Our first stop on Day One was at a small, ancient Cham temple just sitting in an empty lot overgrown with weeds. There was nothing to proclaim its importance in Vietnamese culture or history, but it was still standing after enduring several wars and several hundreds of years of neglect. And amazingly it was still in use, as was evidenced by the offerings laid on a table inside. In places the walls were at least a metre thick, so even though we were right by a main road, the moment we entered into the belly of the temple all outside noise disappeared and an eerie, but peaceful, quiet pervaded. Looking around I was startled to find a tiny kitten stretched out behind the altar, reaching into a bag of potato chips. On closer inspection I realised that the kitty was actually dead. Awww. The scene led to the question of whether the pussy cat had died whilst trying to eat the chips, or if some kind soul had placed the chips in front of the poor animal in the hope of providing it with some sustenance (and if it was the latter, had it been intended for this, or the after, life)? How existential!
After taking a few photos of the temple, we hit the road again. I tried really hard to take in the verdant countryside, but I must admit that the bulk of my attention was focused on remaining upright on the motorbike. Even though the rain had stopped, the roads were still wet and I wasn’t yet 100% comfortable going around corners. One thing that I didn’t have to worry about was changing gears. True to Mark’s word, my motorbike stayed in second gear that whole first day. I’m not entirely sure she was happy about being in second gear all day but I didn’t hear any complaints!
Flung into the madness of Vietnam’s main thoroughfares was certainly a baptism of fire. It was a matter of sink or swim, and to be honest I needed a little help keeping afloat in the beginning. The first point at which I said, “Nope, I cannot do this,” was about an hour in. I reached a T-intersection at which most of the others in our group had managed to turn left, in a gap in the traffic (keeping in mind that they drive on the right in Vietnam). By the time I reached the intersection though, there were no gaps to be had. Just a seemingly endless stream of motorcycles and scooters in both directions, as far as the eye could see. Every time I spotted a small opening in the oncoming traffic from the left, I’d turn to the right to see that there was nowhere for me to squeeze into the traffic coming from that direction. I was stuck. I started to go at least half a dozen times before slamming on the brakes at the last second. These false starts did nothing for my confidence, and my spirits were quickly dampening. I felt very small and helpless, and a little bit sad.
Suddenly, amongst the riders approaching me from the left I spotted Pete, one of our trusty tour guides. He zipped around beside me and shouted that I should just go. I looked at him blankly, “Say what?” He nodded sagely and said, “Stick close to me.” Okey dokey then. And with that he just weaved into the traffic, veering left towards the centre of the road. With no chance to think about the fact that there was no room for me (or my bike), I closely followed him, semi-flinching in anticipation of the inevitable crunch of several motorbikes smashing together. I may even have closed my eyes. I’m not proud of that, but I think it’s true. Amazingly, the other riders just naturally avoided our bikes, making room for us on the right hand side of the road, and just like that we were back on track.
One of the great things about the tour was that all the food was included so when we stopped for lunch, our lovely guides put on an amazing picnic spread for us. Roast chicken, olives, tomato, cucumber, lettuce, cheese, bread and a super delicious ranch-style sauce that we just couldn’t get enough of. After we stuffed our faces with that, we were treated to thick slices of home-made banana bread. There really is nothing like eating good, simple food in the great outdoors after building up an appetite (and it’s astonishing how much of an appetite you can work up just sitting on your ass, astride a motorbike)!
The place that we’d stopped to eat was a very basic, general store with a few tables and the tiniest chairs I’ve ever seen outside a daycare centre. In fact, the chairs at all the cafés we visited on our trip were positively Lilliputian. They were literally children’s chairs. Of the four of us, Nicole was the only one that could comfortably fit in them. They were a pretty snug fit for my child-bearing hips, and for the two boys (who are both over 6’3” tall) they were just comical. But we managed to squeeze into them, several times over the next few days. We didn’t always manage to squeeze out of them – not without help anyway!
After lunch, the lady that ran the store offered us coffee. With the exception of Chris (being a die-hard tea drinker) the rest of us gladly accepted. Now, Vietnamese coffee is not your average, run-of-the-mill cup of joe. A glass is presented with about 1cm (sometimes more) of condensed milk in the bottom. On top of the glass sits a tin contraption filled with ground coffee and hot water. The coffee slowly drips through the tin filter into the glass, and once it’s all through, you stir, and voilà, Vietnamese coffee! Taking Joe’s lead, we added ice-cubes for a Vietnamese version of iced coffee. It’s certainly a lot sweeter than I normally have it, thanks to the lashings of condensed milk, but I admit to very quickly developing a taste for it.
Riding off after lunch, even I was able to register the changes in the landscape. We stopped a couple of times at particularly picturesque spots (ostensibly to take photos, but I suspect really for Joe to have a cigarette break). One of these spots was at the top of a considerably steep hill, overlooking Da Nang. Chris and Nicole had fallen behind because of mechanical problems, and Hung had hung back (see what I did there?) to sort them out. As I pulled up behind David on the verge, I turned the engine off and attempted to dismount. I guess I forgot to put down the kickstand and, losing my balance, I found myself falling to the left (towards the road). Now, Theresa is heavy. I may have mentioned this before. I’ve since looked it up and I now know that a Minsk motorcycle weighs about 105kg unloaded. Mine was fully loaded. So, I was on one leg (the other one flailing helplessly in the air) rapidly losing verticality, trying to hop away from the beast that was doing her utmost to flatten me.
And…. well, I’m not going to lie. I didn’t make it. The entire weight of the bike forcefully propelled me towards the ground, which I hit like a sack of potatoes. First to impact was my left elbow, which I landed on with all my weight. And shortly afterwards, my head bounced on the paved road. Fortunately, I was wearing a helmet because I hit the road pretty damn hard. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to actually do up the strap (oops)! So, while the first bounce of my head was protected by the helmet, it was so forceful that the helmet was flung off, and the subsequent thump (not as hard, but still bloody painful) was all skull. I blacked out just for a second, and for the next three seconds I saw stars. And then… well, then came the pain. I felt the full mass of the motorbike crushing my left ankle, and it was at that point the howling and the swearing commenced.
It all happened so quickly, I’m not sure our guides even saw it. David says he helplessly watched me go down, unable to get off his bike fast enough without falling over himself. Joe turned around to see me lying half on the gravel shoulder, half on the road, and (rather redundantly) suggested I get up. I cursed and suggested that he remove the @#$% bike off my @#$% leg first. Please! There was another moment of hesitation before the situation seemed to sink in (during which I let rip with a few more curse words), and eventually the bike was lifted from my poor, smashed up ankle. I rolled away from the road and helped myself to a little cry. My ankle hurt like hell, and my elbow and head were also feeling rather bruised and battered. Joe anxiously asked me to try to get up and, luckily, I was able to (tenderly) place my weight on my foot and walk around on it. So phew, nothing was broken, but I could definitely feel my ankle swelling up. I took a moment to gather myself (and wipe the tears from my eyes) just as Nic, Chris and Hung rode up over the crest. Peter suggested we keep the “incident” a secret between the four of us, and at the time my pride was so wounded that I was happy for no-one else to know of my embarrassing, stationary crash. Looking back though, it seems silly to have kept it from our travelling companions. Sorry Nicole and Chris – I should have told you about it. Perhaps my punishment for not sharing is that my ankle and elbow are still kinda messed up, even four months later.
You can rest assured that before we set off again, I made 100% sure that my helmet was tightly strapped on, and less than an hour’s ride later we arrived at Ba Hom, our destination for the night. Well, technically we arrived just outside Ba Hom. To get to Ba Hom proper required riding our motorcycles over a rope bridge laid with crumbling wooden planks precariously swaying about 25 feet over a wide, flowing river. This was some Indiana Jones shit, right here. OK, so even though I had agreed to go on this crazy trip, I am at heart quite anxious about putting my life at risk. I’m no adrenaline junkie. And yet here I was, contemplating riding a (heavy) motorised vehicle across a bridge that was barely more than a metre wide, and which dangled rather alarmingly over a rocky river. My mother would have been horrified. It just seemed like insanity. And whilst I pondered that insanity, the others just casually rode across, as if there was nothing to it. For the love of god! Now, there were no excuses! I kind of thought that I’d reached my limit for enduring physical challenges that first day but I steeled myself and, guess what, I just did it. My heart pounding in my chest, I rode over that Indiana Jones bridge and I even managed a quick peek over the edge to the river below before deciding that wasn’t the best idea in the world (unless I wanted to lose my balance and flip over the side, bike and all). Before I knew it I was across, joining the gang on the other side. We were in Ba Hom!
Ba Hom is a small, Vietnamese village inhabited by just 300 Co Tu people (one of the smallest ethnic minorities in the country – numbering only 60,000 out of a total 89 million Vietnamese), and we were lucky enough to be spending the night as their guests. We parked the bikes in the centre of the village (a large, sandy square the size of a soccer field), lined with thatch-roofed huts on stilts. This is where we would be eating and sleeping.
We cracked open some well-deserved beers and watched a group of rowdy kids playing a game on the other side of the square. After a while we wandered over, trying to figure out what the rules of the game were. They were taking it in turns throwing their shoes at a bunch of candy piled up about a dozen feet away. Their throws were rather wild and most missed the mark, but once in a while a kid would score a direct hit, spraying the candy all over the place. They would all shout and dance with excitement, before gathering up the lollies and making a new pile to start over. Deprived of video games and computers, this simple game kept them occupied for the rest of the afternoon, reminding me of my own carefree childhood.
After we unpacked and settled in we were shown around, checking out the newly built school, as well as the separate men’s and women’s community areas. The men’s hut was pumping, and as we walked past we were raucously invited to join them in their gambling games and to share a drink of rice wine (a drink closely resembling moonshine in its potency). We politely declined, but they drunkenly insisted! Only after extracting a promise from us that we would return after the tour were we allowed to continue on our way. On the one hand, I think it would have been kind of fun to stop for a while. On the other hand, I have a feeling that had we done so, our motorcycle adventure would have started and finished in Ba Hom. So it was probably for the best that we broke our promise, quietly sneaking back to the square after the tour of the village.
Ba Hom’s water and electricity run on generators, which are turned on after dark. Unfortunately, that evening there was a problem with the water. The problem being that there was none. Which meant no shower. No toilet. Oh well, I’d known that we would possibly have to “rough it” a little on this trip, so I just surrendered to being somewhat grubby for the next couple of days. To answer nature’s call we took a roll of toilet paper for a walk into the surrounding forest (and hoped that a wandering Co Tu didn’t chance upon us “in flagrante”).
Soon enough it was time for dinner and we joined the others in the open dining hut, where a fire had been built in a pit. Several plates of tasty food were brought to us by the village cooks. One really groovy dish was a platter of steamed bamboo tubes, each about ten centimetres in length. We watched as Hung demonstrated how to peel the bamboo away to reveal incredibly delicious sticky rice that had been cooked inside the tubes. Amazing! Next were massive skewers of yummy pork and chicken, cooked over the open fire. Super delicious, fresh green beans and stir-fried morning glory followed. I do believe I had about three servings of everything, all washed down with the incredibly robust local tipple. Sated by the food, and warmed by the fire, the rice wine went down pretty smoothly, especially considering it was probably 20-30% alcohol. David and I certainly had our fair share. Chris and Nic, more wisely, abstained (and probably suffered less of a hangover the next day as a result).
After dinner, the campfire stories started, and Joe (being a consummate storyteller) shared more than a few tales of coming to no good after a night of rice wine consumption. While we chatted, the village children snuck into the hut and started playing on a mattress on the other side of the room. Hung, perhaps feeling a little left out of our conversation because of the language barrier, went over and joined them. Even though they’d been loud before, his presence seemed to ignite them like rocket fuel and they went absolutely berserk! They squealed, shrieked, and flung themselves on top of Hung as if they were high on crack. It was very entertaining (and not a little frightening) to watch.
Around 9.30pm the children’s parents started calling them home and they slowly dispersed, leaving just the grownups behind. We were briefly joined by one of the tribal elders, all dressed up in his three piece suit, pinned with medals (I wonder if he wore this outfit for our benefit or if that’s just how he liked to dress every day). We were told the story of how he’d been wounded in the Vietnam war, whilst working as a courier for the tunnel-dwelling Viet Cong, bringing them food and other necessities. He proudly showed us his scars and his medals, beaming at all the attention before shaking our hands and retiring to bed. Taking his cue, we all yawned and stretched and made our way to our own huts to rest before a dawn wake up call the next day. Apart from a slightly scary foray into the pitch black night for a toilet break in the wee hours of the morning, I slept like a baby. And thus ended Day One.