Shortly after arriving in Hanoi, I decided to rent a motorbike to explore some of the tribal villages of north-western Vietnam. After successfully navigating my way out of the chaotic traffic of Hanoi, the journey gets off to a good start, making my way along the twisty hill roads, enjoying the lush scenery and the wind blowing in my face. The strange limestone hills evoke memories of the Vinales area of Cuba. I arrive to Mai Chau at about 3pm on Day 1, check in to a family guest house and take a shower to cool off from the intensity of the afternoon sun. I take a walk to explore some of the ethnic White Thai villages nearby, but instead get lost on a path past a brick factory, through the undergrowth for an hour or so, and to a tiny farmstead, the end of the path. I retrace my steps, take the bike out for dinner, and retire early.
On Day Two I make good progress towards Son La, stopping at a place en route for refreshment. The place has several stuffed felines and mongooses on exhibit and a garden full of weird cages. Creepy. As I'm sipping my Coke, a truck arrives with a large cage aboard containing a Lynx tied up to some kind of branch. It hisses, evidently stresses, as it's unloaded and transported unceremoniously to the garden area. Later, two game birds are unloaded from a nylon bag into another cage. I'm happy to leave this house of torture, and continue on my way.
Shortly before Son La, while I'm riding along happily thinking of lunch, a girl steps out a few yards ahead of me. I react, beep the horn, apply the brakes and swerve to avoid her... the front wheel of the bike locks up and the vehicle skids off to the roadside where some inconveniently placed rocks help it to tumble to a stop. I'm thrown off the beast and continue flying for a second or two, landing on my face, I think, amongst the rocks. After a few moments of dazed confusion, I check myself, find myself sprawled in an uncomfortable position in the fierce sun, and gather myself to the shade of a nearby shop front, where a small crowd accumulates around me. I take off my helmet and start to investigate the damage. My nose and mouth are bloody, but don't seem to be broken and my teeth appear to be in place. My hands, feet and shoulders have suffered nasty abrasions. Worst of all, my left knee took a big knock seems to be experiencing plenty of pain, I have difficulty extending my leg. My vision starts blurring and I feel faint as someone applies some kind of ointment to my wounds. I signal for water to drink, someone brings me the battered bottle that had flown off the bike with me. After drinking a little, my vision improves somewhat, someone brings me a bowl of water with which I wash my bleeding parts as best I can.
After a few minutes of attempted conversation with a girl who speaks a little English, I'm offered a ride to a nearby hospital on the back of a xe om (motorbike taxi). I inspect my own vehicle (it's front wheel is twisted), and leave it in the care of the little English speaking girl. Painfully, I climb onto the back of the xe om, and cling on with my eyes closed for the duration of the 15 minute ride to the hospital. I'm shown to several rooms where doctors and nurses look at me with diverse expressions. Finally, up two flights of steps I'm taken into a room, sat down, and have my wounds cleaned and dressed. I point to my knee indicating it's not quite right, they ask me to flex it, give me a thumbs up and send me on my way.
The xe om driver takes me back to his family home and signals for me to lie on a bed occupying half of the room, in front of a very loud TV. He disappears, I rest for a while, while his wife and children eat their lunch. Some time later, Mr. Xe Om reappears with an English speaking school-teacher who explains to me that I should hand over some money to get my bike repaired. I comply, and rest a little more. A couple of hours later, the bike is back, the repair seems just about adequate. I'm still not satisfied about my knee and manage to find a useful Vietnamese phrase in my Lonely Planet. "I want to go to a doctor"... "Tomorrow?"... "No, Today"...
We mount the newly repaired vehicle and I'm taken to another hospital a few kilometers away. Some nurses look at me with a mixture of pity and amusement on their faces, then I'm taken to a nearby school, where a crowd of school children laugh at me until their English speaking teacher appears. "I can help you", she says, and takes me to a room where I'm surprised to see an X-ray machine. I get a frontal and profile scan, for which I have to part with most of my remaining dhong. Back to the hospital, the nurses look at the x-ray, talk among themselves and appear not to be able to do much for me. I ask them to call the guy in Hanoi from whom I rented the motorcycle, who translates for us after I explain the situation to him. It appears I have a broken knee-cap. Mr. Xe Om wants some money for his services, as do the nurses. However, my cash situation is precarious, I hardly have enough to pay for fuel to get me and the bike back to Hanoi, assuming I could ride it there.
Eventually the xe om driver takes a lesser amount and the rest I manage to keep. The nurses take me out for dinner at an eatery outside the hospital, then I'm shown to a ward room where I may pass the night. I'm given a handful of colourful pills to swallow before crawling into my mosquito-netted nest.
On Day Three, I need to make my way back to Hanoi (with the bike) to seek professional medical treatment. Riding the bike back doesn't seem to be the best solution, but given lack of other means of transport and my precarious cash situation, I don't seem to have many options. I attempt to mount the bike, find it excruciating, and reconsider... again it appears I have little choice, so I try again. Trying to keep my left leg as straight as possible, I sit as far back on the seat as I can, crouching my body forward to reach the handlebars. Far from comfortable, especially with my pack digging into my bruised shoulders, but a workable solution. I take it easy, wary of all traffic, pedestrians, dogs, cows, cyclists zigzagging across the road, etc. Thankfully it's overcast, so much so in fact that at one stage I'm driving through a raincloud, cold and wet. Nothing appears easy. My left leg is only able to change up though the gears. Luckily, the bike has enough torque to be left in 4th gear for most of the journey.
Stopping only for fuel, a cheap oil change and a meal once I'm sure I have enough fuel to get me to Hanoi, it takes me 5 painful hours to arrive to Hanoi in what ends up being a fiercely hot and humid afternoon. Trying to avoid contact with other motorbikes proves difficult. There are thousands of them crammed into the 4 lane highway, each dancing it's little dance and heading in it's own particular direction, irrespective of what side of the road it's on. Inevitably I get lost, and it takes me another hour to find my way to the motorbike garage, where I return the bike and spend my last 4,000 dhong on a cold drink.
The guy I rented the bike from takes me on the back of his, first to an ATM and then to an SOS hospital where I'm given 5 star treatment, my own little E.R. cubicle, a complete check of vital signs, body temperature, pulse, blood pressure, etc. They X-ray my leg again and confirm that the knee-cap is still broken, allow me take a shower, then clean and dress my wounds and immobilize my leg. After almost 4 hours I'm ready to leave, but not before paying a painful bill. Travel insurance starts to look cheaper.