Road to Ho Chi Minh City – 3 of 4
By Mac McCall
Chris’s wreck marked a logistical turning point on the road to Ho Chi Minh. No longer able to steer his bike due to his separated shoulder, he’d have to move south on alternative means of transportation while the rest of us continued on two wheels.
This development coincided with a critical geographical juncture as we entered south Vietnam, a transition marked by the Hải Vân Pass. Traversing a spur of the Annamite Range jutting into the South China Sea, Hải Vân forms a physical barrier segregating the climates of northern and southern Vietnam. While Chris took a bus, Sean, Austin, and I rode the pass. The climatic boundary was tangible. Approaching from the north, we rode under dim skies and intermittent rain. At the peak the clouds dissipated, opening to a bright and clear day as we made our descent into the south. The view laid out before us was nothing short of magnificent. The lazy green waves of Da Nang Bay lapped against the forested feet of the mountains below, while the white towers of the city of Da Nang itself accentuated the far shores. As an American, Da Nang holds special significance; this was where the first detachments of U.S. combat troops waded ashore in 1965.
At the risk of massive oversimplification, there are some parallels between weather and culture north and south of this divide. The North bears witness to millennia of Vietnamese civilization predating the birth of Christ. Most of the South, on the other hand, was not incorporated into Vietnam until the past 500 years.
Consequently, Northerners view themselves as more cultured and refined, holding the keys to ancient Vietnamese literary and artistic traditions. Because of this focus on the past, they often seem a bit more inward-looking and nostalgic. Additionally, the North retains more of a communist ethic. As a result, Northerners seem more austere and thrifty. In contrast to the North, the South hums with a fresh, dynamic energy. Ho Chi Minh, the former Southern capital, is the rapidly evolving commercial and financial center of the country, where ambitious young Vietnamese go to seek their fortunes. Stereotypes naturally exaggerate these tendencies, with Northerners viewing the South as frivolous and irresponsible, and Southerners viewing their Northern countrymen as dour and unimaginative.
Our destination was not the flashy skyscrapers of Da Nang but the quiet seaside town of Hội An, where we planned to rest and recuperate, giving Chris time to regain some movement in his arm. In another age, Hội An was a bustling commercial hub frequented by merchants from across the globe. It was here that Portuguese Jesuits introduced Catholicism to the Vietnamese in the 1600s. Chinese and Japanese traders first visited and traded and then stayed, establishing flourishing expatriate colonies replete with their respective cultural and artistic traditions. When the local river silted up in the 1800s, commercial operations moved north to Da Nang, and Hội An became a sleepy beach town, warding off the voracious industrialization which has consumed historic quarters elsewhere. Today, the unique architecture of these trading communities has been wonderfully preserved.
Relieved of his riding responsibilities and adjusting to the more liberal and carefree attitudes of the South, Chris bought a banana suit and fake aviators, which, alongside his sling, became his signature look for the remainder of our journey. Word quickly spread of his ridiculous attire, and soon people were asking for pictures in every city we visited. Our previous breakneck pace had slowed to a leisurely amble as we spent more than a few days drinking and exploring the coast.
After a week in Hoi An, our next stop was Nha Trang, a sleepless coastal metropolis with a beach strip of high rises rivaling any Yucatan resort city. The city feels pressurized, compacted tightly between the mountains and sea. Highly visible among the vacationers here are Russians, who flock to Nha Trang in droves from their northern homes. The Cyrillic alphabet is ubiquitous, with most menus and signs holding Russian translations. This Russian presence is yet another contemporary phenomenon that can thank the Cold War for its existence. This is an era which has wound its tentacles most deeply into Vietnamese history. In 1976, the Vietnamese leased nearby Cam Ranh Bay to the Soviet Union as a strategically important naval and air base. Soviet sailors and airmen returned home from their tours of duty with tales of warm, clear waters and white sand beaches, beginning a regular migration of vacationers which continues to this day. The Russians of Nha Trang often get a bad rap from Western visitors to Vietnam. These warnings proved unnecessary; they merely know a good time when they see one, much more so than our curmudgeonly Western compatriots. More than a few jovially stumbled around the beach, positively blackout at 11 a.m.
While conducting some much-needed maintenance on our bikes, we met a resident named Jimmy with a boat in Nha Trang harbor who offered to take us offshore. We were on the boat the next morning by 4:30; Jimmy had been out drinking with his friends until 3. By the time the sun rose, we were far from land and had entered heavy swells. Those among us more prone to seasickness were floored on the hull in an attempt to reduce the rocking. Feeling the effects of the previous night, Jimmy was the first to eject the contents of his stomach overboard. Our fishing hole was a collection of rocky islets outside the bay. The precipitous crags above us hosted tiny dwellings where locals live during breeding season and harvest nests made from the saliva of Germain’s Swiftlets, prized as the delicacy bird’s nest soup. Lunch was squid and noodles, cooked on the boat by our unflappable host. We spent all day offshore before returning to the harbor.
Sunburnt and sleep-deprived, we left Nha Trang the next day and turned westward toward Ho Chi Minh, heading into the Central Highlands, a plateaued continuance of the Annamite Range. Our route rose some 4,900 feet in elevation from the sweltering coastal lowlands. Chris, moving by bus, would meet us in the town of Đà Lạt. We zig-zagged upward, leaving a verdant patchwork of rolling hills and agriculture behind us. The switchbacks made for exhilarating high-speed turns. After summiting the plateau, I attacked a downhill left turn far too quickly for my abilities and hit scattered gravel, quickly losing control. I was catapulted from my bike as it entered a horizontal skid, smashing my left forearm into the asphalt. Curled in fetal position, I slid on my side for around 20 feet, finally coming to a rest not far from the steel roadside barrier. Miraculously, my old Harley jacket prevented any serious injuries. My bike, while severely scratched and bent in some places, was still functional as well. Surveying my surroundings, I noted shattered and twisted motorcycle parts, eerily empty helmets, and a roadside shrine, indicating that more than a few others had not been so fortunate.
My confidence in tatters, we proceeded at a much more cautious pace into Đà Lạt. We were now within striking distance of Ho Chi Minh; a mere 200 miles separated us from our destination.