Friday, December 30, 2016

Lost In The Wilderness

I stayed an extra day in Ninh Binh. Well, or three extra days, depending on how you define it. I had booked three days, but then I asked if I could stay another two, and then I asked if I could stay one more day. The last day, they had to move me to another room, but that worked. I mostly wanted to stay to try to work on my Vietnamese flash cards, which are becoming my latest unhealthy obsession. So the last day, I just stayed in the hotel room, and toiled away, and ate on all the leftover food that I had brought with me from my apartment in lieu of going out for actual meals. There was a little container of seaweed...when I bought it, I thought it was going to be like those flavored nori sheets that you can get as snacks in the US. The container looked just like that. Nope. It was a tangled mess of really hard, chewy, salty seaweed. I don't even think it was meant to be eaten before it was soaked, but I ate it anyway. I just considered it seaweed jerky. I contemplated drinking a can of diced tomatoes, but I'll save that for another time. I ate lots of cookie-like thingies and finished off a can of vegan meat-like stuff. Strange how in the States, when you buy vegan meat-like stuff, it is super expensive, but here in Vietnam, when you buy vegan meat-like stuff, it is cheaper than meat. I mean, it is basically soybeans, or gluten, or some kind of stuff like that. There is no real reason why it should be boutiquely expensive, other than the fact that American consumers like to feel like they are investing in a designer experience, or whatever.

The next day, I woke up, packed up my stuff to put on my bike, and went out to get gas for my bike before I strapped on the packs. While I was coming down to get my bike, one of the hotel clerks was standing with a German guy near my bike, and they were both admiring it. The German guy said he had wanted to try to rent it from the hotel, but he found out upon asking about it that it belonged to me. Anyway, we ended up having a nice little chat over coffee in front of the hotel. His name was Florian, and he was from Berlin, and he was taking four months off to travel. I told him about my experiences taking French in Hanoi, and he seemed intrigued by the notion of doing that.

The place I stayed in Ninh Binh was the Hoa Bien Hotel. I recommend it highly, it was a really cool place, and the staff was great. After packing my bike, I went to Google Maps to chart my path, and took off in the general direction of Laos, which I'm hoping will be my next destination, unless I get sidetracked by something shiny. I ended up leaving Ninh Binh via Highway DT477, which met up with Highway QL12B after a while. Then QL12B merged with the Ho Chih Minh road for a while, which roughly follows the path of the Vietnam-war era Ho Chih Minh Trail (which, incidentally, the NSA called "one of the great achievements of military engineering of the 20th century.") Then it splits off into QL12B for a while again. The reason I'm including the roads I am driving on is because I looked at several people's blogs who have done the same or similar things, and, dammit, they never say which way they went, which is what I was looking for.

I rode through a lot of spectacular countryside, and was getting hungry, so I stopped at a couple of restaurants that didn't have any of the stuff they advertised on their signs, so no food for me, which was frustrating after a day of eating strange ingredients that were not meant to be eaten on their own. I got some snacks at one store...I got these little corn puffs that ended up being oddly sweet, and wanted to buy a little cake that was sort of the Vietnamese version of a Little Debbie cake, but it turned out that I had bought a whole case of them, so after eating a couple, I strapped the rest on to the back of my bike. That held me for a while.

I stopped in one village to take a picture of some water buffalo by the side of the road, but then my bike would not start again. Oh, crap. Now I needed to find a mechanic. So I started walking my bike down the street. A woman on the street stopped me, and seemed concerned about my bike, and started shotting off directions to somewhere in rapid-fire Vietnamese that I didn't understand at all, but I nodded my head dutifully, which is what you are supposed to do in that situation, I guess. Anyway, I continued pushing my bike down the street. Then a guy across the street motioned me over, and gave my bike the once-over. Then he pulled out the kick starter and kick started it right up. Of course. I didn't even think about the kick starter. I told him “thank you” repeatedly in Vietnamese. So it worked with the kick starter, but not with the electric starter. At least I could keep it moving.

I kept driving and driving, and thought I was a half an hour away from my destination, but suddenly it dawned on me, wait a minute, wasn't I supposed to be on a different highway by now? I started realizing that I really had no idea where I was. I took a closer look at Google Maps, and, sure enough, I had gone the frigging wrong way, and was about as far away from where I was supposed to be as the distance I had already traveled. So, first, I started to chart a path to the right place, which was the town of Quan Son. I started backtracking to get to the road south that would take me there, when I decided, aw, screw it, I'll just go the way I had been going, since I was almost there. So I turned around, and just kept going in the direction I had been going. But I'm sorta glad I did, because then I wouldn't have discovered this spectacular mountain pass that I drove on. The only thing was that up in the mountains, it was a lot colder, and I didn't feel like unpacking my pack to get my heavy jacket, so I just bore the cold. If it had been much colder, I probably would have pulled over to get it. But I was also trying to avoid letting the engine stop, because I would have to kick start it to get it moving; the electric starter was deader than a doorknob.

Why did I end up going the wrong way? I might have just mapped it to the wrong place, I'm not sure.  Also a couple of times in the past, I could swear that sometimes the destination has just changed in mid-map...seems like I've had that happen, and I should watch out for that possibility and be vigilant to make sure the route I'm on is still the right one.  It seemed like that happened to me a few times in Hanoi, but the stakes are higher when riding cross-country than they are within a city.  Anyway, if I had been paying enough attention to my technology instead of the damned scenery, none of this would have happened.

Then I stopped at this overlook over the town in the valley below, surrounded by mountains. What was this place, anyway? It turned out the town was Mai Chau, and that was going to be the new place that I would spend the night. So I wound my way down Highway QL15, which was this steep road into the valley with lots of switchbacks, and had to use my gears to slow me on the steep incline so I wouldn't use my brakes, and pulled into Mai Chau. I found a hotel that was only about six fifty in US dollars a night, and the room was not bad (I'm in it typing this now). The next order of business was to find a mechanic to fix whatever the problem was with the starter. So I walked right around the corner from the hotel, and found a place that would fix my bike, after making a key-turning motion with my hands followed by an “X” with my fingers, and then a kickstarting motion with my foot (hoping that would explain to him that the starter didn't work and I had to kick start it; he seemed to understand) and then I went back to the hotel to get it; the guy from the mechanic shop went with me.

I brought it to the shop, and sat down to have a Coke from the store attached to the shop. He fixed it before I finished my drink. It turned out the battery was dead and he replaced the battery. I just hope there wasn't some other problem that was causing the battery to die...maybe something related to the problem I had with my USB slot on the bike that caused me to have it removed. I asked one of the guys how much it was, and he said it was 15,000 dong, which was about 75 cents. I couldn't believe it; I gave him the money. I was amazed that it had cost so little.

I took it back to the hotel, and was sitting in my room, when I heard a knock at my door. It was the mechanic. It turned out I had just paid for the Coke. The battery replacement was 350,000 dong, still a bargain. I apologized profusely for the misunderstanding and paid him.

Then I wandered around the town to see what was going on, and finally found a restaurant to eat at, where I got some noodles with tofu and braised veggies. It was delicious. Tomorrow I will take off for the original destination that I was going to go to today, and it will probably take me about as long as today's drive did, so I'll end up a day behind. No big deal. Then the stretch of road to Laos is supposed to be spectacularly bad, a road filled with muddy pits and god knows what. Some accounts online have said to plan twelve hours to travel this fifty kilometer stretch of road. And that the road is under constant heavy construction.  Google Maps doesn't even consider that road as a possibility for going that way, which is a little intimidating, considering that it had me going down basically a goat path the other day. That all sounds not terribly encouraging, but it is why I planned to make an overnight stop in Vietnam, rather than just trying to cross over to Laos in one day.  But some accounts have said it's not too bad at all.  I think maybe the key is whether it has rained heavily before traveling in that direction.

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