As the Vietnamese love to say, today’s driving was “same same, but different” from yesterday. Every direction was filled with vibrant shades of green–emerald tree tops, electric green fields of rice, dark mossy rocks, jungle green banana tree leaves. The constant hue was broken up by colorful billboards on the side of the road celebrating the nation and their communist ideology–hammer and sickle proudly displayed.
Every so often, a gigantic European church would poke out of the scenery. I’m not sure the history behind these, but it seemed so out of place to have such massive places of Christian worship amongst the humble cement and wood houses of the locals. Another odd sight, but apparently very common here, was a motorcycle carrying five enormous pigs in metal baskets. They were strapped to both sides of the bike to balance the weight of their sizable stomachs. As we got closer to take a picture, the driver smiled and greeted us and carried on as if this were a normal thing to be doing. We witnessed the same sort of phenomenon with a woman driving a motorcycle with a dozen ducks in plastic tote bags attached to either side of her bike. It’s amazing how much use the Vietnamese get out of their motorbikes.
We stopped for lunch in a town called Pho Chau, and the only white people we saw on the road all morning joined as at the bakery. They were just out of high school and had bought scooters in the North to carry themselves and their rolling luggage the length of the country. We had a bit of a scare while eating Vietnamese “banh mi” (sandwiches), when a steam roller came chugging along the sidewalk, and only stopped inches away from our motorbikes as we ran outside shouting and waving.
The scooter boys zipped on ahead as we drove on at the fastest our motorcycles would allow us, which wasn’t very fast at all. Given that these bikes are at least twenty years old and have had hundreds of owners, they do just fine. However, we started to doubt their ability as Byron’s bike refused to start. We were on the side of a steep hill and couldn’t figure out what was wrong. It eventually started and kept chugging along just long enough to die in front of an elementary school just as the children got out of class. We were swarmed with two dozen or more kids shouting, “Hello, what’s your name?”, at the same time. We wheeled the bike a hundred meters down the road to the mechanic who looked at the bike, opened the gas cap and laughed. His buddies joined in the laughter as he explained to us that the bike was fine and we just ran out of gas. He lent us a plastic container for Byron to bring down the street in a ride of shame to the barely legitimate, hand-crank gas kiosk. If you’ve never seen one of these, it’s like a wooden cart with a cylinder that fills up with gas as you turn a crank. The gas is then siphoned out of the cylinder and into your gas tank via a length of plastic tubing.
We were lucky the bike ran out of gas in the that town before it turned to just straight winding roads up into the mountains without a gas station in sight. With our little gas mishap and the slow mountain roads, we were quickly losing daylight. We were driving through part of the Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, which is know for its incredible limestone formations and caves. I wish I could say I took in all the glory of the limestone hills and cliffs, but it was cold, rainy, and getting darker by the minute, so we were just eager to get out of the mountains and into a nice warm hotel. After what seemed like an eternity (only about fifty kilometers of mountain driving in actuality), we pulled into Son Trach with rain jackets soaked through and our wimpy headlights to guide us through the shadowy streets. Thankfully, the hotel had plenty of hot water for a steamy shower and the restaurant next door had delicious food to revive us.