I set out from my ‘bijoux’ guest house in the small, provincial, untouristic town of Dong Hoi and headed for the incongruously psychedelic bridge which crossed the Nhat Li river.
There was not a lot to see here, the town once being the main staging post for the Viet Cong during the war, it’s environs had been completely razed to the ground.
The main sights being the bombed out church, preserved as yet another reminder of yet another U.S. war crime, and the bridge, an excellent example of a Vietnamese architect’s draw crime!
The only other vaguely historical point of interest was the remains of an ancient gate which had once been the entrance to an impressive citadel.
Sadly this was unmaintained and littered with rubbish, including a few used syringes.
Apparently this unassuming little conurbation lies on the main heroin smuggling route. The locals say the brown stuff arrives on boats and is then transported overland into Laos, just twenty miles west of here. This would explain the small underbelly of the populace which I have noticed on my meanderings – wandering aimlessly, dazed and confused. I mean them, as well as me. I had assumed there was a small underfunded, psychiatric unit nearby, I now knew better.
I crossed the funky bridge, grey and wan in it’s daytime attire and headed for the sandy spit which I’d espied from attic room days earlier. From there it had appeared close by – just a cough and a spit on a bicylce. However, as it transpired, the journey was more akin to. A case of full blown pnuemonia!
As the essential early morning Vietnamese coffee kicked in violently, I found myself pedalling furiously through the narrow lanes. The bike had ten gears apparently, although the other nine I had tried were refusing to co-operate. The bike and I were most definitely not in tandem.
After what seemed like a very short time, I found myself alongside an extremely quiet stretch of beach. Sand dunes rolled out for as far as the eye could see, and all I could hear was the noisy roar of the implacid South China Sea, crashing ferociously sounding like an oriental timpani section as it met the beach.
The sea itself was unswimmable, the current quite unmanageable, even for a cross channel veteran such as David Walliams. I had been warned to venture in by Vanh, my lovely guest house owner. Had she not been so forthcoming with her coastguardly advice, I would still not have been remotely tempted. Though impressive, majestic even, this remote stretch of ocean is terribly uninviting. The South China Sea can be incredibly agressive at times. Perhaps this great part of the Western Pacific is rebelling in response to China’s recent agression in this maritime region. That great nation seems intent on claiming most of these waters for herself, even those far from it’s shores, much to the chagrin of Vietnam and the other numerous countries who share the it’s coastline. It seems the sea is not the only part of this region with a disturbingl and dangerous undercurrent!
I was interrupted from my high-brow geo-political reverie by four young lads, who were visiting the beautiful, if deadly beach on a day trip. Do, Hi, Cok and Wi, who on mass sounded suspiciously like Donald Duck’s nephews, were having a quacking time. (Apologies!) despite the weather. And of course they went quackers when the chance of having a snap with an odd looking westerner materialised. They wanted nothing more than to beach bond with the bleach blonde who had washed up on their tumultuous shoreline. I was more than happy to oblige, they were such sweet and gentle guys, as they always seem to be in this country.
If the youth are anything to go by, surely only good things can happen here in the future.
I left the beach and cycled onto a road that was under construction. I went for some time at considerable speed, now having re-discovered the art of changing gears on a bicycle. The wind in my hair, the sun attempting to light up my face, it felt great. I was out alone, rucksacked and rebellious, ignoring the boringly dry guidebook and heading for adventure. I’d found at least half of my inner TinTin for which I’d been searching. Now for the remainder.
Then, from what seemed like no-where, two angry hounds from hell, sprung up from the side of the deserted highway and gave chase. I stood on the pedals in an attempt to accelerate away, but neither the bike nor my quadriceps responded quite as quickly as they had once done.
One of the vicious looking curs, a mean yellow thing, who looked as if he’d swallowed a box of washing powder, made bold!
It went directly for my right ankle. For a moment he caught the bottom of my jeans between his sizeable jaws and I wobbled unsteadily. Physically and mentally! I kicked out hard, there was a yelp, I did not look back as the bike suddenly kicked itself into gear and I was free. My heart was pounding, my thoughts racing faster than the guy in the yellow jersey on the Tour De France. ‘What ifs’ abounded. Not least, what if I’d been bitten?!
Especially as Andrew and I had declined the offer of a series of Rabies shots prior to setting off for eastern climes. The jabs were so expensive and the risks seemingly so distant then, as we sat comfortably ensconced in the tropical nurse’s spotless, Gibraltar surgery.
She had kindly warned us of a recent outbreak in Saigon, but we’d not been swayed. I was now busy wondering if we’d been barking mad to make such a decision when I heard loud voices coming from behind. My initial thought was that I’d raised the heckles of the mean, yellow dog’s owner and he was chastising me, even giving chase! I didn’t wait to find out, but moved up through the gears as fast as I could and turned down a sandy path just beyond some camouflaging scrub, hoping I would lose any possible pursuants.
I could hear more angry shouts, now growing more urgent, I turned to look over my shoulder. To my surprise, instead of an oriental peasant with a shovel and a pissed off mutt, there stood behind me two very serious looking men in army green uniform, with two very serious looking guns by their sides. There was not a dog or serf in sight! I slammed on the brakes, and shot them an apologetic and confused touristy look. I knew I’d obviously made a transgression somehow, perhaps they’d read the blog! I was not in such adventurous mood as to try and outride two Viet army personel who appeared highly concerned and highly armed! I did want to trigger a Viet wrong!
I turned the bike around and made my way towards them.
“No! No!” They were shrieking. Holding up their arms, and thankfully not their arms, in a crossed position in the air.
“No! No! Not allow!”
As I reached the two guys there urgency did not diminish. The taller of the two was making strange noises and waving his arms in an expansive gesture. For a moment he looked as though he was doing the dance that accompanied the Y.M.C.A., I could have giggled with nerves, I was scared enough, instead I maintained composure. He continued on with his Village People routine and with the noises, which I could now discern as ‘Boom’, ‘Bersh’, ‘Boc Boc’, etc.
It was then I twigged!
There was obviously unexploded ordinance here. I nad been warned by Vanh, and am usually very sensible under such circumstances, but ‘The Hounds Of The Baskervilles’ had put me off my pace and I’d obviously gone further off road than I had realised.
“I’m sorry, so sorry” I apologised, smiling manically. Teeth usually make a difference here.
“Thankyou, thankyou. Cam Un. Cam un.” A little bit of the local lingo goes a long way too.
At once their stern attitude changed. They were not angry with me, only concerned for my physical welfare. They smiled broadly and laughed hard. The three of us shared a moment of nervous hilarity as we shook hands and giggled energetically at the thought of me being blown to smithereens!
They were so nice, they even directed me on an alternative route, avoiding the brutish canines and the U.X.B. I was most grateful.
After another ten minutes of riding, my crotch and I needed a break. I stopped on the deserted road and took some water.
I marvelled at the construction of all the infrastructure surrounding me, and wondered at the lack of people.
Just who exactly were they putting all this structure ‘infra’!
There was nobody here!
Other than a guy on a black moped who nad been putting along very slowly ahead of me for the last ten minutes or so. Every now and then he would come to a halt, and glance, rather too conspicuously, in his rear view mirrors, seemingly to check my position.
I passed him a couple of times as he remained inexplicably stationary at the side of the deserted highway, giving him a wide berth and attempting to look confident and butch, as my late father had always dispondantly encouraged. Each time, the shrouded rider would start up again and accelerate further down the road, stopping a couple of hundred yards in front of me, looking once more to his mirrors. After about quarter of an hour of this strange duel, I began to grow a little apprehensive. What with the the mad dogs, the leftover bombs and now this mysterious biker, everything was becoming a little too ‘Herge’ – even for my liking!
My ‘Tin’ was definitely rattled.
I was alone, at least five miles from anywhere, and it felt like five hundred. There was nothing for it but too stand my ground. Dig deep and mine the other half of my Tintin spirit – discover my true metal.
I took out the mobile phone I’d had the foresight to pocket prior to venturing out and held it very obviously in my hand. I then pretended to make a phone call, shouting ridiculously loudly to ensure the masked motorcyclist could hear me. I then clicked the phone into camera mode, stood tall on the bike, and pedalled directly towards the suspected highwayman. I stopped abruptly, about twenty feet from him, lifted the camera high into the air, and took a photograph. I then put the phone back into my pocket and continued to ride past the guy, smiling confidently as I did so. As he was masked I could not tell if he reciprocated, although I had my doubts!
I cycled on, I did not look back for fear of appearing insecure. I kept my pace slow and measured – for once dad would have been proud.
After a couple of minutes, I stopped. Climbed out of the saddle and kicked on my bike-stand in the manner I imagine John Wayne would have done in a similar showdown. As I did so I clumsily bashed my ankle bone into the bike frame in a style more akin to ‘Blazing Saddles’! I tried hard not to react, but it bloody hurt. I then opened my rucksack, took out my water, and nonchalantly took a swig, missing my mouth entirely, and throwing most of the H2O into my left eye! I glanced over, as surreptitiously as I could with the one that could still focus, in the biker’s direction. He had begun to move towards me again – I held my nerve. I could hear the soundtrack of ‘The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly’ reverberating around my head at great speed.
“Duddle Uddle Urr – Durr Durr Durr”!!!
And then, suddenly, as quickly as he had appeared, the ghost-rider made a broad u-turn and crossed to the opposite lane. He then rode directly away from me. Calm and deliberate, without so much as a nod of his helmet.
We had, at last, parted company.
Not before time!
I waited a good twenty minutes, or so it seemed. The battery in the phone was exhausted, I had know way of knowing for certain. The photograph I had snapped of my shady biker friend in order to expose him, had been it’s final exposure!
I made my way calmly back towards the town, feeling partially relieved, and, egocentrically, a little proud of myself that I had managed to deter a possible highway robbery, or perhaps something worse! Either that, or my paranoid western sensibilities had got the better of me, and I had scared a poor Vietnamese joyrider witless, with an intriguing game of cat and mouse!
My gut feeling, however, points towards the former.
This country feels, and is, incredibly safe, doubtless due in some part to the fear instilled into the local population by the Vietnamese state should they dare to commit a crime. The gaols here are notoriously unreformed – Elizabeth Fry would have had a field day!
But narcotics can take away one’s fear of reprisal, and with the underlying drugs issue here unresolved, I wonder if I’d just been unlucky enough to encounter one of the few desperate local junkies out on the empty highway.
As I neared the river, a motorcycle pulled up directly alongside me.
‘Blistering Barnacles!’ I nearly jumped out of my skin!
But immediately I was greeted with a benign, smiling hello. It was Linh, one of the student waitresses employed at the small cafe opposite my hotel. She just wanted to ride beside me and chat, practicing her English as we went. I was more than happy to have her with me as we rode back towards civilisation.
“What is you name?” She asked, beaming. Innocent and guileless and with innate charm.
“Tintin” I wanted to answer. But I knew this was unfair. Cruel even, and the joke would have been lost.
“Paul”, I said, returning the smile. “It’s Paul”.
But I knew, that deep down inside, it was Tintin again. If even just for a few exciting moments.
And as the sun broke through the haze for the first time in days, so did my teenage self. I was delighted to know that the boy detective deep inside of me, almost suffocated by the trials and tribulations of adulthood, was most definitely alive and kicking, and it felt utterly brilliant.
Although, I think that may be enough solo adventure for one comic’s trip !
Tomorrow I head for Hanoi to meet up with my old partner in ryhme.
The double act is to be reunited.
But I shall always be grateful for this week I spent alone. Thankful for the hounds, the unexploded ordinance and the angel from hell, which provided me with just enough danger to resuscitate my inner child.
Now he’s been given the kiss of life, I may invite him out to play more often.
“Come on Snowy. Walkies”!