I find myself in a hamlet ringed with crumbling rice paddies where a leather-faced farmer watches me, unblinking, a battered AK-47 slung across his back. The place is all huts and silent children. There is a peeling gilt temple too, a vendor peddling rotten bananas and chewing gum, a lone piece of Soviet artillery rusting in the sun. You can’t walk off the road because of the unexploded ordnance. I don’t stay for long.
ON THE HO CHI MINH TRAIL
Attapeu is a far-flung provincial capital crossroads five hours west of the southernmost Laos-Vietnam border crossing. The town is quiet and melancholy. Stained French row houses with collapsing terraces overhang dirt roads and shops signed in sweet curving Lao and the strangely accented Roman characters of Vietnamese. A handful of food stalls. A small market. Beer joints along the Xe Kong River. A fenced-off, star-crowned obelisk marks the town square.
People stop and stare, uninviting. I try to smile. My guidebook tells me that “Attapeu” translates to “buffalo shit.”
The one-eyed Vietnamese who ran the bus company from a desk in the front of a noodle shop conned me into paying 300,000 dong for a 200,000 dong ticket to Vietnam. When he handed it to me, I saw the real price printed at the bottom.
“What the fuck?”
“Because you no Vietnamese.”
The bus is only half an hour late. It’s an old clunker – vintage Japanese – with thin, flat seats and small holes rusted into the floor. The driver and his ticket collector load on rice sacks, boxes of fruit, passengers. The latter: mostly young Vietnamese migrant workers in Laos’ thriving (and illegal) forestry trade.
A stocky man in aviators gives me a thumbs up. An old soldier in olive drabs smiles. The bus chugs into gear, and we ease out of town, into the burning dawn, past fields of cracked mud and houses obscured by smoke and haze.
As we drive, we begin to climb, and farms give way to low, tangled mountains: green peaks poking above the fog clinging to valleys and crevices. The dirt road winds through towering jungle and clusters of bamboo stilt houses. Dark faces watch us bump along. Some houses have bomb casings for flowerpots, discarded jet fuel tanks for stilts.
Every once in a while, we stop at primitive logging camps to take on more passengers heading home to hand cash to their poor families in Vietnam. The further we drive, the higher we climb. The jungle grows thicker, wilder. The air cools. Looking outside the window, I see a green wall as impenetrable as the Emerald Buddha’s stare
Four decades ago, this was the heart of Ho Chi Minh Trail – an intricate series of roads and pathways that allowed the North Vietnamese Army to supply Viet Cong guerrillas in the south. Central Vietnam was a mess of fighting then. Laos – the bypass – was supposed to be neutral. Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. covertly rained more than two million tons of munitions on Laos in more than 580,000 runs, making this tiny landlocked country the most heavily bombed place on earth. Roughly 75 million tons of the bombs dropped failed to explode. As late as of 2010, only 1 percent of the unexploded bombs had been cleared.
We’re soon crawling behind a jalopy of a truck that takes up most of the narrow road. Its bed is filled with logs. We come through a pass and I can see the border station below: a small wooden cabin, a flagpole and a barrier arm. We pile out of the bus and have our papers stamped. The immigration officer doesn’t say a thing.
Back on the bus. The road widens. On either side of us, the mountains have been stripped raw. Dozens of old trucks idle on the shoulder, their beds piled high with the carcasses of the jungle’s oldest trees. Then, ahead, another barrier arm and a huge concrete and glass building flying the yellow star of Vietnam. Visa stamped. I change some money. Soon we’re winding through the grass and rock hills of Vietnam’s Central Highlands: a landscape undressed by napalm and Agent Orange.
A restaurant stop. Picking at rice. Lean dogs whining at my feet, opening and closing their sore-riddled mouths. In the back of the restaurant, a TV airs a live cockfight from a glossy stadium. I don’t understand why we’ve stopped here, an hour from Pleiku: the end of the line.
After lunch, the old soldier approaches me. He points at my chest.
“No,” I say. “Canada.”
He smiles. It doesn’t register.
“Did you fight?” I ask, miming. He nods. Back on the bus.
I flip through my guidebook. I want to get to Buon Ma Thuot, some 200km south of Pleiku, to taste what I’ve heard is the best coffee in Southeast Asia – if not the world.
I hear a splash, then shouting. The old soldier is puking. I smell shit too. The young loggers are shouting, peeling open the windows. Vomit trickles down the aisle. The old man bows his head with sickness and shame.
The Pleiku bus station is a big slab of cement protected by high cinderblock and barbed wire walls. There’s an ugly salmon-pink concrete lobby, big Chinese buses, and smaller, newer minivans. I wave goodbye to the soldier and the man in sunglasses, hoist my pack, and trudge around, looking at the cardboard signs in the buses’ windows.
This young guy in a backwards swoosh golf shirt approaches me.
“Where you go?” he says. It doesn’t sounds like a question.
I read the name I’ve scribbled on the back of my hand.
“Buon Ma Thuot” I say.
“Buon Ma Thuot.”
He shakes his head and I show him my hand. The man leads me to a newish white passenger van where a fat man with a moustache, acne, and a clean white shirt slips him a bill.
“Buôn Ma Thuột.?” the ticket collector asks, pronouncing the name in a way my tongue can’t bend. I nod and he puts my bag in the trunk,
While we wait for more people, the collector points at my sunglasses, then points to himself. He wants to try them on. I shake my head, no.
He points to the Japanese prayer beads around my neck. I mime meditation. He smiles, then points at my watch. I show him the cheap no-name digital with the words “Continus mission” printed on the band. He grabs my wrist with a meaty hand and I push him away. The collector scowls, steps away, then talks to a friend.
The ten seat van eventually fills up with sixteen people – men and women, young and old – and we take off. I’m squeezed into the front seat with the collector on my right, a woman on my left, and the driver beside her.
The collector asks everyone to pay. Each gives 60,000 dong. The collector then turns to me and points at his cash wad. I hand him a battered notebook and pen and he writes “1,000,000 đồng.” I smile, laugh, then make the mistake of writing “100,000.” The collector starts yelling and the driver guffaws. The young woman next to me looks nervous. The collector takes my pen and circles his first entry. I shake my head, grab the little notebook and put it in my pocket. When I turn around and look at the other passengers, they either frown nervously or glance away.
We drive through dead hills, past dilapidated Montagnard villages where vendors sell glass bottles of petrol (yellow) and rice wine (clear). Or is it the other way around? Traffic is sparse – only bicycles, big rusty buses, occasional shiny SUVs, old Chinese motorbikes brimming with goods and passengers (5, 6, 7…), a boy surfing on the back of a water buffalo. Too many people deformed by American defoliants.
At one of several towns, the van stops. The collector and a wiry guy in a red shirt say something to the driver and exit. Let’s call this other guy “the friend.” When I open the door to stretch, the driver starts screaming at me. He has a long scar running down his cheek. The other passengers are silent.
Suddenly, just near the minivan, I see the collector pick up a long plank off the debris-littered road and swing hard at the head of a young Montagnard. The young man, darker and smaller than the collector, hits the ground and two other Montagnards pull knives. The collector and his friend run and the driver hits the gas as the passenger door flies open and the friend jumps in. I watch the running collector shrink in the rear-view mirror until we turn a corner. The friend and the driver talk excitedly.
The ancient hill tribe people of Vietnam are mostly animists, Christians or both. The French called them Montagnards. The Vietnamese, who have treated them like animals for centuries, see them as subhumans. During the war, many tribes aided the Americans. Revenge for centuries of persecution. The Montagnards are still paying for this intransigence.
There’s a hard thud at the back of the van, then another. In the mirror I see three motorbikes, each with two Montagnards – one driving, the other hurling bricks. I look at the scared young woman to my left and point to the pink motorbike helmet in her lap.
“You better put it on.”
She stares at me, blank and terrified. A brick hits our side. The bikes are gaining. The driver floors it and another brick cracks a window. I look for a seatbelt, but there are none. I point to the woman’s helmet again, then to her head. She nods, understanding, but doesn’t put it on. The driver hunches over the wheel, staring at the road. I glance at the mirror and the bikes are receding, then gone behind a bend. The passengers cheer and the driver and friend start talking again.
I think: the collector – the fat fuck – is getting what he deserves.
Then an old cell phone sitting on the dashboard rings. The friend picks it up, smiles, says something to the driver. After half an hour of this bleak, unchanging landscape, we pull into a gas station. The passengers file out and I do too. A lit cigarette dangling from his lips, the driver fills up the van from an old-fashioned pump. The cell phone rings again and the friend answers and quickly hangs up. He says something and the driver smiles.
A white van like ours pulls up, the passenger door opens, and the collector steps out grinning thin yellow teeth under his smear of a moustache. He is unscathed. He talks excitedly. The smile disappears when he sees me.
I think of opening the trunk, taking my pack, and striking it out on the road. I think about it: this moonscape with me on my own, waving vehicles down and saying the name of a town I can’t pronounce – and that’s if the Montagnard bikers don’t get me, if the collector doesn’t run me over first. While I think about it, all the passengers get back into the van. I follow. The collector takes the wheel, the woman sits on my left, the friend sits on my right, and the driver squeezes into the back to snooze. The friend jabs me in the arm as we get back onto the lonely, narrow road.
“What do you want?”
“Yeah, you want dong.”
“Đồnnnnng,” the friend says, then something I can’t understand. The collector laughs and the friend jabs me in the arm again. The old man stuffed behind me taps my shoulder. He looks anxious, sad. He points to the collector and friend, says something. His little wife gasps and the collector turns around and curses. I take out my notebook, open it to a fresh page, and write,“100,000.”
The friend says something and the driver shouts and swerves the van. The low sun is burning fire and the slightest beginnings of violet are beginning to bleed in the east.
The friend grabs the pen and writes, “1,000,000.”
I shake my head and close the book.
The old man taps my shoulder again and makes a writing gesture. I pass him the notebook and he writes, “300,000,” then shows it to the friend who snatches it and circles the million. A million dong. Back then, that was over seventy dollars: more than a half month’s salary. I don’t have more than 400,000 dong in my pocket, but I do have a passport, credit and debit cards, three hundred dollars in American green, and travellers cheques’ worth another six hundred more in a sweat-stained money belt around my waist.
Darkness comes fast. The only lights: a single beam from the van, a crescent moon and sometimes a shack or two illuminated by a naked bulb or a generator-run TV.
The friend pokes my arm and laughs. His teeth are yellow too.
I think about getting stabbed, about being left stripped and bleeding in a ditch, the collector showing off his new clothes – my old clothes – and my shitty watch; using the pages of my notebooks to clean his wide, pimpled ass; throwing my dog-eared copies of Typee and Lord Jim into the pot-holed road. My initial anger about being gauged quickly turns into fear.
I put my hand in my satchel and wrap my fingers around the wooden handle of my folding knife. Without anyone seeing, I transfer it to my pocket. The three-and-a-half inch carbon steel blade needs oiling and sharpening and it sticks in its swollen hinge. I shudder: there would be no way to open it fast enough.
I remember something a sadistic self-defence instructor told the flabby students in my grade eight gym class: “Never pull a knife on someone who knows how to use one – you’ll get stabbed.”
My mind is bleary, eyes heavy, and it’s not even eight o’clock. The sky is a blanket of black pinned back by stars. What I think, judging by the time, must be Buon Ma Thuot looms in the distance. First farms, then shacks, then the bustle of a 300,000 person town: glowing shops, apartment buildings, neon signs, billboards advertising toothpaste and trucks, a traffic circle with a tank on a cement pedestal.
The van stops and some passengers get off. The driver helps people with their stuff while the collector and his friend keep me wedged in the front. I look out the window and see the sign: Bến Xe. This is the bus station.
“Hey buddy,” I say, pointing to myself. “Ben xe. I want to go to the ben xe.”
The collector shakes his head and the driver gets back in and we turn right off the main road and make another stop on a dark side street. The friend stays put and the collector lets the woman beside me out through the driver’s door. This is my chance. I pick up my satchel, make some crazy prayer, and dash for the door but the driver is there. I smile and he looks away. The side door opens and the collector comes in. I’m the last passenger.
The driver hits the gas and we’re racing down dark lanes: a right, a left, and a right again.
Oh God, I think, they’re going to put holes in me.
IT COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE
“Let me out you mother fucking sons of bitches. Let me out of your goddamn van! Let me out!”
With one arm, I grab the friend by the chest (the other clutches the knife in my pocket – a last resort) and I start rattling him. The collector shouts, and the driver loses his nerve, slows down.
“What did I ever do to you?” I wail, crazy-eyeing the collector, “What did I ever do to you, you godless black-hearted shit. Open the fucking door! Let me out!”
The van continues to slow and I grab the door handle, get it open. The friend tries to pull me back but I get by him – he’s small – and tumble outside with my satchel. It’s quiet, dark. The driver starts accelerating and I run after them, pounding on the van. The street is narrow, they can’t move fast, and the van eventually stops. The collector steps out roaring, arms flailing, pointing at me, coming closer. I try to pull open the trunk but it’s locked. I stand straight, hold my ground and holler.
“Open the mother fucking trunk you rank-ass cunt. If you don’t give me back my bag I’m gonna cut off your balls! I’ll circumcise your children! I’ll bust your teeth! Give me my fucking bag!”
The collector puffs out his chest and shouts his own stream of obscenities. He’s a head shorter than me but probably weighs more. His shoulders and arms are broad, but his belly is soft. I imagine my knife working through that belly. I take a step closer and whisper low and threatening.
“Give me my fucking bag.”
The collector steps back, yells something to the driver, and then points at me.
“Đồnnnnng,” he says, black eyes aflame. “Đồng!”
I look around. We’re not alone anymore. A dozen or so people are watching us from corners and windows. I reach into my left pocket and take out three crisp 100,000 dong bills: each with a smiling Ho Chi Minh on one side, and Hanoi’s Temple of Literature on the other.
The driver reaches for the money and I pull it away.
“Give me my bag you dong-hungry cunt.”
He starts shouting at me and I give him my hardest killer-eye and pound the trunk. The collector opens it and I snatch my rucksack and I drop the money. He picks up the bills, counts. I shoulder the heavy bag, shove past his sweaty chest, and start walking towards the group of spectators behind me. The collector follows, pauses, looks at the people, shouts again, and goes back to the van. They take off. The people stare at me, chatter – some smile. My hands are shaking, heart racing. I take the lane on my right and think I can see the lights of the town’s main drag past this narrow corridor of water-stained tenements.
I look nervously over my shoulder when an old car goes by – what if they come back? what if they run me over? – and I’m clutching the knife and walking fast and the ground gives way and I fall until the pavement hits my crotch with a searing flash. It takes a second before I realize what’s happened: my left leg has punched through a rusty sewer grate.
STITCHES AND STONES
Blood pouring into my boot, I get to the main street. Motorbike traffic fights with street cafés bathed in fluorescent lights where people eat noodles, baguette mystery sandwiches, and drink cups of steaming coffee and cool rice wine. Another Friday night in Buon Ma Thuot.
The people are mostly young, but some are old. Few are middle-aged. An entire generation destroyed by war. Ho Chi Minh told America, “You can kill ten of our men for every one we kill of yours. But even at those odds, you will lose and we will win.” The United States killed at a ratio of more than twenty to one.
In the light, I get my first good look at my leg. Fresh blood mixed with filth and sewer grease. Clots are forming, but not many. The cuts look very deep: a long gash curving from the front of my ankle to my kneecap and a scrape and puncture in the back of my calf. The gash exposes white pulp, pink pulses, red spongy tissue, tiny purple nodules, and the faintest white of bone. Because of the gushing blood, I can see nothing in the deep calf wound. I need stitches.
I see a glowing green cross. A pharmacy? I carefully limp through the motorbike sea to get to it.
People stare, point at my leg. I hear a few, ‘Alloe’s but am in no mood to make friends.
The pharmacy is a single display case facing the street.
“Do you know where I can find a doctor?” I ask the lab coat-wearing proprietor.
He looks me up and down, then takes some bandages and antiseptic from a shelf.
“No, a doctor,” I say, miming stitches.
The pharmacist shakes his head and I buy the supplies with the little dong I have left.
Back on the street, a neatly dressed woman grabs my wrist. She looks sadly at me and my leg and shakes her head. A man comes by on a motorbike and she hails him, talks excitedly. The man gestures for me to get on his bike.
He drives fast down the main boulevard, swerving in and out of traffic. I try to keep my blood off the beat-up machine while balancing my rucksack and clinging to the seat. What if I die in a crash?
We drive past the town on the road the van had come by and I feel anxious fear until he turns left through a gate into the muddy courtyard of a cinderblock hospital. I get off, the man smiles, waves, and drives away.
Inside: the quiet, high-ceilinged room is brightly lit. On the right are two doorless consulting rooms; on the left, a dozen beds against two walls. A pretty, young nurse dressed in pink looks up from the papers on her small desk.
“Hey,” I say, pointing to my bloody leg. “I need stitches.” The nurse’s blank expression doesn’t change. “My leg. Look: it’s all cut up.” I lift it onto her table. The nurse starts talking, stops, then giggles. She comes from behind her desk and leads me by the hand to one of the beds. She inspects my leg and clucks her tongue.
Across from me, a sweating boy hyperventilates while his exhausted parents watch with tears in their eyes. A few beds to my right, an elderly woman dozes peacefully. The boy’s breathing echoes off the cracked cement floors and pink-stuccoed walls – it is the only sound in the room. The parents look at me and back to their child. I watch geckos feast on flies around the lights. I look at the nurse who quickly blushes and turns away. I take a deep breath. Calm down.
Someone shakes my shoulder and I open my eyes to see the kind face of the doctor.
He says hello. He’s in his late thirties, round-headed, with slight lines etched into the crevices of his mouth and eyes. He’s wearing a lab coat and stethoscope and smoking a cigarette in a rubber-gloved hand.
“You call me Dr. Nguyen,” he says.
“Doctor, I think I need stitches.”
“I fell in a sewer.”
“Yeah. The metal that covers the holes in the street.”
“Why? You drink beer?”
“Hmm. You follow me.”
I hobble after the doctor into one of the examining rooms. There’s blood on the walls and floor. “You lucky,” the doctor says. “Today I no work but nurse she call and say foreigner come. I only doctor in Buôn Ma Thuột who speak English.”
The nurse scrubs my leg with soap, then splashes it with iodine. I gasp. She picks out pebbles and cement, all the while chatting with the doctor.
“She think you very handsome. She ask if you marry.”
Finished, the nurse giggles again, then flap flap flaps out the room on her thin-soled shoes.
The doctor stubs his cigarette out on the wall, drops it to the floor, and washes his gloved hands in a rust-stained sink.
“Where you from?” he says.
“Ah. Canada very good country. You like Vietnam?”
“So far so good,” I lie.
The nurse comes back with a tray of needles. The doctor pumps them into my arm, washes his hands again and takes out a hooked needle and spool of thread.
“Maybe this hurt.”
On his first try, the doctor pulls the knot through my flesh.
I bite my lip and connect the dots on the blood-splattered wall.
When he’s done, the nurse comes back with a vial of multi-coloured pills and bandages me.
Instructions: “Take off bandage in three day. Take out stitches in two week. Take three pill three times a day.” The Dutch medical student who would later take out my stitches in a Saigon guesthouse said, “These are pills for a horse and I would have used more thread.”
“Maybe you need X-ray,” the doctor eventually says, scrutinizing his haphazard work.
“Why do I need an X-ray? Nothing’s broken.”
“Maybe something stuck inside.”
“But I’m already cleaned and stitched up.”
For the first time, the doctor loses his smile.
“You have X-ray.”
The machine is old. I worry about sterilization.
Waiting on a bed for the film to develop. The boy is now asleep and the old woman is gone. After half an hour, the doctor hands me a bag with the films and says, “No problem. Now you pay.”
Rushing through my head are all the horror stories I’ve heard about foreign hospitals gauging tourists for thousands of dollars because the state-employed doctors make no more than fish-mongers.
The nurse hands me a typed invoice. 370,000 dong. Just over twenty American dollars. The unnecessary X-ray makes up more than three quarters of the bill.
All right, but, “I have no dong.”
“How you pay?”
“I don’t know.”
“ABM. You use ABM?”
“There ABM across street. You go ABM and come back.”
I hobble to the gate and the stitches pull. The machine accepts my bank card and dispenses a huge wad of multicoloured plastic money. Back inside, I pay.
“You need taxi?”
“Where you sleep?”
“I don’t know.”
When the cab arrives, the nurse waves goodbye and shouts after me, waking up the sick boy.
The driver charges me a dollar to get to a hotel. I hobble to a vendor across the street and order two sandwiches, a bottle of water and a warm bottle of beer.
People look at me and my bandages. A young man mimes a motorbike veering off the road: hands on handlebars, a crash to the ground. I shake my head and mime a fight.
That night I sleep soundly, staining the bed sheets.
THE BEST COFFEE IN THE WORLD
The next morning, crouching low in the tarp-covered market. I am the only white person to be seen. With pain, I ease myself onto the low plastic stool of a drink vendor and order, by pointing, a cup of sweet, thick coffee – the best I’ve ever had. When I take out my wallet to pay, an elderly man sitting next to me grabs my wrist, flashes me a semi-toothed smile, and hands some bills to the vendor-girl from the front pocket of his faded black suit.
“Thank you,” I say.
“No,” he says. “Thank you. Thank you for come to Vietnam.”
Daniel Otis is a Cambodia-based freelance journalist. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, the Southeast Asia Globe, and Australia’s The Monthly. This is his third piece for Errant. For more of Daniel’s writing, visit exhaustandincense.wordpress.com.