My head hurt. That was the first thing I noticed. The second was that I was lying on the floor. Alone. I lifted my head, groggily, then sat up and looked around again, slowly registering how exactly I came to be at this specific place at this specific time. My phone—still alive—read 8:09 AM. No wonder my head hurt. I stood up, stumbled down the steps, and sidestepped a squirming litter of pups on my way to a hut across the street, where Ty casually sat with a group of villagers around a table. He was wasted.
“I woke up at 7 and they were already going at it,” he shrugged. Someone handed me a seat, then a clear liquid that was to become my first sip of the morning. I winced ever-so-slightly as the ring of smiling faces looked on. The mountains all around us were still draped in early morning fog, but the air was warm, so I leaned back and melted into the chair. We weren’t going anywhere for awhile.
I had met Ty about two weeks earlier at the entrance of a motorbike dealership in Hanoi, along with a couple Israeli guys who knew him from China. That afternoon, we all rode bikes down the street and drank beers furnished by the shop owner, a guy our age whose breath smelled of alcohol. At first blush this struck me as irresponsible, but in hindsight I appreciate his business acumen—what could be more enticing to young, testosterone-filled men on a backpacking jaunt through Southeast Asia than a don’t-tell-mom combination of booze and bikes?
Things are still cheap and relatively unregulated in Vietnam, where a bowl of pho costs a buck and a half; a beer at a street-side bar goes for as little as a quarter; and a 110 cc Honda Win—the standard backpacking motorbike—can be purchased for 220 USD and ridden all over the country’s well-paved roads without a license, insurance, or registration papers. In a land where everyone travels around on two-wheeled rides, it is easy enough for a foreigner get his hands on one, from guys casually standing on street corners (“Hello! Motorbike?”) to the the dealers who advertise on craigslist and set up small shops in the bustling Old Quarter. I visited a few places and settled on the third, where the bikes ran the smoothest and the proprietor seemed honest, but that counted for only so much—it was impossible for him to know everything about my pre-owned chopper. I just hoped it didn’t break down in the mountains.
I had traveled to Hanoi with the intention of riding up to the terraced rice fields of Sapa, but immediately nixed those plans upon stepping off the plane into an unexpectedly cold Southeast Asian winter. A few days after our first beer, Ty and I agreed to head south together in this thin sliver of a country, towards the direction of warmth, down intriguing backroads as they appeared. Of several main arteries that cut across the territory we chose the two-lane Ho Chih Minh Highway, part of which meanders through rural, mountainous regions along the western border. Neither of us knew exactly where we would end up, but these things would work themselves out in time. We left the first dry day after a string of rainy ones, during the final breaths of 2015.
The internet is inundated with accounts of foreigners describing the traffic in Vietnam—the most typical refrain being that things are “fucking insane”—but it’s really not that bad, and certainly doesn’t reach the level of anarchy that reigns on the streets of China. Nevertheless, even countryside riding demands vigilance, mainly of the small men driving big trucks that barrel down the middle of narrow roads in a lopsided game of chicken. We also faced slower obstacles—namely cows, water buffalo, and dogs—which claim as much of a right to the road as the humans who built them. The animals are everywhere, often unaccompanied by their owners as they saunter down the highway or lounge right in the middle of it, practically daring drivers to ride over or through them. I have yet to see a leashed dog in the countryside, illustrative of the simple but practical methods used to control domesticated creatures, which possess the intelligence to not abandon the hands that feed them, but lack the ability to understand that those hands will convert them to food in due time.
Aside from familiarizing myself with the everyday sights and sounds of rural Vietnam, I spent the first few days of the trip replacing faulty bike parts included with a motorbike recycled several times over. Repair shops pop up every few kilometers in settled areas, and anyone with a basic knowledge of bikes can fix a Win. But there are also dead zones—stretches of undeveloped land without a mechanic in sight—and I found myself in one of them on the second day when my chain slipped off the back sprocket, rendering the Win inoperable and un-rollable. Ty rode to the nearest town for help, but the mechanic there refused to leave his shop. I stayed put, looking to flag down a trucker with space in his cargo, while Ty sought out other options. It wasn’t long before he found the solution in the form of a sugar cane farmer riding his tractor down the road. The guy was a genuinely happy being, and ecstatic to join our adventure. In exchange for a full tank of gas—just over 2 USD—he drove me and my bike to a small village off the highway. Along the way, we passed through a street lined with fellow cane-hawking farmers, who cheered on their friend and his unusual load.
This episode became part of our journey rather than a hiccup in it, joining an endless stream of unanticipated occurrences that inevitably flow from a brand of tourism for which there is no strict schedule, or any guarantees. Ty and I found ourselves along the same road because we opened ourselves to a real world filled with real people living real lives. For it is one thing to believe in our interconnectedness, but it is quite another to feel it through an interaction with a complete stranger who occupies a universe that, up until a moment ago, you never knew existed. Guidebooks were useless out here, but smart phones (with offline gps functions) and common sense took care of the basics. We chose restaurants according to customer count, and specific dishes by gaining access to the kitchen and pointing at raw materials. Many of the towns on our route went unnamed on our map apps, but we could tell when settlements lay up ahead, as well as their relative size, based on concentrations of interconnected black lines—denoting streets—surrounding sections of the highway. When the skies began to darken, we aimed for a web of streets large enough to support the existence of a “nha nghi” (guesthouse). If none existed, or the town gave us a bad vibe, we pressed forward.
An experience would transpire, instantly, then immediately give way to the next, folding into an extended sequence of memories too fast to process. Lest living presently was that easy, beneath the hair blowing in the wind lay an anxious mind manifesting itself in all the hypotheticals, some more realistic than others. Assuming a Honda Win is bound to break down, does it matter whether I consider those circumstances before they occur? Sometimes, such as the day before our trip into a dark green patch near the border with Laos, an area as picturesque as it is lacking in gas stations and mechanics. After exploring a world-class collection of recently discovered caves, we hired a guy in Phong Nha to inspect our bikes for anything that could possibly fail us.
The western section of the Ho Chi Minh Highway (the road bifurcates for a couple hundred kilometers below Phong Nha) is practically deserted, which makes sense: unless someone has reason to wind through the untamed mountains in this largely uninhabited area, there are more efficient ways to cross the country. We followed the highway as it sliced through dense jungle carpeting rolling mountains. For the first time in days even the sun joined our journey, smothering us in warm rays as we flowed with the pattern of the landscape: rise for awhile; curving descent; repeat.
Signs of civilization appeared farther on when the jungle opened to broad plains surrounded by forested mountains. We crossed a narrow suspension bridge leading to a village on the other side of a river and encountered schoolchildren who were equally fascinated and mortified by the sight of us. Amidst the commotion, an out-of-town government engineer doing inspection work walked over. Before the bridge’s construction six months earlier, anyone traveling to and from the village needed either a boat or the strength to wade across the flowing water, he explained. I noticed that the straps on the kids’ book bags doubled as life preservers.
Later that afternoon we passed the first guest house to appear all day and took a break to assess the situation. According to our offline map, Tang Ky seemed reachable with the remaining sunlight, so we set off for the town, which presumably offered accommodations if the app deemed the place important enough to name. Our actions reflected full faith in the process; our intuition; and maps.me, which, if it was an actual human speaking from personal knowledge, would have warned us that Tang Ky is nothing more than a collection of shacks individually resembling the clubhouse you built out in the woods with your friends during middle school. Fuck.
We would prevail, of course, but our error nevertheless stuck us in an unenviable position: hours from the next major town, but too far from the guest house to turn back. Ty pulled over to refill his tank with a water bottle containing gas while I shot forward into the darkness, racing through options that soon became decided by the bugs: too small to be seen on a speeding bike, they materialized out of thin air every evening, colliding with my face like bits of airborne sand and sticking to my eyeballs until forceful blinking shed the pests. But at that point it was too late—the toxin from their bodies had already been released, and several minutes after contact my eyes burned as if exposed to that blue chemical under the sink. The situation was becoming untenable.
I slowed while passing through another small village. Kids played in the street, and waved as I rode past. Up ahead on the right a group of people chilled around a table in front of a shack. From the roadway they seemed friendly enough; there was just enough light to see a few smiles. I pulled over, dismounted, and approached them as Ty rolled up with a trail of kids in pursuit. A middle-aged man rose to greet me. He swayed in the dusk. These ethnic minorities didn’t speak Vietnamese, but perhaps they understood it? Through google translate, I asked whether a guest house was nearby, knowing full well the answer was no. The man, both drunk and the guy in charge of making decisions, shook his head and laughed. Then, as if to deftly preempt the potentially awkward next question, he pointed to a shack across the street and made a sleeping gesture.
Our presence had generated quite a stir, which began to swell with the prospect of us spending the night in the village. There was only one hater: a guy around my age who stood and raised his voice in protest. It immediately became clear that he was the prince of this fiefdom: No. 1 Son of the Village Leader, and petulant objector to our proposed stay in what I figured was his residence. His voice sounded authoritative, and surely mattered, but it was summarily dismissed by a chorus of groans about being such a hard-ass. The people had spoken. No. 1 Son scowled ever-so-slightly and returned to his seat at the periphery of the group, resigned to let the events unfold as they were.
And so it was decided. We rolled our bikes over to the house across the street and returned with a bottle of alcohol that my travel companion had stuffed in his bag a couple days earlier for a moment like this. In spite of his North American roots, Ty kicks it with the Vietnamese like a native, so I let him handle all matters of diplomacy while I decompressed in the background and waited for my eyes to stop hurting. A small camping lantern—our sole light source—illuminated a circle of inquisitive villagers and a small cup of rice liquor that was making the rounds amongst the men. We worked our way through their stuff then ours, then back to theirs, occassionally turning to google translate but mostly just laughing at the serendipity of it all. No dull moments or awkward silences, and it wasn’t just the alcohol. These people lived simply but fully; offering everything they had; needing only one cup—hallmarks of the poorest. Even No. 1 Son, always in the background with a watchful eye, cracked a smile as the sky around us went pitch black, turning the lantern into the center of our solar system.
Food eventually appeared, as well as more liquor (where was the water?), followed by music from my bluetooth speaker and accompanying dance moves—a cultural exchange. The night ended with five of us on the floor of the Village Leader’s hut, sharing blankets and body heat. One of the guys cuddled up to Ty; I couldn’t tell if he was fucking with him or just getting warm. Either way, it was too weird for Ty, who dragged the Village Leader out of bed for a late night joyride in the mountains. My final moments of consciousness were punctuated by grunting from behind the curtains, where No. 1 Son scrambled his wife’s guts as an unsubtle reminder that I was a visitor to his kingdom.
People were in high spirits when I returned to the drinking table the next morning. The Village Leader’s neighbor made everyone laugh. He seemed funny, like a Vietnamese Chris Tucker. After sucking down an inappropriate amount of liquor for breakfast, the two of us took off on a tour of the neighborhood. We waded through a river that feeds the village, scoped out Chris’s prized pigs, and pestered his mother, who gave him a look he has undoubtedly seen for several decades.
By mid-day the scene had descended into another drunken mess, and I decided it was pointless to try and figure out how these people earned a living. I put in some face time at the table before excusing myself for a walk—away from the never-ending cup of rice liquor; past the rickety huts and unshackled water buffalo; through the forested hills; towards a new reality.
The territory appears unfamiliar, but I know I have been here before. In this reality, everyone looks like everyone else, taking different paths to find the same things. It logically follows that if everything is the same, then no answer is right, so why not mine? Shifting understandings of the world shift energetic will to the creation of a progressively doper experience. Yesterday’s achievements become old news, but they always were, because by definition potential was already written. The new normal—crazy at the time—is emotionless now. And even that changes. Time passes, eyes blink, things happen. And suddenly I find myself riding into Laos, through vast stretches of red dirt and nameless towns, all the way to the Cambodian border, where I sell my bike after (corrupt?) officials reject its passage to the other side. I look around and again I am alone. Away from something, towards another. And so it was.