Day 38: Hue to Tang Ky
An hour after our planned departure we could be found downstairs eating chocolate banana pancakes and fruit. Neither of us can locate our misplaced sense of urgency. Today is a big one for us. From here to Phong Nha it is 210 kilometres. WOO! We take some gratuitous pre-road photos with the darling hotel lady before whooping it up on the streets of ‘Nam.
We escape the city, but this busy highway is a far cry from the scenic serenity of the Ho Chi Minh Trail; the longer, prettier road from Saigon to Hanoi. We’re here for the drive, not the final dot on the map. We’re here for the squiggly lines and the green coloured-in bits of topography, not the straight, yellow ones carved out by shipping companies. So we backtrack to that lesser traveled path.
And what a wiggly line it is in the flesh! This is the road to be ridden! The Ho Chi Minh Trail inspires laughter to roll from our bellies and over the rivers and through the hills. Villages of huts on stilts pop-up, children wave, the water buffalo roam and people in pointy straw hats galosh through flooded fields. Mountains whir up into curled peaks and pointed bluffs pierce the sky around drenched rice paddies that reflect the day’s moods. In perpendicular response to the rushing river, a bridge swoops across to the other side, answering any motor engine or ox-cart who wonders what shade the grass is o’er yonder.
Down the road, a turnoff spreads into a cattle plodded plateau on the river, looking out to where the structure of a house is perched on a cement block that rises twenty feet above the water (an overzealous foundation?).
It’s purpose boggles our brains as we get back on the seats of our sun soaked bike seats. Sun today! At a standstill, the temperature is warm, even. The rays inject vitamin D into our bloodstream like an intravenous and we are high on sunshine, giddier than a couple felines in a rat lab hopped up on catnip.
These words express our feelings as accurately as any words can at this moment. Sunshine, Motorbikes, Freedom. Every corner that garners a stunning new vista–FUCK YEAH! Every waterfall we come across, every river, every tree, every inch of the azure heavens–FUCK YEAH! Boundless mountains punch the blue sky, patchworks of green crops pattern the hillsides and that concentrated water tumbles through, unfolding a collection of happy tears with a one track mind. Is this still Planet Earth? Have we crossed a space-time warp and entered the Holy Land?
We stop for lunch. Had we stuck to the highway, we’d almost be in Phong Nha by now. Our maps reveal we still have 100km left to ride.
Mountain goats clatter around the swimming hole across the street. Chickens cluck and the little kids in front of the lunch hut laugh at us through the fenced window. The boy serving us can say three words in English: noodle, egg, and beef.
“Sounds good,” we answer.
He comes back with a couple bowls of brothy instant noodles. Flo’s has egg in it and mine has “beef”–what appears to be the entire nose of a cow, so fresh that every hair is present and accounted for.
On the way to the bathroom, I pass a six-hundred pound pig out back feasting on slop who eyes me with a twitching nose, almost as though he can smell his old friend on me.
Back in the midst of the dreamy scenescape, that old cold front starts to tickle our tailbones. We won’t make it to Phong Nha today. The next town is 45km from here. The sun sets in an hour, and if we don’t make it to that town, we have half a bottle of water and a couple thin sleeping bags Flo has been carrying around for months. The jungle has vacancy, at least.
A couple villages come and go; population: forty-ish? Laundry dries like colourful flags on the roofs of their stilted houses. We continue.
Dark closes in quickly, and at the next village, Flo asks a lady if there is a hotel around. She points us up the pitch black road.
“One kilometre,” she says.
Flo’s headlight peers through the dark street like a dying firefly, so I lead with my own bike’s dim lamp, mini flashlight jammed in my mouth for extra vision. In this way I can see almost ten feet in front of me as Flo and I inch forward, the nighttime sounds of the jungle leering from all sides. Then, within my ten foot light perimeter, a wall of glowing orbs float three feet above the ground, paralyzing me. Flo bursts into laughter. Cows!
My initial panic ebbs as we scooch through the cattle and along the road. When we stop a kilometre later, a man on the road tells us there is a hotel, pointing back the way we’d just come from. So we turn the bikes around, and start asking every house we pass.
At one abode, we work our sign language skills to the man out front, putting our hands together and resting our heads on them.
His wife smiles at us from the balcony, kid in arm. He opens the door to a dingy basement and flicks on the single bulb hanging in the middle of the empty room. It dangles above raw cement floor. Flo and I thank him and leave, proving that beggars can be choosers.
The next house we stop at has a tall wooden gate out front – vertical planks stacked side by side. A little Vietnamese man comes out to greet the strangers with the terrible headlamps. Flo mimics sleeping and eating.
“We’re looking for a hotel,” he says in vain.
But the man turns to his wife and says something we don’t understand, then back to us.
“Okay,” he points at his home. “Here.”
We maneuver our bikes into the garage and unstrap our bags. Two doors, framed well above our heads lead inside, where the large main room has vaulted ceilings. Everything is brown wood. To our right sits a sort of gigantic bedframe with no slats, but instead a solid foundation to put a mattress. But there is no mattress, just this huge piece of furniture; its head- and footboard far enough apart to make for a comfortable game of soccer. Against the wall in the centre of the room, a huge, intricately carved wooden armoire rests. And to the left, another massive, mattress-less bed. Here we rest our bags.
As if they’d been waiting for us all night, the family sits around the table outside and the wife brings over heaping dishes of food. Their daughter; a tiny pig-tailed girl in a pink dress rockets around us as though battery powered.
I sit by the husband and across from two guys who urge me to fill my plate. Rice, vegetables, beef, fish soup. The tank-topped guy across the table holds a big plastic jug swirling with a murky orange liquid. He pours some in a teeny teacup and shoots it back. He refills it and hands it to me. I take a whif. This shit is strong, whatever it is. Bottoms up! I exercise my right to not vomit.
Flo does a shot, and over dinner we eat and drink this raunchy booze and get a little tipsy. Our host’s name is Duong, and these are his friends Minh and Phuoc. Duong’s wife doesn’t join us at the table, but we include her in the very basic conversation we manage to have through their limited English and creative hand waving. They shoot down our offer to help clean up, so Flo pulls out the guitar and we sing some songs. They sit in rapt attention. The village kids hear wind of the out-of-towners, and run in from the street to sit around shyly, staring at us.
Flo asks Duong to carve his name in the back of his guitar, amongst the other engravings of people he’s buddied up with in his travels. Duong is shy to make a mark, but Flo urges him it’s okay. Minh takes this to heart. He disappears and returns with a professional carving tool and a hammer.
“No no no no!” Flo responds.
But Minh hunkers down in a burly manner and then, ever so gently, taps out a name into the thin wood of the guitar, finishing with a delicate flower beneath it.
Then Duong brings up the sleeping arrangement.
“You sleep there,” he motions to the bed where our stuff sits. I nod.
He points to Flo.
“You,” he gestures to the bed on the other side of the room, “sleep there.”
We’re a little taken aback. And disappointed. With the sun’s warmth long gone, the thought of sleeping seperately on those big, lonely wooden slabs seems, well, cold. But hey, house rules. We both nod.
The wife has other ideas. When she joins us outside, she says Flo can sleep on the bed where our stuff is, and points to the bedroom for me. I’m a little confused. That’s where the whole family sleeps. I start to ask a question but she just shakes her head and starts clapping her hands together in a suggestive manner.
“None of that here,” she giggles.
Oh, man. We’ve heard of self-control, guys. What they don’t understand is that we are mostly concerned with nighttime hypothermia.
It’s then that the second daughter arrives home from school (a little late, no?) She’s ten. Her five year old sister, Mai, still runs around like she’s on a sugar high. But when exhaustion hits, it’s all Flo and I can do to communicate to our dear hosts that it’s sleepytime. We brush our teeth in the kitchen and crawl into our respective beds– Flo onto his hardwood plank and me beneath the mosquito net on the floor in the parents room. I’ll be sharing the elder daughters bed. She comes into the room as I lay under the blankets, and sits on the chair questioning me about my family and friends and life in Canada. Her English is impressive. The little one crawls under the net and starts brushing my hair until mom comes in and shoos them both away, which my heavy eyelids thank her for silently.
In the middle of the night, something shoves my shoulder and I awake startled, only to see the young girl batting creatures away in her dreams. I feel a moment of relief that it’s not some wild animal in the jungle in the middle of the night. I feel grateful for this family as their snores fill the little room around me.