Breakdown on a two-wheeled Jalopy

The thing was a two-wheeled jalopy that's sloppy hack-job could have done Frankenstein justice. Side-panels lashed to the frame with twist-ties, mismatched tires, foam poking through the seat and handlebars peeking through the grips. Inexplicably, a front-plate below the blinkers read "Indonesia," even though we were in Huế, Vietnam — the crumbling ex-capital city of the centuries-old feudal Nguyễn Dynasty — hundreds of miles from the volcanic shores of those islands. I surveyed it with well-merited suspicion in the insistently dreary rain. Around me in the quiet, damp alley, proprietors of various guest-houses watched with interest as I tried to establish the most simple, yet most critical question in our minds: "Will it break-down?"

I have met many ambitious, hardworking Vietnamese during my travels, but the ethos of "good enough" is enjoyed in Vietnam as a common cultural mindset — a perspective on life that translates uniformly into everything, for better and for worse. This is an admirable way to live: The Vietnamese experience little discontent and tend to focus on what they have, rather than what they don't have. Yet when this perspective is applied to things like safety, reliability and mechanical quality, there can be problems.

One such problem had occured 16 hours before, in the Thừa Thiên-Huế countryside, when my previous jalopy, bearing the name "Thailand," had sputtered and died on a narrow, flooded road at the precipice of a moonless night. Surrounded by rice-paddies and the sort of silence one only hears in the middle of nowhere I had gone to the only light I could spot in the blackness to gesture frantically for help. My Phone, which typically would serve as a life-saving pocket translator in these types of situations, had conveniently lost reception only minutes before.

The mechanic, when he finally showed up, was a wiry local man of unidentifiable age and he sat on the ground with the owner of the small stilted hut we had approached for help. As the two men spat and smoked together in the sad drizzling darkness, I began for the first time to doubt that we would make our journey's end that night, over 150 miles North in the Quảng Bình province. On the ground surrounding us in the dramatic light of a fading 45-watt bulb were the disembowelled innards of our mechanic's own dilapidated motorbike, which he had gutted for parts almost immediately without hesitation. Both men were scratching their heads, and although I couldn't be sure — it seemed they had reached that point in solving a stubborn problem where one tries empirically wrong solutions over and over again in the frail hope that one of them will, for some reason unknown to mankind, work.

When you are stranded, especially in a place where you have no hope of diversion or otherwise entertainment, life becomes forgivingly simple. In the countryside there are no roadhouses to drink in, sights of historical importance or towns in need of exploration. There is a certain magic in the way it is possible to become infinitely patient, even meditative, while waiting hours on end for tires to be fixed, help to arrive, or local farmers to collectively conclude that your engine cannot be fixed.

Over the next 12 hours what followed was thankfully graced by such meditative complacency. After a sleepless night among bedraggled livestock on the porch of our mechanic's hut, I sat quietly on a small red plastic chair facing the rice-paddies while a still, rainy morning bled into an equally rainy afternoon. As hours slipped past, our mechanic and an ever-growing group of local men stood around and smoked while trying the same solutions again and again to no avail. At one point someone jumped on their bicycle to retrieve a part from the nearest city. By afternoon it had degenerated into a contest reminiscent of T.H. White's The Sword in The Stone. Each man in the group, which now spilled out of the dirty single-room shack and into the yard, would take a turn trying the kick-starter and the throttle as if when the magic touch was found the dead engine would spring to life, purring happily.

Finally, by late afternoon everyone had given up. Myself and my travel partner — a good friend who had sensibly purchased one of the modern, automatic scooters that are ubiquitous in the streets of Asia — helped me load our bikes into the back of a small truck and we took off back to Huế, the port from which we had come. After taking our money, the truck operator, who didn't have a license and did not want to risk being stopped and extorted by the local police, dropped us on the outskirts of town in the rain. We walked the final kilometres in dripping defeat with our bikes and we now stood in the alleyway of original purchase, as the well-meaning but seemingly clueless motorcycle dealer apologized and assured me cheerily that my new, nearly identical wreck of a motorcycle would start and run for the 650 miles up and down the mountainous country of Vietnam that I needed it to take me.

Options were limited and time had to be made up, so, throwing what little caution we had left to the wind, we slept the night in a guesthouse and departed Huế again, this time in the hopeful diffused light of the morning, for Đồng Hới and ultimately Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng, the land of limestone, where further adventures were hopefully waiting.