This is the eleventh in a series of posts running throughout 2015 and 2016 about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about hurting myself and returning to Australia.
This post flows on from the previous entry where towards the end of 2008, at the tender age of 21, I was faced with the choice of renewing my business VISA and continuing teaching in Vietnam or returning to Australia. I had just come out of an unfortunate employment situation, deciding I needed to head into the remote northwest region of Vietnam to think things over. This was to be the first time I had entered the highlands of Southeast Asia proper – apart from the Dalat region.
It was my first zomian experience, which only gained significance later when I ended up spending so much more of my time traveling and researching in the mountains of Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and India. I had never heard of zomia in 2008.
I decided that I needed a dirt bike to do the Northwest Highlands of Vietnam “properly”. The only problem was that I had never ridden a big beefy bike, only having experience with the automatic-hybrid step-through motorcycles so prevalent in Vietnam at that time. But I had quickly learned to ride those nimble beasts in the monstrous traffic of Ho Chi Minh City so I thought I should also be capable of wrangling a manual dirt bike on mountain roads … with no guard rails or hospitals … for miles … just fine!
Made perfect sense at the time.
There came recommended to me a gentleman north of the Red River who rented out Honda XRs at reasonable rates, something like US$20 per day, so I headed to him and explained my intention. I would go on a nice big loop clockwise from Hanoi, aiming for about eight days, but open to whatever came my way. He provided me with a Honda XR for a test ride and I zoomed off onto the Red River bridge. Or tried to. It was, just like my first time on a Honda Dream in Saigon, a baptism by fire. I stalled several times and nearly collided with literally all phenomena.
When I decided I could vaguely control this new strange motorised horse I sealed the deal and prepared my bags. I didn’t have any real ambitions for the trip except to come to a decision about my residence: Should I stay or should I go? I took my hardcover atlas with me and plotted out ideas. I decided I was very keen on visiting Dien Bien Phu, having read so much about it in the context of the French wars and 1954. At that time Võ Nguyên Giáp was still alive and everything resonated, the locals in Hanoi were definitely less friendly than in Saigon and I felt intoxicating history all around me.
Off I went, bag strapped down, shorts and thongs at the ready.
It was a delightful trip for the first few days. I met some lovely farmers, a friendly Swedish family on a random red mud road and more buffalo than I could count. Eventually I made it to Dien Bien Phu just as I ran out of money. There were no ATMs, so embarrassingly I had to borrow some cash from a friendly chap I met at my hotel, with the proviso that when I got to Sapa I would withdraw cash at a certain bank and deliver the reimbursement, in USD, to a friend of his.
I felt like a right heel for not packing enough hard currency, but then mistakes happen. In my travels since I have never repeated the situation. Cash is king. Surplus cash is surplus king.
The lush green of the Cao Bang foothills and Ha Giang passes were a welcome sight after powering through Sapa and Lao Cai. One mountain path in particular sticks in my mind. I was purposefully getting off the “main” roads whenever possible, using farmer’s walking paths to cut over mountains and over rivers. The trail I most remember was barely two feet wide with sheer wet drops into the valley below. It was mostly stone, presenting different manoeuvring challenges to the dry dirt I usually encountered. Most importantly, there were no people – and the views were incredible. Given my novice nature, I managed to stack the motorcycle several times, including twice in sheer mono mode, falling backwards with the bike landing on top of me. It hurt.
But these small stacks were not enough to deter me. Instead, I needed The Big Stack for that.
The Big Stack happened in Cao Bang. It had rained all day and the flat rock road was slick. I was being very careful, tummy full of noodles, sunglasses down and poncho flickering in the wind. For some reason I was wearing shorts and flip flops instead of pants and boots. The stack came at a seemingly normal corner that I misjudged, it was low speed, but the way the bike slid out from under me meant that my knee and foot sliced across sharp rock face, cutting open gashes on the top of my right foot and knee.
It hurt like hell, but thankfully I had some iodine and bandages. I was about a kilometre from a village, so I walked the bike back and tried to explain the situation. I was told there was a hospital at the top of a nearby hill, so I walked up some wet grass to an open building with a handful of people huddled inside, vacant expressions all around. There was no staff, no equipment, weird stains on the floor and … like I said, lots of vacant, mildly disturbing expressions. Many people seemed to have skin conditions.
I’m not sure what kind of hospital it was, but it couldn’t help me.
Looking at my atlas I judged I was about eight hours from Hanoi. It was nearly sunset. The skin flap hanging from my knee worried me the most and the joint was beginning to throb harshly, regularly.
I had been riding for over a week and made a stupid mistake. It was time to head back to the big city.
That night’s ride was one of the most challenging I’ve ever experienced, and put me in good stead for the hard rides of the future. The road was nearly all dirt, nearly all being chewed up by night roadworks and nearly all pockmarked with huge ditches and pot holes. To make matters even worse, the headlight on my motorcycle was so ineffectual it basically didn’t work. It took ten hours to get to Hanoi, a steady stream of blazing construction lights, pitch black jungle, shitty gravel, stinging pain and suffering.
The one levity I found was picking up a hitchhiker and driving him a few kilometres down the road at around midnight. He was a nice guy. I don’t know why he was out on the roads of nowhere at the middle of the night.
By the time I got to Hanoi at 3AM I worked out I had been riding for sixteen hours that day, if you counted the time before I hurt myself. I rang a mate to see if I could crash with him – he was out at Solace, a nightclub on a boat permanently docked at the river, but he had left his room open for me. I pulled up, lugged out my pack, stumbled inside and collapsed. My wounds subsequently both got infected and I still have the scars today.
The next morning I decided I would return to Australia – for now. So I bought the new laptop I had been putting off buying, flew to Saigon to settle some affairs and then shot back to the antipodes. I immediately started working full time in the depths of a Melbourne winter, waking at 5AM every day and commuting through empty streets and empty trains. The contrast with hyper busy Vietnam was massive and it took quite some time to adjust. But I had made my pho, and had to swim in it.