After a ballistic party week in Ho Chi Minh City the vibrations of the open road were teasing awake a new lease of life. Progress to Mũi Né would be hampered by the blanket ban of two wheelers on main highways, but that mattered little. Jon and I cascaded cross-country, grinning, while the five hour estimate stretched into a bubblegum sunset. We used ferries, capillary roads and every millimeter of throttle to spur our pygmy steeds to the East coast.
Long moonlit beaches were besieged by scores of basket boats (giant instant noodle cups) as the bigger fishing vessels bobbed on shimmering silk waves, flickering fireflies of red and green LEDs against the black.
Mũi Né had been flagged as a Vietnamese must-do, but as Jon and I explored the small fishing village with the bikes it seemed that only a tremor of authenticity remained, the spirit of the sea buried under an ugly necklace of beachside resorts. The entire town, save for a clutch of industry at the docks, was encumbered by and reorganised for western tourism. Locals were outnumbered by foreigners two to one. The experience was a little shallow, defeating the point of travelling halfway around the world. I wanted to feel some Vietnamese heat.
We were tipped off about a police sting along the coastal roads just North of Mũi Né, on the way to the sand dunes. This was perhaps the wrong kind of Vietnamese heat to get involved in. Endless shoals of scooters trapped and extorted for money. I mean, sure, “technically” everyone riding here will be breaking the law, apart from those who took three days out of their holiday to pass and administrate their local Vietnamese driving license, but I was willing to bet that wasn’t most people…
Without the paperwork, Jon and I decided we weren’t going to martyr ourselves in the flames of justice, instead we’d ride a slightly longer and beautifully quiet rural road through peach sands and prickly desert scrub.
I was hitting the Honda pretty hard, wringing the throttle to wide-open and clipping along at a decent pace, rear suspension bouncing spongily. The road ended at a T-junction with the highway just north of the police checkpoint. We’d successfully evaded the coppers, but careered straight onto the, thankfully abandoned, highway – hub brakes humming uselessly under full squeeze and stomp. The win would be an interesting ride in the mountains…
We continued north to the dunes, where we toyed around for an hour on ATVs, burning the motors on hot climbs and dropping down long, steep sandbanks at speeds which scared the shit out of our ride-along guides. The whole area was washed out in sunlight, so my guide would occasionnally scream with panic and slap the handlebars away from a precipitous drop, swearing (I’d imagine) in Vietnamese.
When the usual bus loads of middle-aged Americans showed up it was time to get back on the road and ride towards the mountain town of Da Lat. Wide industrial highways gave way to pockmarked roads brimming with jungle life. I’d ridden out front, dazzled by the mountains rolling together like waves about to collide, when a ringtone punctured through the happy playlist I used to drown out the chitinous buzz of the Honda.
Jon was stuck.
He was a mile behind, scratching his head as the starter motor clicked without. Despite hammering the ATV at full throttle through the desert, Jon had managed to cook his engine on our serene glide through the valley floor in less than half an hour. My bike, while operational, had developed a gearbox issue that meant 2nd could only be selected when going up through the gears.
It was just another excuse to take more rest stops than we needed (I was starting to become addicted to Vietnamese coffee). Although between our many breaks and google map’s constant rediversions towards highways we aren’t allowed to ride on, we had lost a lot of time. The sun had began its parma violet sleep, so we decided to ignore the ban and cruise the highway rather than an irritating ten kilometer loop back on ourselves.
We’d dashed in single file for five kilometers until an open wire gate allowed us to drop sharply down a narrow concrete chute idle with shopkeepers and gardeners. As hoped, it continued to a road we were permitted on, so I spun up onto the curb and waited for Jon – an ocean of waving children washing past my bike on their way back from school.
Another ringtone played loudly into my ears.
“You have to come back. My keys have gone?”
Tom was perplexed. “What do you mean your keys have gone? Didn’t your bike cut out when they fell out?”
Turns out it didn’t. And we had no idea where they had gone. We scoured the chute and asked some of the locals before checking some of the photos from earlier that day, just on the other side of the highway. They were still in the shot, so must be somewhere inbetween.
It was cheeky to ignore the bike-ban in the first place, but it was sketchy to retrace our route along the curb going the wrong way. And for nothing. The keys were well and truly gone.
The bike could still be started as the ignition was on, the only problem would be opening the seat to refill the fuel tank. However we were favourably close to Da Lat and made it to the highland playground – scrolling LED screens and illuminated fountains jetting colour across the night sky – without needing to fill up. We cruised a few meters down a side road, finding a adorably small kiosk selling locks and keys. Astonishingly after little more than a few seconds prattling around the lock with some tools, the engineer returned to his desk and hand carved a new key from memory in less than two minutes. In England, I imagined there would be a control on the sale of blank keys to prevent people just cutting their own. But here, any bike or car without an immobilizer could be taken by this guy in no time. It was worryingly impressive.
Mon and Toby (her dog) caught up to us the next day while our wheels were in the garage, my poor Win under a supervised strip down, all the way to the gearbox. As expected the wrench monkey tried to throw out the entire assembly when only a couple of components were worn out. Google translate did all the heavy lifting and, after an afternoon spent in fancy tea shops my bike was fixed, with plenty of time to hit the awesome ‘maze bar’, an intricately carved three level claustraphobic catacomb – with drinks! Just what we needed before a long day canyoning.
The road leaving Da Lat snaked its way up and over lush mountain passes before spiralling back down to earth and through inexhaustible rice plantations, all the way to the coastal metropolis of Na Trang. I’d arrived at a hostel with only minor mishaps that could be quickly fixed – the footpeg bolts fell out and left me swinging – but Jon and Mon, aka Scooter Crew, both suffered punctures and Jon’s engine continued to overheat. I was already four beers deep when I jumped on the back of a grab bike, like a motorcycle uber, to meet them at a restaurant out of town.
Nha Trang, while jam packed with trendy bars, expensive shops and even its own theme park island ‘Vin Pearl’ , is realistically just lots of white people – typically Russian – lazing about on the beach. After one day lounging around and one day at VP (which actually has an amazing cable car to get there from the mainland and a fun water park) I was ready to get back on the road.
This was the last stop Jon and Mon would be making before returning back to Ho Chi Mihn city for work. As fate would have it, Jon and Mon’s vehicular bad luck would continue in the form of being busted by cops and having Mon’s bike confiscated for not producing papers that were left in HCM.
Usually I’m a misfortune magnet, but for once I was happy to be riding north – departing the seaside city that scrapes the sky without incident or injury.