Travel & Adventure Iron Buffalo: Returning to VietnamTen years have passed, and yet the most beautiful road in the country still beckons.
- Words Samantha Georgi, & Yelena Sophia
- Images Yelena Sophia
Adventure needs no path; it requires only those who are willing to push forward without the comforts of direction or expectation.
A decade ago, when Samantha Georgi and Yelena Sophia sold everything they had in order to live on the road in Vietnam, they did so to immerse themselves in a culture they expected to be charmingly different from what they were accustomed to. As they traveled on a pair of 1983 Minsks, they constantly reminded themselves, “If you do not push forward, you’ll be in the same place,” and they pushed forward until they couldn’t, then stopped and pushed again. When they returned to the States, they uploaded their stories and photos to a hard drive that was unfortunately misplaced and lost, until now.
Ahead of me, Sam suddenly veers around an oncoming truck, so I pull back; I trust her confidence more than anyone’s, but watching her barely dodge trucks forces my heart into my throat.
Yelena: The Minsks laugh with black smoke as Sam and I descend through the mountains outside of Sapa. No doubt these bikes, lovingly dubbed “Iron Buffalos” by locals, have been down these roads before. Ahead of me, Sam suddenly veers around an oncoming truck, so I pull back; I trust her confidence more than anyone’s, but watching her barely dodge trucks forces my heart into my throat. The stunning countryside burns in our eyelids. When we stop to admire it, a tribe of Vietnamese women approaches, and without hesitation, the closest woman hugs me like we’re old friends. Her strength is greater than her slender frame would suggest. Some of the other women want us to take off our helmets so they can feel our faces and skin, and fall into a laughing fit when they see my short, blonde hair; their wide smiles are dyed black per local tradition.
Samantha: At a street stand in Lai Chau we inhale banh mi. The sun has set, yet we push forward toward Muong Lay and the beginning of what we’ve been told is “the most beautiful road in Vietnam.” From Lai Chau we descend into a valley, shrouded in a heavy blanket of darkness, and the soundtrack to our ride grows louder as cicadas buzz by the thousands. We get small glimpses of Vietnamese evening leisure as we ride past vignettes of family framed in bamboo and board: some enjoy an evening drink around low plastic tables, others lounge in front of the television or relax in hammocks beneath their
The magic of the night turns ominous, a dark world full of monstrous trucks, bulldozers, loud tractors, and boulders. Rocks lurk on one side of the road, a black void consumes the other. Ravine, or cliff, or river? I can’t tell. I push on and realize Yelena is no longer in sight. I anxiously wait until one yellow light finds its way through the dust and bounces around the bend. Yelena pulls up next to me, her grey pants streaked red with dirt from a light crash. We plug along slowly, our bottoms enduring grueling punishment at the hands of hard plastic, thin foam, and neglected suspension. The dream that was our day has become a nightmare.
Yelena: Sam’s figure is small and obscured by the dust ahead of me. Her yellow handkerchief conceals a focused, somewhat concerned expression. We approach a stopped truck and overturned bike, and see that a man without a helmet has crashed face first into the boulders beside the road. The man stands up and stumbles around before taking a seat on a rock. His front teeth are missing, as well as a good amount of skin from his cheeks, chin,nose, and forehead. Sam and I search our bags for water and bandages, and as we walk toward him, he stands up, swaying, and starts to argue with one of the men near the truck. As a crowd begins to gather, the injured man picks up his motorcycle. Everyone tries to stop him, but he won’t be reasoned with, and he speeds off into the night.
Samantha: We keep riding until we see a well-lit, ramshackle structure, where a trio of scrappy dogs loudly chime our intrusion. When we greet three people sitting inside in Vietnamese, they are taken aback but welcome us to join them. No one speaks English — as would be expected in such a rural area — so we pull out an iPhone to use the translator app, and type, “We’re lost. May we sleep on your floor?” We will later discover that the message actually said, “You and I lost our things. Can we all sleep on the floor together?”
They look at the translation, smile, and exchange a few words, then they nod and point at the floor. We offer them money, which they reluctantly accept, and a woman clears a space in her humble shop amid flats of Bia Hà Nôi, tea, and sacks of rice. She lays down bamboo mats over the cement and then several blankets. We pull on our sleep sacks and do our best to doze off in the silence between trucks passing just outside the door. I pull closer to Yelena, grateful to finally be still.
We sit in silence, assessing ourselves and the place we find ourselves in. I take out my camera to get a picture of Sam looking out into the rain, and when I see her face through my viewfinder, something in me suddenly changes.
Yelena: In the morning we pack up as quietly as possible to avoid waking our hosts, who are sleeping just ten feet away, but as we load up the bikes, our hosts come out to see us off. Sam and I decide that however beautiful this road ahead of us may be, it’s not worth continuing, so we turn around and start to make our way back to Sapa. We feel defeated, and it gets worse when the clouds open and the rain begins to fall. We become uncomfortably aware of how unprepared we are, and we ride for as long as we can tolerate before seeking shelter inside of a large, exposed pipe at a hydroelectric plant.
We sit in silence, assessing ourselves and the place we find ourselves in. I take out my camera to get a picture of Sam looking out into the rain, and when I see her face through my viewfinder, something in me suddenly changes. I remember what brought me here, and I push forward through the feelings, and everything we experienced through the long, tiring night washes away. The sun peeks through the clouds and the rain slows, and Sam and I get back on our Minsks and start down the mud road to Sapa — or maybe somewhere other than Sapa, because it doesn’t matter when you’re directionless; it only matters that we keep pushing forward. The “most beautiful road” is behind us, for now.