Apr 18 2008

The Motorcycle Diaries (Part 2)

Published by at 11:33 am under Central Highlands,Vietnam

Day 3

Mr. Hoa had made it clear he was not looking forward to day number three of our journey. Day three was the hard push: we had to cover 300 kilometers of ground today in order to have any hope of reaching our destination within five days.

on hammocks, central highlands, vietnam
Taking a much-needed break at a roadside drink
stand … on hammocks.

What Mr. Hoa doesn’t realize is that, aside from the burning butt, riding is my favorite part: the beautiful scenery, our quick stops at juice stands and rice stalls, our brief but enlightening interaction with locals. Kind of feels like we’re observing something special, something few outsiders get to see.

We’d been riding for a couple of hours this morning, and I’d managed to find a position, wedged between my luggage and Mr. Hoa, that was only mildly uncomfortable as opposed to actively painful. Lulled by the hum of the wind in my ears and the sunshine on my face, my mind began to wander, and I started to nod off. Scents recall places and memories for me more than anything else. So when I caught a whiff of something distinctly familiar, my attention was called back to earth. “Smells like home!” I exclaimed.

Mr. Hoa responded with a “good driver!” and a thumbs up.

Only then did I realize that we’d turned off the main street onto a dirt road, flanked on either side by dense woods. But they weren’t banana or coconut or rubber or mangrove trees. What I smelled was pine.

Although I tried to explain, I don’t think Mr. Hoa ever understood why we were so excited by trees.

Turns out that the pine forest surrounded a massive lake, and Mr. Hoa pulled over for photos and a cigarette. We noticed a raised observation pagoda on the water’s edge. As we approached the pagoda, however, we realized that no one was looking out at the beautiful natural scenery. In fact, every person on the platform was turned away from the lake and was staring at one thing: Ben and me.

As we uncomfortably climbed the stairs of the pagoda, we realized they were not only staring, they were snapping pictures of us with their camera phones. Most notably, a group of giggly high school girls. Ben and I don’t really know how to respond to this, but he offered an awkward “sin jao” (hello) as we reached the top and the crowd parted to let us through. This elicited a chorus of “sin jao”s in response and more laughter from the girls. As we walked over to the railing and I began snapping photos of my own, I figured the crowd must’ve gotten over the anomaly of two white people in their midst, until I turned around and realized that the entire group was still unabashedly gawking at us. Ben later told me that, as I had my back turned, some of the braver girls had snuck up behind me and had their friends take a quick photo of them with a giant American girl.

group picture

We were soon approached by a shy Vietnamese girl, who said something to us in (surprise) Vietnamese. Apologizing, we said we couldn’t understand. Eventually she made it clear that she and her boyfriend wanted to take a picture with us. So we followed her to where she had a professional photographer set up and ready to take a picture of the four of us. As we followed her, the rest of the crowd atop the pagoda followed us, and formed a semi-circle behind the photographer to watch. When Ben reached out to hand our camera to someone so we could have a picture, each girl he approached ran away, giggling. A boy from the group stepped forward, eliciting more giggles and a round of “oooooohhhh”s from the girls.

When we walked back to the parking lot to find the Misters, the same couple we’d taken a picture with motioned for us to come sit with them. Since we couldn’t understand a word the other said, we mostly just stared at each other. They did offer us some of their coconut, and showed us a copy of the picture we’d just taken. They’d printed them out at a nearby photo booth.

We are deep in the heart of the Central Highlands now and draw attention wherever we go. Even as we ride, busloads of people will hang their heads out of the windows as they pass, flagrantly staring at Ben or me. Social norms back home dictate that whenever someone catches you staring at them, you quickly avert your eyes. Not so here, I’ve found.

When we stopped for lunch at a roadside com (rice) joint, I commented to Ben that I was started to get really tired of being made into such a spectacle. At that moment, the owner came up behind us, grabbed the back of my head and pivoted it such that I was facing her daughter, who stood at the ready with their camera phone. They continued to snap pictures as we straddled our bikes and drove away.

We later asked Mr. Hoa why everyone wanted pictures of us. He responded with a vague, “good girl, good boy, very beautiful, I am sure.”

We stopped this evening at a small hotel (really, a cluster of electricity-free bungalows) situated near a river. We saw signs advertising a nearby waterfall, but were too exhausted, and our butts far too sore, to do any exploring. We instead sat in a bamboo hut, drinking Cokes, talking with Mr. Hoa and (as best we could) Mr. See, and watching the far-off flickers of fire from the burning rice fields on the mountains.

The most notable feature of this hotel is the horde of cicadas (“yeah-yeahs,” in Vietnamese) that reside in the treetops and/or writhe around on the ground. They are LOUD. The noise got so bad tonight I had to nearly scream to make myself heard at dinner. I don’t know anything about the life cycle of cicadas, but it must be dying time for them, because as we walked through the hotel grounds, we’d occasionally get smacked in the face with one falling from above. They fight death valiantly, though. Throughout the night, in addition to their deafening buzz, we heard thumps as they flung their bodies against our door, refusing to simply lie there and die. Thank God for earplugs.

Day 4

Had to suffer through pho again for breakfast this morning. What I wouldn’t give for a donut.

Waterfalls are common in this part of the world. We even see them on the side of the road as we drive down a highway. Mr. Hoa excitedly told us that our first stop today would be the largest waterfall in the region. We’ve seen several big waterfalls during this leg of our trip, and I can’t say my excitement matched our guide’s.

waterfall, central highlands, vietnamBut this waterfall was a little different. In fact, Ben might describe it as “epic.” It was more along the lines of Niagara (I could feel the spray before I even saw the falls) than the small-mountain-stream falls we’ve seen before. What’s most striking about truly large waterfalls is how powerful they are. Makes them as scary as they are beautiful.

We’re reaching the end of dry season now. I can’t imagine how massive the falls will be in the rainy season.

We paused up at the lodge to pick up some water. It’s hot already, even at 9:00am, and our thirty-minute hike had me sweating through my clothes. I try to dress conservatively, as S.E. Asians do, to be culturally sensitive, but it’s hard to opt for long pants when it’s a hundred degrees outside.

As we sat there, resting, we noticed a large family enjoying bananas. We asked a staff member if they had any bananas for sale, but they did not. Evidently, the family overheard us, and we were surprised when, a few moments later, a woman approached us with a gift of four bananas. She must’ve been a nun of some sort, as she was wearing a gray habit-like head covering. She spoke perfect English, which shocked us. We haven’t heard English in this part of the country, aside from Mr. Hoa (we’d even had to mime “banana” to the lodge staff). Not only was she fluent in English, she knew where Virginia was. “Oh yes,” she said. “Virginia, Washington, Maryland.” We were blown away. On the rare occasion that anyone over here has even heard of Virginia, they’ve never, ever known where it is.

Before they left, they brought over more food so that we would have snacks “for later”: a long loaf of bread, and some strange, lumpy, oblong vegetables. She described them as Vietnamese sweet potatoes. We asked Mr. Hoa, who confirmed them as tamarinds. We’d had tamarind juice, but never tried the real thing. They really do taste and feel like sweet potatoes, only sweeter (thus, better).

nice family that gave us bananas

THIS is why I love this tour so much. I’ve come to associate Vietnam (and travel, in general) with people trying to rip me off. But these small moments, when you connect with a local, despite language barriers or vastly different perspectives, change everything instantly. It reaffirms my faith in the kindness of humanity and inspires me to see what else the world has to offer.

Okay, enough of the sappy, cliché diatribe.

We got back on the road, but, thankfully, did not have very far to ride today, as my butt started hurting earlier than usual. Our destination was a resort, strangely located in the middle of nowhere, but enough of a tourist attraction that we saw other white people for the first time in four days.

We decided to take another elephant ride (because who can resist, when it’s offered?). THIS time, we were elephant riding through a river. Apparently, the elephant had been worked too hard that day, as when we reached the middle of the river, he decided he wasn’t going to continue. Despite our mahout’s whips, yells, and banana bribes, the elephant would not budge. Granted, the elephant was huge (quite a bit taller than our first one), and with every step he took, his leg would sink down several feet into the river mud, making it even harder for him to walk. Once the mahout finally got the elephant moving, he exited the river at first opportunity. As this wasn’t his typical route, he was unaware that low-hanging electrical wires, strung between two bamboo poles to provide electricity to the villagers, crossed the path. The mahout had to gingerly lift the wires with his whipping pole, yelling at Ben when he attempted to help for fear of electrocuting poor, unsuspecting tourists, to allow the elephant to lumber through.

We were then dropped off at our hotel by the elephant, which was a novel and unexpected experience, particularly when we had to maneuver around a water buffalo that had somehow found itself on the lawn of our hotel. Where am I??

elephant penis
Elephant penis. Sorry, couldn’t resist posting this one.

Even though we wanted to nap this afternoon, Mr. Hoa’s endless energy insisted that we drive further up the mountain to a scenic overlook. Instead of actually enjoying the beautiful views, he ended up spending most of the time laughing over a picture he’d captured of the elephant’s penis. Oh, we also taught him the word “penis,” upon his request. I’m sure future tour-takers will appreciate this.

A local hill tribe comes to the resort nightly to perform traditional dances for the tourists, so come sunset, we made our way to a bamboo longhouse to watch the show. We were able to partake in traditional hill tribe wine, made out of tapioca, that apparently Ho Chi Minh made in the wilderness when he was a soldier. Both Ben and I enjoyed tonight’s music more than either of us thought we would (since I don’t typically enjoy music described as “traditional” or “tribal”). To Mr. Hoa’s delight, we were invited to dance with the tribe during the last song. Once again, he grabbed our camera and started snapping pictures, laughing the entire time.

Dinner at this hotel was better than our typical tour fare (the highlands don’t have the culinary variety of Vietnamese cities). As tomorrow’s 5:30 wake-up call looms ever-closer, we called it an early night.

Tomorrow: The Last Day

NEXT: The Motorcycle Diaries (Conclusion) »

 

 

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