Crocodiles, Tribesmen and a Rickety Bridge
Updated: Feb 18, 2020
Having been caught out the night before by how quickly it gets dark in Vietnam and spending the night in a truck drivers brothel, we headed for a reserve in the rainforest. It was far from civilisation and still on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Bizarrely, this was the first time we were actually caught by a police roadblock. Actually it was more of a muddy trail block and there was no way to just speed by like we had done countless times before. The little rental bike was far from legal, and nor was I, as foreigners aren't really allowed to ride in Vietnam. This is tolerated in the cites, but we were in a place that white faces had probably not been seen since the war. About half an hour of haggling and the odd bout of laughter saw us on our way, $5 less well off.
About a kilometer furthur on, the trail disappeared. We were in a clearing in the forest with paddy fields and not a lot else. Parking the bike in the shade, I took out my iPad and started to study the map. I became aware of eyes watching from the tree line. Slowly, one by one, figures revealed themselves and moved towards me. Covered in earth, their modesty barely protected my small cloth loincloths, it was clear to me that these people were not at all used to seeing a westerner on their patch.
The chief moved in closer and I noticed that he had a large wart on the side of his neck. Black hairs were sprouting from the wart to a length of about 5 inches. As I looked around at the others I could see that this feature was not unique amongst these people. I speculated over how they were going to react to the magic tablet I had in my hand. Was I going to be accused of using it to steal their soul I wondered, as scenes from a dozen movies rippled through my head. I held out my hand, he looked at it for what seemed like forever, and then, slowly, he reached out and just held it. I nodded in the most submissive way I could and breathed for the first time in minutes.
Quickly bringing up a translation program on my iPad, I said "Tôi bị lạc"(I'm lost) and hoped to hell that this wasn't the usual bad translation that I got from the app. He nodded and I showed him the map on screen. After some confusion he pointed to a very narrow track between the paddy fields and with great relief we were on our way.
I hoped this was the right way as I really didn't want to go back to face the tribe and the police once more. Two oxen towing a medieval looking cart came the other way and the struggle to pass sealed it for me. We were not going back! Eventually we came up to a girl laying in a hammock on the side of the track. She held her hand out to stop us. I could see that her leg was in a splint and she looked more african than vietnamese, maybe cambodian? She pointed to a very rickety looking bridge ahead and held out her hand. She had a confident worldliness about her and definitely a good dose of charisma. She was alluring and I wondered what her story was here in the middle of the rainforest. She had clearly charmed her way into this community and her followers gradually appeared out of the forest and stood by her side giggling at the odd, white faced people on an overloaded 100cc motorcycle, who were oh so clearly out of their comfort zone. The deal was done, it only amounted to pennies, and off we rode towards the bridge.
Crocodiles bathed in the water either side of the bridge. Actually, bridge was an overstatement. It was a pontoon lashed together with what looked like grass, just floating on the water. I now know what the word "Committed" means, especially when crossing the monstrosity and finding the steeply angled escape ramp. I still to this day don't know how that poor little bike managed to climb it, but we did not become crocodile food, and we kept our pride as we felt the eyes of hammock girl watching us the whole way.