Jennifer Gampell
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Bangkok 10100 Thailand
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April 28-29, 2000

Personal Journey: From Hanoi to Hell and Back

One Woman's Motorbiking Nightmare With a Surly Frenchman and His Monkey

By Jennifer Gampell

Beware of French-Vietnamese motorbike tour leaders dressed in tight black leather pants. Especially those sporting blue berets and toting hyperactive macaques. My bumpy ride from liking Fredo Binh to loathing him covered 1,000 kilometers of dusty back roads in northern Vietnam. I signed up for a motorcycle trip anticipating a unique travel experience. It was unique, but for all the wrong reasons.

Lack of infrastructure makes independent travel outside Hanoi difficult, which is why many tourists opt for the cheap group tours offered by dozens of local cafés-cum-travel agents. Price difference seems to be the sole distinguishing feature of these two- to five-day trips to the primary tourist destinations. I'd already wasted two days of my vacation shuffling between the various cafés and trying to picture myself in a group of 12 to 30 Lonely Planet types who looked much better in North Face and Jansport than I do.

My vacillations led me to Ta Hien Street, a narrow alley in the colorful old quarter of Hanoi. An internet search had turned up #2A as headquarters of the local Minsk motorbike club and I thought it might be a quirky story. The second-floor biker club was moribund, but downstairs at a small oasis of macho Francophonia called Bar Le Maquis, Eurasian owner Fredo Binh was holding court behind the counter.

Thanks to my fluent French, I learned that the 35 year-old former Parisian had been leading motorcycle tours around his mother's homeland for five years. Coincidentally, Fredo and six other people were leaving the next morning on a 10-day excursion around the mountainous Sapa region, home to several of Vietnam's 54 ethnic minorities. Fredo waxed rhapsodic about his freewheeling adventures: itineraries based on whatever the group decided, slice-of-life sojourns en route with his many ethnic minority friends.Oozing Gallic charm Fredo implied I'd be missing a chance of a lifetime if I didn't sign up. "Will we visit the Saturday market at Sapa?" I inquired. Venturing off the travel café circuit sounded fabulous, but a shopping addict also needs her markets. "Don't worry," Fredo assured me, dragging deeply on his omnipresent cigarette. "There are village markets every day of the week. And much better than those tourist ripoffs around Sapa." That clinched it. I was going.

After a near-death experience on a motorbike in 1991 I will no longer drive one. Would Fredo let me ride on his? "Pas de problème," he said, though looking askance at my wimpishness. That would cost an extra $10 each day above the $20 rate. Other travel expenses (lodging, food, etc.) would come out of a communal kitty to which everyone except Fredo contributed. Divided among seven people, it would only be $10/day, he assured me. OK, so $40/day was steeper than the $12-18/day at the travel cafés. But they weren't selling spontaneous explorations off the beaten tourist trajectory, nor providing handsome chauffeurs with shoulder-length hair and delicately chiseled features.

An hour past the appointed 8:30 a.m. Monday rendezvous, only three people were drinking filtered coffee at Le Maquis: I, Fredo and a 28 year-old French computer programmer called Yannick. It was Yannick's first trip to Asia--a final bachelor fling before settling down to a self-proclaimed "ordinary bourgeois life" with his longtime girlfriend. The other four prospective travelers had apparently freewheeled off somewhere else.

Cri, Fredo's highly intelligent two year-old female macaque monkey, rounded out our little group. On meeting me she immediately vaulted onto my head and grabbed for my glasses. No fan of jumping creatures, I pushed her away brusquely and she glowered with anthropomorphic fury. Great. We hadn't even started out and the only other woman on the trip already despised me.

So Yannick and I could acclimate ourselves to the nuances of Minsk motorbiking, Fredo said our first day would be an easy 120 kilometers on paved roads to Mai Chau. To compensate for my weight, Fredo told me to lean forward on the ascents and backward on the descents.

"Leaning" on a Minsk transcends bending at the waist. It means converting two distinct focal points--my butt and Fredo's--into a single unit. Every time Fredo scooted forward and practically straddled the gas tank as we headed up a hill, I too must raise up on the pedals and slide over the hard ridge separating our minimally padded seats, all the while keeping my body clutched tightly against his. On the descent, the process reversed. If my movements weren't perfectly synchronized with his, cautioned Fredo, I'd destabilize the bike.

I adored every facet of that first day. The scenery, when I had time to appreciate it amidst all that scooting up and back, was spectacular. I didn't even mind the greasy pork-laden fare Fredo ordered for lunch although I'd requested noodle soup with chicken. Or that my share of the kitty was going to subsidize the serious beer-drinking and cigarette-smoking habits of two Frenchmen.

The ethnic Tai family we stayed with for two nights in Mai Chau lived in a beautifully maintained bamboo stilt house on the edge of the rice paddies. Appurtenances included thick mattresses, satin-covered pillows and all the oily bland food we could eat. (The latter washed down with copious quantities of potent homemade rice wine served in Mad-Hatter's-Tea-Party-sized cups.) Everyone sits in a circle on the bamboo-slatted floor while the host serves the men (grandmothers and foreign females also have imbibing privileges). We then clink our oversized thimbles together, toast "choop soo kway" (or sounds to that effect), and chug the fiery liquid in a single gulp.

Thanks to his semi-Vietnamese genes, Fredo could drink prodigiously at night yet wake up bright and surly the next morning. Tuesday we left our gear in Mai Chau and hit the road--a recently carved out dirt path along a river. Rocks, creek beds, potholes and rapid changes in elevation lent new meaning to the "leaning" concept. "Hang on to my thighs tightly, and don't let your knees flop out," Fredo kept snapping at me. Apparently I was disturbing the aerodynamic flow. "Won't that hurt you after a while?" I asked. Fredo retorted with the French equivalent of "I've got buns of steel."

Little did I realize as I washed off the day's dust back in the pristine outhouse at Mai Chau that the thermos of hot water and buckets of well water would be my last contact with sanitation as I knew it for the remainder of the trip. Yannick, who'd never been out of range of indoor plumbing, boasted that he could go five days without bathing. Personally, I can wear the same clothes for days but I need a daily wash!

When we stopped off at remote villages, Fredo spent most of his time "choop soo kwaying" with the village elders and even when he was around he rarely bothered to translate conversations into French. As we prepared to leave on Wednesday morning, Fredo summarily announced that the 10 days to Sapa was now seven days to Mai Chau, a lake and a national park because Yannick wanted to get back to Hanoi earlier than planned. (Maybe he couldn't envision ten days without bathing.) So much for communal decision making. And communality in general. The scowl on Fredo's face every time I inquired about the price of food or accommodation turned my simple curiosity into distrust. Why did a meal of fried tofu and cold noodles that sells for $.50 in Hanoi cost $5 at his friend's house?

Enveloped in thick red dust clouds, we roared across a network of dykes to arrive at a medieval wood and stucco farmhouse. The owner, a 60 year-old retired lacquer resin farmer, greeted Fredo like his long lost son. While the wizened wife fried our meat and vegetable evening meal in pork fat, I went searching for the washroom. A large well in the middle of the backyard constituted the bathing facilities. I pumped water into a bucket and found a sliver of soap sitting atop the beehive. After dinner and three hours of watching Fredo "choop soo kway" with his friends and Yannick, I was happy to crawl into bed under the mosquito net, even though I had to share the hard wooden pallet with grandma.

Thursday and Friday followed the now-familiar script. We'd ride all day on increasingly long and tortuous routes that culminated in a nerve-shattering Friday night drive up a slippery rock path with a waterfall on one side and a mountain on the other. All so I could watch the guys consume 17 beers and be shunted into a makeshift storeroom to sleep with a kicking and cover-grabbing maid. Thursday I washed in a lake. Friday I stood outside a hut, shivering with exhaustion in the drizzly night as I poured a saucepan of tepid water over my dusty corpus.

I thought friendliness was a prerequisite of tour leading, but Fredo's attitude toward me went from churlish to positively rude. "Here's your market," he hissed after we arose at 6 a.m. Saturday morning, rode a river boat for an hour, sat around for another hour while he chatted to people, and finally arrived at a small market selling produce, army fatigues and plastic hardware. The only ethnic aspect was the beautifully costumed Hmong shoppers.

By the time we headed back to Hanoi on Sunday, Fredo had stopped talking to me altogether. At lunch he pointedly turned his back while he conversed with Yannick. So when he invited me in for a homecoming beer after we pulled up to Le Maquis at 6 p.m., I practically fell off the bike. What a pleasant change after shelling out for his libations all week.

"Wow, how come you're so CLEAN?" exclaimed a young Chinese-American woman sitting at an adjoining table. She recounted how she'd stayed wet and muddy during the entire 10-day trip she took with Fredo and six other guys during the torrential rains last November. "It was the worst 10 days of my entire life," she confessed. "And not only because of the weather."

As we swapped trip experiences Yan described how Fredo had lorded his mammoth ego over her too. Like me, she'd been branded a petty spoilsport for not acquiescing to his self-centered travel agenda. She'd also felt guilt-ridden and somehow personally responsible for his ire. What a relief to discover that Fredo was actually an equal-opportunity jerk. Bending forward to grab my beer glass and toast a fellow Fredo survivor was the best "leaning" I had done all week!

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based writer.

Copyright © 2000 Asian Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell