pig on a scooter, pen and marker on graph paper, doodle and
photos © 2009-2010 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.
This is my seventh visit to Vietnam. Seven trips, back and forth across the great expanse. If I added up all the hours spent on just one leg of the trip—San Francisco to Hong Kong and back—it would be 182 hours in the sky. Over one week on just these seven trips.
That’s a lot of time to spend in a vehicle that I liken to an empty toilet paper tube with wings. A lot of time spent sitting, eating, and sleeping in the company of strangers. As someone who doesn’t necessarily enjoy being in such close proximity to people I don’t know who sniffle, snore, and sweat, it is noteworthy, then, that I can muster the mental fortitude to make the slog again and again. The reason I do it, the reason anyone does it, of course, is for what waits on the other side.
My first trip to Vietnam, I wandered the streets of Saigon, lost but unafraid, except perhaps any time I stepped off a curb and into the onslaught of motorbikes, which parted and flowed around me as if I were a boulder in a rushing river. That and my second trip were spent solely in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, which is a sensual feast and assault all at once.
The roads are clogged with motor scooters, and not just one person per scooter but entire families and small businesses transported on two small tires. There are rickshaws, bicycles, small cars, SUVs, tourist vans with sleeping Japanese or Koreans, and the ubiquitous container trucks, what we call semis, reminding us that this place is being rebuilt before our very eyes.
But traffic and congestion you can see in any big city in the world, and Saigon holds not a candle to many of the largest. Still, where else can you witness the harmony of millions of people and their wheels in synchronous motion, as if this is something they’ve practiced all their lives—driving motorbikes loaded down with baskets, glass panes, multigenerational families, televisions—and are now performing in the symphony of daily life.
There is a Zen quality to the way traffic flows in Vietnam. School girls dressed in white Áo Dàis, the traditional attire for women, stroll in pairs down a busy thoroughfare, impervious to the crazy tourist vans and containers that roar by, spewing their black exhaust. I peer at the chatting girls with both fear and admiration. How do they manage to stay so calm when I am reciting Hail Mary’s and praying that I will return home in one piece?
As I have traveled from Saigon to the Mekong Delta, through the center part of the country in Da Nang and Hoi An, then north to Hanoi and Halong Bay, I’ve seen more than I can ever recall. A naked man walking along the cement divider on a narrow and packed two-lane highway. Cows grazing in the grassy medium. Women bent harvesting rice. Raised graves that look like small cottages. Buddhist statues as tall as skyscrapers.
On my morning commute to work, colleagues on the shuttle bus doze off or talk to one another. Not me. I keep my eyes glued to the passing scenery. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve seen a bus pass so close that I could touch it or the tangle of rivers we seem to always cross, or the row of shops that sell marble statues in the likeness of any spiritual figure—Buddhas, goddesses, Jesus and Mary—I am still drawn in as if seeing it all for the first time.
On my last trip I went in a minivan from Hanoi to Halong Bay. I’m now accustomed to seeing animals transported on the backs of scooters. Chickens in cages or ducks with their bills and legs tied with twine for the trip. But I had never seen an adult pig, five or six hundred pounds of pink jello-y flesh, roped onto a motorbike. As the young man carrying the pig passed our van and I stared with mouth open, he seemed nonchalant, so at ease bumping along the dirt road with his jiggling sow in tow.
There is no way, really, to describe how exotic, how absolutely delectable Vietnam is to my senses. Roads are torn up, rice paddy fields relocated, new business parks and high rises rise overnight. It is a country in transition, moving to claim its place among economic powerhouses. I am in the midst of it, working with government, industry, and education to prepare for what is to come.
On one of my early trips, I walked with two Vietnamese colleagues down an alley near the coffee house where we’d just been. I looked up at the tangle of communications and electrical cables, signs of growth unplanned. Before us motorbikes surged six rows thick, mixed with taxis, cars, and bicycles. I turned to my friend and said, “I hope Vietnam never changes. I hope I can always see this,” and I motioned with my hand at the chaos before us. She looked me in the eye and said, “Ah, Roma, I hope very much that my country does change. I hope we someday have roads to fit the cars, safe roads and infrastructure for all the people who live here.”
It was then that I realized how unfair of me it was to want Vietnam to remain the same, as if it were a curiosity put here for my own pleasure. The people of any country should be able to determine their own destiny. And especially Vietnam, ravaged by war and poverty, a legacy of imperialism.
I’ve come around to embracing the change that is inevitable. These days I simply observe everything I can, take it in as if I were a recorder. Ten years from now, I vow to come back and see how different it is.