When in Vietnam…

by Ekua on May 2, 2013 in Cambodia,Vietnam,why i travel

“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
– Jack Kerouac

There are some countries you leave with indifference. In others, you want to sprint to the border because you’re so ready to get out. And some—maybe most—you’ll leave reluctantly, feeling that you connected with the country, and wishing you had the time and funds to spend on that never ending dig to the core of a place.

Cambodia was solidly scenario number three. Wistful was the word of the day as we made our long and bumpy but beautiful drive to the border. Cambodia was rough around the edges for sure, but it felt like it had heaps of determination and a tremendous sense of humor to keep it moving forward. I hadn’t anticipated how magnetic it would be. Despite Cambodia’s pull, our van carried on to the border.

At the border town, Phnom Den, it was hot, hot, hot. Hot. It was a slow process getting stamped out because there was just one border agent at work who understandably moved slowly in his humid office with no air-conditioning and no computers. Once we were officially released from Cambodia, we had a long walk through no man’s land. As I trudged along, I was hunched over by the weight of my overstuffed backpack, dripping with sweat, and learning all sorts of hands-on lessons about not packing more than I could carry.

We felt relieved when we reached the Vietnam side, only to realize we were not at all done. Dubious border agents claimed the x-ray machine was broken and they wanted to search everyone’s bags by hand. They were exceedingly thorough in their search, even pawing through one of my fellow traveler’s underwear and waving in the air to observe it. They also confiscated a harmless wood carving that a honeymooning couple had purchased in another part of Asia. Noting their overzealousness, a few of us stealthily added our bags to the pile of luggage that had already been checked and continued on, sans violation by shady border officials.

As we left the border area, the excitement about being in a new country settled in. As with my first Southeast Asia border crossing, I was surprised to see how different it was immediately after entering a new country. In the heat of March in Cambodia, the country had been parched,  but Vietnam was various shades of green with its irrigated fields.

We barely had time to throw our bags down at our hotel in Chau Doc before five of us set out on a motorcycle tour of the town. I had never ridden a motorcycle and had no idea what there was to see in Chau Doc, I but I knew I wanted to experience Vietnam’s most popular form of motorized transportation. This trip had been all about saying yes and sampling things I never imagined I would try, and it had served me well so far. Yes to tasting crocodile, ostrich, and some unknown delicious dish I pointed to on the menu at the Thai border. Yes to getting on a little boat bound for some random island that turned out to be lovely. Now, yes to motorcycle tours.

We didn’t pick our drivers, they picked us. I was picked by a driver I’d eventually come to know as Mr. Speedy. As soon as I had my helmet on, we were off. We zipped through traffic and ahead of the others in the group. I gripped onto the driver, terrified at first and probably cutting off his circulation until I got past the initial shock and relaxed. I saw that when I let go a little, I felt safer as I moved in the natural way the motorcycle rocked me as the roads turned.

We zoomed up the side of a mountain and it was thrilling. It was all sharp curves and steep cliffs and I had a huge smile on my face the whole time, a combination of fear and exhilaration. It didn’t take long to understand the appeal of motorcycles. There’s a rush of adrenaline and freedom that courses through your body as you ride with no barriers to the world and you feel the speed in such a palpable way as the wind strokes your skin.

Another pair reached the top of Sam Mountain right after us, but the other three were far behind. As we waited for them, a group of moto taxi drivers tried to get my attention and kept eagerly pointing at something. Eventually I saw what they were trying to tell me: I had a 10,000 dong bill (worth less than $1 at the time) precariously hanging out of my pocket. I put it back in and they all smiled and gave me thumbs up. The simplest gestures speak volumes about a place, and this set the tone for southern Vietnam where I encountered many genuinely friendly people. Things would get harder in Vietnam, but I always look back fondly at the time I spent in the Mekong Delta area of the country.

When the rest of the group arrived, one of the drivers shared some facts about the mountain and explained that it was an important pilgrimage site. We walked around the top to the western side and we understood the drivers’ sense of urgency when we’d  arranged the tour. We had come to see the most epic sunset of our lives. We were going to watch the sun set over Cambodia, literally and metaphorically. It would be our last look at Cambodia before making our way north through Vietnam.

We looked westward at the sun and at a border that exists on maps that was just meters away. Unlike during the drive across, looking down from the mountain, there seemed to be no difference between Cambodia and Vietnam and the unfenced borderland was almost confusing in its normalcy. But our drivers assured us that the land below had a line through it. So we stood atop a Vietnamese mountain, looking over Cambodia as the clouds engulfed the sun, setting both countries and their shared skies aglow with a hazy, heavenly light.

Sunset in Chau Doc, Vietnam

Sunset in Chau Doc, Vietnam

Sunset in Chau Doc, Vietnam

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Andi of My Beautiful Adventures May 3, 2013 at 5:54 pm

Beautiful, just beautiful!

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Ekua May 5, 2013 at 11:49 pm

Thanks 🙂

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Tamara (@Turtlestravel) May 3, 2013 at 6:15 pm

Great post…and that sunset is INCREDIBLE. We spent about a month in Vietnam, but went pretty straight on to HCMC after crossing in from Cambodia. It’s great to have something to look forward to on the next visit though! Thanks for the inspiration!

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Ekua May 5, 2013 at 11:57 pm

Yeah, I really like this region… it felt very friendly and relaxed.

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Shirley May 6, 2013 at 1:57 pm

I have been reading your posts for a few months now. Wow. Love your honest writing style and what gorgeous photos! Brava!

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Ekua May 9, 2013 at 12:57 am

Thanks, glad you’ve been enjoying my posts!

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