Epic Journey - Phonsaven to Vinh City

Discussion in 'Laos Road Trip Reports' started by anh_bernie_32, Sep 22, 2010.

  1. anh_bernie_32

    anh_bernie_32 New Member

    Sep 22, 2010
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    G'day everyone! I had an interesting trip driving a Minsk through Laos and Vietnam with my buddy and thought the story might encourage others to take the plunge and get out there and give it a go!

    Fresh out of High School, my good mate Ben and I decided to teach English in Vietnam which we did so for 6 months, (in a small town north of Vinh City) before a much needed break took us through Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. After hearing about the fun journeys on bikes through Laos by other travelers, we found ourselves calling up a French bloke in Vientiane inquiring about a 1996 Minsk. With absolutely no motorbike experience (except for some scooter experience in Nam), a ripped up Vietnamese Driving license covered in sticky tape, a backpack each and a Minsk, we headed north to Vang Vieng and then onto Luang Prabang. We had a great time enjoying the scenery, food and friendly people of the country. The bike had few issues other than a snapped clutch cable and the odd refusal to start- nothing a Laos mechanic couldn't fix.

    Leaving Vientiane. Ben (left) and myself.


    Ben struggling to get the bike up a hill


    Some beautiful Laos scenery. Vang Vieng.

    From this point we were keen to drive the Minsk (Stacey, we had named her (and I will refer to her as in this blog)) back across through the Vietnam border, Nam Can, to our base in Vietnam, near Vinh. We read many stories on the internet of failed attempts to get into Vietnam from Laos, including messages of "don't even bother" and "Laos borders are more dodgey than a Vang Vieng Pizza". We decided to give it a go anyway, as our stubborn, teenage morals led us to believe that a bit of money and some sweet-talking would get us through no problem.


    Typical rolling mountains. Phou Khoun, Laos.

    Our trip was all about to change once we left Phonsaven, early morning on the 27th of August, 2010. The craziest weekend of our lives had just begun. We left our Guesthouse at 6 in the morning and got through a good 2 hours of smooth driving through the lovely misty mountain roads and rice fields. We then switched drivers and I continued on for another half hour before the power started to give way. Before we knew it, the engine had completely given up, about 50kms away from Nong Het, (a small town close to the actual border). We tried starting it for a good 15 minutes with no luck before a farmer motioned for us to push it about 2 kilometers further up the road to a village. Luckily there was a mechanic in this particular village, if a teenage boy with some tools on his driveway counts.


    Trying to find the root of the problem by taking the entire bike apart

    The boy got to work and after a nice instant noodle breakfast we were on our way again, however, in the back of our minds we knew something wasn't quite right with the bike. It was only ten minutes after we'd left that village that the bike died again, this time we knew we were screwed. We realised we'd need to be hitching a ride to the border. The problem was that we hadn't seen a single truck/pickup/bus drive this road all morning. Whilst chillin in a random hut by the side of the road, listening to the pelting rain and whistling over and over Bobbby McFerrin's "Don't worry, be happy" in my head a few cars drove past until finally, after 2 hours, a small white truck came rolling up the hill.


    Thinking about pushing the bike over the cliff at this point

    This was probably our only good chance for a few hours to get a lift. I ran out onto the road, waving my arms in the air (probably a little too excitedly) and somehow God was kind enough to tell these people to pull over. We sat in the back tray with the bike and shivered in the freezing cold as the truck drove us to Nong Het. Once there, we gave the kind family a tip to the grand total of 40,000 kip ($5) and ate some lunch. The 3 mechanics in town refused to touch the Minsk, saying the Vietnamese would be of more help to us. With that, we decided to head on with our broken down baby, asking a Tuk Tuk driver at the bus station if we could jump on board with out bike (along with the old ladies and their groceries heading to the Nam Can weekend market). With our last remaining Laos money,84,000 Kip ($10) we sat in the back, crammed like sardines, going up what seemed like the steepest roads in Asia until finally (about an hour later), we had completed the 13 kilometers to the border, at Nam Khan.


    Laos mechanic not impressed with the bike


    We had a motorbike, chickens, vegetables, buckets, boxes and ten elderly ladies all piled in the back of the Tuk Tuk. Ben doing well to pull out a smile.

    We were greeted by a friendly Laos official at Immigration, who checked our passports and told us to visit the lady at Customs for the motorbike. This is where Ben and I looked at each other a little nervously. We entered the office and the Laos lady asked for our papers. I pulled out our torn up piece of laminated license and crossed my fingers.

    "Where are your papers?" She asked.
    "That's it." I replied.
    "Don't you have one of these?" She pulled out a fancy green form. I started to feel like an idiot after believing the French guy in Vientiane that the license would suffice.
    "No, I don't."
    She then shook her head and said it was simply not possible to bring the bike through.

    At this point in time, you'd think we are the two biggest idiots in the history of driving motorbikes through Laos. However, we had one trick up our sleeve that might just work. Our bike had VIetnamese registration (part of the reason we bought it) and after having lived in Vietnam for 6 months, Ben had developed a nice knowledge of the Vietnamese language. As we trundled down the hill and across the bridge to the Vietnam border, we were greeted by three officials.
    "Xin Chao" we whipped out. And from there we struck up a nice conversation, explaining why he had walked over the bridge, rather than driven. "Our bike was taken!" We protested, showing them our Vietnamese license, trying to ignore the fact that the name on the license was "Quynh Nghia Ha", not your average Australian name.

    However, these were far different from the normal, poker faced border guards we had spoken to over the previous 2 months in Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. These guys were down to earth, even keen to share some lychees with us. We spoke in Vietnamese and explained what we were doing in Vietnam, (leaving out the part that we were teaching in a Catholic village). One of the guards was happy to tell us that his hometown was just 6 kilometers from where we had been living.
    "One moment, I will make some phone calls." After a 5 minute conversation on his mobile with the Laos border guards, he told us that we were free to go back and pick it up.

    Ben and I couldn't believe it! The only thing I was thinking at that point was how much you got to love the Vietnamese. Just brilliant. We didn't even have to flash any George Washingtons!! Ben went and collected Stacey and rolled down the hill. The guards looked a little confused.
    "Is this your bike?" They laughed and wished us good luck. We sure would need it, it was already 5pm and getting dark quickly. The nearest mechanic was 5 kilometers away, uphill. We were in a bit of a situation.

    Needless to say, we had just done the impossible- passing through a Laos-Vietnam border with a bike with little more than a smile! After proving a number of motorbike forums on the internet wrong, nothing could stop us. After 2 minutes of pushing Stacey up the hill, we were wrong. Fatigue had set in. Not to worry, a curious looking Vietnamese bloke in his early twenties drove his Honda up next to ours. Without a single word being said, he got out his toolkit and started getting to work by the side of the road. He pointed to certain pieces in the gearbox. "Bi hu roi!". Broken. He told us that we'd need some new pieces for the bike. But by now it was already pitch black, we couldn't possibly push it in the dark. Without too much trouble, our new best friend walked into the nearest house by the side of the road and asked if we could stay for the night. 50,000 Dong ($2.50) later, we were sitting in a single roomed house, with dogs and chickens roaming the floor. A single TV and lightbulb illuminateded the room whilst we sat nervously on our bed, four wooden planks, watching the family go about cutting vegetables on the clay floor. Ben and I had lived in a pretty poor part of Vietnam from January until July, but this was something else. It somehow enhanced my respect for the country.

    I slept like a baby after our eventful Saturday only to be woken up at 5 in the morning by Communist propaganda blaring out of the border microphone speakers.
    Our Vietnamese buddy from the night before had come back and continued working on the bike. We paid him $10 for all his services and thanked him as the loud roar from Stacey and the familiar white smoke came bursting out the pipe! We were back in business, (albeit a little questioning from a guard who found out we had slept the night in this family's house.) Anyway, we drove off again for the first time since lunch the previous day and made it up the hill.

    I wasn't prepared for what was to come. It was the most beautiful mountainous countryside that I could ever dream of. I thought the scenery in Laos was hard to top, but this was incredible. The sun shone down onto the green mountains as we looked down at the enormous valleys. Villages spotted the side of mountains as we drove down the road feeling like we were floating above the clouds. Indeed, we were on cloud nine! The next half hour was trouble free until we decided to stop for breakfast in a nice looking village with a gorgeous view. Alas! The bike refused to start.
    Luckily a mechanic was close-by. Once again, our Vietnamese proved to be very handy. The father of the mechanic and his mate invited us into their lounge/bed room to sit on the floor and smoke, eat and drink whilst the son worked on our bike. Service with a smile! After a good hour of story telling and questioning of life in Australia, (and a half dozen rice wine shots, at 7am) we left having once again been blown away by the generosity and friendliness of the Vietnamese.


    Ben with our good buddies. Son on the left with father, (furthest right) and neighbor in the middle. Feeling a little buzzed. Note: Plastic covered walls to keep the weather out

    We covered good ground over the next three or four hours, having no problems apart from the torrential rain that soaked us to the core. We followed the sweeping road alongside the river until lunch was in order. A steaming bowl of pho got us going again until ten minutes later when a loud snap from underneath the bike let us know our chain had given way. We wheeled our bike back the way we came until we arrived at the mechanic we had only just passed. Another half hour and two dollars later and we were getting closer to our destination, still about two hundred kilometers away. Over the next hour Stacey was having trouble in fourth gear, with a strange shunting and lurching movement from the bike. I decided to stop at a mechanic at the next town we passed through. All of a sudden, a man came running out of his house grabbing our attention as he waved us over to his garage. Sitting out the front was a familiar looking bike, a Minsk! We had found gold because we knew this guy would have some clue as to why our bike was having so much trouble. Straight away he got to work, pulling apart the gearbox, cogs and all. Thirty minutes later and we tried it in fourth gear. No luck.


    Having Stacey pulled apart. Again.

    Our new buddy said the only option was to replace the whole gearbox, with the one from his own bike. However, this would cost 200,000Dong ($11) and at the time we didn't have any more Vietnamese money on us. "Where's the nearest ATM?" we asked.
    "There's one at the closest town about 15 kilometers from here." Some teenagers told us.
    We had little choice but to drive down there on our dodgey bike, get out some money and come back again and get the bike fixed. It was already 2 o'clock and we still had quite a way to go. We decided to go for it. Once we arrived at that town, we were greeted by an enormous 100 metre long, metre deep puddle passing right across the road. The previous day's storm in Vietnam had been big, I was crapping myself thinking about the consequences of the water swallowing up the bike if I dropped it. Somehow the bike crawled through at 2km/h as the water literally came up to our knees. Goodbye dry luggage. Finally we made it through, to the amusement of some locals and found the ATM. We got out a nice chunk and headed back to get Stacey fixed up new.


    Lucky to be seeing some asphalt at this slightly flooded area.

    Our minsk mechanic was happy to see us again and once more, started taking Stacey apart. We sat looking on patiently until finally the bike was ready to go. By now it was 4 o'clock and we'd probably be getting home by nightfall. The next two or three hours was pretty smooth going. We drove as fast as our 125cc engine could take two teenage boys and backpacks, mustering up about 70 km/h. Suddenly the bike stopped, until we realised the problem was she had run out of petrol (Stacey doesn't have a petrol gauge...or any gauges for that matter.) Luckily a petrol pump was nearby. All of a sudden it was dark and the headlight wasn't exactly the brightest thing in the world. The next hour or two would be risky. The sky was well and truly black now and we were struggling to see the road ahead, confirmed by unexpected potholes that jolted our bones every few minutes. Although, a big coach was driving up ahead, pushing all on-coming traffic out of the way and stopping before pottholes, which allowed us to know when to slow down. We followed the bus for about forty-five minutes until we reached a large construction site. The road had turned to liquid sludge and I had stalled the bike. The bus was gone and there we were, in the dark, with only the sound of me trying to kick start the bike, with no luck.

    Ben jumped out and began pushing so I could try starting from second gear. Somehow it worked! Now all Ben had to do was run through the mud, catch up and jump on whilst still moving. We pulled it off. Now there was only about five kilometers to Highway 1, (Vietnam's National Highway that runs from Hanoi to Saigon along the coast.) And soon we'd be home. I remember seeing the bright red traffic lights, the first since Phonsaven, and at that point we knew we had made it. The last 30 kilometers up the highway went quickly as we finally arrived at the town of Cau Giat in Quynh Luu District. We pulled into our courtyard and I breathed a big sigh of relief. Motorbike journey of a lifetime, complete. Ben and I congratulated each other, trying hard not to keep the giant grins on our faces.

    The morning after. Best feeling.

    So, that was the journey. I think the two main things we learnt from that weekend was that patience is a virtue, never lose hope when something goes wrong. We had our fair share of badluck but at the same time we had good fortunes to balance things out.
    The second lesson we learnt was that Vietnam is the greatest country on earth because of it's people. Their friendliness, generosity and hospitality is what enabled us to complete the journey. Without them, we wouldn't of made it far.

    If you've made it this far and read everything then thankyou for not finding my waffley language so boring! For anyone thinking of driving a motorbike in Laos, or in Asia for that matter, I think you should strongly consider it. Being able to drive at your own pace and enjoying the freedom is great fun. I also want to say to Jules at the Motorbike shop in VIentiane that he should show more faith in teenage boys with no insurance. Thanks again for reading. All the best, happy and safe driving!


  2. anh_bernie_32

    anh_bernie_32 New Member

    Sep 22, 2010
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    Putting photos up soon just need to find the memory card!
  3. DavidFL

    DavidFL Administrator
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    Jan 16, 2003
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    Nice one Bernie - thanks for the contribution.
    You have proven that "nothing ventured, nothing gained. Well done.
    I look forward to the photos.
  4. daewoo

    daewoo Ol'Timer

    Dec 6, 2005
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    Hi Bernie,

    Thanks for posting up your story...

    Isn't it funny how the difficult parts - border crossings and bike repairs - are what makes the story and the adventure...

    Great writting, look forward to the pics...

  5. Jurgen

    Jurgen Moderator

    Oct 23, 2009
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    Great story of the king I love to read ... but not to ride :)! I hope that next time you even take a camera with you, I am sure there were some big shots to take.

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