Vietnam, day six pt.2: little don quixote

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Thursday, May 8th 2014:

The cross I carry is mine.  I found it in the dirt.  I don’t wear it on the southside, but I wear it where it hurts.  When I go back to Spain, with brains splat on my shirt…I’m going to change my name.  I’m selling all I own. – Stavros Polentas

Here I am.  The sun is relentless.  Sweat pours down my chest making grey salt deposits all over the front of my shirt, tiny maps appearing on my disappearing stomach.  Time to get back on the bikes.  I’m ready to be piloting my own now, for a moment I could just break away.  I would point it towards the Central Highlands, to Laos or Burma, dropping my backpack a mile down the road, lines of a well-lived-life quickly forming on my face.  I’m here on the back of this bike in Hue.  My driver weaves down narrow dirt paths passing palm trees and forest, we bend to the left and to the right, the wind whips past and I close my eyes, children run up to scream “HELLO!” and give high fives.  Every small farm house in the distance flies the flag of Vietnam next to the flag of the long gone Soviet Union.  I’m here, now.

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1:00PM.  We stop at a quiet Buddhist temple in the middle of nowhere for lunch.  Monks sit stoically in their saffron robes smiling for camera clicks as we file past to the open air dining room.  Puffy crackers dipped in a mushroom, lime, chili and herb mixture with shredded vegetables, carrot and pumpkin soup, fresh spring rolls, tofu curry with sweet rolls, fried rice and faux-pork, sticky rice sesame squares for dessert.  A completely vegetarian meal.  We all agree it’s the best meal of the trip as we scavenge the surrounding tables for seconds.  I lick sticky something-or-others off my finger tips and it’s time to move on.  Black storm clouds are quickly moving in, blotting out the sun.

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I can’t say what made me fall in love with Vietnam – that a woman’s voice can drug you; that everything is so intense. The colors, the taste, even the rain. Nothing like the filthy rain in London. They say whatever you’re looking for, you will find here. They say you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived.Graham Greene

The motor kicks on and I ride the bike out to the crowded, busy streets.  Everything begins to fade away at once.   One left turn and it’s a straight arrow to the countryside.  The world is being unwrapped before my eyes as the rice paddies multiply.  We pull over a few times to take photos of makeshift walkways and nothing at all.  The rain starts to come down and we stop for cover in a small village.

Under an ancient bridge beautiful, elderly women pull their legs up beneath themselves.  Conical hats, long poles balancing produce, wooden sandals, traditional dress.  We sit quietly for an hour waiting out the storm.  The rice fields just past the river are on fire; everthing coated in smoke.  Our drivers pull out ponchos and everyone gets suited up.  I decide not to wear one.  I feel like getting soaked.  We fly through the countryside, dirty water kicking up all over the back of my legs, past crumbling temples and past rivers full of rotting boats.  The city comes back in to focus and I’m back at the hotel.  I tip my driver and go up to my room.

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Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind. – Miguel de Cervantes

I take a shower, open the window, and drink a warm Huda beer from the minibar as the clouds begin to clear.  I take a 20 minute walk down to the river and cross the bridge to Dong Ba Market.  It’s a labyrinth of souvenirs, home goods, vegetables, fresh fish, and guts.  An old women grabs me by my arm and leads me to her booth, the same booth she’s occupied for decades.  This is what I want.  I want to be fed.

Everything is delicious.  Plate after plate, bowl after bowl, nothing but the most incredible, unknown flavors, the smells are indescribable.  She keeps bringing out food until I make the universal sign of being stuffed, rubbing my stomach and contorting my face like I’m about to pass out.  The last bite of mystery meat I eat tastes too foreign to me and I’m done.  I hand over a few dollars and leave, stopping for a minute at a bookstore on my way back to the hotel.  I want to Google “exotic meats vietnam” and eat some Pepto-Bismol.  There is nothing to worry about.  It’s 9:15PM and everything is wonderful.  Goodnight.

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