Laos Now Brown Cow

Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam – Muong Khua, Laos – Nong Khiaw, Laos
October 23-24, 2013

We woke up at 5am and made our way to the bus station. A time when the streets are asleep and the bus yards are buzzing. The 5:25 just pulled in and a line of stretchy bodies unwind down the stairs. The street vendors lick their lips at the hustle. Whistles blow. Long buses with TO and FROM are written in huge block letters along the sides like names on a jersey. We hand our packs to the man on the roof of our bus – he’s on a mission and shouts next all before the sun even blinks an eye.

Yawn!

Yawn!

We’re off to Laos. The second leg of our journey, but not our last leg. Ohh No! We have 8 ½ hours before we are no longer welcome in Vietnam and I am damn sure we had made the most of our three months. We’ll miss you Vietnam. Thanks for the good times.

We loaded into the bus. Eight of us. All foreigners. The two Argentinians Bruno and Jimena, and four others with sleep in their eyes. We had barely eked out of the station before we pulled over to pick up a band of Vietnamese. And with a swift foot, our man had climbed back on the roof and bags were being flung into his arms. He shimmied down and the whole gang loaded in filling all the empty seats. All of us, united, travellers of the sunrise, heading to the border for one last hoorah.

Travel Laos border bus

We passed through two offices. One to have our Vietnam Visa exit stamp and the next to receive our Laos Visas. There was a list posted on the office window of the prices for visas for the following countries. If it was an Olympic standings sheet we would have made Canada proud. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.
Visa Fee’s per Country:
1.    Canada           $42
2.   Afghanistan      $40
3.   Bangladesh     $40
4.   India                $40
5.   Nipal               $40 (They spelt Afghanistan right, but Nepal?)

Even Al- Queda gets a better prices than us. This list ran all the way down to Norway or something and then had a little paragraph on the side that read all other countries $30. Canada wins again! We all board the bus and the clock starts ticking on our 30 day visas.

Ain't it tha TRUTH

Ain’t it tha TRUTH, thanks Germany!

Our destination is the dusty gateway town of Muang Khua and when we get there our connecting boat has already set sail for the day so we ended up getting a room.

Travel Lao bocce ball

They shared their beer with us while we cheered them on

The town was quiet aside from outbursts of locals at play. We ate breakfast while two Travel Laos KT animalsroosters fought each other inside of a circle of children along the riverside. When the cocks became lethargic they brought them to the water and hand washed them before throwing them back in a circle and they were back at it with furious beef. We couldn’t make out a winner. Then we walked around the town and  ended up with puppies throwing back free beers bench side bocce ball. Then I somehow ended up in a badminton game.

Travel Laos Lou puppies

Hey babe, nice puppies ;)

Travel Laos badmintonDAY 2

We woke up, bought our ticket and cast off down the river in a boat long and blue like Gonzo’s nose and as wide as a Chocolate Labrador. I don’t really have a clue where we are going. I took off my watch and fixed it to my pack. It’ll be nice not to worry about the days, just going, going, going. In the thick of the boat, satchelled smack against a roaring  motor is a chicken, maybe a rooster and I know this because the bag is flapping its wings and pecking about.

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The world is beautiful. We all know this whether we have traveled it via web or foot. But when you open yourself up to it you begin to see a lot of practices that just don’t seem morally humane or ethical. The world isn’t all eggs, baguettes and local pricing- it’s dirty, filthy and two timing, but unless you open yourself up to the evils there is no way for the beauty to filter in. I accept the chicken in the bag against the motor and get back to the unbelievable views around me.

The river is much like the road. It has its oxen and goats along the banks. Villages hang onto cliffs. We pass other vehicles and wave and smile. There are obstacles too; but instead of buses and animals and rain, there are rocks and waves and low tides. Garbage still litters the banks and city noise is played by the rumbling motor. And most importantly they both share the same soul bursting surreal and spectacular landscapes.

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We keep floating downstream for five hours while picking up nautical hitchhikers and passing these beastly machines that look as though they collect rocks from the riverbed and shimmy them along a giant conveyor belt washing each one before spitting it back to the river below. A wonderful invention to mankind this machine is- and all this time I wondered how rocks got so clean. We continued downstream and docked at our new village of Nong Khiaw.

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We found a bungalow right beside two Indian restaurants and I made a deal with myself that I would eat nothing else for the three days. Lucky Katie!
KT: Yeah, lucky me!

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.
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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.