You are stranded in a sea of motorcycles surrounding you completely. Everyone revs their engines with anticipation – motorbikes slowly rock back in fourth as everyone inches forward and then rocks back to keep their engines from stalling. 500 eyes focus on the single red streetlight.
The light turns green and a blast of warm and suffocatingly moist exhaust engulfs your face from the lumbering bus ahead of you as it awakes from its slumber. The roar of the motorbikes rises with crescendo and everyone slowly lurches forward, weaving and waving, with nervously calm expressions darting in every direction. People swerve. People veer. People flow. And with that the dam is broken and the river of cycles gushes into the intersection and melts into the motorbikes still in the intersection (who paid no attention to their own red light). You simply go with the stream and pay attention to your motorbike and about a foot around it in all directions simultaneously. You brake and swerve, you take advantage of holes, you accelerate and snub your nose at cars careening toward you with confidence. You survive.
Until you arrive at your next red light and it starts all over again.
Let me tell you. Renting a motorbike in Saigon is quite an experience. Even more so, it seems, than Hanoi. Everything seems a little more chaotic here in the south. No one pays attention to lights, people drive on any side of the road and in any direction. Yet no one has any accidents. It’s crazy.
So what have I been up to (besides NOT being in any of the countries hit by the tsunami)? Quite a bit actually. The last time I wrote, I was getting ready to go on a trip to Ha Long Bay on the coast of Vietnam. That morning, I woke up and took the tour with my buddy Mike (French Canadian) there. We met a lawyer couple from Hawaii traveling with their son and a few Germans and after two hours we eventually arrived at the bay. We hopped on our boat and after sitting around for a while we were off. We spent the next day and night checking out the sites of Ha Long Bay (which is really nice, but nothing spectacular) and the “Surprise Cave” which is named “Surprise Cave” because some guy found it in 1990 and was “surprised”. Anyways, we had Christmas on the boat and we all sat around and chatted. I, of course, steered the conversation towards the international economy, the European Union, the WTO and a variety of other things. I got roped into debating American hegemony (which I’m getting quite good at) and we all sipped whiskey that one of the lawyer guys bought on the boat. The Vietnamese crew made balloons for us and the plastic Christmas tree flickered with lights. One of the ladies (who was a lawyer) pulled out a bag of pot that she bought somewhere and rolled a joint (WHERE are you from, again??) and passed it around. Mike and I passed on the weed but enjoyed watching everyone get stoned. At least they laughed more!
So the next day we headed back to dry land and eventually back to Hanoi. Mike and I spent another day on the motorcycles and the evening flirting with a beautiful girl working at the hostel and then went our separate ways. Mike to Sapa (in the mountains) and me to Saigon. Don’t worry though. The train was only 33 hours.
I was taken to the train station with my huge backpack and all on the back of a little moped and upon arrival, I found my car and introduced myself to my Vietnamese carmates – which basically entailed me saying “hello!” and offering them some candy. The next 33 hours were spent sleeping, listening to music, nearly vomiting from the food, watching the woman below me pick at the scabs she had all over her body from some sort of skin disease and admiring the Vietnamese countryside roll by. It was pretty cool. Except for the food and the scab picking.
So I finally arrived to Saigon at 4:00AM and bargained with a guy to take me to a hotel in my book for 2 bucks on the back of a motorbike. It’s strange here. Everything is given to you in dollars and then they convert it to Dong – the currency here. They try to get you on the exchange rate. But it gets pretty annoying after a while. So at 4:00AM there is nothing open. Some woman was washing carpet on the street in the front of a hotel. I pointed at it and she shook her head “no”. I put my hands up and said “where should I go?” She smiled and shrugged. So I walked through the streets of Saigon, perhaps following the footsteps of my father stumbling back to the base after a night out and ended up in a 24 hour internet café.
When the hotels finally opened, I headed to one and had to wait while they cleaned up the dorm room. I had breakfast and chatted with a Korean woman about the war in Korea (You will notice very quickly after talking with me that I get into some pretty deep conversations – but not attackingly so, just listening. Of course, I’ve perfected the art of backing off when appropriate, but at the same time maintaining maximum extraction of perspective, opinion, and information). From there, I headed to my room and took a shower before heading downstairs to rent a motorcycle for the day. I ended up running into Marie – from RIVERSIDE, of all places!
It’s funny because no one knows anything about Riverside. When people ask where you are from, you say California. When they say what part, you say LA. Only if they are from LA can you actually say Riverside. And even then I might not mention that I’m actually from Moreno Valley (Moreno what?). So I went through this process with Marie and it turns out we are both from not 10 miles away from each other. Crazzzzziness, eh? So anyways, her parents are from Vietnam so she speaks Vietnamese. We putted around with each other the whole day checking out Saigon where I checked out the hotel my mom and stepdad will be staying at in a few days. There’s no airport shuttle so I will meet them at the airport when they arrive.
Then I went back to my dorm room and took a nap. I got up just before dark and just drove around Saigon on my motorcycle – getting lost in the madness. I drove around the river, through the city, and down alleyways. Somehow, I magically arrived back at my hostel without a map. It’s a crazy city – about which I’ll write more maybe tomorrow. That evening, Marie and I got some Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) and I headed back to my hotel where I had some beer and chatted with some locals at a little store on the side of the road across from the hotel. Their 25 year old beautiful daughter (incredibly so) looked about 18 and spoke excellent English, and we chatted about Vietnam. I asked all sorts of questions and learned quite a bit. She learned English from MTV and wrestling on TV in addition to school and having an American boyfriend in the past. Her parents hung out around us and smiled. They firmly patted my shoulder as we talked with a smile as though to say, “You can date our daughter if you want.” It was a really strange feeling.
I can remember having a discussion with a Chinese guy on the subway in Beijing about how westerners can get their pick of any girl they want in China, just for being western. It’s cool and trendy.
He was a bit frustrated. As I travel around poorer countries, especially in Asia for some reason, I get that same feeling. I can have a beautiful wife if I want. Drop dead beautiful. But of course beauty isn’t the only qualifier for a successful relationship. You would have to date and get to know a person. Which would entail staying in the country for a while. But you meet people for a day and you can’t stay for every cool person you meet. And I wonder, is it just my confidence that has changed which is why this feeling has hit me so far into the trip? Why didn’t I feel this way in South America? I don’t know. But soon enough, however, I’m going to go back to America and we’ll find out. When I get back, will I be just another average guy with an average life, or will two years around the world have added an edge to me that people take notice of? I thought that I wouldn’t change on this trip, but I have. I’m still a goofy and funny guy, and I don’t quite know what is different, but something has changed in me. I’ve got about 8 more months to think about this so I’m not jumping to any conclusions. But…my god…what a beautiful girl.