Part II: Welcome to the Jungle … on Motorbikes!
Our evening in Hue we spent rearranging our next day’s schedule and our understanding of who we are as people.
“I moved our Airbnb stay in Hoi An by one day and rescheduled the tailor appointment,” Julia said, “We are all set to spend two days in the jungle.”
“ON MOTORBIKES!” I said. “Down the Ho Chi Minh trail. Are you sure you are going to be ok?”
“It’s not the 60s and we were not drafted. We are going to be fine!” she commented drily, walking into the bathroom.
In a minute the bathroom door opened, “We are very adventurous people!” Julia screamed out and closed the door again.
“We hired people off the street and now we are heading into the jungle with them! No one at home knows of our plans and where we are going to be for the next few days!” I yelled through the door.
The door opened, “We might also be idiots!” and closed.
We texted our friends our plans for the next few days, including our guide’s website and information. Our friends confirmed our underlying suspicions that we are in fact adventurous idiots and we were finally all set to go.
Getting on the motorbikes on the second day felt like second nature. I no longer had to hold on for dear life to my guide, mostly staying upright by squeezing my knees together and lightly holding on to the rack on the back of the bike with one hand. Julia was holding GoPro in one hand and her iPhone in the other. I don’t even know if she remembered to hold on between all the filming and picture taking. We got our backpacks all tied up and secured on the back of the bikes and donned our warmest fleeces for the ride. The sky looked a bit cloudy and our guides assured us they had ponchos in case of rain.
Riding in the jungle, despite the narrow winding road, often felt safer than in the city. We were often alone on the road, jungle on one side, a grand view of mountain valleys on the other, clouds floating close above our heads. It drizzled only once, for a few minutes, and didn’t put a damper on our day.
One hour after leaving Hue, we arrived in the little town of Aliou, where our ride on the Ho Chi Minh trail would begin. We grabbed lunch at a local roadside eatery having a feast of local food with our guides paying the host the “Vietnamese” price instead of the “tourist” price. The lunch for four of us was only $15. Today, Aliou is a small, sleepy town, consisting of several intersecting streets; yet, it is just a stone’s throw away from the infamous Hamburger Hill where one of the infamous battles of the Vietnam War was fought. For ten days in May of 1969, the U.S. fought heavily to take this hill losing more than 70 of its soldiers and killing hundreds of the Vietnamese guerillas in the process. And all of that so they could abandon it one week after capturing, once again demonstrating the meaninglessness of the war.
After lunch, we rode out of Aliou on the main street lined with red Socialist flags adorned with hammers and sickles and started our journey on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Ho Chi Minh trail is no longer a dirt road in the jungle where Viet Cong carried supplies on their backs from the North to the South during the war. A newly remodeled asphalt road winds up and down the mountains, always wide enough for two lanes of traffic and allows for grand views of sprawling jungle, mountains, and vistas. The views were majestic, with elusive mountains on one side and muddy fields with villagers, including children, planting rice on the other. The road signs started to appear in both Vietnamese and Laotian as we were now entering the frontier territory and riding along beautiful and verdant mountains serving as a natural boundary between Vietnam and Laos. At some point, GPS on our phones showed that we were just 4 km away from Laos. The mountains were so picturesque, it was difficult to imagine that not long time ago, bombs with napalm and Agent Orange were constantly falling from the sky here incinerating lush vegetation and poisoning and destroying everything in sight.
As we continued on Ho Chi Minh trail, we made frequent stops to take in the scenery and views and to visit indigenous villages. In every indigenous village we stopped by, we were immediately surrounding by chattering children. Our guides had bags of candy just for this occasion and handed one to me. Apparently, I was too slow in retrieving candy out of the bag and the crowd of five-year-olds immediately got unruly, shoving, screaming, and jumping up to rip the bag out of my hands. Handing out one candy at the time was clearly not working and I ended up shoving fistfuls of candy into the toddler mob to calm them down. “Me! Me! Me!” the children screamed, clearly the only English word they knew. After the bag was empty, they dispersed into every direction, comparing the size of their loot and occasionally sharing with smaller children.
Julia lamented not having brought pens or pencils for the kids, but the guides assured us that each indigenous village had a school built by the government and each student had free school supplies. The cost of rice was also kept artificially low by the government for this population and “candy from the city” was what these kids got truly excited about. This was quite a bit different from rural children we saw in India, who didn’t seem to have any social structures in place to support them.
As the sun was setting beyond the mountains and the road was getting darker, we rode into a small town Prao and pulled up to a small guesthouse. A tiny dog, stretched out on a rug outside the door, didn’t even flinch as my motorbike stopped less than an inch from his head. He refused to move from his spot, even as we climbed off bikes and unwrapped our luggage, forcing us to step over his lazy little body several times. Once we were inside and sat down to enjoy our dinner, he finally walked over in a mildly annoyed manner, as if we were inconveniencing him, to demand his cut of our fish, meat, and rice. He quickly assessed the most vulnerable of our bunch, sat down by Julia, stared up at her with big puppy eyes, and scratched her leg with his paw. Julia proceeded to feed him all the scraps on her plate and he walked back to his rug without even letting us pet him.
After dinner, we settled into our room, surprised at how exhausted we were after a day of just riding on the back of motorbikes. Suddenly, my eyes were drawn to the ceiling above the wardrobe.
“Julia.” I said slowly. “Don’t freak out… but…” and I pointed at the largest spider I have ever seen, sitting by the corner on the wall.
Julia started at the spider. “That’s not real.” She said. “Spiders can’t be that big.”
“Well, I saw it run out from behind the wardrobe when you opened it, so it’s most likely real…”
Julia instinctively moved back a step, without taking her eyes off the arachnid monstrosity.
“I’ll get it!” I said and reached for my shoe.
“NO!” Julia exhaled, “Stop! It will throw the shoe back at you and probably eat your face! What if it’s poisonous? We are not screwing around with this. I am going to get Minh.” And she ran downstairs.
A minute later, Minh walked into the room, glanced up at the wall and said, “Oh! That’s not poisonous. That’s just a regular spider.”
“That’s a regular spider!?” Julia exclaimed.
Minh took the shoe out of my hand and threw it at the wall, barely missing the spider and causing him to skitter behind the wardrobe.
“I could have done that!” I complained to Julia and she just rolled her eyes.
Minh moved the wardrobe, forcing the spider out on the floor and finally finished him off with my shoe and threw his limp body into the hallway.
“Good night!” he yelled cheerfully and closed the door behind him.
“Don’t trip on that spider’s body…” Julia murmured and turned to me, “So that’s just a regular spider! Welcome to the jungle!”
We slept pretty well, considering there were probably a lot more of these spiders in our room that we simply didn’t see.
Next day, we left the jungle and all its pests behind planning to get to Hoi An by the end of the day. In the morning, we rode through breathtaking tea fields passing numerous indigenous villages. Minhs wanted to take us to a local school. We triumphantly rode in into another minority village and walked with a bag of candies to the school only to find out that the school was closed as it was a Saturday. We still distributed the candies to all the cute kids who ran to us from all the corners of this village before continuing our journey.
By lunch, we made our way to the coast to the fishing village of Lang Co and enjoyed seafood at a rustic seaside restaurant. The restaurant served only seafood as was evidenced by a confident goose walking through the premises of the restaurant with no fear for his life or safety. The sea was rough and the beach was nearly empty, providing a dramatic backdrop for our seafood lunch. We then continued to the breathtaking Hai Van Pass, translated from Vietnamese as “Ocean Cloud Pass”, a 20 km long mountain pass with mountains on one side and a gorgeous ocean view on the other. Riding through the clouds and ogling from the seats of our motorbikes at the infinite shoreline of the East Vietnam Sea was an exhilarating experience. Soon we rode through up-coming hot destination of Vietnam, the city of Danang, and stopped at nearby Marble Mountains, a collection of five inland marble and limestone hills adorned with pagodas, cave shrines, and Buddha statutes. We had a long and full day, and as the dark started to fall, we entered the town of Hoi An.
As we pulled up to our guesthouse and bid goodbye to Minh and Minh, I could see a slight disappointment on Julia’s face.
“It’s going to be weird no riding around on motorbikes anymore.” she confided, “I’ve gotten used to it.”
“Well…” I said carefully, “The plan here is to rent bicycles and ride them to the nearby beach…”
“BYCICLES! TO THE BEACH!” Julia yelled. “Sounds great!”
“Great!” I said. “So what do you think about learning to ride motorbikes and doing a road trip through SE Asia?”
Julia just stared at me.