To pick up where I left off: Vietnam is long and full of awesome things to take pictures of!  Particularly if one eschews the infamous Highway One in favor of the Ho Chi Minh trail.  The two run parallel to one another for most of the 2000ish kilometers between Hanoi and Saigon, but one is crowded and constantly under construction while the other is still rustic.  Sometimes they get as close as 50km or so; a short distance to traverse, but it feels like moving fifty years into the future.


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Sunrise at Ben En National Park.


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Meet our new old friends, Katya and Miroslav (Mirko/Mirek for short).  They’ve been on the road an astounding twelve years, supporting themselves primarily by making various sorts of jewelry out of hemp, stones, anld other natural materials.  They’ve also got a few sponsorships, and they’re also so eminently lovable that people can’t help but take them in and give them freebies every now and again.



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On our first day riding together, we decided to try a “shortcut.”  It wound up being about five hours of dirt, dust, mud, 0and rocks.  Not easy for Katya with her 50kg of gear, Mirek with his 80kg, or Minseong with his all-too-breakable front rack.



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Not too far from the end, we came across a school.  As usual, there seemed to be no teachers or administrators around to keep the kids from charging out of the yard to check us out.  We commenced our usual routine: trying to engage in some handshakes, pulling buffs up over our faces, charging around like monsters, waddling around all strange-like, playing tunes on our bike horns, making faces, taking photos.  Anything to share a few moments together.


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Okay kiddos, uncles and auntie have to be on their way.



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Awwwwwwwwwww, the evilest baby ever!


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After a day like that, I might be willing to spend up to $1 on a glass of cold draught beer.  Luckily, in Vietnam it’s only $0.30 cents or so!  It’s better for the Earth than cans and bottles, but a beer or three after lunch has the side effect of impeding general cycle progress.  Who cares about making it all the way to Saigon, anyway?


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In search of a camping spot for the night, we first scoped out an abandoned-ish office building, but some villagers came by and kicked us out despite our attempt at a charm offensive.  Then we wandered down some back roads and found a villager who said we could camp in his front yard…as soon as he got permission from the police.  He called them, but they said no.  So we rode another 3km or so down to the river and tried to camp on the pebblebar.  Just as we were about to pitch our tents, a guy claiming to be a police officer (no ID of any sort) came down and told us we had to move.  We protested and tried the “it’s too dark for us to ride now” excuse, but he started picking up rocks and intimating that someone would probably come bash our brains in in our sleep if we decided to stay.  Neither Mirko’s imposing stature, Minseong’s dog-whaling stick and Taekwondo moves, nor Chris’ beard skills sufficed to convince the officer that we could handle ourselves.  He crankily escorted us to the nearest guesthouse/karaoke bar/brothel, where we paid $6 for absolutely trash rooms.



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On the way to Phong Na National Park.


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This is dry season.


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The park entrance was a gigantic limestone arch.


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What’s there to see/do at Phong Na national park, you ask?  How about a little spelunking?



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Welcome to Paradise Caves.  The place was the size of several airplane hangers; the boardwalk must have been about 2km long.   I couldn’t help but imagine how this place must have been totally off-limits to humanity for all of history up until about 150 years ago.  Even if someone had gone in with torches, they wouldn’t have been able to see but a portion of it.  And imagine if your lamp went out while in the middle of it all – I think I’d just lie down and wait for the cave vermin to chew through my spinal cord.


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The formations came in all sorts of weird shapes and sizes.  Straight, curvy, sharp, blunt, spiky, rounded, kind of potato-chip-like (look up top).  Somehow, it all looks like something out of a nightmare.



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Like clouds, the rock formations offered plenty of natural Rorschach tests, if much less cuddly.  Here I see a gigantic, hydra-headed space beast preparing to spit either fire or acid at a pitiful, perhaps even clueless ET.



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Even the parts that weren’t utterly terrifying were still fairly eerie.  Like…who put these rice terraces here?



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One lone plant in the midst of a total void.  This must be what it’s like to look at the Earth from space.

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I remember a few years back when I was just getting my 2nd Korean apartment furnished, I bought a cheap bamboo bowl with a “Made in Vietnam” sticker on the bottom.  I felt kind of cool for having something so chic, and from so far away.  This is probably what it looked like a few months before.



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We passed through some serious logging areas.  Not since parts of the Pacific Northwest have I seen clearcuts like this.


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“It was strangely like war. They attacked the forest as if it were an enemy to be pushed back from the beachheads, driven into the hills, broken into patches, and wiped out. Many operators thought they were not only making lumber but liberating the land from the trees. . .” from The Last Wilderness, by Murray Morgan, 1976



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Come rainy season, there will be no living roots left to keep this topsoil in place.  The monsoon will wash away inches upon inches of fertile topsoil, built up over hundreds of years.   It will be ages before anything large grows here again.


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Of course, it’s complicated and the Vietnamese have the right to chop down their own trees.  I just hope they know what they’re in for.  In the meantime, I’ll continue doing my best not to contribute: no industrial beef, which is usually produced from cattle whose food comes from clearcut forests, no TP (“you can take the fauxbo out of India, but you can’t take India out of the fauxbo?”)  and no silly little napkins as long as I’ve got plenty of leg hair to wipe my hands on.


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Feels good to be doing it with like-minded friends, though.  Katya and Mirko generally eat vegan, and Chris and Minseong stuck to a 95% vegetarian diet for the duration of our time together, as well of thinking about the planet and the well-being of its inhabitants in their own ways.  I’m lucky to have such a group.

And they’re lucky to have me:


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One morning while lounging at a coffee stall waiting for the rain to stop, my coconut addiction took a turn for the kinky.


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They were the best of times, they were the bestest of times.

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