April 11, 2020

The Vietnotebook (Pt.3/3)

End of the road...Finally dirty.

I highly recommend traveling by motorcycle.

After embarking on several long distance trips under this method, I no longer want to travel any other kind of way. See—unlike a car, you can't roll the windows up; there is no recline option to fall asleep; or the ability to check your phone and tune out to what's happening around you.

On a motorcycle, you aren't simply traveling through new environments: You are a part of them. The sights; the smells; the wind whipping your sunbeaten face; the sweat running down your legs...it all culminates in the ultimate sensational experience. You're in it now. Cruising mother nature's foreign lands, nothing but you and the hum of the road. Finally, truly free.

It's a dirty type of travel, yes, but that's what makes it pure. Too much comfort creates a distance from the world, whereas a motorcycle takes you back to the open road—where the interesting happens.

But, yes, I understand that not everyone wants to ride. Fair. So, to you, I simply suggest the uncomfortable modes of travel, whatever that may be. Just get out there—in the open air. Take the roads less traveled. Soak it all in.

And, most importantly: Get fucking dirty, man.



10.18.18

THE VIETNOTEBOOK - PART III

Day 12 – Thursday, October 11th

    An early morning saw us out of Hue.
    After the sheister "Lee", plus our first encounter with torrential downpour, it was officially time to return to two wheels—so that's just what we did: Ponchos donned, back in the saddle.
    Not too long after our re-embarkment, we had become wet as dogs (although I will note it was nowhere as bad as my experiences on the Great Western Frontier trip with Tony back in 2014). Then, almost immediately, my spark-plug decided to shit the bed. Knowing full well I didn't have a spare replacement on me, I pulled off the road in the pouring rain, hoping that the jiggling of cables might do the trick, as it sometimes does. Unfortunately, this time, it did not.
    But fortunately, there was a motorbike repair shop a quarter miles or so back, so I pushed my ass over there, slipping over the slickness, now covered in mud. A few minutes later, I was the owner of a new spark plug, and it was back to facing my other adversary of the day—torrential downpour.
    The winds were so gnarly they shredded my poncho to ribbons, rendering it completely and utterly useless. Now: I've ridden in hail, sleet, snow, rain...you name it; but nothing has shredded my clothing like this. Furthermore, I had also in the morning purchased a new helmet because the one that came with my bike got soaked overnight—due to my dumb ass leaving it outside. The new helmet I purchased, however, is a novelty shell; one without eye protection. So, in addition to riding for hours while soaking wet, I had to do the entire thing whilst blinded by stinging bullets of rain. Idiot.
   In the end, the storm turned so fucking bad that we had to completely nix a planned detour around the Dalang peninsula, instead booking it straight south to Hội An.
   Mind you: On our ratty builds, we're lucky to make it to a new destination in "good" weather.
   Our one bit of fortune came over the Hai Van pass, which had been decribed to us previously as either the "most beautiful ride" in Vietnam, or the "most dangerous". For us, it was neither. I would guess this was due to the weather finally clearing up by the time we reached the locale, but more-so because we have been riding through unruly jungle trails for two weeks; having recently witnessed a gun pointed at the head of ankle-bound prisoners; and, most recently, were scammed by that old-fuckin-man, whom I cannot stop thinking about.
    Don't get me wrong: I’m not discounting the beauty of the Hai Van pass, I’m just saying we’ve ridden better. I believe it to be a testament to the bikes—to the concept dirty travel—which is unlike the way other folks here are traveling—by bus, particularly at night.

    By mid-afternoon, we landed here in Hội An. We checked out two hostels in town before deciding to stay with the Vietnam Backpackers chain. Off first looks, it's the nicest place we’ve stayed in yet. Plus, it has a pool. And booze. And beautiful gypsies...

Day 13 – Friday, October 12th

    Hội An is officially my favorite city thus far. Last night, we walked around the river which is lined on either side by countless restaurants and bars. The river itself is filled with canoes, which are in-turn filled with locals looking for tourists to pay for a ride. From the bow of these canoes, hang glowing lanterns—burning the spectrum of the rainbow. At night, it’s beyond what one might call 'a spectacular sight'.   
    Another interesting feature of the town is its architecture. We've been told that the French occupied the city at one point in time, so most of the buildings are thus painted yellow. Apparently yellow and France go hand-in-hand? I didn't question it. There is also a noticeable lack of neon signage here—also alleged to do with the French; but either way is a design decision I agree with, for it allows the city to maintain a sense of integrity unviolated by greedy human hands.

    At 10:30am this morning, we set out on a bicycle tour organized by our hostel.
    Through the local markets we rode, stopping off at an art gallery where we each made a lantern (like the ones one the river), and, finally, ending our tour at “the ancient house”—a 200+ year old home that has housed the same family for 9 generations. The son (I'd guess to be in his 40’s) gave us the full tour: Pointing out the intricate hand carved beams, which were shaped into dragons; showing us his jewelry making workshop, complete with primitive homemade power tools; and finally, for the grand finale, our group was led to his grandma, a.k.a "Mama," who was sitting in the bedroom, at the edge of her ancient bed.
    I believe the son said she was 98 years-old. She sure as hell looked like it.
    I felt bad as we crowded around her like a caged zoo animal. Luckily, our encounter was brief, and soon we were seated in another room for a traditional Vietnamese snack: consisting of tea, pork-fat cookies, pineapple chunks, and homemade frozen yogurt. Each as delicious as the other.
    After, we rode back to the hostel and spent the rest of the day by the pool, doing what we do best: Drinking beers, making new friends, and enjoying the dying of days.

Day 14 -Saturday, October 13th

    Day two in Hội An. Still about it.
    If I were ever to say “Fuck it” on this trip, and just not go back home, this would be the city I would plant new seeds in.
    Working off another hangover, Griff and I decided this morning to rent bicycles again, this time heading to the food market for lunch. We ended up instead at a different, fancier joint, which had been recommended to Griff. I can’t remember what it was called, but it was tasty—if that means anything.
    The rest of the day was a repeat of yesterday: Back to the pool, back to the booze.
    If it weren’t so inexpensive out here, I’d have filed for bankruptcy twice over already.
    Vietnam is an alcoholic’s paradise.

Day 15 – Sunday, October 14th

    Today will be short and sweet, as Griff and I have officially entered the Hội An warp-zone.
    A late start, plus beautiful weather, kept us in this city for yet another day. More bicycles were rented, and a trip to Kahuna’s for a beach day was the plan. But when most of our hostel showed up shortly after we did, it didn’t take long to convince Griff and I to join our new friends on a sunset cruise—of course, convinced with a promise that the excursion would "properly" close out our chapter here in Hội An. It ended up being a three hour tour (shout out Gilligan), completed over glassy waters reflecting a cotton candy sky. You should feign no surprise to know that free drinks were involved, leading to a rowdy situation I will spare you the telling of here.
     Unfortunately, I think this lifestyle is catching up to me fast.
     In bed by 10pm. The necessity of unconsciousness is apparent.

Day 16 – Monday, October 15th

    For a second, it almost looked like we were going to be stuck in Hội An for one more night. We had originally planned for an 8am start this morning, but due to my egregious condition last night, that turned into 10am, which subsequently made our plan to reach Kon Tum unfeasible, unless we wanted to spend a couple of hours riding through remote countryside in the shadows of dark.
    This was my first major fuck up.
    Because of it, we opted instead to book it six hours south on the AH1 highway for Quy Nhon, which (funny enough) actually ended up gaining us back a day from the Hội An warp zone! 
    Unsurprisingly, as soon as we got on the bikes to depart, mine wouldn’t start. Again. This time, none of the electronics worked. Diagnosis: dead battery. Yet—like always, there was a mechanic just down the street, so a half hour and 400k later, we were once again back at it.
    It’s truly amazing what fresh air can do to cure a hangover. By hour two I had returned to the living.

    Eight hours or so of riding later, and we arrived in Quy Nhohn at the John & Paul Inn Hostel. Apparently Ringo & George didn’t have the name power to make the cut. Since it was dark by the time we arrived, we decided to take it easy and just walk around town a bit to grab a bite to eat and stretch our legs after the day's long ride. Back at the hostel, I played billiards with a guy who worked there named Gabriel, who told us he was from Louisiana. Ol' Gabriel had a lot to say about Quy Nhon—particularly informing us (in detail) how the Russians were taking over the southern town of Mui Ne.
    Quirkiness aside, the man was a friendly fellow, and after divulging us of his theories, gave us further recommendations on sight-seeing, hostels, and food for the remainder of our trip.
    Thanks, comrade—I mean Gabriel!  

Day 17 – Tuesday, October 16th

    Up at 6am today for an early start. Benefits of a good night's sleep, thanks to a break from the sauce. Feeling this good makes me really want to get back to the 4:30am schedule I ran back in August, which laid the foundations for the most productive and healthy stretch of time I’ve had in years. That said: I am still here in Vietnam, so I must take care not to think about my life back home too much, or otherwise risk a detachment from the present moment. As Ram Dass says: Be. Here. Now.
    Per Comrade Gabriel’s suggestion, our first stop was thirty minutes outside of the city to see the largest Buddha statue in all of Southeast Asia. It is a structure so large that the inside houses a full-size temple for worship—one that is allegedly filled with thousands of smaller statues depicting the same zen master prophet. I cannot confirm nor deny the content matter of the interior, however, as it was unfortunately closed to the public when we showed up. What I can confirm, is that the statue is indeed quite big—some might say "fucking massive." So much so that you can spot this Buddha, in all his pearl-white glory, from a distance of several kilometers away.
    I can also confirm that getting up to it was the most strenuous workout I have had all trip. If Paradise Cave had something along the lines of 500 stairs, this place had to have had double, or triple, that number. But unlike the winding set of stairs which snaked through the dense jungle hillside in Phong Nha, the stairs of the Buddha were a simple straight shot from top to bottom. Feats of mankind such as this will never cease to amaze me, especially when it comes to religion and mythology. As I made my pilgrimage to the top, I thought of the Egyptians and their pyramids, Christ the Redeemer in Rio De Janeiro, and the recently discovered remains of another giant statue (I believe in Europe), which is guessed to have stood tall at over 60 feet. What mankind has done in the name of religion fascinates me. I myself am Agnostic, but it's impossible not to appreciate feats such as these.

    Onward. Per Gabriel’s second recommendation, we made our next stop a hidden gem of a hostel called Big Tree, which Gabriel told us boasted a breathtaking private beach, as well having good food. What else could one ask for?! I am happy to report we were far from being disappointed.
    The beach was Hawaii: without the butter-filled tourists, and absurdly high prices. I will never get over how inexpensive this country is for what it has to offer. Vietnam (from what I can personally attest to) is truly one of the last hidden gems (in terms of beauty and affordability), and though I hope it stays that way, I know it won't. Money over everything, baby! 
    Perhaps I should burn it to the ground. To protect it, of course…

    We ended up spending an hour-and-a-half swimming in our own private beach and enjoying fresh calamari, fish n' chips, and (only because of the supreme location) one cold beer. The rest of the day consisted of glorious coastal riding, which easily blew Hai Van pass out of the water. Sometime mid-afternoon, we landed in Ninhvana; just in time for Happy Hour, and a another swim. Our room was $4 USD. It is practically on the sand, and is less than a stone’s throw to the ocean blue. I can't even imagine how much it would cost for a room like this anywhere else!

Day 18 – Wednesday, October 17th

    It’s been decided to stay another day here at Ninhvana.
    The sun is out, the water is warm, and we straight up feel like chilling. Plus, both of us need to do a load of laundry...getting a bit stanky.
    Tomorrow, we will ride out to Dalat.
     It’s not a long ride, miles-wise, so the plan is to get up bright and early with hopes of arriving in the afternoon. Since Ninhvana is our third Vietnam Backpacker’s Hostel, it will also be our last. While nice and full of friendly people, this hostel chain is a bit too commercial for our liking. It's time to get back to the unbeaten path—the quiet towns, nestled in the jungle, whose only form of partying is found in midnight karaoke marathons fueled by homemade rice wine.
    I must finish this trip dirty.
    I refuse to be fully clean until I’m back in Los Angeles (chonies aside).

Day 19 – Thursday, October 18th

    Woke up early to catch the Dodger game on my phone. Another 'W' was thankfully secured.
    During our departure, the skies loomed cold and gray, looking like it was soon to be a wet one. Within half an hour of being on the road, however, we were back in warm sunshine.
    Now, I know I’ve said this a handful of times already (forgive me!), but the road to Dalat was truly my all-time favorite day of riding. The clouds were especially exceptional. 'Toy Story' clouds. I am a huge fan of clouds, and these ones were against the deepest blue I have ever seen. It felt like riding through a painting. Not only was the sky amazing, but the ground-level landscape was an equally worthy match.
    It’s been incredible how diverse the geography of this country is. We’ve seen dirty, crowded cities; alp-like mountains; dense jungles; open farm-land; tropical beaches; and today, forests reminiscent of the redwoods up near San Francisco. Our climb to Dalat was straight through the mountains; one breathtaking view after the other.

    We decided to check out four different hostels before settling on one called Tigon, which was similar in vibe to the hostel in the clouds of Sa Pa with regard to its overlooking views of the incredibly stunning mountain range below. After checking in, we rode back into town to book a canyoning tour for tomorrow.
    (A note about this tour: Throughout our entire trip we have been told canyoning tours had been shutdown due to the death of a Korean man during the cliff-diving portion. Exactly how he died had remained a mystery...One person informed us that he fell and hit his head on a rock, while another claimed it was "just a heart attack." Whichever it was, the outcome was the same—no more canyoning).
    We had plans for Dalat regardless of whether the tours were happening or not, but after Comrade Gabriel’s glowing recommendation of this specific canyoning tour, we decided to call to double-check if it was still closed, and to our pleasant surprise, it was back in operation! And only as of two days prior! Perfecto.
    $72 USD later, and we were all set to be picked up at our hostel the next morning at 8:45am.

    But before riding back to the hostel, Griffin declared that we were to make a pit stop, as he had a “surprise” for me.
    That surprise was The Crazy House—an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ tree house-like structure, totally hand-made.
     It was massive. Maze-like. Felt like a Disneyland attraction. All this was a perfect segue to Griff’s second surprise, which was the famous Dalat Maze Bar. That’s literally what it was—a maze inside a bar. Continuing with the tree house motif, this place was next level. We went with three girls from our hostel (a German, an Irish lass, and a cheeky Brit—insert bar joke here) and as soon as we got inside we immediately split up and got lost in the multi-story labrynth.
    I don't know about the others, but I exited with a deeper understanding of Germany.

Day 20 – Friday, October 19th

    With regard to the activities undertaken thus far, today's excursion took the cake—and the leftovers.
    At first light, we met a shuttle bus at the top of the hill outside our hostel. Inside were three Vietnamese tour guides, plus three other guests—a Dutch couple, and aFrenchman, who informed us he was an oil-rigger in Africa. It was only a short 10-15 minute ride to our destination, but unfortunately, the weather was a bit dreary. This didn’t seem ideal at first, but since we had run out of sunscreen on the ride into Dalat, it ended up being a blessing in disguise.
    The first order of business was logistical: Paperwork was signed, and, as a precautioinary measure, our heart rate and blood pressue were monitored. Apparently this was not to be for the faint of heart. After that, we received our abseiling harness and helmet. Then, as a group, we walked to an empty spot in the adjacent woods where our guides literally showed us the ropes on how to abseil, while properly following safety protocols, which, honestly, weren't much. In America, I’d imagine this training portion alone would be a couple hours long. Ours was 15 minutes. Then, it was gametime.
    We began by abseiling down a 13 meter cliff face—the first half of which was taken with small, slow steps, before abseiling over the cliff face to the bottom pool of water. I’ll admit my descent was a little shaky, but a good warm-up nonetheless. From there, we headed deeper into the jungle canyon, making our way down more waterfalls, sliding down natural-rock water-slides, hacking through the jungle bush, and rounding it all out with a cliff jump. And not just any cliff jump—but the very cliff jump where the Korean man had perished weeks earlier. According to our guides, the man had jumped from a height of 11 meters, missed his landing, and ended up mixed with the rocks. Therefore, we were only allowed to do the 7 meter jump, which was still plenty high enough.
    The excursion ended with a picnic that had been carried in by our guides, and consisted of: Banh Mi's, homemade banana bread, juicy pineapple, and the best goddamn mangos I’ve ever had.

    Fast forward. Around 6ish, we decided to walk into town to explore the night market, hoping for some authentic Vietnamese grub. After walking the full loop, we decided to try a spot in the thick of the action at a spot which allowed you to grill meats at your table, sorta like Korean BBQ. We had beef, octopus, and for my first time ever, snail...
    I ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT.
    Who would have thought? Certainly not me. Maybe it was because it was cooked in a coconut broth, which gave it a profile of sweetness. Even the texture surprised me. I had expected something slimy and soft, but this was almost close to the same as squid. We could tell the Vietnamese woman who served us was pleased to see two westerners (the only ones at this establishment, mind you) willing to be adventurous, not taking the easy route by sticking to the "safe" choice of only beef & poultry.

Day 23 – Monday, October 22nd

    THE FINAL COUNTDOWN…
    Our last day of riding, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Bittersweetness?
    To say the least: I fell in love with this country, and I don’t really want to leave; but at the same time I am also ready to say goodbye. This trip has given me so much...mainly the time (measured in the hours in the saddle) to reflect on my own life. So much came to me while moving on two wheels. Ideas, revelations...each day was like therapy. To say I am excited to get back to my goals and ambitions with a renewed sense of clarity and vigor, would fall short of how I really feel. I'm unable to capture it words.
    But even though it’s our last day of riding, we still have two more days in this beautiful country, so now is not the time for sentimental thoughts.
    While Mui Ne was a bust in the expedition department, it was a major (or “mega”, as our British friend Jordan would say) win in the social department. I've been consistently amazed at how easy it is to make friends with fellow travelers, and I believe it’s simply for the fact that everyone’s goals are aligned here, whereas in a place like Los Angeles, the public sphere is polluted by a nasty veil that everyone you see is not your friend or neighbor, but your competition or rival.
    The point is: Mui Ne was a great palce to spend our last true night out, making memories with new friends.
    Today, it was back to just Griff and I, plus the characters of the road. A short four hours on the AH1 took us to our ultimate destination of Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). The final stop. As we once again entered the chaotic tornado of city traffic, much similar to Hanoi, I couldn't help but feel an overwhelming sense of pride that we had in that moment realized the ultimate aim of our entire month-long journey. It was powerful feeling. Powerful enough to forget the second degree burns on my arms from riding all day with what I believe was fake sunscreen, considering that I had reapplied several times throughout the day, making sure to cake it on thicker each time.

Day 24 – Tuesday, October 23rd

    That's it. All she wrote.
    Today we fly back north, to Hanoi. Our flight is scheduled at 1:20pm, so with reverse-engineering the time needed to make it, we’ll grab a taxi at around 11:30am to head to the airport. Until then, our primary objective is to get rid of the bikes.
    I'll be back when we do.

...

    I'm back. After failing with the tourist route last night, we decided not to waste time this morning by heading straight to a few of the mechanics we had been told about by fellow travelers. Our first offer started at $150, but we were able to get him up to $180. Since it was still early in the morning, we took that and moved on to the next, using $180 as our new benchmark price to sell.
    The second stop went exactly as the first. If two different mechanics were so willingly to reach $180, we were now convinced we could get more if we just kept trying. By a stroke of luck, as we were leaving the second mechanic, a tourist happens to walk by and notice my bike sitting outside. I came out just in time for him to ask me how much I was trying to sell it for, so I told him $250 USD. Immediately, his face fell in disappointment. Not because my price was too high, but because he had just moments earlier agreed to buy a different bike off an English mechanic around the corner for $300 USD! Two minutes too late. But the man was friendly, and invited us to go check out the mechanic he had just bought his bike from, figuring maybe he could give us a better price, prompting the second mechanic (the one whose shop we were still at) to panic at the sight of his potential business walking out the door, instantly bumping up his offer to $200 each for our bikes.
    We didn't look back.
    The right buyer was around the corner, and that’s where we were headed.

    Our new friend walked us not even three hundred feet before arriving at the Englishman’s shop. I recognized it immediately, for his Vietnamese partner had actually tried waving me down just minutes before we got to the second mechanic shop from which we had just came from. I guess our return was a stroke of fate. Everything is full circle.
    After a brief introduction (thanks to our French connector), negotiations with the Englishman and his Vietnamese partner began...
    At first, our new French friend proposed to trade the bike he had already purchased for mine, but only if the Englishman would be willing to make some fixes—mostly cosmetic. At this point, I had to butt in to remind these two gentlemen that before their trade deal could possibly happen, someone was going to need to pay me (the owner) first. For reasons that escaped then, and now still, the double transaction then became a bit too complicated for the two men, and the Englishman pulled out of said proposal, followed by the Frenchman all of the sudden claiming contentment with his original purchase.
    Whatever.
    At this point I turned my attention to the Vietnamese man, who I suddenly realized had purchasing power of his own. We went back and forth, countering each other's offers until a price of $235 USD was accepted for each of our bikes. That easy. This meant I spent a total of $45 to essentially “rent” the motorcycle for 24 days—a wicked good deal if I’ve ever heard one. Griff and I both shook hands with the Vietnamese partner, his English counterpart, passed over our "blue cards", and took one last picture with our bikes and their new owners. As a congratulations, the Vietnamese partner gave us each a banana, and with that we left with the Frenchman to grab a beer down the street to properly celebrate our bill of sale, as well as his purchase.
    All this led us close to our 11:30am departure time, so it was back to our hostel to grab our bags, and then off to the airport via cab.
    A two hour flight alter, and we were back in Hanoi. All in all, a day well done.

Day 25 – Wednesday, October 24th

    Our fateful day has arrived...
    It is time to head back to our normal lives, after what has been the best experience of my twenty-six years on this planet.
    Thank you, Vietnam. You were more than I could ever have hoped for.


POST SCRIPT:

Day 30 (of being home) – Sunday, November 25th

    It has been one month today since I have returned to my old life back in Los Angeles.
    Falling back into the routine of life came easier than I would have liked. I have returned to work, and have fallen back to old habits.
    What I miss most is the open road—the un-predictableness of every waking day; wondering where we were going, what we were going to see, and who we were going to meet.
    There is no mystery in routine.
    Man excels on the tightrope of the unknown.

    Already, I find anxious thoughts reclaiming their hold on me. Vietnam had been a step back from all the bullshit of life: The monotony. The stress of work. The worry about making rent payments. The drama of friends and family.

    What Vietnam allowed me, was to truly live in the moment, which unfortunately is becoming incredibly to do in today’s fast-paced capitalistic world. More, it was the opportunity to appreciate life’s subtle beauties...For even when we encountered hardships, life was still good.

    I do not know what lies ahead for me now. When I think about that, it’s both scary and exciting at the same time. It's that very feeling which takes me back to Vietnam. Back to the road.
    Whatever I do moving forward, I will forever be in search of that feeling as long as I walk this Earth.
    Life is simply more worthwhile when covered in dirt.


The Vietnotebook (Pt.3/3)

End of the road...Finally dirty.

The Vietnotebook (Pt.2/3)

Tales of bound prisoners & a 69-year-old conman named 'Lee' in this one!

The Vietnotebook (Pt.1/3)

There's only way to see the world: As dirty as possible.

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Brando Conklin © 2021