12 - Dispatch from Southbound

A Vacation is where you expect life to be better than at home … someone else does the housework, you idle at a pool or golf course - and you drink the drinks you don't know how to mix. An Adventure, on the other hand, is where you want to experience what is NOT at home … comfort, communication, convenience - and maybe even a little safety, must be sacrificed to get where you want to go. We keep telling ourselves we are on an Adventure and so can excuse the unexpected, put up with the unpleasant, and see humor instead of horror. And you really can't have an Adventure without something like a Bus Ride Story. It would be like Steve McQueen without a chase scene.

We have been studying Vietnamese driving habits for about a month now. We have our theories and hypotheses - which really can only be tested further by practical exercise. This starts with motorbike rides during the DMZ part of the trip - Jean on one with Mr. Diem and me on another with its owner. Oh yes, we also had all our bags and theirs … and it was raining. We crossed the Cua Viet River a couple of times and actually lived! But there is not much traffic up there - not valid proof of theorems.

We left Dong Ha and headed south in something they call an "open bus". This means you buy a ticket from a company whose buses drive up and down Hwy 1, and you can get on and off as you wish - dependent on their schedule and open seats. Mostly tourist, mostly white, mostly English spoken, mostly comfy - and we stop for toilet breaks.

Alas, such easy travel also cuts out the best part of this route - the climb over the Hi Van Pass - a cliff-clinger of switchbacks and grand scenery. It was an ambush heaven during the war, as truck convoys loaded at the Da Nang docks, wormed their way north toward the DMZ. The pass is neatly bi-passed now, by a long modern highway tunnel, right through the mountains. We travel like we are on vacation, and so completely miss the adventure of the pass.

Then comes Da Nang city and another old airstrip called Marble Mountain. The old runway is under a 4 lane road of busy traffic passing our concrete hangers that are still in use - no room to land a Birddog now. The famed mountains have been quarried into a different shape than when I last was here. The shanty refugee town the GIs called "Dog Patch" is gone too. Good riddance. But China Beach is still receiving visitors, although the surf is pretty flat today.

We have been in Adventure mode pretty hard for a while. It is time to play tourist and unwind - and Jean has just the spot picked out - the little town of Hoi An. This pre-colonial village is full of very old buildings and is so cute that both sides left it alone during the war. Today it is the first town in the country to convert to a purely tourist economy. Charm is poured on, cars and even scooters are largely banned, and the entire population seems coached in how to make a tourist fat and happy - for a price.

Rotund, sunburned and poorly dressed tourists buy trinkets and take photos of the Vietnam of the travel brochures. (Some of us look so slobby and sloppy I wish our Immigration Service would do some screening of who we let OUT of the country.) Laundry delivered, Dispatches sent, air-conditioning on high … and cocktails served. Our $20 hotel has a pool overlooking the conical hats working the rice paddies. This is vacation!

We are ready to test traffic observations, so we rent a motorbike - no check-out, no paperwork - just hand 'em the money and they hand me the keys. Jean folds up her map and off we go - her mother would not approve! After a few initial minutes of terror, I find the horn button and put theories to the test. We go to the beach. The surf is poor. A girl wants to sell us cold drinks and delivers the line every surfer has heard on countless beaches on countless coast, countless times ... "You should have been here yesterday" she tells us - "It was bigger yesterday."

We get out of town into the countryside lanes too narrow for cars. The white-knuckle grip eases as we putt along paddy dikes, past slow flowing canals and a river. Away from road noise, the birds and butterflies are a constant companion. We have a better chance to turn our heads and enjoy what the country offers for us to see.

One traffic obstacle, on every road in Vietnam, is the farm animals that seem to have uncontested right-or-way (except for that one slow chicken). One favorite is the ox carts piled high with straw - slowly plodding down a road like a haystack parade float - often with no driver. Apparently they've been trained to home in on home, while being chased by their own food.

Another are the sad faced old water buffalo - which used to be the plow-horse of the paddies - but have been largely replaced by internal combustion and so are kept for meat … or maybe mozzarella. A buffalo calf blocks our way and I slowly squeeze by - my horn ignored. The mother, a big ring in her nose, is grazing just off the road with a jockey of a man sitting cross-legged on the big beasts wide back. He is reading a book and chatting on a cell phone! We had to have a photo - and with smiles and gestures Jean ends up on the buffalo with him taking her picture with his cell phone. Great laughs but Jean notes this water buffalo had not seen water in a while - at least any clean water.

Other back-road sites:
Off the main roads, gas is dispensed from plastic soda bottles displayed on a box in front of the entrepreneur's home. Purchased by the liter, prices are about twice that of home. A place where bottled water is cheaper than gas? What a concept!

A trash truck goes door-to-door playing a repeating ice-cream vendor's tune over loud speakers. Out comes the villagers with bags and baskets full. Recycle is done on the spot - with glass bottles and cans and plastic jugs being bagged and piled on top of the truck. Of course, masked and gloved women do the dirty work, while the male driver sits inside smoking - with the windows up.

An amoeba of hundreds of little ducks herds across a canal and flows up the bank into a freshly cut rice field. I don't think bird flu is flogged into a fear frenzy by their media - sigh! They don't know what they are missing.

A bride in full regalia passes on the back of a scooter - a few miles later, another one is shielding her makeup behind a hat - an auspicious day for weddings, we guess. Rice harvest or lunar dates? We don't know.

And of course the colors of Vietnam are the rice field - lime and water's glint off newly planted paddies, a deep leprechaun green of mature fields … and the bronze patina of the heavy ripe grains bending down in wait. Waiting for that lady in the conical hat - to stoop and cut the stalk with her curved knife. Vietnam is in view - with all the smells to match. And life is good!

But I haven't told the bus story! Why? Because we haven't had one yet. But tomorrow we board a "public bus" to climb into the Central Highlands. A Dispatch is sure to follow - if we live.

- Scooter Stew