Nothing much worth noting happened between my time in Ho Trak, my stay in Moi Ne and the journey to Da Lat minus Heather reaching new sass levels and needing a new accelerator cable and numerous oil changes and me making an inadvertent 100km detour but we don’t need to talk about any of that.
Upon reaching the fabled city of Da Lat I immediately made numerous friends because anyone who knows me knows how super friendly and sociable I am and I spent the next few days and nights enjoying the local tipple, eating banh chay (veggie sub rolls) and experiencing the local bars and places where young people go at night called night clubs. One bar worth mentioning, The Maze, can only be described as a hollowed out massive tree with tiny winding passages scaling numerous levels. It has the mystery of a Budapest ruins bar with the debauchery of a Friday night Oxford Clems, circa 2014. Needless to say, tipsy Pilcher was in his element.
When I had finally grown tired of this lifestyle remembering that I’m not 18 anymore I decided to get extreme and try my hand at canyoning, the practice of abseiling down big rocks and waterfalls and jumping off other big rocks and waterfalls. Upon being picked up early in the morning I found myself in a group with a German economist by the name of Pia, and three extremely excitable South Korean blokes named Li, Kim and Lun. In my previous experience with Koreans they are the happiest, most welcoming and most inquisitive people you can come across whilst travelling and I wasn’t to be disappointed. My fellow European and I were quickly embraced and became team Korea for the day. It turned out it was Lun’s 41st birthday the next week, something I seriously doubted due to his spring chicken attributes, and the three childhood friends were on a quick ‘lads’ holiday. At this point I tried to explain how the gentlemanly holidays I had been on in the past were significantly different from a quick tour of Vietnamese temples and canyoning in Da Lat. Oh how we laughed. After a sweet day of conquering my fears of jumping off wet slippery things from a height I departed from team Korea and hit the hay early in anticipation for an early start on the bike the next morning.
Morning came and everything was on schedule and at around 8am Heather was packed up and raring to go. However, as I was just putting my helmet on I noted a small young Belgian lady bursting through the hostel door running towards me and shouting “Thomas, Thomas, wait, wait!”. Confused I replied “sorry, I’m not Thomas, I’m Liam”. Josephine, as I was about to learn was the name of my new conversing partner, bluntly responded “oh, the lady told me you were Thomas, are you about to go on the Ho Chi Minh road though?”. “Well I can be Thomas if you want me to be, and yes I am” I eloquently quipped as i nervously often do when communicating with a newly acquainted member of the fairer gender. Luckily the weird and clearly well intended joke didn’t translate and we spent the next few minutes discussing our plans for our ventures north and decided to join forces to tackle the roads between Da Lat and Hoi An.
I was assured that Jo(sephine) would be ready to go in 10 minutes. Around an hour later I was helping to push her Nouvo scooter to a mechanic as all the wiring seemingly needed replacing. Another good hour and a half later Black Tyre (don’t ask) was good to go. By this time however the awesome Buddhist vegetarian restaurant that I had frequently visited was open for lunch and I insisted we get some grub before burning rubber. I genuinely wasn’t bothered about losing the time as the food in this place was bloody awesome and for some reason it was half price day so in a metaphorical sense, I was absolutely laughing. At about mid-day and sufficiently fuelled with tofu and water spinach we made our way through the North of Da Lat to the road of dreamy nightmares.
The journey began by cutting through a boulevard of lush pine trees, climbing gentle slopes and meandering around peaceful corners within the local hills. It was like driving through a steroid injected centre parcs. Again, I was laughing to myself through my helmet about the enchanted road I had discovered and had pretty much to myself. Upon one of the occasional stops to check that Jo was okay and was alright with me driving ahead to enjoy the road to its fullest, a dark and ominous question creeped into the back of my head. Why was this newly pathed stretch of awesomeness so quiet? The answer to my question would soon be revealed as the easy-going drive would turn into an physical and mental assault of which I haven’t experienced on the bike in the two weeks since (I’ve been busy doing traveller things and I’m really behind with life so I’m writing in retrospect).
As we drove further from Dalat we drove through the first of a few minority villages thriving in the hills of the Lam Dong province. In correlation with the detection of the villages, the road began to get beaten and trodden but still very much driveable until, by chance, we found what was probably the last place to get petrol on the road and decided to fill up. The guys living at the shop with the simple handpump gas canister and various refreshments were in the middle of a pretty heavy rice wine party of which they were very keen for us to get involved with. Using my best charade capabilities I mimed that I didn’t think it was a good idea to drink and drive and pointed down the road of which we were intending to follow. In response, they then actioned in their best charade capabilities that they didn’t think that was a good idea and that the road was bad. Having come so far and having not realised how bad a road can get we ignored the warnings and happily carried on down a pathway which was not completely paved yet not completely dirt.
Soon however the pathway was consumed by dirt. It narrowed dramatically, was blocked by boulders, continuously ascended 10 metres at 40 degrees to be met by 40 metre drops at 70 degrees, ran along vertically eroded trails and eventually was engulfed by the most beautiful deciduous trees, amazingly scenic rice paddy valleys and cutest little streams I’ve ever been fortunate to stumble upon. This multitude of obstacles meant slow going and it took us around 4 hours to cover 20 km, the riding hampered by the brutal jungle pathways, sweltering heat and numerous photo opportunities. She won’t mind me writing this but Jo had the uncanny ability to fall off her bike. A lot. She counted a conservative 9 falls through the treacherous journey, many I believe were due to the truly horrendous quality of her bike. She is actually super savvy, albeit slow, driver for someone whom before Vietnam hadn’t ever touched a motor bike or even driven a car at home. Even I, the greatest bike rider in all of Nam, eventually came off once after totally misjudging one of the larger streams and ploughed through some sand into a baked eroded v crevis on the upcoming slope. Jo was a bit behind me (as per usual) so I quickly jumped to my feet, picked up Heather and proceeded to act as if I had chosen the spot as a good point for a break. Unfortunately, the blood on my knee and burn marks up my legs and mud on my face gave the game away and I reluctantly was forced to mark a score on my break crash tally.
After having to sprint back down the path after Jo’s 8th or 9th fall I began to question whether the journey was truly ‘so worth it’ as we kept telling one another. Soon though the jungle path began to open up and we passed some farmer ladies so knew we must be near some kind of civilisation. As the sun bagan to set and after the most dramatic descent of a good one hundred meters we drove out onto a plateau overlooking a tremendous rice paddy where by set in the close distance behind, was a paved road.
Having ran out of water an hour ago we stopped at the first shop, down a few litres and decided what to do. We clearly hadn’t made as much ground as I thought we would have throughout the course of the day and combine that with the unexpected delay at the start, we were losing light quick. We ploughed on to try and get to Ho Lak, a place on the map where there were a few hotels but which was also a good 60 km south of Buon Ma Thout, the town we had originally intended to get to that day. As the sun set and it was then that I experienced another first of the day and broke the one cardinal rule that I had set before buying Heather, I was driving at night in the dark. Jo and I discussed stopping at one of the rather dreary roadside mini hotels that frequent the highways of Vietnam. I argued that driving in the dark here is stupid, she argued that she had done it a week before whilst tipsy and was fine. It was a battle of wisdom and experience vs youthful exuberance. Youthful exuberance won and I led the convey into the darkness (literally, my headlight is crap and there aren’t many streetlights) with only maps me to warn me off an impending turn.
In all fairness, the extra two hours in the darkness weren’t so bad. The roads were surprisingly quiet, the thunder storm in the distance kept its distance and I used every ounce of caution that I possessed when a big old truck came hurtling towards us. Nether the less it’s something I don’t really intend on doing again (sorry Mum!). We arrived at our new destination alive and kind of well, albeit a good 4 hours behind schedule. To say I came out of the days journey unscathed would be a lie. In fact, I was completely scathed. I was knackered physically, delirious mentally, burnt, bruised and filthy. The beauty of using retrospect to look back on that day now and going through the photos of Jo and I struggling through the woodland Is that I can see how much of an awesome and totally worth the adventure it turned out to be. I had enjoyed my first experience of off-road driving, gotten off the beaten path, traversed some amazing scenery, had really gotten to know Heathers capabilities and had a new travelling companion. And who knows, if it weren’t for the crazy little Belgian lady laughing at how crap we were and loving life on her terrible scooter then I may have turned around and gone back down the magical centre parcs road. It pains me to say it, as I know she will read this at some point and then ill get some kind of cocky message about it, but I will finally admit that I was actually quite glad I had Jo as a companion to share the awesome road 722 with, even if she did get my name very much wrong in the beginning.