Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Getting into the flow with Johnny Ngo

It’s a thousand steps to the top of the mountain.

Just for reference – this blog is being written in a Cajun café on a side street in Ho Chi Minh City’s backpacking neighborhood.

Johnny Ngo (pronounced like No – as if he were the grandson of Sean Connery’s 1963 James Bond antagonist) shows up at our hotel at 7am. He and I are going to Ba Den Mountain – riding motorbikes the hundred or so kilometers outside of Saigon to get there.

I hop on back of the bike and we swing by Johnny’s neighborhood to pick up a second one for me and then we are off. Weaving through traffic in Saigon is a spiritual experience – one has to get into the flow of the arterial rush the pop pop popping of exhaust providing a bass backbeat to the incessant horn tooting. The horns are not so much aggressive as they are informational. “I am here – hold your line – don’t do anything stupid – I’m crossing this intersection!”

The trick to maneuvering in a undulating mass of pulsating motorbikes – and I mean a mass – a beach ball thrown atop this fray would never hit the pavement – the trick is: never look back. You are only responsible for what is ahead of you, your eyes on the riders and wheels in front – everyone tacitly agrees to this code and that’s what makes it work – you see an opening – take it – dart into that gap – scoot around that little girl with the hello kitty helmet – take the sidewalk if you have to – just be smooth. He who hesitates is lost.

After 45 minutes or so of high density commuting the throngs begin to whittle off bit by bit and the buildings begin to have spaces between them and after an hour these spaces become fields and Johnny Ngo and I are riding side by side across a rural countryside and we are happily participating in the world.

Water buffalo are a suspicious lot. I dismount the Honda and walk closer to get a better photo of the big guys. They are coated in drying mud that they have rolled in to cool off and protect themselves from insects. The dry and caking muck has an almost dark blue tint to it and I wonder if Vietnam has any mythological characters who would parallel Paul Bunyan. The biggest of the bunch snorts a little as I approach and has that look in his eye that could either mean he is going to turn and run or he is going to charge. I eye the rope looped through his nose and its length and calculate exactly how far I need to be in case he decides the latter. 

A couple pics and we’re on our way again but not before we make a new friend. A young man collecting recycling in a pedal powered cart is intrigued with the white guy hanging out with Johnny. He learns I am American and wants to practice his English on me. He decides that what he lacks in vocabulary and grammar he will make up for in volume. He shouts at me how physically fit he is and then proves it by throwing off his shirt and dropping and giving me a dozen push-ups.  I’m as bewildered with him as the water buffalo were with me. Johnny dubs him Noisy Man and we bid him fare well and zip away.

Our first official stop is for iced coffee and water for the road. This consists of two tall iced coffees with sweetened condensed milk – a pot of jasmine tea to pour over the ice once the coffee is drunk – and a couple bottles of water to take on the bikes. Total cost 23,000 dong. That’s $1.06 if you’re keeping score. Zoom zoom zoom.

Next we visit the largest Buddhist temple near Saigon – Cao Đài Temple - quite possible the biggest in Vietnam – maybe in the world -  but I know to take these claims with a grain of salt until confirmed and I have not confirmed it as of yet – but I was duly impressed.  Atop the temple sits a dragon/horse hybrid sculpture balancing on a representation of the earth.  Inside an all Seeing Eye peers from a spherical depiction of the universe – thus, the temple is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside since earth rests atop and the universe sits within. Somehow this seemed poetically justified.

Next we head to the mountain after a quick stop for a bowl of pork noodle soup to fortify us – there are 1,000 steps to climb after all.  Our lunch companions were three dogs of ascending size who patiently watched and waited for bits to be tossed their way – we did not disappoint. 

The mountain is a weekend destination and this being a Tuesday we had the place almost to ourselves. There is a cable car that goes up but we opted to take the stairs. It took us about half an hour to get to the Lady Buddha temple perched atop increasingly steep steps. I commented to Johnny how well I was doing keeping up with him since I am almost twice his age and as I was doing so, a guy with a 75-pound bag of rice across his shoulders passed us. Everything is relative.

Once we reached the end of the steps we had three options to get back down, the cable car – a twisting toboggan on wheels slide thing – and the steps. We never considered the steps and argued the pros and cons of the other two conveyances. It was decided the cable car would offer a chance for photos and that in the searing heat the concave metal track that the sleds rode down would approximate a convex cooker – we would be medium well by time we hit bottom.

The mountain in our rearview mirrors we motored to Johnny’s great uncle’s house to pick up some incense to burn at his grandfather’s grave which was in the area. I chatted with Johnny’s great uncle and his cousin – a barber whose shop was an open brick gazebo structure right out front of the house. I drank a tall glass of iced jasmine tea and Johnny was served his in a measuring cup – nothing but the best for family! We went to his grandfather’s gravesite, burnt the incense – another relation who came along left a lit cigarette and then we pointed out scooters back toward Saigon and the three hour ride.

Returning to the city was like swimming into a lit roman candle. At first the traffic is sparse like the furthest reaching sparkles of a fountain fireworks but the closer we got the more intense and concentrated the sparks became. And as sunset commenced the effect of weaving through a swarm of festively noisy fireworks intensified. I occasionally texted Sara as we journeyed back as the three hour jaunt stretched to four plus so she needn’t worry that I had ended up a flattened pancake on the roadway. But, obviously, we arrived safe and sound – returning my borrowed motorbike then hopping behind Johnny we returned to the hotel, grabbed Sara and had a nice relaxing dinner all together. 

They say every journey starts with a single step – this day we had a thousand starts and I knew enough to look ahead the whole time.