December 12th, 2013
Everyone is asleep and I am writing this with such limited light that I am forced to squint and screw up my face in total concentration to see what inky scratches I am making in my notebook. This letter comes to you from Nha Trang, on the South-Central coast of Vietnam. We arrived here two days ago, after an eight-hour train from Ho Chi Minh City.
This morning we awoke early, there is only the three of us in our room and the mosquitos seemed to have feasted themselves on my sleeping corpse throughout the night. On a whim we and I decided to hire motorbikes for the day. At US$5 for the day it seemed about time we attempted to tackle the hive of activity on Vietnam’s roads and where better to attempt it than away from the chaos of Ho Chi Minh City.
We set off from Nha Trang under the vague understanding that there was a waterfall several kilometers outside the city. Almost immediately the pandemonium of the roads engulfed me. Confronted with a roundabout, I was utterly lost and confused as motorbikes whizzed around me in all directions like a swarm of bees. I slammed on my brakes and came to a standstill, utterly unable to move and unsure of what bizarre highway code ruled these alien roads.
A small Vietnamese woman on a pink moped with a bright pink helmet loosely hanging from her head hurtled straight towards me. She slammed on her brakes just in time, let out long and drawn out beep of disapproval, shook her head as if to say, “foreign idiot” and expertly maneuvered her moped around me to continue on her journey.
After what felt like a small eternity, I mustered up the courage to inch out into the continuous flow of traffic, one-centimeter at a time. The impenetrable wall of twisted steel seemed to part for me and I crept across the roundabout until I was going with the flow of traffic once again, when I felt confident enough to speed up to the speed of a light jog.
Once we had cut our teeth on the busy city roads, we headed out into the countryside to tackle roads of an entirely different nature. The traffic thinned until eventually we were two of only a handful of motorcycles tootling along towards the leafy horizon. If the motorcycles of Nha Trang were bees, the trucks which hurtled down these inter-city roads were sharks. Out of nowhere several tons of metal would hurtle past, a meter from my outstretched legs, at a speed totally inappropriate for fully-paved, well maintained roads, let alone these gravel tracks riddled with pot holes.
After more than an hour of white-knuckle driving, we were lost. We parked up at a small steel shack at the side of the road selling snacks and bought a bottle of water. With some creative hand gestures to imitate falling water, we were avidly directed to a small path snaking its way away from the road into some dense foliage.
We set off towards the heart of darkness and hadn’t been travelling long when Adam’s hard braking in front of me almost sent me careering into the back of him. Sprawled out across the road in front of him was a snake, about 150cm long, quickly making its way to the undergrowth on the other side of the gravel path.
Less than two minutes later, we encountered the first tourists we had seen on the road. A moped came flying around a corner, almost completely taking us out, with an American couple holding on for dear life. Their terror was visible in the enlarged whites of their eyes as they careered down the uneven road surface. Before they had gone 10 meters, the whole moped fell to the floor in a flurry of screams and shouts, sending the two riders tumbling unceremoniously into the dirt.
We helped them to their feet and made sure they were safe and well on their way before we collapsed in a fit of laughter and set off once again in the direction they had come.
Around 500m down the gravel track we arrived at a clearing, where a man charged us around 20,000 Vietnamese Dong (US$0.88) to leave out motorcycles and beckoned to us to follow him. We crossed a stream and scrambled up several rocks, with Adam’s flip flops barely up to the task, before the trees suddenly opened out on Ba Ho Falls.
Our self-appointed guide pointed to a rocky outcrop facing the waterfall. “There okay”. Then pointing to the other side of the same waterfall he shouted, “There die”. His ominous warning of impending death for anyone jumping off the left side of the rock as opposed to the right side was avidly taken on board. We spent several hours enjoying the falls and swimming in the water all to ourselves. Suddenly the guide returned and shouted “Careful! Many many snake!”
With yet more warnings of our impending doom, we dried off and made our treacherous way back to Nha Trang.