Good Morning Vietnam
Posted on November 12, 2015
We were delayed heading south from China by rain that came down in sheets as we hopped from one covered spot to the next. We were anxious to get to the border and find out whether or not we’d be able to continue the ride. By all accounts we’d found, we wouldn’t be able to bring the bike through the border due to Vietnam’s restriction on foreign bikes.
The Beilun River forms the border between Vietnam and China at Mong Cai, with a border post situated on opposite banks. We rolled up to the Chinese side and were turned away immediately by the guard. I thought that we’d at least make it out of China! He told us in no uncertain terms that no motorbikes were allowed to cross that bridge, “It is not possible to ride motorbike.” We could go, but the bike had to stay. Someone came over to help translate, and we went back and forth for about 20 minutes with me trying every avenue of persuasion I could to at least help us identify an alternative. But it was to no avail. We rolled down from the gate in defeat. We could take heart in the fact that we’d already accomplished what we’d originally set out to do: we’d ridden across China under our own power, on our own schedule, without a guide shuttling us about. With nearly 7 thousand kilometers on the clock of our little machine, we’ve gotten our money’s worth and then some. The police didn’t nab us and a truck didn’t cream us, so I was calling it a win for team moto hobo.
Dogged persistence had paid off in the past, so I decided to give it one more try. I walked into the immigration hall as though leaving China and found a customs agent that could speak some English. I showed him the map of our journey, a picture of the bike, and told him where we were headed. I could tell he was stoked on it, and now on my side. He made a call, then went off to talk to someone and told me to stay put. After a half hour, another guy came over, asked a couple of questions, and then simply said, ‘OK’. OK? OK what? I can ride the bike across the bridge that no motorbike can cross? Awesome! But that wasn’t quite right. He shook his head and indicated that I should bring the bike up the stairs into the immigration hall. Really? Bring it in here? Whatever you say boss! I motored the bike up the stairs and then rolled it straight through the immigration counter where they stamped our passports as though it was a piece of wheeled luggage that just happened to have an engine attached to it. They even turned off the metal detector so that I could roll it through. And just like that, something that wasn’t possible an instant ago became so.
That was supposed to be the easy part, but now the task was to get into Vietnam on the other side of the bridge. If we couldn’t make it through, someone on that bridge was going to win a free scooter. I pushed the bike through the immigration counter as though I did it every day. Mind the oil drips folks! Everything seemed cool, but then we saw trouble in our path: stomach pouting heavily over the belt, thin mustache, overtly lounging posture, and relishing in the kowtowing of underlings. We had a class 5 proud-belly big-boss on our hands, and he looked darn grumpy. He halted our progression through the hall gave us a ‘slow down there partner’ sign, all without even interrupting the rocked-back attitude of his chair. I flashed my biggest silly tourist grin. We waited while his officers made some calls. We had no plate, no license, and no documents for our petrol burning luggage rack being wheeled through this hallway. I didn’t even have a sales receipt. I exhaled too soon, this isn’t going to work at all. After a tense 10 minutes of waiting, I’d yet again resigned us to failure, but to my disbelief, he gave us the go ahead. Thirty steps later were free of the hall then out the gate. I couldn’t believe it. I thought it would at least cost us a bit of cash. We get to ride the coast of Vietnam, Yahooo!
The first stop was to check out the geological marvels of Bai Tu Long and Ha Long Bay on the north coast of Vietnam. On the north coast of Vietnam, we rode through one fishing village after another, trying to get a view of the coastline that we’d heard so much about. We finally found our way out to a bustling little port at Bai Tu Long where fishermen hauled supplies from shore, jockeyed boats for a space at the dock, and women paddled from one colorful boat to another. I’ve never seen a coastline like it – the bay was dotted with thousands little domed islands with bright white limestone cliff faces. We’d hoped to find a boat to take us for a cruise around the islands, but it was pretty clear that we were in the wrong place unless we wanted to go fishing.
We motored on to Ha Long Bay and it felt as though we had landed on planet backpacker. The place was utterly overrun with hordes of twenty-somethings toting enormous packs on and off of tour boats. We’d been off of the tourist track for a long time and it was strange to land in the middle of a place where everyone speaking English, trying to get us to sign up for a tour, and come to the bar for jello shots. Backpacker madness aside, the majesty of that bay was undeniable. It was a truly fantastical scene as we motored our way through narrow channels between the islands and alongside their towering walls.
Riding south, we escaped the swell shadow of China’s Hainan Island, I was amped to get our first view of the coast exposed to swell. We saw a number of little beachbreaks that looked well worth having a surf, but I still had to find a board to ride. All I could do was stand there watching, wondering if anyone had ever surfed them.
Headed for Da Nang, we tried to wait out a storm in Dong Ha, but the next morning it just kept up, so we had nothing to do but get riding and get wet. We rode pretty slowly and stopped at little shops for Vietnamese coffees when the worst of the downpours came. We got caught in a real torrent coming over Lang Co pass towards Da Nang. The pass marks the divide between the former North and South Vietnam and below the road are situated disused French and American army bunkers.
It’s been strange to think of the fact that we’re here to tour around and have a good time, while the Americans here during our parents generation came to fight. My dad joined up when he was just 17 and was part of operation Starlight, one of the first major offensives, launched not far south of where we now rode. On the American side, the war was part of a larger containment policy, to stop the spread of communism, but to the North Vietnamese, it was a fight to expel foreign colonial forces, first the French and then the Americans. The human toll of the fighting was huge, felt much harder on the Vietnamese side, with casualties estimated in the millions. Soldiers like my dad didn’t get to decide whether or not the war was a good idea, they just had to go fight, and the people in the villages caught up in the middle of it all did what they could to survive.
We visited a town that spent the entire war underground. They had an elaborate system of tunnels dug into a hill and for years rarely came above ground during the day unless absolutely necessary. I was pretty happy to get out of those tunnels after 20 minutes, so I can’t imagine what was going on above ground to keep people down there for years.
We met a woman named Tam who had a small café and lots of stories about life during the war. Her café is plastered with images from that time. She was just 14 when she learned English and became an interpreter for the Americans. Her family had nothing to eat and working for the Americans made life a lot better. When Saigon fell in 1975, she and her family found themselves on the losing side – collaborators with the enemy. The North Vietnamese took everything from them, her brother was imprisoned for 7 years, and the rest of the family was soon forced out of Da Nang and into the nearby mountains to try to survive. Decades later, things are much better, Tam has her little café and her brother has lived in the U.S. for the last 30 years, but hard feelings still persist.
Communism won the war, but since then, Vietnam has adopted a largely open, free market economy. Lifting of the U.S. trade embargo in 1994 and the continued interest of international investors has driven Vietnam to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Da Nang is a bustling city filled with nice cafes, restaurants and hotels, and lots of foreigners that call it home. Everyone has a scooter to ride, and the city is a swarm with them. Young people weren’t alive during the war and seem to look mostly to the future and the opportunities now at hand.
We left the rain behind in the mountains on the way down to the beach in Da Nang. The sun was shining, we found some little waves breaking, and a surf shack owned by a Portuguese expat called Goncalo. Stoked. I spun donuts on the beach in celebration.
Jamie and I grabbed some boards from Goncalo and rode the beachbreak for a few days, hanging 5 on China Beach. Jamie is still new to surfing, so the waves were perfect size for her and surfing with her makes micro-waves fun for me too.
We hung around Da Nang for 5 days waiting for a swell to arrive that I’d hoped would bring a nearby point to life. Goncalo surfed it all the time and assured me that it was worth the wait. He nearly always surfs it alone and was happy to have some company in the water. To my great disappointment, the forecast swell never materialized and I had to be content with longboard cruising on the beachbreak. We’ve now run out of time to wait for swell, with our Vietnamese visa expiring in 2 days it was time to head for the Laos border.
Of course the morning we’re to leave, the bike wouldn’t start. Luckily it turned out to be just a bad spark plug. When I popped in a new one, she roared back to life – as much of a roar that a 48cc can muster anyway. We left Da Nang and ascended back into the mountains and crossed the Ho Chi Min Trail with impossibly fluffy clouds accumulating along the ridge tops. We were headed for Laos and feeling pretty content to still be moving forward on two wheels.