We shared our four-birth cabin with a young British couple that was headed for the beach at Na Trang. The train left on time, and it wasn’t long before I was lulled to sleep by the rhythmic rocking and click-clack-click of the old train’s northward progress. I slept soundly that night, and the next morning, we bought hard-boiled eggs from a woman pushing a cart down the isle. I wasn’t used to Vietnamese money, and I gave her too much. Instead of change, she made up for the difference with a couple of extra eggs. At noon, we had rice and boiled cabbage.
Near the end of our trip, the old locomotive pulled us up through lush mountains, our already unhurried pace slowing to an even more casual 15 to 20 miles an hour. As we ascended higher, we were awarded spectacular birds-eye views of the rough, surf-carved cliffs far below. The jungle crowded in even closer than lower down. Soon, we reached the summit where thick fog limited vision to a few ghostly meters. The ride back down to sea level and the outskirts of Hue was shrouded in mist and a steadily-falling rain. When we reached Hue, around 4:30 in the afternoon, we were greeted with an unpleasant surprise, our bikes wouldn’t arrive until the next afternoon, which meant we’d have to spend an extra day in Hue.
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We gathered our baggage, hailed a cab and checked into our French-Colonial hotel a few blocks from the Hue Train Station. We had a dinner of soba noodles and shrimp at a small, street-side restaurant a short walk from our hotel. We had to squeeze or oversized bodies into plastic chairs that in America, would be more fitting for a kindergarten than a restaurant. Since we were waiting for our bikes to arrive we spent the next day sightseeing. There were Communist propaganda posters and billboards everywhere. Most showed images of Ho Chi Minh. He’s the George Washington, Abraham Linclon and JFK of Vietnam all rolled into one and his picture is on everything, even the money.
Hue was the scene of an epic battle between U.S. forces and the North Vietnamese during the Tet Offensive nearly 40 years before. The U.S. Marines spent weeks fighting block by block to retake the city. One of the most ferocious battles was for the provincial capital located in an ancient complex known as The Citadel. We crossed the bridge over the Perfume River to the north side of the city and had a look at where all the fighting had taken place. It was a sobering experience.
The next day, our bikes arrived and we spent what we thought was our last night in Hue, preparing for the trip south down Highway 1. We arose early and started out but soon ran into trouble. An hour outside Hue, we had stopped at a wide spot so I could investigate a rubbing fender when Mike made an observation. “Looks like your steering is loose,” he said, twisting the forks out of alignment to demonstrate. He was right, and I was giving the bolt a few degrees of a turn to tighten it when I heard a snap, and the bolt spun freely. I had broken it.
“Son of a...”
“That didn’t sound good,” Mike said. We traded knowing looks.
My heart sank. There was no way to steer the bike now. It was out of commission until a new part could be found. And we sure as heck weren’t going to find it out here in the middle of rural Vietnam.
As I fretted and fumed, Mike removed the stem and held up the tightening bolt. “Yeah, you stripped it alright. This bike isn’t going anywhere except in the back of a truck.” Mike went over to a nearby road sign and took a picture of it with his iPhone. Then I could see him making a call. He walked back to where I stood. “It’s all taken care of,” he said, “I got a hold of our hotel in Hue and sent them a picture of our location. They’re sending a cab.”
When we got back to our hotel, the manager took the broken pieces to a machine shop where a new part was fabricated. I reinstalled it, and the next morning, we really were on our way.