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Driving in Saigon

USA | Tuesday, 13 May 2014 | Views [92] | Scholarship Entry

Ping, ping, ping. Gravel pelts my helmet. My teeth crunch down on grit. I choke on the mix of exhaust and dust assaulting my nostrils. My friend Geof is driving. I cling to his sides, wishing I could find something more solid to hold, like his ribcage. Over and over, I think to myself, ‘I am pants-shittingly terrified.’

We are on the industrial route to Ho Chi Minh. Somewhere, we missed a turn. It must have been while we were looking for that massive, gated temple I spotted yesterday.

Giant gilded statues of somebody’s god towered over the most organized piles of rock I had ever seen. It drew the eye and the mind. How could something so opulent be here, just feet from the shabby shops that are a mainstay of every family home along every highway in Vietnam?

That was the scene, unchanged during the three hours it took to get to Vung Tao. Our ride down had been leisurely—the highway empty, the sun hot, the roadside hammocks shaded and plentiful. We hadn’t stopped, wanting to find a hotel before night. The temple would have to wait until the journey home.

But instead, we are on a road with no shoulder, the lone tourists in a river of semis. Silt forms deep channels that only grow as the miles roll by. They, combined with Geof’s relative nascency on a motorbike, topple us. The fall is minor, but Geof’s hands shake as he remounts.

The few bikes around us are driven by men, dressed to face the harsh daily commute—long pants and shirts, face masks. Unwavering, they guide their vessels along a strip of pavement no wider than the paper money lining their pockets. We inch along tremulously, anticipating death.

Suddenly, a diesel behemoth starts sidling into our precious space. A massive tire spins within inches of my face. We accelerate, shooting under the side mirror, heads bowed. I don’t open my eyes until we take an exit, the first available, and find ourselves back on the mercifully chaotic streets of Saigon.

The tension in my muscles lessens as we slip into the stream of urban traffic. I am completely at ease among drivers toting view-obscuring loads and women riding side-saddle, clutching babies and bags of groceries. We cross a vast traffic circle that days ago seemed like an impossible vortex, the friendly blipping of horns servings as helpful guides.

At a rooftop cafe, over cold glasses of cà phê s?a dá, I survey the damage. I bear a sooty unibrow and 5 o’clock shadow, removable remnants of the road less traveled. Below, the traffic streams on.

Tags: 2014 Travel Writing Scholarship - Euro Roadtrip

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