Kings of the Road: Part 5. Seahorse Whiskey (Yên Cát to Phong Nha) – June 2014

kings 5 - map

We woke up early and, luckily, hangover-free, and we rolled out by 8. Before leaving Yên Cát, we bought crackers and stocked up on water and plenty of it. We couldn’t seem to get enough of it, and it’s a commodity oft overlooked in stories bandied about among the motorcycling traveler crowd, tales of the deceptive dehydrating effect of a long day on the road and the injurious consequences of not drinking enough. With the saddle bags full of as much liquid as they would hold – two large bottles stuffed in with various tools and gear – we rejoined the Ho Chi Minh Trail headed south.

In the next town, we refueled and brought the bikes over to a ramp in the gas station lot with a good view of the palm-studded mountains just ahead, where we breakfasted on the remaining lychees and crackers. The lychees were sweet and chewy, the wafers had the taste and consistency of animal crackers, neither sweet nor savory but just there.

As we sat chatting and studying the map, we decided on a name for our two-man motorcycle club: The Kings of the Road. King Richard, King James, the song “King of the Road,” you get it.

kings 5 - bikes.jpg

Our trusty royal steeds.

Our new identity brought with it a confidence that we needed, an assurance that, despite the setbacks of the last two days, we were still in charge of our fate, kings of our destinies. With a swing in our ride, we gave a shout of “Kings out!” and roared off toward our goal for the day, the national park at Phong Nha.

We followed the Ho Chi Minh Trail west when it breaks off from QL15, preferring its consistent pavement and comparative quiet to that of the congested main highway AH1 or any of the smaller tributary pathways. Once more, the Trail was relatively straight and flat, so we flew, leaving everything else on the road in the wake of our roaring engines as we crisply wove around obstacles.

Arriving in the town of Phố Châu an hour ahead of schedule, we took our time with lunch, dallying and nursing cigarettes before ordering. I’m willing to bet the two are pronounced nothing alike, but in Phố Châu, we chowed phò, because otherwise would be a missed opportunity. Near the end of the meal, a quintet of German and English guys arrived at the eatery on bikes, ordering off-menu items and acting generally obnoxious. We struck up the obligatory road conversation, informing them of our discoveries to the north (and strategically leaving out the bit about almost inadvertently driving into Laos) and listening to their tales from the south. The closer to Ho Chi Minh City, it seemed, the worse AH1 became, as construction ratcheted up around some of the bigger southern cities. More immediately, they’d just come from Phong Nha and recommended Easy Tiger Hostel on the main drag for its western sensibilities. Wishing them luck, we bid them keep the dirty side down, and we rode only a little further up the road to fill up the tanks and grab an iced coffee before hopping back on the Trail.

Dodging the standard animals and drying crops, we ran with the Trail in its flat stretches and eventually twirled with it back up into the mountains. The road became loopy, winding up and through a jungle-cloaked range of peaks and valleys, canyons and ravines, all covered in green vine and brush. Old stone structures poked out from beneath the foliage webbed across a particular gorge, and an ancient bridge fought for survival against choking creepers and climbers. The scene unfolding all around was breathtaking, and I found it difficult to pay attention to the road. Already, biking felt second-nature, like walking, and I could start to focus less on the motions and more on the feel. But it seemed we were both snapped back into the mechanics of it all by the storm gathering at our backs, for we both picked up the pace.

Having felt the cold sting of a downpour already, we were loath to repeat the experience and opted to try outrunning the storm. The change in pressure was tangible, and I could almost feel the rain hot on our heels as we opened the throttles. And we crushed it, taking the mountain turns like bosses, never braking but easing into decelerations organically, adjusting for the increased wind, riding horizontal at times as we raced the clouds and won.

Nearing Phong Nha, the angry skies far behind us gave way to throngs of kites, drifting along either side of the long bridge leading into the national park. One kite flier, a young boy, looked me in the eye and waved as I raced into his view. I returned the wave, to which he smiled and pointed up at his kite. I mirrored his motion, likewise pointing to his kite and giving him a thumbs up as I passed. Fleeting greetings seemed to be the way of the road, in Vietnam, at least. A wave and a “hello” tossed out in passing between two strangers who will never cross paths again. A friendly gesture on the unkind trails.

We rolled in to town early and took the time to ride around and get the lay of the land. Side-streets radiated from every direction off the main road, leading to hikes, waterfalls, and entrances to the massive cave systems for which the region is renowned. In fact, what looks to be the best 2017 movie about a hulking gorilla, Kong: Skull Island, was filmed in the exotic locale, whose caverns could house a hundred Kongs.

kings 5 -fandf  kings 5 - triplex  kings - gog2

The best 2017 movie about a hulking gorilla not starring Vin Diesel, that is.

We found the visitor center, the convenience stores, the ATM, the eateries, and lastly, a suitable guest house.

Instead of sticking to the advice of the Westerners met in Phố Châu and crashing in the expat-owned and -run Easy Tiger, we opted for the Tranh An guest house across the street, whose proprietors were born and raised in the region and lived on the premises, and whose rates were far cheaper.

kings 5 - easy tiger

“No, you thế mạnh.”

“Easy, tiger.”

In addition to being locals, the owners – a middle-aged couple and their adolescent kids – were extremely hospitable, sharing with us a free dinner of fish, rice, bak choi, and pickled eggplant. Perhaps the highlight of the meal was the home-brewed whiskey, which, judging by the ingredients floating in the glass jug, was made from goji berries, corn, and … seahorse? All I could see was a curly appendage jutting out from the surface of the opaque liquid like a Suessian periscope, and I made up my mind to get to the bottom of it, even if it meant getting to the bottom of the bottle to literally uncover the answer to this mystery.

I refilled my cup several times, eliciting a smile and a thumbs up from the patriarch of the proprietor family.  And when this man gave a thumbs up, it was noticeable, for his right thumbnail, unlike his other groomed digits, was at least three inches long and shined like the mirrors of the titular JT song off the first (and better) half of the 20/20 Experience. Siskel, Ebert, Roeper, and whomever else may be assembled to jerk opposables skyward have nothing on this man, whom James and I called Thumb, because we’re as imaginative namers as George Forman. Though he spoke no English and we no Vietnamese, Thumb was still able to communicate his infectious joy, and, especially after a number of rounds of mystery whiskey, was laughing and chatting jokingly a mile a minute, uncaring that we understood not a word.

With the sun setting, James and I decided to take a walk around the town after dinner. The night air was cool and refreshing, and the dying light was just enough to display the beauty all around us. The main street and its buildings were nestled among mountainous green foothills, and clear brooks darted off in many directions.

kings 5 - stream

Easy Tiger was lively with drinking travelers, and we resolved to visit before turning in for the night.

One commonality among all the various Vietnamese places we’d stopped in thus far – and all the places we’d stop in hereafter – was the presence of playing cards strewn all about the streets. It was as though a Vietnamese Johnny Appleseed of cards had walked across the country, tossing handfuls of decks as he passed. And he seemed to have hit Phong Nha particularly hard. Spotting an Ace of Spades lying face-up in the abandoned lot of a ruined house was chilling, as the card was commonly known as the “Death Card” during the Vietnam War, and certain companies of American soldiers were known to leave an Ace of Spades on the eyes or in the mouths of Viet Cong killed in combat.

kings 5 - ace

La Carte de Batman Villain-Level Gimmicky Psychopathy.

I’m still not sure why Vietnam is littered with cards, but I’ve heard either that superstitious game losers toss their fated cards after a defeat or else that the cards are simply so cheap and cheaply made that they only retain their crispness for a single game and can be replaced for next to nothing. Either way, dis-cards are an oddly ubiquitous sight in the nation and much of South-East Asia. Because I’d already collected Joker cards off the ground in both Thailand and Cambodia, I added a Vietnamese Joker to my collection and found a King of Hearts to affix to my handle bars – my own calling card for the Kings of the Road.

A group of rough looking young Vietnamese guys sat on and around a wooden table in front of a dilapidated dwelling off the main drag and waved us over. We joined them for a cigarette, and I rolled one for a fellow who asked – again, he seemed to be expecting a little lagniappe mixed in with the tobacco and threw it out after a pull or two. It quickly became apparent that these dudes were interested in us not for attempting conversation (which they did not even try) but for the opportunity to show us off to the growing crowd of their friends that we were hanging out with them. So after tossing the biodegradable butts, we parted ways and turned back toward Easy Tiger.

This hostel was a tamer, more tolerable version of Backpacker’s Hostel, with Westerners coming and going, drinking and exchanging Game of Thrones novels and stories from the road. Many of the expats were, like us, seeing the country from the back of motorcycles, and we figured we could learn more about the route ahead if we stuck around for a while. So we ordered a few beers and slipped into conversations among the tables and hammocks of the first floor, the entirety of which was a bar and lounge area.

A trio of British chaps about our age invited us to join them, so we sat and traded tales, hearing the same woes about the clogged AH1. Unlike us, who piloted rentals, they bought their bikes from other travelers. As such, theirs had been owned and abused by a series of inexperienced riders, passing down from one to another at the end of a journey, and the lads had run into a myriad of mechanical problems, from parts not functioning and locking up to simply falling off the bikes completely. Apparently, two others of their group were MIA, lost along the way to faulty machinery or hospitalization after taking a tumble, respectively. We thanked our lucky stars that, in spite of the wasted time and aimless wandering, we were as yet unscathed and only down one chain-guard. Three days in, and we and our bikes were still in one piece.

The night dragged on, and the call of another early morning had us turning back to our guest house. Thumb, in flip-flops, shorts, and ill-fitting wifebeater, sat with the home-brew, doling it out to the handful of other Westerners who had checked in since our arrival. James went up to the room, but I joined the gathering, still eager to find out what lurked in the bottle. With a belly now exposed, the thing sure seemed to be a seahorse, but I wanted to be certain. Gradually, the Westerners dropped off to their rooms, until only Thumb and I remained, draining the glass jug.

I was curious about Thumb’s nail, as throughout South-East Asia I’d seen quite a few males with a single long nail, usually the pinky, so I caught his eye and raised a finger a few inches above my own right thumb to indicate length. His eyes twinkled, and the thin mustache draped atop his upper lip danced in merriment as he mimed shoving his thumb it into his ear. That was the standard response I’d received when questioning other long nail havers, that not trimming one nail made a useful earwax collection implement, and I found it hard to believe. My  trimmed nails are quite effective at removing buildup if need be, and even if they were not quite up to the task, I’d never considered transforming a digit into a q-tip.

Whatever the reason, Thumb’s thumb was impressive, and I suggested he literally try his (right) hand at hitch-hiking and thumb wars, where he’d be quite formidable – particularly at the latter, as he brandished a veritable bayonet on the end of his warring digit. He laughed despite not understanding and fired back with words I could not comprehend. And we carried on in this manner for quite some time.

When Thumb too called it a night at long last, scratching his exposed substantial paunch and chuckling out a farewell, I shot the last few cupfuls of the stuff, and there it was: a large dead seahorse sitting naked in a tiny puddle of hooch.

Mystery solved, I tumbled up to the room, mind swimming toward sleep despite our noisy young English neighbors, who’d turned the roof outside our window into their drunken hang-out space, and their terrible music. Before succumbing to slumber, I politely yelled at them to turn it down or else change it to something that didn’t suck. The typical teens did neither, but I passed out all the same, with visions of inebriated seahorses prancing around my head.

Keep calm and carry on.

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