After a busy month shuffling between different gigs at an animal sanctuary in Cambodia, back to Tioman and finally up to northern Malaysia to the tea plantations of the Cameron Highland (Malaysia’s equivalent of the Pacific Northwest), Gary and I hopped on a flight to Ho Chi Minh City in southern Vietnam, the motorbike capital of the world. In that spirit, we set out to buy our own, crossing our fingers that it would carry us all the way north to Hanoi.
I was pretty charmed by the former Saigon, the French influence still readily evident, with crusty baguettes, cafes on every corner, wide, tree-lined boulevards, and numerous parks. We kept putting off leaving, the comforts of a city (like finding real, tasty Mexican food) and having an air-conditioned friend’s place to crash at seduced us for a bit, and then the election results actually knocked me out. I found it a challenge to move from the couch for the following 24 hours, blindsided and depressed, messaging friends and family back home to puzzle why and how and what now. Delays aside, we finally set off on a hot, dusty highway towards Mui Ne with a little less than a month to cover over 2000 kilometers.
The first leg of our journey wound up being the longest, and also probably the most miserable, only made bearable by frequent pit stops for life-giving sugar cane juice and a few rounds of cribbage. We arrived just in time to see the rise of the much discussed super moon, it was pretty super. Our time in Mui Ne was spent swimming in the hotel pool and playing like little kids on massive sand dunes, running up and down for hours until the sun set, causing the sand to glow electric red.
From Mui Ne we cut inland through mountain passes to Da Lat, the only place where our trusty chariot really struggled. Luckily, it was usually easier to find a mechanic than to find a restaurant, and a quick chain replacement later we were on our way. Da Lat was a welcome change from the heat of the south, it was actually cool enough to wear my puffy. Tramping through the peaceful pine forests I almost could have believed I was back in Big Sur, were it not for the occasional pushcart selling little baggies of fresh, hot soy milk to be sipped slowly through a straw. After we had eaten our fill of strawberries and persimmons we drove back out to the coast, massive waterfalls cascading down around every bend, clouds kissing my face, emerald hills stretching all the way to the distant sea.
To save some time and to give our sore butts a rest we packed our bikes onto a night train in Nha Trang for an easy eight hours rest to Da Nang. We arrived bleary-eyed to tour the Marble Mountains before the quick drive to Hoi An. Hoi An was pretty much the definition of charming and very mellow, a nice change from the chaos we had experienced elsewhere. I finally felt comfortable driving the batmobile on the sleepy streets, although most of our time was spent pedaling around on beach cruisers, eating banh mi’s and visiting the sea.
The drive over the Hai Van Pass to Hue was maybe my favorite of the whole trip, a precarious road high above the ocean, with each bend offering us new depths of blues and greens. In general from here onwards the scenery grew increasingly beautiful, distant mountains, flowing rivers and seemingly endless rice paddies with water buffalo submerged up to their shoulders, cranes perched casually on their backs. Whenever we started to feel tired our own roadside cheer squad of friendly children would appear in each little town we passed through, motivating us to ignore our stiff bodies and to keep cruising.
Learning historical things in Hue turned out to be expensive, so instead we used our bike to cruise around the outsides of what I am sure was a lovely fort and royal palace. We saved some cash and maybe had a better time sitting in the park watching the Vietnamese practice physical fitness, with exercises ranging from tai chi to aerobics to ball room dancing, all performed with an astounding lack of grace and an equal lack of shame. In an effort not to be total dirtbags we drove out to the free Thien Mu Pagoda and Museum, a beautiful ride alongside the river with roofs of pagodas rising out of the forest surrounding us. Later that same day we drove just outside the city to poke around an abandoned water park, rumored to now have crocodiles lurking in the algae-covered pools.
The day we were meant to leave for Dong Hoi the sky decided to bucket down rain, and as a Thanksgiving treat we allowed ourselves to take the train rather than fight the elements. We arrived fresh, and celebrated Thanksgiving with calls to our families before going out for our own makeshift dinner of pizza and white russians. The next day we made the easy journey to Phuong Nha- Ke Bang National Park, where I first saw/ fell in love with karsts, big limestone fins covered in greenery, towering over the rice paddies. Winding between the karsts, we made the most out of our limited time by visiting both the Paradise and Phuong Nha caves. The day was spent skirting around massive stalagmites and straining our necks while gazing up in wonder, enjoying nature reminding us just how small we really are.
Our next destination, Ninh Binh, turned out to be a bit of a dump but the surrounding countryside of Tam Coc wound up being a highlight. More temples built into tiny mountainside caves, more playing on karsts, and a spectacular 360 degree sunset while seated on a carved marble dragon. Although a bit of a long haul, taking a day to visit Cuc Phuong National Park was worth the extra miles. In addition to visiting langurs and gibbons at the animal sanctuary, we also were able to hike a killer 6km loop past 1000 year old trees and explore caves using our headlamps with no other tourists in sight, making me feel like a modern Indiana Jones. Ninh Binh is also where I had my first taste of xio, rice wine made with fermented mangos and peaches, poured liberally by the hilarious woman running our guest house. Each fresh serving was always washed down with a Vietnamese cheers that basically translates to ‘1,2,3; 1,2, go; 1,2, GOOOO!’, and it never failed to crack me up.
After a long drive and a short ferry, we found ourselves on Cat Ba Island, where we spent our first day hiking through the National Park and exploring the remains of a fort from the Vietnam War. Our remaining three days were spent rock climbing at Butterfly Valley and attempting my first deep water solo in the famous Ha Long Bay, where I shimmied up karsts without a rope until I made myself nervous and jumped into the jade waters below. After one final long ride to Hanoi, we at last sold our bike and spent the evening toasting to the end of a successful trip over many bia hoi’s, homemade beer, sold for only .25 cents a glass.
From Hanoi Gary caught a flight for work, and I spent a few days alone, mostly savoring all the food I had come to love: unbelievably strong coffee, sweetened with condensed milk; crispy pork with crusty bread; cracking open purple passion fruits to scoop out their saffron insides; mango smoothies, always served with a colorful twisty straw; and sipping soup seated on tiny, primary-colored plastic chairs. Also, it was only right as I was leaving that I barely started to wrap my head around the language, a middle school boy’s dream, with all its dongs and tits and cocs. This was my first time in a country that speaks a tonal language, and to me initially it all sounded a bit like the aliens in Mars Attacks. Eventually I was able to sort it out, and even began to hear the difference between ga (chicken) and ga (train station), helping me to sound like much less of an idiot when ordering lunch.
Unfortunately, I had left my passport at the embassy in Ho Chi Minh to be renewed and so was forced to take a train back down south. I knew it wouldn’t be great, but I had no idea just how bad those 34 hours would actually be. My little cabin with two bunk beds seemed alright at first, until I noticed the cockroaches scurrying across my bottom bunk. That bottom bunk turned out to not actually be mine, since personal space didn’t really seem to exist, and at any point I wound up having 1-4 strangers seated on the bed with me. Our cabin door was broken, and I started to feel oddly like an animal at the zoo, as new families kept turning up to point me out to their children. Loud conversations shouted into cell phones happened constantly, making sleep a challenge, although what really almost made me light myself on fire was when the old lady about an arms length away in the bunk across from me began throwing up into little plastic baggies, proceeding to throw them into the trash can right next to my head. The only silver lining in all that was my 18 hour flight back to California for the holidays felt like a breeze!