Godfrey meets some interesting people during his ride up to Quy Nhon
|Village elders set up a ceremony on a road somewhere between Buon Ma Thuot and the coast
I set out for Buon Ma Thuot dreaming of caffeinated elephants parading through lush jungle.
But the jungle never appeared.
Instead, Highway 14 offered a series of idle work sites and grim accidents. At one point I came across a policeman standing over a shattered Honda Dream piled under the bumper of an evacuated orange sleeper bus.
When I reached for my camera, he put his whistle in his mouth, raised his club in the air and took a step toward me.
I zipped on into the dust.
After an hour of loping through deep dusty potholes, I pulled into a lonesome Petrolimex station that overlooked a valley of mud-stained rubber plantations.
A young brown-eyed man in his late twenties waved me enthusiastically toward the only working pump.
Thanh had delicate porcelain features"”the one thing, he said, his French mother left behind.
When Thanh was still a child, he boarded a boat that was interdicted off the southern coast of Thailand and spent the next ten years in a UN refugee camp holding out hope for a Green Card.
He grilled me about my life in California. I tried to picture him there. But I couldn't.
Neither, apparently, could the US State Department.
After being sent back to Vietnam, Thanh took a job as a caretaker for this lonesome gas station. His father, sister and stepmother now lived on a farm in Binh Duong.
His only company at the gas station appeared to be an 11-year-old girl who'd been dropped off to sell lottery tickets.
Next week, he'd get his only break: a few days at home for Tet.
What about my family? Why was I not living with them? And why was I here in Vietnam?
I didn't know the answer to either question, so I left.
Black clouds hung heavy in the sky, threatening to turn the red rutted road into an impassable sludge.
Occasionally a heavy drop would fall from the sky and crack me in the face like ball bearings from a slingshot.
Patches of green continued to loom in the distance like mirages, but they never exploded into the jungle I had in mind. Instead, they materialized as grey plantations and stubby coffee shrubs clinging to the dust.
I began to wonder if there had ever been jungle at all.
And then I began to see lonely stands of pine, surrounded by shredded stumps. These clusters kept appearing at the side of the road like clouds in a summer sky"”the last remnants of a forest.
Towering churches stood like tombstones over the depressed logging towns that clung to the highway.
After an hour or two on the road, I stopped at a tin and timber shop for a drink.
Like many of the homes I'd passed, it was linked to the world by a gray satellite dish.
A dark woman with strong arms and kind eyes stepped out into the sun and invited me to take a few rips of powerful Northern tobacco from a ceramic bong.
My head spun.
"You drunk yet?" she asked as her two boys gathered around to gawk at me.
She set down a teapot stuffed with strong Moc Chau leaves and began to boast about her oldest daughter who was studying tourism in Saigon. Her boys stared in silence, uttering the occasional question in English.
Here was Vietnam's plan in action.
I could see this woman as an elderly lady, caring for grandchildren in some sprawling suburb of the future Ho Chi Minh City.
What would become of her house and the runty coffee shrubs clinging to these muddy hills when no one could be bothered to farm coffee?
One thing seemed certain"”they'd never be jungle or forest again.
On my way out, one of the boys ran up to me and handed me a single thorny flower snaking out of a small pot of red clay.
The saddest town
When I finally rolled into Buon Ma Thuot, no elephants were in sight.
They had all been clustered in some dismal concession at the edge of town to be ridden by fat tourists all day and tormented by ivory poachers all night.
The rest of the place felt like a barren and expensive outpost for timber traders and coffee barons.
I searched my map for a patch of green and rode down into a small valley with a coffee shop at its core"”a lush, paved campus filled with grim cages containing solitary monkeys, crocodiles and snakes.
A male manicurist from Kalamazoo and his father-in-law were busy banging together an erector-set like cage for a box full of wading birds.
I divided my attention between the sunset, the amateur zookeepers and the mosquitoes devouring my legs.
Back at my hotel, I fell into a deep sleep and woke early, eager to abandon the west entirely.
The roadside feast
By the time I reached Highway 19, the road East, the ball bearings in both of my wheels had shattered.
It took an hour for a crew of Khmer mechanics to fix my wheels for fifty cents, smiling as they worked.
The road would be no problem, they said. Just go "forever."
No signs pointed the way East on Highway 19. Even with a GPS, I continued to make wrong turns. When I stopped to ask for directions, no one seemed to be able to tell me whether they lived on the highway or not.
At one point, it disappeared under a creek; at another, it narrowed to a wooden bridge controlled by three children.
The endless cycle of becoming lost and found wore me down and I finally stopped, to take my helmet off and reconsult my map.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a pair of men carry a table loaded with food to the end of a long country road. Behind them came another. And another.
A whole crowd gathered in the shade of the surrounding coffee bushes to watch two pajamaed ancients arrange the feast before the village altar set in a thick tree.
They set out loaves of bread, a roast pig's head, bowls of curry, candies, three kinds of bean-studded sticky rice and several fried fish.
The crowd came across the street and each man invited me, in his way, to eat. I began by declining, staring up at the gun metal sky.
A bone-white 19 year-old named Nhi stepped out of the crowd and welcomed me by asking what I thought of Vietnam and its people.
"I love them," I said.
"Yes," she said.
As a tourism student in Go Vap District, Nhi seemed to see it as her duty to ensure I was thoroughly fed. She and the crowd insisted I accompany them up the road to a long wooden farmhouse full of men.
Nhi and I were seated at the only table in the room with the oldest members of the community and poured shots of clean rice wine.
Every man in the village sat in a circle at our feet and raised their glass for the first of many shots.
When I could eat and drink no more, Nhi helped extract me from the revelry, clearing a path through the ruddy faces and food.
We walked quietly in the sun down the road back to the highway.
And Nhi invited me into her house, a cool quiet marble house, packed with hand-carved wooden Buddhas and a high ceiling covered in bright lacquered pine planks.
She poured me a cup of her father's coffee and introduced me to her mother"”who seemed to giggle at the very concept of me.
I nodded off and was woken up by an infant tugging at my sunglasses. After declining a bag of oranges and several invitations to stay through Tet, I returned to the road.
It was only noon.