I felt it during the four-hour train ride to Dong Hoi. The subtle but unmistakeable rumbling of oncoming gastrointestinal distress. Remembering the 10-day involuntary cleansing ordeal I went through in Saigon and Dalat, I pleaded with my body and then tried not to think about it. After all, we were heading to the countryside to explore caves and harass cows and ain’t nobody got time for that. It had also only been about two weeks since the end of the first bout, and I had already lost at least 3kgs since I started traveling. I was withering away into a stick insect (plenty in this area). Completely ignoring my pleas, it started right after dinner that night and continued throughout the next four days we spent in Phong Nha, an otherwise relaxing country village.
We were staying at the Phong Nha Farmstay, which I expected to be a glorified mud hut in the middle of rice paddies (lowered expectations!) but it ended up being pretty nice and comfortable, complete with a small pool. Now I wouldn’t call this place a Farmstay. It’s more like a hostel or hotel, in the middle of rice paddies and farmers’ homes. I didn’t eat much that week but I also didn’t miss out on much judging from the taste of the food.
What kept me from just laying in our room like a useless lump on a log was an adventurous Australian family we met who was also staying at the Farmstay. It was their idea to rent mopeds to explore the countryside, and N somehow agreed to rent one of her own (I wasn’t there to stop her during the rental transaction) even though she had never ridden one in her life. Genius.
It all worked out in the end one afternoon, when Nigel (the father) kindly offered to drive the two of us on the back of one moped while Pip (the mother) and the kids rode on the other one. Nigel somehow maneuvered the cumbersome scooter around potholes, rocks, hay, rice drying in the sun and cow patties on the windy dirt roads towards the Chicken Lady, who is rumored to have the best chicken in the village. We got lost thanks to the crappy map the hotel gave us to decipher, but we got back on track once a friendly local pointed us in the right direction. So friendly that she got full cuddle time with my wife before we took off again.
Riding bikes in Vietnam is liberating, but even more so when you don’t have other vehicles in your way. We rode along the Ho Chi Minh Highway with the sun and the hot wind in our faces. We turned onto another hilly dirt road and we bumped along as Nigel tried to keep us upright. Little kids gleefully shouted “hello”s at us as we passed and we responded in Vietnamese.
I don’t know how he managed but he did it, and we finally arrived at the Chicken Lady, where a few young foreigners were shooting pool to really loud house music, which clashed with the serenity of the surroundings. Empty hammocks hung in the back under a canopy, and little kids ran around playing.
We immediately got ourselves some cold drinks and went to the back of the house, where the Chicken Lady was slicing up a freshly slaughtered “chook” that was already peppered with opportunistic flies. N and I followed Pip and the kids down to a river where a group of travelers floated on inner tubes in the warm, stagnant water. We didn’t partake of the chicken because it was getting dark, but it definitely smelled nice.
The next afternoon, we ventured out on another road trip to check out a cafe which was rumored to have a fantastic ca phe sua da, so we had to check it out. We took a different road this time and passed by rice being beaten out of their husks, rice laying out to dry and cows and water buffalo hanging out on the sides of the street. Two mopeds came speeding by carrying Vietnamese guys who drove next to us and were really happy to see us for some reason, and I suddenly remembered that we were with a non-Asian family, which must be interesting for the locals to encounter.
We drove on and passed a few seemingly docile cows lounging in the middle of the street and Nigel the cow expert was the one who noticed that they were bulls looking for a fight. And sure enough, we watched from fairly far away as they rammed each other, and hastily drove away as one bull came running away from another one, in our direction. It’s always fun times for us city slickers to see stuff like that.
By the time we got to the cafe we were parched from the heat. The adults had coffees but I was still feeling gross so I had a carbonated beverage. We dipped our feet into the cool but murky river running next to the cafe while the kids made mud pies by the water. Boats filled with tourists drifted past us to and from the nearby Phong Nha Cave, and the heat of the day was making me feel exhausted in spite of the beauty of our surroundings. We took our cue to leave when a group of teenage boys came over to us asking us for money. N asked them their ages in Vietnamese and they immediately piped down and answered meekly. They were incredibly small for their ages, which is something we’ve noticed as we travel through Vietnam.
When we got back to the hotel, I complained to my Filipino friends in New York about my gastrointestinal woes. “Oh that’s nothing,” one of them said. “Wait until you have it so bad you have the shivers.” It suddenly dawned on me how much of a whiner I was being. How was I complaining about something like a little bit of stomach trouble when I was in good company in all of this beauty? I ate as much as I could which wasn’t much, and in preparation for a full-day tour the next day, popped an Imodium and went to sleep, hoping for the best.