Turn Left at Khe Sanh

Taking directions has not always been my strong suit.  Waking on the mountainside in a typhoon rain, I packed up my moto and rode down the muddy trail, without a map, off through the thick jungle towards the last village I had seen, two days before. Not wanting to become fully soaked before setting off,  I packed pretty quickly, cutting some corners and not following my usual take-down camp  protocols.  Taking a few extra minutes, using a little extra care, and checking off the boxes on my standard packing up approach might have been the better path this day.  As it turned out however, no, it was not going to be the day to learn new tricks.  

The small cattle path was muddy, with wide pools, and distinctly red tinged water crossing in many places as both deep and shallow rivulets, with no real way to gauge depth without just riding straight in.  The earth here was a deep brownish-red color, and riding on the hillside, the water flowing was almost landslide in form, with as much red earth as water flowing down and blocking the path.  Soon, I saw heavy mist ahead in the valley, which I took to be smoke, and which I smelled almost immediately as confirmation.  Just then, the mini-typhoon swelled in intensity, with rain so heavy that the gaps between the huge drops seemed to vanish, leaving me inside an endless waterfall, with so much water that it filled the space at the front of my seat and I had to open my leg away from the gas tank every few seconds to let the deep pool drain off the bike. I have ridden Indian monsoons.  This seemed altogether more complete, more underwater. Simply, there was little air around me, and more water.  A lot more water than air.  As though I was slowly drowning right there astride my bike.  

Despite the thick rain, the smell of smoke was strong.  Immediately, I saw it was coming from a house with a wide canvas covered patio, abutting the road as is the custom, which I promptly rode straight underneath.  The lip of the canvas cover created a huge waterfall, blocking my view inside, and I plunged right through, grinding to a halt in the middle of four tables, two of which had until one second before been occupied by some very surprised and now scattered people.  Fortunately, they saw (or heard) me first, and nobody died in the mayhem. 

With the water draining off my Givi suit, I dismounted and pulled off my gloves, goggles, helmet, neck gear, slowly, and in the quiet that had now descended into this dry place below the tenting, placed each to hang off the moto or on the table nearest me.  The people had sat again, watching me perhaps in wonder, so I turned and with my warmest smile, greeted my new hosts with the standard Thai wai, which is hands together at the chest in an A-shape, with head down, and a small bow forward, showing respect.  I said hello in Vietnamese, smiled again and announced - with a little theatre, and great delivery, and in my very best northern and formal Vietnamese - “I am here”.  I added a smile, and a small laugh.  They all stayed frozen, then looked at each other, and then, to my great delight and hopeful expectation, burst all together into an explosion of huge laughter, which I joined, and we all laughed uncontrollably for some time together, becoming louder and louder, a riot of noise and good cheer, and then we were of course all the best of friends, as though we have known each other forever.  

This had been accompanied by a great jumping up, and now a lot of standing very near, and back slapping, and long warm handshakes, and people talking both all together and far too quickly, and pulling me to the table, each and every one of them wanting me to take the chair they had just stood from.  Then, the offers of beer, and tea, and coffee and food, and so many questions I could not keep up, so that even as I tried to answer one, three more quick questions were dropped upon me.  The handful of people became a whole community, with new ones seeming to appear from nowhere, materializing through the curtain of rain surging off the roof, and now with children, and babies, and old people, and dogs. So many dogs.  

I found that I was just north of Khe Sanh, near the old American base, and only a few hundred meters from the Laos border. It is quite possible that I woke up in Laos, given my direction, without knowing it.  The borders near here are so porous, with paths and trails and a steady flow of people from both sides moving back and forth to the other daily, as they have for centuries, and will hopefully still be doing centuries from now.  

I chose coffee, and with much ceremony I was presented with the local version of arabica, grown with great care and attention by this very family, on the nearby red hills shared within the community.  It was delicious, tasting a little of honey, and dry fields in summer, both tastes strangely out of place in the typhoon rain and soggy wetness of the place on this day.  And so this was my very first experience with the temperamental and very unique red-earth arabica of this area.  But I knew even then, it would not be my last.  I would return here again, and I would want more of this great coffee.  

The rain became lighter, and I set off, to the south, after getting some directions.  I was not sure really where I wanted to go, except southwards, and generally back toward the coastal river plains, towards Huế City and Đà Nẵng. So there was little need to be specific.  All I could remember after is that anh Dong, brother Dong, the man who gave me the great coffee, provided a very long list of quite specific instructions, none of which I really understood, plus one statement, which I only remembered days later.  He looked at my blank expression, smiled, and said, simply, “Rẽ trái ở Khe Sanh”.  Turn left at Khe Sanh.  

But by the time I reached the crossroad by Khe Sanh, the heavy rain had again arrived, my memory of the instruction had faded, and I turned right.  Onto the short road into Laos. 

(to be cont’d)

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