A Rude Awakening (Mui Ne-> Nha Trang, Vietnam)

Day Two on the Road was a rude awakening.  Zeus lifted his aegis of protection and exposed me to the elements of nature and the elements of motorcycle mechanics.  Ahh, but the day started off in such a pleasant manner…

I awoke early the next morning feeling rested and ready to tackle the second leg of my journey.  After a strong Vietnamese coffee and a baguette I jumped on The Minsk and, after 15 tries, got her started and pulled onto Highway 1.

My destination was still undecided, but there were two logical options – to the beach town of Nha Trang or to Dalat, a hill station high in Vietnam’s central highlands.  I did not have to make the decision immediately, so I drove along the coastal highway and postponed my decision for 150 kilometers.

I could barely concentrate on driving – the coast was incredible.  I was the only motorist on the road and for hours I putted along deserted beaches and the blue ocean beyond.  It looked like the stretch of the PCH around San Luis Obispo in California.  I passed a section of coast where sand dunes soared into sky, red and white against the clear blue sky.  I curved along the ocean until about noon and then the road cut inward through boulder-strewn hills and wide green plains.  With no one else on the road, the sun shining on my face and the wind whipping through my hair and scarf, it was impossible to wipe the smile from my face!  How wonderful it felt, to be young, free, and without a care in the world!

Then the bike began the first of many “hiccups” – the countless breakdowns that would plague my journey from Saigon to Hanoi.  No worries, I reassured myself, You took autoshop in high school with the legendary Coach Davis; you should be able to fix anything…

Well, all I could remember at time were the words of Coach Davis, Use your ears, Mark.  Listen to the rattles and vibrations the car makes – that is how you find the problems with the machine.  Well, Coach Davis, if you are reading this, please tell me what the hell I am supposed to do when the whole damn bike is nothing more than one gigantic rattling vibration?!?!?   That day I discovered that The Minsk is “dependably unreliable,” and I would have to fix her a lot on this trip.

My bike only broke down a few times that day, and I got in an excellent workout while trying to start the bike in the scorching heat.  When kick starting The Minsk failed, I tried to push-start her by putting her in first gear and pushing the bike along the road while trying to kick start her.  This was a horrible idea.  I lost my breath and ultimately slipped, knocked the bike on her side, and fell over her into a ditch.  Gasoline poured from the engine all over my hands and jeans.  I decided to find a mechanic to help me start my bike.

I thought my adventure would be like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and though I was starting to feel the Zen vibes, I was completely incapable of repairing motorcycles.  I needed professional help.

It seems like every other person in the countryside is a motorcycle mechanic.  I had to get help starting the bike three times that day, and each time a man would appear from nowhere and offer to help me.  Unfortunately, a man’s knowledge of The Minsk is inversely proportional to their knowledge of English.  Therefore, these crack mechanics are unable to explain to me what is wrong with my bike, and I, being a native English speaker, am incapable of fixing The Minsk.

These mechanical failures were successes in many ways – I was constantly mingling with the local Vietnamese.  Each time my bike broke down in a small town I spent an hour conversing with the locals in broken English, Vietnamese and pantomime.  I am learning Vietnamese out of necessity, and while other travelers are learning the words for rice, noodles, and cold beer, I am learning how to ask for motor oil or how to explain that my spark plug is kaput.

I approached the freeway junction in the early afternoon – Dalat in the mountains to the north-west or Nha Trang on the coast to the north-east.  A pretty girl wanted to meet me in Dalat, but Zeus narrowed my options for me.  Day One had been nothing but clear skies, but on Day Two he whipped up a furious storm that hovered over the mountains to the west and poured rain across the valley below.  The road to Dalat was blocked, my rendezvous was canceled, and I had no choice but to race against Zeus’ storm clouds and try to make it to Nha Trang before the weather closed in.

Zeus beat me; I could not outrun his storm.  The wind howled down the distant mountains, across the green rice paddies and up onto the highway.  The sun disappeared, the sky turned a dark grey and the wind was pushing my bike off the road.  But I pushed onward until the late afternoon when it started pouring rain down upon my head.  It was if the entire South China Sea was falling from the sky.  I took shelter from the storm under a tree in front of a small roadside convenience store.

I stood under the train as the rain fell down harder and harder, and the sky turned darker and darker.  The rain did not abate, but instead it intensified as nightfall came.  I began to think that buying the bike had been naïve and that I had not fully considered how difficult it would be.  I was correct.

Then an old man popped his head out from the nearby store and beckoned me to come over to his store.  He spoke no English, but he was clearly offering me to come inside and have dinner with his family.  I readily accepted.

In the Mekong Delta, I had paid money for an “authentic” homestay, but after buying The Minsk it seemed that my entire journey had become one giant Authentic Experience.  I sat in the middle of a three-generation family, while the mother ladled soup into my bowl, the grandmother rolled me spring rolls, the men struggled to communicate with me, and the children stared at me in awe and giggled incessantly.  After two hours of eating, talking, and laughing, it was still raining heavily but I knew it would not stop anytime soon.  It was now monsoon season – if I waited for the rains to stop, I would be waiting until October.  They packed me up a bag of mangoes and waved goodbye as I pushed off onto the highway in the rainy night.

I rode for an hour and a half in the rain and finally arrived in Nha Trang.  I was soaked to the bone and exhausted from the long drive – I had been traveling for 12 hours – so the hotel staff took pity on me and discounted a room from $15 to $5.  It was the nicest room I have stayed in thus far: free WiFi, flat screen TV, hot water, a private bathroom, and a big, white comfortable bed – all the luxuries I had forgone while traveling.  I took a warm shower, turned on HBO, and sunk into a deep sleep.

I spent two days in Nha Trang relaxing on the beach and reading books.  I had no energy to attempt anything more.  After buying The Minsk, I have no need to do any sightseeing because I see more than enough on the bike.  I do not feel the urge to get off the tourist track because I spent all day on the bike searching for civilization.  Now more than ever, it is truly about the Journey, not the Destination.

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