Welcome to the Jungle (Part II)

Waking up in a hammock is perhaps the best way to wake up. You feel wrapped and coddled, ready to wander out and take on whatever the world has to throw at you.

This morning, for example, I awoke deep into a jungle road in Vietnam. 130 kilometers of wild twisties cutting through the densely forested highlands awaited.

I had spent the night next to an old Russian van on front of a general store since the village sported no hotel. So, upon waking, I quickly broke camp, purchased some gas from the lady at the general store, and headed out.

The road wove through mountains that looked straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Oh the places you will go.

Fog and clouds drifted between the hilltops. The journey itself was straight out of a National Geographic program. It felt isolated in a way that Mongolia didn’t (even though it is almost impossible to find land more isolated than Mongolia). The jungle has a way of making you feel small and vulnerable in a way the steppe doesn’t. Being on a 100cc bike only intensifies the feeling.

The rest of the drive passed without much event. Too soon the jungle faded into flatter roads and rice paddies. Civilization returned. And I started looking for a very late breakfast. Curvy roads work up an appetite.

It wasn’t too long until I found a pho shop.

However, after eating breakfast, I found my bike unresponsive to the starter motor and unwilling to be kick-started. This did not bode well.

I figured that the spark plugs may be fouled again. So, I asked the restauranteer if he had a spare plug wrench. In true fashion of a petrol-headed country, he did, and set about removing my plug. We dipped it in the gas tank, to see if we could coax the bike into starting.

No luck.

However, there was a mechanic two shops down. (How, oh how are there this many mechanics? Surely, the scooters can’t break down all that often to necessitate a garage every hundred meters.) One of the waiters went with me, pushing my bile forward with his. This is a technique often seen in Vietnam, and allows easy transportation of broken motorbikes and a way of turning a scooter and a bicycle into a simple four-wheeled vehicle.

The mechanic fussed about with the carb for a bit, getting the bike started, tuning the idle, and replacing the accelerator cable, which had snapped. The housing for the cable was broke, and was reattached with chicken wire, Vietnam’s answer to the zip tie.

I thanked him and went to drive off, but couldn’t start the bike.

The mechanic sawme twisting the throttle while cranking. “Don’t do that,” he motioned. He then kick started the bike, turned the throttle a bit, and the bike roared to life.

I turned it off, and failed to start it again. We repeated the song and dance, the mechanic admonishing my technique and then apparently doing the same thing and firing it right up.

I decided to drive off. It should be possible to start again in the future.

However, that night, after parking at the hotel, the bike wouldn’t start. The receptionist loaned me his scooter to take to dinner (that is a service-oriented mindset; where else in the world would a hotel worker give a stranger keys to his bike?).

The next morning, it still wouldn’t start.

Hanoi was only 250 km away. That meant one stop for gas and breakfast, and I had completed the ride! All I needed was the bike to start once in the morning and once after a halfway gas point. It was so close, but seemed unobtainable.

If only the bike would crank. It ran fine once started.

In an inspired bit of desperation, I decided to push start the motorcycle. There was a gentle downhill and a 50 meter run that crossed a gas station, the hotel parking lot, and on to the main highway.

So, I backed up and went for it. The engine coughed and sputtered and died.

I backed up again, this time the hotel manager helped give me a push, to the delight of the gas station attendants.

The bike started, but wouldn’t idle while I slipped on my helmet.

For the third try, I put on helmet, driving gloves, and got ready for the road. The bike came to life right as it went onto the highway.

“Hanoiiiii!” I yelled as I went full throttle and gained speed. The bike whirred forward.

It whined and screamed. I kicked it into second, and it nearly died. Luckily, it went back to first and started screaming again.

Slow going, but I was moving northward.

Within a minute the Valkyrie was running smoothly again, letting me kick her to fourth and go full throttle. I had a big smile on my face. So long as I didn’t stop, I could make Hanoi.

I had briefly considered filling up a bottle of gasoline, so I could refuel while driving. Better judgement prevailed. Mainly due to a lack of a bottle.

In any case, so long as I found a pho shop next to a gas station on a hill and maybe next to a mechanic, things would be alright.

The pho shop on the hill was easy enough. After a strange bowl of pho that included a hard boiled egg that turned out to be the fertilized beginnings of a chicken (never play guess the food here), the bike even started with a kick.

It was only a few hours until I made Hanoi.

Once in the city, I found a mechanic in the old quarter. He was unable to get tthe bike working and td me to keep kick starting it. I tried to give him the keys and registration, but he sent me away.

Serendipity struck, with great luck. As I checked into the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, a local commented on my bike. As he turned away, I read “Phung Motorcycle” on the back of his shirt. He worked for the sister shop to Saigon Minsk, and would allegedly buy my bike.

I had planned to list it on Craigslist and try to sell it to a fellow rider. But I imagined the ad:

For sale, Honda Win. Just crossed Vietnam by the skin of its teeth. Covered in Gobi or Go Home stickers, some of which are soaked in gasoline. Throttle assembly broken. Missing rear right turn signal (fell off somewhere). Kick start only, and never on first kick. Shifty but fun. Comes with helmet.

Yeah. Hanoi was already full of bikes for sale driven from Saigon. So I asked Mr Phung if he cared to buy the bike.

He looked at it.

“Has it no license plate?” He asked.

“Of course it has one. Right below the rack, see?” I leaned down to look. Surely, there was no plate. “Nevermind. That fell off.”

“How much do you want for it?”

I resisted the urge to say, “Take it! For the love of God! Remove this beautiful but blighted machine from my existence and go forth!” Instead, I mustered, “Half of what I paid. $150.”

“100,” he countered, smiling.

I stood there, considering it. Really, I was trying not to jump for joy. “Sold.”

He continued to inspect the bike, kick started it, throttled it, eyed the missing turn signal, shook his head, smiled, handed over a Benjamin, and pushed the bike away. He’ll be able to spruce it up and sell it again. The Valkyrie reborn like a phoenix.

That evening, over many beer hois (fresh beer served for a quarter a glass) I celebrated the trip with other backpackers. Some had come via motorbike. Some even came overland from Mongolia.

Whether on an organized event or trekking solo, it is amazing how many like minded people abound. It makes me feel a bit like Waldo (heck, I even left behind a mug).

Part of me still cant believe the fun we’ve had over the past three months, mucking about with vehicles not suited for the task and turning Europe and Asia into a travelers’ playground. I’m glad to be here in Hanoi. And it is even good to know I am finally homeward bound, on the last legs of the journey.