The Nihil Coast

May 9th 2015
Last night we slept in a pagoda about 200 kilometers east of Saigon in a small coastal province.  We entered to ask the head monk for permission to set up our mosquito net amongst the mango and coconut trees in the temple’s courtyard.  Over the past two months we have often slept in these quiet, peaceful pagodas throughout Vietnam, but this one was a little different.  As we came through the front gate we were greeted by dozens of children, all of them boys ranging in age from three to sixteen.  Several of the older boys seemed to have mental disabilities and they were all wearing brown or gray robes with their heads shaved bald save a small tonsure of hair in the front.
            “They are all orphans,” said the monk when we finally met him, “you two can sleep anywhere you like, and there are rooms with mats for sleeping as well.”  The monk was old and thin and wearing an orange robe.  We were very grateful and Chi and I went back outside to where our bikes were leaning against a wall.
            As we began to string up our net from two trees we were encircled by smiling young children eating sloppy ripe mangos.  The courtyard was dotted with sculptures and statues depicting various Buddhist themes like patience, wisdom, and restraint.  Several varieties of flowers, some stemming from plants and others from the branches of trees, were being visited by hornets the size of quail eggs and Chi and I watched as a lizard climbed the trunk of a cashew tree and then suddenly disappeared into its own stillness.  “This'd be a lovely place to grow up,” we agreed.  The children watched as we began to lay out our bedding.
            We were approached by a young man in his twenties wearing jeans and a t-shirt.  He explained that he lives and works in Saigon, but he often comes back here for months at a time to help with the children and it became apparent the this young man also grew up here as an orphan in this pagoda.  He was very curious about our time cycling around Vietnam and he insisted that we sleep in an empty room.  Minutes later we were sitting on mats in the open-air room which was lighted by a single dangling bulb.  Children were watching through the doorway or standing on stools outside the glass-less window.
            “Tonight we will all eat cơm chay together,” said the young man as he got up to leave our room and go assist with the cooking.  Cơm chay is the array of vegetarian food that would be served for supper – rice with roasted eggplant, fried tofu in tomato sauce, stir-fried cabbage and peppers, and morning glory with garlic.  This is the standard food in temples and for the pious that come here to worship.  Within these walls it is never okay to kill sentient animals - not even for food.
            Curious and quiet faces watched us as we wrote in our diaries and rolled out our bedding.  A deaf and mute boy around six years old began crying and the crying escalated as though made worse by the frustration of not being able to say what was wrong.  Chi and I noticed an older boy, handsome and compassionate, attending to the crying child.
            “Con bao nhieu tuoi?” Chi asked him, “How old are you?”
            “How long have you lived here?” but the boy didn’t answer, he became uncomfortable and just looked down at his feet.  “Come sit next to me,” Chi said touching the straw mat next to her.  The boy was hesitant and it seemed that he rarely got attention from adults.  He carried an air of maturity and politeness and he came into our room and sat down next to Chi.
            “Who brings these children here?” she asked him.
            “Most of them are left in the road outside the gate,” replied the boy, “we hear them crying and bring them in.”
            “And what about you?” Chi had her hand on the boy’s shoulder.  Again the boy didn’t answer and Chi realized that her curiosity had surfaced another awkward moment.  “Never mind that…” she said, and then she began asking him about his studies and moments later they were laughing.
            As I fell asleep I thought about the nature of the world in relation to all of these unwanted children – vulnerable, helpless, and abandoned as infants by those who are supposed to love and care for them the most – ice-cold reality.  Even Dr. Pangloss would have to admit that there seems to be some underlying cruelty woven into the fabrics of our world.  A cruelty that lashes out, indiscriminately striking the lives of some more severely than others.  So…does nature inflict these hardships in some predictable way?  Is it somehow aware of its effects on the affected?  That sounds ridiculous, I’m going to sleep.

May 10th 2015
We left the pagoda early in the morning before the sun was up and we pedaled west along an empty road lined with beautiful empty beaches.  Around noon we desperately wanted to cool our sun-baked bodies in the ocean.  As we left the road and began plowing our bikes through the sand we were approached by a Spanish guy in his mid-twenties cycling east.  With a genuine smile he explained that he abruptly quit his job working as an aero-engineer in Berlin, sublet his flat, and bought a plane ticket to India.  He bought a bicycle in Bombay and spent the last five months cycling alone from India to Vietnam.
            “They have a caste system there and the poor people are…extremely poor,” he explained as I probed him about cycling in India, which is where I am slowly headed.
           “And how did they react to you?” I asked
“They didn’t!  Often it was like they didn’t notice me, like I didn’t exist!”  He spoke flawless English in a thick Spanish accent, “and their faces, their faces were just…empty,” was how he poetically worded it.
About an hour later, with the South Vietnam sun in her full photonic fury, we cycled through a small town and were confronted with a horrible scene.  Two police officers were loading the remains of a young man into the back of an army green truck, along with the man’s mangled motorbike.  The curb was lined with somber onlookers and a lone woman was squatting on her haunches, crying hysterically right next to the chalk outline.  Next to the head of the outline lay a pool of blood about a meter in diameter and a deep red, almost purple color.  The blood was cooking on the hot black tarmac and it gave off a horrible stench – if you’ve ever been to a large mammalian slaughterhouse then you are familiar with the smell here.  All morning there had been a breeze, but it was gone now and the smell hung in the air like steam in a sauna – emptying the faces of everyone watching, Chi and myself included. Slowly cycling past the front of the police truck we saw another policeman in the driver’s seat with the windows rolled up and his face buried in his crossed arms on the steering wheel, as though the scene outside his cab was too unbearable and all he could do was sit, try to think of other things, and wait for it to be over.
As I write this, by flashlight under our mosquito net, so many thoughts are bouncing around my mind – yesterday’s unwanted children, that horrible scene this afternoon, and the empty faces awaiting me in India.  These are contrasted by the beautiful beaches, the charitable pagodas, and the strength and character of the thirteen year old boy from last night.  I was particularly struck by the look in the eye of the Spaniard as he excitedly explained how he abandoned a promising career to travel aimlessly around the world.  He was almost trembling with a mix of anticipation, fear and jubilation.  I know this feeling and from my experience there is only one way to conjure it up: you must keep the future a secret from yourself; and tap into the excitement therein.  You cannot know where you will be or what will be happening in a week, a month, or a year’s time.  It is through this self-inflicted uncertainty that I have felt the happiest, the most emotional, and the most alive.  I can feel it right now: the tightening of my abdomen and throat muscles, sporadic breathing, a tingling sensation in the front of my brain – as I try to imagine the unimaginable, the mysterious possibilities of the future. 

Chi and I have now been cycling together for 58 days from Hanoi to here.  It has been beyond incredible and the only bummer is that when we reach Saigon in a few days she will fly back to Hanoi and I will continue on alone, sunset chasing through Cambodia, Laos, Burma, etc.  We have been in love for over two years, but now both of us are painfully unsure whether or not we will ever see each other again.  Chi is sound asleep next to me, but I know I will be awake for hours – staring up at the stars, listening to the wind pass through the trees and the thousands of insects calling out to one another – while my mind instinctively fortifies itself for its next period of prolonged loneliness.

Hue to Saigon - Apr-May 2015

After leaving Hue we decided to follow the coastal road south through the provinces - the true diversity of Vietnamese culture really shows itself here: the vernacular, the thick accents, and the food all change daily along this idyllic coastline.


Hải's Monocular

A short story inspired by a couple nights in a beautiful bay in Qui Nhơn Province...

Hai’s Monocular

The four men were sitting on straw mats on the white sand and a faded blue tarp – tied at the corners to bamboo poles – was blocking out the hot midday sun.  The morning winds had died down and soft waves were coming into the bay and massaging the rocky beach.
          “Du ma cong ty du lich,” said Xeo – a short, round man with a scar from scalp to jowl, “Fuck the mother of the tourism company.”
          “Talk about something else man,” said Hai as he picked up chopsticks to rotate the whole fish in its steaming tomato-chili broth, “it’s all we heard outta you for a week.”
          The youngest of the men was bent down on all fours blowing oxygen into the hot coals underneath the fish while his father – the oldest of the four – poured another shot of clear rice wine from an old plastic petrol jug.  “What the hell else we s’pose to talk about,” snapped the old man, shirtless and skinny, “you think our problems’ll solve themselves?”  They call the old man ‘uncle Ho’ because his high cheek bones and long gray chin hairs bear a resemblance to Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese liberator whose face graces all of the country’s currency.
          “Relax uncle,” said Hai; still looking down at the fish, “We’ve got plenty of time to worry, years maybe.”
          “Years!” shouted Xeo, “people are sayin’ those sons o’whores are startin’ their constructions next month!”  He pointed to a small flat-topped mountain on the southern tip of the crescent-shaped bay, “See the mountain out on the point, I heard they’re gonna make a road up there and build some restaurant right on the fuckin’ top!”
          It was silent for a moment.  The old man’s leathery face didn’t flinch as he swallowed the liquor and immediately refilled his cup.  “You see,” he said, “ten years ago they built that damn road through here and I knew it would only lead to bad things, none of you mongrels believed me.”
All four of these men have lived in the bay for their entire lives.  They are second and third generation squid fishermen with several boats – hand-made from a thick bamboo called tre – anchored out in the water.  Every day is more or less the same.  As the sun sets behind the mountains to the west they use small orbicular rafts to ferry out to the boats.  They row out of the calm bay and lower their glowing squid traps into the dark Eastern Sea.  Just before the grayness of dawn, they return to the shore, tired and salty, with their night’s catch.  Before the sun is up their wives are loading buckets of semi-live squid, along with children in school uniforms, onto the backs of motorbikes and setting out for the town to the south.  While the women are selling and bartering at the busy market, the men are fast asleep on bamboo cots or in hammocks.  The men wake up around noon and meet under their tarp on the beach.  They eat fish, drink liquor, play xiang qi, smoke tobacco from a water pipe, and take naps until it’s time to go back out on the boats.  And so the cycle goes.
“The road has been good to us too,” said the young man to his father, “remember before the road?  We had to go to town by boat, and there was no electricity.” The young man has an old antenna TV and every evening all the children gather in his hut to watch it.
          Xeo, sitting fat and cross-legged on the mat, took a long bubbling drag from the bamboo pipe.  As he coughed out the harsh smoke he said, “Fuck the mother of electricity, we were fine before we had it.  Nothin’ but another tax we pay to those fat fucks in the government.”  The old man swayed in drunken thought and the young man squeezed a lime into the spicy broth, the snapper was nearly cooked through.
          Hai was staring south at the pass where the mountain’s ridge had a rectangular slit cut out to make way for the road, he always thought it looked like a missing tooth.  He remembered when they built the road; the explosions from the pass echoed through the bay and thick black smoke rose from old dump trucks as they patiently carted off countless tons of rock and sand.  Like tiny ants instinctively shaping the world to their liking.
The road is only about six feet wide and the once-black tarmac is now cracked and gray.  It’s mainly used by locals on motorbikes making the thirty mile trip between the town to the north and Cat Tien, the larger town to the south.  Being surrounded by mountains, the bay was only accessible by boat before the road and the only inhabitants were the squid fisherman and their families.  Now, a dozen more families have settled in makeshift shacks along the road’s sandy shoulders – the fishermen still call them ‘new people’ – and they eke out a living selling seafood, sugarcane juice, coffee, or motorbike repair.  But soon everyone had to leave the bay.

A week earlier a black SUV came to the bay with tinted windows and official blue license plates.  Out came two government officials wearing western dress clothes – shirts with the sleeves rolled up, dark slacks, and shiny belt buckles.  They both wore newly-shined shoes and what seemed to be expensive watches.  One of the officials had a thick northern accent – probably from Hanoi – and the other wore a liberal amount of cologne which, according to Xeo, smelled like a mixture of cat spray and brothel vagina.
          The officials called a meeting with the men from all the families living in the bay at one of the small seafood shacks.  About twenty men in total sat in a large circle on straw mats drinking Saigon Beer from glass mugs with ice.  The afternoon air was hot and dry and the men drank their beer in silent anticipation, all wondering why these officials had come.  They ate several plates of eel, squid, prawns, and razor clams in silence as the officials mindlessly swiped and tapped the screens of their mobile phones. 
After the meal and some awkward, generic formalities, the officials explained that all the land in the bay had been purchased by a Korean-owned tourism company.  In the coming months (all details were very vague) construction would begin on upscale hotels and restaurants catering to wealthy Vietnamese and foreign tourists.  There would be a spa, whatever that meant.  Eventually, all the families now living in the bay would have to relocate, but not to worry: everyone would receive government assistance to help with the inconvenience.  The equivalent of about forty to fifty USD would be paid depending on the size of the family. 
          The men received the news in stunned silence, exchanging glances.  Xeo was getting drunk, his scar bleached white against is chubby red face, and he looked as though he were about to explode into one of his vulgar and impassioned rants.  Hai shot him an eye-bulging look as if to say: keep your mouth shut!  He did.  The only one who spoke was the old man and he asked two questions: When do we have to leave and can we still fish and dock our boats in the bay?  The officials politically averted both questions by saying that all of those details will be negotiated with the company in the coming months.

Back on the beach, the men were taking lumps of white flesh from the fish with chopsticks and spitting bones out onto the hot sand.  Hai, who was still looking south at the pass, was reminded of his father’s toothless smile and he chuckled.
          “What’s so funny,” asked the old man.
          “He’s thinking about how tiny his dick is,” said Xeo wiggling his pinky in front of Hai’s face and making cat-call sounds.
          Hai grabbed a piece of thin firewood – glowing red at one end – and swung it at Xeo.  The fat man fell over, dropping his chopsticks and knocking over the water pipe and all four men had a good laugh.  Hai sat back down, skewered the fish’s expressionless head and sucked out the fatty meat from the cheeks.
At sixteen, already a five year veteran out on the water, Hai and his father were out on their boat on a calm night when the latter had a stroke.  Hai tried desperately to help, but there was nothing to be done.  He sat there squeezing and shaking his father by the shoulders and looked him in the eyes as the soul froze into a corpse.
          After the three day funeral and mourning period, Hai was going through his father’s meager belongings and came across a dusty old box with mementos from the Vietnam-American War.  Hai had never heard his father speak about the war.  In the box he found a typed document detailing his father’s account of the conflict.  His father could not read or write and the account was dictated to a stenographer in October 1975 – the year the war ended, the year Vietnam gained her independence, and also the year Hai was born.
          Hai squinted to read the tiny cracked print and learned that his father had been a scout for the northern Viet Minh and Viet Cong armies.  He would go fishing every night, as usual, and take notice of any American air or naval activity out on the sea.  Once every fortnight he would meet his contact from the north in the town’s market and report what he had seen.  Hai learned that his uncle (his father’s cousin) had also been giving information to the north and when the Americans found him out he had his arms and legs bound and was dropped to his death from a helicopter a few hundred feet above his village.  The report said that the falling man’s pregnant wife was nearly crushed as she desperately tried to catch the screaming body.  As Hai read, he realized that his older cousin – who he had just met for the first time at the funeral – was the son of this uncle.
          Also in the box he found some faded clothes, an old birth certificate – handwritten in French, and a pair of military binoculars.  The binoculars were Russian-made, heavy, and of very good quality.  At first, Hai had no idea what they were and when he looked through them the blurry colors gave him a headache.  Over time he learned how to quickly and instinctively dial them into focus, and even how to take them apart and clean the salty lenses.  Every day, without fail, for the next twenty-three years Hai wore the binoculars around his neck, taking them off only to sleep or bathe.  “Does he fuck his old lady with those around his neck?” Xeo would muse in his heinous, guttural voice.
          Through the clarity of the binoculars, Hai became convinced that all the things he was looking at were somehow connected.  He watched the behavior of birds and noticed connections to the weather; the density of clouds, the way the wind swayed the trees, the moon tugging at the tides – all seemed to give subtle, counter-intuitive clues about the ocean’s surface currents.  With his up-close view of gulls and dolphins as they fed, he would try to imagine the aquatic mayhem beneath the surface.  Most of the things he was seeing were visible to the naked eye, but there was something different about seeing them magnified.  It was personal and exciting and voyeuristic.  Like he were secretly watching nature undress and therefore learning things about her body that most men would never know. There was also a practical side to his observations: catching squid.
          During several years of trial and error, Hai would spend the afternoon watching the ocean, then go out and position his boat in unorthodox, seemingly random places.  The other fishermen, who fished the same spot every night, would hurl abuse on the nights Hai returned to the shore with little or no squid.  “Boy’s got a cracked coconut for a head, hard and hollow,” the old man once said as they pulled their rafts up onto the beach.  But as the years passed Hai began catching squid, a lot of squid, often returning with a full catch hours earlier than the others.  Xeo and the old man eventually sucked up their pride and began following Hai’s boat.
Word spread of Hai’s fishing prowess and sometimes the fishermen from neighboring bays would come in the afternoon and ask Hai to explain his technique.  But it was not a kind of conscious knowledge, like the kind that can be memorized from books.  It was an intuition.  An intuition slowly developed over many years and by no means something that Hai fully understood himself. “I don’t really know what to tell you,” Hai would say, “just good luck I guess,” and they always left empty-handed. 
Hai was happy to have the respect of his peers and also to help ease his community’s financial burdens.  All was going well up until a month ago.  On a windy night under an ominous full moon his binoculars slipped from his grasp and fell into the dark sea.  Hai dove in frantically trying to catch the strap, but the heavy metal sunk like a rock and settled some six fathoms beneath the surface on the ocean floor.  Losing his beloved binoculars, the only keepsake he had from his father, along with the news of their looming eviction left him in a particularly somber state. 
Hai considered going to Quy Nhon, the capital of the province, to buy a new pair.  He asked around about the price and learned that good quality binoculars can cost more than a hundred dollars.  He and his wife have a savings of more than five hundred dollars, but he could never bring himself to ask her for the money.  He knew exactly what she would say, “Are you crazy?  That money is for the children’s education, not to buy toys for their father.”
A spine, skull, and tailfin were all that was left of the fish.  The young man took a handful of dried rice noodles from a khaki satchel and dropped them into the broth to steep.  His father was already asleep in a shoelace hammock with the rib bone he used as a toothpick dangling from his half-open mouth.  The young man stirred the noodles and said, “Who knows, maybe we can keep our boats in the bay and sell our squid directly to their restaurants?”
          “Yeah, and then maybe some famous actresses will come here and give us all blowjobs,” said Xeo.
          “Hey, look at this,” said Hai, pointing down the beach.  The three men watched as a man walked from the trees to the water a few hundred meters from where they sat.  The man looked Asian and he was tall and thin and wore only a black bathing suit.  He pulled a pair of goggles over his eyes, waded into the water, and began swimming freestyle straight out towards the sea.  The young man said, “Maybe it’s just a guy who wants to swim.”
          “A tourist!” said Xeo, “somebody go tell him the hotel aint even been built yet.”
          “I’m gonna go see who he is,” Hai got up and walked down the beach.  As he got closer, Hai saw the man’s footprints and followed them to the tree line and saw that the man had a bicycle leaning up against a pine tree.  He walked up to it.  It was an old steel-framed racing bike of a design Hai had never seen before.  There was a rack over the back wheel with two saddlebags and a sleeping roll tied down with a bungee cord.  Hai looked at the bike for a long time.
          The man had swum clear out past the boats and it was thirty minutes before he returned.  He came up out of the water and back to his bike where Hai was standing.
          Hai smiled and said, “Boi gioi vay,” in his thick central-Vietnamese drawl, “You’re a good swimmer.” 
          The man smiled back and Hai realized he wasn’t Vietnamese.  Hai pointed to himself and said, “Vietnam,” then he pointed to the man.
          “Nippon,” said the man, which is close enough to the Vietnamese word for Japan that Hai understood.  Then, with no common language at all, the two men were able to exchange a lot of information using only gestures.  They established that they were both thirty-nine, that Hai was a squid fisherman with a wife and four children, and that the Japanese man did something with trains and was still single.
          The man opened one of his saddlebags and took out a small notebook.  He opened it to a page with Japanese writing at the top and the Vietnamese translation underneath.  He handed it to Hai to read:
My name is Tsukuru, I am from Japan.  In January 2014, I quit my job as a railway engineer and decided to travel indefinitely on a bicycle
Hai did the math and realized that the man had been travelling for nearly a year and a half.
          The sun was beginning to set and the Japanese man was pitching his tent and gathering wood to make a fire.  Hai went to his house and brought back a small orange fish, which he gave to the Japanese man as a gift.  Xeo came walking up, shirtless with his plump belly bouncing, “Hey, who is this guy?” he asked Hai.
          “He’s Japanese.  He’s going around the world by bicycle.”
          “What?  What the hell for?”
          “I don’t know,” said Hai.
          “Well why doesn’t he take an airplane, or at least a motorbike?”
          “I’m not sure, I guess he just wants to go on a bicycle, says he’s been cycling for a year and half.”
          “Well fuck me, that’s one crazy son of a bitch,” Xeo smiled at the Japanese man and gave him a thumbs up.  “Anyway, let’s get out to the boats.  It’s gettin’ late.”
          “You guys go ahead,” said Hai, “I’ll be out later on.”  Xeo walked off towards the rafts.
Hai sat alone on the beach and all kinds of thought were bouncing around in his head.  His wife was from the town and her family owned a few dry goods shops and they were doing well with money.  Perhaps his wife was secretly happy to be leaving the bay and returning to the town.  Though she did well to hide it, Hai always sensed her loneliness and boredom living in the bay.  But could I ever live in the town and be anything but miserable, Hai thought, surrounded by people and their gossip and judgments.  No mountains or trees or peaceful waters, only busy docks and markets teeming with strangers and the stench of their daily lives. 
          And those government officials last week still left a bad taste in his mouth.  In Vietnamese the word for ‘socialism’ is the same word as ‘equality’.  Hai thought about his uncle, falling from the helicopter, and millions of other people who died fighting for that ‘equality’.  And after all of that sacrifice what have we got?  A venal government, shamelessly flaunting its wealth and corruption, with no regard for the common man – the same common men who died putting them into power.  Hai reasoned that it was probably in human nature to abuse power.  Abusing power is one thing, but when those self-serving officials start controlling your life – telling you were to live, how to make a living – that is something different.  For thirty-nine years Hai had been completely free to do as he wished in the bay and now the poisons of the outside world were crossing the mountains and seeping into his life.
          Hai felt a tap on the shoulder.  The Japanese man was standing behind him and pointing south to the mountain on the tip of the bay – the one that Xeo said would become a restaurant.  There were four or five pillars of gray smoke with tiny fires at their bases – tiny orange dots barely visible against the darkening sky.  The mountain is covered with trees and brush; they must be clearing it to begin building.  It was the peak of dry season and had been two months since the last rain.  Those trees will burn right up, Hai thought.  He imagined all the things that live there: snakes and lizards and sparrows and millions of insects – all undisturbed for countless generations and now being smoked out, forced to find some other home. 
          The Japanese man left and when he returned he had a large monocular – like a small telescope.  Hai’s stomach tightened when he saw it.  Tsukuru focused it on the mountain then handed it to Hai.  Hai lifted it to his right eye and found the mountain.  There was a hairline crack in the outer lens and a little blur spot, but otherwise it was perfect – even better quality than the old Russian binoculars.  The mountain was nearly two kilometers away and Hai could make out flames licking the individual branches of trees.  Hai turned to Tsukuru and held up the monocular in one hand and with the other rubbed two fingers together as if to say, Can I buy this?  The Japanese traveler smiled and after a moment he held up his hand and gave a nod, Keep it, it’s yours.
That night Hai did not go out to his boat.  He sat alone on the beach staring through his new monocular, enthralled by the burning mountain.  There were great billows of white smoke as the flames tapped in to the oils in the eucalyptuses and the moisture of the cacti.  There was something soothing and hypnotic about the fire. 
          He began thinking of the Japanese man and his travels.  Leaving your country to go wander the world, never in his life had Hai heard of such a thing.  In one sense it seemed ridiculous, but Hai could also see the appeal – the new experiences, the excitement of discovering the unknown, the clarity of thought, and, above all, the freedom. I could do something like that, Hai thought, yes a life like that would suit me just fine, but I wouldn’t go on a bicycle.  I would go by boat.  Held in place by the flames, his mind fell into a long reverie, playing out his imaginary voyage in great detail.  The exotic fish he would catch and the exotic wares he would trade for his fish in foreign markets.  Strange fruits and vegetables he had never seen, and the trees and birds always changing as he circled the earth.  The fiery volcanoes he had heard about in the Philippines, and the snow! – he had once seen a postcard of a mountain in Nepal covered in snow – yes, he would have to make a journey from the coast to the mountains to see the snow!  His stomach was in knots, the abdomen tense, unable to relax – never had he felt such anticipation for the future, a yearning for the unknown.  All while watching the mountain burn.  By morning he had made up his mind.
The stars slowly faded and the sky began to gray.  The mountain was now dead – charred and black and smoldering.  The birds that used to live on that mountain were now about chirping and building new nests, as though they had already forgotten what had happened, or just didn’t care.  As the fishermen carried their squid up the beach they didn’t notice Hai still sitting at the base of a small dune some fifty yards away.  Hai waited.  When he heard the ignitions of motorbikes he got up and went home.  The Japanese man was reading a book and making tea and they both nodded a greeting as Hai passed by.
          Hai’s hut had the eerie air of a place recently full of people and now empty.  Only ten minutes before mother and children would have been swarming around – dressing, eating, arguing, starting their day.  Hai poured himself a cup of tea and sat down on the mat on the floor.  He took slow, deep breaths between sips.  He finished his tea and began going through the motions he had rehearsed in his mind a dozen times the night before.
          He got out an old duffel bag and began filling it up.  Clothes, rice, matches, a pot for cooking, chopsticks, some tea.  He remembered seeing a world map among his eldest child’s schoolwork, but he couldn’t find it.  Anyway, he didn’t think he needed a map, he knew the world was round and reasoned that if he always sailed with the shore to his right he would eventually return to where he began.  Every day he would fish and then sell or barter for any provisions he needed, but he took about twenty dollars worth of notes just in case.  He set the loaded bag outside the door and gathered up two bamboo fishing rods, nets, his wicker squid trap, and some bait.  He was ready.
          He went back into the hut and ripped a sheet of paper from a notebook and took up a ballpoint pen.  It struck him that it had been years since he’d written anything at all.  He began to pen a long letter to his wife, but at the end of the first page he was disgusted with the spelling errors, the ugliness of his hand, and his inability to express himself.  He balled it up and set it on fire in a candle dish and began again.  Keep it simple, he thought.  He wrote:
I am leaving on a trip.  I am taking my boat.  Take the children and our belongings and go stay with your family in town.  I don’t know when, but I will come back. 
He left the note on the mat under his tea cup and got up to leave.  He could not have known it at the time, but he would never return to his family.  He would simply vanish, disappearing into the unknown like some medieval explorer. 
          Tourism companies and corrupt governments were not going to burn down and reshape his life.  No, he would take control of his destiny by force and forge it to his will.  As he gathered up his things and his thoughts the adrenaline was rampant in his blood.  The mysteries of the world were waiting for him, calling to him.  A man whose thoughts had never left a small bay had become a voyager overnight and was about to embark on an odyssey.  He carried his belongings down to the beach and when he passed Xeo’s hut he could hear the fat man snoring.  Take it easy buddy, he thought with a smile.  He walked down the beach, straight towards the rising sun.  As he loaded his things into the raft and made his way out to his boat he never once looked back, the monocular dangling from his neck like a talisman.

The End


Hue - April 2015

Reaching Hue was a really great feeling, we were officially out of North Vietnam and happy to be in a world of strange accents, friendly people and amazing food.  $40 got us a room for 2 weeks in a boarding house for University students and the relaxation began - Library courtyards, books, swimming in Hue's lovely 50m pool, and eating everything in sight...

Flooded Roads in Khe Tre
Someone in Hue told us about a river with rapids/waterfalls about 2 days ride from the coast.  When we got there the storm started and we were stuck there completely alone for 2 days because of flooded roads - lots of thunder, lightning and solitude.  Our only option to eat was to fish (luckily we had a hook, line and some old bread) and make a fire.

After Khe Tre was several days of muddy roads...


Hanoi to Hue - March, 2015

The Unbearable Liberation of Being
Leaving Hanoi was an overload of emotion.  On one hand, you are saying goodbye to all of your friends, your daily routines and pleasures, and a lifestyle which you spent 2 years getting comfortable with.  On the other, you're leaving behind all of that and disappearing (with no internet or contact to anyone) into a world of uncertainty - a raw, abdomen-squeezing  excitement that many people may never experience.  At that moment, you feel a distinct sense that you no longer exist to anyone on earth that is not right here right now; nor they to you.  The liberation of breaking the connections that modern technology has worked so hard to create.

Before leaving Hanoi with Chi, I thought that I would be more or less "showing her the ropes" of this kind of travel.  It turned out quite differently - she was way more hardcore than me, she was rough, fearless, and loving every minute of it.  From Hanoi to Hue took 16 days and we never once got a room, even though a budget room here costs about $5.  We slept in Buddhist Temples, random forests and war cemeteries.  On one windy afternoon Chi fell pretty hard coming down a dirt track and got all bloodied up and I said we should get a room to relax.  Chi wasn't having it - we strung up a tarp to block the wind and slept under an idyllic bridge in Ninh Binh province.

Thai Binh
We were invited into a farmer's home in Thai Binh, he gave us a little hut to sleep in, a fishing rod for a little lake, and he fed us with amazing fish and a local delicacy for breakfast: Pig's blood steamed in a bowl with peanuts...

One Hell of a Church
After a couple ferry rides we found ourselves in Nam Dinh province and one of the first things we saw was a small crowd of men killing, torching, and shaving two large white pigs, right there on the sidewalk alongside a small canal.  A young boy was collecting blood from one of the pig’s slit throat in a bowl and we were reminded of breakfast.  We cycled the rest of the day along that canal and noticed an uncanny amount of churches – something not common in Vietnam, especially the north, where religion is not encouraged and even Buddhist temples are relatively rare.  Around 6 p.m. we entered a church hoping to ask them if we could camp under one of the buildings small awnings, even though it was Saturday night and I explained to Chi that there would be lots of bustle early Sunday morning.  We entered an area that looked like a great spot to camp and smiled at some of the children who were playing in the parking lot and we sat down and waited for an adult to notice us.  Over the last six years I had slept in many religious buildings – mosques, temples, pagodas – but this would be the first church.
The first one to come to us was a young man on a motorbike and we told him a brief story about our travels and he left to go tell the priest, whose house was next door to the church.  The priest came over dressed in jeans and an open button-up shirt with his chest exposed on a stylish retro motorbike.  In his fifties, he didn’t talk much or make eye contact, but he seemed nice enough and insisted we come to his house and have tea and sweets and talk for a while.
The three of us sat on a mat on the floor in his living room where he began ordering his wife and mother to fix the tea and cakes.  The priest told us to call him “Ong Chu” (a rough translation might be “Godfather”, a name more typical in a Vietnamese mafia than a priesthood), and his accent was quite different from what I was used to in Hanoi so he spoke mostly with Chi.  Of course, we said we were married – as was our habit – to avoid any awkward situation, especially, we thought, with a religious family.  I sat there quietly listening while Ong explained to Chi that, “Oh, yes, there have been a great many foreigners passing through this church, mostly Germans or Russians who come by car… to, you know, worship Christ and have tea with me.  They usually leave, you know, some small donation of one or two hundred USD or something, you know something small,” with a desultory wave of his hand.  Chi and I looked at each other after Ong’s last little remark – something didn’t feel right.  He went on to point to the small bridge over the canal, “Did you two cross that bridge?” “Uh, yes, of course.” “Oh well I paid for that bridge last year, it cost the church nearly forty million VND! (about $2,000),” he smeared a big, proud grin across his face.
Later Ong’s younger brother, also apparently a priest, came over and he ordered his sister-in-law to go to the market and get some scallops to grill for dinner.  This brother was wearing an imitation leather jacket and he had no facial hair aside from four or five long black hairs growing from a mole on his chin.  He took us over to see the inside of the church, which struck me as gaudy and dusty with stale air.  Along the wall were cement niches with graphic, bloody cross-bearing Christ statues.  Chi had only ever been in Buddhist temples before and the bloody sculptures of a man being tortured left her with a contemptuous smile, “Was he…from Europe?” she asked me looking at the blue-eyed statues. 
Chi and I were then taken back to Ong’s house and given a loft bedroom above the living room, which we tried to refuse, saying that we preferred to camp outside, but the priest said no, we were his guests.  While Ong and his brother were grilling scallops and drinking glass after glass of rice liquor, Chi and I kept making eyes at each other, mostly because the two men had some of the filthiest mouths we had ever heard, “that mother fucking cunt owes me money still…scattered fucking cunt” and things like that constantly and without a blink from any other family member.  I got up and went behind the house to take a cold shower before dinner.
When I came back and sat down next to Chi she whispered something to me in English so it would not be understood by anyone else.  I thought she said, “They said they want me,” or something of that nature, and I was livid with anger and on the verge of screaming at those crooked priests and putting them in their place.  Chi realized I misheard her and she calmed me down and said, “No, they said they want money.”  This did quell my anger a little; anyway it was something we had already suspected since sunset.  After the sandy, overcooked scallops and some beers Chi and I again tried to convince Ong Chu to let us camp outside, explaining that we were travelers cycling around Vietnam on a low budget and not in a position to make religious donations at the moment.  He was unable to hide his annoyance when he heard that we would not be giving him money and he made remarks about the cost of beer, liquor, and scallops.  I said, “Yes, sir, but please remember that we asked for none of it, it was all offered by you and we thought it was offered out of kindness, not for money.” “But you are a foreigner,” he countered, not at all embarrassed about what I said, “and foreigners are Christians, don’t you want to help support our local church here?”  And I went on to tell him that actually, I am not a Christian, “my wife and I are both Buddhists,” I lied.  By now his face was pig’s-blood red and he sat back and grinned at his brother and I imagined that he was telecommunicating something like, “these two  fucking cunts.”
Chi and I asked to be excused from the living room and go up to our bed, despite it being only around 9p.m.  Ong didn’t seem to object, or notice us at all anymore, and so we locked our bikes outside next to a fenced in group of muddy ducks suffering through their short lives without any access to water, and went up to our bed.  We lay there reading and writing in our diaries, but we could hear everything said in the living room below, plenty of “fucks” and “cunts”.  Ong called some friends over and soon there were five or six men beneath us playing cards, gambling and motherfucking each other.  At about midnight Chi woke me, she thought she heard them speaking about us, we listened...  A few minutes later there was a soft knock at our door.  I answered the door and it was Ong and his brother holding a piece of paper and a pen and they told me to turn the light on.  When we first arrived Ong had asked Chi for her address in Hanoi – ostensibly, to see how close she lived to his relatives there – and this address was written at the top of the paper.  Underneath was scrawled something like:
We, Mike and Chi, agree to return to x church in Nam Dinh and make a generous donation…
I felt really indignant and refused to sign it or let Chi get out of bed to sign it.  “We’ll talk in the morning, we are sleeping!” I pleaded with them and practically shoved them out of the room and latched the door.  Ong went downstairs and lit the paper on fire in a bowl and shouted up to us so that we knew what he was doing.  After a moment of silence things down there began to return to normal: a group of men drinking and gambling.  We were exhausted, we tried to sleep.

Hours later we woke up and they were still cursing and gambling in the living room below, it was about five a.m. – still dark.  Ong then threw everyone out and began dressing in his priest’s robe to go give mass.  “What a fucking nightmare of a church,” Chi and I agreed.  The two priests left and we were left alone in the house with the wife and mother who were cleaning up after the men.  Also, we were worried about the safety of our bikes – Ong telling someone to steal them or slash the tires seemed very plausible.  We went downstairs and the wife told us that Ong Chu wants us to stick around until lunch, but we said no, thank you very much, but we really must be going.  We told her we planned on cycling west, not south; for fear that Ong would somehow be able to harm us if he knew where we were going.  The bikes were still there, right next to the tortured ducks.
The wife was upset we were leaving and she even apologized for her husband.  We told her that everything was okay, there was no problem, and we really just needed to get going.  We unlocked the bikes and loaded on our saddlebags and waited a few minutes until we heard some choir music coming from the church.  Then we quietly re-crossed Ong’s little bridge and pedaled away from that parody of a church as fast as we could. 
“Baby oi,” Chi said later on as we ate noodles some forty miles south of the church, “we can stay in Buddhist temples from now on, but please no more churches, Okay?”  “Okay, baby, I know.”