On the road again, but not before lingering around the same massive breakfast spread as the previous day. Though we only had some six to seven hours to go before arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, we still had three days until our flight out and to India and two until our bikes were due at the Southern branch of the rental office, we decided not to rush the final leg of the journey. So we opted not to race into old Saigon but instead break up the day’s worth of riding and stop for the night in the hamlet of Ma Đa Goui, roughly the midway point between Dalat and our final destination.
Before rolling out, we again tightened the chains and found grease for them at a body shop near Dreams Hotel, then took the same road out of Dalat as we had in, CT14, following its winding, pine-lined bumps down the mountains. Stuck behind buses that consumed the entire roadway, packed to the gills with Vietnamese tourists, we played “I’m in the lead” with another bike holding a father driver and his young wide-eyed daughter sitting behind him and staring intently at James and me from the folds of her school uniform. Finally, at the bottom of the mountains, the shoulders widened, and, waving adieu to the student, we slipped through the column of buses and hammered down on the throttles.
At the next town, we flew by a pedestrian whose bare feet, long hair and beard, and tanned skin hid only by a snow-white loin cloth gave him the startling appearance of a Vietnamese Jesus. As he sauntered on, presumably to turn water into rice wine or multiply baguettes and fishes, we stopped a few miles down the highway, pulling into the dirt lot of a roadside café and hair salon. A couple young boys sat in barber chairs as a stylist snipped away at their thick black locks, and we sat in plastic café seats as our waitress brought out thick black coffee. Because we were now firmly in the South, the coffee, of course, was accompanied by complimentary iced tea.
After downing both liquids, I had to relieve myself and stepped around the building to water a tree in the backyard of the establishment. Midway through, I noticed an older woman walking toward me from the back door of the house adjacent to the café-salon. I was certain she’d either simply stare or else yell at me for being so crass; she did neither, instead waving to me once I’d finished and beckoning me around the house and to her front door. I fetched James, and we followed her lead.
Inside the structure, which was a full-size addition connected to the house in which she lived, natural light illuminated a sacred tableau of her pious devotion to her ancestors. Bowls of fruit, flowers, water, and tea sat in offering, and curls of incense smoke snaked up to the ceiling, carrying her prayers heavenward. At the back and center of the large, one-room building, an array of sculpted figures smiled benevolently, representations of her departed forebears. While the Vietnamese may be Buddhist, Catholic, Taoist, atheist, or members of any number of other religious brands, the veneration of ancestors is a unifying element among all citizens, a common denominator of solidarity in the middle of all their disparate spiritual beliefs; and this woman, with her entire house devoted to the dead, was perhaps a bigger fan of her deceased and probably undeserving relatives than any South-will-rise-again type enacting American Civil War battles in great-grand-pappy’s CSA uniform.
Cousins Billy, Bob, Billy-bob, Jim, Bo, Jimbo, Bubba, Clem, and Bubba Clem all fought bravely for the Southern cause.
We paid our respects as best we knew how, both removing our shoes as we entered. I thanked her and returned her beaming smile; James took a few minutes to kneel before the shrine and enjoy some moments of reflective silence. I too let my mind unravel in the quiet of the shaded, green-tinted room and thought of just how much difference the choice of one path or activity over another can make. It’s true, the same sentiment applies to everyday life, but the implications of one course of action are maybe more stark and vivid when every sight and sound and smell is novel and new because experienced in a foreign place. I’d thought this many times on our trip: what were we treated to because we’d stopped in one café instead of another, stayed in this guest house as opposed to that one, taken a right instead of a left, arrived at a place when we did and not a few minutes earlier or later? How much of our journey was affected by our decisions and how many alternate-reality Riches and Jameses were meeting different people in different places along the highways of Vietnam and how many lie splattered along its parallel-universe roads?
When James rose again, I was shaken from my reverie, and we reshod, bowed to the woman, and saddled up again. Before long, we branched out from CT14 and onto QL20, headed south-west, for a relatively calm stretch of highway. Construction picked up again, however, near a largish town, possibly Di Linh, and traffic became stop-and-go. We came to a dead stop at one point as the road narrowed and two buses going in either direction slowly creeped past one another in rocking bursts of alternating inches of momentum, coming millimeters from swapping paint before safely passing. A few similar bottlenecks later, and we were headed back through the mountains, whose easy twists and turns made for fun riding.
The mountains eventually gave way to flatter land, engulfed by thick forests. At a certain juncture, we crossed a bridge bending with a river, and a herd of fifteen or so larger-than-life horse sculptures were posed on one bank to look as if they too were racing around the river bend.
Suddenly, not much further along, the gaudy Ma Đa Goui Resort sign welcomed us to the woodsy region, a base camp of sorts into the surrounding national park forests.
We rounded a few more tree-peppered river bends and found ourselves already in the outskirts of town, where we stopped and secured a room at a nhà nghi, again the sole patrons of the establishment. After only four hours of riding, we had arrived before 1PM. Cake walk/ride! Once we’d checked in, at the proprietress’ request, we wheeled the bikes into the room, where’d they’d also spend the night.
Because we’d skipped lunch in favor of momentum, we were famished and trekked down into the center of town to inhale beef phò amid waves, stares, and “hello”s. Once full, we perused the shanty market catty-corner to the eatery, ducking under the buckling roof and inside the rusted aluminum and musty wood, where I, fresh out of rolling tobacco, bought a pack of cigarettes for less than a quarter.
We returned to the guest house to wash off the road and relax to the drone of the few English TV channels, switching back and forth between the highlight real of 2014 World Cup qualifiers, Tom and Jerry re-runs, and the Jaden Smith Karate Kid reboot until dinner time. Hungry again, we walked the few blocks back to the town center.
Turning off the main drag, we walked alongside a peaceful river and a park situated along its nearer bank. The Goui River is supposedly the favored bathing spot of the “fairies,” according to those buying the official story that downplays the role of religion to the Vietnamese despite the Communist government’s atheist stance, or of the “gods,” for those who observe tradition. Thus, the River is also called the Suoi Tien (“fairy/spirit stream”), and the town borrows its name from the holy bath tub, for Ma Đa Goui translates into “Goui River of the Ma people.” The forests were sacred to the fairies/gods, and – besides paintball, canoeing, hiking, human hamster balling, crocodile fishing, firing guns at the shooting range, and bird watching – a draw of the area is exploring its hallowed caves, including the Doi cave of wild bats, aka “the Bat Cave.”
“Quickly, Robin! To the Bat Cave!”
“Yeah, Batman, no doi.”
Our journey didn’t take us into the forests, however, but rather into a restaurant blasting local news that we couldn’t understand. Eager to serve foreign diners and more eager still to rip them off, we were overcharged for a pork and bamboo shoot noodle stew hotpot – a pot of boiling water into which we placed the ingredients until they were cooked through and ready for consumption.
Spicy and pricey.
We paid the hiked-up price – only a dollar or so more than fair – and hoofed it back to the guest house in the night air, cooled by breezes from the holy bath waters. One guy, riding on the back of a friend’s scooter, shouted “hello” to us in the middle of a conversation with his driver, nay, in the middle of a sentence, proving to be both a friendly stranger and a poor conversationalist.
Sitting back on our respective beds, James and I conversed ourselves, mapping out the last day of our journey. If everything went according to plan, we’d arrive the next day in Ho Chi Minh City, like we had this day, after only three or four hours of riding. With the easy path in mind and the dusty bikes in sight, we drifted off to sleep, not knowing that nothing would go according to plan as we neared our destination.