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The Endless Witness in Vietnam

There is but a single traffic law in Vietnam. One you won’t find in any law books. It’s a law that states simply: "survive." Nowhere is this law more apparent than on Highway 1, Vietnam’s main north-south thoroughfare. An hour cycling on this road is challenging. Two hours, maddening. I rode it six hours a day. If you’re wondering what that’s like, imagine a lobotomized cyclist re-enacting scenes from Bruce Lee’s "Fists of Fury." That’s what it’s like to cycle-tour Highway 1.
I’d spent a week slogging along this little slice of purgatory. A week of trying to survive within a motorized stampede. It was there I began to recognize a pattern. A pattern best described as a kind of vehicular "survival of the fittest" based on the simple theory that "size matters."
Knowing this, one could easily determine a vehicle’s level of influence within traffic. This vehicular influence corresponded as follows:
n A car: minimally influential.
n A truck: moderately influential.
n A bus: master of the universe.
n A bicycle: (laughter here).

All these observations seem to support the first law of cycling in Vietnam: "Stay the hell out of the way of buses." This was not easy. There were thousands of them, all of them operating under the old bumper-sticker adage, "As a matter of fact I do own the whole damn road."
They were huge and evil, with over-sized air-horns that poked at your ear-drums like sharpened chopsticks.

At the helm were what could easily be described as the most dangerous human beings on Earth, had any of them been human. I mean these guys were insane, clenched-teethed madmen, who got their kicks passing on corners, accelerating toward children, or generally sending well-meaning pedestrians diving into nearby rice fields.
Then there were the side-lanes, (the place where I rode). This was no picnic either. In fact, it was a virtual fiesta of treachery.
A deadly, rolling circus consisting of bicycles, motorcycles, carts, cyclos and motorized tricycles. Almost all of these motos were loaded with some type of cargo. Dangerous, life-threatening cargo that included: 6-foot sheets of glass, serrated saw blades, 50-gallon tubs of gasoline, 12-foot ladders, or sharpened bamboo fencing. All of it whizzed beneath my nose at more-than 40 miles an hour.
But there was something even worse than this. It was called the Vietnamese adolescent male (aged 7 to 40). Every day at noon, great groups of boys on bicycles were released from school. As they were, they descended upon me like the flying monkeys in "The Wizard of Oz." These boys were big on angst and short on boundaries. What they held in common was the seemingly ceaseless ability to offer up harassment.
Most days I could count on them to shout, swerve, taunt, flick boogers, or throw rocks. Then came the older boys. Drunken 20-somethings on motorcycles who’d recently discovered the miracle of alcohol, (or lack thereof). Every day, they hit the streets at 2 p.m., just after they’d drunk themselves into oblivion. These boys were dangerous, and each afternoon I could count on at least a dozen of them pulling up on their motorcycles, only to swerve, yell, weave, or taunt. All of this before they’d rocket off into inebriated stunts at more than 60 miles an hour.
This was not without consequence. And all of it came to head one afternoon as I pedaled over a small rise. There I came upon a group of on-lookers standing in a circle in the middle of the road.
Surrounding them was a scattering of motorcycle parts that looked as though they’d rained from the sky. When I finally got a glimpse within the circle, I witnessed two young men, both of them laying on the pavement writhing in pain. One of them had a number of cuts and bruises. The other boy’s leg was freshly torn-off just below the knee. My eyes landed momentarily on his grizzled-white shin protruding from the middle of his leg.
"Jesus." I said cringing, then turned my eyes away. As I did, I spied the boy’s foot, still inside his shoe, some 10 feet away. They were both drunk.
A few minutes later, as the crowd loaded them into a bus, I shook my head, and pedaled away. They were two of the lucky ones. Motorcycle accidents are not just a problem in Vietnam, they’re an epidemic. And during my 278-mile journey south, I would count approximately 250 body-outlines on the pavement. Gruesome outlined crash-scenes scrawled in white spray-paint by the authorities. Hideously, these same authorities never bothered to rinse these crash-sites. Time and time again I came upon enormous stains of sun-dried blood, some of them complete with bits of brain tissue, or varying scraps of scalp.
Traffic accidents are now the leading cause of death in Vietnam, recently surpassing the number killed during the war. For years outside groups have recognized this problem. The World Health Organization has offered free helmets to the Vietnamese for years.
The problem is, they won’t wear them. The issue seems to be vanity. Because the majority of this population is so young, and style-conscious (the average age is 26), they refuse to wear helmets. I’d been told it was because helmets "messed-up" their stylish hairdos, or otherwise made them look "un-cool."
If this was true, then I’d been a dork for over two decades. Sickened by it all, I left the accident scene that afternoon, and finished my day in the 90-degree heat.

When I finally reached my cheap hotel, I was encrusted with so much salt, I looked like Mr. Pretzel. The only thing that kept me upright was the thought of an evening swim in the pristine waters of the adjacent South China Sea. I dropped off my things then bolted to the beach like a man on a mission. When I arrived, I was hit by a sad reality. For there, along the entire length of sand, was what could only be described as a sea-side landfill.
Limitless litter, stretched as far as the eye could see. There were food wrappers, paper bags, plastic cartons, feminine hygiene products, cardboard, Styrofoam, beer bottles, cans, and much, much more.
"Idiots…" I barked beneath my breath, before pulling off my shirt, and diving in. Moving, arm over arm, I made it about 25 yards before I started bumping-into a virtual bounty of floating refuse. I began to take stock. There were two entire florescent light bulbs, one floating arm chair, several newspapers, a pair of diapers, and one dead chicken.
All of it had me swimming back to shore in revolt. That’s when someone, (or something), turned out the lights. I lifted my head out of the water to discover that a black plastic bag had covered my head.
I’d had it. I plucked my tired bones from the garbage-filled sea, grabbed my things, then stormed to a nearby seafood restaurant in search of a plate of fresh fish.
When I got there, I discovered the "fresh fish" tank filled with a half-a-dozen fish floating upside down near the surface. "Maybe they’re just sleeping," I thought to myself before the waitress handed me a menu.
As I opened it, I was reminded that ordering food in Vietnam was often a mystery. After much experience with this, I’d come to the conclusion that it was easier to eliminate what you didn’t want to eat than to choose what you did.
In this case, I instantly ruled out two items on the menu. These were the "crispity fried snake," and "tuna salad with old vegetables."
After deciding on a plate of veggie-fried rice, I lifted my eyes in search of the waitress and instead noticed a large group of men huddled around a TV.
When I craned my neck to get a glimpse of what they were watching, I discovered it to be the World Wrestling Federation finals direct from America. "You gotta be kidding me," I mumbled to myself, "Why would anyone ever watch that drivel?" That’s when a profound truth descended upon me. It was the WWF’s uncanny resemblance to the last six years of U.S. foreign policy. These Vietnamese men weren’t into wrestling, they were getting politically informed.
Depressed with it all, I gulped-back my lackluster meal, then retired to my hotel room where I wanted nothing more than to brush my teeth and go to bed. When I switched on the bathroom light, I discovered the head of my toothbrush covered in rat droppings.
"What the hell else?" I said turning in disgust, then, "Blam!" I cracked my head squarely on the 6-foot door frame. What came next was an extra-large, grade-A, goose-egg.

Cursing at the universe, I crawled into bed, positioned the good side of my head on the pillow, then went to sleep. But this bad day just wouldn’t end. And just short of midnight I awoke to that tell-tale fire in the belly: food poisoning.
Before I knew it, I was up and roaring into the porcelain throne. This was followed by so many rounds of sitting, standing and flushing, that it made the lights flicker.
Needless to say, I spent the next day in a special kind of agony – placing each step like that of a stalking cat – and moving with ninja-like concentration so as to avoid one of those embarrassing under-garment tragedies that was certain to accompany the slightest squeak of flatulence.
Having no choice but to climb on my bike the next day and pray for continence, I pedaled without incident until I reached the Sea-side city of Nha Trang.
– Next week, the second part of Rick Gunn’s tour through Vietnam.
February 15-March 7, 2007
Mileage log: 14,302-14,590
Elevation: Sea level-400 ft.
Dai Lanh, Nha Trang, Ca Na, Phan Thiet, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)

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