The road from Saigon to Ba Ria was a difficult one. It was my first day on the road, and I have to admit it was a bit of a shock. The roads were jammed with hulking trucks and careening buses, and everywhere there seemed to be this endless showcase of poverty and gaping onlookers. There were no scenic vistas, and the riding was passive, at best.
I arrived in Ba Ria, a small city about 60 miles southeast of Ho Chi Minh, simply looking to get off the road. What I found there was even stranger. I appeared to be the only foreigner in town, and the meal I ate at a local haunt was bland and not at all what Vietnamese food has been made out to be (though I only paid 30.000 dong for it, which amounts to little more than a dollar). I withdrew to my room, only looking to rest and hide from the incessant staring, which was making me anxious. I really don’t like to be stared at, or to be the focus of attention, but I fully understand I am a curiosity in these parts.
Anyway, suffice it to say, the road out of Saigon was an eye-opener, and it was a huge departure from my time in the city, where the locals seemed to have at least a passing grasp of English. I had also been huddled well within my touristy confines, not at all participating in the experience I intended for myself. But every new experience comes with its own polarity of stress and excitement. Sometimes the scale tips more toward the stressful side, and that’s okay.
The morning after arriving in Ba Ria, I woke with my anxiety intact. I was mostly concerned about the road ahead, worried that the journey to Mui Ne, a coastal town known for its tourism, would be similarly riddled with poverty and industry and big trucks and gawking onlookers—not to mention a curious lack of sights.
I was completely wrong.
This journey, the road from Ba Ria to Mu Nei, exemplified why I decided to make this trip in the first place. Rice fields unfurled in every direction like cornfields in Iowa. The mountains rolled across villages like distant clouds. The people smiled, especially the children, and the roads cleared to provide an easy ride that, at times, was completely solitary. I hadn’t spoken to a fellow English speaker in more than a day, and it didn’t matter. I ordered some fantastic Pho at a roadside cafe and struggled to communicate with the purveyors, who were delightful and friendly all the same. One of them kept handing me a phone to talk to someone on the other line who spoke hardly any English—I guess to communicate the order I wanted? They clearly didn’t have many travelers in these parts, but it was good food.
After lunch I entered an even more remote region with distant, rolling mountains that seemed to pierce the clouds (though it was only a descending fog). The Honda Win served me dutifully here, and as I came out of those mountains I chanced upon a white couple riding in the opposite direction. They were on a single bike and appeared shocked to see another white person, and I have to admit I was, too.
It’d been a couple days since I’d seen another tourist. So we stopped and it quickly became apparent that we didn’t share a language—them being Russian without any understanding of English, and me being an American without any understanding of Russian. (I would find out later that the nearby city of Phan Thiet is a hugely popular tourist destination for Russians, with bilingual signage in Vietnamese and Russian.) They kept saying the word “boulder,” showing me an image on their phone of some massive, limestone statue tumbled on its side. I had no idea what it was, but we exchanged universal pleasantries (smiles, nods, thumbs up) and went our separate ways.
Then I got to Mui Ne, and it was a great, beautiful breath of fresh air: bars, restaurants, beaches, hotels, shops—all with (mostly) English signage. It’s a vacation town, clearly. I checked into a backpackers’ hostel/hotel right on the beach, recommended to me by a trio of old British ladies who appeared to have just emerged from a booze-fueled lunch. They were also very friendly.
I got a room for $15 a night, went up to the quarters and immediately decided to stay a second night. The room was clean and comfortable and had its own balcony overlooking the South China Sea. Later, I went and ate at a restaurant next door called “Joe’s BBQ,” which appeared to be owned and operated by an American couple (hence: Joe). The food was great.
The only unnerving thing about this place was the wind rolling in off the ocean. It was heavy, and it created quite a chop. Windsurfers were taking advantage. I imagine it was pouring in from the cyclone currently over the Philippines.
Anyway, I’m feeling pretty good right now. I’ll stay here another day, then head out to Dalat on Wednesday. I’ll be sure to stay off the main roads.
P.S. Here’s the ultimate me_irl: Approach a group of loitering Vietnamese dudes after leaving a bar. One of them subtly places a bag of weed into your hand and you say, “Oh no thank you—I was just bored and wanted to talk to you guys.” You hand it back and they stare at you, not understanding a word you just said, then continue with their conversation while you stand there like a jackass and leave. That happened.