The Minsk Dies (Lost in Central Vietnam)

The bike died three days later.  Actually, it died three times within three days, but each day I refused to give up on The Minsk.  I did all I could to bring her back to life, but my efforts were in vain.  I was putting band-aids on a corpse.

I’m no doctor, but I knew something major was wrong with The Minsk.  For some reason the electrical coils in the engine were melting and subsequently the engine died from lack of power.  I rolled her to the nearest farmer’s house, and we sipped tea and gave The Minsk a good look-over.  Yep, we concluded, she is a piece of shit.

The same problem occurred three days in a row.  On the first two days I had to push my bike through the jungle to the nearest mechanic, then wait all day while he drove for two hours to the nearest city to buy the parts, two hours back, two hours to fix it…then, as the clock struck 11 PM, he handed me a bill that was approaching the value of the bike itself.

So for two consecutive nights, I slept in small villages with local families while I waited for my bike to be repaired.  These priceless “homestay” experiences are something most travelers pay for (myself included, see Tomfoolery in the Mekong Delta).  But with The Minsk, I had no alternative.  I transcended the realm of mass-tourism and experienced a form of hospitality that has not existed in the West since the days of horse travel.  Lost, weary, and alone in the darkness, they took me in their homes without question, fed me a warm meal, made me a bed on the floor next to the rest of the family, and sent me on my way the next morning without speaking a word of the same language.

On the third day, The Minsk died about 50 km from civilization, deep in the heart of a remote valley near the Laos border.  I stood at the foot of a towering grey cliff surrounded by tall, skinny palm trees, short stocky ferns, broad leafed bushes, and screams of a thousand jungle animals.  The nearest town was too far away – I would have to wait for a semi-truck to pick me up.

I waited for two hours and not a single truck passed by.  Finally, a big lorry swung around the bend and stopped next to my bike.  We lashed the Minsk to the back of the truck and the drivers took me to the nearest town, cruising in low gear up the mountain passes and jammin’ a playlist ranging from Dancing Queen to Vietnamese techno songs.

We arrived at the next town two hours later, and the drivers helped me take my bike off of the trailer, then wished me good luck and took off down the road.  I tracked down the local mechanic, but he said he was too drunk to fix my bike that night.  Another kind family took me into their home and the mechanic fed me glass after glass of rice whiskey with the other locals.

As much as was I cherishing these experiences, I had to face the facts: the mechanical problems were becoming increasingly expensive and time consuming, I had less than a week on my visa and still 500 km of winding roads to Hanoi.  I had to make a cost/benefit analysis of my situation.  I pulled out a pen and paper and did some calculations – if the bike broke down again, I would have to pay a truck driver to drive me and the bike over 500 km to Hanoi, then pay a mechanic to fix this major problem, then extend my visa just to have enough time to sell the bike.  It was an expensive prospect.  I decided that if it broke down one more time, I would have to abandon the bike and hitchhike to Hanoi.

The next morning I woke up in the morning to hear the mechanic zipping past my host’s home on my motorbike.  Thank God, I thought, maybe this time he fixed it for good.  He was laughing gleefully, and he pulled up to the front door, dismounted, wrote something in the sand, and beckoned me to take a look.

$200 – the cost of repair.  The bike was not worth more than $125.  So he wanted to play hardball, eh?

Ok, amigo, let’s tango.

I low-balled him an offer of 100,000 Dong, or about $6 (which was the ‘local price’ for the basic repair).  He was furious!  He slashed his price to $50.  Quite a discount, but it was still highway robbery.  I offered him 100,000 Dong again.  He sparked a cigarette and stomped around in anger, insisting that I pay $50.  Again, I offered him 100,000 Dong.  He started screaming at everyone in Vietnamese then stared at me deep in the eyes.  I thought he was going to punch me in the face.  I pushed out the 100,000 Dong note again.

Then something strange occurred.  He grabbed the money, and instantly the anger disappeared from his face.  He pulled me by the arm to the nearest restaurant, ordered a full chicken for breakfast and about 8 beers.  It was 8 AM.  The cook of the restaurant grabbed a massive pair of scissors and chopped up an entire chicken (head and all) then slammed the poor mutilated bird down before us.  The mechanic forced beer and chicken down my throat until I finally had to escape the table before he got me too drunk to drive.  I thanked everyone for their hospitality, kick-started the bike, and rode off towards Hanoi.

Or so I thought.  The bike died 20 km later.  I was riding through an intensely beautiful jungle valley, when a loud BANG- BANG- BANG!!! exploded from the tailpipe, the throttle went slack, and the bike slowly rolled to the side of the rode and stopped.  Just the silence of the empty road and the singing of the crickets.  I had progressed only 130 km in 3 days.  It was time to say goodbye to The Minsk.

“Minsky,” I said, “why are you doing this to me?  Why won’t you just work?  Please, please, please, just get me to Hanoi, nothing more!”  I was nearly insane with frustration at this point and talking to a motorcycle seemed perfectly sensible.  The Minsk said nothing.  I screamed at the jungle and karate kicked The Minsk.  “Ah, you bloody Russian-made-fifth-grade-science-project-third-place-piece-of-crap-lawnmower-of-a-motorbike!  I’m through with you!”

The Minsk stared back at me with her bleary headlights, coughed a cloud of blue smoke from the exhaust, and spoke to me in a fading breath.

Mark, don’t be angry with me.  I can go no further.  I am old, I am weary from the road, and it is time for me to rest my bones.  Oh, how many years I have done this journey, from Hanoi to Saigon, Saigon to Hanoi and back again!  It’s always the same – some foolish tourist tries to cram a  five-week journey into the three weeks left on his visa, red-lining the engine, making only enough repairs to get them to Hanoi, then dumping me on another wide-eyed kid looking for adventure…now look at me.  I’m a mess, kaput, finito!

“Ah, Misnky, you are right.   You were not designed for the tropic heat, and you need major repairs, but it’s more than I can afford at this time.  So tell me, what should I do?”

Leave me here, in the farmland, with the people.  This is where I belong, with my fellow comrades.  I want to spend my last days near the rice paddies carrying rice to the market, not flying down Highway 1 with a new neophyte driver every month.  I need someone to love me, to wash me each week, to tighten my bolts and polish my headlight.  Leave me here, and travel onwards, young vagabond. 

It was difficult to say goodbye, but I swallowed my tears, duck taped the key to the gas tank, and left old Minsky on the side of the road for whichever farmer found her first.  For some poor farmer, the bike would be a tremendously valuable asset – to me, just another week’s worth of travel money.  I waved goodbye to my “dependably unreliable” Minsk, and walked down the road.

I hitchhiked off the Ho Chi Minh Trail, back to Vinh on Highway 1 and caught a local bus north.  Instantly, I felt the loss of my freedom – once again I had to pay for taxis and buses.  My actions were limited by Prices and Schedules.  Furthermore, I had lost my special status in the eyes of the Vietnamese: I was no longer the Intrepid Traveler on a Minsk, now I was Just Another Tourist, same as the rest.

I rode the bus to Hanoi and looked out the window, holding my now useless helmet in my hands, reluctant to let go of my adventure.  I knew my decision was rational, but still I felt as though I had abandoned a dream on the roadside, as if Time and Money had overwhelmed my mind and blinded me to the true nature of my journey.  I felt as though I had given up on myself.

But deep down inside, I knew that I was only confusing the true source of regret – that my motorcycle adventure had finally come to an end.  I knew I had chased my dream as far as I could go, that I had given up on nothing.  All good things must come to an end, and the journey simply ended when it did.

It had been quixotic and chaotic, a beautifully romantic journey chock full of youthful bliss, folly and pure adventure.  My frustration vanished and a smile swept across my face.  My adventure was over, but for the first time in my life I had tasted the sweet elixir of genuine freedom.  Freedom had slipped through my fingers this time, but I promised myself to find again and never let it go.  I realized just how much freedom ‘normal life’ lacks – shouldn’t we always be as free as a 23-year old kid on a motorcycle?  Probably.  I will let you know once I’ve figured out the secret to Endless, Boundless, Freedom.

I stared out the window for hours, and soon the lights and traffic of the big city rose over the horizon.  A few hours later, I was standing in a beautiful park in the cultural heart of Vietnam – the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

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