I set off for Vietnam on motorcycle in early May with a massive grin on my face. I wrote earlier in my blog about that exhilarating feeling of freedom and adventure that occasionally comes over me during my travels. Traveling by bike brought that out on a daily basis. I had purchased a Chinese 110 cc Honda Win style motorcycle in Vang Vieng, and I intended to get to Vietnam on it and explore the S-shaped country by moto.
My route started in Luang Prabang, Laos, where I set off north for Oudomxay, a small city in northern Laos about 100 km from China. Oudomxay had a straight up weird vibe about it. Situated in the Golden Triangle, one of the world’s famous poppy growing regions, I noticed that there were all types of anti-drug and “report poppy transport” signs within the city. The guesthouse I decided to stay at seemed run-down and a bit dodgy, but it was the cheapest place my friend and I could find. I don’t really need much beyond some fairly clean bedding and a locked area to keep my stuff. But this place probably wouldn’t have fit the bill had my friend and I not been completely exhausted from the ride. Riding some 200 km on a dusty, pothole-laden dirt/asphalt road caused us to drastically lower our accommodation standards. We found ourselves staying in some sixth floor ramshackle room with plywood walls and a spent condom caked on the floor outside the door. Not to mention the sound of our neighbors next door doing the happy dance. That was when we pieced it together and realized our night’s accommodation was likely in a brothel. Oh well – it was already 6 pm, and we were both leaving early the next morning, so we just decided to laugh it off and roll the dice. I started noticing that whenever I’d leave the room, someone across the hall would open their door, peek out, and make a somewhat mumbled and disconcerting sound as a greeting to me. That’s when my suspicions about the place sort of spiked. We decided to keep one of us around the room at all times to play it safe, and we rock paper scissored to determine who got to head out to eat first. When I returned after my victorious fried noodle meal, my friend Dominique told me that he’d had gone for a shower and come back to some strung out girl sitting on his bed smoking something. He told me of her attempts to get him into bed, her speech impediment – which explained the mumbled sounds I’d heard earlier – and then he told me that she’d been a really sweet girl despite her desperate pleas to try and sleep with him for his money. Dominique and I hung around the room, had a couple beers, exchanged some travel stories, and then she was back – this time at around midnight, as we were getting ready to hit the hay. She barged in with a huge smile of rotten teeth and sat down on my bed this time, holding some papers and a few other tweaker looking items in her hands. She appeared far from dangerous, so Dominique and I conversed with her for awhile using hand motions, drawings, and the Lao-English dictionary. It turns out that at one point she had been together with this guy who was staying next door to us (with another girl), and it sounded as if now he was essentially her pimp. Using more hand motions and by drawing on pages of her passport (we tried to provide paper!), she explained to us that her speech impediment was the result of her ex beating her years ago. She showed us some brutal bruises to prove that he’d still been doing it. We couldn’t glean much more from the depressing game of charades, and the night ended with her pulling out some white powdered drug in a bag – assumed meth by the look of her teeth – and freebasing it in our room. We obviously did not join, but we didn’t stop her. She came off pretty harmless to us, and in fact she did seem to be a sweetheart as Dominique had initially said. Both he and I had never personally spent time talking with someone who was currently living in such an appalling state. The whole reason I so vividly remember this experience though is because in spite of her repugnant meth mouth and dire living situation as a drug-addicted prostitute, she had an infectious smile that lit up the room. She shared some yogurt snacks with us, and we gave her some of our oriental pub mix, which in hindsight was stupid considering she probably had a really hard time chewing the almonds. After awhile we asked her to leave so we could get some sleep. It was a saddening turn to what started out as a pretty comical situation in Oudomxay. Whether this girl’s smile was simply meth-induced or not I’ll never know. But she had all the reason in the world to sulk and frown, yet she smiled radiantly – and that’s what I’ll remember most.