The day we left Da Nang, all of my nervous hallucinations came to fruition. The road to Nha Trang was through the countryside, a dirt road with green jungle on both sides, uneven, steep, and mysterious. Aside from the rusty train tracks that connect the north and south, Vietnam lacks a comprehensive system of direct roadways into dozens of cities. I had read about overnight buses that would be perfect for the trek to Nha Trang. So we decided to spend the rest of the day in Da Nang, sleep on the sleeper bus, and wake up refreshed and ready to explore in Nha Trang. This plan, however, was hatched in a steroidal haze after a serious anaphylactic reaction the day before. In hindsight, I’d say I was doomed from the beginning.
The woman at the bus station was apathetic to our travel plans.
“Bus leaves for there tomorrow,” she explained. “You get that one.”
“But the schedule says there are two buses leaving from here today!” Mike said. He had a very good reason to get to Nha Trang.
During our trip, Mike had spent a good deal of time lamenting over his ex-girlfriend, who was coincidentally due to arrive in Nha Trang the same day as us. The plan was to be there when she arrived and sweep her off her feet. I supported his effort, but deep down, his romantic idealism made me want to kill myself. Fortunately, I was still high as a kite from taking excessive amounts of my perception, so I wasn’t in any position to attempt or achieve a successful suicide.
A few phone calls later the woman smiled satisfied with her solution. She said a van was on its way, and that the van would take us to the neighboring city of Hoi An, where we could catch a sleeper bus headed for Nha Trang. Mike was restless, pacing back and forth, anxious to get to his princess. I was sitting in a chair sweating, gazing at a wall, fading in and out of consciousness.
As soon as I fell out of the van in Hoi An, I knew something was horribly wrong. About 30 foreigners speaking in languages from all over the world were spilling out of a booking office. They looked exhausted, falling over their bags, sitting and sleeping on each other. A family with two young children sat close to the desk of the operator, the mother fanning herself and son with a magazine. How long have they been here?
By now it was well into the evening, and it was clear we were going to be late. The people in the office offered little consolation.
“When is the bus coming?”
“Soon, very soon.”
I didn’t know where we were, or how long we would be, so Mike decided (for both of us) to get some dinner.
The restaurant food was boring and over-priced. The free WiFi was more appealing than my rice and vegetables. I couldn’t help but wish he had eaten across the street, at one of the little plastic table in front of an outdoor kitchen where a woman who didn’t care at all about presumptuous smears of sauce across a plate was preparing pho.
As the night wore on, we were making friends with people who, like us, had been duped by this travel agency. Our schedule was beginning to feel pointless, so at about 9:00 p.m. and after a handful of blue and white pills, I resolved to be content with the evening, however it went down. We would eventually leave, eventually arrive, and I would be fine. My throat was considerably less swollen. The medicine was working.
From the booking office we boarded two small buses with our new friends and headed to yet another location where supposedly the large sleeper bus was waiting. To my surprise there it was, a double-decker, parked and waiting like an oasis in the desert. My backpack suddenly felt less heavy. After 7 hours of waiting around, we were finally on our way.
The sleeper bus is a unique experience: one I hope to never have again. Down the length of the bus were two very slim isles that separated three rows of bunk beds. The beds are shorter than an adult’s average height and slant up so that the legs of one person fit under another persons back and head. They are padded like examination tables at a hospital and have the same cold quality. Each bed is set with a blanket and a pillow—all of which were mismatched.
Immediately, I started telling myself that someday this would be really funny; that someday, I would tell my children that I had traveled via slave bus through Vietcong jungles and lived despite a brush with pubic lice and ring worm. But in this moment, I was terrified. I sat down on the bed and looked to my right where an old Vietnamese man was nestled tightly beside me. I could feel his breath on my neck. This will be hilarious.
When the engine started, televisions flipped down and played Vietnamese music videos. Sometime in the middle of the night I fell asleep.
What’s going on? I woke up. Not again.
It was still pitch black outside, which meant that we hadn’t gone far and that I was still tired. We were on the side of the road somewhere down a straight dirt path with no lights. They were dumping our bags out from under the bus.
It was 3:00 a.m. and the bus driver was informing us that we needed to wait at this location for another bus that would be coming through to take us the rest of the way. At this point, nothing could surprise or upset me. The bus pulled away, and me and about 25 other people were on the side of the road waiting, again, in the dark.
And then things got worse. Twenty minutes later, instead of a sleeper bus, two vans rolled up. We still had 8 hours of road to lie down and the men were explaining to us that there wasn’t going to be a sleeper bus to Nha Trang. This was our bus, two small vans that could probably fit 12 people comfortably if they weren’t also carrying backpacks and other luggage. We were 25 people and 28 bags. Even if we could all fit, how were we supposed to endure 8 hours of rough terrain smashed in like sardines? I shouldn’t have asked that question.
I was in the very back between Mike and a girl from Western Europe. My knees were almost to my chest; I scrunched up on bags and held my breath when they tried to slide the van door closed. But they just kept shoving people in, forcing us to double up on seats and share our personal space in ways I never dreamed possible with strangers. Mike was visibly in pain. This is going to be really funny someday.
I woke up to sunlight and rice patty fields. It was morning. Somehow I had fallen asleep with my head in my lap. My legs were asleep and my back hurt. We stopped to go to the bathroom and stretch our legs. It was 8:00 a.m. and from near-by conversations I gathered only a few hours away from Nha Trang.
Time passed quickly as the scenery unfolded. Slowly, we crept down the side of a mountain covered in green jungle. To the east an unobstructed horizon of ocean gray and mist. A black water buffalo pulled a man driving a wood wagon. We followed the road down into a marina of torn sails and faded fishing boats. We had arrived.
Mike and I were exhausted. The sleeper bus catastrophe mixed with the final bits of medicated delirium still working its way out of my system were pushing us towards a schism.
We were sitting across from each other. A bowl of pho steaming up my sunglasses. It was breakfast time and I was in the mood for a fight. Before our trip, Mike had gone through an emotional break up. But while adventuring through Vietnam, he had expressed some revelations about his feelings, and was determined to confide in her face-to-face today at the airport in Nha Trang—a meeting that seemed romantic and coincidental, but wasn’t.
He had been practicing the lines over and over.
“I’m really not in the mood to talk about this right now, Mike.”
He had justified every mistake and calculated his comeback.
“Mike, I’m not sure this is a good idea.”
Like Richard Gere in Pretty Woman, there would be Italian opera, and doves would fly up from the streets!
“SHUT UP, MIKE!” I lost it.
“I think I needed some time to myself.”
I told Mike I would find him in two days and we would go from there.
“What are you going to do?” he asked.
At that point I had no idea, but I looked out at the crystal blue water and had a good feeling I would be fine.
It was night when I woke up. The streets looked less crowded from the 14th floor window of my hotel room. I wandered through the neighborhood lit up in neon lights, cracking and buzzing, flickering on and off. It was raining, but it was so hot that nothing was wet. I had no idea what day it was or what time of evening, I just walked until I got hungry, sat down at a cafe and ordered an espresso. The hot sting of caffeine felt good. I listened to some French men on the patio speak the romance language. I wrote in my journal, listened to some music and paid my bill. I bought some ice cream around the corner and tried to eat it before it melted all over my hand.
Sometime the next day, after sunning too much on the beach and shopping, the phone rang in my room.
“Come have coffee with us,” Mike said.
Feeling fixed for company, I was all for it and bounced down to the lobby ready for the beach. Romeo and Juliet were downstairs with someone I didn’t recognize. A young Vietnamese/American man who spoke the native lingo. He had been gypsying around Vietnam for almost a year, pausing the last few months to call Nha Trang home.
Juliet, apparently, was visiting a friend in Vietnam.
I enjoyed they gypsy right away. He was well-traveled and educated.
“He’s so pretentious,” Mike whispered to me, on the way to the café.
Over coffee the four of us exchanged funny tales of travel. The gypsy decided to take us to a traditional meal, so we departed and once again darted from sidewalk to sidewalk.
“Don’t stop, and never run,” said the gypsy.
“That’s how you should cross the street here.” He said it so matter-of-fact that I was almost insulted. But the gypsy knew what he was talking about. It worked. All of a sudden the stream of motorbikes didn’t seem so intimidating. I watched the gypsy move through the street, and pretended to have the same confidence in my flip-flops.
I thought this trick was spectacular. Mike was rolled his eyes.
We moved up a tight alley and stopped at a busy corner. An old washing drum had been transformed into a fire pit under a chicken-wire grill. Rocky shellfish was poured onto the flames peaking up thought the wire, snapping and cracking the sand and weeds off of clams, muscles, and snails. Dry and wet seasoning buckets were scattered about the sidewalk while a quick-handed old man artfully pinched out just the right amount onto the steaming meats. The smell of smoke mixed with salts, garlic and fresh-cut lemon grass was intoxicating.
We sat around a small plastic table and waited for our first course. An old woman placed a bucket under our table and dinner was served. Small plastic plates covered in newspaper soaked up the runny juices and flavored oils spilling out the shell beds. Grilled muscles and oysters on the half shell, delicately dusted with crushed cashew and green onion. I burnt my lip a little as I sucked one down—it was fantastic. It had the simple taste of ocean that all shellfish possess, but rarely keep after freezing or over saucing. The lemon grass, oil, and garlic covering the clams and mussels was amazing, clearly from the hand of a cook who had been doing this for a very long time. Next, sea snails served in a bowl of warm coconut milk.
“The trick is to suck it out really fast, and really hard.”
The sun was going down behind the buildings. Our bucket was getting full.
Nha Trang is a little slice of someone’s paradise. It penetrates you—the gritty flow of lazy beach living and time lost under warm waves of ocean and sun. The tide is the only way to keep track of things. It’s a beauty that teaches you to tell time with your body and not through the electronic extensions that define our modern time: Sleep when you’re tired. Eat when you’re hungry. Get wet when you’re hot. After the first night I thought: I could stay here forever. But I knew that wasn’t true. I could never be like the gypsy. As romantic as the thought was falling asleep that evening, I could never live without order or routine. I’m a creature of habit, not one of vicarious adventures through Vietnam jungles.
Often we run through life because it feels safer than looking around to consider where we are and where we’ve come from. But we miss moments between the places or things we run to; miss it because we’re always sure the grass somewhere else is greener. Sometimes it is. Sometimes when you get where you’re going it’s everything you thought it would be. And likely, we soon find ourselves running off again, looking for something that keeps us moving all the time. And we can’t stop.
That’s what I leaned in Vietnam.