Twists of fate

Sometimes misfortune really does come in threes, or even more.

By Story: Matt Cavanaugh. Photos: Kiley Little & Lam Linh on February 07,2015 08:04 AM

Twists of fate

Some friends of mine and I were feeling the itch to get out of Hanoi one recent sunny afternoon, so we decided to head to Mai Chau for the weekend. Now, as with most bike trips, it’s not so much about the destination as how you get there. There is usually beautiful scenery to go along with a relaxing bike ride and some sun to soak up. This, though, was not the case. It was clear that on this trip we were dealing with Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong) and Murphy was out in full force.

We started off nice and easy, making our way through the south of Hanoi. The open road was great to be on, but just as we were all getting comfortable with our pace, Murphy struck for the first time. Someone’s bike chain snapped. We were nowhere near anything. In an effort to get some shade, we rolled up to an overpass where there were some people selling drinks and several more taking an afternoon nap in makeshift hammocks. Fortunately, there was also a tyre repairman. While he did not have the appropriate tools or parts to fix a chain, he did have the next best thing: a friend he could call and bring everything he needed. We were told it would be some time before it would arrive, so we decided to ditch our friend and carry on.

Not long after we left our friend behind, Murphy’s Law stuck for a second time. Apparently at some point, two members of our group turned right instead of going straight and were on their way to Ba Vi instead. With three people behind, we decided to hunker down at a bia hoi and wait for them to catch up. Within half an hour, our friend with the broken chain and the two that almost went to Ba Vi were back with the pack.

The next couple of hours were free of trouble, but Murphy wasn’t far behind. We went up and down the beautiful country roads and just as everything was going as good as it could, the engine in my bike started to putter, puff a little smoke, and die.

I came to a stop on an incline with no repair shop in sight. One of my travel mates mentioned he saw a shop a few kilometres back, so we decided to coast down the hill that we just went up towards a nearby town. We managed to find the shop and in my broken Vietnamese I was able to explain what happened and understand that he couldn’t fix it at the moment. After a brief discussion, we went with the unfavourable option of leaving my bike at the shop and continuing on with both of us on one bike.

Riding two on a bike is bearable for short rides in the city, but we still had quite a distance to travel. With every kilometre the ride was getting more and more uncomfortable and the roads were getting worse and worse. Oh, and it started to rain, too. Torrentially.

The traffic wasn’t doing us any favours, either. It had been awhile since I had driven outside of the city and I had forgotten how awful the bus drivers are once they are no longer within the city limits. And that is saying something, since they are pretty terrible drivers in the city as well. The buses will pass a slightly slower moving vehicle whenever they want. It does not matter if you or anyone else is in their way. Imagine driving down the highway with a bus coming straight at your face and you have two options: Option 1 is to die, and Option 2 is to drive into the roadside ditch and hopefully not be injured. I, along with everyone else, tend to go with Option 2 (sometimes you see some poor farmers picking up after they were forced to crash into the ditch).

After a couple more bia hoi stops to get out of the rain and after dodging a few more buses, we all made it to Mai Chau in one piece. It was dark by the time we arrived so the first order of business was to find a place to stay for the night. We rolled up to a homestay and they were delighted to have our business during the down season. As soon as they saw us they ran off to the market to buy food and started making us dinner. They sat us down at a table with several bottles of alcohol and a smorgasbord of local food. We ate like kings and slept like babies.

I woke up in the morning to the peaceful sound of running water and birds chirping away as they flew about. I looked out the open window to see the greenest green I had ever seen. In every direction were lush rice fields accompanied by sprawling mountains. We were in 360 degrees of heaven.

Twists of fate

Considering that it took us six hours to get to Mai Chau and driving in the dark isn’t that fun, we didn’t want to leave too late, in order to get back to Hanoi before sunset. We took a quick walk around the village, bought some stuff and got on our bikes to start the journey home.

Since we left early enough in the morning, we elected to take the scenic route along the Hoa Binh reservoir. This stunning stretch of road is more or less a paved bike path winding along the edge of the mountains and through some of the most remote villages, where water buffalo and cattle make up most of the population.

The hills during this stretch of road were very steep, so we thought it would be wise to have the two smaller people on one bike and myself (the larger person) on one alone. During the drive I was stopping every few minutes to take pictures of mountain views while the rest of the group drove off ahead. I was the last person to start driving up the section of road that curved away from the reservoir to reconnect with the road back to Hanoi. Just as I started to make my way up, Murphy’s Law decided to join once again … my borrowed bike puttered, overheated, and died.

I had nobody to help and no way to get help because my cell phone had died from taking so many photos. The only thing left to do was to start the journey uphill by pushing the small yet heavy bike. About halfway up the seemingly endless climb, I passed a little girl leading some water buffalo with a stick. We were going at a similar pace, so for a while we walked together in silence as the sun was beating down with full midday strength. We looked at each other a couple of times and her face read the same as mine: we would both rather be doing something else.

At the top of the hill I finally got the bike started and met back up with my friends. We had one more stop to make before returning to Hanoi: to find the random shop I had left my bike at on the way. I had taken a picture of the place so we could find it on the way back, but of course my phone was dead so we had to find it using our memory. Which isn’t that easy in the countryside, where everything looks the same. Eventually, we ended up stumbling upon the shop. The bike started right up, so I gave the mechanic some money and we were on our way home.

About an hour after retrieving my bike, Murphy decided to join us one last time. My bike started spewing out thick black smoke, puttered, and died again. By this time I was over it. I did not want to deal with getting it fixed again. All I wanted to do was get home, take a shower, and relax on my couch. I pushed my bike into the petrol station it died in front of and handed the keys to the attendant. He gave me a confused look. By then I had recovered some of my Vietnamese speaking ability. I told him I did not want the bike anymore and I was giving it to him. I hopped on the back of my friend’s bike and waved goodbye to the attendant as we headed for home. I have never seen such a big smile in all my life.

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