Leave It To The Locals

After traveling for over a month, I was beginning to feel pretty confident with my abilities in navigating new cities with a simple map and the unearthed Boy Scout skills from my childhood. The day before I had been driven from place to place in a motorbike tuk tuk, feeling relatively posh with my own little carriage to be chauffeured around in. During the evening of my second night in Phnom Penh, I had a brief encounter with another guy staying in my dorm, who had told me that he and a few other people had rented their own motorbikes and driven themselves around the city. Back in Ho Chi Minh City when my Couchsurfing host had offered me the controls of the vehicle, I had, rather sensibly, declined the offer. However, I’d seen quite a few people at my hostel in Saigon rent and even buy motorbikes, using it as a cheaper form of travel as well as a way to see more of the countryside. I had told them they were crazy, but one of the Americans had assured me that the traffic out there was nowhere near as crazy as in the city itself.

It never really crossed my mind again until it was mentioned to me in Phnom Penh. I’d seen the roads and the traffic, and it didn’t seem quite as busy as the hustle and bustle of Bangkok or Saigon. I told myself that I should be making the most of the unique experiences on offer here, and so far I’d been all about pushing my boundaries and challenging myself. With that in mind, I set off down the road to rent myself a motorbike, oblivious to the fact that my stay in Phnom Penh was about to get even more harrowing than a trip to the Killing Fields.

***

In retrospect, it was a terrible decision. As my mother reminded me when I emailed her after the fact, “You can barely ride a push bike, Bob!” Yet I was taken over by some kind of invincibility complex that most young adult males get after a six pack of beers (though it should be noted that I made this brilliant decision completely sober). The fact I’d never really ridden a motorbike didn’t occur to me as a potential problem – how hard could it be? It was only when they showed me the bike and demonstrated how to change the gears did the sheer unfamiliarity of this vehicle truly hit home. My blank, uncomprehending expression must have given me away, because one of the men suddenly shouted, “Ahh! Automatic! You need automatic?”. Honestly, I’d had no idea there were automatic and manual motorbikes until that very moment, but I figured I was going to have a hell of an easier time on an automatic one, so I agreed enthusiastically and waited for him to bring around another bike. After a brief overview of the controls, they handed me a helmet and the keys, and away I went.

I puttered along through the small streets, using the same cautious method that I employed for crossing the roads as a pedestrian, before turning onto a main road and zooming along with the rest of the traffic. It was a similar thrill to riding on the back of a motorcycle taxi, except this time there was a certain element of fear, given that I was the one who was actually driving. But I was doing pretty well so far. I was heading towards Phnom Wat, a large temple located in the north of the city, surrounded by lots of traffic. I managed to park the bike next to Phnom Wat, which was situated in the middle of a huge roundabout. I wandered over to the temple and had a brief look inside. It is still a very active place of worship, so I didn’t stay too long so as not to disturb the prayers inside. Besides, I was keen to get back on the motorbike and do some more exploring.

The temple of Phnom Wat, my first and only stop of the day.

The temple of Phnom Wat, my first and only stop of the day.

***

And shortly after that is when it all went wrong. My destination was to be the Russian Markets, which are supposed to be a unique and interesting corner of the city. I’d checked my map and memorised a rough route through the main roads, but I’d only been driving for a few minutes before I came up to the next roundabout. I needed to turn left, but as I followed the roads, I realised I was veering right, and there didn’t appear to be any way to change my course. Was I not as far as I thought I was? Was I taking a wrong turn? Could I still turn left from where the road was taking me? All these perplexing questions bombarded me at once, and the fact that they drive on the right side of the road rather than the left didn’t help my heightening confusion – although the very limited road rules at all hadn’t laid the best foundation for building confidence. In the end, I hesitated for just a moment, but that was all it took. I came tumbling off the motorbike and skidding across the road.

It all seemed so slow and surreal at first. I thought for sure that I was dead. I’d heard the horror stories, the idiot tourists who thought they knew what they were doing when they set out onto the roads and ended up becoming another statistic. I could hear my mothers “I told you so” screeching through the back of my mind. But as soon as I was down, I was jumping up again and scrambling off the road. The way I’d fell meant I’d skidded out of the roundabout towards the edge of the road, rather than deeper into the oncoming traffic. Anyone behind me just swerved around me and continued on their way, as though nothing had happened, or as though that kind of thing happened every day – though for all I knew, such accidents were a common occurrence.

A few of the motorbike taxi drivers on the edge of the road rushed over to my aid, pulling the bike up and helping me wheel it to the edge of the road. I checked my arms and legs to find myself, remarkably, almost unscathed. The only exception was a shallow, bloody graze on my right knee, though I was so full of adrenaline at the time that I barely noticed. I cleaned myself up as best I could, and the local men checked to make sure the bike wasn’t damaged. Thankfully, other than a few mild scratches on the paint, which could have very well been there before I took my little tumble, it was fine. I thanked the men for their help, though they didn’t understand English, so they simply watched me curiously, probably trying to figure out the exact same thing as me – what the hell was I going to do now?

There was nothing else I could do. In my shaken and unsettled state, I mounted the bike and took a few deep breaths. I assessed the roads and where I was going, and then revved the engine and took off again into the traffic. With my confidence shattered from the fall, it was one of the most terrifying decisions of my life, but I didn’t really have any other option. I could have called the rental company, but I didn’t want to risk having to pay for any damages if I confessed to crashing the bike. I couldn’t ask anyone for a lift, since I was the one who had the vehicle. Though it screamed of the illogical and was beyond all common sense, I managed to get back on my bike and continue driving around the city.

***

It was horrific. With the exception of the crash itself, I had never felt so scared as I did navigating the streets of Phnom Penh by motorbike. For some ridiculous reason that I still can’t explain, I decided to travel further from where I was staying, perhaps in the hopes I would regain confidence and learn from my mistake. I didn’t. Every turn, corner or crossing filled me with terror. I had several extremely close calls with both other motorbikes and cars. In the haze of my terror I think I actually even made it to the Russian Markets but by that point, shopping for whatever trinkets they sold there was the last thing in my mind. It was on the return trip that I became not only frightened, but lost. I remember stopping at a petrol station, staring out into the peak hour afternoon traffic, and wondering how the hell I was going to make it back to my hostel alive.

Thankfully, the gash on me knee was the only real injury I sustained during the ordeal.

Thankfully, the gash on me knee was the only real injury I sustained during the ordeal.

After a lot of slow puttering down busy streets and long waits at corners to make sure there was absolutely no chance of being caught by other traffic, I finally made it back to the hostel. I’d been following the setting sun to make sure I was going in the right direction, and using what little I did remember of the streets from my drive through the city yesterday. It had been another long and exhausting day, and as soon as I parked the bike I showered, tended to my wound, and put my leg up by the pool whilst nursing several scotch and Cokes to calm my nerves. Needless to say, I had learnt my lesson. The traffic might not seem dangerous when experienced locals weave their way in and out of cracks and crevices of the gridlock, but it’s still a death trap for anyone who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

I promised my mother I would stay away from motorbikes altogether, but that’s literally impossible in most parts of Cambodia, so from now on I’ll just leave the driving to the locals.

Suburban Hikes on Motorbikes: My first 24 hours in Vietnam

The warm air of the night was countered by the wind that billowed against my t-shirt, as we sped down the highway on a motorbike. All around us were the chirps and toots from the traffic, horns and indicators blaring out into the night. There was the odd car or bus, but the majority of vehicles on the road were other motorcycles. In Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as its known to the locals, motorcycles rein supreme. They fill the streets, they clutter the sidewalks, and you can’t walk fifty metres without an old man waving his hands lividly in the air at you, screaming “Motorbike! Motorbike!” in an attempt to attract your patronage so they can drive you to your destination for a fee. It really was a strange moment for me, whose mother has such a vehement opposition to motorcycles that I’d probably get cut off from the family should I ever attempt purchase my own, to see hordes of them flooding the streets in a way that just seems so normal and commonplace.

“You want to ride the motorbike?” my driver had shouted to me over the roar of the wind in my ears. I let out a short, sarcastic “Ha!” at the very idea.
“Come on, it’s easy,” he tried persuading me again. Driving a motorbike was one thing, but the traffic in this city was just as reckless as the streets of Bangkok – in the “You have to know the city extremely well to avoid certain death” kind of way – and I don’t think even the most expensive insurance premium would cover the driving of someone like me in a place like this. So I just laughed again, a little more genuinely this time, and shook my head.

Motorbikes in close proximity.

Motorbikes in close proximity.

My first 24 hours in Vietnam would prove to be a ‘rinse and repeat’ in the culture shock process, but to explain it properly, I have to take it back to the beginning…

***

After landing in Ho Chi Minh City airport and dealing with the various visa and customs issues, I exited the airport into a heat that closely rivalled Thailand, and made my way to the bus terminal. My stay in Vietnam was to mark another of my many ‘firsts’ on this adventure – my first experience of being a Couchsurfer. For those not in the know, Couchsurfing is an online community that connects travellers from all over the world with people in cities all over the world that are able to host them, and provide a place for the travellers to stay while they’re in their city. The philosophy behind it is cheap accommodation when seeing the world, and at the same time creating global connections and friendships. Vietnam was to be the first country I was staying in where I didn’t have any contacts at all, let alone friends to stay with, so I figured it might be a good opportunity to take part in the Couchsurfing phenomenon that is taking on the travelling world. While I was in Bangkok I’d put a message into a subgroup created specifically for queer Couchsurfers – because sometimes it’s just nice to be around fellow friends of Dorothy – and after a few days I had a reply from a 22-year-old Vietnamese guy living in Ho Chi Minh City. We discussed the issue some, and he offered me a place on his couch.

However, he wasn’t able to meet me at the airport, and so gave me instructions on which bus to catch, and a time and place for us to meet. This involved me catching a public bus – something I was yet to do in South East Asia. As the bus rattled out of the airport and towards the city, I noticed a group of three girls sitting across the aisle of the bus from me, looking at me and whispering among themselves. Well… I assume they were talking, but I couldn’t see their mouths since they were covered by face masks. They’re the kind that doctors and medical professionals wear during operations, or that people in the street wear when they’re afraid of bird or swine flu – and suddenly I thought I may have missed some vital health information. I was later told there wasn’t too much to worry about, and that a lot of girls were just shy and wore them to hide their faces… Okay then.

I didn’t think much of it, until one of the girls reached out and passed me her phone. It was an iPhone opened to compose a new message, and in the typing section she had written ‘Where you from?, I smiled, passed the phone back and said I was from Australia. After a few moments she passed it back ‘What you do?’. I smiled again, amused by the exchange, and replied “I’m travelling.” The girl looked at me, perplexed, then back at her friends. Then back to me. Then back to her friends. Maybe I had overestimated their English? I took the phone from her and wrote ‘travelling’. She took the phone back, and I noticed the girls regrouping around another phone, perhaps for translation purposes. This exchange continued for the remainder of the trip, where they asked me where I was going, if I was alone, what I studied back home, and finally: ‘do you play facebook?’. I said I did, and gave them my Facebook name. ‘See you in facebook!’ was the last message I read. I hopped off the bus at the final stop, equal parts amused and confused.

Motorbikes take up every spare inch of the road.

Motorbikes take up every spare inch of the road.

***

The place where I was meeting my host was close by and I found it easily enough, and soon we were getting to know each other and chatting away. My host had previously spent time studying in Sydney – at the same university that I attended, as it would happen – and so we had a surprisingly large amount of common ground to cover. Then it came time to travel to my hosts house – knowing I had a large bag, he hadn’t brought his motorbike, so we caught another bus. Where I had stayed while I was in Bangkok was rather close to the major parts of the city, but after 45 minutes on this bus, watching the city scenery pass and eventually dwindle into the suburbs, I realised that my location in Ho Chi Minh City wouldn’t be quite so central. As we descended into the outer suburbs, out of the tourists areas and into the domain of the locals, it became clear I was going to get a very authentic Vietnamese experience.

I didn’t really have any definite expectations, but it was certainly a bit of a shock when we alighted from the bus. The city was well and truly gone, and all around us were either stretching roads full of buses and bikes, or narrow roads that forked off in twisting alleys and concrete walkways. We travelled through the dingy labyrinth until we got to my hosts house, where I made a few other unexpected discoveries: my host still lived with his parents, so I was staying with a family, and the ‘couch’ was actually a mattress, which I would be sharing with my host, in a room he told me he shared with his brother. The bedroom didn’t have a door, something that my host told me his parents did not allow. As we got chatting about it more, I learnt a whole heap of other things about Asian culture that were considered quite strange by my standards, but were completely normal for him. Though he had been to Australia before and understood the common practices and standards of living there, so I think he understood some of my confusion. They were quite middle-class living conditions for Vietnam, but that’s still very different from middle-class Sydney.

After I’d settled in, my host took me around the city on his motorbike, pointing out various attractions in the city centre, showing me his university where he studied, and took me to some truly local places to eat – the menus were entirely in Vietnamese, and had I come alone, I would not have had the faintest idea what anything on the menu was (besides ‘soda’, ‘Coke’ and ‘Sprite’). It was a great way to see the city from a locals point of view, and I am truly thankful for the experience and for the generosity of my host. However, the living arrangements weren’t exactly ideal. Sharing a bed is tough for me at the best of times, and the distance to and from the city meant it wouldn’t exactly be easy for me to get around without relying on someone else and their motorbike (I was not going to accept the offer to ride it by myself). So in the morning I headed off into the city, with a hand drawn map by my host, and found a hostel in the backpacker district to stay at for the remainder of my time in Saigon.

Motorbikes maintain the majority in the minor metropolis of Saigon.

Motorbikes maintain the majority in the minor metropolis of Saigon.

***

The rest of my afternoon was to be taken up by a highly recommended and fairly popular tourist attraction – the War Remnants Museum. My knowledge of the Vietnam War basically comprised of pop culture references and the part of the Australian History syllabus that addressed the topic and Australia’s involvement in it. I knew about the stigma attached to the soldiers and the war crimes they were accused of committing, but as a 15-year-old reading a slide from an overhead projector, the true meanings behind all of this never really sunk in.

The War Remnants Museum

The War Remnants Museum

So I wasn’t expecting my trip to the museum to be so mentally and emotionally exhausting. The exhibit that particularly broke my heart was the galley titled ‘Victims of Agent Orange’. Agent Orange was a powerful dioxin that was used by the USA in biochemical warfare during the Vietnam War. It poisoned millions of Vietnamese people, but some of the most devastating impacts come from second-hand contamination – babies born with all sorts of horrific birth defects as a result of their parents being infected by Agent Orange. Seeing these images and reading their stories was such an intense experience – it took everything I had to blink back tears and not have a moment in the middle of the museum. The fact that many of these people do their best to live ordinary lives despite their crippling deformities just makes their stories even more amazing and inspiring. I thought about taking some photos of these powerful images, but I decided my poor photography would not do them justice to the incredible way that they affected me. But I urge anyone who visits Ho Chi Minh City to take the time to see this museum – it gave me a thorough schooling on what it’s like to feel compassion and empathy, and to be thankful for what you have. After viewing more galleries about war crimes, historical truths, and a photographic history of the Vietnam War, I left the museum feeling a little overwhelmed. I’ve long considered myself a pacifist, and seeing such shocking displays of the horrors of what seemed to be such a pointless war firmly re-cemented my position.

USA war plane outside the museum.

USA war plane outside the museum.

***

My first 24 hours really forced me to reevaluate some of the priorities in my life, both past and present – my future is just a big messy ball of ‘unknown’ that I’m not prepared to tackle right now. But I feel a little bad about the way I reacted to the Couchsurfing experience, simply because it hadn’t been what I had expected or of a standard I was used to. People make do with a lot less, and here I am complaining about not having my own room and/or bed. And to think that I ever felt that my life back in Australia was lacking or incomplete in any sort of way just seems completely laughable now. You really don’t realise that kind of thing until you step outside of your comfort zone and experience something that you would have otherwise never come into contact with. I know that no ones life is ever “perfect” or “complete”, and that you can always strive to do better, but this kind of experience really highlights how pointless and deconstructive complaining about it can be.

I don’t want to get all preachy or anything though, so I’ll just settle for saying that each and every day of this adventure is opening my eyes wider and wider to the incredible, immense, diverse and ever-changing world world around me.