off. I offered 200,000 Dongs as a thank-you, which she took but then gave me 150,000 Dongs in change. Very nice people. I rode back to Tam Ky since I knew it wasn't too far and the hotel was cheap. 

7-TAN KY TO PHONG NHA NATIONAL PARK. What a ride. It took me 8 hours! Ridiculous. I rode the Ho Chi Minh trail (a nice road, really) the whole time and stopped twice, for a delicious coffee and later for a delicious Phö. Near the actual park at some point you hit a very wide and very long, straight segment of road.

 Legend is that this was an airstrip built under the cover of darkness by the Viet Cong. They smuggled an airplane piece by piece and rebuilt it on the spot. They then had a Russian pilot fly out and attack the American ships nearby, who promptly shot him down. Apparently he was rescued by fishermen and still lives in Hanoi to this day.

I got a lot of rain and arrived in the cover of darkness, drenched and exhausted. I heard about Easy Tiger Hostel from a previous biker so I pulled there to learn that they were fully booked (a common thing) but just up the road were a few bigger hotels with cheap rooms - if a less friendly staff. The place where I stayed closed the gates early and the two nights I stayed there I had to climb the fence, drunk and under heavy rain to get back to my bed since no amount of yelling woke up anyone. One time I was just out of the shower when an older Vietnamese man opened the door to my room. I was naked. I simply stared at him, stunned. He nodded and closed the door. Looking back at it I should have put clothes on quickly and chased him to know his business, but after that I would always triple-check if my door was locked - even when I was in the room.  

Phong Nha was absolutely amazing. There are a few caves to visit and the staff at Easy Tiger Hostel was very knowledgeable of the area, there was even a live music night. I visited the Paradise Cave and the Dark Cave and recommend it to everyone who asks for advice. 

This is where the first part of this guide stops, since Google Maps has a limit for saved directions.

Part two, technically still the first half of my trip. Here's the map.

8-PHONG NHA TO QUANG TRI - THE WEST SEGMENT OF THE HO CHI MINH TRAIL. At Easy Tiger Hostel I would meet a German man patiently waiting for a partner to tackle an interesting journey. Just south of Phong Nha, the Ho Chi Minh trail splits in two (see map). The West segment is 200 km of pure blissful abandon. High in the mountains with very few villages and riders. Our bikes had a 250 km capacity on one tank, and there was one place that sold over-priced petrol around km 80 (coming from Phong Nha) where we didn't take a chance and filled up. You could also buy a few water bottles and fill them up with extra petrol to be safe. When we stopped for petrol and beers the locals wanted to get us to do shots of rice wine with them but we declined for safety's sake

This is easily the best ride I did in my whole life. The road was well taken care of (except for a landslide at one point which blocked 90% of the road) and there were not a lot of animals in the way. I found myself with a constant smile and day-dreaming about doing this with my friends from back home (when one of you comes I'll show you how to ride Lucie). During a photo and piss break, we saw a huge black monkey with white legs and a red mane, swinging around in the canopy below. We saw tiny waterfalls, mountain ranges, jungle, a village over-ran by dogs who were sleeping everywhere on the road. The next day we would hear about bandits on this road, 6 guys who got eventually arrested by the police for killing a couple for their money, so be weary of strangers. 

Drive safely also. There are many curves and you are very high up in the mountains, away from everything. It's a long walk to the nearest house or a long wait for help! 

It took us 10 hours to complete this ride.

10/10 would do again, and again, and again and again and again.

9-QUANG TRI TO HUE. In Quang Tri we visited an abandoned American base and in the same day the Vinh Moc tunnels, which made for an interesting contrast. We just showed up so we didn't have a guide. Bring a head lamp and go explore! We didn't do that and I regret it. We then drove to Hue following the coast. Again, very pretty sights, you could stop for some cheap seafood and then go swim in the ocean. The ride was only 3 hours. The last part of the ride was on a highway under construction if I remember correctly and that was stressful. We arrived in Hue in the dark during heavy traffic which was kind of stressful, especially after being away from civilization for a week. 

Hue is one of my favourite cities. Street vendors don't annoy me any more (biggest complain of most people) and there's a lot of history. Since we had our bikes we made our own little city tour of the ancient Purple Forbidden City, pagoda and Nguyen Emperor tombs. With my father we did a bus and boat tour which is quite cheap as well. Word of advice: don't be one of these cheapos who take the bus tour but sit in front of the entrance to the tombs and temples drinking beer! The entrance is generally 80,000 Dongs... 4 dollars. You're drinking $1 beer okay, but what's the point of doing the tour if you're going to do that? Rant over.

Hue also has a lot of delicacies to offer. Well, technically, every single town and village has their own variation of the Phö or noodles but Hue seemed to have a lot to offer. It's an ancient capital, after all, and the emperors always supported education and culture here. They have very old high schools and universities (some older than Canada) and traditional dishes hundreds of years old. It is also said that Hue has the best textile to make their traditional dress (Ao Dai, elegant and sexy at the same time, insert new fetish here), the most beautiful women and the best wives (but I only heard that while in Hue). 

I stayed at Chillout Hostel, a small place in a tiny alley. I ended up leaving Lucie there for a month while I visited my friends on Don Det, Laos. The hostel manager is a little lady that reminds me of Gollum but she was very friendly and protective and took me out for some street food. Look for (probably not written right) Banh Beo, Banh Nam and Banh It for a taste of something special.

I also stayed at Diamond Hotel, in another alley. Ridiculous price/quality ratio, this is my favourite place to stay. Say hi to Julia, Crazy Amy and Anna Banana for me! Book in advance, they are always full.

I also found that by motorbike you could get to a beach just 20 minutes away on a quiet road. It cost 10,000 Dongs to park our bikes and a little bit more to rent beach chairs (common practice) but we had the whole place to ourselves. I watched small crabs dig their lair and throw out sand very rudely and comically out the door for a while.

10-HUE TO DANANG. I got absolutely plastered at Brown Eyes in Hue the night before and so was too hungover to drive when Julian, my German comrade, went on. I ended up staying 2 more nights in Hue just walking around. My fault: I got a lot of rain when it was time to ride to Danang. It's a little bit hard to exit the city but once you catch the highway it's simpler, if not scarier. About 3 hours in you reach Hai Van pass - a beautiful ride through a mountain siding the ocean, which makes for a pretty contrasting view. Since it was raining (not the ideal to over-pass slow-moving trucks during a tight curve in a mountain) I didn't get a nice view but I would eventually do this 2 more times and it's really nice. 

In the middle of the journey, on top of the mountain there's restaurants, a bus stop and a sort of old-looking tower. I didn't stop. I met a guy who did and fell in this scam: as they got back on their bikes they noticed something didn't "feel" right. They saw that their back tires were flat! A second later a lady who spoke perfect English (the tell-all sign of a scam) magically appeared and said she would call her friend to help them. A mere 10 seconds later, lo and behold, a small Vietnamese man with a complete tool kit fixed their tires on the side of the road. They ended up paying 100,000 Dongs each after much arguing.

If you follow the road from the mountain it will eventually take you right in the centre of Danang. It took me roughly 6 hours to complete this journey. Be forewarned: there's a bridge under construction a little bit before you get in the actual city. I ended up just following the flow of traffic and had to drive through some small alleys with absolutely no room for error. If you look at the map you could also make a turn before the city to follow the coast a little bit more. I heard there's a really nice beach and nice hotels, if a little bit pricier.

I love Da Nang. I would eventually spend a month and a half there to complete my INTESOL. I rented a small flat. The city looks very busy, with tons of hotels and more construction on the side of the river nearest to the beach but don't be fooled: most of them are empty. I drove randomly on side streets until I found a clean-looking one close to a small restaurant and rented a nice, clean and comfortable room for $15 a night (splurge!). 

Da Nang also has their own speciality. Some fat noodles, really good. There's tonnes of restaurants. The locals are friendly and beside the motorbike drivers no one assails you to sell you cheap sunglasses and wallets. The walk by the river -city side- is very nice and there's bars that kick until 4 am. There's delicious street food, a nice beach, Monkey mountain (I drove up, hard on the breaks on the way back but worth it - see map) and the Dragon Bridge spits fire at 9 pm every Saturday. Get a spot near the head amongst the crowd of locals and pose with some random Vietnamese families.

Note-worthy: the first red circle is a small side-street restaurant that had delicious pork and rice for 20,000 Dongs. You pay up front and give them an extra 5,000 Dongs if you want a fried egg on top. Me and the boys from the TESOL ended up eating there almost every lunch. They seem to be only open from 11:00 to 15:00. The position on the map could be wrong - it could be one more block west. It's built alongside the yellow wall of a Bonsai-populated courtyard.

The next red dot is a trust-worthy motorbike repairman. He speaks basic English but is very capable. I recommend getting there early in the morning. They will prioritise fixing your bike usually, unless it's a big job. He also repairs all the Easy Rider bikes so you can usually have a pretty interesting conversation while waiting - or go enjoy a delicious Cà Phê nearby. The spot might be a little bit wrong on the map since it's a small alley. I recommend driving all the way to the last intersection of the Dragon Bridge then following the big boulevard south (right before you get on the bridge, you should be looking at the tail of the dragon). The map says it's a one-way but south of the Dragon bridge it's two-way. You will see a parking lot on your right, then a temple and very quickly a tiny alleyway with lots of firewood stacked up. Drive in there until you see all the motorbikes. His house is green.

I ended up spending Têt holiday in Vietnam. I went back to the shop to get a tune-up before tackling Danang-Saigon and he was not open for business but still invited me in for home made wine (very fruity) and home made fish jerky. We got a little bit drunk by noon. 

On my first half I got a LOT of rain and eventually my bag rack rusted through. Somebody offered to fix it for me in Hue for free and they did such a poor job of it that it rusted out again the next day. This guy though, the one in Danang, did an amazing job. His helpers and him were the only ones who could fix my lights and and blinkers. I got my back break re-done, as well as my front wheel re-aligned and got new front suspensions and many other smaller things that he just pitched in over my 5 visits.

Part 3, technically the second half. Map here!

11- DANANG TO HOI AN. Ah, Hoi An. A UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Apparently during wars, both sides always agreed to have no fighting in the old town of Hoi An to keep it intact, and so you can do a little bit of time travelling by stopping there - if you don't mind the swarm of tourists and the hordes of street vendors. It's like being in a mall around christmas time and no one has the intention of buying anything. 

From Danang to Hoi An can take between 20 minutes to 1 hour, depending on your driving style. If you look on my map I chose the East route, thinking I would ride by the seashore. Instead, you get a long road populated by golf courses, small houses and construction projects for fancy condos The road is much quieter than the other way to get there however, so I suggest it strongly. 

After having been mostly a solitaire on my bike for more than 2 weeks, I had heard about this party hostel in Hoi An and decided to reserve 2 nights there, craving some drunken action. Here's my social media status from that stay:

"Ah sweet, a party hostel. I've been meaning to get my drink on and be with westerners."
Bros and hoes abound. Singing shitty radio songs in hallways at 2am. Fucking each other in dorms while other people want to sleep. Yelling in restaurants for no reason. Grabbing Vietnamese girls arses. Drunk skanks crying over a 2-week relationship with some dickhead that just left without giving 2 fucks.
No one says thanks, no one says hi, if you don't fit in the douchy mold of hair gel and button shirt, loud talking and binge drinking, or have a sweet pair of tits on display, you're not worth the oxygen.
"I got 6 days in Laos, I'm just gonna tube". Please fuck off.
A healthy dose of white guilt. Vietnam, let me apologize for this clusterfuck of depravity and narcissism.
Sorry for the rant, couldn't keep this one in.
Don't mind me, I'm just gonna get back on my motorbike to meet some Viets now. They don't make me feel dead inside.
Thought I liked you Hoi An city, but it was just the beer.See ya

So that's that. Don't stay at Sunflower Inn. A lot of people I meet thoroughly enjoyed Hoi An however, and there's ways to have a great time and get lost in the rice fields or escape to the beach, so don't take my word for it and go see for yourself. 

Sidenote: On my trip, I would end up driving back to Hue to leave a battered Lucy at Chillout Hostel while I spent a beautiful month on Don Det, in Laos. I then came back to Hue, picked her up, spent one month in Danang to complete my TESOL and hopped back on my bike. This is where part deux really starts.

12- DANANG TO QUANG NGAI. Having been sedentary for more than a month had really diluted my road trip smarts. Sitting in my hostel planning my next journey I had originally intended to do Danang to Quy Nhon in one shot. I set off on Lucy in shorts and t-shirts and got cooked yet again. After 5 hours on the road I was only in Quang Ngai, it was 2pm, and I decided to call it a day and relax. I didn't want to just blast it at top speed on the A1 the whole time, I could take a bus to do that. 

I found some wifi and checked where I would stay, preferring cheap price over high rates and got a small room in a hotel near the river, it was quite okay. I napped and read a book at a coffee shop and at night walked randomly on the main boulevard until I saw a noodle place that looked ok. It was delicious, as usual. I also purchased a long-sleeve shirt for the rest of the drive. There is a small museum in the city, about a massacre that happened there in the past, but it was closed since it was a Sunday.

13- QUANG NGAI TO QUY NHON. This ride, unbeknownst to me, would become one of my favourites. Google Maps is not precise enough, but on my phone there's "Here Maps" and it's a little bit more detailed, so I spot a side road moving away from the A1 not too far from my destination. My plan was to ride the A1 until I got to that road and then judge from the time of day if I had time to take a potentially 3-hour long detour. 

I did have the time, I did take the detour, I did have a great time. There's a few pictures and videos on the Bière de Route facebook page and one of my previous blog posts, if you're curious.

Since Google maps will absolutely NOT let me map the road I took - which is pretty straight-forward - here is a picture with more details. I strongly recommend doing this ride if you want to be submerged in beautiful scenery. I think I saw the whole process of rice harvest - from preparing the fields to planting the seeds to green fields to the actual harvesting - over the course of 3 hours. I saw a Buddhist cemetery, I rode through small villages, saw kids playing with dogs and old men playing Chinese chess, and it was awesome.

14 - QUY NHON TO NHA TRANG. I mostly stuck to the A1 but still had a good ride. There was not a lot of construction and if you zoom in on the map you can see that there's spot where you drive right by the sea. It reminded me a lot of Hai Van pass, minus the steep up-and-down hills and wet roads. Also, the rocks, sand and ground was red everywhere which gave me a Cambodia flashback, so I spent some time reminiscing about my good times with Jen & Ben in Kampot. I left Quy Nhon at 9 am and as usual took numerous breaks for coffee, food, and to rest my butt.

During one such rub-my-butt break, somewhere in red-tainted hills, I'm resting in the shade of a struggling tree. A cop car appears and pulls over right behind my bike, so I instinctively get up and go stand by Lucie. One of the policemen smiles and comes up to me and starts chatting me up in Vietamese. I'm thinking :"Here we go, bribe time", but I can't understand him soI start up my Google Translate app (Vietnamese is very hard to translate, apparently). The policeman takes my phone and writes one word, and hands it back to me.

I take the phone. "Bound". So I say, Saigon. The policeman frowns, nods, and shakes my hand. I get back on my bike and ride away as they set up a road stop. Much more lucrative to stop car drivers!

Later on my ride I realised he was more likely asking me if I was "bound to someone", since they always ask if I'm married.

The ride into Nha Trang was pretty easy compared to Danang. The main road from the highway follows the coast. I couldn't help but go drive through a small street which reminded me for some reason of those Italian alleys you always see in movies, with clotheslines populating the empty space between buildings (only here it's electric wire). The main road takes you to the main tourist area, full of clubs and high-end hotels and restaurants that get cheaper as you move away from the beach. And everything is in Russian! This is apparently because the main airway servicing the Nha Trang airport is Russian. Now, due to the Rouble having a hard time there's less tourists, so less money for everyone in that city.

It's here that I would meet Tin from my previous post. There's also the Rooftop Bar, owned by a Québecois, and the Ba Ho waterfalls which I strongly suggest to visit.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Sunday, 8 March 2015

An afternoon in a temple with a bar girl

I am having a very humbling day here in Nha Trang, as I write these lines in a little notebook at a small temple on top of a hill overlooking the city. Tin and her cousins are taking me out for a meal and a prayer. I feel under dressed in my swimsuit (it's laundry day).

I met Tin last night while going home. She is a flyer girl / waitress in a bar in town. She handed me a flyer but I told her that I was going to bed. She asked me why, am I on a holiday after all? I told her I'm trying to get used to getting up early, because I am a teacher. She grabbed my wrist, her eyes getting bigger. "Can you help me? Lesson?" I answered "Sure, tomorrow, 10 am, I give you a lesson, you buy me a coffee". With a huge smile she shakes my hand and says, yes, thank you, see you tomorrow!

Today. Tin tells me she hopes to have a boyfriend either from Canada, Holland, Germany or Poland because men from these countries are always nice (Nha Trang is over-run by Russians, last night one man asked if he could buy her a beer and fuck her, she slapped him, he slapped her back and was kicked out of the bar). Vietnamese boyfriends drink everyday, she tells me, and hit their girlfriends when they're drunk, like it happened to her cousin who is with us. She is pretty, with a smoking body and delicate manners. I notice for the first time, what I mistook for a small birthmark under her right eye, is in fact a bruise concealed by make-up.

Tin is praying right now, on her knees, forehead resting on the back of her hands, on the floor. She is praying to a lady Buddha, perched on a lotus, on top of a globe, itself towering over a shrine and steps.

It is very quiet here, compared to the buzzing city centre. Little dogs are sleeping everywhere and cripples wait patiently for a hand out. An old woman with tiny legs, sitting on the ground, looks at me and says "Money" while holding in her hands small bills. I thank her and pretend to take the money, everyone laughs. I am left alone after that. A monk in brown robes, wearing glasses, is copying a text from a small book onto cardboard while serving people who want to buy water, fruit, incense. The smell of incense fills the air.

The small temple has no roof. It is built on top of a conic tower, you drive in circles around it to get to the top. There are small shrines at every cardinal points of the platform.

The monk is preparing for a ceremony, setting a pillow at the foot of the stairs. he also sets a small table and boxes of beer that appear very light, full of little holes.

He kneels on the pillow, in front of the statue where Tin was praying earlier, prepares his microphone, puts on his reading glasses.

A Lasapso, absolutely dirty, scratches himself on the shrine's steps, not too far away.

The monk rings a bell a few times and starts his prayer. Women kneel behind him for prayer.

At a certain point, he hits the bell 3 times and everyone bows to the ground, before he starts chanting.

Tin tells me she comes here to pray every day. I ask her what she prays for. As I thought, she is praying for a boyfriend, for a good man to come to her. She said she also prayed for me, that I will find work in Saigon and meet a beautiful woman.

Many people just arrived, probably from work, on their lunch break. The monk is still chanting.

Minutes later, a lot of the people who gave water bottles as offerings - set at the foot of the statue on a golden altar with rising golden dragons - are taking them back and drinking from them. I ask Tin why they take the water back. She takes her own water bottle and tells me "I tell the Buddha, I will drink this whole bottle of water that I gave you, to show you my devotion. When I finish it, please reward me with  a good man".

The monk now dips a big yellow flower in a bowl of water, delicately, to then bless whatever is in the boxes of beer in front of him.

Tin is next to me, speaking with her cousin. She is crying. When they are done, I ask her why she is crying. She is crying but she is strong, she tells me. She meets lots of men at the bar, but none are nice to her. She had a westerner boyfriend, but she left him when he started convincing her that it was okay for him to sleep with other women. She had a Vietnamese boyfriend as well, but he was treating her like property. Another Vietnamese man proposed to her, for she is always smiling and he wants a happy wife. He gave her 10 million Dongs so she could buy pretty clothes. In the end, she turned him down, because he was 50, the same age as her father.

The other bar girls tell her she is stupid, because she will not fuck men for money. An American offered 5 million Dongs for her "just to come to his hotel room and sleep in his bed, nothing else". She did not take the offer. Most bar girls make 2 million Dongs a month. She doesn't care about money, she wants love, from a good man.

As we talk, I miss the opening of the beer boxes. The monk let out the blessed birds within. When this was done, he came barefeet to sit at our ceramic table and speak with the girls. His eyes are surrounded by smiling lines, his eyes appear completely honest. He smiles a lot. I think he is giving them advice. He looks at me often and I think he is asking questions about me.

After that, everyone went for a nap, while I retreated to my hotel room to plan the next few days. The day after, I would take Tin to the Ba Ho waterfalls where we would play a little bit in the cascades, watch a group of Vietnamese people drink beer and play music, and clandestinely look at a couple in their forties, cuddling in a pool of water, kissing. This is not a scene you see often, as people are very reserved here.

That night, Tin tells me I am a very good man, because I did not ask her for boom boom and offered to give her lessons instead. She tells me that I should stay in Nha Trang, that she will cook for me every day. She asks if I want kids. Jokingly, I say, I want 10. She answers, I will give you 20. I will start with a baby boy.

I tell her, you don't know me. I've made a few girls sad in my life, she should not give herself to me so easily. I am going to Saigon to work, and I might never come back to Nha Trang.

"I wait for you. 10 years. You will be 40, I will be 33. Then I give you a baby boy, and I cook for you"

"Don't wait for me. Live your life."

"Okay. Thank you for being honest."

If you take the time to get to know people, if you give your time to them, you are often rewarded with smiles and good memories. My stay in Nha Trang was no exception. Sometimes though, you get to be hit in the face full-force by the reality of their lives.

Keep your head up, Tin. Good things will come to you.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Un peu d'aventure, enfin

Je suis assis dans ma chambre sans fenêtre dans un petit hotel à Nha Trang, No Use For A Name dans les oreilles. La table est trop petite et croche, ça me fait mal au dos. Il fait chaud, mais tout va bien.

Ma route de Quang Ngai à Quy Nhon a été très satisfaisante. Pas les premières 4 heures, à dépasser des 18 roues avec 6 pouces d'espace entre les roues à ma gauche et la garnotte à ma droite. Pas quand l'autoroute A1 est en construction et c'est plein d'énorme trous que les autobus essayent d'éviter sans crier gare ou que (les trous) massacrent ma belle Lucie. Mais c'est que, à Xa Cat Hanh j'ai décidé de virer vers l'est pour aller explorer un peu, relaxer, voir du pays. C'est vers la côte. J'avais vu qu'une "grande" route était marquée sur Google Maps. Grâce à mon cellulaire et les internets, j'ai pas manqué le virage (une petite route à une voie en ciment).

Dès que j'ai fait ce virage je me suis senti immédiatement récompensé. De toutes petites maisons jonchaient chaque bord de la route. Des fois, des maisons à 3-4 étages qui abritent un petit café ou un karaoké. Des enfants jouent avec rien ou bien se promène en moto sur les genoux du grand-papa, énorme sourire aux lèvres. Les chiens semblent plus heureux ici, aussi.

Je ne sais pas si c'est parce qu'ils ont moins de voyageurs qui passent par là mais personne ne me remarquait et m'envoyait la main. D'habitude je suis "spotté" à 1 mile, avec ma vieille moto et ma carrure d'étranger.

Je regarde l'heure: 2pm. J'ai le temps. Il me reste 100km à franchir et il commence à faire noir vers 6pm. Je ralentis. Subitement, les maisons disparaissent pour des mètres et je suis frappé par la beauté du paysage qu'elles cachaient. À ma gauche, des champs de riz à n'en plus finir. Vert, si vert. Des fois, des sacs de plastiques accrochés après des bouts de bois sont arrangés pour ressembler à des humains. Leurs épouvantails! Couvert d'un chapeau conique, c'est très convainquant.

À ma droite, des champs de riz aussi, mais à environs 1 km des petites montagnes cernent le village. C'est tellement beau! Je ne suis pas capable de m'en empêcher, je débarque et me lance en mode photo. Cette fois-ci, les gens m'envoient la main.

La route devient de plus en plus petite, des fois ce n'est qu'un chemin de sable. De tout petits enfants se promènent. Je roule lentement. J'ai une pensée pour Don Det, mon coin de paradis au Laos.

Arrivé au bout d'un village j'aboutit devant un énorme champ de riz traversé au parfait milieu par une petite route. J'ai l'impression que je suis Moïse séparant l'eau. À ma gauche, des maisons au loin, et après, je m'imagine la mer. L'Océan avec un grand O. À droite, les charmantes petites montagnes. Je crois qu'il y a eu une récolte il n'y a pas si longtemps: au loin, des femmes sont affairées à refaire les terrains en carré pour planter le riz, les chevilles dans la boue. Je m'arrête juste avant les champs, devant la dernière maison, pour apprécier la vue (et prendre des photos). À ma droite, 1 homme est en train de réparer un tracteur sous l'ombre d'une toile en plastique. 2 autres hommes le regardent faire, sans un mot, en buvant du thé.

"Hey! You!"

Je me retourne. Un jeune homme et 4 filles me disent d'approcher à la façon Viet (lève ton bras bien haut comme pour pauser une question à l'école et fait des allos juste avec la main et le poignet, de haut en bas). Je rigole et vais les voir.

Surprise, on ne se comprend pas. Tout le monde rigole nerveusement. Une fille est affairée à faire un nouveau filet, ou un nouveau hamac. On m'offre de l'eau froide. Avec Google Translate sur mon téléphone, ils arrivent à me poser les questions habituelles. Je devrais juste avoir une petite carte à distribuer en Viet, c'est toujours les mêmes, dans le même ordre. I'm from Canada. I am not married. I am 30 years old. Yes, I love Vietnam. No thank you, no alcohol, I have a long way to drive still.

Un des hommes qui ne faisait rien de l'autre côté du chemin se lève lentement, traverse la rue et me pointe. Ensuite, il pointe la fille affairée au filet. Ensuite il me donne un Thumbs Up et un air accomplit. Et voilà, je me suis trouvé une femme! Tout le monde s'esclaffe. Je décline poliment.

Après quelques minutes je continue ma route enchanteresse. Après environs 30 minutes, le paysage change. Ça devient plus rocailleux. Des petites collines et de gros éclats de boulets partout, comme si un géant avait apprit que sa blonde le trompait, et avait frappé à grand coups de poings dans la planète pour se défouler.

Dans la gravelle. Je déteste conduire dans la gravelle. J'arrive devant une autre scène qui me force à descendre et m'arrêter. Jonché sur le flanc de la colline, un cimetière, un gros. Une famille est assise à l'ombre d'une des tombes (on dirait un sarcophage en céramique). Je ne sais pas si ils sont venus prier ou s'occuper des vaches qui broutent partout depuis que les champs de riz sont disparus. On m'invite encore à me joindre à eux. J'oblige.

Les petites madames m'adorent. Tout le monde rit. Les enfants rigolent. Un vieil homme tout bronzé avec quelques dents manquantes me part une jasette semi en Viet, semi en riant, et finalement pointe vers une fille qui à l'air beaucoup trop jeune. "You!" Et encore, thumbs up. Tout le monde se crampe de rire. La fille sourit mais recule. Elle a peur! C'est qui l'étranger qui se magasine une dulcinée dans un cimetière!

Je prends quelques photos et répond à leurs questions (Canada, pas marié, 30 ans) et reprend la route. Route qui maintenant longe l'océan. C'est majestueux. Je suis tellement content d'avoir prit ce détour!

J'arrive à Quy Nhon juste à la tombée de la nuit. Je trouve un petit hotel pas cher, mange une Phö, vais me promener sur le bord de la mer, et reste immobile devant une géante discothèque pendant quelques minutes (J'y vais-tu? Tout seul? Pourquoi pas? Che pas, c'est plate... Bah, tu sais que les Viets vont venir te voir pour jaser! Mais je vais surement finir par dépenser trop d'argent... Et pi je veux juste y aller pour rencontrer des filles et toutes manières c'est même pas un bec sur la joue avant une relation sérieuse... Mais c'est pas en restant dans ta chambre que tu vas en rencontrer! Ah pi merde, je suis pas ici pour rencontrer des filles. Ouin, va donc faire des push ups...) avant de retourner dans ma chambre écouter des films et essayer de mémoriser tout ce que j'ai vu aujourd'hui... Et faire des push ups.

Voici les photos, dites-moi si mes descriptions ont créé la bonne image dans votre imagination!
(Cliquez pour agrandir l'image)

Première journée, de Da Nang à Quang Ngai en shorts. Pas l'idée du siècle! 

Lucie et moi, jour 2!

Mon repas 3 fois par jour quand je suis sur la route. 
Chaque ville a sa variation, alors on ne s'en fatigue pas

Enfin hors de l'autoroute A1

Traveller porn


Pendant ma pause-Phö, le lendemain.
Petit bonhomme n'avait pas d'eau, je lui ai ammené le bol.
Un nouvel ami! 

Le jour suivant, entre Quang Ngai et Quy Nhon

Scène classique

Hier j'ai rencontré une jeune Viet qui voulait pratique son anglais.
Aujourd'hui elle m'a amené à son temple.
Petit chien qui se cache du soleil.

Encole plus de cadeaux! Voici mon youtube channel avec quelques vidéos de ma journée: Clique icitte
Y'en a 4, visite mon channel pour voir le reste! 
Petit truc, baissez votre son, y'a beaucoup de vent!