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In Vietnam, you can’t be chicken to cross the road

4 May 2010 No Comment

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — A look of panic overcame the hotel concierge when I confessed I had never driven a motorbike. Yet, here he was scurrying to arrange a rental.

He offered a driver. I declined.

I preferred to ride solo. I don’t like being tethered to guides, I explained.

He glowered, turned to a bellhop and barked out in Vietnamese before his eyes again darted in my direction.

The deal was off, said Dao Cong Lap, the concierge at the Giant Dragon Hotel, which provided us comfy and inexpensive accommodations in the city’s bustling tourist district.

“Too dangerous,” he admonished. “You get hurt. Maybe you die.”

My eyes followed a stern finger pointing to a blur of taxis and motorbikes. Just beyond, a line of pedestrians stood at the ready, mustering courage before hurling life and limbs into the current of motorized obstacles.

Not a good time to tell him of the excursion we planned that would take us 50 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City to the villages of the Mekong Delta, beyond My Tho, where a boat would ferry us to the floating markets.

We wanted a glimpse of Vietnam few travelers ever get.

Just before he relented, he struck a final blow: Was I too stupid to realize the danger?

That said, he arranged the rental for me and my traveling companions: Bee photographer Kevin German and childhood friend David Sone. They had joined me on one of my fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants vacations.

Or, in this case, fly-by-the-seat-of-a-motorbike.

The roads of Vietnam aren’t for the squeamish. Why a chicken would ever cross a road in this country — particularly in this fast- moving city, Vietnam’s largest — is difficult to fathom. It takes courage and faith to get to the other side, even within the seeming safety of a crosswalk.

But this far from home, I was not about to let fear disrupt my mission to stray as far from the beaten path as I could — even if it meant skidding off the pavement to get there.

The U.S. State Department warns Americans about the hazards on its Web site: “Traffic in Vietnam is chaotic. Traffic accidents, mostly involving motorcycles and often resulting in traumatic head injury, are an increasingly serious hazard. At least 30 people die each day from transportation-related injuries.”

We got some advice from Don Lair, 69, an American who faced far more harrowing experiences during two tours of duty in the Vietnam War as an Army officer.

“The first couple of days, you just try to get used to the traffic,” he said. “You just go and try to dodge everything moving around you.”

According to one count in 2002, there were more than 11 million motorbikes to dodge in Vietnam. It is the preferred mode of transportation for the country’s youths and for families who cannot afford cars — which means most Vietnamese.

We felt ready for the challenge. This two-week trip to Southeast Asia in November already had taken us to the Philippines, where we toured my family’s hometown by motorcycle, ascending from the white-sand beaches to mountain forests, our freewheeling spirits rising with the elevation and our hats flapping in the motor-driven breeze.

We wanted a similar experience in Vietnam, where we hoped to explore the Mekong Delta, Ho Chi Minh City and the resort town of Hoi An. At $8 a day, renting a motorbike was a bargain. (It was even cheaper in Hoi An, a later stop in our week in Vietnam).

Motorbikes or not, there is a lot of ground to cover. Ho Chi Minh City — its central core still widely referred to by locals as “Saigon” — is a sprawling metropolis, a collection of districts encompassing more than 800 square miles. District 1 is the hub of the tourist area, a grid of inexpensive hotels, shops, restaurants, bars and Internet cafes.

We’d chosen the Giant Dragon Hotel while visiting an Internet cafe in Manila — and we may have missed out on other opportunities. Barely out of our taxi from the airport, a 20-minute ride, we found ourselves swarmed by bellhops from competing hotels along Pham Ngu Lao, a busy boulevard that is a haven for budget travelers.

The glow of storefronts and neon enlivened the darkening city. Streets pulsed with the energy of young people on motorbikes weaving happily through the traffic — two, three and sometimes four to a bike.

Cafes lined nearby sidewalks, where streetlights illuminated men squatting around tiny tables on child-size seats while sipping espresso, tea and iced coffee. Some tables had spreads of bean sprouts, cilantro, purple basil and sliced jalapeños amid bowls of noodle-laden pho.

On the following day, we ventured out to the Mekong Delta, joining a stream of motorbikes, cargo trucks and tour buses. Outside of My Tho, a fleet of tourist boats awaited us. I had hoped to hop on the boat of a fisherman — perhaps on a small canoe — but I sensed that my traveling companions would settle for the convenience of a tourist boat. The floating market was unspectacular due to the lateness of the day, but our disappointment soon gave way to renewed excitement.

During a stop at a waterside village, children gathered around us, giggly and curious. We invited ourselves into the shop of a seamstress, gossiping with her crew as they stitched; dropped in on a barber; visited with schoolchildren; and peered into dimly lit shacks, where villagers shucked the juicy meat from longan fruit, the village’s chief export.

We said <em>xin chao</em>, or hello, to a man whiling away the day in a hammock, to teenagers socializing over rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves and to anyone whose smiles met ours.

After three days in southern Vietnam, we flew north to Danang for a few days in the resort town of Hoi An, famed for its tailors who sew entire wardrobes virtually overnight. We settled into a dumpy hotel near the central market. All we needed were beds and a bathroom.

We also needed motorbikes, which the hotel arranged.

We ventured into the countryside, leaving behind the tour buses, taxis and droves of fellow tourists. Dusty roads led to villages surrounded by rice paddies flitting with dragonflies.

At one home, a woman made delicate, translucent sheets of edible rice paper. The circular sheets, used for wrapping spring rolls, dried on screens in the country air. With more to explore, I eased on the gas of my motorbike and watched my companions disappear in a wisp of dust. On my own, I coursed through the town’s narrow streets, some no wider than the span of my arms. I nodded hello to passers-by and at small groups having tea or coffee on their verandas.

At the edge of the village, I stopped for a drink. A teenage girl, whose English was more advanced than my Vietnamese, began peppering me with questions. How old was I? Was I married? Where was I from?

Her 20-something brother joined us at the table. Then her mother. The girl translated. They have relatives in the United States, they told me. The woman couldn’t remember the place. They spoke about how some relatives left Vietnam long ago, and how difficult it was to keep in contact.

They giggled at my poor command of Vietnamese, my fingers moving more quickly than my tongue as I leafed through a phrase book. The woman’s husband soon arrived, joining us for a third pot of tea. He knew French, he said, but could not recognize mine.

His son brought out a bowl of tiny sea snails, handed me a thorn from a lemon tree and gave a lesson on picking the shell’s briny delicacy. After a dozen snails, I reluctantly excused myself to return to town. The sun was nearly sinking into the surrounding fields.

I rode back into town with a feeling of satisfaction. For me, traveling isn’t merely about the monuments, temples and scenery; it’s more about the journey. Sometimes, the small moments resonate more deeply and linger longer in the traveler’s soul: stuttering through a conversation over a bowl of sea snails or being surprised by the embrace from a tailor and his wife.

I was already flying high when German and I took a ride the next day to My Son, an ancient sanctuary 18 miles east of Hoi An. Our motorbikes sped among bucolic towns, cemeteries, water buffalo, and more paddies — all the while taking in the roadside bustle of Vietnamese engaged in their daily lives.

We were almost to our destination when a roadside crew harvesting eucalyptus trees for a pulp mill caught our attention. We couldn’t resist the boisterous laughter and expressive faces. German snapped photos and I did my best to communicate. At some point, I managed to lose the keys to my motorbike — only to find them after a few panicky moments.

When we arrived in My Son, our interest in visiting the temple had waned. The journey had been adventure enough.

We returned to Ho Chi Minh City for a final day, again lodging at the Giant Dragon, where the concierge and I were by now old friends.

We shared stories of our adventures in Hoi An, of how we again drove to faraway places.

The concierge asked if we had had any trouble. I deflected the question and did not share my story about the lost keys.

I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.

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