Wheel's On Fire....
Speeding down Vietnam's Highway 1 towards Hoi An, Vietnam's ancient port city with Chinese, Portugese and French history, I was sitting in the back seat of a black market taxi, drinking in the earthy smell of rice paddy water and the amazing craggy karst formations common in the country's central coast. They floated in shallow water fringed with palm trees, where, in the distance, pure white cranes padded around looking for a meal.
After a full eight hour day trip to Hoi An, we were finally free of the two loud mouthed tourists we had just dropped off at a bus depot near China Beach. Their incessent requests, shouts to slow down and threatening tones whenever they were forced to pay for anything extra, had been met with smiles by the driver since 7 o'clock that morning. But I'd spent enough time in Vietnam to realize it wasn't the international symbol for happiness he was returning with his wide grin.
Now, free from harassment at last, he sat in the front seat, as earnest as a race car driver, gunning his precious LADA as fast as it would go. The top speed, or the level of gas consumption, was impossible to tell, because the car had not one dial or arrow on it's dashboard, as it had long since been ripped out.
We flew past more thatched roofed villages, swerving crazily from side to side, the memory of the irritating tourists still lingering. The sun plunged towards the rice fields, turning the shallow water crimson and gold. I inhaled deeply and took in the verdant landscape that seemed frozen in time and straight out of a tourist minister's dream.
Suddenly the driver caught my eyes in his rearview mirror, and in slow, halting Vietnamese asked me: "Those people, they were from your country?" I nodded, explaining they lived less than fifty kilometers from my hometown. He shook his head, and muttered something under his breath.
It had been less than two years since Vietnam had swung open her doors to tourists, and all around the country hotels and companies had sprung up like mushrooms, to feed the demand. Yet everywhere I went I saw conflicts between locals and travelers, sometimes heated and at least once, violent. Never before had the clash of cultures been so defined and visible.
The driver then peppered me with more questions about foreigners, what they drank, what jobs they had, and what sports they played, what their little blonde children ate. I answered these questions as best I could, while he squinted at me in his rearview mirror, waiting for that diamond of knowledge, the holy grail or tourism, that would make all these strangers understandable, and, of course, make his own under-the-table tourist taxi service, flourish.
And then with a quick flick of his neck, he turned to me, and asked, almost accusingly: "Just what do you tourists really want when you come to my country?" His tone was split between a truly earnest desire to find out what makes travelers tick and total desperation; his knuckles were white as he gripped the steering wheel, and his eyes were wild with frustration.
Just when I was about to open my mouth to give my answer, the car began to swerve and lurch violently, as if butted by an unseen water buffalo. As I was thrown around in the back seat, the driver, swearing, cursing and shouting, desperately tried to bring the car under control. But it worsened. We drifted across into the lane right into oncoming traffic - through the dirty, cracked windshield, I could see a bus flying towards us, overloaded, belching smoke, touts swinging wildly from every open door, and several hundred chickens tied to the roof; a head on collision was imminent!
With a final volley of curses, the driver, using all his strength, yanked the car out of the way of the bus with such force that the front right wheel sheared off completely. With a sickening crunch we crashed onto the roadway, sliding on the bare metal, while sparks flew everywhere. We careened to the right and in the next instant, went straight over the edge of the road, landing with a thick squelch in the middle of a rice paddy. Above us, the severed wheel happily bounced down Highway 1, trailing smoke.
Dazed and nursing a bruised skull, I tried to open the car door; but the mud firmly held it shut. I rolled down the window, crawled out onto the roof to find a waiting crowd of white-faced villagers, who upon hearing the crash had expected to find a horrific car accident. Instead, they found a tall foreigner standing on the roof of a Russian car as it slowly sank into the mud, it's windshield plastered with chicken feathers.
When the driver and I had jumped off and waded through the mud, and stepped shakily back onto the solid road, he simply grinned as if nothing had happened, and said simply, "I think you must take another bus." With that he flagged down a minivan that stopped and eagerly took me inside. Having taken care of his customer, the driver, wiping the sweat off his brow, turned back to tend to his precious, wounded LADA, now settling happily in the mud, as if it were a lumbering Russian water buffalo.
As the minivan pulled away from the scene, and the new driver realized I spoke Vietnamese, and that I worked in tourism, I was bombarded with exactly the same questions. Ignoring him, I looked back at the old driver, who was still standing in the road, watching the minivan drive away ruefully. He never did get his tourism-question answered.....
As we sped towards Hoi An, I turned back to the new driver, and began patiently to answer his pointed questions, explaining what a breakfast cereal was, and what a toaster did. It seemed this guy wanted to open a restaurant. For tourists. Though I was smiling now, I looked down to see my knees were still shaking, and when I looked down at my clothes, they were caked in mud. I then realized that Vietnam was one of those rare countries where you could have a cultural experience and a near death experience, all at the same time.
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