Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Central Highlands of Vietnam: Road Trip on Highway 27

After a short, pleasant stay in Da Lat, Nellie and I set off on a motorbike journey that will forever be etched into the annals of our minds.  Arduous, terrifying at times, and joyfully fulfilling (once completed), we attempted a 600 km round-trip journey on Highway 27 through the central highlands of Vietnam.  With extremely limited Vietnamese, a very basic map (even the omniscient Google Maps has yet to conquer this wild area), and no grizzled Easy Riders to goad us onwards, this hapless duo set off on a bright mid-morning for our intended final destination: Yak Don National Park, a massive, semi-arid deciduous forest near the border of Cambodia that has some of the last remaining wild elephants in Vietnam.

The first hour was breathtaking - as we descended from the hills encircling Da Lat into a vast, dusty valley we hurtled around sharp curves under the shade of towering conifers with the infernal buzz-saw sibilance of cicadas ringing in our ears.  Once in the flatlands, a blanket of heat was thrown over the slumbering world and somewhere in this agricultural mishmash we hit an unforeseen bump and both almost flew off the bike!  Our 20-pound pack and Nellie got at least a foot of air off of the seat, but luckily, I channeled the spirit of Evel Knievel and (miraculously) landed safely.  Feeling sheepish and providentially excused, we stopped in modest, sun-scorched Nam Ban for the first of many lukewarm beers and bowls of Pho Bo at a roadside eatery.

At this point, we still didn't quite know if we were on the right road and our moods began to dim as the long, hot valley was beginning to seem interminable.  Sun-burned, sore, and thirsty... and only a couple of hours into the longest peregrination of our life.  Then the road started drifting upwards and we were now ascending a long string of humpbacked ridgeline.  Here the flora changed dramatically into a lush, deciduous forest with thick, fertile undergrowth and a sense of all-encompassing obsolete quiet descended upon us as the snaking road became enclosed on all sides by hungry vegetation.  Despite the accumulating clouds, at the top of the first ridge our spirits lifted as Mother Nature heralded our journey with spectacular views of the surrounding area.

Then, the road instantly began to deteriorate before our very eyes and we dropped to a snails' pace as I was forced to deftly navigate around lunar potholes and vast stretches of non-sealed road that was literally torn apart at the seams.  It took almost an hour to travel 15 km down this pock-marked, vertiginous slope.  Errant bombs tossed from the heavens, a rampaging Chimera, or municipal negligence... who deserves the blame for this unseemly stretch of isolated roadway!  Nevertheless, it was not for the faint of heart and we were dog-tired and downtrodden as we pulled up to a village watering hole and slurped down another cold beer. (For the temporally inquisitive, it was about 1:30 in the afternoon at this point.)

Back on the bike, we must have went another 10 km before the road once again fell to shambles and the skies simultaneously opened up.  Equipped with rain ponchos, we continued on until the rain became overpowering and it was too dangerous to continue.  At this point, we pulled off at a remote hamlet and relaxed with Hien and her son as torrents of rainwater soaked the surrounding hills.  If it wasn't for the ever-accommodating folks in the region, we would have been up-shit's-creek-sans-paddle.

The rain subsided slightly and we wistfully headed off from Hien's sheltered abode.  Our addled thoughts ran circles in our weary heads and although the slight road markers told us we only had 100 km to Ho Lak (Lak Lake, the largest body of water in central Vietnam and a good place to find true accommodation), we were still nervous about arriving before nightfall.  Powering through driving rain, destroyed macadam finally yielded to runway-smooth asphalt and we spent the next hour or so careening through mist-enshrouded, evergreen peaks and valleys where slash-and-burn farming practices left the thick, mucid air choked with smoke.  

During this leg of the journey, the camera never made it out of the bag and my brain had long ago shut off in the freezing rain, but as Nellie clung to my sides, I felt a purely visceral relationship with the Tolkien landscape we had now entered.  Time halted as land met sky.  Clouds and mist wound tightly around the Earth and despite the occasional long-haul truck or tour van roaring past us, I felt alone.  Barren, lachrymose plains sparsely dotted with craggy, half-burnt trees spread into the distance, their post-apocalyptic nothingness interrupted only by verdant, fire-dotted hillocks and antediluvian reservoirs where unwavering waterways seamlessly pushed into long dead fields.  Amongst such primordial settings, one simply cannot feel lifeless.

75 km, 60 km, 40 km, 30 km.. the road markers indicated that we were making swift progress towards Ho Lak and as the weather cleared and we climbed the last ridge before our destination, our once doleful countenance had shifted dramatically.  Chugging up the mountainside on our Honda Wave, we increasingly passed truckloads of M'nong villagers returning home from a long day working on the hillside and we couldn't help but smile and wave wildly to each group clinging to their primitive vehicles.

Within the hour, we had entered Lien Son, a "townlet" bordering on the golden shores of Ho Lak.  We had made it after a harrowing 7 hour and 165 km drive and although the lake could be callously discounted as underwhelming to many, it was like entering the Elysian Fields for these wayward travelers.

We never did make it further than Ho Lak, as we decided to stay there for a couple of restful evenings before heading back to Da Lat.  After reading about one gals' hysterically defeating experience in Yok Don National Park (our intended destination) and hearing about its lackluster infrastructure and heavily deforested landscape, maybe it's better we never pushed on.

I recently asked Nellie about her thoughts on the journey.  Her terse summary follows: "I would not recommend this trip for the faint of heart, an inexperienced driver, or a couple whose relationship is on the rocks.  Never before have I been tested both physically and emotionally as much than on the back of a motorbike riding down good ole' Highway 27."


Stephen Freer said...

You two are tough birds. Awesome shots. What an interesting place.

Carol said...

I was exhausted after the first few miles!