Archive for the 'Central Highlands' Category

Apr 19 2008

The Motorcycle Diaries (Conclusion)

Published by under Central Highlands,Vietnam

Day 5

Riding to Nha Trang, VietnamLast night, Mr. Hoa indicated that he was feeling sick to his stomach, which suggests that my intolerance to eating wilted leaves for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is actually contagious. Our wake-up call this morning was at 5:30, and while Brittany, Mr. See, and myself dined on fried eggs (“omelettes”) Mr. Hoa sat sullenly at our table, shaking his head at the thought of trying to eat. Today was the fifth and final day of our motorcycle tour, and given Mr. Hoa’s present condition, our guides were suddenly eager to get us to our final destination, and begin the journey back home to Hoi An themselves.

“Final destination” originally meant Da Lat, back when we signed up for this tour. But sometime during the past five days, Mr. Hoa convinced us that we should instead go to Nha Trang. Nha Trang is only slightly farther down the road than Da Lat, and Mr. Hoa insisted that we would like it much better. (“Very beautiful! I’m sure!”) A little bit of online research one night this week showed that Nha Trang has another advantage over Da Lat: a train station. Now, we had originally planned to spend several days in Saigon and the Mekong Delta in the far south. But over these past few days, it’s begun to sink in just how little time we have left on this trip. Today is April 1st, and therefore, the first day that we can say: “we go home this month!” This prospect is equal parts happily relieving, and frighteningly disappointing. But most importantly, it’s a reminder that every day spend in Vietnam and Cambodia from this point on is one day fewer on the Thai beaches. It took about a second for this realization to sink in before Brittany and I simultaneously suggested cutting the rest of the Vietnamese south from our itinerary, in the name of making it to white sands that much sooner. Looking back, this may go down as the easiest decision of the trip.

Nha Trang’s train station links to Saigon, and Saigon links to Cambodia. Despite being lost in Vietnam’s Central Highlands this morning, getting to Nha Trang would mean that we could be in Cambodia tomorrow. A quick look at the scribbled itinerary we’ve been working from reveals that such a decisive move would add four days to our alotted beach beach vacation. Who ever said anything about Da Lat? Nha Trang, here we come!

Riding to Nha Trang, VietnamWith Mr. Hoa leading the way, we went FAST this morning. Weaving through traffic and flooring it on straight-aways, Mr. Hoa was a man possessed. Possessed by conflicting needs: first, a need to finish this trip and find a bed, and second, a need to pull over every hour for dry heaves. While Mr. Hoa relieved himself in some coffee fields at one rest stop, the rest of us drank tamarind juice and ate steamed corn. Hmm, I wrote that as a good thing, but I can see that it sounds sort of gross. I trusted Mr. See on it, and now you should trust me. But in the interest of full disclosure, my perspective might be slightly askew at this point in the trip. During the rest stop, I found myself peeing out in the open, facing the coffee fields, with my back to corn eaters in plastic roadside chairs, motorcycle drivers speeding down the road on my right, and a traditional spirit house fashioned from a broken TV shell sitting in a tree trunk on my left. And somehow finding all of this completely normal. It’s times like this I wonder: is returning home going to be a culture shock?

At around 11:00am, during another pit stop, Mr. Hoa motioned for me to come squat in the dirt beside the road with him. I did, and he began to draw a diagram in the dirt with a stick. He explained that in 50km, we would reach a fork in the road. There, one road would take us the final 30km to Nha Trang. The other would lead back to Hoi An, and home for the Misters. Mr. Hoa didn’t think he could make it all the way to Nha Trang and back, and he asked me if he could get us on a bus bound for Nha Trang once we reached the fork. That way, he and Mr. See could begin the return journey home with the 60km round-trip to and from Nha Trang. Just as I was saying “no problem,” a van came down the road with NHA TRANG written on a sticker on the windshield. Mr. Hoa flagged it down, and asked if they had room for two more. They did, and Mr. Hoa quickly paid them from his wallet for our passage. And in this way, our time with the Misters came to an unexpectedly abrupt end.

Last picture with the Misters!We got the van driver to take one last picture of the four of us before Britany and I crammed into the already-packed van (see right). The SE Asian idea of “room for two more” varies from the Western concept. We passed (and were passed by) the Misters a couple of times on the last stretch of road leading to the fork, but we lost them forever when the van stopped for lunch at a roadside dive. The last thing Mr. Hoa asked us was to mail him a copy of our photo of the elephant penis. We’ll miss you too, Mr. Hoa.

Explore the Vietnam Central Highlands on Motorcycle: Misson Accomplished!

The rest of our trip to Nha Trang was strange. For reasons we still haven’t figured out, the driver of our van passed Brittany and me off onto a different van driver a few miles down the road. Once again, money exchanged hands between drivers, and we were passed off like cargo. We didn’t mind the switch, because this latest van’s karaoke system was mercifully broken. While our Vietnamese co-passengers rode in disappointment, we experienced our first peaceful van ride in this country. It’s a given that the vans and buses in Vietnam never have A/C (this is doubly true for the ones touted as having A/C at the booking agency) but no ride is deemed road-worthy unless it has mounted TVs and blaring karaoke. Stepping into the van to find a broken karaoke system will always be one of my happiest memories of Vietnam.

In the end, we did make it to Nha Trang, where he headed straight for the train station and bought two tickets on the overnight train to Saigon. When I told one crazy British woman where we were headed, she looked around in fear, as if I’d just confessed to being involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the national government, and then urgently whispered: “it’s Ho Chi Minh City!” Lady, NOBODY calls it Ho Chi Minh City. Not the southerners, not the northerners, not anyone. If Ho Chi Minh himself reanimated tomorrow, and heard you walking around calling it “Ho Chi Minh City,” HE’D think you’re a psycho. Of course, he’d still eat your brains, because zombies aren’t picky like that.

Our accelerated gameplan went off seamlessly, and the next morning, we departed Saigon on a bus bound for the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. But not before being ripped off one last time before escaping the country. On the way to the Cambodian border, bus company employees came around to collect our passports, and money to pay for our Cambodian visas. We knew from prior research that a Cambodian visa costs $20 US, so we were surprised when the employee held out his hand and asked for $24 each. We both resisted, insisted that the price is $20, and I tried to hand him $40 for our two visas. But he wasn’t having this. Acting like he didn’t understand me, he simply stood there with his hand out, repeating his price. By now we’d attracted the attention of the passengers around us, especially those who had already shelled out $24 each. We continued to insist that we would pay $20, and when he continued to ignore this, we said we would wait and pay the officials ourselves at the border. But when his response was to refuse to service other passengers until we’d paid our $24, he slyly turned pressure from our fellow travelers onto us. We finally paid him his $48, but when our bus finally arrived at the travel agency’s office in Phnom Penh, Brittany instantly marched inside the office and demanded to know why we’d been overcharged. Their response: “take it up with the bus drivers.” Back outside at the bus, the drivers’ response was: “take it up with the office.” Then, the bus pulled away once more, and our $8 was never to be seen again.

We sought a moral victory by refusing to use the agency’s affiliated tuk-tuk drivers, who were eager to ferry us to our guesthouse in the city. Not that they were ever going to get more money out of us at this point, but they didn’t help their cause when they watched me walk in the direction of an independent tuk-tuk driver parked down the block. They jeered, “Why you want to go with him? He is a stupid farmer. He not even know English!” Like many SE Asian tuk-tuk drivers, the older man WAS clearly a farmer who had been forced to abandon his fields in search of better income. I showed him where we wanted to go on a map, and he knew enough English to quote me a much better price than the evil company vampires were demanding. As we smugly rode off in this tuk-tuk, the farmer turned around to look at me, and pointing to the company drivers, disgustedly drew one finger across his throat. I said, “I feel the same way.”

BONUS: Although we were only in Saigon for a matter of hours, we did manage to get a good video of typical traffic in the capital city. This is pretty much the same scene you see every day in Hanoi as well. Notice the complete absence of traffic signals and painted lanes. Rule #1 in Vietnam: every man for himself!

Afternoon Traffic in Saigon from Brittany & Ben on Vimeo.

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Apr 18 2008

The Motorcycle Diaries (Part 2)

Published by 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

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Apr 17 2008

The Motorcycle Diaries (Part 1)

Published by under Central Highlands,Vietnam

“Good driver! I’m sure!”, Mr. Hoa shouts, pointing to himself, immediately after steering the bike around another pothole. I can’t hear him over the roar of my own bike, but I see Brittany’s shoulders bouncing in laughter as she clings to Mr. Hoa up ahead, and I know exactly what he’s saying. Vietnam’s Central Highlands provide plenty of opportunities for Mr. Hoa and Mr. See to show off their hazard-dodging prowess, and given the oddly proportioned luggage we’ve had them strap on the back of the bikes, they’re both doing an admirable job of keeping us upright. As we honk and weave our way through a herd of water buffalo plodding across the highway, I can only wonder… how did I get here?

Vietnam Central Highlands Motorbike Tour
Brittany and Mr. Hoa

We’d spotted Mr. Hoa’s sandwich board advertisement while bicycling around Hoi An one afternoon. “Central Highlands Motorbike Tours” it promised. With “MR. HOA – EASY RIDER!” The Easy Riders, as they call themselves, are a loosely organized group of motorcycle drivers, offering guided tours through parts of Vietnam not serviced by the well-beaten tourist trail. We didn’t know much about the Easy Riders, mainly because we’d written off their services as too expensive upon learning that they charge $60 US per passenger per day. There are really no words to describe how much money $60 is in Central Vietnam. At those rates, an Easy Rider could work five days a year, and have the rest free to concentrate on blowing up small planets with one of his Death Stars. But just in case, we put the kickstands up next to the sandwich board, and poked our heads into the shop. A shirtless Mr. Hoa greeted us, and cheerfully pulled a plastic table and chairs off a stack, and into the center of the room. Thirty minutes later, we walked out with an agreement for a five-day tour, with two drivers, at $35 per person per day. We had sealed the deal with a handshake and a “Cheap price for you! I’m sure!” from Mr. Hoa.

So, at 9:30 the next morning, Mr. Hoa and Mr. See showed up on their motorcycles at our hotel, ready to pick us up. Us and two backpacks, two small rolling suitcases, and one newly acquired giant duffel bag, packed full of tailored clothes. Despite having seen one biker carrying a TREE on the back of his bike in Hanoi, I still had my concerns about whether all of this would really fit on two motorcycles. The Misters had no such concerns – they brought heavy-duty rubber straps for the job, and they got to work constructing a small tower of luggage on the back of each bike. The towers turned out to make nice backrests for Brittany and me, especially after our drivers added a couple of duffel bags of their own.

We had five days stretching out ahead of us over the winding mountain roads, and absolutely no idea what to expect. These are our motorcycle diaries.

Day 1

Today’s mission: reach a small town called Phuoc Son, 200 km south of Hoi An. Just getting out of Hoi An’s influence and into the highlands took a couple of hours this morning. But once we did, the green mountain scenery was beautiful. We were lucky to have beautiful weather today as well, although it does get hot on the bikes, baking in the sun. The wind from our speed helps, but we both managed to get a little sunburned. I am riding with Mr. See, and Brittany rides with Mr. Hoa. Mr. See doesn’t speak any English, but Mr. Hoa talks enough for more than two men. His English is broken, but he impressed us both when he told us he learned it simply by listening to the tourists!

In addition to being our driver, Mr. Hoa is also our local guide, translator, and photgrapher. He is constantly stopping our caravan to show us a photo opportunity that he thinks we need to capture, or urgently motioning for our camera, and capturing it himself. He has a passionate interest in photography – our photography, to be precise – and he is always looking over my shoulder to ensure that I capture a particular scene the way that he wants. And speaking of looking over shoulders, I think he has become a little nervous about undercutting the typical Easy Rider price: he made us promise today, that if we meet any other Easy Rider passengers, to tell them we’re paying $50 each.

We made a stop today at a pineapple farm, where Brittany and I were both shocked to discover that pineapples DON’T grow on trees! They grow in the center of spiny plants on the ground. Who knew? I guess the Misters, because I have never seen two men laugh as hard as they did when we confessed to our belief in pineapple trees. Mr. Hoa told us that he used to work on this pineapple farm as a kid, after being orphaned during the war. An American bomb killed his parents and all NINE siblings, when he was only eight months old. With no parents to foot the bill, he never even went to school. He noticed the guilty look on our faces when he told us about the bomb, and immediately tried to reassure us with: “Is OK today, no problem. I’m sure!” accompanied by high-fives. Mr. Hoa asked the lady who owns the farm to cut us up a fresh pineapple, and we ate it dipped in salt.

We made it to Phuoc Son early in the evening, with enough daylight for Brittany and me to do some exploring on foot while the Misters showered before dinner. The difference between this small town and the cities on the tourist track is amazing. We draw stares everywhere we go, and people are constantly happily greeting us with the one English word they know: “Hello!” Especially the children – they love to come racing out of their homes, screaming “Hello! Hello! Hello!” as they follow us down the street. The friendly interaction with people is is so refreshing after Hoi An’s incessant “buy someting?”

We were greeted by one man during our walk who seemed to be working on a house. He asked where we were going, in perfect English, and whether we would like to go see an “ancient airport.” It turns out that he is former English teacher, and Catholic seminarian. He is currently working for a humanitarian organization, helping the poor in this region. He accompanied us to the “ancient airport,” which turned out to be a trash-strewn field that the Americans used as a landing strip for a few years. I took his picture with Brittany, but at his insistence, only from the waist up. He was a little embarassed to be wearing neon yellow running shorts. At dinner, Mr. Hoa made fun of us for thinking pineapples grow on trees.

Day 2

Woke up a little later than intended this morning, causing us to be twenty minutes late to our scheduled 7:00am breakfast meeting with the Misters. Breakfast was pho, a typical Vietnamese dish that’s very much like chicken noodle soup, and I found eating this for breakfast to be more unsatisfactory than I could have imagined. Also, I guess it didn’t mix well with a potent Vietnamese coffee, because soon after hopping on the bikes and hitting the road, I began to feel very nauseous. This was unfortunate timing, because we had to cover 250km today. So between my aching stomach and aching butt (the motorcycle seat is wearing thin already!) my day was slightly more uncomfortable than I would have liked.

But we did visit a beautiful waterfall before lunch, which lived to the hype Mr. Hoa had been heaping on it since we set off yesterday. Lunch was the standard rice + wilted leaves + unidentifiable meat, but I was not feeling well enough to partake. Mr. Hoa didn’t seem to understand at first (“No! Eat now! No other restaurant all afternoon! I’m sure!”) but he did catch on, and he’s currently asking me how I feel at every stop. His interest in my health extends to monitoring what things I do try to eat to soothe my stomach. He has jumped in to prevent me from trying a couple of different snacks today, by snatching them from my hand, making a sick face and rubbing his stomach in agony.

Vietnam Central Highlands Motorbike TourAfter taking so much amusement from our pineapple plant revelation, Mr. Hoa made sure to extend our agriculture lesson today. We made several stops to see rubber trees, coffee plants, and pepper plants. The sheer number of rubber trees boggles the mind. We saw them planted in precise lines for farther than the eye can see, in every direction. The farmers strip a section of the bark each year, and collect the rubber cement-like goo that secretes. Next year, they will strip a different section, and in this way, the tree will be able to heal and produce rubber for years. After each plant introduction, Mr. Hoa looked at us expectantly, I suppose hoping that we’d reveal our belief that rubber grows on beanstalks, or coffee grows on puppies. We disappointed him each time, but his laughter any time we see a pineapple plant hasn’t really diminished, so I don’t pity him too much.

We visited the village of an ethnic minority people late this afternoon, where we saw old women carrying handicrafts into town in large shoulder-slung baskets, and naked children bathing in communal outdoor tubs of water. While we were walking around, it suddenly started to rain. Hard. Mr. Hoa had us quickly duck into a village home for shelter, and I can only assume that he asked for permission later. The home consisted of one room, formed out of 3 1/2 wooden walls covered with a leaky sheet of aluminum. In one corner stood a rasied wooden platform, serving as both bed and sitting area, depending on the time of day. The only other piece of furniture was a foot-powered sewing machine, until the house’s resident elder pulled in a torn leather stool from beneath an overhand outdoors.

The home-owners did not, of course, speak a word of English, but they were very kind to share their shelter with us for half an hour. “Thank you” is one of two things I know how to say in Vietnamese, so I said it again and again when the rain died down and we prepared to leave. But it elicited no response other than confused looks, which seemed less like the “WHAT the devil are you saying?” looks that I’m comfortably accustomed to, and more like “why would you thank me for letting you take shelter from the rain?” I tried to imagine a foursome of strangers barging into MY home on no more pretense than “hey, it’s raining,” and I’m fairly sure that my reaction would somehow involve the police. So thank you, people from the tribe I can’t pronounce, for your naked babies, your dry footstools, and for not calling the cops. I appreciate the gesture, even if there is no phone in your house. Or your village. Or the police station.

Vietnam Central Highlands Motorbike TourI didn’t eat at dinner either, until Mr. Hoa insisted that the waiter at our restaurant bring me an omelette. Why an omelette, I have no idea. I don’t speak Vietnamese, but I speak body language, and I watched the waiter make it clear that his restaurant does not serve omelettes. Resistance to Mr. Hoa is futile however, and ten minutes later, I was served an omelette that, if I COULD speak Vietnamese, I would have told the waiter I didn’t really want in the first place. For the sake of clarity, I was actually served fried eggs, but that’s what the Vietnamese call an omelette, and we stopped arguing that one back in Hanoi. Surprisingly, the omelette turned out to be the first thing I was able to fully stomach since breakfast. I guess resistance to Mr. Hoa really IS futile…

Next time: The Motorcycle Diaries, Part 2

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