Ha Giang Motorcycle Cowboy

[Stories from motorbiking in Northwestern Vietnam, December 2011] 

Day 1
A Missed Flight, A Foul Bus Ride

11:40 AM.  Tan Son Nhat Airport, Saigon.

     Goddamnit.  Partied too hard last night and missed my morning flight to Danang.  No idea why I left the house in a hurry if the flight had already left and landed long ago.  Arrived at the airport and no space on the next flight to Danang, no space until the 8pm flight, but in the state I'm in I can't be bothered to wait that long, so it's time to screw the plan and just book the next flight north.  Onwards to Hanoi at 12:05pm it is.  Central Vietnam just got cut out of the trip, so I guess it'll have to wait until I come back to visit this country as an old man.  On the flip side, moto-tripping in Ha Giang just got prolonged to two weeks.  My head is throbbing and it's time to board the flight.

2:21 PM.  Minivan from Hanoi airport to downtown Hanoi.

     Three hours after I rashly decided to axe Central Vietnam and fly directly to Hanoi, and that's been plenty time for my brain to do its work and rationalize why it was all for the best.  It feels good to be off the plan, making the trip happen one decision at a time.  Currently in a van crammed with seventeen people driving to downtown Hanoi.  It's an overcast and rainy day.  I think I'll check in to some hotel and then go to the movies.

Day 2

2:12 PM.  Somewhere north of Hanoi.

     A couple hours into the drive, bus just pulled over for a rest stop.  Everyone goes straight for the bathroom, including me.  Shoulder to shoulder with about fifteen men, pissing into a long, sawed in half PVC pipe, liters of urine being drained into an open air sewer.  Out by the bus, a group of five people squatting and smoking.  The bus driver is taking bong rips from a bamboo pipe; they love that weird tobacco mix up north.  I have no idea where we are, and yet again I'm anxious to get moving and head even further north.

2:23 PM - Back on the bus, obnoxious Vietnamese techno switched back on to full blast, woman next to me elbowing me every time she pulls out her phone for another yelling conversation.  The girl in front of me will probably start vomiting again soon, and the driver will continue honking the horn every ten seconds for the rest of the way.

2:58 PM - The guy sitting on a stool in the aisle next to me is puking.

3:09 PM - The guy behind me is puking.

3:28 PM - Somebody further back is puking.  It smells awful in here.

3:29 PM - The guy in the aisle next to me is puking again.

3:44 PM - Now he's puking for the third time.

4:06 PM - On to number four.

4:20 PM- And number five.

4:36 PM - Six.

7:29 PM.  Ha Giang - I never figured out if he made it to puke number seven, because as passenger got off the bus, space freed up and he upgraded from his tiny plastic stool in the middle of the bus aisle to an actual seat (a standard Vietnamese practice - the people on stools in the aisle will be crammed until one person's knees are poking into the next person's back).  But judging from his earlier performance, he must have made it to seven, just like there must have been a handful of other unidentified puking incidents in the back of the bus that I didn't notice.  If it weren't for the face mask I wore the entire way, I might have joined their ranks.  Alright, enough about projectile body fluids.  

    The second half of the bus ride was not bad.  We left the flat featureless landscape behind in favor of mountains, rivers, and limestone karsts.  We reached Ha Giang when it was already dark, so I have no idea what the surroundings look like, but something tells me it's a nice valley with steep peaks overhead, and the view in the morning should be great.

     The plan tomorrow is to rent a bike for ten days, visit the police station to get a tourist permit, and hit the road.  This is the only area in Vietnam you're still required to get a permit (Ha Giang is a province in the far northwest by the way).  There's an increased military presence here because of the shared border with China, so that's part of the reason (China and Vietnam aren't exactly best buddies). But this region is often referred to as Vietnam's 'final frontier' by travel books, and a good friend who just visited said it was like being in a Studio Ghibli film, so undoubtedly it'll be well worth the visit.

Day 3
Into the Butterfly's Dream

     I rented a dirt bike from a Viet Kieu guy with a bald head and a goatee, got my Ha Giang travel permit at the government office, and hit the road.  I probed further north into the mountains, trying to get away from whatever it was I didn't want to stay for down below, and enjoying the successive increments in latitude and altitude.  I found myself thrust into the unfamiliar yet again, exactly as I had hoped for.  The landscape became viscerally alien.  Jagged limestone karsts exploded out of the ground, towering over the tranquil rice paddies below.  In the distance, a chain of these steep peaks suggested the back of a giant crocodile in perpetual sleep, its thick hide already calcified into brittle limestone.  Of course there must be scientific explanations behind these geographic features of the land, but as I lack the necessary knowledge of geologic processes, I cannot intuitively understand their creation, and thus they are relegated to the provinces of magic.  And I am not the only one to do this, either.  In Quan Ban are two rounded limestone hills - the 'Fairy Breasts'.  Such geographic perfection could only be explained with the image of a supernatural woman sticking her delightful bosom out of the earth.  Sure, you can find beauty by unweaving the rainbow, but sometimes it's nice to just lie back and look at it.     

I arrive in Tam Son or Quan Ban, unsure of which name is the town and which is the district, or if perhaps one or both names are used interchangeably.  It really doesn't matter at this point,  signs in this territory are becoming traitorous, the space between signifier and signified widening and widening.  The architecture and buildings here tell a similarly confusing story.  Vestiges of a not exactly bygone Communist era, they lack the details or clues necessary to discern the primary use of the spaces they enclose.  All similarly built and painted, all with government insignias and using the same typography.  Yet in the courtyard of one I see military trucks and men in uniforms playing volleyball, and on the balcony of another, clothes hanging out to dry and a woman breastfeeding her child.  I enter one building, lured by the music within, and stumble upon a group of kids breakdancing in an empty event hall, hip-hop playing on blown-out speakers.  Out back, the remnants of an abandoned playground: swings and slides sprawled on the broken concrete like victims of war, corroded carcasses being further eaten by rust.  It's something out of a horror movie set, but I always find peace in these abandoned places.    

Today is the first day.  Tomorrow I dive deeper into this strange butterfly's dream.

Day 4
Communist Wake-Up Call, Please

     This morning began with more pomp and parade than NVA tanks rolling down Le Duan in the Fall (or 'Liberation') of Saigon.  At 4:50am the village loudspeaker came to life blasting trimphant military anthems, preempting or drowning out any rooster's crow.  Good morning, Vietnam!  Next was an audio track for a calisthenics workout.  'One and two and three and four, again!'  Was anyone really up in this pitch darkness, moving their body like a puppet on strings, following the orders of an anonymous voice coming through the cracks in the window?  I thought about China and its single time zone, spanning thousands of miles west  of Beijing.  'Too bad if your 6am falls smack in the middle of darkness, people are getting out of bed in the capital and so should you!'  I drifted in and out of sleep throughout this madness, fortunately/unfortunately not dreaming or I might have been caught in some cooky and surreal Communist dream.  

    Out on the road, it was cold.  The motorbike's forward motion propels you into high speed encounters with the biting, icy air.  It permeates through your many layers of clothing, a ghost moving through a crowded room, then touching your skin and chilling you to the bone.  But the surroundings keep you distracted; the landscape continues to make absolutely no sense, yet remains utterly spectacular.  The same elements, in their infitinte iterations: limestone karsts, turquoise rivers, rocky outcrops, muddy rice fields, bare cliffs, jurassic park jungle, dense pine forest, the list goes on.  You'd think you'd get tired of it after a few days, but there is always some aesthetic novelty in a different arrangement.  Around the river bend, over the mountain top, down into a valley... the new views never cease to amaze.  And ever present is the empty void next to you on those narrow mountain roads, following you on the side with a steep drop down into oblivion, calling you, whispering your name.  But the rock and roll banging on your ear drums keeps you focused and the vertigo at bay, and so you march onwards.  Thanks Jim, thanks Jimi.

     Current location- Yen Minh, a town caught in a dust storm.  It's dusty here, real dusty, and the bikes and trucks non-stop rolling up and down main street keep the particles perpetually airborne.  Women throw buckets full of water out on the street but it's no use, they're only splashing the bare feet of people walking by in sandals (how, in this weather, I do not know).  Anyway, it's like we're trapped inside a giant snow globe, except the snow has been replaced with dirt and dust and there's always someone shaking things up.  An anti-oasis of sorts, coughing and choking around town while fresh air and nature surround us not far away.

     I'm getting out of here at sunrise.

Day 5
Drivin' Round the Borderlands

     Drivin' round the borderlands, yeehaw, that's what I'm talkin' 'bout.  

     Ridin' rocky roads, monster zig-zags back and forth the face of the moutain, goin' up up up 'til you're wondering if there's any space left to go, head almost scraping the sky, maybe holdin' in your breath in case you pop out of the atmosphere only to clear the ridge and plummet down another zig-zag on the other side, one second feelin' godlike on top of the world, the next you're insignificant again, an ant among colossal towers, just another detail of the landscape.  

     Sunny on one side, dark on the other... some valleys only getting light from 10 'til 2, others getting none at all, always in the shade, outcasts from heaven.  And it's all rocky, so rocky it's a miracle anything grows up here.  Hell, it'd probably be easier to grow more rocks, but good luck tryin' to sell 'em cause the next guy's got just as many in his own backyard.

     Detour to Pho Bang and I drive down some weird rabbit hole.  Checkin' out the market and everybody's staring like I'm some kind of martian, talkin' in tongues that din't sound like no Vietnamese to me.  All the men boozing, bottle of spirit in hand, pullin' swigs in between chit chatterin and smoking and spittin on the dusty ground.  One man's forcing a pig into a sack... squeal squeal squeeeeaaal!... lil' piggie knows what's coming for him.  Another man is selling rocks.... pause.... actually.

     Now I'm by the border; got my two feet planted in 'Nam but I'm lookin' at China, military guy telling me not to go further, but if I had a death wish I could've easily slipped past and drove a couple clicks in before being caught and arrested or getting my head blown off, and maybe even scoring a few handwaves and 'ni haos' from friendly locals along the way.  Lookin' good China... just the same as what's on this side of the border but that's alright with me.  I'll be checking up on you again tomorrow.....sleep tight.

Day 6
Nighthawks & Border Patrol

     Yesterday I arrived in Đng Văn and checked into the Rocky Plateau, a groovy little place with cooky decor and super friendly staff.  There's a replica of 'Nighthawks' hanging over my bed, and that right there gives this hotel an extra star.  I joined the young staff for lunch; they were celebrating one girl's birthday.  Lots of food, lots of photos, lots of 'mot, hai, ba, dzo!',  shots, shots, and more shots, getting wished good health and wishing it back (chúc súc khoe!) and sealing the deal with a double-hand handshake and a 'thank you' or two.  Real good, traditional kids.  One of them took me for a hike after the party, up to the top of this cliff overlooking the entire town.  At the summit were the ruins of an old military fortification, originally French and built in a perfect strategic location: 360 degree views and clear lines of sight down every side.  Hard to imagine trying to storm that place and not getting shot, but obviously someone eventually got through.  This is Vietnam, not Tonkin, after all.

Day 7

     Then today I went for a ride on some bumpy backroads and made it to Lung Cu, which is about as north as I'll ever get on this trip.  It's waaay up there, shoved up a little piece of Vietnam that juts into China, so it shares borders to the east, north, and west.  I tried following the road and making it to the actual border, but some officer in town must have seen me head that way and chased me down on his bike.  I had stopped at a scenic point in the road to take some photos when he caught up and started yelling at me, super angry, and pointing back to Lung Cu.  I was a bit nervous but I played it cool by acting stupid... 

          Excuse me, where is Lung Cu?
          --That way!! (pointing back to where I just came from)
          Ahhh, ok, ok, sorry, I understand.
          --Go!! go!! (still pointing to Lung Cu)
          Ok, ok, but where does this road go?
          Oh my god, China! Sorry, sorry...I didn't know! Sorry!

    I took one photo of the forbidden area before getting back on the bike, his 'No taking photos!!' a shutter click too late, and then booked it back the other way, a bit shaken up but satisfied of having made it that far, and now following a new instinct, no longer going north, north and further north, but just getting the hell out of there fast.

Day 8
Riding into the Sunset

     Ha Giang's otherworldly quality began to fade shortly after arriving in Meo Vac.  I had just driven the 20km stretch from Dong Van, considered to be the crowning jewel in the 'extreme north' motorcycle loop, and one of the best bits of road in all Southeast Asia.  There was tons of hype, and it totally lived up to it, but where to go from there?  The scenery had been consistently getting better and better each day for the past few days, but now I had just climaxed and the afterglow was gone.  Fade to black, roll credits, The End.

     So It was time to bring motorbiking in Ha Giang to a graceful conclusion, to encapsulate the entire experience in a concentrated pocket of memory, careful not to drag it out too long in time and then have to spread it out too thin over the folds of my mind.  Like blowing a soap bubble from a bubble wand, blowing just enough to get it to the right size and send it off floating in the air, with all its multicolor magic glistening in the sun.  Blow for too long, and it'll pop.

     I began driving back at 10am this morning, back up that spectacular stretch of road, landscape looking like an overexposed photograph in the ultra-brightness of the mountain sun.  Through Dong Van, catching one last glimpse of the Rocky Plateau hotel, past the turnoff to Lung Cu, thinking about the angry military officer, and into the rocky lunar landscape I enjoyed so much on the way in.  Then it was time to alter the route back, taking a left for Lung Phin, following a road not yet traveled, towards the last bit of adventure the extreme north had in store.

     This new route ended up being a real ball-buster of a road.  Almost all of it under construction, looking more like the gnarled embryo of a road than an actual avenue of transit.  It was like driving on gravel except the rocks were bigger than your fist, both legs always hanging out to the side to catch yourself the moment you lose your balance, like it just happened five seconds ago and will happen again in two.  Working up a sweat with all the physical exertion of keeping the bike moving in the right direction as the bumpy rocks keep on bumping your front wheel left and right, trying to send you on a new bearing, and not forgetting for a moment about the sharp drop right over there 'cause if you go just an inch beyond 'too close' then it's game over.  Arms are sore and hands are cramping and this is definitely not something you'd call 'fun' but it's somehow adding value to the trip.  

     Finally make it out of that hellish road (after having covered about 20km in 2 hours), and it's back to smoother pavement and making good time towards Ha Giang City.  Done with looking at the scenery and focusing entirely on the bike and the road before me, enjoying the process of man and maching merging into one.  Totally in sync, shifting gears at just the right moment, engine purring like a kitten.  Leaning into those curves with everything you've got... sometimes they're packed so tightly you lean out from one curve and immediately lean into the next, and it feels so good when you hit it right at the sweet spot.  Then on to flatter ground following a river at the bottom of a valley, gunning it at top speed, rice fields zooming by.  Children barely getting a chance to recognize you as a foreigner and wave and scream hello.  Sorry kids, this time I won't wave back because I'm doing mystery miles per hour (if only the spedometer would work!) but whatever it is, it's fast and I gotta hold on tight!

     It's evening and it's getting dark and I turn a bend in the road and suddenly I'm riding into the sunset (no shit!) and Chris Isaak's 'Wicked Games' just came on, guitar twangs sending this entire moment into spaghetti western overdrive, and now I'm feeling like a proper Ha Giang motorcycle cowboy, smiling a very personal smile and thinking what a perfect conceptual ending this is.

Northwest Vietnam, a set on Flickr.

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