Finally, after months of planning and procrastinating about this trip, I’ve made it to the Start Line in Hanoi. Most importantly, I’ve been united with my mighty Trail steed – the Pink Panther – and what a glorious beast she is.
Digby, the splendid head honcho of the Panther’s creators, Explore Indochina, took me to meet her first thing on Thursday morning. After a typically hairy Hanoi ride, we arrived at Explore Indochina’s garage – a whole warehouse crammed with motorbike porn. Lines of beautifully restored vintage Urals and Minsks stretched from wall to wall, serried ranks of the finest Soviet steel. Digby and his business partner Cuong probably own the largest collection of vintage Urals in the world, and to see so many of these handsome machines under one roof was quite a sight. Behind the Urals, in the gloom at the back of the warehouse, I spotted a glint of pink, and there she was; the Pink Panther, a shining paragon of pink perfection.
‘Take her for a ride’ said Digby, ‘she goes like the clappers’. Having arrived the day before, and had rather too many Beer Hanoi’s with Digby and some of his friends the night before, I was feeling somewhat cerebrally challenged. A jet-lag and hangover cocktail is not a pretty thing, believe me. For a split second, as I got on and turned the key, I felt like I’d never ridden a bike before. ‘Shit, this could be embarrassing,’ I thought, trying not to look flustered. Luckily, the split-second was just that, and as the Panther purred to life everything felt roughly normal again. Digby was right, she does go like the clappers (for a moped that is..) and we zoomed round the block without incident.
Before we left the garage I asked Phu, one of the mechanics who’d built her, whether he thought the Ho Chi Minh Trail was possible on a Honda C90, ‘Yeah, easy’ he replied, ‘as long as you don’t forget to put oil in’. (I omitted to tell him that I have a bad track record of remembering to put oil in vehicles). He then talked me through what they’d done to the bike, which had started life as a 1989 green Honda C50, and was now the hot-pink C90 standing before me. ‘It’s had new everything – new pistons, valves, spokes, chain, exhaust, suspension – everything’. ‘Look, its the best bloody Honda C90 on the planet’ added Digby, ‘You won’t have any problems’. Let’s hope they’re right.
Now that the Panther was mine, there was nothing else to do but take the bull by the balls and start riding. If you’ve ever been to Hanoi, you’ll know that the traffic here is insane, a seething, omni-directional, cacophonous cavalcade of cars, bicycles and mopeds. Forget all that ‘Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre’ stuff you learnt at home, this is traffic in tooth and claw. A ceaseless, merciless river of men and machines. Mopeds surge in all directions, hooting and weaving. Cars come at you from the wrong side of the street. Bicycles wobble across the lanes. Women in traditional conical hats stagger across the road carrying back-breaking loads of fruit and vegetables. It makes London look like Stow-on-the-Wold.
The big issue facing me now is how to cross the border into Laos. Although there are numerous border crossings between the two countries, and backpackers frequently hop across, rules about foreigners driving bikes across the border are notoriously tricksy. Effectively, it all boils down to ‘the c*nts manning the border on the day,’ as one person succinctly put it.
The crossing I’ve got the best chance of getting across is Na Meo, only a few hundred km from Hanoi. This would take me into the north of Laos, near the famous Plain of Jars. However, lovely as I am sure it is up there, it wasn’t on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The two main Trail-related crossings are much further south, at Cha Lo (Mu Gia pass) and Nam Phao (see below map – Cha Lo is the bottom one). Originally both Digby and my contacts in Laos had said there was no way I could cross at either of these, but in the last few days both Cuong and Digby have had reports that it might be possible. After deliberating about it all today and yesterday, I’ve decided to take the risk. I am attempting to follow the Trail after all. The worst that can happen is the border guards can say a big fat No and I’ll have to double-back up north and try my luck elsewhere. Admittedly that would be inconvenient, but that’s all part of the adventure.
I’ve just returned from having drinks with Digby and a gaggle of his English, Bulgarian, Australian, American and Vietnamese friends. Strangely, one of them, George Burchett, is the son of legendary Australian war correspondent Wilfred Burchett, who wrote perhaps the most famous book about the Trail, Inside Story of the Guerilla War. Burchett walked the Trail in 1963, before the American War had started, and long before most of the world had even heard of the Vietcong. Not only that, he was the first Western journalist to enter Hiroshima after the bomb. By weird coincidence, I’m reading an old hardback copy of Burchett’s book at the moment, so asked George to sign it for me, which he kindly obliged. For my superstitious mind, meeting George counts as a very good omen.
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The Itinerant is staying at The Landmark Hotel in Hanoi: a delightful hotel in the Old Quarter.