We made a mad sprint from Nha Trang to Hoi An over the course of four days, stopping along the way in a series of small mountain towns: Buon Ho, Plei Kan, and Thanh My. For most stretches we were the only tourists around. It was impossible to avoid stares and none of the locals spoke a lick of English, so we had to get creative with our hand gestures. Google Translate came in handy for communicating prices and simple requests like food and lodging. The Vietnamese word for beer (“bia”) is pretty easy to pronounce.
The rooms in each town were modest, to say the least. In Buon Ho, where we checked into this strange high-rise hotel, I believe we were the only guests—maybe in the whole town. That said, the days were marked by some stunning landscapes, where the mountains seemed to rise vertically overhead, looming like approaching storm clouds. We passed through a massive valley on the stretch to Plei Kan where you could see the clouds cast tight shadows for miles in every direction, and where the horizon seemed as a distant and ill-defined as that of the ocean.
We struck trouble on the ride from Plei Kan to Hoi An, which we originally planned to do in one day. After getting lunch in a small town we set out to make the ancient city by sundown. Jess and Joel fell behind somewhat, which wasn’t unusual considering they were sharing a bike and so tended to move slower, but after a few minutes of waiting George and I decided to double back to see what the trouble was. No luck.
Thinking they might have taken a wrong turn, George and I eventually opted to head to Hoi An, where surely we’d meet up with them again. About a kilometer down the road, George stopped and had this look in his eye that I couldn’t deny: He was certain something was wrong, that Joel and Jess knew the route we were taking, and that the only reason they could have fallen behind as much as they had was because of a breakdown—or worse. We doubled back (for the second time), and after a few kilometers we came around a bend to discover Joel and Jess standing on the side of the road, their bike in a rut, and a few locals helping to reattach some loose components. Joel held his elbows up to reveal huge streaks of blood down each of his forearms. Jess appeared to be fine.
Apparently Joel had lost control of the bike coming around a bend. The wheel locked straight and the two of them hurtled into a storm ditch. (Concrete trenches that run parallel to the roads in most parts of Vietnam.) The bike was pretty much fucked: The speedometer was smashed, the front forks bent and wobbly, the rear brake line loose. We jury-rigged as much as we could and wobbled over to a garage a few kilometers down the road. Once there, with the bike in the hands of an able mechanic, we set to cleaning and disinfecting Joel’s injuries. Some locals hanging out at the shop, who were visibly surprised just to see white people, helped oxidize his wounds and did most of the medical work–the whole time Joel seething under the pain of alcohol and peroxide over his open cuts. He drank a beer and smoked a cigarette through all of it. A tough Limey that one.
I found it funny how when Joel rolled up, all tattered and bloody, the locals kept pointing down the road to indicate a medical facility. He just scoffed and insisted he only wanted get his bike fixed—no need to bring doctors into any of this. Anyway, we spent a few hours there, then resolved to stay the night in a town called Thanh My, about 80 kilometers from Hoi An.
Hoi An is a beautiful little town with preserved architecture that apparently dates back thousands of years. It’s listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site, and over the past decade or so a tourist economy has emerged.
We checked into a popular backpackers hostel and drank some beers by the pool. (There were so many damn Aussies at this joint.) Later, we moved to a coffee shop across the street where there was a guitar and some percussion instruments. We played some tunes and I guess the sound of live music attracted more travelers to the joint. Pretty soon the place was packed with tourists and travelers all getting drunk and jolly and singing along to classic rock jams.
Next, we packed ourselves into a taxi van with a driver who could do little to hide his disdain for us. I’m not sure what we did. Maybe it was that we were all hammered; maybe he was just an unpleasant person. We bar-hopped through the old town and ended up at a dance club where we hijacked the music and played a lot of Outkast and James Brown and the likes. Then some Aussies showed up and the music changed to shitty EDM music, so we left. We stopped at an empty square in a vacant part of town to smoke a joint and bask in the full moon. Back at the hostel I met an Irish girl who’s friend (or uncle or something) owns The Burren, an Irish pub in Davis Square, Somerville, that I’ve frequented on many occasions. I forget her name.
I ended up staying five nights in Hoi An. Joel, Jess, and George had to speed ahead to reach Hanoi before their visas expire on the 8th, so I decided to stay behind and enjoy Hoi An for a few more days. I was pretty sad to see them go. They were great company, and we all functioned on pretty similar wavelengths.