It was October 27th, 2012, and the sun was shining down on North Vietnam. My friends and I had planned a motorbike trip to the national park of Cuc Phuong, some 120 kilometers south. Due to the brilliant weather and my desire for a tan, I headed out in short shorts and a tank top.
It was one of the most spectacular drives I've ever taken. Once down near Ninh Binh, the landscape truly becomes magical – huge limestone karsts jut up from the otherwise flat rice fields. But one look at the sky, and we knew there was something brewing.
Approximately halfway there, the sun disappeared and towns looked boarded up. Just as night was falling we finally arrived at the park entrance, where we booked rooms at the first guest house on a lake. My English friend Tom had come along with his Vietnamese girlfriend. She turned on the television as we got settled in our rooms and washed up for dinner.
Breaking news: A category 3 typhoon named Son-Tinh has ravaged the Philippines, and is due to hit Ninh Binh by 13:00 October 28th. It was pretty clear to infer what the news was warning us, but thank goodness we had Houng to translate. No wonder the towns seemed desolate! Apparently we should have checked the weather report before leaving town.
As we sat down for dinner, electricity was out, the wind was howling and it had begun to rain already. Not overly worried yet, we felt more of an electric excitement. By candle light, we spent the night on our guest house porch, watching the storm, throwing back a few bottles of vodka and playing cards.
The vodka had a double purpose though. It was getting COLD, and most of us were ill-equipped for such weather. I didn’t even pack a jacket or pants. Over breakfast we strategized the safest way home. Pouring over a map of the park, we identified what seemed to be a way up through the mountainous park to bypass Ninh Binh on our return home. It was risky though. The huge mountains, steep roads, heavy wind and rain and the possibility of landslides and falling debris or trees were a real concern.
“Well at least we would get to see the park, instead of turning around and driving down here for nothing!” It was settled.
By 10 a.m., we were packed and on our bikes headed north through the park, as a ranger waved us farewell and good luck. Travel was slow, but gorgeous. After about an hour we reached a point where, according to the map, there was a turn-off to a road that exited the park. We were almost there!
Then it turned to a small dirt hiking path blocked off to motor vehicles… there was no way out. We rechecked the map; circle the area for a bit, wondering if we were mistaken.
The ranger that waved us off knew we were looking to exit north to avoid the storm, but didn’t bother to inform us that the road we saw on the map was not a road at all! There’s no other way. We must turn back. Fate would have us arrive in Ninh Binh along with typhoon Son-Tinh.
Already soaked and chilled to the bone and we were back to square one. It was noon, and there was another 120 km to go.
As the arduous journey continued, the elements got worse. The rain drops became like needles; the sting was unrelenting. It was the worst on our faces. It became near-impossible to drive. I had to squint my eyes so I wasn’t blinded by the rain, but obviously you can’t see when your eyes are just about closed. Sunglasses didn’t offer much relief either. They may have protected my eyes a bit more, but visibility was still depressingly low. I had on a face mask. They're practically mandatory when driving in Asia – if not to protect you from the pollution of the cities, to protect you from the dust and debris of the country roads and highways. So my rain-soaked face mask covered my face from my chin to the bridge of my nose.
When I attempted to put on the sunglasses, my breath came up and fogged them. It was an alternating hell of glasses or no glasses. And to top it off my poncho ripped in the wind.
You know when you’re in a car and a big gust of wind comes and you can feel it push your car? Well now imagine typhoon-strength winds pushing tiny 125cc motor bikes across highways! Surprisingly busy highways.
Being a fairly new motorbike driver, this was the holy grail of tests. We looked like drunks staggering home. A gust would come and send us traveling more sideways than forward. To counteract this, I drove into the wind, but when the wind subsided a bit I swerved back across the other way. After a bit of time I discovered another tactic. Instead of turning the handlebars into the wind, I just leaned into it. For a good amount of time, I was driving at a 75-degree angle. I wanted to give up so many times. Missing one day of work clearly cannot be worth this...but then again you don’t know my bosses.
It literally took every ounce of energy and concentration to stay safely on the roads. Cormac had a brilliant idea of stopping by a hardware shop to find some safety goggles. They worked wonderfully! Now all we had to do was continue at a snail's pace to get back home by nightfall. We trudged on and after six hours of fighting Mother Nature, we safely arrived home in Hanoi.