The Vietnotebook (Pt.2/3)
Day 9 – Monday, October 8th
I was right: last night turned out to be an absolute shit show. For whichever of our sins danced under the cover of darkness, I can only hope that the gut-wrenching pains I suffer from now will suffice as payment. I do not know what time we awoke, only that it was sometime in the mid-afternoon. If I hadn't literally pulled Griff out of bed, we'd probably still be lying in that sweat-box, convalescing as fools.
The day has come and gone and it is now 7:15pm. I think both of us would agree that the rejoining of the living was indeed the right call, despite our remaining half-dead. The afternoon outing consisted of two extremely memorable experiences: the first, a 30km ride through the jungle to Vietnam's famous Paradise Cave. In the parking lot we ran into a group of dudes from the hostel who warned us that it was a quite the climb to get to the cave and we could see they weren't fooling by evidence of their sweat-drenched backs. There was the feeling like death himself was upon me, but for whatever reason, I welcomed this news of a steep climb as it was to be the most exercise I've had since leaving the states. Between the booze and noodles, man, I swear: I’m getting fucking soft out here.
Indeed, the steps were intense and had me blowing wind, but it was the crossing of the cave's threshold that involved the blowing of minds. A simple hole in the thick of the jungle the entrance to the cave became a passage through which a hidden world of was revealed, one of epic proportions. It was a moment of humility. A reminder not only of how immense this jungle is, but how goddamn small we were in comparison to it. What a trip it must have been for the people who originally discovered this place!
For the second excursion: we had been told about a joint called The Duck Stop, where one could allegedly pay to play with ducks, and then, at the end, get to throw one like a football into a small pond, which we were told is for bringing good luck. Since we had an hour or two of daylight left after Paradise Cave, we decided to give it a go. From Easy Tiger, we took rugged backroads that kept us bouncing on our ratty old bikes, mimicking the experience of being on horseback.
Our destination was a Vietnamese farm. Upon our arrival, a young Vietnamese girl—nine or ten years of age—was there to greet us. We were led to a long wooden table in a well-kept outdoor seating area, attached to what I'd venture to guess to be the family home. A younger boy—about five or six, and most likely the girl’s younger brother—told us to “Sit!” So we did. With no one else in sight, this little guy seemed to be the man in charge! He had in his little hands a small bowl of peanuts, an even smaller bowl of some type of orange salt, and a container of whole black peppercorns. The next sixty seconds were filled with absolute silence, as we observed the boy de-shelled the peanuts and deposit them into our open palms. Then, grabbing a tiny spoon, he scooped a pinch of salt and put that too into our palms, finishing it off with a single whole peppercorn each.
“Eat!” we were ordered.
So we did; our eyes widening in delight…
Yet the boss man held stone-faced. Smug. He knew his shit was good. He knew I knew his shit was good.
Finally, after round two of this magical snack, an adult finally appeared at our table—the older brother, I presume—a man of about thirty years in age. He sat down with a toothy grin related to the young boss man's and then welcomed us in perfect English to the Duck Stop, further providing an outline of experience options to choose from—all of which was then repeated aloud by the young boss man next to him, in case we didn't hear the first time. It was this goof that confirmed to me it being a family business; I felt that made the experience all the more special.
In the end, it was decided to partake in the full experience. First up, feeding the ducks.
The older brother led Griff and I into the duck pen, but only after requiring that we don both authentic rice hat and red-rubber Vietnamese sandals. The Duck Stop costume. We were next told to open our hands, and duck feed was poured inside. Without warning, the birds were upon us—feasting on our palms like a quacking vibrator. Then, we each got to play the part of 'duck leader'. To play said part, one must use a bucket of brown food pellets to herd the ducks around their pen as they engage in chase, all the while you are required to chant at the top of your lungs, “QUACK! QUACK! QUACK!”. When a full lap around the pen had been completed, we were instructed to pump our closed fists—full of duck food—up and down, three exaggerated times, before making it rain upon this wave of ravenous quacks.
We were then told to sit down and cup our bare feet together like they were hands. That allowed our guide to pour a handful of food pellets into the opening and, without a second of warning, let the ducks go to town on us. If feeding from our hands was crazy, this was fucking wild. Neither the two of us could stop laughing. It was the tickle session of all time. Weird to write about, but truly awesome to experience. It was so sensational that Griffin had to jump up and run away in order to escape.
For next part of the tour, we were taken to another portion of the farm in order to ride a water buffalo named Donald Trump (I kid you not). Even in the jungle of Vietnam, could we not escape the shit-show of American politics. That said, Mr. Trump was a rough ride—he waded me through a swamp, and ate all the green I gave him.
When Donald was eventually placed back in his pen, we were led back to the place where it all began, and once again were seated at the long table to be served Vietnamese pancakes—a fried, patty-like cake made of beans, corn(?), and other ingredients I have no clue about. They did ask if either of us were vegetarian, so perhaps there was meat in there as well. Who knows. At this point, the children came back—young boss man, and another young boy we had not yet seen. The boys demonstrated how to roll the pancake in rice paper with a pinch of veggies, topping it off with a dollop of homemade peanut sauce. We ate them like hand rolls, and goddamn were they a revelation. So good we ordered a second round.
Day 10 – Tuesday, October 9th - "A Cocked and Loaded Gun"
Well...for the first time this trip, I have felt genuine fear.
We left Phong Nha at around 10am this morning after having one of the best meals yet. Our buddy Shane, who recently returned to the States after living in Vietnam for two years, had seen that we were in Phong Nha (from my Instagram postings), and messaged me to recommend a place known for “the best pork in the world, probably.” Funny enough, we had walked past a restaurant the night before with a wooden sign above the entrance, literally claiming the same thing verbatim. Thus, we made it our first order of business, and—boy, let me tell you…unlike every other restaurant under the sun toting bold claims of being the “Best in the world”, or “best in Los Angeles,” this little, family-run, hole-in-the-wall BBQ joint in the jungle of Vietnam actually had the goods to deliver. As soon as we sat down, we were told the pork baguette was “very good.” That was all we needed to hear, and two orders were promptly placed. As we waited for the next few minutes, glorious scents of roasting pig filled our noses; and when the product finally came out, it looked as if it were a work of art—with tiny, perfectly-cooked bits of pork, cradled in the valley of a freshly baked baguette, topped with a side drizzle of some homemade chimichurri-type sauce, which boasted a notable hint of lemon zest. If we didn't have to hit the road, I would have gotten two or three more.
Now, as I already mentioned, we had hit the road after breakfast at around 10am. Back at the hostel, we had been told by a group of travelers that our day’s ride was going to be epic. These boys were traveling south to north, from Ho Chi minh (Saigon) to Hanoi—the opposite of us; meaning they knew the areas we were heading into.
Turns out they were 100% right.
We embarked south via the Ho Chi Minh trail—a move which would almost double our ride time, but which allowed us to ride through the very same jungle trails that ran weapons and supplies from North Vietnam to the Vietcong during the Vietnam war. To give you an idea how inconspicuous the Ho Chi Minh trail is: when it was finally discovered by American forces it was deemed “one of the greatest achievements of military enginerring of the 20th century.” Witnessing it first hand, I can confirm it was more than impressive; forcing an admiration for the tenacity of Vietnamese soldiers. Unlike our country, loaded with heavy fire power and intimidation, the Vietnamese had to rely on resources at hand, and that was to be found within the geography of their own country.
But the thing I really wanted to talk about has nothing to do with history, nor the beauty of this trail.
See: by the time we were four hours into our ride, we had already almost ran out of gas (but luckily, were saved by a local man with a water bottle of petrol) and we had realized that barely any ground had been covered due to the nature of the complicated twists and turns of the trail itself. So, in an effort to make it to Hue before dark, we decided to readjust by cutting westward toward the major A1 highway.
It was during this cross-trek, late in the afternoon, when we rounded a hairpin turn, only to spot a military truck up ahead—parked sideways, blocking the entire road. Outside the vehicle were three or four soldiers dressed in full uniform. To the left of the truck were three women—all bound with rope at the ankles and wrists, sitting with their legs straight out, backs leaning against the grill of the truck where one of the soldiers stood aiming a chrome-plated snub-nose revolver at their foreheads.
The first gun sighting.
As we slowed on approach, time dialed back. As soon as recognition of the revolver occurred, survival instincts flared. Here we were: a couple of gringos, approaching Vietnamese soldiers engaged in what appeared to be a tense situation. I can tell you that in those few seconds, I honestly prepared for the worst. Riding in front of us was a local Vietnamese man, carrying a basket of chickens on the back of his moped. As soon as he got close to the truck, the soldiers directed him to the right, toward the rear end of the truck parked perpendicularly across the road. When the soldiers next turned their attention to myself, and Griffin riding behind me...it nearly resulted in the shitting of my own pants, as I registered the directing-soldier's arm moving from pointing right, toward the rear of the truck, to pointing left, toward the exact location where the small group of women were hysterically pleading for their lives.
That split-second felt to me like minutes.
I thought to myself: “I’m not getting tied up. I’m not dying here.”
I fantasized about jaming my throttle, jumping off my bike, and sending it directly into the grouping of soldiers to effectively send them flying into the jungle like bowling pins—the impact of which would most likely incapacitate them, as well as send the gun flying, allowing me to grab it in a moving slide...just in time for them to come to their senses so they could watch me blast my way out of there.
When reality returned, I realized, that for whatever reason, the soldier was actually waving us through—but on this left side of the truck. Tom Cruise crisis mode: diverted. But the pathway we were provided was extremely narrow and, not wanting to get shot, I crept forward slowly and deliberately as my arms brushed against the soldier who was still aiming the chrome-plated revolver, now glistening in the afternoon sun, at the imprisoned women at his feet, bound at the wrists and ankles, pleading for their lives even louder now.
I wanted so bad to get off my bike and help them.
They were overpowered. Fearful…
But so was I. And, as an American in a country with a poor history of political relations, I felt there was nothing for me to do but keep my head down and pass through before the soldiers changed their minds. As soon as we escaped, I pulled over to see if Griff had by chance been able to capture the encounter via his helmet Go Pro. He was excitedly taking off his helmet, claiming to have "Got it!" but was left disappointed upon the discovery that the battery had died shortly before, and that we therefore did not "get" anything.
I guess you'll just have to take my word for it.
Day 11 – Wednesday, October 10th - "The Conman Named Lee"
Hue is a much different city than anything we’ve seen thus far.
How: for lack of better phrase, it’s much more westernized with regards to tourism and overall cleanliness. If Hanoi was Los Angeles, Hue would be akin to San Diego. If that even helps. Last night, we checked into the Vietnam Backpacker’s Hostel, and were greeted out front by an Aussie lad named Rory, who, whilst holding a sweaty bottle of LaRue, graciously led us down a narrow back alleyway to safely park our bikes behind the building overnight. Then, when we checked-in at the front desk, good ol’ Rory was there again, this time supplying us with a couple cold LaRues to match his own.
The rest of the night consisted of heavy drinking around town, meeting new faces, reconnecting with old faces (we ran into the two blokes we got drunk with while waiting for the train in Lao Cai), and simply just celebrating the fact that we are still strangers in a completely foreign land. One cool thing that happened: was I asked the bartender here at the hostel, a Swedish dude from Gothemburg named Rob, if he knew of a restaurant that was (again) recommended to me by Shane. Since I couldn’t pronounce the name of the place on my own, I showed my phone to Rob, who immediately asked, “You know Shane Brooker?”
Turns out Shane worked with Rob at this hostel when he was living out here. Small fucking world!
As of this afternoon, our bikes have been placed in the hands of the legendary Hue mechanic, Mr. Kim Thien, who was recommended to us last night by a Texan cowpoke named Eric, who eerily looked to me like he could be a member of the Culkin family. Based off his recomendattion, we decided it would be a good idea to get a full tune-up to hopefully get us through the remainder of the trip down south. Mr. Kim Thien is apparently the best of the best. And so, today we’ve been left to the devices of our own two feet, walking the streets of Hue for the first time under the lens of day. It’s a nice town, but doesn’t really stand out as special compared to the other stops of our trip thus far. At least our bikes are getting taken care of; curious, however, what the damage will be...
POST SCRIPT #2 (The Conman Named Lee):
I’m writing this on October 16th, 2018.
As you can tell, I’ve fallen behind on my writings; a sign of living in the moment, perhaps—or, more likely, of too many beers.
Either way, I’m back with another tale...
Back on the 10th, while our bikes were in the shop under the care of Mr. Kim Thien, it was around 1:15pm when Griff and I began strolling the streets, eyes peeled, searching for a good spot to grub. Not long after our hunt began, we were approached by an elderly man, who began speaking to us in decent English. The first thing out of his mouth were a string of words informing us not to worry—that he was a teacher; and that he wasn’t trying to sell us anything.
The man, who then introduced himself as 'Lee', went on to tell us that he lives in Saigon and had only recently traveled to Hue by bus in order to greet his daughter who was flying into town on this day, the 10th of October. From the airport, Lee planned to head to a small village outside town—the place where he "came from"—for an evening dinner with the rest of his and his daughter's family. However, he told us, his daughter wasn’t scheduled to arrive for a few hours, so in the meantime, he wanted to invite us to share a drink in hopes of practicing his English with us. Politely, we informed him that we were actually quite ravenous, and before making his acquaintance, were in the process of heading to lunch; but adding that, afterward, we would be much obliged to satisfy his student needs.
Now, at this point, I was already feeling a bit skeptical because scammers are out here in Vietnam like flies on shit. However, I also wanted to remain open to life’s beautiful moments—the gems found only when not looking—and thus, not wanting to naysay a potential great experience, I decided to push any apprehension aside to instead 'go with the flow'. Whatever was to happen, I was ready for it.
Thirty minutes later—with our bellies now full from a mediocre bowl of noodles—we went back to the same spot to find Lee, completely overjoyed to witness our return! I doubt he had moved since we left. Reunited, Lee joyfully led us across the street for some “local beers” which ended up being the same Huda’s everywhere else had—but that’s besides the point.
The point is: that for about an hour, Griff and I listened to Lee’s “life story”.
We first learned of his “family” in San Francisco; then, of his father: who had been in the US Navy during the war; his grandchild; his other family in a small village outside Hue (where he was allegedly headed for dinner); but most importantly, we learned that it was Lee’s birthday that very same day! He even made us guess how old he was. How fun! Griff guessed 68, and I, 70. The right answer was in between. Convenient? I thought so too…
When it finally came time to pay, good ol’ Lee generously offered to foot the bill (about $3 USD). But it was the old man’s birthday, so of course we told him that his request was ridiculous, and that we'd be the ones paying in celebration of his birthday and the upcoming reunion with his daughter and extended family. That was the moment when the sheisty bastard made his move—if we didn’t want to offend him, he told us, we must allow him to him pay...
BUT, since it was indeed his birthday, for us to buy him a bottle of wine to share with his family during his birthday dinner would “make his heart so full”.
Warning sign numero dos.
Unfortunately, Griffin was locked in—hook, line, and sinker. Since I myself wasn't yet sure that Lee was indeed planning on fucking us over, I still didn’t want to be the one to question this sweet old man. Meanwhile, Lee was asking the restaurant owners (co-conspirators?) where to go to buy said wine. The next thing I knew, we were back on the street, being led around the corner and across the road into a dirt parking lot enclosed by black tarp-covered chain-link fencing. Inside the area was a small shack and cases of beers, stacked all around like sets of Lego skyscrapers. It looked like the supplier center for all the restaurants in the area, if that type of thing were to exist in an open-air dirt parking lot. Lee led us to the shack in the middle, where a few local women were working with face masks on. We were asked by Lee: “High, medium, or low?” He was referring to the quality of the wine. Griff, being Griff, replied “High!”
Fool me thrice!
It was at this exact moment that I knew for sure that we were one-hundred-percent getting taken for a ride by an alleged 69-year-old Vietnamese man named 'Lee'. The good news was that prices here in Vietnam are so cheap that I figured I’d best keep my mouth shut and fork over the few bucks I needed to hopefully get this huckster out of my face so I could move on with my day. However, little did we know...Lee had already check-mated our naïve gringo asses.
“One-point-two,” he emphasized to us, shifting to an assertive tone. The cost of the bottle.
I figured, “Oh, 120k dong—no biggie! That's like ten bucks, or whatever.”
But as we both reached for our 100k notes, Lee noticed and asserted that no—the wine bottle was, in fact, one-point-two MILLION, or about $46 USD; which was more than anything we’ve spent yet for a single item, including my full engine repair back in Sa Pa. It was too late, however, to argue. Lee had already won. Caught in the moment, just like that, we willingly coughed up our money, which he practically snatched out of our hands to trade with the women at the counter for a black plastic bag. The transaction itself happened so fast that we never even thought to ask to see what was inside the bag. For all we know, it was a cow patty, and Lee was going to come back later to split his cut of earnings with the women behind the counter.
Back in the street now, I followed Griffin, but still being led by Lee whose friendliness had suddenly vanished, wondering to myself if Griffin had any clue that we had just been robbed.
Then, Lee, who before claimed to have so much leisure time—enough to wait a full hour for Griff and I to eat lunch—now informed us that he must take immediate leave. But before he left, he asked us for our emails and told us that he was going to tell all his friends about us and send us pictures of him drinking the wine as a thank you. At this point, Griff had caught on to the jig and asked if he could take a picture of Lee, but—what do you know?—he was denied; on the count of Lee’s current attire. Ha! He indicated it was too shabby for his close up.
What happened instead was that Lee promised us he would also send us a picture via email once he had "changed into his suit later on".
And with that, Lee hopped on his moped and took off; leaving Griff and I slack-jawed, collectively 1.2 million Dong poorer.
In the end, we never did get that email...
TO BE CONTINUED...