Kings of the Road: Part 14. The Scenic Route and Saigon Traffic (Ma Đa Goui to Ho Chi Minh City) – June 2014

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One final outing awaited us as we tied the packs in the late morning, and I felt like I finally had my bags securely and comfortably on the back of the bike for once. It was a moment more bittersweet than Buôn Ma Thuột cold-brew when the Kings rolled out of the guest house grounds and onto the highway for one last ride.

We left later than usual, having only three or four hours ahead of us, and stopped for bahn mis and water bottles on the other side of town amid stares and murmurs, deciding to keep on for another few miles before parking again to gas up and eat. Seeking to work out my soon-to-be cramped legs before setting off again, I moseyed to the back proximity of the gas station property, up a handful of stone steps and into a meditative garden area. The focal point of the garden was a large statue of St. Joseph with a neon, color-changing halo, holding the Christ child, both piously huddled underneath the shade of a giant mushroom cap.

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I paused for a less-than-meditative moment of bafflement before walking on back across the lot and to the bikes, getting the kinks out of my knee. Our injuries were healing nicely by the time we started this concluding voyage, with James’ new skin coming in behind the burned and my maladies abating more and more with frequent leg stretches and fist making at every stop since my spill.

Once limber, we folded back into position on the bikes and roared out, back onto the 20. The ride was relatively uneventful, with stretches of open farmland or tropical jungle interspersed between houses and shops. As we neared our holy grail of Ho Chi Minh City, the road ran through the middle of a cluster of tree farms, and a certain section of the road was adorned with a tall stack of boulders on one side, an anomaly in the midst of flatter terrain. With the City quickly approaching, we passed the bumper-to-bumper traffic jams of highway 1, avoiding the road altogether in favor of continuing down the less congested 20 as it became ĐT769.

A certain section of even this back road was particularly clogged with vehicles, but we were able to maneuver around other motorists quite deftly. Although I did have a close call with one of the near-ubiquitous South-East Asian tri-wheeled taxi, a tuk-tuk, just barely slipping between it and a large industrial truck, having to kick out at a dirt embankment to steady myself. Sometimes you really do just have to put your foot down, no matter how many people roll their eyes after reading your terrible, terrible pun.

Around noon, we pulled over at a café proudly bumping Vietnamese synth-pop, where we each ordered a tall, delicious iced coffee accompanied by the requisite free Southern iced tea. We lazed, taking a lengthy break to appreciate the fact that we’d be off the bikes in just another hour or so. Discussing the road ahead with the aid of Google maps, we certainly thought it seemed easy enough and opted to forego lunch until we’d arrived in the heart of old Saigon.

So, with the end nearly in sight, we rolled out again, flying down the quiet, well-paved ĐT769, encountering only a handful of other motorists until coming to a turn leading into the suburbs of the massive metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City. Here, the road got considerably busier, so, following Google’s directions, we veered off and rejoined the Ho Chi Minh Trail one last time.

The Trail became what I think is the CT01, which quickly led to a raised highway over the Dong Nai River. Above the on-ramp was a sign that seemed to prohibit bikes from entering; James didn’t take note of it, and, while I saw it, the sign also seemed to forbid any type of vehicle at all, which struck me as clearly erroneous in light of the cars and big trucks entering the elevated road. So we kept on and up it, ignoring the frantic waving, chasing, and whistle-blowing of the security guard who ran out toward us from a workbox on the shoulder of the ramp. We’d played scofflaw out on the road before with more official officials, not paying any mind to policemen and military members on more than one occasion, and we didn’t see why this time should be any different.

It quickly became apparent that this time was different. For the first time since our arrival in Asia, scooters and motorbikes were not among the vehicles we saw on the roadway, an omission that was and is strikingly glaring in that part of the world. We stood, or rode, apart from the taxi cabs, semis, and SUVs sharing the lanes with us as we arced up and above muddy Dong Nai.

After ten or so minutes, the road came to a funnel at a series of tollbooths featuring automated gate-arms raised for paying customers. Unlike every other such station set up in Vietnam, this one left no room for motorbikes and scooters to slip through, and we were forced to stop in the name of the law for the first time. Five young toll workers came out from behind their booths, blowing whistles and shouting. Rolling up next to James, I flicked my beast into neutral and let it idle, fingers hovering over the ignition in order to pocket the key before “the man” got a chance to.

But instead of accosting us, the tollbooth attendants thought our presence on this prohibited roadway was hilarious, and each was nearly doubled over with laughter at our arrival. When the one with the best grasp of English had regained his composure enough to speak, he informed us that we were not allowed on the highway and would have to continue via an alternate route. He recommended we return back to the ĐT769 and try again, this time simply following traffic and highway markers; without the use of the raised bridge, he told us, we were landlocked anyway unless we went backwards. He then wished us luck and escorted us off a maintenance-access ramp and onto a gravel road branching off in three directions: to the right and away from the elevated road, to the left and under it, or back – all the way back to the place we’d entered the forbidden highway, some twenty minutes behind us or more on the bumps and dips of the rocky path.

Determined to press on and not retreat, we opted to take the right path, following a dirt road through a series of sharp angular turns, swampy fields, and the backyards of people hanging out in their backyards and wondering why two foreigners were plodding along through them. When the road ended at a pond and the only way forward was over said pond atop a log, we remembered that we didn’t live in a cartoon and that the rental office would not be happy to hear that their bikes were marooned in a marshland a day before they were due back.

So we bit the bullet and turned back, this time taking the left path under the raised highway. The dusty terrain was similar to the right-side path’s, and we again found ourselves confronted with a brown aquatic impasse. Fortunately, the path ended in a dock of sorts, with a group of drunk gamblers slapping cards around under a nearby tarp. When asked, the clear spokesman of the group pantomimed that we should wait five minutes for a ride closer to Ho Chi Minh City. We were running out of options quickly, so we waited.

Five minutes later, our bikes were securely aboard a small, narrow wooden boat, having been rolled, along with another man’s scooter, across a plank and onto the dingy that appeared out of thin air when we weren’t looking; and we were chugging on down a brown, hydroponic plant strewn continuation of the Dong Nai.

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Lilly pads surfed the chocolate waves, and impenetrable foliage bordered the banks at every turn.

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And meta-pictures flooded the vessel.

After stopping at the other passenger’s place tucked into a cranny of riverfront property, we sailed on past a few old fishing schooners before arriving on the other side of the River. With the bikes back on terra firms, we paid the ferrymen and rolled on, riding off-road until reaching the poorly paved alleys of a Saigon suburb.

You’d think we’d had enough of Google maps for one day, but we had little choice because we had even less of a frame of reference for where exactly we were. So we followed the online cartography to a gate that, unlike the tollbooth on the taboo highway but like all other such gateways in the country, boasted a passage big enough for bikes and scooters. As such, my thoughts were that we’d slipped by this sort of thing many times before, and on our first day of biking, no less; here we go again. Our path was blocked, however, by two young military policemen, who were as amused by us as the toll operators and equally adamant that we find another way into the City proper. Through bouts of guffaws and giggles, they informed us that only those with certain citizen credentials could pass through the gate, and they directed us instead to a ferry some few miles away that could carry us over the water.

It struck me then, as it had more than once since our night of drinking with traffic cops in Yên Cát that the lawmen we’d encountered were, by and large, quite personable and not the belligerent meanies we’d been warned of. I acknowledge now that, perhaps, we were lucky in our run-ins with police in Vietnam, but, on the whole, they were a lot less frightening than those in my own country whose job it is to uphold law and “to serve and protect.”

We found the ferry, paid the price, and packed in with scores of other bikers, scooterists, and car drivers. Ten minutes later, we were on the correct side of the River and on the road into Ho Chi Minh City. In order to head toward District 1 and the rental office, we hooked a drastic U-turn at an intersection and inadvertently rode against oncoming traffic for a few blocks before a merciful red light kept the head-on motorists at bay. Taking the opportunity, we swung back into the flow of vehicles directly in view of a cluster of young cops, who simply watched us fly by.

All of sudden, we found ourselves in a deep and vast ocean of scooters, fender to fender, in the thick of the fabled cloud of Saigon traffic.

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A portrait of an understatement. Imagine this scene cut and pasted across the length of a main road in a major world metropolis, and you’ll begin to get a picture of Saigon traffic. 

And, what’s more, we were pros at navigating the hedge of motorists, sliding in and out like naturals. Before we knew it, we were pulling into the parking lot of the rental office, handing over our keys and helmets.

As I waited on pins and needles inside, the chief mechanic went out to inspect the bikes and returned with an estimate for the damage. With bated breath, I listened to his figure. I owed them $100, only a fifth of the $500 deposit, despite completely obliterating the electronics, right mirror, and front fender, as well as the off-the-assembly-line-brand-new paint-job. Not only had I walked away from my spill physically, but the wipeout hadn’t broken the bank as I expected either. Not only had we made it all the way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, but I’d be able to afford to celebrate!

Returning once more to my bike on our way out of the rental office lot, I ran a longing hand along the beast’s battered frame. I’d miss the old Winn but never forget it. I snagged the Joker card from the handle bars (because I’ll always be a joker), but I left the King of Hearts perched up near the left clutch lever –  I was no longer an active member of a motorcycle club and, despite seemingly my best efforts to the contrary, I had not killed myself in a foreign land on a foreign beast; so I didn’t need the Suicide King anymore. It seemed a poetic retiring of my Kings of the Road mantle, although, in all likelihood, the card was probably unceremoniously thrown away as soon as I left the rental office. Regardless, I and the Ho Chi Minh Trail had certainly left our marks on the bike, as they both had on me.

Not wanting to hoof our backpacks too far, we checked into a hotel adjacent to the rental office in the late afternoon. Once unpacked and showered, we grabbed sandwiches at a shop on the same block and washed them down with celebratory 333s. A little later, we celebrated over fancier drinks in the posh AB Tower skyscraper, taking in spectacular views of the City as sunlight turned to neon, courtesy of the lounge on the 26th floor.

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Walking back toward the hotel under the glow of pale moonlight and halogen streetlamps, we passed through a park where townspeople gathered for communal aerobics classes and games involving a feathered, shuttlecock-like hacky-sack. We chatted with a local in the park, a middle-aged peddler of photo-copied travel books and other trinkets. He knew immediately that we were Americans and received us warmly, wanting to converse with us rather than sell us any ripped-off reading materials. He had a friend in New York and was excitedly curious to know if we too knew him. Unsurprisingly, we were not acquainted with his States-side chum, but the salesman still spoke highly of America and Americans. Again, perhaps we were simply fortunate in who we encountered, but it seemed to me that our hiding of our nationality was ultimately an unnecessary precaution. At any rate, we each bought a hacky-sack thing from him, at least proving to him that Americans like to buy dumb stuff they don’t need.

Leaving the man to peddle his wares to others, we stopped by a seafood diner and then a seventh-floor balcony bar en route to the hotel, for fish and beer respectively. On the balcony bar, as I half-watched children play tag in the unnervingly busy street below, my mind drifted back to the road (only to be periodically snapped back to reality every time a child narrowly missed becoming roadkill). Maybe it was because we were no longer obligated to rise early for a full day of riding, or maybe it was because the throbbing of the bike engine was already starting to fade in muscle memory; but, even more so than our first meal and drinks upon arrival in Ho Chi Minh City, each bite and each sip on that meandering walk back to the hotel felt surreal. It was the feeling of grabbing at a ghost, a fading sensation that was less and less real the more you thought about it. How were we back to a relatively normal pace of life, normal for traveling at least? In two short weeks, the metal beasts had gone from a source of utter terror to a reliable and comfortable part of a routine, and I felt almost aimless without a new destination, a new goal to race toward.

But as soon as we relinquished one routine, we returned to another, jamming on our ukes for the first time since our maiden night on the road, when we played an impromptu show to entertain our hosts in Mai Châu. And hearing my old baby blue ukulele still singing as if it never bounced end-over-end along the Ho Chi Minh Trail or scraped face-first along its gravel patches reminded me of our success rather than our loss. We’d ridden nearly all of Vietnam in twelve days. We’d gotten lost, outrun police and storms, kept on rolling after mechanical problems and a gnarly spill, visited villages seldom seen by Western eyes, been invited into a personal shrine, almost certainly pioneered a path into Ho Chi Minh City, and so much more. Bikes or not, we were, and would be, Kings of the Road.

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