Leaving Dalat was a sad pill for us to take, because we had really gotten a chance to relax there. We had our routines, and though they were not exciting or crazy, it was nice. On the trip every day for us was new, crazy was our normal. We took a bus to Bouon Ma Thout to save money and for convenience. Our cab pulled up to the hotel and Mr. Chau was waiting for us. He ran across the road and gave us a huge hug. Next to him was a nineteen year old boy that he introduced as his son. They had driven up from Nha Trang that day with his son riding the second bike, then he was going to take the bus back. We went to our little local restaurant and had a delicious seafood hot-pot for like three dollars. We went to bed early because tomorrow was a big day.
Yvonne was sound asleep, and I was watching some movie when I hear loud knocking. I ignore it, figuring it was just some drunk people. KNOCK KNOCK! What the hell. I grabbed a towel and went to the door very annoyed. I open it and there’s two cops waving our passports around. They were a bit taken back by my barely there towel, in addition to my very pissed off look.
“Excuse me sir, are these your passports?”
“Yes they are, what are you doing with them?”
“Well, umm, it’s a visa th….”
“We paid for our visa, it was a pain in the ass and expensive, it’s right here!” I ripped the passport out of his hand and pointed at the visa.
He was like “umm, well, we need to see Yvonne Nol…”
I open the door to our room and they can see her sleeping under the sheets. “Do you want me to wake her up too?!” Then I close the door to a crack, they have their hand out like they want something. “Ok, well thank you for waking us and showing me that my visa is up to date. Good night, I trust that the passports will be there in the morning.”
I could hear a muffled sorry sir through the door, then they finally left. After posting about it on FB my friend Kuma told me it was normal for cops to go to hotels and look through everyone’s passports, then they try to get a bribe from tourists. That night was not a restful night to say the least.
Woke up early because this was going to be a doosey of a day, two hundred kilometers on one bike can be rough, but fun. We were a bit stressed out at first because Mr. Chau did not have our original bikes, in fact one was a scooter and the other had a different gear changing system, with a pivoted pedal that I had never used before. I had wanted a motorcycle with some power because we were going to be doing a large part if the trail in the mountains, so I was not happy. I had a friend pass away by falling off his bike, and I think about him every time I get on a bike. He was on top of the world, and a stupid accident ended all of it. So I am very careful with my speed, wearing a helmet, and just being as vigilant as possible.
The scooter was too small for both huge bags, and not to sound like a wimp, but I was not comfortable with this. I would be riding with Yvonne and my huge awkward shaped fifty pound backpack. The balance was all wrong, so I explained that this was not part of the original deal. Mr. Chau was apologising profusely, grabbed the bag and made an odd pyramid on the scooter, with the big bag going between his legs. This did not look safe for him either, and I was very near calling the whole deal off. Mr. Chau was emphatic, so I took my bike for a test spin. I stalled her out two or three times, but in the end I got the hang of the gear shifter and was comfy enough to go with Yvonne.
Getting out of the city is always the hardest thing to do. First thing in the morning in Vietnam traffic is pure chaos, people are zipping here or there, and there are numerous road crossings. The gear changer was made for small people so we stopped at a shop and they were able to lower it a bit so I could downshift. Not really sure how much farther down they got it, but the placebo effect worked because I felt more comfortable. When on a bike you need to be concentrating all the time, loose gravel can send you skidding across the road or a dog could dash under your wheel. I tend to clench the handle grips tighter than I should, cramping my back up. At least Yvonne has mastered the on the road massage while riding behind me.
The scenery on this leg of the journey was not as gorgeous as before, but the road was clean and straight, and we put some serious kilometers under our wheels. Passing tons of rice paddies, we saw odd wagons where the engine is where the water buffalo would be, and it’s filled with just about anything or anyone. There were plenty of water buffalos wallowing in the mud along the way. I love water buffalos. When you see one on the side of the road you know you are not in Kansas any more, or any western country.
After a long day of riding the bike, we arrived into a very dusty industrial town. We pulled right into the lobby of the hotel. The lobby was open, with water damage all over, a few beat up couches, and really could have doubled for a garage. It was not that pleasant, and after a long day, pretty disappointing. The first room we got was even worse, with a lot of water damage, a really dirty mattress, and nothing else appealing. I knew this was not up to Yvonne’s standards, so I chatted to Mr. Chau. He said this was the best around in this town, so we looked at their deluxe rooms. At least this room had windows, and was slightly bigger than the dump below. The bed was a bit cleaner, with no signs of bed bugs along the edges of the mattress, and had sheets that were only a decade old. We went out to dinner at a local place, and had fried rice and veggies, pork chops, and beers. Mr. Chau talked about the war a bit, how he worked with the Americans, and how life was after the war. He was constantly looking over his back, then in a low voice he told us as you get closer to the North, you have to be careful what you say, that there was still a lot of tension out there. People were giving us odd looks, so we decided to head off to bed.
After a few hours of driving we stopped in the town of Kon Tum. This was a very clean, pleasant little town, a sharp contrast to where we stayed the night before. We passed two woman lifting heavy poles and then slamming them down, again and again. I can only imagine how big their arms must be. It’s funny, sometimes you get the feeling that what you are seeing is a historic recreation, for a museum or history park. But no, it’s not a recreation, it’s real life. It’s surreal. These two woman were pounding rice to a powder, hour after hour in extreme heat. It’s amazing and beautiful all together, the way it has been done for thousands of years. We stopped at a giant long house, with an enormous peaked hip roof, that angles up on each end. The museum was closed, but there was a really nice suspension bridge crossing a river, just wide enough for two bikes. While riding across it you can feel it swaying in the wind.
Next we stopped in a ethnic village called Kon Tum Konam, on the outskirts of town, with a new long house being built . Watching these guys, fifty feet up on some of the craziest bamboo scaffolding ever, doing the entire roof by hand, makes me so thankful to be travelling and not on one of my roofs. In these villages the long houses are the heart and soul of the community, acting as the school, community center, and town hall. In the old days villagers would actually stay in the long house together. We wandered around, checking out the old style houses and atmosphere. We stopped at a store to buy a Coke and were invited to sit down and chat. The mother had a daughter who had married an American in Boston, so she showed us the pictures of the wedding. So then we brought out pictures of our family, and places we had been. Her niece, Hyak Kira, came along and spoke perfect English. The uncle had fought with the Americans, and told us some stories from the war. I wish we could have hung out all afternoon it was so enjoyable chatting to such a lovely family. Most people probably walk through in 15 minutes, and we were there a few hours. After that we checked out a gorgeous 160 year old wood cathedral called the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. It has a large porch sweeping around it and had beautiful woodwork all over it.
The second part of the journey we passed many bridges along the river, most of them so rickety that it would make some one nervous on foot, let alone on bike. On woman struggled with her wheelbarrow, trying to get it across. It got stuck where a few boards had snapped, creating a large gap in the planking. It took three people to get her to the other side, then another guy zoomed over it in his scooter. No way I was doing that.
At one of the bridges there was a family eating Jack fruit, a cousin to durian, a big cousin, so we sampled it. Jack fruit is monstrously big, growing on a tree, sometimes the size of a truck tire. The spikes are not as big as durians, with more rounded nubs, but the color is very similar. The taste is strong but a hundred times more pleasant than its nasty cousin.
That night we stayed on the border of Laos, in a small town. The view of the mountains at sunset was beautiful, and our hotel room was really nice. We brought the bikes in again for the night, and I took a bit of a wander. There was a market going on across the street, so I headed that direction. I love markets in Vietnam, there is such a diversity of food, some disgusting, some delicious. There are so many colors and textures, an orgy for the eye. I was impressed with the fact that we were pretty far from the sea, yet all the seafood looked like it was caught that day. They had a lot of wild game, like boar and venison, and some things I would never eat, like dog.
Well, I’m not going to lie, after the dog I was done with the market that day. I decided to get out of there as fast as I could. I was thinking a drink might be nice, but everything was very local, and nothing was grabbing me. Quite often I could not tell if a family was having dinner, or if it was a restaurant. You don’t want to just sit down in someones living room to eat without being invited. So I kept walking towards the border of Laos. I must have stumbled upon a barber shop row, because there were a slew of barber shops and hair salons. Kinda funny considering the town seemed like it only had about thirty or so buildings anyway, but hair must be cut, well, not mine though. I had decided I was not going to get one hair cut the whole trip, to save money of course, but I never said I would not get a shave, and my beard was getting bushy. So I wandered in and there were 4 or 5 kids in their early twenties Facebooking on their phones. I said hi and they all scrambled, and in sign language, asked for a picture on Facebook. Maybe they though I was Brad Pitt, it happens you know. So after some group pictures I pantomime a shaveing motion, well no problem there I got ushered to the chair and tilted back for the experience. On the wall at eye view was a fabulous painting of a naked woman, and I pointed at them and said nice boobs. Well they thought that was a riot, and swiveled me around to look the collection of naked woman posing, and one man too. I guess that was for their female clients.
He pulled out the straight razor, looking pretty clean and sharp, then it crossed my mind that he was not even old enough to shave himself. I got that butterflies in the stomach when I felt that blade scrape across the stubble on your neck. There is something seriously scary about having a razor knife to your neck. If you have watched any action movies in your life, than you have seen some gangster getting his neck slit from ear to ear on the barber chair, and here I was willingly opening my jugular for my young friend to slice.
The first stroke is always the worst, kinda like the first guy breaking trail in the jungle, hacking through the roughest of the undergrowth, from that point it’s just widening the path. The blade skips along the contours of your throat, taking hair and any bumps of skin with it. It’s not painful, but nor is it pleasant either. His buddy takes my camera from me, and I realise if he wants it, he can have it, because I was vulnerable as a new kitten. Instead he decided to send me home with a record of all the naked girls in the shop.
The only language I hear is Vietnamese, and your mind starts to pay tricks on you as to what might be said. After all, it’s not like we are in Philly now. A massive war was fought here, as everyone knows, and the Americans were the losers in that war. Worse yet, we committed so many atrocities in that war, with napalm, agent orange, and other chemicals, that children are being born with defects in huge numbers even today. I’m not saying that the Vietnamese did not do horrible things either, they did, to their own people and Americans, war is horrible for everyone, but they were fighting for their own country.
The next scrape gave me an involuntary shudder, as it nicked some mole, drawing a bit of blood. Now, who’s to say this kids father was not in the war, or grandfather, or wife, and possibly, some horrible thing happened to them. You see out here, everyone was effected by this war. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that if someone did horrible things to my family, then came into my shop years later asking for a shave, I might still be pissed enough to do something about it. Hell, look at the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys, that was just two families who fought for generations.
Well, lucky for me people are more forgiving than I, and generally have an amazing desire to move forward. The war was in the past, neither of us were born, and instead we had a great cultural experience. I benefitted with an excellent shave, and putting all my gangster fears on the line, and he got a funny story about the goofy hippy american who wandered into his shop. It was a win-win. He would take no money for the shave either, no matter how hard I pushed. It was a great, I recommend everyone try it.
Feeling smooth, fresh and clean, I met up with Yvonne and Mr. Chau, bubbling over with excitement over my gruesome market finds and shave. They yawned, nodded their head with a whatever Mike look, and we headed out to dinner. Mr. Chau is a master at finding yummy eats dirt cheap. We sat at a clean diner with round tables, and a woman in her thirties all done up in leopard print running around taking orders while her daughter brought food out. I had a local mudfish, which had a great flavor to it despite its name. I started sketching on napkins the woman running around, and her daughter noticed. She was shy, but spoke a bit of english, and broke out in giggles looking at the drawing. So the mother came over and stated posing, which got the patrons giggling. I then did a drawing of the daughter, and this got us samples of the home made rice whiskey, which pretty much tasted like gasoline. We were at the official beginning of the Ho Chi Minh trail, so we all did a toast to the beginning of our journey, Mot, Hai, Ba, YO!!!