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The dawdle from Dalat on the barf bus

VIETNAM | Monday, 8 November 2010 | Views [1496]

Uma takes a breather from wandering aimlessly around the Crazy House

Uma takes a breather from wandering aimlessly around the Crazy House

When it came time to leave Dalat, it was obvious it wasn't going to be an easy, or dry affair. Numerous roads were blocked due to floods, numerous destinations weren't worth visiting for the same reason and the bus we chose to leave on started the trip going in every direction except for the one that lead out of town. I'd like to say that we were on a local bus for the sheer colour and variety of the experience. In reality, it was because we paid for a flash open tour bus only to be hoisted onto something half as comfortable, twice the age and four times more expensive than if we had have gone to the bus stop ourselves. Some seats had been removed to accommodate two scooters and a few more seats needed removal before my legs could be comfortably accommodated.

If the windows hadn't have been on a mud safari, the next hour spent scouring for passengers could have quite rightly been called a scenic tour of Dalat. Locals were picked up from obscure locations, laughing and smiling when they saw us aboard. They delighted in us returning smiles of ignorance or simply the sight of Uncle Ho's pith helmet perched precariously on my head

To continue the party atmosphere of the ride, simply alighting was ample reason to light up a cigarette in celebration. The overwhelming smell of petrol fumes had already made me think about buying a face nappy. The naked flame hadn't aroused explosive possibilities in the mind of the driver, or everyone else who failed to understand the cause and consequence of ignition. One stop was made so the driver could top up on the cigarettes he was choking down like he had less than 24 hours to live, a joke his actions were firming as fact.

With smoke covering the windows like a cancer curtain, reading seemed like the best way to overlook a four hour trip threatening to take eight hours. I had picked up a copy of Walter Mason's Destination Saigon in Hoi An, and enjoyable and in-depth look at Vietnamese culture by a Westerner with over a year spent in the country. Fluent in Vietnamese, his insights far surpassed my own adventures that rarely step outside the large footprint left by the lonely planet. Unaware when I had closed the book last, I was surprised to find I was up to the chapter entitled 'Escaping to Mui Ne', our destination and sentiments about leaving Dalat.

It was one of those sublime moments where the written word before you perfectly matches your thinking at the time. I was still bothered by the continual shake downs that had nothing to do with dancing, and the fact the lady had been so friendly as she ripped us off blind with the bus ticket. The chapter starts “Sometimes I feared I was falling out of love with Vietnam. On some days I would be so furious with the country, with the system, with the people, that I just wanted to go home.” It actually helped me appreciate the Vietnam experience more knowing that it wasn't just me that the entire country was out to bankrupt. I was quite adept at that myself and I feel a sense of powerless when people insist I do it their way and not my own.

Like every Vietnamese town, Dalat had more than its fair share of karaoke parlours, impressing upon me the possibility of function beyond the Western use of the term. That Uma wanted to celebrate Halloween in one troubled me more than mangling a few hits with a singing voice that didn't escape puberty unscathed. Still troubled by my conscience and taunted by Uma, I was unwilling to find out a Karaoke bar's real purpose without the aid of a cricket box or chastity belt. Deepening the coincidence, Walter Mason's next chapter had this to say about them. “One must always be careful, however, because the karaoke experience covers the whole gamut of social possibilities-from a family sing-song with granny and the kids to a lurid orgy with friends and ladies of the night. Such interaction normally goes on in the same venue”. I felt vindicated, yet strangely intrigued by how family fun and a fuck-fest could go down in the same place.

After reading my fill, I noticed that a considerate few had opened enough windows to clear the dutch oven and the out-of-place, yet familiar surrounds drew me into quiet reflection beyond the constant cries of car horns. The nurseries and veggie patches that littered the landscape were more reminiscent of rural Melbourne where I grew up. The square architecture of the housing was far more European than the strange skinny and slender Vietnamese housing that skirted around a tax based upon street frontage. Distinctions between abodes in most of Vietnam could only be drawn from one gaudily painted place contrasting with the colour of its neighbour.

Never has such a large contrast been more evident than the Hang Nga Crazy House we visited the previous day. A concrete curio concocted by a Tim Burton like mind, quite possibly dazed and deluded from a dangerous dose of Daytura. The plant was evident in the area, but the construction went far beyond drug-induced creative craziness. A laudable attempt at organic architecture, the crazy house's walls flowed like melting wax, straight lines were notable for their absence, random reflective surfaces refracted reality and tiny tunnels took circuitous routes to nowhere. Every convention was broken to warp the senses like childhood regression or a strong psychotropic.

Equally confused, claustrophobic and constipated (I wish white rice tasted like cucumber so I wasn't tempted to eat it!), we opted for the open air of a lake stroll. The mornings tofu burger wasn't sitting well, unaided by the inexplicable deep frying of the bun as well as the burger. Some flower gardens became our destination when the seven kilometre circumference of the muddy and half empty lake proved beyond our capabilities and interest. With the climate offering conditions like Melbourne's conducive cold, to my untrained eye the flowers being cultivated were identical to Australian ones.

My reveries were broken by frantic activity from the other passengers. The back road from Dalat to Mui Ne constantly wound around mountain sides in a dizzying test for the strongest stomach. It wasn't having much effect on me and I remained blissfully unaware of the hardships of others as I stared out the window. It was a test that some ladies on the bus were starting to fail. I noticed I was getting envious looks from Uma as her steely focus belied an inner battle of wills that she would have happily lost if she thought throwing up all over me would have made her feel any better.

Before long, it was like watching a sequel to Lardass Hogan's barf-a-rama at the blueberry pie eating contest in the movie 'Stand by me'. The poor lady in front of us had retched so persistently she had turned herself inside out. The boyfriend of the regurgitator to our right went into full denial and started handing out bread rolls. In excellent English, he turned to us and said “Good time to eat, no?” with enough good cheer and a proffered roll to think he might not have been joking. Uma's look of unmitigated hatred answered for us both before I was able to say the continued cementing of my colon with white bread was not as high on my priority list as dodging the other body secretions flying around the bus.

Six hours after departure, we arrived in Mui Ne with the smell of bile and cigarettes staining our clothes and memories. We were sceptical of the flash looking resort the driver dropped us at, believing it to be a shit hole which offered kickbacks for the delivery of suckers. We checked in to a seedy place across the road only to find out the flash resort was the Lonely Planet's top pick for budget accommodation in the area. Again I am reminded that every day of travel is a new lesson about the country you are in, yourself and what effect combining the two has on your preconceptions.

Tags: misfortune, on the road, travel books

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