We’re in Cat Ba Beaches!

Heading to Cat Ba Island, Vietnam
October 10, 2013

Have you ever heard of Halong Bay? It’s east of the capital, Hanoi, and rests as a port-cum-destination spot. Rich in beauty, tranquility, and one of the reasons that swayed my decision to visit Vietnam. At least that’s how all the pictures on the computer portray it to be and today was the day that it was all coming down to.  After travelling 2300km across the country we had another 150 and we’d be there. All across the country we talked to folks doing the same journey- a mere fraction of them on motorcycles, but scaling the entire country North to South/South to North nonetheless. Although not quite as badass as us. We asked and received a lot of feedback about the famed Halong Bay and a consensus came out that it was a filthy port, touristy and over priced. Wow! Dreams just came crashing down on me! Well, not really, but taken back a little. After looking at a map, you can see an island further out past the bay of Halong. An island that was surrounded by a Roy Litchensen painting of untouched islands. It was like Halong jacked up on steroids.  I had to go there. And to make matters even more in our favour, an even closer port took us to this new island. It was cheaper, less touristy, and less of a drive on the AH1. Fucking jackpot! So in the morning we had a new destination, one that included hopping across two islands and riding the span of each until we came to the farthest eastern tip. To a land of exotic langurs, white sandy beaches, national parks, 360 degree sea views, and a network of newly paved roads that mirror that of any Italian backstreet raceway.  A land called Cat Ba Island.

The road out from Son Tay to Hanoi was straight forward. 50km on a straightaway that lead to the south of Hanoi. Then since motorcycles aren’t allowed on the highway we had to skirt the perimeter and ride underneath the underpass stopping at every red light for 30 to 50 seconds only to be held up at the next. Lovely. Quite the dynamic from the past month on the road, but it’s all part of the battle. And in order to get the pie you have to buy the ingredients.

We had this to look forward to

We had this to look forward to

Along the side of the highway waves of women were perched on the railing like crows, all scrolled out for miles, all selling the same fruit. Something that resembled a lime. I didn’t really get it. It just seems a little trite to sit around all day, day after day, with no way of standing out from your competitor. It was a crapshoot that someone’s tires would stop in the 20 feet of highway you occupy, one foot further and it’s someone else’s limes they are going home with. Not one person had a sign. No one had a deal going on. At least no visible deals. And no possible way to know anything about the said limes unless I pulled over and asked. But then I’d feel compelled to pull up to the next and try to get a better deal.

And this!

And this!

Eventually we exited at a roundabout and found ourselves on the right path after being lost and grumpy for an hour or more. And would you believe it, as soon as we turned off the highway the lime salesladies morphed into baguette salesladies but the technique was the same. And on it rolled for a few kilometers with a dozen vendors all selling the same buns. We passed them too. Then a stretch of restaurants with workers all standing street side with fans in their hands causing a big stir and waving people on in. We zoomed right past. The road was another straightaway – 80km in 30 kph traffic. You do the math. I had my eyes glued on every marker counting the seconds it took to complete a single kilometer. Hai Phong was the name of the port we were to catch our first ferry and it seemed like we would never get there. But we obviously did.

The town of Hai Phong was a refreshing break from the monotonous escape of inner city blues and battling trucks, traffic and pollution. We probably couldn’t have spent more than a day there, but it was still refreshing. We navigated the town for thirty minutes trying to find the port swerving through back roads, uwee’s, and on and off  and on and off the bike

Our babies waiting for the boat

Our babies waiting for the boat

fixed on the cursed GPS until we finally found the road. A road that turned out to be pure shit. We were under the impression that the road to the ferry would be paved with gold, saddled up right along the sparkling blue waters filled with flapping birds and flopping fishes the entire way until we rode our bikes onto our maiden voyage that would sail us to our deserted island. NO! It was nothing like that. The road to the ferry was an industrial wasteland. Surrounded by huge factories and ship yards with mountains of colorful shipping containers pieced together like children’s Lego blocks. I once saw a home built from twelve pieced together shipping containers spaced together like two T’s pointing outward and an open family room in the center covered by a corrugated tin awning. A true work of art in sustainable development. Driving past, I thought about building my own container home in nature. Three stacked, one on the other, with a spiral staircase running from the ground on up and access to the roof to gaze out at the tops of trees  and sliding doors that open up to your own environmental oasis and full windows on each end to let in buckets of natural light. But my reality was dust blinding our faces from the debris from a thousand and one trucks schlepping product A from country Z and every letter in between. We pushed on until the road died at the water’s edge and then found our ferry by gazing down the shore.

WE MADE IT! ...to ferry #1

WE MADE IT! …to ferry #1

It was cheap. Three dollars would to get us to the first island of Cat Hai. We docked after a short effortless expenditure and geared up to cross the island before boarding another ferry to our destination. We drove across in one slug and saw everything the island had on display. It was an island that was on the brink – but I couldn’t tell of what. I felt like they Travel Vietnam making friendswere building the whole island over although it was still in its primary stages. Which is odd because the island wasn’t born yesterday. I had an eerie feel that the island could never sustain growth because every time they got ahead, a natural disaster occurred that set them back to ground zero. Cat Hai is filled with grandparents that look older than the island itself all sitting around like containers of paint. That, and a bunch of workers in fields and in floating tubs at sea tending to their tendables. We found the ferry and boarded for $2.50.

We docked at Cat Ba and road off climbing the forested bluffs with bleating mountain goats, then dipping to sea level to cruise against beaches and then zigzagging up and up

Gross bug that got stuck behind Louis' eye

Gross bug that got stuck behind Louis’ eye

along those sexy s-curves that skirt mountains like the brim of a hat. We rode for thirty minutes until construction brought us to a halt. They were blasting mountainside to give way to wider roads and an antique crane was using its arm to sweep boulders off to the side. We played cards and waited. When it finished we passed and cruised into town and found an $8 hotel after the manager hailed us on the street. It was on the 5th floor and overlooking the harbour. We saved $2 by cheaping out on the AC – we figured the breeze would be just fine. It was. We ended up at a restaurant filled with foreigners. The most we had seen since Hoi An. It was called the Noble House and we would end up there for dinner almost every night.

Travel Vietnam Cat Ba clearing roads

We had been riding since 8am and hadn’t stopped until 7pm. So we dedicated that evening to sleep. Only to have Michael Douglas screw me in the morning. And it wouldn’t be his last.

On the road again…see ya Dong Hoi!

Dong Hoi, Vietnam to Tan Ky, Vietnam to Son Tay, Vietnam
October 8-9, 2013

I’m not going to say it’s about time…but it was about damn time. If you have been following our posts you’d know that Michael Douglas and myself have not always been on the

See ya Dong Hoi

See ya Dong Hoi

greatest of terms – but as of late he has been the eggs to my baguette. No problems. No hiccups. Just pure cruising. Which is why it was about damn time for Katie’s bike to hiccup. And in my kind of fashion. She had begun to strap her bag on for our extended day on the road when the hotel manager came out and pointed to her flat tire. BAM! BAZINGA! OOOOH! OOOH It was sweet! I mean, I’m sorry baby…really, honest and sincere. Ok is she gone? Yes? Well damn I take it all back! WOOHAA! Michael Douglas high-fived me while Katie unstrapped her pack and left to get her tire patched. All in all it was a dollar and a twenty minute set back, but it was sweet. A beautiful day to start a long haul on the road.

KT Edit: Yep, I finally knew what it felt like to wake up to a flat tire. I was annoyed. I didn’t wan to deal with it. Ohhhhh bike problems, curse you!

Since we fell in love with the ease and simplicity of the Ho Chi Minh Highway over the chaos and bedlam of the AH1 – we hopped at the chance to get right back on Uncle Ho and ride his ass all the way north. For the first hour it was all the beauty we expected from retracing our tire marks from lore…and the seven hours that followed were possibly even more majestic.

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The whole trip long I’ve battled the battery game with my camera and every time I reach the epic most unbelievable view – the ol’ camera says sorry folks this one is for your eyes only. Either way, I saw, lived, rode & experienced the pure enchantment that is the HCM Highway. All the roaring climbs and gliding descents, the hairpin turns, forests so lush andSAMSUNG CSC never-ending that they all eventually blend into one immense emerald ocean. Passing villages that consist of only two neighbours and towns that rest their heads along fulcrum of a mountain. And millions of everything between here and your ideas of civilization. And as you ride past these slow, other worldly towns you wonder how anyone ever settled here and said this is where I am going to live…and actually did it. It’s unbelievable beauty. I just couldn’t imagine the obstacles of creating a world in the middle of nowhere. It’s surreal. Perfect. Calm. It’s everything I have been searching for. The entire day was filled with wonderment. All 350 kilometers of it.

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We ended up in the stop over town of Tan Ky after checking out a couple creepy hotels SAMSUNG CSCwith child drawings on the walls, cobwebs so large I thought the room had already been occupied, and stucco replaced with wallpaper. We apologized and found another. We ate dinner for the sake of it. It had been 9 ½ hours since we had last eaten and I think I ate the freshest chicken in town. Behind me the next batter up was being beheaded as we ate. He didn’t sound too pleased.

The next morning we woke up and could only find a coffee joint. Neither of us were really hungry so after taking out some money from the bank, we hit the road. Yesterday we hadn’t hit a single stop sign in or along our eight hour drive and today seemed like it was going to follow suit. Our destination was an unknown town called Son Tay. It was 50km from downtown Hanoi and 300km from Sapa, a mountain town that we heard had an SAMSUNG CSCamazing stretch of highway leading up to its mouth. The ride was, well less. It was still beautiful. And the day was great. But we had began to emerge from the untouched landscape. You could begin to tell we were heading for the nations capital. The ride was nice though. No traffic and the two red lights we approached turned green before we got to them. And then it happened. Our first red light. That mother scratcher. Over 500km without being forced to stop and bam it hits you. Well after that 17 second hiccup we got back on the road and eventually made it to Son Tay found a hotel and hung out in a café chatting with family and writing postcards until it was time to settle.

We also changed our flight. We decided to head to the island of Cat Ba over Sapa. A plan that would save us two days of travel and a smoother plan of execution out of Vietnam before our visas expired. So after being landlocked for the past week it was back to the beach.

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Paradise Cave – Man’s Second Last Frontier

Dong Hoi, Vietnam
October 7, 2013

Para-Para-Paradise!

We negotiated a deal at the hotel. So low that the manager had to come out and whisper because guests filled the lobby. We got breakfast included for an extra $2 each, as you guessed: eggs and baguettes. We ate, grabbed a map from the hotel and spun out of Dong Hoi to the Ho Chi Minh Highway which would lead us all the way to Paradise Cave. The road was everything we had been looking for. Foreign. Scenic. Empty and fucking twisted.

Yasss Yasss Yasss!

Yasss Yasss Yasss!

We passed further trail of destruction by typhoon Wutip. Rubber trees bent on end. Toppled power lines lying face down in the mud. We shruggingly continued. Since the highway runs through the interior of the highlands, big rigs and transportation vehicles are few Travel Vietnam badass usand far to be seen. Leave them on the AH1 along with all the other cursing drivers. And since the road was showing vacancy we roared our biked up to 70-80km, which is like racing the Daytona for a Honda Win. And the entire hour and an half we kept the bikes revving at max until we rounded a turn and were slapped in the face with the epic Phong Nga National Park mountain range. A mountain range of dark misshapen humps of ten thousand roaming oxen. An abacus of bushy green peaks and valleys – all masking the white rocky karst.

Travel Vietnam Lou touches Oxen

We entered the park and ended up at a dead end. Not your average dead end though. This dead end was caused by a giant mountain standing straight upright like a ladder when you clean your gutters. And a waterway than ran into a mouth of the mountain. Unfortunately, we were on the opposite side of the waterway. The side lacking the nautical vessels to guide us into the caves mouth. It was the wrong cave anyways. We turned around, maneuvered over a cobble passageway and lit out. It turns out we took the wrong turn. We had our bearings and exited the National Park with the route to flank the parks enormous perimeter.

Travel Vietnam Phong Nha national park

We found our entrance twenty minutes down the road and we took it. This road ran along the ankles of the mountain range and was home to its own secluded village on the banks of a stream that pulsed from the mountain. Winding along the country road we passed a church, restaurants, wandering ox, and hedonistic plains filled with chickens and ox grunting and clucking and rubbing their horns into the cool black mud along the turquoise streams embankment until the water swirled with black debris. Then we passed the funeral of a child. In a tiny casket sitting on the seat of a motorcycle, hands from the village pushed the bike along with the rest of the village in trail. All with solemn faces. We slowed our motorbikes to a snails pace and with sloped eyes and pouty lips shared our condolences. We passed, sped up and pointed our bikes onward as if we were flowing down a funnel.

We found a sign and made a right. It led us to a parking lot where we paid and bought tickets before climbing the 800 meters up the side of a mountain. There was a small opening with a staircase that we had to traverse as if being swallowed by the moon. We

Not the entrance you'd expect!

Not the entrance you’d expect!

walked inside the mouth of a hollow mountain. Our eyes bulged as if we had just uncovered a lost treasure. But instead of gold, diamonds and rubies, there were stalactites like giant earthy fangs, flowing rocks as fine and detailed as a single strand of hair, and tiered plateaus filled to the lips like a stone rice paddy. It was as if a magic trick had been uncovered before our eyes. Pure. Sweet. Flawless. No human could mimic that of a million years of the earth’s diligence. We oohed and awed ourselves through the first kilometer of the cave. The farthest distance allowed out of the 31 it is deep. And with peaks as high as 100 meters and a width as wide as 150 meters there was a hell of a lot of oohing and awing going on. We climbed out and back to sunlight. The second time on the trip where we had to re-enter civilization.

Travel Vietnam huge cave

 

Travel Vietnam cave eek

The ride back was just as peaceful and serene. That night we ended up at the same restaurant eating the same meal. Katie a bowl of pho and myself a plate of pho xao. A dish of wok fried noodles mixed with a mélange Viet veggies and thinly sliced beef all dressed in a splash of soy. We had 600km to Hanoi and tomorrow we planned on taking a hefty crack at it -  and this time without the faintest idea of where we would end up.

Travel Vietnam cave wow

Cemetery Cattle, Typhoon Wutip, & An Underground Village

Hue – Dong Hoi

I always find it hard to sleep the night before hitting the road. I’m sure it has something to do with the excitement, the eagerness to explore. I usually find myself standing over my pack looking to lighten the load or pawn clothes off on the locals. I guess it’s a selfish way of giving, but nonetheless it goes the way.

I find pleasure in having all my means strapped to my back. It adds a level of simplicity to life while adding value to all your possessions. Another one of our pleasures is swapping books. A generous amount of hostels and hotels shelf little libraries accumulated from the tourists passing through, and if they are not free to swap, they have a small price tag or are offered at a 2 books to 1 exchange. I’ve seen copies of On The Road at a hotel in every country I’ve visited. That says a lot about the world traveller. We are an intrinsic breed. Downstairs I swapped a copy of Dante’s Inferno for Kerouac’s masterpiece and introduced it into my life for the second time along my travels.

I tried being as quiet as ever packing and sorting my belongings, but it’s damn near impossible. I’ve proven the theory time and time again that the quieter I try to be, the more noise I end up making. I zipped up the last of my bags and grabbed at my pad and pen and inched out the door with the bottle of rhum in my hands – leaving the door cracked just enough to assure I don’t go and do anything stupid like lock myself out. I tiptoed over and flicked on the outside light which triggered a gang of pool hoppers to throw themselves guiltily from the pool and over a tall stone wall. The thump felt like it left an impression. I went over to the edge to assure them I was no lark and that I’d have been on board had I been apart of their crew. But alas it was too late and they were off. Now it was out of my hands so I sat down and poured a drink.

I just want to touch it!

I just want to touch it!

Living out of a different hotel every night has me in a fit of nostalgia over finding value in something familiar and my friends faces and laughs and history start making their way into my thoughts. The crazy, full of love and wild energy of Ryan and Scott. Jordan who I grew up with and spent every waking hour. All the hiking trips and peaks and long winding paths traversed side by side with Adam. And all the other characters that found their way into my life. I think the remedy for this nostalgia is to get a good conversation in – and I’m going to make it a point to do that over the next short while. For now, I have bought ten postcards and have written five that I will send out in the morning alongside an oil change and breakfast.

KT Edit – the reason for L’s quietness and seemingly slinking through the night is because I often (ok almost always) fall asleep before him, leaving him to his writing devices.

This day brought the crossing from South Vietnam to North Vietnam

This day brought the crossing from South Vietnam to North Vietnam

We left the room in the morning and ate our typical breakfast. We’ve been eating it the whole country wide and today was no different. The coffee was good too, which is always a good way to start the day. I enjoy a cup. Hell, I could drink coffee all day long. But I could just as easily have a tea or nothing at all. I get no kicks from drinking coffee aside from digging the taste. I’m no slave, you dig. I wake up with enough energy to get me through the day and night without running to the nearest kettle and saying fill me up. That’s Katie’s routine and I’m happy to join her. I merely enjoy the ambience of being seated in a restaurant. It’s a small comfort. A moment of the day to relax and be waited on. Restaurants are where I get some of my best writing done, just simply sitting back and observing all the chitter chatter and hustle of the streets and everybody bustling to and fro with the ebb and tide of the nine to five and overtime and beautiful life where everyone’s outside of their respective homes forced to co-mingle and get along.

Wedding traffic jammed the street as busloads of women flowed out in flamboyant sequinned dresses and men in sharp western suits. They disappeared inside a hotel as a photographer shot blanks at the façade for his ritual white balance. I cruised out of the city of Hue with a roaring smile on my face and a thousand songs in my heart and I bellow them into the wind.

Travel Vietnam Oxen

We pulled off the road and down a long concrete path that led to a cemetery drawn in a sea of green. As we got off to park, the land around us had been over taken by roaming Travel Vietnam cemetary cowscattle as if they were there to pay respect to the deceased. I haven’t thought too much about death and the eternal resting place. I’ve brought it up jestingly while immersed in nature which such quips as this sure would be a nice place to be buried. But that thought is a little saddening. All alone at the top of a mountain, though surrounded by beauty, I’m alone. And putting all my faith in the afterlife, I feel a comfort and sweetness laying my rested bones beside my family for eternity.

The owner of the herd of cattle came peddling up and greeted us with a cheerful smile, posing for photographs and left him enamored at our height. He kissed Katie’s hand. I think he was ready to make Katie his wife. Unfortunately we are on a schedule. We hopped back on the road and lit out to Vinh Moc Tunnels along an unblemished slice of highway naked of police, radars, traffic lights, and speed limits.

Travel Vietnam photoshoot cow man

Travel Vietnam cemetary cow man

Travel Vietnam cemetary cow man 2

 

 

 

We took a turn off the highway and found ourselves once again riding along the coast surrounded by rice paddies, farm houses, and life frozen in time, which ultimately means dirty faces, worn out soles, aging farm equipment and warm friendly people. It feels good to be home.

Aw guys, don't go!

Aw guys, don’t go!

The road to the tunnel was a 6km trail sliced through a forest of rubber trees that had faced the brunt of Typhoon Wutip. Swarms of workers were clearing brush and making order out of the trail of snapped limbs. We came to the end and parked at a home-cum-restaurant outside the grounds entrance. We paid the fifty cents and entered.

From 1966-1972 this land, which from plain sight looks nothing more than flat forest with a few meandering paths, housed over 60 families right below my feet. The pathway leading in is laden with a row of makeshift kiosks selling cola’s, water, chips, and snacks like a goddamn amusement park – all attended by cut throat female vendors that would sell out their neighbour for a nickel. Unfortunately, it is no different country wide. Money is money in the land of ‘Nam and everyone is out there to get it.  We passed them all and kept following the path. Unknown at the time that the man ahead of us was going to act as our guide.

There's an entire village under this land

There’s an entire village under this land

We entered a ratty museum that housed a spectrum of artifacts; from tools used for digging, to the bombs they were digging to get away from. Two children followed us around the museum with hands out repeating the word money. We left and the man waved us over to enter the tunnel. We followed ducking our heads into a world of Travel Vietnam Vinh Moc tunnel entrancedarkness without the faintest idea of how it was possible to live, raise families, eat, or love in this congested tunnel. We carried along with our heads slung like heavy parcels. The guide would stop and describe a families living quarters we were apparently standing beside in this abysmal underground city – and it wasn’t until Katie took a photo (with flash) that we could imagine the living conditions. Each family room was nothing more than a six by four chunk dug out from the main tunnel. No door. No privacy. No light. This room was meant to sleep four or more depending on the size of your family. We carried on. We passed a meeting room fit for sixty people. Washrooms. A maternity ward. Bomb bunkers that sank even deeper into the earth. A water well. And ventilation tunnels. They even dug a drainage system beside the walkway for the flooding. And there was flooding. It wasn’t even rainy season and water was seeping from the roof and running its course. The only time that light shone was from Katie’s flash. I was in utter astonishment of the survival instincts. Children were born in these tunnels, 17 in total. Couples married. Life went on. These tunnels became life. We both felt the weight of what we were walking through – yet it was still difficult to grasp knowing that I would be walking out at my leisure to get back on my motorbike.

Underground latrine

Underground latrine

The tunnel exited by the South China Sea. Once hidden by nature and shielded from the 9000 bombs the US dropped over the years. Vinh Moc sat just north of the DMZ on the North Vietnamese side. It faced constant brutal attack which can be seen by the bomb craters left above ground. And it was only because of these people’s desire to live that they fought. They fought the only way they could. Which was by defence. I asked the guide if his family lived in these tunnels. They had. Everyone in the region had. Why would they leave? They fought to survive and this was their land. As we left tunnels and rode away on our bikes, everywhere we looked around had been affected. But without proof. There were no signs. Homes had been built or rebuilt. Roads connected. People carried on. They even smiled, waved and shot peace signs as we cruised by. I smiled with a new found respect and suffocating weight in my heart.

Humbled, we road all the way to Dong Hoi and found a hotel for the night ready to take on the caves in the morning.

Unceasing beauty

Unceasing beauty

Yes Hue!

It took a little while to get our bearing out of Hoi An. It’s been a running theme for us to wait until our bags are packed and the roads just sitting there ahead of us, open, tapping its Travel Vietnam closeup Louwristwatch, with an enough already sort of chagrin. That’s about the time we actually open up a map. I wasn’t in the mood to look at any maps. I was in more of a fuck it lets just ride kind of mood. Which doesn’t really help any situation. We had been about three minutes out of the city when we pulled over to grab the GPS when a motorcycle pulls up. Now, I’m gonna be flat out when I say that I know I’m getting grumpier and more cynical, but sometimes I just plain don’t feel like making small talk. Hell, I never feel like making small talk and I’m not generally a rude guy, but this trip has been shifting my gears. So we’re sitting there on the side of the road when a guy pulls up and makes with the usual where ya from sort of bit…ok buster, enough’s enough. I’m just pulled over minding my business. There’s no need to get into my life story and it really makes no differenceTravel Vietnam Hai Van Pass KT what my name is to you. I’m tired of it and just want to get on the road, on with my day, and out of this damn town that has eaten up the last ten days of my trip. I hold my breath while Katie does the talking and he assures us that if we just go straight for 200km we will be at our destination. That’s it. That’s all folks. He smiled a big joyous helpful smile and took off down the road. He didn’t try to rent us a room. Offer us a ride. Nothing. But there I was shooting down his kindness. I wasn’t going to let him be kind. I’ve been tricked time and time again and now I’ve jumped into assuming everyone is wearing a mask of deception. A mask of greedy personal interest. A mask of what’s in it for me. I’ve been tricked into running from kindness. I apologized by giving him my final attention and thanked him, and again when I passed him on the road.

The road was your average Vietnamese road. Which means 100 different things all in rotation. Riding through the streets is like looking at old family photos on your projector, but on repeat. It’s beautiful the first time. And the second. Maybe even the third. But then you start noticing the smalls things in the photos. And you nitpick them. Each town Vietnam wide has about 10 buildings on repeat; hair salon, cellular phone shop, pho or rice joint, café, hotel, mechanic, corner store, baby clothes shop…hell maybe it’s only 9 on repeat. Either way it’s the people and the piglets that make the drive exciting; and the scrappy puppies and oxen that don’t give a fuck about you or the traffic or the whip coming down on them. It’s all this that makes the trip exciting and then you have endless mountains looming in all directions like they are waiting in line at the checkout with a cashier in training.

One of the many friendly Viet we met

One of the many friendly Viet we met

On the road to Hue we zoomed past Marble Mountain without stopping. It was too close to Hoi An to stop, we needed to zoom today- but it left me a little upset that I didn’t check the Lonely Planet to see what was close around to explore for the ten days I spent relaxing. I chalk this up as a fault, but something that ultimately I won’t regret when the end of the trip rings near. Marble Mountain sounds exactly as its moniker. It’s a goddamn marble mountain. You can climb it. Look over the edge. Sit on it, if you like. Or sing a tune and see how far it carries. We passed it with our eyes. By the foot of the mountain, shop after shop after shop sold marble statues of Buddhist gods; Shiva, Brahma and the other one.

Mm yes, chicken internal organs please!

Mm yes, chicken internal organs please!

We kept zooming. All the way through Danang which seemed like a pretty hopping city. The town was built on a river and three giant bridges connected it to the other side. One of the bridges was lavishly decorated with an enormous golden dragon that wriggled from the top rungs to its underbelly that ran below the bridge, snaking almost to the water, only before raising, and lowering again. We ended up crossing on another bridge. It wasn’t the same.

Hai Van Pass

Hai Van Pass

The road out of Danang followed the coast and we drove a good 15 minutes along the gulf without a car insight. It led us all the way to the Hai Van Pass. A monstrous mountain with a Travel Vietnam Hai Van Pass shrineroad sliced off the edge like an endless piece of cake. Up and up and up we swerved, taking turns with a delicate lean as if our bodies were being dipped over the edge in a foxtrot. The view held me captive. It was captivating. The bends gave way to multi billion dollar views – towering mountains like green skyscrapers; endless lumber scored the land and I thought about the billion dollars I could have in my pockets if I chopped it all down and sold it to Hilroy. I decided to let it live and just kept riding.  Each bend folded in and out of beaches and towns that looked a fraction of their size. We kept riding higher. Then it came to its peek and broke, broke, broke downward falling for 12 minutes past mountains wearing hats made of mountains, and big brother ocean patting little brother mountain on the back since birth – best of pals they are.

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We conquered it all in one swoop and road off to Hue (HWAY). A drug dealer welcomed us to town and even escorted us to a hotel that was sandwiched down a small back alley. He waited outside while we unpacked and reminded us that whenever we wanted drugs,

KT buying drugs...of the poem variety ;)

KT buying drugs…of the poem variety ;)

that he was our man. We thanked him and checked in & took a load off for a short while before heading out for dinner. On the walk we met a street corner poet selling his poems printed on 8X11 white paper. Katie bought one for 50,000VND. He pulled out another sheet. One he was extremely proud of as he pointed to the signature Umberto Eco. A woman had passed his poem on to Mr. Eco and in return he received a letter of gratitude for the poem that stirred his heart. The poet even offered us a ride around town not as a tour guide but “for our pleasure” – He was one sweet little guy.

We ate Chinese food then walked along The Perfume River. A river that got its name from the sweet smell that drifts downstream from the floating petals that overflow from buoyant orchards. All along the river booths were set up selling snacks and little trinkets and cacti and paintings and belts all on rotation.We walked for hours and ended up back at our hotel in a deep sleep.

Citadel

Citadel

The blinds won the battle and we woke up a couple hours later than expected. We left the room, found a restaurant serving eggs and bread, and then spent the next 45 driving in squares about an impenetrable Citadel.  We eventually found a parking spot after crossing a moat and paid a ticket attendant who we think jived us for 5000 Dong. After we parked we had to walk ¼ around the building to a further entrance.

Moats on moats

Moats on moats

Inside the first building a luxurious golden thrown sat risen above ancient wooden planks. The enormous room was empty aside from tourists, no photography signs, and 40 or more giant cylindrical pillars holding the roof in place. The citadel had been destroyed by the US in attempts to save it from the Viet Cong who had occupied it for three weeks during 1972. SAMSUNG CSCIt’s funny that it takes destruction to set a people free. Or does it? It’s best not to tempt the US. I was searching for truth, trying to get a feel of what life had once been like 200 years ago walled inside of a world of politics, philosophy, arts and aristocracy. We walked and climbed our way across the sprawling grounds, knowing both enveloped in morbid thought that we have walked the same paths where men and women stood and  fought and cursed and cried and bled and crawled and died. We found a lake in the north east corner of the citadel in as much despair as the remaining Travel vietnam hue citadel pondtemples-turn-ruins. The water flooding past its broken perimeter as if it was the crumbling stone that had raised the tide. I am blessed with the glimpse that I was allowed today and I can only dream of its once peaceful past. We left the grounds humbled and passed once again over the moat to rejoin the outside world. We drove over to a restaurant on an island to get a drink and cool off in the days extreme heat. We sat and read and wrote and drank for hours; Coffee with Baileys and cans of ice cold Huda beer.

Travel Vietnam Hue reading

This is what I wrote:

With my legs crossed

On a wooden stool
At the fork
Of The Perfume River-
The water folding like origami
Fused with a scope
Of blues and pinks
Drawn by hints of night sky.
Hand crafted vessels
Lay asleep along the skirts
Tired as the hands that built
These archaic beasts
With primitive tools
I’m on a mission
To unearth the unknown.

A looming motionless flag
Raising itself like a student chosen in class
Stands guard above the tortured citadel
Opposite the river
Once a home to emperors
Artists and intellectuals
Once a dream and vision
Once chaos and destruction
The unfortunate formula
That haunts the murky waters
That drifted past unable reach out its arms
And put out the fire
And now the vessels run tours
In search of tombs
Imitating Indiana Jones
For five dollars
I cringe inside

We left the restaurant after the DJ spent thirty minutes of mic checks and mot, hai, mot hai, mot, hai, mot, hai, tsss…tsss, mot, hai (the equivalent of 1,2,1,2) trying to get the reverb on the karaoke machine just right. If it wasn’t that mans first day on the job I’d like to see that he was taken out back and shot, reprimanded or belittled – and I am totally alright with any one of those options. The evening was capped with dinner at this delicious vegetarian restaurant; huge plates of roasted corn, fried tofu, spring rolls and noodles and sauces for next to nothing. It’s beautiful to get what you crave. We went to sleep full and happy and were once again deceived in the morning to the hidden sun. It was time to head north.

Ancient doorways of the Citadel

Ancient doorways of the Citadel

 

FINALE – THE MAD HATTER OF HOI AN

Well the past ten days have been relaxing, but I was beginning to get an itchy feeling to get back on the road; the wind, the wonder of where & what’s waiting for us and all the piglets and oxen and endless unknown landscape along the way. Don’t get me wrong Hoi An has been great, a wonderland with time spent on leisure walks through the patchwork streets entering art shops and café’s for coffee, reading on the white sandy 

Travel Vietnam Hoi An beachbeaches on wooden lounge chairs that are free to use if you buy a $1 beer, waking early in the morning with the intent of getting efficient time to abuse the buffet, watching locals try their luck at homemade arcade games where you have to smash a planter pot with a club after walking to find it blindfolded, and being harassed in the market for garment and shaves and eyebrow waxes which Katie fell victim (KT Edit: eyebrow threading!), and learning how to make a tie from a woman who learned from her father who learned from his father, and searching for books at Randy’s Book Exchange, and Travel Vietnam Hoi An eyebrow threadingcraving Indian food at Ganesh, and holding hands in the night along the rivers and through the streets and in old quarters and beside and throughout the mob of vendors selling the world on their shoulders, and sleeping an entire day away by accident, and every other waking minute sipping all you can drink American coffee at Dingo Deli and gazing out at every dish that passed by our seats until we dug into roasted veggie focaccia’s and chicken caeser salad sandwiches and bowls of hand cut fries and more coffee even when our coffee went cold, until ten days slipped through our fingers…I Travel Vietnam Hoi An BOOKSwas beginning to get the itch to hit the open road…the uneasy feeling that I’ve been in one place for too long…when it was time to pick up my hats. I zipped over to the shop and there he was, cap on his head fiddling with the last of my order. They untied a garbage bag and inside burst with the rainbow that made up my hats. Each print stacked in tens. It was incredible. To see my vision in full form. The inside of the hats all fitted with opposing fabrics. The elastic back. The short brim. The wild colours. I tried one on. The brim flipped up on its own. They were beautiful. I checked the seams. The stitching. Each hat was identical in shape and cut. Although each one was unique because of the layout cut from the fabric. I was now the owner of 60 hats. All mine. Still without a brand. Although I had a list of contenders: Faifoo. Regimio. Gush. Backwoods. Pines. And the ever favourite SweetLou. Either way, I have a lot of time to think about it since I’ll be on the road for the good part of a year.

Travel Vietnam Hoi An tiemaking 1

Travel Vietnam Hoi An tiemaking 2

Travel Vietnam Hoi An tiemaking 3
They grabbed a calculator and we worked out the price. It was in the ballpark of 4 million dong ($200). I broke out my wallet and handed them eight 500,000 bills and I could see at that moment that all the troubles had been worth it. It had cost them next to nothing considering I was purchasing all the fabric and running around. All they really had to pay for was the thread, rivets, elastic strips and plastic brims. The project had to be somewhere in the 95 percentile of profit. And if you read earlier I told you that monthly wages ranged from 1.5-7 million/month. Well in five days he had made more than half of that. We thanked each other. Perhaps me even more enthusiastically than them and with the bag in my hand I ran back to the hotel to show Katie and have a little fashion show.

Travel Vietnam Hoi An Flood

A typhoon just missed us, but the river flooded while we were there!

That night we packed our bags. It was time to leave. Ten days in Hoi An was wonderful but we were on the brink of overstaying our welcome. So the next morning we Travel Vietnam Hoi An shipping hatspaid and lit out for the post office. It weighed in at just shy of 6kg and cost me $35 to ship by sea all the way to Canada, which they said would take three months. Hell, I don’t care how long it takes as long as it gets to my mama’s house. And with the load off my shoulders and our bikes geared up we set out for Hue ancient citadels and Dong Hoi and provincial parks and enormous record crushing caverns and onto skimming the waters of Ha Long Bay and its thousands of stalagmites and earthy islands jutting forth like prehistoric mammals that froze while coming up for air and onto Sapa and 10,000 feet in the sky and dining with hill tribes with eyes flowing from my head like two gushing waterfalls and onto Laos and Cambodia and Thailand and Muay Thai and Buddhism and meditation and yoga and the search for wild monkeys and the piece of the magical puzzle that I’ve been holding from you…only because it hasn’t written itself yet.

Like Ken Kesey and Neal Cassidy and the band of Acid heads that explored their minds and America inside the cavity of a converted school bus…we too must go further.

Travel Vietnam Hoi An SeaTravel Vietnam Hoi An Sea 2

 

 

 

THE MAD HATTER OF HOI AN

Hoi An is famous for tailors. And if that wasn’t enough the whole town has to tell you. Every minute of everyday. It’s impossible to leave your hotel without a woman on a bicycle on your trail like a hound on an ambushed quail. What’s funny about the ordeal is that the

Tourist on tourist on tourist..

Tourist on tourist on tourist..

women want you to follow them to there shop. Although I haven’t let myself been dragged down that route, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was on the other side of town. Yah, let me walk 20 minutes to your shop when there are fourteen in front of me that I’m not going into. Blasphemy! But hell it’s all in the name of the game. And it must work if they are out there. That is unless they’re on their last desperate legs clinging on for dear life. If I had a heart I’d say let them live, but you have to wean out the weak. Darwin baby! Too many dealers saturate the market and no one makes money. While it just gets fucking annoying. It’s lose-lose. A terrible cocktail when your town’s livelihood is centered around one product.

After the women, we are faced with the bicycle & motorcycle shops, restaurants & corner shops spokespeople, endless motorcycle tour guides who call themselves Easy Riders, more tailors and a hailstorm fruit & sunglass vendors- all hell bent on making a sale. It takes about two minutes to walk to the first set of lights before entering the town and we start everyday with the same routine “No thank you…Sorry sir…Nope, just walking…It’s ok I have my own bike…I’m from Canada. It’s my forth day here…Nope not even tomorrow…No, I’m not looking for clothes…I’m sorry I don’t need shoes…that’s ok! I’m full, but thank you! No tours, just walking! I’m from Jamaica. I live by beach! I really don’t want to come in your shop! I’m not looking for anything…thank you! No I don’t need a suit. I’m sure they are beautiful, but I don’t want one! I just ate a banana! I have sunglasses thank you. No, I’m sorry I don’t need two pairs! NO! NO! NO! NO! NO! (insert aneurism)”

Why am I still here I’m sure you’re wondering? Well, the town is just too damn enchanting. Now that’s not a word you hear me throw around too often. Check for yourself if you like…go ahead I’ll give you a minute.

All the tiffs aside, Hoi An is pretty chill. I mean hell, we ended up staying here ten days. Which was more my fault than anything. But while we waited there was much to take in. The puzzle-piece streets all share the same feel and design. The town has

Traditional vs. Western Medicine

Traditional vs. Western Medicine

an old-world-Asia dynamic with a symmetry that flows from building to building all slapped in a couple of coats of a rustic yellow- think adding a little soy to your mustard. Equally dressed in harmonizing antique wooden beams and storefront signage as if tailored by the same fabric. It’s a weird and wonderful uniformity that creates a magical Disney-esque feel. At night lanterns illuminate the streets and satisfied people. Alongside the river ancient women sell dreams for a dollar. Singers sing songs and play with the crowd whose eyes grow with foreign erection. Cafés serve up ice cream cones to mothers and backpackers and grandparents and children all excited for their first lick, who ultimately are dreading their last. The workers loosen their ties as much as they can and all is beautiful for those with full bellies.

The last ten days have all blended together, woven with chocolate banana pancakes for breakfast, flowing in and out of shops in search of funky fabrics and profitable relationships, lantern-lit strolls, and sipping coffee and 15 cent beers playing hand after hand after hand of rummy 500 and dreams of hats…hats…hats!

Japanese Covered Bridge

Japanese Covered Bridge

THE GREAT FABRIC & TAILOR HUNT

Ahh but alas…on to my newfound obsession…dream….project…venture…making-it-rain racket. I haven’t had too much success in the past. Particularly because I have the attention span of a bobble head. It’s more of an un-attention that has festered throughout my lifespan. But I always step back up to the plate…strike out or not…I’m always up swinging.

So, back to hats! The idea came to me on a walk. Somewhere after a bombardment of vendors attacking me with a condor’s grip, I started thinking a suit would be nice but it’s just going to get all crumpled up in my pack. So I thought about what I could get made. Something smaller, something that I could get a lot more use out of than a heavy suit. Then it hit me! BAM! Like a spike through Jesus! HATS! I’ll get a hat made. And so I was on a mission. It was quite easy actually. And even though I only found two hat makers in town, which included one that was rude to his wife. Well that and he was charging twice the going rate of the other. So I found my man. I still don’t know his name, but his wife’s name is Huong…she calls me Sweetlou.

After showing him the hat on my head I told him that I wanted to make a duplicate using a different fabric. He understood and pulled out his cotton roster. I wasn’t digging his selection so he pointed me to the fabric market. We agreed on a price if I supplied the fabric and I asked for the dimensions. I learned that you can make 4 hats out of 1 meter (1 meter also makes 4 ties). Each one 30cm by 140cm of fabric. I also learned that a baseball caps brim is 7cm. I wanted to make my hat a little unique so I cut the brim down to 4cm and hauled ass to find some fabric.
Travel Vietnam Hoi An hatmaking

I didn’t even make it to the fabric market. I was approached by a woman in the fish market who followed me, asking me the usual questions, so I gave the usual answers. I’m from Canada. No, not Vancouver…about one hour from Toronto. But this time I answered yes to her next question.

EDUCATION FOR DUMMIES

I pointed to the tie around my neck. But before we get into that, you need a little education. Education is important you see, because without it you are ignorant and I don’t like to keep my readers in the dark. So I’ll tell you what I said without further education and then I’ll fill you in…here we go. I said so close to verbatim I’ll just go ahead and quote myself. “I want this fabric” I SAID POINTING TO MY TIE “same- same. If anything is not same-same I don’t want it and we can stop right here. Same-same blue…same-same flowers…same-same everything.” She said something to the tune of Yes, of course follow me. I knew not to get too excited because I am educated you see. Now it’s your turn.

If you go shopping back pretty much wherever outside of tourist Asia you will get a similar answer in and around I’m sorry we don’t have that fabric, but I can show you something else if you like. This in turn leaves you in the driver seat. It’s your decision whether you go with the person or not.

Bowties on bowties on bowties...

Bowties on bowties on bowties…

Knowing that this woman is possibly just riding me along, you know a one trick pony just tramping the laps for ol’ times sake, I decide to follow her because she’s cheery and actually knows where the market is. We get inside, and to quantify for simplicities sake, let’s assume there was a scale from one to chaos. It would be somewhere in the you gotta be fucking kidding me.

Immediately upon entering I was bum rushed by a wallop of mothers with raging hard-ons to shirt, shoe, shave and suit me. I grabbed a tight grip on the woman as if she was a lone plank and I had capsized. I slid through the market rejecting all the mother hens with the old I’m sorry I’m with her point & nod.  Alas we found her nest and by gollyTravel Vietnam Hoi An fabrics would you believe it…she points out about every other pattern aside from the one draped around my neck. “Not same-same” I said shaking my head…”Not same-same”. Although it didn’t come off as whiny as it now does on paper. It was much firmer and macho- you had to be there. Well I’d love to tell you the story ended there so you could get on with your day instead of listening to me talk about fabric…but it doesn’t…I ended up buying a half a meter of a similar one after they tried to swindle me on triple the price, but I play a tough game and did my research and knew the market rate for cotton. September 2013 market prices for locals on durable cotton is in the ball park of $4-6 bucks a meter, with a discount if you buy in bulk. The market price for a foreigner on the same strip of cotton is $6-8. The lady highballed me at $7.50 taking me a rook. So I came back at $3 for a half, which was a fair price for me and for her. She waved me off. So I was done business with her. I carried on until I found another fabric for $3. I was on a sort of fabric kick and all I could envision was a hat for everyday of the week. Then month. Aww sweet Derek Christ! Why not start a business? Surely I can get a discount if I up my meters and I can turn this into a full fledged business.  Everything seemed great except the thought of having to deal with these sharks at the market… I needed an in.

KT Edit: So where was I during all this fabric-chaos, you’re wondering? Well, sure as Hell not in the market with Lou! I avoided the cloth market, and spent my day reading while my computer had a spaz attack, crashed, and rebooted. It seems to have recovered, thank Nguyen.

BRANDING & CRUNCHING NUMBERS

So I had the fabric and I had the man. Now I needed a personal touch. But what? After little delegation, Katie said why not Sweetlou, my nickname, and then I threw in circa 1983- the year I was born. Pretty fresh. Bam! Now I needed a leather man. But how were they going to imprint it on the leather. I was itching for it to be stamped or branded.

I met the woman the next day. She was selling leather shoes. Inside her shop she had scraps and I asked her how much it cost for a small strip of leather and if they do branding. They didn’t. They embroidered. She said I could choose any leather and fabric and we agreed on a price. Although it was high! But for a couple of hats I could justify. If I wanted to start a business, this was one area I’d have to cut down the cost. Her name was Thuan, and over the week I popped into her shop everyday.

Thuan’s a wonderful woman, 40ish, two boys, 9 months and 7 years, and she works 29-30 days a month from 8am to 9pm and sometimes later if she’s in the middle of a sale. She’s worked to the bone day in day out but knows that everyone else is too and that If she doesn’t perform it could be the axe. Fortunately, things are going well for her and the stores flipping a lot of soles- just some shoe humour. I asked her about wages because I’m interested in world dynamics and she asked me to guess. Hmmm, 4 million Dong? (equivalent to $200 a month). A low guess, but I had found out that some of the staff at the restaurant I frequent make around 1.5 million Dong A month. You heard me right. People get paid by the month not by the hour. And at 1.5 million/month working the average dozen hours a day that works out to be about $2.50/day. Which is about 20 cents an hour. It’s a cruel world out there. So next time you think about spending 5 bucks on a drink- remember that someone had to work 24 hours for that and that’s without a word of a lie. Believe me when I say I get it baby! I get it loud and clear! We are different. We are all born in different circles. Different worlds! Some of us have been raised with the finest of everything without ever having to ask someone what it costs before picking it up- but anyway you cut it bub, the math doesn’t change, only the heart of the matter does and what you can do to help. When you ask yourself What’s the purpose of life?” I’d like to think that i’s about spreading love and raising the status quo.

Thuan and SweetLou

Thuan and SweetLou

Thuan told me people in her field make between 5 & 7 million Dong/month, which is a decent living if you have a lover that’s bringing in around the same. Throw in a kid or two that are also bringing in a little loot and life could dandy. In a land of 15 cent beers you can easily drink away your tears and put a few in the bank for a rainy day. But the days are long and they don’t stop. That’s the ultimate problem. There’s no time to bring in a supplemental income when you’re strapped to the daily grind- this is where I come in.

I’ll be genuine and honest here. I’m looking out for me first off. I’m number one in this game, but I have a heart. I’m a decent guy and I’d sure love to help some people out along the ride. So I put Thuan in my roster for connections. I promised her nothing, but explained my business and said that maybe she could be a missing piece of my puzzle in sourcing leather, embroidering, and shipping since she said she had hookup at the post-office. I had her make 2 Sweetlou circa 1983 patches, paid her, grabbed her business card and kept up the search.

EMBROIDERING SCHMEMBROIDERING

Across the street, down the road, or take 20 steps in any direction and you’ll have walked into a dozen or so leather shops all offering the ol’ same-same business. I popped my head into a good 4 or 5 and they all tried to hustle me doing the ol’ 3 times the price trick. Well it’s not working on me. You see, I come from a long lineage of Jews. And what do you think us Jews talk about while saddled up at the deli counter or in between prayers at temple how to make the perfect bagel? Hell no! We talk about DEALS! How much we saved! Where to get the cheapest jar of gifilde fish! Which magazines have the best coupons! Did you hear Wegman’s has GrapeNuts on sale for $2.95 for a 540/gram box. It’s normally $3.95 for the 370/gram. Well, I just saved $17.49 dollars on a pair of Levi’s. Moshe wanted to go to Marshall’s but I told him that Target was having a sale. Guess what? They were $10 cheaper and even more when you add what he saved on the tax. We’re Jews. We can’t help it. And we don’t want to. It’s in our DNA and it’s as much apart of us as a good scratch behind the ear is to a dog.

So after giving up on a few I stumbled into yet another leather shop. This one flaunted its cow and buffalo hide in rolls on both sides of the shop. In heaps the way a burger is pieced together with morsels of flesh and fat from the entire range of cattle. I got down to business, but this time, for some reason I brought up stamping the leather. Something I had lost all hope in when it appeared to be a lost cause- embroidering it was, I guessed. So I asked her and she ran out back pulled out a stamp that she had made in Ho Chi Minh. She assured me it was possible and that she could do it for me. All I had to do was come up with a design/brand and she’d have it made for me at a cost of $200-$250. Then she would charge me $1 for each piece of leather and her time punching my logo onto them. Which after the initial cost of $200 would save me the exact same $1 to $1.50 in embroidering. Things were looking good. Then they got even better.

THE IN!

Having managed to find a way to cut the cost on the leather and having already worked out a reasonable price on the tailoring, I needed an in at the fabric market.

Fabric market” she said “Oh…too expensive! You have to go to [such and such street], they have much better prices. And such big selection.” She raised her hands from floor to ceiling to depict the stacks of fabric. Show me…where, where, how do I get there?” I shouted amped as a civet hopped up on mocha coffee beans. Having staff hanging around she got one to show us. So Katie and her hopped onto a motorcycle while I was given a bicycle to ride alongside.

I knew we were there when cafes were replaced with wall-to-wall shops heaving at the breasts with fabric. The girl knew which one to go to and parked right in front. Although they all looked the same to me. Right in front of my eyes, miles of meters stacked in groups cotton, silk, rayon, canvas, then stacks of floral print, stacks of children’s animal prints, stacks of every fabric you could ever pull from a catalogue all piled to the ceiling just like the woman’s hands.

After digging for fabric like one would for funk in dusty record collection; with fine detail, precision and keen eye I had a stack of 6 prints and was looking at getting 3 meters of each which would make 12 hats a piece and 72 in total. All we had to do now was discuss money. The girl told me they went for 80,000/meter but she could get me them for 70. Just for kicks I threw out the number 65 although I was already ecstatic about the 70 price tag since the market charged me 120 for the identical fabric. She came back with 66 and we ended up shaking hands on it.
SAMSUNG CSC

GOING POSTAL

So in a matter of a few days I had locked down all they key players in the birth of my new found hat empire. The only tasks remaining aside from branding, marketing and sales, was to look into that hookup at the post office. Behind the counter sat the typical pregnant woman that pops up behind every office scenario countrywide. I toss her my hat to weigh so I can get an estimate of the cost to ship my order. She tells me the weight.

“Ok what would it cost to send 50 of them?” Turned out to be $35 by sea and $70 by air. She talks to another woman who grabs a folder and meets me on my side of the glass. She goes over the usual. Where and what are you shipping? Sea or air? I answer them all and make some light small talk before pulling out a business card and ask if she knows Thuan. At first I thought she had, but it turns out she knew the owner of the shop. The business name printed on the card. Either way she told me she could give me a 10% discount on air travel and that if I called her she would get her staff to pack it in the smallest box to curb the cost. I thanked her, grabbed her number and walked out with the last piece of my puzzle.

With my giant bag of fabric I flew to the tailor and dropped the bag before him. I tried to read his face, looking for something to tell me if he was excited for the work, or if a tremble brewed in his brow. Shit I couldn’t tell. His wife assured me that he was on board. Well that’s good enough for me. I went over the details one more time about the brim size and liner and style, the only thing that troubled me was the back. I wanted a snap-back. Well I really wanted a full back, but everyone’s cranium doesn’t match my perfect skull, so I had to fall back on the snap-back. Then he said that he could add an elastic back, which makes the cap universal and answered the query to my dilemma. It also ended up being the easiest formula, which also meant the most cost effective. Wham Bam! I’m in business. Now I just need a name!

Travel VIetnam Hoi An hats

to be continued…

Michael Douglas Breakdowns, Chilling Countryside, battle of the $5 hotel…and we keep on keeping on!

DAY 11- KILLER ROADS!

After strapping my pack to my bike I noticed I had a flat (note to self) so I paid some guy SAMSUNG CSChaving coffee to fix it- turns out he was a mechanic. So far I’m 9 mechanics deep into my cruiser, which I named Michael Douglas, which was an offshoot from its original name “Mechanics Dream”. I changed the name because I thought Michael Douglas had a nicer ring and that it added a human feel to the bike, since each day it has been both my friend and my worst enemy. I’ve just about replaced everything, namely; seat, horn, tube, battery, clutch, and in a few pages you’ll read about my chain and sprocket and then in a few more pages something else-lucky me. I took a picture of the guy fixing my tire, because after at least three jobs this ordeal needs to be documented- I pay the guy $5 to kick-start my day.

The rain took a day off and the sun was like “what’s up everybody! Sorry I’ve been away, I was back to school shopping with my wife!” So that was nice. We jumped on our bikes and slid out for coffee before our 170km ride to Quy Nhon. The coffee was good. In front of us a grandmother took her daughters baby to the corner to pee- I hate to say it, but it was yellow. Last minute we decided to drive to Quy Nhon over Kon Tum. I know ehh, pretty crazy?? But really it was because we were tired of the poor roads in the mountains and were craving the beach and the sun.

See ya LATER Pleiku!

See ya LATER Pleiku!

We left early enough in the morn to drive the 7 hours. I know what you’re thinking…seven hours to drive 170km…pretty long? Well it sure is. I don’t know the facts, but the average speed limit has to be something like 30km/hr. You might want to look that up. At least that’s the way we were driving. Pretty wild ride, though. Pleiku sits at an altitude of around 750m in the ol’ sky and since we’re hitting the beach, well…you get the picture. After cruising out of town, the buildings swapped hands with rice paddies and bushy emerald mountains, casual wear for greased-&-earthed-up-workin’-garments, and cars for archaic machinery oozing with tar as if it bled from the years of use and abuse, years beaten by overtime, stolen golden years; fixed time and time again by aged farm hands in makeshift ways. Machines that ought to be taken out back and shot, sold for scraps, piled atop its fellow farmers in a rusty grave….But No…No…No…No….Those same machines I speak of chug along the country roads speaking their own old-world tongue…sputtering a charcoal smoke as if a chimney was fixed to chassis and four muddy tires. Today was a good day.

Sitting at the top of a mountain, with a valley cast out like an ocean’s view, I had no clue that the slithering road down was over twelve minutes. I threw my bike in neutral and weaved with the curves and whooshed with the wind. If my OCD had been switched with that of one who had to take a picture every time they saw a thing of beauty…then I might as well have called that place my home.

I reached Katie at the bottom a scared wreck. Poor woman missed too much she was in tears, apparently she didn’t catch me at the top filming her embrace the descent. We kept Travel Vietnam beauty daycruising the countryside passing mammoth oxen, scurrying piglets, scrappy looking pups, always itching some scratch, until my chain ripped apart and jammed up my bike as I slid across the road leaving a 25-30 foot skid-stain before coming to a stop. I rolled the bike backwards inching the jammed chain free. Katie took the chain and road off to find a mechanic after a man stopped and told us there was one 2km down the road. The rain poured for the first-fucking time today just as my bike came to a halt. I threw on my rain get-up, grabbed onto the handlebars and started running. Every time I got some steam I’d hop on Michael Douglas until I eventually hit a nice little hill that, I’m not joking here, rolled me along and stopped dead in front of the mechanics driveway…honest injun. Anyways, the new chain and sprocket ran me a cool $13.00.

Just another mechanic stop...

Just another mechanic stop…

The sun returned and we continued along our new found road- entirely etched with the beauty and tranquility.  On the road you have nothing but time, it’s like taking a sick day, sitting on a couch and flipping to the discovery channel. On our left we saw an armoured tank perched on the side of a hill. Turning around, Katie and I made eyes in agreement so we spun around and pulled up the side road. As we got closer, it turned out it was just a painted sculpture, unless they embalmed this one. Unknown to us, we had just walked onto an army training camp. Soon we were flanked by military; yielding rifles, grenade launchers, and AK’s, or that’s what they all looked like to an uneducated eye. One stopped five feet in front of us without even acknowledging our foreign presence and dropped to the ground in combat mode. Then we saw more running through a field and towards us, all dropping to the ground or beside a tree. From a bow of the bumpy dirt road, I saw a giant white smile glowing in front of the murky backdrop. That could be me. I mean in a way I am him. We are all like him. At least we used to be, and hopefully still are. What else is youth than a state of immaturity & innocence? His smile represented an existing youth, unknown were the tortures his parents and grandparents experienced. War is nothing but a youth destroyer. I hope he keeps that smile till he grows old. I smiled back.
Travel Vietnam soldiersWe reached our new home a few hours later after finding a $10 hotel and stopped at a night market to explore our dinner options- it ended up being noodles and octopus.

DAY 12- HEAVY DAY!

The next morning we paid, got our passports and strapped up our bags for a 300km trip to Hoi An we were trying to attempt. I put the keys in the ignition and saw a fucking flat tire in front of me. I didn’t scream in the sense that I made a sound, but I felt the same shockwave inside my body. Instead of losing my shit, we went for breakfast. A pretty below average one at that- just a pancake, not even proper Canadian one, three slices of banana and one strip of wilted bacon. The owner called a mechanic. He said for an extra $2.50 he’d pick up Michael Douglas himself. 45 minutes and $17.50 later we were on the road.

The road…Ohh the road…there were two out of town and we opted for the leisure coastal-countryside one; it was like if you had two children and one was gifted, which one would you love more? We had read that one of the worst crimes during the Vietnam War happened at My Lai, an area that we would be driving by if not through. It was an undercover mission gone awry. I mean how can it not, when over 500 innocent, unarmed women, children, and men were led to ditches to be slaughtered by machine guns while their homes were massacred and set ablaze. People’s lives. Real people. There were a few courageous Americans that, like helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson Jr., saved a few tormented souls from being killed by the horrors, but ultimately, I could only imagine saved from the horror that is now life.

The street divided the flowing villages, one side with homes and the other with mountains flooding into ride paddies. Families, like families in any country, sat on their porches, drank coffee and played cards, and unbelievably, smiled and jested me “hello”‘s upon passing. I know it’s been about forty years since the war ended, and although I’m Canadian, I also wear the complexion of an American- and it amazed me the love that was shared.

Travel Vietnam beauty night

Ahead in the mountains were giant craters, more so earth that died and created a ring of burnt trees along the ring of the battered earth. There were two of them. To me, the only thing I could think of was chaos- it didn’t look natural in anyway, and it added to the chills the village had already bestowed upon me. Soon it began to rain. And not rain that drizzles and then disperses, the kind of rain that is worshipped, the kind of rain that African’s dance for. So much fucking rain. I told Katie we bought the wrong jackets…we bought rain jackets…not typhoon jackets. Shut up, you had to be there!

After quickly changing our destination to the town of Quang Nhai 100km closer, we switched routes to the highway QL1/AH1 to make better timing. The rest of the road was uneventful. We arrived into town soaking wet looking for a bed.

I found a lady, but it would be more appropriate to say she found me. “hotel… hotel” she shouted, with a baby in her arm, running to get my attention. Wanting me in her hotel, she grabbed my arm with a free hand and, if I had let her, would have dragged me up three flights to the best room in the joint- but before it got to that, I asked her how much for the room.
“150!”
“150?”
“Yes…150!”
“Ok Katie, I’m going to check this place out- go next door and check out how much for a room there!” Seeing as that we had found a strip of hotels, all standing like tall houses in a row with giant garages as entrances with a little desk that reads Reception, we wanted to play the “which hotel is cheaper” game. So I walked inside with the woman, who adamantly put her baby on the ground in a “just stay here” sort-of-way, she went to get keys. Coming back, I asked her once again, because I don’t trust this woman in the slightest, “how much for a room?”

“300!” she said after fumbling around for a price, a reoccurring theme that would take place many times over this trip.
“Come on! What? You said 150!”
“No!”
“Yah you did!” I say as I turn my back and start to walk out.
“No…I never say 150”

Then the two of us get into some semantics, but I have already lost all interest in rooming at her hotel. I shout out to Katie, “babe, she just doubled the price on us…let’s go…”

As we get on our bikes the lady begins saying “ok…150…150!” I feel bad and all, and I would deep down love to support her business…ultimately for her babies sake…but not from someone playing tricks. She lost out and I hope she doesn’t pull that trick on anyone else. But really, I just hope she learned a lesson- but who am I anyways. So we cruise about four seconds up the street, pull into a driveway and she says she has a room for 100,000 dong ($5). We took it.

Makeshift market kitchen

Makeshift market kitchen

What does a $5 room look like? It looks like the most comfortable thing in the world when you’re soaking wet, so wet that even the inside of your pack is soaked, which was wrapped in a waterproof cover much like yourself. But really, a $5 room is equipped with a bed, table, TV, fan, and sometimes AC, hot water and a stranger walking into your room in the middle of the night. More than anything you could ever want when you’re on the road.

DAY 13- HOI AN BOUND

The next morning Katie searched for some dry clothes while I threw on the same getup as the day before. No point in changing and throwing a round of well-travelled clothes in a pack of semi-clean ones, it’ll stink up the pack like a shoe in a closet.  We had the last stretch of 100km to Hoi An, a town that had been on my radar when first researching this little journey of ours. Knowing nothing about Vietnam, I considered Hoi An for its fusion of beach-town meets classic French architecture. Other than a few photos on Google maps with Asian lanterns lining streets and hand-crafted dragon boats bobbing about, I had no clue what to expect. Nothing like betting it all on red and diving in head first.

The road was open as the sky above and our tanks full of petrol…a liquid, which is worth as much as gold to the biker going further. Leaving town we had no choice, there was only one road. Now a little deeper than half way into the country we had covered between 12 & 1300 km, and the road signs had now began to read ‘900km to Hanoi’, the capital in the communist north. Well it’s all commi really. Call it a socialist republic or whatever you like, but Vietnam’s steady minimum wage of ten cents an hour keeps everyone in check. God bless ya if you’re one of the lucky ones.

Well we weren’t heading to Hanoi, not just yet. We were heading to Hoi An. Same letters, but 700km closer. A town spared, much like Dalat, from the atrocities of war, and now stands as a UNESCO heritage site the whole village wide. And by driving along the highway I’m beginning to see why it was spared- there are no fucking signs ANYWHERE that point us in the right direction. Fortunately we had our GPS that kept us updated with “nope not there yet”’s & “just keep going straight.” We did.

Somewhere along the road we flew past a row of ancient temples that loomed behind gated grounds. Now I’m a firm believer that when the road offers you bounty, you reap the harvest; the whole point of exploring is to discover the unknown, and it’s hard to do that strictly glued to the seat of your bike. So we circled back and put on our adventure caps. Parking our bikes outside the gate, we got our first glimpse of the three towering temples without the blurs of flight.  Set behind a field of ruins, we humbly creaked past the gate, which, in a sense, acted as a portal back in time. The year 2013 had vanished. It was the 10th century. I try to visualize a group of people sitting around a stone table drawing up plans for these temples 1000 years ago and I’m lost in awe in every aspect of the word.
Trave Vietnam TowersOut of nowhere a woman walked over to us to sell us a ticket. It was Sunday and the grounds were closed, but money talks. I paid her 50 cents and she ripped a ticket out of her book. A bicyclist entered the grounds and walked over the same time as I asked the guide if she spoke English…she didn’t, but he chimed in. Wanting to know the history of the temples I now had a translator. It was a perfect balance of worlds colliding.

The three temples represented three gods: Vishnu on the left, Shiva in the center, and Brahma on the right. Made of a rustic brick they stood about as tall as a three-story building with the center at around four. Shiva’s temple was decorated with sculptures of Travel Vietnam tower thingsdancing women and a fight scene laid out like a comic strip all showing no wear. The facade of the temples were set like giant fireplaces, with an entrance eight feet high by four feet wide. Walking inside, the only light intruding was beckoned by the entrance. I heard the whoosh of bats before my eyes could adjust, then they came in clear. If I were a bat it would definitely be a nice place to call home and raise bat children- shielded from the elements and in the arms of god(s).

The ruins ahead were grounds for the worshippers. Now reduced to rubble, the crumbled perimeter still exists in a haunting exhibit of antiquity. It reminds me of The Hermitage back home in Dundas, a turn of the century estate nestled in the middle of the conservation area- it too a product of fragments from fire and a century of being exposed to the elements.

The outside of the temples have circular dents that can easily be distinguished and I’m told that it was from facing combat during the American War. It’s as though they have left scars on everything and everyone they came across. And even though the nation is in the process of rebuilding itself, it still wears the scars on the outside, a credo to forgive but never forget.

We left and pressed on eventually finding a placard the size of tombstone head half-hidden behind a bush that read Hoi An. Only 7km left.

Pulling into town my first impression was that it was just another tourist trap. Before we even stopped to get our bearing a woman on the back of a motorcycle was welcoming us to the city. “Where are you from?” -a line that would soon lose all value. “When did you get here?” “Just now”, I responded. “Are you looking for tailor?” Ahhh that’s the point. At least she got to it quickly. “No thank you” I replied, wanting to get on with my day. “You looking for cheap hotel? I can get room $8-$10”. Well ya I am, but you have already bothered me and thrown off my equilibrium so I excuse her even though the purpose of our stop was to get our bearings and locate a hotel to drop off our bags. It’s the same as leaving an airport and being bombarded by taxis. Yeah you need one, but you want to find it on your own terms not by some in-your-face-slick-talking-greasy-whore-monger. I prefer, and always have, the laid back salesman, the one in the back doing their own thing. Maybe they get business today, maybe they don’t. Undoubtedly they want it, but perhaps they are too tired of the hustle, annoyed with the hustle, cant bother with the hustle…so they just hang around waiting for people to come to them. Now those are my people-and you’ll always find them-they appear broken, but will warm up quickly. Good folks, probably been in the game a long time to see the flood of newcomers sweep in and steal their clientele. I get it, I understand it all too well, as a person that hates playing the game. I sympathize with these folks and try to seek them out any chance I can along my dusty foot journey.

After blowing her off…or leading her on…because these people really don’t get it, you could tell them right to their face “no…get out of here you bothersome flop, I don’t need your help or a room at your cheap hotel. I’d rather pay twice-fold than speak to your loose jaw a second longer” and they’d come right back with the old ok, you want a shirt made?- no self respect. If I were them I would have jabbed me right back, called me an American to really get my rotisserie churning, but it’s all dollars that makes this mad world circulate and if she had popped me back that would have put a halt to her little scheme.

We decided to drink instead of search for a hotel. A few beers would ease the process and we found a spot serving them up for 15 cents a draught.  (later in the week I ran out of money, or hadn’t any on me to be more accurate, so I asked Katie to borrow a 20,000 Dong bill so I could grab some beers while I went out writing…which is basically like saying- No- it’s exactly like saying- ‘hey babe, can I borrow a dollar? I want to go out drinking.’) The beer was good too, your average back-room lager, brewed and bottled in house and served up cheap. The restaurant beside had the same menu and 3000 Dong draught, but was utterly empty- I don’t know if had something to do with their name… Lamé Café.

It took an hour to find a hotel, and of course it was the first hotel in the book- pretty typical for us. The room was $8 but was about as small as a $4 room, though it was late and the cheapest we’d been offered. So we ended up staying three nights.

My Intimate Meeting With The Pavement

Just make it stop. The rain. It wasn’t going to stop. So on we went…out of Buon Ma Thuot and onwards toward Pleiku. We had gone about 30KM when the potholes started getting bigger and bigger. And then bigger and closer together. Louis, in front of me, went through a pothole, and I followed thinking if his bike can make it so can mine. Nope, I was wrong.

My bike didn’t make it, and I fell. It suuuuuucked. I had a hard time getting up, and a super nice guy behind me quickly stopped and pulled me and my bike up. Louis realized what had happened and sped back. Inspecting my wounds, I knew I was lucky. Just a couple scraped palms and a torn poncho (my poncho was garbage anyways), but one largely bruised ego. I think the shock of the fall hurt more than anything else and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed a few tears. I already wasn’t thrilled about driving, and falling just made it that much harder for me. I caught my breath, wiped my tears, gave Lou a big hug, and kept going. We kept on for a while, with the plan being to pull over soon at a cafe to get a coffee and wash my palms.

We ended up playing a few games of cards at a cafe while we waited for the rain to slow down. It didn’t. When the roads started flooding I made the executive decision to stop driving for the day. It wasn’t the most economical idea as we hadn’t even driven that far, and we still had a long way to go, but this wasn’t how we wanted to road trip. I didn’t want to be nervous while driving, and I sure as hell didn’t want to be constantly soaked to the bone. Our Visa’s allowed us five more weeks in Vietnam, why waste our days not enjoying ourselves?

All this was marshmallows and puppies compared to what we experienced the next day though…

It legitimately did not stop raining all day and all night, but in the morning we really did need to carry on. Buon Ho was in the middle of a rain storm and it wasn’t going to stop any time soon. We left Buon Ho with “Ok. Let’s just take it easy and go slow” because of the weather and the roads. That’s until I hit another pot hole and ripped my palms open…again!

AGAIN! This time it wasn’t just a little scrape. A rock lodged itself into my left palm while another made itself comfy in my left thumb. Dirt and gravel pockmarked my hands and my foot was stuck under my bike. All this happened in front of one of the friendliest mechanics I Travel VIetnam Katie Fallsever did meet, and he ran over to lift me and my bike up. After setting my bike off to the side, he helped me hobble over to his shop/house. My hands were completely immobile and my foot was throbbing, but I was much more calm than the previous day. Other than the odd swear, I was mostly muttering about my own stupidity. Mr. Mechanic pulled over a chair for me while his daughter got to work pulling the rocks out of my hands with my tweezers. She was incredibly delicate and something told me she had done this before. Mr. Mechanic knelt in front of me, icing my knee and scolding his daughter to be more gentle any time he saw me wince. I was too nervous about the state of my foot to call attention to it, but since it was slowly regaining movement I figured it wasn’t broken.

This all happened very quickly, and my homemade First Aid Kit finally came in handy for something other than shaving cuts. They applied some sort of magical-smelling green potion, and a fizzing topical disinfectant before wrapping my hands in the jumbo sized bandaids I had with me. They were a wonderful family and we had to plead with them to accept the few dollars we were offering in great thanks. Before allowing me to bike off into the gloomy, pothole-ridden day, Mr. Mechanic checked my bike over. He gave me the go-ahead after popping a few pieces back into place. That night we finally reached Pleiku. I’ll admit it, I wasn’t loving Vietnam that day. I was in pain, soaked to my core, and feeling mildly homesick.

I’m writing this 8 days later. I only told my family 2 days ago about the fall, showed my mom

Infection

Infection

via Skype, and she knew instantly that it was infected. Jeez Mom! I had never even fallen off my bicycle as a kid! And now here I was, on the other side of the world, with an infected hand. Fuck. I spent the night after telling my mom tossing and turning from the pain. It wasn’t getting better, it was getting worse. I found a doctor in Hoi An (the town we’re currently in) and Louis and I walked over. He spoke fantastic English and everything was very clean. It was a private practice, seemingly with his home above (very Vietnamese). The consultation was over fairly quickly as he knew immediately that it was infected and after checking my temperature and such, he knew the infection hadn’t spread. With a quick peak down my shirt as he checked my lungs (no joke), and a look up my nose, he also concluded that my cold was just in my head and not bacterial. Fantastic!

My bill was 650,000VND (~$30) in total for anti-inflammatory pills, amoxicillin, a tube of Silvirin, 3 gauze bandages, and the peep show. Louis called this the package deal “The Works” since it included the brief and unnecessary feel up. You should’ve seen us biting back our laughter after Doc got a peek at my goodies – I’m just disappointed I wore my bra with the rip in it!

Healing process

Healing process

PS: It is about two weeks later, and my hand is totally healed. I have some light scarring, but other than that I’m great :) 

THREE DAYS OF RAIN, TWO MOTORCYCLE CRASHES, EEL & CHICKEN LIVER FOR DINNER, & SWEET CHOCO PIES

The last four days we’ve been plagued with Vietnam’s monsoon season. With distorted

We found & climbed this big guy. See Louis?!

We found & climbed this big guy. See Louis?!

vision, I tried to find pleasure in the unfamiliarity of villages, faces, landscapes and everything that I whooshed past. It’s the only tangible thing to hold on to when you begin to question the purpose. It’s the kind of rain where you postpone plans and cozy up on the couch with a book- If I were back home I’d be putting everything off for tomorrow, but that’s kind of hard when you have to push on. Although pushing on does have its benefits- even when you have rain blinding your sight.

SAMSUNG CSC

We ended up in Lak after a brutish day. Try spending seven hours ducking and dodging raindrops like a goddamn bobble head…I wouldn’t advise it. We found an $8 hotel after scouring the town and after almost being forced into one…I’d never been grabbed by the arm in attempt to be dragged into a hotel…but it wouldn’t be my last.

“NO!” I shouted, breaking free from her grip.
“Katie let’s get out of here”
The woman, now desperate, shouted insults at her competition…
“You find dirty hotel in town…very expensive…you stay here!”
Well either way, you’ve just lost our business you backstabbing swine, show your town love…desperation wears a stinky cologne…and we pulled out of her driveway gagging for air.

Travel Vietnam motorbiking

We randomly ended up in a restaurant after being hailed by a table of would-be-drunks. It’s no fun being sober around drunks…and they must have known that for they filled our glasses the second we finished them. Expecting to order dinner we flipped through a menu, but we weren’t able to read one thing…instead they offered us to help eat their dish. It looked like elbow pasta. It wasn’t. After being force-fed by a bunch of drunks with chopsticks pinched between these little dark noodles, dangling in front of our mouths we reluctantly accepted. Well, it wasn’t pasta…and there was definitely some sort of bone I had to crunch through. Thank god for the cellular phone, because without its dictionary we would have never known that we just ate some sort of eel. It didn’t taste too bad, and I’ll even put that down in print- it’s not something I’d order again…mostly because there are shitloads of dishes I could think of I would rather eat…but, hey, it wasn’t bad! Even the chicken liver we ate afterwards tasted better. Mmmm nothing satisfies your cravings after seven hours on the road quite better.

We parted from the guys mainly because we wanted to get a real dinner, but more so because we hadn’t been able to properly speak to each other for the last hour, and it’s honestly damn tiring, especially when all you want to do is relax, have a couple beers and eat a decent meal at the end of a long day on the road. Next door we found a little hut serving pho. It was cheap, dirty and tasty…and we didn’t even have to make any small talk.

Looking for a snack, as I have grown accustom to at the end of the evening…hell, I deserve it after getting smacked around by a monsoon all day. We ended up across the street in a typical all-in-one shop-cum-living space. There was a family sitting around their television surrounded by mounds of chocolate pies, toilet paper, knock-off-but-authentic-versions of Mr. Noodles. I was in the market for Choco Pies or some delicious variant, a comforting snack that leaves your teeth smeared in chocolate and bits of marshmallow cookie crumbles. I found a competitor and after handing over the money I tore the box open, while some real-life cartoon popped up onto the tele. And almost immediately the whole family, from grandma to daughter, alongside Katie and myself became completely engrossed. They pulled up chairs and soon I was handing out Choco Pies while we sat around the TV in their convenience store watching a half-pig half-human cut his enemy in half, only to have him morph into two miniature versions, in which he ended up swallowing one. Now he was reeking havoc on the inside of his stomach… I don’t think any of us got it, but it left us all in tears, with the grandma losing her shit a handful of times. It was a warm way to end the night… a slice of home with all our family members swapped for their Asian counterparts.

You’ve got a lot of time to think when you’re alone on the open road, and when you’re faced with battles- you don’t necessarily second guess your pursuit, but you begin to

woof

woof

question if you’re on the right path. An open road wears a different mask when you’re facing the brunt of downpours, broken roads, hell raising tour buses, and a battle of mechanical breakdowns- the pursuit of happiness, the real quest for my purpose, the big question- WHY? becomes a little bit distorted. Instead of love in my heart- I’m deflated- I’m left cursing the world, cursing to the goddamn world, wishing for a handful of rocks and steady aim to burst through the window of the next bus that musters even an ounce of wind that smacks my face as it screams by. I’m cursing the earth for the rubble they call roads…the sky for the rainTravel Vietnam Floating Village that blinds my sight…the drivers for who’d been handpicked from some asylum… and cursing my bike for failing me time and time again- WHY? Why the hell did I foreclose on my past life? Why am I in the middle of Vietnam screaming at the world- praying to reach the next town- over and over again- praying for a town that has never once registered on my radar, and now this one insignificant, obsolete, deadpan, country town becomes the only focus of my thoughts- I’m sick in thought- if only I make it to Lak…if only I make it to Buon Ma Thout…to…somewhere dry…all will be OK- tomorrow will be another day. Tomorrow…will be another day!

Buon Ma Thout is famous for one thing…NO!! Not that you twisted pervert, you should be cackled in wrought iron from neck to toe and tossed into the sharky Isles of French New Guiana…I’m talking about coffee. They grow coffee. I mean a lot of it. I told you before that I’d been driving through it for the last 200km…picture your front lawn draped in a bosom of caffeinated bushes halfway to your roof…then your backyard as well…but your backyard isn’t a 10X10 green getaway…it’s a goddamn 50 acre oasis… and so has your far off neighbour. Well bam, I guess this is all what it leads up to, some buzzing epicenter.

We pulled into the first hotel we saw, some fancy thing, white and stocky, maybe 16-20 Buon Ma Thuotfloors high, and a police cruiser escort pulls into the roundabout with an entourage of  jeeps…I don’t suppose they have any rooms from 6 to 8 bucks…for the both of us, so we lit out for skid row. Turns out it was two streets back…4 bucks each for an antique smoker’s lounge dressed in wood panel, an original matching 1973 Hitachi television…knobs intact, and two mattresses that were more like someone dressed up a sponge, we stacked them on top of each other for the sake of comfort.

Next door we found a restaurant that was famous for this dish called Nem Nuong, I hope you are aware that you will be reading about me eating many a meal throughout our journey together. If that’s cool…then all you have to is keep your eyes on the page, and move them in an easy snaking pattern…that’s it! I know super easy. So back to the meal.

Step 1. Grab a piece of rice paper. It’s looks like, if a ghost was holding a sheet of paper. 

Step 2. Put some greens on it, then a little shredded carrot & papaya, toss a couple portions of grilled pork and a sticky heap of vermicelli, and obviously saving the best for last- this awesome bundle of crunch, its some sort of deep fried rice paper roll. Well you roll it up and dip it in this boss sauce. I never asked for the ingredients so that doesn’t really help…then put it in your mouth.

Step 3. Make sounds.

That meal was highlighted by a walk through the night market. We’ve all had fish SAMSUNG CSCbefore, but it usually comes on a bun, under a lemon, rolled up in seaweed, or in frozen pieces in your grocery store- not being grabbed out of a tin that spills out onto a filthy street, thrown onto some bloody stump, and whacked unconscious with an iron rod leaving an opaque smack. Then if it’s lucky enough to be dead, is then descaled by a cheese grater-esque sadistic looking instrument and gutted from lips to sack, all by a hunched over woman fish-monger dressed in pyjamas. I can actually feel the pain in my bones just writing this.

Yeah, so that was Buon Ma Thout. Well, that and a couple of coffee’s. They were pretty good.

Ready to get oota here!

Ready to get oota here!

I think the second we woke up the big guy upstairs decided to turn on the shower, He must have thought life was pretty good for us…living it up, cruising the countryside on cheap motorcycles, taking in all the views for the price of a $10 room, $5 fill up and a few bowls of rice or soup…and you know what, Nguyen Von God was right. He was right NGUYEN DAMNIT!!! Even through the hardships of facing a day full of rain from the second you hit the road, knowing the whole damn time that its not slowing down…It somehow sucks so much more than starting your trip dry, even if it’s only for a minute. Just me?

Cheeky Mooncake Festival Mask

Cheeky Mooncake Festival Mask

And the day didn’t start off good. About two hours into it Katie crashed. It wasn’t her fault the roads and the rain were truly unride-able. And the worst part about driving on foreign roads is that you don’t know the sweet spot…you can guess, and you can be right 99% of the time, and then BAM! But these roads were full of potholes and with the intense rainfall, all the holes filled up leaving you guessing their depth…you’d be swerving along with traffic, with your eyes on the motorbike ahead as if expecting him to explode like a misplaced step on a land-mine. BOOM…BAM…BLAMMO!!

Well that ended our trip for the day. I think we made it 50km before we turned around andTravel Vietnam Buon Ho found a windowless room for $10…I think it was a sex hotel, you know rent the room for short or long time business…What kind of man are you? Yeah whatever you say big talker!! Four rooms down from ours  I peered in and saw a bed that could fit 3 Presidents…and a few alibi’s.. It rained all through the night. And then the next morning.

It was one of those days where you have to push on. Bite your upper lip and take one for the team. We had about 165km to Pleiku- a town we weren’t even really looking forward to, aside from it being our next connecting dot…hey I’m not saying I wasn’t looking forward to it, I’m just saying it wasn’t our main attraction- it’s like listening to the opener…they might sound good, but it’s not who you’re there for.

We were cruising along, rain in the face sort of deal when Katie went down againThis time it was worse. By the time I got off my bike a neighbour had ran over and was helping her up. Her palms had both been split open, one a lot worse than the other, and she had a sore ankle. Hands are something that hold a lot of value when cruising the countryside via motorcycle…ok yes…pun intended.

We all went over to the neighbours house where him and his daughter went into nurse mode. On her knees she fished out pebbles and gravel with Katie’s eyebrow tweezers, while he was running back and forth with ice and bandages. I felt helpless- the two of them were taking such good care of her. They even had a little bottle of antiseptic that fizzed the way Pop Rocks feel in your mouth. As good as she could be we carried on until I ran into a flat tire. So I had it filled with air and carried on. Then I ran into another flat so I  had it patched for $1…then carried on some more.
SAMSUNG CSCWe got to Pleiku some time in the evening. Katie had been a trooper all day, and at night all we were craving was pizza. Surely in a town of 200,000 plus people, one would have pizza. I know some lead ehh? Anyways, I asked the bell clerk, I even drew him a picture, well perhaps it was a triangle with circular pepperoni slices. I mean 100 people out of 101 could have guessed it, and the guy assured me there were 2 in town…and even better they were both around the corner. So Katie hobbled out of bed and we went off into the night…very, very slowly.

As you guessed – there was no pizza. But we kept on asking. First a hotel. They went onto the computer and even drew me a map. It was 3 long blocks down and one over. They didn’t serve pizza. So I asked a lady at a stall across the street who didn’t speak English. Luckily a man overhead and translated to her. She assured him, to ensure us, that there was one 2 blocks over and 1 block down on the left. There was no pizza there either. So I walked across the street to another hotel. She told us that Pleiku was dry…not a slice in the city. I have to salute all the dreamers out there. One day Pleiku…One day!

Angry and pizza-less we needed a beer so we stopped at a restaurant beside the last hotel. There we met a woman named Anna. A half breed, looked Vietnamese but spoke with an Aussie tongue. Her family owned the restaurant and she was in town for her sisters wedding.  She bought us beers and hailed us a taxi home. Sweet woman.

So we ended up walking 45 minutes for pizza through streets filled with people railed from façade to façade gawking at flailing dragons and furry tigers, all the while dancing to the beat of a monotonous drum. The Moon Festival carries on. Everyone breathing in the birth of good fortune…a new beginning…oh yes, prosperous times await…I wish them all the best…and if nothing else…it was entertaining and brought the people together. A beautiful thing in itself.

We ended up having fried chicken and pinkish rice from a restaurant a minute from our hotel. The owner came over before we had finished. We told him it was delicious…and we weren’t kidding. Dinh was a laid back 60 year old with a passion for chicken… haha, that might be true, but we talked about the war instead.

He joined the Americans in the good ol’ fight. He got a job fixing warplanes and moved to Pleiku because the base was close. He’d been hit in combat…even while working at the airfield he said he saw action, bombs, fighting, death…shrapnel hit him in the arm and left him out of commission for a year, he said rolling up his sleeve.

“What are your thoughts on the North? Do you have family there?”, I pried not getting many chances to speak to a war veteran.

“Yes I have brothers and sisters in the north…they are the same people, but they have different hearts.” He said.

Someone pulled up to his storefront like it was a drive thru…someone ran out to grab the order. It was raining and they were closing up. We were their last customers.

“that’s so cool…drive-thru dinner” one of us said, or thought together.

A man ran back with the order and slipped it through the window and took the money.

That’s so & so my worker, he’s deaf and dumb…but he makes great chicken.”

We thanked Dinh and walked home in the rain.