getting lost on the bottom of the earth — easy rider style

Posted: February 20, 2008 in Uncategorized

Hola amigos,

When I last rapped at ya, I had left the glorious motherland of Red China destined for a much greener communist locale — Vietnam.  Things are, to say the least, much easier here; the people are shockingly friendly, as I’m sure the following tale will illustrate well… overall, it feels like the polar opposite of China in terms of atmosphere (both for this White Devil and otherwise).  Oh yeah — it’s warm here. Yay.

I guess I need to rave about the food first — it’s just freaking awesome.  Aside from the restaurants, street competition is alive and well.  It’s commonplace to see a woman with a “scale of justice” on her shoulder, containing a pot of broth, noodles, meat, veggies, cookware/dishes, and even plastic stools and tables.  They walk around with their whole livelihood on their shoulder…  You just flag em’ down if you’re hungry.  Other people have more “rooted” operations, set up on the sidewalk with with same accouterments — almost like a rogue restaurant — and sometimes being open 24 hours a day.  This is how to eat cheap; a bowl of Pho will run you about 15,000 dong (90 cents or so) and I’m talkin’ about a serious bowl here, not some dinky thing you give cereal to a 6 year old in.  Also awesome is the fact that there are, naturally, no menus at these places; there would only be one thing on them anyway.  Even lots of “established” restaurants (read: storefront) are the same way — you’ll say “Ga” (chicken) and they’ll just respond, very matter-of-factly, “Bo” (beef).  This, apparently, is not negotiable.  It also varies day to day, even at the same places.  You do, however, get a humorous response from asking for a menu (a chuckle, then one of the flavors mentioned above).  Of course, this isn’t the only thing to eat here, and –miracle of miracles– bacon and eggs is on every breakfast menu (at the restaurants that have them) including a baguette (a damn good baguette, actually).  I generally consume what I can only assume is around 8,000 calories a day or so…

Oh yeah, I’ve got a partner in crime for a week or so, Beijing Bill’s roommate Una.  She’s Serbian and has been working on her masters in linguistics in Beijing for 2 years, with another two and a half to go (she speaks 5 or so languages).  At long last, there’s someone far more advanced in language than I who’s linguistically equally useless here (none of those 5 are Vietnamese).  She mentioned she wanted to see Vietnam on her break, and I replied “well, I’m headed that way” (“that way” being “South”).  It’ll be nice to travel with someone else for abit…

Anywho, we came into Hanoi, promptly saw the sights there, and decided it was still too cold.  So we hit up the first (of what I’m sure are to be many, for me anyway) “Hell Bus” to Hue — 12 hours or so with some other guy’s seat dug into your knees is truly lovely.

Hue is a beautiful place, despite the tons of bombs we managed to drop on it for a decade (it is the most bombed city in VN).  Una and I each took a “me day” and I rented out a motorbike… for which you need absolutely no credentials at all.  I was expecting paper, maybe even an explanation of use of some kind.  This was not the case; she simply asked me where I was staying (I didn’t even have to pronounce it — I just pointed in the direction of my hotel.. she nodded), took my 50,000 dong and handed me an iridescent pink helmet and a key.  I looked at the helmet for a second and looked back at her.  Ear to ear… clearly, she hand-picked this one just for me.  I nodded and smiled.

So I hop on, armed with yet another mediocre map (only major roads listed) and a compass I picked up in Beijing for 5 Kuai.  I then proceed to acquaint myself with this infernal machine; it’s not really a “motorbike” so much as a 4-speed, clutch-less scooter designed for those who are 4’5″ to 5’8″, which of course I look/feel quite silly on, pink helmet notwithstanding.  It’s very uncomfortable, but by sitting on the “back seat” of the thing, arms stretched like I’m on some silly little kids chopper, I get the hang of it pretty quick (no pun intended).

After having my primary transportation be my legs for the last month, I have a serious problem adjusting to just how much ground I’m covering on this thing.  I wouldn’t call it “fast” per se, but with 4 speeds, it gets going, and hits 40-50 Kmph pretty quick.  This, admittedly, is outrageously fun, and I totally forget about any so-called destinations I had in my head — I just ride around, taking random turns at wherever the hell I feel like, rain pelting me, up-shifting, swerving, and generally being Vietnam’s answer to Hells Angels.  50cc’s of pure rock fury growl under me; I suddenly wish this thing had a stereo or a tape deck or ANYTHING I use to play some fuckin’ Eddie Van Halen or GnR on.  Hue is just not big enough for me and this feeling…

…so I got lost.  Utterly, completely lost in these gravel, pothole-ridden farm streets — I mean, retracing my turns is completely unthinkable, partly because of my ignorance for my surroundings, and partly because the streets here were, seemingly, built long before anyone had a working compass or cared whether they were the least bit straight (none, I mean NONE of them go in a straight line).  The term “grid” will never exist here.  So I keep riding…

I cannot describe the look on peoples’ faces as I pass them.  It’s not so much astonishment as just pure confusion — who is this man, this man who clearly does not fit on his steed?  Where could he be going?  Why is his helmet so… pink?  this is farmland — clearly not an area where westerners have any business at all.  No one is hostel at all — they’re all smiling amidst their confusion, and I smile back.  I look at a map every time I reach an intersection, but none of the streets are listed… generally not a good sign.

But before I can realize any real conclusions, I’ve come to an intersection where 3 Vietnamese guys yell out “HALLOO!” from an odd concrete structure, like a half-finished veranda.  Shit, maybe THEY know where I am, huh?  So I hop off the bike and walk on up.  They’re all smiling, smiling confusion just like everyone else.  I’m not really that shy, but I have no clue, not the slightest idea where I am.  I produce a pack of 555s and light one up, then offer them each one.  They accept.  We smile.  Of course, none of them speak any English at all.  I whip the map out and sort of motion towards the intersection in front of us, then back at the map, with a sort of “where the fuck am I” look on my face.  All three furrow their brows and glance intently at the map for some time.  They all reach the same conclusion; their shrugs can only tell me one thing.  I’m not on the map at all…

Of course, they mutter to each other this whole time… I sigh.  The little guy grabs a chair and puts it in front of me, pointing.  I wave my hand, figuring I’ll finish the cig and start moving.  This does not fly with them.  They all point now, smiling… I have a seat.  Laughing, then more smiles and conversation I will never possibly comprehend.

One brought out some food, and set it on the card table in front of us.  A salad of some kind, with several ingredients I’d never seen before, and a stew that I cannot identify the main ingredient to (looked like jello, tasted like meat… meat jello? not bad…).  This was accompanied by a bowl of reddish oil, so hot that it was very good at removing nose hair via your sinuses.  Good stuff.  Another grabbed several packs of cigarettes and a tiny glass — smaller than a shot glass, probably less than an ounce.  I think I see where this is going…

The third one, a heavyset man with a broad face, broad shoulders… a broad man, I suppose, produced a clear plastic bottle of clear liquid.  No label.  He pointed to it and smiled so big I thought he was going to tear his jaw.  We all laughed, then more smiles.  During this time, several others had come to join us, I’m guessing all around the same age (23-25 or so) except for one older man, mid-forties perhaps, who never smiles but seems happy with my presence just the same.  Now there are 6 people sitting around the table, all smiling broadly (minus the older man), like they know what’s coming.  A pair of sticks get shoved into my hand.  “Eat”, says the broad one, and points to the food.  The shot glass is filled and passed to me.  It’s basically moonshine, derived from what I assume is rice.  I really love how things here are “same-same” but different over here; the Japanese ferment rice and get sake, the Chinese distill rice and get baijiu (practically paint-thinner) and the Vietnamese do… something else?  This shit is strong, stronger that baijiu but tastes better, and the one shot glass floats around the table counter-clockwise until the bottle is cashed, which happens surprisingly fast considering the size of the glass.  A small wave of relief washes over me… but about 15 seconds later, another bottle is produced.  More smiles.  One points around the corner into another room.  I glance around, and see an entire rack of bottles; maybe 10 or 15.  Good lord, see me through this…

One man who has shown up at the table speaks a few phrases of English and we begin the process of (albeit quite base) exchanging information: age, professions, family orientation, etc is learned and told.  More food arrives; dried squid and cured fish.  It’s delicious.  Another bottle passes around and is emptied.  I stay for several hours, just hanging out, communicating as best I can.  I roll them cigarettes from my last pouch of Bali Shag, which they seem to enjoy immensely.  At one point, money is changing hands between those at the table.  I figure it’s a beer run or something, and pull some dough out of my pocket.  This is met by screams of “NO” and the old man literally pushing my right hand, clutching the cash, back to my right leg.  It’s almost as if their offended by the idea of financial compensation; I am their guest.  A bit later, I remember how I got here, and that I must (at some point) get on the bike and make it back to town.  When the shot glass comes around again, I make a “no dice” gesture with my hands, which is met with looks of mass confusion.  I put my hands up and make the “vroom vroom” motion by twisting my right hand as if throttling.  They all go “ahhh” and nod.  The older man pats me on the leg, gives a thumbs up to my decision, and says “eat… eat more”.  I follow instructions well now…

It’s getting on 7pm, and I’m supposed to meet Una for some curry.  I figure it’s best to leave early, given the fact that while the experience is awesome, I’m just as lost as I was when I sat down… although I feel quite confident in situation.  The old man pats me on the leg, and without changing his facial expression one bit (I’ve gotten used to this now — man’s got a serious poker face) says “tomorrow… again”.  These people, this whole family showed my the utmost kindness and respect, refuse my offering of money, and request my presence again.  I can hardly refuse… I mean, I need to feed them some whiskey, after all.  Although, I will have to figure out how to get back to this place.  We shake hands and I roll out, waving goodbye to smiling faces.

Miraculously, I find my way back to a main road the same way I got lost — taking random turns.  Instinct can be an obscure thing.  I make sure to retrace my steps so as to find my way back, and the whole journey from the hotel (given this route) should be no more than 8 minutes on the motorbike.  Perhaps I’ll take a bicycle instead…

I did, in fact, return the next day, and bestowed them some Jim Beam… which is pretty much the best thing you can get here as far as whiskey is concerned.  We had another good time.  They fed me some hot pot on this day ubiquitous throughout Asia, but this is the best hot pot I’ve ever had — the broth is amazing, and the other offerings are second to none.  I have to catch a train to Nha Trang, however, and we must part much sooner than I’d hoped.  We shake hands again, and they make me promise to return as soon as possible.

I’ve made so many friends on this trip, and one thing never really gets any easier: leaving them.  A necessary evil, I suppose.
Ževali, (‘cheers’ in Serbian — it translates literally to “let’s live” which I think is pretty awesome),

The Hue crew — from left to right, Dố, Long, Tuấn, Thấn, Mēo, Huňg.  I didn’t catch the womans name.

Also, some random bowls of pho, and a serious drink available at at bar whose name I can’t recall (go figure).


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