Day 210: Every Stone Has a Story
The naturally polished rock has turned red from iron oxide. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
A GOOD geologist is able to read the story of the earth by the exposed rocks at his feet. The only people who are able to read a bigger, older story are astronomers.
The story contained in each rock is what drew me to the field when I was an undergraduate. However, petrology, the study of rocks, was my downfall. I'd managed to beat enough chemical formulas and crystal structures into my head for the required mineralogy course, but the area in which they settled and calcified was heavily eroded before I started digging into petrology. The key to petrology is recognizing what minerals in what ratios make up a rock, allowing you to identify it. It's kind of important to remember all that mineralogy stuff.
I dropped the course. I was already a Super Senior on a victory lap at Indiana University and I didn't need the additional minor in geology to go with a double major, a minor in creative writing and a certificate of African studies.
Donkey comes to a halt alongside a small plaque near an unassuming pile of limestone on the outskirts of Tam Son Town in Vietnam's Frontier Zone.
Steping through the tall grass onto the crumbling limestone, I find the polished surface of one of the rocks. The polished section of limestone looks like a steak cooked medium rare, a dark red at the center and pink along the edges due to iron oxide. Thousands of adventurers doing the Northern Loop in Vietnam drive past this sign, past this rock without stopping to hear its story.
Stop and listen to what stories these stones have to tell. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The naturally polished rock face is the the surface of the Quan Ba – Huong Cha fault line, which stretches through Devonian limestone. This piece of stone was polished by complicate compressing and separating forces derived from somewhere in the Earth's crust. The face is where the rocks were cracked and slipped in two opposite directions as tectonic plates shifted the bedrock.
This is the face of mountain building.
This is the face of magic, I effuse.
This level of excitement is probably why I should have spent more time studying my mineralogy.
The site is one of several features of the UNESCO Dong Van Karst Geopark, the second geopark in Asia. It wasn't until I learned about the Geopark that I was excited about touring the loop.
However, the day did not start out as smooth as the red surface of this limestone.
“I'm also riding solo, want to drive together,” a young man with flowing blond hair asks me in the Bong Hostel lobby as I sit down to get a little work done.
“Yeah, sounds good to me. What's your name?”
Callum looks a great deal like Legolas from Lord of the Rings. Though he has the elfish blond hair that is on the cusp of white, his face shows signs of a long battle with acne. I'd presume he was an undergraduate at some American university if it wasn't for the fact that he's standing here in Bong Hostel with me, instead of sitting in a classroom.
A third guy, Valentine, asks to join us. Though “the more the merry” is hardly true for this kind of trip, it seems rude to turn someone away, especially as several groups from the hostel are heading out and nearly all of us are going to end up in the same place at the end of the day.
First things first, we need to get our permits to travel into the Vietnam Frontier Zone from the immigration office on Tran Phu Road, about a five minute drive from the hostel. We could pay the hostel to organize it, but as the manger pointed out: it was more expensive to have them organize and it's easy to do it ourselves.
Sitting on a bike outside, I wait for Callum to get oriented on his scooter.
There's the sound of plastic slamming into plastic. Callum's hit the gas and plows into the scooter of the man renting him the one he's got between his legs. Callum continues to drive into the toppled scooter for a moment before releasing the gas.
I look back down at my phone, as if I'd missed the whole thing.
This is not the best start. I'll be riding with a complete noob I think, before quickly chastising myself for using the term. If I'm not careful, even the language I use in my head will impact what I think of people. It's the wrong attitude; I was new to this whole thing not too long ago. Only two months ago, I was being rescued by a more experienced motorcyclist who took the time to teach me how to change the back brake pads on the Honda in Luang Prabang.
Once things have settled down, Callum and I head to the immigration building.
There's the sound of the plastic shell of a scooter hitting pavement and skidding to a stop. Donkey and I have come to a full stop at a red light.
Callum's bike is on the ground. He's standing. It looks like the bike went down without him. He picks up the bike and gets back on it. The left-hand brake handle is bent. I can't count the number of bikes in Phuket I saw with that particular piece of damage – including my first scooter.
In a nearby parking lot, we come to a stop so I can figure out where the office is located.
We're only a couple 100 meters away.
“Yeah, it's all part of the learning curve. I think everyone has done that before. What happens is that you go to grab the front brake lever, but in doing so you also end up twisting the throttle, which kicks the bike out from under you,” I explain to Callum.
“And once that front tire goes, there's nothing you can do. If the back tire starts to get squirrely on you, you can fight it and regain control, but if the front tire goes, you're going down,” I say before recounting a drunk driving incident – is tipsy driving a thing? – in Phuket, where my front tire went out from under me. The scooter and I slide across the wet road as if we were on a pond of ice, coming up short of hitting anything. It the most fun I've had on a scooter. The next morning, there wasn't a scratch or bruise on my body – I wasn't even sore.
The best way to deal with this particular problem, especially when you're first starting to ride a semi-automatic scooter, is to rely on the peddle back brake, instead of the front brake, which is much more powerful, I explain.
Callum takes it all on board without being defensive, which means he takes it on board exactly as I mean for him to take it: as advice from someone who's bumped into similar problems not so long ago.
The process at the immigration office is quick and painless. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Once we find the immigration office, we sail through the process, easily getting our permits for 200,000 Dong each. A girl I'd started chatting with on Tinder the night before works in one of the towns we'll be passing through and explained that the permit was completely unnecessary. I nearly let the dice decided on if I got it or not. However, given that the drone attracts so much attention, I figured it was best to have all my paperwork in order.
Back a Bong Hostel, Callum and Valentine go to get gas as I talk F&B with the hostel manager, who is doing fantastic job with the place, but is keen to make further improvments.
Packed and ready to roll out, Valentine informs us that he invited two more people to join the pack.
The young Canadians emerge from the hostel.
“Do you have your permits already?” one of them asks.
“Okay we need to get ours,” says the chilled out stoner in obnoxious elephant pants. However, instead of rushing off to immigration, he takes a huge hit from a tobacco bong. The pair loiter outside until Callum returns. Only when it's clear that we're ready to get on the road – so much for an early start – do they get on their scooters to go to immigration.
“We're going to wait for them right,” the guy asks.
“No, let's go,” Callum says; god bless him.
I didn't want to be that guy, but fuck me if I was going to wait for the pair to get back from immigration. There's already been too much waiting.
Before mounting Donkey, I give her chain a flick. I'd forgotten that it fell off last night and needed to be tightened.
“That looks really loose,” says Callum.
“Yeah, I'll get it taken care of it later.”
It seems that all my motorcycle mechanical issues are destined to be taken care of later, usually at about the point that the piece of machinery completely breaks down.
“We take Highway 4C out of town all the way to Yen Minh,” Callum says.
Keeping an eye on Valentine and Callum in Donkey's one good side-view mirror, I work my way out of town. I'm at the head of our little pack. It's necessary to keep us at a safe pace. Though I'd prefer to mindlessly race into the mountains, that's not an option.
At the end of a valley, we start to wind our way up the hillside on a long, looping stretch of cutbacks. The road is in good condition, but being worked on. A gray, unflattering dust clings to the landscape.
Somewhere near the end of the five minute drive to the top, we pull over to fly the drone. In the process, the pothead Canadians catch up with us – immigration was closed for lunch so they skipped getting the permits.
We're back on the road for less than five minutes and they're all gone. It's only Callum and me now. The grassy knoll gives way to an entrance to a plateau. Black, sharp limestone formations dominate the landscape with ragged rice paddies and twisted trees filling in the gaps.
On the outskirt of a small village on flat section of road, there's a sign for Rock Garden of Gods.
“Want to stop?” I ask, kind of wanting to let the dice decided. However, Callum wants to keep moving. So keep moving is what we do.
Through the village and back into some slow hairpin turns, we hit a section of gravel road.
Donkey's engine revs, but the power doesn't reach her wheels.
Shit. Did the gear box give out? Did that shit of a mechanic fuck poor Donkey that badly?
Callum comes to a stop ahead of me.
There's a clear view of Donkey's back and front sprocket. There shouldn't be. There should be a chain obsucring the view. The chain slipped off.
Callum's saying something, pointing behind me.
Like a battered snake, run flat into the ground, Donkey's black chain lays on the white gravel road. The chain didn't slip. It snapped.
And that's what I get for not fixing a problem when I first spot it. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“Okay, I'll roll downhill and see what the closest mechanics says,” I tell Callum.
Thinking it will take several hours to get the bike back to a mechanic and fixed, Callum wants to push on without me.
“I'll wait for you at the herbal bath house, if I can find it.”
Well, it didn't take long for me to be riding solo again, assuming rolling downhill on a broken motorcycle can be considered riding.
A dump truck blasting its horn at every bend in the road prevents Donkey from gathering too much momentum on the way down. Slowing as much as I dare, I attempt to give Donkey galloping room as the grade of the road flattens.
Past a small roadside market, we roll. A dilapidated sign says mechanic in Vietnamese. It's one of the sets of words I can read in Vietnamese.
An old man gives me a big yawn as he vacantly stares at the bike.
Nodding to himself, he disappears.
His wife, who was typing away on a laptop in the open-air living room next door, comes over to hand me a packet of moon cakes from behind a dusty counter filled snacks.
Sitting on a plastic squat stool, I nibble on the cakes as the old man ponders the issue. The first brand new chain he attempts to put on the bike is too short. The second chain he digs out does the trick.
He charges less than 20 dollars for the fix.
Donkey and I return to the road.
Donkey and I turn around.
We arrive back at the shop; I'd forgotten to pay for the moon cakes.
The old man finds his wife to see how much the cakes cost, about fifty cents.
Below the lookout tower, farther down the road, lies a breathtaking landscape: Fairy Bosom. The valley below is checkered with a colorful mixture of rice paddies and a cluster of picturesque buildings with red-tiled roofs. Rising up from the valley floor are two perfectly formed mounds nestled against each other, the soft, budding breasts of a giant fairy.
The name dates back to before people were overly focused on political correctness. In fact, it dates back to ancient times, finding its roots in the legends of several ethnic groups in the region.
The soft, gentle reliefs, characteristic of non-karst rocks, is unique to the Geo Park. The limestone cones were created by the uniform erosion of strongly crushed limestone along the fault.
The turnoff for Lung Tam is marked by a small sign that you could sail by if you're not paying attention. It's one of many turnoffs marking the entrance to one ethnic village or another.
Only because I know Callum might be waiting for me at the herbal baths have I managed to avoid the temptation of giving the die the chance to send my trundling down one of these side roads.
Given the size of the sign, which is cluttered with words, I suspect that Callum missed it.
The sun is starting it's descent as Donkey and I work our way down the narrow road into the village.
At a crossroads, I pause to check a map.
Callum comes whizzing up from the village.
“I've looked all over and can't find any herbal bath houses, but if you want to look again, we can,” he says.
“Yeah, let's give it another try.”
Lung Tam is moderate-sized village with two large cement school buildings and a health center. However, the alleged herbal bath house is nowhere to be found. Earlier today, Callum was raving about the Red Dao herbal bath, which most tourists have the chance to check out while they are in Sapa.
I hadn't heard of it until I reached Bong Hostel.
The Dao, a minority ethnic group in Vietnam, collect between ten and 120 different types of herbs for the medicinal baths depending on the desired results. Then, as Callum explains it, you steep in a giant wooden bucket of tea. If you're lucky, you rotate between the steaming bath and a cold shower.
We take a different road out of town, passing children and old woman carrying bundles of stick on their backs and others crouched down in the low-lying rice paddies. The road follows the river until it meets back up with Highway C4 and starts its ascent.
A large lorry blasts its horn as it comes flying down the center of the mountain road. The prevailing mentality in Vietnam appears to be that if one is big and blasts their horn, they gain right of way for the entire road. Flinching, my inside shoulder drops, as if those few centimeters will make all the difference between being hit by the truck or not. Holding my line on the far edge of the road, I let the truck fly by me, it's breeze cold against my face.
This isn't an isolated incident.
This is standard, at least for Vietnam.
Farther up the hill, past a small local pit stop with a pool table and a little mom-and-pop store, Donkey gives up.
She was trotting up the mountain at a fine pace with Callum leading the way. Now, there's nothing.
She's out of gas. I hope she's out of gas.
“I'll come with you,” Callum says, as I turn Donkey around to begin my second round of rolling down hill today.
Back down at the pit stop, where I had a very disappointing, late lunch of instant noodles with an egg thrown into the mix, Donkey comes to a stop.
At first, the woman is too busy sorting out another customer to pump gas out of the blue steel drum of petrol sitting out front.
Paying perhaps a little too much for two liters of fuel, I push the electric starter. A small pool of oil has collected under Donkey's engine – poor Donkey.
She coughs and heaves then comes to life
Thank god she was only out of petrol.
Cruising into Yen Minh a few minutes after dark, Callum's plan of spotting the parked motorbikes belonging to those who took off from Bong Hostel today appears to be a bit more complicated than anticipated.
Yen Mihn isn't a sleepy little village as my mind had painted it, but is in fact a bustling little town. Unable to spot fellow travelers, we get hold of the manager at Bong Hostel. She had recommended a homestay. However, neither Callum nor I remember the name.
The manager calls the woman who runs the homestay. The woman agrees to meet as at August Cafe, which has windows full of Christmas decorations.
It's a narrow, dark alley that leads us up to the homestay. A dozen foreigners are spread out on the tiles of a large empty chamber next to the kitchen of the house. Wide mats placed on the ground sleep two people per mat.
The woman I met on Tinder the other day, Mihn, lives within a two-minute walk of the homestay. She invites me over for a vegetarian dinner, allowing me skip paying 80,000 Dong for the family-style dinner being put together at the homestay.
I walk down the dark alley toward a pair of dumpsters, from where I'm supposed to message Mihn. My head is full of ridiculous, teenage-style sexual fantasies. Imagining this pinnacle of female beauty answering the door in a long nightgown and ushering me into a candle-lit room.
I don't expect it to go that direction, but it is Tinder, so you never know.
After I message Mihn, there's the light from a door opening on the other side of a cement wall.
“Hey,” I say, reaching out to shake her hand. “So nice to meet you.”
She ushers me inside her empty, one-room home. There's a small table and a couple cushions, but not much else. A few unpacked boxes are in the loft.
Mihn's wearing an over-sized long-sleeve shirt and baggy sweat pants. This clearly isn't going to end up as a rendition of the sexual fantasy I'd concocted on the way down. Which, to be fair, is fine. My mind hadn't started down that path until I was walking toward her place.
Mihn's already eaten, but brings me out leftovers: veggies and a bowl of rice cooked up with star anise and raisins.
“The star anise in here is awesome,” I say taking a few bites of rice as she heats water for tea.
“It's my experiment today.”
“It's very good.”
Mihn use to be active on Couch Surfing, but since moving up Yen Mihn last year, she's stopped hosting people. She does the books for a NGO, but isn't particularly engaged in the work. She's struggling to navigate the social dynamics of her work place; she's a bit too standoffish and her co-workers complain about it.
Our conversation never really finds its feet.
I stifle a yawn.
“Sorry, it's been a long day of driving,” I say.
After tea and some chocolate coated prunes that a friend of hers sent from Europe, I excuse myself.
“How was it?” Callum asks, when I return to the mat we're sharing for the night.
“Good man. Nothing crazy, but nice to chat. That's what I was saying about Tinder. When you travel, it doesn't have to be about sex,” I say.
Callum and I had talked extensively about Tinder earlier today, as he's pretty tired of an American society where girls are jumping into bed with guys on the first date. A place where sex comes before a relationship.
It's been so long since I've been in the United States, I can't comment on the situation there. However, I explained that Tinder for travelers can be used however you want to use it, which often means finding an adventure buddy, rather than someone to hook up with.
I receive a message from Mihn.
“Everything here is pretty expensive so be careful. I like to have a drink, but I think you got tired so... Take care! Good night. I hope you stayed with me. It's boring here. Lol. Anyway, bye bye,” she writes.
“Oh, I was tired, but would have been happy to stay:) I really appreciate you having my over. I think you're right about things being expensive. I might not have been fun though, as I needed to do some work. I wish I was staying another day so we can hangout more,” I reply.
“Sorry, I won't bother you. I just need to get laid. :P Nice to talk to you. Have a fun working.”
I laugh and show the message to Callum.
Clearly, I was wrong about Tinder – at least this time around.