My travels through Thailand, Laos, and now Vietnam have opened me up to more of the world. To new experiences, fresh beauty, wonderful new foods, and new fears as well. I have eaten crickets, laid my head on a tiger’s back, and now the most frightening experience of all: hopping on the back of a scooter and zooming through the traffic of Ho Chi Minh City.
Let me back up to my first day in Vietnam, when the tour ended in Hanoi. We arrived at our hotel with time to freshen up and meet our tour leader downstairs to walk to a nearby restaurant. I have come to like and trust the tour leader, Thye, but this was a bit much for me; walking the two blocks to the restaurant was taking my life in my hands. The narrow streets of Old Hanoi are filled with vehicles: taxis, bicycles, an occasional cycle rickshaw, and hundreds of scooters. The sidewalks are not useable, for this is where the scooters not being driven are parked, rendering them useless to the pedestrians, who are forced to walk in the street. Street crossings do not have civilized crosswalks with lights that stop one flow of traffic so the others can go. No, you just go for it, willy-nilly, hairy-scary, taking your chances. It’s a bizarre dance like that of a well-rehearsed equestrian drill team, only without the rehearsal, and with a cacophony of beeping horns instead of pleasant music.
When I finally sat at the table and my heart stopped pounding, I expressed my dismay to Thye, who reassured me by saying, “Don’t worry! If they hit you, it is bad luck for them.” Ummm, thanks, I think? That makes me feel so much safer!
The next day my fellow tourists and I tried to decipher the rules. “Just keep walking,” advised the young boy from Canada. “Be slow and purposeful. If you stop, you’re done for.” So I practiced crossing, taking a deep breath and just walking across the street, like a somnambulist in a bad horror movie. Attack of the Asian Scooters!
Fast forward to Ho Chi Minh City, where I am staying a few days with a new Couchsurfing friend, Tuyen. On our first day together, she senses my fear and says “We will use my car.” The scooters still terrify me as we pass them in her solid SUV, but I feel safely encased in its armor. The scooters whiz by, carrying families, bags of produce, even one with a wheelbarrow turned upside down and strapped to the rear seat. I cower as they zoom around us, cutting in front of big trucks, crossing in busy intersections without a pause, careening in wild zig-zags to get to their destinations.
On the second day, Tuyen puts her car in the garage. “We will take the scooter.” She grins mischievously. “Don’t worry, I’ll go slow.”
Well, I’m here to try new things. If I die, it will be in the spirit of adventure; a noble death if I do say so myself!
So I hop on back, my left hand deceivingly light around Tuyen’s slender waist as my right hand is in a white-knuckle grip on the back rail – what we used to call a “sissy bar”. It’s an apt description.
Soon we are dodging traffic, cutting fearlessly through intersections with no traffic lights, riding knee-to-knee with other daredevils of the road. I breathe. I concentrate on sitting still and not looking around for fear I will scream. I memorize the back of Tuyen’s helmet, its mint green color soothing my panic.
It’s an exercise in trust, and I am letting go of my fears. In my previous travels I have learned to trust myself. Now perhaps it is time to learn to trust in others. That’s the whole reason I joined Couchsurfing, after all – what could test your trust more than allowing strangers to come in and stay at your house, and doing the same when you travel yourself?
As it starts to rain, we put on a single poncho, and for a few blocks, I drape it over my head. Now I can see nothing but Tuyen’s back, and I have to sense our turns, our stops, our weaving through the traffic. It is surreal. It is a powerful surrender. And, finally, it’s just too damned scary. The rain has let up, and I poke my head back out.
Well, one step at a time, right?
As we pull in front of her house, I am smiling.