Today was a day that started out tough and ended strangely. I woke up this morning feeling decent, and my diarrhea had firmed up from a liquid actually thinner than water, so we decided to cycle. After checking out of the hotel in Buon Ma Thuot, we were on the road at 6:30am and as soon as we started pedaling, I could tell I was weak. My legs felt dead and I was struggling to keep up with Sarah. It was difficult to concentrate on turning the cranks while at the same time constantly keeping my sphincter on guard against the spasms in bowels.
After a couple of hours of riding, I was feeling better. That could be partly due to the two coffees and one sugarcane juice (with added sugar!) we drank though.
The afternoon went smoothly and was great cycling. I don’t think there was a single stretch of flat ground. We were constantly going up and down over the hills with views of the coffee, wood, and rubber being grown. It seems like the farming has probably made this area more beautiful than it would be if it was untouched jungle. The route was lined with trees to keep us in the shade and a cool breeze prevented us from overheating on the climbs.
We arrived in Ea Drang at 3pm after 82km and slowly cycled through the town looking for a hotel. Before we knew it, we had reached the other edge of town without seeing a single place, and then we heard a voice call out “Hello. Stop for a bit.” Always suckers for perfect English, we swung back in the direction of the voice and found two Vietnamese guys on motorcycles with two hefty Australian women in back. I asked if there was a hotel nearby and one of the guys launched into a diatribe on how there were no hotels for foreigners in this town. Something about the ethnic minorities and their relationship with the government of the north after the war. For some reason, hearing someone speak English extremely well always makes us a little suspicious. It makes the person seem too slick. We bluffed and told him we met some New Zealanders who had stayed in this very town and he said for Kiwis or Australians maybe, but no way for Americans or Russians. Not really wanting to believe him, and remembering that we had specifically asked at the tourist office in Buon Ma Thuot and they said there were hotels, we decided to ask at the hotel across the street. They had the same story though, telling us the nearest hotel was 100 kilometers to the north at Plei Ku. After talking for a bit, we realized we had three options.
- Search around the town for a hotel where we could stay. This was risky because we might not find anything and we would kill valuable time as there were only about three hours of daylight left.
- Eat lunch, stock up on supplies, and continue riding looking for a place to set up the tent for the night.
- Attempt to catch a bus north to Plei Ku.
We decided on a hybrid of 3 and 4. I started looking out for a bus to flag down, while Sarah went into the hotel to ask when the next bus to Plei Ku was. They told her 4:30 (we think), so we decided to eat lunch and stock up on food and water and then wait for the bus until 4:45. If we didn’t have any luck by then, we would start riding.
After lunch, we stood outside keeping our eyes peeled for an approaching bus. I was definitely not feeling confident at this point. I kept imagining the nightmare scenario of being stuck on the road in the dark with no options for camping and hungry, malaria-carrying mosquitos swarming us. I also vaguely remembered reading that this was one of the most heavily mined areas of Vietnam and wasn’t too pleased about that either. As I was staring down at the ground in anguish, I noticed an overturned playing card among the rubble. I told myself, if I turn that card over and it is the queen of hearts, it will be a good sign. I flipped the card over and was surprised. It wasn’t the queen of hearts, but it was close: the king. For a few seconds my heart rose as I pondered whether the king of hearts was actually better than the queen. Then I got a sick feeling in my stomach as I remembered something. Was it true? A quick glance confirmed. Yes, yes it it was.
Read ‘em and weep. It was the suicide king!
I quickly alerted Sarah to the portentous news and she told me I was crazy. “You like to take the ignorance-is-bliss approach to life don’t you?”, I asked. “No”, she said, “I’m ready for action. If it comes down to it, I’m ready to break Mr. Safety’s regulations and hitchhike.” My only response was to laugh cynically.
The minutes crawled by. At 4:15 with still no sight of a bus, we decided to flag down the next one no matter where it was going. We were successful in flagging one down, but it wasn’t going to Plei Ku, so that didn’t accomplish much and we were left waiting again. Then out of nowhere at 4:29 a Minibus pulled up with a guy hanging out the window who yelled “Plei Ku city” at us. “Yes,” we exclaimed and we pointed to our bicycles, which he said he would take care of. It didn’t seem like it was going to be possible, but he crammed our bicycles and gear into the back of the bus and we hopped onto the bus which brought the number of occupants to 14.
There are two employees on a minibus. One is the captain and the other is the first officer. The captain plays with your life by passing at high speeds on dangerous curves. At one point, we had three vehicles abreast going the same direction on a narrow, two-lane road. The first officer sits in the back with the passengers and hangs his head out the window to yell at the driver if we we really are about to hit something. He also yells something which sounds like “weeee-weeee” at motorbikes as we pass. We’ve never heard anyone yelling that at us on our bicycles. The other thing the captain does is communicate with the minibuses going in the opposite direction. There seems to be a complex system of hand signals they use consisting of pointing your hands in different directions and shaking your hand in different ways. One of the motions looks like a dance move from Saturday Night Fever. We weren’t able to figure out what they were communicating about though. We definitely got ripped off on the price. We paid 200,000VND (~US$12.5) for the trip and it seemed like the Vietnamese were paying around 50,000VND. There was a heated exchange of money ahead of us and we heard the first officer say “farang” and “xe dap” (bicycle), but that is all we could decipher. Sitting in the back row of the bus behind us were four older women. They were constantly coughing up phlegm and either spitting it on the floor or in plastic baggies which they tossed out the window. We stopped for a toilet-break and they pulled down their pants and squatted right on the side of the road to pee with their asses in plain view. I quickly averted my eyes. I thought these people were known for their modesty! The scenery on the road to Plei Ku was beautiful, maybe even better than the stretch that we had ridden. From the bus the climbs looked higher and longer and in the distance we could see actual mountains. I wish we could have ridden that stretch too.
We arrived in Plei Ku just as the sun was setting. It was too dark to look around so we settled on the first hotel we found for 150000VND (~US$9.40). Better than sleeping out in the jungle!