Dharma bumming, Zen lunatic-ing and kicking around on pieces of ground far from your hometown…
To the rivers of ungodly waters…
By the time we got to Cao Bang it was time for a massage.
We went to the Blind Society and their hands were incredible. They can’t see, but they can feel. Then we found the best fried pho in the world, and it was a late-night spot that served bia and ruou as well.
We got drunk and went home to listen to reggae and afro-funk till we passed out. We lost a couple of days getting drunk and throwing up in the streets of Cao Bang.
We flirted with girls, we saw a fight that ended with sticks, kicks and tiles thrown, we got shaves and haircuts to cure our hangovers, we ate lots of the best fried pho in the world.
We discovered the city’s row of riverside cafés for coffee in the day and beers et al at night. We became friends with 26-year old Huyen, a Tay girl on her first day manning one of the cafés (which are really just unpacked carts and plastic schools by a railing, like so much in Vietnam: all unpacked each morning and packed up again each night, wheeled away – and the railing separating us from the river had makeshift ladders leading down to the water for peeing).
I hate to keep saying this about all these girls (I love to keep saying it), but Huyen was gorgeous. Tall, long big legs, natural straight hair down past her ass.
She reminded me of Nhung, the hotel hostess and first woman I made love with after I left my wife. And so once again, some kinds of crazy fantasies about marrying this girl and what that would all mean and not mean flooded in.
Then she asked me why I wasn’t married.
“E roi!” I replied, using the Vietnamese term for a woman past marrying age: left on the shelf.
“You’re 32, you’re a man, you can’t be e roi,” she said.
“I don’t want to marry.”
“Doc lap va tu do la hanh phuc.”
When we finally got our shit together, we took off for Pac Bo, the most famous of Ho Chi Minh’s hiding places where he took up residence in a cave and began writing the next phase of the blood-soaked Vietnamese Revolution.
As we drove further and further north towards the Chinese border, it was not hard to imagine these once-country roads having taken Uncle Ho back home, to a new home, hundreds of kilometers from his real home in Nghe An, to this remote and distant place.
The first place you pass on the way to the cave is Ho’s fishing spot, where he would sit and relax after a day’s work.
Then you see his cave and cavebed (a wooden board on top of two rocks), his kitchen (outside), his gardens (one bamboo, one mango orchard), his pond for bathing and sitting and thinking and his stone writing desk by the water and a tree that General Giap planted there in ’75 after the war was over and the war after the war had yet to begin.
We wanted to go in the water naked but didn’t have the balls to do so on the sacred ground and instead just scrubbed our hands, arms and necks real good, drinking the holy but not-always forgiving waters of revolution.
Then we found a path to another smaller cave where Bac Ho would sometimes hide in cases of emergency. There was no bed in this cave, but it was further into the border areas and no one was walking with us.
The silence was unimaginable out there. We walked a gravel path along gradually escalating rice terraces. The path eventually disappeared and we were walking up the earthen paddy walls. A tribal woman carrying branches in her back-basket passed us without a word. We’d arrived.
On the drive back to the city we stopped for nuoc mia, grilled sausages and pork kabobs. There, a trio of unrelentingly beautiful 13-year-old girls couldn’t keep their eyes off us, and us the same. And so we started joking around.
They asked us “where you from?” in English.
“Chu khong biet tieng anh,” I said to their strange faces. “Chu chi biet tieng em thoi,” and I winked and they laughed.
I fell in love with 13-year-old Thoa, again in tight pink pajamas. I won’t describe her giant backside the way I can’t in print, but suffice it to say that if I were Nabokov, she would have been my Lolita.
We got back to town and had a final night of sexless debauchery and then got up in the morning to drink more coffees than we needed to with Huyen in order to bid her a sad goodbye as the sun rose over the river.
About halfway to our next stop, the outpost of Bao Lac, I was rolling down a spiraling hill road with my hands at my sides.
My helmet was off and I was steering only with my hips when the front wheel slipped a bit. I looked down at the tire and before I could finish thinking “it’s not flat” I was smashed down onto the ground, sliding on my elbows and knees towards the mountain while my bike slid the other way, helmet tumbling down the hill.
A scratch on my knee and a three-day pain in my thigh-hip were all that came of it. My first accident and not a young peasant girl in sight. Not a solitary reaper in all the valley.
We asked a couple of passersby to send for someone to fix the tire but in the end I took Olof’s bike – leaving him to sing to the mountaintops by himself – to the next village 2km away and summoned help myself.
The guy, bless his soul (I forgot his name) came out and got us up and running in no time. Back in town we had some of that super-bitter, super-strong, upset-your-stomach green tea and thuoc lao with him at his house and he showed us his tiny moonshine rice-wine bootlegging distillery.
He offered us some, but we were too cowardly at that point.
We got to Bao Lac and checked into a hotel and had our customary 4 beers delivered to the room. We showered and drank and got hungry and went into town to the market by the river and had two bowls of chao each as night fell. That almost filled our bellies.
A group of Vietnamese tourists invited us to karaoke, but then they just went home instead. We had divine yogurt ice creams (kem sua chua, thap fuckin’ cam) with mixed fruit (dragon fruit, jackfruit, watermelon, rambutan, mango) and then some sua chua mit (that real ripe jackfruit, fresh, tender and sweet) served by an old man.
We drank more beer and watched all the beautiful women in the town going to and from here and there and the young couples and young families with babies crossing the bridge, coming out for nuoc mia.
We put some medicine in the bong and shared it with a tattooed gentleman who recognized the smell and then we waltzed over to the river for a piss.
In the middle of the river under the bridge, silhouetted by some unseen light, was an old couple, naked and bathing each other.
They poured water on each other’s backs and scrubbed the wrinkles. There was trash built-up on the riverbanks, but not where the cool water flowed over their bodies.