Rice Wine With The Chief of Police
There were four others, all Vietnamese, siting cross legged on the floor around me. Our small glasses were kept well topped up with home made rice liquor by the youngest of the men, a builder in his mid twenties wearing thick blue overalls. The rice wine, as the spirit is referred to locally, was very good, which was fortunate as it flowed thick and quick. As a snack to accompany the wine we had eggs, with a difference. The egg’s content was rather more formed that is considered the norm in Western cuisine, giving the eating experience all the added benefits of a school biology lesson. The yolk’s wings were partly formed, as was its head; I didn’t find much in the way of legs, but the light was somewhat dim. The other three men were all enjoying their eggs, they were; the head builder, dressed in heavy brown two pice overalls, the local head of police, dressed in civvies, and of course Phong, dressed like Bradley Wiggins.
The events that brought us to be sitting in a half built house drinking strong grog with a pair of builders and an off duty police chief were, to my mind, rather curious. The 250KMS section of the ride we were now on was always going to be the most mysterious, this is where the Ho Chi Minh Trail splits into two very distinct routes, The more popular are generally used eastern route, and this, the quieter and more remote western route. Phong has been adamant from the very beginning that we should investigate the seldom travelled option. We would need to stock up with plenty of food and water, take a mosquito net, and if necessary we would make a mattress from banana leaves, he told me with a twinkle of excitement, and more than a little mischievousness in his demeanour.
The ride was one of splendid and almost perfect isolation, with nary a motor vehicle seen all day we crossed a series of passes through high virgin jungle before descending to a lovely valley ride where the air was filled with the scent of primeval forest and the hoot of gibbons and bird song.
The small town of Truong Son could not have been better placed, at 100KMS it looked for all the world like the perfect tranquil community set in the soft glow of evening light in a curve in the valley floor. A brief interview of a pair of locals toiling in the rice fields beneath a blue sky dotted with tufts of cotton-wool clouds revealed our suspicions to be correct, the town has no inn. ‘Fear not’ cried Phong with confidence, ‘we will have a room within the hour’.
Our first port of call was the local community office. It was a large L shaped building set around a courtyard opposite the community playing field. To my eye the building had a decidedly desolate air to it, but Phong rode in and so I followed. A brief scan around the premises and a word with the local lads there playing football confirmed my suspicion, not a soul here as it is, apparently, Sunday, and so the government officials have a day off; off course. ‘Not to worry’ said Phong, ‘in a small place like this it is always best to spend the night with the army’; quite, how silly of me not to realise. And so we set of to the army barracks.
The small army HQ was in all respects quite splendid. Terraced on a small hill it boasted fine views across the valley and would, I thought, make a fine guesthouse. The officer in charge of operations was a convivial fellow and within a very short time Phong told me they were sorting a room out for us. I thought this all very efficient and civilised but as we sat shading beneath a tree on the edge of the parade ground the officer returned wearing a serious face. Apparently as we were only ten kilometres from the Lao border and I am British we are a security threat and therefore we become a police issue. Hum!
The army shook us by the hand and sent us on our way to the chief of police. When we arrived at a house under construction I said to Phong, ‘this is a house under construction Phong, not a police station’. ‘Oh yes’ said Phong, ‘it is, apparently, Sunday, a holiday for the police’. And so I made a note that should I ever be in need of conducting any unscrupulous business in Vietnam Sunday would be the best day for it.
The chief of police wore a resigned sort of an expression that suggested he would rather be doing other things on a Sunday, but duty is duty and he began making phone calls. I asked what the phone calls were about and it turned out that he was trying to find a local family willing to put us up for the night. Now, I could have understood the whole situation slightly more had I been a battalion of Laotian tanks rumbling over the hills and along the valley, but the connection between a British cyclist, the Lao border and national security I couldn’t quite grasp, and the solution to it all being than rather than keep us in the army camp full of armed soldiers for the night we were to be billeted with a small village family only added to my wonderment. Vietnam has been ruled over by outside forces many times in its long history, I was beginning to understand why.
With each phone call the police chief made his face took on an ever so slightly more forlorn look, eventually he looked up from his Nokia and spoke, Phong turned to me with a grin, ‘tonight we sleep here’ he told me with a grin as the stoical police chief called the builders and open a large jar of rice wine.