Nhat Ky Xe means “Motorcycle Diary” in Vietnamese. I will post my journal from the 12 day adventure in the mountains of northern Vietnam in chunks over the next few days. This is the first installment.
Nhat Ky Xe Day 1: Hanoi -> Muong Village Approx. 60km
As of this morning, our departure date & time were still up in there air. I called Hiep before lunch and he said he was ready to go, so we met up and walked to a motorbike rental place Michael had found a couple days ago. The bikes are owned by an old, nervous Vietnamese lady. She was (rightfully) very suspicous of us and needed to be assured that we were not going to take the bikes far from Hanoi; leaving the province was out of the question! Hiep helped smooth things over and we took the bikes after leaving Michael’s passport and a $10 deposit.
We were each now equipped with a fearsome, rugged, mountain-eating beast. 100cc’s of pure muscle. A few days of back-breaking unpaved mountain trails? Piece of cake.
Hiep has been on many trips through the north and knows the roads well. He promised us that our mighty Honda Wave Alphas would carry us gracefully along the main highways as far as Sa Pa in Lao Cai province. The roads east from there, however, would require a “real” bike like the mighty Minsk. Our initial plan then was to drive with Hiep for the first 2 days until Mai Chau, when he would return to Hanoi and we would continue to Sa Pa over 5 more days, then take the train home from Lao Cai. Plans change.
We drove west out of Hanoi toward a small Muong village where we were to spend the night. On the way we stopped at a large indoor public swimming pool and had a swim, enjoying the you’re-not-from-around-here attention we would get used to over the next few days. We rode slowly all afternoon, taking in the scenery and trying to learn the finer points of Vietnamese traffic law. I learned that there are no finer points of Vietnamese traffic law. Yield to anything larger than yourself (everything), honk your horn at anything with ears (and everything else, too), and try not to die. Easy.
The village (the name of which no one could come up with) is only about 60km from Hanoi. It is home to a few hundred Muong people who have become nearly indistinguishable from the Vietnamese in recent years. The Muong language is close enough to Vietnamese for them to understand eachother when speaking slowly, but most of the Muong speak Vietnamese anyway so its no problem. When we showed up, they recognized Hiep and helped us bring our things into one of the stilt houses overlooking the rice fields. We enjoyed some tea while one of the women prepared a space for us to sleep and relax. When she was done, she asked if chicken would be alright for dinner. Sure! So she went right out front, killed a chicken and cooked up a huge delicious meal for us.
A few other villagers showed up soon with beer, xeo (rice wine) and a bamboo bong (for tobacco). With Hiep translating, we were able to actually converse with eachother, except for the one guy who was deaf and dumb. He did pretty well with squeeky bird noises and arm waving, though. It went along nicely like this for a couple hours…
Michael doesn’t drink alcohol at all and our hosts just couldn’t understand this. Every time they poured a round they filled his glass so Hiep and I had to pick up the slack. I may have been able to handle drinking my own share, but the extra bia and xeo sealed my fate: puking into the rice field out the window at the end of the evening. Everyone else found it hilarious. In the morning, everyone that saw me laughed and made barfing noises; word travels pretty fast in a small village. I apologized to everyone, but Hiep told me they loved me for it. I think it was their plan all along.