Over the Hills and Far Away (Nha Trang -> Dalat, Vietnam)

Day Three on the Road marked my departure from the tourist track. Most tourists travel through Vietnam on “Open Tour Bus Tickets”, allowing them to travel to the coastal cities on a pre-purchased ticket along a pre-determined route. But I had sampled the tourists track in Nha Trang, and I had no desire to drive along Highway 1 any longer. No, I wanted to leave that all behind, to fully exercise the freedom of my motorcycle and to journey high up to Dalat and into the Central Highlands along the border with Laos.
I loaded up the bike, waved goodbye to the South China Sea, and pointed my machine west, away from the waves and into the distant mountains. I was going to Dalat, the primary hill station of southern Vietnam.
The city fell behind me and I zipped through green rice paddies where women bent over the flooded fields, tending to their crops in the same way they have for thousands of years. The fields gave way to small villages where all the houses were painted the mustard yellow of French Vietnam. Grey Catholic Churches in the Gothic style contrasted beautifully with the green fields and the yellow villages. The French colonialists might not have known how to govern decently, but they sure how to color coordinate!
It was a brilliant scene. Then my chain snapped as I was going around a turn and I almost skidded off the road. Instantly a man appeared from nowhere and helped me untangle the chain from my spokes. Then he folded down my passenger footrests, started up his bike, put his food on my footrest and pushed my bike in this manner for three kilometers to the nearest mechanic.
Twenty minutes later I was back on the road again with a repaired chain. Twenty minutes after that, my chain broke again – this time it broke so violently that it almost took my leg off with it. It wound itself around the spokes and shredded the chain guard beyond repair.
Then a 16 year old boy popped out of the bushes and began assaulting my chain with a screwdriver and a wrench! He started tearing out bits of metal and jabbering away in Vietnamese while I jumped around screaming, What the hell are you doing?!?! You are destroying my bike! He ignored my protests, and within twenty minutes he had my bike back in perfect working order. I shut my mouth.
I felt like such a worthless city-slicker. I realized how far we have fallen from this boy’s level of technical knowledge, the essential knowledge of how things work. We spend our whole lives in cities, with our eyes on the television and our noses in books, assuming we know so much about the world. Truth be told, we don’t even understand the automobiles that transport us to our offices, how to grow the food we eat, or how to tie any knots besides our shoelaces.
And yet this boy knew more about The Minsk than I did, even though he had never owned a Minsk in his life. I desire this boy’s practical knowledge almost more than the knowledge of mathematical derivatives and abstract political theories. We have grown too ignorant of the foundations of our civilization’s knowledge.
I paid the boy his due and hopped back on my bike, humbled but ready to move on into the mountains ahead. The mountains appeared as suddenly as a monsoon rain, massive eruptions of granite protruding from the wide valley below. The road’s gradual incline and gentle curves were intensified into sharp switchbacks that cut up the face of the mountainside. Waterfalls poured pure water down the cliffs and motorists frequently pulled to the side to refresh themselves in the water, even to fill their water bottles. After two hours I crested the top of the mountain and entered a new world.
Where was I? The temperature dropped abruptly and a furious wind screamed over the ridge line from Laos. No more humid sweat – I was freezing cold. I had departed from the tropics and entered into a forested mountain area, similar in climate to Oregon or Washington State. It started raining cats and dogs, so I cranked up the accelerator and zipped past lumber fields, villages, and farms. There was no one on the road – the only traffic jams were caused by errant cows.
The last 50 km took forever in the rain, but finally I spied Christian crosses on the hill beyond – a French cemetery! I must be nearing the French hill station of Dalat. I arrived soon thereafter and found a hotel. I was too exhausted to do anything but eat and sleep.
Day Three on the Road had taken me from the sub-tropical heat of Nha Trang to the sub-zero temperatures of the Central Highlands. It did not stop raining all night, and I thought of how miserable it would be to drive in this weather. I lied in bed awake at night, listening to the rain and wondering if driving through the Central Highlands was a bad idea. I estimated that it would take at least four entire days of riding to cross the Central Highlands. It was too late to turn back now, so I determined to drive forward, rain or shine. Hanoi or bust!
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