After my first journal entry on Vietnam, my buddy, Tam, emailed me to say that she was sorry my experience in her homeland hadn’t been a delightful one. I hadn’t realised the entry had that sort of tone so I’ll have to ensure this one is a bit more positive. It certainly starts out that way.
I finally left the high-altitude town of Dalat after too many grey days and with a tip-off from a couple of ‘xe om’ drivers, I found what must be Vietnam’s best kept secret; a brand-spanking new road direct to the coastal town of Nha Trang, my next destination. Not only does it cut over 70kms from the journey, but it is practically deserted save for the occasional moto.
Given the mountainous terrain, the road was up and down all day, but the downs were an absolute pleasure and at the 60km mark came the down of all downs; a descent of at least 1000m over a distance of 30km on a silky-smooth surface, winding from mountain to mountain, the wind rushing over me at 50km/hr, not a pedal stroke to be had, not a vehicle in sight – better than sex. It truly was the greatest experience I’ve ever had on a bicycle that fixed a huge grin to my face for its entirety.
I eventually rolled into a tiny rural village just as the light was fading and the clouds were beginning to dump their load, which they’d been threatening to do all day. Given its size, there were no accommodation options in the village, but I must have pulled up at just the right spot for just as I was preparing to depart in search of a nice place to pitch the tent, an old woman came rushing out of her home, which doubled as a cafe and baguette stall and said that I could stay with her family. The woman, who referred to herself as ‘my mother’ and to me as ‘her baby,’ had obviously spotted a business opportunity for she proceeded to improvise a package deal for me that included dinner, a few beers, a bed for the night, breakfast and a coffee. Needless to say, I felt much better staying there knowing that I was contributing to this household whose shower consisted of a trough and jug in the mud out back. It was also nice to stay in a home again, even if it did come with a wailing baby, a husband and wife who decided to get up at 1:30am for a few beers and a really loud chat and a 4:30am wake-up call from ‘my mother’ and the cafe stereo pumping out Vietnamese techno at max volume.
The following day I headed back to the South China Sea, which I’ve come to know and love over the last 4 months as a source of respite and relaxation, at Nha Trang, Vietnam’s ‘premier beach location.’ With temperatures topping 30 degrees and blue skies every day, it was not hard to spend a solid 4 days laying in the shade of a coconut palm while intermittently dipping myself in the ocean. The hard thing was leaving and heading back into the Annam Highlands once again.
With nothing of interest to hold me in one spot and the recent realisation of how damn big Vietnam is and how much I want to see before my visa expires, I remained constantly on the move through this extremely rural part of the country. While this remoteness and subsequent solitude make for very relaxing days in the saddle that complements the often breath-taking scenery on offer, it did make things tough when looking for a place to rest my head at night.
On one occasion I pulled into a reasonably-sized town late in the afternoon only to find that the hotels were not allowed house foreigners because of laws aimed at preventing said foreigners from associating with the local minority peoples in an effort to preserve their unique culture. The town’s police head honcho told me I could find accomodation 30km down the road, so off I went. I arrived in pitch black darkness in a village of no more than 100 people that definitely did not have anything resembling a guest house or hotel. After several failed and frustrating attempts to communicate my needs, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to do so I went to the village eatery for some dinner. While there I had an idea and made up 3 palm cards written in Vietnamese.
The first one read, “I have no place to sleep tonight.”
Followed by, “Can I stay here? I’ll sleep on the floor.”
And finally, “I will pay you and leave in the morning.”
When I gave them to one of the family members, he didn’t get past the first card before giving me a huge grin and offering me a place to stay. We had a great night drinking whiskey and semi-communicating through my Vietnamese phrasebook. They even tried to accommodate me by tuning into the ‘Australia Network’ on tele, but an episode of RPA showing a pregnant woman’s womb being drained of fluid wasn’t to anyone’s liking so it soon went back to the usual; English football.
I awoke the next morning a bit numb but surprisingly well rested after sharing the elder son’s bed, which was actually just a group of steel-topped restaurant tables placed together and covered with a woven mat. I was fed and sent on my way and any offer of payment for the kind hospitality I had received was refused.
For the most part, the weather had been good to me through this section of the mountains. It still rained every day but not usually until the late afternoon before which there were sunny blue skies to enjoy.
Then I woke one morning to find that the world felt smaller, enclosed under a roof of fog and thick, dark cloud. It was the kind of scene where you know it’s going to rain all day and rain alot. I considered taking the day off but not wanting to spend it in my dingy room in the no-horse town I was in, I decided to brave it. What proceeded was undoubtedly the toughest conditions I’ve ever cycled in.
The most potent weapon in Mother Nature’s arsenal against cyclists is wind. Aimed correctly, it can make one feel like they are riding up a never-ending hill. I knew where it was aimed when seemingly no matter which way I turned, all of the surrounding foliage was pointed directly at me. I can’t describe how disheartening it is when after having to push twice as hard as usual to get up a hill, you then have to keep pedalling to make it down aswell. The combination of an almighty mountain pass, gale-force winds, cold temperatures and horizontal rain all became a bit much and at one point as my legs could literally not turn the pedals over and I stalled mid-climb, I was reduced to yelling at the elements. A group of local villagers found it quite amusing and had a point and laugh before getting in their ‘hello.’
No matter where I ride, be it through a dusty country town or a minority village consisting of 10 wooden shacks, I am hit with a barrage of the universal word that is ‘hello.’ For many it is the only English word they know and I’m the only person they have ever had the chance to say it to, so with all the urgency of seeing a pair come up while playing ‘snap,’ they scream it at the top of their lungs. Some get over-excited and I have no opportunity to reply because they just keep repeating it in rapid fire, “Hello, hello, hello, hello.”
Others, who have been paying a bit more attention in class may also know a second phrase and they try to get them both in, in the few seconds we have together as I cruise by, “Hello. What your name?” Usually they are way behind me by the time they finish, but if not, “Dam!” I reply. I’ve found right throughout Asia that if I introduce myself as ‘Damian’ or even ‘Damo,’ people look at me like I’ve just explained the theory of the time-space continuum. They like their names short and sweet, 1 syallable max. So in Asia, I’m just ‘Dam.’
Back in the saddle and I battled on (as if I had any other choice), intermittently uplifted by some gorgeous scenery of vast rolling hills and waterfalls at their gushing best surrounded by lush greenery that glistened with moisture. I passed through extremely remote villages that consisted of a few wooden or earthen shacks on stilts and the occasional ceremonial longhouse of the local hilltribes, invariably with a volleyball court out the front.
Unfortunately, I was unable to get any photos as my camera was buried deep in my bag, protected from the wind and rain, which refused to abate. I made it through the day by entering a fantasy world that involved a home-made bacon and egg roll, a bowl of weet-bix, a meat pie from Crispy Inn Bakery and a summer of test cricket. When I returned to reality I found myself in the small, but pleasant town of Kham Duc from where I write while I wait for the weather to turn and finally take a rest after 7 straight days and over 600kms in the saddle.