Gettin' lost in the fog on the way North

Trip Start Sep 29, 2010
Trip End Dec 23, 2011

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Where I stayed
Ha Thu Hoa House Service

Flag of Vietnam  , (VM16),
Sunday, January 23, 2011

After debating whether or not to end the trip and head into Hanoi or head North, you can guess what I chose - I was definitely not ready to head to Hanoi so I made course for Mai Chau.

Heading out of Cam Thuy, I knew that I was really close to Cuc Phuong National Park, and I thought it might be really cool to go there for a day and maybe even spend the night. Ben from Phong Nha had said there was an entrance off of the Ho Chi Minh road, so it wouldn't be that out of the way at all. It also meant that I had to bypass the best highways that led to Mai Chau, but I figured it would be worth it.

Problem is, I had no clue where the entrance was supposed to be, so I just kept on going North. Along the way, I asked some people about Cuc Phuong, and they kept on pointing for me to continue, but it was coming to a point where I would be passing all the most direct routes to Mai Chau. Luckily at my last opportunity to head West I stopped to check my map, realizing that perhaps this entrance didn't exist, or that I needed to take some other road to it, and that people were pointing me to the main entrance around the other side of the park. My stopping was lucky because the junction where I had taken a break to talk to some guys on the side of the road led to a small highway that led in Mai Chau's direction. The guys pointed me that way, so I went for it.

This road was very different from the nice smooth HCM highway I had gotten used to. Very worn, full of potholes and exposed ground underneath the asphalt, and really bumpy. I had only a vague idea of how long it went for, but I figured it was worth it to keep going. From what I could tell from my map, it couldn't be too long along this stretch of highway, so I pushed on. Luckily I was right, and as I got closer to the junction with the bigger highway, the road improved considerably. After an awesome lunch in the town, it was only 30km or so to Mai Chau, and I was pumped. I had really been looking forward to riding around the North, because it's supposed to be really scenic. I was taking the first step to an awesome part of the country!

The North is quite mountainous, and this road was cutting right through and around some steep forested peaks, absolutely amazing. I was loving it until this insane fog hit as I climbed further in elevation up one mountain. I could barely see 25m without my goggles on, but with them on it was like I was blind. I didn't want to stop, because I could barely see, and didn't want to take a hand off the bike to try remove the goggles - all I could make out was paint on the road and headlights heading in my direction. On one stretch, I heard some loud honking behind me which meant a huge truck was coming, and I could tell that there other big vehicles coming from the other direction. I was over as far as I could go, but not knowing whether the horn blasts meant "watch out, I'm coming up behind you" or "get the hell out of the way, I'm going to run you over" I headed for he shoulder. It was soft, I wasn't braking quickly, couldn't keep my balance and hit down hard on the shoulder as the traffic went by. It hurt, but I got up quickly to check the bike. No engine problems, but the handlebars had been bent out of alignment with the front wheel - it was like having to steer to the right to keep the bike straight. I knew that heading on uphill into this fog with the bike in this condition was no option, so I headed back downhill to find a mechanic who could fix it. This way I at least didn't have to accelerate, I could use gravity to get me there. To make matters worse, the throttle was jamming, and the engine would rev hard and not settle down when I released it. When I put into gear it was fine, but it needed fixing too. I found a mechanic who put the handlebars back into alignment and fixed the throttle. I thought about heading back to the junction town, but decided to push on. 30 kilometres later I made it through the fog and was in safety on the downhill to Mai Chau. It was a nerve-wracking episode though, and I was pretty shaken by it.

Coming into Mai Chau, I just wanted to find someplace to crash and quick - it had been a long day. Somebody came up to me with a card for a homestay, so I decided to just take it without looking around. I ended up following him into the middle of the valley Mai Chau is in, where there are many stilt houses set up for homestays. The location was beautiful, in the middle of rice paddies and surrounded on all sides by steep hills. I put my stuff away and decided to go for a walk. It didn't take long to realize that this whole area was a fabricated tourist destination for travellers to get an "authentic" Vietnamese homestay, but it was complete bullshit. Every "house" was selling the usual tourist wares, and the whole pace felt fake. Even the rice fields looked fake! All that was growing in them were weeds. Compared to the homestay I did in Kong Lo, Laos, it was completely phony. I just laughed about it because what could I do - I was already there.

Funnily enough three English guys turned up at the same place with motorbikes. They had bought them in Hanoi and this was their first day on the road! I was able to give them a few tips as they were heading down the stretch I'd just come up. Really nice guys. It got dark early and we were all exhausted, so we headed to bed after a home-cooked meal at the house.

I read for a bit before falling asleep, and then when I tried to, I couldn't brush bad thoughts out of my head about the road in front of me. What if the fog kept up like that the whole way? What if I crashed again? Or worse? And the problems with the bike? As much as I tried to brush the thoughts away, they wouldn't leave my head. I had one night to sleep on it before deciding in the morning. I was still within an easy day's drive to Hanoi.

Would I be backtracking into Hanoi, or pushing on?
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