After the chaotic rush of dodging semi-trucks and a million scooters, we’re finally out of Hanoi and in the northern mountains of Vietnam. I’m travelling with a Canadian and an Englishman I met in a hostel days earlier. We’re heading for the Chinese border, riding along roads that cut through limestone mountains and diverse ethnic minority villages.
It’s getting dark and the road is turning steeper. Our recently purchased $200 motorcycles are rolling along nicely. The next guesthouse is a few kilometers away, but there’s still light and we have a long way to go in the next few weeks. Our map shows another place to sleep 40 kilometers up the road. “Let’s try for the second one,” Harrison says. Adam and I agree.
Pulling the throttle, we continue up the mountain as the road turns to gravel and pavement disappears. Harry is leading the pack and while we’re riding along the rutted path, I hear a loud clunk and his bike skids to a stop. We discover his chain bounced off the gear and jammed in between his wheel and frame. At a glance we know it’s not an easy fix since we’re all nearly illiterate in mechanical knowledge.
The first soul to see us pulls over quickly. He’s a large bellied, middle-aged Vietnamese man whose breath stinks of rice wine. A quick check over the bike and he’s immediately banging around on it. Rather than breaking the chain free, he just breaks the chain. Now we have a motorcycle on a mountain road, loaded with gear, and no chain to pull the wheels.
With verbal communication out of the question, it takes our combined miming skills to realize the man wants me to tow the broken bike up the mountain. Luckily, I have some sturdy straps and within minutes I’m trying my best not to crash while pulling Harry and his clunker up the gravel hill. Our drunken savior waves a cheerful goodbye as he rides away.
A half hour later we come across a small concrete building on the side of the road. Adam and I leave the bikes with Harry and walk down to investigate. We’re met with surprised yells of joy from a group of Vietnamese truck drivers. Instantly we’re being motioned to shower and wash up for dinner.
Confused but following orders, we walk to the showers to meet a startled, naked Vietnamese man. We laugh, wave and wash our hands in a bucket of water. Harry comes down with his busted bike and generates even louder laughs from our hosts. My Canadian counterpart has long brown hair and a bushy beard. Most Vietnamese men are clean shaven with short, black hair and these truckers are no exception.
After more miming, we explain the issue with Harry’s bike. It’s dark outside now, yet we’re told not to worry and gather around a very short table, sitting on equally short chairs. We feast on delicious pork, a massive pile of rice and bottomless shots of homemade rice wine, a common Vietnamese favorite. It’s one of the best meals I have in Vietnam.
After dinner and too many group toasts, we’re informed one of the guys is driving to the nearest town for a new chain. Astounded by their generosity, it’s tough to explain our thanks without speaking the same language. While we wait for the part, our hosts turn on a classic 90s shoot ‘em up thriller. It’s hard to say if they’re trying to make us feel at home or if they truly love this ridiculous show, but every gunshot causes a roar of awe from the group. The main crowd pleaser is a busty woman in distress that is of course saved by the heroic super cops. Although not many words are spoken, it’s understood these guys are impressed with the curves on our lady in distress.
Eventually our rescuer arrives with a new chain. The whole gang of truckers is tinkering on Harry’s old Honda Win – removing the tire, installing the chain, adjusting the alignment. I’m in awe of each man’s willingness to help a few random white boys. Twenty minutes later, we’re all cheering, high-fiving and bowing, hands-clasped as the bike is fixed and test-ridden.
These truck drivers saved the day for us. They fed us, shared their liquor, their laughter and their expertise of motors. One drove two hours through the night to get a part we needed. They dirtied their hands and fixed our broken machine. Naturally, we offered the equivalent of a few American bucks, trying to ask how much parts, labor and even food would cost. Harry gladly paid 200,000 Dong (about $10) for the chain since these guys don’t have much to spare. But in regards to their help and hospitality, the locals wouldn’t take a penny. One of the few English words one of them knew was “friends.” He made it clear that friends don’t pay friends for their help in his country.
– words by Chris Jensen for VAGA Magazine. Photos from Chris Jensen and Harrison Jack