Dark Sheen to Cat Tien

This is the sixth in a series of posts running throughout 2015 about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about a visit to Cat Tien National Park in Vietnam.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog previously, a large proportion of my coveted spare time while teaching English in my early twenties was devoted to exploring Vietnam’s cities and countryside by motorbike. One particular weekend road trip still stands out for its gravity; the roads are full of close shaves in Vietnam, and I have my fair share of “nearly died” moments, but during the weekend in question someone else whom I care about very deeply had her own close shave.

The weekend began in its usual fashion. Classes finished, plans were hatched, logistics organised. I had long been wanting to check out Cat Tien National Park, a wilderness area north of Ho Chi Minh City, and this was the weekend when I finally convinced some fellow teachers to come along with me. Three joined the caravan: Huw, from Cardiff, Wales, and two Australians – Hannah from Melbourne and Amy from Sydney. Hannah and Amy were on contracts at a primary school in Vung Tau, so they had to bus into Saigon before our trip could get underway.

We left early in the Friday morning on two motorcycles: Huw and I on a standard super-CUB derivative, Hannah and Amy on an automatic Honda scooter. It was a nice day and a pleasant ride. We took it extremely slowly as Amy, who was riding the scooter, didn’t have much experience riding in Vietnam. She had some limited riding chops, doing the tourist thing in Bali while in High School, but Bali doesn’t quite compare to Vietnam’s national highways.

We soon left the major roads and found ourselves on the approach to the park. In this part of the country a large number of people had taken to growing corn. Their principle method of drying out the kernels was to lay them out across the single-lane bitumen road, pushing cars onto the gravel and squeezing motorcyclists into a space barely two metres wide. Amy and Hannah had taken the lead on this trip as I wanted to keep an eye on them given their inexperience, and also to ensure that they set the pace and I didn’t accelerate away from them by accident.

Most people take it slow on the country roads in Vietnam, but soon after encountering the corn a single motorcyclist rapidly rounded an upcoming corner. Amy and Hannah were squeezed on the right of the bitumen between the corn and a steep drop into rice paddy. The speeding motorcyclist braked quickly, but couldn’t take much speed off before riding into the corn. He lost control of this front wheel and skidded to the right (his left) – directly into Amy and Hannah’s bike.

I specifically remember shouting “Jesus Fuck!” at this point. I do not know why that phrase came to mind, but that’s what I said. I immediately put on my own brakes as the two bikes collided in front. Amy and Hannah smashed to the ground, but because they were on the scooter, Amy managed to avoid having the bike land on her leg and Hannah popped off like a rocket. The other motorcyclist was on a lighter bike, and was of a lighter build, and was riding solo – all factors that meant his bike came off worse.

He went headfirst into the bitumen. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.

I ran straight over to Amy and Hannah and checked if they were alright. They were dazed but no limbs were broken. Amy had a decent gash on her forehead thanks to her helmet which absorbed most of the impact. The Vietnamese motorcyclist had a fair amount of blood coming from his head, leaking into the corn, and was pretty out of it – he appeared conscious, but barely. The family who were drying the corn witnessed the entire event and ran out to help the injured man.

As Huw and I were checking Amy and Hannah another motorcycle rounded the corner with two men on it; they stopped, talked to the family, and lifted the injured man onto their motorcycle. They propped him up in between them, holding him like meat in a vertical sandwich. Then they rode off.

I questioned the wisdom of moving the patient around, coming from Australia where there are strict first aid guidelines and we are encouraged to wait for an ambulance. But out in the countryside – we were about four hours from Saigon – there are no such choices. If an ambulance even could make it out there, it would take a very long time. So five minutes after this poor man had come off his motorcycle, he was back on another one – concussed, murmuring, bleeding and heading for a clinic.

We foreigners hung out with the family for a few hours to make sure that Amy’s head injury wasn’t serious. She had a headache and kept saying she wanted to lie down, which was quite concerning. During this time I worked on getting the scooter going again, which wasn’t too difficult. They are incredibly hardy machines – you could barely tell it had been in an accident, just very minor scrapes on the body.

Eventually we set off again for Cat Tien, now somewhat rattled. The sun would set soon and we were far closer to the national park than to Saigon. Huw took over riding duties from Amy and we coasted down shaded dirt roads to the banks of a large brown river. Here a park ranger deposited our bikes in a ratty shed, took our money and put us on a raft. As we crossed the river monkeys shrieked and walloped through the trees above us; it was a serene moment with dusk enclosing the horizon.

Over the river we found ourselves in a kind of decaying bungalow town; a mouldy, empty jungle camp of blue tiles and muddy paths. A swimming pool lay beside a barren restaurant, choked from bottom to top with green weeds. It was like someone had filled a bowl with colossal, alien alfalfa and lime cordial. All in all it was quite spatially weird, as so many of these forgotten places are: at some point an injection in funds had put in place substantial tourist infrastructure, but years of neglect and underuse created an unsettling atmosphere. Especially when surrounded by jungle.

The park itself was beautiful and well worth the visit. Amy’s head cleared up and we went on a hike, accompanied by many giant green spiders, leeches and the usual litany of jungle animal noises. We clambered onto a rusty old truck for a night safari, trundling along two pockmarked tyre tracks divided by metre-tall grass, searching for deer and crocodiles. There was abundant bird life and plenty of insects to keep Westerners amused.

Before we left we stumbled upon a rather less benign feature of the park, however. Situated down a track behind one of the bungalows was a clearing in the jungle home to a circle of cages filled with colourful monkeys, bears and other creatures. The cages were filthy, the animals looked underfed and seriously unhappy. No doubt we were not supposed to be there, but curiosity is a compelling force. One of the monkeys scratched Amy’s arm, giving rise to fears of rabies, and compounding her rather unfortunate couple of days.

So as we headed back to Saigon that Sunday evening we found our minds again confounded by a mixture of fun, despair, danger and ambivalence. It was wonderful to be doing something so exciting. But was that guy who smashed his head on the road going to be alright? Were those animals going to be sold on from the national park; had they been poached by the very underfunded rangers who were supposed to be protecting the park in their dirty shorts and open sandals?

We never found out. But the memories remain eight years on.

In the next installment I will cover some of the other trips I took while teaching in Saigon, including to Can Gio and Da Lat.