This Vietnamese lady wanted to know when I would be ready to get married again. My answer referenced snakes and wine.
"No where have I seen worse drivers than in Vietnam. I think it is sheer lunacy for anyone who lacks substantial experience driving in similar countries to attempt to do so here." So said a purported traveler of over 50 countries in the tourist book I had purchased. Under "Road Rules: the book read "Basically, there aren't any." Reading further it stated, "Over half the road fatalities in Vietnam are suffered by motorbike drivers."
An inquiry to the Vietnam tourist office got a response of "Our country has 80 million people with 40 million motorbikes and cycles, and no training for the drivers. We recommend for safety and security you book a guided tour if you want to ride a motorcycle over here. And we strongly suggest you not travel alone."
A motorcycle parking lot in Hanoi.
What had piqued my interest was a short article in the Bangkok Post newspaper saying that due to the high number of road accidents the Vietnamese government was going hiring 7,000 new traffic police and boost the budget for equipment. I had just survived the annual Highway Killing Days in Thailand (Christmas and New Years) where they were snuffing four per hour, and 80% of all accidents involved motorcycles. A month earlier, I was in riding in Laos where one health worker told me motorcycle accidents accounted for more accidental deaths per year than any other factor. Before that, I had been riding in Cambodia, where motorcycles were killing more per day than gunfire, mines and unexploded ordinance. I thought, "Just how bad can Vietnam be? Worse than India? Worse than Sao Paulo, Brazil? Worse than Taiwan?" I had survived those places, plus the last months in Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
An acquaintance had just returned from riding solo in Vietnam. He did not have what I would term "substantial experience driving" a motorcycle and had survived, plus added he would go back. Faced with another period of Highway Killing Days (Songkran, or Water Festival) in Thailand, which included the locals throwing at Westerners buckets of water, firing it from high-pressure water guns, or using fire hoses to douse us, especially when on a motorcycle, I booked a flight into Hanoi to seek risky adventure.
Vietnam had a maximum legal size for a motorbike of 125-cc; therefore, my 1,000-cc BMW was not allowed to cross the border into the country. Some have managed to get "big bikes" into Vietnam, but once inside unknowingly face confiscation by authorities. I decided to take my chances on finding an adequate motorcycle once I got there as I had done on one of my earlier rides around the world, so flew in with my riding gear, tool kit and a handful of cash.
On the way into Hanoi from the airport, I saw a flat motorcyclist in the first four kilometers. He and his 100-cc Honda had been run over by a dump truck making a left turn in front of him. Wearing no helmet, his head had popped gray matter 10-15 feet away, as if someone had stepped on a tomato, and his motorcycle was the width of a bicycle. I thought, "Maybe it is as bad as the tourist book says it is over here."
Vietnam is roughly the size of New Mexico, but it is long and thin. North and west of Hanoi are mountains, to the south flat fields and beaches along the 2,000 miles of coastline. The population density is more than 225 persons per square kilometer, making the country one of the world's highest for a mostly agricultural country. Per capita income is around $300 per year. That made me wonder how people could survive on $20 to $100 per month, especially in major cities like Hanoi.
The price to western tourists for sleeping, eating and local sightseeing was low. I opted for a clean hotel in the Old Quarter with cable TV, air conditioning, 24-hour hot water, elevator, restaurant, in-room bathroom/toilet, telephone and free Internet use for $22.00 USD per night. Cheaper could be had for as little as $5.00, but I needed the room for only a few nights, and wanted something secure for my cameras and personal belongings while I hunted for a motorcycle during the day. The fat cats can also be right at home in Hanoi. Nearby was the Sofitel Metropole Hotel where rooms started at $200.00 per night and probably came with a turndown service at bedtime with a packaged chocolate on the pillow. I was quite comfortable with my $22.00 per night room. While my hotel did not have a lounge, my room came with a stocked refrigerator that included beer for seventy-five cents.
Two blocks away I found Master Mechanic Cuong's Motorbikes at his shop Cuong's Motorbike Adventure.. He specializes in "Buying, Selling, Repairing and Renting." His fleet is comprised mostly of Russian-made Minsk 125-cc two stroke motorcycles. These are larger than the average motorcycles in Vietnam, which run in the 100-cc to 110-cc range, and used to come into Vietnam in large numbers from the Minsk factory in Belarus. The factory has shifted to bicycle production and last year produced only 40,000 motorcycles, few of which made it to Vietnam. I was able to locate the Minsk dealer in Hanoi, who had six new motorcycles for sale, for about $600.00 each.
Master Mechanic Cuong (left) and "Minsker" Dan Dockery (right).
Once I found Cuong, I was faced with some options. I could purchase a motorcycle, use it, and then sell it back to him at some loss. For $5.00 a day, I could rent one. Or I could buy one, ride it down to Ho Chi Min City (formerly Saigon), about 1,200 miles south and sell it there.
While I was trying to decide on what to do over the next three weeks, Digby Greenhalgh dropped in the one room shop. Digby and his partner Dan Dockery run a motorcycle tour company called Explore Indochina and are principal movers and shakers in the Minsk Club. Digby was collecting a couple of clients who had booked a short tour. He told me what I could expect if I rode Highway 1A south to HCMC. He used terms like "flat," "rice fields," "traffic," "good paved road," and "pretty boring," but did sprinkle the description with "nice beaches," "DMZ, "Viet Cong tunnels" and "Saigon city."
Then I asked him, "Well, what's up here in the north?" He said, "Thick jungle, red mud, hill tribes, remote villages where no one speaks French or English, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Laos, China, mountains, and Cat Ba Island. I hear the road to Mai Chau and Diem Bien Phu may be closed, so you would have to figure out a way around. You could make a nice loop, take a couple of weeks, and end up back in Hanoi. It might be a bit risky though, being out there alone and not knowing the bike, language or customs."
He hooked me with one word, risky. I slammed down the map, said "Gimme one of those Minsks and point me west, out of town. I'm no reclined rider. Let me see how you define risky. I'm up to the challenge, I just want to know if the Minsk is?"
Digby smiled at me like I was a newbie to the motorcycle adventure game, then said, "Trust me mate, it'll do you right."
"Minsk-man" Digby Greenhalgh collects his clients and shares some of his knowledge of Minsks and Vietnam with me. In the evening he introduced taught me how to be a "killer-swiller" chasing beer with snake wine.
The Master Mechanic set me up with a "cheater Minsk." It had been punched out to 150-ccs and used a Yamaha piston to give it more grunt. The spindly Minsk forks had been replaced with some heftier MZ forks. Junk levers had been replaced, and the rear shocks were off a Honda. I later learned that nearly 90% of the Minsk parts are now made in Vietnam and Cuong knew what needed fixing to make the stock Minsk reliable.
Mine looked knackered. It lacked a speedometer, tachometer, ignition switch, or indicator lights for charging or turn signals, all having been removed. In fact, it had no key; the theory being if it had a key it would get lost. It did have turn signals, and they worked after a bulb was replaced. The paint was faded, tank scratched, seat torn and rust was eating at the Russian chrome. The mechanic made up a spare parts kit for me that included major electrical components, cables, spark plugs, an inner tube, and then handed me a cloth wrapped tool kit. He said, "You know anything about motorcycles?" and I told him, "a little."
He said, "If it wont start, or runs poorly, check the spark plug or replace it. If that doesn't fix it, start replacing electrical parts with the ones we give you. In any city or town where you are going you'll be able to find someone who can work on these Minsks. Oh, and here is a repair manual." He handed me a photo copied 50-page Minsk Repair Manual, written in English.
I wandered back to my hotel thinking it was a bad sign, being given a dirty pile of tools, spare parts and a well-thumbed repair manual before heading off into the unknown with a bike that looked like it should be used for parts instead of a rider. As I read the manual while having a dinner of beef and French fries, chased by several Halida and Tiger beers, my trepidation level slowly went down. When I closed the manual, I felt it had told me enough to know the motorcycle was pretty simple. Then I saw the author's name, Digby Greenhalgh.
The Minsk, ready to risk the hills and jungle ahead. I had brought my own tank bag, panniers (Aerostich tank panniers), bungi cords and waterproof bags.
Next morning it was raining, a good heavy rain, and I had not brought my rain gear from my apartment in Thailand where they had not seen rain for months. I decided to play tourist for the day, try to find a XL rain suit, and plan to leave the next day. While hunting a rain suit on the streets of Hanoi, I found Uncle Ho.
Contrary to the express wishes of Ho Chi Minh (Uncle Ho as he is affectionately called), he was not cremated. Instead, the Russians embalmed him and the Vietnamese have him in a very nice mausoleum that is maintained at icebox temperature. Each year the mausoleum is closed while the embalmed corpse goes back to Russia for maintenance. It was open as I passed by so I joined the respectful pilgrimage line.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is free, and inside the temperature is kept at meat locker level, a nice break when outside it is hot and humid.
Before I got to the entrance, the guards made me leave my small packsack and cameras at a kiosk. Since I had my walking around cash, an inch thick stack of dong (Vietnamese money) in the packsack, I pulled my dong out and stuffed it in my front pants pocket. The dong was a tight fit, so I kept it in with my fingers to keep it from popping out in front of everybody.
As I entered the deathly quiet mausoleum, another guard made me take off my dark glasses. Wearing dark glasses was a sign of disrespect and I obliged, not wanting to be disrespectful in any way.
My glasses are bifocals, so without them I could barely see Uncle Ho as we quickly moved forward to file past his prone corpse. As I approached, another guard tried to pull my hand out of my pocket. I later learned having your hand in your pocket is another sign of disrespect, and I agree. As my hand came out of my pocket, so did my dong, landing on the floor. Then things got exciting.
The guard pointed at my dong, then at the prone Uncle Ho. Without my glasses, I could not see if big dongs or little dongs were being offered to Uncle Ho, so I started to try to sort out a respectful presentation. This had slowed the quickly snaking line to a halt while I fumbled with my dong and tried to figure out why the guard was getting frisky, and then two others who joined him. They were trying to force my dong back into my pocket, and I was unsure why. Then they got me moving with an escort on either side. I was hustled along the hushed walkway and into the sunlight outside. No one had said a word. Once outside I was admonished in rapid fire Vietnamese, sternly I think. My response was the same as whenever I am confronted with perceived personal stupidity. I said, "I am sorry about my dong, please forgive me for my stupidity for having so little. I am a Texas tourist."
That seemed to do the trick. The guards seemed to knowingly nod, then went back inside leaving me on the sidewalk, dong in hand. Later I learned no one placed money, or anything else, around the sarcophagus. Earlier in the day, I had visited a pagoda and was told that to leave money (dong or dollars) in front of the Buddha was for good luck, which I had done. No one told me it was bad form to do the same in front of Uncle Ho and without my glasses I could not clearly see much past two feet in front of me.
My experience with Uncle Ho, while short, taught me much about Vietnamese culture and respect. Next time I will wear my clear glasses and leave my dong with the sack. The inch thick stack was only worth about $5.00 anyway, not worth being disrespectful for.
The next day I rode the Minsk out of Hanoi headed to Dien Bien Phu, the Last Stand for the French. Digby was right about the road being closed. I had to double back, then find a boat that would take the motorcycle and me three hours up the Ho Song Da reservoir. As five locals lifted the 200-pound Minsk up and onto the bow of the boat, then ten took it off at the end and up a steep embankment, I was thankful it was not my 500-pound BMW.
Getting the Minsk off the boat and up the embankment was a chore. Ten people were involved.
I did some poking around in the small villages along the way. I saw many more Minsk motorcycles than in Hanoi and soon became confident that if something did go wrong with mine, there would be someone who could sort it out if I could not. In the mud and ruts of the jungle tracks, I was grateful to have the small bike as it almost happily slipped and slid through the red and brown muck. Had I had the BMW I would have been flopping in the tracks. On the Minsk I fell not once.
Slipping and sliding into jungle villages on the Minsk was made easy by a low first gear and the lightness of the motorcycle.
Age or wisdom was a factor in my decisions as I turned around several times after deciding not to go further into the jungles. Looking down one muddy footpath into a village below I knew I could slip and slid down. I also knew it would be a long day and possible night pushing and pulling the Minsk back up the kilometer of mud if the trail did not go onward and eventually double back to the road. Ten years earlier I would have gone into the village without thinking about returning. Experience has taught me not all roads continue and pushing and pulling over burdened motorcycles is for the younger and foolish.
Not all the roads up along the border were paved.
Reaching Dien Bien Phu was anti-climatic. It is one of the most remote parts of Vietnam, about 20 miles from the Laos border. The town, population of about 22,000, was in a bowl. In May of 1954, the Viet Minh forces over ran the French that had been holding the town, after a 57-day siege.
It was easy to see why the French lost. The Viet Minh, which outnumbered the French by 5 to 1, had hand carried 105-mm artillery through the jungles, across rivers and up the hillside, from where they lobbed bombardments for seven weeks into the French. It reminded me of places in America where the whites had done the same to the Indians, like the Battle of the Big Hole or Sand Creek. Those on the inside of the parameter had little chance, and all 13,000 French were either killed or taken prisoner. Viet Minh casualties were estimated to be 25,000, but their superior numbers and location won a major victory. For the French it was the end of their effort to re-establish colonial control over Indochina, a Frenchy's Last Stand.
Sleeping and eating on the road was inexpensive, and gas was plentiful. I was paying about $10.00 a night for a nice room, and $10.00 a day for prepared meals, bottled water, Coke and beer. At gas stations they knew the Minsk was a two-stroke, so readily filled a small container with oil that they poured directly into the gas tank, then added gas, cheap gas.
A good example of why my Rule #1 for riding in third world countries is "Never ride at night."
While I was blissfully wandering through the hill-tribe areas I noticed some news that implied the natives were restless. The villagers, called Montagnards (meaning high-landers or mountain people) were supposedly letting off some steam. The Vietnamese call them moi, a negative term that translates to "savages." Generally, the government leaves them alone, but every now and then the Montagnards react to having been kicked around and treated like dirt too long.
It seems as I was passing through their area it was "uprising" time. None shot at me; in fact I had a pretty good time learning from them. Because most have not gone to school, they have the ability to parrot words well, and many spoke excellent English, particularly in Sapa. I suspect the government was trying to keep tourists, and especially journalists, out of the area and from learning how poorly the Montagnards have been treated over the years. From what press I could read, the scare tactic was working. One trick the communist press had learned from the western press was media spin. If I had been listening to the government warnings, and then those picked up by our US State Department and further spun as Traveler's Advisory Warnings, I probably would have missed some of the best riding in Vietnam. But then again, if I believed what the State Department said about a lot of things, (like weapons of mass destruction, etc.), I would probably stay huddled in my basement, watching the Fox News channel, waiting for certain attack by who knows who, or dart from gated hotel compound to gated hotel compound while riding all over the world. Besides, what trouble would mountain savages from Vietnam want to bring to a Mountain Crow Indian from Montana?
My next target was Sapa, an alpine-like tourist town in the far north near the Chinese border. Other than some construction areas the road was well paved and the mountain riding fun. The Minsk "burped" once along this section, about as far from Hanoi as I could get, causing me to think, "Yep, that's about right for one of my adventures. My BMW's had died in some of the worst places on the planet, why not this Russian Minsk about as far from Hanoi as I can get?" But burp was all it did, probably from water in the gas after a couple of days of rain riding.
When the Vietnamese authorities don't want you to ride on a certain section of road they do not bother with signs and flag persons.
When I arrived in Sapa the fog was so thick I could not see the names of buildings from the street. A tout grabbed me and insisted I follow her motorcycle to a hotel. For $5.00 a night I was treated to a clean room, hot shower, and a TV with all Vietnamese stations. Just up the road was Victoria Hotel where I could have dropped $85-$150 for a room if I was missing BBC/CNN, USA or European prices and probably chocolate on my pillow at night.
The owner of my small hotel looked more Chinese than Vietnamese, but spoke excellent French. I used what little French I could remember from high school, and understood that he wanted me to ride the Minsk up the front steps and into the hotel lobby for dry and safe keeping for the night (not so at the Victoria). As I bounced up the steps on the little Minsk, I was again glad not to have had my Bavarian Behemoth or any big bike.
Hill tribe people and Minsk motorcycles in Sapa.
The town of Sapa was Minsk Central. They were everywhere, and used for everything from moto-taxis to moto-tractors in the fields. I spent the better part of the morning looking at and photographing Minsks around town. An odd tourist I must have looked to the other tourists who were shopping for souvenirs and taking photographs of the hill tribe people (for a fee) or the market. My photo ratio of Minsks to typical tourist photos was about 10 to 1, that being usual for my travels around the world. I like motorcycles, so spend a lot of time with the local gear heads talking bikes and filling rolls of film with machines instead of temples, mountains, birds or flowers. When asked why I do not have pictures of birds, I answer, "I'm a biker, not a birder."
Sapa was at the base of a the Hoang Lien Mountains, also known as the Tonkinese Alps, the highest of which is 3,143 meters and Vietnam's highest. Called the premier destination of northwest Vietnam, many came for the trekking. Touts and travel agencies tried to sign me up for guided tours from one day to a week. I was not sure if they understood exactly what I meant when I said, "Non, merci. Je suis un biker, not un hiker."
I rode the Minsk up to the Chinese border, but having no visa had to turn around. I was not really interested in entering China, where westerners like myself are considered lower than dog dung on the street, but was interested in what it would take to get the Minsk and me across. I was told I would have to pay to get a Chinese driving license, then pay a huge entry fee and hire a car and driver/guide from the government tourist office. I would have had to ride my motorcycle behind the guide in his car wherever I wanted to go, or where he would allow me to go. This seemed to be about as much fun as birding or taking a course in basket weaving. That, coupled with the fact I would be viewed as fecal matter, left me happily bouncing along the border on the Vietnamese side out to Ha Long Bay.
That is China in the background, as close as I was going to or wanted to get. I was happy to stay in Vietnam and save $10,000-$15,000 USD.
On the way the Minsk burped again, once. That was it for the entire trip, two burps, both probably from water in the gas. I did add air one time to the rear tire. I tried to reconcile not having used my BMW or Yamaha Tenere in Vietnam and having crossed over from German and Japanese quality to the Russian made Minsk. It was an easy reconciliation: the maximum speed limit for motorcycles in Vietnam is 80 kph, or about 50 mph, and for $5.00 per day I was living motorcycle riding in Vietnam like the locals do, using a local bike. I had decided after nearly losing an expensive motorcycle once before, I did not want to take into any country, anywhere on the planet, a motorcycle I could not afford to lose, either from an accident, theft or confiscation. I slept a lot better at night not worrying about my expensive big bike. As Digby said when Cuong's mechanic offered me a lock and chain for the Minsk, "You really don't need it. Where you're going no one will steal it." And to replace the Minsk if I totaled it, I could handle $600.00 a lot easier than I could the price for a BMW or similar big bike.
I also have a personal problem with being the Ugly American (or Westerner) in a country like Vietnam where the average yearly income was less than the price of a set of tires on my motorcycle, and where a family of six or more scrimp, starve and save enough to buy their only vehicle, a $400.00 Chinese copy of a $2,500.00 Honda 110-cc. The Hondas were expensive because Vietnam imposes a 110% import tax to the Japanese. The Chinese copy looked exactly like the Honda only bore a different name.
The popular Honda Wave serves as the "family car." There was room for at least two more passengers on this motorcycle.
From a security standpoint, I tried to avoid shouting to the locals when I park for the night, or lunch, "I am rich, I have money," which I think was what we do when we ride a $10,000-$20,000 motorcycle in Third World countries. I feel I have gotten a better taste for the local culture and people when I do not intimidate them with expressions of wealth like waving my Rolex around and pointing out that my motorcycle helmet cost more than they make in a year. At night when I am eating at the local restaurant or having a drink in the local bar I know I taste more of the local culture that if I were in the lounge at the Sheraton Hotel with the other Westerners.
Swapping the Minsk for a 110-cc Honda was a change. While I became attached to the Minsk and its simplicity (and backward kick-starter, located on the left side), I wanted to try one of the more popular motorcycles, a Honda Wave. The rental price was the same, and with sometimes six people on one, the carrying capacity the same.
In Hanoi I saw a Honda so over packed with boxes of vegetables the rider could not hold it up when stopped in an intersection and fell over. Struggling to get it upright was impossible, and as traffic swirled around I could see the pilot's frustration. After a minute, a couple of men standing by tried to assist, but their small size and strength still wasn't enough. I was going to take a photo, but instead ran over and helped them lift the bike upright. It was a surprised woman pilot who looked back at me; a huge giant compared to her small size and those of her other helpers, as she tried to say "Thank you." The others left, but I stayed, holding the motorcycle while she tried to kick-start it back to life. The carburetor was flooded. Together we pushed the stalled bike through the intersection to the sidewalk where, after 2-3 minutes of kicking, she finally got it cleared and started. It was one of those motorcycle photo opportunities I was sorry I missed. With her load on the Honda it looked like a baby elephant on a bicycle.
Several small bike rentals found me on a SYN (I had used one of these before in Taiwan) and a Famlin (100-cc). I used the Famlin to cruise around Cat Ba Island instead of spending the day hiking into the National Park where tourists could take photographs of monkeys. The Famlin had a hit or miss transmission, but so do several of my BMW's, so I soon got used to shifting into the unexpected, false neutrals of from third into third. The front brake was little better than that on my 1931 Henderson, which is "Pull and Pray."
The Famlin and I before we tried to make it fly.
It was on the Famlin that I came the closest to having a serious accident in all my riding in Vietnam. Over ridding the tires into a corner on the coast road, the back wheel broke loose. I steered into the slide, did a wobble, then the motorcycle came back upright, but I was aimed off the pavement and over a ledge onto the rocks several hundred feet below. I reacted by pulling the useless front brake lever back to the handlebar and screamed a four-letter word before I remembered to use the back brake pedal. The motorcycle front wheel went over the edge but my left foot, on the pavement, and the engine dragging, kept the rest of the bike and me from following.
Some say when death is imminent in crashes like this their whole life goes before their eyes. Not so in this case. All I saw was blue sky and thought, "This is going to hurt." I rode slowly back to town, gave the Famlin back to the rental agent, then tried to wash the memory of the cliff from my mind with several cold bottles of Halida. That night I met a nice Japanese lady from Osaka who accompanied me bar hopping and by 10:00 I had forgotten the adventure that afternoon. Actually, I was embarrassed about it, knowing my obituary could have read, "Professional Motorcycle Adventurer Dies in Vietnam – Dr. Gregory W. Frazier, infamous world traveler on big bikes ranging from a 1600-cc AMAZONAS to a 1300-cc Harley-Davidson, died on a 100-cc motorcycle..."
As for America's famed Harley-Davidsons, while I saw probably 4,000,000 motorcycles in my three weeks, I neither saw nor heard a single Harley. The high daily kill rate for motorcyclists on small motorcycles in Vietnam attests to the fact that "Loud Pipes Save Lives" as my Harley friends like to point out is not happening in Vietnam.
Riding in Vietnam, especially in the major cities, was not as bad as I had been told. However, I did have to adopt a new set of driving skills, the first being to use the horn on the motorcycle. Cars, trucks and motorcycles honk and beep their way through crowded traffic believing the noise will open a hole in front of them. The Vietnamese were probably the world's # 1 honkers and beepers.
It was not unusual to see a car, truck, bus or motorcycle coming at me in my lane, and stop signs, although seldom posted, were ignored, as were no turn signals and often stop lights. Few riders wore motorcycle helmets, and I saw none wearing protective gear like boots, gloves or glasses.
Notice the protective head gear and clothing. One rider did have glasses.
The traffic was best described as like watching the top of an anthill. I sat four stories above a major intersection where five major streets converged, waiting to photograph an accident because there were no signals or traffic police slowing, stopping or directing traffic. In an hour I saw no accidents. Beeping and honking, plus riding very slowly, seemed to be the formula for crash avoidance. Even when a car made a U turn in the middle of the intersection no one seemed to be upset, they merely veered around the car. If something similar would have taken place in New York City or Los Angeles I suspect the driver would have been shot.
A taxi making a U turn into one-way traffic. No one shouted at the driver or pulled a gun. There was some horn beeping, but the taxi driver just honked back.
I hung up my helmet after the Famlin. Back in Hanoi, I vectored into Minsk Central, or the Highway 4 restaurant/bar. Here partners Markus Madeja and Dan Dockery cater to the trendy Hanoi crowd while at the same time welcome adventurous motorcyclists and Minsk aficionados, many members of the Minsk Club. The Highway 4 brew master, Marcus, has refined the distilling process for a spirit unique to northern Vietnam, which is marketed as Son Tinh (Mountain Spirit). It ranges in strength from 48% to 52%. You order a bottle that is brought to your table, you drink how much you like, then send it back and order another strength/taste if you want to try something else. At the end of the evening, you are billed for however much of the bottle(s) you have consumed.
While Dockery and Maddeja were sharing with me secrets about riding, Minsks, women and drinking, I was carefully watching a large snake sitting on the bar. A cobra, as thick around as my thigh, was watching me back. It was inside a 10-gallon glass bottle of rice wine, quite pickled, but still quite ugly and dangerous.
I hate snakes, and all over Vietnam were snakes, snake breeders, snake eaters and snake wine. One 10-gallon bottle of wine in a restaurant had 20-30 snakes in it, as well as a dead chicken and lizard. The Vietnamese say snake meat is very nutritious, high in protein and minerals and good for the blood. Snake wine is used as a tonic for bones and tendons. In one village, 850 out of 1067 households were earning their living from snakes. Most were exported to China (possibly another reason I will not be riding in China soon, or ever), but that seemed to leave a lot left over for the Vietnamese.
At Highway 4 the Mountain Spirit and eyeballing snake were defeating me as the night got darker. Finally I gave up and told my hosts I was "out-drunk, out-talked and out-the-door." Dockery said that with the head I would have in the morning I should try the shampoo salon kitty corner to the bar, which I did.
For over an hour my hair was washed, whiskers shaved, face and scalp massaged and ears cleaned by a pretty woman who spoke no English or French but who had magic hands. She washed and massaged the image of the snake away, as well as the throbbing Halida/Son Tinh head. When finished I asked, "How much?" $2.00 and a fifty cent tip convinced me Dockery knew what he was talking about.
My friends in Vietnam taught me another cultural secret, that being, not to admitting being single. It seems that if you area not married many Vietnamese think there is something wrong with you. Some single westerners avoid being branded as odd by lying and saying their wife or husband was "back home." I did not want to invite the raised eyebrow nor did I want to outright lie, so when asked if I was married I answered "No, my wife passed on." That was true. Twenty plus years ago my ex-wife passed on to another guy. Then if asked why I had not re-married, I answered, "My wife left such a hole in my life I still feel the pain." That was true too. I can still feel the pain of writing the check after the divorce proceedings.
The Vietnamese inquisitors seemed to feel my unmarried status was honorable and I felt better at not having lied to anyone. The one time I was cornered was when asked by a pretty lady when I thought I would be ready to get married again, while suggesting her availability. My answer was, "When the snake over there in that bottle of rice wine flies." At first, I received a wrinkled forehead and squinted eye as she tried to figure out what that meant. Finally she smiled and said, "Ahhh, I understand. You mean next time you drink too much of our snake wine."
I wanted to smile and say "any of your snake wine," but only smiled.
July 27, 2000, Going Out Again - 'Round The World
October 4, 2000, Why Another Long Ride, The Plan, and Mr. Fish
October 10, 2000, the beginning, in America on an Indian
November 6, 2000, AMAZONAS-Tamed By Beasts in Brazil
November 22, 2000, Monster Cow, Wolpertinger and Autobahn Crawling Across Europe
December 22, 2000, Enfield 500 Bullet, India Motorcycle Dementia, Ozoned Harley-Davidsons and Gold Wings
December 25, 2000, Yeti on a Harley-Davidson, Nepal By Enfield, No Carnet Sexpedition
January 1, 2001, Haunting Yeti
January 25, 2001, Monkey Soccer, Asian Feet, Air 'em Up: Bhutan and Sikkim
February 12, 2001, Midgets, Carnetless, Steve McQueen on Enfield, Bangladesh
February 20, 2001, Higgledypiggledy, Salacity, and Zymurgy - India
March 20, 2001, Road warriors, sand, oil leaks - meditating out of India
April 8, 2001, Bike Cops, Elephants, and Same-Same - Thailand
May 1, 2001, Little Bikes, Millions of Bikes, Island Riding - Taiwan
May 15, 2001, Harley-Davidson, Mother Road and Super Slabs - America
June 8 , 2001, Crossing The Crazy Woman With A Harley-Davidson, Indian, BMW, Amazonas, Enfield, Hartford, SYM, Honda
January 1, 2002, Donged, Bonged, and Gonged - Burma
January 20, 2002, Secrets of The Golden Triangle - Thailand
March 31, 2002, Bear Wakes, Aims Green Machine Around The World
April 10, 2002, Moto Cuba - Crashes, Customs and El Jefe (Fidel)
May 20, 2002, Europe and The Roads South to Africa
June 10, 2002, Morocco Motorcycling, Thieves and Good Roads
July 30, 2002, Russia – Hard and Soft, By Motorcycle
August 30, 2002, USA – American Roadkill, Shipping Bikes and BIG DOGS
September 30, 2002, Good Times Roll Home, Riding With Clothes On, Team Green - USA
November, 2002, Mexico By Motorcycle - Gringos, Little Norman Bad Cock, and Bandits
March 2003, Laos by motorcycle - Guerrillas, Mekong Beering, and Plain of Coffins
July, 2003, Alaska by motorcycle – Deadhorse, Fish Story and Alaskan Bush
January 2004, Angkor, Bombed Out Roads and Dog Eaters - Cambodia
April, 2004, Minsking, Uncle Ho and Snake Wine
August 2004, Around The World Again, 1st Tag Deadhorse
February 2005, Colombia To The End Of The Earth - South America
January 2006, My Marriage, Long Strange Ride, Montana Nights
May 2006, Cherry Girls, Rebels, Crash and Volcano - Philippines
September 2006, Break Bike Mountain Ride – United States
March 2007, Kawasaki Cult Bike “No Stranger To Danger Expedition” - Thailand and Cambodia
November 2007, Lone Wolf Wanders: Bears, Moose, Buffalo, Fish
April 2009, Global Adventure Roaming: Burma through the USA to headhunters on Borneo
February 2010, Adventure Motorcycle Travel: Expedition to Alaska, then Java
Copyright © Dr. Gregory W. Frazier. 1999- All Rights Reserved.
Thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author,
and not necessarily Horizons Unlimited