Monday, January 12, 2015

A few more glimpses of Vung Tao.


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'Nam and the Art of Motorcycle Road Trips.

 It is shortly after noon, and I'm happy to be venturing away from the city of Saigon.  The highway that we are on is a two-lane stretch.  It's old, or at least appears that way, and the holiday weekend floods it with a sea of motorbikes; their riders also intent on escaping the hustle and bustle of Saigon.

The air, surprisingly hot even when moving at 60 mph, is full of car fumes and emission odors.  We sit so close to the bikers around us that their body odors are recognizable in the wind.  The traffic makes the trip slower than normal.  Not that I would know though -- motorcycle trips are new to me; one of the many things these days that mark the beginning of a new life.


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We are traveling to Vung Tao, a beach town about 125 km (77 miles) southeast from Ho Chi Minh City.  For the others, it's a destination trip, but for me, as the only one who has not yet road tripped on a motorbike, it is about the journey.


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I feel things differently traveling on a motorcycle than I ever have in a car, a bus or a train.  I am not confined and, instead, feel in contact with it all -- the changing landscape, the ominous clouds in front of me, the sunshine beating down, the pavement whizzing by, just inches below my flip-flopped feet.

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We pass small garages offering drinks of sugarcane juice and coconut milk, and
groups of rubber trees providing shaded rest stops, hammocks slung between them for those wishing for a nap.

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In front of us, low gray clouds loom over the road, as they do most afternoons in Vietnam.  The chance of us arriving at the city before the rain begins is narrowing.  We are two hours in, and even with the Cat Lai Ferry shortcut, we still have a long way to go.


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As we exit the ferry, the rain begins to fall, so we stop at a roadside stand selling chicken legs atop fried rice. 


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I learned quickly after moving to Vietnam that rain never falls lightly here.  It pours, hard and long, often causing calf-deep flooding in the streets.  Ponchos are an essential part of the Vietnamese uniform, as are cheap waterproof flip-flops.


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The rain begins to ease, providing no break in the heat or in the humidity. We start out again, and I'm happy to be back on the bike where at least there is a breeze.  We're far enough from the city now that the traffic has cleared, and we are able to move faster on the roads.

I'm happy to be seeing more of this country.  It has a peculiar charm to it.  It's an allure I have never encountered in all my travels.  This mystique winds around noodles in boiling water, sticks to frog legs cooked over makeshift stoves on the street, weaves into pointed straw hats, drips from jungle foliage, lounges in rooftop bars, and pours from fresh coconuts through a straw.

We ride through a large roadside market.  Looking closely as we whizz by, I  catch glimpses of live chickens, mounds of fuchsia dragon fruit, and some skinned animal.  I slap Mike's shoulder as I realize it is, in fact, dog ready to be roasted.  Chained up next to the tables of the carcasses were live dogs awaiting their fate.  Mike turns his head to the side and yells back at me, "Yup.  You'll get used to that."

Right.  Because I am the new girl.  For the rest of these guys, this place has become familiar.  One day I'll catch on and my eyes will become less wide.  Perhaps I'll even come to be the one driving the motorcycle.

We navigate with the Google maps app, and every time we pull out our devices to check our course, I wonder how expats navigated these roads prior to such technology.  Although doable, I can't imagine the difficulty it would have added to the trip.  Most locals we've encountered do not speak English.  Street signs are confusing, and road closures and detours are nearly impossible to predict.  If that information is posted, it is in such a way as to be incomprehensible to English-only speakers.  Or perhaps the clear instructions are tucked away somewhere we visitors don't know to look.

Up ahead, my friend J.P. points and screams, over the motor, "Just up this road a little ways!"  Mike nods showing he heard.  It is nearly impossible to have conversations while on a motorbike.  It is nearly impossible to do anything but sit and think and feel and see.

Vung Tao comes into view.  It is hazy and overcast, and the water is a blueish-brown.  Small fishing boats dot the water, and black rocks form a physical line between the highway and the shoreline.







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Feeling happy, we arrive at our hotel.  It is 4:30, and immediately, we have some showers.  Not everyone would understand the layer of grime that accumulates on a 125-km bike ride. I didn't understand myself until just today how the combination of sunscreen, sweat, and road dirt cake together to form a visible layer of filth.

These hours are the most I've ever spent on a motorbike.  My butt is numb, and I feel like I got hit by a train.  But that will pass, and for now, I'll enjoy a few days at the beach, dipping my toes in the South {China} Sea, sipping on frozen cocktails, and laughing with some new friends.