I should be studying for STEP 1 right now. It’s that time of year for second year medical students, the dreaded “Dedicated”—as in dedicated to studying upwards of eight hours a day for eight weeks in preparation for the biggest standardized exam we’ve taken in our educational careers. NBD.
Instead, I’m writing about a time six months ago when I was on the other side of the world, a time when standardized exams were the last thing on my mind because something much more important was occupying my frontal cortex: my survival. That’s right, this post will be another near-death (or at least catastrophic) experience from abroad, this time in the historic city of Huế, Vietnam, the capital of the country from about 1800 to the end of WWII. The city is best known for its Imperial Palace, so I on my first day there I set off on bicycle to explore it on my own.
The palace was cool, and huge, but I managed to cover the entire grounds in about three hours (did I mention it was approximately 1000 degrees? That’s about 550 Celsius). And because I’d allotted the whole day for the Imperial Palace, I had some time to kill before nightfall. I figured I might as well continue exploring the city. There was a riverside market that was supposed to be big and strange (two of my favorite things!), and from the free map the bike rental guy had given me, it seemed fairly close by. I drank some water, ate a few Lychee berries (free with the room—score!) and set off.
The Imperial Palace
About an hour later, it seemed like I’d been riding too long. I pulled out my map. Unable to recognize any landmarks (there were none) nor street names (all in Vietnamese), I was forced to pull onto a side street to get my bearings. “Follow the river,” the bike rental man had said. But the river was nowhere in sight! The roads snaked in every direction, with neither a grid pattern nor house numbers to guide me. I appeared to be in a neighborhood, perhaps a suburb of the main city, and I was a long way from any tourist sights. Of that much, I was sure. I hadn’t seen a white person in, well, about an hour.
I pulled out my cell phone. Even though I had neither service nor wifi, I had a half-populated Google Maps app which represented frantic me as a glowing blue dot in a sea of nondescript green. It also showed the river. I was far from it, as I’d suspected, and there didn’t appear to be any roads that would lead me straight to it. Rather, it would require a sequence of turns, and this banking on the fact that once I reached the river, there would be a continuous path alongside it to reach the bridge which would then take me back downtown. That was a lot of variables. Still, I had no choice but to turn back, hoping to take the same turns I’d taken, avoid getting struck by the onslaught of disorganized motor bikes, (I’m talking no street signs, no traffic signals, no lanes, no sidewalks. Strictly mahem, with every man and woman for his or her damn self), and stumble across the correct bridge which would lead me back into the center of town.
Big girl that I was, I threw on my Tupac playlist, hopped back in the metaphorical saddle, and turned my ass around. And the first thing that I did was take a wrong turn. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time. I only realized it about thirty minutes later, when my flashing blue portrait on the Maps app showed that I was now farther from the river. How the…?
Okay, I told myself. Let’s give up on the bike thing and get a cab.
Funny, that, because I was in a residential area, and there wasn’t a cab in sight.
The sun was beginning to slip behind the buildings. My stomach was rumbling, and I had just one sip of water left in my bottle.
Plan B: stay calm. Plan C: find somewhere with wifi. You can contact the hotel and they can send someone to pick you up.
I looked around. There was no wifi advertised anywhere. I was walking my bike now, Tupac turned down to low, hands slick on handlebars. True, there was no wifi—no apparent business anywhere, in fact. But as I continued to walk the streets, I noticed an open garage with a few tables set up inside and a boy about my age sitting with a laptop. I wheeled up to him, and he started, slamming his computer shut.
This reaction startled me in return, but I laugh now to think what I must have looked like marching up to this kid: a misplaced tourist, sweat soaking my shirt, face fried from the sun, and what must have been a crazed look in my eyes, accosting him in a foreign language about God-knows-what. How’s that for a first impression?
I sat at one of the tables, tried to look totally cool. I ordered a bottle of water, continuing to test my host’s English. The garage was in fact the kitchen of a private home. Why the door had been opened to the public I can’t say, but there was definitely no other patrons coming in, nor was there complimentary wifi.
Turns out the boy spoke zero English, and when I brandished my map under his nose, he frowned and scratched his head for a few minutes before sliding it back to me. Then he had an idea. He opened up his laptop and began furiously typing. “Translate” he muttered to me, then faced the screen towards me to type.
“I’m lost,” I wrote. “Can you help me get back to my hotel?”
An excruciating ten minutes of Google translate later, the boy had the brilliant idea to call me a cab. I gestured to my bike, but he assured me it would be okay.
While waiting in silence for the cab, what I gathered to be the boy’s father entered stage left. He and the boy spoke at length in Vietnamese, obviously about the strange white girl who had landed at their kitchen table. What the hell was that all about?
The boy caught his father up to speed, and about this time the cab driver arrived. He took one look at the bike and turned visibly angry, shouting in Vietnamese at the boy and his father and gesturing wildly to me. Yikes. I continued to sit, drink my water, and suffer my panic attack in silence.
The cabbie left.
The father sat across from me. He pulled out a napkin and began to draw a map. God help me, another freaking map. I really played up the damsel-in-distress role on this one, partly because I couldn’t read the damn map and partly because I knew as soon as I was on my own I would end up lost again, considering my frantic state of mind and ever-failing navigational abilities. The man crumpled the napkin on which he was drawing and stood. “I will take you,” he said.
Wait, what? That was an option this whole time?
He disappeared for a moment and returned with a red motorbike.
“But my bike…” I said. What didn’t these people understand?
“I will take you,” he said again, and made to get on his bike. Okay…
I followed him, not knowing what else to do, and sat my ass on the back of his bike.
He laughed. “No, no,” he said. “You bike. I take you.”
This was going to be interesting.
He started up his bike and I hopped on mine, ready to pedal like my life depended on it (which it did) miles back the way I’d come. My consolation was that he probably knew these streets well, meaning he knew shortcuts and backroads so we wouldn’t have to take the highways.
I want to say this man was a Vietnamese Evil Knievel, but looking around as we raced through five lanes of seething, beeping traffic, I realized everyone in Vietnam was off their rocker when it came to driving. I was the only regular bike in the middle of the highway, that was for sure, but no one even batted an eye at the spectacle. They simply beeped and swerved their way around, leaving me tailing my lifeline in the form of red motorbike at ten miles an hour.
My lifeline was doing me a huge favor, but he wasn’t exactly making it easy for me. Not only did I have to constantly fear (appropriately) being struck from any angle at any moment by one of the thousands of motorbikes streaming around us, but he was also taking his turns at breakneck speeds with no notice, leaving me jerking and flailing behind. One such turn (about halfway through this godforsaken journey) he turned so sharply that when I made to emulate him, my tire caught on a ledge and sent me tumbling into the street. I glanced up just fast enough to see my little red lifeline disappear around the corner and out of sight.
I quickly snatched my bike and body out of the street before getting pummeled, but now I was truly out of luck. My back tire had popped! And, I was still in terrifyingly unfamiliar territory, perhaps even more lost than before. I wheeled my limp body/bike to the grassy patch on the side of the highway and sat, palms bleeding.
If there is a god, he appeared to me that day in the form of that Vietnamese dad on a red motorbike, zooming back around the corner to my rescue.
He had come back for me! Vietnamese Dad idled over to where I sat (not to mention that he was stalling in a lane of traffic running in the opposite direction), took one look at my bike, and laughed. It seemed to me like a God-better-thank-me-for-being-such-a-goddamn-saint kind of laugh. And then he told me to get on his motorbike, repeating over and over, “I will help you. I will help you.” His plan was to tow the broken bike alongside us, a prospect even more terrifying than following him on the bike myself. Still, we had no other option, so I hopped on the back of his bike for a second time, noticing instantly that the only way for us both to fit was to flatten my entire frontside up against his backside. Great.
Off we went, idling through the mad dash of motorbikes yet again, this time with a barely-rolling bike careening to one side of us.
Granted, I did see some insane feats on motorbikes in the days following this fiasco (spoiler alert: I survive!), including a full cart of vegetables and someone’s grandma being towed by a single motorbike. But at this point in time I hadn’t seen such feats, so naturally I was convinced we would die.
I don’t know if I took a single breath during the rest of our journey back to my hotel, not only because I felt very near to death the entire time, but now with the added realization that I had no idea where this man was taking me, nor did I know a single thing about him. For all I knew, he could be taking me to his warehouse to be his next sex slave. Or, to his friend’s warehouse to sell me as a sex slave. My attention flicked back and forth between Taken and Crash for what could have been five minutes or fifty. But eventually my panic was rewarded by the sight of the river. The river! We were going in the right direction; I was almost “home.”
In about three more minutes (I can comment on this time frame with confidence, as I was about 70% calm by this time), we arrived at my hotel, the friendly bike rental man, completely oblivious to the tribulations of the day, rushing out to greet us with a massive smile.
I practically fell off the motorbike, entirely drained from sympathetic nervous system overdrive and so overcome with relief that I was. But I did have the wherewithal to reach into my backpack and pull out a wad of Vietnamese Dong (yes, that’s really the name of their currency). I didn’t even look at what I was offering him, as my survival was priceless (right, Mom?).
Vietnamese Dad leaving
My guide refused, even appeared a little heated that I would offer. I stuffed the cash back in my bag and shook my head, unable to express my gratitude. In an impulsive moment I threw my arms around Vietnamese Dad, not stopping to think about customs in Vietnam and whether that was vastly inappropriate, or what I was conveying in such a gesture. He patted my shoulder and repeated, “I help you.” With that, he started up his bike and peeled off down the road. I never even got his name.
“Did you find the palace?”
It was the grinning bike man.
“I found it, all right,” I said, returning the shredded map he had given me that morning and the bike with the busted tire.
And as I walked away, back up to my room, I pondered what exactly it was that I found that day. More than the palace, or Vietnamese suburbia, I had stumbled across something to which no map could have led me—something like hope: a restored sense of faith in the good of people, even complete strangers.