Riding Through Hell on the Highway to Nowhere

Day 44: Phong Nha to Somewhere On the A1, Ha Tinh Province

The six o’clock alarm doesn’t go off this morning. It’s 830am and once again, we have outwitted our own wake up call. Outside, it’s cloudy and cold. A pervasive mists dampens the day.
First: eggs, bread, coffee. At least we’re off to a good start.
At the market down the road, we score a couple of cheap jackets and a rain poncho. Fine, cold. We succumb to your demand of Another Layer.
After ten minutes of driving into a mist that has graduated to a deluge-like state, it’s necessary to pull over for a team huddle. Taking the Ho Chi Minh Trail means long windy kilometres of gorgeous mountain scenery–weather permitting. We watch the overcast drizzle toss those things in a mud puddle and trample all over them. The highway is fast, full of scary, honking trucks and involves less time to our next destination, whatever that may be. So, we head for the highway.
I pull my visor down to stop the rain from pelting my face like a spray of bullets, but the wind nearly rips it off my helmet every time I turn my head. The screw is missing from the right corner and I have to hold the visor in place when I shoulder check. The road from the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the highway is still beautiful though, and I readjust my poncho over my kneecaps every ten minutes to keep my frozen legs distracting me from the view.
Half an hour later, the highway appears. Turning left onto it, my bike stalls and a car races towards me, honking. Pushing my bike onto the shoulder, Flo and I stop to laugh and readjust raingear, because what else is there to do?
“Woo baby! Let’s kill some kilometres!” Flo yells.
I whoop in response as we rev up, shooting past the little stores on our right. As soon as the shelter of the buildings disappear, a cement wall of hurricane-force wind nearly knocks us to the pavement. The landscape has opened to fields of rice paddies. Holy shit. Flatland gales.
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The rain beats down and I almost have to stop again to steady myself. My composure is momentarily frazzled but I lean forward and squint through my bleary visor. Fuck you, weather. Didn’t you hear the man? We’re killing kilometres now!
The farther we go, the fewer motorcycles we see. Just truck after truck, bus chasing bus. The highway sweeps down along the coast and the ocean appears, raging with brown waves and foaming like a stray dog with rabies.
Flo honks behind me and we pull over. The wind is ripping the rain cover off my back pack. We strap it down hard.
“Are you alright?” Flo asks me.
I’m cold and wet and this ride sucks, but yeah. I’m alright. Flo thinks it’s best that we go as far as we can without stopping, then find a hotel and have an early start tomorrow (ha).
I nod, teeth clenched.
It’s harder to go after stopping. My legs are soaked from the knees down and my fabric shoes are dripping. Eventually, all traces of other motorists disappear. It’s just us and the big boys, now.
On highways, most motorists stick to the shoulder as it is safer and allows those big asshole drivers to rage by with minimal victims. But today, with the wind knocking my bike from side to side, falling into the ditch off the edge of the road feels too possible. So I drive in the lane, checking for Flo in my rearview every minute. A massive white truck fills the mirror and I have a fleeting moment to swerve onto the shoulder before he roars past me, through a trench of muddy water that showers my entire body.
Maniacal laughter (apparently my coping mechanism for death threats) bubbles from my belly, and I yell out to no one in particular that I just want to cry. This is so shitty, it’s hilarious. Flo speeds up beside me, laughing.
“This is so fucked!”
“My body feels fucked!”
“Next hotel we see, we’re stopping!”
This may be the point where I start crying, just a little bit. But there doesn’t seem to be anything on this god-forsaken highway. Just more goddamn farms and little houses and water buffalo loping around the edges of the road.
My muscles are more tense than an introvert at a speed-dating convention and my body aches just as much. The handlebars shake uncontrollably beneath my trembling arms and my feet are numb; frozen in a one hundred and eighty degree angle above my footrests. I will never be a ballerina.
A three way intersection finds me stalled again, dead centre. When I pull away from it, I see Flo parked in a grey lot in front of a building. It’s entrance is closed off by two steel garage doors.
I figure he’s just waiting for me, but then I see it–a sign. HOTEL. We pull our bikes under cover and peek through the barred windows. The lights are out and it’s empty.
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“My hands are numb. I can’t even pull my clutch in; I have to curl my fingers and pull my whole arm back.”
He’s lost the use of his hands and the nerve endings in my legs have kicked the bucket. It’s too cold to stand. We sprint around our parked bikes beneath the roof, and again, the giggles take over. I’m cracking up as we run in circles. I am cracking up.
I spot a little building across the highway with a man standing in the doorway. I run across to him. No English, of course, but he knows what I want. He puts his hands together and rests them under his ear. Sleep.
“Yes!” I nod.
He pulls out his phone and talks to someone. “Okay, okay,” he says.
I understand.
“Cam on!” Thankyou, THANKYOU.
I run back to Flo. “He’s calling someone to come!”
Flo’s eyeballs threaten to jump ship. “Really?”
Five minutes later, a white car pulls up. A lady and man walk up the steps and yank up the metal garage doors, revealing a stark, cold lobby. Our conversation echoes around the white walls. They walk us through the entrance, past open doors showing untouched rooms. Upstairs, the lady flicks on the light of a windowed vault with two beds and a bathroom and thick blankets.
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Heaven has a roof.
We pay her for the room.
“New hotel,” she says. “First customer!”
The destitute building is all ours.
We switch on the boiler of every bathroom on our floor, sprinting bare-assed from shower to shower when the hot water runs cold in the last. We collect every spare blanket from the other vacant rooms, crawl under a mountain of quilts on the rock hard beds and dive headfirst into dreamless sleep.
An hour and a half later, the unyielding mattresses have cut off circulation to our limbs, yet the tingling in our arms and legs can’t hide the chill that’s returned to our bones. But we are clean, and we are rested.
Across the street is a restaurant–the place where the man with the phone saved us. Every door is ajar, and a draft sweeps through the place. Chickens and a big white duck hobble around the open kitchen.
We gesture–food, eat, food. The lady in an apron smiles and nods. Again, no English. She brings out a huge bowl of rice, a plate of fried eggs and boney chicken pieces. A giant serving of broth with vegetables. Valhalla finds us everyday. We eat like its our last meal, or our first, until the two locals at the next table call us over and pour clear liquid into little cups from a big jug. The jug looks like a science experiment, with a huge root floating around in it and some sort of… something else. It’s booze. We join them in a couple rounds but we’re too tired to decipher the meaning of every hand motion and decode every facial expression, since that is our only way of conversing.
We splash across the road to our frigid, barren hotel and crawl under Mount Blanket in our jackets, drinking beer and playing guitar until neither of us can keep our eyes open.


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