Saturday, February 20, 2016

Bonaparte's Retreat and Rescue Committees

Written from Hanoi, February 21, 2016.  Weather slightly warmer (we're at sea level after all), still heavy overcast, wind calm, but forecast from the SSE (that's a warm wind, as compared to the NW wind out of China).
Bonaparte's Retreat is a lively dance tune and would probably have made a good background score for the long long day's ride out of the Northwest back to Hanoi.  The route is as full of twists and turns as any lively dance, and the background notion of fleeing cold weather and thwarted schemes would have resonated well, though even at their worst, the mountains here are nothing like Russia in Winter.  As for the road QL70 is in almost perfect condition at the moment and I have valid comparisons to make.  I've ridden it when it was torn to shreds by heavy truck traffic between the Chinese border at Lao Cai and Hanoi, as well as the year they rebuilt the whole 300 km in one season. . .an almost impossible mission at the time.  So why would I complain?

Which brings us to the Rescue Committee.  Napoleon left much of his army dead in Russia's snows, and again, my present retreat from the cold and overcast mountains hardly compares.  I did, however, manage a minor casualty, a bent foot peg (my bikes all hate me for that), a cracked mirror housing, and raspberries on knee and hand.  It was the damp that got me (yet again), not rain at all, not even drizzle, but enough dampness in the air to make tiny beads on the face plate and somehow to keep the road surface visibly wet while the dusty shoulders were still perfectly dry. . .mizzle maybe, misty drizzle.  Immeasurably light precipitation.  Not enough rain to wash the dust off the road, just enough to make it turn to grease.

I was riding quite slowly, this is one of my very least favorite road surfaces, slippery even to walk on, so certainly nothing to race over.  And I think I mentioned, the road is in marvelous condition, very smooth and essentially unbroken pavement. . .h'mm.  Smooth pavement and a layer of moist fine mud.  Well, it works.  It was a gentle enough curve, we were going pretty slow anyway, but the bike simply slid out in the bend, as though (once again) all the laws of physics still held true. . .except for friction. . .there just wasn't much.  The sound of a motorbike going down is very distinctive and something people here know very well.  Although we were well out in the country, very little traffic running and very few people about, a formal request for a Rescue Committee must have gone out within seconds, and I was still on the pavement on all fours (okay, I was caught by the shoe laces by the hook on the bungee cord that was supposed to be holding down my pack. . .you can't imagine trying to stand up while a bungee cord plays your foot like a salmon).  I was still on all fours as I was saying, when the committee arrived and presented their credentials.  There were six of them, it was after all a short notice and a full quorum would have been hard to raise, but six were sufficient.  Two of them insisted on helping me up (I'd finally gotten rid of the bungee) and the rest picked up the horse and helped her off the road (I didn't hear her say thank you though).  So the bright young men (I think everybody here is young these days. . .viewpoint I suppose) went through the standard routine in these cases, examined me from head to foot (mud and asphalt ground into sleeve and pant leg, minor hole in rain coat elbow, noticeable blood from the raspberry on the hand and some nice scratches on the helmet. . .about right for that sort of event).  Then they checked over the horse (bent foot peg and dislocated mirror mostly, and of course the pack skewed around with only one bungee still holding).  One slender youngster addressed the foot peg.  Normally people take a heavy hammer or a pipe bender to straighten bent foot pegs here.  This young gentleman simply grasped the handle bars firmly and nodded at two friends who braced the horse (wouldn't want her to break loose).  He set one foot on the peg, leaned well back and gradually applied more and more pressure until the peg was about right.  I thought he quit a little too soon, but it was fine to ride.  You have to think he can probably plow a rice paddy without bothering with a water buffalo to pull the plow.

They tried to dust off my pants and coat, but that was pretty pointless (the pants are still showing signs of the skid after a trip through the commercial laundry here in Hanoi and the rain coat, with its new hole is toast).  Clearly they weren't sure I was really ready to ride on, but, with the pack re-lashed to their satisfaction (they did not approve of my standard method, which has only survived. . .er. . .50,000 km of travel I suppose) and the foot peg and mirror re-adjusted, they carefully examined the blood flow (minimal) from the raspberry on the hand, and finally gave in, signed off on all the paper work and let us go, with fond farewells and wishes for good health and safe travels.  No kidding (well, I made up the paperwork part).  If you have to be an old guy and crash a bike somewhere, this is probably a pretty good choice. . .they treat you really well.

That was early in the day really, only 50 km or so out of the 250-plus on tap for the day, and the road conditions were still the same, moist pavement with a fine skim of wet red dust on the surface.  I'd been riding slowly before, but was noticeably slower after the skid and soon fell in with a group of three bikes, all family I'd guess, a couple and two solos, loaded with baggage for a long trip and wearing nice clothes (freezing no doubt).  I tagged on behind and followed them perhaps 75 km.  They kept a steady pace, something around 45 kmh through the morning.  It was a fine speed, none of us skidded.

The road dried up in the afternoon and straightened out as well when we came down out of the hills into the Red River bottomlands.  The traffic thickened, the highway developed four lanes and a divider and the traffic thickened some more. . .the last 50 km into Hanoi was, as always, horrendously thick and busy city traffic, and thicker as you went.  Once again I rode into the city at rush hour, surrounded by uncountable thousands of neatly dressed people on sparkling clean motorbikes, spattered with mud and traces of asphalt paving. . .riding a grimy mudball of a bike.  It used to bother me, but now, I understand it's just part of riding into the Northwest.  You come back like that.

No, you don't get a photo of the wreck.  I was too busy dealing with the Committee to remember the camera.  Sorry.

PS--go back one blog post, I finally got a map traced out that shows the route for the past few days.


  1. Hi Ken Preston! My name is Linh. I'm a producer of Talk Vietnam, a 45-minute talk show on Vietnam National Television, which is conducted in English with Vietnamese subtitles (
    I'm really interested in your stories and would like to invite you to Talk Vietnam. Please tell me what you think via my email
    Thanks and have a nice day!