Those of you who subscribe to our monthly newsletter will have read that this post – this very post you’re reading right now – is the 100th post on our blog. In light of this spectacular news, I mentioned that I had better make it interesting.
We were in Kon Tum, a medium-sized city which served as a very lovely introduction to Vietnam. The next place we thought we’d travel to was a city called Pleiku. Here is a picture of a road map between the two cities:
It was only 50 km – a relatively short drive on a well-sealed highway. We thought that maybe we’d attempt to take the scenic route, and so chose to drive a different way instead:
This route above is about 204 km – quite a long way, but not as long as previous trips we’d done. There wasn’t any information online about this route, but the roads were yellow on both of our map programs. Yellow generally means ‘main road’, so we decided to do it.
Initially, the drive was a very pleasant one. It passed by long, narrow houses, farmlands, crossed rivers, and climbed nice, manageable hills. Importantly, the road was extremely good – a rare treat after the pot holes of Laos. This meant I could relax a little and admire some of the scenery as it sped by. Eventually we came to the town of Sa Thầy, turned left, and drove on, passing tribal settlements and their smiling inhabitants. We’d heard that around the Cambodia border the local Vietnamese can be a bit suspicious of strangers and it’s not a good idea to take photos. This was illustrated when we asked if we could take a photo of some interesting trucks being repaired. “Ah ah,” said the man, shaking his head. He was friendly enough, but didn’t want us to snap pictures. A perfectly reasonable response. We parted amicably.
Soon, we passed under a sign that read ‘Chư Mom Ray National Park’.
Wikipedia gives the park one shoddy sentence:
The national park was established according to the Decision number 103/2002/QĐ-TTg dated 30 July 2002 signed by the government of Vietnam. This decision turned the Nature Reserve into National Park.
Fascinating stuff. Other, more useful sources – namely vietnamnationalpark.org, tell us that the park covers 70,000 hectares and contains 131 species of rare, threatened orchid. Sadly, we didn’t know that at the time – we hadn’t even known we’d be driving through a national park – and we spotted zero species of any orchid. The same source includes a list of ‘many hoofed mammals’ including ‘elephant’, ‘iger (sic)’, and ‘leopard fire’. According to the Global Tiger Initiative, there is an estimated ‘handful’ of (I presume very small) tigers in the park who enjoy snacking on 1-ton gaurs. Of course, we saw none of this either.
Almost immediately after we entered, the lovely paved road morphed into head-sized rocks wedged into loose dirt and sand. I switched down to first gear and we bounced over the rubble. Soon, we came to a small stream which had to be forded. To do this, I had to clatter over loose rocks and blast up the other side – steep and boulder covered – without stalling or falling off. We managed to do this successfully with all our teeth remaining. The next challenge was a very steep uphill slog for about 500 metres. This was made up of more head-sized rocks wedged firmly in the earth, but just to add to the fun the rocks were covered in a thick layer of sand. Anybody who has ever motorcycled or bicycled will (hopefully) agree with me when I say the two worst imaginable things to ride on are sand and gravel. I previously rated gravel as the worst, because at least when you fall in sand it doesn’t tear all your skin off. Well, try sand-covered rocks, then we’ll talk.
Mercifully, we didn’t fall on the way up. Unfortunately, the bike couldn’t handle the weight and so Caroline had to walk most of it carrying nearly all our stuff in her backpack. I bounced off the seat an estimated 10cm as I rode, and stalled the bike at least twice. Normally stalling wouldn’t be so bad, but our electric starter decided to die and first gear was almost impossible to reach after successfully getting to neutral, which was also almost impossible to reach. After about two hours of this awful road we checked our GPS and realised that we’d only done 10 of the 30 kilometres of the stretch of the park. There was no way we’d be reaching Pleiku today. Not if the roads stayed this bad.
Of course, they did stay that bad. At one point, during a rare patch of smooth, solid dirt, a random sandbar manifested itself suddenly. I tried hard to control the bike, but lost it and we fell off. I say ‘off’, but really the bike tipped over and took us with it. We were still technically in ‘riding’ position, but instead of gliding forwards as one normally does on a bike, we were stationary and getting crushed and burned by the engine. After the fall it took both of us about half an hour to compose ourselves and continue on. Caroline fared the worst with a burn on her leg.
After six grueling hours, we finally made it out the other side. The road, which had been mostly deep sand and cliffs for the past 5 km, finally became sealed concrete. I could have kissed it. We had found the village of Po’lei Grap (possibly not its actual name) and so drove slowly through, enjoying the smoothness of the sealed road and attracting looks of amazement from the villagers. What in the hell were farangs doing out here? How did that pathetic looking motorcycle carry them through the jungle without falling apart?
It was 4pm, but we thought if we exited the village and turned left at the highway we’d be able to make good time and find a larger town further on. We kept driving, waving at the kids and smiling at the baffled adults. There were pigs everywhere, much to Caroline’s delight; a formation of black-and-white piglets in a row (side by side) exploded in all directions when we approached, causing me to dodge around them. Slowly, we left Po’lei Grap behind and met the highway.
Wait, what? The highway was worse than the national park. Large, wedged rocks, gravel, and sand were all thrown together and compacted by lumbering trucks into a nightmare. I would have to drive in first gear the whole way. There was no chance we’d be able to get anywhere before dark, and driving in the dark would be suicide. We were stuck between a rock and five thousand other rocks. At a loss, we turned back to the village.
We asked several people where to buy petrol as we drove back through, and eventually they led us to the one place that seemed to sell things. Several men were sitting outside the shop and greeted us with words we couldn’t understand followed by fits of laughter. We laughed along, and managed to buy petrol and drinking water before taking a seat at a picnic table. As we did, the men seated at our table all promptly stood up and moved to other chairs where they could see us better. We smiled nervously, and slowly attempted to explain our situation. I pulled out our tent and made circular hand gestures followed by the universal sign of sleep, and Caroline did her best at explaining our dilemma in Vietnamese. They looked worried and didn’t seem to understand us.
Eventually we decided to just leave and brave the rocky highway, but as we rose from our seats one very old man came over, all wrinkled, grinning a random assortment of teeth, and motioned for us to sit. A few moments later, another man pulled up on a motorbike and beckoned us to follow him. We mounted our own bike and he led us down the road towards the village’s Rong house. These houses are unique to the Central Highlands in Vietnam and are instantly recognisable, towering above all the other structures in the village with their tall roofs. There is generally one in each village, often constructed in the centre, and is used as a kind of community hall for weddings, receptions, and meetings. Usually the main living area is constructed of wood and is raised up on wooden stilts. The towering roof is often woven, but the more modern Rongs might have a roof of corrugated iron. As I already mentioned, the people in this part of Vietnam can be sensitive about photography, and so we hadn’t taken any photos of the Rong houses along the way despite how wonderful and unique they are.
We stopped outside Po’lei Grap’s Rong house and the man pointed at it. “Okay?” he asked. He was saying we could sleep inside it – an offer few people outside of these tight-knit communities would ever have the privilege of experiencing. He led us inside, threw a couple of woven mats on the wooden floor, gave us a head torch, and left us alone. We spent the evening sitting on the steps of the Rong House watching the village men play volleyball while the sun set.
At dusk, we took a walk through the village, peering into the lives of people as they peered back at us. Most people smiled, a few looked at us without expression, but nobody was outright cold. An old lady called us in to her garden and offered her chair – the only chair – to Caroline, who played the games of politeness and refused to sit upon it. In the end, nobody sat on the chair. We squatted by their fire and we made as much conversation as we could. They were a Jarai tribe, she told us, and spoke a completely different language to Vietnamese – Montok (I might be slightly off on the spelling). Caroline was delighted to learn that many of the words in the Montok language were similar to Malay, and we learned that the languages of the highland tribes actually stem from Malayo-Polynesian roots. For instance ‘hand’ in Malay is tangan, which in Montok is ngan. ‘Nose’ in Malay is hidung, which in Montok is dung. ‘Eye’ in Malay is mata, which in Montok is simply ta. In Malay, ‘wood’ is kayu, and the old lady pointed to a tree and said, “Kayoh”. It was a brilliant, starry night and I was surprised to see Orion. I don’t know much about constellations, and I didn’t realise that Orion was visible in the northern hemisphere too. Noting my interest in the stars, they told me the name: Orion is T’oh ha.
If this sort of thing interests you, here’s a link to a Jarai – English dictionary which Caroline somehow found online.
A curious crowd grew larger as we sat, but eventually we retired to the Rong house, which the old lady had called Chang Rong. We lay side-by-side on our mats in the otherwise empty meeting hall, listening to cows running (evidently they run a lot at night) and dogs howling. The wooden walls and floor planks were purposely built with gaps, so light trickled in from the few houses that were still having activities. I turned to Caroline, suddenly remembering, and said, “Well, Happy New Years Eve,” because that’s what day it was.
The next day, at 7.30 a.m. we heard a couple of loud bangs on the corrugated roof – stones from the slingshot of a boy who, with his eager young friends, wanted to see the fabled farangs emerge from their slumber. We gave them a disappointing show of tying stuff to our motorbike and giving them bleary-eyed smiles. Our plan was to tackle the highway, and so we left Po’lei Grap, waving farewell to everyone. By now, the gossip of our arrival had traveled through the village so nobody seemed surprised to see us.
As I had suspected the day before, the rocky highway meant driving in first or second gear the entire time, bumping violently in the rattling bike and watching in wonder as veterans of the road sped past me on their own bikes, seeming to glide over the bumps with barely a worry. We hadn’t had breakfast or even a proper dinner the night before. After an hour of bumping, an eatery appeared in the form of a cafe promising at least hot drinks and junk food. I entered first while Caroline fiddled with the bags. The faces of 30 men turned to stare at me and their conversations promptly ceased. I returned their looks nervously and then made a beeline for the cafe owner. Soon enough, the patrons slowly resumed their chatting.
We ordered some instant noodles and coffee, and were also served a plate of wintermelon seeds which I’d never tried before. The small shells are about the size of sunflower seeds, and have to be cracked open with your front teeth in order to reach the edible part. More often than not I bit too hard and destroyed the insides, and even when I manged to extract the edible part whole it was kind of sandy without much in the way of flavour. All in all, eating wintermelon seeds was proving to be a disappointing and unfulfilling experience.
A group of 15 men got up to leave, but one of them sauntered over to our table and sat down, digging a hand into our wintermelon seeds. He demonstrated how to eat them, and we chuckled along, then suddenly he said, “Passports,” and the mood changed somewhat. We handed over our passports, and noticed that there were two more men now seated behind us. They wanted to know what we were doing out here and where we were going. We explained, and they shook their heads. The first man-made handcuff motions and then pointed in the direction we were headed. Apparently we weren’t allowed to go any further or we’d be arrested. Where should we go, we asked, and then they told us: back the same way we’d come from – all the way back thorough the jungle of death to Kon Tum. Seriously? Yes. Seriously. We turned back.
An interesting question here might be, why? Why would we have been arrested if we’d traveled any further on a mapped road in a country that we were legally allowed to be in? The answer isn’t clear. The cops (or whatever they were) couldn’t speak any English, and our Vietnamese was very basic – too basic to ask such questions or understand the answers. It’s entirely possible that they thought we were reporters. The Central Highland minority groups have a shaky history with the government, many tribes were run out of the country and fled to Cambodia after government crackdowns in 2001. These crackdowns were as a result of tribal protests against the government regarding land and religious rights. The government has been accused of human rights abuses towards these minorities, including mutilation, torture, and the burning of churches. Even as late as September 2015, Montagnards (a term loosely used to refer to members of various Vietnamese minority groups) have been reported as being terrified of returning to Vietnam for fear of persecution.
Whatever the reason, we were resigned to travel back the way we came, and so with heavy hearts we made the drive back to village to begin the 30 km of death. Ten minutes into the jungle path I fell again, this time going down a sandy bank. Caroline got a few more bruises and I was burned by the engine, but we were lucky to escape without anything too serious or prohibitive. After that, if the road looked particularly steep or terrible, Caroline would walk it while I drove. She also suggested a system of taking a break every 5 km, and this worked very well for keeping us sane.
About halfway through, at a river crossing with a waterfall, we were yelled at by a bunch of teenagers who were plucking and cleaning a freshly killed chicken at the top of one of the tiers. They asked us to join them for lunch, which turned out to be a full hour of activity. I attempted to stay dry, but a vine I was clinging to snapped as I was traversing some rocks and I slid, fully clothed, into a convenient swimming hole. Delighted, the young Vietnamese boys half dragged me up the side of a small cliff and to a 3-metre high jumping spot. “Yaaahhh!” they cried, and I leaped into the deep water below at the base of the largest waterfall. They all jumped in after me, reverse flipping impressively and making my leap-and-flail look sad by comparison.
A few more kids came down from the forest with thick, hollow bamboo trunks, and into these they stuffed sticky rice. Coconuts were cut open and the liquid was poured in after the rice, then the trunks were placed on an open fire to cook. Another thick trunk was split into four, and the plucked, gutted chicken was spread out on it and hung over the embers to cook. We huddled in the sand to eat the meal, and a bag full of Rượu đế – distilled rice wine – was opened and shared, taken in shots from the top half of a chopped plastic coke bottle. I had only a small sip, remembering the drive ahead.
“Happy New Year!” they called. And we left them to their little waterfall party in the middle of the jungle. One of the girls who had literally clung on to Caroline the entire time looked like she was about to burst into tears because we were leaving, but we still had to get through 15 km of nightmarish road and then a further 30 km back to the city.
I’m writing this, so obviously we eventually made it safely to Kon Tum. The sun was setting as we rolled in, and we checked back into the very same hotel we’d checked out of only one day earlier. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
We got lost in a pomelo grove
We got lost and ended up teaching English for two nights
We got lost in a virgin jungle at night. Pain. Leeches.