On learning to love civilization again, the Haven Guest House and finding the true meaning of Tet.
Concrete penguins wading into the Bay of Quy Nhon. The unfinished amusement park and resort here is a testament to the town's enduring ability not to be ruined.
The farther east I drove through Dak Lak Province, the greener things grew.
The load of rice wine, food and good will showered on me in Phu Xuan that morning weighed heavy on my head as the road continued to bring more villages and the possibilities of endless feasts.
Packs of runty black pigs and lean chickens glided under rustic stilt homes like clouds. Lone children walked along the road in bright handmade fabrics. Farmers seemed only to be separated from one another's lives from rough fences loosely constructed of salvaged timber.
The whole province was engaged in beautifying their homes for the end of the year.
Children swept cobwebs from the front of their houses and men painted moldings while mothers set neat tables for a final visit from the ancestors.
I might have stopped, but this civilization was secondary to my mission. I pushed on, wobbling the lazy needle on my plastic speedometer toward 60 and 70 until I hit the trees.
In the woods
I crossed into the Ea Sô Nature Reserve at noon eager to discover an uncompromised patch of Vietnamese wilderness.
The blindingly green jungle of my daydreams was nowhere to be found. The dry Tet weather had rendered the scrub a rusty gold; thick woody vines seemed to stitch it all closed.
The constant threat of vehicular doom had slowed to a trickle of trucks slowly hauling cheerful kumquat and chrysanthemum plants over the crater-pocked road.
Everything suddenly fell quiet. Too quiet.
Poachers popped out of the shrubbery every now and again, clutching bundles of wood or bird traps draped in sheets. For a while, I kept up with a family of three loping over the rough humps on a Wave. But they pulled over. And I found myself alone in the woods.
Every once in a while, I'd pass an abandoned ranger station and consider climbing into the tin lookout tower to try to see where the wilderness would end.
But fear pushed me forward.
Folks in Phu Xuan had insisted that bandits preyed upon fools like me all the way to Quy Nhon"”snaring us in nets and fleecing us with machetes.
The forest (and my curiosity about it) ended in Phu Yen Province.
As the road loped down toward the ocean, it opened upon magical waterfalls and reflective dikes feeding into vast communal rice fields.
The shifting green grasses stretched out, at times, from the edge of the road like an ocean, interrupted only by island-like villages connected to the highway by dirt driveways.
The villages grew in size and began touching the road along with factory-sized schoolhouses.
Soon the road was smooth and black and criss-crossed by flocks of children in white uniforms, sailing home on shiny bicycles.
As I neared the ocean, the sun dropped to its precious spot in the sky and painted gold onto the whole scene giving it a feeling of heaven.
The only 5-star hotel in the province
I reached the coast and returned to the nerve-rattling bus traffic of Highway 1A just as the sun disappeared behind the mountains.
A 30-story building refracted sunlight in the distance and I followed the glint to the vast, empty parking lot of a brand new tourism complex: the CenDeluxe Tuy Hoa.
There was a massive karaoke parlor. And a health club. And what appeared to be a raucous nightclub housed in a structure the size of an airplane hangar.
It was just three days before the biggest holiday of the year and the place remained entirely empty.
Sliding glass doors parted onto the marble front desk. A sleek manager emerged in a blazer and proudly welcomed me to the only five star-hotel in the entire province.
Moments later, I had bargained him down to twenty dollars for a room.
I passed out on a plush, fluffy bed before I could figure out how to turn all the indirect lighting elements off but was stirred awake by the sounds of thousands of egrets flocking to an island in the middle of a river just under my window.
After sunset, they quieted down and I managed to fall into a dreamless sleep.
A final diversion
The final ride north into Binh Dinh Province felt like a journey into southern Europe"”goat herders followed their flocks down sandy, cactus-filled roads and tight fishing villages hugged the rocky cliffs that fell toward a turquoise sea.
On a whim, I followed the arrow on a sign reading "Haven Guest House" down a steep village road about 10 km south of Quy Nhon.
The town of Bai Xep clung tightly to the little path; its villagers regarded me silently with a mix of fear and curiosity.
The town's one road met at a three-way intersection where a single woman and her teenage daughter sold herbs, fried rice crepes and fish sauce for ten cents.
To the north of the market lay the town's working beach, packed with lobster farms and bright wooden fishing boats.
To the South lay Haven"”an open-air Mediterranean-style villa run by two Australians (Huw and Rosie) who rented impossibly soft dorm beds for $10 a night.
The perfect place to stay
Unlike every other hotel and beach resort I've ever seen, Haven aimed to flourish in Vietnam rather than in spite of it.
Rather than dressing up their staff in faux traditional costumes and forcing them to behave like indentured servants, they introduced them to everyone and invited them to eat at their communal dinner table.
Their beach remained shared by the villagers, who emptied out at every sunset to chat"”three and four generations deep"”about the events of the day.
Hard as it was to leave the place for a few afternoons, I mounted the Win and headed to the town I'd sought for nearly 900 kilometers.
The main drag welcomed me with row up on row of yellow flowers. Local people waved and smiled and asked me everything they could about who I was and where I was going.
At a Buddhist shrine set in a cave near an abandoned pengin-themed amusement park project, I met an orphaned xe om driver named Hung.
For nothing at all, Hung abandoned work and spent two days introducing me to his siblings and friends. We dined like kings on fresh fish noodles and peered at overgrown Cham Ruins.
The following day, he insisted on helping to ensure the Win was packed safely onto a train bound for Saigon. Then we headed to a corrugated tin town on a red clay pine bluff to drink beer and eat fresh fish drowned in homebrewed nuoc mam.
The following afternoon, he stood on the platform while I boarded an empty overnight train bound back home to welcome another year in Vietnam with the people who mattered most.
A mother and son heading to visit grandparents in Ho Chi Minh City shared their meal of sticky rice and fish sauce fried chicken on the tiny table in our cabin.
They wondered what had brought me to Quy Nhon, what did I want there?
"Vietnam," I said.
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