The first day we rode the Minsks for hours, slowly beginning our climb into the mountains. Hung, an experienced guide and rider, led the way to a small village of Black Thai’s. We spent the night with a curious and friendly family. Mui was the matriarch and, man, could she drink. Her husband was dead to the world hours before Mui finally called it a night. She said she was happy with her company, and that’s why she kept drinking shots. Sounds familiar. We toasted all night long, to the Russian Fleet (at least twice), the Liverpool Soccer team (Hung’s side) and to our health, which the VN pronounce “Chook Sue Quay”. I learned all about her life and she mine, and we couldn’t have been more different. She has never gone more than 50 kms from her village. Nobody in VN can believe I’m not a father. Family is job #1 in VN and the pressure to procreate is pronounced, and she has had 3 by the age of 28.
After a good night of rice wine shots, I gave Mui her first Australian Berocca (an effervescent, orange vitamin drink known to curtail hangovers). She said her eyes popped open the next morning, lifting her two fists to her eyes to demonstrate eyes wide open by extending her fingers explosively. Her mother lives in the house, and can be found sitting in various locations on the wood floor chewing on a mixture of bark and leaf at all hours, a practice which has left her teeth stained permanently bright red. This is a traditional method of keeping your teeth clean. You have to click on her picture to appreciate exactly what I’m talking about. She made one for me to chew on, and I almost lost it. Mui uses toothpaste.
Next morning we went out for a boat trip around the lake, hung out with some shrimpmen, and then beat feet towards the Chinese border. Hung was absolutely essential to my adventure. We were getting deep into Vietnam, and his translations made it possible for me to communicate with the people, try different foods, like dog, and to secure decent lodgings. Plus, he understands his country, its people, and its ways. I couldn’t have asked for a better guide. I had millions of questions. Hung told me that the reason the VN could defeat superior armies was because they were extremely patient and could also tolerate great discomfort. The war with America was won, and they don’t flinch an eye to tell you that. The problem is the mess the US left behind: mine fields, genetic mutations and polluted wells from Agent Orange, and hundreds of displaced families. They do want compensation. I, well, I just drank their wine, listened, and kept on keeping on “like a bird that flew”.
Many of the roads North of Mui’s home were hardcore off road, and I’m surprised I’m actually still alive. We were climbing into the higher altitudes, into the clouds, along hard curving, steep rocky roads that left me and my Minsk shattered. By the time we actually started our descent, my clutch was fried, there was hot oil soaked into my left shoe, and my horn was missing. By the time we pulled into Xin Man, our first real mountain town, I was a mess. That night I tried dog meat for the first time. It was on the bland and chewy side. It seems to match well with ginger. Hung explained that his countrymen didn’t share the Western love of dogs. In fact, most were snarling mongrels by the time they were one, and used exclusively as domestic guard dogs. I never once saw a cat. I gather that as soon as they saw the first dog get cooked, they headed for the hills.
Even though I was exhausted, it was evident that the landscape had changed, we were amidst the limestone outcropping that dot the landscape like a cluster of green warts. As we came down, the weather broke and we snaked between the mountains on scenic roads. It was clear that we were out of the mainstream Vietnamese tourist trail.
Everyone, except one guy, a guy named Al, had a warm smile and a wave for me as I drove past them, especially the kids. They would come running out of their homes to scream “hello” from the giant motorcycler passing through. Who knows what was going on in their minds. Even the adults carrying heavy loads would look up and smile as my noisy Minsk drove past, leaving them in a cloud of blue smoke, at which point they stopped smiling, trying to find a way to cover their mouths, then raising their fists in the air.