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 having 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!
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 cruising 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…
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.
We 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.
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.
“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!”
“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
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.
Out 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 dancing 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.