There were bumps and scratches and scrapes during my teaching stint in Ho Chi Minh City. Molasses of traffic. Wipeouts. Jaywalkers. Floods. Machete fights. Purse snatchers. And even a heart-pounding stare-off with a random psycho that almost resulted in a Road Rash-like duel (but minus the safety gear and add in the fake Abercombie shirts).
Real hard shit like that.
This was a country that had random stories of people getting into disputes like saying the price of a sugarcane drink was too expensive by 5000 VND (~25 cents CAD) to killing each other over the gender of the bull on a can of Redbull.
I’m not saying it’s all twisted. Riding around on a motorbike has its own benefits and pleasures. You’re fully immersed and constantly aware of your surroundings without a wall of glass to hide behind. It’s only when you are driving stupid or like an asshole, while living in a city full of assholes that you could easily fuck up and die.
This incident is always a first that comes to mind. A solo stopping act that made my heart leap through my throat and into my mouth.
I was returning from my aunt’s quán — a makeshift watering hole for all sorts of alcoholics. This was in District 8. Here, there were plenty of these types of establishments that were bare bones and had a little cabana when it rained.
When my cô 10 and my uncle first started out, they had the ill experience of running it late into the early morning. This was a mistake because they wasted a lot of electricity for cheap drunkards. The perfect time was starting early to grab all the office folks who wanted lunch and closing before the scum of the night come crawling in.
Drinking for any occasion, big or small, is a huge problem in that country — especially for folks living on the lower tiers of the social order.
We closed up shop at around 11PM and usually hung around until 1AM to shoot the shit. I was spending time helping out when I first didn’t get a teaching job. I ran some tables but mostly did the cleanup stuff because my Vietnamese isn’t up to par to take orders. Unless it’s like ice or grabbing a fresh cold beer for a table.
On this particular night, I was already becoming more comfortable riding on my own motorbike — a Honda Dream II. Or more commonly known as the Honda Super Cub. My variant was the C100 and was an imported model from Thailand, made in 1995. Back then, in Vietnam, a family that was able to afford one of these bikes was considered wealthy, as it would cost about three bars of gold to purchase a Dream.
It wasn’t as classic looking as some of the earlier models, but it was a solidly built motorbike. It was a semi-automatic transmission so it didn’t have a clutch lever but something called a “centrifugal clutch” and you manually shifted the gears with the foot change lever — a toe/heel kind of action.
On this particular ride to my aunt’s house, I was heading up on a long stretch that was going up a bridge called Cầu Nhị Thiên Đường — which translates to “Bridge of Heaven,” a fact that is absolutely chilling.
My aunt was in the lead, as I was taking up the rear. We were zipping like some little pack of wolves of the night, moving at a good cruise. But like all accidents, you come to realize, that it has to do with the circumstances of the situation and how stupid you can be as a person.
The road wasn’t deserted at this hour and there was still a decent flow of traffic. The thing about riding around in Vietnam is simple — people drive with the mantra of “ME FIRST, YOU SECOND.”
Because of that, the act of checking blind spots was…
Well… shit, all.
There was one of those rickshaw/bike things heading up the left side, something that should not have been because it was slow as shit. Honestly, there were no proper rules to be followed. I, being the genius that I can sometimes be, decided to pass on the right. As I came to realize, people there drive like fiends from hell and I had a bad little habit of hugging the side of the road because it acted like a little wall so I could only worry those moving on my left.
Now, this was the beginning of owning my little Dream — later, I grew accustomed to its powers and was able to weave in and out like Trinity in Matrix Reloaded.
Scary dumb shit.
So, I made the final judgment of trying to beat the rickshaw on the right as I was completely blocked on the left and I wasn’t in the mood of slowing down.
This was the first of many mistakes. No matter how skilled you are on control and steering and even if you had a good sense of spatial awareness and reaction time… it meant jack shit all if you were laying down on the cold hard concrete with your brains splattered with that unintentionally beautiful gore.
No matter how skilled you are on control and steering and even if you had a good sense of spatial awareness and reaction time… it meant jack shit all if you were laying down on the cold hard concrete with your brains splattered with that unintentionally beautiful gore.
Luckily, my true skill set was anticipation and quick reflexes and a good sense of knowing my limits.
Realizing that I wouldn’t make the gap, as I was going to be pinched between the massive curb (which is a foot long off the ground) and the rickshaw, all I could do was lay off the throttle and hit the rear brakes for that initial stoppage.
I felt my rear wheel lock up and it started to slide to the right — so I eased off and kept a steady look at that fucking curb that was coming up fast.
By this point, I was able to slow down just enough to let that rickshaw continue up the Bridge of Heaven and I slid sideways into the curb with a thud.
I was fucking gratefully I didn’t fly off the handles and ate dirt. It bruised up my leg a little but nothing to the point that was bad. It was a pang of disgust and embarrassment of how stupid it was to try and race idiots who didn’t check their blind spots let alone yield to anyone.
So, I took a breather and surprising, at that exact moment, I found myself alone. At the foot of the bridge and having no one else around me, I let out a sigh of relief and promised myself that I’m glad I wasn’t going to die a shitty way.
I just didn’t know my luck was only strong enough to survive but it meant I had to continue facing these little episodes with death.
The dance with death is a hell of a lot unromantic if you asked me. But, on that particular night, I’m glad I didn’t wipe out on the bridge. My aunt told me that bridges in Vietnam had ghosts or spirits and construction companies had to pay their respects and made offerings with a little ritual. If not, the bridge could never be safe.
I’m sure this relates more to the corruption of cutting corners on these types of projects.
My aunt also told me that ghosts liked to play tricks on people riding on bridges, even after the offerings are made and the deal is allowed. But, they often target the guilty and the sinners, or so I remembered my aunt says. I can’t get the memory of her exact words and I’m sure I would butcher the translation, but I do remember her saying that and I do remember sitting in my cold sweat before making my cross over the bridge that I thought about what she said. Either the damn spirits were protecting me or they were isolating me off for a particular parting gift.
It’s not like I totally buy into the whole “spirits playing tricks” thing but I’m thinking: different country, different rules. Like how different countries had a different version of the same god, like in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. It’s all about the power of belief and if you have a whole country feeding their beliefs into the idea that these things exist… then perhaps, we could face them on the battlefield of the urban concrete jungle.
I definitely took my time as I played catch up and carefully watched my speed as my little bike took me up and over the Bridge of Heaven.