We stared in horror at the twisted sickening metal in front of us. Our eyes flickered nervously.
“Are they – bikes?” we whispered between us.
The metallic creatures may have passed for bicycles when they left the Beijing factory in the mid thirties – but the 21st Century and rendered them as mere bastardized torture instruments.
We picked our bikes based what we assumed would cause the least amount of rectal damage, and paid the small amount of money to the women with the crooked, knowing smile.
To my surprise when I sat on the bike it did not completely fall apart – even more astonishing, when I moved the pedals in a circular motion the bike began to creek ungainly forward.
“I have absolutely no brakes” Scott shouted from behind me. I turned to look at him and was greeted by a strange concoction of fear and joy. It was the look of man that might die soon – but riding through the green rice fields of Vietnam, he would die happy. The road out of the village weaved through the fields and connected quickly with the main road. We were looking for a lake to swim in that we had been told about. Since we had arrived from the left, we swung our bikes to the right.
Despite most locals owning bikes similar to ours – four foreigners aboard these ancient beasts caused quite a stir. Heads turned, necks craned – eyes widened – children sobbed in terror. Smiles broke across the older faces – I couldn’t tell whether it was an ‘Oh, I know that pain’ kind of a smile – or an ‘I see Linh rented the shit bikes to the stupid foreigners again – she’s hilarious’ kind of a smile.
A small road broke away from the main road and led once again into the fields. In all likelihood we knew it didn’t lead to the lake but we took it anyway.
It led into a small, simple village. The road continued through the village; acting as a main road of sort – without anything remotely ‘main’ being on it. Smaller roads branched to either direction. The houses were basic – but in comparison to other Vietnamese countryside dwellings; they looked almost prosperous.
The village seemed both deserted and buzzing at the same time. Those we did see were travelling in the same direction – the opposite direction of the main road but still heading out of the village. Our curiosity – and a lack of brakes kept us clattering noisily through the village.
Eventually we were greeted by an enormous white marquee. Hundreds of people were inside, and many more milled aimlessly outside. We stared at them – they stared at us. What was coming was either a warm welcome or something sacrificial. It was impossible to know for sure.
One of the men beckoned us to come forward and motioned us to sit on four plastic stools outside the marquee. Everyone grinned awkwardly at each other. A young woman named Dieu was summoned as a translator – she turned out to be the groom’s sister and took us inside. One hundred tables packed the space, each with six chairs around it and enough food on it to test the table legs resolve. We weaved our way through a sea of quizzical but friendly faces to an empty table and sat down. Within minutes the food was being pressed upon us.
We were joined by another English speaking girl name Khanh and we sat for an hour eating and asking and answering the obvious kind of questions. Upon leaving with were issued with a shot of rice wine before meeting the bride and groom. They shook are hands politely but their faces showed the wearied strain of repeating this meet and greet process six hundred times.
They took us back to Dieu’s house. It was a simple open spaced home. An ill grandfather laid on a bed in the corner, while a group of women played with the youngest members of the family. One in particular looked like he had hit the liquor particularly hard and now sprawled in a most comatose drunkard fashion.
Dieu and Khanh kindly offered to show us they way to the lake. At the edge of the village we stopped next to a house. The stilt house style gave us a wonderful view of a small boy shitting on the ground floor.
“My uncles house” announced Dieu, “the lake is just another kilometer” she added. We left these two kind hearted girls and were soon overlooking the small lake. It was so hot I would have entertained the idea of swimming in a malarial swamp – but thankfully the lake was beautiful and clean.
A few hours later we grudgingly made our way back to our bikes. As if being sodermised by cheap Chinese exercise equipment wasn’t bad enough – Barney and I’s back tires had popped in the heat. Walking was out of the question – the heat was relentless. We mounted and began to pedal. Prospects of me having children decreased with every viscous bump. My backside screamed for mercy.
The smiles we had received hours before were now gone. I was a little ahead of the others, so when I came in contact with other people, I was alone – breathlessly panting, drenched in sweat – while attempting some kind of strange circular buttock motion to ease my aching pains. People stared in absolute horror. What is he doing? Is he rabid? Minh quick fetch my rifle.
A Bia Hoi came into view; panting hard I aimed for it. Coincidently another group was just arriving, and in it were Khanh and the groom. We were hastily invited over.
We drank so much beer I lost count. A guitar was conscripted from a nearby house and we were asked to sing an English song. There were problems with this:
A) We were quickly approaching drunk
B) The guitar was missing a cord
C) We couldn’t agree on a song that Scott or Barney could play and that we all could sing
The result was drunken mumblings often set at the wrong key. This often descended into incoherent bullshit – which amazingly seemed to go down quite well with our guests – perhaps because their drunken incoherent mumbling bullshit was even worse.
Things became serious all of sudden. I had noticed the groom had been receiving phone calls that he would ignore, or answer and speak in a flat, uninterested tone. Initially we joked that the wife would be angry – but eventually his secret floated to the surface of his beer. He was only marrying the girl because she was pregnant. There was another girl who had come to his house the previous night – sobbing for the one she loved that would be marrying another. He even said that his own mother hadn’t been informed about the wedding. Needless to say this killed the atmosphere. Eyes dropped to the floor as the groom’s eyes grew misty with drink and heartache.
He shook our hands vigorously when it was time to go and we promised to return to the village in the evening for the final festivities. As we watched the groom stumble and weave his way away I felt sorry for him – and for the pregnant wife he was about to return to.
Back in our village I dismounted and waddled towards the rental woman like a penguin with hemorrhoids, she sucked her teeth in when she saw the tire. I briefly considered announcing ‘you want to see something really bad’ before pulling my shorts down to show her my bruised and probably bleeding, ass – but the others arrived just in time. She was spared.
We returned to the village around 9pm. They had told us direction to the house, which had obviously been completely forgotten. But it could only been one place – a huge house was packed to the rafters. Children sprinted around the bottom floor, screeching at each other despite the late hour – women chatted warmly downstairs and the men seemed to be holding some kind of vodka vigil upstairs. We didn’t recognize anybody there but as twice before today we were welcomed warmly and fed and watered to bursting point. Conversations were challenging but it’s amazing how languages become easier after the fifth shot of vodka. Things predictably got a little blurry late on.
I have little recollection of this, so I’m going on Scott’s word. Exact details are sketchy but it appeared I woke in the middle of the night needing the toilet and instead of taking the conventional method of a staircase down from the second storey room – I walked to a window – pondered my actions for a few seconds – and jumped out. Scott ran down to find me being helped up by the bewildered family.
That’s all I have to say about that.
The plan had been to rise early and climb the stairs up to a cave high in the cliffs above the valley. The heat would be bearable at that time. We completely fucked the plan. Instead we climbed after 12pm, at the hottest part of the day – accompanied with the kind of raging hangover that seriously makes you consider Mormonism. It stalked me all the way to the top.
“I’m really not enjoying this” I complained petulantly half way up – my stomach lurching from side to side. Sweat heaving out of my body from places I didn’t even know had holes.
But it was worth it. We were greeted with beautiful sweeping views of the valley. The cave extended deep into the cliff. We sat and relaxed in the cool air, discussing what food we felt like eating right now. We agreed on pizza.
Instead of pizza we got rice and pork which looked like it had just been lopped off a still live pig. We prodded unsure a few times before quietly pushing it to one side. Rice will do. Pizza later.