Friday, March 5, 2010

I turned left in Vietnam

Traffic in Vietnam can only be described as surreal. You have dust and noise (oh, the noise) and cars and rickshaws and bicycles and motorbikes that often carry more than four family members (or, say, a refrigerator, a water buffalo, or 10 wooden crates full of basil and mint leaves.)

If you’re not used to it, riding around in a car can be pretty harrowing. Getting in a cab will have you sitting on the edge of your seat and gripping something.

Which is why it was such an incredible experience to explore Vietnam by bicycle.

For context, let me start by saying that I’m not particularly adroit on a bike. I can balance myself on it and I can pedal, but I’m not one of those people who was ever good enough to yell “Look mom! No hands!” (Or even “look, Mom! One hand!") I never thought I’d be capable – or willing - to ride in the middle of such commotion. To my surprise, it allowed me to experience the rhythm and throb of a country in a way nothing else, not even walking, could have.

On roads, street signals don’t matter. I’m not referring only to stop lights, but even to the sense of highways. There is no such thing as “the wrong way” as people driving in any direction use both sides of the road. Drivers use their horns constantly (hence the intense cacophony), to say “I’m here” rather than to say “get out of my way”.

What you do is ride along, mindful of others, yet completely owning the space you rightfully occupy in the world. You tend to stay towards the right side of the street (leaving the middle part to trucks and cars) and avoid the shoulder if it’s too sandy or has too much gravel. You make sure that there is a pattern to your movement (no swerving, jerking or sudden stopping) so people around you can predict what you’re going to do next. The opposite of chaos, there is an easy flow to it, and once you get the hang of it, it feels like an incredible local secret has been revealed to you, like learning a language.

Now for the best part. What about turning left? This act can only be described as a leap of faith. You stretch your left arm down and wiggle your hand (if you push your arm out you’ll, at best, knock someone over.) Then you go – turning the handle bars against traffic coming from both sides of the street and knowing full well there is a 50/50 chance a big truck could plow right into you.

I rode a bicycle in Vietnam for a full week, took multiple left turns, and every time felt to the center of my being the precise meaning of “on a wing and a prayer”.

Riding a bike in Vietnam feels like you’re a witness to your own fortune-kissed life. If I can, against all odds, turn left in Vietnam and come out of it unscathed, it's safe to assume there is less to be afraid of.

Photo: New York Times Asia


Natalie said...

Nice! That's a great little story. I came to your blog via Lori, sounds like you had an amazing trip.

Carol Miller said...

Love your description and the essence of it, the heartbeat and throb of it, more so having had one incident in Saigon (as opposed to your week on the bike, hats off to you). I saw and lived a lifetime in a motorbike ride of a few minutes, in Ho Chi Minh City, a monument to movement and energy documented in the Vietnam section of "Travels in the Asian World". I wish I had had your articulation and perception when I wrote it.

Miguel Cane said...

Beloved Dushka,

I am around.
You can read me here now:

It's not much, but that's what there is.

Love to both. Mucho