Strolling through the French architecture of Dalat, I decide I'm
ready to stop being an ordinary tourist. It is time for something more
interesting than the standard coastal tour up Highway 1. At the same time,
I still hear all the warnings ringing in my ears about the senselessness of
cycling alone through darkest Vietnam. So providence provides Peter
Frohling to help me make the correct choice at this juncture between
tourism and travel. When we discover we've both ridden from Saigon we
start comparing notes. Immediately we discover shared ideas. Both of us
have decided to travel alone as a means to test ourselves and are seeking
adventure. We talk guardedly about riding together for a few days.
Neither one of us is willing to give up our solo journeys, but a few days
of un-mimed conversation has an appeal.
During the month Peter spent in Saigon visiting his sister, he
decided that he wanted to cycle around Vietnam. So he bought a Vietnamese
bicycle and strapped on his sister's shopping baskets and a suitcase with a
change of underwear and a first aid kit. Then he rode north in his kakhi
pants, button down shirt and leather walking shoes. By way of explanation,
a cap emblazoned in Vietnamese with 'Saigon Tourist' completed the
ensemble. I appreciate the contrast with my synthetic cycling shirt,
special cleated cycling shoes and courdura panniers.
Peter had been planning to ride up the coast, but when I show him
the dotted, curvy line on my map connecting Dalat to the more mountainous,
less travelled National Highway 14, he is sold. We share some reasons for
wanting to join forces. He feels the same trepidation as I do about a
first journey into the developing world. And we feel that we complement
each other. Peter's Vietnamese is five weeks more advanced than mine, and
he can speak enough to stay with people overnight. And my water filter and
stove will ensure that we will not starve if hospitality becomes hard to
find. We decide to make a deal. We will stick together through the
mountains until we reach a proper highway at Buon Ma Tout. After that we
will split up. But there is one final reluctance. Neither of us wants to
give up the independence of our individual travelling. Peter is also
worried that when we split up, he will be stuck following my tracks the
entire way to Hanoi. I say, "Look, neither of us is blazing any trails
here. But you're blazing a trail and so am I." We seal the bargain with a
A half hour from the city center, we sneak nervously past a sign
announcing a restricted area. Armed only with the name of a town at the
other end of what now seems a rather vague route, we ride in the direction
a bao vendor points us. I don't notice what in retrospect was probably a
A few bouncy kilometers down the dirt lane, we stop in awe after
rounding a bend. Below us a valley opens. Water buffalo stroll through a
checkerboard of rice paddies along the shore of a small lake. We greet the
silence with silence. What will soon become a commonplace scene has us
snapping photos. "This is what I came here for," says Peter solemnly.
It's as if we've stepped into the past. Instead of motorbikes and trucks,
water buffalo are the main traffic. An agrarian area unfolds before us.
We've left hectic modern Vietnam behind.
We have also left any pretense of road maintanance behind, and find
long sections of the path have washed away. We often find ourselves
heaving loaded bikes through thick mud and balancing across flexy planks.
We quickly discover that we have the same determination, and turning back
to find an easier route is never a question.
In the early afternoon, Peter asks some people working on terraced
rice paddies for drinking water. A small, dark young man answers in
English, "Please wait here, I will bring some for you." I climb up the
embankment with our bottles and follow him along the ridges dividing
paddies to a small thatched lean-to. While taking boiled water from a
kettle, I learn that Nhong commutes by bicycle to Dalat to study English.
When I ask him about the lay of the land ahead, and about possibilities for
camping, he immediately invites us to stay with his family. Peter and I
take an instant shine to Nhong's broad smile. And Peter says, "Staying
with Montagnard people is definitely on my list." In spite of the
remaining daylight, we decide to take this opportunity which has fallen in
our lap. Backtracking to his house, Nhong casually shoulders our loaded
bicycles over the plank across which we had cautiously shuttled our gear.
He's in practice from carrying 50 kilogram sacks of rice.
He shows me around his village of a dozen identical long houses
constructed from blond wood planks. His neighbors have coffee growing next
to their house. When he explains how much more money coffee brings per
kilogram than rice, I ask why everyone doesn't grow coffee. I feel I've
been slapped when he replies, "we can't eat coffee." From the edge of the
village is a view of a lake. "That is Ankoet," says Nhong, "many tourists
go there." Ankoet Falls is a landmark we had been aiming for on the way to
Dam Ron. But it lies in the wrong direction. I begin to suspect we've
taken a wrong turn.
Peter and I are both still terrified of getting sick. We
suspiciously contemplate whether to drink the water presented to us.
Later, Peter and I pick tentatively at a simple dinner of rice, steamed
vegetables and a small omelette. "Don't worry, eat," says Nhong. But we
do worry. Alone at the table in Nhong's house, we wonder if this is all
there is for the entire family. Are they waiting for us to finish so they
can share the rest? Nhong assures us that they already ate. This form of
hospitality is a bit offputting. Eating separately implies special
treatment that makes us feel a little guilty. We seem to be exiling them
from their own dinner table. I can not just accept the hospitality as it
is given without second guessing it. After eating, we retire with Nhong's
father and grandfather to a mat on the packed earth floor.
There we proceed to get communally sloshed. As other relatives
arrive from the fields to join the fun, the father inserts a straw into an
urn full of rice liquor. In turn, each person drinks from the straw,
lowering the level of liquid. Someone pours water from a glass into the
top, assuring that a full measure has been sipped. Thankfully, this also
has the effect of diluting the liquor so the night can not last forever.
I attempt restraint. I'm terrified of losing control in this new
situation. Ten days in Vietnam, I still hear all the warnings ringing in
my head. I don't eat uncooked vegetables, I don't drink water unless I
know it's source, I'm prepared to refuse any offers to buy gems. I use my
own padlock to lock the outside door when I stay in a hotel. I insist on
keeping my bicycle inside my room instead of allowing the hotel owner to
keep an eye on it in his ground-level storeroom. I keep all my money and
important documents in a pouch inside my shorts as I ride my bike. I try
to refuse as many rounds of the straw as I can while the party gets more
The conversation invokes the Tower of Babel as Vietnamese, French,
Lec, English and German are thrown around the circle. Becoming drunker,
Nhong's uncle Jaques begins to whisper to Peter in French. He mentions
FULRO, conspiratorially burning the paper on which he writes the acronym.
But the anti-racism organization is no secret, and has reportedly been
inactive for years. "Ils parlent des economiques. Nous parlons des
politics," he repeats importantly to a trapped Peter, burning another
piece of paper while I thank my good fortune for not having learned French.
Eventually, Peter and I end up unrolling our sleeping bags on the
mat, refusing to evict anyone from their bed. Peter seems to sleep calmly,
a backpack containing money and camera tucked under his head for a pillow.
What if this party was set up to get us sleeping drunkenly, then bang,
we're robbed and killed. I nod off now and then, and find myself awaken by
forms drifting by on their way to the piece of forest designated as the
toilet. A clock chimes a little tune every hour, and I hear most of them.
Rolling on in the morning, we are both bleary-eyed. We plow deeper
into the hills. Grassy slopes are topped with trees perched thinly on
ridges. For awhile we move through valleys filled with busy farmers.
Groups of people stand with switches, driving buffaloes to walk in circles,
their hooves threshing the harvested rice. The Montagnards gaze shyly from
their fields at the two tourists pushing bicycles along. The peace is
palpable not only because of the lack of trucks, but also because we have
escaped from the constant, aggressive mercantilism of coastal Vietnam.
Peter starts to drag a little bit. He feels sick, but pushes
bravely along. No problem. I think this might be the best part, and I
don't mind if it is prolonged. I lounge at the top of a steep hill,
relaxing while waiting for Peter to catch up. When he does, he curls up on
the grass and goes to sleep. I read, and listen to the silence. I would
expect more evidence of animals in this pine forest. But since the
Vietnamese proudly say they eat anything that walks, crawls, swims or
flies, the lack of wildlife is no surprise. We camp in a grassy clearing,
far from anyone.
We're out of food the next morning, and we push on. A little map
Jaques drew for us tells us to go right at a junction. Going left is more
direct but more difficult. I would not want to struggle up a more
difficult path than the route we take that afternoon. We entertain each
other with curses. Peter has learned to speak American from John Wayne
movies, so his vocabulary doesn't sink below "lousy" until my constant
stream of invective corrupts his mouth. Soon he is trying, of course
hopelessly, to outdo me.
We are exhausted and filthy by the time we arrive in Dam Ron. As
we wheel through the village, a man sways after us, saying "sleep, sleep."
We look at each other. "He's drunk." "Yeah. Does that matter to you?"
"No." "Good, me neither." At Mr. Sar's house we kick into spectacle mode.
All the children in the village gather to stare from behind each other's
backs. We sit on the porch and run through all the Lec we can remember.
Niem sa - hello; dac - water; Ngac - goodbye; Nou tournom - rice wine,
let's drink!, or cheers!; Jop io - smoke; on ngai - thanks; ponol - to get
drunk. I amuse myself by picking the boldest little boy to stare at. I
follow him with my gaze as he peeks from behind his friends, and retreats
around the corner of the house.
Peter and I have seen people taking a bath in an irrigation ditch,
and decide to do as the locals do. The water is none too clean, but since
we are even dirtier, we jump in with a bar of soap. Pretty soon curiosity
has overcome politeness, and we have an audience of the entire village.
Dinner segues into drinking. Throughout it all, we are surrounded
by a constant stream of adults and children wandering through. The adults
want to sit down and shake our hands. Children stare in through the window
and wander through the house in the confusion. I pull out pack after pack
of 555 brand cigarettes, an unaccustomed luxury for the men. I toast the
latest new arrival "nou tournem!" and hand him a glass of liquor. Then I
notice that he is a stocky young Vietnamese, not a Lec, and that the room
has fallen silent with his entry. A bearded Lec interpreter announces him
as the chief of police and can he please see your passports. Having heard
stories of tourists in Vietnam being hassled by rural police, bribes
extracted and so forth, and conscious of our location pretty close to
nowhere, Peter and I hem and haw. We've already learned that we're the
first cyclists to have ridden this route, and aren't sure what the official
reaction will be. Finally, we hand the documents over. The chief copies
our information and to our relief hands our passports back. Then comes an
inviation for us to sleep that night at the police station. After much
slow and polite debate, Peter and I establish that the invitation is not a
summons. Long discussion follows as we painstakingly establish that no one
will get in trouble if we do decide to stay. Eventually, everyone is
satisfied. As we all relax I quip to Peter, 'hey, he's not so bad, maybe
he'll stay and drink with us." The chief understands enough English to
smile and have a shot of liquor before leaving and allowing the festivities
Sleeping on a bed with a surprisingly comfortable bamboo mattress,
my nervousness kicks in again. Are they going to rifle through my bags?
Why are people wandering into the house at three in the morning to hang out
in the dining room talking? It will be awhile yet before I am able to
realize that this is not how thieves and murderers operate. Learning to
fully trust my judgement about people, whatever their language, is a
valuable skill that I understand, but don't fully accept until I relax into
my trip in the coming weeks. But I've been initiated. This is as real as
I can imagine it, and I know I can look forward to more wrong turns like