. In short, though he has a wild past and is quite a character, Mr. T is a good man.
But, of course, I didn't know any of this on my first day in Hoi An, sipping my coffee and reading in one of the many cute cafes of the charming city, completely unaware of the adventure that was about to come my way. Mr. T wandered up to the balcany where I was sitting right as my coffee arrived. He started out asking the usual questions about where I was from, where I was coming from, and how long I'd been in Vietnam. Before I could really figure out what he was all about, he was sitting at my table with his book of recommendations and map open, offering his services as a motorcycle guide. By this point I was used to these tour offers and would normally have just ignored him, but I had just come off of an all night open tour bus ride from Nha Trang and was loathe to get back on another one. Plus, there was something different about this guy. We chatted for about an hour about the route we would take to the Lao Border on what would be a three day two night trip. He assured me that we would stay at affordable hotels, eat cheaply, see hill tribes, wear helmets, and experience beautiful mountain views. I was intrigued but still hesitant. And then he reached over and prepared my coffee for me so that I could drink it before it got cold. I looked Mr. T in the eye, stuck out my hand, and made the deal. We would meet at my hotel in three days, ready to start out on our motorcycle adventure through the jungle. Sometimes you just have to follow your instincts and take a little risk in life. Getting on another horrible bus just didn't feel right, and this did.
I met Mr. T on the morning of April 27th, and I must admit that I was a little nervous about this endeavor
. But, too late to worry about that now! We donned our helmets, his pretty cool-looking and mine super dorky, and headed out. We made a few of the usual touristy stops at Marble Mountain and China Beach. Both were very nice and a good leg-stretcher, but I was eager to really get on the road and up into the mountains. I didn't have long to wait. We covered 210 km on the way to Prao that day, mostly on twisty mountain roads. There's something about being on a motorcycle that is both calming and exhilerating. Here we were, the only vehicle on the road except for the occasional truck or moto, dipping and swerving along turns and around potholes. At times I was hanging on for dear life and at others I was in a total state of relaxation. As clique as it may sound, it really felt that we were one with the road. We climbed way up into the clouds, the motor straining to make the incline. Once there we paused to take in the stunning blue mountains, lush green jungle, and whispy clouds around us. And then off we were again, whizzing down the road. This was my favorite part because it was then that Mr. T turned off the motor and let gravity do its thing. We just coasted in total silence, the wind rushing in our ears as the valley below seemed to swallow us up. At the bottom of the canyon we were gliding along was a river that seemed to follow the contours of the road. It sparkled as the afternoon sun began to set, making everything all the more surreal. That night we ate tradition Vietnamese lamb with rice as the cool air of night settled upon us. I slept like a rock that night, as tired as if I had walked those kilometers instead of riden. I never knew that riding on the back of a motorcycle could be so tiring.
The next day we started early so that we could cover the 270 km to Khe Sanh with room for lots of stopping. We were definitely in the clouds all day and for the first time in almost a year I found myself shivering with the cold...it was oddly wonderful
. Today the scenery was mostly masked by the fog, but when there were little breaks in the clouds, the view was spectacular! The white of the fog beginning to lift just accentuated the bright greens and blues of the surrounding area. On a bike, you don't just look out a window at the view, you become a part of it, getting wet when it rains, feeling the chill of the wind, and breathing the fresh air unfiltered by any air conditioning or heating system. You head becomes so clear and your mind wanders all over the place. I found that while I had been sick I looked to the past, almost as if I was trying to gain some closure. Now I found myself looking to the future, envisioning myself as a travel writer or one of the people on Globetrekkers or even just as a waitress at a ski resort for a season. Teeth chattering, I no longer was amazed by the world around me, for I was a part of it, freeing my mind to think of all these other things. The possibilities seemed endless, my contentedness at where I was and where I saw myself going in the future was complete. I'll never forget that day of riding. We also stopped off at various minority groups where I "talked" with the children who would follow me around, and even tried my hand at pounding some sort of seeds that two little (and very strong!) girls were working on. I think they were amazed by me as much as I was amazed by them and the lives they led that were so different from mine. They were all such beautiful, kind people and I feel very lucky to have had them share their villages with me
. After a quick dinner, I putt on every piece of clothing I had and cuddled up with my blanket, now not so enamoured with the coldness I had missed so much, and went to sleep.
The next day was a short one and a sad one, for we had reached the Laos border. It was time to say goodbye to Mr. T, the motorcycle, and the road. But first we visited Khe Sanh, the famous US military base taken by the Viet Cong in a horrible battle where many people were killed. It was once described as hell but the site is now dominated by a spotless museum telling of the brave liberation forces that fought the Americans, and surrounded by a manicured lawn littered with remnents of shotdown airplanes. It was a sobering experience. During my travels in Vietnam, and especially in the past two days along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I had met people who told me tragic stories from the war. I had seen places were only shrubs grew because the Nepalm poisoned the earth and was told not to step off trails due to active mines, but though the effects of the war are still felt and seen everywhere, no one on my trip showed me anything but respect and kindness. I think everyone is just sick of violence and recognize, as is so important in this day and age, that a country's government can hold views quite different from the majority of its citizens. War is a terrible thing that destroys both sides, no matter who "wins" in the end. If this is particularly evident anywhere, it is in Vietnam. But anyway, back to the museum. After walking the grounds for a bit and having a last coffee with Mr. T, it was time to go those last 30 km to the border. It was a hasty goodbye, but heartfelt, and pretty soon I found myself getting my exit stamp for Vietnam. My motorcycle journey with Mr. T along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the jungle highlands of Vietnam was over. And now I faced a new jungle in a new country, alone once again. Deep breath!
Mr. T is a 37 year old Vietnamese guy born and raised in a little village in Southern Vietnam. He doesn't remember his mother, as she died when he was two. His father fought against the North Vietnamese with the American troops and was also killed in the war. He has five brothers and sisters still living. He has been many things in life - an engineer, a miner, a student (though he says not a very good one), and even an inmate. He showed me the scar from the knife wound he received during the fight that landed him in jail for a year. He told me that in his youth he was a "hothead" but that now he's calmed down with age. He is now a motorcycle guide, much like the famous Easyriders of Dalat fame, and has travelled by bike all over Vietnam with people from all over the world. His stories range from those about women trying to seduce him while on tour to those about his life as a child during and after the war. He's a man who loves his beer and women, but who also has a warm heart and feels the deep responsibility of taking care of his clients