The little outing in question took place in April 2008 around the central region of Vietnam (Annam in the colonial period), home to beautiful tropical mountains and bays, friendly people and delicious food. I was spending a few days partying with a group of English teachers and backpackers in Hoi An, which was great fun, but the lure of the countryside beckoned. Earlier I had ridden out past Da Nang and found a river to swim in, a quiet, shady spot with only a few people dipping their toes and lazily eating fruit.
So of course I contrived to disturb the serenity of this convenient jungle oasis. Canvassing the English teachers I managed to organise a caravan of four motorbikes and six intrepid volunteers. We duly headed off one balmy morning, stopping by the Marble Mountains along the way for some moderate hiking and amateur spelunking. After another hours’ ride, we arrived at the river and started on a picnic of fruit, beer and spicy fried egg rolls.
The river was quieter than the last time I visited, with only a very weak flow sluicing between large grey boulders. A couple of friends and I decided, after feeding and imbibing, to hike up the riverbed and see if we could get to a waterfall I had heard about. Apparently at the top of the river, high in the hills, was an old hill town in the region of the Ba Na (Bahnar) people. At some point the river had to widen out, we also reasoned, and that might be a better place to swim.
So three of us climbed up the wide riverbed, leaving the others to relax in the shade of our picnic site. It was a hot slog, but pleasant enough between jungle and boulder, with butterflies, dragonflies and lizards for company. Soon we could hear the roar of a waterfall, then we came to make out a kind of structure on a hillock over the river, with some uniformed security guards lounging about. We approached them and they took us through to a huge construction site, seemingly appearing out of nowhere from the jungle.
A long steel cable crossed a substantially wider section of the river up into the forested hills. The cable was being used for transporting goods up and down the valley. When I walked up to the cable landing I could see a waterfall down below, sadly inaccessible, a sheer drop of churning, brown and white water. It looked about eighty metres high. We had found the waterfall, but there would be no frolicking today.
The three of us were stared at as we dallied about the piles of concrete, rocks, wood, and piles of cables punctuated by earthmoving equipment. It was an odd situation: three white foreigners climbing up a river and into a construction site of frozen labour, perched precariously above a flowing stream. I rewarded the staring through physical clowning and limited Vietnamese, but soon it got to the point of either joining in to play cards or hiking back down to our friends. We said our goodbyes.
Climbing back down the river took no time at all. Once there we lounged around and ate watermelon, made some more sandwiches and finished our beer. We were all seated on a boulder when the sound of water running started getting louder. I can remember looking upstream and seeing the river’s tiny trickle appear to bulge, to rise, thinking it was strange. Those of us who noticed first must have looked quite bemused and confused until we realised what was happening. The water had risen thirty centimetres in as many seconds. The river was flooding.
Half-laughing, half-scared-hysterical, we picked up our fruits and vegetables and cutlery and other tidbits and waded towards the riverbank, where our motorcycles were waiting. We all made it before the water got too high but my best friend at the time, Amy, decided to go back to save a lone tomato. It sounds pretty silly now and it was then too. She managed to get back to the boulder, grab the tomato – and then she froze. The water was going ferociously fast at this point.
Luckily Pat, another Australian teacher working in Hung Yen, was close to the bank and waded out to help her. He pulled Amy and the lucky tomato to the shore and we all watched, wet, as the water rose and rose. The deluge came to move extremely quickly, with no sense of letting up, so we shrugged, got back on our motorcycles and rode back to town, where the rivers are black and polluted but don’t try to kill you. Unless you’re lucky enough to fall in.
Over two years later I found myself once again in central Vietnam and returned to the same patch of river with Amy and three other friends. This time a group of men were waiting at the bank and took our motorbikes to a secluded area, promising to watch them for fifty cents; a common informal parking security situation in Vietnam. There were a couple of families and young couples swimming – all Vietnamese, munching (and sharing!) lychees and leaping from boulders into the water, which was high this time.
Throwing caution to the wind we did as the locals and waded in for a proper swim. Thankfully there were no flash floods. We made some new friends, got sunburnt, and headed back to the bikes. I was curious about the construction site, so rode up the road to where I remembered it should be. Standing over the waterfall was now a large cable car operation, taking passengers over the river and high up into Ba Na. It was insanely busy – we considered going up, but the queue was simply not moving.
I’d like to go back to that little patch of Earth again some time. I’ve often thought about that river, that waterfall, that patch of ground. I don’t know any of the region’s names, I’ve forgotten the name of the river etc. – but I reckon I would remember the route out there from Danang.
In the next installment I will cover some of the other trips I took while teaching in Saigon, including to Da Lat and Can Gio.