In hindsight, it seemed as though the events that were about to unfold had been building for a few days. It all started when I made a last-minute decision at Christmas to take a motorcycle journey, from the south to the north of Vietnam the following month.
It was to be my training run for a much larger adventure set for the end of February, riding solo around the world. Vietnam would be my test run. How would I handle a foreign country on two wheels, what gear and luggage do I need, can I just book a hotel the night before I set off? Having ridden in Vietnam previously and wanting to explore this beautiful country in depth, I figured it was a familiar enough place to answer my questions, while still forcing me out of my comfort zone.
Feeling somewhat apprehensive, I convinced a friend to join me at the last minute, and with a few things thrown into backpacks, we picked up our well-worn 125cc clankers and jostled our way out of the dense Ho Chi Minh City traffic.
The first couple of days riding were spectacular. The roads were quiet, endless perfect blacktop winding its way through tropical rain forests, stopping off at waterfalls to swim, roadside bowls of steaming hot Pho for breakfast and lunch. Over beers in the evening we would decide how far we would ride the following day, book a hotel and set course in the morning. We settled into the organized chaos every morning as we headed out of town and onto the less used village roads, it appeared this motorcycle adventuring thing was a piece of cake.
Feeling very comfortable in this new routine, we stopped at a typical roadside shack with plastic tables and chairs set up for locals and passers-by as a make shift restaurant. There are no menus to be seen in these places; it is as simple as taking a seat and waiting to be served a large bowl of whatever is bubbling furiously inside the enormous pots on gas stoves on the bare earth ground.
Having spent many years in the food industry, I understand the do’s and don’ts of eating in less developed countries. The most likely causes of food poisoning coming from drinking water and salad vegetables, as they are usually eaten raw. However, for reasons still unknown to myself, without thinking I loaded my bowl of steaming hot soup with crisp bean sprouts and fresh herbs, all soaked in the local water.
We rode on into the afternoon reaching the gorgeous local seaside resort town of Qui Nhom. A stroll through the local streets for dinner and an early night. That was, until, I awoke with a stomach ache that could only mean one thing. Food poisoning. I will spare you the details, needless to say; there was to be no riding that morning. Staying in, I continued to feel incredibly unwell and after a further 48 hours and a flight to meet in Hanoi, we agreed to gingerly make tracks the following day.
Taking it easy and trying to keep hydrated in the humid conditions was a challenge, but I put plenty of water in my backpack and loaded it onto the bike. Not feeling great, I wanted to make my jacket as light as possible, so I emptied my pockets, removed my go-pro and focused on making our destination for the night. This would turn out to be a terrible mistake.
Finding a shortcut through a national park on the map, we set off into the cool morning air. I felt ok, until the road turned into a rough dirt track. It is not uncommon in Vietnam for sections of road to be unpaved, usually only lasting a couple of kilometers, but this seemed to go on forever. The rocks embedded in the hard-packed ground were endless, the rutted, dusty track hard going. Thinking to myself, this is not what I need right now. Normally this type of riding would be fun; I didn’t have the energy for it. From what I had seen on the map it would only be another 20km, so I kept going, my companion out in front having a great time.
After standing on the pegs through a particularly challenging section, I sat down only to realize; I could no longer feel my luggage against my back. Reaching behind me it was confirmed, it had come loose and fallen off. Just as I looked back to make a U-turn, a large 4WD passed, it was the only car we had seen out here all day. It was now midday, and the sun was beating down, my friend was far ahead, and I had to go back and find my lost bags. Turning the bike, it dawned on me, for the first time on the trip I had put my passport in my bag, not my pocket.
My heart was racing as I scoured the track for signs of my belongings. Realizing something was wrong my friend had come back to look for me and joined in the search. For hours, we went up and down the same stretch of road. Searching the bushes and long grass on either side. They had to be there. Where else could they be? After more than five hours in the scorching sun with not even as much as a tie-down strap to be found, it was time to admit that my possessions had been taken, most likely by the car that had been behind me.
Feeling incredibly unwell and now without water for either of us, it was time to head towards town and work out the mess in the morning. As the sun started to fade, we stopped to check the map for directions, only to find we were going the wrong way. Having spent the afternoon vomiting off the side of the bike and severely dehydrated, I was beyond desperate to get out of there. The last people we had seen was the car and that was hours ago. With no option but to turn around, we headed back down the rough track and into the dark.
Feeling exhausted my concentration was waning on the difficult terrain and after the third big crash of the day, my bike refused to re-start. It was now completely pitch black, we were in the middle of nowhere, sick, without water or fuel and my bike was dead. It all felt quite a desperate situation as we tried in vain to get the little Yamaha up and to run. If we turned the phone torch off, we couldn’t see our own hands in front of our faces. Just as we concluded that we would need to leave it hidden in the bushes for the night and try somehow to ride two-up in the dark on a track that rivaled the worst roads I had ridden in Nepal, we saw a light in the distance.
As the headlight got closer, we waved with our torches and hoped for a miracle. The local arrived on a small scooter, and although he spoke no English, he understood our predicament. Within minutes he had my bike apart, and the faulty electrical wires were being sparked together. The bike started, and with much relief, we were back in business. Without thinking, I turned it back off as we had been without a fuel stop for the entire day. That was a fatal mistake. No matter how hard our bush mechanic tried to get it running again, it had called it a day. Furious at myself for being so stupid, I honestly wondered if we were going to make it out of there before the break of dawn.
Realizing we were without any options, our local savior called a truck and stayed with us in the dark until he made his way down the treacherous road. Arriving in the dark, the driver and our new friend along with the help of a family on a scooter that had just arrived out of nowhere, loaded my broken-down motorcycle into the back.
A painfully slow hours drive out of this nightmare and into the town, I have never been more relieved in my life. As we pulled into the hotel and the bike was unloaded, ready for us to deal with the following day, I asked how much money was owing. To my absolute surprise, both the driver and our helper wanted nothing for their efforts. They had simply helped us out of a bad situation. Of course, we mustered together all the local currency we had and insisted they take it, but the gesture was overwhelming.
After a shower, a few liters of water and some much-needed sleep I woke to the realization that I was now in a foreign country with no passport, no clothes, only left with what I had been riding in the day before, and still 1,000km away from our destination. Speaking with the Australian Embassy, I was informed that if I arrived in Hanoi without a police report from the province in which the events took place, I would stand no chance of being issued an emergency passport to get home.
Thankfully the electrical problem had been sorted out quickly, and the mission then became finding a police station in the rural town of Kon Tum, to obtain the required report. This was to prove far more challenging than first thought. We rode to what appeared to be a government building, only to find ourselves wandering the halls of high ranking military officials. There was no hope of finding what we needed there.
Heading back to the bikes, a police officer who had been visiting the building offered for us to follow him back to the station. Pulling in to the parking lot, there is no way we would have found it on our own, with the station looking more like a run-down apartment complex than an official police station.
Using Google, we attempted to translate our requirements with no luck. Out of desperation I called the embassy once more and asked for them to speak with the police and explain what I needed. Grudgingly they did, and although it appeared they understood, nothing happened. As we sat in the hot, dirty room amongst the young policemen’s beds and personal effects, the hours ticked by. Realizing we had no option but to wait, we passed the time trying to communicate with the growing number of officers who had come to see the two foreign tourists in their small village.
Almost at the point of giving up, a lady walked into the room and with perfect English, calmly told me not to worry; she was here to help. I could have hugged her I was so relieved. Realizing that they were unable to communicate with us effectively the young men at the station had called in the local school teacher, and we had unknowingly been waiting for her to finish for the day.
Speaking once again with the embassy she set to work writing up the report, in both English and Vietnamese on a blank A4 piece of paper. There wasn’t even a typewriter, let alone a computer! With my hand-written police report signed and stamped, we were good to go. Although we were tired and hungry, when the invitation was extended to join them all for coffee and later dinner at the local restaurant, we very happily accepted.
Although it was an unfortunate experience, it turned out to be the most memorable on of the trip. The kindness and generosity of the people that had helped us would be something we would never forget. To my great surprise, the embassy happily accepted my pen written report, and my passport was issued in less than 24 hours.
My 3-week journey in Vietnam turned out to be more of a training exercise than I had initially planned. The lessons learned from that day are something that has proven to make my future adventures safer and more enjoyable.