In November 2003, David Pickford began an epic journey in Hanoi, Vietnam, that took him through nine countries and across more than twenty degrees of latitude. It was the legendary Russian-made motorcycle common to the people of northern Vietnam - The Minsk - that provided his classic, if unreliable, means of transport. In this extract from his diaries, David explores the mountain country of northern Vietnam propelled by an infamously eccentric Soviet-era two-stroke engine which, fortunately, every Vietnamese man over the age of sixteen knows how to fix…
On a hot autumn afternoon amid the bustling outskirts of Hanoi’s old quarter I was forced to learn how to ride a motorcycle Vietnamese-style.
“You must look both ways, every time you go”, Cuong had told me in the refuge of his workshop off Rue N’Oc Quen. With this propitious phrase in mind, I set out on the roads of Vietnam. It was more than five years since I had got on a bike, and the unique Vietnamese system of urban traffic coordination was something of a baptism of fire. Weaving through the multi-directional chaos of the main intersection before the bridge over the Red River, I gained a synchronous knowledge of the Minsk’s bizarre four-speed gearbox and the effectiveness of Hanoi’s apparently disorganised road network. My new found confidence was chastised a little as I watched a blind man make his way with a slow assuredness through the traffic around Hoan Kiem Lake. It is said of Vietnam that every time you walk out of your front door, you’ll meet a hero. It didn’t take me long to find out that heroes come in multiple disguises in this country, and that few of them have medals.
I rode north out of the city in the dawn cool of the following day, passing the shadow-boxers on the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake and the women making their way to the flower market, wondering what kind of country I would find in the evocatively named ‘deep north’. After leaving Hoa Bin and the coastal plain, Highway 6 winds its way northwest from Hanoi along the border with Laos. I arrived in S’on La at sundown that evening, covered in the thick red dust characteristic of Vietnam’s northern roads. It had been an exhilarating day. The air was cold as the wind came down off the mountains and contoured through the deep limestone valley. Some of the women here wore the brightly coloured headscarfs of the White Thai, their teeth stained jet black from years of chewing beetle nut. The Honda Dream - the common motorcycle of lowland Vietnam - had clearly lost favour in this region against the more robust, archaic Minsk.
I was now in familiar company on these wild mountain roads. And it was just as well, since the next day I had my first flat tyre of the journey on the road going north from the small town of Tuan Giao, not far from Dien Bien Phu where the Vietminh forces ended the French occupation of Indo China in 1954. I’ve changed many bike tyres over the years, but find it hard to recall a more spectacular place to have a puncture than on that long, steep descent to Lai Cao, as the evening mist began to thicken on the rice fields almost a thousand metres below. I had only been there for a few minutes, finding the necessary tools and the spare tube, when a local man stopped to see what I was doing. It turned out that he was something of a Minsk expert, and gave me an impromptu lesson on the rear drive train and brake assembly of this vintage Russian machine. A tremendous, energetic practicality and an unquestioning willingness to offer help to others is a defining characteristic of the people in northern Vietnam.
A few days later, I attempted to cross a high pass in the province of Th’a Nugen and over to the valley of the Song Da, The Black River. The speculative ‘road’ I took was defined by the key on my large scale map as ‘unclassified/cart track’. I had travelled down such roads before, along the Red River north of Yen Bai, and expected the Minsk would take such a minor road in its stride. As I gained height in the lengthening shadows of evening, and the road deteriorated into single track too narrow for a horse, let alone a vehicle, I began to distrust both my judgement and the cartographic index of my map. At dusk I arrived in the remote White Thai village of Th’on Ban Doc, its bamboo houses clinging on stilts to a mountainside where neither roads nor electricity had yet reached. Before long, I was surrounded by several dozen children, all of whom watched me intently, silently fascinated by my northern European features and blonde hair. I was invited that night to stay in the village; a strange and unexpected guest in this quiet river valley high in the mountains of Vietnam.
Saying goodbye to my hosts the next morning, I felt fortunate to have been their first foreign visitor, but curious as to what Th’on Ban Doc might look like were I to return ten years from now. Would a metalled road replace the precarious path to the village? The subsistence-based agricultural system and traditional way of life here is made possible, at least in part, by its inaccessibility, which is a natural barrier to both tourism and outward migration.
As I turned the Minsk to the south and out of sight of the Da valley, I hoped that I might return in years to come and find the place unchanged: the smoke rising from those brushwood fires on the edge of the terraces, and the buffalo being led home along the river in the evening. But that, of course, is unlikely. And it's a Western conceit to wish the developing world might stop its development sometime to preserve places like Th'on Ban Doc as they once were. Today, Vietnam is a country of rapid change, spurred on by the massive economic growth of China. It is a subject of difficult conjecture how long a place like Th'on Ban Doc can retain its traditional culture in this uncertain world.
This essay first appeared as a talk on the BBC World Service. It was later incorporated into the longer travelogue piece 'Facing East' in David's 2013 book The Light Elsewhere: encounters with the elemental world.