The place was at once in my hands and beneath my feet. My map indicated the road between Buon Ma Thuot and Dalat was a major artery, it had that bolded yellow quality that typically signifies cartographical importance. But the spot where my motorbike – an old semi-auto with the words ‘Splendid Cruiser’ stuck to its side – was then rumbling, eager to dash forward, looked abandoned. It actually reminded me of the roads in Chernobyl town – domed and cracking, overgrown, the bush quietly reclaiming the land stolen from it in the pouring of hot tar. Stark evidence of mudslides also burdened this highway. At times you could only pass with two feet or so of pavement width, the rest covered in lumpy piles of dried mud, broken sticks and other floral debris. It was quiet but the hills were chirping softly.
The larger picture here: I embarked on a motorbike trip down Vietnam’s skinny spine, nearly 2000 kilometers from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. I was riding alone. The reactions to this never achieved a steep degree of variation from: “Isn’t that dangerous?” Read: stupid. I would laugh it off, saying Of Course Not. Let’s Not Envision Catastrophic Trajectories Before They Materialize. It was my way of saying they’re stupid for asking such a thing.
The truth was, to me, pace was precious. Pace was potentially everything – freedom to stay, freedom to go. Freedom to go fast and to go slow. In groups of two or more, you’re always bound somehow. For all the good things companionship offers – the security, the familiarity, the inside jokes, shared memories – you’re still bound.
The other truth was, I didn’t have many options. Go alone or not at all.
I speak some Vietnamese. I can especially manage myself in restaurants. But since leaving Hanoi on June 24, my abilities in talking direction and place have improved immensely. There was a woman on the side of the Chernobyl road taking a rest in the shade. I asked her where it went, worried I’d be met with a dead road that eventually just tailed off into the boonies, further obscurity. She was disinterested, caught in that gauzy ether between dreams and consciousness. “Keep going,” she mumbled.
From Laos, I arrived to Hanoi intending to stay a week. Somehow a week turned into a month. My brilliant friends made it easy, drunkenly and soberly convincing me to stay, stay – I see your beer is empty – stay. After four months of drifting around Southeast Asia, not knowing a hoot about anything much, I can’t describe the feeling of suddenly knowing things. Street names, directions, the prices of goods. The familiar air, Hanoi’s sprawling shape carved into my hands. It was like being home, the virtues of which are something I’d never admit until now.
I left Hanoi sobbing like I always do. Both departures the last face I saw was Hazel’s. It had nothing to do with Hanoi, really, just Hazel. Just our friendship, just the good times, which had been – and do not mistake this for hyperbole – unceasing in her presence.
The reasons for her greatness cannot be contained in any type of essay or book. Indeed, the construct of language would itself not be enough. Suffice it to say, I feel attached to Hazel and to many of my Hanoi friends, which, before Hanoi, was something I wasn’t sure I was capable of. How nice it is to actively miss someone, how sweet the feeling of being safe with them. There is freedom in it.
While passing through the city of Vinh I had to visit the local hospital for the most dopey reason: there was something stuck in my eyelid and I couldn’t extricate it. It was a spooky building. The hallways were dark, all the beds were occupied but hardly a staff member could be seen. I sat down in a random chair and a curious Vietnamese woman with excellent English quickly approached, asking about the nature of my visit to the hospital and indeed Vinh, which was not on any tourist’s radar.
“I’m on my way to Ho Chi Minh with my motorbike.”
“Doesn’t it get lonely,” she asked sweetly, as if with concern. I’ve grown to become embittered by this question. What is the point of it? At its best I’m being made to answer something the asker already knows. At worst I’m made to say it out loud.
The last bit of road to Hue was through the wetlands, a mix of ocean and fresh water sloshing together among vibrant green grass. It was also an expansive cemetary. The tombs there looked like mini royal palaces and giant stone beds. From afar the tomb pillars huddled together looked like a regal ancient city, its people forever citizens.
The sound you hear while riding a motorbike is deafening. It’s a vacuum. All you can hear is the whistling wind bouncing around the cavities in your head, there is no room for any other sounds. Especially in those wetlands, where you’re catching the cross breezes of the whole sea and the world is howling.
My world, the small world contained in my helmet was howling, but everything else ceased, became crystal: The salt winds stopped but the salt remained, the sky and land held their jewel green and blue, a man on a Honda Dream zoomed past me, his crisp white shirt, rumbling furiously with speed, froze in mid-air.∗