Motorbiking through Vietnam: a nation at a crossroads

Vietnam is at a crossroads. A country where gleaming megacities in the making are encased in a countryside of cascading rice paddies and hill tribe villages. Neil McQuillian takes a motorbike tour through the Central Highlands and learns about a nation in flux. 

Bump. Our helmets touch gently, groggily when I lean forwards to hear what my driver is shouting.

“Bamboo bridge!” he’s whooping. “Baam. Booo. Bridge!” Long ‘a’, long ‘oo’. Triumphantly short ‘i’.

Too right it’s a bamboo bridge. Fatso – the nickname given to my driver by Mark, boss of Hoi An Motorbike Adventures – has till now been a man of few words. But the hilarity of taking me across this rickety death trap has tickled words out of him.

“You kept that quiet,” I say to Mark at our next pit stop. In the itinerary he’d laid out that morning at the company’s garages on the outskirts of Hoi An ­– a day’s climbing into the Central Highlands, followed by a night spent in a hill tribe’s village – there was zero foreshadowing of perilous dangers. I’d have remembered.

“I never do,” Mark replies with a grin. “Anyway, you’re seeing bamboo bridges less and less these days: there’ll be a concrete one nearby and people don’t maintain the bamboo ones.”

Mark, an Aussie, has been riding about Southeast Asia on motorbikes for decades. And from how he describes Vietnam – “a pre-industrial culture in a post-industrial age” is his oft-repeated summary – this bridge situation is the country in a nutshell.

Since adopting its “doi moi” economic policy in the 1980s, the nation’s wealth has come on leaps and bounds. Or rather, its overall wealth: the rural areas are a different matter.

“See over there.” Mark’s pointing at a boy who stands by a rice paddy, peering down at a phone. “That kid’s probably playing Candy Crush. And over there? That’s a new highway going up. But right there” – Mark indicates an elderly woman with a pole across her shoulders, from which dangle two baskets – “there, you’ve got Grandma carrying rice like she has for the past 800 years.”

If the country is hurtling forwards into a prosperous future, it appears to be hurtling forwards over bamboo bridges.

And you don’t get much more pre-industrial than a shelf of skulls. An early stop on our journey sees us drop by the home of Mark’s friend, Y Kông, an elder of the Cơ Tu ethnicity. The Cơ Tu are one of the approximately 54 ethnicities in Vietnam, a fact that puts it up there amongst the world’s most diverse countries. Y Kông commanded all the ethnic minority tribes fighting for the north in southern Vietnam during the Vietnam War (or American War, as it’s known here) – service to his country that throws into shameful relief some of the treatment doled out to ethnic minorities by Hanoi.

If the country is hurtling forwards into a prosperous future, it appears to be hurtling forwards over bamboo bridges.

Y Kông is not actually in this afternoon, but Mark has prior permission to show people round this home-cum-museum – it’s all part of the elder’s mission to keep his people’s culture alive. And it’s some culture. “The Cơ Tu have a psychedelic wine.” Mark explains as I gaze at the macabre bone-covered shelf (which includes the skull of a jungle buffalo, an animal hunted to extinction by the French, Vietnam’s former lords). “You drink it and a female comes to you in your dreams and tells you where to hunt. So then you go out and bring back the prize – unless it’s a tiger, which you’d eat on the spot.”

Even eerier, the male spirit in the Cơ Tu hunting spirit world “must not be named” and it’s around this Vietnamese Voldemort that “headhunting comes in. The last recorded instance was in 1954. But then there were twenty years of war, so who knows what happened after that…”

So naturally our next driving stop is a Cơ Tu village. But here any eeriness is gone. Instead we’re treated to a music show, the star turn at which is a young couple who croon a call-and-response love song, their necks cocked and craning like birds warbling on a branch. It’s all a bit pastoral – until I meet a village elder who shot down four US helicopters during the war. That night we lay our heads in a tourist-friendly bungalow, the very height of pre-industrial chic.

The next morning it takes just a couple of hours to career on our bikes down into Vietnam’s most striking example of modernity – Da Nang. Da Nang is an Asian megacity in the making. Enormous resort construction sites litter the shore. “In the space of a few years that sand dune’s got capacity for 30,000,” reckons Mark. “The old nationalists are going ‘No, we fought for fifty years for this land and you’re giving it up’. But the old guys are dying.”

On certain levels, Da Nang is blessed: great climate; an international airport; pre-existing economic strength from its port; accessibility to other Southeast Asian countries. And, of course, its beach. But Da Nang’s older buildings are conspicuously inland: “You don’t build on the seafront in Vietnam,” Mark says. “What about the massive typhoons we have every few years?” He’s already told me how UNESCO expect Hoi An’s old town “to be under water in ten years”.

And even as the country’s overall economy continues to grow, the great concern is debt. That’s both at the level of big business and for individuals. At one stop on our trip, another of the riders, Phil – a spritely Vietnamese – told me that “if you don’t like what you do, you do something different. You have to like your job.” Mark objected that he was being naïve, that the advent of credit culture – only now making inroads in Vietnam – would be the end of this kind of attitude. Phil admitted he did have concerns: “I worry about the countryside changing. I worry about no more family. Because money will control it.”

With money flowing in, Da Nang has ambitions to be known as Vietnam’s gleaming “city of bridges”, its waterways criss-crossed with architectural statements of post-industrial wealth, the bamboo bridge relegated to embarrassingly unsophisticated days of yore.

But insofar as Da Nang’s bridges represent Vietnam’s new financial reality, they might come to be seen by the country’s people as symbols of oppression, not progress.

Image credits top to bottom (left–right): Ser Borakovskyy/Shutterstock; Aidan Casey/Flickr; Leocadio Sebastian/Flickr; Peter/Flickr; Peter Garnhum/Flickr; Romas_Photo/Shutterstock; Kriangkrai Chiangka/Shutterstock; Pixabay/CC0; Pixabay/CC0; Worradirek/Shutterstock; Michael Hoeck/Shutterstock

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