For Wednesday, I booked a trekking tour to climb the 3 highest peaks in Dalat. I assumed that like canyoning, I would be part of a crowd. I was wrong. Apparently, there were others supposed to come, but with the stormy skies, they canceled. The company still sent Hieu my way though. Except instead of a car, he came on his motorbike, and it was just the 2 of us.
At this point, I should note that motorbikes here are just a normal part of life. I am still not able to drive one, but I ride them fairly often. I have ridden with my realtor, my co-workers, guides, etc. I don’t love motorbikes. I feel very exposed and vulnerable even with my helmet on. The traffic patterns still seem a bit chaotic to me, but it is rare to see an accident. Apparently, to those who drive motorbikes, the chaos makes sense. So, with a bit of trepidation, I climbed onto Hieu’s bike even though I didn’t know him, and we set out for the mountains. He was a confident driver, and his bike was comfortable. Some of the construction on the roads made for a very dusty ride, and I hadn’t brought sunglasses and the helmet he lent me didn’t have an eyeshade, so I had to keep my eyes closed on some roads. After about 20 minutes of riding, he pulled over at a roadside market to buy some fruit and sweet potatoes to add to our rations for the day. I was a little mystified by the sweet potatoes. I couldn’t tell if they were raw or cooked and when I tried to ask Hieu, he wasn’t quite sure what I meant. Later, when I tried some, I realized that they had been roasted and were delicious. Hieu explained that sweet potatoes, roasted and then allowed to cool, were a very typical food for farm laborers to carry in their pockets. This was something that they would eat bites of throughout the day of labor to provide energy and fill their stomachs. I felt that it was really dry, and I can’t imagine that the laborers would carry as much water as I would want to wash down the food.
After our purchase of sweet potatoes and rambutan, we hopped back on the bike and drove a few more moments to a building at the base of the mountain where we would park our motorbike for the duration of the hike. As I dismounted the bike, I fell into the bike parked next to it and burnt my calf on the still hot exhaust pipe. Ouch. I was a little concerned about the pain and dirt that such a wound would experience on our hike, but Hieu and the people at the shop seemed much less concerned. Because I was making such a fuss, the one store owner did go into a back room and came out with some cream that Hieu applied to the wound. They seemed to think I was a bit crazy for wanting a bandage or thinking that this would be a deterrent to our hiking plans, so on we went after the ointment was applied. To be fair, whatever type of cream she brought was pretty soothing. Though there was still some discomfort around the burn, it was mostly painless throughout the day of hiking. I was as careful as possible not to let it touch any vegetation or ground.
Once our minimal doctoring was complete, Hieu and I started uphill. At first, we were on no discernible trail, but were hiking along some coffee fields. Hieu leaned through some barbed wire to pick me a few coffee beans to eat. They had a soft outer flesh that was a little bitter to the taste, but not very reminiscent of coffee flavor. Strange. Eventually, the fields gave way to a pine forest, and I guess we were officially in the national park at this point, but it was awhile until we reached the official checkin station where we paid the entrance fee of about $1 per person.
Along the way, Hieu and I chatted about our families, jobs, and future plans for our lives. I learned that he is a student at DaLat University, which he had pointed out to me during our drive. He has only been working as a tour guide for a few months, but he has been living in DaLat for a few years trying a variety of jobs to support himself. He is from a poor, northern province, and like me he grew up in a farming community. It is clear however that he experienced much more poverty and hardship. He told stories about surviving typhoons, snake-hunting, and field work. He was not looking for sympathy or shock; he was just presenting the facts of his life as he asked about the facts of mine. It was clear that his past life and current education colored his worldview. He talked knowledgeably about coffee exporting and tourism trends and regional and international history. I really enjoyed listening to his stories, and I loved that when he got into a tale he would stop to focus all of his energy on explaining a point. These chats provided rests that I needed desperately to make it up the slopes. While Hieu never seemed winded or bothered, I was pretty taxed.
When we finally made it to the top of the final peak, we started to prepare a picnic lunch. Hieu had brought SO much food. This is pretty typical of Vietnam. People are desperate to make you eat tons. For just the 2 of us, he had about 6 baguettes, a jar of peanut butter, some tofu, 2 cucumbers, 2 tomatoes, a container of mini cheeses, and fruit. How could we possibly eat all of this after eating sweet potatoes on our way up?
Luckily a couple that we passed on the trail made it to the top about 20 minutes after us, and they ate a larger share of our food than we had and spent half an hour chatting with us. Hieu loved talking, and he seemed glad to have an even larger audience. I found his generosity of possessions and self really endearing. I feel like the American attitude toward the couple who had decided to trek up a mountain without a drop of water or a bite of food on their persons would be disdain or pity, but not open invitation to make all you have readily available to said ill-prepared trekkers. Generosity was something I loved in India, and that I continue to find amazing here in Vietnam.
I was kind of wishing, selfishly, that Hieu would hurry through the kindness to strangers because a storm was rolling in and we were sure to get wet. I guess I still hadn’t fully embraced the sign on the restaurant window encouraging me to learn to dance in the rain. Eventually we said goodbye to the other couple and started down the mountain. It started raining within 15 minutes and when we stopped to secure our phones in dry places, Hieu realized that he didn’t have his motorbike keys. He figured maybe he dropped them at the top, so he decided to run (and I do mean run) back to the top to look for them while I continued making my way down. He assured me that if I stayed on the trail, he would find me. I kept walking. Because the rain was making the jungle path a little more slippery than it already was and because I didn’t want to be without Hieu’s guidance for hours without end, I attempted to make progress without speed.
Soon enough, Hieu found me and shared that he had not been successful in locating the keys. I theorized that maybe he had left them in the bike with all the excitement of me burning my leg, but he assured me that he never would have forgotten them there. He resolved to look again at our first water stop on the way down to see if they fell out when he got the water out of his bag. For the first part of the hike down, we had to retrace our steps on the trail, but after the entrance to the park, we could either go back through the pine forest or walk down the road that ran from the bottom of the first mountain to park entrance. Since it was pouring at this point and it seemed that maybe we would be calling a key maker at the bottom, we decided to take the road (a more direct route) down. It was still quite a few kilometers and steep, but it was easy to navigate and not too slippery. After a bit, Hieu suggested that I teach him some English songs and that he would sing some Vietnamese songs for me. I said that he should go first. He did. Then it was my turn, and I couldn’t really think of any songs that I knew all the words of, except Penn State’s alma mater and fight songs. So I taught him those! Then he sang some songs about DaLat University (in Vietnamese) and then songs about the Mekong Delta and his hometown. Then, he really wanted to sing popular American songs. Those of you who have ever been subjected to my singing know that I rarely know more than a few words in a row and that I can’t carry a tune, but together, we sang a few songs. Sometimes, he would know a couple of words of a song and I would teach him the rest of what I knew about that song. This led to us singing some Brittany Spears, R. Kelly, and Eagles songs. Remember that I already told you the music selections in Vietnam are eclectic and hilarious. Then, I decided to teach him some songs from Aida, The Sound of Music, and Annie. He had heard “Tomorrow” before on youtube and raved about the little redhead who sang it. It was sort of a highlight of our sing along experience. I imagine that if we had passed others, they would have found our descent wildly strange, but it was genuinely fun, and it seemed that we were reaching the bottom in no time.
When we reentered the shop where we had parked, we discovered that Hieu had indeed left the keys in the bike. Score! So, we bought a poncho for me so that the ride home would be less chilly in the cool rain, paid for parking, and left. We stopped a coffee shop along the way to warm up with some beverages. I don’t remember how the topic turned to domestic abuse, but Hieu was honest about culture of abuse prevalent in Vietnam and even his own family. I appreciate that our one day friendship could move from peppy show tunes to controversial debates and back again. After coffee, we started back for town stopping at one guard rail for some photos when the rain started to clear up. By the time we reached the hotel, I was ready for a shower and rest.
It was a pretty great day with nature and a new friend.