After tightening the chains, we were on the road early again and back into Thuột’s dad’s heavy traffic and en route to Dalat, where we’d once more take a day off. On our way out of town, we bought breakfast items and kept on south and slightly east down QL27. Another dilapidated brick promenade lined the highway on the city outskirts, identical to that outside of Kon Tum, but we keep on going, passing, among hundreds of other motorists, a motorbike with a stern man sporting a military coat and canvas camo backpack and a scooter with a girl with legs that went all the way up (to her hips, presumably) riding sidesaddle on the back. The girl smiled, and I smiled back, not remembering that I wore a facemask.
The road narrowed outside Buôn Ma Thuột but the congestion of vehicles hardly slackened. Spotting a cluster of shady trees, we parked to eat on a rural stretch, across the road from a rustic Catholic church. A group of laborers lounged under the covering of a second group of trees nearby, and a woman in the group, who noticed us squatting, approached us with two plastic chairs to sit in. And, as a flock of the faithful gathered for a Saturday mass, we communed and ate of the body and drank of the blood. Instead of a cardboard wafer, the body was a “pizza-ish bread and banana citrus,” as I wrote in my journal, and, rather than cheap grape juice, the blood was water. I’m still not sure what the bread is called – it was prepackaged in clear plastic, topped in tomato sauce and dried melted cheese and tasted a little sweet – but I’ve since learned that the fruit is actually a mangosteen.
The edible part of which resembles and tastes like the spawn of an orange and a banana. Orange is the new banana.
Sated, we hopped back on the 27, again passing the leggy girl as she and her driver turned off the road. We were once more flying through tiny hamlets where every shop was lined up along either side of their one road, the highway, until suddenly, the landscape changed from small businesses and abodes to miles upon miles of farmland. For a couple long stretches, the road rose up and among rice paddies as far as the eye could see on either side, and we were treated to scenes that looked to display the entire process of rice farming – seeding, harvesting, drying – which sounds far-fetched but is perhaps not infeasible in the temperate and fertile Central Highlands. If we were ever distracted by the setting, the dodging of frequent herds of cows and water buffalo, including one massive water buffalo bull that nearly took up the entire road, kept us attentive to the fast-pace plot of the plodding road.
We gassed up right before hitting a mountain range, then up and up and around and around we went. Fortunately, the slopes and gradient were much easier than our last outing on the lonely ranges of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
Gravel was a non-issue, but huge potholes were a huge problem and a major pain in the ass, both figuratively and literally. Gorgeous valley views greeted us at nearly every turn. At one point, we caught a glimpse of a body of water, a lake or a segment of river, containing a floating village of huts.
When we reached a mountain town, we stopped for more Central Highlands coffee. While the waitress prepared our black gold, her ten-year-old brother, Alfo (I think), performed the usual inquiry of our names, ages, nationalities, and dispositions. He was in gradeschool learning English and was eager to practice, so with a smartphone in his grubby clutches, he happily rattled off phrases haphazardly deciphered from Vietnamese into English through the mystifying stupidity of Google Translate. Among his interests: “Like fun English,” “Like also dance,” and “I like the whole.” Another mark under Google Translate’s win column.
Alfo also mentioned a fondness of TV and videogames and also machine guns, the AK-47 rifle version and its M9 pistol counterpart. There’s probably room for some politicized commentary on the nature of causation or coincidence, but I’ll refrain. As I’ve said before about this blog and as has been previously declared by such thinkers as Madonna, Kelly Osborne, and the cast of Glee, “Papa don’t preach.” “Papa,” in this metaphor, refers to me, and “preach” means over-sermonizing. “Don’t” still means “don’t.”
“Papa,” looking rough in a selfie snapped after saying goodbye to Alfo (who probably replied with something like “Well safely going.”) and certainly not preachin’.
The coffee was fantastic, of course, and we continued on through the mountains with a caffeinated stride in our ride. Passing through another town, we couldn’t help but notice the Nazi flags anchored at both its entrances – not the harmless good luck swastikas that grace just about everything in India and elsewhere in Asia but honest-to-devil Nazi flags. And, like whoever installed those hateful banners, the roads were absolutely terrible, with potholes swallowing up much of the rocky Trail. Again, thickets of mammoth work trucks and buses clogged up the already slow-going highway. How were there so many buses? Where were they all headed?
On any given roadway in Vietnam, barely two vehicles can pass going opposite directions; and along this similar two-lane stretch, traffic jams were frequent, as both lanes had to periodically pause and allow passage for the other. At one particularly broken juncture, we were stuck behind a large truck followed by a larger bus, both of which were causing an even larger bottleneck, and we were going nowhere fast. As point, James squeezed past the bus and then the truck, which lightly caught his shoulder and nearly knocked him off-road. As I watched, opening the throttle to narrowly slip around the bus, he kicked out with one leg, striking the ground for balance and using the momentum to carry him vertically forward. Seeing an opening around the truck, I accelerated and joined James to lead the pack of motorists crawling behind us.
Following the road, we climbed higher and found the Trail back up to its winding, death-inviting antics, with the potholes again replacing the treacherous gravel we’d seen days ago. At some point, the stern guy with the military jacket and backpack appeared out of nowhere behind us, matched pace with us, then darted on ahead as we stopped for lunch.
As two giggling women prepared our food, their across-the-street neighbors took a pause from building an addition to their house to stare and join our hosts in openly laughing at us. One teenage boy even crossed the road to ask us for a rolled cigarette he’d seen us smoking, and, as others before him, threw it out after a puff or two, seemingly expecting and hoping for more than tobacco.
The food was delicious and different than the standard fare of rice or noodles with pork or beef and some variety of pickled green things. Instead, we ate what looked to be and tasted like a cabbage noodle salad, topped with spicy vinegar, homemade beef jerky bits, crispy fried onion pieces, and a tangy sauce akin to French dressing. I had to relieve myself before continuing on, so I was invited into the owners’ home and pointed toward the bathroom at the opposite end of the house. When washing my hands in the sink outside the bathroom, I was careful not to wake the old man sleeping on a sewing table adjacent to the wash basin.
And less careful to move my finger out of frame when back outside and taking this picture.
I’d like to say the road got better after this, but the reverse is true. More twists and turns than before with more potholes and many more motorists. And construction was really ramped up once we hooked a left onto CT14 and were outside of Dalat, with some sections allowing for only one huge bus or truck to inch onto at a time, the others waiting their turn on the shoulder, making for a single lane of traffic shared by motorists going both directions. On two separate occasions, I was forced to mount rocky embankments to avoid being flattened by the big vehicles that don’t stop for anything, nervously watching the fleet of swinging construction cranes overhead.
The outskirts of Dalat do, however, feature spectacular views of pine forests amid all the banging and dust of the work crews, and pine forest plummets, if you appreciate the view for too long. Upon approaching town, we could see a circular tier upon tier row of flower-garden greenhouses set up on shelves that descended down into a valley, and we spiraled down gradually into the valley until we were riding among the white domed structures, flanked by them on either side.
And then, coming around a bend, there we were, in Dalat. James had read up on the place and had his mind set for weeks on a luxury hotel he’d researched, and we both concluded that we deserved a change from the guest houses and cheap hotels we’d been crashing in up to this point. So, after a brief circuit of the main streets, we found Dreams Hotel, parked on the curb, and paid the extravagant $50 for both of us for two nights.
We unpacked and showered, then walked across the street for dinner at a place that not only served food but also sold workout clothes and offered aerobics classes in a back room. To a distant soundtrack of techno and the shouts of people burning calories, we discovered another new culinary experience: an array of noodles, greens, chicken, and disgustingly fatty and chewy strips of beef spread out on a plastic dish around a central vertical half circle with a slot carved out of it; another plate was stacked with hard rice tortillas, which softened when placed and spun around in the half-circle and its little reservoir of water and which were then used to incase all the ingredients. Essentially, it was DIY spring rolls.
After dinner, we popped into the neighboring coffee shop for a cup a’ and then headed back to the hotel and our second-floor balcony overlooking the street. As we did every night, we recapped on what we’d seen during the day’s drive, because while we’d both seen largely the same things, albeit from the different perspectives that mere seconds can make out on the road, we obviously could only discuss the sights after the ride was over.
It was fascinating how many words we’d learned from context, simply by driving by them often enough and gradually coming to associate them with what they signified. Business in Vietnam don’t advertise a brand or an individualized name but rather simply what they sell, so that we saw not “McDonald’s” or “Goodyear” but rather “Com Bún Phở” for “food,” “Hớt Tóc” for “haircut,” “Ôtô” for “mechanic,” “Làm Lốp” for “tires,” etc. Some people use Rosetta Stone to learn a language; we rode nearly a whole damn country to learn snippets of one.
As foreign words I couldn’t pronounce tumbled in my mind, I headed for one of the twin beds, stretching out my mending leg and hand. After catching up in my journal, I burrowed into Dreams Hotel’s silken sheets and let the rhythm of the rocky road drift me off to dreamland.