The beautiful country around Buôn Ma Thuột captured my curiosity and began tugging at my heart the first time I rode through the central highlands, late one October. Riding from the dappled sun below the jungle canopy into fields of ripe coffee fruit, I found a small village, eager for dinner and some rest. Perhaps too eager for both, as the events of the next day might suggest.
I had generally been following the westerly Hochiminh road up from Phước Long, over near the empty Cambodian borderlands, and deeper into Đăk Nông province, heading towards Đắk Lắk, staying off the mains and wiggling my way through the dirt paths and small roads. Such a route can double or triple the time it takes to get to where you are going. But, if you do not know or even really care where you are going (my basic approach during this time), and provided you stay within the national borders, which is not always easy, it generally does not matter. Sometimes it truly does matter, particularly where borders are concerned, but that is another story for another post.
In general, moto travel in Viet Nam is very easy and you are never left long without food, fuel, friendly people, and places to sleep, which for me can range from rough camping even just a hundred or so meters off the road, to the table at abandoned roadside fruit stands (highly recommended - dry and off the ground and away from the biters), to small hotels and even private homes. Viet Nam is so very accommodating to travelers.
The town was small, but as usual food was everywhere, with the sun now dropping behind the round mountains to the west. I sat for a Saigon beer - served unchilled, but with ice (bia đá) - and a heaping plate of bò lá lốt, which I was surprised to see here in an off-the-path town so far north of Saigon, but it was perfect. Bò lá lốt is the classic southern dish of seasoned beef grilled in wild betel leaves, eaten usually rolled up in dampened rice paper with mango and veggies and dipped in, you guessed it, fish sauce with chile mixed in. Its just… heaven on earth, after a long days ride through the heat and dust.
Arriving at the small homestay dead tired, I detached one Givi hard side case, the one with my papers and toothbrush, paid the owner for the night and another warm beer, then hit the bed, barely able to get my shoes off first. I enjoyed a great sleep with the dry high plains wind blowing through the little room. It had large open windows, without glass or even shutters, and around the thatched roof it was mainly open to the bright sky, with bamboo sticks for walls, and so it had a glorious cooling wind blowing steadily straight through and a feeling of being outside. Perfect for me, and perfect for sleeping, and with surprisingly few mozzies.
Waking before the sun, I stood in the shower stall down below, where the room temperature water (that means hot) knocked the dust down onto the stone floor, where it simply drained off the side into the gardens around the sleeping hut. Wearing my morning weight jacket and long pants, I returned the side bag onto the moto, clicked my mobile onto its handlebar base, bungeed my bamboo water bottle onto the back, and setoff into the hot predawn haze towards another promising day of exploring the wilds of the western highlands.
Rather than the more travelled route up into BMT, I had decided to continue more westerly, and ride the remote borderlands hugging the Cambodian frontier for the day, peeking back out perhaps into some civilization around where the Hochiminh road crosses into Gia Lai province, southwest of Pleiku. That was the plan at least, but of course, it did not turn out so simply.
With the sun on my back, the small road turned into a smaller rural road, which became a dirt single lane for what must have been two hours, then basically ended at a T, with a small path leading off into the hills to the right, and a short path going down to a pond on the left. Of course, there was always turn around as an option. Two very poor choices. I could not remember the last house or moto I had seen, or really how far in I might be, and I realized the path after the right turn might not even be north or west, I was completely turned around and the sun was on my wrong side. Now, its true that with the twisty roads and switchbacks, sometimes the sun can be on your face and on your back inside of just a few minutes, then back again immediately to the reverse, so its very hard to use that to set your mental compass or check your course.
I pushed the power on the phone to check my location and route. Dead. I had fallen asleep without plugging in my phone. This was the day I learned to add a USB port to the bike to charge my phone. I grabbed the water bottle for a drink. Empty. I had left before breakfast with no stop for food, water, anything. I was afraid to check my gas tank.
So, there I was. No mobile, no GPS, no map, no water. I carried little food. Off the grid, remote, alone. Not sure of which way to go. Clearly, another chapter to add to my time in Viet Nam. Lost by lunch!
Using the trusted science of a coin flip, I decided to continue, turning right into the little dirt trail, thankful at least that I was on a good off-road bike.
(to be cont’d)