We got up at seven-thirty, got dressed and went downstairs for a hot coffee and bread with butter at the lobby. I looked at the town, that on daytime seemed different – a main road, a square, small houses. Next to us sat the blonde who traveled alone and had coffee with her guide, and I thought about how easy it was in this country to just travel alone with a stranger man with no fear.
The bike ignited and we rode into the mountains until we stopped above Lak Lake. Nip said the lake’s height changes dramatically with the rains, and when the water level is low enough they grow rice on the damp ground. We walked uphill for a while until we reached at Lak Lake Resort, some sort of hotel with a museum dedicated to a king who ruled there, not so long ago. He had 2,000 wives (Nip said it must be tiring), and anyone who got caught looking into his eyes would be killed. There was a black and white photo on one of the walls, of the king when he was a child, surrounded with grown-ups, looking seriously directly into the camera.
We drove back down the mountain and through a straight road, between fields, and stopped in front of a small church that was burned during the war. The black ruins were surrounded with green thick plants, and from inside what used to be the main hall you could see the white skies. Nip told us about the warriors, that had to start fires for food etc so they put sets of tubes on the ground that dispersed the smoke away, so they won’t be seen inside the jungle.
After that we arrived at a small village, matriarchal too. Loyal dogs barked at us from the yards, and the houses were built upon polls over half-open pits in the ground, as the farm animals were protected inside them. Chickens picked the ground with groups of nestlings running around their legs, and little children peeked at us curiously from inside the kinder garden. Here and there were burning piles of logs, that were being used later as coal.
We moved on to a tiles factory, which left me with a bitter feeling. It was a big yard where men and women worked hard loading clay into a large machine that created the tile shape, taking them with wagons to the area were they set them to dry, and putting them into furnaces. Some of the women had small children, who couldn’t stay alone at home. A middle-aged woman carried a heavy wagon as her children helped her.
We also visited at an artist’s yard, where he created stone and marble statues combined with gemstones – frogs with coins in their mouths were a recurring subject. We walked in the yard and examined the smooth shiny sculptures as the artist looking at us with smiling eyes. A big dog and her puppies barked toward us if we got too close.
Before lunch we passed by a black-pepper field, which grow like tiny green berries on bushes that climbed around polls. Lots of white butterflies flew around. Roni took a few fruits, and we drove to a restaurant where lots of trucks were parked outside – as mentioned, that’s a sign for a good place. They served free range chicken that was crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, rich with bone marrow, together with steamed rice, some soup and iced tea. We were hungry, and the food was tasty and filling.
We continued the long ride through villages and towns. children finished their school days and drove by us on the rural roads with their small bikes. Nip bought a ticket at the entrance of a nature reserve, and we went on. We went down a bumpy road surrounded with jungles, once in a while a blue-green lake is peeping from within the trees, way down. We stopped where the road split into a dirt path. While Nip waited by the bikes Quan led us down the path, between rocks and boulders, thick plants, grasshoppers, dragonflies, black mosquitoes. The path was steep and there wasn’t always something to get a grip on, and the skin ached from sweat and stinging ants. Once in a while the pool emerged, each time a bit closer – turquoise and chill, a body of water amongst small waterfalls. As we arrived Quan left us there to swim, told us to go back in half an hour, and began climbing back up. We got undressed into swimwear, and I made my way on the muddy ground into the water. Big cobwebs blocked the way but nothing scared or startled me anymore, so I shoved it aside and went inside. The water was cold and I didn’t know its depth, and water plants made it so turbid you couldn’t see if anything was lurking inside. By the edges there were rockier areas you could stand on, and once in a while seaweed, or tentacles, stroked the feet. Climbing plants created small caves on the water with their branches. Water dripped into one side of the pool from higher rocks, and on the other side a gentle drift led into a small waterfall, blocked by boulders. I’ve felt myself tiny, on the head of a narrow water pit with endless depth, as any moment a huge hand might emerge from depths and take me down. Somehow, this vulnerability feeling was soothing.
After about half an hour two French tourists with a guide arrived, as we were just getting out of the water and sitting on the rocks to dry. The French took their time getting inside, which associatively made me think they must be on the beginning of their trip. Light rain began to fall as we went back up and I tought it might make the ground and rocks slippery, but the treetops kept the path relatively dry and it was easier to go up than down. We went on the bikes again and drove towards the reserve entrance, where we had hot coffee with a curious kitten who peeked from under the table. When we finished our coffee Nip showed us where to go to get to a big waterfall, so we walked towards the direction and went down some stone steps. The steps led to a small bridge that turned into a trail, which was half inside water. My feet were soggy anyway so I walked carefully inside the water, and Roni somehow managed to walk on rocks without getting wet. After a short walk on the simple road we reached at a huge spectacular waterfall, and sat there together on a rock in front of the storming wall of water.
On the way back the light rain got stronger. We’ve met three Russian tourists with a local guide who were also on their way to the huge waterfall, and stopped to talk for a while. The guide knew a lot about Israel, and mentioned names of leaders from the past. He said Israel was interesting for many Vietnamese because of the agriculture, since we’ve learned how to grow crops in the desert – in countries with tropical weather things grow easily, and they don’t need advanced technologies. As we got back the rain started pouring. We sat under a pagoda at the cafe and I poured out all the water that gathered in my shoes, and then we put the rain coats on and continued with the ride. The rain was getting weaker and stronger and weaker again until it stopped completely, only a black cloud appeared here and there. We drove in open rural ways, crossed towns with orange muddy ground. We made a stop at a field of gum trees, that dripped a white stuff that hardened into actual rubber, and another stop at a cocoa field with heavy cocoa fruits, some white and some red.
Eventually we parked at another small town, right by the border with Cambodia, and went up a curved stairway of a small hotel. After showers Roni and I went for tea at a quiet place, where aside of us sat only the employee with her friends. The sun set a while ago and aside of that place it was utter darkness, only a street lamp shed light on a part of the road.
At six thirty we met Nip and Quan again at the hotel lobby, and went to a BBQ restaurant. We had Saigon beer and ate some sort of big rice cracker, and then the food arrived at the table – first the grill itself, on which we fried the meat, and then the food – soft and yummy goat meat, its leg and tought udder, and another part of the leg that arrived in a lemony salad. We ate and drank and talked about generations gap. They said that the adults begin to be exposed to the gay community and it seems very strange to them, but they slowly realize that they don’t have to understand different people as long as they don’t hurt anyone. Around nearby tables gathered groups of people, mostly men, adult and young ones, all drinking heavily and talk and laugh with loud voices. Since the city was so dark and empty, it felt like sitting in the last happy spot inside a void.
We ordered small empty glasses to the table and drank with small sips the rest of the rice wine – “One person drinks, makes to people happy”, winked Nip. We walked for several minutes in the darkness towards the hotel, where we sat at the lobby with a strong ginger tea that relieved the body after another long day of traveling. As I lay in bed later, between sleep and wakefulness, I felt like I was still in the lake, ready to be swalloed into it.