February 7, 2010
Ask me how a man talks on his cell phone, drives a manual bus, and barrels down the left lane of a highway into oncoming traffic, and I will show you Vietnam. Ask me how I held onto my money, my dignity, and my lunch, and I will tell you furiously.
When the kind woman at the hotel told me that I could catch a bus to Quy Nhon at the bus station on Hwy 1, I stupidly assumed that that would be the case. So I hired a motobike to take me on a 20 minute ride, through the backroads of central vietnam, to the bus station. When we finally emerged onto Hwy 1, I found out that by bus station, she meant a 2x2 plot of dirt that was not inhabited by either a fruit stand, a motorbike, or a herd of likestock. You know, a bus station! Sure enough, within 10 minutes, my moto taxi driver was able to hail down a bus, long enough for me to toss my bag in the back and hop in, Little Miss Sunshine style.
We were a party of 25 (plus or minus 10) in a van the size of an ice cream truck. Our sundries included: a gargatuan bicycle, 2 banh mi (hidden in my backpack), 15 cells phones, and one utterly digusting bucket of what looked like petroleum and ice cubes. Surprisingly, it was quite spacious inside, as the Vietnamese frame folded neatly within the confines of the padded seats. The one exception was the Australian farmer, who was intent on biking from China to Europe in order to stop pollution. His legs did not fold neatly. They jutted out like two long baguettes into the seat in front of him. He would later become my confidant in bargaining down the exhorbitant foreigner's ticket price to what was rightfully the standard.
The 7 hour ride did not include air conditioning. It did, however, include frequents stops to pick up more passengers, frequent pauses to eject passengers, and mild molestation from the ticket caddie. At first I saw him as all the other Vietnamese - kind eyes, high cheekbones, full lips. But as he continued to accost me and demand 250,000 VND for a 100,000 VND trip, I developed a mean-spirited narrative for him - one in which he was a transvestite sex slave to the lecherous white sickos. Serves him right. To pass the time I would eat a banh mi, stare out the window, and catch bugs in my mouth. Realizing that we were often on the wrong side of the street, playing chicken with the 18 wheel trucks, and sounding the horn as if it were a radio, I decided to take tally of our flight. It was simple: I would count to sixty and and measure how long we spent on the other side of the road. I did this four times, calculated the average, and took the percent. We spent 31% of our time in somebody else's lane-- that's almost the same percentage of time we sleep -- a treacherous way to spend my sleeping hours.
When we finally arrived in Quy Nhon, the bus station was closed. I was ejected onto the side of the rode and found myself looking for a taxi to take me to Barbara's Backpacker hostel. Nobody would accept less than 40,000 VND for a ride. I bargained, begged, haggled and finally found someone who would take me there for 20,000 VND or take me to a nice cheap hotel for 100,000 VND. I informed him that I did not need a room and just wanted a taxi ride. I jumped on the back of his motorbike and we started down a dark road. Again, he tried to solicit a room, but through his broken english, he said the following to me: "I...WANT...SLEEP...WITH...YOU." I finally felt the panic that I had been trying to silence all day. Real visceral panic. WHAT?! And then he said it again. I yelled for him to stop and jumped off as it skidded to a halt. What followed was a fury of hand gestures and map references. In the end, we worked things out to a misunderstanding, but not before I sized him up. The good thing about that slender Vietnamese frame is that is pales in comparison to our thunderous hormone fed American bodies (the only benefit I see to commercialized food). All I had to do was throw my heavy bag at him and take a running leap and land on his head to crush him to crumbs.
I arrived at Barbara's backpacker hostel shaken but in one piece. There were muffins on the counter and a bunk bed to rent for 50,000 VND. I gladly accepted the offer, ordered a big beer, helped myself to a seat with the other guests, and opened my mouth to talk a gasp of air. It took me 5 watery southeast asian beers and one soggy pork belly banh mi to calm down, but I finally did. By morning, I had secured myself a vietnamese friend (who follows me around like a shadow), a motorride to a remote beach, and free breakfast.
Hopefully, everyday won't be this hectic.