_____ Was Here
My forehead is peeling, thanks to a tag team combo of my own stupidity and the tenacious sun of the central highlands. I’m sitting in an apparently forgotten pavilion of the Imperial palace in Hue, feeding the old Queen Mother’s fish with flakes of my skin. They’re eating it up. There are very few tourists in this bit of the palace, which suits the nature of the place perfectly. It’s so unlike the mountains and nearby coast that it’s hard to believe Hue was once the capital of the same country, but so it was.
South a day’s ride a few days ago, Mr. Chao and I set off. The road passed easily through the coastal plains surrounding Hoi An and back came the easy routine of smiling, waving and calling out “hello!” to countless kids. Their smiles are heart melting – I dare any hardcore grouch to encounter one and not return the favor. We took a local ferry over the river, which I’m sure most of Mr. Chao’s customers considered a magical gateway into another world. I recognized the crossing from umpteen different brochures advertising motorbike adventures in the “real” Vietnam plastered around Hoi An and, after a month on the Pohoda, I was a bit more interested in the condition of the ferry pilot’s Honda. Mr. Chao graciously let my lack of enthusiasm pass and we stopped on the far bank for noodles, where a gentle rise of a few meters signaled the end of the coastal rice paddies and the beginning of the highlands. Crops shifted from rice to corn, herbs and cucumbers. There were some giant, tube-like melons that the women carted around wrapped in sheets of coarse plastic. Almost immediately the people appeared darker, shorter and stockier than their cousins on the coast. Weaving a patient thread through the chaos of local traffic, we made our slow journey up and further in.
A couple of early false starts had me wondering for a moment about the veracity of Mr. Chaos claims to be an original easy rider – the fact that we stopped at a “local” loom making cloth for the tailors of Hoi An and a “local” rice paper workshop where I was encouraged to give my hand a try were worrying. We were followed by a Danish guy and his own easy rider, who pulled up moments later at both places, which also had me wondering. The truth of the thing is, unless you stay for weeks at a time or more, you are and always will be a breeze-through tourist in places like this. What can you expect? The easy rider guys do a nice job, although they cut some corners where they can as is to be expected. I can’t blame Mr. Chao after all, that there is not a wider spectrum of occupations in the coastal plains.
The fields fell less and less tended and the motorbike struggled to churn out enough power to lift us up a few of the hairpin switchbacks, but Mr. Chao shifted gears and on we flew. Abruptly, we reached a sort of gate, loosely tended by a man with a perpetual White Horse cigarette screwed into his mouth. This, along with an unremarkable a-frame building housing a sort of museum display and gift shop, was the entrance to the Cham ruins of My Son, the last tourist stop on our road up to Khe Sanh.
“After this,” Mr. Chao promised, “only easy rider on the road, only freedom!” He was obsessed with the idea of freedom, which he fairly and roundly described as being able to ride his Honda on the open road and take a piss wherever he wanted.
The ruins, made by the Cham people who sailed from Indonesia to settle Southern Vietnam in ancient times, are something out of a Victorian travelogue. You huff it up a short path and find yourself in a deserted valley, surrounded on all sides by the hissing, clicking jungle and faced with a set of the weirdest ruins seen since a Spielberg set. It’s not enough that the setting is primal and haunting, but the baked red clay, the Hindi features carved into the statuary and the omnipresent racket of the jungle all forge an idyllic “ruin of a lost civilization”. And lost it certainly is. Subject to wars, conquest and eventual extermination by the Nguyen dynasty Vietnamese people, the Cham nation has vanished entirely, although there are a few genetic remnants among the Khmer people of the Mekong delta. All that remains of their kingdom are the ruins, bearded with vines and bombed halfway to rubble during the war, for some reason or another. I will concede that it’s a great place to hide.
Like a forgotten, secondary farm road in the Tirol, the highways that penetrate the Vietnamese highlands were built for motorbikes. They are a gentle camber and sway around gorgeous cliffs, hugging the denuded hillside so tight that the mud and the road often become one and the same. We continue up into the high jungle, where even the slashing and burning “minority people” have yet to find a roost. There, in a crease of a valley, we join what used to be known as the route of the Ho Chi Minh trail. Of course, it was never one single trail blazed through the jungle any more than the Underground railroad was an actual tie and steel rail road, but the name stuck and the Ho Chi Minh highway was dedicated in its name about 9 years ago, joining Hanoi with Saigon through the previously impassable highlands.
Lest you think modesty or originality are defining characteristics of the current Vietnamese government, all the “minority peoples”, who were previously without surnames, were magnanimously granted the name “Ho Chi Minh” after reunification, ostensibly to aid a census taking. Mr. Chao was endlessly amused by this, taking time to ask everyone we met in the mountains the rhetorical, “What’s your name? Ho? Ho!!!” then melting in peals of laughter. “Ho,” he said to me every time, “everyone’s name is Ho!”
To make up for this great indignity, the minority people are allowed to parentas many little Hos as they wish and are allowed to continue to live in one of the last great unspoiled wildernesses of the planet. They are making an heroic effort to spoil it, of course. With the absence of war, a more varied diet and the meager support of the central government, the minority peoples are spreading like a plague of locusts up and over every hillside, slashing and burning as they go. The government has, to their credit, undertaken an ambitious replanting and reforestation program in order to help halt the precipitous soil erosion native farming has encouraged, but it is late in the day and most of the forest on the way up to Prau, our first overnight stop, had been hacked, burned and sold into Ikea slavery long ago. Want to help? Buy used furniture. Want to see the forests for yourself? Go easy rider – easy! But hurry up.
We rolled down the valley into Prau at about 4:30 pm and a one-horsier town I have yet to see. The humble guesthouse opened wide its doors and switched on its hot water heaters. Time to eat. We feasted on a barbecue of local jungle venison and Mr. Chao meditatively watched the sun disappear behind a tall mountain peak.
“When I’m dead, I want my son to bring my head here to the top of that mountain. That way I’ll hear the wind and the birds and watch the monkeys forever. And he can bring the rest of me to the sea to be with the fish and the waves.” It sounded a rather bleak thing to say at the early stages of a motorbike journey, but he seemed perfectly content, as though he had just made a binding decision.
A German family have just wandered into the pavilion where I’m sitting with my notebook. The father and son wear matching “blade” style sunglasses and can best be described as “sporty”. They’re unable to communicate in a tone that varies noticeably from “I am making an announcement” mode. The solitude of the place is broken and I immediately think two things: first, the people that caused this place to be built did so in order to enjoy a sculpted silence. Second: Although I did not cause this place to be built, that does not bind me to any sense of fellowship with these people. Djivan Gasparyan’s “Apricots from Eden” replaces the chatter of birds and the infrequent gurgle of a feeding carp in the pool at my feet. We built cars and apartment blocks, hot water heaters, shopping malls and digital cameras to bring us all a few shuffling steps closer to the rarefied corners the kings and queens among us caused to be built for their own enjoyment. We built iPods to drown out the deafening din of 12 billion shuffling feet. See your old gray head up on the mountain, Mr. Chao, while our feet shuffle in the murk of various and distant seas.