Ha Giang to Lao Cai

USA #1! I’ve actually seen a handful of Ford Rangers done up like this. This one is also the T-REX edition, check the sick dinosaur.

Stack it high boys, sky’s the limit.

We just finished dinner at a little farm called the Cinnamon Eco Lodge, and the grandpa of the family just brought out his jungle pipe.

As long as we’ve been here, I’ve been seeing guys sitting next to the road hitting these things- it’s a bamboo bong, used to smoke Lao tobacco, which is very pungent stuff.

Would you like to smoke? Grandpa says in Vietnamese. I don’t smoke, but what the hell, a new cultural experience.

“Sure,” I say and sit down. He packs the little bamboo stem, then lights it while I take a hit, and lights it and lights it. I guess you smoke the whole thing at once. I finish sucking it down.

“Very nice, thank-” and then I’m spinning, holy hell I don’t know if I’m going to be able to stand up ever again. I hold onto the ground, two minutes, three minutes, super intense, oh god I think I’m broken.

I did some reading about it later, and Lao tobacco is much more potent than regular tobacco- combine that with smoking it out of a tube the size of a baseball bat, and hot doggies it hits hard. I’m just happy that things went better for me than this girl.

But these old Vietnamese guys just hang out and have a couple of these things.

I just happened to find the Cinnamon Lodge when I was scrolling around on Google maps. It’s a real cinnamon farm (cinnamon is the bark of a skinny little tree, which I didn’t know. I thought it just came out of a glass jar). The whole place smells like cinnamon, and the super nice girl that runs it made the most incredible fresh cinnamon tea when we rolled in.

And the most incredible big dinner, with steamed fish and fried tofu and some kind of pork and vegetables and rice and everything in its own little white bowl, laid out on the ground us sitting all around it on bamboo mats. There was also a Canadian couple there, and a family of four from Chicago that were finishing up an around the world trip. And the grandpa of the farm brought the best homemade rice liquor I think I’ll ever have.

All this is to say, nicest evening in Vietnam. And if for some reason you find yourself between Ha Giang and Diem Biem Phu, you should stop there.

We’re talking to the family from Chicago, and the little girl is filling us in on all the scams we could encounter in Southeast Asia. Overcharging motorbike taxi guys, overcharging tuktuk (a little three-wheeled taxi) drivers, overcharging prostitutes, prostitutes that aren’t the gender you think they are. For a 12 year old, she really knows her stuff. I tell her about the time the little old lady forced me to buy doughnuts in Hanoi.

“Oh no!” She covers her face with her hands in embarrassment. “That’s the worst one! They don’t ever change the oil! They fry the doughnuts in the same oil for years! Then they stick one in your hand, and fill up a bag and you have to buy them.”

“Yeah, that’s how she got me.”

“But you didn’t eat them right?” she asks.

“Yeah, I ate some. I thought they tasted kinda funny.” Hating to waste food, I actually ate the whole bag over a few days, and every bite tried to convince myself that they really were very tasty.

“Ewwww! That oil is rancid!” the 12 year old girl squeals.

I certainly am a sucker.

When we’re leaving the next morning, Grandpa asks me if I’d like to hit the jungle bong again.

“No thanks, gotta pedal today,” I say, and make a pedaling motion with my hands. I’m stoked that I didn’t pass out flat on my back the first time, I’m not going to push my luck and try it again.

Smoke ’em if ya got ’em. At the base of every big hill, there’s a gas station with hoses, and guys trying to put out their flaming brakes.
This girl was asking Colleen if she was ok. She was legitimately concerned that we were lost.

Half way through a big climb later that day, we’re stopped for a bathroom break by the side of the road. A truck overloaded with sacks of potatoes passes, and struggles up the hill. I watch it fade around the next corner, heavy trail of black smoke.

“I bet I can catch him,” I say to Colleen.

“Alright,” Colleen says and shrugs disinterestedly.

I take off, sprint up the hill. I can’t see the truck anymore, but the diesel hangs in the air, a scent trail. I’m on the hunt.

Fifteen minutes later, I’ve obviously underestimated the size of this hill, I thought I’d be at the top about three miles ago. I’m still pumping and wheezing and the potato truck is nowhere in sight, but I’m not giving up the chase.

Another corner. There it is! Almost at the summit, rolling coal, overheated, hardly moving up the last grade. I stand up and give it the beans.

Right at the line, past the lumpy lurching tater truck. I throw my hands up. Victory!

I wait on the other side of the climb for Colleen, who’s been riding at a normal pace.

“I got him! Beat the potato truck!” I say.

“Great, you’re so fast,” she says. I don’t think she means it.

Whatever, gotta keep things interesting somehow.