When we left Hội An on a rented motorbike we were not well yet, but we felt well. It may have been calorie starvation from the norovirus that made us think riding a motorbike in Vietnam was a good idea. Or maybe a desire to put the town that had made us ill behind us on our own terms. But after the initial “oh god what even are the rules I’m going to die in the road in a third world country and no one will know who to sue is that a Water Buffalo?” jitters wore off, it felt wonderful to be free out on the open road.
We passed tourist destinations without slowing. We were on our own and no one could flag us down and give us the experience they know perfectly well we wanted and at a very attractive price, so how about it? No. We were free to blaze right by once in a lifetime wonders and instead do mundane things like get coffee and refill the gas tank. After weeks of being catered to with stunning acumen, our fate was finally our own.
We rode through Da Nang, stopping repeatedly to study the scooter rental company’s Tolkienesque map. “Turn left on Võ Văn Kiệt, and cross the dragon bridge. Then onward through the lowlands until you reach the misty mountain range”. It’s so easy to stop on a scooter, and this one was an automatic. Twist and go. So we’d overshoot our turn, stop, turn around, go too far, stop again. Stopping meant having to rejoin traffic, which sometimes was a real test of one’s fortitude. Vietnamese rules of the road are different than ours, but they are simple and thankfully are applied the same way universally from highway to sidewalk. Slower traffic to the right, don’t be unpredictable, and try with all your might to neither stop nor cause others to stop.
As a sailor, the rules seemed familiar. They had more philosphically in common with the rules governing travel on US waterways than on US roads. The Vietnamese obeyed a further rule that worked in our favor as well. You know when you make a mistake and act unwisely while on a road trip, and you say to yourself, “oh well, out of state plates!”. My body, at 6’ 4” and over 250 pounds was my perennial out of state plate. “Look at the size of that guy on the scooter, I bet he doesn’t have the foggiest idea of where he is going and how to get there. Let’s get the toss out of his way” was the final rule.
My tiny little wife is larger than the average Vietnamese man, and you’d think the two of us on a 120cc scooter would turn heads, but if so it was not for overloading. If anything, compared to local use, our scooter was underloaded. I think the most humans we saw on a scooter was 5, but we saw scooters loaded with flocks of ducks, forests of firewood bundles, and enough groceries for a village whiz by us in a feloniously negligent manner.
But remember the rule about trying with all your might not to stop others? You come flying down the street in Vietnam on a scooter with 50 birds, not all properly secured (what even is the way to properly secure 50 ducks to a scooter?) and everyone who sees you coming makes a mental note of how they will arrange themselves as you pass to make it work. And they go all second order as well: the person who made the plan sees another bystander and says “they will probably do this when ole ducky Knieval comes by, so I should do that as a result”, and everyone does their part and it all comes off as smoothly as a Rube Goldberg machine designed by Germans. But if a critical mass of tourists should meet at an intersection, God forbid an intersection at a bridge in the old part of town, traffic could be snarled for days by the knock on effects.
So with a combination of grit, rugged individualism, and the help of an entire culture, we made it over the modest range of mountains on our tiny scooter. It was late in the day as we approached our destination, the old town of Huế. We approached it and approached it and God dammit when would we get there? Our tired old bodies were reminding us that they weren’t well, not really.
When we finally piloted our craft into the heart of town, we had to find the rental return place and a room for the night. The hotel above the rental return place was full (it seems every business has a hotel on the next level up. Why waste the space?).
We were sleepy past coherence.
“Can you suggest another place?”
They sprang into action, and soon encouraged us to each hop on the backs of two waiting scooters. Little scooters are the Ubers of Vietnam, and it’s normal to travel this way. I did my best to be a good passenger for the tiny driver and felt for him and the underpowered (90ccs, I think, but maybe in poor repair as well?) scooter as it groaned at the demand to speed up and join traffic. We were whisked down an alley in a funky part of old town, and were soon in a comfortable bed at a great price.
The suspicious traveler might think the eager service was to trap the unsuspecting tourist into an overpriced option. In retrospect I think the almost psychopathic level of service arises from a desire to be the one out of the crowd who gets to offer the service at all. In the end the price is just the going rate, but who fulfills the need? We may have been whisked off to a friend’s hotel that night in accordance with the “you scratch mine, i’ll scratch yours” law of econmics, but it wasn’t more expensive than other options, and the hotel itself was just right.
We know because the strains of the previous day put us back in the toilet and we spent a lot of time resting in that hotel. They fed us fruit, yogurt, bread, and asked with worry after our health. We weren’t completely knocked out, so we spent our days wandering semi-ghostlike through town on our unwilling monastic fast. The “Imperial City” of Huế wasn’t far, though to go and return in a day was all we could manage. Huế was once the seat of power in Vietnam, and the Imperial City was built not all that long ago (19th century onward) but in a traditional style. The campus has been through a lot, and now its only job is as a museum of what it once was. Wandering in our drowsy state from the busy modern intersections of Huế over the moat and under the fortress gates into the Imperial City was an experience of reverse hallucination: everything we perceived was real, but did not seem real.
You can tell the exact moment my body starting processing food properly again by looking through my photographs. I took many of the Imperial City, and the later ones are actually composed. Apparently creativity requires food. “Beef porridge” set me to rights, local comfort food that is subtle yet rich, with no suprises. I might be dead now if not for that beef porridge. But even after recovery Huế in my memory doesn’t seem possible. It was too big to be a town, to small to be a city. Unlike Hội An it had more going for it than just tourism, but its tourist corners were as improbable as movie sets.
I wandered through the market one day, while Kristin was still recovering. A busy working market, it was a contrast to US west coast “farmers” markets where you can buy soaps shaped like fish and taste wine. This place had tubs of liver pâté 10 gallons large, with a ladle at one side. Vast piles of eggs of every description. Fish improbably still breathing, though the 20 pound giants lay sideways across a scale (justice gasps for air?) Vegetables were piled high, meat arranged in the hot sun glistening and buzzing with flies. Chickens railed against their cages. And everywhere were busy people, people on a mission, because this is where the food comes from in Huế.
The market was divided roughly by category: fish over here, meat over there, with more than one vendor per category. I was finally feeling great, really healthy. But a walk through the organ meat pâté section in the hot sun nearly set me back. I’ll never forget Huế.