The Mekong Delta (continued)

Pt.2 – My Fatalistic Love Affair with the Motorbike

I’d driven a manual car and pedaled many a bicycle, but this hybrid known as the manual motorbike was completely new.  As a passenger on an automatic motorbike in Cat Ba, Vietnam, I knew firsthand how difficult the easier form of this beast could be.  I watched, aghast, as my two friends flew over a rough patch in the road and crashed ten meters away on the hard pavement.  Rushed to a rural hospital with a rural, non-English speaking doctor, they were treated in a dingy, yellow cell in a very rural way.  The one who cried, “I can’t feel my leg,” walked away with ice cubes while the other had the gash on her forehead sewn up in a way that will surely leave an ugly scar.

And yet, the girl who couldn’t feel her leg, two others and I decided to face our fears and try again.  This time, our resident Frenchy (with years of motorbike experience) and I (with none) would drive the beasts.

If you’ve ever played MarioKart, this is like tackling Rainbow Road with Princess on a scooter… a bad idea!

Leaving Can Tho was the first obstacle.  A city of over 350,000 people, Can Tho’s roads were congested with bikes, cycles, carts, carriages, pedestrians, and potholes.  No road is simply a road in Vietnam.  This trip would oscillate between city and jungle driving, two skills I had never acquired on a motorbike.

Perhaps out of a fear of imperfection’s cost, the nuances of the bike came quick.  Always keep your hand on the brakes when you start the bike.  You don’t turn a bike, you lean it.  Your weight is your steering wheel.  Driving is like dancing; it’s a delicate balance.  First gear is impossible, so start with second.  Third gear is to get going and fourth when you’re on a straightaway.  There were a lot of rules and I almost always followed them.

The first day we got incredibly lost, as if getting lost was our goal (which, in a way, it was).  It was a crowded, yet at times, incredibly peaceful countryside of orchards, rice, and fields of flowers.  Whereas English was sporadically understood in the rest of Vietnam, not even the hotel workers in the Delta spoke a word of it.  This made getting lost in the twisting maze of river, rice, canals, and curves all the more unavoidable.

In the early afternoon, we passed a string of police tape. On the other side sat a beat up bike and the chalk marks of its deceased owner.  This was certainly an ominous sign.  The statistics for motorbike accidents in Vietnam are absurd.  In 2008, 12,800 accidents occurred killing 11,600 people and injuring 8,100.   In other words, on any given day in 2008, 35 accidents resulted in 32 deaths and 22 injuries.  And, these numbers were down from 2007!  Had I known these facts at the time, I would never have paid money for a death wish.

By nightfall, we crossed our second river barge, leaving hectic Vinh Long for the twin islands of Ah Binh and Binh Hoa Phuoc.  Cryptically billed as, “…the land of unknown things,” these sleepy islands were diced in tracts by a large network of meandering rivers and canals.  As such, the roads petered along like poorly maintained mountain-bike paths, skirting the water’s edge.

The next morning, we set out early to explore the, “land of unknown things.”  I had spent the night with Ducati dreams, repeatedly congratulating myself on my uncanny motorbike skills.  Everyone was impressed.  I was a natural!

We penetrated increasingly shoddy roads, big enough for one bike, but used for two.  Like a post-earthquake sidewalk, the cement squares shot up in ice cube edges.  The ground was a meter below the path.  Bikes were passing handlebar to handlebar, honking.  The road was disappearing.  The Frenchy was waiting up ahead.  I got nervous, sweating.  I stopped for a passing bike and switched to first gear to start the bike again thinking, “never start in first.”  I shot forward, across the edge of the earthquake sidewalk-cum-jungle road and flew forward, the handlebar twisting into my throat.  Felipe, sitting behind me, was thrust off the bike, jamming his left ankle and scraping the skin off his hands and knees.  As I stood up, I could not breathe.   My face turned white and my brain drifted into cotton candy.

Felipe lay on the ground bleeding as the Frenchy and the girl who couldn’t feel her leg came rushing over to help.  Thankful that it was not again her tossed off the bike, Nico, the girl who couldn’t feel her leg, raced to the nearest pharmacy where the man instinctively handed her condoms.  After much pointing, she raced back to Felipe and I with supplies.  We stumbled our way over to the porch of a local Vietnamese family who had witnessed the accident.  They hovered over us, boiled tea with some dirt-speckled rain water, and forced upon us the most gracious hospitality.

I could breathe, but my throat was sore and my left leg scratched and bleeding halfway down my shin. Felipe was bleeding on three limbs and limping around on the fourth.  All told, it could have been a lot worse.  Shaken, the Vietnamese family grabbed our sunglasses and traipsed around like Hollywood divas to make us laugh.  You can never underestimate the kindness – or wackiness – of strangers.

A motorbike cannot drive itself home and we had one more night to complete our loop around the delta.  I packed away my fears and continued the trip on the condition that once we left these islands of “unknown things,” we would remain with the known obstacles of the highway.

That afternoon we arrived in Sa Dec, the Mekong’s town of gardens.  The botanical beauties of Ho Chi Minh are said to come from this riverside town whose bushy backstreets sprout with spyrographs of color.

We spent the night just out of town and plowed down the highway back to Can Tho the next morning.  Zooming down the wide, flat road, I regained both my confidence and my affection for the beast.

Motorbikes are intoxicatingly fun.  It’s the dance with danger that makes them even more thrilling.    Despite the nerves, the accident, and the injuries, I’m glad I saw the Delta by bike.  It’s the only way to get a feel for life in this implausible region of swamp and cement.

The facts are these:  I wasn’t one of the 32 people who die every day of motorbike accidents in Vietnam!  I was just one of the 22 injured.  At the end of the day, this is the statistical group that I greatly prefer.

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I (don’t) Hate Hanoi

I spend a lot of time writing about places I like.  It’s easier.  It’s much harder to defend yourself when you have nothing but complaints.  If I said I liked a place, you’d probably accept that at face value.  But, if I say I despise it (present tense, the feeling remains) then I have to answer the inevitable questions “why?  How could you miss ___, ___, and ___,” or, “maybe you didn’t understand the city, its people, its ways…  Maybe you didn’t give it time to sink in.”  But, sink in I did for two weeks’ time – more than any other spot on my travels through Asia, and I don’t wish this misfortune on anyone.

Therefore, I’d like to say in advance that I apologize to all who are offended by my comments or somehow disagree with me that Hanoi is a crowded, chaotic, soulless eyesore fouling planet earth – a city with all of the maddening theatrics of modern Asian megacities but none of the cutesy charm.  Hanoi festers, “I WANT TO PUNCH SOMEONE” feelings, traps pent up frustration and, quite literally, threatens you with death at every footstep.

I enjoy walking, it’s one of the most basic things we humans can do.  Perhaps, of all my grievances, this is the greatest: in Hanoi, it’s impossible to walk.  Then again, it’s impossible to drive either.  The city is just too big a clusterfuck to go anywhere.  Crosswalks, if present, are not observed and the pedestrian has absolutely no right of way.  What walking does occur is more like collective group pushing.  Maybe everyone’s smiling while they do it, but you can’t see through the masks they wear to keep out the thick smog.  Even the sidewalks, a normal haven for walkers, are overrun by eager motorbikers.  The streets of Hanoi are like Frogger level ten – the plucky music replaced by snarling horns and you have no frogs left for any mistakes.

Back in my university days when I ran out of Dining Dollars for the school cafeteria and wanted to avoid studying, I’d trundle up the road to Saigon Café.  It was my favorite restaurant in town.  The food was impeccable and the owner reminded me of a Vietnamese version of my Aunt Sally.   I loved that place.  It was the only place in town I’d splurge on an appetizer and a main course.  If Vietnam was like Saigon Café…

It wasn’t.

As it turns out, all the tasty food comes from the central and southern parts of the country (hence “Saigon” Café).  The north was cold Pho territory.  I was a fan of the Americanized Pho I’d had in the past, but the streetside real-deal in Hanoi was dog food (as in meant for dogs, not made from them…. we’ll get to that in a minute).  I’ve prepared tastier instant noodles in my microwave.  And the meat…

In Vietnam, my bowl movements took a turn for the unsavory.  After a chance late-night encounter with a green-looking sausage, I returned to my strict vegetarian diet (for the umpteenth time).   If you saw the disemboweled carnage on display, unrefrigerated and infested, you would too!  “Oh, and, by the way, we eat dogs and cats.”  Virtually every Vietnamese I met told me this in the first five minutes of conversation, like an icebreaker.  Several markets specialize in this kind of meat and eating out around town, well, you never know.

In Hanoi I took to self-catering, relying on my old travel companions Peanut Butter and Jelly.   Yet, it was a chore going to the supermarket, getting my food shoved in bags and thrust back at me with incorrect change and a stern frown.  “Here, I give you piece of candy instead.”  No, I want my change!

In every other Asian country I’d visited, I instantly learned to say “hello” and “thank you.” In Hanoi, I never learned those words – nobody used them.  By a ratio of ten to one, more people honked at than ever spoke to me.  I’m being bitchy I know, but that’s how this city makes you feel.

 

I got stuck in Hanoi; stuck in streets sludge and stuck in a conundrum.  Due to varying passport issues (a lack of empty pages) and Visa problems (the Indian Embassy in Hanoi balking at my request to just paste their visa over the one for Laos), I was to stay in Hanoi for two weeks.  The maddening part was that, had the comrade at the border used one of my half-used pages to plop the entry stamp for Vietnam, this problem could have been solved in one of Asia’s friendlier capitals.  But no, he used a brand new page, effectively incarcerating me in Hanoi.  Hanoi for the holidays.  The two weeks in every year that it’s best to be in a Western, Christian country.

Christmas came and went rather unspectacularly.  Yet, Hanoi was the perfectly insane setting for New Years.  This was the city’s first year embracing a full-on celebration of the Western Calendar’s brightest day, inviting international Djs to turn the streets around the Opera House into a flashy dance party.  Everything was unruly and exciting until the clock rang midnight.  We screamed, clapped, and then the Vietnamese ran home in observance of the midnight curfew.

Or, maybe they wanted to get a few hours of shuteye before their sunrise exercise class.  By 6:00am the next morning, the banks of Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of downtown were a frenzy of floppy hands and glittery track suits.  The lake was line-to-line jazzercise classes a la Richard Simmons with a boombox.  Those too cool for aerobics plunked a birdy back and forth playing badminton without a net (badminton being the favorite sport of the Vietnamese!).

Hanoi’s main attraction was its unpredictable hysteria – hysteria being both hysterical and frightening.  For example, the town’s two main sights were the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and the Ho Chi Minh Museum.  One was a capsule holding the body of the great leader swimming in formaldehyde, while the other housed a circus of many acts (a large scale model of fruit, a space room dedicated to the challenger explosion, Picasso replicas, Ho Chi Minh’s fan and hat, and a giant, bronze statue of the leader just waiting for group photos).  Trying to make sense of these things was far too tiring.  It was best to accept it as part of the greater hysteria, or at least that’s what my hotel receptionist Viet told me (his brother’s name was, quite seriously, Nam).

The worst thing of it all was that, by the end, I kind of came to terms with Hanoi.  Despite it all, the organization of the disorder fascinated me.  Crossing the streets emboldened me.  The messy, busy clutter slipped into the background and became part of the landscape, for better or worse.  Maybe I don’t hate Hanoi… but it hurts me to say that.  When, like a chameleon, I picked up on the rhythm of life and slipped into the mix, it thrilled me in a sinister way.