Today, I would celebrate my birthday on the dusty pathways in the middle of a nation where no one knew me; and it was still one of the best birthdays I’ve had. The previous night’s storm raged on through the morning, and we decided to take our time leaving and hopefully let the the rains pass. When the deluge had faded to less than a drizzle, it was a little after 9AM, a late start time for us, but leaving a couple hours behind schedule beat the alternative of soaked biking.
We didn’t end up seeing the church advertised by the doodler at our lunch stop the previous day, but instead left town after gassing up and buying bahn mis at a neat and organized street cart not far from the hotel, worked by a vendor who was tickled that we were there before her, trying to talk to her. But, hey, I’ll take an easy crowd when I can get one, and she was in stitches over everything we did.
She diligently worked to make the sandwiches and worked even harder to stifle guffaws at the very idea of our hilarious existence.
We kept on for a few miles down AH17/Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran through the city, stopping to breakfast on the po-boys on the outskirts of town, sitting on the curb of an expansive and empty brick promenade that lined the highway for hundreds of yards on the edges of Kon Tum, with boxed areas for trees at intervals that instead housed dead stems and weeds. Scarfing down the tasty sandwiches, we checked the maps, both paper and on-line, and rolled out onto the open road again.
Luckily, in spite of the heavy rains dumped onto the area, the roads weren’t slick; unluckily, there was hardly any road to speak of. Instead, we were met with more construction, more dust, and much more gravel, entire mile-long stretches of it at times. I welcomed the added challenge, because I obviously needed practice with the stuff.
The key to riding on gravel, I’ve found, is to give a little, to let go of control just enough. You must allow the moving stones to settle below the tire treads and rock with the rhythm, responding and reacting to the shifting underneath, in a constant tug-of-war between gravity and balance. If you relinquish your tight grip on the situation, you may just come out on top.
While we had no problems with the gravel swaths, we did experience some close calls with traffic, especially the multitude of big trucks and buses; but we escaped unscathed each time. Although the road was rough, rainclouds that never broke steadily sent cooling winds our way and maintained an overcast canopy from the sun for the first half of the day’s journey, a pleasant respite from the merciless tropical heat.
Much of the ride was rural, and we continuously dodged around large farm equipment and motorized contraptions that seemed pieced together from spare parts and imagination.
Around noon, the sun peeped out from behind cloud coverage, where it would remain in full force for the rest of the afternoon. Somewhere in the middle of who-knows-where, we followed our grumbling bellies to an eatery that boasted a ridiculous squadron of assorted wood carvings for sale (Buddhas, cranes, dragons, urns, vases, clocks, etc.), directly across the road from another eatery offering the exact same huge stock of whittled wares – again, not in town or remotely near one, but in the dead center of nowhere on the side of the highway. After filling up on pork, rice, and bak choi served on Hello Kitty plates and washing it down with tall glass of free Southern iced tea, we took a long lounging break and several more glasses of tea before heading out southward again.
To mirror the morning ride, the highway again featured pervasive construction and gravel patches. The first sightings of Vietnamese pine trees (or, honestly, some kind of evergreen conifer; I’m no arborist) stood out among the bumps and dips of the road. To add to the poor conditions of the Trial here, traffic was as thick as Kon Tum coffee. In what would have been a black humorous twist of fate (as black as Kon Tum coffee), we were twice nearly run down by screaming wide-reared ambulances. At one point, James bumped into a scooter, slightly crushing his own foot between the two vehicles, but he and the driver exchanged thumbs up and both kept on riding.
With about 50kms to go until we reached our destination for the day, Buôn Ma Thuột, we fueled up and stretched at a gas station and had a wee in their outdoor bathroom, which was teeming with bees. While avoiding the bumblers and urinating at the same time is annoying, we took heart in the fact that the sight of the honeyheads was perhaps a sign that we making our way slowly nearer more fertile ground and, thus, closer toward the rich soil and flowering gardens of Da Lat, where we planned to take another day off from constant traveling.
We filtered into town in late afternoon and whipped around a motorist-packed central roundabout that hosts a large statue of a tank. Traffic seemed to thicken exponentially the longer we were on the streets, so we quickly found a hotel, Binh Dán, and reserved a room, squeezing the bikes and saddle bags through a narrow doorway into the garage. After rinsing off the road, we set out for more divine south-central Vietnamese coffee and sat down at a café near the central roundabout, a landmark of the city.
Buôn Ma Thuột was the site of the final major battle between North and South Vietnamese forces in March 1975, a month before Viet Cong troops marched on the Southern capital of Saigon (present-day Ho Chi Minh City) and the war was over. The focal point of town is thus the roundabout and its sculptures of a tank and triumphant North Vietnamese soldiers.
The statues, which comprise the city seal, which itself looks like Rita Repulsa after a few too many Saban Foods products.
These days, Buôn Ma Thuột has moved beyond its bloodied past and outgrown its humble beginnings and name, which translates roughly to “Thuột’s Dad’s Place,” a remnant of the days when someone’s father’s hut was the most prominent feature of a place. Now it’s a busy city, the largest in the Central Highlands and the capital of Dak Lak province, and Thuột’s Pop’s Crib is heralded by many as the coffee metropolis of Vietnam, which is apparently a thing. The large coffee bean fields in the area were left relatively untouched by the War’s desolation, and its caffeinated economy is booming. At any rate, the iced coffee I ordered was the best I’ve had, even thicker and richer than that of Kon Tum. Happy birthday to me.
We moved on from the café to grab dinner at a hopping makeshift eatery that had taken over a large chunk of sidewalk. Long communal tables bordered by shared benches, nearly all full with diners, stretched out under the cover of a tarp roof. We had our typical mystery meal, pointing out words on the menu to the waitress, and, as we were finishing the last bites, a man who looked to be in his late fifties rolled up on a decades-old military motorcycle, sporting camo fatigues and an infantry helmet – unlike the newer and more fashionable pith helmets many young Vietnamese men don while navigating traffic on scooters and motorbikes. He sat down near us and, after some time, bid us drink from the communal pitcher of free Southern iced tea, which I can’t be certain he didn’t spit in.
After dinner, under the glow of streetlamps and neon signs, we fruitlessly searched for a place to buy birthday beers, ultimately giving up and heading back toward the hotel. En route, we were beckoned over by group of four middle-aged men sitting around a card table on the sidewalk and chugging beers. They offered seats and swill, so we graciously accepted and were “Yo!”ing in no time, communicating as best as we could.
They were an odd bunch. At one point, one of the guys fetched his sister from a shop nearby and, from what little English they knew, he appeared to offer her to me as a wife, and she seemed into it. I laughed them off, distracted as I was by the bleary-eyed man cackling riotously as he sneaked periodic grabs at my hairy legs, an oddity among the hairless limbs of himself and his cohorts. Another of the fellows, bare-chested and beer-gutted, kept forcibly leaning his leg on James’ and carrying on as if unconcerned by the awkwardness. The gents didn’t have much of a concept of personal space, and they weren’t shy about invading ours. Their strangeness was cultural, due only to unfamiliar customs, and we were certainly equally weird to them.
When the shirtless guy ducked off into an alley to make water, his compatriots indicated through broken English and hand motions that he had a prosthetic right leg, his real one having been shot off in the War. Though he seemed cheery enough, it’s anyone’s guess which side he fought for or whether he still harbored ill will toward anyone, so perhaps it was a good thing that we were still passing as Canadians, a fact we proudly announced when we first met the quartet and managed to shoehorn into conversation again once we’d learned his story.
After five or so rounds of shotgunning beer, we realized we were up later than we should be in light of another early morning of riding, so we thanked them and bid our joyously odd drinking buddies farewell. On the walk back, we exchanged a plethora of “hello”s and “how are you”s, a few in rapid succession with a gang of children who all took turns asking us. It was enough to give one the feeling of a celebrity being hounded for autographs, a thought I voiced to James. He smiled sideways and replied that we weren’t celebrities here as much as freaks.
But whether movie-star or monster, I can think of no better way to spend a birthday than racing through the less-traveled corners of Vietnam, having birthday drinks with strange strangers who think I’m just as odd.