Once more the ringing of alarms brought us to attention, and we quickly strapped the packs on and rolled out bright and early. We started off going slightly north of town to join QL14B headed west, the fastest route south, if slightly out of the way. Stopping at a mini-market, we bought breakfast snacks and filled up our gas tanks with the shop’s hand-pump.
The 14 was a relatively quiet avenue, lined with the shade of trees or else homes and large swaths of agricultural fields. Some miles in, we parked at an abandoned gas station lot to down crackers, lychee fruit, and as much water as we could stand. It was a hot day, so we briefly and casually glanced at the map before hitting the road again and feeling the winds of the road cool us down. Now that we had access to Google maps and near-pervasive internet, we could navigate on the go without much trouble.
A few “hellos” and waves exchanged with opposite-flowing traffic and a couple of hours later, we stopped again for gas at a station with a really nice-looking café consisting of an outside courtyard of metal chairs and tables and a handful of wooden statues of birds and a dragon. After fueling up, we lingered at a table and ordered an iced coffee each, because the south-central region of Vietnam is famed for its black gold, and we were eager to try it for ourselves at every opportunity. This stuff was good but nothing to Skype home about, but it was cold and sweet, so we took our time, each ordering a second glass.
While we dawdled, the three college-aged girls working the café took turns posing for pictures with us in different variations – one girl with one of us, two girls with one of us, one girl with both of us, and on until all the configurations of cute Vietnamese girl and dusty white guy had been exhausted and they were satisfied. Their shutter-happy mood was infectious, so I snapped a few shots of the Kings and their steeds.
We saddled back up and followed the 14 past a rather industrial stretch of the road, with smokestacks belching in the distance, ignoring signs indicating villages darting off from the main drag and getting a sophomoric kick out of another sign that read “Huu Dat.”
Around noon, we turned south onto AH17, rejoining the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was much less twisty and traversed less mountainous terrain than a few days ago. At one bend in the road, I swerved around a lizard that ran like mad on its hind legs and away from our roaring metal beasts.
We lunched on rice, pork, soup, and complimentary iced tea in a small town along the Trail, where the owner asked James to touch the ceiling of his establishment. James obliged the man, leaping up to rap his fingers along the bottom of the tin roof, and the owner could not have been happier. The man refilled the tea glasses we had drained and walked over to inspect our bikes. He grunted, pointing to my ruined front fender and scratched dash that spilled dead wires and then to the rips in the right knee of my riding pants and corresponding elbow of my rain jacket, and, with arms grasping invisible handle bars and a feigned look of worry on his face, he mimed taking a tumble. I nodded, returning his look of phony fright, at which he chuckled and motioned at my face, giving a thumbs up to indicate that it was a good thing I was wearing a helmet. I knocked a few knuckles on my temple, indicating that hard-headedness also came in handy, and we all had a laugh.
Before we left, we told the owner we were headed for Kon Tum, which seems to be pronounced the way it looks to the Western eye, because he actually understood the name when we uttered it. Excited, he gesticulated wildly, acting out that we should bike to the church by the river and climb the steps up to the entrance. When we eyed him quizzically, he drew a river, a church, and stairs, jabbing at the church with the tip of the pen I loaned him. He smiled and gave another thumbs up, letting us know that the church was worth the visit. At least, I think that’s what he meant. Maybe he just liked doodling in front of other people.
Once the charades and Pictionary bout were over, we rolled on, fighting a battle for veticalness against the road that was massively torn up in preparation for construction and re-pavement. If the roads weren’t stripped down to bare dirt and coughing dust into our faces, they were covered in gravel. We both slowed considerably to accommodate the rocky terrain, the harbinger of my wipeout, and, careful to maintain balance, we arrived in Kon Tum in mid-afternoon without any further delays.
We didn’t know what to expect from Kon Tum beyond a place to rest our heads for the night, so the size of the city was shocking at first. From the relatively quiet Trail, we spilled into heavy city traffic and found ourselves amid tall modern buildings and a bustling urban environment. No nhà nghis were in sight, so we biked around, looking instead for hotels. Making a sharp u-turn in an avenue leading away from the city center, James knocked front tires with a scooter that was hard on his heels and whose driver failed to judge his maneuver accurately, turning into James instead of away from him. I tried to warn them, but my horn was caput, along with the other electronics on my bike, from its literal scrape with calamity on the Trail. Neither vehicle here seemed too affected by the minor collision, notwithstanding James’ bike being smacked a little out of alignment.
When we found a hotel, we puttered the beasts into the richly tiled interior garage/lobby and were assigned a room on the “fourth floor.” While hauling our bags up four flights of stairs after a full day on the road sounded exhausting enough, the “fourth floor” actually ended up being seven floors above the ground-level lobby, a concept I still struggle to understand. Too many floors not named properly or a dirty trick the proprietors play or fuzzy math. Whatever the case, it doesn’t add up.
And it’s a long way down.
Collapsing into our paradoxical chambers, we showered in turns then ventured down the hotel hallway, through an unlocked door, and onto an open-air VIP balcony, apparently disused as the various boxes and buckets and repair tools lying around suggested. The VIP suite was locked (we tried), but an enticing fold-out ladder on the balcony dared us to climb onto the hotel roof, and we accepted the invitation.
Predictably, the roof offered a nice view of the sprawling city below. The city of Kon Tum is the capital of Kon Tum province in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, a region that saw heavy fighting between Northern Viet Cong troops and the joint forces of American and South Vietnamese soldiers and their allies. What was the site of bunkers and bombings in a nearly month-long Viet Cong “Easter Offensive” siege campaign from early May to early June 1972 (with fighting ceasing exactly 38 years before the day of our arrival) is now a sizeable city with blocks upon blocks of bustling but calm high-rises, street-front shops, and houses. An Eiffel tower replica jutted against the horizon on one side of the hotel, and a large military barracks of some sort, peopled with soldiers tending the garden or otherwise making patrol rounds, spread out on the other.
While on the roof, I journaled, and James read the news on his unlocked phone. It seemed tensions were heating up in the South China Sea between Vietnam and China over the naval fiasco that had spawned the propagandistic pageantry fiasco we witnessed in Mai Châu. But the problems of the world at large were hard to see from a vantage eight stories above the streets of placid Kon Tum and seven days into the heart of breath-takingly beautiful Vietnam.
Once we felt sufficiently relaxed, we decided to go out for more of the region’s famed coffee and a bite. The employee of the first place we dropped into couldn’t understand our queries and shooed us away with a hand gesture, twisting both open palms upward while looking perplexed. We ventured on to a second café, where the employee tried the same body language, but persistence got us each a bowl of phở and a cup of thick, black, French-pressed coffee with the look and consistency of motor oil and the taste of ambrosia. Here, like the place we stopped for lunch, we also received complimentary iced tea, which seemed to be a Southern thing; and as two Southern boys raised in the sacred traditions of iced tea and Southern hospitality, we felt oddly at home on the other side of the world.
The sun was setting and a storm was gathering, so we made our way back to the hotel under light rain and a barrage of “hello”s from passersby. One man, who simply scowled at us as we crossed paths, clanked down the road on an iron peg-leg, his vintage military jacket whipping around in his wake. His age and garb indicated he might have first-hand knowledge of the Easter Offensive and Battle of Kon Tum, and his glaring eyes and snarled mouth betrayed bitterness – understandable for one who may have earned a metal leg as a souvenir of the skirmishes.
With the ghosts of American and Vietnamese combatants clamoring in the angry skies, we bunkered down on the “fourth floor” to weather the howling night tempest.