Da Lat in Vietnam was known as a honeymooner's town - not exactly the phrase that attracts a solo traveler - but I was enjoying it. The French colonial feel coupled with the cooler temperatures, higher elevation, pine trees and slower pace made it homey and comfortable. It had been six months since I had been properly cold and it was a very welcome change from sweating constantly.
The Wolfpack hostel there was amazing; they offered a home-cooked Vietnamese meal each night, eaten on the floor with 30 other people for the nominal fee of $3, see above. In my room I met Elena, a journalist from Munich. She and a friend had drove a motorbike here from Nha Trang which they were leaving in Da Lat. The four-hour bus ride from Nha Trang was a beautiful waterfall-line road through the mountains and I wanted to bike back there before flying to Hanoi to meet back up with friends from Portland on their honeymoon. I checked a few places and couldn't find any that would rent me a bike one-way, so I asked Elena if I could bribe her into calling her guy and convince him to let me drive it back. She agreed for the price of one beer and even talked him into a 50% discount for me. Well done.
The bus to Nha Trang was 120,000 dong, which is about five and a half dollarydoos. The bike was a little more than double that and was just the escape I needed from the appreciated but seldom-challenging backpacker hostel experience.
A day before leaving, Elena and I went to the Crazy House attraction, described as:
"A free-wheeling architectural exploration of surrealism, Hang Nga Crazy House is a joyously designed, outrageously artistic private home. Imagine sculptured rooms connected by super-slim bridges rising out of a tangle of greenery, an excess of cascading lava-flow-like shapes, wild colours, spiderweb windows and an almost organic quality to it all, with the swooping hand rails resembling jungle vines. Think Gaudi meeting Tolkien and dropping acid together."
It's basically Alice in Wonderland (hey oh, tie-in). At one point while walking around, Elena asked what wasn't going right in my life that I decided to travel. I appreciate blunt questions and I especially appreciated this one. Because it's true, generally you don't buy a one-way plane ticket on the other side of the world when everything is going your way. And since no one had asked in quite that way in three months, I gave her the fullest answer I had. In short: a job I was no longer satisfied with and a growing sense of stagnation, so I changed it all up by quitting and selling everything I own to go traveling indefinitely. I wanted to get out there and have my big adventure. Sometimes when talking about myself, I also listen to what comes out to see if what I'm saying rings true or feels authentic. Maybe we all do that. To help us feel that all our thoughts and actions are continually moving along this thread of positive personal growth and development. Or notice when it's not so we can course correct. Visually I think of it like the Abyss-like watery 'intention tube' that emanates from people's chests in that scene from Donnie Darko, showing where that character is going next.
So thank you Elena, both for providing the bike and for asking the real questions. And thanks to the talented filmmakers, musicians and in general artists of the world for creating pieces that resonate for years.
Knowing it would be a cool drive, I purchased a flannel shirt - until this point a long-sleeve had been entirely unnecessary - and hit the road the next morning. As soon as I got out of town and into wooded area, a cemetery caught my eye. Each grave site had a shrine built as a little house, scattered indiscriminately along a hillside in vibrant colors.
As I began the drive, I immediately knew it was going to be a slog. Most everyone walking in town had been wearing a winter coat, as was everyone riding past me. Traveling light, I couldn't afford the space in my pack without getting rid of other clothes, something I wasn't yet prepared to do, so I just faced the cold. Besides the temperature, I had two other things on my mind: buses and police.
Many tour buses make this drive every day and they are quite large in relation to the road. The road was a single lane each way, and I heard buses would often pass another without a clear line of sight ahead of them, something I've seen many times on this trip. But there was a new piece of information: that bus drivers don't give a shit about people on bikes and they often force them to pull off the road to avoid being straight up murdered. In Vietnam I'd already too many people with bandages and injuries ranging from taking it easy that day to cutting their trip short and flying home for proper medical care. I'd heard about one guy in my hostel that was seemingly forced into a ditch where he got a serious laceration across his forehead. The way I see it, I figure it’s got to be foreigners that get into these accidents, likely in their early-20's without much scooter experience. After 1,000+ kilometers on and around the Mae Hong Son loop in northern Thailand, I felt fairly confident about my handling skills. Still, I was nervous.
As for the police, I'd heard from multiple travelers how they stop foreigners and make up some offense you committed in order to get money. This kind of thing is quite common in Vietnam as far as I can tell. Traffic police in boats along the Mekong regularly stop tour boats and require cash on the spot in order to proceed. Our guide told us that one officer was complaining about 'only' making $600 in a day (or a week, can't remember) when the average salary in Vietnam is $150 per month. Anyway, I was told that if I saw them stopping people to slow down like I was going to stop and then just buzz past them because hell, they aren't going to chase you! This was not the best option I'd ever heard. I spoke with the lady at the hostel and she asked if I had an international driver's license. I did not - apparently it's as easy as asking for one the next time you renew your license - but she said if I saw them up ahead to just pull over and wait an hour or two until they left, but that most likely I would be fine. Knowing the worst outcome was likely just bribing them, this was less on my mind.
Given both concerns, some (most?) people would, quite reasonably I might add, just opt for the damn bus ride, which would avoid both of these things. I knew Elena didn't have any issues and dammit, this is the kind of thing I came out here to do.
So back to the weather. Da Lat itself sits at 4,900 feet and pretty quickly you start to go up over the mountain pass. I have no idea what elevation that is but it's at least a couple thousand feet more. Actually I just looked it up and, in a cloud, "the temperature decreases by about 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet up you go in elevation". In other words, it went from cold to damn cold. I was wearing a t-shirt, my spiffy new flannel, hiking pants and, since I had left my hiking shoes in the dorm in Nha Trang, flip flops. Slightly less than ideal.
With the cold air rushing past my face, I looked around to see that I was driving away from the tiny patch of blue sky and was instead heading towards an ever-darkening mass of rain. I have been actively working on controlling my responses to unfortunate situations on this trip and in general just trying to be positive as often as I can. What I wanted was a warm bed, good company, a hearty casserole baking in the oven and a fireplace. But that was all kinds of impossible so what I could do was laugh at the circumstance. I continued on, my hands already growing numb from the frigid air.
With the company of mountain ridges, pine trees, the road and the occasional passerby, I unexpectedly see a sign for coffee and turn in to warm up. It's a little shop with a little woman watching a little Vietnamese soap opera. I order a coffee - something Vietnam is highly regarded for - and notice a glass counter at the entrance to her shop and house. On the bottom shelf is a gift from the gods: gloves. I buy a pair and the coffee for 20,000 dong - 89 cents - while the rain dances lightly on the tin roof. Warmed inside and out, I head back out during a break in the rain.
Before the coffee shop is out of sight, it begins to rain again. It's small and light but at 60kph, the droplets sting at my face. Every part of my body is cold and I involuntarily hunch over to try and shield myself from the wind slightly. In my mind's eye, wearing a helmet and sunglasses, it looks like a scene out of Dumb and Dumber. Just go man. I was chilled to the bone, but at least I had gloves now.
It's not long before the rain clears, thankfully. It is replaced by thick fog. Not the thickest I've seen, but pretty close - I can't see 30 feet in front of me. Then come the road signs.
I can't see what is to the left or right of me. I can taste the fog as I drive through and feel water collecting on my face. I hear waterfalls on the mountainous side of the road but can't see them, or the mountain for that matter. I take off my sunglasses to see better and tears stream out of my eyes on account of the wind and condensation. I start to imagine a bus heading towards me head-on and double check that my brights are on. My hope is that the limited visibility will dissuade drivers from attempting this. After 20 minutes of eternity, I clear the pass and begin the descent. The fog lifts and I can now see both the waterfalls and the surrounding landscape.
I turn a corner and am awestruck by beauty. I'm thinking of my Dad and wishing he were with me in this moment to see this, to have a glimpse into what some of my days out here are like. So I turn around and come back down to film it. Sadly, I uploaded the video to Google Drive to free up space on my phone and even though it said it completed, I later found out that it cut off just as the beautiful moment was coming into view. Here is another short video I took at the spot.
Yep, should have taken it in landscape. Ugh.
Enjoy Wendall! Once out of the bad weather I felt an overwhelming sense of freedom. I don't know how to adapt that feeling into words, but imagine zipping along the road on a scooter in a foreign country, the wind as evidence that you are alive and moving, surrounded by natural beauty, rounding corners and being met with new mountains, colored forest green by the dense collection of trees.
Further down the mountain, the air quickly warmed and I took off the gloves. I stopped at a tiny fruit stand run by a young girl but left empty-handed because I only had large bills. A short ways later I stopped at a little Golden Gate Bridge crossing a river. A local man was walking it, nearing me. He gave me that curious look of fascination, to which I smiled and he returned.
I walked out onto the bridge that was slightly wider than a motorbike and it rocked back and forth unnervingly. A bike with three people approached and I squeezed tightly against the side to let them pass. There was maybe an inch to spare. I decided not to cross the whole way. As I rode my bike back to the road, a masked lady cut at vegetation with a machete. I smiled as I went pass and imagined that behind the mask, she did as well.
Before long the countryside ended and I entered rush hour west of Nha Trang, which quickly became the craziest traffic I've ever driven in. I can say how motorbikes dart around you and each other, how horns beep non-stop, how hyper-focused you are, and how chaotic it all seems, but this image captures it in a single moment.
Strangely, I feel very comfortable driving it in. It is completely foreign at first when used to the very rule-based driving of the US and other countries, but it also makes sense in its own way and for some reason I don't find it intimidating.
I arrived at Mojzo Dorm in Nha Trang and was instantly greeted by the young Vietnamese ladies that work there - all of whom remembered my name. That's saying nothing of the impression I made but everything about their commitment to amazing service. They handed me my shoes and a bottle of water, then proceeded to tell me where the bike shop was so I could return it. Once back they said I was welcome to take a shower despite not staying there today and arranged taxis both to the airport in Nha Trang as well as from the airport in Hanoi to my hostel in the Old Quarter, and then gave me a recommendation for beef noodles nearby. Each of these women were absolutely incredibly helpful at all turns. It was a large part of what made Mojzo Dorm one of the best hostels I've ever stayed in.
After landing in Hanoi and taking a taxi into the Old Quarter, we passed over a bridge that I recognized. Some months prior, my friend Scott Homan had showed me Laura, a film he collaborated on for the 48 Hour Film Festival in Hanoi. Unfortunately only a teaser is online, but close to the end of the beautiful short film, there is a shot of the two leads running from a police officer to the fog-covered Nhật Tân Bridge that was still under construction at the time.
At one in the morning after a full day of travel, I was filled with a profound appreciation. Of being able to take a sabbatical like this in the first place, of the opportunities it affords, of the people I meet, of the chance to become a better me, of having many talented and driven friends that inspire me and the sheer unexpectedness of recognizing a shooting location from a short film that a good friend created. The lesson seemed clear: the act of creating is both important and something I've ignored for far too long.