backpackers v. the elements, part two

Our shoes have only just dried out from the Sapa saga when the time comes to lace them up for the next adventure: a trip down Vietnam’s northern coast. The journey lasts seven days and snakes us southward by way of sights relevant to the war, backpacker hotspots, and a string of impressive caves. 

This time, thirteen other travelers from around the world are along for the tour, which is led by a guy called Jonny, an Energizer bunny-type character who taught himself English by watching BBC News clips on YouTube.

The first five days fly by. Our group gets along fantastically, and with the exception of a minor bicycle accident, a flat bus tire, and some misplaced insulin medication, the tour goes off without a hitch. We get a history lesson at the Demilitarized Zone, stretch our legs inside one of the world’s largest caves, and survive a night bus sleeping in what are essentially stacked dentist chairs. 

  

One thing does stand out as a bit of a bummer: the weather. 

Everyday we wake up to an overcast sky. Nights are chilly, days are foggy and windy, and though we’re visiting beautiful locations, we’re constantly repeating the refrain: “Can you imagine how pretty this is on a clear day?” 

The sun hasn’t shown itself once by the time Day 6, the penultimate day of the tour, rolls around. Day 6 is supposedly the pièce de résistance: an eight-hour, 145-kilometer scooter ride from Hue to Hoi An that hugs the coastline and takes us along the famous Hai Van Pass. 

Since a brigade of sixteen motorbikes would be absolutely absurd, we’re told to buddy up and ride two to a bike. Kim and I are among the more experienced drivers, so we split up and each take a new friend on the back. Ainsley and Emerald, two sweet ladies similar to us in size, agree to trust us as their drivers.  

The night before we’re set to leave, we’re all at the hostel bar playing trivia when our fearless leader Jonny appears and starts doling out ponchos. 

“So… we ride tomorrow rain or shine?” One of the girls asks. 

“Yep,” Jonny says firmly. “Sometimes it rains a bit. But never the whole time.”

Our journey thus far has been very cloudy, but it hasn’t rained once. We hastily tuck the ponchos in our bags and get back to trivia, not giving the rain a second thought. Where is the largest religious site in the world? Is it Thailand or Laos that was never colonized by a European power? 

After a little healthy competition, we hit the sack. 

I wake up the next morning to the sound of Kim zipping up her raincoat. 

“Hear that?” 

We stare at each other in silence. A robust pitter-patter, pitter-patter fades in from the background. 

“That’s not the air conditioning?”

“Nope,” Kim forces her lips into a smile. “It’s pouring outside.”

As fate would have it, the sky has picked today of all days to run like a faucet — and as Jonny warned us, there isn’t a rain plan. There’s one way we’re getting to Hoi An, and we know it. So, we whip out our best “can-do” attitudes, gather our bags, and head downstairs to meet the group. 

“Never the whole time, never the whole time!” Jonny choruses as all fifteen of us slip into matching fluorescent ponchos. “The rain will stop,” he repeats with conviction. 

We pair up and climb onto our bikes. Kim and I offer our passengers a few reassuring words — which are as much for them as they are for us! — as we start our engines and zoom off into the looming raincloud that lies before us. 

  

It takes less than thirty minutes for every one of us to be soaked to the skin. Even a drizzle does damage when you’re driving at forty-five kilometers per hour. 

An hour passes. Two. A flat tire, a bathroom break. Three hours into the trip and the torrential deluge is still going strong. One of the guys even changes into board shorts. 

“One more hour and we stop for lunch!” Jonny shouts back, rallying his troops. 

Emerald and I sigh with relief, sharing dreams of tea and a roof and a chance to dry off. We’re wet, cold, and windburned;  a warm lunch has never sounded better. 

But it seems we’re gonna have to sing for our supper. As we head into our last pre-prandial push, the relatively smooth asphalt suddenly becomes pockmarked with potholes. Then, the asphalt disappears altogether, and we’re on a dirt country road. But the road isn’t really dirt anymore, due to the rainfall; it’s pure mud. Although, as you probably know, mud doesn’t hold water weight well; it softens and buckles, forming puddles. So, basically — before we know it, we’re driving through water. The chatter dies down as everyone laser-focuses on navigating the tricky terrain. 

Luckily before too long, we pull up to a clearing, and Jonny tells us to park our bikes. 

“Whew!” Kim beams at me from behind the rain-spattered shield of her helmet as she hops off her bike. “That was the best obstacle course ever.”

But though we’ve successfully maneuvered a muddy minefield, we don’t seem to have arrived anywhere. There are no restaurants, homes, or even tarp-covered areas in sight. 

Drenched and confused, we park our bikes and wait for Jonny’s marching orders, holding out hope that shelter awaits.   

 

“Lunch is up here. About one kilometer,” Jonny says, pointing to nothing and herding us like a pack of wet dogs up the hill. 

A few short minutes into the hike and our already slippery journey gets taken to a new level. We find ourselves traversing a waterfall, teetering and tottering from crag to crag in our soaked-through shoes and motorcycle helmets. 

“It has never rained like this…”  Jonny says with a bit of a laugh as he offers his hand to help us across. 

I believe him. There’s no way this would still be on the itinerary if this kind of weather was typical. 

 

At last, we arrive at a wooden hut precariously supported on stilts over rocks and a rushing stream. There are no walls, so we’re still completely outside — but hey, it’s a roof! We peel off our outer layers, determined to dry off just a little bit before getting back on the road, and sit down for some surprisingly scrumptious fish. 

But we can’t linger for long. We’re still about eighty kilometers away from Hoi An, and it’s already after 1 PM. Unless we want to drive in the rain and in the dark, we better get going. 

We shimmy back into our soggy socks and shoes and slickers and tear ourselves away from our dry haven. Once more unto the breach…

The most exciting part of the journey is ahead: the Hai Van Pass. Vietnam’s equivalent of the Pacific Coast Highway, it’s a famous scenic route, and a veritable playground for daredevil drivers. 

We’ve accepted the fact that our experience of the pass will probably be more on the ordinary side. On a day with zero visibility, the scenery certainly won’t be all it’s cracked up to be, and we know we won’t be barreling around curves as a crew of eight bikes, especially since some of our drivers are only moderately experienced.

But even though we miss the acclaimed views, our journey through the pass is anything but ordinary.

The moment we hit the coastal road, the wind picks up. We’re pushed side to side by the force of the gusts, fighting to control our bikes as we zigzag out of one sharp curve into the next. We look over the bluffs at a grey sea so tempestuous that it looks like one that might’ve inspired the Homerian whirlpool in Book 12 of The Odyssey.

Our helmets have shields, but they’re so wet and smeared that they actually do more to obscure our vision than to help it. Water runs in rivulets down our cheeks as raindrops pelt our bare faces at 30 MPH, stinging like pricks of pins and needles. 

And so much for the beginner’s pace I assumed we’d be keeping. Jonny must be absolutely flooring it up in the lead! I know we’re racing the daylight, but we’re fully flying up and down and all around this pass, no holds barred. 

Just when I’m certain that it’s only a matter of time before we’ll all be coming down with pneumonia, hypothermia, or gangrene — a slightly warm breeze blows across the backs of my frigid, pruned hands. 

“Did it just get warmer?” I ask Emerald, my eyes a little brighter.  

“…Maybe?” A quivering voice says back to me.

And just like that, the rain stops. The fog thins out, the wind dies down, and everyone takes a deep breath. 

We pull over at what according to Jonny is the most spectacular view along the entire pass — and although we can see almost nothing beyond the road, we’re in good spirits since we’re sure the worst is finally over. Kim and Ainsley even take off their ponchos. 

  

Which turns out to be a big mistake — because just fifteen minutes later and the rain is back in full force. 

We’re through the pass now, so the terrain is at least more straightforward; the final thirty kilometers take us mostly through flat city streets. But we’re in such a rush to reach the hostel before nightfall that we don’t have time to pull over and let everyone suit up in their rain gear again. We have to push on. 

“I’m not gonna make it,” Kim says through chattering teeth as we pull up to a stoplight. At this point she’s been poncho-less for over twenty minutes of downpour. 

“Two minutes! Two minutes!” Jonny cheers us on. We’re so close we can taste it. 

  

Thank goodness he wasn’t exaggerating. 

Exactly two minutes later, we arrive at our hostel in Hoi An, moments before dark. The staff greets us with free beers as we huddle around an outdoor grill like cavemen who’ve just discovered fire for the first time. 

Blue-lipped, we check into the hostel, thrilled to be indoors and giddy at the prospect of a hot shower. Even our bones feel cold and wet. 

Jonny makes a point of congratulating us all, repeating again that it has never rained this much and sharing his genuine shock that there were no accidents. The probability of one of us crashing must have been astronomically higher than on a fair-weather day, and we all made it out alive — even a little exhilarated. 

“Do I wish it had been sunny? Yes,” Kim muses, digesting the day. 

“Does it make for a great story that it wasn’t?” she continues. “Yes. 

“And — do I feel infinitely more badass having done that?

“Absolutely.”

  

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