So distant now is the punishing slog of our first leg on this road trip, getting lost, bad roads, baking sun and sore bums seem a more distant memory than just two days ago. A shimmering ocean flanks our right side in this adventure north, cows graze on a beach and sandy soil even more red than my beloved sunburnt country emblazons the lush green of a tropical world in place of the arid beauty I know. Australia’s red centre kisses the ocean and shakes hands with a Queensland forest in a place we call Vietnam.
We’re both happily getting into this polygamy thing, respectively Charlie and I are husband and bike with Rob and Greg, all four of us taking in scenery that is as jarringly dramatic as it is serene. Sweeping crests reveal inland juts of ocean, straight lines guide us through booming tropical forests that explode from earth that belongs on an artists palate and all the while the cool ocean air graces our world we would not see any other way. This is what gives road trips the reputation for romantic escape, this world that is ours defines a phenomenon dreamed of by the world that is not us. What also defines the phenomenon is rolling with the punches and dealing with the cards we’re dealt; there’s trouble in paradise with Charlie and Rob, they’ve busted a rubber. Maybe Charlie was riding him too hard or possibly Rob is just playing hard to get but as Charlie stands on the side of the road with a flat tyre and discontented frump Greg and I just maintain a dignified silence and go looking for a mechanic.We’d heard that wherever you are in Vietnam help is never too far away, Greg and I play couples counsellor and in no time Charlie is pushing a sulky Rob back down the road. We couldn’t be further from anywhere we know with not a shared word of any language yet somehow this is somehow fun. Tools scatter a dusty driveway with parts strewn over a ground that’s part workshop floor and part bare ground in the most backyard makeshift mechanic I’ve ever seen, this is Viet style that didn’t make the Lonely Planet top 25. Charlie and Rob are talking again, this is an experience we could never buy and with a fairly benign tiff now resolved it’s nothing but a thick layer of the experience that can’t be manufactured; yet again we’re in the middle of the essential principle of a road trip.
The scenery continues, occasional agriculture nestles sympathetically into a jungle that can’t be gentled over mountains rearing up through intermittent flat pans of jungle or rice patties, or both. Lunchtime rolls on and in a town we can’t name on a road we can’t find on a map we stop in at someones house with an open front selling pho, the famous noodle soup that built a nation. Two gorgeous little girls pile out exuberantly going for high-fives and calling out ‘hello’, thrilled to say a word in English. In a house that is admittedly not too different from the rudimentary nature of the mechanics workshop everything is simple, past it’s best days and completely without pretence. There is one gleaming contradiction however, it’s not sharp clothing, a flat screen TV or a car parked out the front, it’s immaculately fresh and clean herbs and leafy vegetables so contrastingly perfect in this house of abandoned vanity. Unsurprisingly the pho is outstanding and brought to us on a smile, if there’s one thing to form your life around there surely is little more credible than to make your obsession food.Onto Dalat there’s grumbles from both our boys after a hard day lugging us up the mountain but a few whispered words to Greg has the potential tantrum in check, we limp into the mountain town of Dalat and into blessed cooler weather. Dalat immediately reaches out as a cool place to be, small but grand, quaint yet bustling and all the while the food bar gets raised yet again into a stratosphere far far away. A recommendation from our hostel has us sitting in a small cafe style restaurant being utterly ignored by all and sundry, this is a little weird. Repeated attempts to order pass on yet another polite smile, this is very friendly but oddly polite and rude simultaneously. After giving up and rolling with whatever happens our food arrives, it seems they do one dish and by sitting down we have essentially ordered. Long complex menus attempting to cover many different cuisines often signals disaster, is it natural to assume that a menu refined to one dish is a triumph or is that just pushing it too far?
Unequivocal answer delivered, triumph, success; I need a tissue and a moment alone. Steamed rice paper rolls with mushroom are topped with barbecued pork and garnished with fish sauce and some unnameable herbs that feel like they’re still growing they’re that fresh. At home we call ourselves foodies, we love food but the whole nation of Vietnam seems to take our obsession and laugh at it. A bakery nearby plucks the best parts of a French patisserie, Greek cake shop and wraps it all in the love and attention that is purely Viet; restraint is needed. This first dash into town to get a pulse is turning out to be a dazzling eye opener, we’ve seen good markets on this trip in many countries but in the descent of the steps to Dalat market all contenders seem comically inadequate. Rice paper is bizarrely barbecued with egg and herbs to make a strange sort of rice crepe thing called a Vietnam visa; one bite and we have finally arrived.Food glorious food, it’s all around us and almost mocking in its simplicity. There’s an unrestrainable ingenuity to Vietnamese culture, a culture that doesn’t know terms like ‘near enough is good enough’. In a way every culture has a focus, a defining aspiration that drives a people; a new car, the perfect lawn, membership at the right club, fashion, more cows; everyone chases something. Beyond the delicious food itself the culture is now what is speaking most, Vietnam en masse chase little of passing possessions, glamorous pretence or vanity. In the place of what so much of the world enjoys yet places second or worse, Vietnam feeds their families, shares, loves, connects with the earth, builds community and shows us all how it’s done in a single elegant item on a menu that you don’t even have to order.