Lost near Mũi Né
What would you do if you were lost in a Vietnamese forest with no guide, gas, and a dyeing phone battery?
God it was hot. Sun sweltering, blistering hot, with the temperature rising to nearly 41 degrees Celsius. The blue cloudless sky was not showing any signs that it would get any cooler. The noon day sun beat down on us in the dry and sandy climate of Mui Ne as the three of us did what we could to find shade. Our nerves were starting to get a little short and tempers were starting to rise. We were low on gas, water, and had no clue of where we were other than in a Vietnamese coastal forest somewhere outside of Mui Ne.
Despite finally hiding under the shade of some small trees, the excessive heat caused sweat to bead across my brow till it grew heavy and trickled down the side of my face, stinging my eyes. The sweat that didn’t make its way into my eyes was making its way into the lining of my helmet, which thirstily sucked it up and adding to the already heavy Bell motorcycle helmet, coming in at almost two kilograms. With each passing moment that the helmet grew heavier, I grew ever more tired.
Nonetheless, there wasn’t any time to rest as none of us wanted to be dehydrated and stuck in unknown territory. Our group of five riders had already been whittled down to three and there was fear of splitting the group even further. The other riders, Renzo and Bart (whom I had somehow come to call Batman), had somehow slipped into the pine forest and gotten separated from us. I wasn’t worried about them though; both were experienced enough riders who could take care of themselves. The three of us on the other hand, Warren, Richard, and myself were less experienced. In ideal conditions, with nerves not starting to fray over various anxieties, I’m sure anyone of us could have gotten out of there just fine. But as things were I wasn't so sure. It was best we stick together. Together we had the resources and know-how to get out. Or at least to put us in a less remote location where we’d be found if we ran out of gas.
Our inexperience was starting to show itself in a number of ways. The most obvious tell-tale-sign of our sign of inexperience was that we were all trying to use Google Maps. A major rookie mistake in Vietnam. Google Maps are so poorly charted in Vietnam that they’re great for leading you into wild adventures, but not that great at getting you out of them. With sporadic service, we couldn’t quite be sure of where we were, or how far the nearest road was. Plus, as can be expected in this modern day of travel, all we had were digitized road maps which didn't indicate what the terrain was like between us and where we thought the nearest road was. Based on the poor information we had, we suspected that it was about 5km away but had no clue what laid between us and our desired destination. If we were lucky, it was some hard packed sand and trees with no underbrush. If we were unlucky, it was full of sinkholes, pickily brambles, impassable ditches, and my personal favorite, the random razor wire that a local put up to claim a plot of land as theirs.
This lack of knowing exactly where to go was only compounding the anxiety brought on by Richard’s bike guzzling gas like an Olympic athlete after a marathon. We did our best to diagnose why this was happening but as none of us are mechanically inclined and the result was little more than the three of us looking at each other and shrugging in defeat. All we knew was that nothing was coming out the bottom, nothing smelt like burnt gas or oil, and that the indicator for the reserve tank had come on about 15km ago. This meant that if we did come across any impassable obstacle, we would have to double back and waste what precious gas he did have.
The second obstacle was one derived from a lack of foresight than anything else. None of us thought to bring a compass other than the one built into our phones. Which works just fine, even when Google does not, but still requires a vital piece of technology, a charged battery. The heat and a lack of an external battery meant that my battery was zapped, and the other’s batteries weren’t exactly great either. From my trekking experience, I knew bringing a compass would have been the right thing to do but for some reason I neglected to pack it. At least, I hadn’t forgotten my whistle. My horn had smashed into something along the trail in the last two days while passing through rubber plantations and the whistle was all I had left to signal other riders with.
So, there we were, three mildly experienced riders stuck in a blistering hot forest, trying to make our way out. Low on gas, water, a dying digital compass, and only a whistle to signal the others where I was. We debated turning around, but that meant most likely getting separated even further from Renzo and Batman. We considered trying to drive straight north hoping not to come across any obstacles, or if we should try something else.
After a few minutes of diligently examining the map Richard pointed out that supposedly there was a potential “road” to the west. If the map was right, it was only about a kilometer away. We had originally opted out of going west because it was full of deep soft sand and Warren’s bike kept getting stuck every time, we hit a sandy stretch. That route, while we had determined it was the highest likelihood of getting Richard out, also meant that it was the highest likelihood of Warren being left behind. We debated back and forth about which path to take, but in the end, as it was Richard’s bike that was the one most likely to run out of gas and get stranded, we decided to take the sandy route.
We set off at a crawling pace, ducking low hanging branches, and evading sudden ditches and potholes. Twice, I barely evaded a sudden half meter drop that had been obscured by bushes. The thought of the immense pain I would have been in had I dropped into those holes rattled me and distracted me from the task at hand. A distraction that led me to being close lined by a sturdy branch that simply wouldn’t give way.
After a great deal of swearing and deep calming breaths, we made it to the "road" we had been searching for. The single kilometer journey had taken at least 10 minutes if not more. At this point Richard’s need for gas was becoming more and more of a concern, but at least we had made it to a sure route out of the forest. We paused for a moment to make sure that everyone was okay and ready to go when Warren came up with a nice contingency plan should Richard run out of gas. We could use the hose on our water bladders to siphon gas from one of our tanks to Richard’s if need be. It wasn’t a perfect plan, but it was enough to get us out of a pinch.
Now the only obstacle seemed to be getting Warren’s bike through the sand, and there was a lot of sand. To our front there appeared to be a solid two or three kilometers of desolate chard silt. Where once there had been a forest, locals had come through and harvested the wood, then proceeded to burn all the underbrush that remained. All that was left was an open expanse of charred ash and camel hair colored sand. It looked as if someone had taken a blowtorch to the landscape, eradicating all evidence of former life. The three of us looked at each other for silent confirmation to proceed. Dripping in sweat, Warren nodded us on. It wasn’t like we had a better option, but the silent approval to move forward seemed necessary from the one most likely to have the most trouble with the new terrain.
To our surprise, the charred sand was baked firm. We could feel it shifting under our bikes as the tire treads broke the surface tension holding the sand together, but it wasn’t pulling us down like the loose sand from earlier. Finally. We opened up the throttles on our bikes and ripped through the charred wasteland like Mad Max Road Warriors. All the sweat that had pooled in our jackets and helmets turned into luxurious air conditioning as the warm wind whisked the water away from our tired bodies. Despite the sweltering heat, it was as if we had stepped into a large walk-in freezer as air flowed over our arms and around our baked torsos. Within a few short minutes, we were dumped out on a nice tarmac road.
Our short stint of pathfinding was over, and despite not knowing if we had enough gas to get to the next petrol station, our fears evaporated away. Conveniently, where we had been dumped out onto the black top road was right next to a typical Vietnamese roadside stop, complete with a little food cart, and kindergarten-sized blue chairs. We topped up our water bladders and started trying to reach Batman and Renzo with the little battery life we had left on our phones.
It turned out they were just down the road, waiting for us at a similar roadside stop. They had taken a different route. They had come across some power lines and after spending about 15 minutes looking for us, they had decided to follow the powerlines out. A plan I carefully categorized and filed away in my mind for future pathfinding scenarios. We hopped on our bike and proceeded down the road to meet up with them.
When we pulled up, Batman was chomping down on some weird green ice-cream and Renzo was drinking what appeared to be his third bottle of water. We rested for about ten minutes, tried out the ice-cream ourselves and found out from the shopkeeper that there was a gas station just down the road about five kilometers on the left. Then, just like that, we were back on the open road, headed towards our next dirt-laden adventure.
Wiley H. Jackson
Teacher, Adventurer, Writer
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