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Published: February 13th 2007
The Old Buffalo
Ok, Minsk, last chance. Show me what you can do!
After five or so days in Hanoi, it was time to get moving. I'd had a wonderful time, which included 1) meeting a gaggle of Spainiards, including the very kind Ane, 2) missing the rugby but gaining a great night out with a bunch of gin drinking vietnmese hairdressers, 3) unfortunately watching Scotland lose but ending up at the hippest nightclub (well nightbarge) in Hanoi till dawn and being driven though the Hanoi peasouper to enjoy a beef noodle breakfast and finally 4) getting aquainted with Hanoi's Irish Pub, meeting some old friends again, singing lots of songs, hearing beautiful Vietnamese singing, and ending up at the worst karaeko bar on the planet. For the record, I also had a few nights in watching TV. Can't do exciting traveller things ALL the time.
I finally plucked up courage to do the thing I'd wanted to do since I heard about it in Thailand - The Northwestern Loop. Whilst a lot of people had said they wanted to do it with me, unfortunately when it came down to it I realized that I would have to do it on my own.
First thing was to rent another Minsk. Although the
A reminder to ca canny.
last time was a disater, I figured that I knew more about them this time. Also, because I was on my own I could spend more time getting the nessesary repairs if required. I hunted around the rental stores for one. The first one I test drove I let go. The second, although it still made what I've been told is the signiture Minsk scraping and grinding sound, seemed better. That day at lunch I had met an australian girl called Scarlet, who I felt bad dragging around all day getting motorbikes and trying to print copies of repair manuals. However her enthsiasm for the trip (she couldn't go because she was flying home) was infectious and I realized how much fun this could be. Travelling indepndantly, though scenery rumoured to be wonderful, this could be a very special thing to do.
Then my route. I intended to head southwest to Mai Chau, then west to Song la and then Dien Bien Phu, then north to Sapa and the chinese border and back to Hanoi. I reckoned it would take about six days.
I picked up the bike at 8am, but with lots of other things still to
Crash site kids
Nice to know that I'm more interesting than a car crash
do, I didn't hit the road till around two. This tiime geating out of Hanoi was much harder (without my wonderful navigator from the last Minsk adventure). The road north east simply involved getting on the ringroad and over one of two bridges. The road northwest was much more convoluted (for me) and I was relieved to finally be on the straight. As before the road though the drive out of Hanoi was hardly a treat for the senses. Smoggy, with a road crowded by builing sights and grimey towns, I hoped for better things to come.
As I got furth away, the "suburbs" gave way to the country. Everywhere I went, I was greated by "Hellos" and waves from kids (and some adults) by the side of the road. I stopped at one point to watch a crashed lorry being pulled out of a field. Within moments all the kids had rushed away from the lorry to mob me. A very odd experience, this must be what it is like to be a celebrity! The kids swarmed over me and the bike, laughing, helloing and generally acting like I was Santa Claus and I had come to tell
them Christmas had come early. A man who had appeared explained that they wanted me to sing a song. It was very funny watching them all fall silent as I broke into "The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen". Very handy to know that song, which has aved me from the embarrasment of having nothing to sing on many an occassion whilst out here.
Eventually I extracted myself and headed off. I soon realized that I may have been given the worst map available of North West Vietnam. Crossroads did not exist, towns were in the wrong place, and I found myself frequently having to stop for directions. The roads were becoming more hilly as the sun began to drop, and I began to see what the guidebooks met about the landscape. Still, it was rather misty and cold as I raced towards Mai Chau.
The sky got darker and darker, until it was night. Then the mountains started. I crawled up them, shivering inside my three layers of clothes, my eyes fixed on the red lights of the trucks ahead and trying not to look at the signs warning of the drop off to the side. My lights had got stuck on full beam causing repeated flashes of lights from the trucks hurtling down the road. Still, at least they knew I was there. I don't think I was scared exactly, but I was concentrating extremely hard. Eventually, after miles and miles of nothing but cold, dark moutain road, I let out a whoop as I turned a corner and saw lights in a vally below.
That must be Mai Chau I thought. Finally a chance for a hot shower, a meal, perhaps a few drinks and a chance to chat about my trials. I stopped at a garage, to steady my nerves, and a young lad came up to me with the usual offer of taking me to his hotel. At this time I was in no mood to be pushed about, and told him to wait a few minutes.
We set off eventually, and he led me through a bog standard vietnamese town. THIS is Mai Chau! The guesthouse seemed to me rather rundown, a bamboo house on stilts. There seemed no bars, no western restraunts, and no tourists. After looking around, I headed off for an internet cafe, i try and get the gen on this place. Surely there was more to Mai Chau.
Apparently not. This WAS it. The guest house was supposedly in a minority village, but I saw nothing minority about it. Just village. And anyway, I didn't even know what a brocade was, and I had absolutely no desire to see some traditional native dancing. I wanted a pint and sympathy.
Back to the guesthouse I went, to drop off my stuff. Worse, the bike seemed to be playing up. So, after a pretty good meal (I was starving, and it was plentiful) I crashed out, too tired to shower, and trying to ignore the drunken Vietnamese tourists next door thinking, that maybe I was out of my depth here. At least if I had joined an organized tour I would have some company.
However, the next day...
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