‘Memories, light the corners of my mind.” I sing. “I’ve never seen Cats”, Amanda says. None of us have. In fact despite having each seen a decent number of musicals, that one appeals to no one. Later this summer we are going to see ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ which will hopefully live up to the hype. Hamilton has set the bar so high, I expect to be dissapointed.
I joked with the kids on this trip about the schmaltzy Broadway-esqe song my 6 year old brother Stephen made up and sang as he jumped on top of me to wake me up. It started ‘Open your eyes and see a brand new world, a-PEALING!’
It doesn’t make sense, we know. And he would sing it over and over. I was 14 and it was hilarious and crazy, irritating at the same time. After I told the story and sang it a few times, it became a trip meme. One or all three of us would break out into song at any moment, each performance more exaggeratedly dramatic than the last.
Speaking of trip-memes – we have dropped a few and hung on to one. I used to walk behind the girls and kick the bottom of their shoe from behind as their leg rose in step. It’s pretty funny when done right.
If you’ve ever had it done to you, you know the move. (It needs a name.) We would all crack up. I used to do that and push them around to make them laugh
Though we still horse around, I do it less and less. The kids are teens, not quite as playful physically as they were. But also a few years ago, Lily asked me to stop. She was taking the most of it, being the smallest. She genuinely liked it and would laugh, but at some point it was hurting her feelings. So I dialed it back.
One meme we keep is the Fanta meme. Whenever we see Fanta in a store or restaurant, we all chant fahn-TAH, fahn-TAH building softly to a yelling loud volume that attracts attention. Lily is mortified when we do it. “This is not my family!’ she will sometimes say to passers-by.
The reason I’m singing ‘Memories’ is that’s the name of our hotel in Bao Lam, Vietnam where we have stayed the night. It’s another pretty good 2-star place for a 2-star Vietnam price: $11 per room per night. They include it in our tour price. It’s the kind of place you’d happily stay at if you knew it was this decent ahead of time, but the $11 is too low a price to trust based on a few reviews on Trip Adviser. So you buy up and pay $60/night for something nicer. Shit, $11 a night is $341 a month in rent if you wanted to live there.
It’s our last day on the road, our longest drive and supposedly the best views. We go 120 miles over 5-6 hours of riding from Bao Lam in the highlands down to Mui Ne, a smaller beach resort on the southern coast. The day is beautiful – blue skies and puffy white clouds. The brick red highland earth and the lush green vegetation make for stunning scenery.
Our first stop is an open aluminum shack on the side of the road! Woohoo, ALuminum shack! It’s just to take in the view of the surrounding valley, cris-crossed patterned with different crops, mostly tea and coffee, growing in plots and terraces. An old woman is in the shack with a 100 kilo bag of fresh tea leaves. Bruno says it’s cheap grade stuff, the kind they give out for free at most restaurants. The huge bag is worth about $35. How long does it take to pick 220lbs of leaves?
Banana trees line the sides of the road, the yards of homes, any spare spot of land. Most we see are the large ones like we get commonly in the states, not the finger or sugar variety that command a higher price here and are more perishable. Up ahead there is an early empty basin, maybe 100 acres in size. At the far end we can barely spot a dam. But the end of the rainy season this will be full of water.
Bruno explains that the basin used to be the home of the CoHo minority that inhabited the area for, probably centuries. About 20 minutes up the road we stop and visit their tiny village, just a bunch of huts really. When they were displaced they were given concrete homes and some money, probably very little, but no land. Without the ability to farm, they resort to scavenging in the forest for bamboo that can be eaten. When we visit, the young kids are here alone with no adults. Bruno says the mom leaves a pot of rice for them to eat while the adults go to the forest scavenging. ‘They do not want to join modern life.’ he says, with some sympathy.
The scenery continues to be stunning. The air is hot, so hot that even in shorts on a bike at 50mph it’s almost uncomfortable. Speaking of shorts, we are very exposed on these bikes. Even in a controlled crash, we would scrape up our skin badly. In fact riding is, at least statistically, the most dangerous thing we have ever done.
Flying ultra-lights in Dunhuang, China was bold. Scuba diving the fast cold currents of Komodo, Indonesia was tricky. But road safety in general, is probably our riskiest activity. And motorbikes, even on back roads, increases that risk considerably.
That said, the drivers are incredibly safe and very defensive. They do a lot of defensive honking, which helps. Bang honks at every scooter he passes alerting them to his approach. “They should have called him ‘Beep’ not ‘Bang'” Lily jokes.
Of course it’s not them I worry about, it’s the big trucks and other idiots. Tian did say as soon as we left the airport on our first day “The only rule on a Vietnam road is no rules”! Vietnam isn’t the worst country for road safety by far. It’s average for the developing world. Many parts of Africa have much higher traffic mortality per thousand.
For 20 miles or so, the road changes to a single lane dirt. The pavement is patchy but most of it is rocks and hard-packed clay. The jungle closes in the sides, eliminating the shoulder. We are really on the back-roads. It’s slow going, but once the jungle ends the double lane pavement restarts and reveals vast rice paddies on either side.
Rice is grown wherever they have the water. Ample water is necessary for the early stages of growth because it limits weed growth until the rice can take hold. Even then it needs a lot of water. When they have less water, they have turned to growing dragon fruit which are the strangest looking tasty fruit on the planet. And they look stranger growing on their cactus like plants.
Bob buys a dragon fruit from down the road and brings it to us. It’s hot. To our surprise Lily has never tried one. It’s riddled with tiny black seeds you can eat. Bob jokes that the seeds are poisonous and tells Lily to pick them. ‘But the fruit is delicious.’
An hour further and we can see the ocean in the distance. That signals the beginning of the end, our last few hours. I know Mui Ne is famous for having sand dunes nearby, one red and one yellow. They aren’t very big, but are unusual in a mostly wet jungle climate. As we get off our bikes at the yellow dunes, Amanda yells ‘DUNE BUGGIES? ARE WE DOING DUNE BUGGIES? I LOOOVE DUNE BUGGIES.’
Indeed we are doing dune buggies – ATV’s to be exact. After being passenger for the last few days, we get to drive, Emma with Amanda and me with Lily. I’ve been driven in large dune buggies in Nazca, Peru and I’ve driven ATVs in Costa Rica, but I’ve never driven an ATV on the sand. It’s not easy! The steering is tough, you really have to hold on, and sand blasts your face. Amazingly it’s raining at the same time as sand is blowing hard, so we are power-washed and sand-papered at the same time.
We get to take some pretty big hills. Lily freaks out behind me, silently screaming because if she opens her mouth it’ll get filled with sand. Amanda’s driver keeps his hand on the steering, which annoys her, but it’s still really fun for 20 minutes. The cost? Not cheap for Vietnam – $25 an ATV although we did take the more powerful upgraded ones. Good fun, but we were finding sand everywhere for days.
The lunch is lousy, but meh, we had a blast on the ATV. Sand falls from my hair as I put on my helmet. the red dunes are on the other side of Mui Ne, our last stop on this tour. Sun is setting. The vendors along the road are counting their money and packing up. The dunes are indeed red, especially in the sunset. We look for a willing person to take a picture. We motion ‘Take photo?’
to a dad who looks Vietnamese. He looks alarmed and dissapears into the crowd of kids he’s supervising.
All of a sudden the entire group of kids laughs and comes over to us. They think we want them to be in our photo! Slightly embarrassing, but they get the picture (c wut i did thar) and one girl speaks a few words of English one-two-three… and that’s the last family photo of this epic trip.
We all are a little sad to end. The guys drop us off at our car we are taking to Saigon, a city we will have to save for next time. We’re only there over night. We exchange hugs and some emails, snap a photo and take off. They say good by to each other and speed of back home.
The car ride to Saigon is slow and dark and long. I write this blog. Amanda reads some Phillip K. Dick stories. Emma plays candy crush and Lily listens to K-pop and sleeps. Saigon seems more mordern than Hanoi, but it could be just the areas we see. The streets are wider and the motorbikes line up a hundred at a time at the red lights.
We have one more half-day in Hong Kong then back home. Our $75 hotel seems like a Ritz Carlton. Amanda giggles with happiness and we all shower to get the road and sand off us. What an adventure we had on those motorbikes.