After traveling the world for 13 months, I’m often asked the same old question: “What was your favorite part?”. This question is logical but also often loaded. Most people I speak with aren’t actually interested in the answer. They are usually interested in seeing if one of my highlights matches up with their near term travel plans. So, when someone asks me “What was your favorite part?”, I have three possible answers which I call, “The Good, the Bad and The Ugly”.
The light from my headlamp is enough to show me more than I want to see. Our guide, a friendly man named Abraham, is lying flat out on his stomach, stuffed between two flat slabs of rock, separated by a foot or 18 inches at most. He shows our group how to shuffle sideways, inching along into the darkness beyond. Inch by inch he moves, slowly evaporating into the darkness of which our group’s light cannot reach. As I watch him disappear and one of the Spanish girls in our group prepare for the voyage, I return to the question that has bothered me for the past hour or so: How on earth did I manage to find myself back in the bowels of another cave?
I woke up with a soreness in my stomach. It came and went some days and I never really knew why. But some days I would wake up and feel like I had to eat and go to the toilet at the same time. It’s a crazy feeling so I did both. Then I lay down for a little bit while Sue got cleaned up.
The sweat drips off my forehead as the sound of my heartbeat thumps in my ears. It drips freely as I’ve stopped trying to staunch the flow. There is little point as I’m already bathing in it. At this point I don’t give a damn about how I look, I just want to make it to camp. And this is day one.
We’ve been going straight up for over 40 minutes and every turn of the road only brings more road. I’ve underestimated the difficulty of the climb and am lagging in the back with Alex, a fellow trekker from Kansas, short of breath and struggling ever upwards through the 30 degree heat and thick humidity. Gabriel, our ever smiling guide, slowly matches our footsteps and councils patience. “Lento y seguro,” he says.
The Kiana’s bow soars up, pointing to the sky before cresting and diving head first into the next wave, bringing all forward movement to a temporary halt. Her steel hull echoes with a thunderous clap as wave after wave smashes against her sides. Her passengers, myself included, stand, bracing ourselves with each rise and fall, riding the motions of the ocean like a bucking bronco. Driving rain explodes against our plastic enclosure. For a brief moment, I wonder if the other half of our passengers, those that fled our boat this morning for dry ground out of exhaustion from sea sickness or a general fear for their safety, weren’t the smarter ones.
Riding an elephant is an experience that few travellers can resist. Throughout our travels in South East Asia, we were sorely tempted by the many elephant safaris and mahout experiences on offer.
The pictures are extremely enticing. Smiling tourists atop majestic elephants trekking through lush jungles, back-dropped by tumbling waterfalls. The scenery combined with the opportunity to get up close and personal with one of nature’s most beautiful and noble creatures is almost irresistible.
Islands puncture the green waters like dragon teeth, stretching high above my head. Pointy canines, massive molars and expansive incisors complete the jaw. Some are bare while others are covered in vegetation like the remains of some ancient meal. Rock surfaces are stained yellow in parts, deep scratches carving diagonally along their sides.
Our tour boat, a guppy in the mouth of this beast, casually swims with a school of others from tooth to tooth. Despite the crowd, silence mercifully dominates the audio landscape. I listen attentively, imagining the winds that wash over me to be the breath of the creature that now holds us in its mouth.
It must have been terrifying. Entombed in constant darkness of the tunnel, slowly crawling inch after agonizing inch, hands outstretched feeling for any clue of a trap. There were of course countless to look out for. The Viet Cong were creative and effective in their trap building. Home made grenades made of coke cans. Vipers stuffed in bamboo rods hanging from the roof. Hornets nests. Fake walls with Charlie waiting behind, spear in hand, peering through a peep hole. Countless nests of spiders and dens full of scorpions. The life of the Tunnel Rats – the proud, slightly insane men that explored and occasionally found the enemy in the tunnels of Vietnam – was the most danger filled and least glamorous of the US soldiers that fought in Vietnam.
Driving down the coast of Mui Ne in our bare bones jeep, the trees to my right open up to reveal the bay below. Basic life boats and larger fishing vessels bob in the waters. The popular and purpose built round boats used for fishing always amuse me. Watching a fisherman try to paddle a round boat gracefully always makes me laugh at the futility of it all.
Vietnam has a long history of throwing out colonial and imperial forces. Most famous is the Vietnam War of the American imagination. But even before the Americans, Vietnam had to throw off the colonial French, finally doing so in the victory at Dien Bien Phu. In the process of defeating first the French then Americans, a lot of artifacts of war were left behind. A few of them can be seen now in the War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh city.