MIA in the DMZ (Lost in Central Vietnam)

It was getting dark.  I stared at my map, trying to find out where the hell I was.  I had not passed a proper town for hours, the highway I was driving down was not even on the map and I was rapidly running out of energy.  I needed to find shelter fast, or else I would have to camp on the side of the highway.

How the hell did I get here?  I only had myself to blame and I knew it.  I had ignored the locals, followed my ‘instincts’ and subsequently lost myself in the jungle.

It all started when I left Hue.  I intended to fly up Highway 1, see a few former US military bases in the DMZ, then continue north to Phong Nha for the night.  I zipped up to Dong Ha, the seaside town smack in the middle of the DMZ.  The road forked and gave me two options: to continue north along Highway 1 to the Viet Cong’s tunnels, or to follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail west along Highway 9 to visit Khe Sanh, the sight of a former US military base and one of the bloodiest battles in all of the war.  My instincts told me to get off Highway 1 and to follow the Ho Chi Minh Trail west towards Laos, then north through the backroads to Phong Nha.

Everything went wrong from this point on.  As soon as I turned my west, the winds picked up and storm clouds flew across the border from Lao, adding to the innately eerie feeling of driving through the sickly lands of the DMZ – farmland lay fallow, the hills were brown, the villagers stared at me unsmilingly and I passed signs warning locals not to walk off the paths in the hills, lest they step on unexploded bombs and lose their legs or their life.

I passed strategic hills I had read about in history books – Hamburger Hill, The Rockpile, and Hill 881 before finally reaching Khe Sanh.  Instantly felt bad vibes as I approached the museum, as if the ghosts were watching me from behind the trees.  A lady came outside and told me to go away, the base was closed, she said.  It started raining.  A Vietnamese man appeared from nowhere and tried to sell me rusty medals from fallen US soldiers.  I told him to go away, and I turned back to the highway.

The highway was labled DHCM, which I assumed referred to Duong Ho Chi Minh, or Ho Chi Minh Highway, and I asked the locals if it lead to Phong Nha.  They shook their heads and repeatedly said, Laos!  Laos!  I ignored them, listened to my instincts and headed north on the highway.

It was beautiful.  I passed wooden villages nestled in small jungle clearings and centered around muddy water holes full of submerged water buffalo.  I didn’t pass a single person for hours.  Seriously.

Then I swung around a corner and almost fell into a huge open pit.  I realized why there was no traffic – the highway was still under construction. I stopped the bike, then shifted into first and tried to go over the steep muddy road, but the bike stalled and fell over and the scalding exhaust pipe burned my leg through my jeans.  I was frustrated, but I pushed on.

Four hours later it was getting dark and I was lost.  I was stuck in the Bermuda Triangle of Vietnam and after hours of driving I was totally lost and still hundreds of kilometers away from civilization.  It was still 120 km to Phong Nha, or four hours by bike.  I pulled out my Vietnamese phrasebook and asked a lady where I could find a guesthouse.  Dong Hoi, she said, 80 km east, 2.5 hrs by bike along an unfinished road.

I had no option.  As darkness consumed the land I pushed my bike into gear and headed up the nearly vertical dirt road, away from the paved highway and into the unknown. The road was so steep and slippery that I had to dismount and run alongside the bike as I revved the engine in first gear.

After about twenty minutes I realized I was low on petrol.  I thought I would be stuck in the worse of all situations.  Then I saw a team of road workers packing up their shovels and picks, and I asked them if they had any spare petrol.  I only needed a liter or two, just enough to be safe.  They smiled, and poured in liter after liter of petrol despite my protest, then charged me usurious rates.  It was quite literally highway robbery.

I pushed on.  It was frustrated, hungry and tired.  The highway was not completed, so there were no restaurants or petrol stations yet, just darkness.  I progressed at a snail’s pace, but finally I caught up with other traffic – massive lorries transporting rocks and tar for building the road.  They kicked up so much dust into the night sky that I could barely keep my eyes open.

The road alternated from smooth sand to dangerously loose rocks.  My eyes were full of dust and it was becoming increasingly difficult to see where I was going.  I came around a corner too fast, and when the road suddenly switched to loose rocks I lost control of my bike.

The Minsk skidded out, crashed into the ground and threw me face-first onto the rocky ground.  For a few moments I lied with my face on the ground.  My whole body hurt.  I just wanted to quit.  I sat up and looked around.  The only light was my headlight, buried beneath the rocks and pointing into the ground.  The only sound was my engine revving loudly in the dark.

I felt so alone, so unprepared, nervous, so tired, so hungry, so naïve.  I wanted to cry.  I jumped up, clenched my fists, closed my eyes, looked into the heavens and screamed a thousand frustrations into the night sky.

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I don’t want this bullshit!  I want to be in bed right now, not lost in the middle of the DMZ!!!!!!!

I opened my eyes, and stared at the bright stars above, at the North Star.  I might have been lost, but at least I had the stars to guide me.  Wasn’t this what I wanted?  Celestial navigation, pure adventure, terra incognita?  Well, I had found it, but it tasted bitterer than I had expected.

No, I could not give up now, I must push on.  I brushed the dirt off my clothes, picked up the bike, and continued on down the road, searching for a restaurant, a snack shop, anything. 

Finally I found a small store, but they didn’t have food to sell.  They offered me a cigarette.  I took two.  They offered me a cup of tea.  I drank two pots.  I smoked away my hunger and my fatigue, sipped away my frustration, thanked them and got back on my bike.  I pushed on.

Just when I felt like I could go no further, I saw a light far away in the distance – paved roads, civilization!  Eureka!  I dismounted and stumbled into the only restaurant in town and asked for rice.

I walked into the biggest piss-up I have ever encountered in of Asia.  Fifty Vietnamese truck drivers were swilling beer, eating food, smoking cigarettes, taking their shirts off and yelling at each other in Vietnamese.  My eyes stared at large pots of steaming rice, plates of chicken, pork, and vegetables.  It was a feast.  When they noticed me, all conversation stopped and it was silent.  Then they grabbed me by the shirt, sat me down, poured me a beer, and loaded me up plate after plate of rice and pork.

I was in heaven.  I gobbled down about 10 helpings, and instantly I could feel my energy returning.  It was difficult to convince them that I had to leave, but eventually they drew me a map to Dong Hoi and sent me on my way, refusing to let me pay for anything.  All 50 of them gathered around my Minsk and smiled at me as I started the bike and revved the engine.

They waved at me as I took off into the dark and I thought about the lesson of the night.  Though I wanted to quit, I sucked it up and pushed onwards and I was rewarded for my perseverance.  I thought of the character from Into The Wild, and how he died only a few kilometers from a road that would have lead him to civilization and safety.  I thought of one quote I had recently read by Rainer Maria Rilke,

“We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us.  Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them…How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave.”

As lame as it sounds, my ‘dragons’ had turned into ‘princesses,’ and I made it back to civilization in one piece.  After a day of being MIA in the DMZ, I had made very little progress towards Hanoi.  I knew I would have to make double time in the next few days, but once I checked into my hotel all my cares floated away.  I plopped onto the bed and fell asleep in all of my clothes.

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