The Barbecue Jesus and other epiphanies

Wandering off the Vietnamese budget travel trail in search of authenticity, our correspondent finds that authenticity isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Published July 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

My last and perhaps most redemptive act as a tourist in the Vietnamese
central highlands was to visit the Montagnard church in Kontum. There,
perched innocuously on the back wall of the parish office, was a large
painted-ceramic crucifix unlike any I had seen before.

Whereas most images of the crucifixion depict a Jesus agonized and exhausted
by the pain of the world's sins, the Montagnard Jesus looked downright
chipper -- his hair feathered back in the manner of a 1970s rock star, his
mouth spread into a huge, toothy grin, his hands (which had somehow pulled
loose from the crossbars) stretched out in a gesture of neighborly

"Never mind the stigmata," the Montagnard Jesus seemed to be saying. "Let's
have a barbecue!"

For devout believers, the notion of a Jesus so distracted and nonchalant in
the face of his own crucifixion would seem a tad blasphemous. But for me --
after a rather bewildering experience in the central highlands of Vietnam --
the sight of Barbecue Jesus came as a kind of relief.

"Forget about your expectations," Barbecue Jesus seemed to tell me. "Forget
about what you think you're supposed to do. Look at me. Run your hands
over my ceramic finish and you'll see: I am just as real as you are."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

My trip to the central highlands of Vietnam had started on a note of
euphoric optimism on Route 13, around the same time half the people on my
bus started vomiting.

Granted, watching a bunch of motion-sick Vietnamese farmers puke into
plastic bags wasn't all that pleasant, but I enjoyed the quirky feeling of
otherness, as I was the only foreigner there. I was intrigued by the
details of the experience: how the women dabbed a green salve under their
nostrils to ward off the stench of gastric acid; how the men squatted on
small plastic stools in the aisles to compensate for overcrowding; how
everyone shared water from a grimy Mickey Mouse cup that floated in a jug at
the driver's feet; how the rounded corners and metal vent windows made our
small bus look like an ice cream truck.

Route 13 is the main road through the central highlands, and I have since
learned that it gained distinction as being the home of some of the heaviest
fighting in the waning days of the Vietnam War. Portions of the road, which
to this day are virtually impassable to anything bigger than a motorcycle,
were once part of the Ho Chi Minh Trail supply route from the Laotian

In retrospect, the sole reason I had for traveling Vietnam Route 13 was
because it wasn't Vietnam Highway 1. The sole reason I was headed to the
highland town of Kontum was because it wasn't the highland town of Dalat.
And the sole reason I wanted to travel a potentially dangerous stretch of
the Ho Chi Minh Trail was because it wasn't part of the Circuit.

In southeast Asia, every country has a standard (though largely unspoken)
Budget Travel Circuit. In Thailand, the Circuit involves any combination of
southern islands and northern hill-tribe treks, with a few intermediary days
in Bangkok. In Laos, the overland Circuit almost always includes stops in
Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane. In Cambodia, no Circuit is
complete without stops in Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville.

Vietnam's Circuit roughly follows Highway 1 between Ho Chi Minh City and
Hanoi. This largely coastal route features comfortable and convenient
transportation, plentiful tourist facilities (from cheap motels to moped
rentals) and sightseeing stop-offs from Haiphong to Hue to Hoi An. The
problem with this, of course, is that so many travelers frequent this route
that a person can go for weeks on the Circuit without having any legitimate
interaction with the locals.

Perhaps no place illustrates this better than Nha Trang -- a southern
coastal city whose most famous citizen in backpacker circles is a small,
visor-wearing woman named Mama Hahn. For about $7, Mama Hahn takes
foreigners on all-day boat cruises that feature sightseeing, snorkeling, a
nearly limitless supply of cheap beer and a floating lunch that features a
man in a rowboat handing out marijuana cigarettes. Mama Hahn's cruise has
proven so popular with backpack travelers that she has already spawned a
couple of imitators (one of whom, confusingly, also calls herself Mama

I joined Mama Hahn's boat trip one day after arriving in Nha Trang on the
Circuit from Ho Chi Minh City. My seven Canadian boatmates (all of them
friends, traveling together) were gregarious and funny -- and the cruise
through the bay was enjoyable enough -- but I lost all sense of being in
Asia within minutes of leaving the shore. It didn't help that Mama Hanh
carried a loudspeaker, and continually used it to squawk such
non-traditional Vietnamese aphorisms as "Let's party!" and "Who's ready to
get fucked up?"

As usually happens when travelers get together, the Canadians and I shared
our road tales. Various members of the Canadian crew had been to places
like Tibet, Goa, Samarkand and Tanzania. I hadn't been to any of those
places, but my southeast Asian experiences seemed to meet with their
approval. "I could tell when I met you that you were a seasoned traveler,"
one of the Canucks confided at one point.

The thing is, sitting on Mama Hahn's boat, I didn't feel like a traveler at
all -- let alone a seasoned one. And -- considering that my companions'
travel experiences seemed to center around sampling drugs in various
far-flung corners of the earth -- I began to wonder just what defined a
"seasoned traveler."

I came ashore from my Nha Trang boat excursion with a sunburn, a
mid-afternoon hangover and the vague feeling that I could have experienced
the exact same thing in Ontario.

Suddenly filled with the urge to do something different, I visited my
guesthouse travel office and scanned the map, looking for a southern region
that was as far from the Circuit as possible. I put my finger on an area
near the Laotian border. "I want to go here," I said to the Vietnamese
woman who ran the office.

"That's the central highlands," she told me. "A very wonderful place. We
can get you a ticket to Dalat for tomorrow."

I knew plenty about Dalat. Dalat was a Niagra Falls-style highland resort
town that boasted waterfalls, swan-shaped paddleboats on the local lake and
a "minority village" that featured a giant concrete chicken. Dalat -- on
kitsch value alone -- was already a part of the Circuit. "I don't want to
go to Dalat," I told the tour woman. I tapped my finger on the northern
stretch of Route 13. "What's on this road?"

She thought for a moment. "Buon Ma Thot, Pleiku -- but those places aren't
so interesting. Kontum is good. It's like Dalat -- lots of nature and
hill tribes. But the road after Kontum is very bad. It's only for
motorcycles, or maybe army trucks. Nobody ever goes that way. Kontum is
kind of a headache. I think Dalat is better."

The next morning I went to the Nha Trang inter-city bus station and headed
for Kontum.

It took me two days to get there -- one day on a crowded, lumbering DeSoto bus bound for Buon Ma Thot, and one day on the ice cream truck vomitorium to Kontum. By the time I reached my destination, fresh air and leg-room seemed like glorious, decadent luxuries.

After checking into a cheap hotel near the bus depot, I set off down the sidestreets of Kontum, hoping to find some place -- such as a market -- where I could mix in with the local folks. Not far from my hotel, I stopped to hold a store-front door open for a young man overloaded with boxes. A minute later, he came jogging up to me on the sidewalk and handed me a plastic sack filled with coffee beans. He was dressed in a white T-shirt that read, enigmatically: "AS BIG AND AS CLOSE AS IT GETS."

"Is this for me?" I asked. At the time, I had temporarily forgotten that asking a yes/no question to someone who doesn't understand English is possibly the most pinheaded mistake a traveler can make in Asia. Still smiling, the Vietnamese guy nodded.

I had no use for a big bag of coffee beans, but I was nonetheless touched by this seemingly generous gesture. Wanting to express my appreciation, I took out my Vietnamese phrase book and tried to make conversation. This proved to be a slow process, since spoken Vietnamese is a tonal language, and difficult for beginners. I mostly just communicated by pointing to words. It took me 15 minutes to establish that my friend's name was Tran, he wasn't married and his hobby was singing. I threw in a few personal bits about myself and showed him some pictures of my family.

As I made to end the conversation and leave, Tran seized the phrase book and flipped through the pages for a few moments. He stopped at the numbers page, pointed to "20" and looked at me quizzically.

"Twenty," I told him. "That's 20."

"Twenty," Tran repeated in English.

"Is that how old you are?" I asked, still oblivious to the yes/no rule.

Tran nodded. "Twenty," he said. "OK!"

"Great," I said. "I'm 28."


I pointed to myself. "Twenty-eight."

Tran pointed to the coffee beans. "Twenty!" he said.

I suddenly realized, after all this time spent endearing myself to Tran, that he'd never intended to give me the coffee. He'd merely been attempting to sell it to me. Figuring it a cheap enough way to save face, I took 20,000 dong (about $1.50) from my pocket and held it out to him. Tran scowled and pushed away the Vietnamese money. He dug into his pocket and pulled out a dollar bill. "Twenty!" he said.

I shook my head and handed the coffee back, but it was too late: Tran was convinced I wanted the coffee. By the time I gave up trying to say no and started to walk away, the price was down to $12. Tran pursued me, dropping the price to $10, then $8, where it hovered for a good 10 minutes as Tran backpedaled in front of me, waving the coffee in front of my face.

On paper, 10 minutes doesn't seem like much, but when it's spent trying to wave off an absurdly aggressive coffee salesman, 10 minutes is a maddening eternity. Finally, I broke. "No, Tran!" I yelled, coming to a halt on the sidewalk. "How many times do you want me to say it? No! No! No!"

Tran sneered and shoved the bag of coffee beans right up under my nose. Without thinking, I smacked it out of his hands. This sent Tran into a fury, screaming what I can only assume were the choicest of Vietnamese curses. I took it as my cue to leave when he spun around and kicked over a parked bicycle.

I never did find the market that night. I ended up weaving through the streets for upwards of an hour, trying to remember my way home.

It was after dark by the time I'd found my hotel. As I walked through the lobby, I noticed two little Vietnamese girls sitting on the couch, watching television. The older one looked to be about 6 years old, and the younger one couldn't have been any older than 3. They were both clutching orange sodas.

"Hello!" the older one cried as I walked past.

"Hello," I said. "How are you?"

"What is your name?" she replied.

"My name is Rolf. What is your name?"

"What is your name?" she said.

"I said my name is Rolf. But what's your name?"

The girl gave me a confused look. "What is your name?" she said, a bit uncertain this time.

I squatted down by the couch and gave her a friendly smile. "We know my name. What's your name?" I playfully wiggled my finger at her. Her face went blank. I pointed again. "Not my name," I said brightly. "Your name!" The girl looked at me as if I'd just said I was going to hit her on the head with a hammer.

Worried about the direction our conversation was heading, I stood up and tried to look as cheery and non-threatening as possible. "Time for me to say goodnight!" I said. "Can you say goodnight?"

At this, the younger girl suddenly burst into tears.

I went to bed that night feeling like some kind of tragically misunderstood cartoon monster.

The following day I rented a clunky one-speed bicycle (a chore in itself; I
won't divulge how much I ended up paying for it), and rode out of the city
in search of Montagnard ethnic minority villages. Following random roads
out of town, I bicycled into a stunning landscape of river valleys, coffee
plantations, huge white clouds and far-off purple mountains. The roads
were lined with broad fields of maroon soil, smoking brick kilns, cement
graves painted mustard yellow and mud-walled long-houses. In packed-dirt
yards along the roadside, little girls coasted precariously on adult-sized
bicycles while little boys ran around trying to urinate on each other. Tiny
babies buzzed past on 100cc motorcycles, stoically perched on their fathers'

After about three hours of pedaling, I arrived at a rural minority village
that looked suitably remote and authentic. I decided to stop and check
things out.

In a way, I've always been a bit confused about the purpose of hill-tribe
tourism, which has become a travel fad in places like Thailand and Vietnam.
I guess the rural treks are meant to expose travelers to an exotic way of
life and provide contrast to the modernized ways of places like Bangkok and
Ho Chi Minh City -- but I suspect that such treks largely serve to validate
the sentimental standard of foreign exoticism set by National Geographic

My most immediate challenge upon arriving in the small village was simply
trying to figure out what to do. In my mind's eye, I envisioned a grand
entry into the minority village, replete with tribal dancing, pigs butchered
in my honor and a hearty round of toasts with some ill-tasting fermented
beverage. In reality, I found the town largely deserted at midday. The few
dark-skinned locals I did see were wearing western clothes (with occasional
ethnic flourishes, such as a woven sash or a porkpie hat) and didn't take
much interest in me, even when I pulled out the phrase book and tried to make

After 20 or so awkward minutes of skulking around the village, I managed
to insinuate myself into a group of teenaged boys, who were standing in a
circle and kicking a chicken-feather birdie into the air. My rusty soccer
skills were good enough to keep up with the boys, and we'd just managed to
get a good volley going when a boozy, toothless old man wheeled my bike up
and indicated that he wanted me to get on it and leave. The boys shouted
angrily at the old man; the old man pointed at me and shouted back.

Then, without warning, the tallest boy cuffed the old drunk on the side of
the head. As the old man reeled backwards, a second boy pushed him to the
ground. When he tried to stand up, the tall boy kicked him in the rump.
The others jeered and laughed. When the old man had scampered away, the
tall boy looked over at me, smiled and gave a thumbs-up.

Not comfortable with the notion that my new companions had just shown their
hospitality by beating the bejesus out of the town drunk, I excused myself
at the first opportunity and -- after a few more halfhearted attempts at
interaction with the locals -- pedaled back to Kontum.

Independent travel is often an act of hope -- an optimistic attempt to blur
the line between cultures through somewhat random interactions. By my
second night in Kontum, however, I felt more like an outsider than ever. I
decided to make a play at salvaging my trip by moving on.

The next morning I managed to hire (again, at a price I will opt not to
share) a battered green '70s era Dodge van to take me to Phuoc Son along
the Ho Chi Minh Trail portion of Route 13. The driver was a high-strung
wheeler-dealer type, and by the time we left the blacktop at Dac Glei, he
had managed to fill the remaining seats in the van with a motley assortment
of Vietnamese farmers. Despite my protests, I ended up having to share the
shotgun seat with a parcel-laden old woman. I noticed, with a bit of dread,
that she was carrying a bottle of green salve.

Thirty minutes into our creep down a rutted stretch of the road, the driver
brought us to a rough and sudden halt. An overloaded white transport truck
had rolled over in the middle of the road and burst like a sausage,
jettisoning torn bags of rice and smashed boxes of clothes in its wake. Our
driver cursed and stubbornly honked his horn, but there was no way around
it. Angrily, he threw the van into reverse and managed to get us mired in
the gravelly mud on the side of the road. After several minutes of flooring
the accelerator, he yelled at everyone to get out. The farmers made for the
side of the road and began to take out their food, looking like they
expected to be there for a while. The driver remained in the van, cursing
and stomping on the accelerator.

At that moment, with the back wheels of the Dodge sending chunks of gravel
thumping off into the trees, I suddenly realized that I had no good reason
for being there. I had gone to a remote corner of Vietnam with no sense of
the language or culture -- with no host or guide or guidebook, and no
specific ideas about what to find there. The decision that brought me there
was not a savvy act of independent travel, but an insipid act of negation --
a ritual of avoiding other travelers, as if this in itself was somehow

Wearily resolved, I shouldered my pack and started walking back up the
road. After an hour or so, I hitched a ride on a flatbed lorry and made it
back to Kontum by late afternoon. Since no buses back down to the coast
were available until the next day, I checked back into my hotel and went for
an aimless walk that eventually landed me in the Montagnard church.

There I offered up my confusion to Barbecue Jesus.

There is no such thing as a seasoned traveler, because travel is an ongoing
experience of the unfamiliar. Regardless of how many stamps you have in
your passport, you eventually find yourself in a place like Kontum, Vietnam,
inadvertently making small children cry, hopelessly trying to deal with
people who see you as nothing more than a consumer and haplessly walking in
concentric circles until you can find something that resembles your hotel.

Sometimes, the Circuit is not a physical route, but a largely unavoidable
state of mind that regulates your expectations. I had gone to the highlands
looking for Vietnamese authenticity, but perhaps I was just looking for a
generic affirmation experience -- something superficial and positive to make
me think I wasn't just passing through like a ghost.

Ironically, the utter lack of affirmation and positive interaction I found
was -- in its own, frustrating way -- bluntly authentic. All too often, the
random workings of reality simply don't match up with your reverent,
idealized hopes.

Hanging there before me -- strange, grinning, half-crucified -- Barbecue
Jesus seemed to understand.

By Rolf Potts

Rolf Potts' Vagabonding column appears every other Tuesday in Salon Travel. For more columns by Potts, visit his column archive.

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