May 17th: The road from Hue to Hoi An, Vietnam
In the early hours of the morning we left Hue and rejoined Highway 1, heading south towards Da Nang and Hoi An. Except for the buses that hurtled by blasting their horns mercilessly, it was a peaceful and empty road. The rice fields were ready for harvesting - golden blades, blue sky and the stooped figures in conical hats is a sight that encapsulates this part of Vietnam.
The whole rice ritual is a long winded process. Rice is collected by hand into bundles and carried to a roadside machine which separates husks from the hay-like tops used for animal feed. These husks are left to dry in the sun, and crack to reveal each individual grain of rice, which are then swept up and bagged. It's a time consuming and labour intensive procedure - each grain goes on an incredible journey before ending up in a neatly sealed packet ready for the pot.
Slithering eastwards, the road ran parallel to the sea, and a few hills signalled the approach of a range. We stopped to admire the view and a figure shuffled over to talk to us. Announcing his airborne division and showing us his Vietnam Vet card, this ARVN told us how, as a South Vietnamese, he fought with the Americans in the war - a missing eye, a few fingers and gouges the length of his body testified to a grenade attack. I'd never really known much of those long years that tore this country apart except through the Hollywood lens - good on graphically demystifying the glory of war and depicting the atrocities from an Amercan perspective, but often lacking in the Vietnamese point of view. I'm increasingly realising what a disaster the whole American involvement was. Meeting this man, who had actually been a part of what had shocked me so much on celluloid, left me feeling strange and sad as I freewheeled down the other side of the hill. I wondered how different this very hill must have been in the midst of war.
Eventually we reached the base of the Hai Van Pass, or Pass of the Ocean Clouds. Rising for almost 10 kilometres in the gruelling heat, we battled onwards and upwards. Buses past and conductors leant right out to offer encouragement. A construction truck, belching out a thick trail of dark fumes as it struggled on the steep inclines, offered to give us a tow. Shaking our heads stoicly, we cycled on and eventually were rewarded with a sweeping view of China Beach, where the Americans first came ashore. A horde of touts descended upon us with offers of cool Coca Cola, film, postcards and other tourist 'needs'. I like to think we had earned their respect for reaching the top in this slightly unconvential way, but I expect business is business and we were just another couple of mad foreigners with dollars to burn.
Da Nang came and went with a delicious bowl of 'pho ga', chicken noodle soup, before pushing on to Hoi An. Challenged to a race with a local, I weaved my way amongst the other road users - carts, ploughs, cows and cyclists carrying the kind of goods that I'm already taking for granted - canoes, TVs, furniture, animals - all strapped to their racks by nothing but string and threadbare rope.
This last backroad was abundant in Hot Tocs - barbers - a seemingly thriving business in Vietnam. Indeed, we watched Vietnamese being shaved with cut throat razors, up and beyond their cheekbones to their eyes and around their foreheads - the ultimate in men's grooming. Then came the tweezers, glinting in the light. With the precision of a surgeon, nose and ear follicles were plucked as we looked on, horrified.
Clearly, there was a lot we still had to learn about Asia...