Grounded in In Binh: North Vietnam

I was thumbing through a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel when our bus flew off the road and into the lime-green mountain. We heard metal scrape metal, then – for a second – the bus was weightless and drifting. Bushes smashed up against the windows before we ground to a halt, tipped at a 45-degree angle against a wall of rock. Someone screamed.

The book's title was One Hundred Years of Solitude – an inauspicious omen given that we had just crashed in Vietnam's remote highlands. But this was just the latest omen: We had suspected we were in for trouble soon after boarding in Hanoi

“I want to introduce you to an important man,” our guide had said when we reached the city’s outskirts. “This is Mr. Khanh – K-H-A-N-H.” He pointed to the excitable man behind the steering wheel who was stacking packs of cigarettes on the dashboard. “He will be our driver to Sapa, 12 hours north through steep mountains – a very dangerous route. So be nice to him.”

Mr. Khanh flattened his palm against the horn. The sea of bicycles in front of us parted slightly.

As we moved farther into Vietnam’s northern region, the bikes had thinned and been replaced by smoke-belching trucks, but Mr. Khanh had been undeterred. A graduate of the “honk-first, look-later” school of driving, he approached hairpin curves on the single-lane road with gusto. His method -- lay on the horn and charge ahead at full speed – had proved effective for the first six hours of our journey, until he rounded a curve straight into a van filled with drunk soldiers.

“Are you OK?” we looked around and asked each other after the crash. There were 24 on board – 19 foreigners and 5 locals. The bus door was flush against the embankment we’d slammed into after Mr. Khanh had swerved from the van. So we all squeezed out the back windows, jumped over the rear tire, and landed on the road five feet below.

Families trickled from a scattering of houses at the road’s side. They stared at us and pointed at our bags, but we weren’t center stage. Yet.

That honor belonged to Mr. Khanh and the soldiers, who shouted at each other, fists raised, faces an inch apart, fighting over blame for the wreck. High-pitched cries and cigarette butts volleyed back and forth. An hour later, the soldiers passed a wad of money to Mr. Khanh. The dispute had been settled. The soldiers packed up their still-mobile van and clunked away.

Our guide was the next to go. Without a phone, he had no way of communicating our broken-down situation. He flagged down a truck headed back to town, and promised to send a new bus to take us onward.

We were now alone in the middle of nowhere. Waiting.

A man in our group asked the name of the village. In Binh. No phone. No shops. Nothing except terraced rice paddies and eight tidy wood houses.

We smiled at the villagers; they stared back.

Finally, an old woman with black-and-red, betel nut-stained teeth stepped forward and shepherded us away from the roadside, where trucks whizzed by with alarming velocity. She laughed and laughed about how the males in our group wore earrings and many of the females didn’t.

Then the kids loosened up. Twenty of them crowded around us, eager to look at our cameras and guidebooks. They were whip-smart and tried to teach us to say “hello” and “thank you” and to count to 10 in Vietnamese, an act we reciprocated in English. One little boy rode his water buffalo to the gathering.

When it started to rain the families who owned the two houses closest to the crash site invited us in. Another family farther down the road prepared a noodle dinner for everyone. Their homes were humble – one big room with a bed or two and a table, and no indoor plumbing, though they each had a large working television tuned to Vietnamese variety shows.

Seven hours went by. Darkness fell like an anvil, and knee-high wisps of mist rolled in. We shared fiery home-brewed whiskey with our hosts and laughed at discussions we couldn't understand. A gentleman from Saigon translated a local proverb to make us feel better: “You learn by looking and listening as opposed to talking. That's why you have two ears, two eyes, and only one mouth.”

Since the whiskey was making speech difficult even in English, the new bus pulled up at an opportune time. The driver said he’d be taking us two hours north to Bao Yen, the closest place with accommodation for the night.

“A hotel?” we asked.

“Sort of,” he said.

We shook our new friends’ hands and thanked them for their hospitality. “Kom ern,” we said, using our recently honed language skills for "thank you." We boarded the new bus, and the villagers lined up beside it, waving and shouting goodbye. Everyone was jovial except Mr. Khanh, who hung back, keeping a protective hand on his sideways bus.

Truck stops are squalid by nature, but the truck stop at Bao Yen was in a class by itself. The rooms featured three twin-size wooden platforms, where six people were expected to sleep. The mosquito netting seemed to do more to keep the swarms of insects in rather than out. And a raucous poker game serenaded us deep into the night from the courtyard outside.

Still, we must have fallen asleep somehow, because it was suddenly morning when men on motorcycles knocked on the door, their faces hidden beneath thick helmets. They pointed to us, then to the motorcycles, then back to us, chattering with great insistence. What were they saying?

There was only one way to find out.

We climbed on behind, and held on tight. They zipped past women carrying chickens and morning glory vines, skirted potholes the size of meteor craters, and deposited us with a wave at a little restaurant with plastic tables.

Over a breakfast of rice and eggs, we heard a horn honk, and Mr. Khanh drove up in our original bus. The bus from last night had to go back to Hanoi, he said, but the original bus was just fine. OK, so it was making some odd noises, but it was fine enough to make it to Sapa. A truck driver had helped him pull it upright and onto the road, and it barely had a scratch. All it needed was a good squirt with a hose to wash off the mud and bushes, a feat that the restaurant manager helped Mr. Khanh accomplish.

We boarded, and spent the next four hours winding through fat mountains cultivated with tea, corn, and rice. Banana and cinnamon trees lined the road, along with bamboo groves cloaked in cloud. Even Mr. Khanh seemed to be enjoying the scenery, evidenced by his reduced speed and honks.

The Black Hmong and Red Dzao hill tribes populate this area that borders China. The former wear indigo clothes that stain their skin blue; the latter add a poppy-red headscarf to the mix. Most able-bodied people work in the fields, so it falls to the old women and little girls to sell opium and souvenirs to the tourists.

We could hear the females coming from far away – they wore jangley silver jewelry, and so many hoop earrings that their earlobes were elongated – but we could not escape them; they chased us down the street, then surrounded us. We spent the next two days buying useless trinkets like jaw harps and woven bracelets, and then it was time to return to Hanoi.

Mr. Khanh pulled up in – yes – the same bus. Only now, the starter wasn’t working, and we had to get out and push the bus to kick the engine into gear. As a consequence, stops would be few and far between on the way back, Mr. Khanh said.

So we were surprised when, six hours later, he pulled up next to a shuttered house and cut the motor. He must have to pee, we thought.

It took us several minutes to realize we had arrived at In Binh. Little by little, people trickled out of the fields and drifted down the road. The red-toothed old lady was back, as was the boy on the buffalo and all the other kids. We greeted each other like long-lost relatives – waving turned to handshakes turned to hugs all around. We tied bracelets (a practical gift from Sapa, after all) onto each other's wrists, the Vietnamese laughing at how much string they needed to encircle our bones. We exchanged addresses to send photos.

Mr. Khanh tooted the horn for us to re-board. "Goodbye! Good luck!" we called to our friends, then assumed our position behind the bus, and grunted and groaned as we coaxed it into motion. Hopping on, we headed back toward Hanoi's golden dragons and perfumed pagodas, water puppets and grand boulevards.

But it was an unexpected bend in the road, and eight tiny houses, that branded our memory the deepest.

May 2000 (published in Tales from Nowhere, Lonely Planet Publications 2006)

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