Another hard day’s riding in the Central Highlands. I’ve clocked more than a hundred miles – no small thing on these roads – in the area north west of Kom Tum, epicentre of Vietnam’s coffee operation, now the biggest in the world.
I’ve come withing spitting distance of the Cambodian and Laotian borders, and stood eyeball to eyeball with Rocket Ridge and Charlie’s Hill, names as seared on the psyche of their two warring nations as are Culloden and Stalingrad on theirs. The etymology of Rocket Ridge is self evident. Charlie’s Hill derives from GI slang for an adversary at this stage in the war no longer viewed with arrogant contempt but with fear, loathing and grudging respect.
These lakes and mountains aren’t as spectacular, I’m told, as those further north. Nor was I seeing them at their best, the verdancy and bright skies of November to January having given way to the more parched and dust-laden tones of the final month before the rains. Even so, the vivid greens of rice paddy and heady scent of jasmine delight the senses.
In any case the rarity of farangs in Kom Tum, and their total absence from the villages, more than compensate for any scenic shortcomings. Every cattle driver I pass either initiates a wave and smile or responds in kind to my own. At each village infants shout ‘hello’ or ‘xin xiao’ and, when I return with a grin and wave, give the deep throaty chuckle of happy children the world over. I feel I’ve no right to be here but, since I am, will extract every drop from the fact.
Villagers mix Buddhism and Christianity with ancestral worship. Curious? Look up the Jarai, who feed their dead through bamboo stakes drilled into their tombs, and Bahnar. The latter villages are centred on the rong, roughly akin to the Moot Hall of Saxon England. Here a kind of tribal justice is dispensed, wrongdoers ordered to sacrifice a chicken or in more serious cases a pig or bullock. For good measure they must also apologise before the entire village.
Hmm. Wonder how that would play on Peckham’s Mozart Estate, Manchester’s Moss Side or Sheffield’s Parson Cross …
The Central Highlands hold Vietnam’s largest concentration of protestants, fewer in number than catholics and not smiled on by Hanoi. That’s not on account of theological differences over the transubstantiation, but because they backed America in the war. It probably seemed a good idea at the time.
I stumble on a protestant village, early afternoon. I’ve almost driven through it when a small but pretty lake catches my eye. U-turning the bike, I ride back and up a verge to park close to a cluster of dwellings whose air of impoverishment I’ve seen on three continents. No one is around, possibly because at this time of day all sensible folk are dozing. But as I thread my way past shack, shed and shanty – looking for the way I know must lead to the water’s edge – a man calls ‘hello’. Of itself this means little other than that someone at least is awake. It’s a standard Viet greeting, no more indicative of conversancy with English than a Brit’s ciao is of conversancy with Italian. But in this case the ‘hello’ really is for me. A man in his forties strides out of a hut, his stained t-shirt a union jack. This too is common. In the city I’ve seen it on chic handbags, key fobs and the gleaming pillions of pride-and-joy motorbikes.
John Bull hasn’t a word of English but I manage to convey my desire to see the lake. Sure, his tones and gesture indicate, but first I must meet the kin. Turns out they’re lunching in the shade of a tree conveniently en route to water’s edge. JB indicates stone on ground, one of a ring on which other family members are already seated. I take my place. I’ve been in such situations before and they’re not to be turned down. On days like this, serendipity is king.
(This seems as good a place as any to share one of my top tactics for top tacticians of travel. When you find yourself without a word in common, yet are thrust once more into the role of cultural ambassador for Blighty, give the sitch and all in attendance your biggest and brightest. Grin like a maniac; look every man and woman smack in the eye. Do it for England because from a certain point of view that’s exactly what you represent; exactly why fate has chosen this precise moment to lead you to this particular juncture. I’m sure there are situations where smiling eye contact doesn’t work. It’s just that I’ve yet to come across one.)
So it’s good vibes all round. I’m offered wine – as sure a sign as the crucifixes over the doors that we’re now well off the Buddhist straight and narrow – but, serendipity or no, getting plastered in the middle of nowhere on a hot afternoon is for me off limits. To soften any offence I mime wobbling handlebars and drunken collisions. If they don’t think it’s the damn funniest thing they’ve seen all year, they do a fine job of pretending otherwise.
Next I’m offered food, JB indicating a pan housing the most unappealing mess I’ve set eyes on since my arrival in this land of culinary delights. It looks like a can of tuna, opened then left in the sun for three days. I pat my tum and carve out a buddha-like belly to suggest I’ve just eaten to bursting point – a barefaced lie I’ll probably burn for but if I had to choose I’d take the wine any day, even at cost of driving back k-lined. I’d rate it the lesser risk.
I rise to signal my desire to see the lake. It’s pastoral harmony incarnate. Children swim and frolic. Smiling women wash clothes. Offshore, a man stands in a row-boat to cast a weighted net the way I’ve seen done on the Gok at Chiang Rai. Can I take pix? Sure I can, JB gestures expansively. Why ever not?
On my way back we stop again at the family tree. JB’s wife is there, stick-thin and dressed dirt poor, baby at barely discernible breast. But she’s all smiles and I’m struck again by the cussed strength and indomitable spirit on all sides of this long suffering nation.
Time to go, but I have a dilemma. It’s not cool to wash up like this then flash the cash before stepping back into the roller and scooting off. (‘Scuse mixed metaphors.) But my God, they look like they could use some. A second dilemma follows hard on the first. Everybody knows that if you want to lend a helping hand in the third world you hold it out to the women, who are far less likely to bugger off if it’s a big handout, or get wasted if, as now, it’s a small one. I could make a PC point of handing my hundred-k note to ma but, like so many PC points, its sole impact would be to boost my sense of what a fine chap I am. If JB’s intent on getting drunk with it, he’ll have it out of her at fist-point the moment I’m gone.
In the circs I do my best. In front of everyone I hold up the three quid note and indicate with a circular motion that it’s for all – in this place not quite the loaves and fishes gesture it may seem – before handing it with a flourish to John Bull.
* * *
With a good fifteen kilometres to go before Kom Tum, the gauge points at empty. I stop to check the tank. Sure enough, you couldn’t drown an earwig in what’s left. Again I do what I can, religiously staying in high gear at cost of labouring the engine, switching off to free-wheel down every substantial decline. With seven klicks to go, a young couple spot me at it. They pull alongside, register concern. I point to the tank and give the international symbol, thumb and index finger a gnat’s apart, for ‘very little’ but my smile says I’m gonna make it. Lady Passenger reaches out her hand. I take it. Is she serious? Probably. I’ve seen this done a few times: motorbiker hauling pushbiker along in the same fashion.
After a few seconds I let go with a rueful smile – not for me – but they stay with me, driving slowly to ensure that if I do run out, they’ll be there for me. What a people!
Two klicks from KT they point out what looks like a village shop, smile, wave and speed off. Village shop sells cigs, cold drinks, sweets, assorted household goods. And litres of petrol.