Riding Vietnam Day 189: A Land Full of Dreams and Nightmares

I began my day on the road much later than expected after sleeping in and most importantly, yet unnervingly, due to the fact that I had to play nurse to my own wounds. Never did it specify in the travel itinerary that I would fall multiple times on a motorbike, get infections, and then clean those infections out through some hard earned scrubbing of that delicate skin. I guess I will take the good with the bad and keep trudging forward. With enough iodine and cotton balls, I scraped and scrubbed the wounds while trying to contain any inherent need to let out a yelp. The yellow skim of the infection held more firmly to the wound than I had expected or wanted as a little added elbow grease was necessary to get the job done. After rewrapping the wounds with sub par bandaging in the form of gauze since I could not communicate what I needed from the pharmacy no matter the Google translate and gesturing attempts to will qualified band aids into existence. I rejoined the road ready to explore what had been spoken of as the most picturesque stretch of road (20 km) on the entire loop and possibly Vietnam, so my expectations were at an all time high. Even as untouchable as my expectations as were, the views lived up to every bit. The first panorama just outside of Dong Van nearly left me speechless with the exception of ‘Wow!’, ‘my God’, and ‘how is this real?’. The valley dropped and dropped into more valleys until the distant foggy haze swallowed up the most far flung views. Directly in front of me beyond the cliff-tempting drop at my footsteps lay one mammoth valley that begat to two other crater-sized valleys that dug themselves deeply to the right and left of a well-lined limestone peak wall that stood as an indomitable wall and fortress, which only further accented the depth of the valleys. I continued staring at this land before me peering down to where the precariously built village homes stood as ant-like figurines. I kind of felt like I was God looking into a snow globe down upon these unknowing peoples and naturally blessed land. I continued driving along albeit slowly since I had to keep peering over the metal banister into the valleys for different perspectives of what I originally saw. Soon enough I uncovered the famous, yet still unvisited considering its glory and magnitude, the Ma Pi Leng Pass. An observation deck for viewing has been built but except for a matter of four other people, I was the only one standing there admiring the views for the half-hour plus that I took to absorb the scenery. According to one sign, it is the deepest canyon in all of Southeast Asia. At its lowest point in this canyon valley, a steady river churned passing through. Beyond the many mountainous peaks that stood almost as a perimeter, I could not uncover with my eyes what lay ahead thanks to the light yet cloudy haze. The haze was almost used as some sort of wrapping paper to toy with my imagination as to what I could possibly uncover around the next bend. Why should I dare spoil the secret by looking too far ahead when I had so much opened up before me? No painting could possibly represent the depth and detail of something that demanded enough from my own sights on its own. I had so much to look at that I had no idea what to do with myself. Should I stare deep into the abyss contemplating the easily misperceived depths, ponder the river that likely sustains much of the agriculture in the area, the mountains upon mountains only ever shrouded by the building haze, etc? The road slowly worked its way downward before a steady climb while weaving in and out according to the rumpled ridges of the sides of the mountains. All of this could be seen from the observation deck. Different perceptive views of the pass and its surrounding areas slowed my passage through the rest of the 20 km stretch but I had no other choice when taking it one of the greatest treasures of my travels while riding along this mostly vacant road. I reached Meo Vac which was like all the other cities past Ha Giang of little to no consequence besides being one of the rare communes of this province. After Meo Vac, I continued on in the direction of Bao Lac, a city that I determined might hold up as a solid stopover for the night with guaranteed hotel and guesthouse options. The views along the way were good and still probably better than some of the stuff I had seen while working the South to North of the Ho Chi Minh Highway but after just witnessing as close to what heaven may be on earth, I didn’t bother to stop much with the exception of slowing down to do mid-ride scans of the scenery, which is a precarious danger in itself. I landed in Bao Lac at 3:30 debating whether to stay the night or continue on. After having one of those inner debates at the figurative fork in the road where a conclusion could be had either way, I decided that I couldn’t handle occupying myself with little to nothing for the many hours left over till nightfall. I pressed on with some unspecified knowledge that some guesthouses were waiting for me in the somewhat reasonable, yet not too distant future. With enough switchbacks and muddied roads from landslides that narrowed traffic to either single lane traffic or none at all when encountering excavators placed on the road (resulting in motorbikes fumbling over loose rubble to bypass construction), my pace continued to lessen. As the sun was gaining speed towards the horizon, the landscape turned for the better, perhaps benefiting from the perfect lighting. Mountains, rice terraces, water buffaloes and villagers rounding out there day, and the scariest women I have ever laid my eyes on. I’m sorry but these women were straight up, keep you up at night while shivering under the covers, scary looking. They had their hair located most closely to their foreheads shaved away, while the rest of their hair was pulled back so tightly as if they wanted rip each strand from its roots. The scary women were older to begin with each having some native bandana wrapped around the back of their head, too far removed to hide their deteriorating teeth if their looks even bothered to reveal a single tooth. I’m sure they are lovely women but my nerves were rattled each time I passed another. Under the dying sun I rode while hoping the nightmarish side of the day’s title post doesn’t descend upon me further in a more profound way. I was getting closer to the first of the two towns leading up to Cao Bang, stood (at least according my faulted perception) not too far away at 55 km if worst comes to worst. Once I cut through the town seeing no guesthouses to speak of but still confident the next city had at least two hotels according to my map, I pulled off to the side of the road to double check my headlights which had gotten fixed not too long ago. Low and behold the lights did not work. Since I had a toolkit and some spare lights I figured why not give it a go myself. Appearing the lightbulbs decided to play hide and seek since I couldn’t find the blessed things in my overstuffed bag. I pulled out all the wrenches, screwdrivers, spare tires, etc. but nothing to help me in this peachy situation. Fuming and mad at the motorbike and backpacker gods, I went back into town in search of mechanic knowing full well that there was no chance in hell I would be riding in the dark let alone over a Vietnamese road. I went to one home with a few people hanging outside and pointed to my lights and then giving them a thumbs down. Luckily one man was kind enough to ride ahead and help me find a mechanic. Normally a mechanic is easy to find but now that all the shops are closed and the town beginning to look like a ghost town with the rare light revealing any sense of life, I would have struggled without his services. We were pointed in different directions before finding a mechanic who was busy eating dinner with his family. After explaining the situation to the mechanic as to what I needed, he signaled to me I would need to wait a little while for the man to finish his meal and then he left. The mechanic did the job and illuminated my otherwise darkened world. I asked and seemed to get understandable feedback that the town I surmised would have a hotel did in fact have a place to sleep that night but I wanted to make sure I caught the rare meal before I took on what could very well be an all night journey to Cao Bang consuming hours worth of night driving. I ordered Com Rang since that and Pho were the only options. I had one of my best and most filling meals. Apparently Com Rang isn’t just steak and eggs on fried rice. I was served multiple plates and bowls of white rice, tomato and tofu, soup, and a three egg omelette. While tearing into the meal, the owner, a small older woman, came over to sit with me and with gestures (wise enough not to waste time on me with Vietnamese she knows I would never be able to understand) seemed to be asking me if I wanted to stay the night at her place or somewhere in the town for 50,000d ($2.50). Of course! Not only would that have spare me the agony of not driving but I would have gotten another opportunity to experience an unplanned, imperceivable homestay. Unfortunately possibly due to maybe more miscommunication on my part that I failed to grasp, she seemed to wave me on as a goodbye once I paid for my meal. After filling  up on more petrol as another safety valve, I began riding in the darkness with lights that were working as best as they could for my bike but were clearly unqualified for safe driving. Plus, the lights only jumped to full power when rolled the accelerator to quicken my pace which made things precarious and dangerous up hills and around turns. So many thoughts went through my head. First of all, I hated knowing how dangerous Vietnamese roads could be and now I had to ride them with the faintest spotlight. I swerved around potholes and large rocks scattered over the road. Each passing obstacle gave way to a deep breath of air as I tightened my grip onto the handlebars. Worst comes to worst I would stay the night off the road in some ditch which would suck but can’t be that bad in the end yet I have seen enough giant snakes to shake that contemplating thought out of my mind. Hell, I may not even have a choice in the matter. One popped tire or mechanical breakdown and I am screwed. Not only would that one continue to be displaced further and further into the distance but all the mechanics would be fast asleep. I had only gotten one popped tire (on the first day riding of all days) and I figured my time had arrived. I was hoping and praying that I could be spared so that I may find some room, some bed to sleep on. The next town (the one I predicted might have at least one hotel) was only 14 km away but it sure as hell felt a lot further than that through the constant worrying and snail pace. After asking some locals for a guesthouse they pointed me down the road not too far along. I checked into a hotel which was overpriced but I wasn’t in a position to argue the price and barter. I should count myself lucky to find any place at all to safely rest my head. Tomorrow brings the completion of the leg to Cao Bang in the northeastern part of Vietnam and continuing onto to Ban Gioc waterfalls which sits directly on the natural dividing border between Vietnam and China.  

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