Through some iFluke, the only music available to me overseas through my Apple account was the album I first heard on my flight to Bangkok and downloaded upon landing, the first (and better) half of the “20/20 Experience.” Luckily, James had music too, and we’d both brought fantastically portable ukuleles to fill in the melodic gaps. But when it came to headphones, my one option was the silky smooth falsetto of the most relevant member of *NSYNC.
I sipped the Tiger beer slowly, looking out over the bustling block below. Rats scurried along the gnarled network of electrical wires towering above – a Gordian knot of inextricable confusion.
Wire there so many?
Workmen repaired plaster on the colonial French balcony across the street or fiddled with antennae on the roof next door. At ground level, women in squat, conical headgear peddled fruits and vegetables strung along bamboo poles – durian, lychee, peppers, squash. Shopkeepers swept trash into piles to be burnt along with fake money (“hell money,” a form of joss paper burned to honor deceased relatives). Drug pushers zoomed around on scooters, slowing periodically to whisper the list of their wares to Western youths. A group of xích lô riders joked loudly as they glided down the street, passing by a throng of teens on motor bikes who conversed as they rode side-by-side in a line.
There was a pulse here on the concrete-shaded avenue, a cadence, infectious and elusive, a rhythm I was not yet in sync with (no matter how much JT whispered softly in my earbuds) and would not be until I became one with the two-wheeled monster that ruled the streets. Unlike other places I’d been, I knew somehow that if I was to be swept away in the flow of this country, it would be on the back of a grumbling speed demon.
Returning downstairs to the room we rented, I found James finishing a phone call, after which we sprawled out the maps of Vietnam we’d acquired, poring over the logistics of each day’s leg of the trip – if we left at x time, we could feasibly arrive at y village before sundown; if we got to a city before b date, we could maybe take a day off from constant driving along the way; etc.
We also set down a few ground rules regarding biking, respectful of the gravity of the machine and of gravity in general. We’d take at least eight hours between bottle and throttle (no inebriated riding); because I had the bike with the pannier (metal saddle bags holders hanging over the rear wheel), James would take point, and I’d bring up the rear as tail gunner; we’d always stay within sight of one another when possible and keep our headlights on to better identify one another on the road; if we did get separated, we’d hit the horn in a specified three-beep pattern; we’d pull over and stretch every hour and a half of riding. Special considerations related to driving in Vietnam without a Vietnamese driver’s license, i.e. breaking the law, found us recalling tips we picked up in Bropackers’ Hostel: don’t stop for police but outrun them; if you do manage to get stopped, take the key from the ignition before they swipe it; don’t carry a lot of money on you, because if both of the above fail, you will be paying whatever is in your wallet in bribe money.
Eager to keep the thought of my Honda Winn out of mind, I stretched out yet another map of Vietnam, and we pinpointed places to refuel or to stop for the night, tracing potential routes down the narrow nation.
Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.
It was a tall order that would require days of six to eight hour stretches cramped on the back of a bike, long hard days astride the machine that made me pee a little when I thought of it. But, if all went according to the tentative plan, we’d arrive in Ho Chi Minh City in twelve days and have two days to bask in the glory of the adventure and recover before flying to yet another part of the world. That handful of days, less than a two weeks’ march across a calendar, seemed like a lifetime away, our destination a world apart. Even further than my abandoned bike.
As the sun dipped below the cityscape, the return to the corner of Hàng Gai and Hàng Tróng became imperative. I hopped on the back of James’ ride for a stop-and-start scoot along the opening of night markets and the din of the close of day, with me pointing and shouting directions at the sight of familiar landmarks. Remarkable quickly, there, suddenly, was the intersection at which my dreadful sled was sitting cattycorner, waiting, daring me to sit astride and test my luck again. As James rolled to a stop, hand firmly on both the clutch and the front brake to keep his beast from dying – we were not good enough yet to simply idle hands-free in neutral – I inhaled deeply and slid off, weighty feet hitting the pavement hard.
Eyeballing the monster, I ran through the motions of gear shifting mentally and let out a sputtering breath. Each step toward my Winn was the result of unthinking resolve. I felt antagonism toward the bike, the feeling of a gallant knight charging a villainous windmill. This was good. In an instant, trepidation dissolved into determination, or at least revulsion. My steps turned deliberate and sure as I approached the thing. Swinging a leg over, I sat and strapped on my helmet, turning the key with confidence. Smacking the kickstand up with a firm heel, I revved the engine and nodded to James, who took off into the darkened city. I would slay this dragon.
And for several minutes, I held the beast at bay, reining it to my will. Gears slid into place at my command, the bike speeding or slowing as if an extension of my intention. I passed other motorists, swinging in and out of lanes, throttling to clear them, decelerating to dip back into traffic. The key, it seemed, was constant mindfulness. Unlike driving a car, where drifting into daydreamy auto-pilot mode happens more than we care to admit, riding a motorcycle requires non-stop attentiveness, especially as a beginner. As long as I remained focused, the beast was tamed.
At one point, I broke off from James, knowing I’d find my way back on my own. Down-shifting at a stoplight, my mind wandered through thoughts of the sheer awesomeness of biking, the tangibleness of the outside air, its temperatures and smells and sounds, the textures and details in shop windows and doorways, in side-streets and alleyways, the things you miss when you’re driving in a plastic box. A glow of green from the traffic signal brought me back with a slam from the feeling to the physicality of riding. Unprepared, I up-shifted from first to neutral instead of second, pulling the throttle hard and getting nowhere fast.
Still revving, I realized my gear mistake and snapped from neutral into second, amateurishly falling back into a wheelie and losing control. Instead of turning either left or right (aka the only options at this t-bone intersection), I catwalked across the corner on one wheel, hurtling forward in the direction of solid concrete buildings. As the end credits rolled on “The Short and Happy Life of Motorcycle Rich Goode,” my front wheel smacked back down on the paved sidewalk, and the bike jerked from the contact.
Gathering my wits in the harried half-second I had left, I swung the handle bars to the left, braking as gently as possible with the front break. Miraculously, the back end twirled to align with the front, and, as I released the brake and clutch, I was moving left, parallel to the street and, probably more importantly, the unbudging structures. I rode along the sidewalk for a moment, yelling with joy before gliding back into the flow of scooters on the street.
I was able to navigate around catastrophe, because I had handled this monster correctly. Somehow, I would make it to Ho Chi Minh City, some 999 miles away. Passing the hotel, I kept riding, actually wanting to be on the back of the bike, welcoming the practice.
After some time, I returned, finding James in our room with the TV on. After exchanging stories, I assured him that I was confident in our ability to head out in the morning for our journey, and we settled in to the drone of the one English channel, CNN. Coincidentally, the next segment was on the possibility of improving relations between the U.S. and Vietnam. As Christiane Amanpour gazed dourly into the camera, introducing the piece, the broadcast suddenly cut out, with a message appearing onscreen containing a technical difficulty code, which, as I discovered to my puzzlement when I googled it, was the designation for inappropriate content.
We took turns gazing at the one Vietnam guidebook we had, alternating between reading and pursuing other distractions, further discussing places and routes. I turned to writing in my journal, and James practiced card tricks, a new hobby for him in the downtime of travel.
Hours later, with midnight fast upon us, I volunteered to retrieve beer from the lobby, a final toast before turning in on our last night before rolling out south. Unfortunately, there were no attendants downstairs, and the lights were dimmed. I pressed on out into the night, refusing to return empty-handed.
Stale moonlight washed over the halogen-splashed cobbled stones and asphalt, and the sound of far fewer motorists on the sparsely populated night streets periodically rumbled off in the distant darkness. Cool crisp gusts of breeze kept me alert as I scanned the rows of shops ahead for those that were not shuttered and that might sell alcohol. The low glow of a convenience store a few blocks up beckoned me. It looked to be just closing, the proprietor sweeping dust from the floor out of the open door. Because he seemed European, I asked in English if I could buy a couple beers off him, to which he replied that, alas, alcohol could not be sold in stores or bars past 12:00 a.m., and it was a few minutes after. Appeals to his benevolence got me nowhere, but, as I turned to go, he dropped the hint that I should walk two blocks to a certain bar that would appear closed, knock on the shutter, and ask for Tom.
So I sauntered over to the locale, unsure of whether I was going to find a speakeasy, a trap for gullible travelers, or nothing at all. It wasn’t until I was right upon the metal security screen pulled down over the doorway that I could hear a faint rhythmic thudding, and I rapped on the screen, calling for Tom as instructed. Within seconds, the screen lifted and a light from the doorway pierced the empty dark street, revealing a scene from The Matrix’s Zion – all manner of traveler cramped into the ample bar, writhing against each other to the bump of house music. Before I could collect my wits, I was yanked inside by a smiling Brit, who hollered for me to “come in and have a beer, mate,” before quickly closing the shutter again behind me.
The chap shoved me into the mix, where I slid through the throng of dancers, sharing momentary waltzes as I maneuvered toward the bar. Making sure I could order two beers to go, I bought a pair of 450ml Bia Hanoi and was told to follow a bartender back out to the street. A Vietnamese girl beckoned me not to the door from which I’d entered, but up a flight of stairs and into the back rooms of the second floor.
Only the pale light of the moon shining in through dirty windows illuminated our path through the back area, down a long hallway and into a vacant and disheveled lounge. I could hear voices in other rooms and, in my own head, for the second time in ten minutes, the words of Admiral Ackbar echoed: “It’s a trap.” As I tagged along behind the bartender, I gripped a bottle at the neck in both hands, blunt objects at the ready should they be needed.
Paranoid as I felt brandishing the would-be weapons, she should probably have been more afraid of me than me of her, for she opened a doorway that lead to outside stairs, smiled, and bowed, and I was safely back out into the night. When I returned to the hotel with the beers, James and I headed out to the rooftop balcony one last time for one last drink.
After relaying my speakeasy adventure, we chatted in the humid air between swigs and cigarette draws, eventually broaching the topic of the CNN broadcast and its being censored, paranoia still lingering in the air. Before this evening, we hadn’t really thought much about the implications, if any, of being Americans in Vietnam. The country is in the imagination of every American, thanks almost entirely to a little war of attrocities in the 60s and early 70s. If we were openly American, would we be accepted, shunned, despised, treated with hospitality or hostility? Had enough time passed since the Vietnam War, or were the wounds fresh and in need of reprisal?
Though we’re as patriotic as any millennials, we decided it may be best to pass as Canadians, people that not many other nations have beef with and whose accents luckily can be quite similar to Americans’. And, growing up in south Louisiana, we both spoke at least smatterings of French and would able to hand a serviette to someone who spilled poutine, if tested.
For those tiny hard-to-clean poutine stains, use a speck of club soda and a little serviette with his mini-napkin. Eh.
To further support our story, we chose a province, British Columbia, as our fictitious home and adopted the motto on its coat of arms as our slogan: “Spendour without diminishment.”
And so, after drinking the last drops, the two newly minted Canadians finished their final packing preparations and turned in, one of them drifting off to sleep under the skies of Hanoi to the singing of the man-boy who once sat atop the world as boyfriend of Britney.
In the morning, we’d set out on a country-long quest to arrive in time for a flight (an admittedly self-created conflict with self-imposed limitations)! To infinity and beyond! To splendour without diminishment!
SPLENDOR SINE OCCASU