If you want a kidney you're going to have to ask nicely.
An intersection from Naraka—a world of great suffering in Buddhist cosmology—a downtown Saigon, Vietnam roundabout where six streets converge. It’s five hours after noon, rush hour. Hell, around here it’s always rush hour. I stammer out a Conan O’Brien pep talk, “K-Keep cool, my babies,” then wade into motorbike mania. Horns blare, the lungs expand with carbon monoxide. Engage survival mode, Spock.
Walking slowly, giving astute drivers time to adjust to my presence amidst the chaos and the careless a split-second to run over my shoelaces instead of sending us both to a Third World hospital, there’s a tug on my shirt sleeve. A man about my age, he wants to shine my shoes.
Well how about seeing if I make it to the other side alive first? If I’m struck you can pull the dong from my pocket before the blood bath renders it worthless. (So there’s no confusion, the italicized refers to Vietnamese currency, rather than the first thing that entered your mind.)
More horns, handle bars brush against my ninth vertebrae. Another tug.
A bus and semi truck side by side, there’s a few feet between the two. I suck in my stomach and am left in a black exhaust thick enough to serve Lucky Charms in.
The lung cancer, it’s on the house.
The tugging turns to yanking.
Please, allow me the opportunity to delay becoming an organ donor. At least wait until we make it across.
Oh, you’re right. Success, we get to keep both kidneys. Those are just motorbikes that couldn’t fit on the road that are coming at us.
The shoe shiner grabs at my feet before I can make a break for it. I’ve said ‘no thank you’ in English and Vietnamese six times a piece. I don’t see any point to the exercise. It’s raining.
“Please, sir,” he says, my frayed shoelaces disintegrating between his fingers, “I need money and you a very lucky man.”
A motorbike whizzes by, it’s foot peg knocking him unsteady providing the distraction needed for escape. To my back he calls out, “You know you a very lucky man, sir.”
Hours later his words resonate. I am incredibly lucky. I survived the traffic. I have enough money in my pocket to enjoy dinner anywhere in the city. I was born in a geographical location at a time corresponding with relative economic prosperity. In the crapshoot called life I rolled an eleven. I can be anywhere on the planet right now, and so here I am.
In a Saigon park I meet Sophie from the Philippines, visiting Vietnam to oversee her sister’s wedding. She refers to the United States as the “land of opportunity” where “even blacks are given a chance.”
Hell, Sophie. Have you seen our latest president?
Political correctness and a fetish for ‘personal rights’, such as privacy, are constructs of the industrialized west. Like many Southeast Asians willing to put up with the rot emanating from my armpits Sophie inquires into what I previously regarded as unfit for impersonal interaction. Within five minutes of meeting I answer questions about relationship status (hopelessly single), income level (homeless and unemployed), and ‘How do you put up with the Blacks and Mexicans?’ (I suppose the same way they put up with me). This in-your-face forwardness continues to bewilder; it’s a culture of unabashed honesty until it comes time for a briefing on a nuclear meltdown. Then it’s silence before shame, a lesson that continues to allude.
Dalat, Vietnam is, appropriately, nicknamed ‘The City of Eternal Spring’. Blessed with cool weather, pine trees, mountains, French-colonial villas, lakes, waterfalls and flowers, flowers everywhere, it’s wearisomely romantic. An Asian-Parisian land-o-love’in or, for the solo-traveler, a great place to get wet and muddy.
A fifteen kilometer bike ride brings me to the Lang Bian mountains. I manage to turn the three hour ascent into five. At a fork in the climb I choose the higher peak. I have to prove my manhood to all the people I’ll never see again.
Fantastic, I’m alone with the elements for hours. For good reason. An unusual shift in ecosystem, it’s as if I’m lost in the Biosphere. The pine trees mutate into rainforest flora and fauna. Abruptly, I’m blanketed in mist. It begins raining. The trail turns to mud, then puddles. I grasp onto tree roots, I clutch at plants that come away with my weight. I climb two meters and slide down ten. I don’t reach the top, instead turning back to settle for the smaller, dry, all-pine route. There people stare. Covered from foot to Adam’s Apple in mud, it looks like I just returned from the bush after weeks of tracking Vietcong. That 1973 troop withdrawal, it was just for show, staged like the lunar landing. The war, it hasn’t ended. It never will.
The guidebook advises against visiting the Nha Trang, Vietnam beach at night. It warns of rip-offs instigated by thugs and kamikaze hookers. At midnight I walk across the street. To the beach. I’ve put 200,000 dong in my pocket, about ten dollars.
I’m not traveling to have a good time, although I’ve had nothing but. I’m traveling for experience. Go ahead. Turn me into a victim.
The surf pounds the sand supplying a salty mist, refreshing until it finds the Lang Bian scrapes. The sting heightens the senses.
The only people I encounter are young Vietnamese enjoying their Friday night. They say hello and invite me to sit down for a glass of wine.
No thanks. I’m on a mission.
It doesn’t come to fruition.
I pass more groups of Vietnamese, they’re having late night picnics or pow-wows or bonfires, mingling with the ultimate in late-night atmosphere; a near full moon wavering with the waves as the ocean’s pulse smoothes sand, shell and soul.
The moonlight fails to illuminate any Caucasoids. Strict adherents of their guidebooks, I’m the only Anglo on the Nha Trang beach tonight. I’m thinking maybe these young Vietnamese, maybe they supply the information that goes into the books. Maybe they want the beach to themselves after the sun goes down and damn, I can’t blame them. In the moonlight I’m phosphorescent, a hundred watt bulb, a total buzz-kill. A blight to the otherwise sensually dim setting.
Real-Time Travel Tip #5: The world is much safer than the media makes it out to be. You never know who’s interests your source serves.
Hoi An, Vietnam is home to a historical district deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, filled with 19th century architecture lucky enough to have survived the war. The city is famous for it’s tailoring and art, but it’s the river splitting the town in two that provides the ambiance. A twelve kilometer bike ride north brings one to the Marble Mountains, the source of stone used for sculptures ranging from two centimeters to ten meters tall, from Buddhas to dragons to Ho Chi Minhs. In Vietnam the latter is far more revered.
Biking back to Hoi An I cross children cycling in the other direction. They say hello and smile, one sticks his hand out. We high-five on the passing. For all the temples and beaches it’s these brief human connections that make traveling well worth the effort.
Take note, I’m not a delusional idealist. The boy and I, we aren’t alike. We’re not members of some sort of global family. There is an unbridgeable cultural gap between us, the length of which is more 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea than a measly Green Mile.
He likes rice, he can’t get enough of it. I regurgitate at the thought of forcing down another grain.
|A Sihanoukville, Cambodia sunset.|
|The War Remnants Museum, Saigon, Vietnam, where Yanks turn Canucks.|
|Reunification Palace, Saigon, Vietnam, the symbol of Communist conquest.|
|Big, laughing Buddha in the Mekong Delta, south of Saigon.|
|Time to cross the street in Saigon, Vietnam.|
|Going up Lang Bian, outside Dalat, Vietnam.|
|Looking down from Lang Bian, outside Dalat, Vietnam.|
|A wandering zebra in Dalat, Vietnam.|
|Dalat's 'Crazy House', an Alice in Wonderland like guesthouse in the off-beat city.|
|The $10 a day view from the hotel in Nha Trang, Vietnam; I've seen worse.|
|A pagoda at the Marble Mountains, outside Hoi An, Vietnam.|