Fan Xi Pan
I’ve made it all the way back up to Hanoi by now and the dust of the road has been rinsed away, caked back on again and rinsed off again. I found a spot for an early dinner (or late lunch), depending on your attitude and whether or not you’ve just taken the night train North from Hue. The restaurant is called “Highway 4” and it is heartily recommended by all of the guidebooks, resulting in a steady stream of ragged-looking Tin Tins like myself clogging up the view for the decidedly tonier local clientele. The menu here is as slick as a TGIFridays menu at an airport, printed on paper thick enough to soak up all the ink they need to print the prices. The star of the house is Son Tinh rice liquors, the self-proclaimed messiah of Vietnamese artisanal distilling. Is it worth the short hike from your air-conditioned, French quarter hotel? Take a ride through Fan Xi Pan (a mountain forest sampler) with me and see if you don’t trip on enlightenment. If you enjoy allegory, please just navigate away from the page now, as I’ve decided to resurrect an old idea I had from the Pill newspaper days – narrative wine reviews. The trust-funded weener I commissioned to write the reviews for the Pill never could get his courage up, but on the third floor of Highway 4, watching life get its hands dirty on the Hanoi streets below, courage rises dutch…
Minh Mang. Clarity, stability, balance. We can’t ever be a part of these places, I considered, the wind and an occasional monkey howl passing around my ears. I’d flipped the plexi visor of my helmet up because without it the colors were clearer, more visceral. Every once in a while a bug shattered against my sunglasses and I wondered if the lenses might break. The smells of the jungle wafted in as brilliant perfumes and the infrequent waft of woodsmoke from a distant Pako kitchen tried desperately to overpower the musk of turned earth and rotting vegetation. Yesterday’s brief rain lingered like a threat in the air, but the healed clouds held.
Mr. Chao and I left Prau just after sunrise. The family of Kiwis who were staying in the “other” guesthouse were kind enough to let me siphon off a bit of their sunblock to rub on my blistered arms and, predictably, the sun was nowhere to be seen today. Nevermind, we had a long road ahead. The bulk of the true jungle riding lay ahead of us today, as the Ho Chi Minh highway wove North through the hills to A Luoi and into Quang Tri province, eventually reaching Khe Sanh.
There were very few people at first, and the jungle was blooming (Vuong Tuu) with beautiful, multicolored fireworks of flowers that had a razor sharp scent. I picked one and folded it away in my notebook during one of our “freedom breaks” but the scent had completely evaporated by evening. For kilometers around us, there was nothing but green as far as the eye could see. The reason for this, Mr. Chao explained, was that the Ho Chi Minh trail sliced through a little peninsula of Laos off to the West in the Xe Kong country, shaving a few days walk off the Southbound journey. There was no bombing in this area for that reason and the minority people who lived here had little reason to mobilize into more compact villages, rather preserving a more traditional, isolated and less destructive way of life. It was also hard country. The jungle was impenetrable – it seemed as though you could leap from the road and just hang suspended in a web of vines and giant, lacerating leaves rather than fall beneath the canopy of green. In the old days, tigers roamed the forest here and drank from the cool mountain streams, vigilant against wetting their whiskers. Forty, fifty years ago, maybe.
My Tuu. I climbed the rocky path beneath the spray of a waterfall and imagined a tiger emerging from behind the thickness of vegetation on the far side of the stream to dip his tongue into the clear water. He smells of silent power, acrid and meaty. His eyes watch me as he drinks, then the lids slowly droop and close as a big diesel truck labors up the road and thunders across the bridge below us. A tiger, according to Mr. Chao, used to fetch a local poacher about $150,000. The Chinese prize all the parts of a tiger for their bullshit traditional medicine. The parts work better for the tiger, and some traditions are better off condemned as ignorance and quashed. There were maybe 350 Indochinese tigers left in 2010, according to the WWF. They’re all gone from the Vietnamese highlands now, every single tiger. They might return when we are gone, if Burma remains backwards enough for long enough.
We’d reached the top of the world, and down we plunged toward A Luoi and the rich, fertile bowl that saw some of the most terrible battles of the American War, as they call it here. The A Shau valley, Hamburger Hill. Growths of rock start to rise from the flatter, plowed earth here and people enter the roadside theater again. We stop to gobble down a fresh pineapple and a brief wind brings the smell of a thousand bark strips of cinnamon drying by the roadside. (Bo SaPa) The cinnamon trees are everywhere, and they smell phenomenal. I paid the equivalent of 50 cents for as much of it as I could carry and it’s wrapped up tight in my backpack now, ready for the long flight home and infusing my dirty socks with that long, sharp, unmistakeable scent. Most of it goes to China, says Mr. Chao, for their bullshit traditional medicine. I grin inside, thinking that maybe my little smuggling operation will deprive someone of their desperately needed Cinnamon treatment and he might perish before being able to benefit from the tiger treatment. It’s mean, I suppose, but my uncharitable thoughts are significantly less dangerous to the Chinese than the bullshit Chinese traditional medicine is to tigers and, let’s face it, the tigers seem to be at a bit of a disadvantage.
Mr. Chao was pointing out the different minority representatives toiling away as we descended into the idyllic valley and here and there, he’d even stop. “I am not so sure if she is Pako or Bru… I will ask her name…”
I knew what was coming, of course. After a bit of friendly banter, Mr. Chao would turn to me. “She say her name is Ho!!! I don’t know what nation she is – everyone is Ho!” He chatted with everyone along the way as though he’d known them for years. It seemed like a common way for Vietnamese in the countryside to treat each other – a sort of brusque, but familiar fraternity – and I came to appreciate it. Whatever he was asking, it had nothing to do with the people’s names. Maybe he wanted to know if there were any police checkponts ahead. Maybe he wanted to know if the local guesthouse was full in the next village or if Cousin Ho had cought a deer since last week. I’ll never know, but he made the exchanges fun for me, anyway. We cruised on through the increasingly broad and rocky hills, past A Luoi and further North until we hit the bridge – Cau Da Krong. It reminded me of the single span suspension bridge on Prague’s ring road, just south of Pocernice and the Mlada boleslav exit. On the other side of the river was Route 9, the infamous old track that grinds up from the coast and over the mountains at Lao Boa and terminating a few hundred kilometers later on in dusty old Savannakhet on the bank of the wide, muddy Mekong.
The army had struggled for years to keep this road passable during the war and at its penultimate Vietnamese hitching post, the special forces had decided to commandeer a bit of the plateau to build an airstrip to support the various Kurtzian projects, including the mobilization of a local Bru militia. It was here that my dad had enjoyed his tour of Vietnam nearly 43 years ago. Back then, there was no highway, there were very few bridges. The tigers were still around (if you were crazy enough to want to see them) and had there been any guesthouses, a passport would’ve been the last thing an American would have chosen to show a Vietnamese to identify himself with.
It’s amazing what a few decades will do, though. As Mr. Chao’s Honda purred down the rough and ready Khe Sanh high street, I have to admit I was feeling a bit tense. I’d had a discussion the other night with a German backpacker about the war. “How do you feel being here, as an American, after the war and all that?” He asked. “I’m not sure,” I replied. “Have you ever visited Poland?” It’s one of the few places where a French, American, German and Vietnamese can sit and have a discussion like that without feelings being hurt and political tensions rising, even now, a generation or two later. Mr. Chao told me that he’s brought a number of American vets up this way in the past. “Some were very angry,” he confided, “they break things in the hotel at night.” Most, he said, were just “quiet”. “Your father would like to come back here again?” Mr. Chao asked. I hadn’t mentioned anything about my dad at all. “I think so.” I told him. “But only with Easy Rider.” He grinned and swerved the bike around an oncoming woman, fresh from the market with a mobile phone stuck to her ear and a distraught goose strapped to her motorbike.
The desolate rural path that saw very little traffic aside from the occasional shipment of coffee from Mr. Poilane’s plantation down to the river port of Savannakhet now thundered with the constant roar of hideously overburdened trucks doing cross-border business. They’d bring cheaply made textiles and Chinese plastic crap over to the Laotians, returning stuffed to the gills with raw materials – many times illegally harvested Teak trees. The number of BMW SUVs and new Mercedes sedans cruising around the town was evidence of the sudden prosperity and inevitable black market shadiness of this wild west frontier. It was still very much a man’s reserve and as devoid of charm as I imagine it was in my dad’s day, for a different set of reasons, of course.
By day, Route 9 is full of trucks. By night, Route 9 is full of trucks with their lights off. They smuggle teak, motorbikes, god knows what. Sometimes the drivers hole up in a guesthouse, like the one where I was staying, and wait for their bosses’ orders. They drink savagely and scream at the television sets in their dismal, flourescent lit rooms. They stay 4 or 5 to a room and share a single whore, who squeals mechanically like the overburdened brakes on their trucks, then leaves at 4 am. I know this because she opened my door, which didn’t lock, and stared in for a moment, half terrified and half curious. I flashed my Surefire flashlight at her eyes and she slammed the door shut and ran off down the corridor, frightened out of her wits. I couldn’t sleep at all after that, so traded off the time shadow boxing at the wardrobe mirror and watching the mist outside grow marginally brighter as, somewhere, the sun rose. What a shithole, I thought, and thought of my dad thinking approximately the same thing. Soon enough, a cheery Mr. Chao was at my door.
“Come on easy rider good morning!” We had the red clay site of a besieged air base to visit and a long, long ride back down to the coast. My bag was already packed, wrapped up in plastic and waiting by the door.