I spent the two VE days – Russia celebrates a day later, I think – on a motorbike. Cương picked me up at eight and we headed north towards Ðànãng. We stopped at the Marble Mountains, next to China Beach slightly south of Ðànãng. The five outcrops have long provided marble for the local sculptors; now they ship the marble in from China because the output is large. They sculpt the lot, from life-size lions and eagles and huge fat Buddhas down to candleholders. A lot of people buy from abroad. It must cost a fortune to ship a life-sized marble lion, but then if you are doing that you probably have a tastelessly decorated ranch. On the largest outcrop there is a temple complex and some caves, one of which was used as a field hospital by the VC.
We head west from Ðànãng. In the late morning it is not easy to tell the direction because the sun is overhead. We are about 16 degrees north of the equator, and the sun is vertical at noon for two short periods during the summer as it passes to and from its midsummer date at the Tropic of Cancer. One of those times must be about now.
They are in the middle of a rice harvest at the moment and the land is smoking as if at war. They harvest the rice, then burn the stubble, then turn the heavy soil.
They dry the rice for several days in the sun, forking it constantly.
They spread the grains on plastic sheets in front of the houses, and often in the road. Sometimes they pour the rice directly on to the road. I suppose the road is as convenient place as any; also, perhaps, the dark road is hot. Rice blankets stretch out, mile upon mile, interrupted by the occasional bright orange maize blanket. On small lanes the rice is poured in the middle, like a grass verge in an English country lane. Vehicles drive over it, especially when the SUVs barge them towards the ditch.
We stopped at a village where they make the province’s rice paper. The first step is to steep the rice in water. Then it is churned into a paste. Cheroot stub in mouth, an old woman used a small stick to spread perfect rice paper circles on to a hotplate, looking for all the world like a Belgian crêpe-maker. Ignoring the camera-toting tourist, she slung the soggy circles on to a horizontal wheel, where a younger, masked relative placed them on to racks to dry – a true cottage industry.
The racks and contents dry in the sun, if there is any; otherwise they are smoked indoors.
Heading west, our next stop was at a waterfall: Suối Mơ. There was a café at the entrance to the park. Tacked on to a wall was a wallchart of the 2008 European Championships, which we all discussed in depth. Every match will be televised and widely watched in Vietnam, most at 1.45 am. Output will suffer.
Cương and I dived in and swam in the pool below the waterfall. This is Cương. (The topless photo of me is not for publication.) Like most Vietnamese men, he chain-smokes.
Then back on to the road – now Highway 14B - and I’m into the standard posture: sitting upright, hands braced on knees, looking around. I don’t hold on, because I figure that if something goes wrong, I want to be where the bike is not. At 50km/h the wind is in our faces, but it is Saharan and provides no relief.
In any case, a hand must be free and ready to wave at all times. Many children shout ‘hello’ and wave as soon as they see a westerner; very few adults do so. They are taught to say ‘hello’ as soon as they can speak; you see parents saying ‘hello’ to tiny toddlers in their laps. You wave back to the children and their faces light up, so there’s immediate positive reinforcement - ideal conditions for operant conditioning. The Vietnamese also answer the phone by shouting hello, so I have waved at several bemused people holding mobiles.
We soon reach the hills – the beginning of the central highlands. The rice paddies disappear and we see cows and pineapples. Next to a lorry loaded with pineapples I buy a pineapple. Sweet, delicious, 5,000 dong.
Cương says he works for the Easy Riders, a well-known outfit of motorbike riders offering trips into the hills. He is 37 and the father of two daughters aged 12 and 14 months. They live in Ðànãng. He has been doing this for 8 years; before that, cyclo in Ðànãng; before that, working in a tyre factory. Like many Vietnamese men, he tends to bark rather than speak (the women tend to shriek). He drives slowly and safely.
Shortly afterwards we stop at a bridge and have lunch – 20,000 dong each. The heavens opened as we stopped. In the afternoon, wearing a purple plastic cape, I fell asleep on the back of the bike. I didn’t fall off but it’s not an experiment to repeat.
I took a walk by the river in the rain to wake up.
The name of the road is the Ðương Ho Chi Minh – Ho Chi Minh road, or Ho Chi Minh Trail. It follows the route of one of the Ho Chi Minh Trails. There were quite a few: 16,000 km of them in all, in a country that is 1,600 km long, all supplying the VC from North Vietnam. One of them went down the coast from Vinh. The Americans, recognising the strategic imperative of cutting supply, bombed, defoliated and napalmed the whole road. And if that wasn’t enough, the VC nearly all got malaria.
As in Laos, the tree cover on many of the hills is sparse. This is partly because of the continued effect of Agent Orange, which is in the soil. The plants grow to a certain size, their roots reach the dioxins, and they die. So staggeringly toxic is the stuff that, generations on, children are still born with deformities. And as in Laos, there are still a lot of incidents with UXOs around the DMZ and in the hills – about 4,000 a year. Usually the maimed and killed are children, who find and play with the brightly-coloured cluster bombs - often with their brothers and sisters.
According to Vietnamese figures at the Army Museum in Hanoi, the US dropped 76 million litres of Agent Orange on to 607,500 hectares of forest and 89,500 hectares of cultivated land. According to the same figures (which should be approached with caution), the American War resulted in 2 million people disabled, 2 million people affected by dioxins, 500,000 children born deformed, and 300,000 MIA. Whatever the exact figures, the US has a lot to answer for. What I genuinely don’t know is whether the US government, accepting its moral responsibility, is doing anything official to mitigate the tragic effects of Agent Orange and UXOs. Perhaps the Embassy encourages or funds the charities that deal with landmines and their effects, for example. I bloody hope so.
Another reason for the absence of trees is the illegal activities of the locals. In Laos there is a lot of illegal logging – the army got into it to fund itself – and no doubt there is in VN too. The local minority people also practise slash and burn agriculture. They burn a clearance and grow manioc or rice on the bare hillsides.
Highway 14B is about five years old and – except where landslides have translated or buried the road – it is in good shape, entirely sealed and partially asphalted. Still, the speed limit is 40 km/h and I’m not complaining.
Heading south we are in the hills, next to a river, surrounded by rainforest. The countryside looks like nearby Laos – admittedly not an enlightening comparison for many. For the first time in Vietnam, the main hazards on the road are not other vehicles but cows, chickens and goats – unpredictable and stupid chickens above all.
In the afternoon the clouds arrive and it gets very dark. At 4pm we reach Khâm Dức. The Khâm Dức Hotel, a government hotel, is threatened by a private hotel opposite and has revamped its facilities. There is even an item I have not seen in two months – a bath. It isn’t big enough for me, but the insects like it.
Children are playing foot-volleyball with a shuttlecock – a very common pastime in VN. Some other guests are playing a very competitive game of badminton on a marked court.
There are only one or two other foreigners in town – there is gold in the hills and the Filipinos are after it - and the children are very curious. They follow me to my room and would walk in if I didn’t shut the door on them.
Cương and I head for a drink. Cương says he has rice wine every day after driving – it helps him sleep. While hitting the rice wine, the Vietnamese always eat. We had a bowl of leaves with a bowl of brain, and some salt and lemon. Both cow and pig brain were available; Cương said he thought it was pig brain and I hope he was right (since the VN sensibly do not feed cows to cows, the danger of CJD should be minimal). The brain was huge – more than enough for two - entire, the cortex highly involuted, its texture that of lightly cooked scrambled egg. Only an hour later we were eating my xao bo – fried beef noodles. Fortunately I had finished by the time a cockroach joined us at the table.
The following morning the sun is shining again and it’s fun to watch the road passing by. We stop at a waterfall next to a minority village, where people are washing. Cương tells me about an Easy Rider who drowned at a waterfall a few days ago and suddenly I don’t feel like swimming.
We climb through the hills. I take photos from the back of a bike. It’s difficult to avoid taking photos of electricity pylons. We head over the pass at 2,000 m; at the same altitude as Alpe d’Huez, it’s balmy.
We go to a minority village – Gie (Ge?) people. Chickens, pigs and children roam. Rice is drying next to a hut: dry rice, grown in the hills, a far poorer yield. Next to it, bark is drying. The villagers sell it to the government, who make detergent from it.
In the middle of the village is a communal house on stilts; tied to the lintel, a buffalo skull. A dedication to Thor?
The house is used, as you would expect, for important ceremonies such as weddings and the annual three-day feast, for which said buffalo is killed.
The village is obviously poor, but as in Laos there is a satellite dish on almost every roof.
And there is one fine big building in the village: a school. Cương says that even those who are good students will need to get jobs locally; they suffer discrimination in the cities. It’s mid-morning break; the children crowd around me and show off.
As on the first day, in the late morning the clouds rolled in, the temperature dropped and it began to rain. Driving through the painful rain we saw the aftermath of two accidents. The second was a bizarre sight: the road had turned right, but not sharply, and a bright pink bus had ploughed straight on up a steep bank. The passengers, if any, had disappeared, but the driver sat in his seat reading a newspaper.
By this stage it was getting ever more difficult to remount, and more difficult once on to think of anything but major league pain in the arse.
Next we stopped at a Chiên village with a Bahnar-style communal house (nhà rông): stilts; boat-shaped; a very steep, tall, thatched roof. Superb buildings. Underneath, a cart and chickens.
We pass through a number of minority villages. The houses are made from woven bamboo and corrugated iron; or from brick with clay tiles; or from wattle and daub with tiles. Cương says their families are matrilineal; the man moves to live with his in-laws after marriage. The villagers do seem to look different from your average Kinh but I’m not sure entirely how. Perhaps their mouths are bigger and fuller – there are a lot of Steven Tyler mouths.
We have a chilly lunch 14 km from the Lao border: a hotpot, sometimes called a fondue around here. A bowl containing water, pineapple, onions, tomatoes, tamarind seeds, okra and bamboo is placed over a noisome naphtha candle. A bowl of aromatic leaves, including mint, is next to it, with bean sprouts; next to that, a bowl of white noodles; and then a plateful of animal: squid, prawns, fish, and assorted chicken organs: heart, liver, kidneys, gizzards. Into the soup it all goes.
Then through the hills (the distant ones, blue and russet, remind me of the Grampians at Aviemore) we head to Ðăk Tô, the scene of heavy fighting and an inevitable victory for the VC on 24 April 1972. There is a memorial there – to the winning side only, of course – together with a couple of Russian tanks. All the memorials are in the same socialist realist style familiar from Russian propaganda posters. As usual, though, there is nothing of the battle left to see.
Heading downhill after leaving Ðăk Tô we are waved over by three CSGT traffic police. Looking frightened, Cương dismounts and hands over his documents. The policemen appear incapable of smiling. Cương has been caught driving at 50 km/h and they could impound the bike, his stock in trade. Instead he palms a 100,000 dong note and we are free to go. Still spooked, he is temporarily grave, but within five minutes he is laughing about it.
Fifteen minutes from Kon Tum the bike stalls. I have been wondering how far the bike would go on a single tank of petrol, and this is the answer. Cương calmly tips the bike over and we make it a couple of km to a petrol station, where he buys 30p worth of petrol to get to Kon Tum.
In the middle of another strangely dark afternoon we reach our destination. Cương offers to take me to one of the two orphanages here: ‘you will cry’ he says. I’ve had my fill of that, thanks, and I’m tired and sore, so we just drink more rice wine with some unappetising lumps of boiled duck. It comes with livid gelatinous cubes looking like chunks of raw beef – duck blood. It doesn’t taste of much – I so long for black pudding - but it goes well with the spirits.
Kon Tum is not much of a destination. The Lonely Planet guide describes it as the friendliest city in VN. It’s about as friendly as a Siberian mining town – the children, naturally, excepted. Even the dogs are unfriendly. It is as unlovely as Ninh Bình, with less of interest around it. In the evening, I wander around town completely lost. The only westerner in town, I am stared at at all times by ten unsmiling, unselfconscious locals. And quite openly sized up by some of the women, who don't manage to look me in the face when I am talking to them. I realise that I want to leave.
No English is spoken; my impoverished VN is strained beyond its limits. (It does not help that the accent here is completely different: ‘r’ is a Scottish /r/ here, but /z/ up north; ‘gi’ is pronounced /y/ here but /z/ up north. I don’t know how to pronounce words here.) On the few occasions when I can make myself understood, people assume that I’m fluent, which is no better. This is why I’ve given up trying to learn the language.
In the morning the noise begins at six. There are the usual cockerels of course – as everywhere – but people are decorating the ceiling two feet below me and breaking up the pavement right outside the hotel. I switch hotel and breakfast at Dakbla’s, where, briefly breaking off from kicking each other, they try to charge me even more than the tourist menu prices. I go to a hotel to inquire about bus times; they are actively unhelpful in a manner at which the Vietnamese excel. While walking, I am completely unable to get anyone to understand that I want a cold bottle of water; no-one even has the gumption to guess. So I am now in a vile mood, hating the town and the country. The orphanages are taken off the agenda.
The black mood slowly evaporates as I wander around the older sections of the town. There is a wooden church built by the French, serving the Bahnar community.
In the grounds there is a Michelangelesque Pietà . As at St Peter’s, the Virgin is young and has a belt over her shoulders, but this Jesus is bigger, notably prognathous. With huge arms and skinny legs, he looks like a canoeist.
I can't get over the brief sense of weirdness I feel every time I see a Christian church in Vietnam. Christ, of course, was no more European than he was Vietnamese, unless you believe, like Blake, that he visited England. But the main tradition of pictorial representation is European; the largest sect is based in Rome; and the European connections began at a very early stage, once St Paul had made his unpopular decision to preach to Gentiles. (Not to mention the role of the Roman army and procurator in the crucifixion.) So I feel I have an excuse. Anyway. There are several churches in town, and a seminary, and no pagodas as far as I can see. The seminary looks like a boarding school.
Farther along there is a Bahnar village. As in the Gie village, children and pigs wander around. Many of the buildings are built in wood in the traditional stilt style. But in between the Baba Yaga huts, quite a few are concrete.
This is the sort of house that many people aspire to live in: plastered brick, fenced and decorated without restraint.
I stroll through another Bahnar area. There are several of those Asiatic cattle with fatty lumps in front of their shoulders.
The village has a very impressive communal house. Made from wood, bamboo and thatch, and on stilts, it is in the shape of a boat, with a very steeply pitched roof. Underneath it children are playing, and women are stripping corn from cobs. This little Tiger Woods-alike was completely obsessed with my camera.
Note the woven dossers on the backs of his older relatives.
It begins to pour, so I head to Eva Coffee. This is by far the best thing to see in Kon Tum. There are several buildings in the compound, the peripheral ones built in a traditional Bahnar style, wood and thatch. I have lunch and coffee there and the owner, Ẩn comes over to talk and we chat for a couple of hours. He speaks good English and French, and he is an artist in his spare time. In the war he lost two uncles killed, and his father and father-in-law were MIA. No monuments for them; they were with the ARVN. He studied at the seminary in town, but like almost all of his colleagues he wanted children – only two of his cohort became priests. He studied English at university in HCMC, and his son is about to study TEFL in Sweden on a scholarship.
This is one of the pieces in the garden. It is made out of half a cluster bomb shell and drum casings. Ẩn says it represents the impossibility for the soldier of being a complete person.
In the afternoon I am complimented by Ẩn and by a xe om driver on my Vietnamese. The sad irony: Ẩn has to do so in English, the xe om driver in French.
Trust my luck to get stuck in one of the few places on the trip I have really wanted to leave. Yesterday I was due to take a 6 am bus to Quy Nhơn but at the appointed hour I was evacuating violently at both ends. Probable cause: under-grilled chicken at Dakbla’s (I had to go back - it was raining hard and the place is next door). If so I have fallen foul of a fowl. A foul fowl. I remained prostrate with fever all day, assailed by the noise of hammering and of a powersaw outside the window. At five I shambled shivering to Indochine, a three-star hotel on the river, for a lemon juice and a change of scene. The bar was closed. There is a restaurant on the seventh floor with a bonzer view over the river, but it was like an empty lecture theatre.
A tropical thunderstorm hit and for an hour I nursed a cold lemon juice under a tin roof next door, feeling cold. Then back to the hotel. A miserable and lonely end to a chapter.