Hanoi's Angels ... we nearly killed a man

Trip Start Mar 11, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2006

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Friday, April 14, 2006

We awoke that morning excited to get into gear and zoom away. Brief stops to inform Citibank that I really did lose my card this time and also to buy real helmets and then we made like a tree and left. In an inauspicious beginning to our journey, my bike stalled for good as we were just leaving the city but a quick stop at a nearby mechanics and new spark plug later, we were off to the races in our 125-cc Russian Minsks that were surprisingly powerful for such a low volume. I had been nervous the whole night before about negotiating the traffic out of Hanoi and mountain passes further out, but despite my long hiatus it was smooth sailing all the way out. Even as the road got more windy (as in twisty, no blowy), misty, and slippery the further into the hills we climbed, I was loving every moment of it and, truth be told probably was getting a little cocky about my riding due to how well it was going. In any case, spirits were high as we rolled into town.
Mai Chau is an arts village inhabited by a tribe called the White Thais and with nearly all the buildings in the place up on stilts as are traditionally built to deal with the annual floods. Walking around, it was a nice small place but just a little too prepared for tourists in the sense that yes, they are not characters at Disneyland and really would be weaving and harvesting rice whether we were there or not, but it was all so on display and Western-oriented that we had a hard time suspending disbelief that we were seeing much that was genuine, most of the raw experience we were after washed away, trimmed nicely, and easy to digest. Walking around the perimeter of the agricultural area, however, we heard voices across the rice paddy from the next village over that around my curiosity.
Walking across and through the paddy and treading over a two-foot diameter irrigation pipe spanning 25 feet across a ditch, we soon found the source of the hubbub: the chattering from a stilthouse from what sounded to be a group of men having a little shindig on a Friday afternoon. I walked up the side stairs and poked my head in to say hello, confirming that indeed there were about a dozen H'mong village men aged 20 to 60 sitting around a platter on a rug over the bamboo floor eating, drinking, and laughing. As soon as I took a step in to greet them, there was a mad rush to the door to say hello, shake my hand, and usher us in to join them. Feeling like quite the celebrities, we hung out for a while with no actual words that they or we could understand but plenty still to do between my camera, their food and drink, our instruments, and of course our biceps:
-Popular while travelling is taking loads of pictures of course, but then even more fun is being able to show the photo you've just snapped to a person who has never or rarely seen instant review or their own image on the digital camera's screen. This lot was a lot more into it than usual and I went through nearly two battery's-worth of charge between all the glamour shots they took with my hijacked camera.
-Immediately after sitting me down they were intent on filling me up and I was presented with a large bowl of rice, veggies, and delicious seasoned meat that they kept refilling and washing down with the harshest and most chest-hair-putting rice wine ever. Only after my curiosity got the best of me did I gesture to ask what I was eating and was immediately regretful that I did so when a chorus of barks and woofs sounded the reply. Terra would be so mad.
-As I am prone to do, I took out the travel guitar for a few tunes and dancing, but the real treat was the oldest dude there wailing away on his 4-foot-long pan flute which produced the most enchanting and relaxing sound. Except when I tried to play it.
-When all else was done, what else is it time for but arm wrestling. Amazed by the relative massive size of our arms to theirs, they set a recycling queue to have a crack at both Ryan and I. To the background of one of the village kids pounding away on my guitar strings and the rest still dancing, we playfully dispatched one H'mong after the other until we needed to split. They were quite impressed with our strength, especially with Ryan's whose masculinity earned him an especially handsy and awkward boyfriend that wouldn't lay off his guns.Finally bidding our new friends adieu, we caught a traditional White Thai dance performance in town, and even got to participate in the stick dancing at the end where I once again proved why I am not a ballerina. We were interviewed as the token foreigners for a spot on Vietnamese TV with Dat translating and trundled back to our host family's stilt house to get cozy under the open-air mosquito nets for the night.
The driving the next morning was harder and no less exhilarating at first, my comfort with the bike increasing by the necessity of the road conditions. We made it past rocky road construction and Ryan even got a short go on a bike (handled the hog like a dream) before, an hour or two into the ride, events nearly took a turn for well the worse. It was still early in the day and especially misty, giving the air the visibility of split pea soup and the ground the traction of a wet bathroom tile floor. With Dat and Ryan ahead after I'd stopped to take some photos in a clearing, I was rounding a narrow bend with a sheer cliff to my right when, out of the fog, a bus appears, hurtling towards me, cutting the next bend off and more than halfway into my lane, nudging me towards the cliff. Now a more experienced rider would almost certainly have been able to escape the situation without incident, even despite the lousy conditions. But experience in this case I had not, and in trying to clear the formidable obstacle screaming towards me, I turned too quickly, my bike fishtailed and slipped, and I knew I was going down fast. An odd calm came over me, a million different scenarios of how this could go from here flashed through my mind instantly, and I just knew that I knew exactly what to do. On my way down, I revved the throttle once more which would usually be bad but in this case got the back wheel spinning again and, though we'd both fallen to the left, got the bike sliding ahead of me and bearing left to the far side of the front of the bus. the bus began to brake as it saw my spill unfolding but I saw that neither it nor I were going to stop before we reached each other and I was headed directly for the near front wheel of the vehicle. Instinctively I shifted my body as I kept sliding (though we have no idea how ... from the way my clothes were damaged my apparent position seems unlikely if not impossible and extremely flexible) and, just as I was near impact, and just after the bike lodged itself smack into and under the front bumper and wheel, my slide started bearing rightward and I cleared the front corner by about a foot and a half to the side, about 30 feet after my slide began.
Shaken and stirred but with the adrenaline still pumping, I got up to inspect myself and was awed by the miracle that I escaped with only a few bruises and scrapes on my elbow and knee. Ryan and Dat, soon realizing that I wasn't near, turned around and came back to the sight of a stopped bus on the road with a crowd of people poured out of it and gathered around looking down at something. They didn't see me at first as I was off to the side trying to get the bus driver to leave me alone for a second while I assessed the situation and absentmindedly plucked chunks of asphalt out of my hand. The bus driver, angry about the dent the bike left in his bumper, was trying to charge me 500,000 Vietnamese dong. I, feeling that the accident was as much his fault as mine, and knowing I'd be paying through the nose for bike repairs as well, gestured that I'd give him 50,000d but no more. Accustomed to bargaining on the streets, I began to walk away so he'd lower his price (as if I was going to go find someone else to charge me for damage to their bus at a better price!) until he pulled out his cell phone and Dat rushed over to explain to me that in Vietnam it's technically illegal for foreigners to drive (through unenforced except for in cases like this) and if the bus driver got the police here I'd end up paying the 500,000d anyhow plus more to the cop plus a fair chance I'd spent a short spell in jail. The choice clear, I stopped the mad before he could hit "Call" with a wad of cash in his hand.
Before we could formulate a new plan, we pulled the bike out from under the grille and inspected the damage. As the Minsk was beyond simple repair (though my sturdy travel guitar strapped to the back escaped with only a small rack that I sealed with indispensable clear duct tape!) we flagged down the next bus towards Hanoi, threw the bikes on top, and were greeted at the bus station by the fella from the travel cafe who told us we ought to take jeeps in the first place. To get the busted bike back to the rental/repair shop, we got two guys to help us: one to sit on the hurt hog holding down the clutch and steering, and the other to ride his own bike with his left foot on the back of the exhaust pipe of the first to push it along. Back at the shop, I paid the very nice and understanding proprietor for the repairs: broken gear box housing, bent gear shift, dented and turned wheel, semi-locked brake, almost all the lights gone save for one turned completely around the other way, and the kickstand and all the metal surrounding it simply vacant.
One adventure cut short, we were still restless for another (safer) one so we left the repair shop for the travel shop again to make arrangements to leave that night for where our bike trek would have ultimately taken us: Sapa.

Moral of the story: Every now and again we all have experiences that remind us that there's something larger and mysterious that can help deliver us from harm when we have no one to blame but our own dumb selves for situations that we find ourselves in. I am grateful that I was able to walk away with nothing more damaging than a story, I am sorry for the worry that I put my loved ones through and was rightly chewed out by my folks for it, and while I can't promise to stop seeking adventure or on occasion giving my better judgement a break while I hop on a bike, I cannot deny how lucky I am and admit that even the luckiest will run out sometime. So Baruch Hashem and rock on.
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