February 23, 1994
A Rice Field North of Hoi An
Wheel’s on Fire
I have just learned that Vietnam is one of those rare countries where you can have a cultural and near death experience wrapped up tightly in one tasty, slim baguette. My legs are still trembling (just like in Osaka, remember FECG?)
Let me explain.
But first, I’m finally in Hue now, north of Danang, and the little town is almost bursting with people celebrating Tet. I got here by bus once again, a long low altitude flightmare where I was surrounded by Germans and Dutch screaming at the bus driver to slow down. More than twelve hours later, he did. When he pulled up with a screech of tires in the bus stop, that is, but not a moment before.
So back to near death experiences. When you travel you don’t really give much thought to dying on the road, but with suicidal motorbike riders and taxi drivers that fall asleep at the wheel added to a flightmare here and there, it is a reality.
Case in point, my trip today. My knees are still shaking.
Speeding down Vietnam’s Highway 1 back towards Hue, Vietnam’s ancient capital city, I sat in the back seat of a black market taxi drinking in the earthy smell of rice paddy water and the amazing, craggy cliffs of the country’s central coast. They floated in shallow water fringed with palm trees, where, in the distance, pure white cranes padded around looking for a meal.
After a full eight-hour day trip to Hoi An, we were finally free of the two loud-mouthed tourists we had just dropped off at a bus depot near China Beach. They were nightmare travelers, having bought a ton of fake designer goods in Saigon, which they draped over every square inch of their bodies, all Guvvi and Nake and Adidass, they then took on the smug attitude that customers of the real merchandise back home adopted. It’s bad enough people travel paint-by-numbers, with their noses buried in their Lonely Planet’s, but did they have to wear a uniform as well?
To fend of these irritating mosquito people, I had my own Royal Flush: having spend exactly four more months in Asia than them, I shut them up in sixty seconds flat when I started bragging about places I had been that they had not, that sort of thing. I have been traveling long enough by now to know how to play the travelers game to my advantage when I need to.
The driver had met their endless string of inane requests, frequent shouts at him to slow down and threatening tones whenever they were forced to pay for anything extra with smiles since seven o’clock that morning.
But I’d spent enough time in Asia to realize it wasn’t the international symbol for happiness he was returning with his wide, perfect grin.
Now, free from the harassment at last, he sat in the front seat as earnest as a racecar driver, gunning his precious LADA as fast as it would go. The top speed or the level of gas consumption was impossible to tell because the car had not one dial or arrow on its dashboard: they had long since been ripped out.
We flew past more thatched roofed villages, swerving crazily from side to side. The setting sun plunged towards the flooded rice fields, turning the shallow water crimson and gold. I inhaled deeply and took in the verdant landscape that seemed frozen in time and straight out of a tourist brochure.
Suddenly the driver caught my eyes in his rearview mirror, and in slow, halting English asked me, ‘Those people, they were from your country?’
I nodded, explaining they lived down the road from where I had grown up. He shook his head and muttered something under his breath.
It had been less than three years since Vietnam had really swung open her doors to tourism, and all around the country hotels and companies had sprung up like toadstools to feed the exploding demand.
Yet everywhere I went I saw conflicts between locals and travelers, sometimes heated and at least once, violent, when a tourist had gotten into a fistfight in Nha Trang with three cyclo drivers. Never before had the clash of cultures between east and west been so apparent.
The driver then peppered me with more questions about foreigners, what they drank, what jobs they had, and what sports they played, what their little blonde children ate. I answered these questions as best I could while he squinted at me in his rearview mirror waiting for that diamond of knowledge, the Holy Grail of Tourism that would make all these strangers understandable, and, of course, make his own under-the-table tourist taxi service flourish.
And then with a quick flick of his neck, he turned to me, and asked, almost accusingly, ‘Just what do you tourists really want when you come to my country?!!’
His tone was split between desperation and a truly earnest desire to find out what made traveler’s tick; his knuckles went white as he gripped the steering wheel fiercely, his eyes wild with confusion and frustration.
Just about to open my mouth to answer him, the car began to swerve and lurch violently as if butted by an unseen water buffalo. As I was thrown around in the back seat, the driver, swearing, cursing and shouting, desperately tried to bring his LADA under control. But in a matter of seconds we had drifted across into the left lane and right into oncoming traffic.
Through the dirty, cracked windshield I could see a local bus flying towards us at top speed, overloaded, belching smoke, touts swinging wildly from every open door and several hundred chickens tied to the roof.
FUCK. A deadly head-on collision was imminent!
With a final volley of curses, the driver, using all his strength, yanked the car out of the way of the bus with such force that the front right wheel sheared off completely. The LADA passed through a curtain of snow white feathers molted from the chickens tied to the top of the bus and with a sickening crunch crashed onto the roadway to slide on bare metal as the bumper flew off and silvery sparks flew everywhere.
We careened on down the road, me screaming in the back seat the driver in the front yelling his head off until we swerved right and careened straight off the road like a Russian version of the Dukes of Hazzard to land with a thick squelch in the middle of a rice paddy.
Above us, on the road, the severed wheel happily bounced down Highway One, trailing a thin ribbon of blue smoke.
Dazed and nursing a bruised skull I tried to open the door but the mud firmly held it shut. Chicken feathers drifted into the car, and the driver sneezed. I rolled down the window, crawled out onto the roof and found a crowd of white-faced local villages, who upon hearing the terrific crash, had expected to find a horrific, bloody car accident. Instead, they found a tall shaken foreigner standing on the roof of a Russian car as it slowly sank into the mud and the wet windshield plastered with white chicken feathers.
When the driver and I had jumped off and waded through the mud to the safety of the road, we stepped shakily back onto solid ground. The villagers had already retrieved the errant front wheel and they were pointing and admiring the deep trench our axle had carved in the asphalt.
The driver shot me a nervous grin as if nothing major had happened and said simply,
‘Friend, I think you must catch another bus to Hue now.’
With that rather obvious statement he flagged down a minivan that stopped and eagerly took me inside. Having taken care of his precious customer, the driver, wiping the sweat off his brow turned back to tend to his wounded LADA that had now settled even deeper in the soft mud.
As the minivan pulled away from the crash scene the new driver bombarded me with exactly the same tourism industry questions as the first.
Ignoring him, I looked through the back window at the old driver who was still standing in the middle of the road watching the minivan ruefully as it shrank in the distance. The poor guy never did get his most urgent tourism question answered.
As we rounded a bend and continued north to Hue I turned back to the new driver and began patiently answering his pointed questions.
Explaining what a breakfast cereal was, and what a toaster did, it seemed this guy wanted to open a restaurant for tourists and wanted to get his breakfast menu note perfect.
‘But Vietnamese eat noodles and soup for breakfast,’ he whined.
‘Foreigners won’t,’ I said sternly.
Though my voice was strong, my knees were still shaking; I looked down at my clothes: they were caked in mud.
With a nervous laugh I now know that Vietnam was one of those rare countries where you could have a cultural experience and a near death experience, all at the same time.
More news from Northern Vietnam... That is, if I get there in one piece and not splattered all over Highway One somewhere.