A Bridge Too Far
Kon Tum is a well-kept secret lying in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. This amiable town is surrounded by scorched distant hills and is sliced through by the deep-flowing Dakbla River. Kon Tum is not yet on the well-trodden traveler's route and therein lies part of the attraction. There is a certain sleepy pace here and a short stay can easily roll into many days. In the surrounding region, there are dozens of hill-tribe villages of the Bahnar minority peoples, many of which are unspoilt and remote. It's simply a delightful place. But the best find in Kon Tum would not be any of these. The hazy sunrises that greet the early morning traffic jam of cyclists may come close. And yes, the simple wooden stilt restaurant elevated above the water is hard to fault, yielding the best sunset view imaginable. But without doubt, the best find is a crazy motorbike guide.
He is intelligent, speaks fluent English and knows the region like the back of his smooth, olive-skinned hand. This is my guide on wheels whilst I am in Kon Tum. For various reasons, I will refer to this guide as "Steve." Foremost, because of whom he reminds me- Steve McQueen in the film The Great Escape. Being Vietnamese, I assume that he probably hasn't seen this legendary epic. But he holds the same awesome motor biking skills as shown by that infamous screen character.
Steve arrives on time at my hotel driving a surprisingly modest motorbike - considering the full days' driving ahead. It's a clapped-out Russian model that has surely seen better days. But it certainly proves worth its weight in gold and is adept on the most difficult of terrain. We decide to visit three outlying Bahnar villages. It's another fine day in Kon Tum. The cobalt-blue sky is clear and brilliant and the heat haze smolders across the hills. Our motorbike darts off the sealed road and down dirt tracks to encounter the first two villages. Their relative proximity to town however doesn't render them remarkable, but the community is nonetheless interesting. The third village is situated much farther away, at the end of a long, rough rutted track. It probably does not bear considering traveling through during the wet season. This community is mostly neat bamboo and rattan stilt-houses, surrounded by cultivated areas of maize and sweet potato and free-spirited chickens. Everyone quietly goes about their business, including the girl who rhythmically pounds grain at the front of her home. The village centerpiece is the magnificent bamboo rong, the local community hall. It's crowned by a spectacular, dizzily tall thatched roof, which is slightly curved. At first glance, the riverside settlement appears somewhat "timeless," except for one television aerial and the occasional soccer tee shirt.
As we are about to return to town, my guide appears troubled and looks me straight in the eye.
"Sammy, if you like I can take you to a village about 7kms further upstream "
"Great" I reply, "So what's the problem?"
"Well, its very difficult to get to; there's a track that runs along the river which can be dangerous and few visitors go there"
" It's a hard journey, but if you arrive there, you will probably be the first female tourist ever to do so."
Well, that is all he needs to say-like a red rag to a bull. I think long and hard before making my decision -all of ten seconds.
"Yeah, lets do it".
Steve looks pleased with my decision and smiles broadly.
Hardly prepared, we go flying off. If I don't know this guide well, I certainly acquaint myself quickly because I hold on to him for dear life. But I seem to trust him implicitly. As he correctly pointed out, the rough track closely hugs the river, but it alarmingly elevates, so soon we are looking down on its fast-flowing currents and cassava plantations. That's when I am not staring at the increasingly narrowing track, which soon is only as wide as our front tire. Evidently very few bikes come this way as the path is overgrown and wild and the sides easily crumble away down to the river below. Only a few hill-dwellers pass us- heavily laden down with produce, on their way back from the market. They are shy but always wave us through, as we roar past. They probably wonder what on earth we are doing here, and at times I ask myself the same question. The terrain is occasionally very steep and it becomes a regular ritual for me to get off the back of the bike and help push the struggling Russian up the sharp incline. My guide seems incredibly competent and greets every bump and swerve like it's second nature, even at high speed. I find out later that this is only his third time ever here.
After a somewhat hair-raising journey, we finally arrive at our destination.
"So, where's the village now?" I enquire, pretty tired but keen to claim the honor he set before me.
"It's across there," he says pointing across a river. "Over there?" I ask incredulously.
What my guide had omitted to tell me was that in order to get to this village one has to cross an extremely rickety rope "bridge" high above the river. No wonder only the villagers bother to make it across. Once again I must make a decision, only this time the choice -if I have one at all -takes longer.
"Look, the villagers cross every day. I go first, you stay close behind." "Don't worry, I will."
We abandon our Russian friend and start walking across what seems an endless span. It is even more precarious once on the bridge and with two people on board, sways violently. "Indiana Jones'" images come to mind. Afraid of heights and fearing for my life, I start to go a deathly white and panic. It suddenly occurs to me that no one knows where I am, should anything go wrong. "I am very scared" I finally manage to utter.
Steve thinks that his fearless Anglo-Saxon warrior is joking, until he turns round to see her literally trembling with fear. The uneven slates of wood don't feel they can hold our combined weight and the roar of the water below seems louder. After an eternity, we are finally across and I wag my finger mockingly at my guide. It finally strikes me that we are quite as mad as each other and that's why there is a certain bond between us.
My journey is not in vain. Soon we stumble upon the eerily peaceful village. The crude stilt-huts scattered over a small cleared area are made of reddish mud and straw. They are much smaller and simpler than the previous village and there are no traces of aerials here. In fact, there are no signs of Twenty-first Century life at all. It is peculiar that amidst an entire village, there is no one around. I am advised that because the villagers are incredibly shy and I am an outsider, everyone is now hiding safely behind their wooden doors. I feel dozens of eyes watch my every move as I silently walk around taking photographs. Only the fudge-colored cows come over to greet me. It's a rare piece of untouched land cut-off from the outside world, but for how long is another matter.
I am relaxed until we think about going home and then I remember that bridge! This time, I race across and at the end the relief is all consuming. Then I must face the next stage -the precarious bike ride back. If we don't slide off into the river, have an engine breakdown or lose an eye from the intimidating thorns en route, then we can count ourselves fortunate. Slightly more at ease returning, I can now appreciate the beauty of the snaking river, especially in the rosy hues of dusk. Diminutive fishing boats drift along and wading birds swoop down for a late afternoon treat. Only the hum of the overworked bike and our incessant chatter break the tranquility.
Arriving back in Kon Tum much later, I find I am covered in scratches and am filthy. My nerves are shot and I am exhausted.
"So Sammy" he looks at me grinning, as we extricate ourselves from the overheated vehicle.
" Same again tomorrow? Do you want me to take you to more villages?"
He reads me like a book
"Of course, see you at nine o'clock," I answer without a trace of hesitation. After all, like-minded adrenalin junkies should always stick together, wherever they are from.