In my experience, getting lost is often getting found.
It had already been five months into my 15-month journey at this point and I couldn't have been happier to be where I was. After crossing the border between southern China and Northern Vietnam, I arrived in Sapa, Vietnam; an exhausting 15-hour day of buses, borders, and not knowing whether I was going to make it through in time before the crossing point closed.
It was immediately apparent that Sapa was a beautiful place. The first thing I did the next day was to venture out to find a motorbike to explore the surrounding area with. I really had no idea where I would be going, but the winding roads were far too inviting to give it much thought. I asked the owner of the guesthouse for a brief description of how to get out of the town into remote areas. He knew exactly what I was looking for, a nice five-hour loop around the valley and hills, far away from the regular touristy areas.
I began my trip with high hopes. After about an hour and a half of driving, with his directions still relatively fresh in my head, I came to a small path that branched off the main road onto what appeared to be a well-trodden hillside trail. The guesthouse owner had explained this path to me quite descriptively, but I would later find out soon enough that this was not the best route to take. The path started off good enough; it was wide enough for two motorbikes if needed. However, hardly 30 minutes later, the path began getting narrower and rougher, and I began to realize this couldn't be a normal route for a day trip around Sapa. I made the decision to continue on in hope that if I kept going I would find a bigger road or some directional signs.
I was now past the point of no return, my dwindling gas supply eliminated the option of turning around and trying to make it back to town before dark. I had to keep pressing forward to in an attempt to complete the loop back to Sapa. To make matter worse, the path had transformed into what I could only describe as a dry riverbed and it became nearly impossible to navigate across the bumpy terrain. I fell off the motorcycle numerous times and began to get seriously worried about my situation.
It had been several hours since I had originally filled up my tank back in town and inevitably, my bike sputtered to a stop, completely empty. I was stranded in the middle of a valley, encompassed by trees and the creeping dark. The only solution I could think of was to begin walking in hopes of finding help. Luckily I didn't search for more than 20 minutes until I passed a group of young children on a hillside. In the distance there was a house that I assumed was home to these kids. They were, without a doubt, more confused with my presence there than I was, so they led the way to meet their father.
Fortunately for me, he was not only incredibly friendly, but he also had a retired motorbike sitting in a shed. The tricky part was trying to explain my situation to him in a way that he could understand. Through hand gestures and miming I managed to make some sense to him. Once he realized my situation, without hesitation he grabbed an empty wine bottle and drained his spare motorbike's gas tank into it. It was quite embarrassing for me to realize at that moment that I only had 20,000 Vietnamese Dong on me (about $1 US). I had been thinking, "this guy deserves everything I have in my wallet!" but he completely refused even the idea of me taking out my wallet. I was already blown away on my second day in Vietnam.
With a liter of petrol in my hand and renewed spirits, the last thing to do was explain that not only had I been out of gas, but I was also lost. I kept pointing in different directions and saying "Sapa? Sapa?" hoping he would clue in and understand that was where I was headed. He got the idea and pointed me in the direction, which happened to be in the same direction I had been heading. After returning to the bike and filling up the tank, I was back on track and more determined than ever to make it back before the sun set. I was fairly sure this was not the right path that the guesthouse owner told me about, but I had no choice anymore. I was in it for the long haul.
It wasn’t long before I ran into the next obstacle: a steep incline covered in slick mud. I tried several times to make it up, turning the throttle completely over, but continued to get stuck half-way up and kept sliding back down. With a final attempt I managed to make it half way and then jumped off and pushed the bike to the top. All of the failed attempts combined with this last valiant effort from the bike had unfortunately used up my remaining precious liter of petrol and I was stranded again.
By now it was getting dark and things were getting serious, it was time to start running to find help. I ran for 30 minutes before I arrived at a small village with roughly 5 houses. Someone had seen me coming and rushed up to me, but they were telling me to leave! I tried to explain to him that I was lost and needed petrol for my bike, but with the black and white language barrier between us I just caused more confusion. I couldn't understand why this person was so adamant that I leave their village.
Someone had seen me coming and rushed up to me, but they were telling me to leave!
A small woman heard the exchange and came out of a house speaking in broken English. She explained to me that a Shaman had just visited their village a few hours ago and cleansed all of the spirits and ghosts away from it and that my presence would bring them all back. I felt like some 'foreign devil' at that suddenly, intruding and desecrating their community. Fortunately the woman was able to semi-communicate with me and understood my situation. Just as before, they drained a motorbike and filled up a wine bottle for me. I later learned that wine bottles are a common way of storing petrol in Asia. With no animosity between the village and myself and having understood both sides of our problems, I happily left back down the darkened road that would later join onto the highway back to Sapa.
I finally arrived back at my guesthouse with an angry owner wondering why I was so late to return the bike! I quickly changed the tables and confronted him about how his directions were inaccurate. He phoned a friend to confirm that what I was saying about the road was true, and as it were, the original path he recommended had been shut down for 2 weeks now: obscured by market stalls. I had taken an old donkey trail.
Nearly nine hours had passed since I left, but the trip turned out to be a highlight of my entire Vietnam experience. It was a wonderful introduction to the hospitality and friendliness of the country with some humbling moments shared between two cultures that could hardly understand each other.
Written by: Mike Loffler
Mike is a 25 year old from central Canada. He has been travelling extensively for the past two years. In-between trips he plays the guitar and works on music projects, as well as works to save up money. You can find more of Mike’s work right here on YouTube and flickr.
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Before you go, check out this video Mike made of his 15 months across 20 countries!