Post collision, I am relieved that we have returned to Hanoi for a break. Luckily, Paul’s injuries seem to be minimal. A possible concussion, and some pretty heavy bruising on his collarbone and shoulder. Not great, of course, but all things considered, it could have been a lot worse. We are all quite aware of that.
We rehash the day and learn a few things. Firstly, that Michael did come back for me and when he was unable to find me, had come to the same “every man for himself” conclusion that I had. Second, that while I thought Paul was able to track my progress via Michael’s live location, that wasn’t true. Evidently Michael’s location sharing had ended – oops. Paul spent that half hour (or more?) sitting on the pavement with no idea where either of us were. Storm brewing over Hanoi, just hoping that we would arrive.
The guys keep asking me what “my” plans are. Michael has plans to go to Laos, Paul will leave Hanoi as soon as he is better. As for me, I don’t quite know what to say. If anything, I feel even more strongly now that it is wise to ride in a group. I can’t imagine how a situation like that would unfold if you were alone. I want to wait until Paul is better and leave with him, but the fact that they continue to ask makes me uneasy. Maybe he would prefer to go on his own after all? Somehow I don’t quite dare to ask.
I spend our first full day in Hanoi arranging a few things for the trip. I buy better bungee cords. With these, getting my pack on and off my bike will be way faster. It will make filling up my gas much easier. I also buy a more comfortable helmet. It’s wider, making me feel less claustrophobic, and still has the safety of full face coverage.
Paul comes with me and afterwards we grab some beers. We sit along Hanoi’s famous train street, watching tourists engage in elaborate photo shoots. We talk about our travels, both past and present. We talk about his experiences working in Australia. We talk a lot of shit – you do recall those photo shoots I just mentioned, right?
Finally, we talk about the ride. He asks me – again- what my plans are. I am honest. I tell him that I would still very much like to do the ride with him. I ask if that’s something he would be okay with. He says absolutely. “But what if it takes days before my arm feels better?”
“Then it will take days.”
That’s the last we speak of it, really. I feel relieved and all of a sudden the questions about my plans are bathed in a different light. What I worried was a change of mind was actually just an attempt to be mindful of my own independence. Mindfulness of the fact that I could go if I wanted to and there would be no hard feelings.
It’s funny how humans work, isn’t it?
That evening the three of us go out for food. Paul tells us that he actually thinks his arm is feeling good enough for us to leave tomorrow. We’ve only been back in Hanoi for a day now, and I wonder whether that’s a good idea. I ask whether he’s sure. Michael asks whether he’s sure. The answer is yes, and I decide not to question it. If he says he is ready, then he’s ready.
“You know what this means, though? Tonight’s our last night together.”
We decide to go out for drinks. We spend the rest of the evening drinking copious amounts of beer, whisky and gin. We laugh and laugh and though I feel my nerves for tomorrow’s drive coming back, I soak up a night of good liquor and even better company. We go to bed drunk and happy, with plans to leave at 10 am.
The moment I wake up, the pounding in my head tells me I definitely had a few too many drinks last night. My brain hurts. I pack my bag again and I suppose the only good thing about being this hung over is that I already feel nauseous which means heading back into that traffic can’t have that effect on me anymore – Silver linings; I’ll take ’em where I can get ’em.
I take my things downstairs and receive a text from Paul: “11 instead?” Yes thank you, I don’t think I can do this right now. I get to thinking that if I go back to my bed, however, I will not wake up for hours. Michael shows up and is eager for a ride – seems mad to me. Why on earth would you willingly drive in this traffic? We decide we should probably use the time to go to the gas station and fill up Elektra’s tank. We’ll go together. I honestly hate the idea of being in that traffic, but I hate the feeling of running out of gas even more.
As I weave in and out of traffic I find that focusing on the drive actually distracts me from how horrible I feel. Soon we are on the main road and the thrill of participating in this traffic takes over. I begin to feel alive. Michael runs me through the hand signals they have used while on the road. Signals for “time for a break,” “let’s talk,” “your indicator is on,” and of course a signal for when someone on the road is being an idiot. I won’t explain the last one but suffice it to say that it isn’t one you’d show your grandmother.
We get back to Republik and Paul is just about ready. Loading my pack onto the bike is much easier this time and as I place my new helmet on my head I feel much more confident. Still shitting myself, obviously. But shitting confidently.
We all set off together. Michael wants to drive the first hour with us, just for the company. Our formation cruises through Hanoi but as we begin to reach the main road that will take us out of the city, it starts to rain. This is it for Michael, then. No point in driving along in the rain, not when it’s meant for fun.
We put on our plastic ponchos and say our goodbyes. I’ve really only known him for four days by now, but having to say goodbye feels like a shame. We all say that we hope to meet again down south. I really hope that we will.
Paul and I ride on and I feel a sort of grim determination take over. Riding in the rain feels different. In addition to the fear of crashing I am now also afraid of skidding out on the wet road. I am also suddenly happy that I have gloves and this silly poncho to wear.
By the time we have left the city proper, the rain lets up. We pass the site of Paul’s crash just two days before. I don’t look at it. We ride and ride, taking very few breaks. We don’t even stop for lunch. I’m not sure whether it is the hangover or the fact that this is our second time riding this road, but we both seem to want to just keep going.
We ride alongside the train tracks and I can feel the road beneath me rumble each time one goes past. Trucks zoom past us with no abandon. I am extra cautious anytime I overtake them. I catch my first glimpse of open fields and palm trees. I experience my first ride on a larger highway.
Somewhere along the highway, a man rides his motorbike in the opposite direction – as happens so often out here. As he turns into a side street, another bike pulls out and they collide. He flies – boom, another rag doll. No hesitation, Paul stops and is immediately off his bike to help him up. I pull up and see the locals watching him in awe. I also see the blood on the man’s face. My mouth suddenly tastes metallic.
Once we see that he is alright and being taken care of, we continue, though we decide on a break quite immediately. We drink warm Coca Colas and are rather quiet. “Fuck. Ok let’s slow down a bit, okay?” I am grateful that he says it. Seeing another accident so soon clearly hits too close to home.
We continue on and soon enough reach our destination: Ninh Binh. We stop for coffee and to look up a hostel in Trang An. A girl we met in Hanoi recommended it to us, and as it’s only a few kilometers away (and I am uninterested in visiting Tam Coc again), we are going to find her.
It is once we cross a bridge that I know we have come to the right place. Limestone karsts rise up above and all around me. The road is smooth and curved, snaking its way between the rocks. We ride through a tunnel in the rock and Paul revs his engine. As the sound bounces off the wall and I see the light up ahead, I am whooping in my helmet.
We pass through another tunnel. I feel the rev of the engine and the weight of the mountain above. I feel absolutely electric.
I am also ready for our first beer and to say the words:
“Cheers. We did not die today.”