Visions of Vietnam -- Part 3

By Jon Dillingham, Thanh Nien News

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 The author approaching Ba Be Lake in the northern mountainous province of Bac Kan. Photo: Olof The author approaching Ba Be Lake in the northern mountainous province of Bac Kan. Photo: Olof

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A solitary reaper on the side of the road…

We put on our clothes and said a sad goodbye (not too good a word) to Hoa and left the village and Dream Falls behind us…

The scenery outside Na Hang was already stunning (those mountains came up quick!) and only got moreso as we began an incredible 60-km drive to Ba Be National Park that would end up taking 8 hours. 
The limestone mountains began pushing out of the quiet rice paddies that were divided by raised clay paths and guarded by clothes-on-crosses scarecrows too lazy to do any work…we stopped every once in a while to admire views, smoke cigarettes, smoke tobacco bongs, smoke joints, stretch (roadside yoga!), piss, drink nuoc mias, drink beers, even to take pictures and put them on instagram: Smoke rising and falling like crooked obelisk-slinkies in the distance, fires and smoke stacks on the mountains reminiscent of war. 
The passes and river valleys were colored by villages, houses shaded by coconut trees, cooled by small ponds or creeks. Some fantastic gargantuan river, once frozen, had long ago cut a path for us to live.
Eventually, a path was exactly what we needed. Hoa and everyone we talked to along the way had said the drive would only take 1.5-3 hours, even though we were taking the twistiest, turniest, tiniest road on the map because we thought it would take us through the most wild terrain. 
The first two hours went by quickly with people then telling us we were still anywhere from 60 to 80 to 30 kilometers away. Eventually the road began deteriorating and it then quickly disappeared and we were driving directly on hillsides, through dirt, rock, sand, dust, mud and small stream crossings.
It was two hours of extremely slow, steep driving, mostly on what were basically piles of uneven, semi-flattened but drastically not-flat loose rocks the size of tennis balls that gave out from under the tires and feet every few seconds. 
Extremely exhausting going downhill, pretty fun going uphill as fast as I could because I’d cranked up the Bonus before we left and put big tires on it. Finally, the semi-drivable trail simply stopped, high up in the mountains, almost two hours in each direction until the next town, with sunset approaching. 
Ahead of us was a hearty but small young man in a giant tank-like machine that moved a terror-inducing arm-shovel with claws that was smashing the hillside and crushing big rocks into little rocks and slowly spreading them out of the way of what will at some point, I thought, eventually be a new road. 
We waited there and watched the proletarian Van Gogh do his masters’ work, throwing the metallic robot penis sticks -- six of them, levers really – that controlled the machine back and forth and up and down moving his behemoth juggernaut (“standing next to a mountain, chop it down with the edge of my hand!”) to and fro, every once in a while opening up a small space in the road, letting us think for a second we might pass, only to bring more rocks down upon the space. 
It took 30 minutes, but eventually he had transformed the mountainside into a small road and he flattened it all out as we passed with ease and a smile.
     After another hour of driving we finally pulled off that wretched road onto something that more resembled the easy-riding we’d hit the road for in the first place. 
Once again it was bluesy bridges, flying breezes and jagged mountains: everything to write home about. 
We dipped down into a valley about 30 kilometers after people had begun saying the park was only 5, 10, or 15 kilometers away. I had the feeling we were really finally nearing the thing and before a long beautiful bridge I stopped to ask a beautiful girl in a plaid shirt and jeans if we were going the right way. 
She said we were and had only 11 kilometers to go. Her precision was encouraging. Olof was behind a ways so I chatted and couldn’t help falling in love, as usual, with the way she smiled and giggled at my Vietnamese accent. 
Her long black hair and giant smile with big teeth were incinerating. The sun went down behind her and, man, I just stared and stared. 
She stood over the seat of her motorbike, waiting for someone or something over there by the bridge, leaning over the handlebars to dial-in text messages.
I thought I should get her number because we’d be in Ba Be 3-4 days and we could invite her to romp around the lakes and mountains one of those days. But I didn’t and drove on ahead slowly as Olof caught up. When he did, he was astonished.

     “Who was that girl?” he asked.

     “I don’t know,” I said.

     “She was stunning.”

     And we rambled on. 

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