Imagine yourself walking on a thin, precarious path that hugs to the side of a steep cliff. There are loose rocks beneath your feet and segments of the trail that lay ahead have completely eroded. Your clothing is damp with sweat because of the strenuous climb. You glance around looking for something solid to grab to in case you slip but nothing substantial is near; you’re surrounded by grass and measly shrubs. Further ahead, just before the trail disappears around a bend, a small Vietnamese man in flip flops is eagerly waiting for you and waving for you to follow. Far below, at the base of the cliff, is a river and a massive hydroelectric dam. You begin thinking: “there’s no way this is legal”. You also think: “I need to start reevaluating my life choices”…
Let rewind to the beginning of this saga. Our homestay owner suggested we do a boat cruise (yes, boat cruise means something different to us too) along the gorgeous river that runs beside Meo Vac. There was some broken explanation about the dam and having to navigate around it. We didn’t pry much and decided to go on the exotic excursion. We motorbiked down to our meeting point which was beside the dam. There were two other couples: one French and the other German. A stout Vietnamese man emerged from a trail that snaked along the bank beside the dam. He didn’t speak a word of English but gestured for us to follow him. We began scaling the path which was rough but manageable. The trail significantly deteriorated. All of the pudgy, tall tourists (including us) started glancing at each other for reassurance that this wasn’t a stupid decision.
After a very dangerous trek we finally reached a small beach area. Pulled ashore was an old metal boat and beside it a squatting, middle aged, Vietnamese man. We all thought the same thing: “Boat cruise may be an overstatement”. The man seems to be in charge and distributed life jackets (safety first, of course). We herd onto the boat and begin our “boat cruise”. We’re instructed not to move otherwise we could capsize. The boat ride is phenomenally beautiful. Think Grand Canyon but with more vegetation. After some time we are dropped at a tributary to the main river which has waterfalls and rapids. All the tourists explore, play and take pictures.
When it seems time to return home we are informed about a very rural village that we are going to trek to. No one objects and we follow our stout guide up on another trail. After another intense climb we enter a rural village. It felt like stepping back in time. A proper village with chickens, pigs, shacks, puppies, bees, mud huts, bamboo roofs, and a dilapidated state that can’t be faked. The children were too timid to even come to us.
Nearly 3 hours after departing everyone is itching to start making our way back. The guide seems to be stalling the visit and is having conversations on his tiny Nokia phone. At one point everyone was standing around just starring at him with a “what next?” feeling. Eventually, we made our way back to the river boat and floated down to the dam. As we approached the beach where we had set off from we noticed a group of people waiting for us. Once they were clear enough to distinguish we realized we were in trouble. A military style boat accompanied them and they were dressed in the classic Soviet – era attire (dark green and tan uniforms with large military hats and star emblems). A heated Vietnamese conversation ensued while we shuffled off the boat. Our driver looked indignant while our guide seemed sheepish. Now the covert attitude that our guide had relayed all seemed to make sense. There was tension in the air as we all stood on the river bank and listened to the tone of the conversion. Suddenly a phone call was made to someone who seemed important because as the phone was hung up we were allowed to leave. We scrambled our way back across the illegal route we had taken with one of the visitors falling face first into mud. At the motorbikes we were informed of the details: yes, we were engaging in illegal activity but someone knew a government official who gave us a free pass. Whew, what a “boat cruise”.