We are driving our motorbike at sunset along a winding road atop a high mountain pass. Far below lies a landscape of intensely green rice paddies, dark turned earth, sprawling coffee plantations, forest glades, and copses of fruit trees.
A panorama of the Central Vietnam highlands spreads magnificently out over the lip of the road. Peak after craggy peak marches over the spine of the country toward the coast, veiled in the smoke that is ever-present in rural Vietnam: the oily blue smoke of the rubbish fire, the dusty brown of farmers’ crop burns.
And still further out, white mists creep over the high distant peaks and fold into the deep green valleys, a blazing midsummer day exhaling into the cool of night.
We are just arriving back to Da Lat after a day riding around the countryside and hiking along the spectacular gorge below the hundred foot tall Datanla Falls ( more about this in the next post.)
For several days previously we’ve been hanging out in town at our favorite coffee shop, Urban Cafe, eating at our favorite restaurant, Chocolate Café, and exploring hilltop pagodas
or driving our moto around the huge lake that takes up the east side of the city.
One day we climb up a (very!) steep path through a fragrant pine forest to the top of Langbian Mountain, the highest peak in the Central Highlands and the second-highest in Vietnam. The next day we’re navigating the vine-shaped walkways of Da Lat Crazy House (more on these i the following posts).
Night comes on rapidly here in the highlands; tiny lights wink on all over the hills as we re-enter Da Lat and cruise down the narrow alley that leads to our guesthouse.
The time nears when we must leave this beautiful mountain city
and head back to Saigon to begin the next phase of our journey. Watch for the next posts where we’ll go more into the weird and wonderful moments we’ve experienced here!
Fellow Misadventurists! Greetings from Da Lat, Vietnam.
Why are we in Da Lat, an eight hour bus ride up into the mountains, so soon after arriving in Saigon?
To quote Senor Inigo Montoya, let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.
After our long flight from Hong Kong to Manila; the afore-mentioned sleepless overnight layover in the stinking basement of the Manila airport watching bad 1970s Filipino exploitation movies; the subsequent, even longer flight over the Pacific from Manila to Saigon; the wait at the baggage carousel in Saigon only to discover that the airline had misplaced the bag with all of my clothing back in Manila, meaning I would be stuck in the reeking clothes I had worn since Hong Kong (sorry Stax!) while they tracked it down and sent it to the airport in Da Lat three days later; the local bus ride from the Saigon airport to the Pham Ngu Lao district and the near loss of my camera on that same bus; the ensuing fifteen minute chase after said bus on the back of a hired motorbike in the oven of midday Saigon, careening over traffic-swarmed bridges and bombing through pedestrian-swarmed riverside shanties, barely clinging to the rear handle, only to find the surprised bus driver lounging at his lunch stop miles away (he had stowed the camera safely behind his seat when he found it) – needless to say, this 24 hours of abject boredom and restless excitement has left us pretty much exhausted, and we need a break in a cooler climate.
So, back in Pham Ngu Lao, we pay the moto driver a few bucks for his trouble and then jump aboard a giant red Phuong Trang sleeper bus to Da Lat.
For those unfamiliar with the various species of Southeast Asian bus, a sleeper bus is the variety with three long rows of seats, top and bottom, which fold out fully horizontal into makeshift bunkbeds, allowing the rider (theoretically) to snooze away the long hours of the trip.
Notice I said “theoretically”. This theory – let’s call it the General Theory of Sleep on a Sleeper Bus – holds true only under one condition: if every human element present upon the sleeper bus is somehow controlled for.
For kicks, let’s enter one or more of the following variables into the experiment: the driver barrelling around blind corners directly into the path of giant cement trucks, barely swerving back into the correct lane in time to avoid collision and the fiery demise of all “sleepers” aboard; the driver’s cohorts blasting at top volume (I mean eardrum-splitting, cranked-up-to-11 volume) a musical concoction of pure excrement posing as Vietnamese EDM out of speakers that are conveniently located a foot over the “sleeper’s” prone bodies; the driver steering (I’m only assuming he was steering) with one hand while keeping the other hand constantly pressed to the ear-splitting air horn to helpfully warn motorbike drivers that he is about to run them over; and the fact that most foreign travelers on sleeper buses must settle for the higher top bunk (they tend to give lower seats to locals), meaning that every swerve, sudden brake, and crunching, bottom-out pothole is amplified to crisis levels.
Stax, true to form (as anyone who knows her will tell you), falls asleep almost immediately and barely stirs henceforth. I, with my control freak tendencies and hyper-awareness in moments of extreme danger, have to force myself to find brief moments of rest amidst the barrage. If I am to get any sleep for the rest of our extensive travels, I’ll have to learn to relax in these situations.
The sweltering lowland humidity gives way to the alpine air of the highlands. We glimpse dark forms of mountain ranges. The traffic has let up and and we now pounce upon only the occasional motorbike and bicycle (most leaping suddenly out of the blackness into our view because they have no lights on their bikes in front or in back). I’ll say this about rural Vietnamese commuters: they have some balls).
We manage to arrive in Da Lat at around midnight in one piece.
Well, I say “in Da Lat” loosely, because in one final raised middle finger to the passengers before he drives the cursed bus back down to the Netherworld from whence he came, the driver has dropped us at the farthest bus station, approximately 3 km from where most of us are staying.
For several moments the hapless foreigners stand with their huge bags beside them in the empty station, eyeing the unmarked taxis that wait like silent predators (and which we have been warned to avoid as they have the habit of scamming foreigners outrageously), wondering how we’ll get somewhere we can finally sleep.
Belatedly, help screeches in in the form of a free shuttle (which suspiciously does not bear the name of the bus company, and which nobody from the bus company thought to tell us about), a shuttle that will supposedly take us to our various guesthouses. We load our bags into this van and follow the driver’s finger to the seats. But all the time, my built in scam radar is bleeping wildly due to the warning signs I mentioned before.
I needle the driver:
“Free?” I ask. No answer.
“Free?” I say again, louder, losing precious face by the second. Again, no answer.
“Free or I get off the bus!” I say even louder, thinking that impossibly, he might not have heard me, or that he’s just hoping I’ll give up so he can get a good fare out of us.
Finally someone else – not the driver, who is scrunching down in apparent shame – turns to me and nods.)
In Vietnam for less than 24 hours, I have already managed to shatter the unwritten code of Southeast Asia – the one where everybody stays calm and doesn’t raise a fuss or a holler no matter what, even if heading at that moment over a cliff. I have lost face irretrievably for myself and my entire family past, present, and future. But at least I saved a couple bucks, and I am assured now that this is the right shuttle and not just an opportunist taxi posing as the shuttle.
All is dark at the guesthouse when we arrive. I help the grim-faced driver (who practically spins all the way around to avoid eye contact) unload our bags and he’s off, presumably to a bar to tell his drinking buddies about the horrible American he was just unfortunate enough to pick up.
Luckily the guesthouse owner has waited for us, even though our bus is over 2 hours late. We thank him profusely and head up to the cool and spacious guest room. Sleep overwhelms us seconds later.
TO BE CONTINUED. Next Post: Da Lat!
I’m sitting at Highlands Coffee (a major chain in Vietnam), taking big gulps of my Vietnamese style iced coffee (syrupy and strong coffee, sweetened, and then sweetened some more with sweetened condensed milk).
The big gulps serve two purposes. One, I’m thirsty and it’s freaking hot out here. Two, I keep forgetting that ice, while nice on a hot day, can contribute to gastrointestinal dysfunction. I actually say that lightly. As we are traveling through so many countries with so many different levels of disease factors, I’m assuming that I will catch something, I just don’t know when or where. But if I recall correctly, Vietnam is fairly good when it comes to cleanliness and disease control as compared to some of its neighbors.
But I digress. The point is, Ben is on an adventure. And I’m sitting here with nothing to do but lollygag. As you may recall from my previous post, Ben has hopped on the back of a motorbike to chase after a bus and retrieve the camera he loves before it falls into the wrong hands. Such high drama!
I’m hoping they find the bus and the driver. Losing that camera will be a big blow to our budgets if we have to buy another one for our doc shoot.
For now, I will sit in the a/c, drink my iced coffee, think about the cost of a new camera, think about mosquitoes, bide my time, and wait for Ben’s return.
Update: Ben has just returned, big grin on his face, his camera grasped triumphantly in his hands.
He raises his camera case high so I can’t miss it, much like Gollum raises the One Ring after a long and trying separation.
We’re in the midst of a melee of preparation for our documentary.
If you were to come up a metaphor for our status, our company would be like a hot air balloon struggling to get aloft with a giant rhino charging toward us; but the basket is weighed down with ballast, and we’re furiously cutting loose ropes and throwing chests overboard to lighten the load. Image courtesy of 9wows.com
The ballast, of course, is all the stuff we’ve accumulated over our four-plus years here in New York City. Shifting operations overseas and becoming virtual expats, even temporarily, means reducing our overstock to nil. And you would not believe the amount of stuff that two people can hoard over four and a half years.
The charging rhino is our February 28 deadline, after which we’ll be flying to Oregon for a couple of weeks and then departing from Seattle/Tacoma International airport, ready or not.
By “ready”, I’m referring to externalities like immunizations, flight details, supplies, gear, visas (very important for China and Vietnam especially – luckily we can hop on a subway and apply personally at the Manhattan consulates for both countries, which speeds things up considerably). We have a likely fixer in Cambodia, a couple who is interested in being in the doc, and we even have some AirBnb bookings already (can’t wait to meet our hosts in Hong Kong, Kam and Eve.)
But that all said, are you ever truly ready for an adventure into the unknown like this? There are only so many contingencies you can plan for. Even with only a month to go before our departure from New York, – trading our view from this:
Image courtesy of Bushwick Collective
– there are still infinitely more crucial details unknown than are known. But perhaps that capacity for surprise and serendipity – yes, even for catastrophe – is what draws us again and again to this field and these kinds of projects.
In all the current melee it’s important to remember that this kind of career is a great privilege, a privilege that so few around the globe can hope for. The possibility of complications and failure is balanced with this knowledge, and with the immense gratitude we hold for our opportunities and toward the people that have supported us.