Into the fray

Our plan was to hone our biking skills in the Mekong Delta before embarking on the 1150 km ride up to Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi. The delta is a vast stretch of sparsely populated grassland south of Ho Chi Minh, flayed by rivers surging to the Eastern Vietnamese coast. Its most prestigious inhabitant, the Mekong river, is the largest in South-East Asia and is responsible for the livelihood of millions through industries such as agriculture and fishing.

The Minsk can be best described as an enigmatic bike. I had put the difficulties we had faced in Ho Chi Minh down to teething problems but, as we stuttered into the innocuous town of Tan An on our last vapour of patience, I realised our bikes’ mechanical problems were more deep-rooted. We had only managed 30km and the journey had been disrupted by a host of engine problems, over the next week we would visit repair shops as frequently as we would restaurants.

We commenced this tradition of repair shop visits with a grand opening ceremony, involving the rousing of a portly mechanic from his hammock in a flourish of hand gestures, directed at the motorised underbelly of our bikes. That evening, in the musky sanctitude of a local shack, we deliberated over a steaming bowl of the local cuisine Pho noodle soup, a bubbling broth which can contain anything from lemongrass to chicken’s feet, before deciding on the riverside town of Ben Tre as our next port of call.

Looks familiar?

As we set off with renewed optimism and the strained directions of a local fruit seller behind us, the scenery morphed into a mosaic of rice fields. The presence of farmers was betrayed by conical straw hats that bobbed rhythmically from the depths of the reeds. The government had clearly been busy, and at regular intervals communist flags billowed defiantly, even on the most rural of roads.

Under intense physiological pressure from our group, willing them onwards, our bikes survived all the pebbles and dips the rustic roads had to throw at them and we rolled into the next town like crusaders entering Jerusalem. During the triumphal entrance into the centre our cries of ecstasy soon turned to anguish as we began to recognise the buildings we had become acquainted with the day before. The paper lanterns that had greeted us so gracefully now sneered from their lofty perch.

Besides the cardinal error of not carrying a map, we had failed to account for the sizeable river blocking our path to Ben Tre. The road we had taken had skirted along the river nonchalantly before looping round and depositing us at our origin, all without a hint of rancour. When providing directions, the imperial sweep of the hand that locals would offer failed to account for small frivolities on the proposed route, such as crossing a 100-foot wide river. They saw their role more as compasses and pointed us in the general direction of our destination rather than consider the various obstacles we would inevitably encounter or the curvaceous nature of roads.

The Ferryman

The next day we found a gutsy villager who was willing to pit the rotting timbers of her fishing boat against our iron-hided Minsks and take us across the river. Using a small wooden plank we herded our bikes onto the creaking vessel and crossed our fingers as, sensing the magnitude of the situation, she yanked the starter chord with the ferocity of a leopard. Local ferries are the more popular option in these circumstances, but we didn’t trust our directional prowess to go on the search just yet.

Having negotiated our bikes onto the other side, we soon found ourselves in the tourist outpost of Ben Tre.  Besides a smattering of restaurants, it is a popular place to arrange homestays in local villages, where tourists stay in a villager’s house to experience the unique culture of rural life. Whilst slurping our celebratory noodle soup, we met a Vietnamese war veteran who filled our evening with tales of jungle warfare with the Vietcong before departing to sing karaoke with his wife.

The curse of Ben Tre

Our cruise from Ben Tre was cut short when we encountered a giant pond which had flooded the dirt road, its murky waters had been supplied by the decadence of nearby construction work. Spurred by the enthusiasm of local drivers, and a sizeable run up, the most audacious member of our group flew into this artificial marshland with the careless abandon of a toddler learning to ride a bike. Despite making good progress, the wheels soon became engulfed by the sand and by the halfway point he began sinking at an agonisingly slow rate. With the aid of every able bicep within a kilometre, we were able to hoist him out, but not before the sand had sabotaged the bike’s engine. From now on, in order to start that particular motorcycle, we would all have to push it along for ten metres for a running start, in the chaotic manner of a bobsleigh team.

This was the final crack that opened a floodgate of problems and, for the next five days, a series of seemingly implausible break downs to each motorcycle left our group stranded in one of Ben Tre’s spangled high rise hotels, wallowing in self-pity and the senility of our bikes. I took the opportunity to repaint my bike; it was now decked in bright red and bore the archaic hammer and sickle of communism. The steed of an officer, I told myself as we drove through wafts of innocent Vietnamese laughter, pressing onwards to Tra Vinh.

Tearing the chains

In order to escape the supernatural clutches of Ben Tre we knew it would require a Herculean effort, we roared our way towards the coast but knowing at some point that we would face the tempestuous waters of another river. As night descended our bikes started to concede to the constant strain of the journey and one broke down. With no mechanic in miles, one of our group elected to push the bike along with his foot, whilst still driving himself. By supporting his foot on the incapacitated bike’s exhaust pipe, and trusting its riders’ steering capabilities, he was able to push it tentatively along the motorway. With no working headlamps between us, I drove behind the duo to illuminate this eerie procession with a torch strapped around my helmet like a coal miner. Meanwhile the final member gallivanted ahead, searching for comprehensible, and frustratingly elusive, directions.

Our convoy crept through the mystical silence of the South Vietnamese night, and it was into the miniscule hours of the morning when we found a farmer showering naked besides his crop but, more importantly, in knowledge of a ferry crossing down the road. Because of the obvious language barrier we didn’t know if the crossing was still in operation or, for that matter, an actual crossing and not just his favourite fishing spot. Nevertheless, we were hardly in a position of strength and welcomed the rest, even if it was interrupted by the maniacal yapping of a posse of village dogs.

An hour into the wait, I began eyeing up the surrounding scenery for potential camping spots. I may have even hallucinated, seeing the flickering mirage of a Holiday Inn in the shadowy depths of a forest. Mercifully, an eternally optimistic member, who had been perched expectantly on the landing since we arrived, spotted the hulking leviathan of a ferry boat skulking through the blackened waters and we boarded it with the relief of soldiers who were being evacuated from the fiery recesses of hell.

Reassessing the journey

Whilst in the safety of Tra Vinh, and with our battered Minsks collapsed guiltily besides us, we were forced to re-evaluate the itinerary. In one week we had barely travelled 100km and what was meant to be a training exercise had turned into an epic journey comparable to Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. Despite the obvious disappointment we wanted to go out in one last flourish, our Asian testament to the charge of the light brigade- practically suicidal but a necessity as far as preserving honour was concerned. So it was then, in the smoky backroom of a local cafe that we decided upon the beach resort of Ba Dong as our final destination. This was to the crowning moment of our Mekong foray, the holy grail.

One last hurrah

And so we embarked on our symbolic dash for the coast. The rustic air somehow tasted sweeter and the rumble of our Minsks’ had an almost melodious tone. The guidebook had been sparing in its compliments for Ba Dong but I ignored this, believing there were far greater forces at work here. Unfortunately, my divine assumptions proved incorrect. The Swedish volleyball team we had imagined playing on the beach was replaced by an old man staggering through the shallows, whilst the wafts of freshly barbequed prawns was instead the stench of faeces, radiating from the cage of a dejected-looking monkey.

Without doubt, Ba Dong was the most depressing beach I had ever been to. The so-called resort was a cluster of wooden shacks facing the sea and the only attraction was a primate who had been cruelly displayed in a cage twice its size. As the only tourists ever to have been so wholly lost, it was almost like another dimension, we were regarded by the iota of other visitors with intense curiosity. However, as soon as their engines were loud enough to convince us they could tackle the journey back to Ho Chi Minh we readied our bikes for departure. We had a 150km slug ahead of us and the thankless task of selling the bikes to someone with enough patience to even attempt to drive them. Jesus perhaps.

Clouds gathered ominously in the sky and the now serpentine road wound through paddy fields and into the horizon. I had no idea if there were enough mechanics in the world to facilitate our return journey, but this had been our salvation. The glinting hands of our Minsks had plucked our band from the tediousness of a typical holiday and placed us amongst the wispy mirages of celebrated journey makers such as Che Guevarra and Jack Kerouac.  At least that is what I would tell my parents when they asked me why I wasted $400 on a lumbering death trap which would have more chance of killing me than delivering me to a destination.