The 11 Hour Day

Nhon Hai turns out to be another easy place to get stuck, and though we are very tempted to stay, we force ourselves to move on. Chuck, the incredibly hospitable manager of our hostel, has recommended Doc Let as our next stop, so that is exactly where we go.

On February 11th we ride the 195 kilometers to Doc Let, all along the coastal QL1A. The drive is beautiful but it is at times infuriating. The QL1A is incredibly congested and the speed of the trucks and sleeper buses passing us by creates gusts of wind that very nearly knock us off our bikes. We are grateful when we arrive in Doc Let and have our first beer of the evening – cheers, we did not die today. We send out an update to Paul, who tells us he has arrived in Mui Ne.

Per usual, we spend the next minutes reliving our first ride together, how much we miss Paul and how we want to see him again. We talk in circles, really, but as the beer flows we finally say it: we want to go find Paul and surprise him. Now.

It’s 267 kilometers from Doc Let to Mui Ne, which is a full 8 hour day on the bike (at least). Ambitious, but technically possible. It would mean, however, skipping Dalat which would be a shame as the city is meant to be quite beautiful, but even more so because the drive into Dalat is said to be spectacular. And so we make our plan even more ridiculous. We will set off early and drive the 167 kilometers to Dalat. We will eat lunch there and then continue south another 154 kilometers towards Mui Ne for a grand total of 321 kilometers. It is ludicrous, but we are both too excited to let that stop us.

We set out early in the morning on February 12th, sharing our location as usual. We will keep our location sharing going until we reach Dalat, at which point we will turn it off so that Paul cannot see that we have kept driving. Genius, right? Right.

We take less breaks than usual, pushing ourselves so we may get to Dalat as fast as possible. We stop for a quick roadside banh mi in the area of Nha Trang and then head inland towards Dalat. As we ride, I begin to understand why people have said the road is beautiful. Dalat is located at 1,500 meters above sea level, so getting to the city means a slow climb up beautiful mountain roads. The views are, for lack of a better word, spectacular. We take a few breaks to take photos and to yell screams of joy into the void, but we try not to lose too much time.

Over the course of the past days, we have slowly shed our layers as we’ve headed south into the sun and heat. As we drive up the mountains into Dalat, however, it gets colder again. We put our jackets on and soon it begins to rain. Next, mist comes rolling in. It thickens the air around us until all of a sudden, gone are the blue skies and sunshine of a few minutes ago. Instead, we are being pelted by thick sheets of rain and we can barely see a few meters ahead of us. Bikers and cars alike have turned on their headlights, but with visibility this low, it’s not enough. Many of us turn our indicators on as well, the yellow blinking alerting us to one our proximity to each other. It is no longer a pleasant ride.

To make matters worse, I can see my fuel dwindling. We have accounted for the right number of kilometers, but as we weren’t aware it would be such a climb getting up into Dalat, my fuel has been going down faster. We still have 60 kilometers to go, and neither of us are sure I will make it. Between that and the rain, continuing to Dalat is beginning to seem quite silly. After all, what’s the point of continuing on for another hour with no visibility if the whole point of the drive was the views? After a quick discussion along the side of the road, both of us screaming over the noise of the rain, we turn around.

Down we go from the cold, wet darkness back down into the sun. I accelerate sparingly, instead using the incline to build my speed naturally and save on fuel. As we drive down, we see other backpackers riding up the mountain in their t-shirts and tank tops. Good luck with that.

By the time we reach the bottom of the mountain, we are soggy, cold, hungry and a bit miserable. We also need to figure out a new route to Mui Ne, and by now it’s already almost lunch time. Fuck. We stop for noodle soup. That always makes things better. I take off some of my soggy clothes and we lounge in hammocks while we warm up and check the map for a new route. Unfortunately, it looks like there is no alternate route. We will have to drive the +/- 120 kilometers back towards Nha Trang to get back onto the QL1A. Fuuuuck.

We decide to turn off our location sharing here. Paul will be worried, of course, having seen us drive to Dalat, turn back and stop randomly alongside the road. We laugh at how angry he will be with us later for making him worry, and with that idea in our minds we hop on our bikes. We only get a couple hundred meters when Michael runs into some trouble with Jackie. He loses power and soon shudders to a stop. Jackie has died and we can’t get her started again. Great. I’ve barely gotten off my bike to go help him when a Vietnamese man comes riding by, offering to help. Thank god. We have barely said thank you before he hops off his bike, pulls a tool out of his pocket and gets to work. As he jiggles this and hits that, I study him, thinking that for some reason he looks familiar. Strange.

“No good,” he says, and tells Michael he knows of a mechanic nearby. Michael puts Jackie in neutral and the man pushes him along. I follow, laughing at our misfortune and savoring the kindness this man is showing us by helping us like this. We arrive at the shop and as we park the bike it turns out that this man himself is the mechanic. My laughter fades. All of a sudden, something about this doesn’t feel right.

All of a sudden, I realize why he looks so familiar. When we were at the noodle shop, he had come tearing into the parking lot. He had parked his bike unnecessarily close to ours and proceeded to study ours closely.  At one point he looked like he had dropped something, and as he stood he touched Jackie in a moment that felt unnatural, but that was so brief that you don’t think about it twice.

It suddenly seems like no coincidence that Jackie, for the first time ever, would malfunction. It seems like no coincidence that this very man would be riding along on a regular day, equipped with tools to repair motorcycles with. Something about this situation begins to scream *scam.*

I am proven right a moment or two later when he has another look at Jackie and begins to list off the parts that need replacing, and telling us the price. The parts and prices vary, and he quotes us anywhere between $30 and $70 for the repairs. I call bullshit. This is not our first rodeo, I know that the price for small repairs is rarely higher than $5.

I am suddenly immensely grateful that Michael and I share another language, because I am able to speak freely. I speak Dutch to him and tell him about what I’ve seen and what I think is going on. I tell him that I don’t think we should let the mechanic continue with the repairs. We agree that we are not about to back down.

What followed was an incredibly frustrating process of bargaining and arguing. It is not a process I am going to detail, but it is enough to say that there was a lot of cursing on mine and Michael’s parts, and a lot of yelling in Vietnamese on the man’s. We bought a (used) spark plug (which we were overcharged for) for Jackie and as soon as her engine started, we got the hell out of there.

Shortly after, we stopped for a break to scream, yell and fume at being ripped off. We also finally figured out what had likely happened. The mechanic must have flipped Jackie’s fuel switch at the noodle shop, which is why Michael was able to ride a short distance before the fuel cut and we got stuck. When the man first “inspected” her alongside the road, he had given the spark plug a tap with the tool,  breaking it and requiring us to buy a new spark plug. Had we not known enough or been quick enough, he would have had us buy a whole lot more.

As we ride back to Nha Trang and then down towards Mui Ne, my anger fades and is replaced by pure, utter exhaustion. I am beginning to wonder whether we can actually make it all the way to Mui Ne or whether we are pushing our luck. We have been on the road for 8 hours and still have a long way to go. We stop for a can of Coke and I am ready to tell Michael that this is it, I want to stop here. But as the caffeine kicks in and I think of seeing Paul again, I convince myself that we can do it.

We push on and I find myself thinking that as far as rides go, this is truly a brutal one. Sitting on the bike has become so excruciating for my butt and legs that I find myself standing up at times, just to keep the blood flow going. I look over and see Michael doing the same, knowing that we are both suffering. Nonetheless, the kilometers fall away behind us and we find ourselves getting closer and closer to Mui Ne. We reach the sand dunes and as the sun sets over the dunes and we know how close we are to seeing Paul again, we are absolutely euphoric.

The road is stunning (as most Vietnamese roads are) and we race the setting sun to Paul’s hostel. We pull up into the parking lot and as we dismount and stretch our legs, he spots us from the balcony. Damn. Before we are able to pull ourselves together for much of a surprise, he is downstairs looking positively stunned. He’s the first to speak and of course he keeps his cool, the way only Paul can, saying: “you motherfuckers” as he shakes his head and represses a smile. 

We are a mess of hugs and helmets, and I am jumping up and down while Paul and Michael laugh, and we tell Paul about our day, and we marvel at how we’ve been on the road for 11 hours, and “holy shit, it’s been 358 kilometers,” and “we are crazy,” AND:

I am filled with so much joy that my body can hardly house it.

We unpack and go upstairs. Paul goes out to grab us some beers while we wash our faces and settle in and soon enough we are all in his room together, backpacks strewn all over the floor, saying by far my favorite thing:

“Cheers, we did not die today.”

2 thoughts on “The 11 Hour Day

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