Welcome to the Jungle (Part I)

“There’s some construction on route 49. It is neat to see, but it might slow you down a little bit.”

Australians are masters of understatements. That was Deano’s assessment of the route from Hue to the windy Ho Chi Minh highway. Technically, he was absolutely correct in his statement. Assuming, that by “some” you are to understand “mind-numbing stretches” and by “slow you down a little” he was insinuating “bring your bike to a similar pace as a baby before it learns to crawl”.

A more apt description might be: the government has decided to create a new highway 49. To do this, they have reduced the existing road to a dirt track barely wide enough for a single truck. The road threads along halfway up steep jungle hills, prone to mudslides from above and precarious falls I to a ravine on the other side. Being the rainy season, vast stretches of the highway now consist of six inch deep mud, of the slick and deep variety. To illustrate the excitement of the road, the remains of a truck, scavenged to its chassis lay upside-down near the beginning of the construction.

Tackling this road on a Honda Win seemed like a poor idea. However, driving a thousand miles on a bike smaller than most Vespas sold in the US does not showcase excellent judgement. Anyway, I always wanted to learn how to ride offroad.

Luckily, my confidence was bolstered by the fact that I had one of the larger bikes on the road. In front and behind me were 50 and 100 cc adopters tackling the mud, occasionally with two passengers on board.

Surprisingly, all the motorcycles seemed to make it through the mud. The poorly constructed Asian tires with barely any tread somehow propelling the bikes up steep grades and around corners. As with so many moments during the Mongol Rally, I questioned why we bother with large cars and powerful superbikes.

Finally, the construction subsided, and the Hi Chi Minh highway was reached.

It was worth the ride through mud.

This highway was isolated by a thin ribbon of mountains from the coast. However, this and the fact that the highway was really only wide enough for a single truck kept traffic away. The road was deserted, populated only by a few motorbikes.

It wound north for around 400 kilometers. One section, the section that I was most excited about, was 250 clicks of crazy twisties with no major roads intersectiong it and only one city listed on my map.

The city was 120 km north of the last major city. Since I hit the city ar around two o’clock, a run to this city (and likely beyond) seemed probable.

But the bike started showing its flaws. Earlier in the day, it had dropped the chain from the cog. This was rectified by the mechanic whose shop it broke outside of.

However, I to the twisties, a nasty speed wobble began manifesting itself. Checking the rear wheel showed the problem: the patch was failing and I had a slow leak. The Valkyrie was destabilized heavily in the corners, requiring its speed to be checked so that no lean was required.

After a dozen kilometers of this, I found a convenience store that had cheap bike pumps. These bike pumps appeared to be made for novelty purposes, but it sufficed to inflate the tire.

“In 2 km, there is a mechanic who will replace your tube,” the shopkeep mentioned.

However, the mechanic was asleep. I awoke him with my usual cheery smile and hello-I-have-a-problem speech. I pointed to a new tube and to my bike, pulling out my wallet. He poked my rear wheel, saw it was inflated, and went back to sleep.

Oh well. I continued on.

This, it turns out, was a bad decision. Shortly, the wobbles returned worse than ever. I pulled over and began inflating the nearly-flat tire.

Bam!

The tube popped and the Valkyrie settled her haunches to the ground. I realized the gravity of the situation. There was a small village in eleven km. I could abandon the bike, or attempt to hitch hike with it. However, I had only seen two scooters pass in the last half hour and no trucks.

Un oh.

What I decided to do was bump the bike along at a ridiculously slow pace. If I trashed the rubber or rim, I could probably get a new one.

The pace was slow. I stuck my legs out to the side and went as slowly as possible. The bike wobbled back and forth as the tire shifted from side to side.

Luckily, within one kilometer I found a mechanic who laughed at me and began fixing the bike. He even fixed it without hammering on anything.

I set off on the twisties at a fast pace, but had lost a lot of time.

By the time I was two km from the one city, it was getting dark. I kept up the pace and hoped for a hotel.

On the left, I saw a few huts, up on stilts. Civilization! That’s a good sign. The city must be next. So, I continued on for two km, and then five km. Nothing.

With a sinking realization, I came to understand that the village was the city. And it looked small. No hotels small. No gas station small.

Flipping around the bike, I drove to a general store, and made the international sleep sign, which is to lean your head onto your clasped hands and close your eyes. The shopkeep pointed me to the road to town and an abandoned building.

Not good.

But I took the road, which led through (not over) a small stream and to another store. The store had a Russian WAZ van out front. I felt like I was back on the rally.

I made the sleep sign to the old woman who appeared to run the place. She nodded, and I made a hammock sign, pointing to two posts beneath a corrugated metal roof next to the van. She nodded.

Success!

I parked my bike and set about unloading.

Word travels fast in villages, and before long a dozen local children stood around watching me. The old woman started to talk to me in Vietnamese. I shrugged my shoulders, to the delight of the children. The old woman started writing out her questions, in case my reading skills outpaced my speaking ones. I still shrugged. The children were in stitches.

Eventually, she got bored of the one-sided conversation. She motioned food, and brought out rice.

“Cam!” I exclaimed. ‘Rice’ was one word I did know the translation for. The children were beside themselves, and started shouting “cam!” in reply.

After dinner, most of the children were shooed away. I pulled out a deck of cards and my Kindle Fire to entertain those who remained. A five year old took to the fire instantly. I was quite impressed.

Eventually, everyone dissipated, and I was left to my hammock next to the van. As I closed my eyes I reflected on the kindness of strangers, traveller’s luck, and the 130 kilometers of jungle road that awaited the next morning.