Old Jerry screams out in pain. He begs me to stop. He’s not whining anymore, he’s howling.
I don’t let up, I can’t. I ram him into continuing but he’s caving with agony and
desperation. I recoil as I am hit with a thick waft of fear and melting plastic before he
splutters to a halt, throwing us both to the mercy of the rocky mudslide. Locked together
we tumble, as if eternally entangled in some filthy macabre dance that would no doubt be
our last. We skid several meters down the cliff-face before my heels finally grind us both to
a halt. We lie there a while in static embrace, too fearful to move. I breathe deeply, panic
slowly morphing into regret, denial, tears. Stranded in the Vietnamese wilderness. Dusk is
approaching. The first specks of rain hiss as they slap Jerry’s fuel tank with crescendoing
fury. They run off my face and hit the already slippery mud-fest of a mountain that Google
Maps had the cheek to call a road. A storm is coming. I close my eyes and I can feel it in my
gut. The vultures are circling, and they are starving.
As far as travel writing goes, this is far from the normal, motivational ‘time of your life’
type story about how great it was to jump into some hidden waterfall in Thailand. It’s
true what they say, while travelling you will probably have some of the best and the
worst experiences of your life. With that in mind, riding a motorbike up the length of
Vietnam is an undertaking you should erase from your bucket list now. Stop reading this
article immediately, take what you’ve already read as a warning and forget you ever
heard about it. It is a mission for only the severely reckless and misguided.
My companion on this inadvisable pilgrimage was Jerry. Jerry is a Yamaha Nouvo.
Nouvo comes from the French word Nouveau, which means new or fashionable. Jerry is
neither new nor fashionable. He is one of the oldest models I’ve seen in South East Asia,
breaks down constantly and is scuffed and bruised to buggery from various crashes.
Also he is an automatic. This is important. Automatics are terrible on hills.
Our nightmare begins at an oddly peaceful juncture. I had been staying in a home-stay
nestled in the incredibly tranquil and remote ‘Ba Bể’ national park. With quite a drive
ahead of me I set off early in search of the natural wonders that exist in Hà Giang
province, up on the Chinese border. I was on schedule, and stopped for a beer at a
beautiful little mom-and-pop shop overlooking a wide-open field with statuesque
turrets of rock darting out from the waist-high crops. It was blissful, serene. If I had died
that night at least I would have had that moment to return to as my eyes closed and my
muddy corpse rolled down to the dirt and the rocks in the valley below.
I paid for my beer and trooped on. The road got worse and worse, turning from tarmac
to dust track to rock and then to mud; slowly thinning until my two wheels barely fit the
breadth of the path. I figured it couldn’t get much worse than this and the road would
improve soon but as I trundled down a rocky cliff edge that a professional mountain
biker would have struggled with, I realised the gravity of my situation. I got to the
bottom and gazed back up the way I had come. My escape route was now sealed. I had
managed the perilous drive down but going back up would be impossible. I had no other
choice than to trudge forward.
Gradually, tentatively, I carved my way along the path, trying to keep it together.
Compartmentalising my journey: ‘just make it round the next bend Hugo, it’ll sort itself
out soon enough.’ It didn’t. Arms rigid, knuckles white, I cruised around a tight corner,
only having to brake suddenly as I nearly crashed into a gaggle of Vietnamese teenage
boys. These were the first humans I had seen for a fair few hours, but their prescience
did not come as a relief. A plume of smoke billowed out of one of their gaping jaws as
they silently regarded me with eyes filled with dull anger and menace. ‘Alright Lads’ I
muttered, as I squeezed my bike past them. We were about as far North as you can go in
Vietnam, and far, far away from civilisation. These were proper countryside kids. They’d
probably never seen a whitey before. Perhaps they’d only heard about us from an
elderly grandparent, who had told them horror stories about the war and the white
devils that invaded, killed maimed and pillaged. Jesus, I thought, maybe they don’t even
know the war has ended, maybe this remote community has been in hiding for
generations. As soon as I got past them they started to chatter. Then they started to
shout. Then I heard engines revving and they were on my tail, screaming like banshees,
hurtling towards me in the early dusk.
I gunned the engine. What a way to go, I panicked, hacked to death in a grisly valley by
blood-hungry Vietcong juniors. I’m not even a damn Yank; ‘I’m just a Brit!’ I wanted to
scream, but I knew that shouting at them in English would only antagonise them
further. They would never find the body. I would just be another backpacker gone
missing somewhere in Asia. Would they report it? A mystery never to be solved. My
mother wailing on BBC southwest news, pleading for information while my remains are
fed to the pigs? Perhaps I’d end up in a bowl of phở bò. The meat in that broth is
dubious at best. I flew over potholes and mud-clumps in an effort to escape, praying
Jerry, my trusty steed, would not let me down now. One of them bumped my back wheel
and we jolted forward, the bike swaying but not quite tipping. I heard mad cackling
behind me. They were tormenting me. I slammed the accelerator to full throttle and
shot through the wildness as fast as I could, my heart in my throat and brain intoxicated
on a cocktail of frenzied self-preservation and savage survival instinct. Eventually the
shouts and ghastly giggles faded. They had had their fun and given up the chase. Jerry
and I were alone once more. It was soon after this, with darkness looming, that we
trundled over to an ominous dirt track leading up a mountain. This was to be the final
obstacle. I could sense that this harsh slope would lead us back to civilisation, back to
safety and out of this cursed valley. But it wasn’t going to be easy.
I listen to my breath. In, out, in, out. It’s slowing. That’s good. I’m still alive. That’s also
good. If I want that to continue I have to think logically. First step, is Jerry still alive. I free
myself from under him, steady my feet on the slope and try to get him upright. No, I can’t,
too heavy. He skids down another few meters. My bag is on Jerry’s luggage rack, all my
worldly possessions; they’re weighing him down. Take it off. I inch back down to the bike,
kneel behind it and slowly unhook the bungees. I heave the bag off and place it to one side.
Right, try again. I get him upright. The engine starts. Good. I don’t need my bag, I can get
more clothes; maybe he’ll be all right with some of the weight gone? No. He struggles up a
few inches, wheezing and gasping for breath, then the stench of burning plastic comes
back tenfold. Dammit. Okay Hugo what are your options. You walk up with just your bag;
abandon Jerry. No, you don’t know what’s up there. It could be miles until you reach the
nearest town. Go all the way back the way you came? No. You went down that massive hill
remember? That’s going to be just as bad as this one. Besides you don’t have enough petrol
and there’s nowhere to fill up. Petrol. I hadn’t thought of that. Shit. I’m done for. Keep
breathing. Think. If you can’t go up you have to go down. I think I saw a couple of farm
shacks somewhere along the way. God knows how far. Maybe they have a tool kit or
something? Someone who can help? Bollocks to it, it’s all I’ve got. I push Jerry down to the
bottom. Then march back up for my bag. The rain is starting to pick up. I don’t have long
before the mud-slope becomes a waterfall.
I got to the bottom, pushed the bike a while, but there wasn’t a house in sight. I
collapsed on the ground. Filthy, drained, exhausted. I curled into a ball, eyes wide, hair
matted with dirt, cheek pressed against the soggy ground. I was there for many
moments before the ground started faintly to vibrate… then I heard an engine. I rose
slowly from the ground like a man stranded for years on a desert island, unsure if the
foghorn of a nearby ship is a dream or a mirage. Waving madly regardless, with the
final, desperate hope of a poor, pathetic creature: half-mad, half-dead, and wholly