Writings from SE Asia


Easy Riding (29.01.07)

Cruising down the road on the back of a motorcycle, the world makes sense. It seems more real, more tangible, as if you could reach out to the landscape and brush it with your fingertips as you pass by. Watercolors in your eyes repaint the landscapes. The wind whips at your face, and the vibrating of the motorcycle below makes your feet tingle happily as they rest on the pegs on the back. Everywhere you go, the smells drift onto the road, blurring the lines between the passer and the world beyond. The blossoms burgeoning on the coffee plants have scents which remind me of jasmine incense. The smell of burning brush on the side of the road in the late afternoon haze reminds me what it is to be human and toil. This comforts me. The rich, brick-colored topsoil turns to dust and is swept by the wind across our path, a jet stream of red rising to become a veil for a passing instant.

Seeing the road from behind handlebars, the chaos of traffic slowly subsides to allow logical patterns to rise to the surface. Traffic here is much like the world of insects. Little bees buzz to each other to announce their passing presence, while beetles come pushing through the bees with their tenor vocalizations, telling the world "I'm coming through!", all of which fall to the wayside in amazement and terror by the behemoth Goliath beetles which bellow out their overwhelming presence with startling vociferations. I dread crossing the path of such giants on the road, as many of them spew black smoke from behind that whacks me on the leg as I pass by, the cloudy micro particles a gentle sting as they sink in to my skin, minuscule black bullets of toxic ink.

As we zig-zag down Ho Chi Min trail mountain passes, Hung is a great driver, with the technique of a race car driver and the patience of a trucker. He seems a bit on the harder side, a cynic on the surface, and talks to everybody in a commanding tone that sounds like he knows them. Lying in a hammock at a stand on the side of a rural highland road, enjoying a Red Bull, Niles is getting bothered by a weird guy who lurking nearby says "Hello" to him. Without looking at him, Hung simply responds, "Tam biet " ("Goodbye"). But every now and then you can crack his shell and he has a sense of humor about life. Like when he took us to the "heroine" factory (actually tapioca, but he had Niles there for a second). Niles' driver Hoan is a warm, sincere guy with a kick-ass sense of humor and always has a few running jokes up his sleeve (most notably saying "f***ing awesome!" in an Australian accent). He is also a closet history buff and anthropologist (and future consultant for my impending script on a VC perspective of the American War). He helps us connect the historical importance of places we go in his country. We are impressed by his detailed knowledge of the way of life, rituals, and practices of the ethnic minority villages we visit.


Leaving Saigon and the Mekong Delta, we traveled north to Da Lat, also known as "The City of Flowers" and "Le Petit Paris" (due to it's replica of the Eiffel Tour and strong French influence). The morning after we arrived, Niles and I left the hotel. No sooner did we reach the corner when we were greeted by a man with sunglasses and smile wrinkles showing full. He was wearing a weathered jacket that said "Easy Rider", and standing in front of a classic Honda motorcycle. He asked if we were looking for a day tour of the region around Da Lat, and we said we'd heard of Easy Riders, and we were already sold. I jumped on the back of his bike, and Niles, his friend's. After an amazing deep-fried banana pancake with chocolate sauce at the Peace Cafe, we hit the road.

That day, we were marveled by: huge, happy dragons whose bodies leapt in and out of the ground... a misty waterfall surrounded by moss-covered boulders... a collection of 30-foot tall, 36-handed deities, and the grandfather of them all, a gigantic, open-mouthed smiling Buddha whose navel alone seemed big enough to climb out of, and whose insanely happy head was surrounded by concentric, neon lights... rice wine, mushroom, silk worm, and silk spinning/weaving factories... coffee plantations boasting Robusta and Arabica in shades of green to red... flower greenhouses with rich-colored blossoms that provide much of the country with flowers for festivals... all the while carving our way through the 1500m level highland hills, covered by dark evergreens with the gaping patches of clay dappled in, the earth bearing her sanguine richness. Needless to say, by the time our guides made their "5-day trip to Hoi An" pitch to us at lunch time, we were already on board, despite having already purchased bus tickets for that destination. We flinched at the relatively expensive cost of $50/day (when our bus tickets cost $17), but came to find out that it was worth every penny.

The next day we embarked on our 5-day journey, but before leaving Da Lat, we stopped at the "Crazy House", which is a fusion of art and architecture. A twisted tree house where forms of fairytales come true, like a spider named Salvador Gaudi weaving a web on acid. Where sculpted damsels are trapped in doorway columns bound by climbing tree roots, skylights are spider webs, and breasts are dripping down walls. Wandering around the winding, looping passageways with shortcuts climbing down sides, it was quite easy to get lost in this wonderland maze.

After stopping at an orchid greenhouse for some flower photography (one of my simple pleasures in life) we left the city. Shortly thereafter, we stopped at a basket-weaver's humble tin-roofed abode, and entered the dark wooden house with light leaking onto the earthen floor through the gaps in the wall. Reeds and baskets were scattered on the floor. A teenager was napping on a plank in the corner. We sat down with the former-VC weaver and had tea. Sitting crouched on a bench, he pulled out a bamboo bong and offered us some fresh tobacco. When in Rome... Niles went first and it hit him like a truck. Whoa. I followed, and thought at first there was something else in there besides tobacco. All of the nicotine of a half a cigarette going into your system at once... you have to be sitting down to do that, because your head gets light and dizzy for about a minute straight. Sitting there amazed with smiles on our faces, we drank more tea, and discussed football with the old shoeless man dressed in white. Yes, Beckham went to LA, but it's just a career move for popularity and a transition for an acting career for him and his Spicy wife.

We left and continued through tea plantations, to mountain jungles where halves of hillsides were scarred with barrenness by Agent Orange. We visited ethnic minority villages where enchanting-eyed matriarchal tribes reigned, and the homes nomadic tribes who moved to where their spears landed when they threw them. In the nomadic village, to see a one-room, dirt-floored, bamboo-leaf thatched roof hut adorned with a satellite on the side of its roof, was beyond hilarity for us. Throughout the 5 days, we visit 7 ethnic minority tribal villages. We met a resiliently amble 100-year old woman who welcomed us into the family hut and pulled down chairs from a shelf for us to sit on, enjoyed the songs of a chief promoted to village musician wielding a home-fashioned bamboo xylophone-esque polyphonic contraption with a foot pedal that pulled levers and strings to make mallets all around him clack with joyful percussion, and jammed with him. We met with these fascinating cultures whose traditions of birth, marriage, living, death, and afterlife bled their universality into the heart of our perceptions of this here experience called life. Hoan masterfully poured forth a wealth of knowledge of each of these cultures, the accumulation of 11 years in this métier which he clearly enjoyed.

And even though we viewed these cultures with eager and novel eyes, the cultural palate was layered with a symmetry that reflected our emotions.

Everywhere we travel, we are approached as exotic specimens. Me for my pale skin and what it represents, but even more exotic to them is Niles' dreadlocks. Yes, my friend Niles' hair is quite possibly the most impactful element in all of our travels thus far. Everywhere we go now, people tend to have purely primal reactions to it. Teenagers are wowed by it because they saw something like it once on MTV or the internet. Old ladies are just plain dumbstruck at it, trying to figure out what... how... huhn? Young children point at it with big eyes, then laugh. There seems to be a flow of emotions: excitement/shock -> confusion -> wonder -> astonishment -> curiosity -> utter amazement. In one particular case, we were in a small town and a boy rode by on his bike, and upon seeing Niles couldn't help let out an uncontrollably loud yelp; an exclamation of excitement, joy, astonishment, curiosity, and wonder all bundled into a shooting rocket of emotional expression finally escaping his mouth, so as if to say "I knew you existed, and I've finally found you!!" After the yelp, he erupted with laughter; a high pitched nervous and ecstatic laugh with wide eyes, as Niles and I watched him ride by. We looked at each other and cracked up, laughing so hard, we couldn't believe that a sound like that even existed, but are so thankful to discover it does. That kid rocked our world. In another case, we were outside of a bank getting money out of an ATM, and two girls were staring at his hair as they walked in. They must have told the girl who worked inside, because a few seconds later, she poked her head out of the doorway, and at first glance screamed, and slammed the door. Niles doesn't always get to see them, being the object of often quite overt staring, but the looks on some people's faces are priceless.

Generally, people gawk at it, talk about it (Hoan told us the talk usually revolves around "movie star"), and many people want to touch it. I started joking that we should charge people 2,000 dong (about 12 cents) to touch it, and 10,000 dong to take a picture with him. But despite my attempts to sell it, there's been no takers. Hey, if we could make it work, it could pay for our dinners...

After seeing how tired Niles was getting of people touching his hair (most of the time he doesn't even realize that people are doing it behind his back until I tell him), and seeing how rude some people are, I felt inclined to react. One morning we were seated at breakfast eating scrambled eggs in freshly baked baguettes, and a guy came up behind Niles and started touching his hair and talking to his friend about it. I got up, stepped over to the guy, and started touching his hair curiously. I think he got the picture.

In the rural areas, children welcome us as we cruise by with smiles of joy and surprise, waves and "hello!"s everywhere we go. I smile and wave back at them. The valuable concrete on the sides of the roads-cum-ovens are used for drying tapioca root. The warmth coming from them attractive to goats as well, who occupy half of the road to lie down for heat naps. Water buffalo with drooping horns, and cows with waddling creases in their necks grunt as we ride by.

Cruising through a history lesson come to life, we visit war monuments to ethnic minority tribes who helped out the Liberation Army, strategic hills pocked with bomb craters where both sides tried to stop each others' convoys, skeletons of tanks - veteran monoliths that stand sturdy for pride of a country. After a history lesson on Skull Hill, we are standing in a field of dry dirt and brush. Niles leans down and picks up a chunky anti-aircraft bullet rusted over. History is real. Reach out and touch it. We feel the mentality of war, the desperation and the determination. We feel the humanity, and cringe at the inhumanity that continues in the world today. We recognize the ideological battles, and the tangible human struggles, the former appealing to the intellect, the latter crying to the heart. As we look out on the Phoenix airfield, time has turned it from a springboard to napalm air strikes that obliterated all life, to an expansive and effective drying board for tapioca paste.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner, we stop at restaurants in small towns and cities that from first glance seem unkosher, to say the least. Grubby cement rooms, floors littered with squares of white paper greased through. People spit out cartilage and bones on the floor, and dogs, cats, and/or chickens patrol the ground as cleanup crew. Our guides are no fools though. Each one of these places has absolutely amazing food... and cheap. We usually pay $1.25 (20,000 dong) for a 6 to 9-course meal with tea. Beef stirfry, grilled and seasoned pork, amazing pho (for breakfast!), marigolds(!) with garlic, deep-fried rice-paper spring rolls, fried fish, tofu dipped in soy sauce with chili peppers mixed in to add a kick... just toss in some rice in a bowl, and go free for all picking up pieces here and there from each plate as you go along. By far the best 20,000 dong you can spend in Vietnam. Period.

One morning we stop at a gas station to fill up the bikes. Right next to the station is a colorful blue silk tent framed by big, round, pink balloons and pleated gold silk drooping high over the entrance, like a curtain raised. The tent is bustling with celebration and loud, cheerful music being played by a band. We assume it's a wedding, and my guide suggests I go take some pictures. As I stand outside of the tent looking through my lens, I see everybody in my half of the tent look my direction with surprise at the sore thumb with a camera. They all motion to me, welcoming me in. I'm swept into a crowd of merriment where people around me are talking and laughing, drinking and smoking. Take a seat. Here, have a beer. Rounds of "Yo!" all around (my favorite word for "cheers" in any language). One man who appears to be the patron approaches me and pins a ribbon onto my shirt, a red marker of VIP-ship with a fabric pink flower on top. They take pictures with me. They take my camera and take pictures of me with each other. I keep getting "yo"s from people, and you can't not drink after toasting (that seems to me impolite in any culture). One guy is trying to explain to me in Vietnamese the concept of bottoms up. I finish the beer, they hand me another. I see Niles at the mouth of the tent. Niles, come save me! Use your hair as a diversion, if only for a moment that I might escape! He comes in, they all cheer and hand him a beer. Sorry, we gotta go. I get out of there 10 minutes after entering, and after more pictures and shaking hands, climb on the back of Hung's bike. Boy, it must be really easy to be a party crasher here. We stop later and Hoan reads my ribbon and laughs. We laugh too when he tells us that it was a gas station opening party we just crashed.

That same day we climb from hot, dry and dusty roads under construction to a chill misty fog/rain which literally blinds us beyond 20 feet and forces us to slow down. At more than 3,000m above sea level in the rain forest jungles our drivers masterfully navigate through the clouds to find the unknown position of the road ahead. We stay in a small village high in the mountains, and the next day carve our way down the Ho Chi Min trail, through water drenched rice fields that reflect the hills beyond and emanate an almost unreal vibrant green, through pineapple gardens interlaced with moving "shy" plants whose leaves fold closed when you touch them, down through land that is getting utilized at every square centimeter, passing through towns where we visit a Caodaiist temple where Buddha, Jesus, and Victor Hugo are all standing in line as founding fathers with their religious symbol "The Divine Eye" watching over benevolently. We arrive in Hoi An at the coast, where we go to an ATM and give our guides their well-earned pay. I also give them my previously purchase bus ticket to Hoi An for them to keep as a souvenir. Now they have 101 of them ;)

These 5 days have been the most culturally enriching 5 days of travel that I have ever experienced. Strike that, the most culturally enriching 5 days ever. If the reader ever happens to find themselves in Viet Nam, don't stay near the tourist traps at the coast! Venture up into the Highlands, and explore the marvel, the beauty, the vitality of Viet Nam. Sit down with locals, have tea, and share the human experience. See the veterans, the workers, and the children of the new and rising Viet Nam. Explore the grind of life and the ingenuity of survival. And by all means, if a strange man on a motorcycle approaches you and offers to drive you around on a tour for a day or for a week, GO WITH HIM! You will not regret it.