We climbed higher into the mountains on the motorbikes, covering a lot of ground everyday. The Minsk’s were noisy bikes on the way up, but you could shut them off on the descent just by holding the clutch in and taking your hand off the throttle. That was the best, silently coasting down the sides of the mountains, the wind whistling through my helmet. In silence we would slip by the locals invisibly like specters. To restart the bikes all you had to do was let the clutch out while coasting and you were back in action. After a few days of taking the off roads, however, my bones were rattled, and I felt like I’d been beaten with a rubber hose when I woke up in the morning. But once we arrived in Dong Van, I knew we were going to rest.
The next day was the legendary ride to Meo Vac. It was only 21 km, but it was supposedly one of the most breathtaking roads in Indochina.
Dong Van was nestled high in the mountains along the Chinese border, and was home to one of the most colorful Sunday markets I’d ever seen. All the mountain tribes came into town to sell, buy, and drink. I was clearly the only white guy there and, as usual, twice as big as everybody else. I wish I could truly relate how alienating it feels to be stared at everywhere you go. I guess it’s as close as I’ll ever get to feeling like Lindsey Lohan.
The market started at sunrise, and I made sure I was there early enough to catch all the activity. The women and girls from the surrounding Flower Mung hill tribes were decked out in bold colors, while the men wore simple navy or black jackets with berets. It was a cool look, especially when you were drinking corn wine. In fact, later in the day as we drove out of town, I saw many of these lads face down on the side of the road passed out from a bit to much of the corn punch. It wasn’t a good idea to wake them up either. The drink had a violent effect on most of them. Still, I felt bad for them, face down in the dirt under a very hot sun.
The road to Meo Vac began with a bang, as we drove over a crest and the gorge appeared, as did the winding road cut neatly into the side of the mountain wall. This was high mountain terrain, and any mistake on the Minsk could lead to a long fall to a certain death. No pressure! It was a breathtaking road. Everywhere possible down the steep slopes the Flower Mung and other tribes had planted corn, or other crops. A wicked place to farm, but it was almost entirely cultivated like a patchwork quilt.Along the way we passed many of the Flower Mung on the way home from the market. Some were even gathered in small groups partying down, enjoying the sunset over their amazing backyard, still tilting back that potent brew that tasted like corn gasoline.
We drove that road three times that night, stopping regularly to watch the different shadows thrown by the multiple stone faces and peaks. And as the sun got lower, the colors of the rocks turned 20 different shades of purple and the crops became much softer emerald green and held an almost unearthly glow from the remaining heat of the day.
It was the apex of my motorbike journey through Northern Vietnam. We awoke the next day before dawn to watch the sunrise and ride the road a little more. The road to Meo Vac was as hostile an environment to farm as any I’ve ever seen. And it was fully occupied. Just when you thought you were alone, sure enough, hanging from the side of a rock wall with one hand was a grandmother planting corn.
I was going to return to Australia with a fresh perspective on the nobility and simplicity of farming. Why does life have to be so complicated? I had some work to do, thankfully, back in the vineyards of South Australia pruning, and watching the Vietnamese work like acrobats on these precipitous mountains impressed me to no end. Along the way we stopped to meet a young mountain girl adding fertilizer to her corn. She was 14 and married to an eleven year old in her small, high altitude village. Breeding early insured stability in the workforce. Isolated from the rest of the world, completely, and quite happily, unaware that South Park even exists. I’ll miss Vietnam.