We planned to go hiking on Mt. Cam on Wednesday. It’s a long way to get there, so we had planned to wake up at 5am. I rarely sleep well before having to wake up early, and this was no different. I wasn’t watching the clock though, since that doesn’t help you sleep, and so we overslept a little.
When we were all up I packed my camera and water into a backpack. I wore zip-off synthetic pants that dry quickly, the perfect thing for long exposure to sun but still good for swimming and hiking. I was the only one who was really dressed for hiking though… Tien, Thu and Mai looked more like they were going shopping, and I wondered if we would actually do any hiking at all.
We got breakfast at a stall in the market on our way out. I got to watch the woman make the hu tieu, which is just pho with different noodles. That was kinda neat, I always wondered how that process worked. The magic is the soup in a huge pot. There were flies everywhere at the stall, landing on the meat and vegetables. When the woman sitting next to me paid she got her change returned to her right on the noodles that were going to be used to make people’s food. I’ve never worked in a restaurant, but I’m pretty sure flies on the meat and dirty money on the ingredients wouldn’t fly in America.
Tien and I headed off on her bike with her sisters following. I had the headphone splitter connected to my iPod so Tien and I both got two earbuds to listen to the new Late Night Alumni album that had come out the previous day or so. We took a dirt back road out of her village, one that we’d passed but hadn’t taken before. It was neat to see what was back there.
A waterway ran between two dirt roads on each shore that were almost big enough for a car. There were people fishing on little canoes and rickety wooden docks. A man squatted next to the river smoking a cigarette. People with bicycle powered stands for bread and yogurt pedaled by on their way to the main streets of the village.
We turned onto the main road that buses and big trucks used to transport big loads between Chau Doc and Long Xuyen. A little naked boy was playing with a stick on a brick wall a few feet from the road.
I noticed that many of the motorbikes only had a hand brake on the right handle and wondered why this was. I thought at first they only had a front brake, but saw that they did have a back brake. I thought that maybe the one handle operated both brakes, which is uncommon in America but might have been more common in a place where motorbikes were as plentiful as cars in America. It certainly allowed people to have a free left hand for talking on cell phones, which they did. I later realized that I had thrown out the idea of a foot brake when thinking about automatic transmission scooters, and that the rear brake was where it should be, on the right foot.
I saw a man with his canoe dry docked at the side of the road as he repaired leaks in the bottom of it. I wondered how common it was for them to sink.
After Late Night Alumni was done I put on Squirrel Nut Zippers and the song Good Enough for Granddad came on. It was probably my first time hearing it and it made me happy thinking about how my grandfather, who I never knew, traveled all over the world and was a happy man, and here I was traveling and happy too.
We stopped at a village market to buy some things to take up Mt. Cam to a friend of Tien’s family. A man came by selling lottery tickets holding a small boy with no legs. At first I was sad that the boy had no legs, but then I thought about the NOFX song Nubs and thought that disabled people are just like every other person. Everybody has their problems and everybody can be happy. Disability isn’t something to rejoice in, but it’s not something to wallow in either.
As we approached Mt. Cam we passed several temples that looked like something you’d see in Thailand or Cambodia. There was writing in an alphabet that was like Thai or Khmer, which I can’t really distinguish, especially when they’re written ornately.
We stopped at the foot of the mountain after paying to enter the park and rested for a bit. I was wondering where we’d start hiking from, and then I began to wonder if we’d hike at all. Just like last time, guys on motorcycles were following us around talking and talking and talking. We ended up hiring them to take us to the top of the mountain and then we would walk back down, an idea I wasn’t completely happy with. As long as I got to hike though I’d be happy.
I got on the back of a bike with squeaky brakes and a broken speedometer and we headed up the steep incline that cuts across the side of Mt. Cam. Looking back, the green fields that stretched to the horizon last time I was here were replaced by endless pools of water cut into lines by rows of trees, as if the whole country was flooded. The country wasn’t flooded though. It’s always under water like this, you just can’t see it below the blades of rice leaves.
At the top, we went to the temple. Two boys met us and sold us some incense and began walking with us. Tien and Thu went inside to pray and I wanted in the bottom of the pagoda with Mai. When Tien and Thu returned we went onto the lawn by the pagoda, spread out a rain jacket and had a little picnic lunch. They had brought beer, 7up, bread, meat, soy sauce, fruits, chop sticks and sliced vegetables. We sat there and ate our lunch, throwing scraps of meat to the temple dogs that came wandering by. The two boys hung around, climbing on the handrail of the pagoda and chasing the bigger dogs away. Thu gave them some money and told them to get us some ice and cups for our drinks, and when they returned she gave them each an apple. I showed them some juggling with some rambutans and contact juggled their apples. They were happy boys that talked a lot. They had dark skin, probably from being outside all the time. Tien said that they would show us the way to a waterfall where we could swim.
After lunch we took off walking and the motorbike brigade swarmed around us again. Tien asked if we should take the motorbikes or hike, and since I was set on hiking I said we should hike and continued doing so. The girls straggled as the boy and I walked ahead, and eventually Tien decided to get the motorbikes to take us to the trailhead.
I thought we would lose the boy in the motorcycle exchange, but he managed to get on one of the bikes and was there at the trailhead leading the way down into the forest. He and I continued to set the pace down the trail while the girls walked behind us. The trail was a well traveled trail, maintained with steps leading down and trash everywhere. It ended up being more like a sidewalk through a stretched out village with stores scattered along the trail and people living in houses by the stores, just like any other Vietnamese village. People were rebuilding their stores, redoing the cement on the sidewalk, napping in hammocks, watching TV, and there were even a few old beggars singing songs at the side of the trail.
I was happy to be hiking. I could sometimes hear the creek in the forest to our right. The boy kept on talking as if I understood him. Tien said he was talking to me, saying things like “keep going, sir” and “just this way, sir.” Eventually he led us to a cascading waterfall with large rocks where people had built homes and stores next to. There were statues of rabbits and other animals, and a little heart at the edge of a rock. There was also a steep waterfall at the bottom and a few wires that you could use to attempt to save your own life with should you slip and slide towards your demise. We went away from that part to a higher area where there were two pools separated by a waterfall going down the side of a large rock.
As I was the only one dressed for hiking, so was I the only one dressed for swimming, but nonetheless Tien rolled up her pants unnecessarily and waded into the water up to her waist. We spent a long while playing in the water, taking pictures and having fun. I fell down the waterfall bruising my foot and palm and gashing a hole in my left heel, but I didn’t care much. I just had the boy fetch me a beer and drank it while sitting in the pool of water.
After we were rested and cooled off we headed down the trail once again. There were lots of dogs along the way, and lots of puppies. I saw a rooster eating off the counter in an open kitchen. We soon stopped again where some men were reclining in hammocks watching football. When I say “football” I mean what Americans call soccer. America seems to be the only country that doesn’t call it football.
We sat at a table and a happy woman brought me iced coffee. Tien asked her for some bandaids for my barely bleeding foot. I migrated to a hammock for a while and everybody thought I would break it. A while later the woman invited us into her home. We went with her to the back where her house met the waterfalls and sat on the rocks eating grapefruit and looking out over the tree tops at the infinite pool of water stretching beyond the mountain to the horizon. It was a nice home, and her family was nice. Her son was a monk from the temple on top of the mountain.
After a while of sitting and eating we bid them farewell and headed off down the trail again. There were still more dogs, many of them pregnant. I wondered what kind of predators lived in the woods that were above these dogs on the food chain.
A while later I saw a motorbike on the trail and knew we were back at the bottom. Our guide boy stayed near us until we left, and I felt a little pained leaving the boy behind even though that was his home.
The ride home was mostly vocal trance and sunset seen from the back of a motorbike. Water was everywhere, and school children were on their way home. I saw some of them gathered at the side of the road waiting for a small ferry that was pulling up to the shore getting ready to lower a walkway for them to board.
Back at home we sat and rested and Tien nursed my bruises and bug bites with a solve-all ointment that they always have handy. That night we sleep soundly.