Vietnam's Easy Rider
Sunday, November 13, 2005
We can sleep here if we have to, my girlfriend and I decided as we stood on the side of a dirt road in Vietnam's remote border region with China. We were stranded: Her motorcycle was coughing instead of starting, and we hadn't seen anyone in hours. Dark storm clouds had begun to crowd the low, round peaks overhead, and the locals had warned us that rain would make driving impossible. In Vietnam, a road can be anything; in this instance, it was a rough dirt and rock trail that had been carved out of the side of a range of deserted hills. We had been bouncing along it for more than three hours. Our bodies were exhausted and our bones were achy.
Surveying the emptiness around us, we settled on a soft patch of grass between some boulders. We could park our bikes there, throw a plastic tarp across the handlebars and take shelter for the night, we figured. The next morning, we could drive the working bike the remaining 20 miles to Xin Man, the next village on the map. This would take us several hours in the best of conditions -- or all day in the mud.
In truth, neither of us actually believed we were stuck for the night. We had been contemplating worst-case scenarios in the week since we had left Hanoi, transforming ourselves into pessimists when there was never any real need to be. In Vietnam, salvation always arrives.
This time, it was announced by the high-pitched roar of a struggling two-stroke engine, a sound that eventually materialized into three people from the Hmong tribe, one of the largest of Vietnam's 54 ethnic minority groups, squeezed onto a motorcycle. We waved them down and pointed to our stalled bike. I passed out cigarettes while Naomi distributed peanuts and dried fruit. Although we spoke no Hmong and they knew only a few words of Vietnamese, the driver, his dark indigo tribal garb concealed under glossy rain gear, quickly comprehended the problem. He crouched down and dutifully went to work, scarcely acknowledging us. Twenty minutes and a new spark plug later, we were off again. Our Hmong saviors didn't even give us a chance to offer payment.
Such is life for an independent foreign traveler in Vietnam, a developing country where the abundance of snags and inconveniences is outnumbered only by a population of willing and uncannily omnipresent Samaritans. The locals are always quick to help out a Tay (Westerner), if for no other reason that they think we're incapable of helping ourselves. Considering the level of success foreigners have had in Vietnam in the last 50 years, it's no wonder this view is so widely held.
Forget wars, though, because those are history.
Vietnam is one of the most beautiful and inviting places in the world to visit, especially its northern provinces. You could argue that the best way to see them is by motorcycle, for easy access to grand peaks -- some of the highest in Southeast Asia -- and ethnic minority villages. Other than the former French mountain retreat of Sapa, an entrenched and well-equipped stop on the tourist trail, most of the north is off the sightseeing circuit. Even the Vietnamese consider it too dangerous and remote to travel there. Many of the region's residents have seen only a handful of Westerners.
If you're willing to live with the occasional hardship, though, a drive through the north is the best way to appreciate the profound transformation this Communist country -- one of the few left in the world -- is undergoing.
Escape From Hanoi
Naomi and I had been working in the capital of Hanoi as editors on state-controlled English-language newspapers for a little more than a year when we decided to cap off our stint in Vietnam with a two-week tour on Belarus-made Minsk motorcycles. (We owned one and rented another from a local mechanic.) Minsks are sturdy, uncomplicated machines, so we weren't worried about riding them nearly 1,500 miles along the vague route we had sketched out in our tattered road atlas. In any case, nearly every Vietnamese male above the age of 30 knows how to repair one, the legacy of Cold War trade arrangements that ensured the Minsk would dominate Vietnam's roads for decades. If anything was going to break down, we thought, it would be us -- we weren't sure how we would deal with spending eight to 10 hours a day on the road.
Leaving behind the traffic-clogged, European-scale streets of Hanoi's central districts, we dodged pedestrians and trucks to emerge into the booming exurbs, ground zero for Vietnam's recent economic explosion. Industrial parks, where local workers stitch and assemble the goods that fuel the global consumer economy, lined the road on vast plots that had been scratched out of the dust. The stench of vehicle exhaust gave way to a mixture of burnt brush, overheated metal and soggy rice paddy -- the unmistakable odor of progress in Vietnam.
The city behind us, we stopped for a break and watched tourists wander around a rice field packed with farmers wearing conical hats. Sights like this are common in Hanoi, but we were surprised to see such a scene in the countryside, where few package tours venture. Crouching down on elevated paths that crisscrossed the paddy, the tourists aimed their telephoto lenses at the doubled-over farmers, who didn't look up from their backbreaking, repetitive work. Naomi tried to chat in Vietnamese with some nearby kids, who only stared back.
Rebuffs like this are rare in Vietnam, but as Naomi noted, the farmers can't be very happy to be tourist attractions. We snapped some photos of the tourists snapping photos of the farmers.