Sweat Ride through the Smog Swamp

I met him when I was trying to get to work.

I was walking down the street in the Old Quarter, dodging traffic in my too-baggy work pants, the Hanoian humidity pressing down on me like a clammy hand, like it wanted to suffocate me, like it might actually want to kill me.

I was thinking about a coconut, how I’d get a coconut later when I got off work, which I didn’t want to go to despite the fact that I had only been teaching at the school for three weeks. The front part of my brain was walking to the corner to catch a ride, but the rest of my brain was thinking about the fleshy white pulp on the inside of my after-work coconut, thinking about how I’d scrape it with a cheap metal spoon, and how the spoon would bend with the pressure of my scraping – how I’d be sitting on a little plastic stool down the alley, how night would have fallen and there’d be a breeze, the smallest and most vagrant of breezes inching down the black alley, and how delicious that would feel on my sun-block-sticky, sweat-encrusted limbs.

I sighed as I approached the street corner. A crowd of men perched on their bikes, reading newspapers or sleeping or else just staring out with their backs against the seats and their legs draped impossibly over the handlebars.

“Motobike madam?” I showed the first guy to ask the address of the school, ink that had started to bleed through the thin scrap paper. He looked like any other guy on the corner – middle-aged, a bit disheveled, skin hardened from years in the sun. I didn’t really even look at his face, just listened for the “yes, yes, I know” and negotiated the fare.

I clipped on my helmet and hopped on the back of the bike. I tried to sit with my back perfectly straight, the way the dewy-skinned Vietnamese girls do, ponytails whisping from that hole specially cut in the back of their helmets.

It was no use – I was slouching after three blocks.

Which is when I noticed that he spoke English.

 

Transit had been the number one most aggravating, expensive and demoralizing part of my move to Hanoi – of which there had been many aggravating, expensive and demoralizing aspects.

Hanoi is a sprawling, swarming anthill of a city filled with an estimated 10 million motorbikes. The city is a thousand years old but for the majority of that time was only comprised of a small pocket of land, its population a few hundred thousand. Only in the last few decades has the population doubled, tripled, mushroomed – people from the provinces pouring in and the city spreading out, expanding into the lake-pocked lotus fields like bacteria, I imagined: concrete, smog-coughing bacteria.

To my newbie eyes, the city was miles and miles of exhaust-laced sameness. I arrived in a hurry, a refugee of an expat — three bags and my last $400, on the heels of a failed dream in a neighboring country that had nearly consumed my sanity.

I spent my first two weeks sleeping on a friend’s floor while I scrambled to find any job I could. Which isn’t so hard in Hanoi – not hard at all actually, which is why I’d washed up there. Within a week I had three jobs at three different language schools; one had even hired me before I’d been interviewed.

Getting work wouldn’t be the problem in Hanoi; getting to work would be. All the schools were located in these far away, newly constructed parts of the city. I was too new to town, I reckoned, to venture into the traffic on my own motorbike. I was also terrified; I’d made it to 29 without having learned to ride a bicycle, one of the last gems of shame I’d smuggled out of my childhood. So traversing some of Asia’s most intense traffic on my own motorbike, especially in my precarious mental and emotional state, was out of the question.

But the alternative wasn’t much better: taking xe oms. Xe oms are motorbike drivers who tote the immobile around town on the back of their bikes. They’re the most viable transit option in Hanoi, where there aren’t tuk-tuks, most of the taxis have crooked meters and the buses lumber down the streets like drunken, exhaust-belching beasts that quite frankly do not inspire confidence.

The distances I had to travel were far, the addresses unfamiliar, my Vietnamese haggling abilities non-existent. You couldn’t blame the xe oms for barking at me when I couldn’t tell them where my destination was; for sour-lemoning their faces and waving their hands, refusing to drive me; for charging $5 for a one-way fare then no-showing for the after-class pick up.

The situation had repeatedly pushed me to the brink of tears – “the brink,” because I refused to actually cry, save for once on the phone with my friend I was staying with. Twice in one week, I’d arrived to a new job thirty minutes late because the xe om had gotten lost. Another time I’d come out of school to a desolate street at 9pm, no xe om in sight to take me back to civilization. I’d walked for fifteen minutes and the xe om I finally did find took one look at my ill-fitting clothes and desperate, lost expression, and charged me an exorbitant $6. I’d sighed and paid the fare. What was I gonna do?

I only had myself to be frustrated with, was the thing. My nerves were frayed and I was shot through to the core. But even for how demoralizing the whole Hanoian transit thing was, I was still grateful to be there – to have somewhere, anywhere to wash up, even if it was a polluted aggressive shitshow of a city.

I’d ride around on the back of those bikes and marvel at the crisp angle of the curbs, the landscaped public parks, the army of trash collectors with their conical hats and face masks. It all seemed so functional. Hanoi, I’d think, whizzing through the dark streets at night: Refreshingly Free of Prostitutes.

After my first week teaching I could afford to move off my friend’s floor and into a guesthouse in the touristy Old Quarter, the Hanoi that had been Hanoi for all those thousand years. I was surrounded by sunburnt Gap Year-ers in Beer Lao tank tops, but I didn’t really mind. I almost liked it. Sometimes I liked to pretend I was also a nineteen-year-old backpacker with my whole optimistic future ahead of me – traveling with my boyfriend maybe, or else a group of girlfriends with whom I had an endless ring of inside jokes.

I’d sit on my plastic stool at night, when I’d returned from another round of teaching, and scrape my coconut pulp as I watched them pass, all buoyant limbs and dirty hair. Which still somehow seemed less dirty than mine.

 

The xe om that afternoon didn’t just speak English; he was downright chatty. He rattled off a litany of questions, asking me how long I’d been in Hanoi, whether I liked it, where I was from – what anyone asks anyone when they’re new to a place. And all in a more fluent English than the adult students I was going to teach, a bunch of bankers and IT guys and secretaries.

He dropped me off in front of the skinny concrete building of the school and pulled out his cell phone. It was the same old beater Nokia as mine, and I watched him as he programmed my number in. He had one of those catfish faces: round with a wispy moustache and a ring of wrinkles around his eyes. Sweat moved down the side of his face, from beneath his army-green military helmet.

He gave me a silly little smile as he plopped his cellphone back into his pocket, the corners of his eyes pinching. “My name Da,” he jabbed his thumb into his chest.

“Lauren,” I replied.

He took my hand and shook it, limp-wristed. It was a soft, swollen hand.

I tried not to get too excited when he actually showed up after class. It seemed a little too perfect, you know? I tried not to get too excited when he dropped me off in front of my guesthouse and asked if I needed a ride the following day. Actually, I did and the idea of not having to get up an extra half-hour early for fare negotiation and the inevitable getting lost sounded about as appealing as that coconut I’d been looking forward to all class.

And I tried not to get too excited when he actually showed up the following morning, waiting on his bike and giving a pert little wave. Or when he gave me more rides, always available every time I texted him, and actually responding to those texts in a haphazard but altogether understandable English.

After a few days, he started texting me at night, asking me what time I needed a ride and to which school.

I told myself not to question it.

I came out of the school one night, stupid work slacks that made me look pregnant clinging to my legs in that particular Velcro of sweat and stubble. It had poured rain during class; the street glistened and the air felt clean. It was this sudden softness I’d noticed in Hanoi, the smallest and briefest of softnesses that would be gone just as fast as it’d come.

Da was sitting on his bike, snapped to attention when he saw me approach. I heard a faint, distorted blare of music as I straddled the back of the bike.

“You like?” Da asked. He held up the thin cellphone from which the sound was rattling. “I just buy.”

The sound became louder. And recognizable: “Hotel California.”

A laugh burst out of me.

I shook my head and chuckled. “I love it.”

We pulled out, through the night street and the fresh air, the road pocked with puddles that reflected the lights. He played the song over and over; we must have listened to it four times on that ride, him singing along to his favorite lines (“pretty pretty boys / that she calls friends”) and repeatedly asking me if I liked the song.

“Eagles,” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you like?”

“Yes,” I lied. “Do you like?”

He nodded, the army green helmet rocking with him. “I like very much.”

 

It was a blissful two weeks of reliable transit – coming down through the hotel lobby and seeing Da’s motorbike parked out front, his green military helmet and pot belly sagging out from his unbuttoned shirt. He stopped waving and started giving me a high five with that small swollen hand, his face pinching into a silly grin.

My work hours settled into a regular schedule and I started to establish some semblance of a life in Hanoi. You made it, a voice in my head said one day on the back of Da’s bike, which immediately struck me as funny. Of course I’d made it; was there ever any question of that?

Da was always on time, always chatty. Sometimes a little too chatty to be honest; at 7:30 in the morning, with long hours of teaching ahead of me, already sweating and squinting and sucking exhaust on the back of the bike, I’d usually just want to space out.

But I tried to indulge him, asked questions and made those noncommittal “hmmm” noises. He showed me pictures of his son – “Name Da, like me!” – and told me about his past. His fondest memories seemed to be of working construction in Bulgaria when he was young; apparently a number of Vietnamese of his generation had gone to work in Soviet countries. He talked about the food, about the weather, how cold it got, how he didn’t like Vietnam and wanted to go back to Europe.

“Now I am old man,” he’d say.

There were things that didn’t make sense to me about Da. The conversant English, of course, but other details emerged on those early-morning rides: he told me he had two houses, one in the Old Quarter and one near the house I’d be moving into at the end of the month. He had a wife who was living in London, a daughter in college.

I may have been in Vietnam for all of five minutes, but I knew that these were not common attributes of xe oms. A part of me wondered what the hell Da was doing, why he didn’t do something more fruitful than drive around foreigners. Or why he’d picked me, with my far distances and long hours; wouldn’t it be more profitable to just tote tourists?

But what did I know? My life didn’t make sense anymore either and besides, I needed a ride. I needed to haul my heat-swollen, frizzy-haired, flush-cheeked self all over the smog-choked Petri dish of Hanoi and Da was the most reliable, affordable way to do it. I was along for the ride, I joked to myself. Literally.

 

The summer pressed on; days accumulated. The roads began to make sense, familiar landmarks revealing themselves: banks and karaokes and bun cha stands, the roundabout with the open piles of dirt, the produce market by the busted old archway. In the baskets on the backs of bicycles, hard brown pebbles of lychee gave way to the spindle-bursting rambutan as the summer deepened.

I moved out of the guesthouse and into a small room in a nice house, on a little peninsula that looked out on one of the big lakes. It was quiet there and the air was better too, just a little. Instead of the incessant cacophony of horns and construction, I’d hear roosters in the mornings and birds at night – that pocket of Hanoian gentleness. I unpacked my three bags, hung my modest wardrobe on plastic hangers and set my toiletries in a row. I had a life again.

Da followed me to my new house. Sometimes I’d come out in the morning and Da wouldn’t be on the bike but sitting on the bench, his helmet in his hands, kind of hunched over. He’d see me and hop to his feet, give me that exaggerated smile, which seemed to be becoming more of a wince.

“How are you today?” I asked one morning when the wince was especially pronounced.

He shook his head. “Not good.”

“Why?” I ask, genuinely alarmed.

“I old man,” he said.

This started to happen more and more, the wince overtaking the smile. “Stress. I very stress,” Da would say, and I wouldn’t know what to say back. I could have asked why, but I didn’t really want to know. I suppose I should have felt guilty about that; I briefly considered feeling guilty for not feeling guilty, but I didn’t even have the energy for that.

“I’m sorry,” was all I’d usually say.

Slowly the bad mornings began to outweigh the good ones. Maybe there’d never been good ones, I’d think, helmet strapped on the back of that bike – maybe they’d all been bad mornings, all along, he’d just been more diligent about hiding it.

But the mornings were still better than the evenings – rush hour traffic, summer storms sometimes, potholes and plastic ponchos, fallen tree branches and rain so thick you could barely see through it. It wasn’t uncommon to hear the sickening crunch of an impact, to see people rise from the pavement dazed and sometimes bloody, pointing and shouting while the chaos continued to swirl around them.

Da took to honking more. He’d wave a little white towel when he had to turn in a particularly bad intersection, something between a turn signal and sign of surrender.

He started yelling at the other drivers more too. That was the first thing I really noticed, the first thing that made me uncomfortable. When a driver would pull out in front of us without looking, when a young guy would zoom past us dangerously close, Da’d squeeze the brakes and shout at them. He’d only yell at young guys and women, I noticed, and I’d feel the fury radiating off his body. I’d feel the other drivers’ shock and bewilderment or more often, the intentness with which they trained their eyes away, refusing to look at Da.

Part of me would bristle, recoil in some deep place. Displays of aggression were a big no-no in the country I’d just come from, where maintaining face was of paramount importance. It’d all be smiles, smiles, smiles, until someone would snap and a wave of violence would erupt, push up and out and over them like an almost independent phenomenon. You’d hear stories of people getting shot for the kinds of things Da was doing. And while I wasn’t in that country anymore, I could still feel the way it’d rattled me – the way I’d learned, without even meaning to, that you survive by keeping your mouth shut. Da’s outbursts scared me, I realized, more than they should have.

Every time it’d happen, Da would drive off angrily. At first he wouldn’t say anything but then he’d lean back and say, “Crazy driver.” I’d agree noncommittally, since it was usually the other person in the wrong. But after a few times I stopped responding. “Lauren!” Da would cry out. “Crazy driver!” he’d repeat, prompting the desired response in me. “Yes, crazy driver,” I’d answer meekly.

When Da would pick me up from some of the late classes, his eyes would be a little glassy, clothes more rumpled. He’d be giggly, almost giddy and even chattier. He never smelled like booze, so I tried to ignore it. But I could feel the effort of my not noticing.

He’d always ask me, on these occasions – when the streets were cool and slick with light, the shield of night turning the big dirty city into something more manageable, something almost gentle – he’d lean back and yell to me, “Good driving?”

“Yes, good driving,” I’d answer meekly.

 

I came out of a class early one day and saw Da sitting at a coffee stall, sweating in the 10am heat as he waited for me. He started at the sight of me; I motioned for him to sit and continue his coffee.

I sat beside him and ordered a coffee – thick black syrupy stuff, layer of white condensed milk and a tall skinny spoon that clinked when I stirred.

“Very hot,” Da said.

“Very hot,” I agreed.

Da was getting his rubber sandals cleaned by a shoeshine guy, a razor-thin man who carried his supplies in a small wooden box. I watched the man work his stained brisk hands. I’d seen him lingering around the school; I’d always refused his services because the zippers on my sandals were so warped I was afraid a shoeshine would bust them.

Da took his towel, the white one he’d wave at the other drivers when he needed to turn, and wiped the sweat from his forehead. Then he wrapped the towel around the top of his head and grinned at me.

“Like Yasser Arafat!”

I laughed.

 

We were weaving through the traffic one morning when a brazen young man with tattoos and a thick silver necklace cut us off.

I could feel the energy shift in Da, the anger rising up, as he sped, came alongside the guy, inched us in towards his bike. He began yelling.

The young man didn’t look away but glared right back at Da. I felt the fire in both of their eyes. The young man was a gangster type, a cheap street corner gangster but still not the kind of guy I was eager to mess with. Da was motioning, gesturing. A hot prickle of animal alertness moved up my spine. I felt my cheeks burn red as I tried to look away.

Da glared at the young man while still moving forward in the traffic.

“Look where you’re going!” I cried out.

Da continued shouting at the driver, who stared back at us with a smirk.

Our bike weaved and wobbled. “Da!” I yelled. “Look out!”

Da squeezed the brake, jerked the handlebars. We narrowly missed another bike that had stopped in the tangled traffic ahead of us.

We were silent for the rest of the drive, each of us fuming. When I got off the bike at the school, I let out a long hiss of an exhale. “I sorry,” Da said.

And he looked at me with these impotent, wrinkle-lined eyes. I sighed. I wanted to tell him something, something that I felt in me but couldn’t articulate. It was something close to “it’s not safe to get angry”; something close to “there’s a world of asshole drivers out there.” It was something I’d learned in that other country, whose name I could still barely stand to say – “Cambodia” a kind of Candyman that had rattled me in a way I didn’t understand, had taught me something I didn’t have words for – something about how to escape and how to survive.

Da stared at me and I stared back.

“I get angry too sometimes,” is what I said instead.

 

I took a ride from Da one more time after that, a trip down to the Old Quarter to meet a new friend at a café.

It was a hot day, one of those ones where you can feel the sun on your white skin like a stinging thing. I showed Da the address and he nodded, “Yes, yes, I know. I like Google Map!” he exclaimed. “I know everywhere in Hanoi.”

In the past the comment would have amused me, but now it just annoyed me. And he wasn’t like Google Maps, was the thing. Because I knew the city well enough by then to know that he was taking the absolute most inefficient route, one that required him to weave through narrow congested streets and squeeze the brakes and yell at the other drivers and wave his little white towel endlessly.

In the midst of this, we went past the corner where we’d met six weeks earlier. It seemed like a faraway place; it struck me that I hadn’t even known then what a shell-shocked haze I’d been in.

Da pulled up onto the curb in front of the café. I hopped off, agitated and hot. I went to hand him the usual fare for the ride.

He giggled a little. “Forty,” he insisted.

I looked at him: rumbled, unbuttoned shirt; weather-beaten skin; potbelly; thin hair beneath the army helmet.

His eyes searched mine, insistently. “Forty,” he repeated more quietly.

I was done.

I put the extra bill in his hand. He took it, folded it carefully in his pocket. I watched him. “What time tomorrow?” he asked me.

I shook my head. “You don’t have to come,” I answered.

I walked away without looking back.

 

We exchanged only two texts after that – the next day, in the morning:

“Hello, you need me today?”

“No thank you.”

 

It’s been two months since I’ve seen Da. I’m ashamed to say I’m still not driving.

The morning after I fired Da, I was walking down my peninsula and was approached by another xe om, an old guy who lives around the corner. He doesn’t speak much English but he’s calmer, and I like that he lives right nearby. I’ll see him and his wife strolling in the mornings; sometimes we’ll drink coffee at the same café in the afternoons and he’ll wave, point to the men he’s sitting with and say, “My friends!”

But sometimes when I’m riding on the back of my new xe om’s bike, I’ll see a plump man about Da’s age, wearing one of those army green helmets, and for a moment I’ll think it’s him. I’ll be convinced it’s him and a piece of my heart will lurch. I’ll slink back, hide my face, peek out as I pass by but it won’t ever be Da.

And we’ll keep moving, through the dirty howl of Hanoi.

 

[print_link]

Facebooktwitterreddit

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.