On the Road: Gap Year Week 15

Barely a week had passed, and here I was again, escaping the city. We had left early that morning, loading bikes into the van and driving in a sleepy haze out, out, out. It was a familiar relief to leave Ho Chi Minh City and urban life behind again—emerging into green paddyfields, open skies.

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True, I hadn’t actually spent much time in the city. I had turned 18 the day after we had arrived and celebrated the occasion by getting severe food poisoning. I had struggled through a morning at the Cu Chi Tunnels, examining myself for feelings of adulthood but only finding bloated unease as we peered into the claustrophobic spaces where the Vietcong had made war on their terms. We folded ourselves up and hunched through two hundred meters on our hands and knees. “That’s double the height of what the tunnels actually were,” our guide told us as I massaged my spine when we emerged. The forest was young, brittle-stemmed, all that managed to grow after Agent Orange. The bottom of a bomb crater had two saplings struggling upwards, green except for a circle of dead grass in the center where countless guides stood every day to tell tourists about the legacy of American shrapnel in a disabled generation. Elsewhere, we saw the traps they set in turn with jagged bamboo and steel teeth. The chair, the door, the punji sticks, the guide recited, bloodstained poetry, and I felt faint.

That was all the tourism I’d managed to actually handle. I surrounded myself in hotel bedsheets over the next few days, feeling sorry for myself and working my way through the feverish, fantastic delirium of Erin Morgenstrom’s The Night Circus. We only ventured out one other morning: I wanted to send a letter from the Grand Post Office, brushing on the stamps with glue from the pots in the hall—one of the few places where you could still do it. But the paste of this age-old practice was housed incongruously in brand-new plastic coffee shops when we arrived. The conflicting image destroyed my pictured romance, and we left after barely three minutes. Aiming to explore more local culture, we visited a Nike store and an American microbrewery before giving up, hailing a cab, and collectively collapsing back into bed.

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So it was wonderful to see something beyond the inside of our hotel room. My family had left me behind for Singapore the previous day: like every eighteen-year-old wanted, I was going to be spending the weekend with my teacher. Kattina had taught me seventh grade science, and any blame for my current state can be directed firmly at her patience and encouragement of my ecological ramblings. She was one of the reasons I’d been looking forward so much to our Ho Chi Minh trip. (The other had been Vietnamese street food, which was now oceans out of the question.)

Now we left the city with shared excitement for two days around the Mekong Delta, where a French-era system have left canal roads perfect for exploration within a network of villages and agriculture totally removed from the capital city. When we hoisted our bikes out, a rooster watched us curiously from the bushes until we pushed off into the sunlight.

I know the slow pace of hiking, not riding, where the landscape orbits you; you inhabit it, and it encircles you. Cycling, though, held a new transience. We were a brief flash of wind and tires and everything ticked past in momentary snapshots. A woman held a circular tray out at her doorstep, radiating vegetables; at a roadside factory, workers rustled rhythms through coconut fronds, spreading, weaving, bunching, over and over; a warehouse held its breath, machines in neat rows ghosted with clouds of coconut husk. And then back to the bike and the houses circling past. We crossed the Mekong in a belching boat with motorbikes shoaled around us, already turned to the exit. The soupy waters held contrarian currents, hurrying hyacinths backwards and forwards, and we tracked the plants’ progress, waiting to see where their journey would carry us. Then the boat scratched the opposite bank and we forgot the flowers.

factoryboat

We moved within coconut plantation at first. The hot air hung around us like pudding; we spun forward, past a path dappled by fronds into coolness. At a corner a relief of contorted figures memorialised a massacre during the war—everywhere bears it scars; next to it men weaved plastic strips into tables. When it got too hot we stopped at a random house and asked for coconut; a long hooked stick was materialised and they pulled three down. We sat on the steps and drank deeply, scraping out the meat in long strips, and then we left that behind, too, nothing more than a sweet coolness at the back of our throats. As if we moved through mirage.

We waited after lunch for the van to take us away in a storeroom full of doors. Then we passed into rice paddies. In a revolution the sun dipped to golden and the fields flowed warm green past. More flashes past us: a silent temple, with elaborate paintings and forgotten construction behind, the stones crept with stains; a boat moored on a small channel, hidden in the reeds, perfectly still and picturesque; a courtyard scattered with leaves. The sky edged into sunset and evening softness and everything came all at once—we flew.

rice paddycoconut down

That evening our Khmer hosts—from a community here left behind by a Cambodian empire at ancient heights—showed us how to spread pancakes and we ate in a pavilion, surrounded by cicadas, quiet conversation only interrupted by splashes as catfish in their pond turned over. Soft laughter and games, hot tea at the back of my throat. The isolation of the dark around kept us afloat, unmoored by rice, by fields, by distance from the rest of the world.

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The next day my flight back to Singapore was in the evening, so we took another boat out to an island and traced the paths by the Mekong’s small streams pulled along houses, trying to ignore our sore saddles. A roadblock stopped us for sweet chunks of pomelo; an old man sat by the side of a hammock and watched the road. The women laughed from the porch steps, talking in fast Vietnamese. Elsewhere we watched rice paper dry on mats. In the back of the house, a woman spread the opaque milky batter out in steady circles until translucent. We crossed the river once more, in the smallest boat of the trip, passing through mangroves, clouds of swiftlets. When we got back on the bikes we moved through dragonflies thick like curtains, hitting our heads, mouths, cheeks.

by the mekongwoman laughing

The paths weren’t concreted for the most part, and we moved slower, the kilometres stretched like molasses over the hours. I was leaving soon, I knew, but every moment felt suspended. Kattina got me to cross a bamboo pole that bridged a river and I stood at the center for minutes. Then the people waiting at the other end shouted and gestured with sacks of rice. I hurried back on land to give them space.

The last two kilometres of the ride were fast and windswept on road, back to the van, a shower, lunch, the ride back to the city and airport. But my mind kept returning to the bridge, to standing in the middle of the water, separated by a thin stretch of wood. Sky vast above and a cool breeze, surrounded only by a slower world. For a moment, I had forgotten to fear falling.

 

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